Stiltz – C. M. Stunich

Crouching in shadows is what I do best. One could even argue that I was born for it. A smirk curls my lips as I crouch at the end of the alley, my gaze focused on a man in a sharp suit and the pale-skinned girl sucking on his neck. Weird part is, she’s not the vampire in this scenario. Neither of them are. It’s the teenage girl leaning against the pole not ten feet away, watching the couple kiss and flirt on an empty street while she smokes a cigarette. How annoying, vampire nobility hunting like dhampir trash. With a grin, I grab the edge of the old brick wall, using the toes of my boots to climb up onto the roof. There are two dead bodies up here, and I’m about to add another. Of course, I didn’t kill the first two; she did. Pausing at the edge of the roof, I watch the teen finish her cigarette with a sigh, eyes locked on the couple as they break apart briefly and the woman taps something out on her phone. She’s probably calling a car, but there’s no way in hell the vamp girl is letting them get into it. A quick glance around shows me nobody’s looking, so I hop off the roof and land in a totally epic crouch. Yep. Even dhampir filth have some pretty neat tricks.

“Hey.” Just that one word, resonating with power, draws the vampire’s gaze around to mine. Her eyes catch mine and she frowns. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I’m asking loudly enough that she doesn’t have much choice. The couple’s already staring at us both with curious expressions, drawn to the irresistible pull in my words. If I were to amp it up a little, I could have them licking my feet. “What do you want?” the girl snarls, getting up close and personal with my face. She’s a fuck of a lot taller than I am—most blue-blood vamps are. I’ve never met a royal shorter than six feet. Hell, I’ve never met a vamp less than five-ten, period.

“I’m fucking busy.” “Oh, you looked it,” I promise, pointing up at the roof with my left hand. The darkhaired girl with the ice-blue eyes gives me a look and a sniff, wrinkling her nose as soon as she scents the human blood flowing beneath my inked skin. Being half-vampire and half-human totally blows. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about: your two friends upstairs.” Her smirk almost knocks my own off my face. It’s dripping with condescension and superiority. She thinks she walks on water, this chick, and she’s what? The third daughter of a low-ranking noble. Please. If this bitch is this bad, just imagine how a member of the royal family must act.

I’m barely allowed to look at upper management, let alone interact with them, but from what I can see from afar, they don’t impress me much. “Need help finding something to eat?” the girl asks me, canting her head to one side. Her silky black hair falls over one shoulder and her breathing just…stops. She’s undead, which is fine. The cockier they are, the harder they fall. There aren’t a lot of dhampirs out there that can do what I do, but I’m a firm believer in confidence. If I trust myself to accomplish a task, I’ll find the strength no matter what. Like killing an undead vampire royal. No problem. No problem at all.

Too bad I’m not a pureblooded vamp or I wouldn’t sweat so much when I lied to myself. Behind the vampire girl, a black car pulls up, the couple gets in, and it drives away. Uh-oh. I flick my attention back to my new friend. “Because I sure do,” the vamp drawls. “And dhampir blood is the fucking shit.” She lunges at me before I have the time to figure out a game plan. Crap. Usually these upper nobility types like to talk a lot before they start murdering. It’s sort of their thing.

Besides, aren’t I supposed to be the vampire hunter here? But this woman is determined, throwing herself into me with the force of a dump truck and knocking me onto the pavement so hard that my skull cracks and I see white spots in front of my eyes. Her sharpened canines plunge into my throat, and I groan at the sudden wash of hormones. Getting bitten by vamps sort of…rocks. Like, it feels amazing—even to a dhampir. I’ve been here, done this before though. Instead of sighing and relaxing into death’s embrace, the way nature intended, I grab Ethel—my .45 semi-auto with hollow-point ammo filled with rowan ash—and shove it into the vampire’s PINK velour sweat suit. Like, since when did the undead waltz around in Victoria’s Secret workout wear? Whatever happened to leather pants and velvet tube tops? Oh. That’s right. I’m wearing them.

I pull the trigger and a bullet rips through the girl’s middle, making her scream this anguished, echoing sound that bounces around the empty streets and sets off a car alarm. Fun fact: vampires are actually distantly related to faeries, banshee in particular. While a banshee’s cries can literally kill a person, a vampire’s just hurts like a bitch. Shoving the girl off, I send her rolling off the curb and then do my best to find my feet. It’s not easy, with all those pheromones poisoning my blood and whispering beautiful nonsense in my veins. I lift Ethel up and point it at the vamp, but in a flash, she’s gone, reappearing at my side and grabbing a handful of my hair. She throws me down hard enough that my knees crack, and I know with an awful sinking feeling I’ll be out late hunting healing supplies. And by healing supplies I mean sex and blood. Dhampirs heal unnaturally quick, but it’ll take longer than I can afford to be back at full strength. Sex and blood, however, can speed up the healing process immensely.

