Marcus woke unexpectedly, groggy and disoriented. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew he had woken early. Even buried in the basement, he felt the sun’s weight, sapping his strength. A huge man with ebony skin was standing over him, holding a stake to his chest. Apparently, the ancient vampire mused, there were still things in the world he hadn’t seen.
The man met Marcus’ eyes and froze. Marcus would have laughed if he could have moved that much. “Go on, hunter.” Speaking against the weight of the mid-day sun was like rolling boulders up hill, but then nothing came easy. “I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to. And I am not sure I do.”
For a long moment, the hunter just stared at him. Then the sun won, sending Marcus back into darkness.
Halogen lights broke the darkness outside the trail-cum-headquarters. Marcus paced the central room muttering under his breath and listening for approaching footsteps. A precise half step from the wall he turned a crisp about-face, and returned the way he had come. Five years earlier, rather than killing him, the vampire hunter he knew only as Chuck had taken him prisoner. He never knew why – maybe the hunter thought killing was too good for a vampire who wanted to die. Either way, Marcus woke up that evening in a tiny room, wearing a home-made electric collar that could take down an elephant. Chuck had used the collar to compel Marcus to obey and assist him.
What Chuck didn’t know, was that Marcus was old enough he could shrug off a lightning bolt. He’d played along for the amusement factor. At first. Totally unexpectedly, the ancient soldier had found a commander who earned his loyalty.
And now that commander had gone missing.
That morning, just before the sun had forced Marcus into his daily slumber, Chuck had set out after a new target. This time, a five hundred year old vampire that was terrorizing co-eds. Cliched, but effective. Marcus didn’t like seeing Chuck go out after the target alone – going by day there shouldn’t have been any danger, Chuck had hunted vampires for nearly a decade in the military before going private. He knew what he was doing. But this lamia was rumored to be sorcerer. Marcus tried to warn the human, but Chuck went out regardless.
When Marcus woke, Chuck hadn’t yet returned. Attempts to reach him by phone went straight to voice mail. Something had gone wrong. If the target had some way of functioning during the day, chances were Chuck was already dead.
After 2000 years of ‘chances were’, Marcus knew the unlikely happened. And he refused to believe the hunter would have gone down easy. Now he had a decision to make. He ran a finger along the collar, feeling how fragile the contraption was. How easy it would be to crush between his fingers.
No, he realized, there was no decision. The collar shattered. In an instant, all its stored power directly into his carotid. If he’d still be alive it would turned his brain to ashes. If he’d been even a century or two younger, it might have seriously injured him. As it was, the jolt knocked him to the floor, locking his muscles and driving a scream of agony from his lips.
As he lay, shivering, on the floor he smiled at his own arrogance. Humans, it seemed, built better lightning bolts than Jupiter these days.
It took a few minutes to dig up Chuck’s plans for the prior day. Then ten minutes cursing the Internet connection when Google maps refused to load. Finally, he opened the door and stepped out into the wider world.
The world was alive with scents and sounds he hadn’t heard in far too long. Most of the past five years had been spent in the trailer, and the scent of fresh blood on the wind tried to seduce him. Old habits let him file the sensation away, to enjoy later, and focus on the task at hand. Stretching his legs for the first time in years, he took off towards Chuck’s target.
Under the circumstances, he wasn’t entirely surprised to find the old Victorian house (another cliches?) engulfed in flames and surrounded by cops and firemen. Obviously neither the target nor the hunter had gone down easily. Flames could be seen flickering through the windows, but most of the walls were still intact.
Strong and near indestructible he might be, one thing Marcus couldn’t do was turn invisible. Luckily, the chaos provided an invisibility of its own, and he was practically walking up the front steps before anyone took notice of him.
Inside the building was an inferno. The floor plan Chuck had hacked included an old cellar. If the hunter still survived he’d be down there, away from the smoke. One more reason to be grateful he didn’t need to breath.
Seeing through the smoke and flames was nearly impossible, and Marcus was badly burned before he found the basement stairs and dropped down to safer territory. While the fire was starting to spread below, it wasn’t as all consuming as the flames above ground. And out of the roar of the inferno, he was able to hear a familiar, pounding heart-beat.
Following the sound led him through ancient furniture and stacks of antiques, around a corner to a tiny hallway that hadn’t been in the plans. As he crept towards the hallway, he was nearly deafened by the roar of a magnum.
