Four

The human before Lars couldn’t have been more than a teenager, and yet his eyes and the way he spoke and held himself made him years older. Lars sniffed the air, he smelled human. The boy stepped closer, and Lars saw several knives of different shapes and sizes in his hands and strung across his chest and arms. He arched an eyebrow.

“I hope, for your sake, you’re not planning on trying to kill me with those,” he remarked calmly. A slight flash in the darkness of the street, and the boy was suddenly inches in front of him. Lars reacted faster, and held the boy’s raised wrist in his own iron grip.

“Ah, you’re a Hunter,” he realized, tone still light and almost amicable. “Haven’t seen one in a long time. But you’re just a boy,” he trailed, looking over him again. The boy was studying him too, and suddenly twisted out of his grip and stepped back.

“You’re Lorens,” he said, then, “you’re the Lorens.”

Lars nodded, allowing his brow to furrow and express his confusion. The boy sheathed his knives, and held out his hand. “My name is James. I’m a Hunter, yes, but I’ve been advised not to give you much trouble.”

Lars bit back his surprise from showing, though no one had called him that in a long time. It couldn’t even be possible for a boy to know it. He shook his hand, deciding not to forgo his manners after all. “It is Lars, actually. And why is that?”

The boy’s eyes flickered down to their briefly joined hands, before he looked back up and shrugged, an easy grin lighting his features. “I’m a bit of an unusual Hunter.”

“Right,” Lars agreed wholeheartedly. The two stood looking at each other awkwardly, neither entirely sure what to do now. Hunters were supernatural beings themselves, humans with enhanced senses and abilities, designed to have a better chance at killing not just vampires, but shape-shifters too. It wasn’t common for them to target witches, but every once in a while it did happen.

“Well, I suggest we walk separate directions, and try not to run into each other again,” James said, before nodding at Lars and turning his back, walking away. Lars stood for another moment, rather stunned at his behavior, before numbly following orders.

James stepped into the hotel room about an hour before dawn, looking around briefly as he unstrapped his knives and pulled off his boots. He looked at the mane of fiery hair spilling over the chair, the woman sitting in it facing away from him and staring out the window. He let it be, knowing she had some time before the sun would rise enough to hurt her skin—even then, she’d probably close it before he could.

Once he was in sweatpants and a T-shirt, he walked over and leaned against the desk next to her, waiting patiently and silently.

“Anything of interest?” the woman spoke, voice low and smooth, like liquid silver. He’d grown used to it, but James never failed to feel some sort of renewed awe every time he spoke to her—which was multiple times a day. He grinned lopsidedly and shrugged.

“Surprisingly, there aren’t many vamps in this city. Or, if there are, they are very discreet. I only managed to sack two, pretty boring night,” he sighed in mock sadness. She chuckled.

They were silent again, until another thought jumped into his mind. By then, she’d stood, closed to curtains, and was walking slowly across the room. He frowned as her movements, always graceful and perfectly executed, seemed a bit slow, and he wondered if the vampire had fed in a while. It wasn’t like her to be careless, she had been a great warrior as a human, but the two had been traveling more frequently and at a faster pace lately and perhaps it had slipped.

“Helasse,” he spoke, gaining her attention. Her hair slipped over her shoulder as she turned her head, the white curves imitating the pattern of snake scales on her neck, cheeks, and surrounding bright green eyes prominent. The dawn light made them glow sharply, even against her already pale skin.

“Lorens is here, though he’s going by Lars now,” he said simply. She raised her eyebrows and nodded, though otherwise her face didn’t change from its calm expression. But he wasn’t fooled. She had told James, once he’d fully grown into his skills a couple years ago, that she did have a specific direction in their wandering, that she was looking for someone. She’d then declared, in the harshest she’d ever been to him, that if he ever met the vampire named Lorens—and shown him a picture for good measure—that he was not to harm him. She hadn’t spoken of the vampire again, but James had understood the importance. Once upon a time, he’d wondered if it was someone she wanted to not get on the bad side of, but he’d found that funny, as if Helasse ever had anything to fear from another supernatural creature.

