Nonetheless, this was the wrong part of town in which to be caught alone in the middle of the night.
They started tailing him about three blocks back. Two of them trying to stay just out of sight. Three more circling ahead to cut off his escape route. He's not moving too fast, walking at a slow amble and affecting a right-legged limp. He doesn't want them wearing themselves out cornering him.
The tails break cover and approach rapidly. One of them calls out, "Excuse me friend, do you know what time it is?"
The stranger startles when he speaks, then turns to face him. The man who called out is young, maybe seventeen. He has the physique of a weightlifter. His hands are those of a street brawler. His smirk that of a predator zeroing in for the kill.
The guy behind him is smaller: one of those weaselly little toads who stay alive by massaging the ego of someone big enough to keep the heat off. The gun in his pants is invisible to the untrained eye. The stranger notes it immediately.
The stranger stares at him wordlessly for several seconds. The leader glances over towards the other three hoods circling the stranger, then repeats himself, "Excuse me friend, do you know what time it is?" The menace in his voice more obvious now.
Their prey turns away, only to find the three toughs arrayed across the street.
He turns back, glances at his watch, and reads off, "2:13".
The stranger speaks in a thick accent, which does not go unnoticed by the hoods. "What have we here, fellows" the big one sneers. "A tourist? Superb. Tourists are rich. We drink well tonight, my friends!"
One of the three behind him makes the first move. He lunges with open hands, trying to grab on. The tourist swats his hands away with a sweep of his left hand, then buries his right fist into the thug's nose. The hood's septum gives way, making a popping sound the tourist finds satisfying. The hood with a newly broken nose staggers back, his face now a spurting crimson fountain.
The other two underlings circle around. The one behind him nods, and they both charge at once. Their prey rushes forward and latches on to the thug's shirt. Before either thug has time to process what's happening, the large man twists his hips and yanks forcefully on his opponent's shirt, hurling him into his companion. The two collapse to the street in a panicked jumble, and probably succeed in doing more harm to each other in their efforts to get separated and on their feet than was done by the throw.
Their boss's smirk is gone. In its place is a look of uncertainty.
The weasel is already in full panic mode. He shrieks, "YOU IDIOTS!" The gun clears his pants, and he empties three rounds into the tourist's chest at five paces.
The tourist staggers back several steps and falls to his knees, his face a contorted mask of shock and fear. He looks up at the weasel, wide-eyed, and speaks a single perfectly-accented word.
The mask of terror evaporates into a predatory grin not too dis-similar from the one the boss had on only moments ago. He lunges at the small man with gun with almost inconcievable speed.
Not quite fast enough. The boss cuts him off. His right hand thrusts up from low. The knife held in it catches the tourist in the belly. Kevlar is made to stop bullets, but knife blades cut through it easily enough. Seven inches of steel burrow into the large man's guts.
"You should have just handed over your money without a fight. Then you'd still be alive." The look of pity and concern on the chief hood's face as he says this is as authentic as a $5 Picasso bought from a street merchant.
The tourist says nothing for three seconds. Then he sneers and whispers, "I died years ago". The tourist's eyes start to glow with a reddish light. His lips pull back, revealing a pair of inch-long fangs.
The leader's eyes triple in diameter as the tourist's left hand wraps around his right wrist. It takes almost no effort to crush the bones. He lets out a hiss of pain. Not quite satisfying enough for the tourist's tastes. His right hand darts to the leader's neck. The muscular youth makes a few feeble efforts to punch and kick the glowing-eyed man as he's lifted casually off the ground. A quick jerk of his massive arm snaps the young tough's neck. The newly lifeless body is cast aside like a sack of dirty laundry. With deliberate slowness, the glowing-eyed man grabs the hilt of the knife still protrucing from his belly and pulls it out. He holds the blade op to the moon light. Surprisingly little blood stains the blade. None at all come out of the place in the glowing-eyed man's body where it was moments ago sheathed. "Funny," He says out loud, "these sort of things used to hurt..."
The weasel is rooted to his spot, stupefied. The gun slips out of his hands, hitting the street with a metallic clatter. The smell of excrement wafts through the air.
The tourist turns his ember gaze on the little hood. There's an almost jovial note in his voice as he asks the youth, "Didn't your mother teach you it's rude to shoot people?"
Weasel makes a small whimpering noise as the glowing-eyed man leisurely strides towards him. He doesn't move, not even as the fangs sink into his neck...
