The air conditioner in the RV spewed wind that smelled of dust as they drove through the blazing desert, and Aaron could have sworn they passed a road sign reading Nowhere comma Texas about thirty miles ago. Aaron was a man who had spent most of his life playing outside in Los Angeles summers. And goddamn did he think it was hot out.
“We’re gon’ hafta be careful, where we’re goin,’” Richie said as he walked up behind the driver’s seat, his Texan accent revitalized by its return to its native land. “Town like this is little more than a couple buildings on the side of the road. I’m exaggeratin’ but still, couple hundred people at most. Anybody stops longer’n it takes to pump gas, it’s the talk of the town fer a week.”
“With’ny luck we won’t be needin’ to stay much longern’ that,” Clive said, seemingly beefing up his Irish brogue in competition. “A Coroner two towns over heard a week-old rumor’n figured it was only a day out’v our way. In all prob’bility they just found some hiker’t got lost in th’desert.”
“All’m sayin’ is we gotta be’n our toes ‘ere. All the townsfolk’ll see is sum cityboy, a fer’ner and a black wum’n askin a buncha questions ‘bout a local trag’dy.”
“Are you two even speaking english any more?” Aaron blurted from the passenger seat.
“Don’t question it, Aaron,” Marcy said from the booth in the middle of the RV. “They get into this every time we pass through the lone star state.”
“No we don’!” Clive blurted.
“Are you kidding? When we hit those revs just before we met Aaron I could swear you two had mouths full of cotton! I half wondered if you’d gotten your wisdom teeth out while I wasn’t looking!”
Richie grunted. He took a his lighter out of his pocket and began absentmindedly flicking at it. With his accent slightly toned down he said, “My point is, we have ta be extra sure to be subtle about this. The last thing we want is to excite the townspeople.”
They drove in relative silence for a few minutes. Then as Richie flicked his lighter shut he asked Aaron “You heard anything from the Red Menace?”
It had been nearly a month since the incident with the werewolves. Aaron hadn’t spoken a word to the Motetz Dam since. It wasn’t because he hadn’t been asked.
“Told’ja,” he said. “They’ve gone to ground after that werewolf incident. They’re worried summoning me could send out some kind of signal that’ll give them away. Those wolves scared the shit out of them.”
“Good ta know there’s somthin’ the bastards fear, anyway. Shame the two of ‘em couldn’t just finish each other off, though.”
Aaron thought of the sight of bullets raging their way though the flesh of two dozen wolves and wolf-like men. He thought of the look of calm satisfaction on Gregor’s face among all the chaos. He thought of the Strigoi’s last command: to take off their heads.
“Too true,” Aaron said in agreement.
The peaks of buildings could be seen in the distance where they were headed. Suddenly Marcy looked up at Aaron from her rag of gun parts across the table. “What is it you’re mumbling?” she asked.
Aaron stammered as he realized he’d been humming quietly instead of rehearsing in his head. “Um… The words to Thriller?”
She turned up her eyebrows. “The Michael Jackson song?”
“Well, apparently I’m gonna rise from the dead at some point, I might as well make it a bit theatrical.”
“You say that,” Richie said from the passenger seat behind him, “as though we are not going to chop your head off slightly before that happens.”
Marcy tried very, very hard to suppress a laugh that Aaron would not at all have blamed her for releasing.
“Look,” Aaron said, “I’m the Strigoi Viu. The Live One, the living vampire, cursed to rise again after death, blah, blah, blaaah.” The last word was said in the style of a stereotypical movie vampire, with his hands held out in claws, at which Marcy did laugh. “It’s my, and you’ll have to forgive the ironic turn of phrase, cross to bear. It’s up to me what coping mechanisms I use and if that happens to include choreographing dance moves, well then so be it.”
“Alright, shut up,” Marcy said playfully. “Keep it up and you’re gonna make me consider keeping them from killing you before you rise. Partly from pity, partly just to see exactly how bad your dance moves are.”
“Well, you know, you really don’t have to wait until I’m dead to find that out.”
They simply looked at each other for a moment, a blush apparent on Marcy’s dark cheek, a faint smile touching her lips. Her eyes glanced over Aaron’s shoulder and suddenly she reverted to her reserved state, looked down and continued cleaning her guns. Aaron looked behind him and saw Richie looking back at them with an incredulous eyebrow cocked. The two of them turned away from each other, suppressing a sigh.
