— Posted in Always into Darkness, The Master Race, Vampire Noir

The Master Race, Chapter 01

In the Beginning

Haven is a dark city.

The narrow streets huddle together. The plain stone and timber buildings lean on each other for support. Out leaning upper stories bow to each other like tired old men shutting out the light but, even in the shadows there is little relief from the midsummer heat. The glaring suns scorch down on the sprawling city, driving all moisture from the air. The streets are parched and dusty, and thick with the buzzing flies. Being a seaport, Haven usually gets all the rain it wants, and then some, but not in midsummer. The long days wear on, and the baking heat makes them a misery of sweat and thirst and endless fatigue. The days are too hot for work and the nights are too hot for brawling. Birds hang on the sky like drifting shadows, but there is never a trace of a cloud or a breeze. Haven at midsummer is a breeding ground for trouble. The heat stirs men’s minds and brings forth hidden evils. Everyone watches the sky and prays for rain, and still the long dry summer drags on.

Hawk and Fisher, captains in the city Guard, stroll unhurriedly down Chandler Lane, deep in the rotten heart of the North Side. It’s much too hot to hurry. The grimy overshadowed lane is a little cooler than most, which means that the heat is only unbearable. Flies hover over piles of garbage and swarm around the open sewers. The squat and ugly buildings are black with soot from the nearby tannery, and the muggy air smells strongly of smoke and tannin.

Hawk is tall, dark, and no longer handsome. He wears a black silk patch over his right eye, and a series of old scars run down the right side of his face, showing pale against his tanned skin. He wears a simple cotton shirt and trousers, but doesn’t bother with the black Guardsman’s cloak required by regulations. It’s much too hot for a cloak, and anyway, he doesn’t need one to tell people he’s Guard. Everyone in Haven has heard of Captain Hawk.

He doesn’t look like much. He’s lean and wiry rather than muscular, and he’s beginning to build a stomach. He wears his dark hair at shoulder length, swept back from his forehead and tied with a silver clasp. He has only just turned thirty, but already there are a few streaks of grey in his hair. At first glance he looks like just another bravo, not as young as he once was, perhaps a little past his prime. But few people stop at the first glance; there is something about Hawk, something in his scarred face and single cold eye that gives even the drunkest hardcase pause. On his right hip Hawk carries a short-handled axe instead of a sword. He is fair to midland with a sword. He is very good with an axe.

Captain Fisher walks at Hawk’s side, echoing his pace and stance with a naturalness of long companionship. Isobel Fisher is tall, easily six feet high, and her long blonde hair falls to her waist in a single plait. She is in her mid to late twenties and very beautiful – like a painted lady of the stage – an actress.

There is harshness to her pretty face that complements her deep blue eyes and generous mouth. Like Hawk, she is wearing a cotton shirt and trousers. The shirt is half-buttoned to show a generous amount of bosom, and her shirt sleeves are rolled up, revealing arms that firm and fit, like the rest of her supple body. You’d expect her arms to be corded with muscle and lined with old scars. The arms, like the body, look like they belong to a dancer, instead of an experienced swordswoman. She wears a sword on her slim hip, and her hand rests comfortable on the pommel.

Hawk and Fisher; partners, husband and wife, guardians of the city law. Known, respected, and mostly feared throughout Haven, even in the lowest Northside, where the very rats go around in pairs for safety. Hawk and Fisher are the best, and everybody knows it. They are honest and hardworking, a rare combination in Haven, but more important still, they are dangerous.

Hawk looks about him and scowls slightly. Chandler Lane is deserted, with not a soul in sight, and that is … unusual. The afternoon is fast turning into evening, but even so there should be people out selling and buying and making a deal. On the lower Northside everything is for sale, if you know where to look. But all around, the doors and shutters are firmly closed despite the stifling heat, and the shadows lay still and undisturbed. It’s like looking at a street under siege. Hawk smiles sourly. If his information is correct, that just might be the case.

“There’s going to be a full moon, tonight,” Fisher says quietly.

Hawk nods. “That’ll bring out the crazies. Though how anyone has the energy even to plan a crime in this heat is beyond me.”

“You do realize that this is probably nothing more than a wild goose chase, don’t you?”

“Not again, Isobel, please. The word is that she’s hiding right here, at the end of the street. We have to check it out.”

“Three months,” Fisher says angrily. “Three months we’ve been working on that child prostitution racket. And just when we’re starting to get somewhere, what happens? The word comes down from above, and we get pulled off the case to go looking for a Nosferatu!”

