The glass jerks in her hand as her daughter’s voice rings like a whipcrack. “Mother, mother!”
Lady Alcina Dimitrescu places the delicate glass down upon the end table, the candlelight throwing the wine stains on her gloves into stark relief. She rises quickly from her seat, the chair creaking as her powerful bulk eases off its legs.
She opens the doors of the study quickly, her feet carrying her to the edge of the balustrade. More than anything, it had been the edge in Bela’s voice.
Not triumph, no, though her words had been spoken loudly.
What could possibly cause a daughter of mine to be—afraid?
Ethan clutches at the scythe buried in his chest, deliberately screwing his face up in what he supposes is immense pain. All the while, the tallest and most imposing woman he’s ever seen begins to walk down the massive curved staircase.
Her wide-brimmed black hat is inches away from bumping the edge of the glittering chandelier, and the eggshell-white evening dress wrapped around her voluptuous figure could probably swallow Ethan whole. Yet she moves with surprising grace, every step supple and confident, the ebony smoking pipe barely scattering ash as she descends. Her neckline plunges below her shoulders, milky skin sloping over massive creamy breasts barely contained by the fabric.
“Mother,” Bela speaks, and Ethan doesn’t miss the tremor in her voice. “I bring you fresh prey.”
“A man-thing,” comes the reply. A statement, not a question. Now at the foot of the staircase, the full height of the lady of the castle looms over him; Ethan cranes his neck, feeling the strain as he gazes upwards. Keen yellow irises stare back from rings of expertly-applied eyeshadow.
“Oh—aw, Bela!” A storm of buzzing bursts into hearing behind him, and he barely stops himself from turning around. The other sister. “I just smelled him! I was about to cut him up!”
“I’m the one who captured him!” Bela snaps, jerking the scythe against his sternum. He winces; this time, the sting of pain is genuine. “He’s my prey—mine, mother!”
“And where did you find this unfortunate creature?” The yellow eyes rove downwards, over the pathetic tatters of his bloodstained shirt, and the jacket soaked in gore. Up close, the wrinkles over her pale skin are just about visible under the layer of powder; her lipstick is applied slightly unevenly, one smudge barely trailing beyond the border of vermillion.
Bela’s eyes flit to his. A split second. He contemplates taking his chances with a small nod—but the lady’s yellow eyes refuse to leave his face.
Too risky. Think fast, Bela.
“The village, mother.” Bela is smiling widely. A forced smile—teeth clenched hard against the jaw, nostrils flaring. “He was wandering just outside the square. He must have been the one you smelled. An outsider.”
Then his ears fill with buzzing.
“He smells—delicious!” The flutter of breath tickles the tip of his right ear; cold fingers clamber over his collarbone with the predatory grace of a spider’s legs.
“Hey, handsome,” he hears, as warm breath caresses his neck. “I’m Daniela.”
And then the sudden shock of warmth—Ethan flinches, as the slithering wetness writhes over his neck. His eye half closes as he wills himself into stillness, all while the limber tongue pushes into the hollow between the muscles in his neck, trailing upwards, teasing the stubble at the angle of his jaw.
“Such a pity I didn’t catch you first,” the witch purrs into his neck, soft lips pressing against the pulse of his carotid. His skin tugs under tension as she closes her mouth, sucking gently at his skin before releasing it with a pop. She giggles into his ear. “Bela’s all business. But we could have had some fun—oh yes.” Her fingers slip under his shirt. “Lots of fun.”
“Save the tongue for the second date, darling,” Ethan murmurs back.
And then kicks himself. Dumb motherfucker you’re supposed to be scared—!
“Darling?” Daniela pounces on the word, throwing her head back in mock delight. Her auburn locks whip across his nose and chin. “Now—now I’ve got to have you!” Cold teeth rake over his earlobe, as Daniela whispers into his ear. “I’m really good with my tongue, you know—” her voice melts away into a low growl.
“Now, now, daughters.” Lady Dimitrescu raises a gloved hand, flicking two fingers in a dainty gesture. On cue, both daughters step back, and Ethan suddenly feels very exposed. “For a man-thing stabbed through the chest, he seems rather calm, doesn’t he?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Now who might you be?” The smoking pipe dips as if offering a bow.
Fuck it. Most straightforward option it is.
“My name is Ethan Winters,” he speaks, holding the gob of saliva back against the hollow of his cheek. “I’m here to look for my daughter. I believe you have her—or had her, at least—at your castle.”
