Budapest, sixteen years ago
Konrad whistled to himself as he cycled home in the darkness. Life was good. He’d had a great evening with his friends and had finished it off by walking Gizela home and kissing her at last. What’s more, he’d made a date with her for Saturday.
The future felt like an exciting country, still to be discovered in all its wonder and glory. He’d an interview at the military academy next week, which would at least begin the fulfillment of his second ambition, to become an officer in the army and study military history and strategy.
It was one of those spells of complete happiness that came upon you without warning, and Konrad welcomed it with glee.
To top it off, he felt the familiar, teasing brush against his mind. His secret insanity—the voice in his head which had been visiting him for a couple of years now.
Hello, you, he greeted it.
Hello, yourself. It was a peculiar voice. He didn’t quite hear it as such, so he couldn’t tell if it was male or female, but for some reason, he always thought of it as the latter. Nor did “she” speak in actual words, more ideas that formed themselves into words in his head, so he’d no idea where in the world she lived. Or indeed whether she did live or was just a ghost. Or pure imagination. Whichever, he couldn’t help looking forward to their chats, even if, on his more sensible days, they made him doubt his sanity.
You’re happy today, she observed.
Yes, I am. I’ve had a fun evening with friends, and I kissed Gizela.
Goodness. You’ll have to marry her now.
Konrad grinned into the darkness. Maybe I will. Will you dance at my wedding?
Sure I will. Wherever I am, I’ll be dancing.
Are you dancing now?
No, but I might do after my bath.
Ghosts didn’t bathe, so far as he knew, so she must be a real person.
Tell me, you, he said, since the “you” had almost become a name, how come we can talk to each other this way?
I’ve told you, it’s a gift some people have. It doesn’t mean you’re mad. Although, most people talking to invisible friends probably are.
I’ve never talked to anyone else like this… Have you?
Oh yes. You’ll find others too.
Will I? he asked doubtfully. Are you older than me?
Almost certainly. How old are you now?
Eighteen last night.
A sparkling burst of laughter filled his mind, making him grin as he sped around the corner into his home street. Then yes, I’m a lot older than you.
You don’t sound old, he observed.
How can you tell? I’m as old as my thumb and slightly younger than my teeth. That’s what my dad used to tell me.
Dads have to be smart-asses. It’s a job requirement.
He caught another tinkle of laughter from her, but beneath it he caught the hint of sadness that told him she no longer had her dad, smart-ass or not.
He said, I like talking to you, you.
I like talking to you, yourself.
I’m home now, Konrad told her, pulling on his brakes and jumping off the bicycle to wheel it up the drive to his house, which was large and modern—the fall of communism had been good for his family. He leaned the bike against the side of the garage and walked up the steps to the front door.
Then enjoy the rest of your happy night, she said warmly. He regretted having to go, but he couldn’t talk to her and maintain the pretense of normality with his family at the same time. It struck him suddenly that much as Gizela fired his blood, he wished he could talk to her half as easily as he could the fun and charming voice in his head.
Good night, you, he said with genuine affection.
Good night, yourself.
Her presence left him just as he put his key in the front door and walked into the hell that changed his life forever.
Sacré Coeur shone down upon the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Paris, its glowing white dome like a protective halo. If only.
Etienne should have been home in his comfortable apartment, not skulking in these dangerous streets at this hour of the night, when even the artists and the tourists slept. But hunters, it seemed, were never allowed to sleep. Etienne had been on his way home to do just that, when he’d glimpsed the shadow of a vampire vanishing around the corner. He’d known it was a vampire because his detector vibrated in his pocket.
Even so, Etienne would have paid it no attention—new hunter rules dictated that a vampire was entitled to go about his business unmolested, providing he was neither hurting nor killing his prey—except that another figure strolled around the corner after him. The second figure was not a vampire. He was human, and he moved like a hunter: quick, controlled, observant; and he was totally unknown to Etienne.
The glow of a streetlamp skimmed over the stranger’s fair head—unkempt, too-long hair, shoved back off a rough, unshaven face. One hand lay casually in the pocket of an army-style combat jacket; the other swung by his hips. A bulky backpack hung from his shoulders. If he wasn’t a hunter, surely he was special forces, and something in his wary, silent stride told Etienne he was following the vampire. Which meant that, however hard he was, he’d no idea what he was doing.
