With the young woman's shriek of raw-throated terror still reverberating through his mind, Trent Rivoh stared at the violent ritual being enacted before him. The mud-splattered environs of late night Ashton became a canvas for a scene no rational man would care to paint. Compared to the spectacle of an actual blood runner pack in the final stages of a hunt, all the descriptions, dramatizations, and details Trent had heard, seen, or read dwindled into pale reflections of reality.
A fisted blow severed the screams of the red-haired victim and drove her to the wet, cracked pavement. Hands scraped red propped her up on thin, delicate arms. Her sweat-limp hair hung down like a bedraggled curtain. It obscured her features in the shadows cast by a nearby street lamp.
Reflexively, Trent drew back a fraction of a step into the precarious safety of the littered alley where he hid. From there, he observed the actions of the man he had stalked for the past three days.
A well-muscled figure pushed through the gathering mob. Most of that score-plus of on-lookers regarded the newcomer with looks which revealed a mix of emotions Trent found both instructive and puzzling. Fear, respect, love...hate... Yet those hard featured criminals parted for the man without vocal comment.
While the evident leader of this pack evoked a panoply of reactions, Trent knew that person held the reins of power firmly in the grip of his large hands. The incongruous shock of blond hair topping his handsome head only added to the contrast his dusky skin produced.
"Stand aside, Brend," the man said.
The tall, bulky individual who had struck the trembling woman's forehead raised his gaze. As though mesmerized by the vision of his huddled prey, Brend blinked and then slowly nodded an acknowledgement. Shuffling away a few steps, he followed every movement of his superior. His dark brown eyes lit with the fires of inspiration and devotion.
The blood runner leader knelt beside the still dazed woman. A shudder racked her fragile frame when the man caressed her bare right arm.
"Don't be afraid, dear," the leader said solicitously. "It'll all be over soon."
The woman made no overt reply to those assurances.
A low rumble rattled the late night air. Automatically, Trent glanced skyward. Moon-flecked clouds drifted east, chased by a rising wind. The respite from the rain which had provided him his present opportunity now threatened to abort his quest. Lowering his gaze, he silently urged the pack to be about its unsavory business so he could begin his.
Gingerly, the blood runner cupped the woman's chin in one palm and forced up her head. Briefly, she kept her gaze averted. When her captor remained mute, however, she lifted her lids. With twin trails of tears streaming down her smudged cheeks, she stared into the blue eyes of the one whose presence alone sustained her life.
"What's your name?" the blood runner asked, smiling gently. Patiently, he waited.
The woman's full lips parted then closed. After a pause, she opened them again.
"Fandel." The word rasped in her throat. "My name's Fandel."
The blood runner's smile beamed brighter. "Fandel." Lightly, he stroked her hair, pushing it back and away from her haunted, reddened eyes. "My name is Ventin. Ventin Nahr. I'm glad to meet you."
Renewed energy animated Fandel as she searched the face of the man speaking so pleasantly before her. Her gaze darted about, taking in the less savory characters surrounding her in an impenetrable web. A glimmer of hope sparkled in her wide, innocent eyes.
Trent dug his nails into his palms. Briefly, he squeezed out the drama unreeling before him. He had yet to fathom any purpose beyond the most cruel sadism for what Ventin said and did.
How can I go through with this? Trent asked himself yet again.
"Are you...are you going to let me go?" Fandel's tremulous query sliced through Trent's self-doubts. His eyes popped open in sudden resolve.
No matter how unpleasant the task before him, he had to proceed. He had made a decision. The time had come to follow up his words with actions.
In any event, he knew he could not continue living as he had been. One way or another, things had to change.
With a lingering touch, Ventin drew a fingertip along the graceful line of Fandel's jaw. "I wish I could," he whispered with regret. "I truly wish I could."
Confusion scrambled the tenuous trust dawning in Fandel's features.
In one smooth sequence, Ventin stood, signaled Brend with a quick twist of a hand, and strode towards the periphery of his followers' circle. Folding his arms, the blood runner leader spread his legs in a challenging stance and waited for the remainder of the ritual.
Eagerly, Brend obeyed the unspoken command.
With an adrenaline-charged reaction, Fandel stumbled to her feet and bolted clumsily for safety.
Brend's hulking size and viscous mental processes, however, did not extend to his physical reflexes. Before Fandel had fully gained her feet, he engulfed her wrists in his scarred hands.
