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Under Watchful Eye

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The night sky lit with a golden glow and all at once was dark again. A sound like thunder rumbled at a distance not so far. The ground shook as if something subterranean lurking beneath was spurred to waking. The Blitz they called it, foreign airships devastating the city with nightly bombing raids. Most citizens had fled the city for years now for safer towns—especially the children—and so too, Jonathan found, had vampires.

No refuge guaranteed safe passage through the daylight hours. The landscape of the city was constantly changing as buildings were obliterated at random. Explosions and cleansing fire turned dwellings and vampire alike into kindling. The war was not kind to anyone.

The last time Jonathan Reid walked these city streets it shocked him that his beloved London had become a stranger. A scant few decades more flew past and now he could barely recognize it. It was like a painting that had been left out in the elements: torn, dirtied, and yellowing with time. The only familiarity to his last visit was the anxiety in the air and the dreadful silence that had settled into every block. How much he wished to recall the warmth and belonging of a place that in his youthful years he had once called home.

Jonathan returned from America to London with a confident and perhaps naïve impulse that he could help his people, though he could not truly count himself among them anymore. He was still a doctor of course, and though his beloved surgery continued to illude him as such a bloody affair, he thought he could assist in other ways. If not medical research as in the past, then hands-on support for his countrymen—at least do something. The call to be useful, to make a positive impact had called to him since his youth when he decided to study medicine; now the pull was something he clung to as the last vestiges of his human-seeming emotion.

During the pandemic he had discovered a myriad of ways to aid everyday people, many involving his knowledge and listening skills. These ideas were useless upon realizing the severity of the situation upon his return. The news reported to the states painted a picture of an England catered to the American appetite for honor in war: Londoners as a people who fought and carried on stoically regardless of lives taken and violence besieged upon them. Seeing the demolition for himself turned the pit of Jonathan’s stomach colder. Empty districts wouldn’t whisper him secrets or want for medical assistance. The residents weren’t barring their doors and hiding inside awaiting the right plying questions to invite him in. Many had fled to other cities, more still relocated towards the war effort, any remaining left their homes when darkness fell to assist in combatting the nightly raids.

Jonathan hadn’t expected fanfare at his arrival or even acknowledgement of his help, but he had expected to be of use somehow. He found himself hopelessly alone, wandering the streets, an ironic anachronism of himself, chasing his own shadow from twenty years past. His beloved country felt different, but introspection told him the same was true of himself.

By all rights of science and reason he was dead, and should have long been buried beside the rest of his family. Perhaps that is why his feet took him to the graveyard in Whitechapel. The headstones were weary and weather-beaten but still stood, preserved in time just as he was. Old memories stirred to life in Jonathan’s mind as his fingers traced the edges of the old headstones, but they felt distant and could not reach his heart with the same horror as when he was newly turned. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that revelation. A perfectly timed interruption rescued him from considering it further.

Someone approached, their pulse steady, unhurried and unafraid. Jonathan looked over his shoulder, expecting a fellow citizen paying their respects to the dead. The broad silhouette that cut through the foggy night surprised him. The voice that followed was all too familiar.

“Funny seeing you here. Bit on the nose, isn’t it.” Geoffrey McCullum’s particular mocking tone hadn’t changed one measure. His body, on the other hand, showed age. Lines traced his features, crisscrossing his brows and eyes. Deep-set creases punctuated his mouth from scowling. His hair had gone peppered, grey and thin, silver strands reflecting the moonlight. As he approached he walked with a slight limp on his left he was trying to hide. Nevertheless, a flash of steel beneath his coat proved that McCullum was still heavily armed in his never-ending fight against the creatures of darkness.

“Still patrolling the graveyard at night, McCullum?” Jonathan asked graciously.

“Remember me well, do you?” Jonathan certainly remembered him more than what guilt felt like. McCullum chuckled with derisive humor, and did not come too close. “Had to see for myself. I have boys all over this town. There’s not a leech that gets in without my knowing. Certainly didn’t expect it to really be you, Dr. Reid.”

“Sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you. I hadn’t thought the Guard of Priwen would be concerning itself with the supernatural now, considering the circumstances.” His words seemed to curdle McCullum’s expression.

“Protecting this city is always my business, always will be. Why did you even return? And where is your Lady Ashbury? Thought you were both gone for good, and me glad of it.”

Jonathan hadn’t anticipated that raw wound to be needled at, and his face must have shown it, because McCullum’s hardened with wariness in response. Years of research and work proved ultimately fruitless, and what had started as a young Ekon’s affections turned bitter. Jonathan stared into cold blue eyes that anticipated attack without flinching, and found the provocation more alluring than the memories his words had awoken. The hunter’s instincts spurred Jonathan’s own towards confrontation. Jonathan clenched his teeth and wrestled down the impulse.

“I have no reason to fight with you McCullum. Don’t give me one.”

“So quickly you turn from playing nice, Doctor.” McCullum scoffed, seemingly pleased with putting Jonathan off-kilter. “Beneath those fancy clothes, more beast than man now more than ever, isn’t that right?”

Before Jonathan could respond the air thrummed with noise. An arc of fire like the rising sun split the darkness. A bomb spiraled down towards the graveyard, surely ricocheted from a more viable target.

