I woke up with a pounding headache, completely blind in the pitch darkness. I had no idea what time it was.
I was instantly awake, my heart pounding like a forge hammer. Where was I? I had no memory. I felt at my hip, my sword was gone. My hand raced, groping and clutching at the pallet of straw beneath me. I was back in the bed upstairs, I guessed. I had no memory of coming up here.
I heard a noise on the stairs. Someone was coming up to the room, slowly, so as to not alert me.
I rolled out of the bed as quickly as I could, scattering the blanket as I did, my hands searching desperately across the floor for my weapon. Blindly they touched something solid, I felt it, I breathed out in a gasp of relief, it was my sword. I tore it from the leather scabbard and threw it aside unthinkingly, pulling myself upright, I felt for the door, and flattened myself to the wall beside it.
I heard a floorboard creak outside the room. I held my breath, though my head roared, and my lungs felt fit to burst.
I heard the door handle slowly turn, the black shape of the door beside me moved. The window was boarded up, but a little light from the moon was filtering in, enough that I could make out shapes now. I saw a black shape fill the doorway, my muscles tensed, blood roaring in my ears, my sword was up, my hand so tight on the hilt my knuckles hurt.
I saw the crossbow in his hands, raised, pointing towards the bed. I didn’t wait for him to fire, I stabbed forward, hard as I could, the top of the blade hit something, went in somewhere. There was a grunt, air gasping from lungs, I was already pulling back and thrusting again before he reacted, but he turned and the sword glanced off bone, I was already moving forward, not letting up, I couldn’t give him a chance to fight back. I stabbed again and again, not knowing what I was hitting, or whether it was drawing blood. I charged through the door onto the landing, forcing the heavy body back with the weight of my own. I heaved forward with my shoulders, there were two men on the landing, I realised, one behind the first assailant, struggling to draw his own sword. If he managed to get free I couldn’t fight both of them together, not while I was blind from the dark and they wouldn’t be hampered the same way.
Then the weight in front of me gave way, there was a loud cry, hands clutching at my sleeve, but I was already following them, over the top step. I scrambled for a footing, clutching at the walls to stop my fall, Somehow my foot found a step, my hands found the walls. I braced myself between them, pushed myself back to firmer footing, almost stumbled onto my arse. But I stood, as the house shook with the violence of the two men falling to the bottom of the steps.
I couldn’t let them recover, I leapt down the flight, two at a time. I had no idea how I didn’t miss my footing and fall, but somehow every step landed true, until the end, when I stepped on an ankle, which rolled underneath me, and I fell heavily onto the struggling groaning figures. I punched down, fingers clawing at soft skin, eyes and mouth, I punched my sword hilt into something and the torso beneath me cried out and bucked like a mad horse, trying to throw me. My head crashed against a wall and lights blinded me, but still I fought, punching again at whatever I could reach. My sword was gone, I realised, and I tore my knife from my belt and stabbed it down holding it with both hands, again and again.
I don’t know how long I was frenziedly stabbing at the unseen bodies for. But when I came to myself I realised they were no longer moving. I dragged myself back onto the steps, crawling up with my hands slippery with blood, tasting it in my mouth. I was almost at the top when I realised I’d left my sword behind, but it was too late to go back. I ran back inside my room, groped along the wall for the table. I found the lantern, ignored it for the bowl of water which I washed my hands and the knife hilt in as quickly as I could, so that it wouldn’t slip in my hands if I had to use it again.
Then the lantern. It took an age to get it lit in the dark, but then it was flaring, illuminating the room.
I glanced around, the bed was dishevelled, blanket halfway across the floor, my belt and scabbard laying against the wall. I grabbed it and buckled it round me. I hurried to the door again. There was blood sprayed across the wall and door. My axe lay beside it, and I grabbed it also. Paused, trying to still my breathing and ignore the pounding of my heart to listen for other steps. I could not hear anything else, the inn seemed deserted.
I went down the stairs again more carefully, watching my footing. When I got to the bottom I saw the two assailants were laying covered in blood, with a pool of it spreading beneath them. I cautiously reached out, keeping my knife ready, and turned the top body over. It was the innkeeper, John. He had been a good man, I remembered. Quiet and respectful. The Vampire was no respecter of persons.
I looked at the other assailant he had fallen atop, crushed beneath him. The eyes stared sightlessly up at the ceiling. His neck was broken, he must have died in the fall. It was Robert, his son, who had been with us on the patrols.
I cursed. The Innkeeper could have been taken at any time, but Robert could only have been turned tonight, for he had been with us both previous nights. The Inn was evidently unsafe, the Vampire must have been invited inside. He might still be here. I paused, listening intently. Then I searched around the bodies with the lantern. I found my sword, laying against the wall, and the crossbow still unfired. Robert’s sword was still in its scabbard, he’d never even managed to draw it.
How did I not remember anything? Things were a blur. I remembered Johanne leaving, then nothing. The Innkeeper had been friendly, I’d asked for another drink. Then… I cursed myself, the drink. It must have been drugged. Had it just been intended to knock me out, or was it poison, and then he came up to make sure? Was I alive just because he’d got the dose wrong?
