The road widens, the curtain of mist pulls aside, and there she is. A monarch of untold ages sprawled over her throne carved out from the hostile rock of the Carpathian peaks, spread out in all her expansive history. Towering spires impale the morning air; great Gothic arches draw the eye over the bulwark of the imposing fortress against which the Tartars and Turks and Russians had broken like water.
She beckons from her perch, stretched out in her glory, and Bela strides towards her gates. Her heart quickens as the sun warms her skin, her ears filling with the cawing of ravens and the tinkle of chains rattling against the stone—
“Holy fuck,” the man-thing growls, pausing in his tracks.
Bela stifles a growl, contenting herself with a white-knuckled clench around the handle of her scythe. His voice is a grating whine amidst the welcoming melody of Castel Dimitrescu.
The idiot continues to gawk, his neck bent backwards almost to breaking, even as he strides up the path to the Southern Gate. Despite everything, a spark of smug satisfaction kindles in her chest. A peasant is still a peasant—easily charmed by greatness.
“How many people live in the village down there?” His words are cold water poured over that same spark, and the sizzling hiss of anger boils in her throat.
“How should I know?” Bela spits. “Does a shepherdess count the sheep in her flock?”
“I mean—wait, of course a shepherdess counts the sheep in her flock. What the fuck?” The blond man rubs the ball of his thumb over his temple. “No, my point is—maybe a few hundred? A thousand at most? You’ve got fewer people living down there than I do in my block, and this is where you sink your funds?”
His hand chops upwards. “This fucking castle?” He shakes his head. “That village—no indoor lighting, no central heating, no power grid, no water pipeline, roads built in the fucking seventeen-hundreds, but you couldn’t cut the budget ‘cos you needed another tower up here?”
“Watch it, man-thing,” she rasps, the scythe rising unbidden. “Since when has House Dimitrescu cared about the rabble beneath its castle? Do you care as much for the rats in your pantry?”
“I would if they pay the taxes that go into my mortgage.” He offers a withering look, lips pursed. “Homeowner’s-Association-psycho-bitch—”
“What?” She is this close, this close, from tearing out his throat with her nails—
“I said, ‘we’re here.’” He points to the heavy portcullis barring the gate, then stretches a slim hand, gripping one of the black bars of the grate. “Hm. Could probably pull it up. But would fuck up the gate for sure—and get your mother suspicious.” He steps backwards, arching his back as he stares at the top of the gate. “Maybe if I could somehow get that chain from behind—is there a stick somewhere here—”
“Are you coming, fool?” She gestures at the unlocked side door, the key dangling from her finger. “Or do you want to keep staring at that gate?”
It’s almost worth it. All that indignity, that terror, the morning gone wrong—almost worth it, just for the sight of his stupid face with his jaw hanging open in sheepish surprise.
“Oh, right,” he chirps, stepping awkwardly towards the small doorway, his frame disappearing in the darkness. Bela steps in behind him, closing the door behind her.
The journey through the narrow passageway takes longer than she remembers, partly because the walls are sticky with dampness and the scent of rat dung. The cold stone is smothered with some viscous layer, some material that clings to the soles of her bare feet—don’t think about it, and then Bela’s mind furnishes her with some lovely imagery.
“Walk faster, idiot,” she snarls into the back of the man-thing.
“This place smells like shit.” Ethan Winters shuffles forward, a tad faster.
“Truly your intelligence is astonishing.” Couldn’t she just kill him? Here? At least try?
Then the sound of birds and clinking chains grows louder, and the slivers of light merge into the outline of a door just beyond, partly obscured by his silhouette.
He stops just at the door, and Bela almost collides with the back of his jacket. The giblets of gore smear onto the front of her dress.
“What? Go!” she barks.
A rattle of the knob. “It’s locked.”
Damn it! Of course!
“Move aside, idiot.” Bela pushes him backwards. The tunnel is barely wide enough for a single person—to deter any intruders attempting to storm the castle—but this also means that Ethan Winters only manages to shift sideways by half a foot.
He presses himself against the wall. “Can you reach the lock?”
“No! More!” She edges forward with her shoulder, pushing his useless bulk aside with her hips as she squeezes into the space. She steps sideways, sucking in her breath as she presses onward. “Move!”
And suddenly her face is inches away from Ethan Winters’ own, her breath mingling with the heat from his half-open mouth. His chest expands with the intake of air, pressing against her bosom, as the walls of the passageway push them inwards against each other.