The sinking feeling in my stomach is because I doubt I’ll get any sleep in the next twenty-four hours. Vamps do business at night, party in the morning, and sleep in the bright light of day. I don’t have much choice but to live with their rules. Technically, I’m due back to the Family House at noon to get my orders from the human servants and give my report on tonight. Using my right hand, I spin the gun to the side and pull the trigger again, shooting the girl in the thigh. Vampires are tough motherfuckers, but that often puts them at a disadvantage when fighting me. They expect hand-to-hand combat and magical brawls. But hey, I’m half-human and my mom grew up in Texas so…I’m totally cool with a .45 in hand, something these arrogant undead assholes never expect. The girl shrieks again and stumbles back, her face that of a teenager.

But, since she’s dead, who knows how old she really is? Have you ever noticed how vampires in books and movies are always like two hundred years old? I bet that’s how old this shithead is—a nice, round, clichéd two hundred. Blood spatters the pavement behind her as I yank my blonde waves from her grip, hitting the ground with one palm and the knuckles of my other hand as I grip Ethel for dear life. Rowan ash keeps vampire wounds from healing without blood or sex to fuel the process. It won’t kill this girl, but all I’m trying to do is slow her down enough to get out my sword. Yeaaaaah, I carry a sword around. I’m all sorts of special. Using the brick wall of the nearest building, I haul myself up and turn around in time to fire off another shot into the vamp’s chest. Red and pink spray catches the streetlights overhead as she stumbles, and I step nimbly out of the way. Turning casually, I fire off four more shots into her back and watch without sympathy as she crashes to the pavement. If I let her, she’d drain me dry and dispose of my body along with the two humans on the roof.

Did I mention that vampires don’t need to kill to eat? In fact, most of the Family Houses provide willing participants to all but their lowest subjects—like their dhampirs, for example. The vampire groans and rolls over, bleeding everywhere. The red liquid drains down the sidewalk and over the curb, into the street in a ruby wave. “On sixteen counts of broken House Verenim covenants, I sentence you, Lenora of House Sullivan, to death.” I fire another shot into the woman’s head as she snarls at me, dropping her limp and lifeless to the pavement. Unsheathing the falchion blade from my back—this one’s name is Ricky Ricardo because I’m not a particularly inventive person—I set about the gruesome task of beheading a royal vampire. Welcome to a night in the life of Cameron Darke, dhampir, vampire hunter, and in desperate need of a drink. The Dragonfly is this seedy little bar not two blocks from my place, this shithole apartment above a Chinese restaurant called Dog Town. It’s surprising how many customers that place has considering the questionable use of the word ‘dog’ in their name, and the even more questionable state of their meat. I waltz into The Dragonfly at half-past eight, having disposed of the PINK-wearing vampire noble and her kills at the cemetery that’s two blocks in the opposite direction of my place.

Yeah, I live a charmed life—Chinese food, crappy twenty-four bars, and cemeteries all within walking distance! “Hey, Harry,” I say, slumping onto a stool and feeling confident in the knowledge that this is the sort of disgusting, underhanded joint where you can walk in with bloodstains on your clothes and nobody gives a fuck. “Morning, Cam,” the bartender, Harry, says, setting this bright green mixed drink in front of me with a grin. “I was waiting for you. Taste this one—I call it the Chameleon.” I wrinkle my nose. Harry fancies himself a mixologist, but I don’t have the heart to tell him that first off, his mixed drinks suck. Or second, that this dump is never going to be the sort of place where somebody orders a twelve-dollar drink called the Chameleon. “Watch this,” he continues, swirling the straw and turning the liquid from green to purple. Oh. That’s nice.

