I in a vision saw my lost sweetheart.
Fearlessly toward me I saw her stray.
So pale! I thought then;
She in the night sang: “My heart, my spirit I’ve kissed away.
We are but phantoms, like now in death.”
My voice I heard then:
“Give me again but
My heart, my spirit,–
You alone found them
Of all that sought.”
- "Meeting of Phantoms" by Anders Österling
In 1732, the London Journal wrote a story of particularly supernatural interest, a testimony that took place in Hungary. A one Arnold Paul proclaimed that he was tormented by the likes of an evil spirit who wore the stolen flesh of a man; though these specific “torments” were not accounted for in detail, the story fed the public’s hunger to be afraid.
People need something to fear, Rin thinks. Something to blame dark thoughts upon, an excuse to revel in the glories of murderous sin.
Arnold Paul claimed to have rid himself of a vampire by eating dirt from the monster’s grave, though his earnest resolve and confusing tactics did not stop him from becoming a creature of the night himself. Upon being found out by his fellow townsman, Paul was spiked: a term Rin and the other vampires use for being pierced through the heart with a stake. Certain materials of said stake might assure damage upon the vampire, but only iron or silver – the “holy metals,” if you will – can promise such damage. Dying will only occur if the vampire is also decapitated and burned in that order.
Eating dirt. Rin almost scoffs at the thought. Humans just cannot accept the truth. He visualizes that fool of a man shoving cud into his mouth, swallowing mud or whatever else might have helped him feel close to a natural being. Once the Change has begun, no amount of prayer or pleading will keep your heart beating, as the poets say.
Rin was not graced with such doom when he was bitten; he traded what was left of his soul and never looked back. It was the smartest decision he ever made.
He always thinks of Arnald Paul’s story when he visits Nao in the conservatory – dirt has always smelled the same but Rin simply likes to think about that hayduke and imagine how shocked he would be of Nao. Rin considers how he would have reacted: perhaps he would have been fearful of a vampire’s presence alone, however, some people are not wise enough to be afraid of Nao.
Given that Rin’s monarchy of a family resides underground in the sewers, there aren’t many places in the subterranean castle in which natural light thrives. Nao found this part of the sewers like he was drawn to it, and when Natsuya realized that Nao could feel warmth, it devastated him. Nao is old; he tastes and feels more than other vampires do because even immortality has a timestamp, and the more his body recalls human sensation, the less time he has on this earth as a walking corpse.
Rin’s gaze sweeps the conservatory, which has the splendor of romantic catacombs rather than the depressiveness of bleak sewers. The ground is patterned in diamond-shaped cobblestone; the walls are towering and lead up to a street grate above. He listens to heels clacking across the sidewalks overhead, smells asphalt and the reek of pollution that grows fouler as the years tick by. Listening to pedestrians converse is like going to the library, though their stories are rarely interesting. Most commonly, Rin hears work complaints or dull gossip. And oh, can he smell – blood warmed by sun-beaten skin, and he imagines throats that are sweaty and supple in the heat.
Sunlight beams down in roaming pillars like spotlights and Rin tenses each time the light creeps a bit too close. Though he is paranoid about being in daylight, Rin can admit that the conservatory is enchanting with its palette of greys and greenery – there’s stone benches with curtains of vines, and there’s a fountain that holds no water but is still charming as it is guarded by a circle of statuses toads. There’s some fruit trees and tropical plants which are saturated in magic; Rin’s favorites are a fat gourd slumped with fatigue, but if you dare to pry it open, the plant will swallow you to cage you in its belly until suffocation takes you. He also has a particular admiration for a Venus Fly Trap that stands taller than himself with fangs just as sharp.
He enjoys the smell of this air – the sundew doesn’t conjure up any specific memories, but perhaps that’s why he’s so charmed with the place. After walking this planet for some hundred and seventy years, there aren’t many new or different things to smell, and the conservatory holds its own atmosphere of eerie tranquility, much like Nao himself.
Nao sorts through a table of voodoo lilies and basil, the herbalism of spells. His robes are white like a biblical rose, his eyes moonlit with blindness. Nao smirks, “You’re bobbing your ankle something fierce.”
Rin looks down at his ankle and stops. Nao chuckles and gestures to the side, calling, “Gloom, come help me with this, would you?”
A dark mass comes from beneath the table and stirs into the light; the fox is bigger than her natural counterpart and far more ethereal with her foggy-grey pelt and beady, red eyes. She slinks up to Nao and grabs a basket with her teeth, holding it up for her master to drop a few plant trimmings inside. Gloom trots over to the monstrous fridge in the corner, which is built like an industrial safe, and Nao walks over to Rin. He easily remembers the path to the bench in the familiar space, and he sits down while settling his robes. His motions are ginger – weak.
Rin used to stare at him whenever they were in close proximity or standing across the room. Nao’s bangs cover the scar gouging across his forehead, clawing through his eyes and down to hook under his jaw – Rin always feels a dull spike of sympathetic pain at the sight of him. He often wonders just how powerful the werewolf must have been to leave a vampire blind and doomed to wear such scars.
Nao doesn’t talk about it and Natsuya won’t let anyone ask. But since Natsuya isn’t here –
“How long has it been since you saw a werewolf?” Rin asks.
The elder vampire lifts his brows in humored surprise. “I haven’t seen much of anything in millennia, child.”
“Forgive me,” he rushes, face burning in mortification, but Nao waves him off with amusement.
Nao crosses his legs with a faint wince, the halter chains of his cape glittering like black stones underwater. “What’s brought forth such a question in your mind?” Nao sounds curious rather than offended, though a knowing look creeps over his features. “Have you gone and enamored yourself with some trouble or do you intend to seek it out?”
“It’s just a question.”
“It’s never just a question, Rin.” He relaxes with leisure posture as he drinks in the sunshine. Nao props his head on a hand, absently combing through his silken hair. “If you gain no knowledge from my time residing amongst you royals, trust that no question ever comes without a motive.”