By the time Weasel's drained husk hits the pavement, the other three hoods are long gone. The vampire notes this with little interest. His thirst is slaked, and there's nothing those hoods or their friends could do that would be any sort of threat. The glow leaves his eyes, and his fangs retract back into his skull.
"Not bad," a slightly deep voice intones from behind the vampire.
A short, middle aged man stands in the nearby streetlight. His face is concealed behind a full beard, a mix of stray black hairs made conspicuous by the background of silver they're offset against. He's dressed in an ash-colored pinstripe suit roughly a century out of date, with matching derby. He leans easily on a lacquered ebony cane with an ivory handle carved in the shape af a lion's head.
"I'd go so far," the newcomer continues, "as to say spectacular. For a stripling, that is."
The bearded man's casual use of the word "stripling" convinces the vampire of what he suspected from the moment he realized this little man had successfully snuck within ten paces of him. This man was another of his kind. One that could get this close to a being who'd honed his senses to a razor's edge even before they were magnified further by his undeath.
For the first time that night, the vampire was in real peril, and he knew it. His years (though very few by undead standards) had left him smart enough to know when he was out-matched. He'd only under-estimated an opponent once, and that should have gotten him killed. Instead, it made him what he is today.
"You've made a horrible mistake, however," the middle-aged man says.
"It went as I planned," the vampire replies. "They only laid a glove on me because I knew they couldn't hurt me. Otherwise, they'd all five be dead and none of them the wiser..."
"That was your mistake, Anatole Vashnivski."
The stranger spares a small smile as the larger vampire startles at the sound of hearing his own name spoken by a man he'd never seen before.
"Who the hell..."
"Later," the older-looking man says with a dismissive wave of his hand. "You should have wiped them all out, or else shown no clue you are a vampire. As it now stands, by sunrise, Yuri will know that there's a stripling poaching in his favorite hunting ground. Before tomorrow morning, he'll know what you look like. By Tuesday, he'll have someone hunting YOU..."
"He's the vampire that rules Prague. He doesn't like anyone trespassing on his territory. He treats poachers very harshly."
"But we should not be discussing things HERE..." he continues, waving his cane for emphasis. "Things would be more private, and dare I suggest, more comfortable, indoors. My residence is not far from here. If you would be so kind as to accompany me, I would gladly play host. We may just have a great many things to discuss before dawn."
At least, that's how Anatole remembers his country of birth. But then, he hadn't been there in nearly twenty years. But all the stories he'd heard said that the US had gotten worse, if anything.
"Please come right in," the older vampire said. "We have the place to ourselves tonight."
He nods to the gargoyle on the left of the walkway. The gargoyle lifts its head and nods back.
"If my co-tenant returns early, please inform him that I am entertaining company."
The gargoyle nods again and returns to its original position, where it stops moving.
"Putting on a show?" Anatole asks.
"Don't you like it?" he responds with an impish grin. "Not many of our kind have them. Even with your history I expect you've never seen a real one before. Magnitudes better than a blood-thrall for keeping out unwanted visitors with personal agendas at stake..." he chuckles quietly.
"Igor doesn't like them," he continues after a brief pause. "More specifically, he doesn't like those who make them. I, on the other hand, AM one of the ones who make them..."
"I'm not here for a sales pitch."
"I'm not making one. No point selling to someone who can't afford to buy," he says dismissively. he waves a hand, and the front door swings open silently. Anatole follows him into his home.
At the end of a short entry hall is a sitting room decorated in early monster movie: dusty tomes, human skulls, and a table dominated by a crystal ball clutched in what appears to be an authentic mummified human hand. The bare hardwood floor is dominated by an elaborate mandala marked with glyphs in a language Anatole had never seen before.
A pair of upholstered hardwood chairs surround the table. He motions to one of them and then stands beside the other. Anatole takes the proffered chair and sits down. He smiles and sits down in the other chair.
He strokes his beard a few times and then says, "My name is Bertrand Lombard. I welcome you to my home, Anatole Vashnivski."
Anatole hesitates, then offers Lombard his hand. Lombard smiles and takes it. He gives it three pumps and then lets it go. "As I expected, the baron didn't bother to teach you any etiquette. No matter. Human manners are good enough from one so young."
"Might we dispense with the formalities?" asks Anatole. "You promised me answers, not pleasantries."
Lombard smiles again. "I said no such thing."
