Della lands flat on her back with an indelicate thump. Rage reaches up from her throat, but she squeezes her eyes shut and chokes it back down. She shakes her head to clear it, opens her eyes, and sees Jamie reaching down to offer her a hand up. She takes it, and is pulled swiftly back to her feet.
“OK,” Jamie says, “What happened there?”
“You knocked me down.”
“You – ” Della pauses. She had thrown a punch, but then her foot – of course. “When I stepped forward to punch, you pushed my foot even farther with yours. That put me off-balance, so you only had to do a little to knock me down.”
“Right. Now come at me again.”
Della smoothes out her gi, takes a deep breath, and drops into her stance. She and Jamie begin to circle each other in the ring. Della pays closer attention to her footing – in order to close and strike, she needs to first commit with her foot, unless she can draw Jamie out. So she hadn’t thrown a punch and then her foot was moved, she had stepped to punch but was interrupted before she could even swing. OK, so do better next time.
Della steps in with her right foot, a straight punch on its way – Jamie once again goes to kick it out with her own leading right foot, but Della has feinted. Instead of putting her foot down, she lifts her knee and turns her hips for a roundhouse kick. Before she can snap, though, Jamie pops a single knuckle into her quadriceps, right above the knee. Della’s leg goes wobbly, and Jamie slides in, her left biceps under Della’s leg and her right elbow coming to a halt within two inches of Della’s face. Dell’s eyes go wide, then Jamie lifts her leg a tad more and dumps her on her back again.
“And there,” Jamie asks after helping Della up once more. “What was that?”
“You hit my leg,” Della says, replaying the exchange in her mind. “And it stunned me, so you moved in.”
“Good. So, try again.”
Della smoothes out her gi, takes a deep breath, and drops into her stance again. She and Jamie begin to circle each other once more. So it’s not just my footing, she’s got a second line of defense. Della waits until just before Jamie is mid-stride – an easy task, as she is stepping slowly and steadily – then darts in with a quick right jab, feinting again. Jamie goes to block it, but blocks across her body with her own right hand, so Della follows up with a left hook. Jamie blocks high, easily, her right arm already in position – exposing her torso to a left roundhouse kick. Just as Della had planned. But as Della turns her hips, Jamie steps in with her left foot and shoves an open left palm right into the joint where Della’s left femur meets her pelvis, sending her off balance again. Della recovers, though, and reaches for Jamie’s gi. The two grapple briefly, and Della kicks out one of Jamie’s legs, then sends her tumbling to the mat – and then Della is pulled right along with, watching in slow motion as Jamie tumbles smoothly out of the throw and sends Della to the mat face-first. The holds are released, and Jamie helps Della up yet again.
“OK,” Della says. “I got it. Learning how to take a fall, learning how to step, learning how to place your hands – yeah, I got it. They’re all important. Fine.”
“Good,” Jamie says with a nod. “Shall we continue the lesson, then?”
The callous disregard for the unfortunate, then, seemed a necessary pill to swallow. It was the lesser of a few dozen evils.
“What if we all just decided to go extinct,” Della had asked at one point.
“A noble option,” Jamie said with a nod and a slow blink. “But think it through. While you, or I, or even Elder Morgan might be willing to go along with it, it would only work if everyone went along with it. And there are quite a few bloodkin around, these nights.”
“Couldn’t we weed out the bad apples?”
“Ah, and then do ourselves in once we’d struck down the naysayers. Still wouldn’t work – again, there’s a lot of us, and the ‘bad apples’ would surely catch wind and run. They wouldn’t all make it, but all it takes is one – if just one managed to hide out until the rest of us had died off, it would start the whole damn cycle all over again. Except now there’d be a lot of knowledge lost, and a lot less self-policing, so things would be much worse.”
As Della came to appreciate the bigger picture – that bloodkin society was here to stay, and that it absolutely had to remain hidden from the public eye – the rather drastic measures took on a more innocuous cast. Not “innocent,” not by a long shot. More like the sort of evil that knows it can’t change, and so tries to restrain itself as much as possible. It seemed absurd to Della, to have so much power and yet to hold back. But she was the new kid on the block here, and had to follow suit with the rest of them, otherwise she might wind up like Edward. That fear, if nothing else, kept her in line.
