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Rose Red and the Huntsmen

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by the Winter Cynic

Max spent nearly an hour outside the shop, huddled under an awning that barely shielded him from the bitter rain, smoking one cigarette after another down until he nearly burned his fingers. He was desperate, that much was sure, but how desperate? That was harder to say. Desperate enough to walk into Adriaan Visser’s den was desperate indeed, especially since Visser wouldn’t need any of his family’s fancy weaponry or arcane knowledge. Any one of the guns lining the walls for display would be the end of Max in a single mundane trigger pull.

If there had been any other way, he would have left right then and there, just walked down the Haarlem streets and disappeared into the night. But after a month, Max had been forced to admit that not only was he at the end of his rope, but that the longer he waited, the worse it would get.

Thus, Max waited there until it was almost too late, until he could see a figure inside move and one of the lights snap off. Before he could change his mind, he tossed the remains of his last cigarette into a puddle and rushed across the street, slipping inside the front door and pushing it shut behind him. Inside his pocket, his hand twisted, and the bolt in the door latched behind him. It wouldn’t do to have them disturbed.

The man behind the counter looked at Max with no small startlement, which Max supposed he deserved. Max knew he already cut less than an imposing figure even when he wasn’t dripping like a shirt pulled up from the wash. Customarily, he counted on his clothing to make the statement that his small frame couldn’t, but tonight he hadn’t wanted to be noticed. He tried to shake the rain from his long coat, for what good it did. “Ik zoek Adriaan Visser,” Max said.

“And you’ve found him,” said the man behind the counter, answering in English much better than Max’s rudimentary Dutch. “What can I do for you?”

Of course Max had known Visser from the moment he’d seen him. He looked just like all his ancestors: broad-shouldered, corn-haired, sturdy. He was clean-shaven, though, which was new. Max had never before met a Visser man without a beard, but he supposed there was a first generation for everything.

“I need a hunter,” Max said, wishing desperately he had another cigarette left, for something to do with his hands.

“And you’ve found the best!” Visser’s voice boomed like the thunder outside, and his mouth spread wide in a boisterous salesman’s grin. “What quarry? Too late in the season for most big game. Birds more your fancy? Pheasant, mallard?”

Max remained steady, calm. “Vampire.”

The grin on Visser’s face didn’t go anywhere, but it didn’t need to. “Now that’s a good one, friend,” Visser said, putting a hand on the high wooden counter. Max could see the tension in the way his knuckles curled around its edge. “Want to bag a werewolf after, then? Ghost head for above the fireplace?”

“Your father was Klaas Visser. His father was Tygo Visser. And some years before you were born, he had his throat ripped out in Riga by a vampire he was hunting.” Max folded his arms across his chest. “Are we both in on the joke now?”

Visser’s smile didn’t exactly fall, but it slowly settled into a more neutral expression. He waited when Max was done, giving him a long moment to add anything else to the family history. When Max said nothing further, Visser at last fixed him with a heavy gaze. “How do you know that?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I was there when it happened?”

Visser only snorted at that, which was more answer than Max had expected. “I liked you better when I thought you were here for pheasant.”

“I’m sure you did.” Max took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “My name is Maxwell Devereux.”

Max saw Visser’s ears practically perk up at the mention of his surname. “There are no more Devereuxs in the game,” Visser said. “They were slaughtered some two centuries ago.” Good, he knew his history. Hunters were a broad, sturdy sort, but so often they fell prey to valuing brawn over brains. Then they fell prey to other things.

Max supposed Visser wouldn’t believe him if he said he’d been there, either, so he didn’t bring it up. “I’m not in the game.” He took his hat off, revealing more of his face in the shop’s dim light. “And I have no affiliation with my name. This is a personal contract, not a family one. I’m no one’s representative but my own.”

Visser’s gaze was narrow and bright blue, and when he turned it on Max, Max could all but feel its weight. “And on your own, of your own volition, you’re wanting to track down vampires?”

“I’ve come to you because Vissers are the best,” Max said, with no hint of flattery; he said it because it was true. “Whatever your price is, I’ll pay it.”

“Go home.” Visser snorted and folded his meaty arms across his chest. “Whatever loved one of yours it took, they’re dead now. They’re not known for their mercy, and the stories are wrong, they don’t go around making others of their same kind. They feed, and feel no more remorse over it than you shed tears over whatever you had for lunch. Vengeance is meaningless.”

“This isn’t–” Max pinched the bridge of his nose. He hadn’t expected this to be a negotiation; frankly, he’d expected Visser would jump at the chance to stalk a vampire, with the money Max offered merely a bonus. “I need a tracker. Charge me for the kill, I don’t care. I don’t need it. I just need you to find her.”

Her?” Visser’s eyebrows raised in clear surprise.

Max flinched. He’d said too much, but bells couldn’t be unrung. “If you aren’t willing, then we have no more business,” he said, readying to return to the night. Where would he go next? He’d put all his faith in this one move. The other families he knew were on the other side of battlefields, if not on the other side of oceans. The farther he had to travel, the more time he would lose. Another rejection at the end of that, and he would be wholly lost. Clenching his hands into fists around the brim of his hat, Max turned to leave.

“Wait.”

His hat halfway to his head, Max looked back at Visser. “Yes?”

Visser pressed his lips together and looked Max up and down. “Five thousand pounds.”

“Done,” Max said, praying his voice did not betray either his eagerness or his relief.

The look on Visser’s face made it clear to Max that he’d expected the number to be the end of the conversation. Max supposed his usual price topped out at five hundred pounds, and that only if some great travel or danger was required. Five thousand pounds would be a nearly unthinkable sum for nearly anyone to pay for anything. And Max had agreed without hesitation.

After a moment’s silence, Visser exhaled audibly. “Godverdomme,” he swore under his breath. He’d made an offer and it had been accepted, and especially among the families, that was a fair contract. “All right, Maxwell Devereux. Come back this time tomorrow. For a vampire worth five thousand pounds, I need a day to prepare.”

Max nodded; that was only fair. “I’ll have some of your payment by then. I don’t know how much I can get on such short notice, given the state of things, but I will make certain my bank knows of the debt. And I’ll book what passage I can toward Brussels.”

Brussels?” Visser spat. “Have you seen there’s a war on out there?”

Oh, Max knew all too well about the war outside, the great trench war that threatened to engulf the whole of Europe. He knew of its poison gasses, its blood-soaked fields, its barren plains where nothing grew but great hedges of barbed wire. Haarlem was quiet compared to the nearer border towns, but the streets still hummed with the fear of what might be coming. There was nothing but fear out there, and they were heading toward its heart.

~*~

It sings to her in her sleep. For years it’s been there — a little lullaby so sweet and simple that she does not pay it any particular mind, and certainly doesn’t bother mentioning it to anyone. If someone were to ask her, she’d tell them quite honestly that she assumes everyone’s dreams are like that. No one asks, and they are not.

She begins sleepwalking around the time the family starts talking about breeding her. Oh, she knows by then that’s really all the women of her status are good for, but it disturbs her to hear them use that actual word. She’s only fifteen, but she’s begun her monthly bleeding, and she knows it’s only a matter of time. Her own mother — not her father’s legal wife, but the family has never worried much for making bastards — had her first when she was only seventeen. They say that something about the magic means the older one is, the harder it is to conceive. With her, they will waste little time.

The idea makes her insides feel like they’re screaming. The women of the household try to tell her how beautiful it will be, to have a babe in her belly and another at her breast. She wants to claw open her stomach and rip out the offending relevant parts.

And so she finds herself in the middle of the night, wandering cold corridors and pacing the grounds. She begins to wear a coat and heavy slippers to bed after she wakes half-frozen in the garden, toes crunching late autumn frost. She walks like this for weeks, always coming to her own senses and finding her way back to her bed without discovery. She doesn’t mention the problem to anyone. They would lock her up, and she has always hated the idea of being locked up.

As she wakes, she begins to find her home is larger than she thought it was. It is a sprawling estate, of course, and the grounds go on for miles, but she doesn’t mean the land. She means the house itself. After a month of this, she begins waking in parts of the house she had never seen before. Some of these places connect through doors she’s never bothered opening before, but more simply exist adjacent to familiar places, as though she might have walked a corridor her whole life and simply never noticed a point at which it forks left.

She does not know that this is so strange, nor does she know that most people would be horrified by the discovery. She is from a family of magicians — not street-conjurers or prestidigitators, but men powerful enough to make and unmake reality in their own image. Perhaps, she thinks, expanding houses are simply the normal state of things. They have never taught her about that, but they have never taught her about many things.

She has received precious little magical instruction. Her brothers have, of course, especially her younger brother Tobias. She knows enough to know that Tobias, barely six months younger than she, is meant to be something important. He has always been meant to be something important, more important than all six of his older brothers, and certainly more important than any of his four older sisters.

She is also beginning to realize that Tobias is something of a disappointment.

One night she wakes up midway down a corridor she’s never seen before, realizing that the insides of her thighs are soaked in blood. Horrified, she begins to mop at her legs with her nightgown, praying she hasn’t gotten any on the carpets. She has no idea how she would explain her blood on the floors, much less in parts of the house she’s beginning to think she shouldn’t know about. The front of her white nightgown becomes stained red and brown. She’ll wash it herself later, or burn it.

She wants to go back and clean up. She needs to go back and clean up. But someone is singing.

It’s the song from her dreams, but she’s awake now. If she turns back, she might never be able to find it again, and she wants to find it. It’s a sound that makes her heart ache and her stomach twist. It makes her hungry for a food she’s never tasted. It makes something begin to crackle in her bones, like wood popping in a fire. It hurts, but she knows it would hurt worse to walk away.

Carefully, bundling her coat around her to hide the mess she’s made of herself, she follows the sound. The corridors are nearly pitch-black, with no light from a moonless night, so she closes her eyes entirely and entrusts her journey to her other senses. With one arm stretched out beside her, keeping herself steady against the wall, she makes her way to where the sound grows louder. A few times she finds herself at a juncture and has to stand there quietly for a moment, letting her ears adjust until she can tell the song’s source. After a while, the wallpaper disappears, and the walls become stone, as does the floor beneath her. She has walked much, much farther than the house should go.

Her heart begins to race at the thought she might be lost forever down here, walking these corridors like a ghost. She has lost her way completely, and she knows she could not begin to retrace her steps. She flinches every time she hears something in the dark around her, though she keeps her eyes shut. If something is indeed there, perhaps not seeing her own death coming will be a mercy.

Soon, though, she cannot hear anything but the song. It bounces off the stone walls, filling the corridors. It isn’t even music now, if it even ever was. It is a pulse, a beckoning. It is an invitation she can has not refused.

Magician.

Her eyes snap open. She is in a room, a stone chamber so large she can barely see the ceiling and walls. What she can see, however, comes illuminated from a binding circle burned into the floor, shining its blue-white glow. In the center of its geometric weavings sits a figure that looks almost human.

She realizes it’s waiting for her to speak, that it had been greeting her, and that it had addressed her as such. “I’m not a magician,” she replies, suddenly worried that it might tell her parents she’s been spreading lies about herself.

You are the magician, it replies without speaking. Its voice is soft and almost tender, a contrast indeed to its surroundings. When it talks, no part of its mouth moves that she can see. In the dim glow of the binding circle, details are hard to make out, but she is sure that what passes for the figure’s face is at best an idea of a face, just enough that her own mind can fill in the details. It leans its head back, giving the sense that it is scenting her. You smell sweet.

With horror, she realizes that it must mean her menstrual flow. She draws her coat more tightly around herself. “You’re a vampire.”

Now we each know the other, it says. Though neither of us wears it. Our real face.

One of her hands flies up to her own face, feeling at it with sick horror. But no, nothing unexpected has befallen it. She feels her soft cheeks, her prominent nose, her thin lips; they are all familiar to her as ever. “What do you mean?” she asks. “Why are you down here?”

I am trapped, it says evenly. Your father’s father snare. I was lost in it.

“Oh,” she says. She supposes she should not feel bad about that; after all, she knows enough to know that vampires are terrifying creatures, inhuman and dangerous in the extreme, and her grandfather, though aged, is still a powerful patriarch. And yet, she feels a tug of pity to look on it. She hates the idea of things in cages, even monsters. “Why … why has he trapped you? Why not simply…?”

Kill me? it finishes, when her words trail off into nothing. He could. And easily. But he did not want that. He wanted me to bleed.

She swallows hard. “You bleed people,” she points out.

Yes. It is my nature. The vampire’s tone is unapologetic. He seeks unnatural things. Unnatural for living men. He would destroy his children. His grandchildren. The entire world. Yet he gets it. His greatest prize. And he does not know it to see it. Pathetic fool.

She supposes she should be offended, to hear of her grandfather spoken of like that. But she bears him no real affection. She wonders if he even knows her name. Unlike Tobias, whom he showers with gifts and attention, or her older brothers, whom he at least praises. Her older sisters were married off as soon as they were old enough, disappeared from the house without a trace. Soon she will walk the same path, away forever.

The vampire makes a beckoning gesture that she realizes does not come from a hand, but from a tendril of its being. Of her own free will, she steps forward. You smell sweet, it says again. You bleed magic.

“Are you…” She swallows hard. “Are you going to kill me?”

No, it says, turning its face to her. It is like a sculptor’s work in progress, the rough outline before adding details, though the creature’s medium is not marble but darkness itself. Listen to your blood. It knows me. Magician. Boy. I know you.

There it is again, the fire cracking inside her bones, heat making them explode into showers of sparks. Inside her chest, her heart pounds. She becomes aware of the way her veins course through her body, taking that fire from organ to organ, circulating inside her something which has awakened as surely as she awoke from her sleepwalk. She begins to tremble, though at last not in fear. She will realize only later that it is the concussive power of something so simple as recognition.

~*~

“So what happened to the Devereux family?” asked Visser, leaning back against his side of the horse-drawn coach. It had been the best they’d been able to get, under the circumstances. At least they had a roof over their heads, which was more than Max had expected they’d be able to manage.

Max sighed, staring out the window as the tall trees passed. “I happened.” He sighed. “I’m the one who proved the whole enterprise … unsustainable.”