Rin tuck his hands between his knees, flustering. “You’ve taught me more than just that,” he grumbles.
Nao’s smile is endeared in a backhanded sort of way. “You learn what you want to.” He tucks his hands together so that his long sleeves close over them. “Werewolves and vampires are two sides of the same coin; lycanthropic metamorphosis is a disease at the base of it all, much like vampirism.”
Defensiveness works through him. “Pray tell.”
Nao considers. “Well, we both started out as humans – vampirism began as a reanimating disease that possessed corpses; the sickness originated in the bloodstream of the deceased. Back in my day, if you’ll humor me –” Rin cuts a brief smirk. “— The phenomenon of the lycans spread like rabies because it’s simply a mutated strain of that sickness. Lycanthropic metamorphosis is a disease much like vampirism, though their contagion originated from wolves, and it mutates their genomes with that of wolves.”
Rin says, “Shouldn’t werewolves be easy to fight, then? If they are nothing more than animals.”
“Werewolves are unpredictable; the only knowledge that you can bring to such a fight is that if a werewolf gets ahold of you, it’s all over.”
Sympathy runs through Rin’s chest. “I’m – I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to resurface grim memories.”
Nao surprises him by chuckling, though it is a tired sound. “Bitterness if no way to live, I made my peace with my circumstances many moons ago.” His voice grows quiet with thoughtfulness. “I never once felt anger toward that wolf despite that I was supposed to, perhaps. Both vampires and werewolves are lost to the ideal that we are mortal enemies – how interesting it would be if we both realized that concept was glamorized by the authors that depicted us as fantasy.” He turns one of his rings, a band of fool’s gold that won’t char him. “Kind of poetic that silver harms both vampires and werewolves, don’t you think?”
“We’re nothing alike,” Rin scowls.
Nao’s smile is slow and pitying at the blind lash of resentment. “Werewolves might heavily rely on their instincts, yes, but they are not mindless – more importantly, they are not heartless. If you harm a single one, their pack will not rest until your insides flow.” He lifts his brows. “They love one another and it shows in the way they fight.”
“I want to kill one,” Rin says, squaring his shoulders.
Nao rolls his eyes in grand exasperation. “Trophy hunting is not exactly the appropriate way to blend into modern society.”
“I don’t care. I’m going to do it.”
“Then I’m assuming by your enthusiasm that you’ve never killed one before?”
Rin curls into himself and Nao smirks like he knows. “No,” Rin mumbles, looking away. “I’ve fought them in brief squabbles but father always orders me to flee before it can get fun.”
“You mean dangerous.”
Rin pouts. “Father’s killed pack alphas before; it’s not fair that I don’t have a wolf’s head mounted above my bed when Gou’s got dozens of them all over the castle.”
“Gou is a better warrior than you are.” Nao’s expression doesn’t change even though Rin’s agitation is tangible. Gloom hops onto the elder vampire’s lap and he pets her tail in dragging strokes. “Gou takes orders well. You, on the other hand, storm into battle just like Natsuya.” He shakes his head with a playful tut. “You glory-seeking fools.”
Rin laughs before his ears prickle at the doors groaning apart. Natsuya strides in, his curls disheveled and his gait sluggish since it’s daytime and most vampires in the castle are sleeping at this hour. Evening is nearing; Natsuya must have just awoken, since his sleeping tunic is stuffed into his trousers and he’s still adjusting his leather suspenders.
Natsuya clambers down the stairs with a metallic echo and his posture straightens when he notices Nao. Natsuya rushes to kneel before his mate, hands fretting over him. “What the devil are you doing up here alone?”
“Rin’s right here,” Nao smiles, letting himself be petted. “So is Gloom. Or have you gone as blind as I am?”
Natsuya gives him a flat look. “Your cynical humor is hardly appropriate.” He adjusts Nao’s robes tighter around his middle, knotting the sash again. “Imagine my dismay when I woke up only to realize that you had vanished.” He rises and goes over to the hulking fridge; the door hisses open and Natsuya takes out an ornate pitcher before fetching a gauntlet from under the table. He bows the pitcher and blood oozes into the cup – Rin thinks it smells like O Positive.
Natsuya calls, “Would you like any, Rin?”
“No thanks.” He’s a glutton for Type A through and through.
Natsuya hands the gauntlet to Nao before pointing a finger at Gloom to address the fox. “You and I discussed this, I told you to wake me up the instant Nao is discomforted.” She tries to nip his fingers and Natsuya yanks his hand back with an offended pout.
“I apologize for worrying you,” Nao says before taking a deep swallow from his gauntlet. His dainty fingers rearrange his husband’s mess of curls. “I’ve been asleep for a week; you knew that I was bound to wake up eventually.”
Natsuya is barely quelled. He stands behind Nao to rub his shoulders in gentle circles, pulling his hair into a fist to massage his neck. Nao’s throat is blotched in little plums from where Natsuya’s drank from him. “I wish you would not have exerted yourself with the climb up here.”
“You’re more than welcome to carry me back to bed when I’m ready,” Nao smiles. That won’t be long, Rin thinks – nowadays, Nao can barely stay awake for a few hours before falling into a disturbingly long slumber.
To reassure him, Nao traces the mating scar on Natsuya’s wrist – it’s a crescent bite in the shape of Nao’s teeth. His sleeve rolls down to reveal his mating scar from Natsuya, and that bite is deeper. Natsuya’s fangs probably drove in with a fit of passion, earnest in the pain he gave because it would bind them for eternity. The mark Nao left on Natsuya’s wrist is clean and precise, perfectly aligned on the inside of Natsuya’s forearm.
Natsuya regards Rin, canting his hip as he crosses his arms. His motions are far more spry than Nao’s; from the whispers of gossip that travel through the vampire court, Rin’s heard that Natsuya is ancient but he’s a few centuries younger than Nao. He’s got a while before he loses his vigor – the wicked glint in his eye says as much. “Rumor ‘round the castle is that you’re going on a little hunt tonight.” He lifts his chin. “I want in.”
