BY A HUNTER’S MOON

 This is a long post; if you want to read it chapter-by-chapter, go here

What moonlight made it through the interlocking crowns of the treetops came to rest in a crooked patchwork of light on the forest floor. The wolf did his best to avoid the light, but his labored breathing left a succession of slowly dissipating balls of vapor, a trail that, for one who can track by the scent of fear, one for whom the forest gloom was as bright as a summer field, was unnecessary. He never looked behind him, It was there.  No chance that It would pursue another of his pack, thus sparing him until another night.  The others had been taken, one by one, over the course of a few weeks. It was hungry, he was alone,  and he ran.

He made his way uphill, jumping boulders, rounding huge trunks. He thought briefly of the high mountains where he had spent his puppyhood. There, they had been hungry, but never afraid. Hunger was like another sibling to him, he had known it all his life. Fear was a stranger, an unwelcome one at that, and so he ran. His feet hurt, his lungs ached from the incessant influx of cold air as he ran.

A shadow separated and fell from the branches above, uniting with its mooncast counterpart in front of the exhausted carnivore. It’s breath left no visible cloud. The tall shadow approached the wolf, who backed up, snarling. No more running, time to fight or die.  He gathered his legs under him, a low growl escaped his lips as he leaped, powerful jaws opened wide.

The wolf never saw what had gripped his throat, but he felt his neck snap, saw the red eyes drop below his field of vision, heard the tearing sound, so familiar, the sound of flesh being ripped from a carcass. Suddenly tired, all he wanted was to lay against his mother’s belly, a teat in his mouth, his brother and sister snuggled up against either side of him, keeping him warm, keeping him safe….

———————————–

Seeker ran to Vali, then back up the hillside deeper in the woods. Twice the Carpathian Sheepdog repeated the circuit, marking his companion’s progress. When he didn’t return a third time, Vali knew he was close to whatever had the dog so excited.  Even at noon, little light penetrated the forest canopy. This late in the afternoon, the shadows swallowed the light as it filtered downward.  Vali unshouldered his rifle as he walked. In Romania, bad things happened in dark places.

Seeker was standing over the carcass, his tail down. He whined as Vali approached. With the barrel of his rifle he poked the carcass of the wolf, who lay as if sleeping. “What is it, Seeker? ” But he felt it, too.  On a dare from his little brother, he had once run through the cemetery outside of  Lodescu, where they were visiting an aunt and uncle, at midnight. The tingles that crawled up his spine then was akin to what he felt now, looking at a vampire’s kill.

He spoke aloud, Seeker watched him with an air of comprehension. “See the wound in the throat, boy? He did not lay down and die here, he was placed in that position.” Vali gestured toward a divot ripped out out the forest duff a few yards away. “He leapt at his attacker from here,” Vali talked as he stepped in the direction indicated by the disturbed leaves. Seeker followed, sniffed the disturbed soil.

Vali saw no tracks, no crushed leaves. Seeker put his nose to a dark spot on the ground. Vali stooped to look at it; it was blood, only a few hours old. Tracks led downhill from the kill site. This was the carcass of the the wolf who had been feeding on their lamb downhill, when he became prey himself. He fled uphill, where he met his killer, and then his fate.

Seeker barked and looked downhill. He was right, it was getting darker. “Let’s go, friend. Lucian should have a pot of boiling potatoes and shallots, and no meat, unless we do our part.” Before starting downhill, Vali took his knife and cut off the wolf’s right ear. What passed for a regional government these days was promising a bounty.

As they cleared the forest, Seeker froze, his nose pointed to their left. Vali saw it immediately, a hare, risking all for a last few nibbles of dandelion before returning to the warren for the night. Vali sighted on the hare and adjusted his aim for the distance, about a hundred and fifty feet, and for the light breeze blowing up the valley. He fired, the brown hare fell over and Seeker ran to retrieve it. When the dog returned, Vali saw that he had hit the hare in the head, all the meat would be fit for the pot. Vali fit the upward-curved stock of his Afghan rifle, a spoil of war called a jezail, under his shoulder, and took the kill that Seeker offered him. He stuffed it in his belt, and together they walked across the wide valley to the farmhouse on the other side of  Minascu Creek. The fallen log made a good bridge. The creek was not deep. In the summer, Seeker would splash his way across the stream ahead of Vali. But it was still cold, and he knew that they would not let him in the house until he had dried off.

The wind was blowing from the direction of the house, Vali could smell the potatoes and herbs. Seeker smelled more than potatoes, and he growled a warning to his human. Vali shushed him with a pat on the head, and reloaded the jezail as they neared their home.

Lucian was standing outside, a few feet from their open front door. He faced five hooded men on horseback who were spread apart in a line the length of their one-room wood-and-stone cottage. Lucian looked calm, relaxed. In his belt was their father’s pistol, the two-barrel, his favorite. The horseman closest to the approaching hunters looked their way. It was Skender, which meant that the big man astride the middle horse was Iorghu Khorzha, the vampire hunter. Vali joined his brother in front of the house. Seeker took his place between them. Greetings of a cool nature were exchanged.

“We heard the shot, Vali.” Iorghu rasped. Turkish tobacco would kill him before any vampire would. To Lucian, he continued, “When your brother rode with us, he kept us well-stocked with game. Once we heard a shot, Ferka would start a fire.” Iorghu stopped to cough up something bloody. “He never disappointed us by coming back empty-handed.”

“I wish I had more than a single hare, Iorghu. I regret that I have not enough for our Father’s friend and his retinue.”

“Never could be plain-spoken, you two.” Iorghu coughed, then spat before continuing. “Lucian was just telling us that vampires must be, what was that word again?”

“Omni-hemovores.” Lucian said evenly. ” It means that…”

“Yes,” Iorghu cut him off. “Vampires can live on the blood of any warm-blooded animal.” Skender turned in his saddle, and looked down the path that had brought Vali and Seeker from the forest. Seeker did, too.

“Howsomever, retinue,” Iorghu declared with a sneer, “They prefer human blood, not the blood of a bear, like the one Skender found at the edge of the wood, the remains of a goat in its belly. Been dead for a while, but it was undoubtedly a vampire kill. As was the lynx Skender found in your trash pile, along with the remains of several egg-laying hens that were his meals, is my guess.”

On hearing his name, Skender returned his gaze to the brothers. The hair on Seeker’s back stiffened. The smaller man smiled, his teeth were gapped and yellow

“Your animal does not like me.” Skender remarked in a sibilant whisper. Vali knew that it was all he could muster. Skender had famously bested a vampire in hand-to-hand combat, a feat which had made him a legend, but cost him a fair piece of his larynx. The talk was that the bite had made him part-vampire, or that he had taken on the spirit of the godless creature. Vali took no stock in that tale, Skender had always been a fierce man in any kind of fight.

“Does anybody?” Vali wanted to say. Instead he pointed to Skender’s saddle bag, “Maybe he smells your souvenirs.” There were proofs required for the payment of bounty on vampires, as with any other predator. Fangs were good, if the creature’s death came about by means of fire. Whole heads were better.

Lucian patted the dog’s back and said nothing.

Now that it was almost fully dark, Lucian went about lighting the oil lamps on either side of the front door. Flickering lights and shifting shadows played across  the hunters’ faces, making Skender’s mirthless grin even more unnnerving.

