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How to Be a Monster

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He’s immeasurably grateful for the sun going down. It’s hard to sleep when it shines through the arched opening next to him, lighting up the dark interior, throwing the big, empty dungeon in sharp relief. Harder still when the sun passes across the stone floor and he has to push himself into the corner, to keep the rays from touching him. He’s often as not bare-legged, forcing him to tuck his legs in tight for hours, waiting for the sun to pass. At least he has a shirt, though it’s thin and billowy, to protect the rest of his body.

More than once he’s made the mistake of giving in to his exhaustion, letting his body go lax with the sun in the sky, letting the chains around his wrist take his weight, only to be awoken by his skin burning and bubbling where his legs had fallen into the light. He’s lucky he reacted so quickly, otherwise he may have been left with something more permanent than a few light scars across his knee and thigh.

He used to enjoy the sun, as much as he could down here. The cold bothered him but the sun chased it away, and it helped mark the passing of his days, though he’d long lost track of just how many that had been.

However, he doesn’t prefer the darkness. Doesn’t like what night time brings. He hears the squeak of the door opening at the top of the winding stairs as the sun’s light becomes only a faint purple memory through the window. He can’t hear the person’s steps, but he watches the corridor leading out of the dungeon closely, wondering what it will be tonight.

Tension coils tight in his stomach, but he’s too tired and hungry to do more than clench his fists, careful to avoid touching the silver chain and shackles around his wrists. At least he has the shirt sleeves as a buffer between them and his skin. They keep his arms stretched above him, bolted into the wall behind him. Just high enough that he can’t sit comfortably without his knees under him to prop him up, but can’t stand fully without being bent over almost backwards.

He’d once tried to pry the bolt from the stone, in the first week he’d been here. Ripping his fingers bloody and raw, losing a few nails. It was a long time ago, and the last time he’d tried he’d discovered the bolt was made of silver too. He hasn’t tried since.

The woman who turns the corner is slim and blonde, wearing nothing but a sheer blue shift. Her pale, bare feet move easily over the rough stone as she comes to stand before him, looking down at him blankly. In her right hand is a knife, its blade flashing silver in the faint light.

He’s heard Kamski call her Chloe—but then, he’s heard Kamski call her sisters Chloe as well. He doesn’t know the difference between them, doesn’t know if they really are all named Chloe, or if Kamski simply calls them that.

They don’t seem to care either way. Don’t seem to have any preference beyond obeying Kamski’s commands. He’s tried to talk to them when they come down here alone like this. Tried to find out who they are, why they follow him. They never say anything useful.

He’d given up on that, too.

This Chloe watches him for a moment, and he knows what she’s about to do. Knows what’s coming, what this night will bring. She raises her empty hand, and Connor braces himself as the knife comes up too.

She doesn’t make a sound as she drags the blade across her palm, but Connor can’t help his own. The smell hits him. The hunger he’d pushed to the back of his mind lurches forward and he groans. It’s not as fresh as it would be from a human, not as potent, but he hasn’t eaten in a week. He can feel saliva building in his mouth and he clenches his teeth against it, pressing himself back into the wall instead of forward as his body demands.

He shuts his eyes, but it does nothing to save him from the smell filling his head, the sound of it dripping steadily where he knows Chloe is tilting her palm. Letting it puddle on the stone. She stays there for a long time, unmoving.

The smell settles in his nose. He forces himself to unclench his hand, feeling around blindly, until he touches the cold metal. He hisses, head rocking back, cracking against the wall at the pain that shoots through his palm, cold and burning. He releases it quickly but the pain lingers, stinging across his fingers when he clenches his hand. It clears his head a little, forces himself to focus on something other than the tantalizing smell.

He cracks his eyes open, watching blearily as Chloe lowers her hands. The puddle of red at her feet draws his eyes, but he forces them back up. Makes himself watch her blank face. Without a word she turns and heads back through the arched doorway. Leaving Connor alone again, but not for long, he knows.

This is Kamski’s favorite game. Riling him up, leaving him hungry and wanting so he won’t be able to resist as much when it’s time to feed. Before long, Kamski will come down here with some unsuspecting human.

He tries not to think too far ahead, tries not to think of what’s to come. Forces himself to ignore the blood seeping into the cracks between the stained stones. The pain in his palm pulses in time with the slow beat of his heart, but the hunger gnaws at him.

He leans back against the wall, closes his eyes, and tries not to think of the taste of blood on his tongue, sweet and sharp.

-

The gothic-style mansion commissioned by the Kamski family more than a hundred years ago is supposedly based on their ancestral home in Transylvania. It’s more akin to a castle than a mansion in Hank’s opinion, but no one’s asked. He’s done his research on the family since he first became aware of the recent disappearances in the nearby town. Elijah Kamski is the current heir, though Hank did not run across any pictures of his parents. That could be by accident or by design, but in his line of work coincidences are rare and he’s learned to trust his gut.

“Wow, this where you live? Never would have guessed given the dive you picked me up at,” Hank says, and it’s not hard to lay on the appreciation.

As the trees give way to the open lawn, the towering castle, glimpsed in brief flashes as they wound through the forest, comes fully into view. It’s a beautiful structure, well taken care of over the years—no signs of crumbling stone, no overgrown shrubbery, no dilapidation as far as Hank can see. Though it’s dark, Hank doubts the shadows are hiding any disrepair. Its spires disappear into the dark sky and there are windows lit along the front with a soft orange glow. If Hank didn’t know any better, he would think he’d been transported to a different time as his truck noses along the narrow driveway to the front gates.

“I simply know what I like, and where to find it.”

His voice is deeper, richer than Hank had expected when he’d first been approached in the bar. Hank had been hunched over his drink at a table with his back to the wall, watching the locals as they came and went. Trying to find the right jackass who would look at him the wrong way, or say the wrong thing, so he could make another impression.

It’s been his routine in this place for the last two weeks, and he can’t say he didn’t enjoy it. There was definitely something cathartic in getting drunk, finding the meanest, most volatile bastard in the place, and having a good old knock-down, drag-out bar fight. His knuckles are still bruised and bloody from the last one, and he hasn’t lost yet.

