You know what happens when we die?
Daniela’s voice, fading in and out, like the crackle of a warm fireplace just behind an old wall.
They say—I read—that when someone dies, their minds stretch that last second out into eternity. Like sugar being pulled into candy strings. Pulling and pulling until time ceases to mean anything—until the last moment of life becomes all there is. Pleasure becomes heaven. Pain becomes hell.
Isn’t that something?
Yes. Except she always thought hell would be hot.
I don’t want to be here.
I want my mother. I want my sisters. I want—
She never imagined the absolute cold, the utter lack of warmth—of feeling, of touch. A bubble of thought suspended amidst an eternal dark, so deep it can be felt. No—not felt. She cannot feel, because there is no her to feel anything.
All there ever will be, is the cold. The dark.
I don’t want to be alone.
The impenetrable dark stares back, jeering with its all-consuming absence, as the cold swallows her consciousness like an ocean swallows a teardrop—
It’s there. Amidst the dark. A single line—a crack. A fixed point, an anchor. A reality.
She has eyes. She can see. She—she is real.
The crack creeps along an expanse of grey, snaking between imperfections in its surface. A barrier. A wall—no, a ceiling. It is a ceiling. Mist is rising and falling over her vision like a ghostly curtain, but she sees.
A room. A building. This is real. This is real.
Bela exhales, and the mist parts as her breath breaks through the curtain, if only for a moment.
I am here. And if I am here—
This is not death.
She turns her face to the side, her stiff neck popping as it marks each increment of rotation with a crack of pain. The pain brings clarity—she smells, she hears. A constant hiss fills the room, a pungent odour punctuates the air.
I am alive.
The crystallisation is the end. So it has been told; so it is known. She’s seen how the lycans die, or the withered husks lurking beneath the castle, freezing into solid glass-like material before crumbling into sand. Of noble lineage she may be, but in death the children of the Cadou become equal. That creeping numbness, that hardening of her limbs—that is death, as surely as the sun rises.
Except here she is now—thinking, feeling, breathing. Moving, if barely. All impossibilities.
Her eyes adjust to the near-dark. She is lying on some sort of bed, or plate—the metal under her bare skin is biting cold. One of the man-toys stands in the middle of the room, a long metallic tube propped up against a chair. Foamy clouds roll from its tip, tumbling onto the floor to flatten out into a sea of white.
And then light bursts into existence, and Bela screams.
Her eyes squeeze shut, but the illumination burns through her eyelids and scorches her vision. Freezing fingers clap against her face, her cheeks stinging with the bite of icy cold.
“Well, shit.” Against her raw eardrums, the gentle voice is a deafening trumpet blast. “Looks like she’s awake.”
Field log 009
MEG-82 “Cadou” Anomaly STRY-01A [label BANSHEE] – Part 1 of 2
Anomaly STRY-01A appears to begin its life cycle with infestation of a living human host with MEG-82 assimilated larvae of the common green bottle fly Lucilia sericata. Following infection of human tissue with plasmid strains of MEG-82, cells are rapidly converted to fungal biomass of an identical genetic signature to that currently labelled as the Baker Strain. Proliferation of adult specimens of L sericata occurs rapidly and the entire body is assimilated within 4-6 days from infestation. The final form of STRY-01A is that of an apparently human specimen of the age range 20-30, existing simultaneously as a super-swarm of L sericata specimens coordinated by aerosolised pheromones, electromagnetic impulses, and a decentralised nervous system.
It is notable that thus far all samples of L sericata isolated from STRY-01A instances have been sterile, hence making natural reproduction impossible. One hypothesis proposes a deliberate introduction of MEG-82 genetic material into wild-type L sericata larvae for the express purposes of infestation and assimilation [see addendum 5A: Dr. Miranda V.] (Continued...)
Ten minutes ago
“Mother—fucker!” Leonardo leaps back, instinctively levelling the barrel of the pistol downwards.
“Relax—” Ethan Winters wheezes breathlessly.
Impossible. Utterly impossible.
The Strigoi—or rather, its corpse—had been breaking apart like a thing of badly-blown glass, chipping and fragmenting with every passing minute. Her fingers had been nothing but stumps of fragile crystal, her face bisected by a crevasse in the glass-like substance. A blow, a stomp—she would have been dust.
Leonardo stares in wonder—in horror—as the witch’s soft lips begin to flush pink, shards of crystal flaking from her cheekbones, whole and smooth beneath the glassy exterior.
“Leo—shooting her—would really defeat—the point of this—” By her side, Ethan Winters kneels in the soil, his face contorted in a grimace.
The scythe is buried in the crook of his elbow, ripping his brachial artery open. Across his arm, over his palm and fingers, a flood of blood cascades rhythmically in time with his heartbeat.
His palm is turned upwards, fingers mere inches from the creature’s fangs. Guiding the torrent of warm, fresh blood into her mouth—bathing her tongue, coating her throat, overflowing from the hollows of her cheeks to run down the sides of her neck.
