It was beginning. Whenever a situation got tense, the symbiont would begin its tiresome whining. There was plenty of room for the hunter to wield his blade, and he had been in far more dire situations in the past. The creature in D's hand knew this, but for some reason, it always saw fit to make matters worse with complaint. If the dhampir didn't know better, he could have sworn the little creature enjoyed it.
"Not another word," D said shortly. He pulled the scabbard from his back and used the hilt of his sword to nab the rope, having long since learned the foolishness of leaning out and putting oneself off balance. With the thick line in hand, D re-shouldered his weapon and swung out, letting his swaying stop before lowering himself down the hole. His grip on the rope was enough to make the symbiont retreat once more into his palm, and put an end to the conversation.
A half-hour's cautious journey brought D deep into the mine, to a place where the square, man-made tunnel gave way to a natural cavern. The hunter peered into the darkness, but even his vampiric sight could not penetrate here. The cave was just too large, and light too scarce.
Rather than moving out into the open, the hunter crept along one of the walls, keeping it as a landmark in case he got turned about. He continued on, walking on tip-toe to keep his boot-heels from resounding in the chamber and keeping his ears tuned for signs of trouble.
As always, the symbiont heard the attack just before the dhampir, and D felt his left hand flash up and snatch something from the air as it whistled toward him. He had just enough time to register that it was a roughly-crafted arrow, before another one parted the air a finger's breadth from his face. D held his cape out loosely before him and rushed toward the source of the projectiles. First one arrow, then another, struck the thickly-reinforced synth-leather, and though one actually managed to penetrate the membrane, both were deflected before they could truly do damage.
Ahead and above, D detected movement, and he took to the air like a kite. His leap carried him high, toward a small ledge some twenty feet above the cavern floor. Situated behind a curvature of the cave, it could not have been seen from the entrance, even with the best of light, and the darkness had rendered it invisible from D's former position across the way. It was the perfect place for a sniper.
As the dhampir cleared the ledge, four creatures tensed in readiness. They may have been human once, or they may have been something else. Whatever their origin, they were little more than vaguely-simian mounds of flesh now, slow mutants that grew in the deep places of the world like humanoid fungus. Gods knew how they had come to be here, but they were clearly unhappy about having visitors. D reached over his shoulder and, as he sailed past, split one of the creatures' crude bows with a his great sword. The creature itself tumbled backward in a boneless roll, narrowly avoiding the hunter's blade. The other three dropped their archery gear, drawing forth shovels and a pick-axe. It seemed as though the makeshift weapons sprang from nowhere, and D reminded himself that the slow mutants had been named for their lack of intelligence and the sluggish way their mutations progressed, not for their actual speed.
The creatures closed in, and D lopped the head from the closest shovel. Paying no heed, the creature brought the handle down in an arc, striking the dhampir squarely at the junction of his neck and shoulder. The armour cushioned the blow, but not entirely, and D grimaced as he forced the weapon up and away from his body. Half a breath later, the slow-mutant bearing the pick-axe swung, and the hunter dodged aside, letting the weapon find a place in the first creature's torso. There was a wet, sick crunch as the wounded monster went down, and the remaining creatures eyed D with stupid, baleful glares. Driven to anger, their flesh began to glow an unhealthy green. The entire area around the battle was lit with a ghastly luminescence, turning it the diseased hue of old celery.
In unison, the slow-mutants rushed forward, and though another of their band met its fate on D's blade, the other two powered through and drove him back into the wall. Dust and gravel rained from the cavern wall as they hammered him against the rock face, effectively pinning him with their doughy forms.
Held fast, D brought a knee up into the creature holding his right sword-hand. He struck its thigh hard, and there was a nauseating squelch as the hunter's knee smashed into the thing's pestilent flesh. The creature grimaced like a smiling maniac, and for a brief moment, D thought the masses of carbuncles that covered the beast had absorbed his blow. This was not the case, though, and the creature slumped slowly to one side like a melting candle as a broken shaft of bone slid up through the flesh of its leg, propelled by the mutant's own disgusting weight. The creature released its grip, and D swung his blade, cleaving the thing's chest in two. With a heave, the dhampir sent the last horror backward, tumbling over the bodies of its mates and off the edge of the drop. A rotten-pumpkin splat and a harsh grunt marked the final beast's passing and silence filled the cavern once more.