“Least now I know you’re not gonna murder me for my organs,” Hank says jokingly.

Kamski gives a small, close-mouthed laugh. Hank wonders if they’re both thinking of the irony.

While disappearances aren’t so uncommon, the string of them, starting a year back, has gained some notice, at least among those who look for such things. People who put together the clues and then put out the call for help in certain circles. Hank just happened to be the first to answer that call, and, he thinks, it’s lucky he did. He perfectly fits the criteria of those gone missing. Men, age 22 to 60 at the latest. A certain type. Men with criminal records, men who were just passing through, and men who were known to start fights. Men who wouldn’t be missed, for the most part, and yet their disappearances had been noticed, and connected.

He made a name for himself as a trouble maker the moment he got here. A loud mouth, quick to anger. Made sure it was known that he’s got no one and nothing. It’s been a close call with the police more than once, but he always makes sure the other man throws the first punch. He knows law enforcement, knows how to toe the line without going over.

When Elijah Kamski came to him, wearing tight black pants and a sleek vest over a loose white shirt, Hank tried to wave him off. He hadn’t recognized Kamski then. But Kamski just ignored it, slid into the booth next to him, pushing a drink across the table. By the time Hank realized he was being propositioned, Kamski already had a hand on Hank’s thigh, fingers rubbing the inner seam of his worn jeans suggestively.

He’d said, in that surprisingly rich voice, “You look like you could use some company.”

Hank was ready to write the guy off, tell him to go find his kicks somewhere else, but something about those piercing blue eyes and his sharp smile had Hank’s hackles up.

“I don’t think you could handle me,” Hank finally said, dredging up some of the charm he’d had two decades ago. It miraculously didn’t fall flat, and Kamski looked at him hungrily as Hank raised the glass Kamski slid him to his mouth. Pretending to drink.

“That’s alright. I have a friend. I think between the two of us, we can manage.”

Hank weighed his options and decided, what the hell. Best case scenario, Hank gets a weird threesome, worst case scenario he’d found the ones behind the disappearances.

When the man had finally introduced himself, after Hank offered to drive them in his truck, the certainty had cemented itself. Elijah Kamski had been his first suspect on learning about the town and the family’s long history, and there’s no doubt in his mind he’s being led to his death. 

The gate to the castle opens at their approach, revealing a courtyard with a four-tiered fountain bubbling with water at its center. Hank pulls around it to the wide front steps leading up to doors twice his height and cuts the engine. Kamski is out before Hank can even open the door, taking the first step up and pausing to look back for Hank.

Who reaches into the bed of his truck for a heavy duffel bag. Kamski raises an eyebrow, and Hank decides playing the presumptuous asshole is the best option. “Need my overnight bag,” he says with a cocky grin, hefting it over his shoulder. It’s old, frayed, but sturdy, and far heavier than it looks. Packed with a cushion of clothes to make it seem as innocent as possible.

Kamski seems to accept this, and Hank follows him up the steps. The doors open before they even reach them, and when they step inside they’re greeted by a trio of blonde women in blue dresses who look like triplets, standing in a row. One of them holds a tray with two wine glasses on them filled with a deep red liquid. She offers it to Kamski first, who waves it away, and then to Hank.

Hank pulls out his flask, shaking it in answer, twisting the top and taking a brief sip. It tastes like nothing. The woman returns to the line, waiting quietly.

“The ‘friend’?” Hank asks, giving them a once over. Barefoot, smooth, pale skin. Bright blue eyes, almost empty. Kamski hadn’t mentioned three, only one.

“Oh no, these are the help,” Kamski says, dismissive, walking further into the wide entrance hall.

Hank follows, looking over his shoulder at the three women. One of them moves to close the door and Hank returns his attention to Kamski.

The entrance hall is wide and high, the floors a polished marble that Hank can’t help feeling like he shouldn’t be stepping on with his dirty shoes. There’s a huge staircase at the back of the hall, rising to the next floor, splitting off in different directions, but Kamski heads to the left of it, towards an open arch leading into a hallway.

Here the floor is covered in a thick, red carpet. Paintings and tapestries dot the walls, and Hank gives them brief glances as they pass by, but they’re pastoral scenes and portraits of people Hank doesn’t recognize.

“So what’s this friend of yours like?” Hank asks, taking a few quick strides to return to Kamski’s side. “Anything like you?”

“I don’t want to ruin the surprise,” Kamski says, glancing at Hank from the corner of his eye.

“Oh yeah?” Hank asks, grabbing Kamski’s shoulder, pressing him back against the wall, right next to an oil painting in an ornate, gold frame. “Maybe I want a preview.”  He’s still got the flask in his hand, and he takes another sip, spinning the top back on quickly and shoving it into his pocket.

The liquid is lukewarm on his tongue. He holds it there as his hands slip around Kamski’s waist, cupping his ass, squeezing as he slots himself against the man.

“Impatient,” Kamski says with a note of amusement. He presses a thigh in between Hank’s, rubbing against Hank’s crotch, and if this were any other circumstance, it might actually get a reaction out of him. But all he feels is revulsion. He may not have proof, but he can feel it in his gut. The being rubbing against him, hands roving up Hank’s sides, isn’t human, and his skin crawls at the thought. “I can’t have all the fun. My friend is waiting,” Kamski says, completely unaware.

Hank doesn’t answer beyond a vague hum, dipping his head, finding the smooth, cool skin of Kamski’s neck. He presses his mouth to it as he grinds their hips together. There’s no pulse beneath his lips. It’s possible Hank can’t feel it—he’s keyed up himself, aware of Kamski’s fingers digging into his back, the face next to his, inches from his own neck. He can barely hear over the pounding of his own heart, and he can’t help the way he tenses. But he knows he’s not wrong. He knows it. He just has to prove it before he lets this go any further, one way or another.

Kamski’s hands find the front of Hank’s jacket, and he can feel himself getting pushed away. It’s now or never. He opens his mouth against Kamski’s neck, letting the water trickle over his lips.