“Okay, this is now officially my favorite of your creations,” I say with a grin to match his. Lifting the drink up, I toast the air and then slip the thin red straw into my mouth. The issue with all of Harry’s drinks is that they basically taste like gin and tequila mixed…ugh. Okay, yup. This is the same as all the rest. I force myself to swallow, reminding my sore body that booze is booze and as a dhampir, I have to drink a fuck of a lot of it to get buzzed. “Yum,” I choke out and Harry slams his palm on the counter top with a whoop of triumph. I’m probably being a crap friend by not telling him the truth, but despite the ragged burn scars on his face and the permanent angry scowl plastered to his mouth because of them, Harry is not as tough as he looks. “Rough night?” he asks, frowning at a spatter of blood on my tattooed right arm. I glance over and noticed some gore stuck to my ghost girl tattoo, the one with the blank eyes and the tiger mask on her forehead.

“You could say that,” I hedge, grabbing a cocktail napkin as Harry fetches me a glass of water. I dip the corner in and then dab my skin clean. “Low-ranking noble with bad manners and a taste for dhampir blood.” I point at the bandage on my neck, but don’t touch it. If I do, it’ll release another wave of vamp pheromones and I’ll end up on my back on the dirty floor mid-orgasm. Yuck. It feels so violating, to come from an unwanted vampire bite. I hate it. Now, a willing vampire bite? With my partner fucking me at the same time? Ugh, heaven. Pure heaven.

If I had to choose a way to die, that’d be it for sure. “Looks like she gave you some trouble.” Harry gestures to my head and I reach up, cursing when my fingertips come away stained with blood. “Just a bit,” I scowl, wiping my fingers off on the napkin. I have a cracked skull and a massive migraine, a random assortment of bruises and scratches, and two fucked-up kneecaps. I need blood—preferably vampire blood—and sex. Maybe I can get both from the same person? Harry serves vamp blood on tap, but holy shit it’s expensive, and I’ve been poor since birth. My mother did the best she could, but I’ve never had a goddamn cent to my name. The only reason I’m here drinking at all is because Harry gives booze to me for free. Five years ago, right after my mother was murdered and just before I started working for the Verenim Family House, I literally stumbled on Harry getting his throat torn out by another dhampir.

I saved his life and got free alcohol for the rest of mine. Pretty sweet deal. Also, Harry’s half-ogre and half-human, so I’m fairly certain he’ll outlive me. Not because ogres generally live longer than vampires, but just because they’re peaceful, hardy, and stay out of trouble. Vamps…they stir shitstorms up for fun. “Any prospective fucks in here tonight?” I ask and Harry laughs, straightening his white t-shirt and casting a look over my shoulder that says he’s totally scoping out a girl to take home when his co-owner and best friend takes over bar tending duties at noon. We’re on opposite schedules, Harry and me. He ends work at noon and I start it. I like that since it means he’s always around to give me my free drinks. “There’s a beautiful ogre girl I wouldn’t mind taking home,” he grumbles, and I do my best not to cringe.

Ogre girls never want to go home with Harry. Since he’s a half-breed, he’s also about half the size. Half the size. And that includes below the belt, apparently. I’ve never seen for myself, but I have heard from a few disgruntled ogre women. If he would just switch his focus to non-ogre women, they’d be pleasantly surprised instead of bitterly disappointed. “But for you…” He shrugs and shakes his head. With a sigh, I turn around and survey the room. It’s slim pickins in here this morning. Usually there are a handful of vamps, maybe even a dhampir or two, some humans stupid enough to stumble into a supernatural bar despite the wards sweeping over them and making them feel sick and uncomfortable.

It’s supposed to be a deterrent, but eh…sometimes humans are too dense for it to work. They’re usually left alone unless they cause trouble or if they see something they’re not supposed to see… “Fuck,” I curse, rolling my eyes and wondering which of the horrid vamp bars I’ll have to drop in on to find a partner. There are dozens in the city, and they’re all equally horrid. Dark, dangerous, reeking of blood. And the cover charge? Holy shit, the cover charge for dhampirs is like so astronomical I’m surprised the Houses haven’t passed a unanimous law to cap them. “Why don’t you give—” I start, about to order a pint of royal vamp blood when the door swings open and a tsunami of power washes over me. A man walks in, dressed in tall black buckled boots and leather pants covered in pockets. He’s smoking a cigarette with his tattooed hands, a heavy trench coat slung over his broad shoulders. His hair is a layered nightmare of turquoise, blue, and purple, spiked up and styled into a messy faux hawk. And his eyes? Blood-red pools of secrets and pain.