Rin bristles. “Who –” He groans when he realizes. “Goddamn you, Haru.”
“It was wise of Haru to inform me of your plan,” Natsuya says, eyes half-lidded with a lazy sort of confidence. “You’ve never took on a werewolf by yourself.”
“A werewolf has never faced me alone,” Rin counters with excitement brewing in his chest.
Natsuya rolls the heel of his boot back and forth in a subtle taunt. “So, your darling plan was to charge into this piss-poor revolution, throw yourself onto the back of the nearest rabid thing, slice its throat open in one fell swoop and sashay along the primrose path to victory?”
“Sounds like something you would do,” Nao drones into his gauntlet as he gives his husband a pointed look of amusement.
Natsuya gives a coy head-tilt, shrugging with a smirk.
A hiss of agitation stirs in Rin’s throat and Nao pats his shoulder, chuckling. “Ah, come now, Rin. Bringing Natsuya along will hardly slow you down on your quest for a wolf head.”
“I don’t want anyone else with me,” Rin says, clenching his fists with the agitation of a child. “Haru isn’t even coming, he’s just –”
“Trying to protect you,” Nao translates. He arches a brow. “How do you even hope to find these werewolves? I was oblivious to the fact that you suddenly took up tracking.”
Rin blinks. “Well, I – I’m not, but – I was the one who found out the wolves had been to the Ninth Circle!” He upturns his nose with a satisfied grin full of teeth. “I tracked them that far. Finding them again won’t be hard.”
“Isuzu told you the wolves were visiting the demons.” Nao takes a judgmental sip of his drink, propping his elbow on the bench as his cape chains sing at the motion. “Natsuya hunted werewolves for centuries; he is just as barbaric as you in this primitive desire for a hunt, so I’m sure you’ll have fun.”
Natsuya scoffs, “I’ve been good.” He takes Nao’s gauntlet to sweep up both his hands in dreamy grandeur. “Don’t you recall our journeys through Bavaria, all of Austria? I chased those hounds all across Europe –”
“For the better half of the 17th century,” Nao drones, unimpressed.
“— And then there was Switzerland! Where we watched the trials of wolf-charmers and witches –”
Nao arches a brow with a slow smirk. “I don’t remember watching anything.” His bleak eyes widen for emphasis.
Rin hides a snort in his collar and Natsuya goes stiff with a blush. “My point is,” Natsuya says, “I haven’t tracked down wolves in a long time. Hell, I’ve barely chased rabbits over the last decade. I’ve stayed right here and acted as an advisor for the Matsuokas –”
“But a life of peace is as dull as a life of celibacy and isolation to you,” Nao rephrases. He hears Natsuya’s boots shuffle and he grins, voice softening. “I know. It was very sweet of you to indulge me in a slower pace for a time.” He reaches in the direction of his gauntlet and Natsuya puts it back in his hand with delicate care. Nao pats his hand. “But I know who I married. Just be careful.”
Natsuya lights up with boyish excitement and Rin rolls his eyes as he stands. “Fine, whatever.” He brushes off pollen that he cannot see, but the smell of it irritates him. “Keep it quiet, we’ll be leaving soon.”
Natsuya tenses. Worries his lip. “Ah. Well, about that –”
The doors groan apart as another person slithers in. His approach is bolstering and he wears a sleeveless drape that falls to his knees; Rin hears the shift of leather tights, the creak of his fighting boots, and knows in an instant that Natsuya Kirishima will never be able to keep his fucking mouth shut.
Ikuya pushes his hood back and the light saturates his teal hair, accentuating the lavender hues of his paleness. His eyes are always half-lidded from the boredom of existing, though his gaze pulses with interest as he regards Rin. “Nii-chan tells me you have plans tonight.” His voice is a murmuring slur, deep but sweet.
Rin turns a flat look of annoyance at Natsuya, who sweeps his arms out in defeat. He grins as he throws an arm over his little brother’s shoulder. “Surely, you can resonate with Ikuya’s wish to claim a trophy of his own, dear prince.” Ikuya shrugs off his arm. Natsuya props an annoying elbow on Ikuya’s shoulder instead.
“I just want something to do,” Ikuya explains with a shrug.
Rin gives a long sigh and nods up at the street grate. “Just be up top in twenty minutes. We need to hurry before Haru goes and tells the whole castle of my plans. If word gets to my father, he’ll forbid me from going or worse, he’ll order Gou to come and protect me.”
“He’d forbid both of you from going,” Natsuya says as he lifts his brows. “Our relations with the humans are tense enough – if he finds out about an uprising, I’m sure it will disappoint him. He’s tried so hard to make things work.” He scowls as a shadow haunts his face. “Despite my advice to do the exact opposite.”
Nao’s voice lulls carefully. “You will need to tell Toraichi, Rin. Though this uprising is supposedly aimed at the werewolves, all mystics are the same to humans. It will only be a matter of time before they find fault with us.”
Fierce resolve burns through Rin. “I will tell him after I come home with that alpha’s head and I have proven that I can lead my people in this inevitable war.”
“Then it’s settled.” Natsuya straightens his suspenders with a giddy jump to his voice. “Be not worried; you’ll put on the show that you’ve wanted to for so long. All it takes is some faith and a little noise.”
Ikuya slinks to the exit and Rin follows him out but not before Natsuya bows to frame Nao’s face for a sweet peck, murmuring, “Be well, moon of my life.”
Nao’s smile is hazy from the kiss. “Only if you are, my sun and stars.”
Ikuya falls in step with Rin as they walk down the corridor, the torchlight painting a waxy, glossy texture across the stone walls. Ikuya arches a brow at him with a once-over. “Are you seriously going for the alpha?”
Rin nods. “I have a lot to prove.”
Ikuya laughs and his voice takes on an odd, weathered lowness. “You have nothing to prove; none of us really do.”
