The Edge of Propinquity

Normal version

A Guest Quarters story
Brandon Nolta

Two taps sounded at the door. Soft, almost like leaning against the wood rather than a knock. Rafe waited, then heard another two, louder this time. He opened the door onto the well-lit hallway, a cocked .38 in his left hand. Snyder stood there, dressed in black jeans and sweatshirt, his hands open by his side. Snyder and Rafe had worked together for six months or so, which meant Rafe trusted him just enough to say hello. This bothered some of the hunters, but Snyder understood. He'd gone through a few too many partners himself.

"Have a drink," Rafe said, and flicked a handful of droplets into the hall from the glass fishbowl by the door. The mist struck Snyder in the face, making him blink his eyes, but nothing else. Smoke and cries of pain would have earned the lead and silver rounds in Rafe's revolver.
"Thanks," Snyder said, walking into the second-floor apartment. Rafe had a rule about places to sleep; actually, he had several, but this rule resonated with Snyder: nothing higher than the second story, in case you have to make a quick exit out the back due to vampire, lycanthrope or some hex from various jujus. Not that Snyder had seen any of those. Nobody had seen a lycanthrope in sixty years, the magic players were all co-opted or in the ground, just about every other monster ever known was a rug somewhere and the number of vampires had, after more than three centuries of concerted, behind-the-scene effort, been seriously whittled down. Snyder thought he might live to see them extinct, a walking disease banished to the realms of myth and nightmare.
"Tonight's agenda," said Rafe, "had better include some staking and baking. I'm losing my edge."
"You wouldn't lose your edge if you took a forty-year nap," Snyder said, looking out each of the dingy apartment's streetside windows in turn. Nothing moved on the street; this wide spot in a California highway rolled up the sidewalks at nightfall, and here it was two hours past that. "We got a mission, but it isn't the usual."
"I may not be interested," Rafe said, pouring a shot of whiskey and slamming it home. He'd poured one for Snyder out of habit, even though it was a waste. Snyder didn't drink much; fighting history, he explained once. Still room for surprises, though: Snyder grabbed the shot glass and shotgunned it in one fast motion. Snyder slammed the glass down, looking at Rafe as if he were trying to guess his weight.
"You will be," Snyder said. "We're rescuing someone."
"Ooh," Rafe said, his face twisted into mock surprise. "A damsel?"

