Has the Hunter finally vanquished his prey? Or does the vampire laugh last?
The priest stepped to the girl’s bedside. “Her pallor is deathly…”
“She reports visits…visits from the dead, Father.”
The priest turned to Stefan. “Does the child recognize her tormentor?”
Outside the two-room hut, the wind cried. Stefan opened his mouth to speak; He hesitated.
“Say the truth, Stefan. For the sake of the child.”
The peasant cursed himself silently. These were important men who’d come to his home, and at his own request. “Forgive me, Boyar. My daughter’s tormentor wears the clothes of my brother, dead these two months.”
The cleric, who’d returned his attention to the stricken child, stiffened. He looked to the Boyar. “She bears the mark. With your leave, I’ll send for the hunter."
A piteous moan escaped the indentured-farmer. “Oh, great God, it is as I feared.” Tears gathered in the large man’s eyes. “My sweet child.”
“We must act quickly, the girl is at great risk.” The priest seemed to evaluate the grieving father. “It won’t be an easy task, and likely the hunter will require your help. The vampire can be overcome, but the process is a grisly chore—and often a dangerous one.”
Stefan wiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his tunic. “I will do whatever it takes to save my daughter.”
The man at the door removed his hat. He bowed. “Forgive the hour, my coach ran into some difficulty. I am Petre Ardelean. I hunt vampire.”
“Come in, come in, please! I am Stefan Lupei..” The man offered a bow in return. He stepped aside to allow his visitor entry. “You are most welcome, sir. Thank you for coming.”
“I am glad to be of service.”
The farmer closed the door. “May I offer refreshment? Water, or perhaps wine?”
The hunter doffed his coat. Finding nowhere suitable to hang it, he draped the garment over his arm. “I would see the girl. Time is of the essence.”
“Of course…this way.”
The temperature in the hut’s second room was considerably cooler, and the vampire-hunter seemed to take notice. The slight man, who looked to be of middle-age, walked to the bed of the suffering child. He made the sign-of-the-cross. “Would that you had called me sooner. The child is near physical death.”
“Tell me it is not too late...”
The vampire-hunter straightened, turned from the ailing girl. “You say your daughter reports visits by her deceased uncle?”
“That’s right,” the other man nodded, “An apparition in my brother’s clothes.”
“And your brother, what were the circumstances of his death?”
“Most unnatural, sir. He suffered the bite of a wolf and wasted in the course of a week.”
The vampire-hunter started. “A wolf?”
Petre Ardelean leaned over the ailing child, reached out and placed a hand on her forehead. He frowned. “It is worse than I’d feared. We must act quickly.” The hunter straightened, walked past his host and into the hut’s other room. The man followed.
“Your brother, he was given proper Christian rights upon burial?”
“Yes. His funeral was officiated by the church, and he lies in consecrated earth.”
The hunter considered. “It is good that you sent for me, Stefan Lupei. I will leave you now. Tomorrow, meet me at the churchyard at the fall of dusk.”
“Tomorrow? I had hoped…”
The vampire-hunter silenced the peasant with an upraised hand. “There are preparations to be made, rituals that must be performed.”
As the visitor donned his cloak and moved toward the door, the peasant reached out and touched the the hunter’s arm. “Will she live?”
Petre Ardelean, who’d been reaching for the door-handle, paused mid-motion. He turned his head. “Her soul is my first concern, rumani-Lupei. Once that is safe, we will attempt to save her life.”
Stefan Lupei and another man walked along the stone-lined path that led off of the moor and into the churchyard-cemetery. Stefan pulled his cloak more tightly about his person and peered into the gathering darkness. For an instant, he thought he could discern the figure of a man amid the inky gloom of the graveyard. At this distance, though, he couldn’t be certain it wasn’t a trick of shadow and light.
The duo continued on, until they were in the graveyard-proper. There, Stefan paused. “My brother is interred yonder.”
His companion nodded, looked about. “It is nearly full-dark. Where is this hunter?”
The other man shivered. He glanced toward his brother’s marker, felt an imagined belt of panic tighten around his stomach.
“Did you bring a torch, Stefan Lupei?”
The pair spun on their heels, startled. Lupei’s companion dropped into a defensive crouch.
“Hunter-Ardelean, you startled me. Thank you for coming, sir.”