The RV pulled off the empty main road into the first and only shanty of a gas station in the town. As Aaron stepped out into the blazing desert sun he realized he hadn’t ever bothered to ask the name of the town, or to check for any sort of sign on the way in.
Clive had talked about his routine for towns like this. Go up to the nearest public employee: a bartender, a gift shop clerk, a gas station attendant. Be friendly. Talk about being travelers, idly going wherever the wind took us. Talk about loving tiny towns like this, first mentioning how everyone is so close and personal, then mention, casually how every town like this has some myth, or rumor, or story of odd occurrence that everyone around knows. Talk about the town in Tennessee where everyone swears to have seen fairies. Talk about the little hamlet you just passed through on the other side of the state where they say a bunch of skeletons, some over a hundred years old they say, were found in the basement of an abandoned house not twenty years old. Make them think, “Well I could tell them that odd thing that happened not a month ago. Get my town’s name thrown into this traveler’s list of tall tales. Maybe they’ll tell others, who might just come and give me and my fellows some out of town business.” And if you’re lucky, they give you gust the information you were looking to know.
It was a clever strategy, and Aaron had no doubt that it usually worked in instances where the gas station was not mysteriously empty.
The door was unlocked. The lights and AC were out. The isles of junk food were stacked and organized neatly.
“Hello?” Clive said into the emptiness. There was no answer. Not even the scurrying of rats or the chirping of a distant bird could be heard. Clive pulled his banana shaped pistol out of the back of his pants and held it at his side. The four of them entered the store with careful apprehension and began to look around. Clive walked over to the refrigerated wall of drinks and opened one of the doors. “Fridge’s cold. Power’s still on.”
“Cash register is unlocked and full of money,” Marcy said from behind the counter.
“Doughnuts are stale,” Richie remarked with his mouth full.
“It’s a gas station,” Aaron said. “The doughnuts are always stale.” He walked past each of the isles quickly, then stopped, and walked slowly back to look in the second to last again. “Guys,” he said. “There’s a finger in the candy isle.”
The others lined up around him. A lone finger, torn roughly off just below the second knuckle, a piece of bone protruding sharply out of it, the thin flesh shriveled from spending what one would guess was quite some time in the Texas heat, lay lazily just below the Take 5 bars with a small trail of very dried blood leading to it from the direction of the counter, as though it had been torn off over there and in the process thrown or launched off to its current location in the candy isle. Aaron idly wondered which digit it was.
“Well that just can’t be good,” Clive said.
“Really,” Aaron said, as deadpan as he could manage. “Here I was thinkin’ a mummified severed finger was a benevolent omen.”
“You make a lot a’ wisecracks for a guy in your sorta position,” Richie said, “you know that?”
“It’s a defense mechanism. I’ve burst out laughing at funerals because I thought of something I thought was funny.”
That got a slight chuckle out of Marcy that Aaron found made the sight of a weeks-old disembodied finger just a little less abhorrent.
“Richie,” Clive said, “you sense anything on that finger?”
“You mean besides the smell of rot and a total lack of flies that when I think about it is somehow less disturbing that their presence would be, no. Not my forte, I do whole monsters not bits.”
“Alright,” Clive rubbed his face for a moment, thinking. “Aaron you look around here for any trace of whoever that belongs to, the rest of us should check the nearby buildings and houses see if anyone’s still around and try to get a feel for what the hell is goin on. Meet back at the RV in fifteen minutes.” They all set off to their tasks.
Aaron wandered the gas station and found a storage room, an empty back parking lot, and a small office for the manager with a phone that was off the hook and had no dial tone, all remarkably devoid of blood or body parts. A potted cactus in the corner was dead, which seemed to Aaron would require more neglect than the rest of the situation suggested.
When fifteen minutes passed he came out to see the others already walking towards the RV slightly hurried. “Nothing else,” he said.
Marcy said, “Restaurant next door is totally empty, tables cleaned up, there’s some food left out looks like it’s been that way for a few weeks.”
“Same deal with that grocery store,” Richie said.
“Houses across the street are empty too,” said Clive. “The door on one of ‘em looks forced open, there were provisions laid out like someone’d been trying to hole up there.”
“Any of you check the phones?” Aaron asked. They all looked at him. “I noticed one in there, the line was dead.”
“No service,” Marcy said, looking at her cell phone.
“What the hell happened here?” Richie asked. “Did the zombie apocalypse happen when we were on the road?” Aaron remembered making a similar remark when he first encountered the Motetz Dam holding off the werewolves.
“No, I’ve seen zombies,” Clive said seriously, “things’d be a lot messier.”
