Monday, August 12th, 1878 12:15 p.m.
"Kill the vamp," Slate snarled.
Min Su Tao glanced at his erstwhile comrade. The man he knew only as "Slate" was unsociable at the best of times, but his attitude has worsened since their last encounter. He swung from mania to depression, seemingly without warning. Normally, Min would never have given such an unstable man the time of day, but he paid his debts – even to vampires.
The hunter stepped quietly from the shadows. Slate moved behind him, not even bothering to see if the cloud cover had broken. He’s downright suicidal! Min thought to himself, keeping a few feet between them.
The vampire they stalked was equally self-destructive, it seemed. Presently, she lagged behind an army of terrors as they tore at the townsfolk and pulled down buildings. She always remained at the rear, content merely to observe. Min had never seen a night creature behave quite like her before. But then, from the little time he’s spent in Gomorra, he gathered that abnormal was par for the course around here.
An army of abominations so near demanded caution, but Slate would have none of it. Within a few steps, he was upon the vampire, grabbed her, and tossed her roughly into an alleyway. Min Su Tao slipped quietly behind the man in black as he slapped the undead Asian to the ground, stake already raised above his head...
"Wait!" the Asian hissed. "I can help you!"
Slate froze, still as death. And why shouldn’t he be? "How’re you going to do that?" Slate snarled. "One second and you’re ash... and I’m free..."
"No!" the vampire pleaded. "I’m not your Sire!"
"What?" Slate wavered, obviously shaken.
"I was not the first, Slate. I’m only your bloodkin."
Slate roughly grabbed the vampire by the collar of her lace undergarment and hoisted her into the air, effortlessly swinging swung her around and against the alley wall. She landed with the dull thump of the dead. "Liar! I remember..."
"You remember what, Slate?" the Asian smiled, a demure, attractive sight. "The saloon girls overwhelming you, their teeth at your throat... a woman pushing them aside... What then?"
Slate froze, locking the creature’s eyes to his own. Min considered interceding but there was no point. This was Slate’s mission; he was only here to deliver the final blow after the Sire was destroyed. Finally, Slate rasped, "I remember... fangs... fangs in my throat. Waking up in darkness... a woman laughing..."
"Was it me you remember, Slate? Or someone else?"
"Damnation!" Slate screamed at last, flinging the woman back to the ground and slamming the stake into the wall in frustration.
Min Su Tao moved cautiously to the woman, leaded-iron knife at the ready. Did Slate want her alive or dead? If she spoke the truth...
The woman rose cautiously to her feet. For the first time, Min observed her close up. She was undeniably attractive, or would have been if life’s blood flowed through her. He knew that some men found her glamour appealing, but he saw through it, allowing the memory of his family’s screams as the vampire nest consumed them flood through him for a moment. There was no place in Min’s heart for desire.
"Will you kill me, then?" the woman asked, eyeing Min’s knife.
"Who is my Sire, Meizhu?" Slate asked, spinning around. "I can almost see her face, but I can’t... I can’t..."
"The trauma of death often clouds the mind, Slate," she answered. "That, and the shock of betrayal from so close..."
"Who?!?" Slate screamed.
Quick as lightning, fast as a panther, Slate plucked the stake from the wall and slammed it into her chest. Min Su Tao knew of his friend’s absolute control, but even so, it was a near thing – the tip of the stake penetrated the vampire’s chest a mere fraction of an inch. A single push, and she would be gone. "You lie!"
The vampire shrugged. "Why would I? Kill me if you must, Slate. It would be a relief to me. But I speak the truth. Melissa made me, Slate, and she made you. She’s been the Sire since the beginning."
Min had no idea what passed through his friend’s mind, but he had to admit that the vampire’s story made some amount of sense. He and Slate had remained out of the public eye, drawing on Slate’s Agency connections while avoiding others of his organization. Several times they had encountered Slate's former Agency associate, hovering on the outskirts of civilized society just as they did. She had said nothing, and Slate had made no effort to approach her.
"Can you prove it?" Slate finally asked.
For a moment, Min thought Meizhu might push herself forward, onto the stake, and end it. But she drew herself back from the edge of whatever abyss she faced and answered. "Do you think I wanted to be a... monster... any more then you did? Once I was Meizhu Kim. I had life, I had love. But my lover abandoned me, for the sake of duty. And Thomas came to me, in a brothel in Shan Fan. She made a deal with my owner, Kang, to ‘acquire’ me.