“And that makes you, what?” Visser eyed Max again keenly. “Two hundred thirty years old?”

“Trust me that one stops counting very quickly.” With a sad smile, Max shook his head. “Look, you can choose to believe I’m lying if you like. I don’t care. Does it really make a difference?”

Visser shook his head. “Practically? No. But I don’t like liars, even if their individual lies don’t matter.”

Max nodded; that was a fair way to do business, especially in their line of business. “Then yes, every word I have spoken to you has been the truth.”

“Maybe,” Visser agreed. “But you think it’s time to tell me what you haven’t said?”

As much as he wished to, Max couldn’t feign ignorance here, not without insulting both their intelligences. Max would have been the fool to believe that Visser was completely ignorant of the situation. “I’ve told you what you needed to know,” Max said, trying one last time to spare himself the conversation.

“No, you’ve told me what you think I’ve needed to know. Not the same.”

Max sighed and set himself sideways on the coach’s bench, drawing his knees closer to his chest. He knew it was a pitiful gesture, a habit left over from adolescence, but it brought him a small bit of comfort, which was more than nothing. “Then ask,” he said, shutting his eyes.

“What is it?” Visser’s voice was more wary than accusatory, but Max didn’t miss the knife in the question. “This vampire you’re so keen on finding and not killing, the one worth walking into a war zone — what’s it to you?”

“My companion, I suppose you’d call her,” Max said, realizing that he’d never before found himself needing to articulate their relationship. Everything between the two of them had just existed, together, for centuries. “My employer, perhaps, if you’re being reductive about it. I know you won’t understand–“

“Oh, no, what would be difficult to understand about that?” The sarcasm dripping from Visser’s voice set Max’s teeth on edge, but Max supposed he deserved the hit. “A man come to hire me to hunt his pet monster.”

“She’s not–” Max snapped, then shut his mouth before he could finish that sentence. How would he have finished it, anyway? He grit his teeth. He wanted a cigarette, but Visser had expressly forbidden smoking inside the carriage, saying that if Max needed to light one that badly, he’d gladly grip Max by the scruff of his neck and dangle him out the window until he’d had his fill. With the power in those arms of his, Max knew that was hardly an idle threat, and had chosen to swallow his cravings instead.

Visser snorted hard, but his shoulders lost their aggressive stiffness as he sat back against the coach wall. “And what it is you’re in its employ to do?” he asked at last. There was still a sneer to his voice, and Max knew he’d dropped well in Visser’s estimation for the choice of his profession. “Are you the bait by which it traps its meat, or are you the butcher who rends the carcass clean? Or do you instead mind its books and pretend you don’t know what it does?”

Max laughed at that, a sharp, bitter bark. Without speaking, he reached for his throat and unfastened his tie, letting the silk hang loose on either side. He undid the button at his throat, then the next three down, enough to pull the fabric back. It was all he could do not to smile with satisfaction as he heard Visser draw a sharp breath through his teeth.

Folklore told of a vampire’s sharp fangs, as though there were a surgical precision by which they left two neat punctures. Max’s collarbone and upper shoulder showed nothing so clean. He was a mass of crisscrossed scars, all made with blades sharp enough and a hand steady enough to leave fine lines instead of gashes. They healed up well enough, all right, but well enough was not the same as completely, not with how deep he had to cut to get a stream that wouldn’t close too fast. She would lie there against him for hours, her mouths against his wounded flesh, her tongues laving over the injury for just one drop more. He would hold her in the darkness, feeling the thudding of his heartbeat in his ears slow, wondering if this would be the time she took it all. She hadn’t yet.

“Ah,” Visser said at last. As cool as he sounded, he had visibly paled at the sight. “Not the butcher, but the butchered.”

“We have a…” Max sighed and began to button his shirt again. Even showing that much of his skin was more than he wished to reveal of himself. “I extend her life, and she extends mine.”

The grim set to Visser’s jaw spoke volumes of how much the revelation grated on him, how unhappy he was for his skepticism about Max’s age to be unfounded. “That’s not enough,” Visser said softly. “Never heard of a vampire satisfied to leave a victim alive. Every one I’ve found has been drained through.”

“Yes, well, that’s because the ones you catch are the careless ones.” Max decided against retying his tie, and even left his topmost shirt button unfastened. Some things were not worth standing on ceremony about. “Driven by greed or hunger, they become easy prey for you big-game hunters. They forget moderation. They fall into need. I temper that for her. You know they don’t strictly drink blood, yes?”

“Of course,” Visser answered, a response that pleased Max. He’d found a canny hunter indeed. “Blood’s just the most concentrated form of it.”

“And my blood is saturated with magic.” Max held up his hand in front of them, turning it so that Visser could see both sides. Then he snapped his fingers and a plume of fire erupted from his palm. Flashy, and a trick with no substance to it, but it did its job. Visser actively recoiled, pressing himself against the carriage wall to get away from the burn. It was gone in a second, though, snuffled as Max clenched his fist tight. “I am the seventh son of a seventh son, born to an old and frankly shockingly inbred bloodline. Therefore, I am a very nourishing meal.”

Visser looked more than a little grumpy to have been startled so obviously by a showy display. His nostrils flared as he stared down Max, as though trying to make sure the little magician wouldn’t throw out such a shock again. “So if you’re such a delicacy, why’s it gone astray?” Visser asked.

Max sighed and rested his forearms atop his knees. He took a thick silver ring from his middle finger and began to roll it over his knuckles, the movements delicate despite the rattling of the coach. “The war,” Max said at last. “Any war. Any piece of human carnage. She … she stalks the fields. The wounded. The dying. She drinks them to their ends and quiets their suffering. She takes the hopeless, those who would instead spend hours bleeding out alone in some forgotten patch of land. She gorges, and then we can be quiet for a time — thirty, forty years, even, if she has enough.”

“You make it sound so noble,” Visser spat.

“No.” Max shook his head. “I am aware that it is neither nobility nor mercy. But it is inevitability. Except…” He shut his eyes and thought of the smell of the mustard gas, the wail of the bombers screaming overhead, the cries of those left tangled in the barbed-wire webs of spiders who would never eat them. “She became lost. In the blood and the terror, she lost herself. She can’t… I don’t think she can hear me anymore. All the death in her ears has drowned out my voice.”

Visser’s pale blue eyes widened as he caught the full weight of Max’s words. He pointed behind him, in the direction they were heading. “So you’re telling me that right now, there is a vampire out there, scouring the killing fields, frenzied, out of its mind, drunk on blood — and you have a plan that isn’t ‘kill it’?”

“I–” Max took a long, slow breath, hoping that the beat it took would calm them both. “I am aware that killing her may be the only option. But you don’t get to do it.”

“You ever killed a vampire before?” Visser asked, narrowing his gaze.

“Not personally,” Max answered, content to leave it at that.

“It’s not as easy as people think. Stake to the heart, sunlight?” Visser shook his head. “Those are fairy tales for children.”

“I know,” Max said, this time through gritted teeth. 

“You can’t find its grave. They don’t start out as human. There’s no corpse for–“

“I know!” Max fixed Visser with the sharpest, meanest glare he could muster, despite knowing his soft face did not wear anger well. It seemed enough, though, to shut Visser’s mouth. “I know, I…” He bit the inside of his cheek to scare back the tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. He would not give this man the satisfaction. He stared at a spot on the coach wall until he felt steady enough to speak without a tremble in his voice. “I am aware of what is needed,” he said, giving each word careful weight.

Though Max could only see Visser from the corner of his eye, he could see a slow change in the man’s posture. Of course he’d been furious upon hearing the nature of their mission confirmed — Vissers killed vampires, after all, and the idea of going on what amounted to a rescue mission for one must have seemed abhorrent to his very being. An angry man, one whose daily bread was rage, could have kept that fury blazing until Max was burned right through.

That wasn’t the nature of Adriaan Visser, though, Max was beginning to see. Did the expression on his face betray some sort of concern? Max refused to turn his head to confirm. At best, it might have been pity, and Max had left pity behind centuries ago.

“Did you…” Max shut his eyes. “Do you carry a pistol?”

“I do,” Visser said, without elaboration.

Max nodded. “Then be so kind as to save a bullet for me.”

~*~

They didn’t make it as far as Brussels. Max hadn’t expected they would. He did not even know the name of the town where they stopped, only that it was beyond the Belgian border. The coach driver declared he would go no further, not for any amount, so they took their packs and set out on foot.

They’d barely gone an hour down the road when Visser stopped dead in his tracks, turning his head. Max nearly plowed into him before catching his footing. “What?” Max asked, straining to hear whatever it was.

Visser shook his head and listened for a moment more. Then his eyes went wide and he grabbed Max by the strap of his backpack and yanked him backward. Max barely managed to keep from toppling over as he was hauled back off the road, into the thicket that lay just beyond. He tried to protest, to get some control over himself again, but Visser’s grip brooked no argument. “Can you hide us, little magician?” asked Visser, obviously displeased with how thin the winter had rendered the forest covering.

Max nodded and lifted a hand, placing it as though he were testing some wall stood between them and the road. True concealment took much more concentration, but combined with the foliage and the dimness of the cloudy afternoon, he supposed it would be enough. “Done,” Max said.

It was then he heard the engines — vehicles of some sort, though he could barely have identified them by sight, much less by sound. “Germans,” Visser said, not bothering to lower his voice in the face of their deafening hum.

“Think we could convince them we’re just out on a walking holiday?” Max asked.

That actually won a laugh from Visser, a chuckle that seemed to suit him. “You can try. But I’ll be long gone by the time you do.”

The grey-green vehicles roared like demons as they rolled into view, moving so slowly that there were actually men walking alongside them, keeping pace without obvious effort. They were ugly things, metal monsters bolted at the seams, with the iron cross emblazoned across their front. Max had seen them from a distance before, at rest. It was immeasurably different to be near them as they roared down in grim procession. The rumbling made Max’s insides churn.

The war had been going on for years already, but Max had hesitated all that time, despite its scope and reported bloodiness. Something about it had made him uneasy. Wars were things of bodies and fire, of smoke and blood. They were horrifying, but they were organic, in their own strange way. A war was like a living being in the throes of a terrible fever, sweating and delirious, unsure if the agony it was facing would heal it or kill it. There was noise, but there was quiet afterwards, the groaning stillness as living turned to dying and dying turned to dead. Great fields watered with blood would, in time, begin again to grow, bursting with life that had forgotten its brutal heritage.

This was different. This was wrong. If other wars were fever, this war was anaphylaxis. This body was wracked not by its own defenses, but by poisons and machines, and it had gouged at its skin to get them out, unaware that doing so only drove the damage deeper. But she had been so hungry, and it had been so long. And as Max had told Visser, hunger and need led to bad decisions.

“I suppose,” Max said, after what seemed like days of watching the painfully slow procession, “this means we should stay off the road.”

“You suppose right.” Visser ran his thumb along the bark of a nearby tree, as though he could read it by touch — and perhaps, for all Max knew, he could. At last, he sighed and shook his head. “No, I suspected that travel would never be our best option. Short of enlisting in someone’s army, I doubt there’s an easy way to get us to the front lines — assuming, of course, that was your intended destination.”

It had been, much though Max hated to admit how foolish that idea was beginning to seem. He was well-practiced enough at moving about undetected — but moving only himself, and always with her shadow to step into. Without her, and with Visser, subterfuge would be a tall order indeed. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” Max asked.

Visser shrugged. “I thought you might have had some way I hadn’t thought of, in which case, I was willing to be surprised.”

Max exhaled through pursed lips. He’d never had his appearance of competency come back to bite him so hard before.

“But since you haven’t,” Visser continued after a moment, “I have other plans. Because that’s what you hired me for.”

Max supposed he had a point. “All right, then, what’s our plan?”

“Our plan is to walk,” Visser said, pointing in the direction the road headed, though through the trees instead. “There’s hunter’s cabins along the ridge there, every so often. We should be able to find a place to stay the night, and then I can get to work.”

Max decided he should be grateful that at least one of them knew where they were. “A cabin, not a village? Or an inn?”

Visser shook his head and began to walk, so Max scurried along after, hoping his short legs could keep pace with Visser’s long, easy stride. “Towns will be crawling with soldiers. And an inn won’t have the floor space for what we need to do. Or the privacy.”

“For what–” Max had to give a little hop so he didn’t trip over a tree root Visser cleared with ease. “How are we going to hunt her if we don’t keep, well, hunting?”

Visser threw his head back and laughed as though Max had made some funny joke. “Have you ever actually been hunting?”

Max pressed his lips together. He supposed the answer to that was obvious. The closest he’d ever come to the sport had been watching his uncles and brothers take out for their fox hunts, and it wasn’t as though Max would’ve been invited anyway.

“If you had,” Visser continued after a moment, “you would know how much of it is in the waiting. Not the pursuit. The patience. Besides, you’re just striking out in the direction you saw it last, aren’t you? Have you any guarantee it’s still there?”

Again, Max didn’t have to speak his answer to Visser’s inquiry. “So we’re, what, checking our bearings?”

Visser lifted a fallen branch blocking their path, tossing it aside with ease. He could have stepped over it with little trouble, but Max would have had more difficulty. “Making a map,” Visser said.

“And we couldn’t have done this, say, back where we began?” Max answered, ducking beneath the brambles. The forest was dotted with patches of snow from the season’s earlier storms, though Max was glad no more had fallen in some time. Whatever winds blew through this particular part of the world, they seemed to have kept the worst of the winter thus far at bay.

“Oh, I could have. Probably would have been easier in fact.” Visser glanced back over his shoulder, his expression solemn. “But you were the one keen to make departure arrangements. Besides, I won’t bait a vampire back to the place I live. If you think I would, you’re madder than you are rich.”

Max was beginning to suspect that this was what he deserved for not discussing terms in greater detail. He thought he’d gotten away with so much unspoken on his part, but he hadn’t stopped to consider what Visser had left unsaid. With a lunge, Max reached for a back strap on Visser’s pack, spinning him around mid-step. It was a testament to Visser’s grace that despite his large size, he caught his footing with no great effort.