In a reversal of her earlier paralysis, Fandel squirmed and yanked and kicked with all her might. Yet despite the blood and bruises her desperate assault inflicted on the shins of the blood runner, she could no more escape than if she had been held bound in the iron embrace of manacles and chains.
Ignoring the struggles of the petite woman, Brend transferred her wrists to one paw and pulled twin cords from a tattered pocket of his knee-length shorts.
Fandel's eyes widened at the dull, red-brown stains discoloring the cords. There could be no doubt that Brend had performed his duties many times before.
With a surprising deftness, he wrapped one cord around Fandel's wrists and tied it tightly enough to bite into the thin flesh. As easily as he might handle a baby, he swept the woman's legs from under her and lowered her to the street. Placing a massive palm upon the small mounds of her breasts, he held her pinned while he bound her legs.
When Fandel continued to resist, the blood runner frowned and leaned on his arm. The mounting pressure compressed his prisoner's lungs. Only when her scissoring limbs quieted did he ease up. Before she could fully revive, Fandel found her ankles lashed together with expert speed.
Shifting uneasily, Trent steeled himself as best he could for what came next.
From the back of the murmuring crowd, a hissing sigh of pleasure rose in time with another round of approaching thunder.
The blood runners slipped to either side as the owner of that sibilant voice approached the prone figure of the chosen prey. Trent noted the wrinkled noses and expressions of disgust rippling across the otherwise unsympathetic visages arrayed before him. He fully shared in that emotion...perhaps the only feeling he would unashamedly claim in common with these hardened thugs.
An icy river of...fear?...revulsion?...hatred?...trickled through him as a diminutive creature came into view.
Though the alien interloper walked on two feet, it...he...nevertheless gave the impression of...slithering...as it...he...moved towards the center of attention.
Skeletal and nearly hairless by human standards, the Xaneer provoked an almost instinctive reaction of loathing and avoidance. Its...his...vile aura of slimy strangeness exuded from his presence in an almost palpable cloud. The only two blood runners seemingly unaffected were Ventin and Brend. The former stood rigid and stony faced yet tracking the alien with sharp-eyed intensity every moment.
The latter, however, greeted the Xaneer with an enthusiasm which rendered him oblivious to the negative responses of his fellow pack members. A joyous ecstasy suffused Brend's beefy face as the Xaneer lowered his knobby knees to the glimmering concrete.
With studied concentration, the alien scrutinized the woman who lay spread out before him, white-eyed and sweating. The pungent scent of escalating horror permeated the heavy air.
Brend rested his hands on his thighs and leaned forward. "Is it all right, Zilvan?" he stage-whispered in concern. "Will she do?"
The alien dismissed the questions with a curt nod and a wave of a bony hand.
"Quiet. Need quiet while performing the celebration of life." The cryptic words came more as a gentle reminder and remonstrance than any serious rebuke.
Trent swallowed dryly. Time remained for him to slip away, unnoticed. He could vanish into the void of the city night. There he could resume the vaguely unpleasant yet relatively undemanding path he had followed for so long. The only person he had to convince was himself. No one else would know.
No one but himself.
Yet if he planned to alter his current goal, he had to act quickly. Once the Xaneer commenced with the ritual, it would be too late. Trent knew he could never tear himself away after observing the Xaneeri "celebration of life." Once that event transformed from a second-hand abstraction to a first-person concrete reality, he would have to make his move no matter how dire the consequences.
All that he believed, all that defined him, would permit no other course.
With subliminal awareness, he catalogued his rising respiration, his frozen limbs, his racing pulse. His primary focus, though, remained on the players before him. A whimpering, nibbling inner voice urged him to turn and run, to avoid all he would soon have to endure, to seek a different venue for the urges goading him onward. Another dusty corner of his mind warned him that if he retreated even so much as an inch at this juncture, he would be in rout for the rest of his miserable life.
Brend pursed his lips closed at Zilvan's admonition. Respectfully, he folded his hands and held his peace.
The celebration of life had begun.
The lone Xaneer opened his eyes, erasing whatever bizarre realm he contemplated in the twilight corridors of his imagination.
His elongated, four-jointed fingers dangled above the smooth skin of Fandel's body like spiders at the end of their webs. The thick, pointed nails tipping those digits skittered lightly along Fandel's torso in a complex pattern of lines and swirls.