“Who is this?” Petre Ardelean indicated the third of their party.
“Hunter-Ardelean, this is my friend and neighbor, Mihai Dalka.”
The man extended his hand, the vampire-hunter ignored it. “Is he a relation?”
“No, Hunter, he is not kin.”
Ardelean nodded. “Bring me to your brother’s grave.”
It was early winter yet, and the grounds of the cemetery had yet to freeze. As such, unearthing the pine-box that served as Iancu Lupei’s final resting-place proved easy work. Stefan and Mihai had shared the chore, and now stood beside a modest pile of recently churned earth. As one, they looked to the hunter.
“Good.” Ardelean stepped to the edge of the open grave and looked down. “Good. Now, one of you, go down and open the box. That done, move quickly, and allow me access.” The hunter placed his case--more of a worn leather satchel, really—onto the ground beside the wound in the earth. He opened it, and removed the tools of his trade.
The men watched as the hunter removed his instruments. A bone-saw; several forearm-length stakes fashioned from what looked to be cherry wood; a large pouch of salt—the hunter laid these items side-by-side. He then removed several ripe cloves of garlic, which he placed in his pockets and tucked into the sleeve of his tunic. “This will help mask the smell of decay,” he said, and distributed cloves to the two other men. “Now please, the lid.”
Handing his torch off to Mihai, and motioning for him to supply light, Stefan crouched down and sat on the edge of the grave. He swung his legs over the side and eased down onto his brother’s casket. The wood creaked beneath his weight. “The bar,” he said, and held out his hand. A few seconds later he felt the satisfying weight of iron in his grip. He shifted the bar to his left-hand, made the sign-of-the-cross with his right.
The lid came up easily, too easily for the peasant’s liking. It came off as though…well, as though it had been pried open only recently...
He exited the grave with haste, dragging the lid behind him in his right hand. Mihai took him from beneath the shoulders, hoisted the scrambling man out.
Ardelean, meanwhile, busied himself salting the earth around the marker. He moved to the edge, peered down. “Come here,” he said. “Look at this.”
Not without a good degree of trepidation, the two men walked back to the edge of the open grave.
Stefan gasped. “Good God.”
“Behold the blush in the creature’s cheek, the fresh blood pooled about his chin and on his shroud.”
Mihai shuddered. “I mark it. The blood is fresh indeed…”
The hunter gestured at the remains. “Note too, how the fingernails have fallen off, only to be replaced by sharper, more feral appearing ones?”
“Great God, behold the stomach of the creature!” Stefan crossed himself. The abdomen of the corpse was grossly engorged.
“The creature lusts for blood, ” The vampire-hunter explained. “It is an urge stronger than hunger.” He squatted down and selected a wooden spike from among the three. “The vampire will gorge itself until the blood, having nowhere else to go, finally escapes the mouth.”
Stefan heard everything the hunter was saying, but he was having trouble processing it all. It was hard not to look at the desecrated body of his brother—the body of a good man, now inhabited by the foulest of demons.
“Keep watch,” the hunter said. “It is best I do my work with haste.”
With that, Petre Ardelean leapt, quite nimbly, into the freshly-dug grave.
The hunter brushed the dirt and ash from his tunic. He clapped his hands, and small black clouds resulted. When he was satisfied, he crouched down beside the fire they’d built and retrieved the small satchel he’d filled.
A wolf howled in the night; It was joined almost immediately by two, possibly three, others.
He held the satchel out to Stefan. “Take this,” he said. “Mix the ashes of the vampire’s heart with water, and a splash of wine. Make sure she drinks the entire elixir.”
The large man accepted the pouch. He held the leather container as though it might, at any second, come to life in his grasp. “Must she? Is this absolutely necessary?”
“Thus far, rumani Lupei, we have saved the soul of your brother. Your daughter is in grave peril still. This, I’m afraid, is the only way.”
The father nodded. “Will you not join us at my home, Hunter Ardelean?”
“My services are required elsewhere. I thank you, though, for the courtesy.”
"This will make her well…you are certain?”
The hunter seemed to consider this. “The creature is dead, we have made certain of that this night. His curse remains, however.” He indicated the satchel. “This will destroy the evil that infests your daughter. I hunt vampire, I am no physician. At the least, though, she will suffer no further abuse at the hands of the restless dead.”
