The first time he saw the vision of warriors and kings, Bryan Norris was in the cereal aisle at the Whole Foods grocery store. The place was full of narrow aisles, brands he'd never heard of, and bad indie rock getting pumped through the sound system. Bryan never shopped at the place. Not only was it overpriced, it was also pretentious. But last week he'd turned thirty, and the day after, he'd gone to the doctor for a checkup. It hadn't been his idea, and he'd thought he could get through the lecture on cholesterol and blood pressure without it affecting him. As long as he could run his five miles three mornings out of seven and get it up whenever he wanted, what was the big deal?
As it turned out, though, Bryan couldn't get the statistics about heart disease off his mind. Why, oh why, had he read that stupid brochure? He'd always been a little paranoid and just a touch of a health freak. He knew the doc was likely full of shit and scare tactics, but changing a few things about his diet probably couldn't hurt anything, other than maybe Bryan's taste buds.
So there Bryan stood, staring at rows upon rows of boxes screaming their organic, nutritional content and trying to read a label over the wailing of a baby on the other end of the aisle. The Nutty Health Crunch had raisins and cranberries, and Bryan liked fruit well enough, he guessed. The other option seemed to be made mostly of shredded cardboard. He held the bag of horse feed masquerading as granola in one hand, and the other hand rested on the shopping cart's disinfected handle bar. Later, he'd remember his last normal thought was about cutting down a tree and gnawing on the bark and whether that'd be about the same thing as eating the cereal.
And then, like someone dropped him into a surround-sound, three-hundred-sixty virtual reality theater, Bryan stood on a battlefield. Gone were the mother, the infant, and the female vocalist crooning about love and loss over the PA speakers, and every other indicator that Bryan was safe and sane. He couldn't feel the cart's handle, but he could feel a heavy-as-hell hilt in his hand. He didn't have granola; he had a bloody, tattered banner from the fallen enemy. Each step was exhausting. It was hard to move, and Bryan looked down. He wore armor, but it wasn't like armor in his Xbox games or like in pictures of King Arthur and the Round Table. This was dull, blackened metal accented with dyed leather, rough hide, and white fur. It smelled like rotted meat, and it was gashed, torn, and stained. The bitter wind struck him, and Bryan didn't think he'd ever felt such cold. It was so real, so visceral, and then the body he was in began to move without his conscious permission.
Bryan panicked. He was trapped inside this body that was not his body, but that of a... warrior? Prince? Someone important and old and hungry. He could hear thoughts that were not his thoughts, and he could feel emotions that were not his own.
Bryan yelled to be let out, to be let go, but the warrior in the fur and the armor kept walking, right through piles of mud and nauseating, steaming muck. Moans and yells of men rose up from the hillside. A thick fog obscured the landscape, so Bryan could only see a few hundred yards in any direction, but all he saw through the stranger's eyes were the slain.
Mouse crept forward, careful to keep to the cover of the trees. The sky was still light, ablaze in a fiery wash of color fueled by the setting sun, but he knew that all too soon it would be dark, and night was a dangerous time. Hidden in the shadows of a copse of trees, Mouse gnawed on his bottom lip. The house was nestled amongst the trees, a big place, unlike the rough cabins that he occasionally came across, and positively gleaming with rare wealth. He stared at it, his eyes scanning it and taking in every detail. His breath was a heavy rasp in his ears, his heart thudding in a nervous rhythm.
He should leave. Move on. The house, quiet as it was, reeked of danger; a subtle warning hung from the shadows beneath the eaves. Mouse might have heeded it, but his stomach took that moment to growl in protest.
Hunger had been his constant companion for days now. Mouse stifled a laugh. When hadn't he been hungry in the last few years? For too long he had teetered on the edge of starvation. The last of his food had run out nearly a week ago and all his efforts to find more had failed. He was falling over the precipice, and his stomach at least thought his salvation was in that house. His mind knew it more likely held his doom.
Damn, but hunger made him melodramatic.
Mouse decided to heed both his head and his stomach, and crept closer. Luckily, the trees and undergrowth went almost all the way to the back of the house, providing him with plenty of cover if he was careful... and he was always careful.
That's it. Slowly and quietly, like the quietest little mouse. Sneak, sneak, sneak.
Leaves brushed against him, caught on his clothes as if they were trying to stop him from getting closer. Yep, definitely melodramatic. Mouse briefly thought that he had spent far too much time alone before he managed to push his errant thoughts aside. He needed to think.
