There are certain things that just seem to inevitably capture a person's attention, no matter the time, place or circumstances. The mouthwatering smell of freshly baked bread in the morning, for example, or maybe the soothing taste of an old-fashioned home-cooked meal after a long week of nothing but sketchy fast food. Then there's the stirring sight of an attractive young lady in a short skirt and low cut top passing by you, with a flirty smile on her face, the infuriating feeling of that itch right in the middle of your back that you just can't reach no matter how much you stretch, twist and turn...
Or even like the sound of a woman shrieking out for help at the top of her lungs, only to be cut off short by the sound of a solid blow.
"Aw crap." I muttered testily after freezing on the spot. I then immediately started to consider my options.
I had just spent the past several hours unloading my u-haul, lugging everything upstairs, setting things up in my new apartment and thoroughly cleaning the place. Sure, I had the help of a couple of burly movers, but it had still been one hell of a long and tiring day.
After a quick shower to clean up and wind down after the day's exertions and tension, I noticed that it was well past midnight, I was really tired, my muscles felt like soft rubber and I was starving. I hadn't had any time to buy any groceries, so suppressing my initial impulse to simply order takeout pizza or head over to the nearest fast food place - I'd promised mom that I'd at least try to eat right - I decided to go out and do some light shopping at the closest convenience store that I could find that was still open.
Now, I found myself in the middle of a small parking lot, my arms filled with large paper grocery bags, wondering what the hell I was going to do about the bloodcurdling scream that I had just heard.
It seemed to have come from a darkened alleyway several hundred feet across the street to my right, far from the well illuminated safety of the small corner store I had just exited and its almost vacant parking lot. I had no idea how many people there were, or what kind of danger they were in. Looking around, I could see that there was nobody walking around and very few cars circling on the roads – it was pretty late after all and this small business district had closed down completely.
I had obviously been the only one to hear the scream and I was the only one around to actually do something about it.
The smart thing would have been to go back into the store to ask for help, or simply dial 9-1-1 on my cell and let the trained, prepared and paid professionals deal with it. Of course, it would most likely take several minutes for any kind of response to arrive, in which the emergency would probably be already over. Precious minutes in which someone's well-being and maybe even life hung precariously in the balance.
Many people would have simply kept their heads down and gone on with their lives. Most people in fact. It wasn't their business, so it wasn't their problem – no reason whatsoever to get involved, right?
Unfortunately, in my case, there was only one path that I could realistically take, even if there were far more sensible and safer options at my disposal.
As a wise man once said, "With great powers, come great responsibilities."
Although I had been rationally running through the choices available to me in my mind, my instincts had taken over almost immediately and I was already in motion. My groceries were gently tossed to the ground, leaning up against my parked car, and I was running as quickly as I possibly could, straight towards the dark alley, directly towards danger.
Yes, I really can be that reckless and impulsive on occasion. Believe me, I'm actually quite the calm, levelheaded young man.
Well ... at least I try really hard to be...
Alright, yes, I do have the unfortunate tendency to leap into things head first, without looking. I'm a work in progress.
I swear, I could hear Jacob's gruff voice in my head, almost as if he was right there by my side. "You have that look in your eyes boy. You're going to do something stupid, aren't you?"
"Shit, shit, shit, SHIT!" I swore repeatedly at myself as I patted down my pockets while running, looking for any of my equipment.
Of course, there were none.
No rod, no amulet, no bag, no nothing ... I'd left all of my gear back at my apartment, not in any way expecting to need them while I simply popped out quickly for food. Regrettably, I remembered that even the emergency "toolbox" that I normally kept in my car was not there. I had removed it last week after thoroughly cleaning out my car's interior and had yet to put it back.
I couldn't believe the incredibly stupid, novice mistake! I could just picture the look on the old man's face and hear the riot-act that he would have read me if he was here to see this.
"Being prepared is one of the cornerstones of our profession. Always be ready and properly equipped for when the shit hits the fan."