A combination of curiosity and annoyance took Etienne around the corner too—plus he acknowledged his duty to protect the human, however stupid—and that was when he knew there’d be no well-earned rest for him that night. For the stranger was walking into a trap. Definitely not a hunter.
Etienne’s detector was going nuts, its needle swinging from side to side. Two more vampires lurked in the shadows on either side of the street, emerging under Etienne’s alarmed gaze behind the stranger, hemming him in. Etienne walked faster. The presence of a hunter should scare them off…
The vampire in front suddenly spun to face the human. And the vampires behind sped into blurs.
Oh shit. Etienne broke into a run, yelling, “Back off! You’ve no idea what you’re dealing with!”
But it seemed the stranger had every idea. As the vampire in front leapt in for the kill, the stranger dodged left with a speed Etienne had never seen in a human. At the same time, he must have kicked the legs from the vampire, who fell to the ground while the stranger whirled and stabbed with the weapon in his right hand—clearly a wooden stake, for the vampire exploded into dust.
The stranger’s elbow took the third vampire in the jaw, knocking up his chin and setting him off-balance. But there was no time. The first, fallen vampire had jumped to his feet and closed from behind. The human was dead, for he couldn’t kill both, and Etienne was still yards away. He tried yelling, although he knew in his heart it would achieve nothing.
The stranger didn’t hesitate. The stake plunged again into the heart of the third vampire. At the same time, the man’s other arm shot out behind him. The first vampire screamed as the point of a second stake tore into his stomach and twisted up toward his heart. He and the stranger glared now into each other’s eyes while the vampire’s hands scrabbled uselessly at the human’s unmoving arm.
Shit, but the stranger was strong if he could hold so steady under vampire might. The human gave a last forceful push of the stake, turning the vampire to dust.
Etienne stopped in his tracks, his mouth dropping open in stunned relief. The stranger stared into the dust an instant longer, then pocketed both his stakes and glanced over his shoulder at Etienne.
Etienne flung up his hands. “Hey, we’re on the same side. I think. Who the hell are you?”
“Who wants to know?” The stranger’s tone was short, uninterested. He spoke French with an accent that could have been German or maybe east European. Already, he was walking on down the road, and Etienne had to run to catch up with him.
“My name’s Etienne. I hunt those things for a living, and I have never seen anyone take out three at one time.”
At last, he seemed to have caught the stranger’s attention. “You’re a hunter?”
Etienne felt his eyes widen. “You know about the network?”
The man’s lips twisted. “A bit.”
Although the hunter network had existed around the world for almost as long as there had been vampires to endanger humanity, very few people were aware of it. Its purpose had always been to protect humans, not just from vampires themselves but from the knowledge of undead existence. Such knowledge could only lead to all the dangers of mass panic, including a war which humanity, despite its superior numbers, had no chance of winning. Secrecy, therefore, stood at the foundation of the hunter organization.
Or at least it had. Nowadays, everything was changing, and Etienne found it increasingly difficult to adjust. Although in the last couple of months, he’d encountered more than one human who’d knowingly befriended one of the undead, it still rattled Etienne to encounter a stranger in the street who knew all about vampires and hunters.
He tried for humor. “Want a job?”
Etienne cleared his throat. The stranger still walked too fast for comfortable conversation. “How did you know what they were?”
“Don’t be coy,” said the stranger. “Call them vampires. I have a detector like yours, and I can smell them.”
Too many questions to be asked now. Etienne tried, “Visiting hunters should check in with the Paris network.”
“I’m not a visiting hunter.”
“Okay. Did you know these vampires were trapping you?”
“I knew they were trying to. I drew them out. Otherwise I’d only have got Victor.”
Etienne blinked. “You know his name?”
The stranger glanced at him. “You don’t? This is your territory.”
“I knew his face,” Etienne said, trying not to sound as defensive as he suddenly felt. “He was never considered a threat.”
“They’re all a threat. A hunter team can’t keep track of all of them, so it’s easier just to kill as many as you can.”
