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The Perfect Prey
The chill Moscow winter air was refreshing, although he doubted few who weren't born there thought the same. There weren't many who were willing to brave the early morning chill. Hell, most would have considered the hour to still be night time, and call declarations of it being any part of the morning to be heresy. But Hood had never been much of a late sleeper.

At 0300hrs, the pedestrian trails along the River Moskva were all but empty. The few people he passed as he sprinted the trail were the homeless, getting an early start on checking garbage cans for recyclable bottles or whatever odd patterns that made up their failed lives. He didn't hate the homeless or poor of course, he just didn't see them with much respect. They had tried at life, and for one reason or another, had failed. He might do something to help them from time to time, but he never expected much of them in return. A cheap pair of eyes to be paid off to watch something, but even then, unreliable at best.

He wore an elevation training mask, a somewhat sinister looking black thing that covered his mouth and nose. It restricted how much air he could draw with each breath, and included a hard-mount for his Landwarriors, which he wore to be able to see clearly on the less illuminated stretches of the run down trails.

While the ashphalt was cracked and broken in places, the snow had at least been cleared. Hood lived on the side of Moscow not seen in the tourism brochures, the part that the glory and splendor of the CCD hadn't quite reached yet, although even there it was obvious that change was coming. Old Soviet-era buildings were gone in places, ready to be replaced by modern architecture. In some empty lots sat loads of pipes and wire, guarded by fences and cameras, awaiting the spring thaw for work crews to resume their efforts to modernize the region's infrastructure.

Mr Volodya Fyodorov, of Krasnyy Medved Security Solutions, had finally gotten the information Hood had wanted. They had met a half hour ago, all cliche clandestine cover-of-darkness stuff, and the file now sat in the squat backpack Hood wore strapped to his back, which also housed a Camelbak hydration pack. He'd perused it briefly, then sent Volodya off with honest assurance that the man's family was safe from Hood's hand. He had no interest in the man once the information had been handed over; he had bigger fish to fry, after all.

The contract for the failed hit on Mr Talanov (or himself, or Spectra Lynn) had come from a small tech company. One for which a quick search through his Landwarriors had turned up little of interest. It wasn't a shell company, no false front or means to hide the movement of cash. It was a real company, but he had little doubt that the one who had ordered the attack was the one who signed the paychecks of the tech company's board of directors.

Someone a step or three above Mr Talanov. And there weren't many steps up from him. With the information Volodya had provided Hood, he was one step closer to figuring out who the idiot was that had ordered that ridiculous attack. It was down right insulting that they would think four KMSS 'specialists' were going to be a match for him. Whoever had been that stupid needed to be reminded how to play the game.

An alert flashed in one corner of his glasses, and a deft flick of the eye opened the message. A brief police incident report; a hit-and-run between two vehicles. A one Mr Volodya Fyodorov's car had been struck on the drivers side by a large vehicle that had fled the scene. Mr Fyodorov had been killed on impact. Initial reports indicated that there had been no witnesses or cameras near the scene.

Hopefully for Volodya's family, he had a good life insurance policy. Of course, KMSS was having trouble with their insurance provider after the deaths of four of their employees. Or ex-employees, so it would probably take a while for the man's widow and family to see their money. Insurance companies were such snakes.

Hood's run eventually brought him back to his place of residence, closer to 0500hrs. The fresh, thin layer of snow was undisturbed, and he slowed to a walk and finally pulled the mask from his face. A few long, slow breaths to help steady his breathing (and to adjust to the unfiltered chill morning air), and he went straight to the garage and pulled a stiff bristled broom, which was put to use to brush away the fresh snow.

By the time he finished, the thin layer of sweat he had built up was already freezing, and he finally made his way inside. There was more work to be done. He had to find out who owned METZAVED Solutions. And who owned whoever the hell owned that guy. He really did hate the civilian sector sometimes.
Frustration furrowed his eyes low as Enzo returned to Tehya's apartment. Yet again, the night was an unsuccessful hunt. His mentor, Alessio, sometimes needed years to stalk a single drakaina. The monsters behaved so much like humans that they were difficult to spot for a trained Atharim's eye, but their cleverness and foresight required an incredible amount of planning to finally kill one. Enzo was no where near such a stage. He was merely trying to track one, and for the third night in a row, he tracked only whispers and rumors. He had yet to lay eyes on the actual demon.