His eyes are striking. A deep brown from afar—from up close, they look like quartz crystals, set in ivory.
“Can you hurry up?” he murmurs.
“I’m trying to find the key!” she snaps, feeling for the necklace draped over her shoulders. She detaches the round-headed key, the necklace snapping back against her collarbone. She turns sideways, struggling to reach the lock, as her hips jostle against his waist. “Stop—squirming!”
“Okay, okay. Just hurry up.” He presses backwards against the wall, flattening his back, and she finally manages to turn the key. The door swings outwards, and they tumble out side by side.
The fresh air is a welcome reprieve; Bela inhales deeply, clearing away the miasma of that tunnel. She walks quickly up the wide steps of the castle, the imprint of his warmth still on her thighs.
“Mother—she should be in the main hall by now.” Bela steadies her breath. This is home. This is home, and no stupid man-thing will throw off her confidence. “Let’s get inside, before one of the maidens spots you.”
“Maiden?” Ethan Winters smooths out his trousers, trudging behind her.
“Hurry.” Bela reaches the great oak doors, each bearing a carven half of the crest of their noble house. The door swings open with a firm push of her hand; the castle doors are never locked, since nobody needs to be kept from entering Castel Dimitrescu.
Kept from leaving—well, yes. For that, they have locks. On the inside.
~“Will you walk into my parlour?” said a spider to a fly.
“'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.”~
The sounds of the courtyard fade away as the door closes behind her, leaving only the muffled footfalls of the man-thing. The morning light, filtered through the white silk curtains and the clouded windows, is muted and dim. The thin layer of lavender and lilac in the air is fresh; the potpourri upon the dresser is full of fresh petals.
~The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to shew when you are there."~
Bela ascends the stairs to the antechamber, her hand brushing the balustrade as she takes in the room. The candles burning in the brass holder are fresh—the maidens must have just lit them. She strains her ears, listening hard for the bustle of activity.
One of the servants sees him, and it’ll be over. She rolls the handle of the scythe between her fingers. She would rather not have to kill one of them—of all the reasons to do so, this would be the most wasteful.
“Which one is you?” comes his voice.
Bela turns around.
The idiot is standing with his hands in his pockets, staring at the portrait upon the wall. Bela’s eyes flit from the baroque features of the three placid women posing upon the canvas, to Ethan Winters’ nonchalant gaze as he examines the painting.
Is this really happening?
“What?” Bela can’t think of anything else to say.
“No, I mean—” He’s pointing at the canvas, tracing the lines of the characters frozen in paint. “I really can’t tell. Are you the one on the right? Did you forget to pay the guy before he added the flies in?”
“Move!” She seizes his wrist and pulls him away from the painting.
Bela pauses at the doorway, peering into the hall. The tall arches cast long shadows over the marble floor, the candlelight conjuring up a throng of dancing jagged shapes. No sound—or scent—of the maidens. Or her mother.
“Alright, go. Go.” Bela pushes the man forward, and he stumbles into the hall. Ethan Winters pauses in the middle of the floor, still gawking at the ceiling.
~"Oh no, no!" said the little fly, "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."~
“I could probably get you upstairs to the study.” Bela cranes her neck, following the path of the snaking staircases flanking the main doors of the great hall. “Mother should be there. Just—”
Her heart spasms in her chest, and her lips are dry and sticky. She hears it, feels it—the presence drawing closer.
She sees his face; he’s felt it too. Sensed it, somehow. His posture is suddenly erect, his fists clenching, his face screwed up in concentration.
“Damn it!” she whispers. “Daniela!”
Bela glances around, almost expecting to see the cloud of flies beginning to gather. Damn! How is she back to the castle already? She should have been miles away—something must have separated her from Cassandra. Or—
I called for them, back there, on the mountainside.
They must have somehow heard me.
“Your sister?” The man-thing lowers his voice, eyes alert. “She’s—she’s as buzzy as you are?”
“This isn’t a game, man-thing!” Bela growls. “She’s not supposed to be back yet! She—this will ruin everything! If she sees me, with you—” She stops, listening keenly. “Shit! She’s already coming this way! She’s heard us!”
Bela whirls around. “What?”
“Stab me, I said!” His hand grips the blade of her scythe, the edge cutting into his flesh. He doesn’t even wince. “You’ve been wanting to do it all morning. Do it—and quick!”