“Well, something happened,” Aaron said. “Clive, you said it looked like someone was trying to hold up in a house?”
“Yep. Didn’t look like they lasted long, though.”
“But then there might be other survivors?”
“He’s right,” Marcy said. “We have to check the whole town.”
“Preferably while there’s still light,” Richie added.
They hurried into the RV and went slowly down the road, each looking to one side for any signs of leftover civilization. Fortified doors, bullet holes made in defense, a sign saying “please help,” anything that would indicate that whatever had passed through this town had left someone alive in its wake. There wasn’t much to search through, and they found even less. In the densest part of town alleys could fit the RV sideways. Every house and building looked normal, with the exception of the facts that they were all completely empty, and that all the plants had died.
Aaron remarked on the latter fact. “Nobody’s watered them for weeks,” said Marcy. “They’ve been lying out in the desert sun.”
“Even the cactuses are dead, though,” Aaron said. “Everything wilted.” He looked out the left side window of the RV as the empty houses slid by. Then one of them caught his eye. However, he could not in any sense have said why it had caught his eye, as it looked absolutely no different from the rest of the houses. So it might be more accurate to say that it caught his mind.
“Stop the RV,” he said. He walked out the door, never taking his eye away from the direction of the house, ignoring the others’ questions about what he saw. He walked across the street towards it and was about to walk up the steps to the front door, but paused, and walked to the fence by the side instead. He nimbly hopped over the wooden picket fence and his feet landed with a crunch on very dry grass. He was in a back yard. A very average back yard. It had a tree with a tire swing in it, and children’s toys laid out in the grass and the little sandbox. A fort made to look like a castle made of plywood stood by one side. And there was a patch of overturned dirt roughly the height and width of a human body.
By the time the others had also hopped the fence, weapons in hand, Aaron was already digging up the freshly dug spot with a shovel that leaned on the nearby woodshed. None of them spoke. None of them helped. They walked up and stood by Aaron as he dug ever more frantically.
Not a foot down he hit something. He cleared off as much of the dirt as he could with the shovel then grabbed a broom to sweep off what remained.
What remained was, in fact, a corpse. The bloated, ruddy corpse of a short, stout man dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts, his belly bloated and taught like a drum, his eyes bloodshot. Its body was covered in shallow cuts with dried blood running down them, and several of the fingers were broken and mangled, but all were there. He’d been tortured.
“Oh, fuck,” Clive muttered. “That’s Roy. The coroner who sent us here.”
“He sent out that alert to us what,” Marcy said, “twelve hours ago?”
“So it’s revs,” Richie said.
“No, it doesn’t make sense,” said Marcy. “Since when do revenants wipe out entire towns? They wake up, feed on a few people, but keep them alive to go back for more. Besides, there’s no graveyard anywhere near here, where were they waking up?”
Something compelled Aaron about the nature of the corpse. Something wasn’t right. Or even less right than it should have been, given that the current theory was that it was a vampire. Aaron reached out one hand, and with a thumb and forefinger, pulled back the corpse’s lips.
Long, jaggedly arranged teeth lay beneath.
“The hell?” Richie said.
“Revs don’t have fangs,” Marcy said. “That’s the first thing you learn, first thing you tell the new guy. Nothing has fangs that looks this human. Clive, you…” she trailed off.
Aaron and Richie both turned to look at Clive. He was staring, wide-eyed at the body. At its teeth. There was fear on his face. True, absolute fear. Aaron had just reached down to open the mouth of a sleeping vampire in the middle of a ghost town, and seeing that look on Clive of all people was the most unnerving thing he’d seen all day.
After a tense moment Clive whispered “Lord in the Heavens protect us.” The rest of them looked at each other with confusion. From that Aaron knew, none of them had ever seen Clive pray before.
“Get back to the RV,” Clive said suddenly. He walked over to the woodshed and picked up a canister of propane, checked that it was full, and began pouring it over the body.
“Clive,” Marcy began to say.
“Get back in the RV, start the engines, put mistletoe over the door and all the windows. We need to get out of this town now. Get to the nearest place with reception’n tell the entire community about this town. Tell them to pull out all the stops, fake government quarantine, start evacuating every town within ten miles of here, every town within thirty miles, keep everyone inside with doors and windows shut. Say it’s a gas leak or a government truck full of nerve gas crashed or something, just get everyone anywhere near here to safety.”
“Clive what’s goin’ on?” Richie said. “Why’s a fanged rev so damn important?” He held out his lighter for Clive.
