I watch from cover, studying the cavern, planning my attack. It's a large space with rounded walls that curve up, revealing an open ceiling in the center. Beneath the opening is a bed carved from a boulder and covered in furs. I'm describing it in a way that might sound charming. But really, it's drafty, dirty, and kinda gross. There are bugs. Those furs look flea-infested. And who wants to sleep on a stone bed under the stars on nights when it's pouring rain? Or really, any night. Talk about backbreaking. But hey, to each their own.
Elias stands on a patch of moss-covered stone near the bed. Beams of moonlight dance on his pale skin, his dark hair drifting in the light wind. He's shirtless, for reasons I’d rather not imagine... (Crap, it's too late. Now I’m mentally seeing him and Jane doing the horizontal tango and it is nasty, get it out. Note to self: Gouge out third eye.) So back to the half-naked vampire who's only wearing black pants and black boots as he strides across the cave in three easy steps. I’m pretty certain I’m just imagining it, but the very earth seems to quake under his feet. As if Mother Nature herself doesn’t want to get in his way.
He's right in front of me, but he can't see me as I crouch behind the chair and palm my daggers. I need to strike but...
Something pulls me toward him. Draws me closer. They say Elias picked up some tricks from his uncle, the Prince of Lust, and I can't discount that theory. His movements are both graceful and strong. His smile both inviting and dangerous. His eyes both piercing and seductive. If one wasn’t afraid of sounding cheesy, they might call him dreamy, yummy...
Wait a second... what’s happening? Oh no, my legs feel like jelly. Crap, my palms are sweaty, my heart beating faster. What’s going on? I want to leap out of my hiding place and yell, “take me,” but I shouldn’t... I mean, I shouldn’t, right?
Snap out of it, Iris. It’s just some unnatural power making you hot and heavy. It’s not real. Get it together. It’s hunting time.
The magical pull fades away—with some serious force of will on my part—and my focus returns. Elias may have eluded me before, (twenty-one times exactly, but who’s counting?) but today... I’m gonna catch the bitch.
I wait for him to turn his back to me, and sure enough he does, revealing the coils of serpentine black tattoos across his muscled body. He walks over to the rumpled bed in the corner, clearly disheveled from a night of passion, and grabs a silver pitcher from the side table, then pours himself a cup of something red and sips the viscous liquid, staining his pale lips a dark crimson.
His weapons—a sword and dagger—lie casually against the side of the bed. They are two steps away from their master, far enough to give me the upper hand. I palm my—
“You can come out,” Elias says, his voice dark and smooth like a glass of rich wine.
I groan. How does he always do that? Reluctantly, I leave my hiding place, daggers raised. “You have nowhere to run this time,” I say.
He chuckles so charismatically it’s almost disarming. “My dear Iris, you should know by now, I have no intention of running. Your company is so pleasant, after all.” He puts the cup of blood down and walks up to a painting of... well, one ugly ass crone, who I can only presume was Jane’s mother, and pulls it open like a door, revealing a safe carved within the stone wall. In an instant, he spins the dial, imputing the proper combination and unlocking the container. “Ah,” he says, eyes glinting. “Finally.” He reaches within the safe and draws out a sword, more beautiful and deadly than any I have ever seen. Ancient glyphs engrave the steel, glimmering in the light. The air itself stirs around the weapon, and as Elias sweeps the blade before him, it seems to sing a haunting melody on the wind. “The Moonlight Sword,” Elias says softly, as if speaking to a lover.
“So, that's why you came here.”
“Yes, though Jane’s company was pleasurable as well.” He glances at the bed with a smirk, and I shiver as unwanted images once again fill my mind. (My third eye gauging trick didn't work.) Elias shakes his head. “So human of you,” he continues. “There is beauty in all things, Iris. Perhaps one day you will understand. Even a crone can be a maiden.”
His words pour so smoothly from his lips, so easy to believe. But he's a liar. A trickster. “You used her,” I say. “To get the combination. Now you steal from her.”
He walks back to the bed and takes another sip of blood from his bronze cup. “I prefer to think of it as an arrangement. Both parties benefited.”
He’s talking too much. Stalling. Time to end this. “Elias Vane Spero, lay down your arms and surrender yourself to the First Hunter.”
He ignores me, studying the sword in his grasp. “This blade was stolen from my father years ago,” Elias says. “All my life I have searched for it. I will not give it away now. For my father—"
“Your father is ashamed of you,” I spit. “Fenris Vane, King of all vampires, who brought peace to his kind, raised a son who steals and kills and makes a mockery of his name.”
Elias’s eyes turn dark. When he speaks, it is a roar that shakes the very room. “You know nothing of my family. You know nothing of me.”
He is angry. Good. It will dull his senses, make him weaker.
“Leave now, Iris,” he says. “You cannot defeat the Moonlight Sword. The steel is indestructible. The craftsmanship unfathomable. The sword was forged in—”
I leap forward, striking with my twin daggers as he monologues.
Elias reacts in an instant, bringing his blade up to meet my own. Steel clashes. Sparks fly.
And the Moonlight Sword breaks in two.
The top half falls, crumbling into dust.
“Oh,” says Elias, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I didn’t expect that to happen.”
We stand frozen, only inches apart. “Perhaps it was old,” I say.
“Old?” He winces. “Old? The Moonlight Sword doesn’t get old. It’s a bloody fake.”