“Yeah, Hawk says. “And all because we raided the Nag’s Head. Still, I’d do it again, if I had to.”

Fisher nods grimly.

The Nag’s Head is a hole-in-the-wall tavern on Salt Lane, just on the boundary of the Eastside slums. The upper floor is a brothel, and the word was that they were interested in acquiring children. Cash in hand, no questions asked. Child prostitution has been illegal in Haven for almost seven years, but there are still those with a vested interest in keeping the market open. Like many other places, the Nag’s Head keeps itself in business by greasing the right palms, but one man made the mistake of trying to buy off Hawk and Fisher. So they had paid the place a visit.

The bravo at the door tried to bar their way. He was either new in town, or not particularly bright. Hawk gave him a straight-finger jab under the sternum. The bravo’s face went very pale and he bent slowly forward, almost as though he was bowing to Hawk. Fisher waited till he was bent right over, and then she rabbit-punched him. The bravo went down without a murmur. Hawk and Fisher stepped cautiously over him, kicked in the door, and burst into the Nag’s Head with cold steel in their hands.

The staff and patrons took one look at them and a sudden silence fell over the crowded room. Smoke curled on the stuffy air, and the watching eyes were bright with fear and suppressed anger. Hawk and Fisher headed for the stairs at the back of the dimly lit room, and a pathway opened up before them as people got hurriedly out of their way.

Three bravos crowded together at the foot of the stairs with drawn swords. They were big, muscular men with cold, calculating eyes, who knew how to use their swords. Hawk cut down two of them with his axe while Fisher stabbed the third cleanly through the heart.

They stepped quickly over the bodies and pounded up the stairs. The upper floor was ominously quiet. Hawk and Fisher charged along the narrow landing, kicking open doors as they went, but most of the occupants were long gone, having disappeared down the fire escape at the first sound of trouble.

One of the prostitutes hadn’t been able to get away. Hawk found her in the next to last room. She was dressed in torn silks that were too big for her, and wore gaudy colors on her face. She was chained to the wall by the throat, and her back ran red from the wounds of a recent whipping. She sat slumped against the wall, her face pressed against the rough wood, crying softly, hopelessly. She was almost twelve years old.

Fisher joined Hawk in the doorway, and swore angrily as she took in the scene. The chain was too heavy to break, so Hawk levered the bolt out of the wall with his axe. Fisher tried to comfort the child, but she was too frightened to say much. She’d been abducted in the street two years ago, and had been brought to this room. Her abductors put the chain around her neck and locked it.

“There’s a man who comes to visit me,” she said quietly. “He was here, today. He’ll never let me go. You can’t protect me from him. No one can. He’s important.”

She didn’t know his name. No one ever told her their name.

Hawk and Fisher never did find out who he was, but he must have influence. Only two days later, the child was stabbed to death in the street. Her attacker was never found. Hawk and Fisher were officially taken off the case and sent to join the other Guards searching for the supposed Nosferatu that was terrorizing the Northside. They raised hell with their superiors, and even talked about quitting the Guard, but none of it did any good. The word had come down from somewhere high above, and there was no arguing with it. Hawk and Fisher had shrugged and cursed and finally gave up. There would other times.

Besides, it seems like there really is a Nosferatu. Men, women, and children have been attacked at night, and occasionally bodies are found with no blood left in them. There are dozens of sightings and as many suspects, but none of them has led anywhere. And then a lamplighter had come to see Hawk, and there was no denying the horror in his voice as he told Hawk and Fisher of the dark figure he’d seen crawling up the outside of the house in Chandler Lane …

“All the Guards in Haven, and that man had to choose us to tell his story to,” Fisher grumbles. “Why us?”

“Because we’re the best,” Hawk says. “So obviously we’re not afraid to tackle anything. Even a Nosferatu.”

Fisher sniffs. “We should have settled for second best.”

“Not in my nature,” Hawk says easily. “Or yours.”

They chuckle quietly together. The low, cheerful sound seems out of place in the silence. For the first time Hawk realizes just how quiet the empty street is. It’s like walking through the empty shell of some village abandoned by its people but not yet overgrown by the forest. The only sound is his and Fisher’s footsteps, echoing dully back from the thick stone walls to either side of them.

Despite the heat, Hawk feels a sudden chill run down his back, and the sweat on his brow is suddenly cold. Hawk shakes his head angrily. This is no time to be letting his nerves get the better of him, he thinks.