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It is after the apocalypse, and out of the ashes THEY came. Creatures It is after the apocalypse, and out of the ashes THEY came. Creatures who thrive in darkness, and feast upon blood. Creatures of legend, now made real: vampires. Top of the food chain, they rule a cowed humanity for thousands of years, advancing science for their own ends while mutants continued to plague the remnants of human civilisation. Not that all the mutants were troublesome, for some appeared quite human, and came to alliances of a sort with their human brethren as bounty hunters who killed the dark spawn. Amongst them is one whose reputation precedes him. He rides a cyborg horse and has an unearthly beauty. He is hired only by the truly desperate or the more tolerant of people, for most fear his kind. He is dhampir, a half human and half vampire being who is not exempt from the blood-thirst but nonetheless hunts his vampiric kindred should they succumb to their lust. His name is simply D, and his precise ancestry, upbringing, and the symbiont upon his left hand are all closely guarded secrets. Secrets that once you manage to uncover them, you won't live to tell.
Set in another small settlement in the human frontier, we know this is not going to be a cheerful jaunt for D as we first witness a funeral. It is not your usual sort of funeral, unless carrying a casket bound in heavy chains, ramming a stake through where the chest must be, and heaving it over the side of a bridge into briskly running water without a batted eyelid happens to be standard catechism where you come from. You got it, these are all hallmarks of ways to kill a vampire, and this is the funeral for some poor soul who has been "infected" after getting their neck munched. Indeed, the very name of the place is as ill-omened as its location. The village of Tepes not only bears the name of D's illustrious forebear, but is nestled at the foot of an ancient citadel once inhabited by vampire Nobles and their scientists, abandoned well over 200 years before.
Ten years before, a group of four children from the village went out to collect flowers by the citadel, and vanished. A fortnight later, just as mysteriously as they disappeared, three of the children returned. They could not recount what had happened to them. In fact, only two of them seemed almost like they were, as the third had become decidedly strange, as if his mind had been broken. It remained a mystery, and one that with all these new events occurring, again rears its head. Is something in the citadel, and are the now grown children involved? And if so, how? D is determined to uncover the truth, not just for the safety of the village of Tepes, but hopefully to gain some answers of his own. It seems D is not just wandering aimlessly looking for random bounties, but is looking for clues for HIM. Just who He is, we can only assume is none other than his father,one known as the legendary Dracula, the forebear of Them all. Assume, but without a complete certainty, for D never utters his name, merely referring to the one he seeks as HIM. Just why he seeks Him is not clear, nor why he never asks about Him directly. One thing is certain, D will eradicate any Noble who strays from the bloodless path, or that gets in his way as he makes his way searching for clues.
This is not to say he is heartless, as once again we see the softer side of D in often unexpected ways. This time, it is in the way he deals with Lina Sween. One of the four disappeared, she is now the adopted daughter of the mayor. The whole town is a bit wary of her, as well as a bit derisive as they know all too well what is "secretly" going on behind closed doors at that house. At the same time, they are also hopeful of her, as she is quite intelligent and has garnered the attention of the movers and shakers of human civilisation. They visit border towns and villages, looking for the brightest to take back to civilisation to further educate them, hoping they will further advance the frontiers of human knowledge and help mankind stand tall again. In return, the hometowns gets a large monetary award and other securities, so having Lina come to their attention and selected for this honour means a lot to the town financially.
D sees her hope for a new life and desire for information as a poignantly moving thing. He wishes to solve this problem , knowing he must wield his sword to deliver final justice regardless of who the culprit turns out to be, but his actions speak volumes as to what he wishes the outcome to be. Reservedly polite and unexpectedly sweet to the young girl, he is cold and almost arrogant towards the greed driven villagers. He knows that they know what has been happening to Lina, but it is something that is beyond his help, and would only cause her pain if he unmasked it publicly by dealing a petty retribution. Indeed, the best vengeance is to let her escape. Escape by death if she is the one dealing undeath, or escape by getting on that stagecoach to attend university, either way her troubles will end. But will the end benefit the village the way they think it will?
Hideyuki Kikuchi's storytelling prowess is particularly well displayed here. This story is like an onion. We have a surface layer that is the thin skin the face the village of Tepes presents to the outside, and then we have the flesh beneath. It looks succulent, but the juices run bitter and sting. Just when you think you know what will happen next, another layer is peeled. As the layers are revealed, we learn another facet of the people of Tepes and the environment about them, and truthfully, it is as confusing to us as it s to D, for nothing is quite what it seems. He has to rely on his instinct, without trusting anyone or anything, making this not only part supernatural fantasy mixed up with a bit of horror on the side and seasoned with some western, but tasting of more than just a pinch of the the suspense genre as well. It works very well, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat, filled with anticipation yet never quite being able to guess what will actually happen next. Saiko Takaki's darkly etched pictures add greatly to the story, filling us with emotion and dealing with the fluid actions with a surety that literally makes it feel like one has fallen into the page, ratcheting up the feeling of anticipation to almost dreadlike levels.
When D does come to the heart of the matter, like the onion, it is tangily bitter sweet like remorse. The legacy of the Nobles holds surprise after surprise, not all deliberately evil, but definitely tragic. We go in looking at a what appears to be a simple tale of monstrous vampires flitting in by night to to feed and turn hapless prey, and discover that vampires are no less feeling than the humans they once reigned over. Filled with Noble aspiration, deep longing, and a wish to feel the sunlight dancing upon their face, it becomes a tale of not one, but two doomed races. Humanity is struggling to rise from the ashes of their civilisation, in the shadows of the one the Nobles built after. But will the mistakes of the past contaminate the future of the other, and should they be mutually exclusive? Perhaps He knows, if only D can find Him...
***I would like to thank Digital Manga Publishing for providing the review copy***