Iorghu retook control of the conversation. “No, vampires definitely prefer human blood, like that of the night watchman at the mill outside Petisoara.”

Vali had not heard about that attack. Petisoara was several leagues downstream, where the valley broadened. But Iorghu was not through.

“And what vampire would not want a taste of little Mina Ibanescu, niece of my man Emilian here.” He gestured toward the dour man, the only one of the party with a right to be morose, on the black horse to his right. To Emilian’s right was Iorghu’s son, Iosif, his match in strength and size, but not in intellect. To Iosif’s right was the smokehouse, a supply of wood beside it, chopped and ready for the coming spring slaughter.

Dragos crouched on the smokehouse roof, next to the chimney, where the other horsemen blocked Skender’s view. Skender’s famous kill was against a newly-sponsored vampire, a whelp with yet-undeveloped strength and skills. Dragos knew he could best the lizard-man, and the drinking of his blood would be a delight. But the man’s senses were uncanny; He had almost spotted him twice before Dragos made it to the smokehouse. He wanted to stay and listen. So far, the brothers had not given any indication that they knew he had taken up residence on their land. But the Vampire-hunter had said Petisoara, and Dragos knew what that meant, and what he had to do. He slipped off the roof making less noise than the family of mice huddled in the shingles surrounding the chimney, their whiskers vibrating rapidly.

“Iorghu, are you accusing us of harboring a vampire? Father hunted the red-eyes with you, remember. My brother did as well.” There was anger in Lucian’s voice. Vali sighed, and began to clean the hare, throwing bits to Seeker, who closed his eyes in delight each time he bit into another fresh morsel.

“No, not harbor,” Iorghu sounded as if he had water in his lungs. “More that you tolerate its presence, because it has become the guardian of your livestock.”

“We lost a lamb yesterday, to a wolf. I found the body this afternoon.” Vali noted.

“And there are the hens and the goat that you know about, Iorghu.” Lucian reminded the large, slump-shouldered man.

“Were that the extent of our losses, I would thank the saints.” This from Ferka, from his position between Skender and Iorghu. “Since the drought began in the north two years ago, predators have swarmed into our valleys, our farms and towns and villages like refugees. Our family has lost ten sheep and two milk cows to bears, and that is in winter, when the beasts are normally asleep, and the flock stays close to home at night.”

Emilian spoke up. “Thirteen sheep, two goats, and most of our hens. …and our beautiful Mina…”

“I was looking forward to courting Mina, when she became of age.” Iosif said to to Emilian. Behind his back, Iosif made a crude gesture for sexual congress as he spoke. Nobody laughed. Iorghu looked at the brothers, shook his head.

Lucian ignored Iosif’s contribution to the discussion. Of Iorghu, he asked, “And thus our miniscule losses must be none other than the result of a symbiotic relationship with a demon of the night?”

Iorghu studied Lucian for a breath, then turned to his brother. “I thought you were the one your father sent to the University.”

“I sent my books home from Bucharest as I finished each class.”  Vali threw the skin into a pail of water to soften overnight, laid the gutted hare on a table used for butchering when the weather was benign. “He taught himself, without the benefit of professors. He is smarter than I.”

“No small feat,” Iorghu remarked.  “And an even better shot, I have heard.”

As if in response to Iorghu, there was a soft fluttering from above. Lucian looked skyward. He brought his pistol up,  high above the horsemen’s heads.  The steeds whinnied and stamped at the two unexpected shots, but they did not bolt. Two dark objects fell from the sky.  Skender snatched one as it dropped between him and Ferka. He held it up before him. It was a bat, a musket-ball sized hole in its chest. Seeker trotted over to the stone fence where the other had fallen, brought it back, and laid the bat at Lucian’s feet.

Iorghu laughed. “By the light of a quarter moon, no less! Still, not enough meat for the pot to warrant an  invite to dinner, and we must be on our way. Two new men are waiting to join our party in Petisoara, mercenaries, fresh from the Hapsburg’s latest campaigns. We have a very active vampire, and a town willing to pay handsomely, the faster to be rid of it. We can discuss this matter further once I have satisfied the terms of this contract.” Without another word, he turned his horse and spurred the black Belgian to a fast trot, the others followed him. Skender threw the bat in front of Seeker, who ignored it, preferring to track the smaller man as he rode by the smokehouse, studying it minutely. The brothers watched the procession as they rode by the Nicolae family mausoleum. Vali thought briefly of his wife in there, two years now. How beautiful she had looked, even as the pneumonia weakened her beyond saving. Tomorrow, he would pick some fresh spring flowers to place on her casket.

———————-

Dragos stopped when he heard the shots; he knew the sound of the two-barrel well. Hearing no answering rounds, he resumed his run westward to Petisoara. Years ago, he had made a mistake. Now it was time to correct that error.

CHAPTER TWO

The hare was consumed, and a glass of hard cider imbibed before Lucian went about lighting the reading lamps with a burning stick from the dying fire. Vali re-entered the house with an armful of firewood. He placed it on the hearth and began stacking a few pieces on top of the glowing ashes.  Beside him, Seeker stirred from his nap, wagged his tail once, and started a new nap.

“Before you start reading from Socrates, brother, I think we need to talk.”

“From what do you plan to read tonight, Vali?”

“Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. This translation is the best thus far.”

“Really? Who was the translator?”

Vali ignored the question. “We play a dangerous game here, brother. You know the law.”

Lucian nodded. “And that is why we must keep quiet. Iorghu would take our land were we to admit that we had not acted once we knew.”

Vali remembered well the day they learned of Its presence. One morning last spring. Lucian came back inside, without the water bucket, holding a book, a strange look on his face.

“Dawn is a poor light by which to read, brother,” he teased.

Lucian was bit pale. “No, I didn’t take this with me,  It was atop the firewood.”

That’s odd. I did not put it there…”

“That isn’t the oddest thing, Vali.” Lucian showed Vali the cover. It was their copy of  Bocaccio’s Decameron, in the original Italian. They had both read from it last night, translating it as they read, an exercise Lucian had suggested. Lucian opened the book to the story about Guillaume de Rousillon, who killed his wife’s lover, the story from which they had read. The story had remained unfinished, the brothers having gotten into a playful wrestling match over Vali’s woeful Italian. Seeker jumped in, grabbing the sleeve of whichever brother winning at the moment. Vali had marked the page with a broomstraw; it was now at the end of the story, after Rousillon cooks his rival’s heart and feeds it to his adulterous wife. He distinctly remembered placing the book on the desk between their beds.

“There’s something else. Outside.”

Vali followed his brother to the woodpile, beside which was a furry pile. As he closed the distance, the pile became an animal, a wolverine in fact, laid out as if sleeping. From his tenure with Iorghu, Vali had learned this was characteristic of vampire kills. No one, probably not even the red-eyes, knew why they did it. Vali guessed that whatever small portion of humanity left after a change was responsible.

A wolverine had been taking a hen or a lamb almost every night. It had even attacked a calf, which Lucian put down because of its injuries. Now here it lay, one predator laid low by another. Vali told Lucian what he suspected. Lucian agreed.

“It listens to us, that is obvious.”

