Vampire hunters have only two rules. The first one is to always get your quarry; the second never to mix business with your personal life. In fact, it was recommended not to even have a personal life, because if the vampires got wind of your mundane persona, your family members would be next on the list to die.
Russ knew this. He'd known this ever since he joined up with the Hunters at the tender age of eighteen. He'd known this when he first met Naomi. He'd known this when they dated, and eventually married, and through the birth of their daughter, Rosemarie.
But now, stuck in Southern Kentucky with no backup nearby and a nest of vampires somewhere in the vicinity, with Naomi refusing to speak to him--she'd fled to her parents' house with the baby--Russ fingered the photograph he'd taped to the dashboard of his van and sighed. Sometimes he hated the second rule.
He'd been chosen for this assignment because he was very, very good at his job. And he knew this with no sort of overblown sense of his own importance; he knew he was good at his job. That went without saying. And he also knew that he was the best person for this particular job, too.
If only--Russ closed his eyes and drummed his hands against the steering wheel. He had to concentrate. He could not think of Naomi and the baby now.
The steady beeping of one of the lights on the dashboard caught his gaze, and he realized that while he had been distracted, his quarry was on the move. Eyes glued to the computer display on the passenger side seat, he watched as a red dot emerged from the house he couldn't see and started walking up the driveway.
His palms were damp with sweat. He realized, suddenly, that he was far too nervous about this, even though unearthing such a large nest of vampires might mean he'd end up in the record books. Especially if he could pull this off.
His quarry kept moving, strolling almost, and Russ watched until the red dot was only forty feet away. The driveway was just past the stand of trees he'd hidden his van behind; only a quick dash through light underbrush and nothing more. Russ glanced at the dashboard; the same light beeped, indicating the presence of only one vampire, no more, no less.
A piece of cake, really. The accumulation of weeks of work, yes, but almost disappointing in its simplicity.
He grabbed his bag. Opened the driver's side door, leaving everything else behind. The van was sheathed in wards; no vampire would be able to detect it.
He didn't count on the fact that there might be humans with the vampires, or that his particular talent with technology might not be as rare as the Hunters claimed.
Russ took two steps away from the van and something--something exploded around him; a trap, he realized, but not a trap he could escape. A sticky mess of magic and energy from the electric lines spread in a deadly web of humming magic around him, effectively scrambling any sort of defense he might be able to muster. He tried--he had to try--but the resulting backlash brought him to his knees.
He dropped his bag, and knelt there on all fours, desperately trying to focus on something he could use. There was dirt under his fingers, but dirt wouldn't help him; there were leaves; he didn't realize that the net had drawn close around him until it latched onto his arm. He screamed as it wrapped around him like a particularly nasty choking weed; it had him helpless in the breath of an instant and he could do nothing to save himself.
The thought that he'd never see Naomi or Rosemarie crossed his mind and vanished under an onslaught of pain.
He recognized that voice. His quarry. Watched as the vampire picked up his bag, its contents scattered on the ground when he dumped it out. Along with stakes and bottled garlic and holy water, his quarry tossed a small black button on the ground in front of Russ; back in the van, the red dot would be right in front of his nose now.
He tried to breathe, but the spell held him fast, choking off everything, including breath. Black dots danced in front of his eyes.
"Niles!" The vampire snapped the word, or the name, Russ supposed, and the relentless pressure eased up a bit. Not enough to speak, and he still couldn't move, but he could breathe now, barely, in faint, shallow gasps.
And a boy, also familiar, his hair a bit longer than fashion currently allowed, dressed in a t-shirt and torn jeans, stepped out of the trees and glared down at Russ.
At least he could understand being double-crossed. But how had the boy hidden his talent?
"Bring him," the vampire said, and turned away with the empty bag in his hand. He let it fall; crumpled onto the ground, and then someone grabbed Russ' arms--two someones, both vampires. And they lifted him up, effortlessly, and one said to the boy, "Do you think you could let him walk, at least?"
"He's not likely to know how to do magic with his toes," the other added, and Russ felt something release around his legs; he kicked out, or tried to--an automatic response--and the strangling pressure returned tenfold.
"Niles," his quarry said sharply. And then, to Russ, he said, "If you swear you will not attempt to escape, I'll allow you to walk. You have my word you will not be harmed."