"A weapon," Snyder said.
Rafe's eyes narrowed. He pulled out the metal-framed chair from the table, swung around and straddled the back, leaning his arms on the backrest. "How so? This guy shoot lasers from his eyes? Does he shit silver?"
Snyder laughed. "There's a detail I wouldn't want. No, it's something else. The boss wouldn't say exactly what, but it's something in this kid's genes, something that makes him valuable. His parents don't have enough of whatever it is, I guess, but the kid... he's got something. Problem is, our old buddies know it, too. A few of them blew into town right after we did. I hear one or two of them been scouting around."
"Get any names?"
"Sticks, for sure. Maybe the Duke; he moved out of sight before our lookouts got a good eyeball on him."
"Not Johan, though."
Snyder sighed. "No, not Johan. You know that fucker's gone to ground somewhere deep. He's hoping his little minions will take out enough of us so he can get back to work, making more."
Rafe sat up, his arms still crossed and resting on the chair. "You know how long I've been on that bastard's tail. If we can clean him out before he starts a new nest or brings his forces back up to speed, it's damn near the shouting match."
"Let's not fuck around," Snyder said, slapping the table. "This kid, maybe he's something special. Let's go collect his skinny little ass and find out."
"Shit," Rafe said as he stood, "we get to kill anything tonight?"
"It's a rescue mission," Snyder said, "everything could go to shit. I wouldn't want you to worry, though. Things might just go right."
"Sweet talker," Rafe said. "Let's bring some toys."
Snyder opened his jacket to show a collection of sharpened wooden stakes, a silver set of knuckles and a holstered pistol, a silver load in each round. An aerosol can was strapped to Snyder's hip, which Rafe knew was filled with a garlic and holy water combination, mixed with an anti-coagulant agent for good measure.
"How do you not clank when you walk?" Rafe asked, a gruff smile making its way around his mouth.
"I keep the anti-clank shit over here on my left," Snyder said.
"Let me grab mine," Rafe said, and slid a Bowie knife into an inner pocket of his jacket. Rafe was usually armed, so within a minute, they left the apartment and jogged down the stairs to the street. A pale yellow light dribbled from the only working streetlight, casting jaundice over every door and window.
"Where's the car?" Rafe asked.
"Quicker to walk," Snyder said, unfolding a piece of paper from one of his pea jacket's voluminous pockets. "About three blocks over that way, where the bars fade out into houses with trees and kids' toys in the yard."
"Could've just said 'three blocks,' man," Rafe told his partner as they stepped into the darkness. His senses kicked into killer mode as the adrenaline began to flow, the same sharpening of perception he always got before taking on the night. Rafe knew no matter how keen his senses got, he'd never be a straight match for any nosferatu, not on his best day. Still, he'd fought and killed more vampires than anybody else in the field, and that wasn't even counting the other flavors of nightcrawler he'd put down over the years. He might not be vampire sharp, but he was sharp enough.
Together, the men made their way down a quiet street, flickering television lights from a half-dozen homes lighting the way. Within minutes, they were standing on the sidewalk outside a house that was barely a cottage, fronted by a patchy yard and ringed with a battered chainlink fence. No lights were visible in the house, no sign anyone was home. If they were home, odds were good they weren't breathing, Rafe thought.
"Smell that?" Snyder hissed, barely loud enough for Rafe to hear. Rafe did, a coppery stench that should have had every neighbor looking out a window to see who died. Of course they didn't. Nobody else could smell it or would admit it. The undead in a neighborhood tended to have that effect. Rafe didn't even blame people for their willful blindness anymore. He understood it was only that blindness protecting them and their fragile worlds, though it still made him angry; blindness worked both ways. No vampire would last long in a 20th century where the inhabitants admitted the existence of undead.
"We might just be setting fires tonight," Rafe said.
"Or not," Snyder said, and leaped the short fence in a graceful bound. Rafe was surprised; he was used to going first. He scanned the area around the house for surprises, and saw what fired Snyder up: a few handfuls of earth were shifting from a spot just underneath the front porch, the freshly turned earth nearly disguised by the shadows against the foundation. Some vampires had taken to burying bloodsuckers that could go a couple of days between hunting as a kind of backup. Hunters always looked for daily places of rest; a vampire that could sit tight for a couple of days had an advantage.
Of course, the ones who popped up too soon weren't as lucky. Rafe leaped the fence and hustled across the front yard, holy water spritzer and stake at the ready. Killing the digger first would probably be loud, but it wouldn't do to go inside and leave a bloodsucker cutting off a retreat. Rafe drew the stake out and rushed the emerging vampire, whose hands were now visible above the ground, pale fingers and nails scrabbling on loose ground.
