Diamond lay motionless on the stone slab as he listened to the footsteps. They were getting closer and closer. He’d know those footsteps anywhere. They moved a little slower now, but it was the same heavy, sure-footed style of walking, the left footfall just a little less heavy than the right. If this had been ten years ago, he would have tensed, prepared himself to fight or die.
“Still sleeping on that, I see?” Vanguard commented, speaking in English.
Diamond opened his eyes. He stretched his sleek, muscular form like a cat, and sat up slowly. There was no expression on his face as he looked at his former master, his mentor, his tormentor. “You’ve aged,” he said in German, swinging his long legs over the side of the slab.”
“I’m slowing down. Szia Hogy van?” Vanguard asked him in his native Hungarian.
“I am glad to hear it. It’s been a long time. I’ve been occupied in the West.” Vanguard began to pace around the room, glancing at him from time to time.
Diamond watched him.
“You’ve really changed, grown from boy into man, a handsome man, I may add, and fit.”
Diamond narrowed his eyes, waiting.
“You’d think you’d want to leave this place.” Vanguard rubbed his white beard, examining the cement walls and high gothic ceiling. “It’s damp and dank in here, smells musty. Are you all alone?”
“The monks are still here,” Diamond said without expression. English was his preferred language. He spoke it fluently with only a hint of an accent.
“I’ve kept track of you. I kept in touch with your overseer off and on, and of course I get news from the head office. You’ve been very busy. Congratulations on wiping out the Denostra clan. They were nothing but bloodthirsty killers.”
“It took me longer than usual. They were hard to track, very clever at moving their sanctuaries.”
“And the competition, this makes three years in a row you’ve won it?”
Vanguard nodded. “I knew right from the beginning that you were the one.” He stopped, met Diamond’s gaze.
“Yes. You told me that before you left.”
“I don’t expect you to have any affection for me, Diamond. After all, I made sure that emotions didn’t interfere with your duties.”
“You did a good job. You have no worries on that account.”
Vanguard looked down at his hands. He took a breath. “I sometimes think I did my job a little too well when it came to you. I worry about your future.”
“You needn’t. You did your duty.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately, a lot about the past. You see, I’m dying.”
Diamond looked at him, but he didn’t say anything.
Vanguard cleared his throat. “The Order considers you my greatest achievement, but sometimes when I think about my methods, I regret so much.”
“There is no need for regret, Vanguard. You taught me that. What’s done is done. What did you come here for? If it’s about the competition, I know it’s special this year, in light of the anniversary of the Order.”
“Three thousand years. But I didn’t come about the competition. I’ve come to tell you that you’ve been reassigned. You are no longer needed here in Budapest.”
“I see.” He stiffened.
“They sent me to tell you personally since, well, you were like a son to me, Diamond.” When that got no response, he continued. “I need you to train others. I am no longer able to, and since you are the best…” He trailed off.
“I’m no trainer. I’m a destroyer.”
“You will need to be both, I’m afraid. There has been a new surge of activity in the West.”
“I realize that you will have to leave your homeland for the first time and—”
“I have no sentiment for Hungary. I will go where I am needed.”
Vanguard nodded. “We have set up a new office in New York City. The Order will find a suitable place for you to live. We leave tomorrow.”
* * * *
“I know nothing about babies,” Shade groaned, throwing up his hands in despair. “Do we have any idea where these babies belong?” He looked at the other three. His question was met with silence. “Well, Debbie, you take them to the authorities. Perhaps they can find the parents.”
“Shade,” Debbie whined, “how am I going to take six babies to the authorities?” She adjusted her glasses on her narrow nose clumsily and poked out her chin. “Just because I’m a woman it doesn’t mean I know anything about babies! That’s very sexist of you,” she accused. “Why not ask Josh, or Pete?”
Shade plopped down behind his desk with a sigh. “Debbie, don’t start this stuff again. Give me a break. You know what these modern times do to my brain?” He put his head in his hands a minute. “I never asked for this.”
“Well, technically,” Josh pointed out, “you did ask for it.”
Shade glanced up at him.