Leonardo Lupu is going to be sick.
“Is her throat moving—please tell me this bitch—is drinking—” Ethan gasps, pushing the scythe deeper into his flesh. A sputter of claret arcs in the cold air as the wall of his artery tears further, painting his skin with a fresh coat of moving, rippling blood.
Like a snake shedding a layer of desiccated skin, she breaks free. Flakes of crystal fall onto the soil in a steady patter as the skin over her torso peeks through, pale and smooth. Her bare shoulders meet the light, then the milky white of her breasts. The battle—the massacre—has shredded her black dress; what clings to her reformed body are little more than ribbons joined by morsels of thread.
At last—the final piece of crystal peels off, and she lies amidst a silhouette of fine dust and inch-wide shards. Pale, motionless, bare—she might have died only a handful of seconds ago.
“Fuck!” Ethan Winters hisses, clutching his arm as the scythe drops to the hard ground with a metallic clatter. “Damn! The scythe is too damn blunt—” he rubs the hollow of his elbow, clearing away the blood. “Shit. The artery’s already closed up.”
He lifts his fingers. True to his word, the skin underneath is whole and unblemished. The wound had closed before the scythe even hit the ground.
“Mr Winters,” Leonardo says softly, “are you alright?”
“Hungover.” Ethan Winters rubs his forehead. “Like ‘twelve shots of gin and a beer tower’ kind of hungover. Fuck.” He collapses into a sitting position, breathing heavily.
Leonardo doesn’t feel much better. His head is giddy, a ship’s mast on a choppy sea; his mind is pounding with the incessant noise of his senses. The dragonfly circling the bush flies with a slight bank; one of its hind wings is bruised and has healed wrong. The rich nutmeg scent of blooming rhodendrons is contaminated by the stink of freshly-spilled blood and the aroma of rotting mushrooms. And the sounds—
Leonardo freezes. His ears twitch as he turns his head slowly, side to side. “Mr Winters. Do you hear that?”
He concentrates, feeling the tunnel closing in around his head as the other senses dim away—his hearing sharpens as he pounces on the noise. Distant, very distant—the buzzing of a cloud of insects. The woods would be full of them; bees, gnats, flies, and all manner of creeping things. But this is different—the insects are flying in concert, maintaining cohesion even as they move. And other sounds—the flap of clothing, the scrape of metal—
“I hear it.” Ethan Winters takes a deep breath, bracing himself on one knee. “I’ve been hearing it for a while.”
“Strigoi. More of them.” Leonardo grips the pistol, eyes roving the horizon. “I think—northwest, near the edge of the woods. Maybe—I don’t know. Two miles away?” He shakes his head. “Two miles? How can anyone hear flies buzzing for two miles?”
“We need to move. I don’t think they’ve found us yet.” The American rises to his feet. “It’s going to be a matter of time before they find this shit. And her.” He points to the naked maiden by his feet.
“Is it working?” Leonardo studies her body. The chest is still; the eddy of air by her nostrils is absent. An exquisitely beautiful creature, lifelike and rendered in incredible detail—but for all intents and purposes, a freshly-dead corpse. “The crystal is gone. But she still looks dead.”
Ethan Winters shrugs. “We’ll have to move her too. If it doesn’t work—at least we’ll be able to burn the body and cover our tracks. How far to the clinic from here?”
Leonardo stares in the opposite direction. “I would say—maybe half a mile. And a quarter again.” He glances as the American lifts the woman up in his arms, cradling her in a bridal carry. “I—Mr Winters, you’re going to carry her like that and walk all the way there?”
“Might not need to.” Ethan Winters flexes one knee, then the other. His sneakers grind in the snow-covered ground. “That Urias, rest in peace, had something useful after all. Something I can use.”
“Something you can use?” Leonardo raises an eyebrow.
The American bends his knees in a sprinter’s pose. “The damn thing could jump.”
Prototype mutation HEPH082-R, label [AIRJET]
Anomaly UR-72, label [URIAS] is an approximately 2.8-meter-tall humanoid bio-organic construct formed from MEG-82 assimilation of a human host. In contrast to the average [LYCAN], this anomaly has shown an ability to leap approximately 30-45 meters’ distance in a single bound. This feat is unaccounted for by simple muscle strength, as the muscle power required to generate such force would simultaneously render the muscle group too dense to function. However, cadaveric study of UR-72 remains has shed light on its unique physiology. In addition to an ultralight lower limb skeletal structure, numerous pneumatophores located on its back as well as lower limbs provide a method of semi-controlled propulsion in mid-air, while the fungal tendrils on its back function as rudimentary ailerons to steer its path.
Mutation HEPH082-R has undergone significant modification in the genome of subject Ethan Winters following assimilation, with consequential adaptation of his entire skeletal structure to accommodate for these changes. A pseudo-hydraulic system enables accumulated muscle mass to bolster the force generated by hip and knee flexors, before being channelled in mid-air to form temporary pneumatophores arrayed in a rotary structure along his back and legs much like a turboprop engine. In addition, mutamycete material upon his skin forms into a streamlined aerodynamic microstructure.