Marcy gasped. Richie simply said, “Aww, shit.”
“What the hell is a vrykolakas?” Aaron said.
“From what I’ve read,” Richie said, “fuckin’ dangerous.”
“They’re not quite vampires,” Clive explained, staring down at the burning body that was filling the air with the smell of scorched flesh.
“Because we’ve had so much fun with ‘not quite vampires’ of late,” Richie mumbled.
“Hey,” Aaron snapped at him.
“I was referring to the jiangshi, but if the shoe fits.”
“Clive, go on,” Aaron said.
Clive paused, then handed the lighter back to Richie, who stuffed it into his coat pocket. “They’re undead,” Clive said. “They look like revenants. But they’re not the same as vampires. First of all, they don’t drink blood.”
“Well, at least they’re less gruesome than normal,” Aaron said.
“They’re more fond a’ flesh as a whole.”
“I was wrong, I was terribly wrong.”
“Should I take the head off, just to be sure?” Richie asked, clearly eager in some respect.
“Burnin’s fine,” Clive said. “They’re not as durable as normal vamps, their strength is in numbers. A headshot can count as decapitation with them if you’re lucky.”
“So I should…”
“Richie!” Clive snapped.
On seeing the look in his friend’s eyes, the kind and funny man turned harsh by wise fear, Richie quieted down and walked with them.
“They also come about differently than vamps do,” Clive said as he led them back to the RV. “Vamps come from vamps. Occasionally you hear about a revenant that arose from the corpse of an uninfected witch, but those are few and far between compared to the norm. Vryks are different. After the first one pops up they breed by infection like vamps do, but that first one has a different story. Sometimes it’s just some poor fool who ate meat that a werewolf killed at some point in his life.” Aaron stopped short. He knew what Clive was about to say.
“Usually it’s a dead werewolf that hasn’t been killed properly.”
Aaron knew where he was now. Knew where he’d been. He didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him yet. He slowly turned his head to survey the tiny, sleepy town, and saw, off to one side, on which stood an unlit neon sign that could likely be seen from a mile away, depicting a tall cowboy hat with long bull’s horns coming out of the sides, a bar. In some far off place, he could hear the others asking if he was alright. He wasn’t. Deftly, slowly, he walked towards that bar. He was shaking by the time he got there. He started up at the sign for a moment, then walked around the bar. Behind it, some half mile into the barren desert, a tall rock loomed over a more flat stone platform. The perfect sort of place for a midnight meeting.
“They came from there,” Richie said. Aaron turned to see him pointing at the distant rock. “Traveled back n’ forth for days. Weeks.”
“How many?” Clive asked.
“Enough that I can sense their trail clear as looking in bright daylight. I don’t wanna guarantee the whole town’s buried out there,” he looked back into the town, “but I can tell you it’s a good bulk of ‘em.” He looked at Aaron. “How’d you sense it.”
“I didn’t,” Aaron said. “I knew it.” He turned to face Clive. “Can we create a circle of wards around that rock?”
Clive nodded slightly. “We’ve got rice and seeds to make them count, mistletoe, iron shavings, salt, holy items, oak chips, we can put candles at five points around it turn it into a pentagram, we go for broke on this.”
“I picked up something with the Motetz Dam that might help keep them localized if I carve it into the rock,” Aaron said. The image of the carving in the stone in Mexico that summoned all those young vampires was etched into his mind. “No idea if it’ll work, if there’s any other procedure to it, but I figure it’s worth a try.”
“We won’t have time for rock-carving,” Clive said as he let them back to the RV in a run. Once there he started pulling crates out of the storage trunk on the side of the vehicle. “Aaron, help us carry this stuff out there. Then find a car and get to the nearest town so you can alert the network like I said. Tell them I said Applebaum, that’s b-a-u-m, so they know I sent you with a real threat.”
“Why do I have to go?” Aaron said, not so much as a complaint, but out of worry that his knowledge of what happened could be invaluable. These monsters were the Motetz Dams’ fault. This entire town’s death was because of them. They killed that pack of werewolves, and Gregor had said that they were going to cut the heads off them all. They didn’t. Whether through negligence or ill intent, they left one or more of those beasts out to turn into a nightmare. And Aaron had watched it all happen.
“Because I said so, dammit,” Clive shoved a crate into each of their hands and began running off towards the rock.
They stopped about ten yards short of the rock a few minutes later. It was an hour, maybe two, before the sun set. Richie indicated where the vrykolakas were and began marking out a rough circle around them.