Josh looked down at his hands, and fidgeted with his keys.
“Go away,” Shade said suddenly. “Go, and take those screaming babies with you! They need to be fed, and changed, and…”
“I did that,” Debbie said. “Babies cry, you know. And what exactly am I going to say to the authorities about these babies? Isn’t it going to look a tad odd?”
“Okay, you’re right,” Shade said. “The screaming is interrupting the blood to my
brain. I can’t hear myself think. Take them somewhere and leave them; just make sure you have someone come right away to tend to them. Josh will help you.”
She sighed. “Okay. But you owe me.” She left the room. Josh followed her out.
Pete stood over in the corner, silent.
Shade looked at him suddenly. “What?”
“You did good. We did good.”
“There are more of them out there,” he said, “and they are snatching babies right out of their cribs at night. How are they getting into people’s houses without being invited?”
“I can’t read anything from the one we got chained up in the other room. He’s of subintelligence.”
“He might be, but their leader isn’t. Go help Debbie and Josh get those babies to the authorities. I need to think.”
Pete nodded, and left the room.
Shade got up out of his chair and crossed the room.
For two centuries he’d lived in isolation, before finally going underground, determined to perish there. He didn’t perish, but the loneliness had almost killed him. When he was first turned in the early nineteenth century, he’d developed a taste for killing. It fascinated him. The bloodlust was almost as strong in him as his lust for flesh. He moved all over the world, making it his mission to kill off vampire destroyers one by one. Until he fell in love with a destroyer. Tanus. Tanus had been extraordinary. He was the only vampire killer who’d almost killed him as he slept. The attraction between them was instantaneous, their lust for each other unsurpassed. And for years, they’d carried on a scorching love affair.
Tanus had taught him a lot; maybe he’d even reformed him. Somewhere along the way, Shade had lost the lust for killing, and began to cherish humanity.
But Tanus was aging. Shade was losing him. Shade offered to turn him but Tanus wouldn’t allow it. Tanus had spent his life fighting vampires; his nightmare would have been to become one.
When Tanus died, Shade, then known as Sebastian Shade, died with him. He went into hibernation, only emerging from time to time, emaciated. He fed on animals until he felt revitalized then returned to his underground tomb to begin the process all over again.
It was on one of his breaks from hibernating that Sebastian met a man called Seth. He was genteel, cultured, dressed in an expensive silk suit. He’d been waiting for Sebastian to emerge.
“You’re ravished,” were his first words to him. It had been a cold night in London, the wind off the North Sea brutally frigid, and yet this man stood there as if he didn’t feel it at all.
“Stay your distance,” Sebastian had growled, “if you know what’s good for you.”
“You’re a fellow Irishman. I detect a Dublin accent.”
“I am nothing and no one. Now, begone, old man.” He tried to walk away but the man followed him, swinging his walking stick.
“Do you know what year it is?” he called out.
“No, nor do I care. Begone, I tell you.”
“I have need of you. I know what you are.”
Sebastian had turned around, his long dark hair whipping about his face. “What do you know of me?”
“You drink blood to survive but yet each time you emerge, you don’t drink from humans. You have been touched by love. It has restored your humanity.”
Sebastian swallowed. He stood still, listening.
“We live in a world of evil. You were once a big contributor to that evil. I know your history. You choose to live in lonely solitude, hoping to die. That won’t brink Tanus back to you, my friend.”
“Tanus,” he whispered.
“I need a weapon. I have just lost my greatest destroyer. It takes years to train them. You, I don’t need to train. You have powers, instincts. I can give you a purpose, a reason to go on, Sebastian. Help me. Help us.”
It was 1922. Sebastian had come up from the underground, learned to live among humans, and for years, he had been a secret member of the Order, fighting his own kind, protecting humanity. No one except Seth knew of his existence. Many of his kills were attributed to the Order of Destroyers, or went undiscovered. Seth had warned him that the Order wouldn’t have approved of having a vampire as a destroyer. Seth had called them “stuffy and prejudiced.” He died in 1944, Sebastian’s only friend. Sebastian had stood at his graveside deep into the night, tears running down his face.