I want to dive into them and drown. “Holy shit, Harry, cancel that order, my morning entertainment just walked in.” I turn back to my friend with a grin, chuck the tiny red straw from my drink and down the rest of it with a clinking of ice cubes. “Him?” Harry asks, giving the vampire a distrustful sort of look. “I’ve never seen him in before.” “So?” I ask, feeling goose bumps prickle my skin. There’s so much magic surrounding this guy that I can feel it inside of me, hot and bright as the sun. He smells incredible, like sour candy and blood (hey, I’m a dhamp and that metallic shimmer in my nostrils totally gets me off) and the way he moves speaks to me on a primal level. Old, cocky, living vampire. I can tell by his scent that he’s not undead—the state of a born vampire after they die for the first time—and yet he’s clearly ancient if he’s that goddamn powerful.

My nipples pebble beneath my barely-there burgundy tube top and I suck in a sharp breath, this feeling of need taking hold low in my belly and tightening the muscles between my legs. “It was getting stale around here anyway,” I say with raised blonde brows. “Send him a pint of my blood.” “Pulling out the big guns for this one?” Harry asks with a sigh, using the tap on the far right, the one that’s filled with my blood. Hey, he pays good money for it and I’m eternally broke as shit, so I donate on occasion. “I still say he’s bad news,” he murmurs, but he snaps his fingers and the only waitress in the bar, some quarter-ogre chick that Harry treats like total crap, scampers over and takes the pint glass. “Take it to that vamp in the corner and tell him it’s on Cameron.” “Oh,” she says, blinking big gray eyes at Harry before flicking her gaze over to me. “He’s a little out of her league though, isn’t he?” I narrow my eyes and tap my fingers on the scratched wooden surface of the counter. “Thanks, Miri,” I quip as I purse my lips and Harry gives me an I told you so sort of look.

“Just take it over there and watch my blood work its magic, okay?” I’ve never once been turned down by a vamp who’s tasted my blood. As PINK tracksuit lady said, dhampir blood is the shit. I stay facing forward for a while, but it doesn’t matter because I can feel his blood-red eyes on my back, searing into me. Just when I’m about to saunter over there, hips swaying seductively, the vampire hottie is right by my side, sliding onto the stool next to mine with fluid, predatory grace. “What’s a shithole like this doing serving royal blood?” he purrs, and all the hair on my body stands on end. Hot, wet heat floods my cunt, and I suck in another sharp breath. Flicking my eyes to the left, I find the guy staring at me with such vigorous intent that blood rushes to my cheeks in a blush. “That’s not royal blood,” I whisper, and he cants his head to one side, long lashes fanning as he blinks. He doesn’t have to do that, blink. A lot of the old ones forget, but not this guy.

“It’s mine.” “I can tell it’s yours,” he replies, leaning in and sniffing the side of my neck. I shiver involuntarily and curl my hands into fists. Luckily, Harry is there with three fingers of Scotch and a deep frown etched into his face. “But you smell and taste like a royal.” Hottie Vampire Dude pauses and exhales, hot breath fanning against my throat. Jesus fuck. “No, not like a royal,” he corrects after a moment, “like royalty.” I laugh. Sorry, can’t help myself, not even in the face of male perfection.

I knock back the Scotch and turn to face the guy, our knees bumping together as I do. I arrange my legs with his so that one of his knees is pointing at my crotch and vice versa. Oh God, we’re so close… “I’m about as far from royalty as a dhamp can get,” I say with a loose shrug. “My dad’s some deadbeat loser vamp who tried to sell me for drug money, and my mother’s a Southern belle that got knocked up in high school and fled home.” The guy smiles at me, a slow, easy sort of smile that slides across his face like a whispered breath. “I see.” That’s all I get, just those two words. He sits back up and grabs his pint, giving it another sniff before he takes a slow, languorous sip, flicking his tongue against the edge of the glass and flashing two sharp, white canines. “Definitely some royal in your lineage—if not crown blood.” I cock a brow.

In vamp speak, a ‘crown’ would be any member of a House’s ruling class. Basically, if they’d wear a crown, they are a crown: queen, king, princess, prince. And there’s no way in hell I’m related to anyone like that. According to vamp hierarchy, I’m barely fit to scrub their toilets. “You’re delusional,” I say, drawing a chuckle from the mystery man’s throat. “But I like your delusions.” Reaching up for my bandage, I yank it off and give him a good look at the twin punctures, still bleeding and aching like my swollen lady bits. “Care to go somewhere private and lick my wounds?” The vampire’s pupils dilate enough to cover his brilliant irises, a total solar eclipse. “Such a tempting offer,” he growls, and I bite my lower lip, my fangs piercing my skin just enough to make me bleed. Such a tempting offer means I’d like to, but I can’t.