Aaron tried to say, “Clive, I really––“
“Look,” Clive said, “it’s nothing personal, but you’re the least experienced one here. Marcy’s faster, and if we have any luck at all, Richie’s powers to kill without the rules still apply to these things.” He began pouring out salt and iron shavings into the sand and stomping it in place along the lines Richie indicated. “I’m sorry, but the best purpose you can serve right now is to get the rest of the hunter community involved.” He poured out a few more feet before adding, “Besides, your main asset is your powers, and out here in the desert, without any life around, that’s not gonna be much help, is it?”
Sand burst from the ground on a spot near the rock, billowing into a column ten feet high. When it cleared there was a figure standing in the spot, a muscle bound male with the same ruddy, bloated skin like the one before, the same crooked lupine teeth, a hair under seven feet tall with blazing blue bloodshot eyes. “Interesting,” it rasped. “Is this the case, o vagabond soul?”
“No,” Marcy whispered beside him. “It’s daylight. He can’t be more than a month old, he shouldn’t be able to move. This shouldn’t be possible.”
“No,” the vrykolakas said, looking at her. “I suppose it shouldn’t, should it?” The Alpha vrykolakas lifted its arms in a grand, saintlike gesture, slowly rising them as the sand around the rock began to stir and shift.
Richie shot him.
The Alpha cringed at the shot in its shoulder, and Aaron could see the white nimbus that surrounded Richie’s weapons battling with the black-red aura of the monster. Richie fired again and missed, and the Alpha shot an arm up in his direction. The sand in front of Richie burst forth, and his next bullet was wildly fired into the plume. The bloated, fanged corpse of of a girl no more than thirteen years old grappled onto him nonetheless, its feet finding purchase on his hips, its claws wrapping around his throat, its toothy jaws opening like a serpent’s ready to strike.
Then Aaron saw the full extent of Richie’s power. The short, sickly looking Texan dhampir pressed his palm into the monster’s stomach, a white nimbus shining like the stars that hurt Aaron’s eyes to look at enveloping his entire arm. The blinding aura lashed out into the beast like vipers, burning the flesh of the creature and making it cringe and howl, releasing a noise somewhere between the whimper of a great hound and the tortured scream of a young girl and the scrape of metal against bone magnified. Its arms and legs lurched away from Richie’s body but it did not fall, it only hovered there by the touch of Richie’s hand, and the blazing white energy that wrapped around it like a vice.
In the fraction of a second it took for that to happen the Alpha restarted his saintly gesture and dozens upon dozens of corpses rose from the desert sand, men, women, children, dressed in torn and tattered and sand-covered clothing, their bloated, ruddy flesh and bloodshot eyes glaringly clear in the pre-dusk sunlight, unhidden, unfiltered by the dark of the night they were supposed to inhabit.
In that instant a thought occurred to Aaron, in the way pointless thoughts often occurred to him in times when he really should be focused on other things. It was that people fear the dark, because, on some level, they believe it’s full of monsters. But what they should fear is the light. Because they don’t.
“Run!” Clive screamed.
Richie clenched his hand against the vrykolakas’ stomach and the white aura surrounding the monster imploded on it, sending out the familiar death aura of the vampire, now darker and purpler, striated with the white of Richie’s own aura. And in a single fluid motion Richie put all his weight into pushing the corpse of the vrykolakas with that same single hand, and with a force beyond any normal human being flung the creature into the crowd of her brethren, toppling a handful like bowling pins, burning them with the white power carried in her death flash.
And then they were running. The army of the dead were just behind them, gaining fast, despite limping clumsiness in the daylight, falling over each other like the horde they were. The Hunters took out their weapons and fired randomly into the crowd, sending a few lurching back or tripping, maybe getting one in the head well enough to cause a death flash, but barely nudging the whole. Aaron thought he should do the same and realized he was still holding the crate of supplies he’d brought out there, and that it was full of glass mason jars packed with rice.
Holding the box against his chest with one arm, Aaron pulled one of the jars out and smashed it against the side of the crate, sending shards of glass and all the rice contained within scattering to the sand behind him. He chanced a look back and saw the vryks falling over each other as those in the first line behind him suddenly stopped to count every last grain or rice. It might have been funny if not for all the rotting flesh and fear of grizzly death. To most people. To Aaron it was funny anyway.