She acts. The scythe swings, the blade bites into his flesh—and then Ethan Winters gasps softly as he clutches the blade embedded in his chest.
For one brief, glorious second, Bela relishes the sight. The man-thing keeled over, the sucking wound in his torso, the fresh blood dripping from the blade. For that one moment, she’s killed Ethan Winters, and forever ended the curse on her existence.
Then he speaks, and his voice isn’t even strained. “Now hurry. Yell for your mother.”
Bela gathers her breath. “Mother, mother!”
The dreary house stands at the edge of a bluff, its gates hanging by rusted hinges, its brick walls collapsed. A goat sprawled against a rock, its intestines dangling from its belly, waiting for the wolves.
The intoxicating scent drifts downwind, and Cassandra Dimitrescu inhales deeply, rolling the bouquet of flavours against her tongue, separating them into distinct strings—two man-things, at least three. Her lips pucker at the stench of gunpowder—of course those man-creatures would turn to their pathetic firearms for protection against the inevitable. No matter. There are lycans to spare.
She sniffs, a connoisseur discarding a cheap vintage in her search for better fare. The one woman is astringent and dull, the flavours corrugated like the skin of a dried prune. No doubt the scent of one already violated by man-flesh—many times, perhaps.
But the other—yes, yes, here it is. Succulent, dripping with promise. Virgin’s blood.
Cassandra licks her lips, her bare feet tickling the leaves of the branches as she floats between the trees. The swarm buzzes around her, scattering and reforming in constant motion.
The mist is beginning to gather, seeping from the dark damp undergrowth of the forest and bringing with it the smell of wriggling things and animal waste. Cassandra turns a careful eye to the sky, marking the path of the bleary sun against the cloud cover. An hour, perhaps?—before the sun dips behind the peak of the mountain, and the air begins to cool. She feels a shiver spread through her swarm, the individual wings of a million buzzing insects fluttering in unison.
No matter. Plenty of time for the hunt. And a bit of fun, while at it.
The branch sways, as the low huffing noises of prowling lycans niggles her ear like a fork scraping on glass. One of them is treading the branch gingerly as it ambles ahead, the soot-black bow strapped to its back.
The creature turns its glassy eyes to Cassandra, the squint of an inquisitive pup, as if asking for orders. Its stench invades her nose, and she drifts further off with a grunt.
“What are you waiting for?” She flings her hand towards the cabin. “Attack, fool!”
The creature lowers its shaggy snout in a bow, before stumbling across the branch, yapping and howling.
Beneath, the horde of wolfish creatures answers the call. Snapping and barking at the wind, the lycan pack swarms through the trees as a rolling tide of matted blood-caked fur and bared teeth. No subtlety, no tactics—but none are needed. She needs only their killing intent—to flush out her prey.
Cassandra sweeps down from the tree in a flurry of insects, bare toes tickling the tips of the grass. Mother had seemed anxious, even beneath her calm and dignified exterior; the stress of the last meeting with Mother Miranda must have affected her longer than expected.
Is this what Mother was so worried about? Is this what she smelled? Cassandra stifles a giggle; one last pocket of survivors who managed to survive a lycan raid through sheer dumb luck and a few firearms. The smell of decaying lycans is muted now, half-overtaken by the ever-pervasive forest air—the humans must have buried the corpses. How useless, given they’d soon be corpses themselves.
She floats forwards, half-formed in a cloud of flies, easily keeping pace with even the swiftest lycans in the pack. Mother would demand the death of all within the house, that is sure. If the man-things could survive the lycans—doubtful; she eyes the dozens of shaggy bodies roving through the trees—Cassandra could cut through them with ease. Or better yet—she grins in a shiver of anticipation—they could run. Run, and make it so much fun.
As for the virgin—
Oh, what a delight. What a beauty. Of course, she needs to die, in the end. But Mother wouldn’t mind if Cassandra had a taste first, would she?
She is still smiling when the world turns to fire.
Carpații românești—Romanian Carpathians
Two months before the collapse of the Socialist Republic of Romania
“Can’t see fucking shit in this weather—” The scout spits, lowering the binoculars. He rubs the scratched lenses vigorously with the edge of his sleeve.