But it was too late, even to laugh at the thought of trusting a vampire's word. Russ felt blackness rise up to claim him, heard the vampire growl at Niles again, and felt--absolutely nothing, for a blessed space of time.
Russ awoke, much later, to find he lay in a bed, not in a dungeon, or in a coffin, or on a floor, or anywhere uncomfortable at all. A perfectly normal, mundane bed, with white sheets and a comforter that had probably been purchased at a department store. His head lay on a feather pillow. The last time the sheets and pillowcase had been laundered, someone had used lemongrass scented detergent.
He turned his head. There was a vampire sitting in an upholstered chair--green upholstery, his mind supplied. An elegant paisley pattern that almost matched the comforter--less than five feet away. Russ' mind tried to convince him that he'd be able to launch himself at the vampire before it could move, but he had no weapons, and even he couldn't kill a vampire with his bare hands.
And he wasn't quite sure he could move.
The vampire was reading a book. Russ couldn't see the title because the vampire's hand was blocking it, but it was something by Nelson DeMille. And the vampire seemed to be wholly absorbed in the story.
"I know you're awake," the vampire said before Russ could speak, or try to move, or do anything but stare. He placed a bookmark--an actual bookmark--to save his place (vampires didn't dogear books?) and closed it. Folded his hands, and laced them across one bent knee.
The vampire wore human clothes, of course; they usually did. And he seemed to be about twenty; brown hair, slightly wavy. Green eyes. Pale skin, of course. Russ had never been so close to one without a weapon at hand, however. It wasn't a pleasant feeling.
"My name is Ethan," the vampire said calmly, as if discussing the weather with an acquaintance. "Your name is Russell Moore."
That they knew his name wasn't shocking; that Russ recognized the vampire's name left him stunned. He licked his lips. "Ethan Walker?"
"Welcome to my home," Ethan said, and picked up something from the table beside his chair. "Here. I think this is yours."
The vampire held out what Russ assumed was a piece of paper, at first. But then he realized it was the photograph of Naomi and Rosemarie, slightly singed on one corner, but otherwise intact.
He hadn't remembered taking it with him. Or had they found it in his van? Had they--
Ethan smiled, almost pitying. "You've been unconscious for less than three hours," he said. "We're not that good." There was no threat in his voice; no sign at all that he was lying. "And I can read your emotions quite easily, Mr. Moore. You can't access your talents here; Niles made sure of that."
"You--you killed--" Quite a large piece of Russ' mind kept shouting at him to shut up, but he couldn't stop himself from speaking.
"No. Not me," Ethan said. "No one here, actually, although we do know the identity of the one you seek."
Russ was after all, on a murder investigation. And the murderer was definitely a vampire. And all signs had pointed directly to Ethan Walker, who was--although Russ now doubted his sources--the leader of this particular nest of vampires.
Desperately, Russ tried to wrest his mind back to coherence. He saw that the vampire still held the photo out to him; he reached out to take it and realized that his hand was shaking.
Ethan didn't comment on it, although he couldn't have missed it. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
Russ stared at him. He wasn't used to this; not at all. Vampires were the enemy. If you were captured by the enemy, you died. There were no prisoners; no second chances. None at all. If they didn't kill you right away, then they made you into a vampire.
How would he know if they had?
"You're still human," Ethan said, as if Russ had spoken that question out loud. "You're still Russell Moore, Vampire Hunter. That hasn't changed."
"What has?" Russ asked before he could stop himself.
"The fact that you're here, with us," Ethan said calmly. "And that you haven't--in truth--been harmed."
"That spell--you count that as unharmed?" Russ asked. He wrestled with the sheets and the comforter for a moment, trying to sort out his arms and legs, then gave up, glaring at Ethan. "Unharmed?"
"Nothing a little rest won't cure," Ethan declared. "I'll have someone bring you something to eat." He stood; Russ had to steel himself not to flinch back. Vampire hunters did not flinch.
Ethan smiled briefly. "You'll feel better in the morning," he said. "I swear it."
"What will happen in the morning?" Russ asked, and felt something curious twist through his chest. After a moment, he realized it was fear.
"We'll talk," Ethan said. "Now get some rest."
Russ never knew if the vampire put him to sleep with some sort of suggestion or if he truly was tired enough to close his eyes and fall asleep in the middle of a nest of vampires by himself. But he felt his eyes slip shut; felt weariness tug at consciousness, and he was drifting again, in an endless sea of darkness. And for a little while, he was at peace.