"She wanted me as a pawn, in some game against my former lover. She transformed me, and I welcomed it, welcomed the chance to give him back some of the pain he’d left me with. Then Thomas brought me here, to Gomorra, to play a role I still don’t understand. She left me at the brothel with instructions to transform the others. I didn’t hear from her again for a long time...
"Then... I died... again. My lover killed me – he and the other Agency operatives. But even that wasn’t the end. I was brought back – I don’t know how – to serve one of the Blackjacks."
"I asked for proof," the hulking albino hissed, "not a speech."
"Whatever game Thomas plays, she plays it still. She’s out there now, in the chaos. It feeds her as surely as blood feeds you and I," Meizhu was careful with her words, and spoke with trained submission. "I can lead you to her. Together, we might be able to destroy her. We could both be free..."
To kill a Sire...! Min marveled. It would be the crowning achievement of his life.
"If when we destroy Thomas," Slate asked Meizhi, "what about you?"
"Do with me what you wish. My...life is in your hands."
Slate removed the stake, and tucked it beneath his black duster with a single smooth motion. "Alright. Lead on, and let the Devil take the hindmost. We finish this... Now."
"Why would she be here?" Min asked.
"As I said, Thomas thrives on chaos. Destroy the dispatch office, and no one can rally against the evil forces at work here."
"She’s working for the Whateleys?" asked Slate.
"She works for no one, so far as I know." Meizhu shuddered delicately. "She is her own master."
"Quiet," Slate hissed. Carefully, silently, he drifted along the side of the building, Min and Meizhu moving up behind him.
Inside, Min Su Tao could hear voices. "Our time draws near, Melissa. The Last Kingdom is at hand. I’m sure even you don’t want to be around when the ritual is complete."
Min frowned. He didn’t recognize the voice of the woman speaking. It would be difficult to move to a spot where he could see inside, but not impossible. Carefully, he slithered along the wall. Behind him, Su Tao glimpsed Slate moving towards the front of the office.
"On the contrary, actually," they heard Melissa reply. "They’re going to win eventually anyway. We both know that. Best that I have a front-row seat for the storm."
The other woman replied, "What do you think, life-stealer? That they’ll just give you all these delicious fruits after they’ve gone to all the trouble to fatten them up?"
"I have to admit. They’ve done a fine job here. I don’t think I’ve seen so many people so utterly consumed with blind acceptance before. They don’t even blink as your kind move in and take over. So ripe... So unsuspecting..."
Min paused as the other woman’s voice rang out, shocked. "You’ve been helping them." It was a statement, not a question.
"I’m a little busy at the moment, love, and I really must be going. But let me offer you this little morsel as a momento of the old times. A reminder of the fun we had as the world burned."
The vampire hunter paused just short of the window. Before he could move forward, he heard a sound behind him. Slate was charging towards him, shoving the she-vampire out of the way. "Outta here! They’ve got a bomb!"
With instincts born of countless nights hunting the undead, Min Su Tao turned and ran, Slate and Meizhu close behind. He came out the far end and caught sight of another figure fleeing the back of the dispatch office. Then he threw himself around the corner and to the left, away from the office. He’d taken but a few steps when the impact of an explosion shoved him forward into unconsciousness.
"Damn! Damn damn damn!" Not the most enchanting thing to wake up to, Min Su Tao thought dimly. He rolled quickly to his feet, made sure his knife was still secured, and surveyed the situation. The building he had ducked around had taken the worst of the blast, but it had saved him. Beyond, he could make out the burning rubble of the dispatch office, Slate digging wildly through it and screaming at the top of his lungs.
Meizhu crouched in the dirt nearby. Apparently, he was the only one mortal enough to be knocked unconscious by the blast. Meizhu looked down. "Thomas escaped."
Su Tao surveyed the wreckage of the dispatch office, smoldering in the downpour. It was hard to believe anything might still be alive beneath it all. "Maybe she was killed in the blast..." he muttered, more hopeful than expectant.
Meizhu shook her head. "She’s too strong. This couldn’t have killed her."
Slate threw aside the last few boards that might have hidden anything. "There’s only one corpse here. A man, by the look of what’s left." He stomped out of the wreckage, and approached the others.