“All right,” Max said. He took a deep breath and looked Visser in the eye. “This isn’t going to work if we’re not being wholly up front with one another.”

“Oh, I agree,” Visser said, folding his arms across his chest. “I was just waiting for you to realize.”

Max screwed up his mouth, but he couldn’t argue. Instead, he glanced around to the sky, which was darkening fast above the forest canopy. He clenched his fists at his sides, squeezing tight enough that he could feel sparks of magic crackle off his knuckles like static electricity. “I love her,” Max said at last. “I love her and I want to save her. She is out there, and I do not know where she is, and I wouldn’t know how to get to her even if I did, and I don’t know if she’ll recognize me when she sees me, but she is all I have. She is all I have ever had. I am terrified at the near-certainty I will not be able to save her. If I cannot, I will be the one to kill her. And once I have done this, I would myself choose to be put down.” He swept his empty hands in front of him as though tossing a hand of cards face-up on a table. “Your play.”

“You are bait,” Visser said, pointing a thick finger at Max’s chest. “I think this idea is ridiculous and I think your arrangement is unnatural. I think you’re little better than a monster yourself. But I agree, I don’t want a berserker vampire out there either. I am taking you away from civilization because I won’t have you harming anyone else on my watch. You are not the hunter here. I am going to track it, and I am going to set a trap for it, and you are the meat I’ll dangle before its jaws. I don’t care what happens to you. I certainly don’t care what happens to that thing. And I will not hesitate to end you, or it, or both of you, should it come to that.”

There were few things more horrifying than knowing exactly where one stood with another person. “Agreed,” Max said at last, extending his hand.

When Visser took it, it was to Max’s sharp realization that this was the first time they had really made contact. In sharp contrast to the chill air, Visser radiated such sharp heat even through both their gloves that Max nearly jerked his hand back, instinct telling him he was about to be burned. His instinct was wrong, though. It so rarely was.

“Good,” Visser said after a moment, drawing back from the handshake. “And in case you’re wondering, yes, you’re safe to turn your back to me. I’m here to do a job. And whatever your reasons are for this, I respect that you must have them.”

“Thank you,” Max said with unfeigned gratitude.

The walk took the rest of their daylight. Max didn’t want to cast any illumination spell, for fear of discovery, but he had almost reached the point of doing so when Visser stopped atop a low ridge. He pointed to something Max couldn’t quite make out, then started down a thin but barely visible footpath that snaked down the incline. Max had such trouble following that he eventually grabbed the loose strap from Visser’s pack, using it like a lead and making sure Visser didn’t leave him behind.

As they descended, Max heard the sound of running water. Closer still and he could tell there was a stream there, flowing strong despite the ice that crusted its surface. Just beyond was a not the shack Max had been expecting, but a cottage made of stacked-log walls. Hardly his usual standards for accommodation, but he supposed he couldn’t be picky. Without knocking, Visser pulled the door open. There were no signs of life in its darkened interior.

Once they were inside, with walls and a roof between them and the outside world, Max began to relax a bit. He flicked some fire from his fingertips to the room’s central iron stove, which began to cast a cheerful heat, then drew a piece of chalk from his pocket.

Visser shook his head as he shifted his pack from his shoulders. “No wards.”

“Why not?” asked Max.

“Walls work both ways,” Visser said. “The less they can see in, the less I can see out.”

Despite centuries of caution, Max nodded and returned the chalk to his pocket. Well, it wasn’t as though they were entirely unprotected. Max could cause great damage on his own, and he didn’t expect Visser would have a moment’s trouble turning any nearby object into a bludgeoning one. Plus, there was the manner of the gun. Max would simply have preferred to use the defense of invisibility.

They ate a quick meal of brown bread and hard cheese in silence. He was certain Visser could have used some of his more terrestrial hunting skills to get them a fresher supper, but Max did not think such an appropriate use of his companion’s energies. When at last they were finished, Visser stood and looked at Max. “Have you got something of its to use?”

“What kind of thing?” asked Max, reaching for his pack. They had always traveled light, preferring to acquire new things as needed rather than to hold on to old ones.

“Something it owned is best; something it gave to you will work as well.” Visser snorted a laugh. “Body parts if you have them.”

Instead of sharing the joke, Max put down his pack and reached into his jacket pocket. Out came what looked to be a cigarette case, and if anyone else had opened it, all they would have seen were signs that his supply had recently run out. When he himself lifted the lid, however, a number of strange objects were revealed. He took the largest from the pile and lifted it up for Visser’s inspection: a single bestial white tooth.

Visser stood there for a moment, confronted with getting what he’d asked for. He reached out his hand and Max placed the fang in his palm. “May I have it back when you’re done?” Max asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” Visser said, which did not comfort Max overmuch. Visser closed his fingers around the tooth and took a deep breath. “All right, give me some space. And that chalk, if you’ll part with it.”

Max was willing enough; it was chalk as ordinary as chalk came. He moved back to sit against the far wall as Visser brushed the rough floor clean of debris. It was strange to Max, to watch a hunter at his trade, wondering how many times she and Max had been the target of similar energies. Had Tygo Visser, chasing them west from Moscow, done the same things his grandson was doing now? How many others had caught her scent and thought to rid the world of one more monster?

It wasn’t as though Max had any particular fondness for other vampires in general. Almost without exception, they kept their distance from one another: solitary predators, each carving out their own territory. Max had often wondered if he’d even know one to see them on the street, if his vision could break through their glamours the way it pierced hers. If there was one thing vampires did very well, it was mimicry. From time to time, he’d had occasion to ask her what other vampires were like. Her answers had never been particularly satisfying, and Max got the sense that it wasn’t because she was trying to keep anything from him, but because she honestly could not say for certain. She knew only as much about being a vampire as she knew about being herself. Beyond those borders lay unknown territory.

Visser knelt to draw a circle on the floor, then sat back on his heels. “I don’t usually do this with someone else around,” he said, placing the tooth in the center of the circle. “Strange to have an audience.” And then he removed his shirt.

Max meant for all the world not to stare, and failed completely. Visser somehow seemed even larger without his shirt on, a broad-shouldered mass of a man with thick blond chest hair. He was well-muscled enough, but mostly he was just big. The small space of the cabin made him seem even larger by contrast. The flickering glow from the stove highlighted every curve of his frame. That was not a body for show, the way Max had seen some carnival strongmen sculpt themselves. Adriaan Visser’s frame contained raw power.

“Why–” Max cleared his throat. “Why usually … alone?”

“The magic has…” Visser raked his fingers through his hair, drawing it back away from his face. “It has effects. On bystanders, from time to time. It’s a powerful bleed. But if you’re a Devereux,” he said, with more weight on the if than Max would have liked, “then it shouldn’t be anything you haven’t seen a hundred times before, now, should it?”

Probably not, Max tried to convince himself, shrugging casually. He was dismayed to catch himself biting at his lower lip, so he willed himself to stop, only to find himself repeating the gesture a moment later.

From a young age, Max had heard rumors that some hunter family or another was descended from werewolves — though these rumors were employed less in honoring their craft, and more in accusing one of their ancestors of having fucked an animal. Seeing the work in action, though, Max supposed that wasn’t quite right. Rather, it seemed to him that the Vissers had managed to tap into some predatory strain that humans had never possessed, some innate ability more instinct than reason.

Visser hunched his back and drew his hands in front of him, fingers arched and pointed to the ground as though they were claws instead, sunk into some bleeding beast, ready to rend it apart. The muscles in his back appeared to shift beneath his skin in impossible ways, flexing with a control no human ever had. He shut his eyes and bared his teeth, breathing hard.

In the center of the circle, the tooth appeared to Max to lie perfectly still. He could tell that was not how Visser saw it, though, not anymore. To him, it had become a compass, pulled toward a magnetic north that was not a place, but a person — or, rather, a monster.

Still on his hands and knees, Visser let out a low growl. He exhaled and rolled his shoulders forward so that his forehead touched the floor, in the way Max had seen Turks pray. He was panting heavily now, his every exhalation audible. The noises he made might have been words, but if they were, they were not in a language Max could decipher.

There were different kinds of magic in the world, and each family prided itself on mastery of one type or another, while looking down their noses at other practitioners. The Devereuxs valued a more remote style of casting, the thing most commonly recognized as ‘magic’ proper by insiders and outsiders alike, where the caster’s body might well have been an invisible conduit for whatever wonders they worked. Dignity always, the idea had been, and if someone had to bleed, then someone else would bleed. No Devereux allowed themselves to be possessed by a spirit, or to work enchantment through dance and motion, or to channel the primal forces Max now saw before him.

The Vissers, it seemed, had no such compunctions. Visser let out a cry so sharp that Max nearly scrambled over to him, to ask him if he was all right. But no, his distress was controlled. More than that, it was directed. He closed his fists tight and huffed through whatever overwhelming sensation was coursing through him.

Max kept his own power to himself, so as not to interfere, but he was certain that if he looked with more than just his eyes, he would see Visser stretched out over the countryside, rolling like a fog over everything around them. With a net this wide, it was no wonder this was such an undertaking. How long had he been at this, anyway? It could have been minutes, or it could havre been hours. In a way, it didn’t matter — it would take as long as it took, and Max would have to be still until he washed up on its other shore.

At last, Visser exhaled in one great gasp and half-collapsed to the floor. He was still kneeling, but it looked as though he were a marionette whose top strings had been cut. Gasping, he turned his face toward Max. “Close,” he panted out.

“Close?” Max echoed. “What’s close? How close?”

An exhausted grin curled at the corner of Visser’s mouth. “Close,” he repeated, a chuckle audible beneath the word. “Close enough. It … felt me.”

Max’s eyes widened. “Then you got her attention.”

“Got her attention, yeah,” Visser sighed. He reached for the tooth and pulled it from the circle, then collapsed on his side. He reached out and handed it back to Max, then let his arm drape across the floor, as though lifting it again would just be too much effort. “Smelled you.”

That didn’t make Max feel as good as he’d supposed it might. “What now?”

“Now?” Visser reached for his shirt, but instead of putting it back on, he draped it across the top half of his face. “I sleep.”

Max wanted to protest, to point out that time was their enemy. But one look at Visser told Max that no protest would have had any effect. Visser barely had the strength left to lift himself from the floor, and there was no way Max could proceed on the little information he’d been given, much less move around unfamiliar territory in pitch darkness. No, this was the job he’d hired Visser for; he’d have to trust Visser’s lead on it. And that lead included knowing when to rest.

He clutched the tooth in his hand and lay down on his side, trying to concentrate on it. If she had indeed smelled him, that meant she still knew his scent. That was more hope than Max had felt about his situation in as long as he could remember. It would have to be enough.

~*~

When Max awoke, he could tell something was very wrong.

The cabin was all but dark, lit faintly by the stove. The air was chill, but Max felt hot. His heart was hammering in his chest, pounding as though he’d been running for hours. How long had he been asleep? He supposed it couldn’t have been more than an hour or two, given what wood was left to burn.

Then his eyes fell on Visser, and that hammering overwhelmed him, drowning out all other sounds. Visser lay on his back, his body north of his waist still exposed. The sheet had fallen from his face, but the sleeping expression he wore was not peaceful. His brow furrowed and his lips were parted, contorted in an expression approaching pain. Was he having a nightmare? If so, the polite thing for Max to do would be to turn over, go back to sleep, and afford the man his dignity. While nightmares were nothing to be ashamed of, Max knew many men saw them as a sign of weakness.

He had resolved to close his eyes and feign sleep until the real thing overtook him again, when he saw one of Visser’s hands traveling down his chest. That strong hand came to rest just at his hip, just above where a large bulge had formed at the front of Visser’s trousers.

It was as though something else entirely was moving Max’s body. What drove him was not any conscious desire; it was instinct, as pure and visceral as what had overtaken Visser during his hunt. Max slipped off his trousers and bared himself from the waist down, then crawled the few feet across the floor that separated them.

At the feel of hands on his belt, Visser’s eyes snapped open. The terror of discovery coursed through Max’s body, and he knew he should feel ashamed. Instead, he bared his own teeth. “Shut up,” he snapped at Visser, who hadn’t even said a word. “Shut up, shut up.”

Visser blinked with the unmistakable confusion of a man trying to determine whether he was dreaming or awake. Max was hardly concerned with that confusion, though. Whatever Visser thought was happening, conscious or not, had no impact on what was happening next.

With eager fingers, Max undid Visser’s trousers and shoved them down, revealing the stiff rod of his cock. It stood straight out from his body, upright and proud, and just as big as the man who owned it. Max was hardly a virgin, but he also rarely engaged in penetration with others, owing to how some things about his own anatomy could be difficult to explain to those disinclined to hear. This was not about explanation, though. This was about an ache Max felt deep inside him, a gnawing emptiness so profound it hurt, that could only be satisfied with one thing.

He tossed his leg over Visser’s hips and took Visser inside his sex with one sharp thrust. The fit was tight, and Max was out of practice, but he wasn’t going to let the discomfort stop him. He growled as Visser’s cock filled him, all but bottoming out as he sat down hard on Visser’s hips. The sensation was so sharp that Max cried out, grabbing at Visser’s bare chest and leaving sharp red fingernail marks against his bale skin.


Visser’s blue eyes were wide, but his gaze somehow was not surprised. Was this what he’d meant by the effects of the magic? That son of a bitch. Max would have to be very upset with him, just as soon as he was finished fucking him dry.

“Fuck,” Max whimpered as he rode Visser’s cock, taking it inside of him with near-bruising urgency. A lesser man beneath him might have been taken aback by the force, but Visser knew force. He knew strength. He grabbed at Max’s thighs and held him steady while Max lifted his body and lowered it again. When Max’s fingernails bit at his bare chest, Visser only grinned.

Max hadn’t spared much thought for what Visser’s reaction would be to any of this, but he hadn’t supposed the hunter would be anything more than grudgingly polite about certain arrangements. He was therefore shocked when Visser reached between Max’s legs and put the pad of his thumb up against the sensitive nub at the front. Max growled and moved even faster in reply, impaling himself and rubbing against Visser’s hand with every thrust of his hips.