“It’s been in our house.”

“It could have killed us any time, even Seeker slept through the intrusion, Vali.”

“There have been no human deaths attributed to vampires in our valley in ten years, maybe more.” Lucian was thinking about the price of meat, which was falling. They needed as many of their herd to sell to the butcher as they had left in order to pay off their father’s debts.

“Remember, Vali,” Lucian went on,  “why Father stopped hunting with Iorghu.”

Vali did remember. Their Father had told them how vampires had fought with their forces in the wars that drove the Ottoman Turks from their land. Unofficially, of course, and not as comrades-in-arms.

“The creatures would soften the Turkish defenses, take out forward guard posts, affairs of that sort” their Father said. “We rarely saw the red-eyes, just their work. Dead Turks, bloodless faces frozen in shock. Because of them, the war ended quickly , and the number of war casualties we did Not receive were more than the total number of the victims of vampirism throughout the centuries, I would wager the farm on that, boys.” Father took another deep drag off the hookah, one of his spoils of war, and continued.

“I could not continue to hunt them after the war ended. There was no joy in hunting down and killing what could be a patriot. Iorghu? He saw the things I did, fought the same war. But killing vampires is in his blood as much as taking our blood is in theirs. He would not quit, and he had found new, battle-hardened men to hunt with him. He was killing more than ever, my sons, and getting rich off the  bounties.”

“Yet, still they kill citizens, do they not?” Vali asked of his Father.

“Since that war, their victims have mainly been the dregs of society. Women of the night,  Gypsies. Thieves, killed in the act of thieving, their drained bodies left lying by the jewelry box they had intended to steal. Old drunks, the mumblers and droolers.”

Vali shook his head at the memory; one did not dishonor one’s father, but he had learned in Bucharest that every man was unique and deserving of life. So, after his own warring adventurism was over, Vali had taken up the stake, and rode with Iorghu and Skender until he watched a vampire burn for the first time. The creature had been cornered in an old farmhouse outside of Iasi, which Skender had then set afire. The screams still echoed in his head. When Vali quit Iorghu’s employ the next day, he refused his share of the bounty. “Have the Nicolaes lost their stones?” Iosif’s insults followed his trail out of the camp, southward along the banks of the Bistrita.

Iosif’s taunts were as wrong as they were rude. He could kill a vampire, but it would be quick; he would take no pleasure in the creature’s suffering.

Now Lucian, his blood, his partner, his best friend, wanted an implicit bargain with a red-eye. Vali sighed, he would not drive the thing from their land.

“It’s been in our house, our home, Lucian. I will not have that. Make that plain: leave books for It outside, the corn crib is dry.”

Thereafter, conversation about their working tenant was limited to discovery of his kills, and the increased credit on the ledgers of their suppliers and merchants.

But if their benefactor had rediscovered a taste for human blood; it had to die. One thing he had learned on his hunt with Skender and Iorghu, vampires are territorial, and mainly range between their human birthplace and the locale of their change. Vali wondered what had caused theirs to migrate here in the first place.

“We will keep reading to It, keep It close, until I can figure out how to trap It. That is how it must be, Lucian.”

“As you say, brother” Lucian assented. But Vali thought he had won too easy. He would do this on his own, one could not half-heartedly hunt a vampire.

———————————-

Dragos reached Petisoara as the church bells pealed the nine o’clock hour. The streets were deserted. After two deaths, the townspeople had taken to withdrawing into their homes by sundown. The air stank of garlic; garlic was everywhere,  cooked garlic, crushed garlic cloves on the doorsteps, garlic wreaths on the doors and garlic plants on each shuttered window. Dragos marveled at how persistent myths could be. Although they saw much better in the dark, sunlight did not hurt them either. As with any light, sunshine merely exposed to a greater extent their differences from humans; red eyes, elongated forms, skin white as bone. And the fangs, no vampire could talk to a human without exposing itself for what It had decided to become. The only practical reason for talking to a human, indeed the only one sanctioned by the vampire community at large, was when one decided to create a changeling. Every vampire sponsored another, and only one other, or the brotherhood would come together long enough to kill the offender and his changelings. It was here, in Petisoara, where Dragos’ wasted opportunity resided.

“Istok, hear me! We must talk!” Dragos spoke in the old language, his voice carried across the town square, and was picked up and repeated by each crow in its nest, each rat and rodent in its lair. Within minutes, Istok’s lean form glided up into the tree next to Dragos.

“Sponsor! To what do I owe this visit?

“You know why, Istok, do not waste time in pleasantries, or in lying. You broke my rules.”

“Take no humans from in this valley, yes. Well, that was twenty years ago, I am tired of stray dog, boar, bear, and wolf.” His tone was insolent, challenging.

“You tired quickly of learned discussions, too. The only reason I sought you out and offered you the change was your intellectual curiousity.”

“Dragos, Dragos, are you still angry with me? I only learned to accept my nature, my new nature.”

“Could you not stick to drunks and whores? A night watchman, of all things, and the girl…”

Ah, the girl, Dragos,” Istok interrupted. “Did you know she rode her white horse at night? Down to the lake she would ride. There she would take her clothes off and remount, and off they would go, until the horse tired.” Istok’s eyes closed, seeing her as she would lead the stallion down to the lake for a drink, her hair as wet as her steed’s lathered hide.

“Dragos, she was so beautiful! Long blonde tresses that shamed the sun’s very center, flawless skin, blue eyes, the pulse of the blood coursing through the blue veins of her breasts. Dragos, I, you, no one of us could refuse such a gift forever. Her blood tasted of…”

Dragos had heard enough, he was getting excited, wanting a human now, the months of suppressed desire welled up in his chest.

“Do not say any more, changeling.”

“I am not your changeling anymore, I am fully developed now, there is none of Istok’s body left. I am ready to be a sponsor.”

Dragos grabbed Istok by the arm, and flung him across the square. He followed as Istok stood up.

“Dragos, listen to me…” A kick sent him flying into the side of the church. Istok slid down to a sitting position, then he kicked off the side of the building towards his sponsor. Dragos simply wasn’t there when Istok swung his fist. A hard blow to the back of his head numbed him for a few seconds, during which time Dragos seized him from behind, pinning his arms at his side. Istok felt twin points of pain in his neck.

“I should kill you now, Istok, make up for my error.” Dragos whispered into his ear. Blood  began to stream from the wounds.

“Please, Dragos, I will leave, find another town.” Dragos tasted the blood that flowed between his lips, It was cow’s blood. He pushed Istok against the wall.

“Then go, dullard! Had I tasted the blood of a human, especially that of the girl, instead of that of a calf, know that I would have drained you of your life!” He slapped Istok so hard the younger vampire fell to one knee.  Dragos pulled him up by his collar and gave him a shove that sent him reeling across the street. Somewhere a dog barked. “To think,” Dragos continued as he pushed Istok down the main thoroughfare, towards the edge of town, “I sponsored you because of your intellectual curiousity.”

“You Killed my intellectual curiousity, Dragos. You gave me the love of the hunt instead, and I thank you. I miss books, teachers, learning, not even a little.”