Rin suddenly remembers how much older Ikuya is than himself – how much more time the world has had to beat him down.
By nature, humans are fickle creatures. Dishonestly is an embedded trait of survival; indecisiveness is a tactic in which they clumsily navigate their lives, and their revolutions are just as graceless.
Sousuke follows Satomi to a warehouse on the outskirts of the city a few hundred yards from a collapsed overpass. Nobody comes here except stray dogs and ghouls – lost, lonely things. He could not have found a more predictable place and the fact that the humans have the confidence to meet in such a secluded location worries him. Are they armed to the teeth or are they simply fools for not realizing that nobody will hear them scream if they’re attacked in wide open desolation?
The warehouse sits in a tan ocean of wheat and dust itches Sousuke’s nose, a headache spiking at the odor of rusted equipment. The night holds an invigorating chill and the stars watch on as Sousuke and a small number of his pack creep from the woods in their human forms.
He tastes the heat of life in the air and follows it. A few humans linger around their vehicles, which are parked around the warehouse in a clumsy fray. The array of pickups to minivans lets Sousuke know what kind of people have joined together in the name of revenge against mystics. Humans from all walks of life are here: construction workers complaining over cigarettes about stolen jobs, fathers protesting the monsters in their children’s classrooms. The latter complainers find themselves facedown on the busted hoods of their vehicles, not dead – Sousuke promised Makoto – but sure to wake with concussions and a new outlook on threatening their pack.
Sousuke and his wolves remain in human form to move silently through the maze of vehicles. Uozumi and Asahi slash tires and break into a few cars to look for evidence of any other meeting places, while Yazaki and Makoto mingle amongst the humans, trying to find out if any politicians are backing the revolt.
Sousuke and Satomi wait for another wave of cars to drive up and they sneak past their headlights to hide behind a stack of crates. They look through one of the warehouse’s busted windows on the ground floor; it’s an open space with equipment pushed to the walls to make room for the crowd, and there’s a stage build from pallets.
“Fuck,” Sousuke whispers, listening to the rigorous hollers inside. “There’s so many people.”
Satomi crouches beside him, bringing forth a wave of sweat and dirt. She peers through the bars as her voice rolls into a growl. “The elders were right, for once – ain’t no way all these people are here just on account of our pups.” They watch a man inside raise his fist as he goes into some confusing philosophy about having a heartbeat and being real, but everyone around him blindly agrees. Satomi scowls, “This is about taking down all mystics; this is bigger than us. Bigger crowd than we were expecting, too.”
Sousuke shakes his head as he gazes on, his mouth in a bitter line. He sniffs and lets the aromas settle in his lungs. He hasn’t seen anyone carrying a gun yet, but he picks apart the smells of brass, iron, aluminum – though such materials might seem obvious to smell at a factory, Sousuke only notices that particular array of substances around firearms.
Silver burns up his nostrils.
“They’re not as dumb as they look,” Sousuke mumbles, eyes narrowing. “There’s silver in there.”
She inhales and a chill works down her arms. “Bullets or daggers?”
He shakes his head in frustration. “I don’t know, but it’s definitely not just jewelry I’m smelling.”
“What do you want to do, then?”
Sousuke weighs his options and she impatiently nudges his shoulder to talk it out. “We could send enough of a message by just setting their cars on fire; being alone out here will strike plenty of fear in them –”
Satomi arches a sly brow. “But…?”
His expression hardens. “They hurt our pups.”
“Now there’s the alpha I know.” Her grin is short-lived as they hide from another wave of headlights.
Sousuke whispers, “We need to get in there and try to do a little reconnaissance before we make a scene; Mako and Yazaki blend in well, so let’s see what their plans are.”
She nods. “All right, let’s find a way to sneak in and –”
Two trunks – legs – step into their path. Sousuke and Satomi look up the hulking frame to see Makoto with his arms crossed. He hisses, “What are you two doing?!”
The siblings glance at each other and Makoto drags a hand down his face. Impatiently, he whispers, “You’re both in human form, there’s no need for you to be sneaking around like this!”
“… oh,” Sousuke drones, looking down at himself.
Makoto fumes a sigh, eyes darting this way and that as he gestures them to stand. “Come on, Yazaki and I found somewhere inside that we can sit. It’s about to start.”
Rin crouches on a support beam in the warehouse’s ceiling, draped in protective shadow from his vantage point. He takes haggard breaths through his mouth, his senses on fire with exhilaration; his vision swims red at each motion below and it feels like a candle is pressed against his throat. The heartbeats in the air boom like an orchestra all around him.
He knew that he would be thirsty, not drinking any blood before coming here, but Rin did it on purpose so that he would be twice as sharp. He will fight with double the vigor once he sinks his nails into that alpha’s fur, peeling back his pelt to bite into his heart.
Yes, he knew that he would be thirsty but why is he famished all at once?
His stomach churns on nothing, veins aching to be filled with blood – there’s a degree of those feelings at all times but never this abruptly. People file into the warehouse and it’s as if he has starved himself for a year. He wavers, bracing a hand on the beam as his eyes sink closed with nausea.
A hand falls onto his shoulder. “Oi, you all right?”
Rin swallows only for acidic venom to flood his mouth again. He nods in response and opens his eyes to see Natsuya crouched beside him. His gaze is trained on the movement below and the lower-half of his profile is hidden by his trench collar, but his eyes tell all – they surge as his voice hushes with elation. “The wolves are here. Do you smell them?”
Rin scrunches his nose. “Not really.” He smells different aromas from the crowd – cheap shampoo and disgustingly sweet fabric softener – but Rin cannot focus on anything other than hunger.
“Try harder,” Natsuya insists. “We smell blood more strongly than anything else but first try to look for their other scents. Think of grime, perspiration. You should feel a little pressure on your tongue when you spot them – that’s your instincts telling you danger is near. Your fangs might pop out.”