After Seth died, he kept on fighting evil, patrolling London for vampires. It was his reason for existing. He was out there alone, the unsung hero, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t do it for reward. He did it for Seth. He did it for Tanus.
Now, known simply as Shade, he’d moved to New York City in the nineties. There he’d met Josh, a member of a notorious street gang, who tried to jump him one night when he was on patrol. Shade had recruited him, and Josh had been with him ever since. Pete was a powerful psychic who had picked up on what Shade was the moment he saw him sitting in a downtown bar one night. Pete had waited for him later, and Shade demanded to know who he was, and the rest was history. Pete knew about the vampires; he could sense them. He’d become an invaluable part of his team. Deb was Pete’s sister. She’d always been somewhat of a geek, but she was a brilliant geek, and served as their archivist.
The office was in the basement of an expensive Manhattan high-rise, one that Shade bought when he moved to New York. He equipped it so that he could work in the office even at midday. His ability to go out in the daytime was limited but with the right clothes, good sunglasses and a hat, he could tolerate the sun for short periods of time. This gave him an advantage over his prey.
The baby snatching that had been going on in the last few months bothered him. Even the most bloodlusting vampires didn’t bother with infants. There wasn’t enough blood, too much bother, and it created a great deal of publicity, something vampires shied away from. The cretin in the other room was of no use to them. He was no more than an animal, a mortal transformed carelessly then abandoned by the sire. Someone out there was being careless, or just didn’t care, period. Shade sighed, and walked down the hallway. It was time for him to have a go at that vampire.
* * * *
Diamond was dreaming. He could feel his body tremble. “I’m afraid,” he called out. “Please, Vanguard, don’t leave me here alone in the dark.”
“You must face your fears, Diamond.”
“But I’m scared, I’m so scared.” His eyes opened slowly. He looked at the sleeping man sitting beside him. “I’m not scared anymore,” he said aloud.
Vanguard’s eyes opened. “What?”
“Nothing,” Diamond said, turning to look out the window.
“Did I doze off?”
“This is your first time on a plane, isn’t it?”
“What do you think?”
“It’s practical, given the circumstances.”
“Yes, but do you like it?”
“Does it matter? Liking something has no utility.”
“My God,” Vanguard whispered, “do you know nothing of pleasure at all?”
Diamond glanced at him. “Pleasure? You’ve forgotten who I am, what you took me from that orphanage for.”
“Did I ever say why I’d chosen you?”
“Yes. You said it was because I survived abandonment.”
“You were meant to die.”
“You were left on the doorstep of that orphanage late at night. It was winter, bitter cold. They only found you in the morning. They said there was frost on your eyebrows and—”
“Yes, the snow glittered like diamonds.”
“You were special. The Order knew that.”
Diamond didn’t reply.
“You are the best in the world, Diamond. Your work is of immeasurable importance, but I worry about your future, when you get too old for this work. I don’t want you to be alone.”
“Perhaps the Order should take us old destroyers out and shoot us. You were a trainer, but now you are even too old for that. It’s fortunate for you that you are dying.”
Vanguard sucked in some air. “That’s particularly harsh, don’t you think?”
“It’s the truth, and as you told me, sometimes the truth is harsh. You must have the character to accept it.”
“What about heart, Diamond? Is yours as hard as your name?”
“I didn’t ask for this name. I didn’t ask for this job either. They were given to me. I have no choice but to accept them. I will do my duty according to what the Order demands.”
“And when you can no longer serve them?” Vanguard probed.
Diamond lifted an eyebrow. “Maybe by that time the Order will have a humane way to put me down. Anyhow, most of us don’t live to be old, do we?”
“No,” Vanguard said.
Diamond looked out the window now as the city of New York came into view. “I will need an advisor, a quick study of the city and the customs.”
“That has already been arranged.”
He leaned his head back against the seat again, and closed his eyes.
* * * *
Shade emerged from the back room shaking his head.
Josh leaned against the desk, muscular forearms crossed over his chest. “Any luck?”
“No.” He rubbed the back of his knuckles. “I just about broke my hand on his face. Bastard tried to take a hunk out of me.”