"Someone" was a child, around seven years old, thin and poised, her hair combed neatly and pulled back into two braids on either side of her head. There were no adults with her; no sign that anyone watched her from the door.
Russ could have overpowered her in an instant; could have taken her prisoner and demanded to be set free. He could have done all of that, but without his talent, he was at a disadvantage. Attempting to escape, now, without any understanding of Niles' spell or how to break it would be suicide.
And this girl, this child, was not a vampire.
So he sat up, vaguely surprised that he could, and pushed back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed while she watched. He still wore his own clothes. He still couldn't feel Niles' spell. Did it exist? Or had the vampire--had Ethan--been bluffing?
"Mama made you breakfast," the girl said softly, nervously. "And Uncle Ethan asked me to bring it to you."
"Thank you," Russ said, because he had no reason not to be polite.
The girl scurried out, leaving him alone with a tray of food and a host of unanswered questions.
In stocking feet, Russ stood and shuffled over to the tray. There was orange juice to drink, in a glass pitcher. Silverware wrapped in a napkin. A fork, a spoon--a knife?
Numbly, Russ waved his hand over the food--buttered toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, and with what smelled like real maple syrup, too. And he murmured the familiar spell to detect poison, or drugs, and nothing happened.
The spell worked; that wasn't the issue. The spell worked. Which meant--
Without turning around, he said, "What do you want from me?"
"That would be the question, wouldn't it?" Ethan asked from the doorway. "How do you feel?"
Russ glanced back at him. "Dizzy," he said, and picked up the knife. "What did you do to me?" He knew Ethan hadn't missed his movements; deliberately, he picked up a piece of toast and spread jelly across the melted butter.
Even before he'd taken a bite, he realized he was ravenous.
"It was Niles' spell," Ethan said, almost apologetically. "He didn't realize it would affect you the way it did--"
"How did it affect me?" Russ asked, and sat down, because the chair looked more inviting than the floor. "Why am I so dizzy?"
"You've been unconscious for two days," Ethan said simply. "You stopped breathing twice before we realized what had happened. At first, we thought you'd taken something. Please accept my apologies."
Russ sat and chewed on the toast for a moment in silence, considering this. He selected another piece, ate it, too, and then, because he had nothing better to do, poured himself a cup of orange juice.
He felt--off-balance and strange. Dizzy, yes, but also oddly accepting, as if some part of his body realized that he'd been unconscious for two days and had already accepted that fact.
"You thought I'd taken something, like what?" Russ asked.
"The Hunters are known for their prowess with poisons," Ethan replied. "It would make sense that you might be inclined to kill yourself instead of listening to what I have to say."
"You're not that boring of a speaker," Russ said absently, and then, hopefully, "Do you have any coffee?"
"Coffee?" Ethan asked.
"Caffeine?" Russ countered. "Not tea? I mean, I'll drink tea, but I need coffee."
"I'll--ah--see what we can do," Ethan replied, and vanished from the doorway.
Leaving it open. Interesting. Russ ate the rest of the food--except for the bacon, drank another glass of orange juice, and watched the door. After a few minutes, he stood up and wandered into the bathroom that adjoined the bedroom; when he emerged, there was a thermos of hot water on the table with a mug and a stack of those coffee teabags, which were only a step up from actual tea in Russ' opinion.
Russ made a cup without checking if it was poisoned; if Ethan wanted him dead, he would have been dead already. And he sat back down in the chair and closed his eyes and drank; felt the fuzziness finally lift from his mind.
"You do realize Niles had to break the spell?" he asked without opening his eyes.
"You do realize you're surrounded by vampires, and you'd have a very hard time escaping if you tried?" Ethan asked, again from the doorway.
"'Very hard' doesn't mean impossible," Russ said, and wondered why he wasn't afraid. "Why am I here?"
"A few of the others thought I should let you die," Ethan said. "You are well within your rights to retaliate. I am asking that you do not."
Russ opened his eyes. Stared at Ethan for a moment, then motioned to the other chair. "Please, sit down. Don't hover." And then, when Ethan didn't move, he asked, "You would accept the word of a vampire hunter?"
"If you would accept the word of a vampire," Ethan said. "No one here will harm you. We only wish to be left in peace."
Peace was such a funny word. So far-reaching; so impossible. "The Hunters and the vampires will never know peace," he said.