Observational studies have catalogued jumps of up to 100-150 meters, although it is extremely likely that with further usage and adaptation, this distance will be compounded. Further testing and optimisation highly recommended.
The light scorches her eyes, a constant sting filtering through her fingers pressed to her face. She thinks at first of sunlight—but no heat is carried upon those garish rays, no relief from the bone-biting cold that has her curled up like a child upon the cold metal.
A scent fills the air, puncturing the background of that sharp ever-present tang. Familiar, somehow. Faintly sweet, yet weighed down by harsher notes like gravy stirred into strawberry jam. Discordant—unfriendly.
“Don’t like the cold?” A harsh sonorous voice grates from somewhere behind her. Steel upon rock. “You can thank the old Croat.”
A rap against hollow metal. She opens one bleary eye; a set of calloused knuckles rest atop the cylinder, now clearly painted with a white stripe.
“Liquid nitrogen. Negative one hundred and ninety-six degrees Celsius, stored under high pressure. Freezes everything it touches—instantly.” The hand closes into a fist, the bleached marks of early frostbite are visible on its ruddy skin. “I am guessing your kind doesn’t do very well in the cold, Strigoi? Can’t heal, can’t turn into a million flies—you’re stuck here.”
A blade gleams in the light, a hacking-knife like that of a woodsman or tracker, held in a firm grip. The other hand rests atop a silver protuberance at the tip of the cylinder. “You have to be careful when playing with cold. Liquid nitrogen, dry ice, or just plain ice from the lake or the fridge, whatever. Get too excited, apply too much, and it kills the nerves and then all you’re doing is cutting numb meat. But when you get it right—”
Beneath the wrinkled skin, the man’s muscles are coiled like snakes poised to strike. The easy grip, the casual way his fingertips keep their balance upon the wooden handle of the heavy blade. No—this is no woodsman, used to chopping tinder. This is a killer, used to cutting men.
The long-knife swings upwards, the wrist turning deftly to point its tip at the ceiling. “Mr Winters found two cans of petrol out the back, still mostly full. That means we can keep the generator running for another six, maybe seven hours, and keep the lights on.”
The cold paralyses her. Her elbows refuse to bend, her fingers tear from her face with terrible excruciating effort, peeling raw frostbitten flesh off her cheeks like skin from an orange. The blade dangles in the man’s grip, now turning to point at her.
“Six hours of fun, Strigoi.” Heavy boots thud on the floor, the steps firm and sure. “I wonder—how many women have you cut open? How many men have you fed on? How many of them were there, where you are now—helpless, defenceless?”
The knuckles whiten, the wrist flexes, and then a knob turns. A fresh cascade of smoky white tumbles down the sides of the cylinder, and suddenly it becomes hard to breathe.
“Lights on? Lights off? Which would you prefer?” There is no humour in the man-thing’s voice. No hesitation or pause. His head is a cloudy black mass against the blaring white light above, and he cocks it to the side. “No preference? Me, I like the lights on. Helps me see better. Don’t want to accidentally chop off something of mine, now, would I?”
A clatter of metal against metal, and Bela looks down. A tray wobbles at the edge of the steel gurney, its contents rattling against its sides. A set of pliers, a long thin rod—and a cobbler’s hammer, its black head reflected against the polished tray.
“Knife for warm flesh. Hammer for cold, frozen meat. And pliers for more—delicate parts. I was a butcher’s boy, you know that? Helped my father run his shop, right before Ceaușescu came to power and we lost the shop to the ‘glorious state collective.’” The knife taps against the cylinder. “I have everything I need here. Did you enjoy it, when you cut them—when you tasted them? Was it—thrilling?”
His voice. No malice, not hatred. Genuine curiosity.
Bela’s heart gives way to an abyss.
“No matter. I suspect I will soon find out.” The voice draws closer. “You died; you know that? And we brought you back. We can bring you back again—and again. As many times as we want.”
Her vision is a moving puddle of watercolour paints, clarity fading in and out; the gleam of the knife vanishes into the confusion.
“Maybe you’ve guessed already. And you are right, Strigoi,” the voice intones. “This is hell.”
Another sliver of metal appears, irregular and oddly-shaped.
“I think,” the man-thing whispers, “I’ll start with your eyes.”
Her breath is frozen, stuck to the insides of her lungs. Bela’s scream never leaves her throat.
A slam echoes through the room, and her limbs jerk. Footsteps. Another presence—another scent. Stronger, sweeter, cloying. Vibrant and pulsating—anxious.
“Hey—what the fuck, Leonardo?” An explosion of breath from clenched teeth. “What the hell are you doing? Damn—it’s freezing cold in here! How much gas did you release? And leave the door open!—you want to suffocate?”