Rin licks his lips and parts them to breathe in – scents tickle across his damp lip, rolling up the roof of his mouth. There’s the ripe odor of sweat but that could be from anyone, not just wolves… he focuses on the hint of something sweet – “Honey?”
“Tree sap,” Natsuya corrects with an encouraging nod. “They carry that smell from the woods. You’re getting closer.”
Rin looks down at the crowd as if that will help him. His gaze becomes unfocused as a stronger aroma breaches his senses like a film tightening over his skin, enveloping him. His raspy inhale is desperate and Natsuya’s eyes widen.
That smell. The hunger. They’re on in the same.
Ikuya looks up from where he’s lounging on top of an industrial fan that juts out from the wall. He props an elbow on his raised knee as his gaze sweeps Rin lazily. “What’s with him?”
Rin smells –
His voice unravels in a whisper. “Blood.”
It’s not the dull ooze inside the humans; it’s not the bitterness he’d find in a rat’s veins.
This is like tasting God.
He can only imagine how rich in color the person’s blood is, like a liquid rose, like sweet fire that Rin would open his mouth to swallow. All of his teeth ache to bite and his fangs throw vibrations around his skull. He wants, he needs –
Commotion from below has the Kirishimas jolting to attention. Ikuya fades into the shadows while Natsuya climbs a rafter for a higher vantage point, crouched like a gargoyle and just as foreboding.
Ikuya peeks out of the darkness and digs his nails into the wall to grab hold of it. “I’m gonna sneak down there,” he whispers. “See how many wolves are here.”
“Be careful,” his brother responds with a firm look. “Don’t trip and let your blade impale you.”
“That was you that happened to, not me,” Ikuya scoffs before climbing down the wall.
Rin shakes his head to clear it and focuses his glare on the world below, clenching his fists to steel himself. There is a monarchy to impress and a statement to be made; he cannot let one oddly alluring person distract him.
Despite his best efforts, his gaze tracks the crowd to put a face to such a smell.
Sousuke leans against the wall by the warehouse’s entrance, his head ducked with a cap pulled low as he watches the last of the humans file in. Satomi props a leg up on the wall, lounging beside him. Their gazes sweep the array of mismatched tables across the wide space. Yazaki sits in the middle of the cluster since she’s the most inconspicuous of the pack with her shy mannerisms and default expression of kindness. She turns a few heads but that’s a good thing in this situation – these men think she’s nothing more than a pretty girl when in reality she could rip out their throats, and Satomi grins like she’s looking forward to the sight.
Makoto is at a table near Yazaki, making friends wherever he goes. Uozumi and Asahi sit together at one of the back tables with a few other guys. Uozumi plays the part of ignorant revolter well, but Asahi’s eyes are shifty and there’s sweat glistening at his temple. Werewolves don’t do well in crowds but when Sousuke sends Asahi a wave of comfort through the pack bond, he relaxes. He worried about bringing Uozumi since he’s got a pregnant mate back at the den, and Asahi has a mate to get home too as well, but he’s a damn good fighter.
The meeting starts but nobody speaking makes an impact in Sousuke’s mind; waves of foul discontentment churn in the air as they debate a plan of action against the mystics. From what Sousuke can tell, the group has no leader – everyone takes turns describing fearful encounters with fae or vampires, which Sousuke can’t really deem as lies. Mystics were never supposed to be part of society, so there’s bound to be bloodshed on both sides of the argument.
That thought makes him consider the humans’ standpoint up until they start praising the attack on the werewolf pups.
“Them dogs’ll retaliate,” a woman says and her husband puts an encouraging arm around her. His flannel shifts and Sousuke tenses at the man’s holster.
The woman rocks back and forth as she holds herself around the middle. “They’ll come for revenge; they don’t give a damn about their kids, not really.”
“That’s right,” another man says with an ardent nod and an educated accent. “They do not have the capacity to feel what we do for our children.”
Sousuke’s nostrils flare on an exhale of heat, a growl rising in his throat before Satomi nudges him into silence. Sousuke glances at Makoto, sending him a look of warning to leave and run for the hills until he’s out of earshot so he won’t hear the screams. Makoto’s mouth firms into a line but he stays, visibly in disagreement with Sousuke’s decision but choosing to stay and protect the pack.
Abruptly, a teenager stands up and he fumbles with the attention in the room. He lifts his chin even as he picks at his wrinkled hoodie. “My baby sister was in school with them pups.” He licks his lips but they tremble. “I don’t –” His voice cracks and he clears his throat. “She never said nothin’ about them being mean, or… or tryin’ to hurt her.”
“Their presence alone is enough to hurt her,” a woman barks, and the boy flinches. She walks up to him with clenched fists and Sousuke’s eyes dart to her thigh holster – it’s one of those ornate mock-designs of medieval fashion probably purchased from an online streampunk boutique, but her blade is real, and her gaze is full of hellfire on the boy.
She gets in his face and snaps, “Saying those little animals were done wrong is only an excuse for them to get close to us and make meals of our families, of my family.” She shoves him hard. “Who’s fucking side are you on?!”
A few people startle from their seats but nobody walks over except Makoto. He puts a hand on the boy’s back before he can fall and gives the woman a silent look as he towers over her. She looks him up and down with disgust even as Sousuke smells her fear, and she sits back down with tightly crossed arms.
Makoto turns and arches a brow as everyone stares at him. With a calm blink, he regards those around the stage. Dread sinks into Sousuke and Makoto calls, “Do we have a plan of action against the werewolves?”
He’s met with nothing before a man barks up, his voice nowhere near as strong as he had probably intended. “We’ll – we’ll hunt them down. Find their den in the woods.”
Makoto lifts his brows with a knowing look. “Have we thought about the repercussions of committing genocide against an entire people?”
A few people glance at each other before ducking their eyes to the floor and Makoto lifts his chin. “The mystics have not committed mass murder – not the wolves, not the fae, not even the vampires.”
