The second night’s patrol had been as inconclusive as the first. No thralls had been seen, and the Vampire had been crafty enough not to attempt to attack us with voices or visions. It was laying low, letting us weaken ourselves with doubts and fears, suspicions sapping our strength. I knew some were already calling me a charlatan, whipping up the town just to chase phantoms and phantasies.
Nevertheless, I had managed to gather a group of eight stout men for the initial expedition. Johanne and Frederick of course. Walter remained, and oddly, Jack still stuck beside us, though I hadn’t yet figured him out. Robert, the scrawny kid, had come out last night, but claimed he had to help his father in the inn today, and could not come. I did not miss him. Of the others, I was perhaps most hopeful of a short, broad-shouldered smith named Dan. He was as quiet as Walter, but unlike the thick-necked miller’s assistant, he had an observant look about him.
We arrived at the east gate just as the sun broke over the treetops. We were heavily armed, and well-provisioned. Though some more than others.
Dan scowled. “I didn’t think I’d need a lantern,” he said, peevishly. “We’re going out in the daylight aren’t we?”
Johanne sighed. “We need to prepare for the worst. If we’re trapped out there and night falls you’ll want it well enough, and you’ll want a spare flask of oil as well.”
“Damnit,” Frederick said, climbing back up the steps to the cellar. “It’s been cleaned out.”
”What, all of it.” Johanne asked.
“The mayor’s supposed to keep six barrels of oil down there, for the town’s supplies. There’s nothing left.”
“Fucking lazy bastard,” Johanne was furious. “Probably thought he’d save some coin from the town’s treasury and pocket it himself.”
“We can share oil, if it comes to it,” I interrupted, “And we’re losing light bickering here.” I wanted to get them back on track. “We’ve got to get going, if we want to get there.”
Johanne stilled glowered, but he agreed, and we set out from the east gate. The plan was to cover a short stretch of woodland as closely as possible but not range further afield. We’d cover a section in detail, and return in plenty of time before sundown, then cover another tomorrow. Theoretically the section was small enough we could have searched it in half a day, and though the others had pressed for the search to cover a wider area. I had refused.
We reached the forest treeline after a half hour of walking. The fields were still bare from the winter, the spring ploughing was done, but the seeds were only just poking from the ground. The trees were tall and already thickening with leaves. It would be dark beneath the canopy. We pushed ahead, straight into the tangle of branches and bushes. We could not follow the forest tracks; the Vampire would have had his servants bury him in the most overgrown part of the forest, far from any path or clearing.
We had to make our own path.
As I had suspected, we were not half an hour into the forest before things started to go wrong. First the light dropped like someone had snuffed out a lantern. From one step to the next it was like day to night, and we could barely make each other out in the gloom. I looked up, the trees were no closer together, but the light wasn’t penetrating the canopy.
“Close up” I shouted. “Shoulder-to-shoulder.” To their credit most of them obeyed quickly enough.
“What is it?” Frederick asked. “The light’s dropped,” I answered. “Don’t you see it?”
“Well, possibly a little, he answered, “but the forest is heavy just here.”
“It’s the creature,” I gritted my teeth. “Light your lanterns.” We had them lit in minutes, but the oil-light barely penetrated the gloom that now felt almost suffocating. The air under the trees felt thick and suffocating. Slowly we moved forward, taking our time, making sure of our neighbours, so that none of us got separated. I could feel my heart racing fit to burst.
There was a howl from the trees, close. We froze, barely breathing. It was joined by another.
“Is it the Vampire?” Frederick asked. I shook my head. “Can’t rely on them being lies. It’ll use wolves if it has them nearby,” I told them. “Load your crossbows, make sure your axes are to hand.”
We armed ourselves. The trees were too close, just here, it wasn’t a good stand. I felt the others muttering, “shouldn’t we move”, one asked, “find a clearing.” One of them, Andrew, began to move away. Only a pace from the group but it was so dark I could barely make out his silhouette.
“Stay where you are”, I snapped viciously. The barely-perceptible shape paused, almost out of sight. “get back here now if you want to live,” I growled, putting all the force I could into it. Reluctantly, agonisingly slowly, he moved back, so I could just about make out his face in the half-light. He looked like a sack of flour. “Stay together,” I snarled, “whatever we do, whatever comes, stay together.” Another howl rose up, closer now, it seemed to come from every direction at once, then more joined it, three, four, more of them than I could count. How many were wolves, and how many phantoms? We’d soon find out.
I saw it before it attacked, a black shape only distinguishable from the darkness by its movement. It moved between and behind the trees like a ghost, then I saw its eyes, and then it was on me. I fired my crossbow but I couldn’t see if it hit anything. I hit the ground on my back like I’d been struck by a wagon, all the breath leaving my lungs in a rush, leaving me gasping for air as the snarling, teeth of the beast snapped for my throat and bit down on the padded leather gorget around my throat.