He opened the door and little warmth welcomed him home. He'd spent precious little time there, which was part of the job, and he found the chill embrace fitting. Likeminded with Tehya, he did not think of the space as a home. It was merely a safe place to sleep.

Tehya was gone, he noted. The two roommates had adopted multiple ways to inform each other of their absence or presence. He dropped the light-bag aside that had been slung across his shoulders and draped his coat on its hook. Next he shoved off his boots and left them by the door so to not track water across the floor. Soraphine, his wife, had always been cross when the kids sloshed water across the gleaming wood floors of their home. Despite years without his gorgeous wife, the habit to appease her had stayed with him.

Drakaina. The word curled his lip with disgust. Unlike some of his Atharim fellows, Enzo did not care about the myths shrouded the tragic origins of these creatures. They existed. And they preyed on the innocent. Therefore they deserved to meet the eternal night their own making; and sent there by someone like Enzo.

But the frustration had mounted. He forwent retiring to his room and chose the sofa instead. It was a dingy, uncomfortable thing, with flattened cushions and scratchy cloth, but he hoped the discomfort would hone his focus.

He opened a wallet pad to its larger screen and opened his log. A map of city district in Moscow expanded. Ticked across a range spanning several square kilometers were notches of varying colors. To it, Enzo flagged three more locales and surveyed the update. Bars, restaurants, night-clubs: anywhere the rumors of a woman matching his drakaina's description were noted went on this map. The visual was a habit of Alessio's, and helped him find patterns in a given monster's roaming.

But maps weren't the only patterns Enzo sought to decipher. Drakaina had to support themselves, somehow. In the modern age, transfer of money was nearly untrackable by someone outside custody government, but the Atharim's reach extended deep. The email he hoped to receive was opened next. There were credit card purchases at many of the locations over the past two years indicating not only her presence, but her need to spend her own money.

One of the night clubs wasn't flagged, however. In the last six months, the account's purchases tapered dramatically. There were some activity here and there, but never at this one location.

Enzo tapped the flagged location and pulled up the club name.

His frustration deepened. Eve Alessio would have trouble with this one. The building was a fortress of security. There was no where to spy upon the front entrance. And Enzo was far from the type of guest to be admitted. Manifesto was out of his reach.

He was only tracking rumors at this stage, and did not anticipate finding the demon herself, but he needed to roam among the club's patrons himself.

He ran an internet search. 'How to get in to Manifesto' and gawked at the sheer volume of websites dedicated to tutoring the less affluent. Women were advantaged, to start with, over men which made sense. In effect, he needed to know the right person to be given a chance, but even movie stars could be turned away for lack of proper appearance.

Enzo sighed and collapsed the screen. It was impossible.

Alessio's voice streamed in his mind: "Nothing is impossible, Enzo. The Atharim are our brothers. We will find the help we need. Our cause is the noblest on the earth. Where there is intent, there will be means."

"Oui monsieur"
He whispered like his mentor was in the room and picked up the phone. He called HQ and was promptly redirected to a consultant. Enzo had his doubts, but it was worth the shot.

They made arrangements to meet.

His pet project was put on hold when he received a call from an Atharim contact. The conversation was familiar; a discussion of the weather, how his morning run went, how the caller's kids were doing in school. It was all perfectly boring and sounded more like a check-in-the-box sort of conversation then a real call between friends. Maybe strained family relations. Certainly not friends, but not enemies either.

The hunter they were sending his way would be able to meet him at the safehouse, so Hood didn't have much to do to prepare. A quick shower, a load of laundry cycled through. Breakfast was suitably hearty and downed with a cup of coffee, and by the time the Atharim hunter had arrived, a few dozen fresh holes were punched into a large dartboard-like target mounted on the wall near the weight bench, a trio of throwing knives bit deeply into the cork.