“That’s why we gotta stop it before it happens, boy,” a man hisses. He strides up to Makoto with confidence even though his clenched fists tremble. “Those mystics might not have done genocide yet, but they ain’t innocent. They kill people in this city every day – draining their blood, stealing corpse’s hair for potions.” He lifts his chin. “I’m a cop. I know. Those monsters ain’t meant to live among us.”
Sousuke agrees with that, at least.
The man points a finger into Makoto’s chest, though Makoto’s so tall it only reaches his stomach. The human snarls, “I’ll shoot them pups just as quick as I’ll shoot you right fuckin’ here for talkin’ that shit. Animals don’t feel. They ain’t real like us.”
Uozumi and Asahi straighten as they glance at Sousuke and he nods, casually slipping through the crowd before stopping dead in his tracks.
An odor swallows him and the rest of the pack, making them freeze as one – it smells like a grave left open to rot. Cold rust settles over his tongue.
He never focuses on the scent of flesh when he smells living things nearby, but there’s one creature that always radiates the scent of blood – not in the sense that they have an open wound, but that their blood doesn’t match their natural smell. It’s stolen blood that reanimates corpses.
Sousuke’s arm hair raises with a chill. Tension hardens his shoulders and he casts a subtle look at his pack to remain calm.
A jolt of anxiety comes from his bond with Yazaki when the vampires’ scent punches her in the gut. She isn’t even breathing, her eyes not moving away from a table across the floor.
Sousuke follows her gaze and his teeth snap together.
There, not two tables away from Yazaki, is a vampire – young in appearance but reeking of his true identity.
His eyes are piercing Yazaki and he knows exactly what she is. Are there more of them here? There has to be, Sousuke thinks. The stench is too strong for there to only be one scrawny vampire.
He arches a teal brow at Yazaki with a daring lift of his chin. Before Satomi can paint the warehouse red in defense of her mate, Yazaki’s features sharpen. She isn’t letting the vampire intimidate her despite that she’s never seen one, which is a pleasant surprise to Sousuke.
Just as the vampire scrapes his chair back, a shadow overtakes Yazaki. Asahi sits down beside her, not looking at all as intimidated as he feels through the pack bond, and he stares the little undead boy down.
The vampire scoffs but he resumes his seat, and Sousuke takes a breath. The vampire seems to be smarter than the ignorant confidence that he boasts. If a scuffle alerts the humans, there’s enough silver in here to kill all of them tonight. Maybe the vampire really is alone; he might have been willing to strike up a fight with Yazaki but he knew that he was no match for someone as big as Asahi.
Before Sousuke can feel relieved, the vampire calls, “Who is to say there are no werewolves here tonight?”
Everyone swivels around and Sousuke bristles. The vampire drinks in the tension with a smirk before giving a fickle sigh. “You knew that they hunger for revenge, so why would you plan a meeting so close to the forest?” His gaze sweeps the crowd in half-lidded patience, drawing out the pressure as his voice echoes. “They could be walking among you. Right now. You brought weapons – are you not prepared to use them?”
Whispers flood the crowd, making Sousuke’s skin crawl. He stays rigid as everyone glances at each other, some people tucking close to the wall when guns are drawn. Some escape to their vehicles only to stagger back in with a haggard shout, “Our tires were slashed!”
Everyone swarms to their feet in an uproar. Accusations are screamed, people start shoving, and a woman staggers out of the fray to crash into Asahi’s chair. Dumbfounded, he puts a hand on her shoulder to straighten her, his eyes glazed over in a panic.
The blood explodes in Sousuke’s veins when a shot fires.
The crowd floods apart to reveal a man with his handgun raised to the ceiling, the chamber still smoking. He lowers the gun and barks, “Everyone shut up!”
He cocks his pistol and holds it steady as he marches through the silent crowd; they stumble out of his way and he gives each person a suspicious once-over. He sniffs the air, going rigid before he turns to Yazaki and Asahi.
Sousuke has no control as his wolf threatens to burst through his skin – an almighty shudder wracks his frame and just when his vision loses color, the man aims his gun to shoot a dozen rounds.
He doesn’t stop until the chamber is empty, until the woman standing beside Asahi has caught every bullet in her stomach.
Nausea punches Sousuke when she collapses, her fall echoing through the disbelieving quiet. She hits the floor and her skull cracks open like an egg as crimson oozes through her blond hair, staining it.
Yazaki gives the first jolt of movement in the crowd, lifting her trembling arms as blood rolls down her elbows. Asahi stares down at the woman, now a corpse – a single red tear drips down his chin as he looks up at the armed man.
The man wavers over the woman, blood clotting his beard. His shoulders heave with adrenaline and he snaps at the onlookers, “She was a werewolf, I’ve hunted the bastards before and I smelled it, goddamn it!”
Yazaki and Asahi look at each other as sickening realization dawns on their faces – the man had smelled werewolf on them, not the woman. She died in their place.
The man’s voice booms through the warehouse. “She was a wolf –”
“She wasn’t the only one~” the vampire sings. He meets Sousuke’s gaze, eyes crinkling with poisonous glee. “Don’t wolves travel in packs?”
Sousuke feels the physical sensation of something snap inside him. Heat flares off his skin as he lifts his chin, speaking over the frantic whispers of the crowd. “What about vampires?”
Every head swivels around while he shoulders through the crowd, fisting his pockets in the perfect image of nonchalance – though his gaze pierces the little vampire. “Corpses – ‘scuse me, vampires – like to pretend that they can hunt wolves.” He gives a mocking head-tilt. “Don’t vampires hate them?”
“Oh,” the corpse says, thick with hateful indulgence. He shakes with a rage that crests to an uncontrollable fever-pitch. “You have no idea.”
He flicks his gloved hand and a flash of white screams through the air. An inch from his forehead, Sousuke pinches the blade between two fingers. He inspects it in his gloved palm; it sits there for a few moments before he puts on a show of letting it clang to the ground. He smugly takes off his gloves.