Its teeth penetrated the first layer but no deeper, my head bounced off a tree root as it shook me like a rat. Its claws went through the sleeve of my jerkin like butter, red-hot needles in my flesh. I could feel its hot breath in my mouth, tasting of rotten meat. I couldn’t find my knife. There were cries, howls, snarling, someone’s boot kicked me in the head as they staggered past. Someone cried out for help. Then the hilt of my knife slipped into the palm of my groping hand. I drew it free with a desperate jerk and plunged it without thinking into the creature’s side, its neck, its forelimbs, whatever I could reach. I kept stabbing, I didn’t stop. Eventually its breath slowed. Its bite slackened. It stopped shaking my head back and forth. I kept stabbing it.
Eventually my thoughts came back to me enough that I remembered where I was, I dragged the dead animal off me, and crawled to my knees. Shapes were all around me in the darkness. Our lanterns were out. I could hardly see anything. I could hear nothing but the howls of the wolves. My heart was racing, my thoughts dull and disconnected. I was on my feet without thinking, about to run, when something within me forced me to stop. I couldn’t run, I wouldn’t run.
I turned, the space between the trees was not quite as dark as I’d thought it was. The howls were more distant. And I could make out the shape of Dan as he stood over a wolf. He was smashing his axe into its skull as it lay at his feet, its torso almost severed in two.
A few paces away Johanne was finishing off another which was laying half across Frederick as he tried to get to his feet. It was only a runt that barely came to Frederick’s knees, but he was bleeding heavily from the face and breathing hard like he’d been running flat-out. His face was white.
There was no sign of anyone else.
There had only been the three wolves, from what I could see. A large male whom Dan had almost split in half when it leapt at him. A wiry female which had gone for me. And the runt which Johanne had shot with a crossbow bolt as it leapt, though it had kept coming, clawing Frederick so deeply, he’d almost lost his eye. Johanne had split its skull and then cut its throat before it could do much more. The other five had just run for their lives. They’d disappeared into the forest, the darkness under the trees swallowing them whole, as though they’d never existed.
We tried to find them, we walked for hours, calling their names. Eventually we found Walter, lying with his forearms and his throat cut in a ditch. His crossbow had been fired, and his axe had someone else’s blood on it. But whoever he’d fought had come off the better. Frederick offered to carry him back, but I made them bury him in the ditch. We would be lucky to get out with our skins, we couldn’t slow ourselves down carrying a corpse.
The gloom came and went, I couldn’t tell if there was a pattern to it, if it was occluding some specific area from us or just random. We heard wolves harrying our steps, and occasionally saw shapes in the trees, wolves and human figures, some armed like men, some twisted, limbs too long, fingers like reaching branches, too indistinct to make out, and when I glimpsed their faces, they looked wrong. Eyes too large, mouths too wide and filled with needles, skin stretched like a corpse. I ignored them, they couldn’t be real.
I had no idea if the howls and the human-looking figures were real or just more tricks. I assumed if they were real they’d have attacked already and so I tried to ignore them too. The Vampire’s influence would be faint during the day, but not absent. I stared about the trees, trying to find our way back. But nothing seemed to make any sense, there were no landmarks I recognised, the cuts I’d made in the trees when we came in seemed to just be leading us further in. I had no idea what time it was either. We could have been wandering for one hour or ten.
I grew increasingly sure that we’d never escape. It felt like night already, and I could not tell if the sun was setting now or whether it already had. All I could do was push on, following tracks I was becoming sure were just figments of my mind. Hours seemed to pass in a frenzied, stumbling haze. The trees becoming taller, thicker more twisted and overgrown. The ground more tangled with roots, and the soil reeking of rotting vegetation and sucking at our boots with every step, branches reaching for our eyes, sharp thorns clutching at our coats, vines feeling like they were winding endlessly around our ankles, trying to trip us up on purpose, and if we fell they’d wrap about our legs and arms and never let us up.
I could barely see in the dim light, I was so exhausted I could hardly breathe. Night was falling, we’d been here for hours, we were hopelessly lost. We’d die here, I knew, never seeing the sun again. The others followed behind me, stalwart, but I didn’t tell them I had no idea where we were going, I hadn’t seen any of our tracks for several hours now. Nothing looked familiar, we were going uphill, getting further away from the exit with every step.
Suddenly, astonishingly, I spied a light up ahead. We pushed towards it, I didn’t care where we were, whether we’d come all the way through the forest and out the other side didn’t even matter. I hurried forward, struggling past vines and roots and grasping branches, head down, eyes clenched, breath ragged.
And we broke out of the treeline onto the fields, blinking in the harsh daylight. I saw we were no more than a hundred yards from where we’d entered. Relief almost broke me, tears building up like a dam behind my eyes. I breathed steadily for some time before I trusted myself to speak to the others.