“Mm.” The towering countess purses her lips. “You seem too young to be the father of one of our maidens. We are very selective of our staff—as charming as they may be, children simply are not well-suited to performing the tasks of attendants.”
Fucking with me, are we now? “No. I think you know who I’m looking for.” Ethan straightens his back, ignoring the fresh rivulet of arterial blood dribbling down the front of his shirt. “She’s a baby. My daughter. Her name is Rose.”
The eyes don’t so much as widen. The lips are stock-still blotches of red. Ethan looks as closely as he can, but can find not so much as a crack in the wall of her face. Lady Dimitrescu, if anything, looks vaguely bored.
“No, I doubt it. Were an infant human to be anywhere in this castle, I believe I would know about it.” The yellow eyes roll upwards. “I’m afraid your quest here has been in vain, Ethan Winters—though, sadly for you, there will not be a return journey.”
She lifts both hands, and flicks her fingers up—a conductor summoning the orchestra to a crescendo.
“Yes, mother,” come the replies in unison, from the women to his left and right. Fingers close around his shoulders, pinning him between them.
A sharp flare of pain, a spurt of blood, and the scythe wrenches free from his chest. Ethan pants, sucking in a deep breath as the scent of damp mold fills his lungs. No one else in the room seems to hate the smell; far from it, as the dark viscous globs strike the pristine marble floor, the yellow eyes of the statuesque countess dilate, and by his neck, Daniela moans softly. Bela, on the other hand, is gripping the bloody scythe with a white-knuckled hand, staring at the floor.
What the fuck is wrong with this whole family?
Lady Dimitrescu turns away from him, crouching down to the low table to place the smoking pipe on an ornate brass holder. She removes her gloves—each as large as a handkerchief—slowly and deliberately, folding them in half before placing them neatly below the pipe.
She turns to face him.
“I would usually sample a taste from a cut on the wrist—less wasteful, you understand.” A slim tongue sweeps over her lipstick, eel-like. “But now that you’ve already been spread open, why—” She spreads her teeth in a smile. “How could one resist?”
Daniela giggles into his ear. Ethan resists the urge to pull free.
Lady Dimitrescu bends lower, almost double. Ethan flinches as the brim of her hat scuffs his forehead, her face now level with his. The gold-ringed eyes hold his gaze. He suddenly feels very, very small.
She reaches forward for the wound in his chest. Pink bubbles continue to bubble from the frothy half-congealed blood clinging like cement to his sternum. Bela must have torn a lung, ripped an artery—and while his healing must have somehow closed off the most life-threatening damage, not all of it is fixed.
I’m running on empty.
And I think she’s three seconds away from figuring it out, too.
Slender, pale fingers dip into the gash, pushing beyond the first digit—and then deeper still until he grimaces in pain. She smiles, grinding her fingertips into the oozing wound, relishing the hiss of suppressed agony—and then withdraws her hand, slick with fresh sticky blood.
Lady Dimitrescu runs her tongue over the crimson stains on her hand, dragging it over her knuckles to her fingernails. Her eyes are half-closed, her lips quivering, and a sensual shudder breaks through her breath.
“I have tasted many man-things, more than you can imagine—” she heaves, smacking her lips, “but you, Ethan Winters—your blood is the most delicious vintage to grace my palate.”
“Yeah,” he growls, a fresh pulse of pain interrupting his intake of breath. “I go well with nachos and guac.”
The countess narrows her eyes, her lips closing over the last morsel of blood on her fingertip. “Hmm. Still, this tang. Something is familiar.” The finger pops free, as her cheeks suck inward.
Then, she smiles. “Yes, of course. You, too, are a recipient of the Cadou—the gift. How could I miss it?” Her upper lip curls. “Though your blood is not that of Wallachia. And you are not one of my siblings. How curious.” She leans closer, her nose almost brushing his. “Now, where could you have come from, Ethan Winters?”
All that planning, all that secrecy—and this giant lady has literally finger-fucked all of it away in seconds.
What was it Leonardo said?
No plan survives contact with the enemy.
She lifts his chin with two fingers; he can feel the dormant strength behind those slender appendages. “You must have been the one I smelled, just last night. The air was heavy with lycan blood and fear—you killed them, then?"