“All this for a guy who might not even be here.” By his side, the veteran fiddles with the metallic lighter, cupping his hand over the cigarette. The freezing wind is choked with flecks of snow—he curses as the flame fails to take. “Motherfucker probably took a dive off the mountains months ago.” With a grunt of disgust, he drops the cigarette and slumps back against the wall of their makeshift blind.
“What’s the price now, șef?” The bearded scout rubs his hands, desperately staving off frostbite. “A thousand US dollars?”
“Three thousand five hundred,” the captain answers with a huff. He pushes the last bullet into the magazine with a satisfying click, before loading the Kalash.
“Three thousand—mother fucker! Ciobanu must want the Wolf dead bad. That’s one expensive rebel.” The gunner whistles, from the back of the shallow trench. “USD, too! Bet he knows nobody’ll take the fucking job if he was paying in Lei.”
“The way things are going, Lei’s going to be worth jack shit by this winter.” The old veteran replaces his lighter in his pocket, turning a withering eye to the blizzard howling outside. “Ceaușescu’s losing his grip. Printing more Lei just means more people can wipe their asses with his face.”
“Mihail, can you shut the fuck up?” The scout grimaces, rubbing his ears. The nubs of flesh are turning pale in the sub-zero temperature. “You want the Securitate on our ass? You want to get waterboarded somewhere in Timișoara where nobody will find you?”
“And who’s going to report me? You, Nicolae?” Mihail snorts. “And what do you think they’ll say when they find your stash of porno magazines, eh?” His barking laughter cuts the air. “It’s American porn too—oh, my friend, you’ll be fucked. Bad enough to look at titties, but capitalist titties?”
“Shut up, you piece of shit.” Nicolae glowers, gritting his teeth. “At least I’m looking at women, while you—”
“Both of you, cut it out.” The captain racks the slide of the Kalash, checking the semi-automatic mechanism. “Don’t let your guard down. The Wolf isn’t dead. I’ve been hunting this bastard eight years, and believe me, I’ll know. Matter of fact, I’ll be surprised if he hasn’t already picked up our trail.”
“And what good will it do?” Mihail adjusts his seat against the wall, pushing himself further up. “What, besides freezing his balls off?” He peeks out the narrow three-inch gap in the blind, out at a field of howling white. “Look at this blizzard. As if anybody can—”
Mihail’s head jerks backwards, just as the captain’s warning bursts from his lips—far too late.
The next instant, his head is a bottle of claret shattering against the wall—the explosion of bright crimson paints the inside of the blind, and Nicolae is screaming incoherently.
The captain acts first. “Get to cover!” He lifts the Kalash, flicking off the safety. “Get some eyes on that fucker!”
Nicolae’s bloodshot eyes are wide, quivering in their sockets. The sight of Mihail’s half-skull cleaved from nose bridge to neck, leaking a flood of bubbling red, fixes his eyes like a pin against a board.
“Nicolae! Wake the fuck up!” The captain barks, kicking the scout in his thigh. “I want a position!”
Nicolae’s eyes dart upwards, tearing away from the sight of the veteran’s open mouth and the torrent of blood churning over his lolling tongue. The scout fumbles with the binoculars with trembling fingers, lifting them to his eyes.
“Shot—shot came—from—I see a—a ridge, two hundred feet!” Nicolae flinches as a stray snowflake batters against his cheek. “He’s—it’s not—what the fuck—this is a forty-knot wind! It’s not possible—”
“This is the Wolf. He can make that shot—and he can do it again.” The captain shifts to a squat, the Kalash braced against his shoulder. “We stay here, we’re dead.”
He points to the gunner. “Vasile, get that LMG. When I say go, pour everything you have on that ridge. Keep the bastard’s head down. I don’t care if you don’t even hit the ridge—just throw off his concentration.”
He thumps the scout on the shoulder. “Nicolae, you’re with me. We flank the bastard. You take right. I’ll take left.”
Vasile nods, unfolding the tripod stand of the RPK-74. “I’m not dying in a hole out here. Let’s get this fucker.”
The captain readies the Kalash. There is no hope in a prolonged firefight—not with the blizzard closing in, and the Wolf’s eyes watching for an opening. He feels the cold intelligence watching the blind, a scent he can almost smell. The utter lack of mercy, the reduction of the act of murder to a simple matter of calculations based on wind speed, elevation, and humidity.