A grunt of exertion, a squeak, and the cold relents by a decrement. Bela squints—a smaller hand is turning the knob of the cylinder. The hiss of gas fades to a whine, then stops.
“What’re you doing with her? What—she’s naked, for fuck’s sake! Shit! At least—” A trail of muttered curses, and suddenly something is pressing upon her body. Her hands twitch in shock, then her fingers probe against something thick and warm.
“I was just about to have some fun, Mr Winters.” The other, older man-thing grunts, drawing further away.
“Have some—are you out of your mind?” The interloper strides around the gurney, coming to Bela’s right. “Listen, just wait outside. I’ll—I’ll handle this.”
A sigh, a harrumph. Heavy boots stomp on the cracked tiles, and then the knife is suddenly inches from Bela’s face.
“I’ll be back soon, Strigoi,” comes the whisper. “Really soon.”
His presence recedes, and Bela releases her breath. The cloud of moisture warms her nose and upper lip, but goes no further.
“Crazy old bastard,” the voice mutters. “Here. Try and sit up for a bit.”
A hand folds under Bela’s arm, pulling her upwards. The flesh throbs with the comfort of a cheery fireplace; she presses against it, feeling the heat thawing her frozen body. Then she is sitting up, her head light, her eyes clearing from the mist.
Bela paws numbly at the heavy dark thing over her chest. Her fingers ruffle over fluffy down and a lining of soft fabric, as welcome as an angel’s kiss. She melts into the warmth.
“Sorry. That jacket is all I’ve got. You’ll have to make do.” The gentler voice is interrupted by the scrape of wood on concrete. Then a squeak, as the figure settles into a chair. The sticky sweetness in the air is stronger now; fuller, like the body of a glass of wine.
“I’ll handle Leonardo. He’s—unhinged. Unpredictable. He came up with a dozen ways to kill you already.” The chair creaks, as the voice draws closer. “I talked him out of it. But—look, it’ll be better if you just talk to me.”
The warmth creeps back into her lips, trickling down the back of her throat. Her tongue is finally unstuck from the roof of her dry mouth. The spreading thaw kindles that pit of rage at last.
“You will regret this, man-thing,” Bela snarls at the foggy features of the silhouette. “I am Bela of House Dimitrescu, daughter of Countess Alcina Dimitrescu. Release me this instant, and you might—perhaps—keep your pitiful lives.”
Her lips peel back, her fangs exposed in the cool air. “My mother and sisters will tear you to pieces feet first. Skin you alive, screaming all the while—oh yes, we will keep you alive, we are good at—”
Then the face swims into focus, and Bela’s tongue is suddenly heavy.
“Go on,” the man urges, leaning forward with a polite expression. “Don’t let me interrupt.”
Empty, alabaster eyes in bloodied sockets—an unearthly maw flanked by teeth the length of a palm—black talons scything through flesh and blood and bone without ever losing momentum—and that hideous, hideous hatred—
“I see you recognise me.” The man is dressed in a simple shirt, blotched with dark stains and ripped almost in two. The pathetic fabric does nothing to conceal the strength of his muscular frame—or the knowledge of what lies beneath. “We weren’t properly introduced the last time.”
He nods. “Ethan Winters, IT engineer, part-time model airplane and drone builder. And you must be Bela—Dimitrescu. I hope I’m pronouncing it right.” A finger scratches the stubble under his chin. “So, let’s get to the point. I’m Rosemary’s father, and I want her back.”
Bela stares, silent, her arms curled against her body underneath the jacket. She is exposed, cold, weak—the swarm is still silent, within her. She can barely stop herself from reaching for a scythe she knows is no longer there.
“Let’s not bullshit each other here. You know where she is.” Ethan Winters straightens in his seat, hands planted on his knees. “I know—I saw. Your mother, and your two sisters, you’ve seen my daughter. And if you haven’t, you at least know of her whereabouts.”
He half-stands, pulling the chair closer. The crooked metal legs drag against the cracked tiles.
“I want to know about this Mother Miranda person. Who is she, and what does she want with my daughter?” He is within arm’s reach now. Stiff, alert. “What is this ceremony? And where did you last see her?”
Bela steadies her breath. Inhale, exhale. Keep your eyes on him.
I am a Dimitrescu.
Their legacy adorns the tomes of the library, the walls of the castle. A noble lineage of warriors and leaders stretching back into even the memory of ancient Dacia; sprawling tapestries and faithful records attest to the struggle of House Dimitrescu against the savage Tartars and the avaricious Turks, their defiant independence against the empires of old. She knows the demands made of her, the decree of her ancestral bloodline.
Bleed if you must, die if you must. But do not break.
“I will say nothing.” Bela lifts her head, breath curling in the cold like the ghosts of her defiant words. “If you’re going to kill me, kill me. I know what you are—I’ve seen it. And I am not afraid.”
She dares not expose her hands. He will see them shaking.
The man’s jaw stiffens, his chest rising with a deep breath. For one second, the flash appears in his eyes, and she feels the fibres of her heart unravel like a ball of string.