It was far too close. There wasn’t a moment to think. Jonathan moved instinctually with preternatural speed. He latched onto McCullum around the shoulders and rushed them both out of range and onto a stone walkway that overlooked the entirety of the graveyard. In a mortal blink the projectile incinerated the ground in a blast of fire and ash, turning gravestones and fencing into shrapnel where they had stood.

McCullum jolted back, but was stopped by the wall of Jonathan’s chest. He made a noise in his throat like he was holding back nausea, but his arm whipped up; the point of an arrow in the crossbow strapped to his arm found the underside of Jonathan’s jaw. The danger Jonathan should have considered was greatly overshadowed by dark satisfaction as he heard McCullum’s heartbeat thunder with fear and confusion. The scent of his sweat and the sweet, hearty blood that lay just beneath his skin kept Jonathan lingering close, hands still on his shoulders. He gulped in thirst, his adam’s apple bobbing against the killing edge of the silver arrow. Their momentary stalemate dragged on as McCullum caught his breath, and Jonathan listened to every slowing beat as if the warmth of it were nestled in his own ribcage.

McCullum shoved him back and Jonathan let him go, though they were still standing within reach.

“Bloody hell, you don’t do that to a person!” McCullum sputtered. Though apparently agitated in demeanor, his body was once more regulated so soon after the shock; Jonathan expected nothing less from the sturdy constitution of a man who spent most of his life facing down horrors unswayed. He could smell no sickness or weakness in his blood, but it was obvious McCullum was not the young man he used to be. Jonathan found it somehow endearing, and could not prevent the teasing in his tone.

“All your years of chasing us, haven’t you ever wondered how it felt?” McCullum’s expression twisted with anger, but his eyes held curiosity, Jonathan thought. “I suppose you’ve never had a friend who was a vampire.”

“We’re no friends, you and I.”

“I suppose not. Though, you are close as it gets for one of my ilk. A familiar face is quite hard to come by.” The sad truth dipped Jonathan’s inflection. He moved to the edge of the stone railing and regarded the graveyard from their perch. Gravestones lay damaged and broken; deceased locals, their bodies decaying in the earth, the marks they made on the world and record of their names all quickly returning to dust. “Memories are fleeting things, as are their symbols. Soon too, you, McCullum.”

Jonathan expected fear or worry when he looked back to gauge McCullum’s reaction. He found only stony certainty. Jonathan felt a pang, wishing he had been able to meet his own death with the honor and determination that he presumed McCullum would. They were alike in so many ways, both with such stubbornness and conviction, lofty ideals of a life well lived. Jonathan was pleased that age seemed not to have changed the vampire hunter much at all. What things had he done in the intervening years? Did he have a family now, other connections to care for? Curiosity pulled at Jonathan, a welcome distraction from despair.

“Perhaps not friends, but should you decide we can be allies, I could be of use to this city, and to you,” Jonathan said quietly.

“A vampire—helping the Pridwen? Are you trying to be ridiculous? Unheard of,” McCullum spat.

“Perhaps not the Pridwen, no, but you, McCullum.” Jonathan pressed. “I have saved you twice now.” It obviously was a disconcerting thought for McCullum, judging by the twinge of his brows. With a deep breath and puff of the chest, McCullum found his confidence again.

“Why should I trust you at all,” he asked, venom in his voice.

Their eyes locked. Jonathan was so tempted to try and impress upon McCullum’s mind, to see if he had grown strong enough—perhaps the mortal’s older mind would finally show a crack in its steely defenses. The beast inside him longed for the challenge, a thrill tingling the back of Jonathan’s spine at the thought. He forced himself not to, resolving to speak fair and clearly: a conversation as men.

‘The enemy of my enemy…’ ” Jonathan started in contemplative sing-song, then sighed. “You know this place in ways I cannot hope to anymore. You know where my skills will be helpful to those in need.” He stepped towards McCullum, who did not flinch or waver. “I want to help. I want to protect anyone I can. You and I are still just trying to save this poor country in our own ways, aren’t we?” McCullum chewed on his thoughts visibly, the muscles in his jaw working, eyes flicking across his potential prey.

McCullum drew his silver sword from his side and stepped in close, nestling the blade between them, its wicked point tracing Jonathan’s cheekbone. He still had strength enough to wield that heavy steel one-handed, and his voice still held its own power. “I’ve seen what happens to the poor people of this country under the watch of all manner of evils. I know what your kind does unchecked well enough, leech,” McCullum said, “and I’ll have none of it.”

“Then find me something to do with my idle hands, McCullum,” Jonathan urged. “Under your watchful eye.”

The same confusion Jonathan recalled when he had spared this same vampire hunter years past shone in his blue eyes again. It could only take a guess to wager that most of his prey was not so intelligent or reasonable. In the years since and knowledge Jonathan gained of his plight and vampire kind, very few were so powerful either. McCullum stowed his weapon with a snort.

“That’s the only way you’re allowed to be in this city,” McCullum finally replied. He spoke with ice, as if it were a threat, but Jonathan could see him winding down. “There may be use for you. Dangerous work I’d rather not lose more men at.” Jonathan waited patiently for him to finish. “The moment I see you step out of line, I’ll be the one to personally burn you up and chop off your head.”

“I’ve no doubt,” Jonathan said pleasantly. He barely managed not to smile.

Without another word between them, they walked from the monuments of the dead back down the London streets where sturdy old buildings and piles of rubble stood side by side. Dr. Jonathan Reid followed Geoffrey McCullum and watched his back.