"But what about Ethan Walker and Russell Moore?" Ethan asked.
"You are asking me to betray--"
"No." Ethan stepped inside the room and closed the door. "I'm not asking you to betray anyone or anything. Your ideals remain intact. You are under no compulsion to kill each and every last one of us here; the only reason why you're here is to find a murderer. Am I right?"
Russ thought about it for a moment. "Technically, yes. Except for the fact that all of my evidence points towards you as the killer."
"All of your evidence is circumstantial," Ethan said. "And we've already found the real murderer."
Russ sat up straight. "You have? Where is he?"
"All in due time," Ethan said, and folded his arms. "I would have your word, if you will give it to me."
"That I stay silent about you?" Russ asked. "I can't do that. You might as well kill me and be done with it; I cannot--and will not--betray the Hunters."
"I'm not asking you to," Ethan said patiently. "I'm only asking that you not retaliate against us. This house. Here. Me. My family. And in exchange you will leave here alive with your murderer in hand. Your task will be complete. And you can see your family again. As I wish to see mine."
"They will still see that as a betrayal," Russ said, and knew that to be truth, deep down in his heart. He carefully set down the mug. Was the knife sharp enough? He would soon find out. "You see, the Hunters exist for one goal and one goal alone; to eliminate vampires from this world. If I were to ignore what I know; if I dared pretend I didn't know you are here, then who would I betray next? My family? No." He picked up the knife; carefully wiped it free of jelly. "I can no more ignore your presence than I can pretend my wife was wrong when she said there was no room in my life for her or our daughter."
There were tears in his eyes now, blurring Ethan's face. He stood up and faced the vampire. "You don't understand. Just by speaking to you I'm already compromised. I'm already--lost."
He sliced the knife across his wrist, or tried to, but the vampire was there in an instant, tearing the knife away; blocking the spells Russ threw at him until finally, his temper snapped and he snarled in frustration and lifted Russ up with one hand.
"I offered you your life!"
Russ closed his eyes. "My life does not matter."
"Not even to your daughter, who will grow up never knowing her father?" Ethan asked, and let him fall back down.
"Perhaps it's better that way," Russ whispered, and opened his eyes when Ethan didn't reply.
The little girl stood in the doorway, eyes wide, one hand on the doorknob. Ethan had turned to face her. Russ could have picked up the knife; could have stabbed Ethan Walker in the back; could have then taken the girl hostage; he could have done these things. He had done them before. Well, not to a human child. But he could have.
"Emily?" Ethan asked.
"Aden said if you're not going to bring him soon, he's going to go back home," the girl reported. "Because he thinks you are stalling."
She sounded as if she was quoting the last part.
"I imagine he does," Ethan said dryly. "Tell him he can wait a few minutes more."
"Who is Aden?" Russ asked. "And I thought this was your home." And then, before Ethan could reply, he said, slowly, "This isn't your home."
"No, of course not," Ethan said. "Do you think I'd be stupid enough to keep a live Hunter in my own house?"
Emily giggled at his tone of voice.
Russ didn't feel much like giggling. "Then what do you want from me?" he asked, almost plaintively.
"Peace between us," Ethan said immediately. Seriously. As if that was the simplest thing in the world to request.
"You're crazy," Russ said before he could stop himself.
"Perhaps." Ethan didn't seem to be disturbed by the prospect. "But if no one ever tries, then how will something so impossible ever be achieved?"
There were no words to refute that kind of logic. Russ stared at him, then at Emily, and wondered if the vampires had scary stories about the Hunters as the Hunters had scary stories about the vampires. Every assignment he'd ever been on had been justified; at least on paper. He'd never come across a nest--a house--a family--like this one before.
He licked his lips. "Uncle Ethan?"
"Emily is my sister's daughter, yes," Ethan said mildly.
"And you let her come here? You left her alone with me?"
"I had hopes that you wouldn't murder a human child, even if she lives in a vampire's household," Ethan said.
"But I could have," Russ whispered, appalled that he had even entertained the thought.
"But you didn't," Emily pointed out. "You didn't even try."
"But I thought about it," Russ told her, and hunched over with his head in his hands. "I considered it."
"And yet you didn't act," Ethan said. "Why not?"
"I don't know." Russ whispered the words and found them wanting. It wasn't that he didn't know; he couldn't bear to examine his reasons for hesitating. For not doing exactly what they had to expect him to do. He raised his head. "Emily is your sister's daughter? But I thought you were born a vampire."