Just as he reached the hole, the vampire's head broke surface, dirt and bugs falling as the vampire shook himself loose. Because of the dirt, the vampire hadn't opened his eyes yet, but Rafe figured he was about half a second from being noticed. He dropped to one knee, sliding across the dirt like he was stealing home, and drove the stake hard through the larynx, snapping the vampire's spine in two. The vampire opened his eyes then, wider than a human could, as his head flopped back and forth and his tongue rattled in his mouth. The vampire made no sound, but Rafe could read lips.
"That's a new one," Rafe said. He put the spritzer to the vampire's mouth and shot a long blast of garlic-flavored holy water down his throat, then sprayed his face and the top of his head for good measure. Rafe sprang to his feet, the vampire's face already a ruin of smoke and burnt flesh. A charred smell of something awful was already in the air. He stood, and saw Snyder land a furious drop kick on the front door. Splinters flew as the door burst open. Snyder lobbed a steel canister through the opening and whirled to the side. Rafe heard a hissing sound, a cough, then the sound of gagging and retching. A thick grey fog rolled out the front door, reaching to Snyder's knees.
Rafe bounded onto the front porch, taking up position on the opposite side of the door. "Tear gas?"
"My own recipe," Snyder said. "Silver particles suspended in warfarin, plus a couple more things for flavor. Great for rats and bloodsuckers."
"Very cool," Rafe said. "Cover me."
Snyder nodded. Rafe turned and rushed in, revolver up. He heard Snyder hit the door right behind him, his gun covering the other half of the room. The house was dark, barely lit from the streetlights outside, but it was enough for Rafe to see two adults tied to chairs in the middle of the room, heads lolled to the side, unmoving. Snyder moved forward while Rafe covered the room, his eyes moving in step with his gun. He checked their necks quickly, shook his head at Rafe's unspoken question.
One footstep sounded in the hall, a light tap on the floor but moving fast, and both Rafe and Snyder turned in unison. In the darkness, all Rafe could see was a blur, a long shadow that seemed to shimmer in the muddled night. Snyder's hand moved to his coat and had drawn the silver knuckles almost entirely out before the shimmer struck him, high and hard across the chest, launching him across the small living room and into the opposite wall. Rafe was already diving into a roll and fetching up against the corner closest to him. The shimmer moved toward him as he aimed.
"Shit," Rafe said as he fired, center, then right. The vampire dodged the first shot, but juked right into the other one, as Rafe figured. A cloud of blood puffed out, and Rafe fired again, bracketing the shimmer. The vampire managed to dodge into both, combined shock and silver poisoning slowing the vampire to normal speed, the shimmer resolving into a tall, skeletal girl with short-cropped hair and corpse-pale skin. She stumbled, and snarled as she charged the last few feet.
A different revolver fired, and the vampire's face disappeared in a spray of fluid and bone. The faceless corpse collapsed, sprawling forward until it almost touched Rafe's feet. Four silver rounds ought to do it, Rafe thought, watching the body break down into ash and embers. On the far side of the living room, Snyder dropped his arm and leaned back against the wall, his head lolling as he fought to stay conscious.
Rafe got to his feet and rushed to his partner. Snyder was hurt, shaken, probably had a couple of bruised ribs, but he could move. Rafe got Snyder to his feet as gently as he could. "Thanks, man."
"Got your back," Snyder said, a wheeze starting in his chest. "Ready to move?"
"Yeah," Rafe said, taking point. "Hope the kid's still here and alive."
Another sound in the hall, fainter than the last to their gunshot-concussed ears. It could have been the wind, it could have been a dancing line of zombies; the darkness in the hall was almost total, revealing nothing. Going in was a bad, bad idea: facing off against an unknown number of monsters who could see in the dark was a recipe for suicide, and sensible hunters would run away from such a situation.
"Flare," Rafe said, pulling one from his coat pocket. He popped the end and threw it into the hall as the end burst into crimson life. The flare rolled down the hall, singing the ratty carpet and tattered wallpaper, coming to a rest at the feet of a trio of vampires standing at the far end, a frightened boy trussed and gagged and balanced between the nosferatu. Rafe could see the boy's eyes, smell the sour terror sweat.
No more time to think, to fear what lay ahead. Snyder slung himself into a standing position, and pulled a stake from his coat. Rafe was surprised his partner still had his silver knuckles; between that, the stake and the revolver, Snyder was armed and ready. Stake in hand, his own revolver at the ready, Rafe charged forward, Snyder at his back. A toothed triumvirate awaited them at hall's end.