He spares a glance at Mihail’s lifeless body. The blind had been braced behind a large craggy boulder, the viewing slit positioned at an awkward angle that made it possible to scan the valley while offering no line of sight to a shooter. His heart sinks as the magnitude of his enemy’s feat registers; the Wolf had deliberately fired into the wind, curving the bullet around the boulder, a perfect shot through a target half the breadth of a man’s hand.
I’m going to kill you. He braces himself, the stock braced against his shoulder. I’m going to end this right here, or I’m going to die trying.
“Now!” he yells.
They explode out of the blind. The blizzard slams into him, an unstoppable storm of snowy projectiles, a curtain of pure noise. His boots sink into ankle-deep snow, his ears stinging with the unrelenting onslaught. The night sky is a sea of black, snow streaking like bullet-trails across his vision.
“Vasile!” he shouts, but the thunder of the RPK cuts him off. Vasile has already begun firing—a chance in hell, a reprieve of a minute’s worth of ammunition fired in three- to five-round bursts.
The captain grits his teeth, and ploughs through the snow. His boots are finding solid ground beneath; the ridge is just ahead. He scans wildly for a sign—the glint of a scope, the hump of a silhouette. Nothing.
His ears perk up, the high-pitched whine drilling into his right ear even as he moves his head, far too late.
A thunderclap, the sound of steel breaking apart, and Vasile’s strangled cry. “Fuck!”
The captain turns his head, squinting against the storm. The RPK is split in half—the ruined gun is split in half in the middle, the barrel still red-hot. The gunner has his hands in the air, a grimace painting his features. His right palm is bleeding.
They are dead to rights. The Wolf nailed another impossible shot over a distance of two hundred feet through a howling blizzard—and then, went for the machine gun instead of the gunner. Any of the three of them could easily be dead. The fact that they aren’t—
The captain sighs, then places the Kalash on the snow beside him.
“I see him!” cries Nicolae, pointing slightly upwards.
The Wolf strides down the mountainside, a monster of legend stepping out from a snowstorm. The off-white cloak billows around his shoulders, the paltry camo netting still clinging in bits and pieces. The hood shrouds his features, but the captain feels his gaze.
More importantly—his rifle. It’s not with him.
He hears the sharp intake of Nicolae’s breath, and suddenly the captain knows what’s going to happen before it does.
“He doesn’t have his gun! I can take him!” The young scout raises the Dragunov to his brow.
“Nicolae, no!” The captain flings his arm forwards, to grab the young idiot’s shoulders.
A burst of noise, a sound of wetness, and his glove is showered with bright blood. He manages to grip Nicolae’s shoulder in time to support the scout’s limp body as it collapses. Nicolae’s glassy eyes stare sightlessly, the wound in his forehead a neat red star.
Pistol round. 9mm Makarov.
The Wolf had fired his pistol from the hip. Downwind, with his back to the blizzard, allowing the screaming wind to sweep the round like a kite in a storm, to tumble two hundred feet into Nicolae’s head. A perfect shot.
He feels like laughing. And then, a second later, actually does.
He can’t stop himself, even when Vasile claps a hand on his shoulder and screams in his ear. “We have to go, captain! We have to go, now!”
“Why, Vasile?” He fights off the guffaws. “We’re dead men already—we’d be dead, except I don’t know why he hasn’t killed us yet.”
He stands straight, facing the nightmare that is now almost upon him. The pistol comes off his waist, dropping into the snow by his feet. And then, the combat knife.
“Let’s face him like warriors, Vasile.” The captain straightens his vest. “Let’s go and die like proper men.”
The Wolf stands before them, illuminated by flickering moonlight filtered through the curtain of snow. The first thing that comes to mind is that this killer of hundreds—this rebel made legend—is shorter than he expected. Under his cloak, his shoulders are slumped, and he limps on one knee.
A man, then. After all. Just like we are. Men, driven to tearing each other apart like animals.
“Why haven’t you killed us yet?” the captain demands, raising his hands. “You know we’re here to take your head.”
The figure raises a hand slowly. Pulls his hood back over his head. And then, for the first time, he sees a face that precious few have lived to behold.
Leonardo Lupu. The Wolf of Carpathia.
He’s older than he should be. Or perhaps, the harsh mountains have aged his face beyond the thirty-eight years stated in his file. The hawklike eyes are ringed by a network of wrinkles that crisscross his face like the borders of the fractured Balkans. His lips are chapped, his nose bent to the right—an injury, perhaps, that healed wrong.
