“Well, damn. It’s too late now.” Dale Hunter watched the last rays of the sun disappear behind the western peaks and he was still nowhere near the Safe Zone. He might survive the night, but he had to bank on none of them picking up his scent, and it absolutely meant he couldn’t build a fire against the cold.
The sixty-three year old range walker had been tracking the Adversaries down in the wilderness outside the Safe Zone for over forty years, a full century after the first of them appeared. He’d only been caught out in the open twice before in all that time, once because he was young and had misjudging distance and timing, and the other because bad footing on a slope with loose rocks resulted in a twisted ankle. That first time, he’d gotten lucky, and when he was struggling to make it home that second time, something else happened entirely.
Tonight, he had been careless, and in his zeal to find one of the Adversary nests rumored to be hidden in one of the canyons below Pine Bluff, he’d gotten lost just long enough to delay his return. He never did find that nest.
“Good evening, Dale. It’s been a long time.” Just as before, her voice was like touching velvet and silk, or the warmth he felt after his first swallow of fine bourbon on a winter’s night. He figured it must have been close to midnight when she found him huddled under a pile of pine needles at the base of a tree trunk trying to stay awake.
“Hello, Raquel.” He didn’t move except to shake his head, causing his makeshift camouflage to tumble off his dark brown Stetson. “Sure has been a while.”
She stepped out of the shadows and into the pale light of a half-moon. Her hair and skin, as always with her kind, were nearly alabaster. The red and black checkered flannel shirt and blue jeans looked worn and threadbare, but otherwise she appeared exactly the way she did when he last saw her, like a girl of twenty. But that had been thirty years ago.
“You look cold. If you build a fire, I promise you’ll be safe. I told the others I knew you.”
“They know I’m here?”
“Oh, of course they do.”
“They didn’t the last time we met.”
“You were far from our places then. I found you only by accident, the little sounds you made while trying to walk on your hurt…knee wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right. Ankle. I’d been hunting and got lost. Lucky for you I had just dined and you didn’t seem that much of a threat.”
“Are you still curious? That’s why you talked to me last time, stayed with me, took care of me until it got too close to the dawn.”
While he spoke, she gathered stones and arranged them around a depression in the Earth. She was gathering wood when Dale finally decided to stand and brush off the rest of the needles.
“I thought we had an affection for each other.” She placed a number of dry branches in the center of the stones and added pine needles for kindling, then set the rest of what she had brought to one side.
“For one night.” He took off his rucksack and extracted a small box of matches from a side pocket.
“It’s a night I remember fondly. Naturally, I haven’t told anyone about it, well, not exactly.” She looked down and for an instant, he thought she looked shy or embarrassed.
He struck a match and cupped it in his hands as he squatted down and gingerly lit the needles. They burned rapidly, popping and shriveling as the wood slowly ignited. She sat down opposite of him at the nascent fire and when he was sure it wouldn’t go out, he sat as well.
“Neither have I. Can’t imagine what folks would think if I did.”
She placed a slender index finger up to her full, ivory lips. “Mum’s the word.” She paused for a pregnant moment “My love.”
“Where’s the rest of your pack?”
“Nearby. They don’t understand my interest in you, but in the intervening years, I have gained influence.”
“I’m next in line when the current mother dies.”
“So you’re not immortal.”
“No, just longer lived than your kind.”
“You realize that your people used to be my kind. Otherwise, how could we have…you know.”
“Made love, Dale. It’s okay to say it.”
“It was a strange night.”
“It was a wonderful night, my love. It’s alright if I call you that, isn’t it? You inspired feelings in me I thought I would never have. I haven’t forgotten.”
“I was a younger man back then.”
“You’re still a man, Dale.” Her shyness was gone, replaced by a subtle seductiveness in her voice and faint smile.
“Don’t know if we should tempt fate twice.” He took a larger branch from among those Raquel had gathered and added it to the flames.
“You were freezing. I had to keep you warm somehow.”
“I never thought of your kind as warm.”
She giggled like a teenager on a first date. “You found out otherwise, didn’t you?” She inhaled deeply from the smoke and he couldn’t help but notice the rise of her breasts under the wool shirt.
“I’m married now.”
“Oh, how wonderful, Dale. I’m happy for you. Children?”
“Four. Two grandchildren and a third on the way.”
“I’m glad you found someone to love. I hope she’s kind.”
“She has her moments.” He allowed himself a timid grin. It was the first time he’d truly let down his guard since she appeared.
“Dale…” She lowered her eyes, her voice becoming somber. “I didn’t come just for old time’s sake.”
“I had a feeling.” He heard a trace of bitterness in his voice he didn’t mean to express.