Before Anatole can protest, Lombard continues, "I DID say we might have a great many things to discuss."
"You're splitting hairs."
"If you're going to last very long in undead circles, you will need to learn to do so." Another of his grins spreads across his face. Anatole has already grown tired of them.
They ended up talking for most of the night.
"The thralls are just a feint," Lombard had said. "Their master doesn't expect them to win. Their job is to make you tip your hand. Show their master what powers you favor."
The first one kicks in the front door to the crumbling tenement Anatole was using for shelter. "WAKE UP, BLOODSUCKER! IT'S TIME FOR YOU TO LEARN WHO REALLY RULES..."
The goon never finishes his sentence. A flash betrayed the surprise Anatole had set for him: a claymore mine. The mine's spray of explosive-driven steel pellets shred the vampire-blood-fueled (but still mortal) thrall's flesh and reduce him to a mass of bloody giblets. He barely even has time to shriek in agony before he's dead.
The other two dive for cover behind nearby piles of jumbled brickwork. "He knew we were coming?" one shouts to his companion.
"That's right." Anatole shouted out to them.
His voice came not from the old building the thralls had targeted, but the roof of another one across the street. Directly above and behind one of the thralls.
"MIKHAIL! GET OUT OF THERE!!"
Mikhail never got the chance. A staccato bark and a strobing flash of light announce the firing of an AK-47. A good dozen holes appeared in Mikhail's torso.
Anatole Vashnivski jumped down from the roof of the building. Now the hunter knows where I am.
The goon heaved a brick from the pile he's hiding behind at Anatole. The vampire didn't even bother to dodge the projectile as he dropped his assault rifle and reached into his trench coat.
The last thrall peaked over his wall to get a look at his attacker just in time to see the grenade leave Anatole's hand. He leapt over the wall to get it between himself and where the device would land.
The grenade went off with a thunderous boom. The thrall didn't even wait for the ringing in his ears to stop before jumping back over the wall and rushing towards where Anatole stood.
Gutsy, if not too bright.
He lunged for Anatole's discarded AK-47, but never made it. Anatole had already produced a pair of M1911 pistols from his coat and gunned the last thrall down with them.
Anatole afforded himself a smug grin. I've taken down his shock troops using only mundane weapons. He knows they're useless against him, and has to suspect i know that, too.
"Do you have any more pets for me to play with? Or do you plan to do me the favor of coming out and giving me a real fight?" Anatole shouted into the night.
He barely heard his attacker coming in time. The strike came from the left, slightly behind his field of peripheral vision. The vampire's claws caught the fabric of Anatole's trench coat, slicing through the canvas shell as well as the kevlar panel sewn in to its lining.
Anatole's attacker spun around to face him. Barely tall enough to stare at Anatole's throat, dressed in black leather from head to foot, and sporting a buzz haircut.
Anatole had never even considered the idea that his hunter would be a woman.
She wasted no time in exploiting Anatole's brief instant of confusion. She leapt at him again, aiming her 4cm talons at his throat.
He jumped aside a split second too late. Though off their mark, the claws found flesh on his right shoulder, just where the arm meets the chest. A searing flash of pain burns through Anatole, the first real pain he'd felt in more than five years.
But hardly enough to slow him down. He spun on his heels and rushed after the hunter, his own claws sprouting from his fingertips.
She barely had enough time to turn around before Anatole was almost on top of her. He slashed with his left hand, aiming for her face.
Instead of dodging aside, the hunter pounced forward and grabbed on to Anatole.
He immediately latched on to his smaller opponent. He brought his considerable size to bear and started to squeeze the hunter in a massive bearhug. She responded by casually shrugging his arms off, grabbing his right elbow, and crushing the bones there with as little effort as Anatole himself had expended maiming the punk three days earlier.
"You big men are all alike." The hunter sneered in a husky, almost masculine voice. "You think that just because you're bigger than me and I'm a woman, you must be stronger than me as well. As I just proved, you are not."
The bones in Anatoles elbow were re-generating more slowly than he had expected. Real fear was beginning to set in on him for the first time in years. He had trained as a vampire hunter in his mortal days, and he was sure that knowledge should give him the edge.
But so far, it wasn't.
He lashed out with his left hand with all the speed and fury he could manage. His claws sank into the hunters right eye, which gave way with a spray of blood and a popping sound.
She bellowed in pain and surprise and dropped him. He immediately backstepped out of her reach.