Visser drew in a breath as though to say something, so Max fixed him with his most withering glare. “Shut up,” he hissed, not because he didn’t want to hear what Visser had to say, but because he did. He had noticed from the start the alluring rumble of the man’s voice, and he could only imagine what devastation could be wrought by a well-purred word under these conditions. His body trembled with the idea of hearing Visser praise him, plead with him, order him to fuck himself harder on Visser’s cock.

Max lost control first, climaxing as he cried out. His legs turned to jelly, refusing to support him any further, such that he slid off Visser’s lap in an ungainly manner. No sooner had Visser’s cock slipped out of him, though, than Visser was on the move, scrambling to sit upright. Max felt a momentary stab of fear at the idea that Visser might be looking to do him some harm, to extract some vengeance upon him for disturbing his sleep — and, perhaps, his virtue! — in such a reckless and deviant fashion. Certainly Visser would be well within his rights to such a reaction, and no one would blame him for doing so.

He hadn’t had time to more than form the thought, though, before he realized that Visser’s hands were on his hips again. Now it was Max’s turn to be on his hands and knees, bent over as Visser had been, only now with Visser behind him. Visser’s fingers gripped hard around Max’s hips as he mounted Max, thrusting again inside the hole he’d left only moments earlier.

Max’s hands and knees refused to support him any longer. He collapsed forward, held up only by the power of Visser’s embrace. “You like that?” Visser rumbled, and Max didn’t have the words to say, no, he didn’t just like it, he needed it. He might even die if he didn’t get well and truly fucked here. The only thing standing between himself and certain destruction was that Visser was certainly more than able to provide.

Visser was not gentle, and Max did not want him to be. He didn’t even so much want Visser himself. He wanted to be fucked by the thing Visser had become, the beast that scented prey far more dangerous than he was. Max whimpered as Visser plowed into him again and again, until he was lost in the sensation of being claimed. It felt so good to be wanted like that, to be needed. Max could fall into that need and never return.

At last, Visser cried out and pushed deep inside Max, filling him with seed. In more abstract, rational moments, Max would have been appalled by the idea of having someone finish inside him, and doubly so with any suggestion of actions that might lead to … well. Now, however, he moaned for it, wordlessly begging Visser to fill him up.

They stayed that way for a minute, catching their breath together. After a few minutes, Visser drew his softening cock from Max’s body, and Max was both scandalized and fairly impressed at the gush of sexual fluids that followed, soaking his thighs. He couldn’t think too long about the mess Visser had made of him, though, or that nagging feeling inside him started to rise again, and he knew exactly where that would lead them. They needed their energy for other things.

He’d expected any number of reactions to follow, but not what happened: Visser threw a heavy arm around his waist and pulled Max toward him, until Max’s back was pressed against Visser’s chest. When Max lay his head down, he found Visser’s bicep beneath it. Max had always been somewhat annoyed by his small stature, but it was nice to feel how easily he fit inside of Visser’s large embrace. Visser was still so warm, especially against the post-coital chill that was now creeping into Max’s skin. He shut his eyes and was almost instantly fast asleep.

~*~

She finds the vampire now with no great effort. The early days of half-sleepwalking the mansion for hours are gone; she can now open the door to her room and find the cell close on the other side. She’s stolen some of Tobias’ old clothes, which she dons every time she sneaks out. She’s told herself the choice is about disguise and nothing more. Should someone catch a glimpse of her from afar, they’d report back about a mysterious young man wandering the corridors, not suspecting the young lady of the house.

Still, she cannot deny how good it feels to step into this stolen boy-costume, how right it feels against her skin. Ridiculous as it is to think so, she finds it quickens her steps and shortens the number of turns between her domain and the vampire’s cell. It seems little more than her imagination at first, until its effects cannot be denied. At last, she thinks to ask the vampire about it.

Cages, the vampire replies, its clipped answers cryptic as ever. As they talk, it paces inside its binding circle as much as can be done by a thing that doesn’t precisely have feet. It seems particularly vibrant tonight; it must have fed recently. She doesn’t want to think about the particulars of that. Magic is motion. Ebb and flow. Crossing boundaries. They don’t teach you this?

“They don’t teach me anything,” she says, plopping down cross-legged on the bare stone floor. She has thought before to bring down some sort of pillow, only to discount the idea as too risky; were she to forgetfully leave it behind, the consequences would be disastrous. “Other than what Lady Devereux knows, little graces to hold your hair up or make sure your ribbons don’t come untied.” She makes a twirling gesture with her hand to show exactly what she thinks of the utility of that.

The vampire seems to smile at that, though she doesn’t know how she can tell anything about its moods, when at best it wears the idea of a face. Still, she’s noticed that it seems pleased whenever she arrives. She can’t break it out — and oh, how she’s apologized for her inability to do so — but she can be company. She has to believe that counts for something.

Picking at the cuff of her pant leg, she sighs. “Could I ask a strange question?”

Ask, the vampire replies.

She folds her arms atop her knees, tucking herself into a ball. The words stick in her mouth, like an over-honeyed tart: “Sometimes you call me a boy.”

That’s not a question.

With a huff, she has to admit it’s right. “Fair. Why?”

When the vampire does not answer right away, she has the sudden sick feeling that she has overstepped in some indefinable fashion. Was she not supposed to bring that up? It has been some months, after all, since she first followed the song that led her to this barren, forsaken cell — and yet she feels she has only begun to learn the rules of their strange, remote dance. They are not unlike the all-pervasive rules that govern her waking life, the ones that punish transgressors for using the wrong utensil or wearing a color out of season, and she lives in constant fear that she will finally break the one that means she can never return.

That, she feels, would break her heart. As curious as it seems to think all at once, the caged creature beneath her house is indeed the closest thing she has to a friend.

When the vampire does reply, its tone is soft, not angered at all: My name. You never asked.

The awareness of this breach of protocol horrifies her. Hadn’t she just thought on how it was her friend? How has she gone so long thinking of it only as ‘the vampire’? “I’m so sorry,” she stammers, color rising in her cheeks. “I just — there was only — you didn’t–“

I have no name, the vampire says, cutting off her protestations.

She shuts her mouth and frowns, letting her chin fall back atop her folded arms. “…Everybody’s got a name, though.”

So what’s yours?

She hesitates with the sound on the tip of her tongue. She’s at least been instructed that one is not meant to give one’s name to any magical creature, especially those with more sinister natures — but this is not the source of her reluctance. After several heavy seconds of silence, she shakes her head. “I don’t like it,” she mutters miserably.

And I don’t need it, the vampire replies, stating a calm and even fact. I know you.

“But…” She chews on her lips, a habit her mother has never managed to break her of. “With other vampires, though! How do you tell one another apart?”

Does the vampire laugh then? She sees more than hears its rippling amusement. We are … alone, it says at last, weighing each word. We stay alone. If we see one another. We know.

“You know who you are?”

What we are.

She shakes her head. “What do you mean?”

In that moment, the amorphous blackness begins to coalesce. It is a subtle motion at first, especially in the flickering blue glow of the binding circle, but its movement is undeniable. She has before seen iron filaments drawn to a magnet; this is something of that sort, a gathering or perhaps a thickening of its substance. She watches in awe as the darkness creates the definitive form of a person, until the binding circle contains not a monster, but a woman.

She stands, drawing a hand to her mouth in amazement. The vampire has always appeared to her before as vaguely human, but this is far more than the mere suggestion of a person’s shape. The figure before her is beautiful, with round features and skin the white-yellow of old ivory — and also completely naked, which she knows she should turn away from, for propriety’s sake. But the figure shows no discomfort with its nude state, takes no pains to hide its soft breasts or the thatch of black hair between its legs. 

“So,” she manages, “you’re a woman.”

After a fashion, the vampire replies. She can almost see its human mouth move as it speaks, even though she knows that is merely her brain’s trick, filling in the details to make reality match her understanding of it. We travel like this. Through the world. We see each other. We are not fooled. We know.

“Oh,” she says. Color rises in her cheeks, but she still cannot bear to avert her gaze from such beauty. It is the sort of body she has been told to desire for herself. Standing there, she realizes what she wants is not to be it, but to touch it. She wants to reach through the binding circle and feel the soft, warm flesh yield at her touch, to run her fingers around the rise of those soft, plum-dark nipples–

All at once, the figure before her explodes into dark vapor again, making her gasp and stagger backward. How easily she forgot that it was all merely an illusion! …Or no, that wasn’t quite right. It was an illusion, but it was also real. Her heart pounds, and she can feel her own hardened nipples brush against the inside of her stolen silk shirt, making her whimper. The little pieces of magic she’s worked before always left her sparkling with effervescent excitement, but those had been nothing compared to this. Even through the binding circle, she could feel whole body resonate with the vampire’s change. How could she ever have thought she was merely observing coalescence? She is the pile of iron filings, being pulled into alignment.

I see you, the vampire says. I know you.

“I–” She brings her hand to her mouth, jamming her knuckle between her teeth. So much is contained within her now she feels as though she might at any moment explode the same way the vampire’s illusory body had, vaporizing into the insubstantial and leaving nothing in her wake. His wake. No, her wake. “I can’t be that.”

Why not?

When she opens her mouth to give the thousands of answers that should settle the discussion, she finds nothing on her tongue but air. The cage door has been thrown open, and what spills out now overflows its bounds. It has been there from the start, just waiting to burst free. That burning of power in her bones does not fade with time. If anything, it grows by the moment, stretching out along new pathways beneath her skin. 

His skin. 

~*~

“Well, that explains a lot,” said Visser, his voice morning-low.

Max had only been awake for three seconds, and already he was feeling sour about it. “Explains what?” he spat, his voice icy. From the windows outside, sun streamed in. They must have slept late indeed.

“For starters? Why there’s no Maxwell Devereux in the register.”

Max turned in Visser’s embrace so they were face to face. He hated himself for not pulling away, but at the same time, Visser was warm, and he did manage to smell disgustingly nice. “You checked the family register for me?”

“You come in claiming to be a Devereux? Damn right I did.” Visser pressed a finger playfully against the tip of Max’s nose, then laughed when the touch made Max scowl furiously. “First I thought you were lying. After all, you go around saying you’re a Devereux, who’s going to stop you these days? Then I thought you might be some stray descendent. But no, the register still keeps an eye on those.”

It wasn’t difficult to imagine why; the last thing the families wanted was for some stray magical blood to re-emerge and catch them unawares. Max sighed. “It’s not a family name. I picked it in part because it wasn’t.”

“Why else?”

Because he had thought it’d sounded very powerful, very manly. And because it’d had the x in it, which he’d delighted at the time in regarding as a somewhat mysterious parallel to his surname. By now, however, those reasons were moot. It was simply his name. “I liked it,” Max said. “I liked ‘Maxwell’. And I like being ‘Max’.”

“Might I call you ‘Max,’ then?” asked Visser.

Considering that he still had no small amount of the man’s essence inside of him, Max didn’t think they were standing on much ceremony anymore. “And will you in turn to me be ‘Adriaan’?”

“Absolutely not — but only because ‘Adriaan’ sounds like my mother when she’s cross with me. To my friends and anyone who knows me as well as you do now, ‘Aris’ will suit.” Visser — Aris reached up and touched the curve of Max’s cheek, a tender gesture that stood in stark contrast to what they’d been up to the previous night. “Well, Max Devereux, you are a powerful magician indeed. I’ve had that bleed out to others, but I’ve never before had it worked back onto me.”

The compliment made Max’s cheek flush a bit. “I am the seventh son of a seventh son,” he reiterated, then sighed. “Only for a while, everyone thought I was the fourth daughter. Including myself, I note.”

Aris grunted a little as he rolled on his back, keeping a powerful arm around Max’s back as if to make sure he didn’t go anywhere. Sometime in the night it seemed he’d thrown their coats over both of them, which at least kept Max somewhat shielded from the waist down. “You said that before. But I’ve seen the register. Back as far as I could go, the Devereux line shows nothing that concentrated. Some close, but nothing completed.”

Max knew what he meant: twice consecutively, seven sons in a row. For generations, the Devereux family had endeavored to produce its scion according to the traditional lines of the arrangement, which meant finding a man who could sire seven boys in an unbroken line, with no girls in-between, and then taking the seventh of those sons and expecting him to do the same. Max shuddered to imagine what had become of so many of those children produced by these efforts, their destinies shaped and then thwarted by the vagaries of their siblings’ sexes.

“It…” Max sighed as he absently stroked the soft hair of Aris’ chest. The lines of broken skin Max had made the night before were still there, standing out in puffy red contrast to the pale flesh around them, but they were already fast on their way to healing. “My grandfather found a way. He found a way to make the girls not count. Just killing them wouldn’t have worked. He needed a way to remove them from the line. To disown them on a spiritual level, if not a legal one. In fact, I’m sure he thought it was cleverer of him that way — like you said, you looked at the register and saw nothing amiss.”

Aris shrugged agreement. “How does one do that?”

“One needs a very powerful magical source to draw from.” Max pressed his forehead to Aris’ bare shoulder. “The kind you get from trapping a vampire.”

Aris let out a low whistle through his teeth. “And that’s how you met it.”

Her,” Max said, driving a fist into Aris’ side. He didn’t imagine the punch caused Aris more than mild irritation, but damn it all, he wanted that irritation felt. “I met her. Stop calling her that. Yes, I met her because she was trapped in catacombs beneath my family estate, and my father probably fucked my mother right in front of her to conceive me and my various siblings, and no, I don’t like thinking about that too long, and when I was born they took me down to her and tried to erase me. To strip the Devereux itself from my blood.”

Without acknowledging the punch or the correction, Aris just nodded. “Didn’t work, though,” he said softly, placing his hand flat against Max’s lower back.

Max chuckled grimly at that. “They were so convinced, they never bothered to check. And when my younger brother was born half a year later, to my father’s legal wife, all the attention went to him. They were sure they’d managed their bloody ritual. So you can imagine their disappointment when their eighth son of a seventh son was not some magical marvel, but just a young man of ordinary capabilities — even if ‘ordinary’ by Devereux standards would put most conjurers to shame. It wasn’t enough.”