Dragos stopped. They were passing an alley between two shops. There were forms crouched in the darkness, one looked up at Dragos, then at Istok.  The changeling was drawing the life from an old woman. Another form joined them, Dragos saw the red, questioning eyes. The one biting into the unconscious woman’s wrist beckoned to Istok with a free hand.

“You Damned fool! How many did you make?” Istok was nowhere to be seen, the street was empty of life, human or otherwise.

Dragos sighed. Istok could wait. First, his mess must be cleaned up, mistakes rectified. The two young vampires, both women in their child-rearing years, still plump with their human fat, turned to run. They did not get far. Birds flew from the trees for a mile around when the screams started.  By the time any townsfolk dared open their doors the next morning, the sun was high over the hills.

—————————————-

CHAPTER 3

Lucian slipped into his clothes as quietly as possible; the shoes could wait until he was outside. He glanced at his brother’s bed, Vali was still, he was turned toward the wall, away from the door. Shoes in hand, Lucian tiptoed to the door, the hinges of which he had greased after the reading. The forethought had paid off, the door opened without a sound.

Seeker was awake, watching him, twitching with anticipation. Lucian could not take the chance that a pleading whimper might rouse his brother. He beckoned with his hand, and Seeker, seemingly aware of the necessity,  silently joined Lucian outside. Lucian closed the door, and the two walked into the fog that had risen from lower in the valley, from the direction of Petisoara.

They reached the apple orchard, their Father’s pride and joy, in moments. Lucian stopped, Seeker did as well. He watched Lucian for clues as to their purpose here. Lucian composed himself, touched his Mother’s cross, and cleared his throat. “It is time we talked.” Lucian was surprised that his voice sounded as strong as it did.

“You are very brave.”

Lucian could not tell from which direction the voice came. “Come closer.”

“Braver still. As you wish.”

The form took shape in front of the man and snarling dog as if fashioned of mist. Seeker obeyed Lucian’s command to be quiet. He sniffed the air; this was the killer of killers.

Lucian took a step forward when the vampire stopped. Did a smile race across the creature’s lips?

“I am Dragos.”

“Lucian.”

“I know, and Seeker I know as well.”

“My brother wants to kill you.”

“Because of Petisoara.” It was not a question.

Lucian replied, ” Yes, Because of Petisoara.”

“And you?”

“I want to know why you started killing again?”

The question amused Dragos. “I have not stopped killing in 150 years. Last spring, I stopped killing humans, however.”

“When you took up with us. Explain that, Dragos.”

“The men that were here the other night. They killed my sponsor.” Seeing the question in his eyes. Dragos added “The one who changed me. Iorghu was after me. Twice, they flushed me when I tried to sleep. In my panic, I led them straight to Marku.”

Dragos paused, this was what he had hoped for, interaction, discourse. But the events in Petisoara had awakened his lust for human blood, and Lucian was young, blond, handsome and strong. He could hear the blood coursing through Lucian’s veins, see the vessel in his neck pulsate with beat of Lucian’s heart.

Lucian sensed something was not right. He wished that there had been a way to sneak a pistol out of the house. The red-eye’s nostrils flared.

“What then?”

Dragos subsumed his desires with an almost physical effort. “Marku hid me in a crypt, under a body. We don’t sleep exclusively in coffins, that is a fairy tale, but they are good hiding places, as rare is the man who will look inside one .”

“I am sure Skender and Iorghu know that trick.”

“Those two have desecrated many graves in their search for the unholy,” Dragos said drily. “but they did not know they had two vampires trapped. After burning Marku, they left for Focsani to collect the bounty. Skender had pulled Marku’s jaws, fangs intact, from the fire to use as proof.

Lucian put it together faster than he could get the words out. “That was the killing in which Vali participated! You followed him home.”

“Not right away. I followed the others first.”

“Why? That seems reckless.”

“Not as much as one might think. Keep in mind that they were not looking for me anymore. It never occurred to any of them that a vampire might stalk the stalkers. I doubt if Iorghu yet suspects that it was a red-eye, and not a thieving Gypsy, who stole Marku’s jaws out of  his tent.”

Lucien laughed at this, Dragos joined in, but it had been such a long time, he sounded like an elk in full rut, which made them both laugh harder. Seeker relaxed. When the brothers laughed like this, or when company did, it was never a bad thing. He wagged his tail.

It felt good to laugh, Dragos had wondered if he still knew how. All too soon, the laughter died, replaced with an awkward silence, which Dragos finally broke.

“I studied the killers, learned the tracks each horse made, saw which of the band were aware of their surroundings. When they hunted, I saw whose weapon was accurate, the range of each.”

“I am surprised that you did not kill them.” Lucian offered.

“They were very disciplined, at least one was always awake when they camped. Usually, it was Skender.”

“I hear that he is good with a knife.”

Dragos held up two fingers. “He is good with two knives, one in each hand. The longer one is always in his left. Always.” He and Emilian are the only ones good with a rifle, Iorghu likes to trap us.”

How does he do that?”

Skender will find a nest, we all keep several. They wait until it is occupied, and flush us in the daytime, when we cannot see too well. Many have died after being caught in a net woven of silk cords, which is very strong.”

“And expensive,” Lucian added.

“Hunting us is highly lucrative. Your brother turned down a small fortune for Marku.”

“You heard that from them?”

“And I heard them laugh at his learning and his philosophical questions, that you were probably just like him, too much thinking.”

The fog swirled, sometimes apple trees were revealed in the moonlight, other times, they were alone in the universe. But Dragos was near enough that he was always visible to Lucian, who studied the vampire closely as they talked. Dragos was indeed tall, stretched-looking, as if he had survived a night in Procrustes’ bed. The pupils of his eyes were brown, the rest of the eye was blood-red. Nostrils and ears were half-again as large as normal, and his skin shone in the moonlight. No, they could not mingle with the rest of us, except maybe when the extreme cold required a person to be completely covered.

“Vampires seldom form relationships; although some cities harbor covens. When they do talk, it is about killing and who’s died. We are not immortal, the eldest is 600 years old, and that age is hardly ever attained.”

Dragos leaned down to look Lucian in the eye. “I am responsible for those deaths in Petisoara, But I did not kill them.”

Lucian merely nodded, Dragos continued. “I sponsored a student, he was inquisitive, bright, the way I had been once, he spoke several languages. I chose carefully, as we can sponsor only one other, unless that one dies. I lured Istok with the promise of centuries of learning, years upon years of knowledge, and the time to ingest and ponder it all.”

“So what happened?”

“At first, it was as  wanted it to be, we hunted together, argued and discussed through a thousand nights. We slept together, no, our reproductive glands atrophy, there are no desires of that nature in us. But he got bored with discourse, he only wanted to read, then he only wanted to kill. His curiousity died along with his human tissue. We parted politely enough, and I stressed the need to restrict the human killings to the weak and the wicked, and not to hunt humans in our valley, which he did not.” Dragos sniffed the air. “Until now. He killed those two, and he did…other things.”

“Can you stop him?”

“I will. He is on the run, from me as well as from Iorghu, one of us will find him. I must go now. Your brother is sneaking up on us, to your right.”

Lucian looked right, the fog was at its thickest in this hour before dawn, nothing to see. Seeker had sat down, and was licking his paw. He looked up, Dragos was not visible, but he heard his fading voice. ‘Until tonight, friend.”

