They moved over the landscape like ghosts in the night. On their left, the surf crashed against the rocky shores in a never-ending game of touch and go. The crisp breeze, damp with sea moisture and cool with approaching fall, whipped their hair and clothes as they moved.
Above, a glittering dome stretched to eternity, the sliver of moon more than halfway along its nightly track. On the right, the land rose steadily, before giving way to the line of rising peaks in the horizon. It was a beautiful landscape, made even more so because it was night.
Normally, they traveled in style, in the comfort of a late-model, luxury vehicle as befitted an aristocratic household. Tonight, they traveled in stealth as befitted vampires on the hunt. They were not hunting for blood. They were hunting for answers.
Word came, deep into the night, sent by those who patrolled and guarded the territories where vampires dwelled among the unsuspecting human population. Except, many of those humans were not so unsuspecting. Many were servants of the blood.
Tonight, Maxim Denisov’s sentinels made a grim discovery. Recognizing the importance of the find and its implications, they immediately alerted Luca Denisov, Maxim’s cousin and closest advisor. Maxim insisted on accompanying his men and viewing the situation first hand.
The scene was located 80 miles north of the royal mansion, on a stark and desolate rocky headland. The trek took a little over an hour. His kind moved supernaturally fast when the need arose. Two of his rangers kept guard over the site. They stood still like clay warriors, their long dusters whipping in the wind, their backs to the butchered humans.
Maxim, Luca, and Aurel moved silently around the scene, observing the location, making mental notes of any anomalies. Finally, they approached the bodies cautiously. Luca, two feet away from the dead, crouched, stretching his neck to examine them like a bird of prey. His silvery-blond, long hair was tied back and braided. He was dressed all in black, an attempt at camouflage in the dark.
Maxim walked slowly around the tableau, once in a while stopping to sniff the air like a dog hunting an elusive scent. Tall and bulkier than Luca, he wore his dark-blond hair short, often sweeping his hand over it to brush it back. He also wore black; he always did when he roamed the night. His younger cousin, Aurel, stood farther out, not wanting to get in the way but ready to help if asked.
The two bodies were tossed one atop the other like discarded broken dolls. The one on the bottom was face up, unseeing eyes open to the sky, mouth slightly open as if about to speak. There was no terror showing in the prelude to death.
The second one was face down, at an angle to the one under it, the torso lying on the coarse, cold ground. It was missing a shoe. The wind ruffled the longish brown hair. The arms were splayed out as if to break the fall when it was thrown down. Of course, it was an illusion.
The dead were human males in their early twenties, possibly less. They were dressed in blue jeans and t-shirts, the clothes barely recognizable now. Jackets, usually worn on a cool, sharp night, were nowhere in sight.
The jeans were no longer blue but a crusting, dark, reddish brown. The t-shirts were shredded, slashed in strips by a very sharp object. The slashes cut deeply through the fabric and the flesh. The carnage was horrific in an over-the-top way. Maxim shook his head in disbelief, his lips tight in anger.
“You were right to send word,” he said to the ranger behind him. “This is not a human’s doing. This is no simple fight, no common robbery, no gangland execution. This is a vampire’s work.”
Luca rose. “Aurel, take this one’s legs while I grab the shoulders. I want to move him.” Together, the two brothers lifted the body which was sprawled carelessly on top of the other and laid it on the ground, face up. All three males bent to inspect the corpse.
“Look at the ravaging of the neck,” murmured Luca. “Rips and tears so extreme, it could have been an animal ripping flesh to eat.”
“But it wasn’t,” said Maxim.
“No, it wasn’t. The slashes to the chest and stomach were done by vampire claws. Now, here’s the proof,” he said as he lifted the dead man’s arm and exposed half a dozen round punctures leading from the inside of the wrist to the crook of the elbow. “They were purposely left unsealed.”
“The facial expression,” noted Maxim, “is calm, blissful even, contrary to the savagery of the attack.”
“Because when he died, he was in thrall. He never saw death coming, never felt fear.”
“He was seduced, you think? Not in a sexual way, of course.”
“Yes, probably at a pub or club where he was with his friend. I bet they were lured by a group of friendly males, probably high spenders. An invitation to a party, drugs. Who knows?”
“Where is the blood? The clothes are covered in it, but the surrounding ground is clean. We know vampires only drink small amounts, the equivalent of a cup when hungry, sips otherwise. A healthy human has four to five liters of it. A total of almost ten liters must have gone somewhere.”
“It was not done here. They were chosen and picked up in the city, probably late evening. They were led to an isolated location where the killers fed as usual, using thrall. Then, they were savagely butchered and transported here. The highway is a few hundred feet away, within easy reach.”
They watched as the headlights of a vehicle appeared in the distance. The automobile sped along the highway and finally disappeared on its way to its destination. The occupants were never aware of the scene playing out in the headland. The men turned their attention to the second body, making similar observations and reaching the same conclusions.
“Why?” asked Luca. “We are careful feeders, not greedy by nature. It would take dozens of vampires to gorge on this much blood. The ripping and slashing would result in wasted liters and a mess to clean afterwards. Contrary to popular horror films, we do not indulge in feral feeding.”
“No,” agreed Maxim. “Even in the heat of battle, we use the blade and not our teeth. I have upon occasion indulged in a certain degree of savagery when dealing with murderers and rapists, to make a point. This was not about feeding. And why the headland? Why not weigh the bodies down and dump them in the ocean to disappear forever?”
“They wanted them found.” Luca looked away to the highway. “Come daylight, traffic increases. People often stop to admire the scenic view from here. The bodies were sure to be discovered, and the human authorities called.”
“Yes, they were placed here purposely. The scene was staged. The killers want them found.”
“Not only found, Maxim. They want them found and identified as vampire kills. Whoever did this, wants humans to know we exist.”
“It makes no sense, Luca. Why would vampires wish to betray our existence to humanity? Our race has spent millennia doing the opposite. Exposure would lead to war and the eventual extinction of our kind.”
Luca shook his head, his eyebrows coming together in a gesture of confusion. “The only person who comes to mind is our cousin Toma. We know he will surface eventually, but how this could play into his plans is beyond me.”
“No, not Toma. He has always advocated secrecy and a return to the old ways. I don’t think this is his doing.”
His denial was a half-hearted effort to forestall the inevitable. In his heart, Maxim believed differently. His instincts told him Toma was back. He could feel the demon, fear, trying to climb up his back. He pushed it away by grasping at the here and now.
“We need to clean it up, make it all disappear. If someone wants the authorities to find this, we need the opposite. Make it happen, Luca. These bodies must be gone before sunrise.”
“They will try again if their purpose is as we suspect.”
“Then, we’ll be there again. Pass the word to all our rangers. Tell them to be vigilant. Under no circumstances are the human authorities to be there before us.”
At dawn, with the shutters down and the children still asleep, Maxim sat in silent contemplation, watching the sparks and darting tongues of fire playing in the fireplace. This was usually a quiet time for him. Angel and the kids would sleep another hour or so before rising for breakfast and the daily tutoring.
He rose, poured himself a whiskey, and went back to his plush, comfortable chair. His emotions were turbulent. The events which took place a year ago, solved nothing. To the contrary, they likely served to stir his cousin to higher levels of fury, resentment, and hatred.
Maxim felt it in his bones. Toma was behind these killings. His cousin was back, and the coming storm would shatter the very foundations of Maxim’s life. He feared for his beloved little family. The woman he loved more than life was fragile and vulnerable in her humanity. Never before did he have so much to lose. It terrified him. The demon was now fully riding his back, claws deep in the flesh.