I won’t accept that. Leaning in, I press my mouth to his. The guy’s a vamp. If he wanted to stop me, he had plenty of opportunity to do it. Instead, he lets me swirl my blood in his mouth, tease his tongue with my own as my left hand slides up the thigh of his leather pants. Slowly, carefully, he curls his fingers around my wrist and stops me from reaching the hard bulge in his crotch. “You’re an intriguing little dhamp,” he purrs against my mouth. I sense a but coming, and I don’t mean his beautiful butt in my bed. Harry snickers on his side of the bar and I remind myself to spit in his drink on the way out. “But I’ve got business to attend to.

” The vamp whisks a card into his fingers, pulling it out of his trench faster than I can see. “Name’s Vyce. Call me sometime.” Surprised as all fuck off, I take the card from his fingers and stare at his name: Vyce Stiltz. Just those glossy silver words with a number beneath them, situated on a matte black card that’s blank on the other side, “Stiltz?” I ask, a small chill chasing up my spine. “What exactly do you do, Vyce?” This is too weird of a coincidence. The vamp just grins maniacally at me, flashing fangs. “Yes, Stiltz,” he growls, lifting my hand to his lips and running his tongue across a cut on my palm I hadn’t even noticed until now. The fact that it hasn’t healed yet only serves to emphasize how bad my other injuries are. I mean, fuck yes, my knees and head hurt but I guess I hadn’t realized the extent of the damage.

“And let’s just say…I’m in the business of tying up loose ends.” Oh dear. If I hadn’t already known what a Stiltz kin did, I’d have been able to guess based on that statement alone. This guy killed people. Oh, and also, he dealt in rare magics for obscene favors. Like, for example, the one my mother had made to escape the tyranny of an awful vampire king. To Rumpel Stiltz himself, she promised her firstborn child. And then she ran like hell. Shit, I’ve been running my whole life, just because some psycho crown took my grandfather’s crazy rants seriously. I’d never met my grandpa, but according to Mom, he was a hardass and a braggart.

After Mom got pregnant in high school, he started running his mouth, spreading all sorts of bullshit—talking about how my mom could literally spin straw into gold. The king kidnapped her, locked her up, and told her she’d better get the job done or he’d cut off her fucking head. Enter Rumpel Stiltz. He gave my mom the magic to do just that, to spin gold—at a hefty, hefty price. This Vyce guy might not know it, but I was well-acquainted with Rumpel Stiltz and his kin. “Interesting,” I say, putting the card on the bar top. “Loose ends, huh? I guess a vamp as old as you is bound to work an interesting gig.” “Old?” he asks, cocking a black brow at me. “We can’t be more than a decade apart, at most.” “What?!” I blurt out with another laugh.

“Dude, how old do you think I am?” He taps his fingers on the table, a bemused smile tracing his lips. “I could ask you the same question.” He lifts the bloody glass to his mouth again and sips slowly, throat working, tongue tracing the rim and then sliding across his lower lip. I can’t look away. “What are you? Mid-twenties?” The corner of his mouth quirks up in a smile. “Twenty-five. And you…three hundred? Four hundred?” Vyce chuckles, this low, sensual purr that makes my throat feel tight. “Try thirty-two.” I cross my arms over my chest and enjoy the way Vyce’s eyes trace the ink on my right arm. I’ve got quite a bit of it—almost a full sleeve from shoulder to wrist, plus a blue swallow above my right breast.

Vyce’s gaze catches there…before dropping a bit lower. “Thirty-two? Puh-lease. Sorry, but I don’t buy it for a second.” Vyce just shrugs and slides off the stool, just before another wave of wild energy sweeps into the bar. Two gazes latch onto my back. I know; I can fucking feel them. Two more vampires, just as powerful as the one in front of me. “You might not believe it, but it’s true.” He tosses me one last smile and gestures at the business card with his chin. “Give me a call sometime…” Vyce trails off, and I can tell he’s fishing for my name.

I don’t give a shit if he knows it; Mom changed our names about two dozen times over my life. But this name—Cameron Darke—is the one I picked for myself as an adult, after she died. “Cam,” I tell him with a sharp nod, twirling a pale finger in a small circle. “And I’m a morning regular here. Stop by if you’re interested in a little fun.” I wink at him and slap the bandage back on my neck before turning to glance at his two companions… What. The. Fuck?! The first man I’d laid eyes on was godlike…and there are two more on his level?!

.

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