I armed myself with my own sword and John’s crossbow. My own was back in the room somewhere, I supposed. I’d been too quick leaving to even notice it. This one was good enough. I went quickly to the outer door of the common room. It was locked and barred. I could hear nothing within the Inn, but outside, I listened closely, I thought I heard a scream, but maybe it was the wind.
I couldn’t stay here. It was dangerous to go outside alone but the Inn was now no safer, I was a sitting duck in here. I tried the door but it was locked, and I didn’t have time to look for a key. I took my axe to the boards, smashing the door and splitting the wood. It took seven blows before it gave, and then I tore at it with my hands until the opening was wide enough to push myself through. I kicked my way free, and stood in the street outside, alone. The night was pitch black, and still. I was alone.
As I walked the streets, I heard shouting in the distance, I moved towards it, cautiously, aware it might be a trick. It was then that the fog descended, like a blanket dropped over my head. I almost screamed, it was so sudden. The dark became absolute, my lantern showed only a blank grey before my eyes.
I dropped to a crouch, ready for attack. Nothing came. I heard steps and whirled about, but could see nothing in the shifting clouds of fog. There was a soft laugh, a cry, a child sobbing, I could not place their direction or distance. Then I heard a wolf’s snarl, from just behind me, loud as though it was right in my ear. I spun round, axe swinging, hitting nothing but fog.
I had to get off the streets. I moved to the side. The houses would be locked and barred after dark, but perhaps I could convince someone to let me in. I’d warned them against it. ‘No matter what’, I’d told them, ‘no matter who you think it is, don’t open the door’. But perhaps I’d get lucky, find someone stupid enough to ignore my warnings.
I moved over to a house, slowly, sounds drifting up from all around. I saw a shape flit through the fog, it looked barely human in the half-light. Its face broken and twisted, gnarled and misshapen. Another, grimacing at me from the drifting fog, then vanishing.
“Dadddddy”, the voice came to me from somewhere too far away to reach, but too close to ignore. Sad, lost, scared. I grimaced and hardened my face. I’d known I’d hear her. But it always hurt. Every time.
“Daaaaddy” it came again, “I’m loooost daddy,” I snarled. I’d kill it for this alone. If nothing else, I’d kill it for this. But it didn’t let up.
I saw her, in the fog, wandering, lost, crying. I saw her face look up at me for an instant and I almost stumbled to my knees at the sight of it. But I turned away, tears blinding me, and pushed on, almost crashing into the side of the house, fumbling with my hands for the door.
“Let me in!” I yelled, desperate now. “Let me in, you bastards, I’m not the fucking Vampire, it’s me.” Which was, of course, what the Vampire would say. There was no answer. I could imagine them huddled inside, terrified. It was useless.
“Daaaaaaaddy”, she called for me again. ‘The hell with this’, I thought, and took my axe to their door.
It took less blows this time, whether because it was thinner wood, or I was more desperate. But the door splintered and broke. I pushed it open, and still had the presence of mind to flatten myself to the side when I kicked it open. A crossbow bolt flew past, almost hitting me. Then I was inside, my hands up,
“Don’t shoot, it’s me” I cried. “It’s fine, I’m not a danger, don’t shoot”, the husband lowered his crossbow, visibly shaking, as I slammed the shattered door back into the doorway, sitting with my back holding it closed, breathing hard, tears on my cheeks.
It took a few minutes for me to gather myself to stand up again. But I had to try. I had to keep going. I didn’t have a choice. Calming the husband and his wife, I looked out into the street, the fog was gone, the street was lit by the light of the moon. I breathed deeply. Steeled myself. No choice, I told myself. I stepped back out into the night, heart racing.
I had made it halfway down the street when clouds suddenly covered the moon, and the lantern light dimmed almost to nothing. I heard a shout, running feet from the next street over. I didn’t pursue, dropped to a crouch, waiting, my hand on my sword. There was a crash of wood, a grunt, someone smashing open a door with an axe. I recognised the sound. I made my way over in the darkness, following the sound, as I couldn’t’ recognise anything.
I found the door, wide open, smashed to pieces with inhuman blows. I tensed myself, checked my crossbow and went inside, as slow and quiet as I could. There were sounds from the back room. I moved forward, feet placed gently on the boards, testing each one before putting my weight down. Seconds passed, too many. I couldn’t breathe.
There they were, a figure huddled over two bodies, lying still on the floor in a pool of blood. The figure suddenly tensed, twisted round violently, his face a mask of rage. “You!” it screamed, and charged me without a pause.
I pulled the trigger at point blank range. I couldn’t miss. The bolt slammed home, right between its eyes. It crashed into me and I staggered back, already half drawing my sword, but there was no need. It lay prone, leg twitching, making a death rattle deep in its throat. Not even a thrall could shrug off a head shot.
I checked the bodies but they were dead, hacked to death with an axe. The Vampire wasn’t holding back tonight. It was done with subtle. It was weakening us, tearing out our defences, leaving us helpless for it to feed at its leisure on whatever was left. I shivered. I hadn’t expected this so soon. I thought we would have more time.