It’s the loss in his eyes—the emptiness—that truly lends him the aura of crippling age.
“I would have spared him.” The Wolf lowers his pistol, nodding at Nicolae’s corpse. “He is—was—only a boy. A boy, fighting a man’s war. He didn’t deserve death.”
“And yet you killed him all the same,” Vasile spits. “Nicolae was only twenty-nine. He just proposed to his sweetheart last month.”
Leonardo sighs, his brow furrowing. “Yes. Just like so many men before him. Fathers, brothers, sons. Sent out here to die—to succumb to the blizzard, or the barrel of my gun.”
The pistol drops from his hand. “I am sick of it, Iulian Lazarescu. I am tired of making widows and orphans. I am sick of this place of death and loss, these cursed mountains with their ancient ghosts.”
He kicks the pistol at his feet. The handgun slides across the snow, coming to a stop at the captain’s foot.
“Make your choice, Captain Iulian.” The Wolf shrugs. “End it now, for both our sakes. You’ve always wanted to be the one to bring me in. I wouldn’t have it be anyone else.”
Iulian picks up the Makarov. Cold, frostbitten fingers train the pistol on the Wolf’s head. As expected, even to the end, his quarry does not so much as flinch.
“Ciobanu would reward you for my head.” Leonardo Lupu manages a wan smile. “You’ll be set for life.”
Iulian makes his choice.
The magazine clatters into the snow, embedding into the snow. Then the slide racks backwards, ejecting the lone round in the chamber. A moment later, the Makarov falls back into the snow, neutered.
“Iulian, what the fuck?” Vasile hisses from behind. “Ciobanu would have you shot for this!”
“Fuck Ciobanu.” Iulian bares his teeth. “I’m sick of this too. Sick of all this killing.”
“Are you, Iulian?” The Wolf cocks his head. “This has been your goal for almost ten years now. This is what you have worked for.”
“Yes, and look what it cost.” Iulian barks a humourless laugh. “A failing state run by a madman. A pile of bodies deep enough to ford the Danube. A life wasted—wasted, Wolf—with nothing to show for it. I buried my last cousin two months ago. Now I am alone in this world.”
Leonardo stares at the captain. “You know I can’t go back.”
“Neither can I.” Iulian flings out his arm, sweeping across the vast expanse of hostile lifeless snow blanketing the jagged mountains. “There’s nothing to go back to. Ciobanu sent us out here to complete the mission, or to die.”
The Wolf pauses. Then, he turns his head east, at the high peaks to their backs.
“What if there was a third option?” he says.
“Third option?” Iulian follows his gaze.
The Wolf points upwards, to a trail snaking up the side of that hostile height. “I have heard of a place, just beyond those peaks. A village, forgotten by time, hidden away from the modern world. A place where neither Ciobanu nor Ceaușescu can reach us.” He looks at Iulian first, and then Vasile. “It is said—the villagers worship a goddess, one who offers life and protection. One who extends her welcome to all those who would seek peace in a world at war.”
A smile creeps up his face. “That would be an idea, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it would do good, for us to have a woman as a god. After all, we men have done nothing but fuck up the world.”
Iulian looks at the trail, following its treacherous path. “This village—it will accept us?”
“I am told it will, from the little I have heard spoken of it,” the Wolf answers simply. “But men like you and I, we have never waited for certainties, have we?”
Iulian turns behind. “And Vasile?”
The gunner shrugs, throwing down the remnants of the RPK. “Fuck it. So long as there are beautiful women in that village.”
“There will be, Vasile.” The Wolf chuckles. “After a lifetime of wandering these mountains—even the plainest village girl will look like a goddess.”
“Then lead the way, Wolf.” Iulian gestures at the trail.
“Call me Leonardo, will you?” The legend—now nothing more than a worn-out former rebel—pats him on the shoulder. “It’s about to be a long walk.”
Cassandra screams as the heat rolls over her body, the swarm scattering in panicked flight as hundreds of flies peel from her flesh as shrivelled black pebbles. She clutches her eyes; the last frame of her vision, the sight of the house ahead, is scorched like the imprint of a thunderbolt against her eyes.
In the sudden shock, one sensation overwhelms all others. A strong, full-bodied, overpowering scent—lantern oil, filling her mouth and nostrils.
Her hearing returns, the high-pitched ringing fading away to a hum. Blinking furiously, she clears her vision as her fingers pull reluctantly from her eyes.
