There were three of them, tall and lean, with weatherbeaten faces and cloaks worn with hoods down. The leader wore a wide-brimmed, floppy hat, and beneath his tunic occasionally shone glints of zirconium plates sewn into his leather armor. The others had no plating on their sturdy jerkins, but had close-fitting leather helmets. They carried a variety of weapons, but each was equipped with those suitable for long-range as well as close combat. Their faces were uniformly grim.
Hunters, the folk of Bortevo knew.
None greeted the men, nor met their gaze. It was but a few years since Bortevo had started rebuilding itself from the ruin made of it by the tyrant Lassic, and its people were not yet comfortable with outsiders. Their instinct was to cower, to hide from any perceived threat, and not to invite trouble down upon themselves.
Clearly, the three men meant trouble for someone.
"Early morning," one of the followers said. "We've timed it right. There'll be at least nine hours of daylight to do our searching."
"There's a lot to search, though," the other follower said. "Half this town is still a ruin. Abandoned buildings are all over the place. Perfect hiding spots."
The leader said nothing for a long while.
"No," he said finally. "It won't be a ruin."
"Why not, Weaver?" asked the man who'd mentioned the buildings. "It can't just slink off to its grave in the middle of a hotel. Some abandoned cellar is just the place."
Weaver shook his head.
"No, Dean. Consider the profile we were given. This one takes on human guise and interacts with the locals. That's what our client told us."
"I get it," said the other follower, his face the youngest, almost boyishly so, of the three and the only one whose eyes did not seem to be permanently fixed into a steely glare.
"I'm glad one of us does, Thad," Dean groused.
"Well, if it's going to play human, it's clearly going to have to have some kind of false identity, right?"
"People here are suspicious of outsiders," Weaver said. "A stranger needs to be readily identifiable by appearance, trade, and place of residence to win any kind of trust. It will probably have a private home—even better than an abandoned building because trespassers can be dealt with all but openly. During the day, the law can prevent a break-in while the owner is 'out.' At night, it can simply kill intruders in defense of its home. Safer by far than hiding in a cellar where anyone could legitimately go."
"Great. You're saying we'll have the law on us if we make a move?"
"So what do we do?"
Weaver stalked forward, his cloak flowing around his ankles, his sudden motion signifying that the conversation was over.
The hunt was on.
"How many?" Taryn wanted to know.
"Three," Bob Jeffers said. The owner of the local First Food Shop franchise, he'd been one of the first people questioned. "Nasty fellows, all bristling with weapons."
"What did they want to know?" asked Pete Jorgens. Pete was a scavenger, who picked through the junk left behind in the ruined buildings for salable items. Like the others seated at the counter, he was an early lunch fixture, coming in as soon as Bob opened the shop at eleven.
"They were looking for a stranger in town—someone who doesn't eat here, except maybe a take-out meal."
Taryn took a sizable bite of her burger.
"They want you to tell them the name of somebody who doesn't come here?" Carla Davies wanted to verify. She took a sip of her cola while awaiting an answer.
"Yep. I thought about telling them I'd be more likely to know about my customers, but decided not to. I've got the feeling smarting off to those folks isn't going to be a bright idea."
"You can say that again!" exclaimed Will Bacon, the homeless street poet who sat at the far end of the counter from Taryn.
"You've seen them too, Will?" Bob asked. "Do you know anything?"
Will's face took on a sly expression.
"Could ya spare me a cup of cola?" he asked. Bob just laughed, filled a cup, and passed it over.
"Spill," he said, then added, "I mean the story, not the drink." That got a few grins.
"They asked me if I'd seen anything weird, like someone who gave out a bunch of food to people like me, or who threw out a lot of good food." He rubbed his chin. "They weren't too nice about the asking—figured I wouldn't tell them if I did know so as to keep the supply coming."
"It's got to be hunters," Pete concluded. "The law would identify themselves, and wouldn't rough anyone up for information. Um, no offense meant, Taryn."
"None taken, Pete; you're probably right." Queen Alisa's rule had been as far from Lassic's oppression as she could make it; her law enforcers often erred on the side of mercy—which few people minded after the soulless cruelty of Lassic's Robotcops. "I wonder if they're from the Guild, or independents?"