Proud of his own ingenuity Aaron began to shift slightly to the right of the others to do the same to more of them. As he pulled out another jar he felt hands snapping at his back, at his clothes, heard the growls of the beasts. He ran faster, narrowly escaping their clutches and dropping the jar of rice so it landed unbroken in the sand. Vaguely he realized he no longer felt the weight of the pistol tucked into the back of his pants.
As they neared the RV they realized that more were coming from the opposite direction. Out of yards and dead gardens dozens more vryks rose one by one covered in dry soil, and shambled to get between them and their vehicle. They were slower than the ones behind them but it looked like they wouldn’t be slow enough. The four hunters ran. They pushed themselves as hard as they could. They had to make it. They had to. Not just for themselves. Letting these things go unchecked could mean thousands of deaths, which would only grow and grow exponentially in number. They sprinted through the desert sand.
There was no pause between running and shooting. One simply transitioned into the other. The vryks surrounded the RV moments before they would have reached it. Before they could even begin to slow down, Marcy began picking them off with her Overkill. As soon as they slowed to a stop Clive and Richie began shooting into the horde that followed them. Clive pulled a knife off of his belt to prepare for what would inevitably come next. Aaron had lost his gun, so he also pulled out a knife. With nothing to do but wait. They only had so many bullets. The circle of undead closed very slowly around them.
“Aaron!” Clive screamed over the din of shots fired and the growls of the dead. “Burn ‘em! Burn ‘em all!”
Aaron felt out as far as his senses could reach. “I can’t!” he yelled back. “There’s nothing here!” He felt for the tiniest sliver of life. “There’s nothing here alive!” A half dried cactus, a bird flying overhead, the worms rutting in a dead mouse. But there was nothing. One of the vryks lunged at him and Aaron impaled it in the throat with his knife, toppling it to the ground, driving the tip of the knife into the pavement before pulling it out to ensure the vryk wouldn’t get back up. It was a child. It used to be a little boy. “Nothing for me to use!” There was no life left in this place. Nothing except––
Marcy and Clive said it almost at the same time, as though it were a foregone conclusion. As though it would have always ended like this. “Then use us!”
Aaron inhaled as if he was waking up from a dream, and felt the thing that made his friends alive stream into him. In that moment he knew them. He knew everything that they were. He felt Clive’s jubilant exterior wrapped tight around a core of cool determination, brought on by spending an entire life doing hard, terrible, ungrateful work and hiding it from others for their own good. He felt his curiosity and his optimism in spite of all that. The deep, fundamental belief, that despite all that he’d seen, there was still goodness in the world, and that that goodness had the chance to grow every day. At the same time, he felt Marcy in the familiar way he had when he’d stolen back some of what that Jiangshi had taken from her, what seemed like a very long time ago. The same deep old pain not quite washed away by absolution. The warm coating of kindness and caring and friendship. But now he also felt other things. The curious love for tinkering and invention. The pride in all she’d done for others. The flavors of Clive that rubbed off on her after years of friendship. And the faintest, burgeoning spark, mere moments away from erupting into a great, warm flame, of romance, tinged lightly with anxiousness and fear of rejection and of judgement.
In that moment he realized that this was what he was meant to take. Not the life of plants, and animals, and baser things. The life force of men and women were the energies his powers were designed to feed off of.
So he took it. And he built a fire.
The blaze lashed out from him like a whip and brought down a row of vryks in a single swift wave of cauterized wounds. Another, like a great extending lance cut down a row of monsters one behind the other. Clive and Marcy shuddered under the drain of Aaron’s magic and shuffled behind him. Richie, immune, took up position on the other side of Clive and Marcy from Aaron, taking their weapons so he could continue firing into the other half of the horde.
The two of them fought back-to-back, warding off the horde. Aaron lashed out with fire and ice and pure kinetic force with a precision he had never managed before, the human life he used as fuel a more sensitive, more stable source of energy than any he’d felt. He remembered he’d used human life force from those Mexican hunters, but that wasn’t for long enough for him to notice, and he was astral projecting. Here the energy traveled through his body like gas through an engine, a more perfect union of user and fuel.
A vryk flew at Aaron and without needing to say a word he redirected it at Richie, who on instinct caught it in an outstretched hand and engulfed it in his white aura. With another wave of psychokinetic force Aaron shot the vryk through the crowd just as it burst in a white-tinged death flash, burning and knocking down the others like bowling pins. The two of them fought in tandem, as though they’d been doing this together their whole lives, using each other’s powers to the best of the advantage of both. Striking out at monsters near and far with Richie’s strength and total deadliness and Aaron’s mystic power acting in perfect unison. The Dhampir and the Strigoi Viu. Two half-breeds. One goal: Kill them all.