Then he leans back, exhaling slowly as he runs his hands over his unkempt blond hair.
“Look—I’m not here to kill you. Or anybody else.” The crack of his voice is the surface of a frozen lake splintering in the warm spring air. “I know how fucked up this place is—I want my family back. I’ve already lost my wife. That’s all that’s left of my family now. Just Rosemary.”
He takes another breath, pressing the palms of his hands together. “My wife, Mia, we have—had—a place where we could raise Rose in peace. And then something happened. Someone I thought I could trust, he—he broke into our home, and Mia—”
His eyes close. Bela could hear the rise and fall of his breath, rattling against the inside of his chest. “She died. My wife—my best friend—she’s dead. The only thing I have left of her is Rose. That’s it.”
The man opens his eyes. “A fortnight ago, I thought I was human. I know better now. I’m some kind of thing, and I don’t understand it. I’m—” He looks down at his hands, palms facing upwards in supplication. “I’m Rose’s father. That’s who I choose to be. She needs me. My daughter needs me.”
“You understand that, don’t you?” His eyes swivel to meet hers. “I know you do. Your mother—your sisters—you know what family means, fucked up as you are.” His nostrils flare. “Try and understand. Please—just understand me. I’m asking you, please help me find my daughter.”
A day prior, and Bela would have laughed gleefully at his pathetic pleas. She had enough of begging, pleading, wheedling man-things, promising all manner of impossibilities to cling to life. The mirth had lent the ensuing slaughter a particular flavour of satisfaction that Bela never tired of.
But those eyes—she sees no desperation, no cravenness. In fact, if anything, his narrowed eyebrows and lips stretched thin remind her of nothing as much as resignation.
—“Who are Cassandra and Daniela?”—
The memory of those words strikes her like a hammer to the temple; he had been shouting that, among other things, when he had flown into a rage before that—thing—emerged. She had been preoccupied with the terror of facing that unnatural beast, before she then became caught up with fighting for her life. All along, the suspicion had been building at the back of her mind. Coming to the fore, gnawing from underneath the blanket of life-and-death panic, surfacing now as a growing tide of terror swirling around a question she dared not ask.
The words tumble from her lips before she can stop herself.
“How do you know my sisters’ names?” Bela’s mind goes numb as she clamps her lips down too late. She forces her face into a frown. Whatever happens—
The man—Ethan Winters—raises an eyebrow, before blowing the air from his cheeks.
“Here’s the thing. I can see memories and thoughts, if I get close enough to touch.” He is looking now at his hand, as if studying some invisible text written on the sides of his fingers. “At least—that’s how I think it works. One of two ways it can work, at least.”
“One of two ways—?” she hears herself whisper.
He grimaces, clicking his tongue. “I don’t know if you remember this guy. Vlasák? Tall Romanian guy, former army officer before he deserted and moved to this village, built like a brick shithouse. Ring any bells?”
Bela blinks. What on earth—she could scarcely tell one man-thing from another, considering they all bleed the same in the end. She shakes her head.
“Interesting—since you killed him.” He pauses, brown eyes watching hers. “He was summoned to Castel Dimitrescu, but never made it there, because you ambushed him half a mile from the village square. You cut his throat—like that—” he draws a finger across his neck “—and then drained him of blood. Every drop.”
His expression darkens. “He remembers nothing else—except waking up in some fucked up underground place, and then his thoughts after that are all muddled. He was brought to life as some big mutant thing—Leonardo calls it, what, Urias?—but everything after that is a blur. Until you, that is.”
The man points at her, his eyes fixed on hers. “He remembered you. At the very end, he could smell you—feel you—and when he saw you, he knew. He knew you were the one who killed him. It was personal—is personal. It’s like he remembered some small slice of him, and he swung his hammer—”
His fist slams into his open palm with a sound like a thunderclap. “That last moment, he was happy.”
Bela feels cold steel under both palms and realises she is steadying herself against falling backwards onto the gurney. Her elbows are quaking, her wrists trembling.
“And,” she stammers. “And you know this—”
“Because I ate him.” Nothing flickers over his face, not even a twitch of his eyelids. “Swallowed him whole. And that’s the second method. Once I’m done—eating—I know everything. Memories, thoughts, feelings, knowledge. It’ll take me a while to process it all—but I can feel it. I can feel him. It’s all there.” His voice is even, calm. Matter-of-fact, as pedestrian as reciting a recipe for tripe and onion soup.
The tide of horror breaks through the levees of her self-control, and Bela now understands. Her heart thunders against the cool skin of her knees, curled up against her chest.
“I hate it—I hate this. I’m not a monster.” He folds his hands together, fingers pointing at her, an orator at the crux of his argument. “But the thing inside me—it’s hungry. Angry. And I don’t know how long I can hold it back. Right now, you’re talking to me. That thing—it doesn’t like to talk.”