“I have to warn you. Today, you came very close to our nest, my nest. We detected your scent when we awoke. That’s how we were able to track you. When I recognized your spoor, I knew I had to see you alone. The others might have tried to harm you, maybe even kill you.
“Like I’ve been trying to kill you. Didn’t know it was your nest.”
“Would it have made a difference if you did? It’s your job to hunt my kind, to exterminate us.” Now she was the one sounding bitter.
“You would have done the same to us, at least before. We can only live in the Safe Zone anymore. As far as any of us know, we’re the only ones left.”
“That’s what I’ve come to tell you. We are going away. As soon as the Nest mother passes, I’ll lead the others to new hunting grounds, far from your home. You’ll be safe from us at last.”
“What about the other nests?”
My dearest Dale, how long has it been since any tracker has found a nest? You and the others have been far too efficient. There are no other nests, not for as far as we can hear and smell.”
“You know we’re only trying to protect ourselves.”
“When was the last time a human was attacked by an adversary?”
“I know what you’re going to say, but after the plague hit, killed off most of the human race and turned the rest into…into…you, your kind damn near slaughtered the remnant of immunes.”
“The disease drove us mad at first, the blood lust was uncontrollable. It was a kind of insanity, but once we adapted, we deeply regretted what we had done. Some of us committed suicide, either allowing ourselves to be found by trackers like you, or slitting our own throats, jumping off cliffs, anything rather than bear such horrid memories.”
“Most of you didn’t. You didn’t.”
“We didn’t ask for what happened to us, Dale. We have as much right to live as you do. So we live. We hunt game by night. We’re careful now to not over hunt a species, deer, antelope, rabbit. Like any predatory race, we live in balance with our environment. Tonight I came to tell you that we want to co-exist in peace.”
“How am I supposed to convince the others. The memory of those dark times runs deep. I can’t just tell them we had a conversation. Even if they believed me, they’d never trust me again.”
“Give us one week.” The Nest mother is close to her end. She’s given me her blessing. I’ll take the others far from here, out past the Pointed Peaks to the east. Our scouts say there’s plenty of game and your kind has no outposts or settlements there.”
“There are others?”
“We found a man once, five years ago. He’d been caught in a rock slide. Before he died, he said he was from the south. He was a ranger, part of a group who had been seeking out other human communities. Another nest had gotten to the rest of them, but he managed to escape, only to wander aimlessly before his accident.”
“Other humans. I had always hoped others had survived. But you just admitted not all the other nests were peaceful.”
“They wanted peace, we all do, but you kept hunting us. My Nest mother told us to avoid you if we could, but some of the other nests felt like killing you was their only defense. It’s over now. Only my nest is left.”
“One week. You’re sure?”
Claim the canyons and hills around Pine Bluff as your tracking grounds for the next week, ten days on the outside. I promise you after that, you won’t find us because we won’t be here.”
“Just avoid Bridge’s Canyon for the next seven to ten days.”
“I suspected. Ran out of time before I could check it out and well, you see I overstayed my time outside the Zone anyway.”
“I’m glad. I’ve missed you.”
He leaned over and picked up a log with both hands, then placed it on top of the dying fire. “I think of you sometimes. When the missus notices, she always asks what I’m smiling about.”
“I’m glad you remember me kindly, Dale.”
“Yeah. I was always afraid I’d find you again, you know, you’re nest.”
“Now you never will.”
“I welcome that, Raquel.”
“Is it okay if we sit together for a while longer. I can stay until an hour before dawn.”
“I don’t mind, but if I don’t get some sleep soon, I’m going to fall over. Like I said, I’m not a young man anymore.”
“Then rest in peace, my love. I promise to watch over you in your slumber, tending the fire. I still remember how you snore in your sleep.” She smiled again as if they were sharing a secret.
He chuckled. “Missus says the same.”
“I’ll gather more wood while you get out your sleeping roll.” Raquel stood up, her eyes glistening crimson by the firelight.
Dale rose and they regarded each other over the flames for a few minutes. Then they embraced, and Raquel allowed herself one small kiss on his neck, savoring the flavor of his sweat and his odor which pleasantly mixed in with the smoke. Then for the rest of the night, the Vampire Queen sat and listened to her lost love breathe as he slept under the branches of a tall fir. And when he awoke at the first rays of dawn, he was alone again with the hope that someday his children’s children would meet her and her kind and together, as allies, reclaim a decimated Earth.
I wrote this for Thursday photo prompt: Setting #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to use one of Sue’s original photos as the prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or other creative work.
I don’t know if you’d call this one a horror story, a romance story, or a look into a dystopian future. Not much action going on, but I wanted to paint a portrait of a world where even the vampires are human. It all started when I saw the photo and imagined a man having not made it home before the sun set.