“So, he doesn’t even realize that you’re a…?”
“No,” Shade said, pulling his disarrayed black hair out of the tie at the nape of his neck. “Get rid of it. I’m going back to that place we found the babies, see if I can follow a trail from there.”
Josh nodded. “Give me a minute to take care of this, and I’ll come with you.”
“Where are the babies?”
Josh grinned. “We took care of them, left them on the doorstep of the hospital. When we left, they were all taken inside.”
“Good job. I’ll get Pete on the phone in the meantime. I want him to come along with us. Maybe he can pick up something I can’t.”
Josh headed to the back room.
* * * *
Richard Charmin’s eyes widened a little when he saw Diamond walk into the room, accompanied by Vanguard. He knew all about Diamond by reputation, of course. Who didn’t? He was the champion, the crème de la crème of destroyers. He just didn’t expect him to look like that.
Diamond was about five-eleven, lithe and muscular, his hair a medium ash blond, with light brown eyes which illuminated a face of almost delicate beauty. His chin was determined, his mouth generous but without expression. He wasn’t smiling. In fact, his face was an unreadable mask of stoicism.
“Richard,” Vanguard announced, “come and meet our Diamond.”
Richard reached his hand forward. Diamond looked at him then dismissed him.
“Diamond is used to being alone,” Vanguard muttered. “Diamond, Richard will be your assistant here in New York. He will stay with you around the clock, fill you in on what you need to know.”
Diamond looked at him. “I will not be needing you after this week.”
“I … my duties are to…” Richard began.
“Is this my room?” Diamond asked, pointing to the open door.
“Yes,” Vanguard said.
“I will need an experienced fighter, one I can train with.”
“That would be me,” Richard said, nodding.
“You are a trainer?” Diamond asked him.
“No,” he said, “but I know the trainers’ handbook by heart. I can aid you in your offensive drills.”
Diamond looked at Vanguard. “Get me an experienced trainer.”
Richard watched as he walked into the adjoining room and closed the door. “I don’t think he wants me here.”
“He’s a bit of a loner,” Vanguard said.
“He’s a bit of an asshole,” he replied under his breath.
“He will be grateful for the information you give him, Richard. Give him time to adjust. I will be here to help you for the first few days.”
“Any news on when the competition rules will be out?”
“Any day now,” Richard said.
“And recent activity?”
“Some mysterious activities around infants. Sources report that several babies were delivered to the hospital today. Apparently they had been kidnapped from their beds all in the same neighborhood.”
“And they were returned?” Vanguard lifted an eyebrow.
“Returned by whom?” a voice demanded.
Richard turned to see Diamond standing there.
“I’m working on that.”
“Vampires wouldn’t do that usually, steal babies, especially out of homes where they haven’t been invited,” Diamond said.
“Vampires usually aren’t into drinking from babies,” Richard said, “but hunting in a territory the size of this one is common for vampires.”
“Was the territory near a graveyard?” Diamond asked.
“Yes, actually,” Richard replied.
“No time like the present to get to know this city,” Diamond said and headed for the door.
Vanguard nodded. “Go with him.”
Richard sighed and raced after him.
* * * *
Shade coughed a little, waving his hand in front of his nose. “I guess these vamps weren’t the homemaker types.”
Josh chuckled. Pete forged on ahead, picking up this and that.
“Are you getting anything?” Shade asked, stepping over pieces of rubble.
“Just a lot of dead vamps,” Pete told him, flashing his flashlight. “How many did you guys wipe out down here anyway?”
“I counted ten,” Josh said.
Shade raised an eyebrow. “Try six.”
He shrugged. “Felt like ten.”
Shade crouched down and dipped his finger in some blood. He brought it to his nose. “It’s human,” he announced.
“Human?” Pete came over to join him. “There were no humans down here except for the babies. I thought you said the babies weren’t touched?”
“They weren’t,” Josh said. “Vamps didn’t have time. That’s what I don’t understand. Why didn’t they just drain them one by one? Why bring them all here?”
“They were all taken on the same night too,” Pete said.
