Ignatov sucked Ivan’s blood off his fingers, too absorbed in the joy of bloodshed to push the offensive for the moment. But there was no mistaking the building sense of tension around Ignatov’s slight form, the almost audible thrum of energy and vitality he exuded as he savored every drop. Ivan pulled himself upright, backing up to the bar. The arm wound wasn’t too deep, but it was bleeding, soaking his shirt and jacket in his bloodscent.
Ivan knew what a vampire in the throes of bloodlust could do. There were snuff videos out there, very popular in certain circles, featuring victims with little more than a pinprick wound and vampires eager to break their fast, driven wild by the faintest scent of fresh blood. It was referred to euphemistically as bloodsport, but Ivan knew a feeding frenzy when he saw it.
Before Ignatov could spring into action again, Ivan swung over the bar, sweeping rows of bottles off their shelves and shattering them all over the floor. Alcohol fumes immediately filled the air, the volatile aromatics of whisky, gin and rum merging into an eye-watering haze. Hopefully, it would be enough to cover his bloodscent - he could hardly smell anything over the fumes, and Ignatov’s enhanced sense of smell should be similarly overwhelmed.
“Dinner and drinks? You do know how to show a fellow a good time, Mr Nikolaev.” Ignatov hopped down from the railing, sauntering towards the bar. “Liquor’s one of the few creature comforts we can still indulge in, you know. You’re Type O, aren’t you? Classically, that would be paired with whisky, something peated.”
“I’ve got a Caellegan Gold Label back here, if you’re up for it.”
“Well, I’ve always been partial to a vodka chaser myself. Awfully unsophisticated, I know, but the smoky stuff just clogs my sinuses. I pride myself on my discerning palate - I can sniff out blood type, cholesterol level, oxygenation, even at a hundred paces. You’re dreadfully lean, aren’t you? And that wound isn’t nearly deep enough to properly open up your vessels! Here, let me do something about that.”
Ignatov vaulted over the bar, fangs bared, and Ivan smashed the bottles of absinthe he’d been holding like clubs together on either side of his head, breaking them and dousing Ignatov. The vampire reeled momentarily, and Ivan took the opportunity to drag one hardlight blade against the keg of beer that stood under the bar, sending a shower of sparks over Ignatov and igniting him.
Ignatov’s pale skin crisped, turning shades of red and black as the flames spread across his body.
“Utterly predictable. You think this is enough to kill me?” Even aflame, Ignatov seemed confident, as though being set alight was no big deal. Only the slight snarl of pain on his charred lips betrayed the agony he must be in. He ripped his uniform jacket off as it caught fire, though his skin and hair continued to burn. “I’ve stood in the sun till I was little more than ash and bone, and I came back from it. This is nothi-”
Ivan interrupted Ignatov’s spiel with a spinning kick to the jaw, flipping him over the bar and onto the liquor-soaked carpet. The combination of the fire and the hardlight blade seemed to be working - this time, Ivan glimpsed white bone through Ignatov’s burning flesh before his vampiric regeneration kicked in, reknitting the wound. Ignatov roared as myriad shards of glass pierced his raw flesh, the carpet around him catching fire as well.
“Looks like something to me. Don’t forget to stop, drop, and roll, now.” Ivan vaulted over the bar, coming down on Ignatov with the heel of one blade, forcing the vampire to roll to one side, hissing as he sloughed bits of burning skin and flesh on the carpet.
He moved in for another strike, but Ignatov sped away and jumped off the mezzanine, his burning form vanishing down the corridor. For a moment, Ivan thought that it was over, that he’d done enough damage to dissuade the vampire from coming after him again. Then he heard a woman’s choked gasp, just audible over the fire, until it trailed down into a wet gurgle.
“I didn’t want to have to do this, you know.” Ignatov’s voice came from the dark corridor, accompanied by a shuffling, sliding sound. “You forced my hand.”
Ignatov emerged from the darkness, healed, immaculate, dragging Lydia’s drained corpse behind him by one arm. “Her blood’s on your hands, Mr Nikolaev. Had you cooperated, had you the decency to accept your punishment for your crimes, she wouldn’t have died.”
“Don’t you dare put this on me. You killed her.”
“I have a job to do, and I can’t very well do it while I’m on fire. If I wanted her dead, I’d have snapped her neck the moment I saw her. I tried to limit casualties, I really did.” Ignatov’s attempt at saintlike composure was let down by him gesticulating with Lydia’s arm still in his grasp, her limp hand flopping around. “But for your defiance, she’d still be alive. You think that’s unfair? Well, let me put it this way, just so we’re clear. Fight me if you like, but for every hit you land on me, I’m just going to drain someone in this hotel and keep coming for you. Knowing that, are you still going to drag this out?”
“Fuck that. Don’t lay your kills at my feet and expect me to feel guilty. I didn’t ask for any of this.” Ivan tensed, moving up to the mezzanine’s railing.
“Oh, no? Let’s not forget, you started all this with your thievery and rabble-rousing, and you didn’t even have the balls to face the consequences of your actions - you let others take the fall, instead. And here you are, continuing to drag everyone and everything around you into your orbit of misery and destruction.” Ignatov nodded to the spreading fire behind Ivan, the bar’s wooden furniture beginning to catch and burn. “You just don’t give a fuck about anything or anyone, as long as you get what you want. Ekaterina and Dmitri would attest to that, if they were still capable of speech.”