Etienne gave a spontaneous if rueful grin. “I take your point. Shit, yes, I take your point! But not policy anymore.”
The foreign hunter—which was what he had to be, whatever he said—spared him another glance. He had piercing blue eyes; even in the shadowy lamplight they looked harder than diamonds. “Why do I get the impression you’re not one hundred percent behind this new policy?”
Etienne shrugged. “I’m not.”
Once, even a year ago, hunting had been straightforward. A vampire had no right to exist, so whenever you encountered one, by accident or design, you took it out if you could— without breaking the rules of discretion, of course. Then, after the Ancient vampire Saloman was awakened and seized power over the vampire world, everything began to change.
Saloman had been the last of the Ancients, murdered by a conspiracy of vampires and humans in the seventeenth century. But the Ancients were a mysterious race who’d included the purebred vampires from whom today’s human hybrids were descended, and they were next to impossible to kill. A Scottish academic had revived Saloman by accident. But instead of the full-scale war hunters across the world had expected, Saloman exerted discipline over his weaker brethren, changed their behavior, and largely stopped the killing of humans.
Which would have been good, except that Saloman’s price was toleration of vampire existence.
“I don’t trust vampires,” Etienne admitted. “I don’t see how anyone who’s ever fought them could trust them. I don’t believe in Saloman’s détente, and I certainly don’t believe the eventual outcome will be either peaceful or good for humanity.”
The foreign hunter’s lip curled. “And yet you toe the line. Obey orders.”
“You needn’t say it as if I’m some Nazi war criminal making excuses!”
“More Germans should have refused Nazi orders. More hunters should say no to what they don’t believe in. The situation is not yet unsavable if we act now.”
Etienne halted, and this time, the stranger stopped too. “Who the fuck are you?” Etienne demanded.
“Konrad. Most hunters hate me as much as vampires do.”
“Konrad!” Etienne repeated, startled. But, of course, it made perfect sense. Konrad, once the leader of the elite Hungarian first team of hunters, acknowledged around the world as the best, had left the organization some months ago. Or been pushed. Opinions varied. But all agreed on the reason behind the parting being Konrad’s refusal to compromise on the issue of vampire toleration. He believed vampire overlord Saloman to be the biggest threat to humanity in centuries, and advocated putting all resources into capturing and killing him. A feat most regarded as impossible. Having just seen Konrad fight, Etienne began to believe nothing was impossible.
Etienne thrust out his hand. “It’s an honor,” he said seriously.
Konrad looked at the hand and then shook it briefly before walking on.
“What brings you to Paris?” Etienne asked, falling into step beside him once more.
“Among other things, I’m looking for like-minded hunters.”
Etienne drew in his breath. His heart beat suddenly faster. “For what?”
Konrad glanced at him. “For real hunting. For opposing Saloman before it’s too late.”
“Isn’t it already too late?”
“No. It won’t be easy, but he can be killed. The worst danger of all comes from the prospect of a Saloman dynasty. He’s about to have a child, did you know that?”
“I didn’t believe it,” Etienne admitted. “Vampires don’t have babies.”
“Apparently, this one does. It’s no trick. I know Elizabeth Silk, the mother, and this is Saloman’s child.”
Etienne seized his arm. “So the prospect of vampire domination really could be eternal?”
“Saloman could be sent back to sleep.” Konrad stared at the hand on his arm until Etienne snatched it back. “It’s not impossible; it’s happened before. Enough hunters in the right situation could achieve this. But how many hunters do you know who’d actually believe in the evil of a human child?”
Etienne swallowed. “No one could stake a child.”
“Which is what really could make vampire rule eternal. A monster with the face of a human. Didn’t they call Lucifer the Great Deceiver? This child scares me a hell of a lot more.”
“But…how can we deal with such an impossible situation?” Etienne demanded. “What’s the point of recognizing it if we can’t fight it?”
“We can fight it,” Konrad said curtly.
“In the short term,” Konrad said after a brief pause, “have you come across a French vampire called Georges, who may have gone recently to Britain?”
Konrad barely had time to collect his new fake passport before catching the first train to Calais and boarding the Dover ferry, where he found a quiet place to rest in the closed bar lounge. He’d been awake for two days, and yet even now, as he lay on the bench, staring at the slightly grubby ceiling, sleep eluded him.