When he asks his question again, she now knows. Knows what is left unsaid; knows why he feels only quiet resignation instead of desperation.
“So, I ask again. Please help me find my daughter.”
Because the thing inside me? It won’t bother asking.
This is not death. Death is a sigh released into the wind, the flutter of a curtain as the actress vanishes from the stage. Death is easy, and she had almost envied the insipid man-things or incompetent maidens as they had simply—exhaled—and instantly became free of their torment; their bodies, once playgrounds of exquisite experimentation, now nothing more than meat hanging from hooks.
This is not death. This is oblivion, consumption—the utter destruction of self. The ripping out of the spine of a book, its pages strung out one by one; the unravelling of a tapestry thread by thread. Frozen forever at the moment of being devoured, screaming forever—thoughts and memories and hopes and dreams, encased in amber like grotesque museum displays to be peered at or discarded—
You are right, Strigoi. This is hell.
All the chattering thoughts rattling in her skull like silverfish in a glass bottle, all the pent-up terror gathering pressure within her chest, and the only stupid thought she can muster—who would have thought Hell would wear such a handsome face?
At first, she thinks the noise escaping her lips is an unbidden scream. Then she realises the sound is something worse. Bela has started to talk.
“I don’t know where your daughter is. I—I really don’t.” Her lips go dry, her eyes darting quickly to his. He isn’t blinking. His mouth doesn’t move. Her own mouth—that rebellious organ—betrays her, and then the words tumble out.
“I never got close enough to see her myself. Only Cassandra got to, one time, from far away. Mother Miranda was carrying the child in her own arms. Daniela tried to get a glimpse again, later on, but she never did.” Bela’s words trail off in a choked whisper, her breath running out. The inhalation of freezing air feels like a razor’s edge against the inside of her throat.
“Okay,” he mutters. His eyes don’t leave hers. Even when she averts her eyes, tracing the cracks on the ceiling above, she feels that keen penetrating gaze upon her.
“All I know is—Rosemary was at our castle maybe only a single day, a week ago. It was all very quiet. I don’t know if Mother got to see her, or even took care of her personally—what I do know is that she later gathered us in the study and informed us, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to speak of the child ever having been there at all. Not in front of the maidens or menials, not even in private.” Bela pulls the jacket further up her chest; her bare legs sting against the cold air, and she curls up tighter.
“Lady Alcina Dimitrescu. That is your mother?” Ethan Winters’ hands are busy—the edge of the steel gurney obstructs her vision. She sees his wrists move, sees the rise and fall of his fingers. Bela cranes her neck, just a little, and sees—
He’s—writing in a notebook?
For a bizarre second, she fights the urge to burst out laughing. How stupid—that terrible creeping thing that eats not just flesh but minds, that creature that flays memories from brains, that unfitting human skin draped over an eldritch abomination and held in place by the flimsiest of clasps—and here is that little gesture, something so, so human. Almost vaudeville.
He catches her eye, and suddenly Bela has no problem fighting the urge to laugh.
“Yes—yes, that is my Mother,” Bela stammers. “She is one of the four lords of this village and the mountain territories. The Lady Alcina of House Dimitrescu.” She can’t resist adding: “Some might say she is the noblest of them all.”
“Hm.” The pen scratches again on the notebook. “Tell me about these four lords.”
Bela pauses, and then speaks in as clear a voice as she can.
She lavishes detail on House Dimitrescu, and its links to the campaign of the great Vlad Țepeș against the Turks of old. Of House Beneviento, she can furnish only brief scattered impressions of the reclusive Lady Donna, a woman she has never met in person.
House Moreau, she dismisses with a single sentence, along with that unfortunate misshapen hunchback in whom the line has come to an ignominious end. As for House Heisenberg—she sees no reason to rein in her disdain. That bloodline of tinkerers and tanners and sell-swords—she spends more time than she had expected on the brutish Lord Heisenberg, in particular his uncouth nature in contrast to the noble upbringing of the Dimitrescu line. Mother had spent time—a lot of time—ranting on his blatant disrespect to her person.
All the while, Ethan Winters continues to write. The pen scribbles and scrawls its way across page by yellowed page of the dog-eared notebook. Most curiously—he never once looks down at his writing. His eyes never leave hers.
He only puts down his pen once, when she realises that she is staring.
“Sorry. I’m used to it.” He wiggles the cap of the ballpoint pen. “My uni lecturers had a habit of speeding through the whiteboard. Anyways—tell me about Mother Miranda. I want to know about the woman last seen holding my daughter.”
Bela looks at the notebook, then at him. She blinks twice, almost as if to clear her head, then—
“She is—Mother Miranda is a goddess.” Bela tries to find the words. “She is older than any of us; she was here before any of the lords. She has powers that none of us can comprehend; control over the creatures of the night, and Daniela thinks she can even change her form.” A strand of hair clings to her upper lip; she brushes it away. “As for the ceremony—I don’t know. None of us are permitted to speak of it, or ask about it. Mother won’t talk. But I’m guessing—I’m guessing it involves your daughter.”