Ivan’s breath caught in his throat. He’d avoided thinking about the crew he’d left behind when he fled Nocturnov - both because he knew one of them had betrayed him, and because he was betraying them too, abandoning them to the politski while he made his escape. He knew there was nothing to be gained from fixating on it, but at times he couldn’t help ripping back the scab of memory to examine the festering mess of guilt and resentment underneath.
Taking advantage of Ivan’s lapse in focus, Ignatov charged, ascending on a roil of red mist to swipe at his throat. Ivan barely managed to get down in time, ducking below the railing as Ignatov cleared it, then kicking up with both feet to catch Ignatov in the chest, sending him into the skylight. His blades burnt twin trails into Ignatov’s bare chest, but the wounds closed almost immediately, the vampire flush with blood and life from his recent gorging. Ignatov slammed into the glass but recovered immediately, kicking off the metal framework behind him to come crashing down on Ivan.
The vampire came down on Ivan in a shower of glass, shards of the skylight raining down on them, slicing shallow cuts on Ivan’s arm as he shielded his face. As if responding to the scent of fresh blood, Ignatov suddenly accelerated, propelled downwards by jets of crimson smoke. Ivan danced backwards, letting Ignatov hit the ground with such force that he broke it.
As the ground underneath him tilted downwards, Ivan slid with it, building momentum. Ignatov sprang at him from below, but as the vampire neared, Ivan turned on one blade, kicking into the ground to leap upwards and through the broken skylight, into the open air. He landed on the skylight, careful to set his feet on the metal framework - he was pretty sure that his hardlight blades would cut through the glass panes if he put his weight on them. Ignatov followed close behind, soaring upwards and landing on the glass.
Fire lit them from below, shifting shadows turning their faces into painted masks.
“Well, what now, Mr Nikolaev? Trying to get me away from the hotel so you don’t put these people at risk? You do realise there’s an entire city of prey out here for me to feast on.”
“Plenty of witnesses, too. Does the Internal Bureau really want to drag the Federation into an international incident over one petty thief?”
Ignatov grinned grimly. “Above my pay grade. I have my orders, and enough latitude in how I execute them.”
“Right. What was that about not giving a fuck about anything or anyone?”
“I prioritize my mission. If that means being written off as a rogue agent and condemned by the Federation, so be it - I have served my purpose. What have you ever prioritized other than your own petty grudges?”
“You think I did what I did for my own sake? None of it was about me - it was always about you Undying, your corruption and your tyranny. I was just the messenger.”
“Oh, it wasn’t about you! That’s why you came up with your own little cult of personality and that ridiculous nickname - what was it, the Zeitgeist? But no, of course it wasn’t about you.”
“It was showmanship, Agent. I had to create a symbol for the people to rally around, to believe in, in the face of apathy and despair. And it worked. Almost.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. You kicked up a fuss, stole a few things, and burnt down a few buildings. All of which we’ve dealt with. There’s just one loose end left. So which is it, Mr Nikolaev? Will you submit, or are you going to keep dragging innocents down with you in your pathetic attempts at resistance?”
“Neither.” Ivan could feel the noose being drawn tight around his neck. He was backed into a corner, but it was in these moments that he did his finest, foolhardiest, work. “Ever heard of the Silent War, Agent Ignatov?”
Ignatov frowned, thrown off by the non sequitur. “No. What are you talking about?”
“Before Halcyon, another city stood here. Alcyone.” The words seemed to hold a peculiar weight of their own, falling from his lips as though they were made of lead. Alcyone and the Silent War were taboos in Halcyon, relics of a past that the Hegemony had done its best to erase. Ivan had only learned about the city’s true history from old-timers in the Underworld who waxed poetic about the old days after a few drinks. Even in the Underworld, speaking those names was considered risky - in Halcyon proper, it was practically inviting the Enforcers to lock you up.
Ignatov rolled his eyes. “Enough stalling. Either get on your knees or put up a fight - don’t waste my time with this nonsense.”
The scene grew dim, and Ivan realized that the fire beneath them was guttering out. The broken skylight behind him rattled slightly even as an unnatural stillness settled over them like a smothering hand. “Why don’t you come and get me?”
They moved in unconscious unison - Ignatov springing forward, Ivan jumping back - as Enforcers erupted from the skylight. One climbed out of the jagged hole behind Ivan, reweaving glass and metal in its wake, rendering the skylight pristine. Even as he dodged its lashing limbs, Ivan wasn’t too preoccupied to notice that no fewer than five separate Enforcers had encircled Ignatov.
Ivan might be a criminal and a heretic, but Ignatov was a bioweapon and an agent of a foreign state, trespassing illegally. He took flight, but the Enforcers joined into a grasping appendage like the arm of a crane, anchored to the metal of the skylight, and snatched him from the sky, binding him with chains - silver, judging from the pained hissing he made.
“This isn’t over, Nikolaev!” Ignatov screamed, thrashing against his bonds. “Even if I’m caught, the Federation will only send more of us-”
Ignatov was cut short by an Enforcer jamming a bar of metal between his teeth, muzzling him as they dragged him away. As soon as Ivan was certain that the Enforcers were too busy with Ignatov to go for him, he jumped off the Albion Arms, skating from building to building. He’d escaped. For now. But Halcyon wasn’t a safe haven from the Federation any more. He needed to move - and for that, he needed to make good on his deal with Hock.
Hisakawa Tower loomed large on the horizon, Alice’s office glowing brighter than any other light in the city.