He stands there, unscathed, and turns with the rest of the crowd to look at the vampire. He is choking on fury even as ash-grey fear washes over his skin. The crowd closes in with resolution and his expression is naked with vulnerability; he looks like a lost child as he stammers, “N-No, I’m not a – I’m not a fucking vampire, get your hands off me!”
Maybe the vampire really is smarter than Sousuke assumed – he knows to be afraid of humans.
Sousuke winces through a smile of false pity as a man loads a silver stake into his crossbow. “Sounds like something a vampire would say,” Sousuke sighs.
The quiver snaps and the stake carves through the air in a race toward the vampire’s heart. Just as victory brews in Sousuke’s chest, a flurry of robes catches his eye, billowing from above and descending as someone falls – no, jumps from the rafters. The figure welcomes the stake into his heart, catching it right in the chest with an echoing squelch.
The new vampire lurches to his knees and crumbles to the floor in a broken heap. Never in Sousuke’s hundreds of years on this planet has he heard grief like the little vampire’s scream. “No, NATSUYA!”
Sousuke hears a faint whistle before fire rips through his shoulder, nestling into his flesh as angry heat spreads through his body. He staggers with a hiss, spittle lashing from his mouth when he gropes his shoulder. Sousuke squeezes the dagger’s handle and silver melts through his palm; he gives a firm pull yet the blade is tucked too deeply between swollen muscles. His flesh begins to steam.
Sousuke puts all his strength into wrenching the dagger out, letting it clatter away. The dagger vibrates and he watches his blood soak into the silver, the blade drinking up his lifeforce.
With vile, Sousuke’s gaze jerks up to a silhouette perched on a beam high above, a figure carved with lean muscle that’s shaped by tight leather. The face is hidden but Sousuke makes out two burning garnets for eyes, and the figure’s tangible loathing is nothing in comparison to Sousuke’s onslaught of rage.
The crowd gapes at him and someone bellows, “WOOOLF!”
Sousuke dives behind a table but a silver bullet rips down his bicep, flaying his skin open to spill the liquid fire of his blood. The catastrophe of noise pulses away and color drains from his vision, taking on a blurry film. His wolf races out of the core of himself, climbing to the surface of his skin before his limbs flail into four legs with claws bared. Humans stagger from the powerful winds of his change, and the shift is so abrupt that Sousuke hears the wet crack of a splitting ribcage before his bones lock back together.
His front legs hit the ground and all the fury in his heart escapes him in a roar that shatters every window, the force of it throwing tables and chairs as each door rips off its hinges.
A silver arrow drives through his hind leg and Sousuke startles a growl, his muzzle slinging foam as his snout jerks to the side. His gaze pierces the man that shot him but before Sousuke can pounce, Uozumi and Asahi scramble over tables to lunge into the fray. They shift mid-air and when they crash to the ground, all that’s left of Sousuke’s attacker is screams and the hot stench of flesh.
A flash of honey catches Sousuke’s eye and Makoto slides over on four paws, using his teeth to rip the arrow from Sousuke’s leg. His effort is pointless because another one flies into Sousuke’s side, popping his stomach open like a balloon. Makoto whines in distress before Sousuke shoves him away to charge blindly, each shot fueling his vigor before he lunges into the fray with opened jaws.
His world becomes taste – copper, enough to drown in, so much of it that he must swallow it to continue his attack. His teeth peels scalps; his claws tear out eyes to leave them rolling across the floor like a child’s forgotten marbles. His last shred of consciousness knows that things have gone terribly wrong but his wolf is good for nothing if not retribution.
Weight crashes down and pins him to the floor. Drunk on agony, he tries to shove the person off only for them to sink their nails past his fur and squeeze into his flesh with inhuman strength. Sousuke’s eyes widen at the cold touch, tail bristling at the vampire’s growl.
The vampire squeezes into his throat, thighs vicing around Sousuke’s back. Sousuke thrashes and slams into the wall; the vampire spasms when his knee is crushed, hissing, “You fucking little –”
He’s determined – his legs tighten around Sousuke and his boots are spurred with points that sink into Sousuke’s gut so that he can’t fling him off.
The vampire leans down to brush his cold lips against Sousuke’s ear, and a smirk curls his breathless whisper. “I’m gonna kill you.”
The world stops as fangs sink into the back of Sousuke’s neck, two thick columns of porcelain that penetrate and violate his flesh. He bites right over Sousuke’s scruff where mother wolves carry pups with their teeth, and it paralyzes him, leaving him boneless and draining his will. Venom sears his veins and every molecule catches on fire, his very cells popping like bubbles. He wants his mother.
Blood squirts from his wound and the vampire stills, going so rigid that Sousuke wonders if he turned to stone on top of him. There’s a shift in the air as the vampire tightens around him so possessively that it’s like there’s emotion behind it.
His fangs squeeze deeper and Sousuke feels a pulling sensation internally, his veins swelling and contracting as the vampire sucks him.
Indignation roars through Sousuke. He throws himself to the ground and crushes the vampire, his yelp muffled under Sousuke’s weight. His fangs break loose, body trembling with a moan that sounds – well, it would sound sensual in any other situation.
Sousuke rolls off the vampire but one of his spurs is still caught in Sousuke’s stomach; he uses it to his advantage and flings the vampire across the floor, into the wall with a satisfying crash.
Sousuke wavers as he lifts his mighty head. The vampire looks incredibly small curled into himself and hugging his stomach. Sousuke stumbles over, dragging a red trail across the floor, then he hurdles into the vampire with reprisal hot in his blood.
A weak croak echoes through Sousuke’s head – “Serpens.”
The vampire vanishes and Sousuke collides with the wall, more embarrassed than hurt. He shakes himself and turns his head this way and that before his gaze slowly drops to the floor. In the vampire’s place is a ruby serpent coiled in a spiral, and the snake rears up with a hiss of long fangs. Sousuke lunges for it only for the viper to slither away into the wreckage.