I'd been on the receiving end of more of Jacob's rants than I could ever hope to count, that he clearly didn't even have to be present anymore for me to hear them. Every once in a while I even imagined that I could actually see him. I'm not sure what was worse to see on his face, the look of extreme rage at my impulsive nature and absentmindedness, or the look of monumental disappointment, since he knew that I could do much better.
I had thought – hoped really – that with my apprenticeship over, I would have finally been free of his lectures, but to my extreme exasperation I've come to discover that I still carried the old man with me wherever I went.
The overbearing bastard was in my head for Christ's sake!
The one thing that I did have with me was my trusty ka-bar, snug in its custom leather sheath on my belt and hidden by my flannel shirt. I'd received the seven inch Marine Corps Combat Knife from my father on my fifteenth birthday, who'd in turn received it from his father when he turned fifteen, and I'd carried it with me almost constantly since then. There was no way, no how that I was going to simply forget it, or leave it behind.
It would just have to do, I guess.
Still running and trying desperately to ignore how out of shape I was, I snapped the catch off of the sheath, and pulled the knife out by its well-worn and comfortable leather wrapped handle. I then focused my mind and will on the blade while tapping into the wellspring of immense power and energy deep at the core of my very being. It felt warm and welcoming, and I couldn't help but relax slightly from the easy familiarity at the contact.
"Questio vesica, venatio vesica, offensio vesica," I whispered over and over, letting a gentle stream of that energy, carefully and precisely sculpted by my words, will and intentions, gently flow into my knife.
I felt the intricate pattern of energy I wove gradually take shape until it quite abruptly snapped into being and set firmly into place within the blade. A slight wave of dizziness hit me then, rewarding me for my efforts and warning me of my weakened state.
Fortunately, it passed quickly enough.
I slowed my pace a bit as I crossed the street, having the presence of mind to look both ways. The last thing that I needed was to be flattened by a passing car while doing my fearless hero impression. It wouldn't help anybody, and it would really inconvenience me, not to mention being supremely embarrassing. If the old man ever heard about it – which I highly suspect that he would – I'd never hear the end of it.
"Remember that time you up and decided to act like some sort of knight in shining armor without even bothering to look both ways before crossing the street?"
Finally entering the alley itself, I started moving at a slow and cautious walk, keeping my eyes and ears open to everything around me – I didn't want to be caught by surprise by whatever danger was waiting there.
It was hard to see through the darkness, and the sounds of light neighborhood traffic muffled any noises. My still labored breathing wasn't exactly helping the situation either, but I was quickly getting it under control.
There was also some music ... soft and distant echoing down the alley. There must have been a bar nearby.
After several nerve-wracking steps deeper into the unknown, I finally saw them silhouetted by the low light coming from the opposite end of the alley. Three ... no, four figures close together, over thirty yards away. Laughing and low growls reached my ears, but beneath them all was the distinct sound of a woman's soft whimpering and distressed pleas.
"Please, no..." -sob- "Please don't hurt me."
Red hot rage burned away any and all of the nervousness from within me.
"Hey asshole! Leave her alone!" I yelled loudly, doing my level best to convey a tone of menace and absolute authority.
Three figures froze, and snapped their gazes straight toward me. I know they did, because I could see their glowing red eyes piercing through the darkness, focusing right on me.
It couldn't be just some garden variety, normal human assholes. It couldn't be an average, everyday fight, mugging, hell, even a rape. Nooo ... it had to be a few near immortal, undead predatory beings with superhuman strength, speed and senses, driven by bloodlust and some serious impulse control issues. And right on the very same night that I just happened to be near drained and forgotten all of my gear.
That's what I get for jumping into a situation head-first without all the pertinent information.
My burning rage had suddenly been replaced by an ice-cold iron ball of sheer terror, crashing down hard deep within my gut. My heart suddenly started pounding even faster and I found myself laboring for breath. Nervous sweat started to bead my forehead and numerous other parts of my body. I was gripping my knife so hard that my arm started to tremble and my hand was going numb.