The skin hisses and bubbles where it touches, and Hank can feel it burning hot against his mouth where once it had been cold.

Abruptly the hands at his chest shove and he’s flung backwards, hitting the opposite wall, slamming into a painting that rattles and bangs against the wallpaper. He doesn’t lose his feet at least, managing to stay upright as he reaches into his jacket.

“A hunter,” Kamski says, clutching his neck, glaring at Hank from across the hall. “How ironic. Chloe!”

He doesn’t get a chance to say anything else as Hank finds the handle of his revolver. It flashes in the light of the hall and the wallpaper explodes where Kamski had once been. He swings around, trying to line up a shot as Kamski’s back disappears down the hall, but there’s suddenly a dark mist coalescing in front of him. He takes the shot, but Kamski is faster, gliding through a nearby door almost too quick to see, and the wood frame splinters.

Then the mist is taking shape, a hand wrapping around Hank’s forearm, and one of the blonde servants forms, her beautiful face twisted in a snarl baring canines sharper than any humans. She lunges and Hank drops, trying to wrench his arm free. Her grip is stronger, forcing his arm up, keeping the gun pointed away. Her other hand shoots out, grabbing Hank around the throat, slamming him into the wall. His duffel bag digs into his back.

She hisses wordlessly, blue eyes flashing red in the telltale sign of bloodlust, and Hank’s free hand scrabbles at his neck, where a plain gold chain hangs. He fishes it out as she leans in close, shoving it against her face and praying to a god he’s not sure he believes in.

The crucifix burns the moment it touches her cheek, blue veins bursting along her skin, and she releases him with a screech, pressing a hand to the spot and spitting at Hank. Her form melts back into that dark mist and it disperses into the air vents, leaving the hall empty for the moment.

Hank tucks the cross back into his shirt, panting as he gets his breath back, neck aching where her inhuman grip had nearly crushed his throat. He was lucky. A crucifix doesn’t work on a vampire unless they were a true believer before they were turned. It’s much more likely to work on older vampires, but knowing the difference between them is difficult. This was a blind shot in the dark, as this job often is, but thankfully it paid off. For now, anyways.

She’s not dead, and he still has to find Kamski, take care of these monsters while he can. Four against one is bad odds, the worst Hank can recall ever having been in, but it’s a distant concern. The odds don’t matter. This is his job, his only goal, and he’s going to kill them or die trying.

He swings his duffel bag onto the floor, looking up every few seconds to make sure the hall is clear as he moves quickly. Inside, beneath the layer of old shirts and socks, he finds a half-full box of silver rounds. He slides two into the chamber of his revolver before closing and holstering it, and from within the duffel he pulls out a single barrel, pump action shotgun.

He zips the duffel back and slings it over his shoulder, flicks the safety off, double checks that it’s fully loaded, and pumps the slide as he rises to his feet.

It’s quiet as he moves carefully but quickly down the hallway, until he reaches the shattered door frame Kamski disappeared through. He finds another hallway with a set of stairs at the other end through an open door, leading down. It’s empty at first glance, but as he steps through a shadow falls over him.

He throws himself forward, tucking into a roll, and when he comes back up with the shotgun in front of him, one of the blonde servants is lunging. The barrel flashes and an explosion thunders through the hall, but the shotgun is knocked sideways and she takes a swipe at him with wicked claws.

His jacket catches the brunt of it, but then she’s on him, hissing in his face, pupils thin slits as her claws rake at him. He swings the shotgun, slamming it into the side of her head once, twice, three times, until she falls back screaming. He doesn’t think, barely aims, the shotgun recoiling against his shoulder as more thunder rolls through the hall even as she dives out of the way.

Blast after blast, following the blur of her blue dress as he tries to pin her with even a single shot. Canvases are ripped apart and vases explode in a shower of shards. She’s like a wild beast, and Hank realizes he’s not going to be able to hit her like this. He follows her with the barrel, waiting until she’s by the door he came through, before taking off in the opposite direction.

His heart is in his ears as he pounds towards the dark stairwell. Behind him he hears a frustrated, animal growl, and a second set of feet pounding after him. He’s not going to make it, and even if he could, it’s just as likely she’d toss his ass down the stairs and break his neck.

At the top of the first step he comes to a halt, grabbing the banister against the stone wall to keep his momentum from carrying him down. He swings around with the shotgun. She’s right in front of him, arms raised, howling. He squeezes the trigger.

The blonde woman jerks, her shoulder disintegrating as silver buckshot tears her open. She screeches, rearing back, clutching at it, and before she can make another disappearing act like her sister, he squeezes the trigger again. Her stomach opens in a bloody bloom. She crumbles to her knees, keening, wrapping her arms around herself.

Hank takes aim, watching her carefully as she falls to her side, mouth opening on a hissed, “ Elijah, ” that dissolves into wet coughing. Until her noises die down, and she stops moving, blue eyes open but unseeing.

Hank checks the dark stairwell and the other end of the hall before dropping the duffel and digging more shells out. He reloads it quickly, and when he stands again, faces the stairs leading down into the depths of the castle.

The stone stairs curve as they go down, none of the decadence of these upper halls present, and Hank stares doubtfully. It would be suicide to go down there alone, to face at least three more of these monsters, and he hefts the duffel higher. It’s not like he hasn’t been chasing his own death these last five years. Plenty of close calls that he’s miraculously avoided. If he meets his end here, destroying these monsters, it will have been worth it.

From his pocket, he pulls a small flashlight, and he thumbs it on. He pumps the shotgun barrel, listening to the satisfying click, and takes the first step down.

It’s completely silent but for his own breaths, echoing sibilantly. The air grows colder as he descends around the twisting spiral staircase. It’s shorter than he anticipated, and before he knows it the space is opening up before him. The walls are bare stone, with columns dotting the place. To his left is an archway, leading deeper into the dungeon. Beyond it is faint, blue light, and he turns slowly with the flashlight pressed along the barrel of the shotgun.