Rafe held the revolver in his right hand, mindful he had only three rounds left. The speedloader in his pocket was full, but he'd never been able to get his reload time under a handful of seconds, and that was more than enough to get slaughtered in vampire time. Another stake was in his right hand, and he wondered if he had time to reach his own spritzer of nosferatu cocktail before he and Snyder got charged.
In the flarelight, the vampires' mouths were weirdly elongated, like kids making faces in a funhouse mirror. One held the boy while the other two charged into fluid motion, and Rafe's conscious mind made one ominous note: the light wasn't playing tricks on him. Their mouths really were that wide, really that long. Then they were on them.
Snyder threw a hard jab at the one on Rafe's left, aiming his silver knuckles for the bloodsucker's eyes. It—the vampire was clearly a male, but only just—dodged Snyder's fist, and swung a backhand that could crush bone. Snyder ducked, dropping to one knee as he threw another punch, this one aimed at the vampire's knee. Rafe heard a satisfying crack and the sizzle of undead skin as the bloodsucker's knee dissolved under the combined force of Snyder and silver. The monster screamed, a keening wail cut short by a jagged stake ramming through its lower jaw. Snyder levered the lower end of the stake up with a wrenching push, and the vampire's jaw vanished in a spray of blood and bone.
Rafe's vampire was half a step behind Snyder's, giving Rafe a half-step worth of time to consider his options. The second vampire was marginally more careful; he launched a high, fast kick at Rafe, aiming high enough to hurt without leaving himself completely open. As the vampire's foot shot toward Rafe, he turned and let it skim by his chest, feeling the wind from its passage pull at his clothes. His right hand pulled up, and Rafe remembered he still held the revolver only when his trigger finger sent a silver load into the vampire's crotch. The report was deafening in the hall, almost as much as the vampire's agonized screech at the burning impact.