“Your gun is almost empty, my friend, and this game grows old.” Smooth, unctuous, seductive, Marcus nearly groaned aloud at the strange voice. Someone had watched too many Dracula movies.
Close enough now to see the speaker. The vampire was a near-twin to Count Orlock. He was flitting back and forth across a doorway, and laughed another gunshot emerged from the room he guarded.
Marcus rolled his eyes, “I’ve a game for you, bastard.” Pitching his voice to carry, Marcus launched himself at the Orlock-look alike. The other vampire whirled to face the unexpected threat, then staggered as Chuck took advantage of that distraction to shoot him in the back. With the target off balance and in pain, Marcus slammed him into the wall and speared a hand into the ribcage.
The other’s eyes widened in shock and horror, his mouth gaped open but nothing came out. Marcus’ hand found the heart and he ripped it out.
The enemy collapsed at his feet, and he froze as he felt the hot muzzle of a gun press against his temple. “Move and I will blow your brains.”
Marcus froze. “Finally ready to be rid of me, Chuck?” The pressure wavered for an instant and Marcus turned, knocking the gun from the hunter’s hand.
Even in the flicking light of the growing flames, Chuck was a mess. Marcus had trouble believing he could still stand.
Chuck blinked at him, then shook his head. “Marcus? What… what the hell are you doing here?”
“Survival first. We need to get out of here without being seen by the officials outside.” Chuck staggered and Marcus managed to grab him before he fell.
“Cellar has a back door,” Chuck said. Marcus followed Chuck’s directions, half supporting the other man. Once there, he carefully cracked the door and peeked out. While not completely unobserved, the back door wasn’t surrounded the way they front was.
Not seeing any other options, especially when Chuck collapsed against him entirely, Marcus picked up the hunter and burst through, running at literally inhuman speed. It drew the attention of far too many people, but none of them had a hope in hell of keeping up with him and none had cameras. And with the fire, all had bigger problems then two strange men who weren’t supposed to be there.
If there was any pursuit, he lost it quickly and returned to the trailer.
Chuck came to at the first aid station in the trailer. Memory took a few minutes to return. When it did, he bolted upright.
Marcus was next to him, preparing bandages. “By Vediovis grace, none of those burns need debriding,” the old vampire said.
Chuck stared, trying to think through the pain. The vamp was collar-less. That certainly checked with his memories. But the vamp was acting like this was no different from any night after a hunt. Why the hell was the monster bandaging him up rather than tearing his throat out? Why the hell that he saved Chuck?!
Well, the vamp was almost acting no different. Chuck had yet to get a good look at the other’s face. When the vampire turned back to the table for more bandages, Chuck finally caught a glimpse, and saw the lengthened incisors. Reflexively he said, “Go get a drink, before you take one out of me.”
Then stared in shock as Marcus grimaced, but obeyed.
Feeling light-headed, Chuck reached up and checked his face. Yup, oxygen mask. Probably necessary after all the smoke inhalation. Plus pain meds. As Marcus finished devouring the bagged blood, Chuck tried to convince himself he was hallucinating. But he was never good at lying to himself.
And sure sure as hell wasn’t hallucinating the burns he saw peaking through Marcus’ clothing. “Sit down.” Chuck pointed at a chair next to the aid station.
“Shut up.” If the vamp wanted to pretend everything was normal, then damned it Chuck was going to take any backtalk. “You could have gotten yourself killed saving my ass, you sit the fuck down and let me see those burns.”
And damned if Marcus didn’t obey.
One of the blessings in Chuck’s line of work was that vampires didn’t actually heal all that fast. But Chuck figured out pretty damn quick that seeing the burns was all he’d be able to do. He had to let Marcus bandage himself, because Chuck was going to be good for fuck all for the next several weeks.
He didn’t say anything else until Marcus had gotten himself wrapped up, but damned if he wasn’t going to get some answers. “Now, not that I’m ungrateful, but what the fuck?”
Marcus stood and faced him. There was something about the way he was standing… “When you didn’t come back and didn’t answer your phone, I knew you were in trouble. I wasn’t going to sit back while got yourself killed, so I removed the collar and came after you.”
The cadence of the response, and the ever-so-respectful tone that still managed to convey “You fricking idiot” was as familiar as an old set of fatigues, and Chuck’s reply was damned near Pavlovian.