Something slams into him from the side and he yells in surprise, stumbling, nearly losing his footing on the uneven floor. Another body slams into him from the other side, knocking his grip loose. The flashlight falls to the floor, spinning wildly, illuminating Kamski and another blonde servant in brief flashes as they surge towards him.

Hank ducks, striking out with the shotgun, and feels it connect with something. One of the servants, who hisses. Claws rake up his side, under his thick jacket, and Hank bites down on a yell as pain flares up his torso.

“You shouldn’t have come here, Hunter,” Kamski says, amusement in his voice.

Hank swings towards the source of the voice and the room is illuminated in a flash as the barrel explodes. Stone shatters and sparks and he turns, having lost track of Kamski and his servant. His flashlight is a few feet away, and he takes a slow step towards it.

A body barrels into him, knocking him flat on his back. He brings the gun up, holding it between him and whichever vampire has him. The flashlight falls on them, illuminating the steely face of a blonde woman, and she bares her fangs, both of them struggling with the shotgun. He braces himself, then abruptly lets go. It slams into his sternum, knocking the breath out of him, but his hand scrambles for the pistol at his hip and she howls as he brings it around and slams it into her temple.

Her skin burns as she falls off of him, and he shoves himself to his feet just in time to be picked up and slammed back down against the stone. His head bounces and stars flash in his vision. He brings the pistol up, trying to aim again, but a hand grips his wrist tight, fingers digging into bone, until he drops it with a cry.

Kamski smiles down at him, looking perfectly calm. “You’re very crafty, I’ll give you that, Hunter. Did you come here knowing who I had, or of your own agenda?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hank growls, hand flexing beneath Kamski’s hold. He feels something cold leaking into his shirt.

“Well, that is amusing.” Kamski leans close, his breath metallic and icy across Hank’s face. “Just a wayward hunter who happened to find me, for no purpose other than to slay a monster. Is that right?”

“You’re damn right!” Hank spits. “You and your servants are done feeding off these people!” His fingers grope along his jacket, searching.

“Are we?” Kamski says, amused. “I would rethink your words, considering the position you find yourself in.”

“Oh yeah? Maybe you should rethink yours, asshole.” His fingers find cold, wet metal, and he rips it out, swinging around towards Kamski’s face. A hand comes up, catching his wrist, but holy water splashes from the busted top and Kamski shouts as it lands across the side of his face and begins to sizzle.

The weight pinning Hank lifts suddenly, and he rolls towards his shotgun, finding it and surging to his feet, panting and swinging it wildly in every direction.

It’s quiet.

Just the sound of his breaths ricocheting off stone and the beam of the flashlight carving a circle of light against the far wall. He leans down for it slowly.

Something sounds through the wide archway behind him and he jerks around, abandoning the light. There’s no one beyond it, just that faint blue glow, a little brighter than before. He takes a slow step, wincing at the noise of his boot against the stone, however slight.

As he approaches, the room beyond becomes a little clearer. Moonlight shines in through some window he can’t see, casting deep shadows around the edge of the room. There’s no gathering mist or shifting of wings, but Kamski and his servants could be anywhere, and he keeps his steps measured and quiet. Shotgun raised.

He’s tense as he passes through the arch. The room is wide, columns dotting it. Anything could be hiding in here. He spares a glance to the right wall, with three windows spaced along the length of it. They must be just barely above ground and he wonders at the purpose of that.

He continues on, reaching each row of columns, sweeping from side to side. Nothing jumps out at him. No Kamski. No servants. There’s no movement or sound beyond Hank, who slowly relaxes. If Kamski was going to attack he would have done it already. Hurting him must have been enough for him to decide to retreat, for the moment. It gives Hank a little time to plan his next course of action, reload, and prepare.

He turns back towards the archway he came through, passing through the columns, still wary, but less so now that the room is clear. Only when he’s halfway through does he hear another sound, like metal on stone.

He freezes, eyes darting from shadow to shadow. Taking a step forward, finger tight against the trigger. Sweat drips cold down his back.

It sounds again, and on the heels of that clinking, something softer. A wordless noise.

A voice.

Hank turns towards the window, eyes straining against the moonlight, and makes out a flash of silver in the corner, concealed by the deep shadows there. It shifts, and he comes closer, lowering his gun slowly as he passes through the moonlight and makes out exactly what’s hidden there.

Or rather, who. The man kneeling in the corner sways slightly, arms raised and locked in place by the bright shackles around his wrists, looped through a ring set into the stone above him. He looks like he’s kneeling, but the longer Hank looks, he realizes the man is practically hanging by his wrists, eyes closed. His knees against the concrete are the only thing keeping him from hanging completely limp.

Dark hair curls over his forehead, and thick lashes rest against his cheeks. He’s young and handsome, and clean despite being locked down here. Hank wonders if he was recently taken. If this is what Kamski and his servants have been doing with their prey—bringing them down here and locking them up to feed at their leisure.

With a short look around, Hank kneels before the man. It doesn’t look like he’s breathing, and Hank raises two fingers to the man’s neck to check for a pulse, fully expecting that he’s too late.

The man’s eyes open, slowly, and Hank freezes with his hand inches from that slim neck. They blink blearily, sliding around the stone floor blankly before finding Hank’s knees. Traveling up his body. Hank finds he’s holding his breath as they make their way up, until he’s staring into dark, dazed eyes.

They’re both silent, the man’s eyes roving Hank’s face before moving past him. Looking around at the room, and Hank watches the realization crossing the man’s features—his eyes widen and his mouth drops open and his gaze settles back on Hank in disbelief.

“Where?” the man croaks, voice strained and groggy. “Kamski?”

“Not here,” Hank says, and finally drops his hand where it had been hovering by the man’s face. Shit. A captive. As much as he wants to head back upstairs and find Kamski, now he’s got a bigger problem. He can’t leave the man—Hank could die trying to fight those monsters, and then the guy would be stuck down here until they came to fucking eat him.

“Where?” he asks again, a little stronger, a little more urgent. “Is he dead?”

“No such luck,” Hank mutters, pushing to his feet and leaning forward to get a look at the cuffs around his wrists. The guy flinches and Hank throws up his hands. “Woah, hey, I’m just seeing what I have to work with. I don’t have a key, I’m gonna have to see if I can break these.”