The sound of a vehicle pulling into the driveway was confirmed by a warning beep on his Landwarriors; there were motion sensors mounted on the outside of the safehouse, warning him of any movement in the immediate area. By the time the visitor was on the step and approaching the door, Hood had already taken a glance via a camera mounted there, and pulled the door open to meet the Atharim hunter.
All of Moscow looked alike to Enzo's country-born gaze. The streets and buildings rolled endlessly, but the transition between affluence and destitution was blunt. His driver, Vitya Olegovich, said the area was called Zamoskvorechye, but the farther south they journeyed, the worse the architecture deteriorated until apartment buildings were replaced with industry yards. Finally, work yards gave way to abandoned lots.

Enzo followed a map as they made their way, learning the routes in the process. VItya made to point out a blue-lit post on one corner. "There is metro station. Go there if I can not return for you. We almost there."

The spire of technological brilliance was off-putting in the impoverished neighborhood, its location was easy to note. A few minutes later, he was dropped off at a freshly shoveled drive-way.

The house itself was ... unusual, but Enzo cared only about its utility or proximity to other structures. A brief flicker of nostalgia flattened his expression, but by the time the door opened, he'd climbed the stairs, ready to shake hands with the occupant.

The consultant was near to Enzo's age, he guessed. He wasted no time in introducing himself.

Enzo greeted, voice cool and professional. The switch to English was purposeful, but the heavy accent remained. "I am Enzo Dolan."
The consultant should be expecting him, but Enzo was wary of strangers. Neither would he assume to invite himself inside. He remained safely out of arm's reach on the porch for now.

Hood spent a moment just staring at the man after his brief introduction. A frenchman. Just fucking great. The silent stare lasted just long enough to almost become awkward, then he just sighed quietly and stepped clear of the door, waving for Enzo to step in. "Mr White. Rule One. Safe house. I keep it safe. If I have to burn this safe house to cover your ass, your superiors will not be happy. Two. My safe house. I keep it safe. You do something that causes me to need to burn this place, I'll probably make sure you're in here when I throw the match Three. You clean up your own mess while living in my house. I clean up mine. Four. Top shelf in the fridge is yours. Get your own beer. Or wine. Whatever floats your fucking boat."

He gave Enzo the basic run-down and tour. The spare bedroom was still only furnished with cots, rather then actual beds, but there were sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows. All clean. Even a pair of small dressers and a closet. A scattering selection of mens and womens underwear and simple, and cheap, clothes, in case a need arouse. After having Rune sulking around the place for so long, he had decided it was a good idea to keep such things on hand in case of emergencies.

He didn't bother with showing Enzo the hidden basement armoury at the moment. It would come up eventually, but it wasn't exactly why the Atharim hunter had been sent Hood's way. He pulled a bottle of beer from the fridge, then leaned against the kitchen counter and eyed Enzo, "So. Give me the run down."
Enzo followed the consultant inside and remained silent and observant. The trailer was functional, and Enzo appreciated its utility. His gaze even lingered on the weight-set for a few moments while he pondered whether a similar arrangement might be beneficial to him. If he flipped his mattress against the wall during the day, there might be room to wedge a bench into his room at Tehya's.

The tour was extensive for such a small space, and when it concluded, Enzo's brows were drawn low. "I think there has been a misunderstanding, monsieur. I need no place to stay, but thank you for the opportunity,"
he spoke level and calm. Watching monsieur White was like watching a granite slab come to life, but Enzo was not much more animated.

He did not presume to make himself comfortable, but he did glance at a table where they might sit. Meanwhile, he undid his scarf so it wasn't notted against his throat and tugged his gloves from his hands and subsequently stuffed them in a pocket.

"Rather, I am in need of guidance more than assistance. Are you familiar with the beasts known as Dreyken?"

Hood jerked his head towards the table; Enzo could sit if he wished, but he would stand for a while yet. Another sip of beer and he shrugged dismissively, "Safe house ain't of much use to you lot if you don't know about it and things go sideways. Not sure my last guest is going to be coming back any time soon."
Hopefully it was under better conditions then last time; he wasn't going to bitch about getting some practice at stitching someone up though. Wasn't something that came up often. Best he could get was to head down to one of the squatter camps and tend a few broken bones or cuts.