The fingers drift lower, peeling back the ragged scraps of his shirt. “I see scars—too early to properly scab, and yet your skin is otherwise whole.” Her fingertips walk in the space between his ribs. “You can heal, then—heal quickly, too. And I would bet my finest flute of Fetească regală that you’re tougher than a usual man-thing of your—” she pauses, almost mirthful, “size. Or lack thereof.”
She licks the final droplet of blood, balanced on her middle finger. “But you are empty, are you not? Your prodigious healing is now exhausted.” A smirk creeps over her face, deepening the indents of her dimples.
“Nothing special, then. No more remarkable or durable than one of my brother’s experiments. How disappointing.” She lifts her finger, ripping the threads of his collar over her knuckle with ease. “I am curious, Ethan Winters.” Her smile is gone. And the yellow eyes are now incandescent. “What could you have possibly done to frighten my daughter, my Bela?”
By his side, Bela is a frozen figurine, rooted to the floor. Her eyes refuse to meet his—or her mother’s.
“Quite simple,” Ethan replies, holding his voice steady. “I told her to bring me to you, so that we could have a chat about where you’ve seen my daughter. As for her being scared—well, I don’t know if you’re aware, but those hairy bastards you’ve got crawling these hills—those lycans? They cornered her just outside the village, and—”
It happens too fast to blink. Ethan is suddenly suspended at the throat, slender vice-like fingers encircling his neck. Lady Dimitrescu is upright now; his feet kick uselessly a meter above the ground, his vision slowly greying.
“You lie, Ethan Winters—and you lie badly.” Her lips pull back in a snarl, as her other hand emerges from her side. A flick of her wrist, a sound of bone grinding on bone—and five glistening claws burst from her fingertips, cruel and sharp. “The lycans obey the command of House Dimitrescu, and have always done so since their creation. You have made a terrible mistake in threatening one of us. My Bela. My daughter!”
“I didn’t threaten your daughter,” Ethan manages to choke out. “I saved her life.”
The vice tightens, and the world fades to monochrome. Except for those yellow eyes, glowing in a visage of utter loathing.
“You will die here, Ethan Winters.” He’s submerged underwater, and her voice is muffled. “Slowly and painfully.”
He sucks in a breath, and nothing reaches his lungs.
let me out
His eyes roll back, and as his mind drains of oxygen, the wall begins to crack.
Endless scratching. A mouth of teeth stretching from front to back. A jaw separating into three parts, spreading into a maw that splits his skull like a rotten fruit. A sea of blood deep enough to drown in and never be found.
He sees it in his mind’s eye, and it screams at him.
let me out
let me save us
Ethan feels the leash slip from his fingers as the first tendril wriggles under his chest.
“Mother, wait.” That voice sounds familiar. Where’s he heard it before?
The gargantuan fist around his throat relents just a sliver, and cold biting air fills his lungs. Ethan gasps, realising for the first time he’s been clawing at Lady Dimitrescu’s hand.
“Mother.” Bela has stepped forward, and now stands beside her mother. “The man-thing isn’t lying. It’s—it’s true.”
Blood rushes to his brain—his lungs fill as his body screams with the fresh infusion of breath—and then he lands painfully on his ass, the countess’ pillar-like legs peeking from behind her dress all he can see.
“My Bela—” She’s bent over now, towering over her daughter. “What has he done to you?”
Her fingers ruffle Bela’s hair, the blonde locks slipping over her knuckles. Bela flinches from the sudden contact, just a little.
“He saved me. It’s true.” The words are heavy and spat out with force, like a bug caught in the mouth. “I was ambushed by lycans on the mountainside. They—they turned against me. The man-thing rescued me.”
Bela leans forward, her lips creeping to her mother’s ear. “There’s more. I have to—”
Ethan strains, his sharpened hearing focusing on the sound of Bela’s voice—but the thundering tinnitus in his ears chooses this time to make an entrance. Bela’s words are swallowed in the roar of the thunderstorm. He grips his temple as the nausea surges upwards, his head filling with the noise of his maddening heartbeat.
By the time he gets it under control, Bela has retreated. And Lady Dimitrescu is staring back at him.
Those yellow eyes. Still keen, still apprehensive. But her expression is softer. And she is no longer snarling.
“It seems,” she says, her tone now poised and controlled, “that I have misjudged you, Ethan Winters. Perhaps you will be allowed to live just a while longer.”
Ethan breathes heavily, rubbing the mark around his neck. Five deep corrugations have formed in his skin, welted and painful.