The jezail was pulled from Vali’s hand from behind, but when Vali turned around nothing was there. He completed the turn, and the red-eye was standing there, examining the gun.

“The prefect whose life you saved, he knew the value of this gun?”

Vali blinked, he had expected to be shot, maybe bit, not queried. “He pulled it from a pile of war booty. He had no idea of its power and accuracy.”

He watched as Dragos caressed the stock, ran his fingers along the barrel. Then he extended it in Vali’s direction. Vali hesitated, then took the weapon, whereupon Dragos turned and walked away, fading into the mist.

Vali lifted the gun quickly to his shoulder, it felt off balance. He sighted down the barrel at Dragos’ retreating back, then he saw what the red-eye had done while It held the rifle.

Lucian heard the curse, and Seeker bounded over to guide Vali to his brother.

Vali spoke first. ” I knew you were up to something, little brother, when it became so suddenly necessary to grease those hinges.”

“You saw him?” Lucian asked.

“Yes, we talked.”

“I am glad you did not shoot him.”

Vali showed him the barrel of the rifle. The branch from an apple tree was firmly wedged into the barrel. On the end of the branch was an early blossom.

————————————–

CHAPTER FOUR

Even though lightning had blasted the crown, killing the tree, the poplar’s trunk still rose above the surrounding forest, commanding an unparalleled view of the brother’s farmland. Dragos stretched and yawned as he studied the landscape from his nest in the hollow he had carved out of the soft wood. The sun had settled behind the hills across the valley, yet Dragos could still see everything as plain as if it was high noon. He watched as an eagle rose from the heather clutching a vole. He saw the sheep slowly making their way to the Nicolae’s barn and the fresh bale of hay Vali had spread in their pen. Lucian was chopping wood, Seeker lay in the cool dirt a few feet away.  Further down in the valley, a swan drank from an eddy where the Minascu widened before dropping into a ravine. The swan flew off when he was startled by a figure scampering up the rocks.

Dragos could hear the horses, racing up the road at full gallop, a few miles behind Istok, whose direction of flight surprised the older vampire not at all. With a sigh that bordered on a growl, Dragos stood up in the opening of his lair, and stepped out onto the remains of a large branch. He spread his cape, the wind filled and lifted the garment; a second later, Dragos was riding an air current, sailing over the roof from where he had planned to later contemplate Lucian’s dramatic reading from Donne’s Elegies.

“Sponsor!” Istok fell to his knees as he clutched at Dragos’ cape. “They are coming for me. I knew not where else to go.”

“So you brought them to me.” Dragos was not angry, had he not done the same thing to Marku? Still, he hoped for a better outcome.  “Keep running, Istok.”

“I cannot! I have not eaten in the three days that I have been hounded, chased like an animal. I have been shot twice now.”

Dragos knew what that meant. A vampire’s wounds heal quickly, but the process saps their energy. Istok would collapse before he made another ten miles.

“The mausoleum, Istok. Can you make it that far?” Istok nodded. “Undetected?” Another nod.

“Good, I have a nest there, in the only coffin not part of a pair. Get under the body. Stay there, Istok. It is stone, they cannot burn you out.”

“Yes, yes, thank you, sponsor. I will be good from now on. We will read, and learn, I promise.”

Go, Istok. do as I say.”

He watched Istok turn and disappear into the brush. Moments later, he saw Skender lope by on the road higher up the hillside. His fellows were  several miles behind, but they would catch up before Skender reached the farm. Dragos was sure the brothers would not have a good night, and it was his fault.

His dismal reverie was interrupted when he realized that he could not hear Skender’s horse any more. He crept up the hill until he spotted the killer at the fork in the road. Skender’s horse ate some foliage from a bush as his rider studied the hillside. He spurred his steed suddenly and the two sped off, but not down the road to the brothers’ home. Instead, horse and rider took the road that led past the farmhouse and into the woods below his nest in the dead poplar.

The door to the mausoleum bolted on the outside from the outside. Istok would be unable to re-seal it from inside. It cannot be helped, he thought. Even so, he felt safer; amidst the smell of the dead was Dragos’ comforting scent. There was a vase of fresh flowers on the casket Dragos had described. Had he been at his strongest, Istok could have lifted the marble slab that served as a cover, and held the flowers in the other. He was exhausted, close to passing out, and he let the vase crash to the stone floor. It’s contents spread out along with the shards of  thick smoke-colored glass as he climbed in, pulling the body of  Ileana Nicolae on top of him, spreading her funeral dress so as to cover him. It took the remainder of his strength to slide the slab back into place. He fell into a fitful sleep, one that was broken by the sound of indistinct, but unmistakenly human voices.

As he turned off the main road onto the Nicolae property, Iorghu spurred his horse to a full gallop. Behind him,the rest of the party did the same. Resting under Ileana Nicolae’s corpse, Istok heard the rumble as the party passed his hiding place.

Iorghu looked to his right as they passed the mausoleum. The unlatched door caught his eye as he sped past.

The wind died as the sky lost the last of the sun’s light. Dragos alit beside the Nicolae’s barn with an all-to-human curse. From above, he could have taken Skender before he unsheathed his infamous knives. As he drifted groundward, Dragos had seen Iorghu’s party approach the brother’s wagon path. He needed no heightened senses to hear the horses gait change from trot to gallop, but a vampire’s heightened hearing did help Dragos to hear Iorghu’s consumption-impaired voice.

Iorghu swung off the saddle with the grace of a man far younger and lighter. Vali walked up to the leader of the vampire hunters as he directed Ferka to tend to the horses.

“Odd, seeing you without Skender, Iorghu.”

“I sent Skender to perform a couple of tasks. He will be along.” Iorghu shook off his outer coat, made from the hide of a brown bear, and tossed it next to the door of the cottage. “I would be having some of your father’s cider, shall we go in and talk?” It was phrased as a question, but Vali knew it wasn’t. At Iorghu’s gesture, he went inside first, and Iorghu followed after speaking to Emilian. Petru, one of the mercenaries, Vali knew from the fighting in Turkey. He and Ferka had their pistols out. Neither acknowledged his gaze.

Iorghu drained the mug before answering Vali. “Your father taught you well. This is as good as any batch of cider he ever made.”  He set the empty mug on the oak table. “It is about all I can drink these days, that doesn’t find my stomach to be an inhospitable place.” The door opened, Lucian came through the door, Seeker right behind him. Lucian laid the axe by the fireplace and accepted the cup of cider his brother offered him.

“Lucian, sit.” As Lucian complied, Iorghu continued talking, “I was just telling your brother how we are chasing the vampire that killed little Mina. That he is weak and soon to be captured is evident by my willingness to take the time to halt the chase and confer with my friend’s children.”

“But you aren’t conferring, and we aren’t children.” Iorghu’s eyes widened  ever so slightly as he took in the antagonistic tone in the whelp’s voice.

“Yet you play a child’s game, Lucian. You and your brother.”

Vali stood up suddenly, ignoring the second mercenary’s approach. “Have you something to say, Iorghu? Then by all means let us hear it.”

The door opened. Skender walked in, carrying a small bag made of heavy cloth. He nodded once at Iorghu’s unspoken question.