“And that’s all you know.” The notebook closes; the pen vanishes.
“That’s all I know. I swear.” Bela nods. The terror swills against the walls of her stomach like mercury. He’s got everything—what use does he have for me now?
For a moment, he remains in his seat, twiddling his thumbs. And then, Ethan Winters rises with a grunt.
“I’ll be back.” He pulls the chair back, then strides towards the open door. “Team meeting.”
Halfway to the door, he turns back. “Bela?”
“Yes?” Her voice is higher than she wants.
“Stay here, and don’t go anywhere.” His face is half-obscured by the shadow of the nearby closet. “Or the thing coming after you won’t be me.”
MEG-82 “Cadou” Anomaly STRY-01A [label BANSHEE] – Part 2 of 2
Previous hypotheses have centred on the true nature of STRY-01A, with two distinct camps: one being that of a human form capable of transitioning to the fly swarm, or that of a fly swarm morphologically mimicking a human shape. The actual fact appears to be neither—in-vivo studies have shown the true form of STRY-01A to be a fluctuating biomass matrix of highly malleable material, existing in a transitional state between assuming the form of a human female as well as that of a fly swarm bonded by a decentralised nervous system. STRY-01A is then capable of shifting its form towards one extreme or the other. However, it is notable that the metalloproteinase responsible for this transition is rapidly inactivated by temperatures below 20 degrees Celsius, with complete denaturation at 10 degrees Celsius and consequent onset of widespread programmed cell death.
This so-called ‘flux form’ bears an uncanny resemblance to that of subject Ethan Winters, with a significant amount of genetic congruity. A. Koenig et al  has previously compared the biological processes of both organisms, with complex molecular as well as phenotypic mimicry of a human form via very similar pathways. Transference of DNA between subject Ethan Winters and STRY-01A appears to be possible without direct consumption, and possibly even via physical proximity. A number of vectors have been proposed for such methods of transmission, including direct exchange of DNA plasmids, fungal epigenetics, or the introduction of a tailored mycovirus.
“So,” Ethan says, leaning against the doorway. “What do you think?”
“I think this is a day of impossibilities.” Leonardo flicks the cap of his lighter, the orange flame burning cheerily in the dim waiting room. “First your blood cures lycanthropy. Then you manage to feed your blood to a Strigoi—and then bring the damn thing back to life. Impressive? Definitely. Smart?” He lights the tip of a cigarette. “Fuck no.”
“She definitely got more talkative. And hasn’t giggled once.” Ethan peers inside the doorway. “So that’s an improvement.”
“I think, Mr Winters,” Leonardo growls, the cigarette pinched between his canines, “that you have her—what is that phrase?—scared shitless.” He releases a stream of smoke from the edge of his mouth. “You managed to scare the shit out of a Strigoi. An impressive achievement.”
“I mean—you think she’s telling the truth?” Ethan can see just the edge of their captive’s silhouette, and the shadow of the gurney.
“How can I tell? You both talk so damn soft, I couldn’t hear shit. One might be forgiven for thinking you two were humping behind somebody’s shed.” Leonardo takes another drag. “But if you ask me? That has all the signs of someone desperate to save their own skin. If she’s lying to you, she’s damn good at it.”
“And what the hell was that?” Ethan hisses, glaring at the old Romanian. “That thing with the liquid nitrogen, and the knife, and the hammer and pliers—like, what the fuck? All of a sudden you’re going all Jack Bauer on this bitch?”
“Hey, you told me to scare her, so I scare her. Just following orders, eh, chief?” Leonardo raises his hands in mock surrender, ash scattering from the cigarette. “The whole thing was your idea, remember? Scare her first, and then you come in to be a gentleman. What did you call it? Good commissar, bad commissar?”
“Good cop, bad cop.” Ethan rubs the bridge of his nose.
“Yes, that one. What kind of idea is that anyways? Stupid American concept.” The spent cigarette drops from his lips, and Leonardo stomps the smouldering remnant into the concrete. “I’ve dealt with the Romanian Securitate, and let me tell you there are only two types of police: Bad Police, and Worse Police.”
“Yeah, no shit.” Ethan massages his neck, wincing as he feels the cramped muscles. “Where’d you learn to do all that anyway? You look like you’ve done it before. More than once.”
Leonardo releases the last smoke-filled breath from his nostrils, the twin wisps coalescing before tumbling towards the ceiling. “Ask no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”
“Fine.” Ethan folds his hands behind his head. His brow furrows as he chews on his lip, eyes fixed on a cracked tile below.
“So, what’s your next move?” Leonardo scrapes his moustache with an untrimmed fingernail.
Ethan sighs. “Right now, I still don’t know who has my daughter. All I know is that this bitch and her sisters don’t know anything, but their mother does. Some woman living in that castle up the mountain. If there’s a lead—that’s probably where I’ll find it.”
“You’ve got a plan to get there?” Leonardo lowers his voice.