'Get a grip God damn it, Nick!'
I forced myself to stand still and take a couple of deep, calming breaths. That wasn't quite enough, so I took several more.
Once again I heard Jacob's lecturing voice in my head, "Fear is the enemy of thought. Letting your fear and not your brain dictate your actions can get you or others killed!"
He had taught me that it was impossible for any sane person to be truly fearless – real bravery is actually one's ability to properly manage and direct his fear. Being able to act decisively and somewhat lucidly despite being just a hair's breadth away from pissing your pants in panic. I honestly hadn't really believed him. At least, not at first. Thankfully, personal experience eventually taught me otherwise.
I'd been scared before. Hell, I'd been outright terrified for my well-being, life, sanity and very soul on more than one occasion, and I'd been pretty much forced to learn how to keep going, working through the mind-numbing fear and thinking rationally.
For the most part, at least.
"Well, well, well ... would you look at this? We have ourselves a bonafide hero on our hands. Though not much of one by the look of him." I heard a deep voice with an accent say mockingly. English from the Caribbean, maybe with a hint of French. Two others started laughing in response – another man and a woman. "I guess that he could provide at least a bit of added entertainment and a second course."
Ouch. That ... kinda stung.
I freely admit that I am far from the rugged, strapping hero type. In fact my looks could be best described as regular, average, forgettable even. A five foot eight guy in his early to mid-twenties, head topped with shaggy dark brown hair, wearing loose faded black jeans, a red flannel shirt and a blue Justice League of America t-shirt. I'm the kind of guy that has no trouble blending into a crowd, with no one really noticing or remembering me.
But to simply dismiss me out of hand like that ... that's just like a supernatural monster, straight out of myth and legend. Always so sure of their own power and superiority over us mere mortals.
I let my growing anger and resentment insulate me from my fear and fuel my resolve. My mind was now focusing like a laser on the dilemma I now faced.
I'd interrupted a small group of vampires just about to feed upon an unsuspecting victim. Under the current conditions, I was seriously outmatched and would most likely soon end up supplementing their meal. Or, maybe worse yet, ending up as one of their numbers.
Luckily, I had three things going in my favor.
My first advantage was the location. Whenever vampires hunted in packs, they liked to use ambush tactics, surrounding their prey. In this narrow alleyway my flanks were more or less protected, forcing them to come at me head-on and hopefully one at a time.
Of course, once they did, they'd use their superior speed and strength to quickly tear me apart and leisurely suck on the bloody pieces.
Secondly, I'm pretty sure that I was smarter than any one of them, maybe even all three put together. No, I'm not boosting.
Despite my youth I'm pretty damn smart and cunning, with ample experience with planning under ... well, let's just call them "strenuous circumstances". And though vampires can potentially have centuries of accumulated experience under their belt, they're naturally impulsive at the best of times, generally letting their predatory instincts and big egos make the decisions for them.
My third, last and fortunately biggest advantage was that they had no idea who the hell they were fucking with.
There was a short cry of alarm and some crashing sounds as I saw the shadowy form of what I took to be their intended victim thrown hard to the side. She impacted a brick wall a couple of feet away, only to be slide down to the ground, hidden from view by some dumpsters.
All right ... the hostage was now temporarily taken out of the equation. Now all I had to worry about was keeping myself alive. To do that, I needed to see exactly what I was facing.
I raised my free hand to my eyes and rubbed them gently, while letting loose another, smaller whisper of power intricately woven into another, quite different set of patterns.
There was a warm tickling sensation from my eyes, but I ignored it. The new wave of dizziness which immediately followed it, along with nausea was a little harder to ignore, but I did until all of the sensations subsided.
When I once again opened my eyes I could see everything in the darkened alleyway. It was a far cry from what it would have been like in broad daylight, but much better than what some high-tech night-vision goggles might have been able to do. And in full colors too.