Ah, Skender, I know you will refuse any offer of spirits, so why don’t you tell our brothers here, our former comrade, where you have been?”

Skender said nothing; he dumped the contents of the bag on the table. Aside from another, smaller bag, out came tumbling a tinkling of coins, a knife of Turkish make, and several epaulets from an Ottoman officer’s uniform.

“It has a nest in the poplar, as you said.” Skender hissed.

“The tree is on your land, is it not?” When no answer was given, Iorghu spoke for them.

“Well, how can one keep track of every tree in a forest, and how many have Skender’s daring?” He drained his cup, handed it to Vali, with an indication to refill it. Vali set the cup down.

Iorghu shrugged and turned to his second in command. “This bag, Skender, what have we here?

As Skender opened the bag, Iorghu spoke to the Nicolae’s. “I sent my son and Emilian to look in your family crypt.” Lucian and Vali jumped out of their chairs, Vali spoke first. “You had no right! My Ileanna is in there!” The sword wielded by the second mercenary stung his throat, but did not cut him. Yielding to the blade’s pressure, Vali resumed his seat.

“Vali, please, stay seated. Lucian, you as well.” Iorghu looked at the red-eye’s souvenirs. He beckoned to Skender to open the smaller bag. It rattled as Skender untied the knot holding the flaps together. A fire-blackened jawbone, fangs prominently displayed, slipped out of the bag and onto the table. Lucian knew immediately what he was looking at and, judging by the reddening angry face across the table from him, Iorghu knew as well.

The heavy wooden door creaked as Iosif pulled it open, after first placing his torch in the holder provided. Emilian stepped in ahead of the bigger man, waving the torch in front of him. He pulled his sword, Iosif did the same, and closed the door behind him.

“Why did you do that?”Emilian  demanded

“It’s cold.”

“You do not trap yourself in a room with a red-eye, Iosif.”

“There is no red-eye here,”

Emilian kicked the broken vase on the floor of the crypt, then pointed to the flower that was still on the casket’s lid. “It is here, in there, the monster that killed our Mina. And we are going to kill it, Iosif.”

But Skender or Father always does the kill.” Iosif protested.

“Are you afraid, Iosif? Afraid of a wounded, weak vampire?”

Iosif eyes flashed in the torchlight. “I am afraid of nothing!”

“Then quickly, pick up the lid to this coffin, and I will dispatch the creature.”

Iosif did as he was told; the instant the crack was wide enough, Emilian furiously stabbed at the figure laying inside. When he stopped, the body was still, Emilian’s sword buried in it’s left side.  Funeral blankets  were askew and bunched up along the length of the corpse.

Emilian put his hand on the lid and braced himself as he pulled at the sword, which clung stubbornly to its new home. He leaned into the casket, ready to yank hard on his weapon. At that moment, two long arms rose up from either side of Ileanna’s body and snatched Iosif’s hands from their grip on the lid, pulling him in as the heavy granite slab fell atop both men. Emilian’s sword hand broke as the lid crushed it against the edge of the coffin. The sounds of Iosif’s life being drained from his body spurred Emilian’s ultimately futile efforts to pull out of harm’s way. Istok took his time draining the big man’s body of life, then he turned a bloody face to his second course.

“Do you miss your Mina, killer?” Emilian’s screams continued, though in  muted fashion, even after  his larynx was ripped from his throat.

Minutes later, the bodies slowly disappeared, pulled into the increasingly crowded casket. Emilian’s torch, flickered and died where it lay on the ground..

———————————————-

CHAPTER FIVE

Lekos, the second mercenary, kept his sword pressed to Vali’s neck, ignoring the low growl from the large dog to his right.

Iorghu did not ignore Seeker. “Lucian, send the dog outside, or he dies inside.”

“Go, Seeker.” Lucian told the dog, who looked from brother to brother with a whine.

“GO! Now!” Lucian yelled, and Seeker left the cottage quickly. He turned to look as the door was closed by the new one.

He was worried, things were not right. By now, he should laying by the fire, and the brothers should be talking to the rocks-with-leaves. And the tall one, Lucian called him Dragos, would join them, as he had every night for the past week, and take his turn talking to the rock-with-leaves. Things were not right.

Seeker sniffed the air, he caught a faint whiff of Dragos’ scent, the undernote of decay that usually accompanied those who would never move again. And there was another scent, similar to Dragos’, that was stronger and nearer, and led to the place where The Woman lay. Seeker mourned her passing, she had been in his life since he could remember. He would accompany Vali when he picked flowers for her. He would listen as Vali talked to her, in a strange choked voice that he never used otherwise. But The Woman never responded, Seeker knew she never would. Still, she needed protecting, and Seeker could do that, at least. He followed the scent, now almost masked by the smells of two of the Bad Men and their steeds, down the path.

As he walked by the men’s horses, all scent trails converged on the crypt, from which came a loud crash and then one scream. Seeker stopped, looked back at the house with a whine, and settled in the grass, waiting for the men to come out. Before they did, Skender rode up, dismounted, and studied the scene before walking up to, and into, the crypt. The door closed behind him.

“I think I will keep the barn, but this hovel I will burn to the ground, along with these books of yours, Vali.”

Vali said nothing, but Lucian answered Iorghu as only a hot-headed youth can.

“You cannot take our land on such flimsy evidence. You dishonor your friendship with our Father.”

“Flimsy evidence, you are right.” Iorghu picked up Merku’s lower left mandible, seeming to study it for flaws. “There are two reasons for your vampire to have my proof that we earned our pay, and the town did pay, knowing my good reputation.”

“And your bad.” Lucian snarled.

Iorghu ignored him. “One, you stole it, and either gave it to your vampire, or  two, he took it from me.” Iorghu looked at Vali with sad eyes. “You are not a thief, a traitor to your kind, mayhap, but a thief? That you are not.”

The leader of the vampire hunters arose from his seat at the table before continuing. “Tell me, at these readings of yours, do you sit in your Father’s chair, being the eldest?” Vali nodded his assent, the question he wanted to ask left unvoiced. Iorghu continued, “And Lucian, my hot-headed protester of innocence, you sit, where?”

‘Over there, mostly, but we are not always seated….”

“Yes, I am sure the excitement of a reading precludes a still environment” He laughed and coughed simultaneously. “See, how just being around you two raises my vocabulary? Perhaps I will keep you around as farmhands. I can arrange that with the authorities, to have you serve your sentence for harboring a creature of Satan’s creation!”

“A charge you have yet to prove, Iorghu.” Vali felt Lekos press the blade harder against the side of his neck.

“Yes, let me continue.” Iorghu paused, as if to gather his thoughts, but his breathing was labored. “So, you” indicating Vali, “sat here, Lucian sat there.”

Lucian was impatient, “Get to the point, Iorghu. Emilian and your simpleton of a son could have killed a dozen vampires by now.”

Lucian had stepped close enough to the older man that Iorghu’s slap had the full force of his right arm behind it. Lucian dropped to one knee, then stood up, wiping the blood from his split lip on his sleeve. Iorghu’s knife was out of its sheath, but Iorghu merely used it to point to a stool next to the fireplace.