But it couldn’t last forever.
Richie flung a vryk over his shoulder as though it were made of styrofoam, sending it soaring over them both where Aaron hit it with a fiery force that knocked it back into several others. “I’m outta’ ammo!” Richie yelled.
Aaron looked around. They’d fought their way nearly to the RV. The ground around them was littered with the corpses of monsters. There must have been fifty, seventy five at their feet. But there was still that a few times over surrounding them. The entire town. Maybe a few from nearby towns. And as night drew nearer more were getting strong enough to join them. He could feel them, waking, as the western sky began to pink. Even with his supernatural strength and killing power, Richie wouldn’t last long in that. And behind him, Aaron knew Marcy and Clive didn’t have much left in them. They were weak, Clive no longer conscious, Marcy barely so. Aaron could only attack a few more times before it would mean their deaths.
In a flash Aaron had astral projected into the RV, leaving his body momentarily behind. He reached telekinetically into every secret compartment and nook he knew of and sent the guns and bullets and knives flying out the door to where Richie and his body were standing. As they landed around Richie Aaron returned to his body. It still wouldn’t be enough. In the same move he transferred the box of jars into the RV.
“We’re never gonna take them all at once like this!” Aaron said.
“Most of them will follow me if I run!”
“How the hell can you know that!”
“I just do, goddammit, you’re gonna have to trust me on this!” He leaned down and slung Marcy over his shoulder, then reached into Richie’s coat pocket for something while clearing a path to the RV with a lateral blade of flame. “Protect Clive!”
“She’s got more left in her,” Aaron said. “And I can’t carry him!”
Richie stared him down as he fired into the crowd behind him.
“And I might be wrong about most of them following me,” Aaron lied.
Richie’s expression softened, and he shoved Aaron toward the RV as he fired at several vryks running up to block his path.
Aaron ran into the RV and dropped Marcy in the passenger seat as he turned on the engine. Vryks swarmed onto the vehicle as he sped onto the town’s main road, running over as many of them as he could on his way. Once he was on the street, the swarm chasing after him, he astral projected into the main part of the RV, letting his body absently continue to steer, and began setting things up, hanging wards over all the doors and windows, lining up materials around the cabin, turning the small gas stove on without lighting it. When he returned to his body he saw the horde closing in on him in his rear-view mirrors. He grabbed on to a staker that he’d placed telekinetically next to him. He could hear two of them climbing on the roof. Quickly he projected there and swiped them off with a blast of flame, sending them sprawling into the incoming swarm where they each knocked over several others. By the time he returned to his body he was almost too late to turn to his destination.
He turned the wheel of the RV right and then sharply to the left, sending it skidding, spiraling around itself, drifting narrowly lengthwise into a wide alleyway Aaron remembered from the earlier search was a dead end, the back end of the RV hitting the wall of one of the buildings, blocking it almost all the way across.
Marcy’s breathing was shallow as he lifted her over one shoulder and grabbed the box of jars with the same hand. He tossed a machete back into the alley. The wards over the door only gave him momentary pause as he stepped out of the RV into the blocked alley. The vryks would be on them in seconds. With his free arm Aaron pulled jars of rice and seeds out of the crate and tossed them high so they landed and shattered in the narrow gap that the RV left to enter the alley, then all over the roof of the RV, with a few landing on the ground on either side.
Before he could finish retreating to the end of the alley the vryks had begun swarming over the RV. Those that managed to get through the first layer of wards over the doors and windows into the RV couldn’t manage the second. Those that tried to go around or over the RV became consumed by the need to count every last seed. Again, Aaron found that weakness hilarious despite the looming threat of death and the nearly-dead girl on his shoulder. He considered doing a quick Count Von Count laugh at them, but figured he’d feel bad about it later.
Aaron shielded Marcy with his body up against the back of the alley. He took out one of the few weapons he hadn’t left for Richie, a pistol, and began firing into the horde. Each bullet hit true on the head or just below it. He could hope that a few of those would count at taking the head off, but for the rest, a bullet wound wouldn’t kill them. In fact, from what Aaron had learned it was likely they’d heal with the coming sunset. But he didn’t have much choice. He had to wait.
“Seeds, vagabond soul?” an raspy baritone said from behind the RV. The massive form of the Alpha leapt onto the roof of the vehicle as though he was taking a step. He stepped over his apostles like they were trash on the ground. “Mistletoe? Idle tricks of the mind? My underlings, certainly,” he stepped off the roof and casually crushed under his feet a vryk that looked like it used to be a teenager, counting rice with his four-fingered hand. “But surely, you should have known that a mind such as mine would not falter to such paltry magics?”