Sousuke clambers onto the mountain of broken tables and noses through the wreckage only to give up with a huff. He blinks the blood from his eyes as he looks around – at some point during the chaos, the warehouse was set ablaze. Fire climbs the walls, swallowing bodies and pooling in the floor.
Sousuke grumbles and rears his head around to yank an arrow out with his teeth, body spasming in protest before his muscles relax and he grows warm from the healing process. He was lucky that every bullet ripped through him; he is not in the mood to get sawed open back at the den to try and excavate bullets.
He reaches through the bond, his vision draining grey as five streaks of light trail to each different wolf. His gaze follows each path to find Uozumi eating through a woman long dead, his instincts too afraid to let him believe that she will not harm him again. Yazaki’s tail is raw from fire as she crashes through overturned tables some men were using as a barrier; Satomi is with her and his sister’s fur is no longer white, but drenched red. Asahi breaks a crossbow in half with his teeth and one of his eyes is slashed shut, but Makoto took on the most damage out of the pack since he’d rather defend himself than hurt anyone.
Sousuke notices the little vampire holding the one that saved him; he rocks the man back and forth with senseless babblings of reassurance, oblivious to the fire around them.
Sousuke pushes down a faint sense of moral confliction and calls his wolves to flee; there’s no point in staying to build the mountain of bodies when the humans have already got the message – hopefully.
Just as his chest swells to howl, fingers yank him back by the ear and an arm hurdles around to punch him straight in the fucking face.
Sousuke’s head snaps back in a spray of blood, pain leaving him blind for the flash of a second. He lurches around to sink his teeth in the meat of the vampire’s arm and a shout wrenches from his core, not a human sound – it is the pleading cry of a monster, and Sousuke feels nothing but satisfied.
He wrenches the vampire to the ground and lies on top of him to pin him; the vampire spasms, his breath abandoning him in a broken rasp. One of the last humans fires a shot into Sousuke’s gut before Satomi literally rips her face off, but Sousuke doesn’t care about the pain. He’s going to end this – drag this fucking corpse straight down to hell with him so that they may carry on the age-old feud for eternity.
Sousuke snarls, cramming a paw against the vampire’s throat and relishing in the gulp he lets out. He smells his own fucking blood on the vampire’s lips – it’s painted all over his mouth down to his neck. Sousuke hovers over his face with hot foam dripping from his muzzle and leans down with opened jaws before locking eyes with the vampire.
The crackling flames dull into silence like a gust of wind that would leave Sousuke lost in darkness. The pack bond slips away and his mind becomes hollow with quiet. Colors, sounds, tastes… pain. Gone quicker than the next heartbeat, so abruptly that Sousuke cannot remember any other name or sensation before this moment.
His entire world narrows down into the eyes staring up at him, which mirror Sousuke’s blank look of confusion. He finds himself drinking in the details: the eyes glow red like blessed gems; there’s stray blood spiking the vampire’s lashes and brimming his waterlines, pooling at the corners. Firelight softens his features; his maroon hair is splayed across his forehead with grime, and he looks as lost as Sousuke feels.
Sousuke cannot even name what – who he is looking at. The word vampire is so distant in his mind yet he knows that this boy is not human.
But Sousuke’s wolf knows exactly who this boy is.
Mate, his soul whispers, mate, mate, mate, sings his heart, he’s your mate, calls his brain – his lungs swell with the mantra, teeth and claws pulsing hot with it.
His mate’s eyes dart and he goes rigid when he feels it, oh, he knows it. Sousuke can tell from his gasp, and Sousuke hears the echoes of it in his bones like a jolt of electricity from miles and miles of powerlines – a white crackle dancing across a lonely forest.
The vampire shoves him off and Sousuke lets him, curling into himself with the burn of rejection. He lowers to the ground with a whine that makes each wolf prick their ears up, but Sousuke is oblivious to the horror of realization that dawns in the bond. All he can do is watch the vampire scramble backwards, cradling his mangled arm that Sousuke almost ripped off. He hates himself for it.
The vampire never breaks their stare, so he does not notice the shadow that overtakes him – it’s a man dragging his broken leg, and he’s missing his arm all the way up to the underside of his jaw. The man wills his last bit of strength to raising a silver stake over the vampire’s head.
Sousuke lunges and slides over the vampire, eyes clenching shut when the stake crashes between two vertebrae; it pushes a cry out of Sousuke, broken with defeat as his body reaches the threshold of pain that he can endure.
The vampire stares in naked disbelief before the first twitch of emotion crosses his features.
The doors explode apart, throwing humans to the ground before the doors fly across the warehouse to slice through the walls. Leaves spiral as the breeze carries a stench to Sousuke and his stomach drops.
Silhouettes walk into the firelight with an air of regal authority, no falter in their gaits while they drink in the chaos. The flames don’t glow right against their stone skin and their eyes burn while the rest of their bodies are slated in dull pigments – but their robes are hardly modest. Capes trail the ground and gloves of rich embroidery clutch ornate daggers. There’s a girl with a high ponytail and she wields a double-headed spear, a tiger’s head resting on one shoulder of her armor; only one boy is dressed in dark modesty, his outfit built for agility, and his blue eyes surge.
The Vampire King stands at the front and his gaze sweeps the wreckage in grim disappoint before his eyes land on Sousuke and the boy underneath him. The king’s eyes roam to the dagger in Sousuke’s back, the man standing over them, and realization dawns on his face with an array of other emotions – violation, sickness, confusion. A misplaced sense of gratitude that his pride will not let him voice.
The blue-eyed vampire flicks his wrist and a blade flies into the man’s throat – he grabs at his neck with a garbled sound before collapsing to his knees, and motion rushes the warehouse. Sousuke tells his wolves go, run, leave me, before someone’s teeth rips the dagger from his back and they bite down on Sousuke’s scruff. He lets himself be wrenched away; his wolves flank him before shoving him through a hole in the wall so that they can escape through the fields.
Sousuke dares to look back. The vampire is up on his knees and staring after Sousuke as he cradles his limp forearm with the other, his eyes wide and lost.