"That arrow stinks," the hand commented as D removed the bolt that had pierced his cape. "I think the tip is poisoned, or maybe just plain filthy. If it had hit you, it would have made you too sick to fight, vampire-healing or no."
D nodded. Poison was one of the things against which his father's legacy offered no defence. He had avoided getting hit, though, so it was a moot point now.
"Still, dunno why they bothered with poison. They were pretty nasty customers as it was. As a matter of fact, I bet they already took care of the bloodsuckers for us. We may as well call it a day; go back to the inn, have a cold ale..."
"They aren't strong enough to destroy the queen," D reminded the hand, knowing full well that the symbiont already knew. "We have to keep going."
"You're crazy, you know that?" the hand demanded, "An obsessed killer who doesn't know when to back down!"
"If the slow mutants have killed all the vampires," the hunter said wryly, "Then I have nothing to worry about."
The hand gave a huff of displeasure, but was once again firmly on the losing end of the discussion. Its hollow arguments were falling on deaf ears, and D was long accustomed to weeding out the symbiont's meritous suggestions from its useless ones.
"See if I catch the next arrow," it grumbled.
Hopping easily down to the cavern floor, the hunter cast a single glance at the dead mutant as the coal-dust settled, confirming it was dead. Taking no further chances in the gloom, he went back to double-check the position of the entrance and get a good fix on the cave's layout. Doubling back, he eventually found the way deeper into the earth. A new man-made tunnel picked up across from where the previous one had left off, and sloped downward, ever deeper into the gloom. The hunter followed it for no more than five minutes before it became clear that this direction was the right choice.
Once, mine-carts had used this path. D noted the holes in the floor where spikes had once driven in timbers and rails. Now, however, cart and rail alike were gone, pulled up and taken away. Further down the hall, the hunter paused, as the reason for the rails' absence became clear. Up ahead, a double wooden door barred the way. The wooden rail ties served as massive planks, each the size of a small man. Held together as they were by scavenged spikes and reinforced by the iron rails, the barrier was a formidable one indeed.
On one of the doors, a dark shape hung, and D soon recognized it for a human corpse. A quick glance at the muscular, armoured and severely tortured body told the dhampir that it was one of the previous hunters, probably the leader, made an example to any who would think to follow in his shoes. A week of putrefaction, without the mercy of embalming, had reduced the body to a sagging mess, and even through the gas, the still air was almost palpable with the smell of decay.
"This is it, D!" the hand moaned, "The lair of the Nosferatu. You gotta go back! Who knows how many of them are in there? You said yourself the queen is tough! What about when she's backed up by dozens of her cronies? Maybe you're feeling suicidal today, but getting torn to pieces by vampires isn't on the list of my favourite activities!"
"Then be silent," D snapped. Now was not the time for the hand's comments.
"But, D, what if they're expecting you? What if it's a trap? Go back, man!"
"One more word..." D warned coldly, and drew the silver blade from his back.
D examined the gates briefly. There was no locking mechanism, but a simple push told him that the passage was barred from the other side. The dhampir stood for a moment, gathering his concentration, and released it in a sweeping overhead strike. His aim was true as always. The blade passed through the narrow chink between the two doors and met resistance on the other side. Heaving his sword out of the crack, D whirled and kicked the spot with all of his considerable might. The wooden bar that held the door spilt with a sound like falling timber and the gate blew open in a shower of splinters and coal dust.
The chamber was as cold and dark as the rest. Beyond the entrance, a large hollow had been carved in pursuit of coal, and the last few rails of track and a mine cart still remained at the room's center. The rest of the space, however, was far less utilitarian. Furniture and tapestries, no doubt stolen from the town above, had been arranged about the chamber, so that it resembled some sort of craven, underground court of kings, with a large, throne-like chair upon a raised platform to the rear. It was here that D's eyes settled, for a man sat in the chair, surrounded by a grovelling horde of undead minions. Though vampiric, the man was no Nosferatu. In fact, were it not for his clothing, skin-tight Kevlar overlaid by a hard breastplate and complimented by a pair of thick-bladed short swords, D might almost have suspected him to be nobility.