“A derivative of the name. You left him alone,” she stated, doubting he’d disobey her anyway. James nodded.

“Well, I introduced myself to him, but yeah, no harm no foul,” he shrugged. The image of the man came to James’ mind. He chuckled, and Helasse raised an amused eyebrow at him, often finding his humor entertaining enough that she liked to hear his jokes. “He had this ring—it was dark, but it looked like diamond or something. I know you’re all older than dirt,” she narrowed her eyes humorously. “But in this day and age, it’s odd a man wears such a pretty ring—actually, it’s really something that looked like it was in the women’s department. It was even glowing a bit, though that might’ve been the lighting.”

As James snickered, however, Helasse frowned and looked down slightly in thought. His laughter died down quickly, seeing her not sharing it, but as he opened his mouth to ask, she seemed to shrug it off.

“He’s still wearing it then,” she murmured, then looked back up at James. “Glowing, you say?” He nodded.

“There’s an old myth, created at a time when vampires were considered the dark, absolute truth, instead of your entertainment. Humans were radically superstitious, and terrified. One myth in particular was rather jarring, though probably only a handful of people in the world even know of it today,” she shrugged. “It involved a ring similarly described, but we’ve never seen any indication of it being any more than our crown jewel.”

James frowned, concern ebbing into his mind. “Should I find him again? Ask more about it, or try to take it?”

She shook her head. “No, no, it is just that—a story. Where Lorens is concerned, you know the order. Do not harm him.”

James nodded, looking her in the eye so that there was no chance of lying. Not that he would. He could not begin to imagine the experience and knowledge Helasse had, he trusted her instructions completely, but also that she did not take life lightly. Thus, he trusted her with his own. He’d turned his back on the vampire that night, knowing he could have easily killed James a hundred different ways immediately, but he had trusted that Helasse knew he would not be killed, and she had been right.

“May I ask more?” James asked, wondering why that had happened anyway. She nodded.

“Do you remember Artahe? And the hierarchy of vampires as I explained?” James nodded, she had told him about the female vampire once. As old as Helasse, and as powerful. The only vampire as revered and powerful than them was the king of vampires and, thus, of the supernatural world.

“An old ally, and one of your few equals,” he repeated her words. Helasse smiled, one that was soft and held some emotion, which surprised James.

“Much more, she is perhaps my oldest friend, and I value her and her friendship greatly,” her tone was soft as well, nostalgic. James was silent, letting the woman continue. He had seen her express emotions, yes, but rarely were they as deep as this or as warm. The history they must have, he thought to himself.

“Lorens is her love, and the current vampire king, so if harm were to come to him by my, or my associated, hand, I would not even be allowed to ask forgiveness,” Helasse said, voice serious. James nodded in understanding, trying to hide his shock as the image of the simply dressed, calm man stuck in his mind. Though he silently wondered where Artahe was, if not with either her friend or her lover, and what the hell the king of vampires was doing alone in Las Vegas.

“Now, I believe we ought to rest, I would like to leave this city soon,” Helasse lightened, moving towards one of the double beds in the room. James followed suit, climbing onto the other but not lying down until she was comfortable. She’d never ordered that, it had just become a habit to him.

“I would like to keep a gentle knowledge over Lorens,” Helasse said thoughtfully. “We must follow him, I would like to be closer to gossip and overhear. Would you like to return to Paris?” James smiled widely, as if he’d ever turn that down.

Lars was nervous. He forced his gait to remain decent, fast for a human but not nearly as fast as he could be, and jerked his body into turns that he knew were wrong. It was paranoia, he was sure, and it was foolish at that. He wasn’t even fooling himself, Lars was practically running directly to Cassille’s building. Not that anyone was following him anyway, that boy had cleared out and Lars hadn’t smelled or heard anything other than random humans still on the streets.