I didn't let myself be distracted by the scenery (besides the trash and graffiti, there wasn't much to see anyways), focusing all my attention on the dangerous vampires before me.
The one that stood in the middle of the group, the one that had spoken out, was a tall, fit and rather handsome black man, dressed in what looked like a very expensive and perfectly tailored black suit and shirt, with a blood red tie. He looked dangerous and intelligent – definitely a bad combination to go up against, even at the best of times. On the surface, he could have been anywhere between his mid thirties to well into his fifties, but I knew that he was most likely much older. A century old, tops – an older, more established vampire probably wouldn't bother to go out hunting. They'd have other means for arranging their necessary supply of blood.
To either side and slightly behind him there were a young man and an even younger woman. Both were fidgeting slightly with barely contained excitement and, I was willing to bet, hunger.
Newbie vamps, still high on the intoxicating power and the endless possibilities of their new inhuman abilities and immortal existence.
The guy was in his twenties, white, a bit shaggy looking and rail-thin, dressed in a similar suit, minus the tie. It looked ill-fitting and a bit sloppy on him though. With his sly smirk and shifty eyes, he looked much more like some sort of opportunistic scavenger instead of a dangerous predator.
The girl, on the other hand, was a cute and curvy blue-eyed blonde dressed in a skin tight and revealing red and black dress which showed off an almost obscene amount of pale, smooth skin. She was definitely good-looking, a unique blend of schoolgirl innocence and sultry sexiness, but overall a bit too young for my tastes.
I idly wondered what she was doing out so late on a school night.
Besides their red eyes, I could now see their fully extended, pearly white and razor sharp fangs on their faces. Besides that, they looked completely normal; people you probably wouldn't give a second look at if you happened to cross paths on the street.
Of course, that was one of the vampire's greatest strengths – the ability to blend in seamlessly amongst their prey.
"Oooh, please let me have him Victor? You and Billy can have the girl all to yourselves..." said the girl in an obviously teenage whine. You would have thought that she was begging her daddy for the car keys to meet up with her friends at the mall.
Victor, the black man and the apparent leader, chuckled, turned his head to her and answered, "You can have your fill of him ... after we all have some fun and a taste."
Her response was a low groan, brimming with disappointment at just how unfair the universe was to her. The other guy snickered in amusement, but before she could angrily respond, they were both silenced by a stern look and a menacing growl from Victor.
Listening to the vampires squabbling over who was going to get to eat me was not helping me keep my cool. The longer this took, the worse my chances at survival were.
It was time to move things along – it was time to poke the bear.
"You got a big mouth on you Vickie, but I don't see you doing anything." I spoke firmly, no waver or hint of fear in my voice.
Pretty impressive ... I honestly wasn't sure if I was going to be able to pull it off.
His gaze snapped back on me and I saw the fury written all over his face and his entire body tense, ready to pounce. If looks could kill, I'd be six feet under already. I just kept on staring him straight in the eyes. I think that the fact that I didn't react or look away might have confused and irritated him even further.
"What ... did you ... say ... to me?" He said low, his rumbling voice dripping with menace. His accent had also got a bit thicker, I noticed.
"You heard me you sorry sack of shit! Stick to pushing around helpless girls in dark alleyways, because you obviously don't have the balls-" and that's as far as I got. With a roar of pure animalistic fury, he shot off toward me with supernatural speed.
Damn ... that certainly escalated quickly and surprisingly easily. Vickie obviously had one hell of a temper.
He should really examine that about himself.
Now though, I just had to survive my cunning plan.
Taunt the vampire leader ... piss him off ... make him attack first and solo. Even if he was still capable of thinking rationally, I'd just challenged and insulted him in front of his followers, so he had to take me down alone to reestablish his dominance and authority.
Vampires are like that. Pack animals with a strict and often brutal social structure, based on dominance and submission.
It reminded me a bit of high school.