A lycan shrieks in agony, rolling on the grass as flames envelop its body, its eyes beginning to leak and boil in their sockets. The grass is a spreading puddle of heat, the faint blue hue of angry flames just barely visible as it clings to the flesh of yet more screaming lycans, splashing and scattering gleefully with each mindless thrash.
Cassandra stumbles backwards, barely remembering to reassemble the swarm, as a flailing lycan collapses at her feet, overtaken by the flames.
A lycan falls, then another. And yet another.
The howls and screams of the horde rend the air. Wolf-things scatter in all directions, furious and without purpose; archers loose their arrows pointlessly into the treeline. The hunt is forgotten, the house on the bluff a worthless detail—now the horde is reeling, stunned like a mule struck by a rolling wagon.
They fall. In twos and threes on the left flank, then more on the right, tumbling to the ground like puppets with their strings cut.
The stifling deluge of sensations sharpen, as the surprise wears off. Cassandra gathers herself, gripping the scythe. Her eyes find the coin-sized burrowing wound in the forehead of the nearest fresh corpse, and the dizzying shock crystallises into white-hot rage.
A man-thing—a worthless, pathetic, soon-to-be-dead man-thing is interfering with her hunt.
Cassandra sweeps through the trees, scythe at the ready, plunging through the bushes as she rises above the frantic horde.
All the while, she smells, tastes, lapping at the air. Nothing. No stain of sweaty man-flesh, no meaty aroma of a beating heart or deflating lungs.
Impossible. She parts her lips, gathering the air under her tongue. The rank earthy tang of lycan bodies is drenched in the fresh seasoning of fear and death, and the smell of sticky blood is mingled with the peculiar burning oil.
But nothing else. No scent of man.
Then she sees it. Perched on a branch a stone’s throw away.
At first, the cloud of her fury paints the image of some great bird of prey, its wings folded repose; then, her eyes trick her into seeing the silhouette of a mountain wolf, somehow balanced against the tree.
It’s when the wolf moves, and its cloak shifts, that Cassandra’s eyes finally widen in recognition.
The man-thing is crouched upon the branch, one leg balanced against the trunk of the alder, the cloak wrapped around its face and torso. It aims the man-weapon, that angular and ugly thing, down at the horde of lycans, the thunderous crack ringing again and again as it fires.
Her nostrils flare, and the sheer emptiness of its scent strikes her brain. Man-things have carried a myriad of smells with them; courage, fear, regret, sadness. Even those who fancied themselves warriors, who calmed those impulses, had coloured their bodies with the strange placid aroma that came with that same self-control. Soothing, refreshing, like the forest after a thunderstorm.
But never empty. Never—nothing.
It turns its head, and Cassandra feels the cold gaze. Knows, that the man-thing has seen her—and had seen her long before she caught sight of it. And then white hot, blinding, roiling anger forces itself upwards and drives out all doubt—the arrogance of this creature, this, this man-thing!
The screech breaks free of her throat. “You ruined the hunt!”
Then the figure rises from its perch. Pulls down its hood, and stares into her eyes.
“No, draga mea.” The old man bares his teeth, as the bottle appears in his hands, a flaming tail dangling from its mouth. “No—the hunt is just beginning.”
The bottle flies, Cassandra surges forward in a scream—
And then heat explodes over her, and the million needlepoints of pain lance into her body across her dissipated swarm as she scrambles for control and order. The flies recoil, scattering and reassembling in desperate clumps as Cassandra flails in half-consciousness, there but not-quite-there—
And the man-thing’s cry rings in her ears.
“Find me, Strigoi!”
Chapter Tags: Bela wishes she was still dead, Ethan just casually discussing socioeconomic inequality like he's in college, my man probably calculating back taxes owed on the castle, Bela's probably never actually seen a sheep, Probably thinks mutton grows in the larder like fruit on trees, For someone holding a sickle you are pretty disconnected from the proletariat, Cassandra trying to taste her prey being all seductive and suave, In reality she's sticking her tongue out into the air going BLBLBLBLBLBLBLBLBL AH AH AAAH, others...
Character Tags: Ethan "At this point I'm not even mad, just stab me bruh" Winters, Bela "I need better key organisation on my necklace" Dimitrescu, Cassandra "you startled the witch" Dimitrescu, Leonardo "I am the hunt" Lupu, Elena "fuck are they doing over there" Lupu, others...