He’d had a productive two days in Paris, much more so than he’d expected. The French hunters had been previously unknown to him; he was only in Paris to change illegal passports, which he’d taken to doing almost as often as he changed shirts. There’d been no whisper of discontent in the French network, and yet he’d found a recruit by accident.
He’d been due some luck; he wouldn’t quarrel with two lots in the same hour.
The first had been killing the vampire Victor. Begun to pass the time, that particular hunt had brought with it some potentially vital information. Perhaps because the angle of the stake had been so awkward, it took Victor longer than normal to die, and Konrad had read more of his thoughts than normal.
Normal was a blast of hatred at the moment of death. Occasionally, a desperate plea for continued existence, sometimes mixed with false promises. Often, fear of hell, since where else would vampires go upon true death? But Victor…Victor had had time to think of more than his immediate panic. In some instinctive bid to raise help, his mind had reached out to lots of other vampires, a whole network of them. And such a network of the undead was unusual enough to grab Konrad’s attention.
He’d done what he never had before. He didn’t just tolerate the vampire’s involuntary broadcast to his mind. He’d pushed in, followed the bastard’s thoughts and fears, and found something he’d seen before.
An instrument, a gadget, built by István, his one-time friend and fellow member of the Hungarian hunters’ disbanded first team. Working under vampire duress, István had given this instrument deliberate flaws, and it had never done what the vampires had hoped. Konrad had believed it was destroyed in the ensuing fight. Mihaela, his other ex-team member, had said it blew up when she’d killed the bastard who’d forced István to make it. And yet there it lurked in the mind of French vampire Victor, surrounded by other vampires spreading out in ever-expanding circles.
It was a big network, and so Konrad had rummaged for a name. He’d even focused on Britain, since he planned to head there next. And he got a name. A French name, Georges. Unfortunately, Etienne hadn’t recognized it—French hunters seemed to be less thorough than their Hungarian counterparts—but still it was something to work on, something to aim for. He needed that.
Konrad closed his eyes. His faltering, sometimes hopeless-seeming quest might just stand a chance after all. For if someone had made this instrument work properly, it could unite, store, and magnify psychic energy. And that, in Konrad’s hands, could at least give him a fighting chance to defeat the vampire overlord Saloman before he could spawn an eternal dynasty to enslave humanity forever.
Saloman, last of the purebred Ancient race from whom today’s weaker, modern hybrids were descended, was the embodiment of everything Konrad hated and feared, because the undead overlord’s intelligence was formidable and his powers of persuasion second to none. Add to that an endless ambition that aimed at total world domination, and a soon-to-be-born child with which he could fool humanity into the belief that he and his devil’s spawn were just like them; an heir to his evil, should anything ever happen to Saloman.
It was the last straw. And no one but Konrad and his pathetically few followers seemed to see it.
But now, with this new information and the opportunity it offered, all Konrad had to do was find the instrument. With the vampire Georges. Somewhere in Britain. Maybe.
Konrad sighed. No one had ever said quests were easy. He’d figure this one out after a couple of hours sleep…
The British hunters had a new recruit, a Scots girl called Janine, who interested Konrad for more than one reason. Nearly two years ago, the night after the hunters had failed to kill Saloman in St. Andrews, Konrad had discovered Saloman’s friend and creation, Dmitriu, in this girl’s bed. She’d been drunk and stoned out of her mind, and Dmitriu had killed her pimp, almost under Konrad’s nose. While Konrad couldn’t consider the pimp a huge loss to humanity, he did feel Dmitriu’s insolence, deliberate or otherwise. Having bigger fish to fry, he’d thought no more about the incident until he’d seen her name on a list on the Hungarian hunters’ database.
Which was the other reason for his interest now, and why he was prepared to risk the wrath of his ally among the British hunters, Patrick, by watching her train. So, in his hired car, he followed them out of a twilit London and into quiet Essex lanes. When they pulled off the road, down a muddy track into woodland, Konrad drove on to the next village, parked, and jogged back to the wood.
The girl’s task, he knew from Patrick, was to take out a vampire who’d nearly killed two hikers in these woods. For a training exercise at this stage, the vampire should be beyond the fledgling stage but not so strong as to be an impossible kill. The trainers would stand by, ready to step in as required.