Aaron raised his gun to him. “Don’t call me Shirley,” he said. “Also, what is it with you? ‘Vagabond soul?’ ‘Underlings?’ ‘Paltry magics?’ You can cut the friggin Shakespearian, we get it, you’re a cult leader.”
The Alpha chuckled an inhuman sound. “I went to a goodly deal of trouble to summon you here. I knew I would need to take you first to get to those ungodly vampires. How lucky I was to find out that a ‘Strigoi Viu’ quite resembling the spirit I saw had joined a group of hunters not yet far from me. The trap was, almost too easy to set. My army needed not even yet leave their home. It was just a matter of making that little coroner send you a simple message. Of course I had to do it while he was still alive, these,” he looked back at the swarm of frantic vryks surrounding the RV, former men and women and children, “things can hardly retain the power to think straight. But they serve their purpose.”
“You know,” Aaron said weakly, “for a while there, a little part of me thought you actually stood for something. You maybe weren’t good, but you weren’t really evil either. You stood for a cause. That was something at least. But now I get it. Man. Wolf. Undead thing. You just like killing. That’s why you’re hunter friends tried to kill you when you got turned. If you’d been a bit calmer about it, you might have had a chance at being like me. Like that dhampir back there. An ally with one foot in the world of magic. But you embraced the death you could cause too much.”
The Alpha released a deep belly laugh that could peel the paint off of walls. “Reduced to psychoanalytic taunting!” he said. “I could not have asked for a more pathetic end for you. A more fittingly futile death. Cornered. Surrounded. Your allies scattered. The only weapon you have, useless. The source of your power” he indicated Marcy as he loomed over the two of them, “all but depleted.”
Aaron turned to Marcy. She was no longer conscious. He eyes were sunken and tired, Her breathing was shallow. Her dark skin was pale and waxy. Despite sitting next to her he could barely hear her breathing. “You’re right,” he said. “She’s barely got a spark left in her.” He looked at at the Alpha. It stood over them some feet away. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what he’d taken from Richie. “Lucky I brought my own.” In a single gesture he flicked the lighter to life and threw it past the Alpha toward the RV using only his own strength. Then he covered Marcy’s body with his own.
The lighter flew through a broken window of the RV. The gas that had been building up inside from when Aaron turned on the stove without lighting it sparked and sent a wave of bright flame over the vryks inside and out of the vehicle. The shotgun shells and fireworks and grenades full of iron and wood and holy symbols Aaron had left out randomly in the RV all set off at once, blasting away at any creatures missed by the initial explosion. Even the ones trapped in the gap in front of the RV were hit when the engine exploded. Vryks wreathed in flame with limbs shot off, screaming like animals, still tried with all their might to count every last seed scattered on the ground.
“No!” the Alpha cried, dramatically, as he looked over his burnt and battered army. He turned to exact his revenge on Aaron and was met with an iron stake in his heart.
Aaron felt the satisfying pressure as the spring loaded weapon worked its way through the dead man’s body. With all his might he pushed into him until he was lying atop the rotted corpse on the ground. The man was too broad for the stake to go all the way through so Aaron had to push and push it through the cold flesh until it scrapped at the asphalt below and he felt the soul of the monstrous thing disperse in a dark flash.
The screaming from the monsters around the RV quieted, their movements slowed and many of the burning bodies struggled to stay up, or failed entirely. Without the willpower of their leader, they were just corpses in the sunlight. Weak. And pitiful. And easy to end.
Aaron picked up the blade he had tossed into the alley. Then he turned back to the dead end to check on Marcy. She was still breathing. But barely.
He put is hands around her face. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, stay with me. Stay with me, Marcy. I’m here. Everything’s okay now. I don’t need any more.” She began to stir and a faint noise drifted between her lips. Aaron realized how calm he had been through all this. Through putting knives and bullets and burns through things just a week out of being people. Through nearly getting himself and people he cared about killed. Through nearly draining the last of the life out of the girl he–– “Just wait here. Just keep your strength. I’ve got to tell you something when this is over.” He shifted the machete in his hand and turned toward the burning RV. He walked purposefully towards the swarm of already weak and dying undead. “Gotta tell you all something.” He thought of Richie and Clive, back at the edge of the desert. He lifted the machete. “Gotta tell you everything.”