“My daughter and I will need time together. She is hurt, and will require my care.” Her fingers are long enough to almost encircle Bela’s face, curling around her chin. “In the meantime, you will be treated as a guest in Castel Dimitrescu—for now.”
He struggles to his feet. His vision is almost monochrome—flashes of colour escape into his sight; the alabaster of the countess’ evening dress, the jet black of the other sister’s hooded robe, the crimson of his blood clumping and clotting upon the floor. His legs are spindly toothpicks, but he maintains his balance.
“Great,” he manages to slur. “I’d appreciate some hospitality.”
“Be careful what you wish for, Ethan Winters.” Her massive pale face breaks into a smile. “Daniela?”
“Yes, mother,” comes the reply, amidst a fresh fit of giggles. The other witch floats closer, in a chorus of buzzing that fills his ears.
Lady Dimitrescu gestures at him. “Put him up.”
Bela closes the door with more force than she expects to use. Then pulls the latch over the bolt—something she almost never does.
“The door should be thick enough. He shouldn’t be able to hear us.” She releases a long sigh, her shoulders slumping back in relief.
“He will stay where he is. For now.” Her mother leans back in the massive evening chair. Like most things in the castle built to withstand her mass, it is large enough to swallow an average man-thing whole, and yet maintains the angular Romanesque aesthetic of their family home.
“Tell me everything, Bela.” Lady Dimitrescu cups the wine glass in her hand, swilling the precious vin blanc. “Everything.”
“Ethan Winters is not what he looks like, mother.” Bela pulls at the shoulder strap of the unwieldy peasant dress—the rustic outfit chafes at her skin. “He is—something else. I saw it, back at the village. I had him trapped, had fought him. And then he became angry, and—he changed.”
Bela pauses, grappling with the violence of the memory, struggling to form it into words.
“He transformed into something—a monster, a creature of some sort. It was stronger, faster, more brutal than he was. It killed the entire lycan horde as well as the Urias.” She throws a quick glance at the sturdy door. “Whatever it was, I don’t think he had control over it. The change wasn’t voluntary. I believe—I believe he changes when he is enraged, or when he is near death. Or believes he is near death.”
Her mother scratches her chin. “So that is why you stopped me from breaking his neck. And tearing out his guts.” She places the wine glass upon the small dresser. “You thought it would trigger the change.”
“Mother—I have never seen anything like it.” Unconsciously, Bela’s arms fold around her bare shoulders. “All of my own strength, my savagery, my thirst for blood—it was like being swallowed up by the ocean, compared to him—to it.”
“Hm.” Lady Dimitrescu turns the glass idly upon the table, pinching the stem between her thumb and index finger. “I sensed no great power in his blood. Delicious, yes—brimming with life force. But underneath all that flavour, I tasted emptiness. Stale, even.” She licks her lips. “He must have burned through everything to wreak havoc on the lycans. That means he barely has enough to heal the body he has now.”
“Maybe, I guess.” Bela swallows. Her lips are dry, and she scans the room for a pitcher of water. “When he—it—fought the Urias, it was already injured. Badly injured, as a matter of fact.”
“I have told you before that I can transform my body, have I not?” Her mother rubs the beads of her necklace between her fingers.
“It is a powerful form. But it is not without cost. In summoning my true body, the Cadou demands sacrifice in return.” She lifts the glass to her lips, draining a mouthful of the clear sparkling wine. Lady Dimitrescu swallows before speaking again. “It burns through my blood—my life force, so to speak—with incredible speed. This rule applies to all children of the Cadou; the bill comes due. Just as one always pays for their meal, so one pays for the boon of power and terrifying strength. To think otherwise is foolishness.”
She looks down at the glass, and drains the remaining wine in a single gulp. “I’d wager, Bela,” she says, “that Ethan Winters is no longer be able to pay the cost. That creature, whatever it is, is beyond his ability to summon. He will die a simple man-thing, like any other.” She eyes the remaining droplets, clinging to the sides of the glass, against the candlelight. “And if he can still heal—well, so much the longer it will take him to die. A pity, for his sake.”
Bela nods, more strongly this time, as if bobbing her head to force the discomfort down into her stomach. “Yes—yes, of course. Thank you, mother.”
“You were careless, Bela.” Her mother’s tone is level and unhurried. But those yellow eyes now bear a fresh sharpness. “You could have been lost. You made a mistake, choosing not to hunt with your sisters. I would have thought you would at least have caught up with Cassandra.”