But as Konrad approached the fight, he saw that the trainee, Janine, had managed to lose her minders and was grappling alone with the vampire. Konrad drew his stake and stepped out of the trees, just as Janine came through and plunged her stake into the vampire’s heart, hard and sure.
Impressed, Konrad dropped the stake back in his pocket. Janine turned and stared at him, clearly wondering what new threat he presented. She even glanced at her detector.
Konrad knew how he looked these days. Constant travel had made him rough and unkempt. Constant killing had made him hard. From the girl’s expression, he began to think he now looked positively scary. He couldn’t change that, so he just walked toward her. “Well done. Are you all right? Did it bite you?”
“I’m fine.” She stood her ground, watching him warily. “Who are you?”
He came to a halt in the pale gleam from her torch. A frown tugged down her brow, and she glanced over her shoulder, pivoting to take in more of the dark woods. More than Konrad was making her uneasy.
“What is it?” Konrad asked.
“There’s something still here. I’m sure of it.”
Konrad almost smiled. It was her first real kill. She was confused by the blast of the vampire’s life force adding to her own. “It’s the residual presence of your kill,” he explained. “You absorbed his strength, and you’re sensing that in ways you’re not used to.”
She dragged her gaze back to him, still looking uncertain.
He said, “My name is Konrad. I used to be a hunter too, though not based here in the UK.”
“Janine,” she said shortly.
“You’re in training,” he observed. “A good kill. You have quick instincts and tenacity. I admire that.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. All appearances to the contrary, she would not be as easy a recruit as Etienne. “Thank you,” she said neutrally.
“It’s a difficult time for hunters,” Konrad observed. “The world is changing, and many hunters are losing their way, making alliances with vampires instead of killing them. I’m sure you know that, that your instructions are very different from the ones I was given twelve years ago.”
Janine shrugged. “We still take out vampires.”
“That one was killing.”
“They all kill. Or worse.”
“There are those who keep the law and those who break it,” Janine said. “Just like humans.”
Konrad almost laughed. “You only say that because they told you. Not because you know. Janine, you’re about to become an important player in an organization that’s vital to the survival of humanity. Demand evidence, look for evidence, of everything you’re taught. And when you find it doesn’t make perfect sense, or if you’re even uncomfortable with something, call me.”
Moving slowly to avoid any impression of threat, he took the small business card from his pocket. It was blank save for his mobile phone number.
Janine didn’t take it, merely raised her eyes to his face. “Why should I do that?”
Through the trees, someone called her name urgently. Konrad recognized Patrick’s voice. From the other side, quick footsteps pounded—presumably her other minder, Jack.
Konrad didn’t drop his eyes or his hand. “Because I know more than your instructors ever will. I led the Hungarian hunters’ first team.”
“Janine?” Patrick’s voice again. The girl’s eyes remained uncertain and yet steady as they held his gaze. Then she reached out and snatched the card just as Patrick stepped through the trees on her left, and glared at him. “Konrad?” Patrick asked.
Janine relaxed, clearly unaware of the nuances of this meeting or his need to decamp before Jack appeared.
Konrad nodded to his ally. “Patrick,” he greeted him. “You have a promising young hunter here. I witnessed her kill. I’ll be in touch.”
Konrad turned his back and strode off into the trees.
The girl’s senses were accurate after all, Konrad thought, impressed, as he made his way back through the wood toward the village where he’d parked his car. Despite the silence of his detector, he knew by the prickling of his skin, by every instinct of the experienced hunter, that there was a vampire close by. A strong one who knew how to avoid the technical gadgets of the hunters.
Sensing direction was more difficult. Konrad veered suddenly off course to the left, breaking into a run. Although the detector remained silent, Konrad’s sense of presence didn’t change. As he jogged back to the path, he kept the stake in his right hand, pointing his torch at the trees ahead, making sure to scan the branches above head height, looking in vain for the interloper.
