Then: ka-click. Ka-click. Leather heels resounded from the alley's west entrance. The man heard them and despaired. Ignoring the cold and the wet as they bled through the tatters in his shoes, stinging his feet, he flung himself into the alcove. The burlap was stretched taut over hard and angular things, maybe carts or folding stalls, which left him bruised and battered in the catching, but obscured, and deathly quiet. The man held his breath in his throat, and watched the far wall: for the dim, stretched shadows, and the silhouette which carved them from the distant lamps. The figure paused. It waved its snout as if sampling all the scents on the wind, struggling to choose one. Then it passed. Its footsteps were swallowed up in the mist, but issuing from it came another sound: a voice, brassy-tenor and just a little pompous.
"Apologies, good man. I'd have lit a candle, had I known I'd be late."
The creature in the alcove hesitated, but when he was sure that this was not some man-like voice deceiving him into a monstrous embrace, he clambered toward it. "Are you truly of Solomon's order?" he squinted. "You most of all should know the danger. To meet under starlight, while one of them hunts ..."
Lifting his cloak, the stranger revealed his belt, lined with weapons and deadly contraband. Strange instruments gleamed silver; potions and extracts lustered faintly with an artificial fire. "You are safe in my company," he said. "Now—what is it that you saw? Or—yes, more importantly, where did you see it?"
He looked to the peasant's quivering hands and loosened a winebladder from his belt. Offering it, he watched as the peasant uncorked and sniffed. The vapors, hot, but vaguely fragrant of mint and butterscotch, must have been some comfort; he grasped the bladder by the neck as if to strangle it and drank deeply of whisky, wincing, coughing, speaking with a fresh rasp: "The Seeds. Thought it another beggar at first, but it had teeth, big and blunted like for chewin' up corpses."
"The Seeds," echoed the hunter to himself, "of course, where its victims will not be missed ..."
"And its eyes!" barked the peasant, as if already losing his grasp over his inhibitions. "They shone green in the dark. Under the orange of the lanterns and the blue of the stars, its eyes took to green, not like no man I ever peeped. It looked like a rabid raccoon, pondering some mad attack."
A gossamer-thread of spittle broke between the peasant's mouth and the mouth of the winebladder.
"It watched you, then?"
"Eyein' me up, aye, wonderin' if I'd give it a struggle. Any day now it'll come for me, I'm sure of it. Even when you arrived, I was sure you was ... that I was ..."
The hunter watched the liquor in the peasant's shaky hands, though the shake was fast subsiding. He contemplated snatching it back, for it was a good, well-built vessel, but at the sight of the spittle he decided he could always buy another. He even refused it when the peasant offered it, at which the scrawny thing clutched it to his ribcage.
"I'll look into it," said the hunter as he turned away. But the other had noticed the flatness in his tone.
"Where are you going? Do you not believe me?"
He kept walking, but could hear behind him the muted shuffling of threadbare shoes. "Look, I do not doubt what you saw. Not at all."
"Then help me."
"But—" the hunter turned on his heels—"the last vampire spotted in Ortheoc was the one slain by Valnorn, my master, nearly a decade ago. It's exceedingly unlikely that another has survived all this time, entirely unnoticed. Whereas you 'saw' a vampire, you were probably looking at something else altogether."
"Something else!" the peasant hissed. "What else has fangs like a rat's teeth?"
"Some species of naga have been known to look like that. Egg-eaters."
"It had hair."
"Oh? Yes, naga are hairless. I'll give you that. So it was a half-orc. Or a night-elf."
"A night-elf ..."
"Or," said the hunter, stepping closer, looming himself over the now-hunching creature, "you saw an ugly, particularly nasty beggar. You were in the Seeds, sir."
The peasant detected the threat in that sentence: of being asked why he had ventured there, what his business had been in that nasty place. He continued to shrink where he stood, no longer able to look the hunter in the eye. He had wasted the time of an armed, hardened, and dangerous individual, he realized, and his walking away from this alley was no longer certain. So the peasant took to the same techniques of survival which protected him in the presence of a guard captain, or a knighted soldier, or a baron's son: he lowered his gaze, folded his hands, and accepted whatever cruel amusements laid waiting for him.
"Oh, damn it all," the slayer growled, seeing this over his shoulder, for he had tried to escape before this happened. He hated pathetic things because he hated the feelings of pity they sowed in his chest. And though he would not admit it, he had spent many of his days terribly bitter. The hunters' purpose had always been to render themselves purposeless, after all, but in all their training, no one had ever prepared them for that future where they were unneeded, unremarkable. It had once seemed so far away, unattainable in their lifetimes.
"Listen," he said. "I cannot promise what I will find there. But I will go to the Seeds and—at least investigate what you have seen."
The peasant looked up. "Thank you, sir. Thank you."
"Close your shutters. Lock your door. Let none inside who you do not know by name. They ... a vampire needs permission to enter an abode. It is a magical symptom of their foul condition."
On those words they parted, the peasant scurrying, the hunter striding, each with a sudden purpose. On the latter's part, he had to search. He had to plan. He had to resupply. And if his contact spoke true, he had to kill once more.