Everything was so quiet here. All he could hear was the wind rustling through the trees and the distant twitter of some creature. His ears that had been trained to pick up even the slightest noise, could hear nobody and nothing moving around inside.
Desperation crawled beneath his skin, a swarm of ants scuttling through his insides. Tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes, trickling down his cheeks. They burned against his chilled skin. The muscles in the sides of his jaw bunched. Determination stilled the trembling that had taken up residence in his body over the past days. Now that its hunger would soon be at an end, his body was willing to cooperate.
Michael took a deep breath as the blast of artificial chill hit him in the face. The gallery smelled of varnish and floor polish—sterile, professional, classy. He plastered a confident smile on his face and walked straight up to the owner, Frank Werner, who adopted an equally fake smile upon seeing him.
Mike had been beating at the gates of this particular gallery for two years without a single sale, a single show, or even much encouragement to speak of. But Frank Werner was polite and accessible, and his gallery was hot among certain moneyed members of the community. Mike just needed a crack, just to get something in front of their eyes... and this collection was the key that would finally turn the lock.
He cleared his throat, turned the smile up a couple of watts, and set the heavy leather portfolio on the counter. "I'm going to make you very happy today, Mr. Werner."
"Young Michael, back again. You're persistent, I'll grant. What have you got?"
And with that, Mike put his future on the line yet again, ripping out his heart and handing it over to the gallery owner. He flipped the cover open to the first full-color photo of his latest project and held his breath.
There was a long moment of silence as Frank stared. Flipped a page. Stared some more. Sparks danced across Mike's vision and he struggled to inhale without blatantly sucking in a loud gulp of air. The shaky sound of pure terror he got instead was worse, and he resisted the urge to squeeze his eyes shut in embarrassment.
"These are bold color choices," Frank said at last, and the comment was so unexpected in the turmoil of Mike's fevered mind that it took him a moment to realize what had actually even been said.
"Um, yes, I—"
"Very interesting. Compelling. How did you choose your palette?" He turned his intense gaze from the portfolio to Mike's face, and Mike froze, pinned and intimidated.
Holy crap, dude, pull it together. "I—uh, I mean... The colors..." He pressed his eyes shut and cleared his eyes, desperate to buy himself a moment to pull himself together. He hadn't been sleeping well for weeks, since about the same time he'd started this series, but now wasn't the time to let his mind go.
"I used red light," Mike finally managed.
The door to the cabin flew open, slamming against the wall hard enough to rattle the hinges. Hyde shoved his hooded prisoner over the threshold, watching it stumble forward until it collided with the only piece of furniture in the one room cabin. The wooden chair had been treated repeatedly with holy water, etched with crosses, inlaid with silver filigree sigils, and, most importantly, bolted to the floor. All of which meant that Hyde was treated to a most satisfying howl of pain when the vampire came into contact with it. Before the creature could react, Hyde was there, shoving it back into the chair and locking the shackles around its wrists and ankles. The chains had been prepared as meticulously as the chair, and they hissed as they closed around the unholy flesh, sending the sweet tang of burning skin into the air.
Once he was certain the vampire was immobilized, Hyde turned his attention to the rest of the room. He closed the door, taking his time to secure each of the locks, and then he flipped the switch beside one of the bricked-up windows. The room instantly flooded with light from the powerful UV lamps he'd set up, all focused on the chair and its occupant. Only then did he feel safe enough to place the pistol-sized crossbow on a counter and shed his outer jacket, revealing the black shirt and priest's collar underneath. He ripped the hood from his long-sought quarry's head, needing to look into the thing's eyes. The thing that had murdered his brother.
It squinted its eyes, tried to focus on him, but he stayed behind the lamps for now. "Do you know how long I've been hunting you?" Hyde snarled.
The thing laughed, spitting to the floor. "Since Lancaster... 1993." It let its head loll back. "You think I haven't smelled you in every fucking city I've been in? You reek of the cross and hatred and need."
Hyde stepped forward and backhanded it across the face. "If you can remember that, then you can remember why."
It stared at him from rust-colored eyes, an almost drunken smile on its lips. "Mmm... the twin brother. Planned to eat you, too, but you hid in the church."
Hyde drew his hand back again and swung, landing a solid blow across the vampire's temple. "His name was Samuel."
The vampire shook its head and blinked repeatedly. "And he tasted... like honey. Shook in my arms from the pleasure."