He reaches out, slow, and the guy sits up a little straighter, giving some slack to the chain. Hank takes one of his wrists, turning it, examining the silver cuff. It’s got a padlock on each manacle, holding it shut, and relief courses through him.

“Hold tight, kid, I got just the thing,” Hank says, slinging his duffle bag down and unzipping it.

“Where is Kamski?” the guy says again, staring around the room, shoulders tensing. “How did you get in here? Where are the Chloes?”

“I dunno,” Hank says, digging through clothes until he grasps a solid handle. The bolt cutters come out awkwardly, a dirty shirt clinging to them. “Got him with some holy water and he took off. Guess the, uh, Chloes went with him. Except for one. Silver buckshot to the chest. She’s definitely down for good.” When he turns back wielding the bolt cutters, the man obligingly turns his wrist out, and Hank smirks. “How long you been down here, kid?”

It’s a tight fit between the bars of the padlock, but the kid is stronger than he looks, holding his wrists steady as Hank gets the teeth around one and clamps down.

“I don’t know,” he says slowly, dark eyes angled up, watching Hank work, unflinching even when the metal creaks above him. “I lost track of the days. I’d say nine months or so, but that’s a conservative guess.

“Nine months? Longass time to keep a human.” Hank grunts and strains, hunching with tense shoulders as he squeezes the handles of the bolt cutters together. “Why’d they keep you so long, kid?”

“I’m not a kid. My name is Connor. Connor Stern.”

The metal gives with a thunderous snap but Hank hardly hears it. The man— Connor  lowers his hand, staring at it, flexing his fingers as the manacle hangs above him, knocking against the stone.

“Stern?” Hank says in disbelief. “ The  Connor Stern?”

Connor nods, completely serious.

“Holy shit,” Hank breathes. He’s heard the rumours—everyone has—of a fellow hunter who got killed a year back. The man was an esteemed hunter, well-known among their kind, from a family who’s hunting tradition stretched back to before the pilgrims came to America. No one knows what did it, only that he disappeared and was never seen by his family again, and only something very strong and smart could have done it. “You’re supposed to be fucking dead.”

“Clearly that is not the case,” Connor says, and tugs on the remaining manacle pointedly.

With a shake of his head, Hank moves the bolt cutters into place, locking them around the padlock and bearing down. After a few moments of strain it gives with a loud snap, and Connor pulls his wrist free, instantly grabbing at the stone wall, pulling himself up. Almost immediately he stumbles, and Hank reaches out without thinking, grabbing his arms, catching him before he can hit the floor.

Connor flinches and Hank says, “Woah, woah, careful there, you’ve been down here a long time, kid.”

He’s light in Hank’s arms, and cold, but that’s no surprise. He wonders when the last time Connor ate was, if he might be sick from being down here, or otherwise hurt. It’s hard to get a good read in the moonlight, but the front of Connor’s shirt is stained with something dark, and in the open collar Hank can see a few marks, but he can’t tell if they’re wounds or not.

“I’m perfectly fine,” Connor says, pulling away quickly.

“If you say so,” Hank says doubtfully, watching carefully to make sure Connor doesn’t stumble again. For the first time, he notices something he probably should have the moment he saw Connor, but it didn’t register until now, looking Connor up and down as he sways slightly on his feet. “You—don’t have pants,” he says blankly, staring down at the bare white thighs practically glowing in the moonlight. Connor’s crotch is barely covered by the long hem of the billowing shirt he wears.

Connor freezes, mouth opening and closing, before saying, “That’s correct.” His voice is empty of any inflection, and Hank abruptly turns around and drops to his open bag to hide his sudden embarrassment.

Digging through it, he finds the first pair of pants he can, some jeans that are probably way too big for Connor. When he pushes himself to his feet and offers them out, he’s careful to keep his gaze above the waistline. He waits with his eyes turned away while Connor pulls them on, using the wall for balance.

He’s not used to there being prisoners in these kinds of situations, and it changes things. It was bad odds before, and Hank accepted that, but with a victim, there’s no way Hank can justify continuing on, especially not with someone who’s been captured for over a year. When he’s sure Connor is a little more clothed, Hank says, “Alright, we need to get out of here before those fuckers come back. Doubt a little holy water is gonna keep Kamski down for too long.” He leans down to shove the bolt cutters back into his bag, tossing the clothes he’d rifled through on top as well.

“No,” Connor says, and Hank looks up sharply.

“Come again?”

“I said no. I can’t leave until Kamski is dead.” Connor stares him down, his face shadowed but eyes oddly bright, catching some stray reflection.

Hank closes his bag and stands slowly, not breaking eye contact. “Kid. That isn’t happening. He’s too strong for just the two of us, especially if he decides to come at us with the two blonde freaks at the same time. Top it off, you’re in no condition to fight, you’ll just be a liability.”

“I’m more than capable of taking care of myself,” Connor says stiffly, obviously offended.

“That why you got caught in the first place?” Hank bites back.

Connor’s eyes narrow. “I was caught by surprise in an ambush. Now I am more than aware of what Kamski is capable of. With the two of us, we should be able to take them out.”

“No. Not a chance. This was bad enough when it was just me, I’m not babysitting your ass in the middle of a fight—then we’ll both be killed for sure.” Hank is acutely aware that the longer they stand here arguing the more dangerous it becomes. They’re letting themselves be sitting ducks for when Kamski regains his strength and decides to exterminate the rats in his basement, and he can already see Connor gearing up to argue. “Look, we don’t have time for this, we’re leaving. You’re too weak to be running around trying to fight monsters right now, you’ve been a fucking captive for over a year!”

“I am perfectly fine,” Connor says, cold and calm. “If you have a weapon I can borrow, we can take them out tonight.”