“And who has been sitting there, sons of my disgraced friend? See? Accumulated dust on the edge of the seat, but where a person’s backside meets the wood, it is polished cleaned by, whom, the cur?” He walked over to the window, lifted the thin sheepskin that blocked the wind, yet let in some light. Night had fallen, the moon had yet to rise, and a bank of fog had drifted up from the valley below. He motioned to Lekos to allow Vali to stand.

“Let’s take in the night air. I have a feeling more company will be joining us.”

—————————–

CHAPTER SIX

Skender saw the dog slink away at his approach. He thought about killing it with a throw of his knife, but better to tend to the task at hand.

He knew Iorghu should not have sent those two; Iosif was good for heavy lifting and intimdation, but little else. Emilian had been incautious on this hunt, an older and wiser red-eye would have evaded them because of his haste. He did not call their names before openng the heavy door, his voice would not carry, and he already knew they would not answer. After grabbing Iosif’s torch from the holder beside the door, he stepped into the crypt.  He closed the door behind him.

Skender scanned the room, reading the story told by the shattered vase, the trickle of drying blood running down the side of the large, but plain final resting place.

Inside the casket, Istok felt his strength returning rapidly. He should find another hiding place, he thought. Just then the door shut with a thud. He pressed his nose to the crack where casket and lid met, and sniffed, it was Skender. Good! He would kill him just as he killed his friends, or maybe …. Istok smiled at the thought of the killer as his acolyte. Then Skender spoke, his sibilant whisper quite audible to the vampire’s ears.

“You bested them, you killed them both, and dragged them in there with you.” Skender sighed, he dropped to one knee, leaned closer to the lid, where Iosif’s legging had been pinched, leaving a gap into which he spoke. “But they would have killed you, would they not? And now, the struggle for life continues, my friends will be coming soon. Only I stand between you and freedom, red-eye. Do you want to live?”

Istok listened, but did not trust the man who had been trying so very hard to kill him. Skender continued his monologue.

“Listen to me, I am not like them, I am like you.” He paused for effect. “My mother was unaware that she carried me when she agreed to be changed. That had never happened before, to anyone’s knowledge. My blood intermingled with her sponsor’s blood, it changed me, but not all the way. I eat human food, have human desires, but I can see, hear, smell, and taste as well as a yearling red-eye.” He grimaced at the gap to show his teeth. “See? They pulled my fangs.”

“So why kill vampires? Iorghu hunted down my mother, killed her, but not before ripping me from her womb. He left me at an orphanage for 12 years, a monthly stipend and annual visits kept the wards from mistreating me. He saw that I was not going to change further, had seen evidence of my senses, and he channeled my anger and bitterness into killing those who had robbed me of a mother and a chance at a normal life.” He thought he saw a flash of somethng red through the crack, a reflection off  its eye.

“Tell me, Istok. Yes, we know your name, Ferka does our research, not as well as Vali did, however. Tell me, do you want to live?” There was no answer. Silently, Skender pulled his knife, the long one, from its scabbard. There was no sound from the casket. “I closed the door behind me, to show my good faith, I could not escape, should you be yet unsated.”

Yes, Istok wanted to live, he wanted to hunt, not be hunted. This one’s guilt might be his key to freedom. He would kill him anyway, he wondered what half-breed vampire blood would taste like.

When Skender repeated his question, Istok pressed close to the gap and said, “Yes.”

Skender watched the gap, waiting for a response. When the answer came, he saw the creature’s red eye, and he quickly slipped the knife into the opening, thrusting it in all the way to the hilt, feeling flesh and bone give way as it went.

The slab flew off its position as if lifted by the scream that it preceded. Istok flew out of Ileanna’s resting place with an ungodly howl. The knife was embedded in his right eye, only a few inches had not penetrated into his skull. He ran into the wall, breaking the haft off even with the wound, the blood of two victims gushed out, spraying the room with each violent motion of Istok’s head.

Skender scrambled out of the way of the red-eye’s throes. He had thought a brain injury so severe would stop the creature, they had never had a chance to experiment with the concept.

But it did seem to have render it senseless, Istok was lurching blindly from one side of the crypt to the other. He grabbed Grandfather Pyotr’s casket from its position above His grandfather, and pulled it to the ground with a loud crash. Its contents spilled out at Skender’s feet. He got his short blade ready to fight, but Istok had found the door and burst through it, breaking it off the iron hinges as he stumbled out into the black night.

Once outside, Iorghu coughed violently, he looked down the trail leading to the crypt, then spoke to Ferka, who spoke the sick man’s words for him. Lekos had lifted his knife from Vali’s neck, but had not sheathed it. Petru held Lucian at bay with Vali’s beloved jezail; he wondered if he would ever hunt with it again.

Creature!” Ferka shouted. “You have formed a bond, an unholy one, with these brothers. We ask, how strong a bond? Would you risk everything for them, as they did for you?

The voice came from the direction of the barn, but closer. “Release my friends, and go in peace.”

In one smooth motion Iorghu drew his pistol and shot Lucian in the knee. He cried out and fell to the ground. Vali rushed to his side, ignoring Lekos, who followed him, sword held at the ready. Iorghu ignored the scene he had created and turned to face the incoming fog.

“You have little time to make a decision, vampire. May I assume that you are Merku’s whelp? That you followed Vali here after he quit my party?” He had reloaded the pistol as he talked, now Iorghu aimed the weapon at Lucian’s right knee.

“There is no need for that, I  am here.” Dragos walked out of the mist, his cloak billowing out behind him. He stopped ten feet from Iorghu.

“Give yourself up, demon, to our mercies, and they go free, free to farm this land, until they die.”

“No.” Dragos smiled, the rising moon added an orange cast to his usual pallor. “I suggest that you let them go, or I will kill you, slowly, with fang and fire.”

The bullet from the jezail tore into Drago’s left side, passing through a lung, but missing any ribs. Dragos staggered, but did not fall. Blood oozed from his mouth. “You have one bullet, already I am healing. Make it count.” And Dragos lunged for Iorghu as he turned his pistol from Lucian to his prey of choice. The scream from the direction of the crypt paused both men, all looked down the path. The scream had become high-pitched, the wail of a wounded and frightened vampire.

Iorghu looked at Dragos. “Which of you is Istok?”

Then the creature was among them. Iorghu had no time to aim the pistol before he was knocked to the ground. Istok was vainly grabbing at his head as he rushed by.  His bloody fingers made purchase on the steel nigh impossible. Then Lekos bravely stepped in and swung his sword n a wide arc cutting off Istok’s left arm at the elbow, and drawing blood from his side.

Istok managed to seize Lekos’ sword arm and pulled the mercenary to him. He grabbed Lekos’ head and, with beguiling ease tore it from its rightful place. The body fell to the ground, blood spurting from the neck. Istok flung the head away and swung his arms back and forth, hoping to catch another of his hated pursuers.

Vali covered Lucian’s body with his own as the senseless monster lumbered by. Petru had dropped the now-unloaded rifle in the dirt, and was advancing on Istok, looking for an opening. Iorghu was reaching for the pistol that lay on the ground next to his foot, with which he kicked the flintlock out of reach just before the big man could grab it. Dragos was gasping for breath, the rifle ball had hurt him more than He had let on. In a corner of his mind, Vali realized that Dragos was not an ‘it’ to him, not anymore.