One of the queen's early reforms had been to organize a formal guild of hunters—the mercenary monster-slayers and bounty-hunters who had evolved from the anarchic conditions prevailing in much of Palma. Lassic's rule in the cities had been one of brutal totalitarianism, yet he'd basically ignored the countryside and many towns completely, to the extent that monsters would ravage the settlements and the infrastructure—water, power, transportation, communications—had crumbled.
Just why Lassic had done these things was the subject of much debate. He almost seemed to have been trying not to dominate and control, like the tyrants in history had done, but to destroy.
"If they're Guild hunters," Taryn continued, "then they can be brought under control. That's why there is a Guild, to police hunter activities and keep them in line."
"And if not?" Carla asked.
"Then there could be trouble, and a lot of it, before this is done."
"Were they looking for a man or a woman, Bob?" Pete said.
"That's the funny part. They didn't say."
"Someone is lying to us," Thad said bitterly, not looking the slightest bit boyish. They'd interviewed over three dozen people, applying a bit of pressure when the chance was there and it seemed to be a sensible strategy, but they'd learned nothing. "No one knows someone who doesn't come out in the day. No one knows someone who takes all their meals alone. And from what people say, almost no one goes to church in this town anyway."
"Calamity can either strengthen faith or destroy it," Weaver said. "Here it seems to be the latter."
"I hope this doesn't mean our target has changed its methods," Dean wanted to know.
"Possibly," Weaver admitted grudgingly. "If so, we should be able to fall back upon standard tactics. If not, though, we must resolve this matter by nightfall, or we will soon become the hunted."
The hunters' leader suddenly went ramrod-stiff at his own words.
"That's it," he said. "We'll bait a trap."
"What are we going to use for bait?"
"The one thing a monster like that cares about," Weaver responded grimly. "Its life."
Perin Dar sighed as he slipped into his hovel. It hadn't been a good day begging. The best he could say was that nothing had been swiped out of his home, a makeshift hole in the ruins, while he was away. Slumping to the hard-packed earth, he spilled out the contents of his meseta pouch onto the ground and began to count. He never counted during the morning; during the midafternoon he came home, counted the take, then calculated what he could buy and what he still needed to earn in the evening so he could have a decent meal and a bottle of something not cooked up in a kettle in one of the ruined buildings.
Those hunter goons hadn't done him any good. They'd pushed around his friends, asked hard questions, and their glares had everyone feeling insecure. Insecure people didn't engage in acts of charity. Perin hoped that they would cross a line and get the local law patrols breathing down their backs. Of course, in a place like Bortevo, the hunters might be tough enough to chase off the law, which consisted of only two people.
Perin suddenly got his wish, when the sheet of polycanvas covering his hideyhole was torn away by a strong hand and the barrel of a needlegun was shoved inside.
"You lied to us, streetscum," growled a deep, angry voice. "That's okay, though. It just means you'll have to help us in another way."
A powerful hand grabbed him by his dirty gray cloak and pulled him out into the light. The sudden transition from the shade to the afternoon glare stung his eyes.
"Isn't that right?"
The hunter was putting an edge on her favorite weapon, a short-handled, single-bitted axe with a blade that came to a long, hooked point that could even be used as a crude thrusting weapon in extremis. She was wearing her battle gear: a calf-length, high-collared, sleeveless black dress slit up the left side to just above the hip for freedom of movement, with thigh-high knifeboots and gloves that reached halfway between shoulder and elbow. Gold trim matching her amber eyes decorated the flamboyant outfit, whose defensive inlays had the same protective quality of a light-suit.
In short, she was clearly ready for trouble.
"Will?" she said, surprised the lodgehouse manager had let the man back to see her. A brief flicker of resentment at the violation of her privacy danced across her mind, but she ignored it; Taryn knew where it came from. "What's going on?"
"The hunters—the ones we were talking about at lunch! They grabbed Perin!"
"Grabbed? You mean..."
"They hauled him right out of his little hideyhole!" Will exclaimed, wide-eyed. "You've got to help!"
"Will, calm down." Taryn dropped the axe and took the homeless man by the shoulders, fixing her eyes on his so there would be no mistake. "Explain to me what happened, slowly and clearly."
"They think he lied to them. He did, of course—you know Perin; he hasn't told the truth to anyone in any kind of authority for years. He spun them one of his little tales—he was telling me about it after lunch—about someone hiding in one of the ruined buildings on the east side. I guess they checked it out and found out the truth, because they came back for him. They took him right out of his squat by force!"
"How do you know this, Will?"
"I saw them do it! About six of us did—they weren't sneaky about it at all!"