"I was," Ethan said, amused. "You Hunters don't know everything about vampires."
"That's quite obvious," Russ said. "None of what I've learned prepared me for you."
Emily giggled again, then covered her mouth with both hands.
"Go tell Aden we'll be along in a few minutes," Ethan said to her.
"You sound certain I'll be coming with you," Russ said slowly.
Ethan spread his hands. "Aren't you at all curious about us? I'm giving you a chance to see how we live; to decide for yourself--with no lies, no untruths--whether or not we are the monsters you think we are. My house would be open to you. I would hold no secrets."
"Why would you give me that chance if I could turn around and destroy you?" Russ asked.
Ethan took a moment to reply, as if choosing his words with care. "There are vampires who make the rest of us look like monsters," he said. "Who prey on humans and kill for their own pleasure. I'll not deny that. And I would agree that those vampires need to be punished. And sometimes, that punishment means death. In those cases, I would welcome a human judge."
Russ couldn't disagree with that. And perhaps Ethan saw something in the expression on his face, or his posture, or something, because he only hesitated a moment before continuing.
"But in all other cases? We live. We pass as humans most of the time. We hold jobs. We pay taxes. We vote. And just because we rely on humankind to live, does that mean the rest of us are monsters, too?"
"I thought so," Russ whispered. "I've always been told that was true."
"Don't you think it's time that you made up your own mind?" Ethan asked.
"A vampire murdered my sister," Russ said. "When I was seventeen." He hadn't meant to tell Ethan anything, but the words slipped out. "His actual target was my sister's friend--she died, too--along with the other two people in the car."
"What happened to the vampire?" Ethan asked quietly.
"I killed him," Russ said. "With a kitchen knife." He tried to smile, but he couldn't dredge up enough strength to make it stick. "A late-blooming talent brought on by stress. My sister's friend came back; I don't know what happened to her."
But he could guess, and so could Ethan.
"I won't say he shouldn't have died," Ethan said. "But your sister's friend? She was an innocent in this."
"What if I don't change my mind?" Russ asked. "What if I decide that you are monsters? What then? You call your experiment a failure and kill me anyway?"
"I give you my word that you will leave my care--alive and whole," Ethan said. "All I ask in exchange is--"
"My word that I will not harm you or yours," Russ murmured. "You've told me that already." He wiped one hand across his face. Did he have any other choice if he wanted to live? Did he want to live? He knew what would happen if Ethan kept his word; he'd return to the fold and they would debrief him, and isolate him from everyone for months until they were satisfied he wasn't either a vampire or a spy.
But if Ethan kept his word, and allowed him to leave, would he have to go back?
That thought stopped him cold. Why wouldn't he go back? He was a Hunter. He had no other skills; no other desire in life than to hunt vampires. If he vanished off the face of the earth, he'd have to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life, because there were vampires out there who wanted him dead. If the Hunters claimed him compromised, they'd put a price on his head as well.
Did he have any chance at all to live somewhere quietly with Naomi and Rosemarie? To see his daughter grow up? Vampire Hunters didn't retire; they died. There were no alternatives.
Would he have any chance at all if he took Ethan's offer and changed his mind?
Did it matter?
"I have--one small request if you don't mind," Russ said slowly.
"Name it," Ethan said.
"Could I--Naomi and I didn't part on good terms," Russ said. "Could I call her? They're likely to tell her I'm dead, and I--I would rather she not grieve for me."
"Hmm." Ethan folded his arms. Stroked his chin. "I think we'd have to ask Niles if he could block any sort of tracking spell they might have on her phone," he said. "But it could be done if he agrees he could do such a thing."
Russ nodded. "Thank you." He felt--odd again, short of breath; his fingers tingling, his vision bordered with gray. "Then you have my word."
And there; he had broken almost fifteen years of blind acceptance with a single sentence.
He started to get up; actually made it to his feet before Ethan caught his arm as he swayed.
"You look terrible," the vampire said. "Why don't you lie down for a bit? Aden can wait."
And Russ was so numb that he allowed Ethan to maneuver him across the room to the bed, and he was so numb that he didn't even care that a vampire pulled the sheets back the rest of the way and carefully helped him lie down. He was numb enough to close his eyes and allow himself to drift away without stopping to consider the fact that he had given his word to a vampire--and that he meant to keep it.