Trent strained to catch the alien's low throated chant.
"Once more, great Creator," Zilvan began, "you bring us together to celebrate the union of your spirit and your flesh. The Unity of which we partake and in which we are fully enmeshed guides us in all we do."
Numbly, Trent noted Brend's silent mimicry of all the Xaneer pronounced. With the dedication of a fully enthralled acolyte, the ungainly disciple copied the movements of his role model.
"Each of us follows the path you have laid before our feet. Each of us performs the actions you require of us, your servants, in the fulfillment of your grand design. Each of us separate yet together in the web of life acknowledge the completeness of your being and the wholeness of our collective existence."
Trent winched at the pain throbbing in his chest. His stomach knotted and twisted in sick anticipation of what he knew must next transpire. Desperately, he wanted to shutter his eyes against the surreal scene. Resolutely, he refused to break the connection with the innocent woman whose tears flowed down her face and added to the moisture on the sidewalk on which she lay. Though he possessed no weapons to save her, he would not abandon her now.
Without breaking his rhythm, Zilvan straightened an arm and clasped Fandel's right wrist in an unforgiving grip.
"As cells in your body," Zilvan said with rising force, "we function in the cooperative spirit which embodies the essence of your world. What matters if we are transformed from one shell into another? What matters if we surrender the burden of awareness and the illusion of identity for the serenity of simple being? What truly matters is the sustenance we offer one another, the life-affirming energy which is never lost but merely exchanged from one aspect of your self -- our self -- to another. The gift you offer us is immortality. It is a boon we grant ourselves as we acknowledge the closing of the great circle encompassing and binding us in a never broken linkage. The honor and pleasure we give ourselves is nothing more nor less than a mirror image of the honor and pleasure we give you."
Brend nodded vigorously as Zilvan moved a hand up Fandel's creamy forearm to her elbow.
"Here we engage in that renewal of flesh and spirit," Zilvan intoned, "that joining of the physical and the unseen made possible by your all-pervasive nature. We are all merely facets and manifestations of the same magnificent jewel that is you. It could be no other way."
With a swift deftness which caught Trent by surprise, the Xaneer drew the sharp nail on his index finger along the vein throbbing in Fandel's arm. A smooth wash of brilliant blood flooded across the woman's arm. Quickly, Zilvan lowered his head and covered that crimson sheet with his uncannily broad mouth.
It took all of Trent's self-control not to succumb to the insistent demands of his troubled stomach. He thanked the prescience which had kept him from food for the past day. Only that fortuitous precaution prevented him from doubling over and heaving the contents of his belly onto the ground.
As it was, the bile founting in his stomach boiled towards his throat. The pressure pushing against his chest imitated the early signs of a cardiac arrest.
He almost wished for such an attack: it would relieve him of any responsibility to act on what he had just witnessed.
Despite Trent's hope that she would throw off the vampiric alien feeding on her blood, Fandel did not resist. With the passivity of a prey captured beneath the claws of some ravenous carnivore, she had retreated into the catatonic state of someone who had reached her limit and passed beyond into some hazy, uncharted realm. With this predator, however, such an act of self-preservation would lead to the same ignominious demise. Fandel's mind might escape the full conscious experience of what Zilvan and the blood runners forced upon her. Her body would not.
Once Fandel's lids fluttered and closed, Zilvan lifted his face from her even paler flesh. Only a faint smear of blood on his lipless mouth marked the quenching of his obscene thirst. A yellowish, thin fluid oozed from the entry point he had made in his victim.
Fandel's chest rose in a barely perceptible rhythm as the Xaneer took her bound hands and swept them above her head. Slicing through her blouse with a precise flick of his hand, he parted her clothing to reveal her bare breasts and abdomen. Unobtrusively, he pushed down the top of her shorts until faint curls of dark pubic hair peeked above the belted top.
Despite the earlier warning, Brend stepped nearer and hunched down for a better view. Trent mentally cursed him for a fool and leaned against an alley wall for support.
With practiced skill, Zilvan drew a pointed nail in a straight line from the base of Fandel's sternum to the top of her pelvic girdle. Once more, shining blood flowed freely across the woman's flesh. Bit by bit, the Xaneer sliced away at the widening gap. Through skin and muscle and gristle, he bore deeper and deeper like some odd archaeologist revealing the sunken layers of the hidden past.