Ethan pauses, fumbling for his notebook. Then, closing the door behind him, he outlines the bare bones of the best plan he could come up with.
When he finishes talking, he almost wants to ask Leonardo to close his mouth. The man looks like he just drank a gallon of lemonade through his asshole.
“Ethan Winters,” the older man groans, “that is what we call in the village as a stupid fucking piece of shit plan.”
“You’ve got a better idea? Let’s hear it.” Ethan throws his hands up, grimacing. “It’s my best chance of getting close to whoever has my daughter. Right now, I know she’s alive—she has to be. But if I start throwing punches and dropping bodies—”
“Then you might not know who becomes collateral damage. Including your daughter. Alright, I get it.” Leonardo rubs his forehead, eyes closed as if in pain. “Piece of shit plan is better than no plan. Wise men say no plan survives contact with the enemy—I don’t think this plan will even survive contact with you.”
“Yeah—I’m full of bad ideas. Just ask Mi—” Ethan pauses suddenly. The wave of raw grief tumbles forward, but it passes quickly now. Just not quickly enough.
He sighs, before continuing. “Leonardo, you better get back to Elena and the others. Your daughter would want to know. Make sure they’re safe. Make sure—they know you’re okay.”
The older man nods. “I’ll catch up with them, but I’ll be back. I have a few ideas of my own—there are things I can dig up. Things I can use.” He grips Ethan’s shoulder in a firm clasp. “I will be back to support you with overwatch.”
“Look—this is way more than I can ask, and it’s going to get dangerous. These hills are crawling with lycans.” Ethan places his hand over Leonardo’s. “You’re a father too, with a family. I can’t ask this of you, or anyone. Just—go home and be with your daughter. You’ve helped me enough already.”
“Fuck off.” Leonardo’s lip curls with the faintest ghost of a smile. “You stick me with a needle, fill me with useless American shit, spray your damn blood all over me and then bring me back to life, then go off into the wild with a terrible shitty plan? Ethan Winters, I am with you all the way.”
Ethan’s smile is wan. But when he shakes Leonardo’s outstretched hand, there is not a trace of hesitation or weakness.
“One last question.” Ethan Winters strides through the door, his voice echoing in the bare room. “How did you know where to find me?”
Bela pulls the jacket further up, watching the man step up to the chair and take his seat beside the gurney. “I didn’t. Mother summoned Cassandra—said there was something in the valley that felt off. She sent us out to search for it and bring it back. I was late—then just happened to smell you here.”
She rubs the fading wound on her forearm, cursing herself for her carelessness. Had she not gotten injured, she wouldn’t have been separated from her sisters and have to search the village herself—and wouldn’t have been ambushed.
Cassandra would probably be searching the southern woods and the old hunting trails; Daniela, the graveyard and the border stones. Neither would have been close enough to hear her—and given that she was delayed, neither sister has any way to know that she is here—or that she is in trouble.
Bela Dimitrescu, you idiot.
“I was supposed to capture you and bring you to Castel Dimitrescu. Alive—dead—whichever.” She is sullen.
She glances sideways, at the metal cylinder still dribbling smoke. The man-things don’t need to know where her sisters are—not now, when they have a weapon that could hurt them. Absently, Bela calls to the swarm within, and meets with silence. She’s no longer motivated to even keep trying.
Something dark falls across her vision, and Bela’s hands fly up. She flails for a moment, before the feel of soft fabric upon her skin snaps her attention to the thing in her hands. She stares unblinkingly at the dark evening dress draped over her thighs, running her fingertips over the embroidery.
“The doctor’s wife left this behind in their quarters. Guess they had to leave in a hurry.” Ethan Winters is rolling up his sleeves. “Think she was about your size—give or take. Your black dress is pretty much totalled right now.” He snorts. “I don’t know what you think proper mountain wear is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not fucking satin.”
“What?” The word tumbles from her mouth.
“Get dressed, quick. And take this.” Another smaller shape, tossed onto the gurney. Bela glances down in disbelief. She reaches for the familiar weapon, confusion mounting—my scythe.
“What do you—” she stammers.
“You were supposed to capture me and bring me to Castel Dimitrescu.” Ethan Winters stuffs his hands in his pockets. “So, it’s simple. Capture me and bring me to Castel Dimitrescu.”
Bela blinks. Then, blinks again. “What?”
Notification: Leonardo Lupu has left your party.
Notification: Bela Dimitrescu has joined your party.
Chapter Tags: Young Goth Girl Gets Caught By Two Men With Long Metal Cylinder, Amateur, There is no Geneva Convention in this village, That jacket is more durable than the Hulk's pants, The real mutation is insane note-taking skills, Did you at least wash the scythe first you disgusting bastard, others...
Chapter Tags: Ethan "Ah yes, the Negotiator" Winters, Bela "I have many kinks but vore is not one of them" Dimitrescu, Leonardo "Guantanamo" Lupu, others...