Bela draws her lips tight, hoping the grinding of her teeth would go unnoticed. “I was—caught unprepared.” She uncrosses her arms. “It won’t happen again. Ever. Mother, there is something else.”
Lady Dimitrescu raises an eyebrow.
Bela inhales deeply, and then speaks. “When I found Ethan Winters at the village, I managed to wound him. I fed on his blood, and after that—something changed.”
She leaves out the part about being injured by the lycans—and that terrifying moment when the crystal overtook her body. Mother was worried that she could have died. It wouldn’t help things to reveal that she did.
“My body—” Bela looks at her hands. “I can’t change into the swarm anymore, Mother.”
Glass tinkles upon wood. Bela looks up to see the wine glass tumbling off the table, and Lady Dimitrescu looking at her with a wide-eyed stare.
“My Bela—my precious—” She rises slowly from her chair, then rushes forward.
And then all of Bela is enveloped in warm, supple flesh, and heaving breath, and the scent of lilac perfume. Massive hands clap her back, pressing her into her mother’s embrace.
“He did this to you?” The voice is low, almost a growl.
Bela whimpers, the tears gathering at the edges of her eyes. The shock, pain, shame, horror—all of it rolls away, as she finally feels herself giving way.
“Mother,” she whispers, “I’m scared. I’m so, so scared.”
“He will pay.” A cold statement, a promise, but bearing the weight of eight hundred years of the Dimitrescu legacy. “I will find a way to make you whole, my Bela. And this man-thing will suffer. This I vow.”
Bela presses her face into the soft silk, the fabric bunching up in her grip as the candlelight melds into a blurry field of orange wetness, her cheeks now damp.
“But for now, my daughter—” Her mother cradles her head. “Rest. Rest, and drink, Bela. Feed on me, like you have always done.”
Bela looks up, smiling through her tears, as Lady Dimitrescu begins to pull at the strap of her evening dress.
What the hell is wrong with these creatures?
No one would ever accuse a lycan of being excessively intelligent or perceptive. But these ones are barely even awake. Leonardo manages to literally race alongside one without the beast even turning its head. Even the two-round burst into its skull from the Kalash feels like a waste more than anything.
A stone’s throw away, the fire roars and spits with malevolent ferocity. The shards of the shattered Molotov cocktail gleam in the orange light cast by the inferno now wrapped around no less than three lycan bodies, shrieking and writhing on the ground.
Under the best of circumstances, petrol would burn as cheerfully as anything. But now, mixed with soap and dishwashing liquid? The concoction is as sticky as devil’s urine.
The lycans amble through the forest on slow legs, trudging along idiotically with their rusted makeshift weapons dragging along the soil. Their bloodlust hangs in the air with the pungency of stag musk in mating season; he’s practically swimming in the stuff as it clings to his coat.
Avtomát Kalášnikova modernizírovannyj (AKM), known among the Carpathian rebels as the Kalash. Three-point-five kilograms, sixteen-inch barrel, modified with an under-folded riveted steel stock and a milled bolt carrier.
Leonardo raises the rifle, the simultaneous actions of his muscles clicking into place with the precision of well-oiled machinery. The body never forgets, and neither do his eyes, lining the sights up as his mind goes quiet.
He squeezes the trigger again and again, and the roar of the familiar weapon mingles with the howls of the hellish creatures. He barely needs to compensate for movement or relative velocity; the dull things are barely moving. They probably aren’t even searching for him, or know they are under attack—just the unguided screeching fury of animals disturbed by noise.
As he sprints into the cover of a nearby tree, he spares a split-second’s glance at his bloody handiwork. Luckily, his magazine isn’t full of piddly NATO ammunition. Five-five-six rounds would punch neat cylindrical pinholes through the soft tissue of these lycans, the perfect ammunition to ensure that the thing about to tear you apart is sufficiently pissed off to finish the job. Stupid, bourgeoise bullets for a stupid, bourgeoise idea of war.
Leonardo’s fingers curl around the magazine of the Kalash. Seven-seven-six, on the other hand, thunders through the air and rips conical hollows into flesh, like a drill of compressed air and explosive impetus. Not a diplomatic tool, but a killing instrument. A weapon for the battlefield, not the parade ground.