The other man nodded. He extended his hand. “Thank you, Hunter Ardelean. You have my gratitude.”
“Hurry home and secure your daughter’s soul, Stefan Lupei.”
While the villagers went about their day’s labors, the vampire slept. Well, he tried to sleep. In truth he was troubled, though he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why…
By any measure, his foray into this hamlet (little more than a few villages clustered, more or less, about a small manor-house) had been a successful one. First and foremost, his hunger had been sated. Nearly as important (and far more satisfying) he’d quenched his thirst for the blood of the living right under the nose of the vampire-hunter who’d plagued him for so long.
Lastly, he’d acquired another spirit for his entourage. Presently, he’d stored the anguished soul of the young girl in the body of a local wolf. The animal sat quiet vigil over his resting-place even as he tried, presently, to sleep. It did so not of its free will, but by force of the vampire’s own.
So why, he wondered, was he ill at rest?
The vampire heard a sound, then- an unsettling sound, to say the least. It was the noise of humans--at least two, and possibly even three or more of them. The creature lost his psychic link with his wolf-familiar. He didn’t sense the creature’s death, only its conflict, and then flight.
How could this be?
He strained his ears, trying to discern the direction in which the voices were moving. All he could tell was that they were getting louder, and therefore closer.
The vampire’s mind raced. If he waited inside his coffin, he was found. If he ventured out, who was to say there wasn’t sufficient sunlight in the tomb to cause pain, or worse.
You’ve been doing this for centuries, don’t panic…
He considered. Vampires don’t breathe, as such, but he took the mental-equivalent of a deep breath to try and calm his mind.
Inside the confines of his casket, the vampire shook his head. No-it wasn’t worth the risk of opening the lid. He’d visited the catacomb in which he now rested in the guise of a mourner. The room, he’d noted, was open to the sun, but there were large pillars that promised immense stripes of shadow throughout the entirety of the cavernous space. Unfortunately, the vampire had no way of knowing whether his casket had been placed in light or shadow…
Suddenly the voices were louder--exponentially so--and the vampire knew the living were in the crypt. He tensed...
Darkness yielded to a dim, sickly light as the casket lid was thrown to one side. The Vampire cringed as its skin reacted against the intrusion. The creature stared up into the eyes of the last person in the world it expected to see.
The hunter met the vampire’s gaze, unafraid. “We meet again, Petre Ardelean.”
The vampire grinned. “Indeed, we do.”
“Did you know all along?” The man who had masqueraded as Stefan Lupei wore a satchel over his shoulder. This, he removed.
“I did,” The creature said. “Did you?”
The man held the vampire’s eyes. “I suspected.”
“You play a dangerous game, hunter.”
“I hunt dangerous prey.”
The vampire cocked its head, smirked. The expression did not reach the creature’s eyes. “Indeed.”
“Why did you come, if you knew I lay in wait?”
The creature looked thoughtful. “You have hunted me for over a decade, and have come close on occasion—closer than you yourself may know. By all counts you, though, you had yet to glimpse my face. I wanted to find out if that was true.”
“It was.” The vampire-hunter lifted his left hand, showed the creature the wooden-stake in his fist. “You know what must be done.”
“I do.” The vampire looked to be resigned to his fate. “But first, how is the girl?”
Fire flashed in the hunter’s eyes. “She’s dead…but of course you know that.”
“To use a little girl as bait…,” The vampire clucked its tongue, a reproaching schoolmaster. “A new low for you, hunter.”
“The girl was already afflicted.”
The vampire nodded. “And the man at the grave, Mihai Dalka--that was Stefan Lupei? Father of the afflicted?”
“And the girl is dead?:
The vampire felt the sharp end of the stake come down over its heart with enough force to pierce flesh and break ribs. Its back arched in spasmodic response.
“Yes,” The hunter growled. He lifted his right hand high over his head, and the vampire caught sight of the blunt face of a large hammer.
“No...,” The vampire closed its eyes. “The child outlives death. But you will never find her....”
"The hunter hesitated. "What have you done?"
"Do your work, hunter..." The vampire, its eyes still closed, smiled. "For I live on...in her."
The vampire-hunter struck.
J Robert Kane
Sept 9-14 2017