Thrown back against the wall, the vampire clutched at himself as black blood, thick and ropy, tumbled out onto the floor. Rafe took the spritzer from his pocket and let fly, spraying holy water and garlic into the ichorous wound between the vampire's legs, then over his face and head. The screaming crept higher and higher as the wounded vampire sizzled and burned, thick oily smoke issuing from the vampire as he twitched. Rafe felt his gorge rise, and fired his last two rounds into the vampire's head. The screaming stopped.
Both men looked toward the end of the hall, where the last vampire stood, his hand wrapped tightly around the boy's pale throat. Rafe could almost see the pulse pound in the boy's neck, and if he could, the vampire must be close to taking a drink. Briefly, Rafe wondered if he could hit the vampire by throwing the now-empty revolver at him. Considering how fast the vampire could move, odds were good he'd just end up popping the boy in the head. Rafe returned the revolver to his pocket and turned just far enough to pick up Snyder in his peripherals. "You good?"
"Ready when you are. Hit him high?"
"If you can. Gotta get in close," Rafe said as he took a step forward. The vampire smiled, vicious canines glittering in the flarelight. Scorch marks were spreading along the floor; this place is probably going to catch fire before too long, Rafe realized, and decided he didn't want to stop it, nor be around when it did.
"Let me help," Snyder said, and charged ahead, running past Rafe without warning. He was two steps past Rafe before he could react.
The next few moments seemed to slow into crystallized time, heartbeats Rafe felt like ticks of a slowing clock. Snyder was still a couple of feet from the bloodsucker and his hostage when his hand arced from his coat, the top removed from the spritzer. A fluid scythe glittered and shone in the air, spreading into drops and jagged shapes as it flew. Another stake was already in his left hand, the silver knuckles fitted around his right as he ran, focused on the vampire already in motion. Rafe saw the glitter of delight in the vampire's eyes.
Even as Rafe sprang after his partner, he saw the vampire toss the boy casually aside, slamming him into the wall hard enough to kick up plaster dust. In the same motion, the vampire seemed to lightly spring into the air, his back foot already snapping through a short arc, heel forward. His mind already running the numbers, Rafe saw the vampire's kick was going to end in Snyder's face, and Snyder couldn't juke fast enough to avoid it. A shout began in Rafe's throat, but he knew even that would be too late.
Blink. The kick began its arc. Blink. The vampire hung suspended in the air, still rising, foot scything forward with monstrous force. Blink. Moving with impossible speed.
Snyder's head vanished in a gout of blood, dark and eerie in the flickering red light of the flare. Shadows spiraled and fluttered as the vampire completed his kick, turning the hallway wall into a depraved modern art exhibit. The vampire spun in the air, coming to rest like a cat as Snyder's body, carried by momentum, spun into the wall and tumbled to the floor, a trail of blood marking its last passage. Part of Rafe wanted to scream, to throw up what dinner he'd had, even as his body charged forward, drawing his Bowie knife in one hand while his other pulled an ashen stake. Another partner lost, a cold dark voice from deep inside him noted. Another hunter down, one less defender.
Rafe flung his knife at the vampire's head, bringing his stake around like a sword. To Rafe's surprise, the vampire failed to completely dodge it; the blade scored his cheek as it spun past, burying itself in the wall beyond the vampire's head to the hilt. Hissing, the vampire turned and swung its fist with murderous speed, glancing off Rafe's ribs. He felt two of them snap under the near-miss, a white spike of pain shooting through his chest, but he continued to charge forward.
Before Rafe could bring the stake forward, he knew he would miss. The angle was wrong, he wasn't positioned correctly, whatever; he could feel it going south. The vampire seemed to know it too, or he was just enjoying the fight; his grin seemed to widen in the instant before impact, as if the pain was immaterial. A drop of Snyder's blood seemed to hang in the air before Rafe's eyes, mocking him.
The shock of it slammed all the way up Rafe's arm, jittering his broken ribs into agony again, but even as the vampire fell back, he could see that his feeling was correct. Instead of plunging through the heart or head, both killing strikes for vampires, he managed to pin the bloodsucker's shoulder to the wall. A painful blow, but not fatal. The vampire's eyes narrowed, and a thunderclap went off against Rafe's head. Pain, mountain dense and heavy, flared along the side of his skull, and he dimly felt his jaw snap under the vampire's hand. Rafe fell backward, rolling into the wall behind him with a jangle of seared nerves and broken bones tangling together in a cacophony of lightning pain.
Don't pass out, Rafe told himself, and forced his eyes open. The world continued to spin as he made himself focus, made himself stand before the vampire could finish disassembling him into twitching, fiery agony. He put his hand against the wall to steady himself and, tongue pushing against his broken jaw as a focusing method, forced his eyes to clear. Despite its toothy pleasure in the fight, the vampire was still pinned to the wall, blood oozing from the wound around the stake and mixing with the plaster dust into a ruddy mud.
"Dead, hunter," the vampire said, his sibilant voice hurting Rafe's ears. Despite its injuries, it sounded gleeful. Why not, Rafe thought; it's barely scratched. A stake through the shoulder might as well be a hangnail. I can barely get up, much less fight.
"Give up, die quick. I promise," the vampire said, as if Rafe's thoughts were broadcast over the air. Hell, maybe they were, Rafe thought. Vampires had all sorts of strange abilities, though they were fragile against the weirdest things. Garlic, silver, holy water...
"Wait," Rafe said out loud. Adrenaline shot through him as he thrust a hand in his jacket pocket and pulled out the spritzer, a little more than half full. The nozzle had been crushed under him when the vampire had knocked him down, and it clearly wouldn't fire.
"Can't spray me," the vampire laughed.
"Don't need to," Rafe said, as he popped the top off, ignoring the flare of broken ribs in his side and the ache of his jaw. Dropping the top to the floor, he upended the bottle over him, splashing the sanctified mixture down his face, his throat and the front of his clothes. In a moment, he was drenched, and smelled strongly of garlic. The bloodsucker's nose wrinkled involuntarily.
Rafe smiled.
"I just need to hold on," Rafe told the bloodsucker, and before the vampire could react, Rafe lunged and caught the vampire up in a fierce embrace, driving the air from Rafe's lungs with pain. He locked his hands behind the vampire's back, an oily smoke already stinging his eyes, and as the vampire began to howl, Rafe shut his eyes and pressed his body closer to the vampire's, willing every molecule of the sanctified weapon to attach to undead skin and annihilate every cell. A liquid heat began to build against Rafe, and it occurred to him his plan might have a serious flaw.
The vampire bucked and twitched, every piece of him madly seeking escape. Rafe could feel flesh bubbling under his grasp, bonds breaking and pieces tearing themselves apart. Every motion brought new stabs of pain from his sides and jaw, but as the vampire slowly melted and came apart, he clenched his arms tighter, feeling jagged bone dig into his side but not caring. Even the stabbing pain in his ears failed to sway him, blood from ruptured eardrums running down his sides in a kind of benediction, the keening a hymn to holy pain and cleansing fire.
After what seemed like a week's worth of pain, the monster's screaming trailed into an obscene gurgling, then into silence. A burst of searing heat flashed, and the vampire completely disintegrated, grue and withered pieces raining onto the carpet. Rafe fell forward a step, and was shocked into a deep breath by the impact of wall against his head. A weak scream escaped him as his ribs roared back into tender life, followed by a moan as broken jaw bones grated against each other. He dropped to one knee and felt his stomach revolt as nosferatu blood soaked into his jeans, coldly bathing his knee. Only the pain kept his control intact as he forced himself to breathe deep through his nose, concentrating on his breathing to keep his dinner where it belonged. A minute passed, two.
From the hall in front of him, a small moan sounded, almost too faint for Rafe to hear over the ringing in his ears from the vampire's death scream. He lifted his head and saw the boy, who'd been stunned from slamming into the wall, stir weakly. Carefully, feeling his ribs complain with every motion, Rafe crawled over to the boy and turned him over. The flare was sputtering, but enough crimson light  filled the hall for Rafe to see the boy's eyes flutter and open.