He tried the same thing on the right-hand side of the path, with the same lack of results. He suspected the vampire was shadowing his every move. Not surprising. Any vampire worth his salt would keep a close eye on a hunter in his territory. He—or she—would be equally wary of doing anything about it. Except under threat, vampires didn’t pick fights with hunters. It brought down too much trouble on their heads. And unlike the hunter organization itself, vampires knew that a hunter remained a hunter until death.
What he didn’t expect was to walk into the village, cross the square to his car, and find the vampire drinking from a leather-clad biker who sat on the boot.
It was Dmitriu, of course. Who else was it likely to be? After all, the list with Janine’s name on it that Konrad had stolen from Budapest headquarters had come from Dmitriu.
And only Dmitriu would do this now, just to provoke a reaction from Konrad.
There was a time when Konrad would have run at him and at least tried to kill him as he had Victor and his cronies. But one didn’t kill vampires of Dmitriu’s strength very easily. Dmitriu needed to be cornered and slaughtered by several hunters at once, much like his creator, the all-mighty Saloman. Besides, although Dmitriu’s act sickened him, it was a sickness he’d grown inured to over the years, and he was pretty sure Dmitriu wouldn’t kill his prey. He rarely did without reason.
That reason was what scared Konrad most about the new vampire regime under Saloman. The one thing worse than chaotic murderous monsters was reasoning murderous monsters, because with that quality they really could defeat the best of humanity.
Konrad merely kept walking, stake at the ready, but he didn’t make the mistake of underestimating the danger here. Konrad had pissed off Saloman and all the Hungarian vampires by his attack on their Angel Club this spring. It was perfectly possible that Saloman had sent his henchman to kill him. If so, Konrad had a bloody big fight on his hands, one he’d be hard-pressed to win. But he was damned if he’d walk away from it.
Dmitriu lifted his head, swept his tongue around his fangs. His world-weary gaze dropped from Konrad to his victim. He said nothing, just stepped back, and the big, rough-looking biker straightened and wandered across the road toward the pub, where several motorbikes were parked.
Dmitriu regarded Konrad with all the casual confidence of an old and powerful vampire. He wore a white shirt and denims. He looked like a disreputable nobleman on his day off.
“Greetings,” Dmitriu said. “Did you come for the girl?”
“Did you?” Konrad countered.
Dmitriu leaned against the car door. “You know I did. That’s why you’re here. Saloman gave the Hungarian hunters my list. Did you hack them? Or steal it before you left?”
On Saloman’s orders, Dmitriu had made a list of humans he suspected had genuine psychic abilities, who were believed to be descendants of the original live members of Saloman’s Ancient race—that was, of those who had never become vampires themselves and had interbred with humans before eventually dying out. Such humans, according to Saloman, would be more open to the supernatural and less likely to freak at the revelation of vampire existence.
Konrad wasn’t fooled. He knew Saloman wanted these unconsciously powerful humans on his side in the inevitable fight, thus using humanity to help destroy itself. It seemed doubly important to save a hunter like Janine from such ignominy.
Konrad summoned a sneer. “Aren’t you bored yet being Saloman’s slave boy?”
Dmitriu raised one eyebrow. “Do I look bored to you?”
Actually, Konrad had never seen him look bored. The last time he’d glimpsed Dmitriu had been three months ago in Budapest with two human girls wrapped around him like a double-headed hydra, and the vampire had seemed pretty pleased with himself. But it was Elizabeth Silk’s assessment—and she knew Dmitriu pretty well, or at least as well as anyone ever knew one of those bastards—that he provoked situations through boredom.
“Why else would you talk to me?” Konrad said.
Dmitriu appeared to consider that. “Courtesy,” he replied at last. “And since I was waiting, I wanted to make sure you didn’t have the girl with you.”
“You should have taken her two years ago when you had the chance. Now she’s ours.”
Dmitriu’s lips curved. “There is no ‘ours,’ Konrad. You’re alone. And if you interfere, I’ll kill you.”
Dmitriu’s smile broadened in response, but already he was moving away from Konrad’s car as if he had no further interest there.
Konrad said to his back, “You’re too late for Janine. She won’t help you.”
The vampire moved like a cat would if it walked on two legs. And then he simply vanished.
Konrad stared hard at the road ahead of his last sighting, but there was no sign of him. He’d masked and then used his supernatural speed to get away.