Hank wants to scream in frustration, but at the same time, he gets it. If he were in Connor’s situation—hell, his own situation isn't too far off, when it comes down to it—he’d be foaming at the mouth to get revenge on the monsters that have held him for so long. So he forces himself to take a deep breath, to keep his voice down as he says, “Kid, now isn’t the time for your revenge fantasy. We need to get out of here now.” Without waiting for an answer Hank hefts the bag over his shoulder, gets his shotgun under one arm, and grabs Connor with the other.

He feels Connor twitch, the tense of his muscles as he tries to pull away, but Hank gets a good grip on his arm and yanks him towards the shine of his flashlight through the arch.

“Let me go. If you won’t take care of Kamski, I will stay and do it myself.”

Hank ignores him, shaking his head as he bends down to grab the flashlight and shove it into Connor’s hands. “Hold that,” he says tersely, and then continues on with Connor in tow, pulling him up the steps.

Halfway up he feels the kid slowing, dragging Hank back. He tenses, thinking Connor’s about to try something stupid, but when he turns to look he finds Connor leaning heavily against the stone wall, the flashlight loose in his fist, his brows drawn tight together.

“Hey, you alright?”

Connor’s mouth drops open slightly and after a moment he nods. “Fine,” he says, but it sounds strained and Hank wonders if he’s going to have to carry Connor out of here. But Connor presses off the wall and nods to keep moving.

Hank shifts his grip, more worried now about Connor passing out than trying to run off and fight three vampires alone. Gets one arm around his back and under his arm to hold him up, just in case, and is surprised when Connor doesn’t argue. In his other arm he holds the shotgun at the ready as they continue up the stairs. It’s awkward, but it’ll have to do. These monsters are too fast for his pistol.

At the top of the stairs the blonde vampire still lays, unmoving. Connor looks down at her as they move past, face completely blank. For the first time, it allows him a good look at Connor, and he sees now what was hidden in shadow and moonlight.

He’s pale, almost deathly white, undoubtedly from his time down in the dungeon. His neck is peppered in old scars, white dots in pairs, and Hank has no doubt what those are from. But none of them are fresh, and Hank wonders why they stopped feeding from Connor. Bored of the same dish every night? Do monsters like that even discern a difference in blood?

The neck of Connor’s shirt is an open v that reaches almost to his sternum, wide and billowy like the sleeves. It’s clearly from a different time, much like this whole castle. On the front, over the left side of his chest, the fabric is stained a dark red. He can see more scars there, old, pale and faded, probably from his time as a hunter, if Hank had to guess. He’s got more than a few just like them himself, after all.

He forces himself to look away and stop ogling, stepping over the body on the carpet and down the hallway. It’s eerily calm as they trace the path Hank took here, into the next hallway, past the spot where Hank found out for sure that Kamski was a vampire, into the wide, elaborate entrance hall. They’re both tense, looking around for any sign of the monsters who inhabit this castle, but it’s quiet.

The front door is heavy, and Hank almost wonders how the little blonde servant managed to move it by herself, until he reminds himself of what she is. It takes Hank several long seconds, muscles straining, to get the door open with just one hand. Connor is quiet, jaw tense, looking around at the entrance hall warily.

“What, not gonna try to run off now and fight them yourself?” Hank asks sarcastically.

“It would be better to take care of them now,” Connor says, stiff. “Before someone else gets killed, or they relocate.” But he doesn’t fight as Hank drags him out into the cool night air.

“Yeah, well, it ain’t happening with us and you know it. Besides, you know these things’re territorial, they won’t leave for too long if they don’t have to.” If Connor can’t even shrug Hank off, there’s no way he’s going to be able to fight a centuries old vampire and his servants.

Connor must realize it too, because his shoulders slump. “I have to—” he starts, but doesn’t finish.

The truck is right where Hank left it, and he drags the passenger door open and helps Connor up before shutting it. He looks back at the open door of the castle as he rounds the front, half expecting to see Kamski or one of the blondes standing there, but it’s still empty. He throws his bag in the bed of the truck and swings into the driver’s seat, slamming the door. It cranks with an unhappy grumble, and Hank wastes no time throwing it into drive and flooring it.

He flies down the driveway, fully prepared to slam into the gates and blow them off their damn hinges, but they’re still wide open from when he and Kamski had passed through them earlier. He tries not to think too hard on that, that they’re somehow doing exactly what Kamski wants instead of making a clean escape.

It all feels too easy, and his gut churns as he rides through the forest on the dark, two lane road with his new passenger.

-

“We should get you to a hospital,” Hank says, startling Connor from the tense quiet and his own worried thoughts.

“No,” Connor says, calmer than he feels. His pathetic little heart beat picks up minutely. “I don’t require a hospital, and they would ask questions we can’t answer if we did go.”

Hank huffs but thankfully doesn’t argue, and Connor takes that as a victory. He has a few minor wounds, and the exhaustion plaguing him, but nothing he’d be able to explain to a doctor. Especially not the scars. Not the silvery ones ringing his wrists or the ones undoubtedly covering his neck. He raises a hand, pressing it to his chest, over the open wound beneath his shirt.

As a hunter, Hank knows and accepts that at least, but it doesn’t relax Connor. He watches the side mirrors, and the shadowy trees flying past, waiting for some sign of Kamski or a Chloe to come barreling out of the darkness.

Nothing happens, and uneasiness prickles down Connor’s spine. Over a year in captivity, only for Kamski to just let him go without a fight? Something doesn’t add up, but Connor is having a hard time seeing the bigger picture. He’s spent too long in the dark.

The trees give way to suburbs, and suburbs to the edges of a small town Connor doesn’t recognize. He’s never seen Kamski’s castle from the outside, or where it resides. He doesn’t even really know where they are, having been taken here after he lost the fight, unconscious of his surroundings. Hank is quiet the whole time, glancing over at him every now and then. Connor meets his eyes each time but doesn’t say anything. The only thing he wants to say is to tell Hank to turn around, to go back to the castle, to Kamski, but he knows that’s not going to happen, so he doesn’t.

Eventually Connor sees the neon sign of a motel coming up on their right, and Hank pulls into the cracked and littered parking lot. A few scattered cars line the building, and Hank pulls into an empty spot free of surrounding cars. The window of the room in front of them is lit up, and Connor sees the curtain shift and the shadow of movement.