“That is by god the lamest ass debrief I have ever received. If you make me drag the answers out of you I will frag your ass and use your ashes for war paint!” Chuck was used to insane situations. Every vet was. Of course, this situation was a bit more insane than most.
Marcus barked his reply like an old sweat, “Your collar was worse shit than Pluto’s nail parings. I could have removed it anytime since you brought me here. When I determined you were out of contact I took steps to extract you. Cracking your computer gave me the address of your target. During the extraction the target was eliminated and we both sustained the injuries you are aware of.”
Chucked leaned back and crossed his arms. It suddenly occurred to him that he literally knew nothing of Marcus’ life from before he’d captured the vamp. But obviously, he’d been a solider long enough for the habits to stick with him.
“At ease. If you could have left anytime, why did you stay? Fuck, why didn’t you kill me?”
Marcus grimaced, seeming to search for words. “At first, I stay because it was something different.” The haunted look in his eyes reminded Chuck of the talking corpse that didn’t give a damn if Chuck staked him. Then the vampire shook himself, and the eyes meeting Chuck’s were fiery. “But even after a thousand years alone, I know a centurio worth following when I meet one. Why by the two-faced god should I walk away from that? To go back to the hell I was stuck in when you found me? As for killing you – or saving your meat-head tonight – if I’m lucky you’ll live another 40 years. I’m not so eager to be alone again that I’d stand back and let you get yourself killed off early!”
Chuck’s glare was a thing of beauty – he’d had years to perfect it. But he couldn’t quite make himself meet the vamp’s eyes as he pointed out, “I kill your kind.”
Marcus winced. “The last person I cared for was killed by ‘my kind’ nearly 1,000 years ago, and they nearly killed me as well. I have no kind.”
Chuck blinked, fighting through the growing pain-killer induced fog. That didn’t match anything he knew of vamp behavior. “Why?”
Now it was Marcus who wouldn’t meet his eyes. Chuck growled. “I asked you a question.”
Marcus chuckled, but there was no humor in it. Chuck barely heard his whisper, “Centurio indeed.” Then the vamp took a deep (and damned unnecessary) breath, and said, “Vampires share the hatred of the society they spring from, and medieval Europe hated many things.”
Chuck was really getting loopy. The way Marcus was trying to avoid giving a straight answer flashed him back to standing before the company commander, facing the question that was going to strip him of everything that mattered. What the fuck was so scary a frigging vampire didn’t want to talk about? He nearly told the vamp to forget it, but he had to know. “And?”
“I am a sodomite.”
The bitten off words didn’t make sense. Chuck nearly fell out of the chair as meaning penetrated the drug fog and then he started giggling. The world didn’t fucking change, did it?
The glimpses he got of Marcus’ face between convulsions suggested that he didn’t appreciate the joke, but Chuck couldn’t get control of himself. He managed to choke out, “Did I… Did I ever tell you why I left the army?”
After a moment, Marcus shook his head; confusion replacing anger in his face.
“Twenty years. Twenty goddamn years of service, and it meant nothing to them when I was outed. Marcus, I got kicked under DADT.”
Marcus grabbed a chair and collapsed into it. Apparently the ancient fiend wasn’t blind to modern politics. Or irony. After a few moments, he started chuckling too.
Eventually, the laughter died down. Looking over at Marcus, Chuck admitted to himself that he wouldn’t have kept the vamp around all these years if he didn’t like and trust him. And he wasn’t hard on the eyes, either. “So what now?”
Marcus spread his hands, “If you are willing to trust me, nothing need change. Unless you want it too.” A moments pause. “I wouldn’t object to a fresh meal once in a while.”
Chcuk couldn’t tell if Marcus was being humorous or not. Did he honestly think Chuck was going to sit back and let him- a yawn that nearly split his head open interrupted the thought.
Marcus chuckled, “And if I can make a suggestion, you can decide what to do with me tomorrow. Right now, I’m taking you to bed.”
Chuck jerked away, “Now hold on, just cause I like your company enough to put up with you the past few years doesn’t mean…”
Marcus picked him up, ignoring his protests, and carried Chuck and his oxygen tank towards the bunkroom. “I like my bed partners willing – and awake.”
“And just who’s in command around here?”
“Then consider yourself on medical leave until sunset.”
Chuck settled into bed, still protesting. As the room went dark he swore he’d get back at his erstwhile subordinate – as soon as he could keep his eyes open.