I looked up at the sky. It wasn’t even yet noon. We’d been in the forest for barely three hours.
None of us wanted to go back in. I could see they were all as rattled as I was. Even Johanne’s hand was shaking as he filled his pipe. We walked back to the city, and it took all our strength not to break into a run, with that shadowed forest hanging like a storm cloud behind us.
Our early return, and the loss of five men was a hard tale to tell. But we put the best face on it. We’d recovered somewhat in the time it took us to reach the town gate, though Frederick still looked pale, and the wound across his face was bleeding heavily through the cloth he’d wrapped around his head. His wife took him in immediately to dress his wound properly. I and the other two went straight to the Inn where Robert and his father worked to drown our woes in as much ale as we could drink.
I hadn’t slept for three days, feeling too alert to even lie down. But the ale slowly made me drowsy, until I felt I could attempt it. I poured myself one more cup to make sure. Then the door opened and the grey-haired woman from the church meeting approached us, stony-faced. I’d asked around since the meeting, and discovered her name was Rosaline.
She sat down across from us and fixed me with a cold gaze. I looked back at her, too tired for this.
“Not now,” I told her. “Let me drink, let me sleep, then you can berate me.”
She ignored me, “Who are you,” she asked. I blinked, exhaustion starting to catch up with me.
“Dennis”, I said.
“Of Wurzheim. I know,” she said. “That’s not what I’m asking. You’re a Vampire hunter, you say. Just happened to arrive here right as we have a Vampire problem.”
“I was tracking it,” I told her. I was in no mood for this. “Look, I know you have questions. We had a setback today, tomorrow we’ll do better.”
“Today was a bloody fucking disaster,” she replied. “Five missing, probably dead. Frederick almost lost an eye. No sign of the Vampire. Am I missing anything?”
“No,” I replied. “I think that covers everything.”
“And so I’m asking myself,” she replied, ignoring my sarcasm, “who is this great Vampire Hunter, who leads a team of men to their deaths on his first day out. How much experience in this does he really have?”
I glared at her. I was getting angry. “More fucking experience than you.” I told her. She bridled.
“And how much exactly is that,” she replied, not to be put off.
I sighed. “Look, Rosaline,” I told her, “I get that I haven’t covered myself in glory here. But you don’t understand what happened out there. I didn’t lose five men. I saved three.”
She paused. Perhaps the direct approach was best. I was exhausted anyway trying to pretend. I went on without stopping, “Vampires don’t just sit there and wait for the axe. They fight back. And they’re pretty fucking good at it. They’ve been doing it for longer than we’ve been alive. Much longer. I don’t do this for fun, or for fortune, or for people to tell me what a great guy I am. Fat chance of that anyway. No I do this because I have no fucking choice.
“It’s this or death. You get me. This whole fucking town will be filled with corpses before the week’s out unless we go out into that forest and fight. And yes, some of us died today. And some more might die tomorrow. But we’re all dead anyway, so we might as well try.”
She didn’t reply. She just looked at me, studying me as though she’d never seen me before. I was acutely aware of the other two sitting beside me, their ale undrunk before them. I wished they hadn’t had to hear that. Johanne had probably suspected already, I guessed. But I’d have preferred to varnish the truth a little more for Dan.
“You have no choice,” she said, finally. I sighed, trust her to pick up on that.
“No,” I said. “No fucking choice at all.” And she could take that however she pleased. I drained my ale and walked to the door up to the guest rooms. I needed to sleep.
*** *** ***
When I woke it was from a frenzy of dreams that chased me sweating from my rest; faces from my past, voices of the dead. I almost leapt from my bed, though I still felt so tired I could barely think. It was almost evening. The pallet that had been given me in the Inn’s guest room was just a basic thing of wood and straw, but it had been comfortable enough when I lay down. Now it felt suffocating. I couldn’t breath.
I hadn’t undressed so I only buckled my short sword about me and threw open the door. I leapt down the narrow staircase two at a time, and burst into the inn’s common room already calling for ale. Dan had left, but Johanne was still sitting there. I wondered if he’d left the bench all day. I went over and slumped wearily down beside him. He didn’t ask me if I’d slept well.
We sat in silence for several minutes. Then he asked, “Was she right?” I couldn’t place what he was asking for a moment, then I made the connection. I wasn’t sure how to answer it.
“You mean am I just a chancer? Someone wants to make a quick coin or a name for himself?” I asked. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye.
He shrugged. “If you like,” he replied.
I sighed and swigged my ale. It no longer tasted of anything. “No,” I said.
“Right,” he replied. He finished his ale, got up and walked over to the door. “I’ll see you for patrol,” he told me. And he left.
I had no idea whether he’d believed me. I supposed at this point it didn’t really matter.