Only now does one lycan manage to spot Leonardo—almost entirely by accident, managing to leer at the right spot behind the nearest bush. And even then, its movements are ponderous as it raises the bow in its hand, maw open in a stupid expression as the other hand fumbles with an arrow.
So damned slow.
He raises the rifle to his shoulder, almost leisurely. Watching with detached interest as the monster manages to nock the arrow without dropping it.
What is wrong with these fucking things?
It’s when the arrow flies over his head that Leonardo finally understands.
His head moves even before his mind reacts consciously, neck muscles contracting to pull his head sideways. His eyes lock onto the arrow as it flies, plumes ruffling in the thick forest air, the shaft bending from the slight tension applied to it on release.
It sails over him as if swimming through custard, and his eyes have plenty of time to take in every detail. The makeshift arrowhead fashioned from bits of an old door hinge, the uneven marks on the surface of the shaft, the imbalanced fletching of the plumes.
No. It’s not the lycans. They’ve not become slower.
His heartbeat accelerates.
He rights himself, squeezes the trigger twice, and the lycan falls in a spray of blood.
Ethan Winters. The enigmatic outsider, the thing wearing the skin of a man yet is not. The provider of the gift of life—and now, as it appears, the gift of something more. When Leonardo had awoken from his feverish semi-coma in that dilapidated clinic, he had felt stronger than ever. Now, he knows it is more than an illusion.
He peers through the bush at the cabin in the distance. Elena. Luiza. The others. A second or so to home in his senses, and now he can smell them. Even hear their heartbeats.
They’re alive. Good.
He had spotted the lycan hunting party—along with yet another fucking Strigoi—about a mile from the forest road, and tailed them through the trees. It took less than a minute to confirm his suspicions that this was no random patrol, but a dedicated hunting mission; the Strigoi must have caught the scent of survivors in the village.
His plan had been to cause as much noise as possible, to lure them away from the cabin and further into the forest. From there—he could whittle them down, engage them on his terms. But now—
I can do more than slow them down.
His breath fills his lungs, and as his senses sharpen to a cutting edge, time slows to a crawl again.
I can kill every last fucking one of them right here.
He drops the empty magazine, snapping a fresh one into the mag well, his fingers sliding the bolt back without conscious thought. The lycans are in disarray, scattered and roaring pointlessly. As for the Strigoi—
There she is. Brown hair billowing in the air, hood askew, black dress stained with soot and splatters of viscous petrol. Wrapped in a cloud of buzzing flies, and smelling of rage and confusion.
Leonardo grips the trunk of the nearest tree, and hauls himself up the first branch.
Let’s have some fun, you fucking witch.
Field log, 058
Mutamycete LR-variant Anomaly LUP-7B [label ROMULUS]
Part 1 of 2
Anomaly [ROMULUS] is the designated label for a subject bearing the physical appearance of a Caucasian male in his late sixties, standing at approximately five feet and ten inches. Facial analysis matches that of Leonardo Casimir Lupu, a former Romanian army officer recorded to have defected in 1982 during the communist regime before subsequently being active in regional counterinsurgency activity, later disappearing from records altogether. (Further records on his activities in the subsequent years can be perused in CIA Declassified Asset File 778, attached for convenience.)
Cassandra whips through the trees, shrieking in impotent rage as her scythe hacks at the air. The mottled tail of that dirty-grey coat seems to dangle just out of reach, behind a branch or beyond some boulder, before slipping away like an irritating squirrel.
The man-thing’s footfalls echo, first here, then there, taunting her from a dozen hiding places. The rattle of the metallic weapon, the whistle of breath from the lips—and then, the crack of thunder as the weapon speaks.
Once, she tries to outsmart her quarry. Upon hearing the thud of his boots, Cassandra immediately sweeps in the opposite direction, borne aloft by the swarm, expecting to engulf the idiot man-thing in the act of moving to cover.
A roar of fire, a splash of crimson across the trees and immolating the bushes, and Cassandra is left screaming again, shaking globs of viscous oil from the bodies of a million flies.
“Try again, Strigoi!” comes the voice, and to her ears it is coming from every direction at once.
Shaking, cursing, reforming, only now does Cassandra appreciate how much she’s come to rely on her sense of smell and taste during the hunt.
I can’t smell him.
One old, stupid man-thing, greyed and wrinkly, is dancing circles around her as if she is a little girl.
Cassandra feels like throwing her head back and screaming.