"Welcome, Hunter D," the man said in an easy, rolling drawl, "Welcome to your grave. We've been expecting you. My name is Tamarande."
Suddenly, D knew the name of the man nailed to the door; Lei Yun. Together with Tamarande, they formed the famous team of hunters known as the Skells. If these two had failed, D could see why the townsfolk would send for him. They were among the best, and now one of them was a vampire.
"Funny," Tamarande remarked, "But I thought those miners would have had the good sense to give up after my partner and I didn't come back. You'd think they'd learn."
The lesser undead began to leave their lounging perch and spread through the room like diseased hyenas, circling their prey. D stayed firmly in the doorway, having no wish to be flanked. Thankfully, the vampiric prince did not rise from his makeshift throne, seeming content to let his underlings do his dirty-work. D regarded the leader for a moment, never letting the others out of his peripheral vision.
"I'm surprised your mistress isn't here to enjoy the spectacle," D noted, "If I was expected, she might have had the decorum to welcome me herself."
The vampire gave a harsh bark of laughter. "In case you haven't noticed," he sneered, "This is about as far from a noble court as you can get, but that will change. In any case, she has some... business to attend to."
D eyed the vampire, a slow, ugly malaise welling in his breast. "What sort of business?"
"Haven't you figured it out yet?" Tamarande grinned. A massive set of fangs, more wicked than those of the usual vampire, extended from his mouth in a jagged, shark-like maw. "I had really expected more from the world's finest hunter, but then, you are only a dhampir, no better than an animal."
The hunter kept his face neutral. After centuries of half-life, he had heard every insult under the sun and moon.
"My lady knew you would come, and she was well prepared. She knew of your reputation, your skill, and your presence in the area, so she recruited me to keep you occupied, along with my associates, of course." He gestured grandly at the undead, poised now to lunge at their master's command.
D's eyes widened as he considered the evening's activities. Aside from the vampire at the entrance, there had not been a single transient on the downward journey. Now, he was confronted with a band of underlings who were clearly meant to detain him. The town, meanwhile was undefended, as open to the whims of an invader as its breached walls.
D whirled in the doorway and bolted, the undead instantly moving to pursuit. It was rare for him to run from a conflict, but if his guess was correct, then time was of the essence. The vampires were hot on his trail, leaping like spiders through the gloom. They moved like the wind, and he was forced to slow several times, slicing legs, arms, anything that availed itself to slow the motley horde and keep from being overrun.
When they reached the great cavern, the creatures spread out, leaping up and away into the dark, using the rough walls to hurl themselves forward at speeds human acrobats only dreamed of. As the hunter reached the far corridor, he was stopped cold. Somehow, the creatures had gotten ahead of him and blocked the path. Now they stood several ranks deep in the tunnel, an unliving wall of fangs and claws.
More creatures closed at his back and the bleakness of the situation became more clear. This was not the pursuing pack, but a second horde. They had followed him down from above and now the two groups had him surrounded. The hunter rankled at his own lack of foresight. The queen of this brood was both cunning and tactful, and he had underestimated his opponent. Now, it seemed, the people above would pay the price.
"I told you!" the symbiont cried in the darkness, "We're done for now!"
"Hardly," A rare smirk graced the hunters cold features as he drew forth a new weapon. It was a simple pocket flashlight, that was all, but two strips of black electrical tape laid across its face made it far more than the sum of its parts. He flicked it on, and a shadowy crucifix fell upon the crowd. D tried to ignore the holy symbol as the smell of searing flesh filled the tunnel. In agony, the horde fractured and tried to flee, tearing at walls and comrades as they sought release from their torment. D mustered his will to move toward the shady cruciform, focusing on the surety that the hurtful shape would flee before him as he advanced, without burning his own alabaster flesh. He broke into a run and the beam flashed pell-mell about the tunnel. It slashed back and forth with the motion of D's stride, and the pack recoiled from its touch as if it were a bolt of flame. Soon, he was through the crowd, and all the Nosferatu were behind him. Turning, D paused to set the flashlight on a diagonal path back down the tunnel, blocking the way, before continuing his flight.