Jamie said Della could choose lesson three for herself – the first two were really the most important, after that it was kind of a self-structured curriculum. Della had asked about the Hunters. Jamie let out a deep sigh.
“Well, you gotta learn some time, I guess.” Jamie ordered another round before continuing. “OK, so there are these folks. Something happens to ‘em. Either a vampire goes after someone in their family, or they get handpicked for being super-great at what they do, or they’re just some poor sap who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and now they know too much.” She rolled her eyes back and forth for a couple seconds. “Yeah, I think that about covers it. However it happens, they’ve caught a glimpse of the underside of things, and now they can’t go back. ‘Oh, shit, there’s bloodsucking monsters prowling the streets. Better kill ‘em all!’ You know how that sort of thing goes.”
“But aren’t we stronger,” Della asked. “I mean, don’t we have special powers and stuff?”
“Well, that’s just it.” Jamie swirled the last few sips of blood around in her goblet. “A Hunter knows that, so we can’t exactly take ‘em by surprise. The experienced ones, anyway. And they try to pick us off when we’re young – nip ‘em in the blood. I mean, bud.” She shook her head. “And, of course, the very best of them are as stealthy as we are. We don’t even know who they are, there’ll just be some really weird murder on the news and suddenly Jim’s not around anymore. Sometimes not even that much.”
“So,” Della said, “How many of these guys are there, then?”
“Nobody knows. Not even the Hunters. It’s not like they’re all part of some club or something. Soon as we find out about one, we follow up. That goes without saying. But the ones who pick us off in the middle of the night? Could be one. Could be ten. Could be ten in a group. We just don’t know.”
“Jeez.” Della ran her hands back through her long brown hair. “So there are people literally stalking the streets looking for fuckin’ vampires.”
“Well,” Jamie said, leaning back in her chair, “There are literal vampires stalking the streets at night. Can you blame ‘em?”
The phlebotomist arrived with their second goblets.
“So,” Della said, taking a swig, “You said there were other kin, too. What’s their deal?”
“Yeah. There’s moonkin, they’re like werewolves, except they don’t have the allergy to silver. They’re really more like hardcore hippies: they mostly leave us alone, unless we intrude on their territory. But they tend to stay out of big cities, so that’s fine by us. They’re only really a problem for bloodkin flying solo out in the boonies. They run in packs, they howl at the moon, they do their thing.
“And then there’s the bramblekin, they’re just – weird. You ever meet one, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Seems like each and every one of ‘em is their own special kind of crazy. It’s hard to explain.”
“All right,” Della said. “Any others?”
“Yeah, but,” Jamie stammered, “They’re even harder to explain. Haven’t met ‘em, myself. Ask Thomas some night, he might give you a speech if he’s in a good mood. And if you haven’t done anything stupid lately. Which shouldn’t be too hard, you being under house arrest and all.” Jamie gave a wry grin on the last point.
For her fourth lesson, Della decided to learn how to defend herself from Hunters. And so she had been enrolled in “the dojo,” the all-encompassing martial arts academy of bloodkin society. After some days of learning how to fall, how to roll, how to stand, how to step, how to hold her hands, how to move her hands, she had gotten sick of the minutiae. She wanted to learn some nifty moves so she could start trashing bozos, not some fancy-pants dancing. So she called Jamie out on it – and Jamie had taken her up on the challenge.
And now here they stood. Fortunately, Della had the wherewithal to comprehend that Jamie had defeated her with the very fundamentals she had so recently derided, and so she was appropriately humbled, rather than outright humiliated.
“Good,” Jamie had said. “Shall we continue the lesson, then?
“Yes, please,” Della responded.
Jamie directs Della to sit, and then sits, herself.
“So,” the teacher says to her student, “Now you get that ‘spacing’ and ‘timing’ are kind of a big deal. That’s good. I didn’t just whup your ass and piss you off, you actually learned. The question now is: what next?”
What next, Della thinks. “I don’t know,” she says.
“All right,” Jamie says with a nod. “Maybe that’s for the best. Hit the bag for a bit. We’ll meet again tomorrow night.”Della nods, takes a deep breath, and decides to take her frustrations out on John Q. Everlast.