When at last he reached the open bowels of the hapless sacrifice chance had delivered to him, he paused to lick and suck the gore from his flexible fingers.
Trent's lips thinned in hatred and outrage. The contempt surging within him was inexpressible in mere words. Yet lurking under that indignation and resentment hovered a chill shell of fear, a fear of what he would feel if it were his body rather than Fandel's laying at the center of the blood runner's attention. And beyond that fragile barrier...? Relief that she rather than he had been selected for that evening's diversion.
With both hands cupped, Zilvan reached into the still-warm body cavity. A faint mist of steam shrouded his serene gargoyle face. Squelching sounds seemed to suck at his arms as he sought for his special trophies.
First one dripping hand then another emerged from the swiftly dying cavern. Long, looping strands of intestines swung between his arms like gory vines. With infinite respect, he placed them in a glistening mound beside the curving hip of their owner.
Again the Xaneer moved with an eye-defying speed. A few quick motions, and he grasped in his hands a slick liver and a bulbous kidney. Loudly and with evident relish, he tore away half of each organ with sharp teeth and consumed them in great gulps of pleasure.
Mouth smeared with the devastated relics of his triumph, he replaced the leftover portions of his repast. Only after he had returned the dirt-flecked viscera, as well, did he look up and make eye contact with Brend.
"The sharing is done. That which was her is now part of me, is now part of you. My self and hers become one. The connection is complete."
Stiffly, the Xaneer levered himself to his feet. Brend hovered nearby, ready to help but never quite daring to touch the source of his reverent adoration.
Holding up his blood painted hands, Zilvan turned to the riveted blood runners and concluded the ceremony in an oddly overpowering hiss of glory.
"Once more we see that none shall escape the center. We leave this portion of our self here," he said, waving towards Fandel's cooling husk, "so that others shall see evidence of our truth. Soon none shall oppose what they now do not understand. In one fashion or another, we shall all join together. The Creator is beneficent. The Creator is us. And we are him."
Dropping his arms to his sides, Zilvan shuffled away, evidently spent by the demands of his ordeal.
Without a sound, the blood runners parted for their alien ally. As they watched him retreat, they shifted uneasily, exuding the uncertainty of men who knew what to do yet refused to focus on the facts before them.
With a booming voice, Ventin broke the self-imposed spell spooking these agents of the night.
"All right. We're finished here." He glanced at the open-eyed corpse then looked hurriedly away. "That should keep our hairless little friend satisfied for awhile," he said hoarsely. "We'd best return home before some benighted agent of our beloved authorities stumbles upon us where he does not belong and --"
"Not yet!" Trent amazed himself in his ability to utter a word after what he had just witnessed. With shaking legs scarcely under his control, he advanced from the obscurity of the alley into the full illumination of the street.
Instantly, knives, vibra-blades, slit discs, and needlers magically appeared in each of twenty-plus hands. All but one.
Ventin raised a brow and stepped closer to this intruder. "So, street hopper. You come to join our recently departed friend, Fandel, perhaps?"
Trent did not follow the line of Ventin's pointing finger. The last thing he needed was a reminder of Fandel's mutilated, violated body. The image of what she had become had seared itself indelibly into the deepest folds of his memory. He knew without question those pictures would shred his sleep for years to come.
"I want to join you." He forced the declaration past his rebellious lips.
Scattered, raucous laughter greeted his statement. Ventin did not smile.
"You want to join us?" The leader of the blood runners lowered his gaze as he pondered that wild thought. "Why shouldn't we kill you? What do you have to offer that we couldn't obtain on our own?"
"I watched the Xaneer perform his ritual."
"And I'm still here."
Ventin nodded. "A good point. Many would fail such a task. Yet your physical appearance indicates you'd be more of a nuisance and a hindrance than a help. Perhaps I should just have Brend finish you off now," he said, clapping the big man on the shoulder. "It's been a long night."
As Brend stepped nearer in perplexed obediance, Trent held up a restraining hand. "I'm smart. I learn fast. I can interact with the general population when I have to."
Lightly, Ventin touched Brend's arm. "We rarely care to meet with polite society on their terms. We much prefer they be elevated to our level."
Trent licked his lips. He had not expected this much resistance. "I understand your skepticism. Frankly, though, I don't see why you're afraid of a lone street hopper."
Bristling murmurs and threats greeted his veiled challenge. Trent wondered how much longer he had left to live.