"And the law?"
Will looked at her as if she was demented.
"Why would they do anything for Perin? He's only a beggar. They wouldn't do a thing for him."
"You'd be surprised, Will. Queen Alisa's law stands for everyone, not just the rich or the 'good citizens.' But there's just the two officers in Bortevo, which makes them outnumbered and probably outgunned. The hunters might know that."
"What do they want with Perin, though? Do they think he really knows something?"
"I'm sure that they do, but I think there's more to it than that. They kidnapped him openly, which means they want people to know—or at least one specific person."
"The...the stranger they're after?"
"They'll assume that since Perin lied, that he knows the truth. That would make him a threat to reveal that truth, from the stranger's point of view. They hope to lure their quarry to them, into a trap. If things turn out how they expect, it might even clear them from any legal charges. Think about the questions they were asking, and guess what kind of person this stranger is."
She could all but see the thoughts as they came to Will. The street poet's mind wasn't always reliable, due to damage from bad alcohol and other chemical poisons, but he did have a first-rate imagination. Besides, a second-rate imagination could have figured it out, were it not that no one wanted to think of such possibilities, not now that a normal life was starting to return to town.
"Come on. We only have a couple of hours of daylight left."
The three hunters had set themselves up in an abandoned building, making no secret of it. They'd spent little effort on the beggar, merely tying him to a pillar and beginning to set their traps. Windows, the skylight, and broken gaps in the walls were prepared, combining their own supplies with scavenged materials. Some points of entry were treated to repulse, others trapped to greet an entrant with a lethal surprise.
They hadn't gotten around to protecting the front door. That didn't mean they were ignoring it, but the only defense was Thad, sitting with a steel-string bow gun in his grip, ready to skewer anyone who didn't try to be subtle in their approach. The point was that they didn't expect any serious opposition until the sun went down, and its burning eye was still making Taryn sweat when she walked in.
"Hold it!" Thad ordered, keeping the bolt-point trained on the intruder. He didn't know her, but caution made him respect the presence of armor, not to mention the axe on her right hip or the holstered gun on her left. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"My name is Taryn," she said calmly, "and I'm a hunter. I'm a member of the Guild."
"So are we," Weaver said, descending from the upper story. Inwardly, Thad breathed a sigh of relief. The woman's body language was screaming "confrontation," and it felt good to have his leader there to swing the odds in their favor.
"Then you know that the Queen's charter specifically forbids this kind of behavior. The whole point of the Guild is to make hunters into a respectable profession, under control. You've gone and kidnapped a man!"
"He's a servant of the one we hunt. His lies prove what he is."
"He's an old man who wouldn't know the truth if it hit him on the head—or at least wouldn't tell it. If Bortevo wasn't still more of a refugee camp than a town, you'd be in jail by now. You don't have some servant of evil; you've got a sick man whose brain has been crippled by chemical abuse and the shock of Bortevo's destruction."
Weaver fixed the woman with a cold gaze from beneath the brim of his hat.
"Our mission here is more than a simple job. Greater issues are at stake."
"Yeah. Right. Of course," she said derisively. "It always is, when some self-appointed crusader is on the prowl." Probably she shouldn't have challenged him so directly, but Taryn had, for a number of different reasons, no patience at all with self-righteous arrogance. And besides, she'd ignored the pun, which had to count for something. "That should be a reason to be as professional and disciplined as you possibly can, but it never is. Your kind just uses it as an excuse to justify abandoning common sense and common decency alike."
"You understand nothing. Trapped as you are by your puny rules and strictures—"
"Have you ever even seen a vampire?" Taryn cut him off scornfully. It was the first time, Thad realized, that anyone had said the word since they'd taken the job. Among themselves, the hunters had used euphemisms, almost as if cowed by the horrible realization of what they intended to face. This woman, though, came right out and said it without giving the word the slightest presence, the ominous majesty Thad had always associated with it.
"Of course. How else would we know their secrets and weaknesses?"
"Bad Gothic novels? Campfire stories? Audivis broadcasts, if you've lived in the cities? That's what it sounds like. Looking for someone who comes out only at night? Who buys groceries solely to conceal the fact that he doesn't eat? Who avoids holy symbols and consecrated ground?"