Dreyken; he'd heard of them while in the Middle East. Dominance V. Whatever. Back when he'd first been picked up by the Atharim and still getting a feel for them. It was there that he had come to the conclusion that he was never going to be one of them, but he'd learned enough to decide they were worth helping. They may have been a pack of fanatic twats all drinking the same cool-aid, but at the end of the day, their hearts were in the right place. And their monsters were a far more interesting fight then regular humans.

"Those're those emo wanna-be vampire twats, right? Don't like bright light, wear hoodies. Pale pansy shits that eat people. But aren't Rougarou or the super-rabies freaks."
Both of which tended to be pale pansy shits that ate people.
With his host's permission, Enzo scraped back a seat and settled in at the table. He laid his gloves out beside him.

"I understand now. This is your house,"
Enzo said before affirming Mister White's guess. "An apt description of them, yes."
Enzo shared little emotion, but the accompanying grimace spoke more than his choice of words.

"Dreyken are always male. They kill their victims with their bare hands and lick the blood from their fingers."
His voice tightened, but the memories were cauterized. He could speak about Dreyken clinically, without attachment.

"There are females too. They're called drakaina, and if dreyken are difficult to execute, the females are almost impossible to kill. My mentor spent his life finding dreyken, but only ever found two females. The last one took his life."

Enzo briefly looked away, but his jaw tightened. "I'm only looking to find this one, but when I track her patterns, it appears she spends a lot of time inside Manifesto. That club in downtown? Especially these last few months. I don't know what she's doing there, but if I see her myself, I'll know what she is immediately."

Enzo hoped the request was implied. "From what I have read, the club is difficult to reach, but I don't know how else I might see if she exists. What is your recommendation?"

Enzo's description of these female people-eaters, as lacking in specifics as it was, certainly peaked Hood's interest. Almost impossible to kill? In his past life, he and others like him had been sent after 'impossible' targets and always come out ahead, but not without ample planning and modern technology. Hunting monsters on the down-low rarely allowed the hunters to plan further ahead then 'find their lair and fill 'em with lead.'

He scoffed in faint annoyance. "Fuckin' Manifesto. I can get better scotch in a squatter camp. Better company too. Shits that hang out there are about as shallow as those girly-man bartender's fingers when they're measuring a drink."

Another sip of his breakfast beer, then he set the drink aside and crossed both arms over his chest. "Well, if your bitch is hanging out at Manifesto, there aren't many in your social circle that'll be able to walk in and take a peek. Luckily for you lot, I'm just so damn much prettier then your boys. My boss owes me a favor. I can get myself and a plus one on the door man's list if you can wait a few days."

Naturally Hood had the building's schematics and portfolios on many of the employees, and the specifics on the security system too. For a club, it was fairly impressive. But considering the clientele, it made sense. What didn't make sense was why some man-eating monster was hanging out at Manifesto. Surely she couldn't have been feeding, unless it was on the escorts and call girls.
His mother used to tell stories of how the rich and powerful enjoyed their playtime. Monaco was filled with nothing but such men and women and no few excuses to play either. Enzo assumed Manifesto was much the same, since there was no beautiful cote d'azur to lure the eye toward the watery horizon. It seemed that his companion was all too familiar with the likes of the club as well, intimately familiar in a way that left a bitter taste in his mouth. "Ah-ha, now I see. Drinking scotch when we should stay with wine."
The joke was a poor attempt at lightening the tension. If Mister White was disinclined to see the humor, Enzo's ease would hopefully convey it.

He moved on. "Take your few days, I will wait. She does not appear to be going any where. I ask myself why she goes there at all, but these drakaina are not vermin sniffing out their next meal. They want adoration and power, particularly from and over men, but can not themselves attain it through the usual political channels. Any wealth she has, has been given to her. Or taken from someone. I suspect she drains some poor fool of his and he has no idea just exactly what he is dealing with. With any luck, we'll find out who the leech's victim is and we can use them to trap her."

That last he spoke mainly to himself. Once Manifesto was over, the task became Enzo's again. He was prepared to spend a year planning her demise. Mister White may not be so patient.


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