"We're not afraid of you," Ventin said with deceptive mildness. "Do you even own a weapon?"
Trent started to show his empty hands and shake his head. Instead, he raised a finger and touched it to his forehead. "This is my weapon."
"Let's see it stand up to my vibra-blade!" someone bellowed from the middle of the crowd.
Ventin smiled. "We seem to have doubters in our midst. How do you intend to make good your boast?"
Trent pointed a trembling finger at the heckler. "He makes my case for me." The warbling in his voice grated at his nerves. But his body wanted nothing more than to be far away from blood runners and Xaneeri and "celebrations of life."
"Go on...," Ventin said warily.
Trent risked a step forward. His knees held. "As long as you act only on the impulse of the moment as my unknown friend apparently prefers, you'll never achieve your goals."
Ventin's brows furrowed. "What do you know of our goals?" A hint of a threat pulsed beneath the surface of his even voice.
"I know you're tired of losing out on the wealth here in Ashton. I know the blood runner packs have grown in strength over the past two years. I know the pols are worried about the threat you represent to their control. I know most of all I want to be a part of something bigger than what you represent now."
A babble of voices erupted at Trent's litany.
"I'm still not convinced," Ventin said.
With conscious effort, Trent locked his gaze with that of the leader. "You can dribble away your opportunity for real power by grabbing for the bits and pieces the pols let slip through their fingers, snatching at the scraps like hungry but impotent dogs. Or you can play long term and organize and plan for a future that stretches further than tomorrow." He scanned those surrounding him. "Yes, you can kill me now with your vibra-blades," he said, "but in the end that momentary pleasure will gain you nothing. Don't destroy the seeds for your future. Plant them. Nurture them. Watch them grow into wealth and power far beyond what you currently enjoy. Seek wealth and power enough to rival even that of the pols. Don't abandon your potential by accepting the dregs they dole out to keep you quiet and compliant. In the long run, your greater brute strength will be no match against those who rely on their heads."
A few of the pack members laughed. Ventin quelled their reaction with a sharp glare.
Closing the distance between him and Trent, the blood runner said, "You have quite the smooth tongue, hopper. You echo my own thoughts. Yet you still don't show me why you care about the fate of the packs. What brings you here to risk so much?"
Though he had not intended it to happen, Trent felt hot tears coursing down his cheeks. He had little doubt about their true source. "I'm tired of being one of the hunted. I don't want to walk in fear of pols or packs or predators of any stripe. From now on, I want to be a hunter. From now on, I want to be one of you."
Taut silence greeted Trent's outburst. For a heart-thumping moment, he wondered if he had allowed his tirade to go too far.
Only when he blinked away the film blurring his eyes did he see the palm extended towards him.
"All right, hopper," Ventin said, shaking Trent's hand. "You're in. At least for now. Provisionally. You'll get your chance to prove yourself and your theory. The Creator help you, though, if you fail either me or us."
With all sincerity, Trent said, "I have no intention of failing."
Snapping his fingers at a nearby member, Ventin took the fellow's deactivated vibra-blade and slapped it on Trent's extended palm. The impact of the cold steel tingled the ex-street hopper's skin.
"Not that I'm questioning the awesomeness of that weapon you've got sheathed between your ears," Ventin said, grinning, "but if you're going to run with us, you'll need something a bit more concrete and immediate to use for protection." Lightly, he cuffed Trent's head. "Or else you'll never get a chance to wield that abstract and long-term weapon you carry so proudly."
Trent forced a weak grin as Ventin wrapped an arm across his shoulders and drew him closer.
"I'll show you myself," Ventin said, "how to be a blood runner. And you'll show me how you'd actualize those glorious words you spout so eloquently."
As Ventin maneuvered his newest member into the center of the pack, he paused. "Oh. By the way. What's your name?"
"Trent. Trent Rivoh."
The leader of the blood runner pack nodded absently. "Well, welcome, 'Trent Rivoh.' May your career be as auspicious as your beginning."
As Ventin introduced him to his new comrades in a whirlwind of half-glimpsed faces and half-heard names, Trent let his thoughts swirl around the ominous undercurrents tinging the world to which he now belonged. He had embarked on the first hesitant stage of his journey. A lingering question remained, however: would he survive to reach its end?
When the sky finally unleashed its load of moisture in a sheet of too-warm rain, Trent barely noticed its unsubtle portent.