The boy's gaze was clear, fearful, but settled into a questioning look as the boy realized Rafe wasn't a vampire. Rafe started as he saw the boy's eyes glow in the flicker like a vampire's would, but with a different shade to the flecks and streaks. The boy wasn't a vampire, Rafe could see; his skin wasn't reacting to the holy water or garlic. Whatever he was, he was something new. Human, but something new all the same.
"Hey," Rafe whispered. "Can you drive?"


"These predator-prey relationships, they never quite work out," Johan said lightly, holding the black-clad human up over his head by the throat, a strong pulse of the carotid and jugular beating warm and ticklish under Johan's fingers. Above the struggling human, a dusty iron chandelier hung down from the vaulted ceiling, anachronistic light bulbs marring the effect. Outside, the warm strains of Dixieland jazz echoed through the swampy night, a Creole folk song turned into brassy virtuosity the bilge rats on Lake Pontchartrain could probably hear.

"Johan," the human managed to wheeze, "stop playing with your food. Get it over with, bastard."

"Please, Rafe," Johan said, his long face settling into a bored look, "don't insult me."

Nonchalantly, he tossed Rafe aside, clearing a neglected rattan couch more than 10 feet away and fetching the black-clad man against the wall with a rib-cracking thump. A side table disintegrated under Rafe, throwing dust and cobwebs up in a cloud. "Did you think I couldn't smell the silver nitrate? The garlic compound in your blood? The anti-coagulants you popped like vitamins before you came here? Those were a bad idea, by the way; you're probably bleeding out internally."

"Give a guy credit for trying," Rafe said, lying on the floor, pain etched in his face. "We've been hunting you for a while. You're one of the trickiest fuckers I've ever hunted."

"I'm the last one you'll hunt," Johan snarled, and suddenly he was there beside Rafe, a feral look in his iridescent eyes. Creatures like Johan only showed their true colors in the night, and Rafe admitted the effect was oddly beautiful. Not the exemplar of beauty he wanted as one of his last sights on Earth, but he had to take what he could get. Johan was right about the internal bleeding.

"Well, you've killed me good, Johan," Rafe said with as much cheer as he could muster. Dying wasn't so bad, and at least he wasn't going to be turned. No way could Johan drink his blood, not with all the crap he'd pumped into it. "I was hoping for the other way around."

"Did you know I'm the last of the originals?" Johan said, his hands reassuming their position around Rafe's throat. They lay there, cold on Rafe's skin, a weird familiarity Rafe was too weak to fight, though Johan's touch made his skin crawl. "You and your hunter comrades have killed off the rest of us, and kept me on the run, too weak to create more. If you'd killed me tonight, vampires would be no more."

"What a shame," Rafe said through a ratcheting cough. Fluid was building in his chest, and Rafe realized one of his lungs was punctured. "Here I am, just poisoned meat on the floor, and unable to do anything about it."

"It pains me to see you like this," Johan said, fangs showing in the muddled moonlight, mottled by the dust on the window and the Spanish moss outside. Picking this Gothic monstrosity in the Ninth Ward wasn't too subtle, but even in New Orleans, who the hell would believe a vampire was living there? "Shall I kill you now, or taunt you some more and engender a false hope you might survive? Decisions, decisions."

"If you're going to talk all night, just kill me," Rafe said. Bubbles of blood formed at the corners of his mouth, but Johan wrinkled his nose at the smell of anti-coagulants and silver nitrate, either one of which could make a vampire seriously ill or seriously dead. "In fact, kill me anyway; the idea of 1975 coming around with me dead and you still kicking makes me sick."

Johan opened his mouth, but a whispery sound outside caught his attention. Even for nosferatu senses, it was nearly too faint to catch, but something was there. Johan felt it on his skin: a presence, a shape in the atmosphere, something too quiet to be human and too solid for anything else. A nauseating stench of silver and garlic filled the air as Rafe spat onto the floor, clouding Johan's senses. Johan gagged for a moment, but gained control.

"Johan, Johan," Rafe said, "you don't look well. I thought you were going to kill me."

The vampire looked at his would-be slayer. "What kind of trap do you think you have me in, Rafe? A house full of slayers? A giant UV lamp? Peter Cushing with an axe?"

"Something new," Rafe said. "Something we just found."

From the hall outside, a soft footstep, a light breeze brushing against entropic wood. Too soft to be human; one of those crashing, bungling bundles of meat and bone and blood that stamp and trumpet through the world like drunken elephants. It wasn't a vampire, though; Johan could sense their absence in the night, a grievous lack of other predators like him. They'd ruled the night with teeth and speed and fear, but the centuries had turned on them, and humans killed his kind with metallurgy and science, sheer numbers and invulnerability to ultraviolet light.