Shade stood. “Some sort of a ritual maybe. We’ll get Deb on it.”
“I’ll call her,” Pete said.
“No. It’s too late tonight. It can wait until morning. Let’s go.” He walked through the debris and back out into the underground tunnel. Suddenly, he stopped, putting up a hand. He glanced at his two companions. “We’re not alone.”
“Vamps?” Josh mouthed.
“No,” Shade replied, “humans, two of them. And they’re coming this way.”
“What in hell would humans be doing down here?” Pete whispered.
“There was human blood back there. Maybe our vamp friends have a human associate,” Shade suggested, raising a dark eyebrow. He drew the sword he carried and urged them back against the wall.
* * * *
Diamond looked at Richard. “Are you sure this is where the babies were found?”
“According to my sources, yes,” Richard replied, nodding.
“If you don’t know who took them out of here, how do you know this is the place?”
“Some of our people arrived after. There were dead vampires … five of them.”
“Sloppy,” Diamond said.
“Yes, but we are shorthanded. There are only five of you, and the one we did have here is … well, he’s dead.”
Diamond looked at him. “One of the destroyers is dead? Why did no one tell me?”
“It happened a few days ago.”
Diamond sighed. “He was my greatest competitor last year. He’s a big loss. Is that why I’ve been brought here?”
Diamond rounded the corner. He tensed. He raised his head just in time to see the figure lunge out at him from the air. “Vampire!” he called out, shoving Richard out of harm’s way. Strong hands grabbed him around the throat and threw him into the cement wall. His fist tightened around the wooden stake he had tucked into his pocket, and he kicked out hard, driving the attacker back off of him. He pulled the wooden stake out of his pants and dived headfirst into his opponent, slamming his forehead against his. He grabbed hold of an arm and yanked, bringing it down hard over his knee. He grunted in satisfaction as he heard the crack, then struggled to position the stake over the heart as his opponent attempted to regain his composure. As he did, sharp fangs flashed close to his face, and bloodred eyes glowed into his. Diamond struggled like a wild man as an iron fist covered his own and wrenched the wooden stake out of his hold. Diamond’s startled gaze met the vampire’s. He should have been dead by now. Why in the hell wasn’t that vampire dead?
Diamond heard his stake clatter to the floor. He was being pushed back again, winced as he hit the wall. For a second, he was sure he would die. He slumped to the floor, momentarily dazed. When his head cleared, he jumped to his feet, all senses poised. He looked around for any sign of movement. He saw Richard struggling to stand up a few feet away. “Diamond,” he breathed, “are you all right?”
“What in hell was that?” Diamond muttered.
“A vampire with his two familiars,” Richard said. “I thought he was going to kill you.”
Diamond narrowed his eyes. “The question is, why didn’t he?”
Diamond began walking. Richard scrambled after him. He entered the little room at the end of the tunnel. “This is where the babies were?”
“Yes, and dead vamps, five of them when our people got here.”
“They didn’t decompose?”
“Yes. We found their clothes. The lab determined they were vamps from the ashes.”
Diamond nodded, poking through the rubble. “We need to find out who dropped those babies off to the authorities.”
“You’re hurt,” Richard said, noticing that he was limping.
“No. I’m not all right. That was no ordinary vampire. I need to train.”
* * * *
“Poor baby.” Debbie fussed over Shade. “Maybe that arm should be in a cast.”
“But it’s broken,” she pointed out.
“Yes, but unlike humans, if I keep it immobile for a few hours, it will be all right.”
“Who was it?” Josh inquired, perching on the edge of the desk.
“Diamond,” Pete volunteered.
“Diamond, the destroyer?” Shade echoed, looking at Pete in surprise. “I thought he was in Hungary.”
“He was,” Pete said. “The Order brought him to New York to replace Karl.”
“Karl was missed,” Shade mused. “Diamond will take some of the pressure off of us.”
Pete gave him one of his looks.
“What?” Shade lifted an eyebrow.
“Didn’t he almost stake you a little while ago?” Pete returned.
“Naw.” Shade grinned. “He just broke my arm. Don’t worry. I can handle Diamond.”