Still, he managed to make it an hour since he had left Cassille at the café before he turned up in front of the old wooden building, ringing the doorbell. He was civilized, after all.

He released a breath he didn’t realize he was—unnecessarily—holding when the door swung inward and an arched eyebrow and pursed lips met his gaze.

“Uh, yeah?” she asked, shifting her weight to one hip and not bothering to hide her curious once-over. Lars cleared his throat, her voice yanking him out of whatever stupor he had fallen into. He faced the human, still so young and naïve despite the bits he’d told her about the world in the shadows around her, and felt urgency swell in his chest.

“I…” he began and then trailed off, her confused expression mirroring his own discomfort at his lack of usual composure. Lars sifted rapidly through his mind, tearing through thoughts and his conversation with the Hunter to find some reason to propel him to Cassille. “I wanted to ensure that you were alright,” he settled, but it left them both dissatisfied.

“Right,” she said slowly. Then, she shook her head slightly and her voice returned firmer. “You know, I don’t believe you for a second,” she stated dryly. He had never shown concern for her safety, and his search for a better statement was interrupted by a glimmer of pride for her.

“Do you trust me?” he asked, a bit abruptly since Cassille raised her eyebrows. He felt something heavy when she crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. And the feeling surrounding him, crushing his chest and clogging his mind was identified—time. For some reason, the encounter with the Hunter boy had illuminated that he had, finally, run out of time.

“Not really,” she stated, though her tone was matter-of-fact, as if she’d instead been asked if she liked a certain restaurant. It must have shown, because she kept talking. “I mean, I hardly know you. And even so, trust is kind of a broad term. Maybe you should ask a better question,” she shrugged.

Lars chuckled, though it was strained, and nodded. He clasped his hands together in front of him, weaving his fingers amongst each other—but he did not fiddle with them—and felt the cold band nip at loose skin. It sparked his memory, and a half-thought but strong idea, and Lars could have sworn his shoulders actually perked with it.

“I want you to have this,” he said, and he looked down and pulled the ring carefully off of his finger. The thing seemed indestructible, he had been wearing it for the better part of four centuries and it had yet to be so much as scratched. Both watched the ring intently as if it would suddenly sprout wings and turn into a bird.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the band left the flesh of his finger completely unmarred, not even a temporary dent from its small girth, and it was held out in the vast, open air between the two, directly over the threshold. Cassille skimmed the tips of her index and middle fingers over it before slowly pressing them down to hold the jewelry.

“Um, thanks,” she said lamely, eyes still glued to it as she drew it towards her. She studied it, the band hanging on the tip of her index finger, not quite around her finger yet.

“With this as my promise, I hope to assure you that I do not, nor have I ever, wished you harm,” Lars spoke quietly, the thoughts tumbling in his mind slipping out with surprising fluidity. He saw the doubt flash in her eyes, and how does a shiny piece of jewelry ensure that you won’t rip my throat out, exactly? but it vanished as quickly as it had come. She nodded, and tilting her hand so that the ring slipped down, nestled perfectly around her left index finger. He watched her eyes widen slightly and breath hiss from between her lips, but when her gaze completely met his again, her face was calm.

“It’s special,” she guessed. Lars nodded, smiling gently.

“When it was given to me, I was told that it was, indeed, special, and I was scolded not to lose it,” his lips twitched at the memory.

“Guess I shouldn’t lose it either, then,” Cassille hummed, raising her eyebrows in what Lars realized a second late was sarcastic seriousness. Still, he nodded in earnest agreement, and felt the knots in his chest loosen as he glanced down and watched this little assurance of trust rest quietly on her finger, the diamond face shifting and sparking slightly. He watched the tiny show before it flickered out, internally sighing not for the first time at modern lighting. He wondered what the hell he had just done.