"What have you brought me?" the vampire asked, rising to his feet.

An ancient, still-solid set of foyer doors swung wide, creaking and groaning with failing planks and tortured metal. In the doorway stood a small, thin shadow, hidden from the mottled moonlight by the curve of the inner wall. Johan's superior eyesight focused through the gloom to reveal...a child. A teenager, at best; probably no older than 14, a young boy in a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and canvas basketball shoes; a waif whose gaze was cool and unconcerned and focused entirely on the aged vampire looming over Rafe in the Louisiana darkness.

"A child?" Johan asked. "This is your plan, to distract me with a child?"

"Nope," Rafe said, voice thick with blood and foam now. "The plan was to distract you with me. That sound you hear is a trap swinging shut."

Johan laughed, and suddenly the child was beside him. 
"Hello," the boy said, in a voice just beginning to descend into puberty. He looked up at Johan, and Johan saw an iridescence staring out from the boy's eyes, different in color from a vampire's golden hue—the boy's eyes showed sparks of blue and a brilliant, royal purple—but eerily similar otherwise. The effect was disconcerting.
"Was ist das?" Johan asked.
"Yes," the boy said, and struck Johan in the solar plexus with blinding, unearthly speed. Air fled Johan's lungs as he flew backward in an ungainly sprawl, striking the wall eight feet behind with a meaty crash. His head punched through the plaster, and dragged a wide scar in the moldy, dusty remains of the wall as he came to rest on the sagging floor. Before he could shake off the impact and rise, the boy was once more beside him, appearing at arm's reach within a blink. He moves like one of us, Johan thought, but he looks human. He smells human.
"I am human," the boy said, and Johan understood the boy shared his gift of surface telepathy. Only vampires can do that, Johan thought wildly, and not all of them. What is this creature? Johan kicked wildly, hoping to strike the boy, but he moved again, his movements visible but just barely, even for nosferatu reflexes.
A shadow loomed out of the dark, and Johan barely avoided the heavy chiffarobe as it hurtled at him. Despite age and neglect, the furniture was still solid and firm, and the boy's throw powered it through the wall and into the equally decayed room on the other side. Johan flowed into a crouch and leapt, his powerful legs launching him back toward Rafe, who Johan decided would die before this battle went any further.
"You know what an ecosystem is, Johan?" Rafe said. The damage to his lungs was obvious now; even in the gloom, a human could see the pink foam gathering on his mouth with every breath. No matter what happened to him, Johan realized, Rafe wasn't long for the world. Small comfort. "You know what happens when something ascends the food chain and becomes top of the heap?"
Something heavy struck Johan in midair, driving the wind from him again and piercing him with jagged edges. The vampire howled in agony, and rolled into an armchair that collapsed under the weight. A table leg, chipped veneer and exposed splinters, jabbed into his ribs, and the pain was excruciating.
Impossibly, Rafe worked himself into a sitting position, his back pressed against the faded wallpaper as he strained against broken ribs and the cumulative poisons he'd injected into his blood. Despite the splintered ends of bone Johan saw working their way through him, Rafe was smiling. "Nature adapts, Johan. Nature keeps things in balance. Too many flowers, more herbivores appear. Weather gets too cold for too long, everything starts growing fur. After a while, too many vampires around, Nature starts growing vampire killers."
A grip like iron settled around Johan's neck and lifted him bodily off the floor. Johan felt himself spin as the fingers dug in tighter, constricting his narrow throat into still smaller spaces. Below him, the boy's gaze was placid, unconcerned as he stared at the last of the vampires.
"It took a while," Rafe said, "but better late than never. Go ahead, son, pull his head off."
Johan screamed as the grip's pressure increased, and his last thoughts were lost in a blaze of agonized terror.

Brandon Nolta is a writer, editor, computer professional and frequent jack-of-all-trades who is being treated for incessantly referring to himself in the third person. He works as a freelance copy editor, among other things, and is still recovering from his last sojourn in academia, which led to an M.F.A. in fiction and staggering student debt. His fiction has appeared in New Myths, Third Order and upcoming issues of Digital Science Fiction and Every Day Fiction. He mostly exists in northern Idaho with his wife and two children.

Story by Brandon Nolta, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011

Last updated on 10/14/2011 6:29:03 PM by Jennifer Brozek
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