"I'll get you, half-blood!" Tamarande screamed from the far side of the beam, "This is not the end!"
D reached the base of the vertical shaft and leapt upward, pulling himself hand-over-hand up the rope. Below, he could hear the nightwalkers' howls of pain as the bravest among them dared the holy light. As he reached the top of the shaft, he slashed the rope from the pulley, letting it tumble into the darkness below. It would not stop Tamarande and his troops, but it would definitely slow them, perhaps long enough for him to seal them inside.
A lack of shadows on his tail did nothing to slow the dhampir's travel. Indeed, without having to pause to fend them off, he practically flew down the corridor, pausing only when he was standing once more in the moonlight.
Rushing to his horse, D rummaged about in his saddle-bags and fished out a length of stout cable from the bottom of one of the pockets. Normally it was used to bind vampires and other brawny prisoners, but it would serve the hunter's current purpose just as well. Clasping the line to one of the DL-4's little-used wagon-clamps, D returned to the cavern and wrapped it around the closest support-timber. He returned to the saddle and thrust his heels into his steed's mechanized flank.
The horse lunged forward and heaved against the line. Pulled as tight as a piano-wire, the cable hummed in the night air, and the beast's hooves dug deep into the earth. With the command given, D hopped once more from the saddle and added his own strength to that of his mount. Horse and rider leaned into the act and a crackling sound issued from the mine. It grew sharper and, with a final roar, the stone of the shaft fell in on itself. The mouth of the mine blew smoke and dust, and mine was cut off from the world. The hunter stood long enough to make sure the job was done, and was gone again, before the dust had a chance to settle.
Free of the stink of gas and rotting manflesh, a more foreboding scent began to assert itself in the valley. In the distance, Bistritz glowed orange, and a massive pillar of smoke drifted up into the inky night The smell permeated the valley, acrid and hot, telling everyone nearby the price of crossing the vampires. Periodically, explosions split the night, as the townsfolk tried in vain to ward off their undead attackers with guns and charges, but the night was also marked by screams. The town was ready to fall.
The hunter urged the DL-4 into a leap, clearing the rest of the hillside in one motion, and shot into the flaming community like a shadowy bird of prey. Vampires were everywhere, like moths congregating to the town's flames. Whenever one of them reared its head, D parted it from its body, never slowing his feverish pace. He quickly lost count of the vampires who fell, as he rode down those he passed. Still, no matter how many were laid low, there always seemed to be more.
As D rushed between the flames and the hordes, he saw the townsfolk, fighting where others would have fled. It gave the hunter pause. These people had hard, short, thankless lives, but they were fighting like hardened soldiers to keep it. Try as they might, though, the sturdy miners were able to do little against the onslaught. The undead were far too numerous. All too often, D was too late to save an overmatched townsman, but each successful slash was another vampire in the grave and another soul freed, and he too did the best he could. He pressed on, moving as fast as the cyborg would carry him, and soon lost himself in the rush and flow of battle.
"There she is!" the symbiont cried above the roaring fire and hoof-beats.
D cast off the single-minded focus of battle and looked about for the person his hand was referring to. Quickly, he spied a feminine shape through the ruins of a fallen building. It was the vampire queen, standing serenely amid the carnage and drinking it in like fine music. Clothed in rags though she was, and surrounded by a mane of tangled hair, she was no Nosferatu. Instead of the deformed and rot-darkened flesh of the night-creepers, the woman's features were as pale and well-formed as an alabaster goddess. She stood in the town square with her hands clasped before her and her head held high, watching the dozens of little battles with smug and arrogant glee. In the hunter's brief glimpse, his suspicions were confirmed.
She was an aristocrat.