“Diamond is trained to kill anything that remotely resembles a vampire, and he doesn’t take defeat easily.”
“How do you know so much about Diamond?” Deb asked.
“I’ve studied all the destroyers,” Pete told his sister. “I once spent a few hours in a room with a member of the Order. I picked his brain … well … telepathically anyway. Diamond was trained to be a killer, only a killer, and by some pretty questionable means.”
“Meaning?” Debbie asked.
“He was trained under methods that would be considered child abuse today. He might well be a psychopath. You don’t reason with Diamond, you run from him. He’s never lost a battle with a vampire; until tonight, that is. He won’t rest now, Shade, until he kills you.”
“Well,” Shade said, standing up, “I guess I’ll have to go to him before he comes to me.”
“What will you do if you come face-to-face with him, Shade?” Deb asked. “You may have to kill him.”
“Hopefully it won’t come to that. We’re both on the same side.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t know that,” Pete objected, “and like the Order, he believes that the only good vampire is a dead one. Diamond won’t cut you any slack. I’ve seen shadows of things to come,” Pete muttered, “and it doesn’t look easy.”
“Is it ever easy?” Shade flashed him a smile.
* * * *
“Why didn’t you tell me Karl was dead?” Diamond demanded the moment he walked through the door.
“I was waiting for the right time,” Vanguard replied.
“It’s the reason I was brought to New York, isn’t it?”
“That, and because of this surge of new activity.”
“How did he die?” Diamond’s jaw was set.
“The vampires drained him.”
“More than one?”
“We assume so,” Vanguard said. “What happened to you? You look a little battered.”
“I met a vampire tonight,” Diamond said, “and he walked away.”
Vanguard’s eyes widened.
“I’ve never lost a battle before. The next time I meet this demon, he won’t walk away again.”
“Why aren’t you dead?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he enjoyed our little battle, and he wants a second round. Anyway, that was his error. He should have killed me when he had the opportunity.”
Vanguard was about to say something else when Richard came out of the other room, holding up an old photograph.
“What have you got there?” Vanguard asked, moving in to take a closer look. Diamond came to stand beside him. He narrowed his eyes as he studied the photograph. Dark hair, dark eyes, looked to be in his late twenties, handsome in a wicked kind of way.
“Sebastian Shade,” Richard announced, “the greatest killer of destroyers that ever was.”
Diamond grabbed the photograph. “That’s the vampire I fought tonight.”
“That’s impossible,” Vanguard scoffed. “Shade hasn’t been active in centuries. He was crossed off the list a long time ago.”
“That was him, I tell you,” Diamond countered. He looked at Vanguard. “Why would the Order cross him off the list? Was he recorded as destroyed?”
Vanguard shook his head. “No. There was never any record of his destruction. However, there was a rumor that he destroyed himself.”
“I guess the rumor isn’t true,” Richard muttered.
Diamond studied Vanguard. “You know more than what you’re telling me. If I’m going to fight him, you have to tell me everything.”
“He fell in love with a destroyer.”
Diamond’s eyes widened. “I thought he killed them?”
“Yes, and at one time, for sport. He moved around, hunting them, one by one, in the nineteenth century. The Order attributed the death of over thirty destroyers to Sebastian Shade. Then, he met Tanus. Tanus was a champion of his time. He made it his personal vendetta to find Shade and make him pay for his crimes.”
“Tanus died of natural causes,” Richard pointed out. “I’ve read about him. He was extraordinary.”
“Apparently not so much,” Diamond scoffed. “Shade is still walking around.”
“They fell in love,” Vanguard said. “And it is said that love transformed Shade, touched him in a way that made him connect with his lost humanity. And when Tanus died, he just allowed himself to waste away.”
“Monstrous,” Diamond sneered. “A vampire and a destroyer in love; it’s insane. Either that vampire bewitched him somehow, or this Tanus had lost his mind.”
“Nevertheless,” Richard said, “Shade is back. He’s dangerous. And from the looks of it, he’s involved in what’s happening to this city right now. We need to take him down.”
Diamond nodded. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
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