He tackled Petru just as was he about to bring his sword down on Dragos, who had slumped to the ground. They rolled across the yard, each trying to gain the upper hand. Vali, though once a great soldier, was no match for a battle-hardened man fresh from the wars in the West, and soon the soldier was atop him, hands around Vali’s throat. Vali’s struggles abated as his muscles lost oxygen. He looked into the eyes of his killer.

Petru’s eyes were unfocused, his grip on Vali’s throat lessened, and Vali sucked in air as fast as possible. Petru fell on his chest, and Vali pushed him off, seeing then what had caused his weakness.

Dragos pulled his mouth away from Petru’s calf. The blood was good, he would never quit again. His strength was returning, with the influx of the life-giving fluid. Vali looked at him with a mixture of horror and gratitude. The blood, accelerated by adrenaline, was pumping through Vali’s vessels with a rushing sound that Dragos could hear, a call to dinner he fought not to heed.

Iorghu walked up to Dragos and shot him behind the ear with the finally-recovered pistol. The demon fell over without a sound.

“God Damn you.” Vali yelled, “he just saved me. “

“He was just feeding, you stupid fool. He would have fed on you eventually.” Skender walked out of the gloom, the horses having run off in a panic. Iorghu’s question went unvoiced when Skender nodded.

“Oh Iosif, poor child. Well, at least his Mother died first, saving me that sad task.” He looked at his second-in-command. “Are there any more? Skender said no. “Are you sure, apparently, you have been wrong before.” Off towards the barn, Istok’s moans punctuated Iorghu’s queries.

Ferku joined the party gathered around Dragos’ body. Vali looked from Iorghu to where his brother had lain, he was not there. To keep Iorghu from following his gaze, Vali started talking. “What happens now?” You have your red-eye, in fact, you have two. Two rewards, and fewer still with whom you must divide them.” Keep looking at me, Vali willed. He hoped Lucian had the strength to do what Vali hoped he was doing. “What need have you for a farm?”

Iorghu took one step towards Vali, and knocked him to the ground with a hard right cross to the abdomen. He kicked Vali when he tried to get up, then stepped on his neck, putting much of his bulk into holding the farmer down. He reloaded his weapon as Ferka stepped in and kicked Vali’s ribs repeatedly.

“Stop, Ferka. I want him to see the ball come out of the barrel, and into his eye.” He knelt and raised his weapon. “I lost a son, and you think I am glad for the extra profit?

Vali looked at his executioner through a pain-induced haze. “You, not him, are the monster.”

Seeker followed Skender at a respectful distance. He was aware of the scents of blood and death, but there was too much to make sense of. What he did understand was that his master was getting hurt by the Bad Men.By the time the biggest had his gun pointed at Vali, seeker was running, as Iorghu pulled the trigger, the dog jumped and hit his arm. The shot deafened Vali, he felt the ball dig into the earth next to his left ear.

Seeker bit deep into Iorghu’s arm, and only let go when Ferka ran him through with his sword. With a yelp, Seeker fell to the ground, gravely wounded. Vali cried out hoarsely, “No, no…. My God, no!” Ferka pulled the sword from the dog’s middle, and drew it back as he readied to swing it at Vali. The first shot from the two-barreled pistol hit Ferka in the chest, the second smashed through Iorghu’s eye, hittng his brain, killing him instantly.

Lucian was in the doorway of the cottage, the two barrel smoking in his hand. He started to reload it, but Skender, the last man standing, ran quickly to Lucian and stabbed him in the back with his dirk.. Vali watched helplessly as Skender lifted his brother’s head and prepared to slice his neck. He looked at Vali, and grinned, pleased that brother would watch brother die.

Istok had been ignored during the mayhem at the house, no one even heard, or cared, when he fell into the sheep pen and made a meal of several loudly-bleating animals. Nothing eased the pain, and he had trouble thinking of anything else, but hunting gave hm something to do, and his senses had returned, to some extent. Except sight, the part of the brain that carred out that task was severed from the rest, but in the fog and darkness, he still had the advantage. Slowly, methodically, he ran down and killed every denizen of the pen, taking a swallow from each torn throat.

Even that was too much, he vomited bright red streams onto the south wall of the barn as he passed. Having purged he could now feed, and he wanted to feed, needed to feed. And humans were about, one in particular’s scent was most inviting. He made his way around the back of the cottage just as Lucian dispatched Iorghu, he heard someone run up onto the doorstep, then smelled Skender’s exotic bouquet. Hoping that nothing was in the way, he rushed at the source of the scent trail.

Skender was pleased, Vali would watch his brother die, and Skender would have another memory, another datum for his encyclopedia of death. He put his knife to Lucian’s throat, Lucian writhed in pain underneath him. He laughed at Vali’s expression when he pretended to draw the knife across Lucian’s neck.

The laugh was the final clue Istok needed. He calibrated his trajectory, and with his good arm jerked Skender upright, the already healing stump he used to club the shorter man. Skender had other plans, however, he dodged the blow, dropped the knife from the hand Istok was about to break into his left hand, and drove it into Istok’s middle, again and again, then again. With a roar, Istok flung Skender against the doorframe. Vali heard the loud crack as Skender doubled over, only backwards, and quietly died. Istok slid to the ground, even he could not recover from so many wounds inflcted in so short a time.

Vali got to his feet, the moon was high overhead, he looked at the carnage that was all around him, it was like being in combat again. He hoped it was over. Lucian groaned, Vali went to him, looked at his knife-wound. Had Skender used the long blade, Lucian would be dead. As it was he had a chance, if Vali cleaned the wounds in time. He lifted his brother to his feet, together, they looked out at their front yard.

“They’re all dead?”

I think so, we must check.”

“Is Dragos?”

Yes, Vali replied, he is.” Vali pointed to where Iorghu had shot Dragos.

There was no body, only a dark patch that was most likely blood.

“Where is Seeker?” both said in unison.

Seeker was dying, he knew it, felt it. He had no complaint, many things had died, some he had killed. He was thirsty, though and struggled to his feet. He saw Vali, as still as the rest in the bloody tableau, but his chest rose and fell, he was sleeping.

Then he saw the tall man-not-a-man. He too was alive, but he would not be for long. Seeker collapsed next to Dragos head. He did what dogs do, and licked the ugly wound. He licked and licked, he wanted someone to take him to water.

Dragos eyes flickered. and the dog moved closer. Dragos saw the wound and used the last of his strength to pull the dog to him. He stopped before Seeker died; the dog had fought as hard as any of them, he wanted to save him, but there was only one way. He tore at the still-tender flesh of his chest-wound until blood flowed. Then he pulled the dog’s mouth to the bloodstream. Seeker lapped at the warmth, slowly at first, then eagerly, faster, until Dragos pushed him away.

“No, friend. You nust not drink too much this early in the change.” He stood up, and felt dizzy. The healing would not be complete for a few days, in either of their cases. They must rest. He looked about him, dead, all dead, except his friends, and the feelings stirring within him he knew he would not resist if he stayed. He would miss the books, the readings. But he had a friend now, a friend forever.

“Come, Seeker, we are going hunting!”. Seeker barked excitedly, and together they ran up the valley, jumping the creek with ease.

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