Facing down a trio of near immortal, super strong and fast bloodthirsty monsters while nearly unarmed and practically worn-out ... yes, this plan definitely walked the very fine line found somewhere between simply "risky" and outright "suicidal". Unfortunately, it seemed to be the only choice open to me at the time that had even the slimmest chance of succeeding.
On the bright side, I have a lot of experience with harebrained schemes. Jacob blamed it on me watching way too much Looney Toons as a child.
Hell, what am I saying? I still watch them.
The distance between Victor and me shrank at a shocking rate – it almost seemed as if he was flying over the ground. I reigned in a stab of fear, even though I felt like screaming like a little girl and running all the way home. I didn't dare blink. I stood there, waiting ... waiting for the exact right time...
"Venor!" I yelled as I threw my knife down the alley as hard as I could. It whistled through the air with unnatural speed and strength, heading right for the oncoming vampire.
He of course had seen me winding up and throwing it so, slowing only slightly, he darted just enough to the side to let the blade fly right past his head. And he just kept on barreling toward me with all of his supernatural speed.
I could see the haughty look of triumph on his oncoming face.
As he approached I didn't dodge or even try to stand my ground. It would have been a futile effort. He was simply too fast and strong, not to mention pissed off, for a straight up, one-on-one clash to work. Knowing that, I simply rolled backwards, blunting the jarring impact of his hands on my shoulders somewhat.
For a mere second, we were both airborne. Almost in slow motion, I saw his mouth over me, his jaw unhinged like that of a snake, reaching out for my neck. He had a strong vice-like grip on my shoulders and I knew that I'd be bruised tomorrow. Only my hands on his chest temporarily kept him from biting down as soon as he had got a solid hold on me. I noticed the complete lack of rational thought in his eyes ... all that was there was bloodthirsty instinct.
This was it. It was risky, but I needed him at arm's length in order to take him out in one blow. If I missed this, I was dead, and so was that poor woman.
There was no fear now. There was no time for it.
I once again tapped into the power deep within me and released it through my arms and out my palms. Keeping my mind focused on long studied and memorized symbols and equations, I shaped the power into what I wanted and screamed out, "ARDEO!"
The energy didn't come as a gentle trickle this time. It burst forward with me shaping it into an incredibly violent, but carefully controlled flood. I felt a momentary contact buzz from the power - sweet, soothing electricity, pulsing through my veins.
I might have actually smiled if the situation hadn't been so dire.
A bright, momentary, but incredibly powerful gust of flames surged from my palms directed right at the center of the vampire's chest. Over the sound of the flame's woosh, I heard the vampire's growl cut off into a short-lived scream of panic and agony. The heat's backwash was so intense, that the hairs on my forearms were singed. I couldn't see what happened next since I had closed my eyes and turned my head to keep the bright light from temporarily blinding me, but considering as I was still alive after hitting the ground, I assumed that it had worked.
The skidding backwards roll was sloppy and more than a bit painful, but it got the job done. What was worse was the bout of weakness and nausea that hit me, now greatly enhanced and accompanied by the beginnings of a headache. It actually took a couple of moments for me to notice that the muscles of my limbs were jerking spastically ever so slightly.
Not a good sign.
Wobbling slightly I stood up, and then glanced behind me to check on Victor. Through blinking eyes I saw that he had landed several feet away, but still well within the concealment of the alley. Though his leg was still twitching slightly, he clearly wasn't going to be any more trouble for me, or anybody else for that matter. There was a charred and smoldering hole clear through his chest, completely destroying his heart, part of his lungs and severing his spinal cord.
I didn't look at him for long, nor did I breathe through my nose. I knew that the sight of him, as well as the smell of burnt flesh would make me throw up what little was in my stomach.
Now that would certainly ruin the badass image that I was shooting for.
Vampires can recover from a lot of damage pretty quickly. The more recently they have fed, the more rapidly and efficient they can repair damage to their bodies. I've even heard about them regrowing entire lost limbs over some time.
Any major damage to the heart or head though ... well, there's no coming back from that.
I turned back to look down the alley and was relieved to see that only one vampire was left standing.