Hunted Vampire by Jessica Walt

Chapter One

Breathe in and out. Center yourself. Concentrate.

A bitter wind blew across Sera’s neck as she crouched behind the largest stone in the semicircle. All around her, the pine and cedar branches swayed. The smallest of the stones was still half-buried in snow. The ground was frozen and compact beneath her feet, her fingers chilly despite her gloves.

She’d been waiting for several hours now, having set the stage perfectly so her quarry wouldn’t suspect she was here.

March 23, 2021. Less than two months since she and her best friend, Bess, started talking about taking a trip to the little town of Yamwalf to do a photo shoot at these very stones.

The Changing Stones, they were called. Said to turn into rubies under the light of the full moon. Nobody knew what they were for, why they were here. When she first started researching them, Sera delved into the mystery. It was delicious, full of fantasy and potential. She had investigated mercilessly, hoping to inject a fantastical story into the photo shoot. Bess, in a virginal shift dress, the perfect image for their client’s time travel novel, surrounded by these magical stones. White granite glistened, almost the same color as the snow.

It would have been beautiful. Bess was always beautiful, inside and out.

One month ago.

Fresh waves of grief washed over Sera as she adjusted her feet, careful not to make too much noise. She had put too much planning into this to mess it up by giving away her position before the bastard arrived. A winter camouflage jacket and pants. Her hair pulled back into a tight bun at the back of her head so it wouldn’t get in the way. A mask, also camouflage, covering her face except for her eyes.

The wooden stake was smooth and sharp in her hand. Made of ash, fire-hardened, exactly what she needed to kill a vampire.

One month. One month ago. February 27, 2021. Now she was here, now that she was closer to the actual time it happened… tiny ice crystals formed on her lashes, and she wiped them aside with her glove. One month for the rest of the world, but how long had it been for her?

Time had become meaningless in more ways than one for her.

She twisted the stake in her hand. She glanced down at the machine at her feet. It was dead and lifeless. The strange lights that had flared just before stinking ozone enveloped her remained dull. She heaved a sigh and adjusted her position again. Her feet were starting to prickle. It wouldn’t do her any good to wait here for hours if she was unable to stand.

When you hunted a hunter, you had to move fast. Otherwise, you were the one who ended up dead. Sera had no desire to end up on the menu.

Just like…

Sera shook her head. No. She swallowed as images of blood flooded through her mind. Her gaze darted around the clearing, searching for anything to stop the memories. Dull eyes. Mouth hanging open in a silent scream.

NO!

The frigid air burned her throat as Sera gulped in a deep breath. Her stomach quivered, threatening to expel the granola bar she’d eaten that morning. Another glance at the device; nothing. She shifted her position again, sitting on the cold ground with her back against the largest stone. She didn’t know where he was coming from any more than she knew when he would arrive, but thick brush grew around this particular rock, meaning she was hidden from every angle.

She wiped her eyes again. White frost built on the outside of her gloves. She pointed the stake downward as she tucked her fingers into her armpits. It would be better to have them inside her jacket, against her skin. But how was she supposed to move quickly then?

How long had it been? One month to the rest of the world. But how long for her?

The wind dropped, but the branches still swayed and scraped against each other. At one point, she would have been terrified, searching the forest for the person or thing she was certain had been following her since the start of the new year. But now, she knew there was nothing in those trees. He hadn’t arrived yet, her stalker.

She knew who he was. What he was.

Valentine.

Sera’s jaw clenched. Valentine. An English name, according to some sites. An Irish adaptation of the Latin Valentinus, according to others. A Roman name. An Italian name. She’d searched so deep she was no longer certain. Meaning strong and vigorous. St. Valentine’s Day, a day to commemorate at least two men named Valentine who were murdered and later were canonized. Not considered a romantic day until Chaucer and some poem he wrote.

Absolutely no reason for a fucking vampire to call himself Valentine. It made researching him more difficult, sorting through the various saints and martyrs and conflicting information about Valentine’s Day. The internet kept trying to sell her stuffed bears holding hearts whenever she tried to find him.

Her own heart gave a painful little lurch, and Sera pressed the back of her head against the stone, staring up at the sky. Bess loved Valentine’s Day.

The wind picked up, making her nose run. Sera rubbed it on the back of her wrist and dabbed off the moisture collecting on her eyes, then stuck her hands back into her armpits. The frost was just starting to melt off the back of them.

How long?

January 5, 2021. The strange device had been left in front of the door to her apartment. She’d brought it in and put it with the props she and Bess collected for the photo shoots; she’d assumed Bess had bought it online somewhere. It certainly looked like something that would go well on the cover of a sci-fi novel.

The thing was the size of a portable CD player, the kind that hooked onto your belt. It almost looked like a CD player, too, only it was a solid piece of white-silver metal. When she tapped it with her fingernails, it gave off a ceramic ring. Various lights, buttons, and knobs protruded on every side, along with a small window that flashed a set of numbers.

It wasn’t until April 31, 2021, that she had found the note taped to the underside, explaining how to use it.

The note called it a Traveler. A simple name for something so… amazing. The shell was battered, cracked in some places with dents in others. The first time she used it, she had followed the instructions. The lights had come to life, the device whirled, and the scent of ozone filled her nostrils.

She’d thrown up immediately, and only after regaining a shaky sense of control did she realize what it had done. It took her from April 31, 2021, to June 2, 2022.

The note warned her not to cross her own timestream, but what was the point of having this thing if she couldn’t change the past?