“So you freed — the vampire,” Aris said, clearly catching himself. Max supposed that was a fair compromise.

“We freed each other, I suppose,” Max said. “And then we were each left with no one but each other.”

Aris sighed and shut his eyes. For a moment, Max thought he might be nodding off, and was thus mildly annoyed that his tale of family lore — one which he’d never voiced to anyone before that moment — seemed to have bored Aris to sleep. But then Aris’ skin began to flush again, growing noticeably warmer. He took deep, steady breaths, holding his lungs empty and full for several seconds at either end. He was searching again, checking out along trails he’d laid the night before.

An idea crossed Max’s mind, one so strange that he nearly dismissed it out of hand. The more he thought on it, though, the more reasonable it seemed, until at last it became indeed the only reasonable response. Max concentrated for a moment, willing his magical energies to flow and concentrate in his left hand. When he was certain there was enough gathered there, he placed his hand in the center of Aris’ torso, his palm aligning with Aris’ sternum, and let it go.

Aris cried out as the magic hit him, his eyes snapping wide. He wasn’t seeing the cabin, though; he was seeing the world beyond them, all the branching paths of possibility that might led them to her, or her to them. “Close,” Aris gasped, the sound barely a word. “Closer. She’s closer. She…” Aris growled, baring his clenched teeth, in a way that made Max think of wolves trying to corner larger prey. “Not close enough. There’s easier feeding at hand. She can’t so easily smell the meat.”

Considering that Max knew exactly what that meat was in this analogy, he shivered. “What do we do?”

“West,” Aris said after a moment’s consideration. “Ley lines to the west. We can use them to amplify the signal.”

Ley lines were the type of magical infrastructure Max had been conditioned to laugh at. They were beyond primitive; they were primal. They could not be manipulated, and as such were of little use to more “sophisticated” systems of magic. Max, however, had to accept that they had moved far beyond the bounds of domesticated forces. After all, all his conjuring and crying had gotten him nowhere, while Aris, in one night, had her clear scent.

Max drew his hand away, and Aris slumped back against the floor, exhaling hard. Beads of sweat had broken out all along his forehead. A grin curled his lips as he turned to look at Max. “You taste good,” Aris half-growled, half-purred. “Want some more?”

Oh, Max absolutely wanted some more. He wanted to climb right back atop Aris and ride him until they were both drained and aching. So he did the only thing he could think to do, which was to roll away and start fumbling for his trousers. “We have to get moving,” Max sputtered, wincing at how he had sore spots on both his knees and a mess still between his thighs.

“Aye,” Aris agreed, though he didn’t seem to feel the need to move. In fact, Max glanced back to find him still lying there, shirt off and trousers undone. His cock stood at half-attention already. One of Aris’ hands lay loose against his belly, so close that if he only moved his fingers, he’d be able to stroke himself. Small wonder more sophisticated families tried to avoid business with hunters. They were dangerous.

Max sighed as he dressed hastily. At least putting some layers of clothing between their genitals might strengthen his resolve. “You’re indecent,” he said, as though Aris might somehow have failed to notice the show he was putting on.

Aris laughed, but he pulled up his trousers anyway. “Is that a complaint?”

“Shut up,” Max grumbled again, though from the way Aris just laughed again, he supposed the words hadn’t had quite the bite he’d intended.

Indeed Aris’ overall demeanor had shifted since the day before. Now he was fully on the hunt. Whatever misgivings he’d had about the arrangement seemed to have melted away, replaced by that predator’s grin as they stalked their way through the trees. Max supposed he could understand, if not exactly share the sensations himself: Aris had been fucked and charged with a dose of Max’s magic, and now he had the scent of his prey in his nostrils. No wonder he was in a fine mood.

Max, however, was decidedly less jolly. To begin with, Aris’ enthusiasm seemed to forget that while Max was no less dedicated to their quarry, his legs sometimes felt only half as long. What was for Aris a walking pace often turned for Max into a bit of a scramble, and more than once he had to bark at Aris to slow down, lest they lose one another in the foliage.

But worse was the way the sky in the distance had started to turn. As they stepped into a clearing, Max could see the sky over the far western trees curled grey with smoke from distant pyres. Something there was burning — several somethings, in fact, judging by the spread of the ashy plumes. “Can you hear anything?” he asked Aris. “The fighting, I mean.”

Aris nodded, his expression serious for a moment. “If I listen,” he said. “I try not to listen. There’s no sense to be heard in it. Not your first war, though, is it?”

“No,” Max said, exhaling through pursed lips. No, he couldn’t feign a gentleman’s distaste for carnage, not with all the time he’d spent stalking moonlit battlefields, listening for the sounds of last breaths, with her following behind as close as his shadow. There was never anything pleasant or pretty about it. Whatever he wore, he usually had to burn afterwards. That much gore never quite washed clean.

In a way, the harsh pace was its own kind of blessing. Max certainly wasn’t enjoying the scramble, but he also realized that the more attention he had to pay to not breaking his leg or neck in the forest undergrowth, the less time he had to worry about larger, more catastrophic possibilities.

It wasn’t as though they spent every moment of their lives around one another. She and Max were hardly joined at the hip. Max often ventured forth into society for one diversion or another, and she likewise would disappear for days on occasion, never explaining where it was she’d gone. However, Max had only ever before had to call for her, and she’d been at his side as though she’d never left. Likewise, he’d always been able to stretch himself out and find her reaching back, the way a man might reach in the dark for the person he knew to be sleeping in the other half of his bed. No, even more familiar than that — like a man could close his eyes and tap the tip of his own nose, certain of its lifelong location. The loss of that certainty was just as profound.

So Max didn’t think about that. He thought about the next step he had to take, and when it was done he could forget about it just in time to pay attention to the next one. Between that and his growing general weariness, he had plenty in the way of distraction.

He couldn’t forget entirely, though — not with how Aris had commanded him to keep the tooth on his person at all times. At first he’d tried simply holding it in his hand, but after the third time he’d stumbled and dropped it, he’d had to concede that wasn’t working. Instead, when they stopped for a midday rest, Max rummaged around in his pack until he found a silk ribbon that wasn’t securing anything important. He instead wound it around the tooth in a snarl as ugly as it was secure, then knotted both ends behind his neck. He hoped it would do.

Max had expected Aris might try to strike up some conversation, but Aris remained mostly silent, speaking only when spoken to, or on rare occasion when there was something Max needed to heed. Several times, he scouted out the territory ahead, coming back for Max when he was satisfied with whatever they would or would not find. Whether he was actually seeking something, or just creating a ruse to give Max a break, Max was grateful for each chance to catch his breath.

Max had also expect that Aris might tease him again for the previous evening’s activities, tempting or taunting Max with the idea of more. Max fought a complicated inner battle between wishing Aris would and wishing he wouldn’t. The latter claimed victory in the end, as Aris did not so much as give Max a lascivious wink. If he hadn’t woken up that morning naked from the waist down and still slick between his nethers, Max might have thought it all a dream. As it clearly hadn’t been, he wasn’t sure where to go next.

The sun kept time for them, but the days this side of the year were short indeed. The light through the trees was beginning to dim, promising night, when Aris stopped by a waist-high pile of stones. Its arrangement was rough enough that Max might have written it off as being a natural formation, had they not been the only stones of their kind around. Aris nodded and dropped his pack. “Good,” he said, looking around them. “This is the one.”

The ley line? Save the cairn, Max honestly couldn’t tell this patch of woods from any other they’d passed. Aris seemed satisfied enough, though, that Max relaxed in kind, setting his own pack down. He was glad he traveled so light. “What now?” asked Max.

“The tooth,” Aris said, holding out his hand, “and your blood.”

It was a request easy enough. Max handed Aris the still-wrapped tooth, then went for a small, flat knife concealed in the lining of his coat. “How much?”

Aris laughed. “How much, he asks! Most people you ask them for their blood, they pale, perhaps offer to prick their finger or nick their palm. And the magician only wants to know, how much?” Aris placed the tooth on top of the stones, then stood back. “More than you want to give, less than you’re willing to.”

Despite the vagueness of the quantity, Max understood. He took the blade in his left hand and rolled up his right sleeve, revealing a web of crisscrossed scarring there, much like that around his throat. “Bleeding on the tooth, I’m presuming,” he said, walking over to the cairn.

Aris came up behind him — and there it was again, that warmth, that need. One of Aris’ arms snaked around Max’s waist; the other slipped up from beneath Max’s arm to wrap lightly around his throat. Max was small enough that his head fit under Aris’ chin with a bit to spare. He could feel the soft but steady bulge of Aris’ cock press against the small of his back. “Make it count,” Aris said, nodding for Max to begin.

Despite his familiarity with the act, there was nothing fun for Max about cutting himself. It hurt every time, and Devereux magic was not the magic of healers, who could knit wounds and ease aches. Devereux magic caused pain. He put the blade to his forearm halfway between wrist and elbow, turning it perpendicular to the bone. He drew in his breath and swiped the knife down, cutting deep.

The white heat of the pain made him hiss. He waited for what he knew so well to follow, the sensation of her mouth against the wound, the sweetness that tempered the agony. But he felt nothing save the cold forest air as Aris held him in place. Drops of blood fell from the gash and splashed against the stones. How deep had he cut? Deeper than he’d meant, perhaps? Or was he just not used to seeing all of it wasted? He trembled as he held his arm out before him and clenched his hand into a fist. More drops fell, congealing into a steady stream. His pulse echoed throughout his whole body, every muscle contracting painfully along with his heart as he bled out both blood and magic. How much would he need? Would more remind her of him? If she needed more, he could give more. For her, he could–

“Easy!” snapped Aris, grabbing for Max’s arm with a handkerchief Max hadn’t seen before. It was a pretty thing, embroidered around the edges, and Max absently felt bad for dirtying it. “Easy, easy, that’s good,” he murmured into Max’s hair as he pressed hard against the cut. “That’s enough.”

Enough. The word was a distant concept. Max slumped back, supported only by the weight of Aris’ embrace. He looked at the tooth and the rocks beneath it, but he could barely tell the difference for how they were all the same uniform shade of red. That had been a lot of blood.

Everything was growing quiet, Max noticed. The rustling of the wind through the evergreen needles was becoming further away than it had been before. Even Aris’ touch felt remote, abstracted. His magic was stretching out from him now, like spill from a burst dam, rolling out along any channel it could find. It pulled away from him, and he pulled away from it, until the world went softly dark.

~*~

When he woke, Max realized he was inside a stone chamber, a windowless place lit only by candlelight. The first thought to cross his mind was that he was dead — but no, his still-bandaged arm hurt too much for the sweet release of the grave. Maybe Aris had only thought he was dead. Perhaps he’d been entombed before anyone could realize that his heart yet beat, and he’d been laid to rest on short notice, miraculously surviving only to die of his own burial. The rising panic in his chest kept him from being able to appreciate the irony.

Fortunately, only a moment later, Max turned and saw Aris sitting behind him, sharpening a knife. Max made a pained little sound, and Aris was on his feet immediately, rushing to Max’s side. “Hey,” Aris said, putting a hand in the center of Max’s chest and easing him back down. “Easy.”

“Am I dead?” Max mumbled, trying hard to remember how talking worked. He’d never been dead before. Perhaps it was exactly like that.

“No,” Aris said, patting Max’s chest with no small affection. “You’re not. You passed out, so I carried you here.”

The idea of being transported in Aris’ arms was so romantic that Max nearly regretted having been unconscious for it — though, he had to admit after a moment, it was far more likely he’d been tossed over one of the hunter’s broad shoulders and hauled like a sack of grain. That, he could live with having missed. With a groan, he lifted his arm and felt the throbbing of flesh knitting itself together again. He pulled off the bloodied handkerchief to reveal that no more flowed from the healing gash, which was a comfort. “Is she coming?” he asked.

Aris nodded. “Slowly. She…” He shut his eyes, as though listening to words Max could not hear. “It’s difficult for her. Something keeps derailing her.”

“Easy pickings,” Max said with a sigh. Taking Aris’ hand in his own, he pulled himself into a sitting position. “That was what she said. ‘Easy pickings.’ Fool I was, I thought that’d meant it’d be over quickly.” Aris helped ease Max up, keeping a hand on Max’s back to steady him as Max got a good look at the place. “Are we … in a tomb?”

“Safer here than most places.” Aris shrugged. “Unless … can you see ghosts?”

Max nodded. “Some.”

“Can they hurt you?”

“Not … thus far.”

Aris chuckled. “We’ll take disquieting over dangerous. Besides, it’s been still. Either the spirits here have long since moved on, or they’re pleased for such fine company.”

Max sighed and leaned his head against Aris’ chest, shutting his eyes. Ghosts were the least of his worries at the moment. The loss of blood and magic alike left him feeling less like himself than he needed to. “So now we simply wait?” he asked. The stone walls of the tomb were starting to feel close indeed.

“For a while,” Aris said. He stroked Max’s back as he talked, in a way that Max might have called paternal, had he any good associations with father figures in his life. “Your blood is leading her on a chase. Let her wear herself out. When she’s near enough, we’ll close the distance.”

“So you’ve done this with other vampires before, this” –Max clenched his fist as he stumbled for the word– “baiting.”

“I have,” Aris said, and there was no apology in his voice for it, nor had Max expected any. “Though I have never had to compete with a war zone before. Lucky that blood of yours appears as enticing as you say.”

“Lucky,” Max echoed weakly, feeling little of his supposed fortune. He shut his eyes and focused instead on the steady, warm support that was Aris’ body. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “You smell good. How on earth do you smell good?”

Aris chuckled and kissed the top of Max’s head. “You’re smelling the magic. Also pheromones. My actual self could probably use several baths in a row.”

“So this is…” Max turned his face and pressed it against Aris’ side for several breaths. The smell should have offended his sensibilities in the extreme, but he found himself instead drawn to it. “You do magic for people, and then they want to fuck you, is that it?”