Dean, Thad realized, had come out of the back room where he'd been guarding the prisoner. Now it would be three against one if a fight ensued. and yet the young hunter found his confidence slipping moment by moment. Taryn's contemptuous attitude, as she offhandedly dismissed their crusade, but more deeply than any amount of reasoned argument would have. It made him feel like he was one of the superstitious peasants in the stories she'd mentioned.
Weaver, though, was unmoved.
"You wear a mask of arrogance," he said, "in order to get what you want. If you are truly the expert you claim to be, then you would assist us. Find the vampire, Taryn, with the superior knowledge you pretend to have. If we are as incompetent as you believe, then you show us the correct way. I shall even offer you a fair split of our fee, so you needn't concern yourself with the professional's distaste towards working for nothing."
The suggestion seemed eminently reasonable to Thad. In fact, he hoped Taryn would say yes and have genuine information to offer to aid their search. Taryn, though, didn't see things the way he did.
"I'm not here to become your accomplice," she snapped. "I'm here to get you to let your prisoner go and straighten out your attitude."
Weaver smiled thinly.
"The answer I expected. You mock our knowledge of vampires, but when one preys upon the people of Bortevo you turn aside. If you truly care for the well-being of people like the beggar we've imprisoned, then why not root out the fiend from their midst?"
Taryn met his gaze.
"I've been in Bortevo a lot longer than you hunters, and I haven't seen any evidence that there is a vampire. If you want to tear up the town in pursuit of a monster, the first thing to do is show that one exists. There are people who consider the absence of proof as evidence they haven't looked hard enough. These people are crazy."
Weaver surprised Thad by reacting to Taryn's remark, sweeping the edge of his cloak back and dropping his hand to his sword-hilt. Taryn didn't respond to the gesture—or threat? Or a fit of pique at a comment that hit too close to home?
"Look, you show me a blood-drained corpse, eyewitness accounts of something resembling a bat-form, opened tombs, anything at all that suggests there's a vampire in Bortevo, and I'll be glad to help you hunt it down. Heck, I'll be glad to take its head myself. But until you do that, you're nothing but a pack of goons pushing people around in order to accomplish something you don't even know is possible. So you tell me, are you insane fanatics, cheap thugs, or hunters?"
Dean shifted tensely next to Thad, anticipating confrontation. Was this woman another minion of their quarry...or was she right? Was there no quarry at all, just a misinformed, or lying, client and three credulous hunters? Both men looked to Weaver for guidance, but he said nothing, just held the woman's gaze for long moments. They stared at each other for a minute and a half that crept by with agonizing slowness. Thad realized that he was clenching the bow-gun so tightly that his knuckles ached, and had he not taken his finger off the trigger he certainly would have accidentally launched the arrow. Dean's breath was harsh and raspy; no doubt he was facing the same questions they all were and was feeling the emotional pressure.
Would they submit to another's harsh judgment of their actions, or would they fight based on belief alone? Were they among the faithful, or merely the deluded?
At last, Weaver released his sword.
"Dean, let the beggar go."
"Let him go? Weaver, are you—"
"Let him go, and give him fifty meseta from our traveling funds as an apology for our treatment of him. I made assumptions without considering facts. Now, Taryn, as for your claims that there is no vampire in Bortevo, we will consult the town law. If they can offer no clues that anything is amiss to counter what we've been told by the people today, we will return to our client and require further details to support his assertions that a vampire is at work in Bortevo. If he cannot provide evidence, we will withdraw from his commission." Taryn nodded, a little smile beginning to play about her lips, but Weaver was not finished. "If, on the other hand, we do receive viable evidence from any source—"
"You'll be on the job with wooden stakes in hand," she said wryly.
"And so will you. I will hold you to your word."
She wanted to kill Weaver in that moment, to rip out his tongue for daring to judge her, but she stifled the thought sharply. Taryn was too familiar with the Black Blood's little tricks to fall for such an obvious tug at her emotions, not when she was trying to defuse a tense situation.
And she really didn't want to fight all three hunters. Not even if they did learn they were after her. After all, Taryn wanted the same thing the three of them did, to put an end to the demon writhing inside her body. She only wanted to do it without killing herself at the same time.
It was a good thing Jinson Baird—she was sure she knew who the client was—had only seen her shifted, in a form which had no distinguishing features, not even gender, to reveal her human self. He'd never tell why he knew she'd come to Bortevo because it would mean revealing his own secrets.
Still, she thought as she walked out into the fading sunlight, I'd better work fast. You can never tell what people will do.
That, and the Black Blood still had to be fed.