He tenses, but Hank sees the motion and laughs. “Don’t worry, just my dog, Sumo.”

“I like dogs,” Connor says, a small smile twitching across his lips. He hasn’t seen a dog in a long time, and he’s suddenly looking forward to it with everything he has. He wonders what kind of dog it is, if it’s soft, if it will like him. He’d always wanted one, but Amanda had never—

He cuts himself off at the thought. He can’t think of her right now. Not yet. Not until Kamski is dead.

The moment Connor steps out of the car, deep, booming barks fill the air, even from behind the door.

“Hey! Sumo, chill the fuck out!” Hank calls, fumbling with the key at the door.

Connor is right behind him, a shiver running up his spine. The door opens and Hank shouts as a big Saint Bernard barrels at his knees, trying to get past, only to be trapped against the frame as Hank catches him. Connor freezes, the smile dropping from his face at the furious snarling and barking. Sumo fights against Hank to get at Connor, jowls snapping and dripping.

“Sumo! What’s gotten into you! Move, back up!” Hank shouts, leaning down to grab the dog’s collar and wrestle him inside. “Hold on!” The door slams shut behind him, leaving Connor standing beneath the neon purple lights.

There’s still barking from inside for a minute, and then it abruptly cuts off. Connor crosses his arms, suddenly wishing he had something more solid than this flimsy shirt Kamsky made him wear and pants that are too big for him. After a moment, the door opens again, and Hank gestures him in.

“Sorry, I think he can smell that place on you. You know how dogs are, they don’t like the smell of those monsters.”

The smell of those monsters. Connor enters cautiously and spots Sumo standing at the end of the nearest bed, a leather muzzle wrapped securely around his snout. He growls as Hank closes the door behind Connor, but doesn’t make a move towards him.

“He’s trained, don’t worry, he’s not gonna jump on you. Once he gets used to you he won’t care,” Hank says, moving around Connor and shooing Sumo into the corner where a dog bed sits. Sumo goes to it, laying down, but his head swivels to follow Connor.

“I hope so,” Connor says, heart heavy. He’s always loved dogs, and it seems like such a simple thing to be upset over, but he can’t help the sinking in his chest. He’s always wanted one, a hunting partner to keep him company and help him detect vampires as Hank is obviously doing, but now that can’t happen.

He’s still standing by the door when Hank comes to him, holding out a shirt and some sweatpants. “Here, something that might fit a little better than,” he gestures at Connor.

Connor takes them and heads to the bathroom on the other side of the room. He has to pass the dog bed on the way, but true to Hank’s word, Sumo doesn’t move. Just watches him, growling low in his throat.

The bathroom is small, and a little dingy. The bulb casts a yellow light on the stained porcelain sink. It’s a wholly different sight from what he’s used to in Kamski’s castle. Lavish washrooms with clawfoot tubs that Kamski had forced him into.

He shakes his head, focusing instead on the the soft, worn fabric in his hands. Something else he hasn’t encountered in while. Even being on his feet for so long is almost disorienting—he feels like any moment cold hands will land on his shoulder, force him to his knees.

He needs to go back. He could take Hank’s shotgun, he knows it’s in the back of Hank’s truck. He paid attention to the signs and turns, he could find his way to Kamski’s castle again with ease. He imagines it, standing there holding the soft clothes. Imagines storming the mansion all on his own, and being captured immediately. Returned to the dungeon, strapped in silver, punished.

The wound on his chest aches.

Hank is right—he’s useless in a fight right now—but he needs to kill Kamski. He has to. Before anyone—thinks he’s anything other than completely human. Because he is human. He’s not any different than the person he was before. He’s still Connor Stern. He’s human.

His stomach clenches and he ignores the gnawing hunger.

The sweat pants are loose, but much more comfortable than the oversized jeans. The shirt is plain, black, made of thin cotton. He pulls off the old shirt Kamski had put him in and pulls the new one over his head quickly, avoiding the mirror. The old one he tosses into the trash under the sink.

When he leaves the bathroom, he finds Hank perched on one of the two beds, on the side between them. He’s changed into shorts and a blue shirt with a sports logo on the front. A red bag sits next to him, open, spilling bandages and cotton balls and bottles of antiseptic. Connor pauses and Hank glances at him, eyeing him up and down, before patting the bed next to him.

“Come on, kid, let’s get you patched up.”

“I’m perfectly fine,” Connor says, unmoving.

“You sure say that a lot for someone who’s definitely not fine,” Hank grumbles, patting the bed again. “Come on, I saw the blood on your shirt, let me look it over and then you’re off the hook.”

Connor raises a hand to his chest, over the left side. It stings when he puts pressure there, and already the shirt is growing damp over the spot, the fresh blood hidden by the dark fabric. Still, he shakes his head, moving to sit across from Hank on the unused bed. Sumo looks at him as he passes, making a low, menacing noise when Connor comes too close.

“I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be alright. It’s nothing serious, it should be fine in a few days,” Connor says, dropping his hand into his lap. More than that, he doesn’t want Hank, or anyone, to see it.

“Then it won’t hurt to make sure,” Hank says.

“No.”

“Connor.”

“It’s fine.”

“If it’s fine, why are you trying to hide it?” Hank snaps, glaring. “Thought you were some kind of renowned hunter? You should know better about this shit. Even a small cut can turn deadly around these creatures.” His voice rises in anger and he gestures with a packet of antiseptic wipes. “You just got out of there, are you so eager to put yourself into the fucking ground just cause you’re embarassed about a little cut?”

Every word stings unexpectedly because it’s true. As an experienced hunter, he should know better. Shouldn’t have gotten caught in the first place. He wasn’t careful enough, wasn’t fast enough, let himself be led into a trap just because he’d been so sure he could make it out. This is his fault.

The fight runs out of him. It’s just a few cuts, it doesn’t matter if this stranger sees. He won’t be able to tell anything about what happened from them, and it won’t hurt Connor any to have them bandaged.

“Fine,” he says, and Hank rolls his eyes but looks relieved.