“It’s a side effect, not a goal,” Aris said, chuckling. His hand against Max’s back was strong and steady, supporting him without making him feel trapped. Max could have pulled away at any moment. He simply chose not to — and that, he supposed, was the real trap. “I’ve never used it just to bed someone. And truly, some people have no sensitivity to it. The ones who do, sometimes I take them up on it, particularly when it’s clear they would’ve wanted it anyway. Sometimes I remind them of themselves and politely decline. It usually wears off after an hour or so.”

Max swallowed. “It’s, ah, been more than an hour. For us.”

“It has.” Aris’ voice was soft and low enough that Max could feel his cheek rumble when Aris spoke. “Are you still…?”

Of course he was. Aris didn’t even have to ask; feral as he seemed, he surely had no trouble scenting arousal. Instead, Max cleared his throat and leaned away from Aris’ touch. “I’m well enough,” Max replied, his tone icy.

Aris laughed outright at that. “You prickly little thing,” he said as he stepped back, folding his arms across his chest. “No wonder you’re a vampire’s consort. You’ve found someone equally pointy.”

Max pressed his lips together in what he meant to be a great scowl, though the amusement on Aris’ face told him he’d missed the mark. Yes, he was prickly! Moreover, he expected everyone to cut him a wide berth in respect of that, as well as of his general aristocratic bearing. At first there had been a level of necessity to it; after all, he’d had little practice at outwardly being a man, which meant his initial attempts had been ones best viewed from a distance. As he’d gone on, though, becoming more comfortable in his own skin, maintaining that distance had become more habit than strategy. After all, what did Max care what others thought of him? He would be gone in a day, and still alive long after they were dust.

It was therefore beyond galling for Max to find that he did indeed care what Aris thought — that he wanted Aris to think well of him, to come back and hold him again. He decided, therefore, to be mad at himself for allowing such weakness to creep in, especially during such a vulnerable time as this. “It doesn’t matter,” Max said at last, waving the words away.

“Of course not.” Aris came around to the foot of the sarcophagus atop which Max sat. “Then let’s get on with conjuring up your bloodsucking sweetheart.”

“She’s not my–” Max ran a hand across his face, grunting in frustration. “She’s not my sweetheart. Or anything else of that sort. Sometimes I don’t even think she–” He shut himself up again, before he could give voice to what he didn’t want to hear.

Aris brought those strong hands of his to rest atop the flat stone. “She what?”

Max balled his hands into fists with all the strength he had — and even that wasn’t much, considering how weak he’d been rendered by the loss of blood and magic alike. Was this one of Aris’ hunting powers, the ability to force confessions from his quarry? No, that was ridiculous. He was simply the first ear Max had encountered in ages who might both understand what Max had to say and be patient enough to listen. Max had before seen great magnets draw metal fragments from where they had embedded themselves in the skin of unlucky soldiers. It was a painful procedure, and he knew how something of how it felt.

“I don’t think she likes me,” Max confessed at last, drawing his knees up to his chest. “Isn’t that a foolish thing to worry about? Oh no! An ageless nightmare creature who subsists on human suffering, who literally feeds on me, who has extended my life as I extend hers — she may not have a warm and jolly feeling when she looks at me! Surely, it is the end of all things!” He squeezed his fists so tight his knuckles began to ache. He had already made enough of a fool of himself in front of Aris; he was not going to cry.

Aris, however, looked on him with a quiet sympathy Max found nearly unbearable. “I don’t think it’s foolish.”

“Well, you’re clearly abnormal,” Max snapped, ashamed of his temper the moment the words left his lips. “No, I’m sorry, that–“

“It’s all right,” Aris said with a wave of his hand. “Is this what you English say is a pot calling a kettle black?”

Max snorted a laugh that was far snottier than he’d hoped it would be. Thank goodness the handkerchief in his shirt pocket had survived their ordeal. “Something like that, yes.” He blew his nose, then let his shoulders slump with a sigh. “All right. Perhaps it’s not foolish. But it doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?” asked Aris.

“Because…” Max pressed his fist to his lips for a long moment. “Because things like us don’t get to be loved. And, more to the point, don’t get to cry about not being. At best, we find something that considers us useful. And we don’t get to cry when our utility, well, runs out.”

Aris frowned as Max spoke, narrowing his eyes with observant interest. “You’re afraid,” he said at last, “that she’s not coming to you.”

“Well, she isn’t, now, is she? Oh, to be certain, you’ve got my blood out there, whetting her appetite. But that’s for my magic. Not for me.” This was humiliating for Max to admit, and doubly humiliating that he couldn’t stop the words once they’d started. “I called to her for days. Using every bit of enchantment I knew. I even stood in the midst of corpses and screamed out loud for her, just my own voice. Nothing. And perhaps I hoped that it was simply that she couldn’t hear me. You know what I really expected? That you’d conjure some polite circle back in your workshop and whistle for her, and she’d appear instantly saying, I’m sorry, I was lost, I couldn’t find you. But you tell me she has my scent now, that she knows it’s me, and she’s still just…” Max made a meandering gesture with his hand. “And a smart man would begin to surmise, well, she doesn’t want to return. She’s glad of the chance to be rid of her burden. I have been dumped, for lack of a better term, in a most spectacular fashion, and I am here prolonging my own misery because I had a vain and stupid hope she cared for me as a person instead of a meal.” With a pitiful grunt, Max lay down again on the stone, curling to one side and holding his injured arm to his chest. “So there you have it. You may proceed to mock me for the idiocy of believing it might ever have loved me.”

A long silence followed. Max concentrated on the ache in his arm, leaning into the pain. It was pain he deserved, and it was his own. If he wished to indulge in it now, who cared? His life was over with or without her, whether bled dry or left to wither with age. He deserved a least a little self-pity.

When Aris’ hand alit on Max’s shoulder, Max jumped. Damn the hunter, he was a quiet bastard. “Sorry,” Aris said, though he did not withdraw. Instead, he quietly stroked Max’s soft, dark hair. “You were right, though. She is lost, I can feel it. Except she’s not lost in the world. She’s lost in herself.”

“So?” Max muttered.

“My mother’s brother keeps hounds,” Aris replied, enough of a non sequitur that it caught Max’s attention even through his self-indulgent misery. “When I was a boy, he had a sweet one, an enormous flop-eared boy named Meino. He didn’t have the temperament for the hunt, so he lived in the house and mostly got fat on table scraps. I loved him and played with him constantly, until one day, I went over to where he was lying and Meino bit me.” 

Aris held out his hand, turning it so Max could see the side. Max reached out, letting his fingers find the places where the skin still held memories of the long-healed puncture marks. He rubbed his thumb over the largest one. “What then?” he asked.

“I was furious,” Aris said. “Utterly betrayed. I thought us friends, and here I was, my hand bleeding. I went wailing to my uncle about how Meino didn’t love me anymore. And my uncle got very concerned and took me with him to Meino, who growled at us both. And that’s when I saw the line of barbed wire he’d somehow managed to get twisted around his hind leg.”

Max let his fingers drift over the rest of Aris’ large hands, mapping the terrain by touch. “And the lesson is, sometimes things in pain lash out when they don’t mean to,” Max sighed.

“The lesson is,” Aris said, turning his hand so his fingers interlaced with Max’s, “you have to decide what’s more telling: years of cheerful devotion, or the reflexes of someone’s worst day.”

Max turned his face toward Aris. “…Was Meino okay?”

Aris smiled at the memory. “Yes,” he said. “We patched him up — carefully! — and he had many more years of being his old, sweet self. Of course, dogs aren’t humans. But neither are vampires, so perhaps the analogy stands.”

“Why are you–?” Max rolled fully onto his back, until he was looking up at Aris, their hands still joined. “Why are you telling me any of this? I hired you for a job, not for … not for petty sympathy.”

“You little cactus!” barked Aris with a laugh. “Do you always work this hard to keep people at arm’s length, or am I a special case?”

“Usually it’s not work at all,” Max grumbled, letting his gaze fall away.

Aris sighed, but his smile remained. He turned Max’s hand until their palms were facing the same direction, then placed their joined hands in the center of his own chest, just above his heart. “It was impressive,” Aris said softly, so that Max could feel the vibration of every word, “to have you flowing through me like that. You’re as powerful as you say you are. And I like the way you felt both when you were inside me, and when I was inside you.”

With a whimper, Max bit his lips back between his teeth. This was absolutely not what he should have been focusing on. “You’re being ridiculous,” he managed with a shaky breath.

“I’ve seen you without your gentleman’s mask. And damn it all, I do care what becomes of you.” Aris’ words were soft and deep, and Max believed every one.

“Then–” Max swallowed hard. “Then your heart’s clearly soft as your head.”

“Lucky for you that the rest of me is isn’t,” Aris said, grinning as he leaned in for a deep and toothy kiss.

Though unwilling to bring up the matter for clarification, Max had been afraid that Aris might have misunderstood his situation; there were, after all, stories aplenty of young women who cut their hair and donned trousers to experience the world with the freedom of men. But when Aris kissed him, it was not with the romantic gentleness Max knew of men kissing women. There was bite to the contact, a dominance that expected not submission, but resistance. Despite any suggestions to the contrary, Aris could see Max for the man he was.

The only time Max had experienced that before, truly, had been with her. The feeling of exposure was terrifying; Max wanted to run, to hide like the rabbit from the wolf. But he couldn’t run, not while Aris held their mouths together, not while he found himself not fleeing, but reaching back.

It was strange, being at once so far from her yet so close to Aris. She had never cared that Max had gone out as the urge arose in him, especially since normal human sexual gratification was not a need she felt or fulfilled. But those encounters had always been fleeting, with companions whose names he did not learn and whom he would likely never encounter again. In fact, the few days Max had spent in Aris’ company marked the most time he’d spent with the same single human person since leaving his home.

He cried out as Aris entered him, their bodies meeting on top of the stone sarcophagus which had been his recovery bed. They were both still all but fully clothed, except for the removal of garments necessary to facilitate penetration. Max wrapped his legs around Aris’ waist and urged him deeper, gripping at Aris’ hair. Aris turned his head and placed his lips against the healing wound on Max’s arm, making Max cry out with surprise and pain and pleasure all at once.

Then Aris did something Max would not have expected from him — he licked the wound, not in the suckling manner of a vampire, but in the way an animal might. Max shouted loud enough that the cry echoed, magnified by the stone walls, and he pulled Aris’ hair hard enough he was certain it hurt. In reply, Aris fucked him harder into the stone, while Max clung to him with desperate strength. 

Well, he hoped the ghosts were enjoying the show.

Max could feel Aris’ body buck with his climax, understanding what Aris knew about the truth of scent. It wasn’t anything so crude as bodily fluids — though Max had no doubt anyone could smell the carnal leavings of their coupling. His very blood surely reeked of Aris’ magic now. Like it or not, they’d gotten well and truly beneath each other’s skin.

Withdrawing his cock from Max, Aris settled atop him, still between Max’s legs. He was like a thick blanket, but he knew how to brace his own weight so he didn’t crush Max unpleasantly with his larger frame. He pressed a kiss against the curve of Max’s neck, and when he spoke again, his voice was as soft and heavy as his own body: “Tell me who she is to you.”

~*~

He nearly bursts from his chamber into her corridors the second he’s alone, gathering his skirts and leaving his hair in its showy coif, dark curls spilling down his smooth neck. But he refuses to die like that, in someone else’s borrowed life. He will be himself, or he will be nothing.

The long shears from the bureau drawer are surprisingly dull, or perhaps hair is simply sturdier than he has given it credit for being. He hacks at it, making a bitter mess as those curls spill onto the floor. The first lock falls until it is shoulder-length, but it’s not enough. He tries again, this time leaving a few inches. Only when he gets down nearly to his scalp does he begin to settle. There it is, his face. With the hair shorn back, he can begin to see it.

No one has ever described him as a great beauty; it is, therefore, a strange little victory to see that while he has been a somewhat ugly girl, strong-featured and intense, he is a passably handsome boy. At least, he supposes, he might be if someone ignores the strange mess atop his head. Is it vanity, to indulge in such thoughts so close to one’s death? On the contrary, he supposes one must look one’s best when meeting one’s end.

He almost shudders with revulsion at the thought of putting on Tobias’ old clothes again. Standing up to their grandfather has always been unthinkable, of course, and he hardly expected his brother to mount some great protest of the arrangement. But he also remembers the way Tobias’ eyes fell on him, on his sister, with undisguised hunger.

No, he can’t think about it. And he has no other options. He dresses quickly, his fingers fumbling with the buttons of the trousers and vest. He wills them to be steady, but they are not listening.

A knock at his door stops him cold. He freezes, barely daring to breathe. No matter who it is on the other side, he does not want to see them. He remains frozen in place, mind racing. Did he remember to throw the lock? He’s certain he did. He’s almost certain. He’s less certain that he’d like to be. Perhaps whoever’s there will assume he’s fallen asleep already. Mice caught in the gaze of hawks are not as still as he is now. He thinks about the door, thinks about keeping it closed. He throws all his will into imagining it not as a door, but as just another part of the wall, as though someone had simply screwed a doorknob in as a joke.

Almost immediately, he feels a push against it — not physical, but magical. Someone who has been trained in wards and their breaking is on the other side. So, not his mother, then, nor any of the household servants. Possibly their father. Maybe even their grandfather. But most likely Tobias, come to get a taste of what’s been promised.

He bites his lips between his teeth. It must hold. It will hold. Magic, at its core, is a game of will. All his life, he has been told that he has no will, no purpose, no self-determination. He has been lied to. And the door remains shut.

At last, he feels the pressure ebb, then hears a sharp, petulant kick. “I’m telling Father!” Tobias threatens, stomping off.

He has no doubt the threat is real. He also has no plans to be here when Tobias and their father return.

When the corridor is silent again, he takes a deep breath and turns the knob. It swings open onto its usual hallway; it is completely empty, the servants likely having run off at Tobias’ tantrum. He moves as quickly as he can trust his movements to be silent, taking the first turn offered. On a map of the house, the turn would lead to a staircase; he finds another corridor instead. Moving faster, he passes the first fork but takes the second, veering left. The turn lands him in the catacombs beneath the house. One more turn, and he is there.