Figuring out what the numbers meant was another thing altogether because they didn’t follow a calendar she knew. After her initial jump, she’d skipped ahead three years instead of going back five months—to witness her parents in grief, thinking she disappeared into some opium den for three years, begging for her to return.

Next, she ended up in 1996, with no money and barely enough memory of the time to get herself a job. She’d spent at least five months in that time, making plans, doing research. The internet was infuriatingly slow in 1996, and she missed the TV series she’d grown attached to. The fourth book of the Outlander series hadn’t even been released, let alone the show!

At least she could learn everything she could about vampires and how to kill them.

Then she saw him. He’d come into the library she worked at, picking up books with a card that was fifty years old. She hadn’t been the one to help him; otherwise, she might have tried to stake him with a pencil right there. But with the information on file, she was able to learn his name, get his address.

From there, it seemed to all fall into place. He wasn’t just a vampire. He was a vampire who traveled through time. Oh, what luck it had been for him to be dropped into her lap as he had been. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get close enough to kill him. She had managed to find his logbook of all the times he visited, but the vampire himself was a slippery devil.

She meant to come back to January in 2021, but she’d found herself in early March. Too late. And the Traveler went kaput.

Sera’s nostrils flared as she shifted positions, getting back into a crouch. If she had just waited, watched. Twenty-five years was a long time to wait for her chance to kill him, but she should have waited. Now she was too late to…

But she could still kill him.

It was a tough, lonely time. Researching, keeping herself isolated, making sure nobody she knew saw her face. She’d had to break into her parents’ storage unit to steal a bunch of the antiques they hadn’t gotten around to selling yet and sold them herself. Once her past self time traveled for the first time, she’d be able to step back into that role, go back to her job in Spokane; she just needed to hold on.

She’d tell her parents when she could see them again. Until then, she was focused on one thing. She rented a room in an apartment with five other people, spending all day every day on her research. Taking martial arts classes at night. Getting groceries delivered to avoid being spotted by someone who might know her. She’d even swapped out her normal feminine wardrobe for clothes she bought second-hand in the men’s section.

Altogether it had been how long? A year of her life? A year jumping through time since February 27, 2021. The day her best friend was murdered.

She growled, shifting. The pictures she’d taken of Valentine’s logbook were clear. He was arriving back in Yamwalf today, here at the Changing Stones. There hadn’t been a time connected to the entry, so she just had to wait. No getting impatient this time.

Her Traveler let out a weak little beep. Sera sprang back into a crouch in behind the largest of the Changing Stones. Her heartbeat pulsed in her throat and stomach. Tension crept down her spine.

The first waft of ozone. Sera’s mouth went dry. Her gaze swept back and forth, searching. What did the arrival look like from the other end of Traveling? Would there be a flash of light? Would he suddenly just appear?

A howling noise from a sudden wind whipped around her, although the air grew unnaturally still. Something like light, but not really light—more like liquid radio waves—burst from a crack in the air. The fabric of time splitting open. Her hand clenched around the stake as she pressed herself against the stone, ready to spring forward.

And he stepped through.

The howling noise increased, and Sera realized it was the blood moving in her own ears. For all her research, all her training, she was locked in place. The chill of the air sank even deeper into her bones.

She held her breath as he swiveled, his head turning every which way. Searching for her? Did he know she waited for him? The stake was so hard in her hand! Now was the time to drive it through his heart, but she couldn’t make herself move.

He looked so goddamn innocent, wearing cuffed jeans and a plain t-shirt. Short, dark hair brushed neatly to one side. Silver strands flashed in the sunlight as he turned his head, searching. The scruffy beard goatee couldn’t hide the tension of his jaw or the worry of his dark eyes. They skimmed over her hiding place, and she froze, but he moved on without seeing her.

He clipped his Traveler—in much better condition than hers—to his belt and let out a shaky breath. His shoulders ramped up with tension, muscles bulging against the thin fabric of his shirt. He could crush her skull with one hand. Probably would, too. No matter how lost and frightened he looked right now. He was a ruthless killer, and she had to stop him.

For Bess. Bess would do the same for her. So she had to do this. Revenge might not bring Bess back, but it would prevent this vampire from killing others.

Vampire.

He was a vampire.

He moved through time, slaughtering people. How many other people had he killed? Had he been in Whitechapel in 1888? San Francisco in the late 1960s? A time traveler didn’t have to fear being caught by the police. He could do whatever he wanted without any repercussions.

His back turned toward her, facing the Changing stones on the other side of the circle. Sera’s grip on her stake tightened as she slithered silently from her hiding place. Her heart beat wildly against her ribs as she crept forward.

Then the wind shifted, blowing against her back—and directly toward him. Valentine turned, and Sera froze. His eyes widened, and so did hers. Images flashed through her mind. Him in the hotel room. So much blood sprayed everywhere. The walls, the carpet. So much.

“Sera,” he cried.

A smile spread over his face. His fangs flashed. So he wanted to kill her, too. He opened his arms. He was happy she’d returned, so he could… could…

Her vision ran red. She lunged with the force of all the anger, hate, and grief that had built in the last year and plunged the stake into the vampire’s chest.

Her arm jarred as the stake hit his ribs. It skittered over them, snagged on the fabric of his shirt. Finally, it stabbed through flesh—half an inch into the soft parts between his ribs.

Not deep enough. Not deep enough.

Sera’s own heart stopped as her gaze moved from the stake, not deep enough to kill, to his fangs flashing in the sunlight.