Or so he thought. She lunged at him, quicker than she had ever done before (or was Anatole just slowing down?). She caught him in her own bearhug, pinning his left arm to his side and crushing both it and his ribcage in a matter of seconds.
But by now his right arm had re-knitted itself. Anatole surged through the pain that now threatened to overwhelm his undead senses and thrust his right knee into his assailant's ribs.
She didn't even flinch. "Is that all you have, little whelp? It will not be anywhere near enough to..."
Her eyes doubled in diameter as the knife Anatole had liberated from his boot slid into her back, just between the spine and shoulder blade. Her whole body went limp as the knife point found her heart.
Anatole lay there for a few moments as his body rebuilt itself. Then he rose to his feet and knelt over the other vampire, a look of shock and confusion still frozen on her face.
The knife stuck into her back more resembled a crude shiv than an actual knife. A strip of rawhide wound around the lower 10cm of a dried out old legbone that had been sharpened to a point.
A werewolf's femur. A weapon given to him by has vampire hunting mentor when he was still barely more than a boy.
"Anyone who's ever been to the movies can tell you about the good old wooden stake," Yevgeny Prochnow had told him. "And they DO work. But this, my boy, is so much better. The properties of a werewolf's teeth, claws, and bones inflict grievous injuries to the undead. A wooden stake works great, if you hit the heart. This will cripple them even if you miss that mark, so long as it finds flesh."
It had saved his life again. Or rather, his unlife.
He pulled a second knife out of his left boot. This one a fairly mundane length of steel, save for it's size. It was a massive Bowie whose overall length was nearly as long as Anatole's lower leg.
With the werewolf bone shiv in place, this knife was more than up to the task of liberating the fallen vampire woman's head from her neck.
Seconds later, her whole body dissolved into a fine dust, which started to blow away in the midnight breeze.
By the time Anatole had finished retrieving his weapons, the sound of police sirens in the distance reached his enhanced senses. By the time the police cars arrived on the scene, he was long gone.
"Shipped himself to Budapest three days ago," Bertrand Lombard answered.
"I hear Yuri killed two thralls and demolished half his haven when he heard that Inge's prey had not only eluded her, but killed her and skipped town." The man in black smiled.
"Indeed," Lombard replied, "He's likely to be even more insufferable that usual for a few months. The look on his face alone was worth it." Lombard chuckled.
"Vashnivski, will he serve for the purposes I have in mind?"
Lombard waited a minute before replying, "Yes, he will. If you approach him the right way."
"Or, more to the point: get him to approach you. Keep in mind that by even your standards, he's little more than a mewling child. He still thinks like a mortal."
"Specifically, he thinks like a vampire hunter. The first thing any competent vampire hunter drills in to his pupil's head is 'Never act alone. Always have a support network, if not actual reinforcements.' He can't call on his Church contacts anymore, so he'll be looking to establish a new support network. Let it reach his ears that you can provide it, and he'll come to you. Make your price reasonable to his eyes, and he'll bite." Lombard chuckled, amused with his own use of the word bite."Los Angeles has one of the largest vampiric communities in the world." the man in black noted. "Since he still thinks of himself as a vampire hunter, he will find his way there eventually. I can be patient."
Lombard smirked. "I heard your old enemies were back together. But I believed they were in New York..."
"You expect me to just attack them immediately? For shame, Bertrand..." the man in black laughed. "It is to my advantage, however, that Vashnivski has his own history with them. It will make using him all the more satisfying..."
"Agree to support his vendetta," Lombard continued, "and come through on a few promises. That should be enough to compel his sense of honour that he'll serve you well enough."
"And if he ends up getting killed in the process? You'll lose a tool in your war on Baron Vashnivski." The man in black asked.
"No matter," Lombard said. "He's centuries away from being of any real account in that. I suspect him dying before he could fulfill whatever use Igor has in mind for him would be victory enough, at any rate."
"Sacrifice a pawn for nothing more than principle? That doesn't sound like any son of Tremere I've ever met. You have another angle at work, don't you?", the man in black said, a sly grin crossing his face.
Lombard laughed. "Of course I do. But as a good son of Tremere, I know you and the followers of Tytalus well enough to not tell you EVERYTHING."
As usual, much of the vampire lore in this story is based on that of White Wolf Games' Vampire: The Masquerade from their "World of Darkness" (Version 1) line. Similarly, mention of "House Tytalus" is from their Ars Magica and Mage: The Ascension lines.