"Do you believe me now?" Meizhu asked him. "Nothing mortal could have survived that blast. And what she said just before..."
"She’s got questions to answer, that’s for sure. Most of the Agency are busy up by Gulgoleth. Seems like we have the chance to ask her now," he said, scanning the area, "if we can find her."
"We pursue her?" Min asked.
"You got anything better to do?" Slate snarled in response. "Let’s get moving."
Forty yards away, Melissa Thomas stood before the toy store, looking in the window. Min looked to Slate, but his warning that they should have a plan once again fell on deaf ears as the Agency gunslinger simply stood and stalked across the street, moving with all his formidable, eerie grace. All Min could do was move forward, ready to back Slate’s play.
Then the impossible happened. With a movement so fast that for a moment Min Su Tao questioned his eyes, Thomas casually turned and grasped Slate by the lapels of his black duster, then casually threw him one-handed into the display window of the store. Stunned, Slate floundered among the puppets and dolls, trying to regain his bearings, and Min considered his options. Melissa’s strength was a shock; by daylight, she should have been relatively weak...
A chill ran down Min’s spine. Unless this is what she’s like when she is weak, he realized. Min Su Tao was already halfway across the street, instinctively throwing his leaded-iron knife at the woman. The weapon dug deeply into her chest, and both combatants froze, waiting for the next move. Chuckling quietly, Thomas pulled the weapon from her chest with a harsh sucking sound, and casually tossed it aside. "Have we met, mortal?"
Screaming in fury, Meizhu charged the Sire, distracting her for one critical moment. Min took advantage of the reprieve and, drawing a second knife, leapt for Melissa’s throat...
And stopped. Melissa had simply blocked him with one upturned palm, never glancing toward him as she batted the other vampire away. Then, with a single fluid motion of her arm, Min was swatted away from the Sire like a common housefly. Tao regained his footing as Melissa turned and reached in through the shattered window, dragging Slate to his feet before her. He grabbed at her arm, but he was locked in place, a rag doll she simply tossed back at Min Su Tao, knocking him off his feet again.
Melissa approached Meizhu and grasped her shoulders, holding her immobile for a moment, then slammed her into the wall of the toy store. The Sire’s hand wrapped around the Asian’s throat, her claws digging into the woman’s porcelain skin.
Min recovered first, and made to leap at the Sire, but she hissed a warning over her shoulder. "Enough!" The hunter paused as Slate ponderously righted himself. Maybe if both of them attacked together, they would...
"No, you wouldn’t," Thomas replied to his thought, just before her attention was drawn by a sickly cracking sound before her. The bones in Meizhu’s throat had broken under the force of Melissa’s unholy strength. For a moment, the Sire seemed puzzled by the sound, as if she had forgotten her prisoner. Then she carelessly tossed Meizhu, coughing and retching, toward the others.
"Children, children!" Thomas admonished them. "You don’t honestly believe you can destroy me?"
"We’re sure as hell going to try, damn you!" Slate swore. "You made us! We can unmake you!"
"Yes, yes, so I did," she replied. "When you’re as old as I, you long for family. Maybe it is time we expanded our little clan, hm?" Melissa watched Min Su Tao closely, licking her lips. "It might prove amusing to add a vampire hunter to our number... No, there will be plenty of time for new siblings when the Last Kingdom arrives. Then we’ll have all the flesh we desire..."
"What?" Slate spat at her. "What are you talking about?"
Melissa smiled. "It’s not important – not yet, anyway. Though you may want to save some appetite." Then, turning to leave, she added, "for the main course." Smiling, Thomas strode away, through the madness ripping through the town. Slate wasn’t two steps behind her before Min stopped him, shaking his head.
"We finish this, Min. Now." Slate stated flatly.
"No," Min Su Tao corrected. "You saw what she did to us. We’re not strong enough. Not yet."
"Then what do you suggest?"
Min paused in thought. Nearby, Meizhu rose to her feet, twisting her head about to pop the bones and cartilage back into place. An ugly business, Min considered, vampires healing. Hard on the ears.
"Well?" Slate prompted.
"I don’t know, Slate. But if there is a power that can destroy her, we’ll find it." Then, looking to Meizhu again and forcing back the bile rising in his throat. "Together."