“Good. Better than you getting a fucking infection.”

Connor’s fingers find the hem of the borrowed shirt. He hesitates, aware of Hank’s expectant gaze, before taking a breath and pulling it over his head. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a few marks. They don’t mean anything.

He lets the shirt puddle in his lap, fingers tangled in the cloth. He meets Hank’s gaze briefly, but the startled look has him dropping it quickly. Instead, he finds his eyes unwillingly drawn to his own chest. There are scars of all kinds marring his skin, from the life he led before being captured. Each one is a mark of his own failure to be careful, to keep ahead of the beings that would hurt innocent people. Something his family never failed to remind him of. But it’s the marks he received from Kamski that have shame burning through him.

Most of them are healed, already scarred. Bite marks and claw marks and knife wounds. Much of what they did to him healed, and after a certain point it wasn’t even an issue. It’s the wound over his chest that’s the exception.

EK

Right over his heart, a reminder of who he belongs to.

The skin there is burned around the knife marks, a few drops of blood beading up. Connor’s hands clench in the shirt and he looks at the floor instead.

“Uh. Shit,” Hank mutters.

Connor tenses as Hank stands and moves to sit next to him, the bed dipping as Hank draws his leg up and turns to face Connor.

“Okay, I’m just gonna clean it up real quick. This is gonna hurt.”

“I’m aware of how this works,” Connor says flatly.

“Right. Okay.”

He keeps his face turned away, and the first touch of a warm hand on his chest startles him. He grits his teeth, feeling hot and sick. With his shirt off, the smell of blood is filling his nose. Even though it’s his own, he can’t help the way his stomach clenches. He digs his fingers into his leg through the shirt and pants, pinching himself.

Something soft and cool touches his skin, sliding over the marks, and he doesn’t make a sound, but it’s a near thing. It stings through his chest, the antiseptic seeping into the wound like a knife. He thinks of Kamski holding the blade over his unmarked skin the first time. The water running off the blade, hissing against his sternum, making Connor cry out in pain. The way it burned deep in his chest when Kamski made the first cut.

“Damn. Fucker must have used a used a heated knife,” Hank says, voice soft, sympathetic.

Connor doesn’t correct him. Doesn’t say it had been a silver one, doused in holy water. That Kamski refreshed the scar every week to make it thick and legible. To make it permanent.

Eventually, Connor manages to turn his head back, to watch Hank work. Focusing on that instead of the memories of Kamski swimming in his head.

Hank’s hand is big as it holds the tiny, damp cotton ball. He runs it gently over the wound, turning the white cotton pink, revealing the angry red flesh beneath. He goes through several while cleaning the wound, and Connor thinks he should say he can do it himself. He can clean it. But it’s easier to let Hank work, to watch the hands dab burn cream onto the end of a cotton swab and run it carefully around the edges of the letters.

He steals a glance at Hank’s face as he works, the lined brow scrunched in concentration. Blue eyes pale and steady. He’s older, rough and handsome, but the worry and kindness on his face is almost unfamiliar, especially towards Connor, a stranger. Connor looks away before he can be caught staring, something in his chest squeezing tight.

No one has cleaned and dressed his wounds in a very long time. Not since his training in first aid as a child. Independence is one of the cornerstones of the Stern family, and part of Connor feels guilty that he’s once more failing to live up to his training, but another part is relieved and grateful. And guilty of his thankfulness.

Useless sentimentality,  Amanda seems to hiss in the back of his mind.

“Thank you,” he finally manages, tongue thick and dry in his mouth.

Hank huffs, glancing up at him and back down at his work. “Well, you weren’t going to take care of it, so someone had to.”

“I meant for rescuing me,” Connor says. “But thank you for this, too.”

“Oh. Yeah, no problem. That’s kind of our job, after all.” Hank shrugs as he peels the backing off a large, square bandage. He presses a pad of gauze to Connor’s chest and seals it in with the bandage. “There you go. All done. We’ll check it tomorrow, see how it’s doing. In the meantime, I’m gonna grab us some food and then I’m hitting the sack.”

Connor sits up straight. “Kamski—”

“Tomorrow, kid,” Hank cuts him off. “We’ll figure out a game plan in the morning, right now I need some food and some fucking sleep, and I’m sure you do too.”

His stomach doesn’t growl, but Connor feels the ache low in his belly. The thought of having anything to ease the hunger sounds very appealing, and he nods slowly.

“Great, you sit tight, I’m heading across the street to grab something from the diner. Any preferences?” Hank stands, snatching keys and wallet off the nightstand between the two beds.

Even something like greasy diner food sounds good to him at the moment, though he’s used to a much healthier diet. Before being caught, that is. His diet since has consisted of—

“No. Anything will do,” he says quickly, shaking his head.

“Right. Be right back.”

It takes twenty minutes, and in that time Connor turns on the tv, watches three minutes of reality shows, and then turns it back off. He examines the small motel room, with its faded and wrinkled yellow wallpaper. He looks at the bags at the end of one of the beds, one spilling clothes, the other closed up, but presumably carrying more hunter gear.

He thinks about grabbing it, going back to Kamski’s castle.

Sumo stares silently at him from his dog bed the whole time.

He’s still there when the motel door opens and Hank comes in with two paper bags turning dark at the bottom with grease. Wordlessly, Hank hands him one, and Connor says his thanks as he opens it and picks out a wrapped burger from inside.

It smells strange, and his first bite tastes even stranger. Too strong, the oils and condiments heavy in his mouth, overwhelming. But he’s hungry, and he forces himself to chew. He finishes it soon enough, moves on to the fries. They’re no better, the salt nearly burning his tongue and the fried starch rough on his tongue, but he puts each one in his mouth mechanically. Forcing himself to eat it all.

This is the only food he needs. Something solid, something real. Burgers, fries, and the bottle of water Hank digs out of his bag and tosses his way. It’s normal, it’s what people eat, even if he can’t remember the last time that he did this. Can’t remember when his last real meal was, because it was almost a year ago.

Even when the fries are gone and his belly is full, he’s still hungry.