She looks up at him. He’s long since realized her face does not make human expressions without some conscious effort on her part, and yet he can feel concern bleeding off her. Magician, she greets him.

“I know how to get you out,” he says, panting.

She has diminished even in the months since he first met her, and he can only imagine how magnificent she must have been a century ago, before his grandfather caught her in his snare. He spends his days reading books he’s stolen from the family library, trying to read up on seals and sigils. There’s plenty in the pages about making them, about how to bind and keep a creature like her, but he’s found nothing on how to release them. He supposes that were he to ask, the authors would all respond in the same way: Why would you ever want to let a monster like that go?

He has her attention, though. He can tell even through the weary way her body moves. Go on, she says.

“Kill me,” he says, pulling a sharp silver blade from his pocket. “What’s coming for me is worse than death. I won’t allow it. I won’t become their breeding stock, and I won’t have them torture you to make another generation of my godforsaken family. We Devereuxes are a pestilence and we need to be ended.”

Her silence that follows is a thoughtful one. He can see the edges of her form shift and shimmer. A number of servants and other public ‘undesirables’ have been thrown to her over the years, mice tossed into a serpent’s cage. It is at best a starvation diet. She will not last much longer, particularly given that her captors do not understand the depths of their own failure. Then she will be nothing, and the plan will be nothing, and it will all have been for nothing.

After a long, quiet moment between them, he takes the knife and draws it across the veins that line the back of his slender left hand. He will remember it as being the first line he makes for her — and a foolish one, in a location too close to bone and with little enough flesh to make healing hard. Those are lessons for later, though. Now, he hisses at the pain, at the way the bright red blood bubbles up to fill the gash.

Then he flicks his hand at her. It is an ungainly motion at best, but it does what is needed: Blood droplets fly through the air, across the barrier of the sigil, and land in the soft, amorphous edges of her being.

It is as though someone has touched a match to a pile of newspaper. Where before she has been diaphanous, insubstantial, she now is a presence no one could write away as a figment of their imagination. She is the darkness given form and fangs, and every bit of both has its attention fixed keenly on him.

“I’m going to break the sigil,” he tells her, clutching his hand to his chest. It aches so much; he can feel his racing pulse throb out to his fingertips. “You’ll have a minute, perhaps, until Father arrives. Can you take what you need from me in that time?”

She shifts inside her bounds in a way that makes him think of circus tigers in cages. Yes, she replies. There is something terrifying to her voice, a note of frenzy, though he does not recognize it then for what it is. Yes, little magician. I can.

“Good.” Breathing deeply, he holds the blade to the meat of his forearm. That will bleed more, he’s certain, and if it won’t, well, he can’t think about it now. He squeezes his eyes shut. He thinks for a moment to plead with her to save his mother, but he knows the damage there has long been done, and that this will be as much a mercy for her as it will be for him. However, there are other bystanders who do not deserve such a fate: “Only those with Devereux blood. The household staff, the groundskeepers — let them go.”

Yes, she says, and he has to trust that it is not only understanding, but agreement. He has to trust so many things here. But he supposes he shall be dead in a few minutes, and nothing will matter anyway.

He takes a deep breath, deep as his lungs will allow, and holds it there until it pains him. By now, surely, Tobias and their father are breaking into his room, finding him gone and his hair in piles on the floor. They will know something is wrong. He needs to act before they figure what is wrong, or the element of surprise will not aid him. He knows he needs to. And yet he is afraid.

He looks at her then, into her swirling darkness and the half-form of a woman it takes. “I wish I could have lived like this, with you,” he says, the knife’s edge hovering over his skin. “Isn’t that a silly thing to think? Maybe even had a life, with I as a man and you as a lady, no one but each other needing to see what we are beneath. Do you think that’s foolish?” He looks away before he can read the expressionlessness of her face as confirmation.

No one should be able to break the sigil of the Devereux patriarch, not one in his own territory, made and maintained by his own hand. But said patriarch has, by his own design, forged the tool of his own destruction, one that now stands in the person of his long-awaited grandson whom he does not recognize as a grandson. When that grandson reaches across the sigil, it is like taking scissors to lace. He knows his grandfather feels that; he can only imagine the agony of having something that intimate so roughly and startlingly undone. 

The blade moves so fast through his flesh it almost does not hurt, and for a bright, pure moment, he believes this might be painless.

Then the blood begins to well up through the wound, and oh, he feels it then. He feels it like his arm is on fire. Shocked, he drops the knife, but he does not pull away. His blood falls into her darkness as he reaches out for her, and she reaches back. It is almost as though she climbs through him — up his fingers, along his wrist, between his skin, into his veins. She overtakes him in a great, feral rush, moving in where his blood used to be. The force throws him back against the cold stone floor. His head hits hard, but that pain is already distant. It belongs to a part of a body that soon will not belong to him at all.

She drinks deep from him, starving as she must be. He feels her mouths against his throat, her hands along his waist. Has she cut him in other places? He supposes that makes sense. Time is of the essence, and he is the essence. He will gladly give it to her. She will make better use of it than he ever could.

He is dimly aware of figures in the doorway. Is it his father? His brothers? Some vicious manservants, sent down as an advanced guard? No matter. He feels a ripping sensation as she tears herself from his body, using it as a springboard to pounce at them. They make only a small noise as they go down. Their blood splashes onto his face, making him think of rain. Like everything else, it grows cold so quickly.

He settles into the business of dying, letting the grey of the world beyond crawl into the spaces his life used to be. The pain and the cold will only be for a moment. Somewhere above him, ringing through the corridors, he can hear commotion and screams of terror. He hopes she is keeping her promise about the household staff. He suspects she will. Surely they are not worth the effort, not in a house filled with Devereuxes.

Has he made the right choice? He supposes it doesn’t matter. It has been his, and he is living with its consequences. Or, he supposes, dying with them.

As he hears the choked sound of what must have been the ripping of some important throat, he closes his eyes and thinks about walking down the street with her hand in the crook of his arm. In his dream, she is wearing a black dress with glass jewels woven through it, each facet catching the light. He laughs about something clever she’s said, enjoying the sun on his face. She draws him close to call him by his true name, the one even he does not yet know, to whisper that he is handsome and that she loves him. It is a nice dream, even if it slips further away with ever weakening thrum of his pulse. That doesn’t matter now, though. So little does.

He barely registers the sensation as his body is moved again, lifted from where it has fallen in a pool of other men’s blood. Servants, then, or else she would have drained them dry as she drained him. He is limp, rag-jointed like the dolls he never enjoyed playing with. He does not have the strength even to open his eyes, though he knows he would see nothing even if he did. He has been wrapped inside her crawling dark, and she is moving away from the killing grounds that were once his family’s home, and together they are gone.

~*~

Just before sunset, Aris signalled to him that it was time, though there was really no need. Max already knew she was close, could feel the way the very air hummed with her presence. He had missed it so much, and now he was terrified of it.

He stood there along the cemetery road, resting against a small carved granite angel as though he were simply biding time, as though it were not holding up more of his weight than he wished he had to trust to it. He spun his silver blade between his fingers, considering all the places worth piercing to entice her. It wasn’t as though she’d need much, though; already with his wounded arm and his sluggish movements, he was clearly the weakest member of his non-existent herd. Easy pickings indeed.

God, he wished he had a cigarette.

This late in the year, at their latitude, night came on sharply — and yet there was no mistaking the difference between the fading daylight and the shadow of her presence. The edges of the world began to bleed dark around a figure who made Max think of that first dying fantasy, of the shimmering black dress. In all their time together, she had never manifested in something like what he’d been picturing, but it didn’t matter to Max. She was that, with the way she both captured and reflected the light from the world around her.

Max could not have sworn to what Aris was seeing now. He did not know if Aris’ hunting practice gave him sight beyond the ordinary, or if he perceived what everyone else did: a nondescript young woman, plain but pretty, conservatively dressed in whatever style they expected her to be wearing. Max had encountered before vampires who had chosen to emulate a consistent single human form for one purpose or another, and they had always looked wrong somehow, like tasting a pie missing a key ingredient. Her disguise was much more elegant: She was what people expected to see, right until she passed their notice.

At least, that was her customary appearance. Now, she was barely making the effort to concentrate her being into a vaguely human shape. She did not rush, but stalked in the manner of a thing toying with its prey. The leaves on the trees rustled as her dark tendrils brushed by them. Flowers on new-planted graves trembled as though shaken by an earthquake. Max could smell the blood dripping off her. How much had she consumed, and from whom? He doubted even she could recall.

Jezus,” Aris swore through clenched teeth. Ah, so that answered that question, then.

Max reached a steadying hand behind him, pressing it against the front of Aris’ thigh. “Hold fast.”

“As a mountain,” Aris promised.

She rose like an impossibly slow flood, flowing over the tops of the gravestones, climbing their stone sides and spilling down over their edges. One of those tendrils snaked out along the road before them, lapping at the air in front of Max. There was a hesitation to it, though, that same cold blankness he’d seen before she’d disappeared into the fields of war. She recognized him, but she did not know him, and the gap between the two was clearly gnawing at her mind.

Max gave Aris a small push, a silent order for him to stay put, then took three steps forward, wading into her darkness the way someone would wade into the night sea. It would do no good to have her scent Aris and get distracted, not now. The tendrils rose around his feet, climbing up his leg like tongues of flame, then retreating just as quickly. Yes, this was what she had been tasting over all those miles, what she had been chasing for a night and a day. The blood of dying soldiers was easy, but drop for drop, it lacked the nourishment of a proper magician.

However, despite her frenzy, she did not rush to him. Some instinct in her still seemed to know what a magician was, and to know that one should be approached with caution. That was all right by Max. Fast or slow, it would come to the same point.

He took the silver blade and held it up before them, letting its polished surface catch the dying daylight. Then he pricked the pad of his thumb and let a bead of his blood fall to the ground. Immediately her darkness swarmed the wettened earth. It was too late, though; the dry ground had already absorbed what little substance had been in the drop.

“You want more?” Max shouted, letting his voice carrying through the tombs. He squeezed a second bead of blood until it bubbled up atop his finger. “You remember the taste?”

Taste, she echoed, sounding like a wax-cylinder recording of Max’s own voice. There was an oiliness in the way she moved before him, a shimmer more than just her shifting frame. It made him think of the horrible gases spilled out over those fields, the sick, choking way they filled the air with convulsive terror of how one might be betrayed by their own body’s reaction to it.

Max nodded. “That’s right,” he said, keeping his voice far steadier than he felt. If Aris was a mountain, then Max was a cloud rolled up against its side. “Do you remember me? Do you remember your magician?”

Magician, came her scratchy reply. Magician. Magician. Every time she said the word, it became slower, more drawn out, until the individual sounds spread so far apart that the word itself lost meaning and collapsed. Her darkness had risen to his waist now, wrapping him the way a spider might take its prey.

He turned his hand over and flicked the droplet of blood from his thumb directly into one of her tendrils. Again she swarmed, this time drawing her whole self in around a firsthand taste of the power that had been driving her hunt. She was coiled now before him, ready to strike, ready to spill into his body through every crack and gap until she filled his veins instead of blood. Then she would withdraw, and he would have nothing.

“Now!” Max shouted, and Aris set the last stone into place.

Sigils were strange things, really. In isolation, they were silly little doodles, something even a child could replicate. Max had seen thousands in his life, engraved on amulets and stencilled on books, and nearly all of them did nothing more than look pretty. What the Devereux family had understood with brutal clarity, though, was what the point of a sigil was not the sigil. The point of a sigil was its making.

She tensed around him, her whole being electrified into a rictus, but it was too late. No matter how fast she darted from him, it could never have been fast enough. She slammed up against the edge of the stone circle, the one he and Aris had spent hours plotting out, until it ringed in a space large enough that one might never have noticed they were stepping across its boundaries. At least, not until the trap slammed shut.

Fiend! she shrieked, going for his throat even though she must have known there was no way she could hurt him here, in a catch that concentrated his power. Had his grandfather ensnared her similarly, under such tempting pretenses? Now there was a comparison he could have gone his whole life without enduring. 

Despite the biting chill in the air, Max unbuttoned his shirt, then pushed it back from his shoulders, letting it fall to the ground. Beneath it he wore only a simple corset, one which flattened down his already slender frame, but which did nothing to hide his shoulders and arms. “Do you remember these?” he asked, letting the edge of the blade trace the weblike pattern of faded scars.

In response, she let out a cry so shrill the nearby evergreens shed many of their needles. Her blood frenzy had simply been channeled into a trapped animal’s rage. She beat against the barrier, then sprang for him again, clearly meaning to do him harm. Both actions were fruitless. Magician! she howled again.

“That’s right,” Max said, willing his voice to remain soft and even. “Your magician. Your boy. Do you remember?”

There it was: a moment’s hesitation, a pause in the flickering rage that had overtaken her whole being. It was brief, and it was overrun only a moment later with more thrashing against the sigil’s bounds, but it had been there. He’d seen it, he was certain of it. And if he hadn’t, it no longer mattered. He’d made his decision.

He took the silver blade and placed it against the edge of his throat, cutting a curving line down to the notch at the base of his neck. A hysterical thought caught him as he did so: If this keeps up, I’m not going to have any blood left to give! Yes, he supposed, that was rather the point, wasn’t it?

The spill of blood that followed caught her attention enough to override any lingering mistrust she might have had of the situation. He was simply too tempting a sight, and when he beckoned her forward, she could not refuse. She leapt upon him, knocking them both to the ground as she had so many years before, while, just as he had so many years before, he opened his arms and let her in.

It hurt so much that he could barely breathe. She was rough, ragged, the way she’d been when she’d first saved herself from starvation on his blood. Now, though, there were no more Devereuxes around to continue her meal, no greater feast to distract her from drinking him dry. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, reaching for her as she wound around his throat. “I’m sorry I let this happen to you.”

He could feel her creeping in beneath his skin now, tracing tendrils along the pathways to his heart. The invasion was like having needles driven in along every nerve. Tears spilled from the corners of his eyes. He couldn’t even gather the air needed to scream; she was in his lungs now, filling every capillary with razor-like pain. “I’m sorry,” he still managed to mouth, even if there was no sound behind it. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

That was when he plunged his bare arms deep into the core of her being and drew a second sigil inside her.