I shrug, because like, seriously, I do not care. Then I strike again.
He leaps out of the way, landing in a roll, and jumping back to his feet next to the bed, grabbing his sword and dagger. He draws his weapons from their sheaths and swings them elegantly through the air. “Just like last time, then.”
I parry. “You may have escaped me before—"
“Twenty one times, to be exact,” he shrugs, “but who’s counting?”
I literally snarl as I strike back, spit flying from my mouth.
“Eww. That’s disgusting,” Elias parries my blows as he retreats backwards, avoiding the flying phlegm. “Is this a new tactic? I must say, it’s working.”
He spins past me, his dagger slicing the tip of my shoulder. The cut hurts my pride more than my body.
“You’re sloppy today,” says Elias. “Was it something you ate? A tummy ache?”
My dagger catches his forearm, drawing blood. “I’m feeling fine, thank you very much.” I strike again, tearing a hole in his pants.
“Now, now, Iris,” teases Elias. “I didn’t think we were at that stage of our relationship. But if you’re willing—”
I knock the dagger out of his hand, leaving him with only a sword. “I don’t date criminals,” I say.
He smirks. “Who said anything about dating?”
We exchange blows. Both of us a bit clumsier than before. Our palms are now covered in sweat. Our breathing becomes more labored. We groan and roar as we battle.
Elias cuts a thin streak across my neck, drawing a scarlet line. He sniffs the air vigorously. “Intoxicating as ever, Iris. What I would give for a drop of that blood...”
I raise an eyebrow as I parry. “Would you surrender?”
“Too bad I’m about to catch you anyway.”
He chuckles, his laugh marvelous, as he cuts me lightly across the thigh. He lands a kick to my knee, pushing me back. Not good. Being half human, I’m tiring out before him. I need something to shift the balance.
But Iris, you have renewal. Even if he kills you, you’ll come back!
Not quite, little bird.
Renewal only works once a day.
That’s the deal with greater gifts. They need to recharge, as it were.
I know, I know, what you’re thinking. Iris, why did you let the crones boil you alive then? Well... it’s not like I intended to be a late night snack. I thought I’d talk my way out of it, or at least break through the chains, but no... they just happened to have trimantium—nearly unbreakable steel that is—on hand, and of course they also just happened to have started therapy.
Then Iris, why didn’t you simply cancel the mission?
Because, little bird, that is not an option. I’ve been tracking Elias for months this time around, and there is no way I'm coming home empty-handed for the twenty-second time.
I thrust my daggers forward and leap into the air, howling like a banshee. The move catches Elias off guard as I hoped, and he stumbles backwards, knocking into the bedpost. I land on top of him, blades aimed straight for his heart, but he drops his sword and grabs my wrists as we tumble on to the mattress, fighting amongst the furs. I pin him down with my knees as I take jabs at his head.
Elias frowns, avoiding my blows. “I generally prefer to be on top, but I suppose we can make an exception for the first time—”
I stab a pillow instead of his face, and feathers fly into my mouth. I thrust again and—cough, cough, oh these feathers are horrible, some are even still bloody from whatever foul beast they were plucked from—we fall out of the bed, and he knocks away my daggers with his fists. Unarmed, we begin to wrestle on the stone floor, trying to lock each other in a hold. I grab his leg. He yanks my arm.
I reach forward. He kicks me back.
I strike at his jaw. He leans away.
“And so it goes,” says Elias, rolling in front of the fireplace. “You fight. I flirt. It always ends the same way.”
A primitive growl escapes my throat. “No. This time, I will bring you in.”
“Dum spiro spero,” he says, glancing at the broken sword on the ground, as if he looks at a pile of shattered dreams.
“Dum spiro what now?” I ask, using the moment to catch my breath.
“Dum spiro spero. While I breathe, I hope.” He sighs. “It’s something my mother would always say.”
“I wonder if she still hopes for you,” I say bitterly.
He smiles, though there is no joy in it. “What is the bounty on me now? Five million? Ten?”
“Actually, it’s um... fifty thousand.”
“Fifty? Only fifty thousand... what the... listen, you tell your bosses that’s not gonna cut it.”
“I don’t do it for the money,” I say.
“By the Spirits,” he says, shaking his head. “Please don’t tell me you do it for justice?”
I say nothing.
He laughs. “Have you ever wondered who makes the most wanted list?”
“The Council of Hunters—”
“The council,” he says, nodding. “Ever looked into their members? The enemies they make? The money they exchange?”
My hands sweat, and not just from fighting anymore. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s not all black and white, dear Iris. I mean...” He pauses, his next words so soft I can barely make them out. “Lix Tetrax.”
“Lix what now?”
“Ask your boss about it sometime.” He stands, cracking his knuckles. “Now, I hate to cut things short, my dear, but I have somewhere to be soon, so can we wrap this up, please? Leave some unfulfilled passion for next time?”
“Sure. Once you surrender.”
That’s it. Enough talking. Time to shift the tide. Time to use my secret weapon.
I reach behind me and pull a canister from the back of my belt.
Elias’s eyes go wide. “Is that a...”
“A freaking bomb? You bet your ass it is.”
I toss the explosive at him. He dodges, but of course, I expected that, and the canister lands right where I wanted. Inside the fireplace.
The bomb explodes.
The cavern trembles.
And the ceiling collapses into hundreds of rocks.
Elias looks up. “Oh, fu—”