To say that he drew anything was of course not wholly correct. More accurately, he pictured it in his mind — a small glowing circle, one marked with the unreadable name of some long-forgotten patron of disease — and touched his fingertips together to create it. The effect, however, was the same: a binding worked inside of her, ripping out and isolating the rot that had infected her and driven her to madness. Perhaps this was how healing magic worked, purifying by cutting out the bad and leaving behind the good. Healers, however, were sworn to do good and not harm. Max had all the surgical finesse of a blind butcher.

He could feel her body contract around his hands as she screeched loud enough to splinter several of the headstones. He had overheard doctors talking about the putrid clouds of poison, how dangerous they were for how difficult they were to purge from soldiers’ bodies. His hands ached as he held them in place, making them the catch that gathered all the things that had twisted her. He could picture his hands filling up with oily, toxic smoke, noxious enough that it seared the flesh of his palms. She was a predator, but this was a sickness, something that killed for the pleasure of causing pain. This was the distorted mania of panic, and in it, Max could hear the industrial hunger of machines designed only for destruction. It filled her the same way she was filling him, running along whatever she had instead of arteries and veins. It did not belong there. He would tear it out.

It was ultimately a contest of wills, though not between the two of them — no, Max knew that if it came to that, for all his training and abilities, he’d lose in a heartbeat. Instead, it was Max versus the will of the sickness to possess her. It was tenacious, unsurprisingly, finding itself inside such a useful host. Maxwell Devereux, however, had grown up in a household designed to sap his will and render him nothing more than a useful, compliant vessel. He knew something about holding on.

At last, Max felt a rip. There was more infection in his hands than there was left in her body. It was beginning to give way.

He locked the joints of his fingers so tight they began to ache, even though he knew there was little use in the actual physical gesture. Even if he slipped his grip, he would still be holding it fast. He pulled again with his mind, and there went another connection, and then another. The more that fell, the more than fell after them, until with the last of his strength, he wrenched his hands from her body. Caught between them was a pulsing, writhing mass of slimy filth. He flung the wretched thing as far away from them as he could, which was barely a few feet. Still, it was enough that it could no longer hurt them.

Max? He heard his name. Who was speaking? He couldn’t be speaking; his lungs were clotted wastelands. Max! It sounded like a woman’s voice. It sounded like her voice.

Max had almost thought himself beyond further pain at that point, in such brittle torment that nothing could have made it worse. He was very wrong. In a sharp instant, he was flooded with two agonies. The first was fleshly, as she retreated from his body in a thoughtless panic, leaving angry hollows in her retreat. The second was psychic, as Aris kicked away the stone he had placed, collapsing the sigil around them.

“Let him go,” Aris spat at her as he rushed forward. Max could hear the sound of his revolver’s hammer cocking.

She did not move. Max wondered if she even heard him, or registered his presence. She coiled herself completely around Max, shuddering in a way that would have been sobbing, had she been human enough to cry. She cradled him, lifting him from the cold ground, though she was no warmer than it. She was weak now. If Aris wanted to kill her, he could. A bullet might not do it, but Aris certainly knew other means. Or was Aris coming for him? Was this the end of the promise he’d extracted what now felt like lifetimes ago? “Stop,” Max said to him, or tried to say. He wasn’t even sure how much of his body could respond at this point.

Max, she moaned, flattening one of her tendrils against the cut he had made, making herself its bandage. Was he still bleeding? That seemed absurd. To bleed required one to have something left to bleed.

“Don’t you hurt him,” Aris spat, his voice trembling. Max could not summon the strength to open his eyes, but he could feel Aris’ presence looming over them against the dark night sky. “If you hurt him, I will end you.”

They both sounded so afraid, and Max wanted to tell them not to be afraid, that it was all right. She was going to be okay now. But nothing was working. He could somehow feel his organs starting to shut down. He wanted to tell Aris not to hurt her, that this had actually always been Max’s best-case scenario, that he’d started on his journey knowing deep in his heart he likely would not make it out alive, and that wasn’t Aris’ fault. Truly, he should have died on the floor of his family home’s basement centuries before. Everything else had been borrowed time.

This is you, isn’t it? she asked. Max had the sensation of her licking her lips, if she’d had lips to lick. Tasting you on him. In him. The hunter.

“I am,” Aris answered with a growl. “And I am very good at what I do.”

She paused for a moment, thinking, considering the taste on her tongue. I ate your grandfather.

Only his rapidly deteriorating condition kept Max from shouting at her not to make it worse, for the love of God! But Aris’ response was cool and even: “Bastard fool deserved it.”

Yes, she agreed, as though they’d reached consensus on something as mundane as the weather. You want to save him. Save Max.

“Tell me what I have to do.”

Max wanted to tell him there wasn’t anything left to do. He’d be gone soon anyway. Hell’s bells, he’d probably be dead already if they’d simply stop distracting him for a moment and let him concentrate on it. They were both so exhausting individually that he should have suspected their meeting would lead somewhere like this. It was just his luck, that he should fall in love with not one but two people too inconsiderate to let him simply fade away.

You know, she said.

There was a pressure on Max’s chest then, warm like skin. He wanted to push it away, to cry out, to do anything, but there was just too little left of him to protest. He at last surrendered himself to both of them. Whether they healed him or put him down no longer made any difference. His part was done.

Then she rushed into him again, the same way she had before — yet now she felt strange, almost … substantial? Was that the word he wanted? It was the difference between vapor from a boiling kettle and an ash cloud from a great bonfire; one passed by, leaving nothing more than a slight damp, while the other plastered every surface it touched with its heavy residue. He heard Aris cry out–

No, that wasn’t Max’s ears. He felt it. Something was being stolen from Aris’ veins, and Max could tell because that same thing was being pumped into him. The word transfusion came to mind, though of nothing so simple as blood. She was inside both of them now, the bridge that connected them. The hunter bled freely into his wounded prey, and she in turn let it go to a life she valued more highly than her own. Max could feel their shared plea carried on every pulse of Aris’ heart: don’t die, don’t die, don’t die.

At last, Max coughed, his lungs weakly pushing out the poison from his chest. Air rushed to fill the void, and he was breathing again — feebly, but on his own. He felt Aris’ arms wrap around him in a crushing embrace before her essence enfolded them both with something less cohesive than arms, but no less fierce. The act had taken so much out of both of them, put them both into unnecessary danger for what Max regarded as insufficient reward. It was frankly irresponsible for them to have wagered so much, and on so little. “Idiots,” Max mumbled gratefully.

“Shut up,” they said in unison, and for once in his whole damned fool life, Max did.

~*~

They were a handsome yet ultimately unremarkable pair, strolling the streets of Marseille along with all the others come to see the Exposition Nationale Coloniale. Max found it at best a lackluster affair, and at worst a gross misrepresentation of the cultures and peoples of the world it was meant to be bringing together. She enjoyed it, though, all the lights and movement and bodies pressed in, and simply found it funny when the grandes fêtes indigènes were halfhearted reproductions meant for the eyes of Europeans who could not be bothered to know any better. 

Where is he? she asked, curling what appeared to be her hand a little more tightly in the crook of Max’s elbow.

Max smiled as they approached a tent where five gold-hatted women performed a slow dance, bangles on their wrists and ankles jingling in time with their movements. “Coming back,” he said. “Quickly.”

As though on cue, the crowds parted and a tall, grey-suited man stepped through them. He cut a smart figure like this, when he cleaned up for more decorous occasions, though he still preferred the comfort of more hunt-appropriate attire. Sharp though Aris was in a suit, Max would have been hard-pressed to disagree with that preference. “Good evening to you both,” Aris said, his voice artificially cheerful. There was a wild twitch in his eyes, the look of a scent caught. “Have you seen the Malaysian pavilion yet?”

“No,” Max said, glancing back over Aris’ shoulder, checking the movements of the crowd. “Ought we?”

“Unmissable.” Aris’ hand rested lightly at the side of his coat, though Max could see him fingering the lines of a blade concealed beneath. The very air around him seemed to hum with his restraint. Moreover, Max could feel his own heart begin to beat heavier in time with such sympathetic vibrations.

He now thought of Aris’ magic as the scaffolding that held up his veins, the architecture which propped his lungs open against collapse. Aris was now as responsible for every new beat of Max’s heart as she was, and in this unpayable debt, Max found he was more than the magician he had once been. His carefully cultivated seventh son’s powers had now been sharpened by the grafting of hunter’s instincts. He was no longer merely the lost child of a fallen dynasty; neither was he simply the consort of a most unusual vampire. 

Now they were three. A pack.

The first shared quarry had been a paranoid man by nature, which might have served him well, had he known the right things to be paranoid about. He had employed tasters against common poisons and swept every corner of every room against mundane assassins, all of which had kept him alive to conduct decades of his wretched business deals. And if war profiteering had been his only crime, he might never have risen to their level of notice. They were none of them, after all, much fussed financial interests, no matter how much blood was on either hands or the money that passed between them.

When it had become clear, however, that much of that money was intended toward the purchase of some very nasty volumes — indeed, volumes that had once been held in the possession of the Devereux family — Max had cautiously suggested that action might be warranted. To his surprise and delight, he had found his companions quite receptive to both his concerns and his proposed solution.

The man whose trail they followed now was the eighth such they’d found in their sights, a terrestrial villain wandering into realms of the metaphysical without a guide or the sense to know when to stop. What good it may have done the world was debatable, but there was no denying the thrill Max felt in his bones during the pursuit. It was certainly far more enjoyable than spending eternity standing on the sidelines, biding his time with diversions, waiting to need a war. They were in the business of blood, after all. At least when monsters hunted other monsters, the chase was fair.

Max turned to her and placed a kiss on what everyone else in the room would have seen as her cheek, then bowed to Aris as she let go of Max’s arm and placed an approximation of a fine-gloved hand in Aris’ own. “Enjoy the sights, my dear,” Max said, bright enough that anyone given to eavesdropping could have overheard with no trouble. He didn’t think their current target took such precautions, but there was no such thing as too careful. Max could already feel his magic begin to gather in his hands, beneath the calfskin of his gloves, ready to lay down the boundaries of their trap. “I’ll be waiting by the doors.”

“We’ll find you there when we’ve finished,” Aris said, his pretty pink lips curling into a smirk. Max was already thinking about tearing off that fine suit, ripping it to shreds with his bare hands to get at the warm skin beneath, wrapping his legs around Aris’ waist as Aris pinned him up against a wall and she licked the blood off his knuckles and her lips. It was all Max could do not to skip the wait and take him right here in the middle of the exhibition’s main thoroughfare — but Max had patience, like a true gentleman, and when it came to the taste of men like Aris, hunger was indeed a fine spice.

Though he had his own job to do, Max indulged himself for a moment and watched the two of them disappear into the crowd together, arm in arm. He did not worry he might lose them; they were always within him now, the anchors deep within his heart, beating for him, calling to him like signals in the wilderness. After all, he knew them even better than he knew his own blood.

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8 thoughts on “Rose Red and the Huntsmen

  1. I love Max SO MUCH. He’s absolutely a little cactus, and rightfully so. Also love the vampire, because saving trans boys from shitty situations and literally eating the rich is just such a great look. The fact that Aris is probably the biggest sweetheart of the three is charming. They’re all such amazing contrasts of expected versus actuality.

    Finished this yesterday and reread it today in hopes of leaving a more coherent comment, but honestly my heart is stuck on capslock here. I loved it! :)

  2. Iron Eater liked a story with weird supernatural creatures and the terrifying hunters who pursue them and entirely too much blood, I’m sure we’re all SO very surprised.

    Based on the title I was halfway expecting a more straightforward fairy tale riff, and I’m quite pleased it went somewhere else entirely. This was also a fun take on vampires; I really like it when they’re depicted as unknowable monsters that are about as willing to negotiate as a hurricane heading towards a resort town, and yet she didn’t feel flat, even if she spent much of her time trapped or absent. I was so happy that there were options for curing her condition beyond euthanasia! Seeing them hunting as a trio at the end, united in purpose (and otherwise), was…perhaps “wholesome” is not the right word, but it was certainly a satisfying way to tie off the story.

    The art, of course, is fantastic, and I really enjoy the transition from the cairn scene to the vampire looking up in alertness from her wild rampage across a Great War battlefield. There’s just enough stylization going on around her that the corpses don’t detract from what’s going on, but they’re still present; the contrast between Max’s potent blood and the sickness she’s been feeding on and taking into her are clear once one’s read the story through, and before then it’s a strong image that stands on its own!

  3. I REALLY loved this, and was disappointed to get so sleepy I had to put it down last night before finishing! It’s such a remarkably romantic and tender and forgiving story for three very different kinds of not-quite-right individuals, and I was so happy to see the boys able to save her at the end and become a team fucking up people who are fucking up the world. Delicious. You know how meh I am on vampires, too, so I was very excited about one who’s genuinely super creepy and weird!!

    And ohh, the art is so pretty, and beautifully symbolic of all the stuff going on here. Love itttt

  4. Enjoyed it so much I read it two thirds asleep, which is not actually a bad way to read this liminal story … no bad dreams though!

  5. Finished this last night and holy shit. holy shit! I mean yes okay trans monsterfucker here to be like “I enjoyed this story obviously” but like….the way you dealt with Max and the vampire’s relationship even though your vampire wasn’t terribly human-like was so so good. And the fact that Aris accepted that this relationship was important to him even though he didn’t understand it at first! ugh and the END!!

    Also wow the negative and poisonous effects of WWI having effects on the supernatural world as well as the natural landscape and biosphere…what a cool idea…damn

  6. Do you ever feel like a fic deserves an insightful and witty comment, but just don’t have the brain to supply one? That’s how I feel right now. I really loved this, and I want to tell you all the ways in which I loved it, but I just can’t get the thoughts out of my head and into this text box, sorry! So you’ll just have to know that I enjoyed it, which seems insufficient return for the story you’ve crafted so well.

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