An instant later, she actually screams. A howl of shock and surprise, as heat pounds into her scattered body in rhythmic hammer-blows.
She whirls around, and sees the shadow of a wolf—no, the man-thing!—crouched by a tree, the ugly man-weapon spitting fire again and again in her direction.
“Bullets cannot harm me, fool!” Cassandra begins to taunt. Almost believes it too, despite the sting of disembodied pain as the heavy projectiles rip dozens of flies to shreds in their path.
Until she hears the cries behind her. Lycans, falling to the ground, their bellies split open, their skulls rent, their limbs severed by the hydrostatic shock of high-velocity rounds.
He hadn’t been shooting at her.
He had been shooting at them. Through her.
He doesn’t even consider me a threat.
Cassandra shrieks, charging forward with her scythe held aloft.
The shape seems to dissolve, melting into the leaves even as her blade sweeps through empty air.
“Filthy animal!” Cassandra spits into the wind. “Stop hiding and face me!”
She spins, her blow chopping uselessly at the bush as her heart pounds in her ears. For a second, she almost expects to see him behind her—
Then a voice, coming from everywhere and nowhere.
And suddenly the world is engulfed in smoke. A rolling wave of pure white, swallowing the trees and leaves, tumbling over her skin and dress. Before her vision crusts over with a blurry film, she makes out the silhouette of a strange, striped metal cylinder rolling down a depression in the earth, its top torn off, spewing white fumes in its erratic path.
Some signal is pounding at her consciousness, something is trying to get through. And then it does.
Cassandra stumbles backwards, bellowing in anguish, as the shock of the utter cold overwhelms her.
The swarm, the swarm—she clutches at her body, and the open sores meet her eyes, weeping streaks of blood across her dress.
A burst of thunder, and Cassandra crumples to the ground. The scythe clatters to the ground, useless. She forces her eyes down, to that locus of agony. Her knee—
Her knee is gone. Not broken. Not wounded. Gone.
She stares blankly at the stump of her thigh, the remnants of her lower leg dangling from a grisly string like a puppet’s limb.
Pain. Raging against her brain, but only a murmur. Not yet in full. Shock. Shock is keeping it at bay. She can move—
She doesn’t see the machete. Only the faintest gleam of light in the mist, darting forward like the glimmer of a firefly. And then it plunges into her shoulder, and sticky warmth bathes her face.
Then the blade pulls free, and Cassandra collapses against the tree.
“December the 17th, 1999. Where were you, Strigoi?”
He’s here. He’s here. Her prey, standing right in front of her as if he had simply manifested out of thin air.
“Wh—what—” she gasps.
“Your sister had the wrong hair. Blonde—too light. It was too dark that night for me to see—it could have been black, or brown. Like yours.” The machete dangles from a powerful grip, dripping with fresh blood. “Answer me, Strigoi.”
The blade swipes again, and Cassandra’s lips tear open in a scream. The scent of fresh blood—her blood—fills her nostrils, as she pulls her hand to her face. Her wrist, painted in blood, and then the fleshy knob of her palm—and then nothing, where her fingers should be.
He is holding them. Her fingers, grasped in his hand like matchsticks.
He drops one, and then another. “I want to know, Strigoi.” He releases his grip, and the fleshy bits scatter into the soil. “I want to know if you are the one who killed my wife.”
Cassandra hisses, pushing herself up against the tree. Her blood is filling with fire, that final desperate rush of energy of a dying animal.
“Make no mistake, you will still die.” His face is close enough at last. A stony visage, lines carved into brick-like flesh with the violent blows of a savage mason. “I only want to know if I should make it—particularly special. For Antonina’s sake.”
That smell. Through the panic, the fear—it breaks through. Lantern oil.
Bottles dangle from his coat, bound by a net of cords, each one stuffed with a rag. A viscous liquid sloshes within their clouded glass interiors, each container trailing a cloth rag.
“I want to know, Strigoi,” he growls, “if I should make this last.”
Cassandra’s good hand closes around the scythe, and in that instant, she acts.
The blade sweeps upwards in a wide arc, directly at the man-thing’s wrist. He reacts instantly, his hand drawing back—but she is not aiming for it.
The bottles shatter, first one, then the other, as the heavy metal scythe breaks through the glass. Now she can taste it—foul, bitter, heavy, soaking the soil as it splashes forward over the man-thing, and onto her.
The scythe completes its arc, the edge clashing against the hard surface of a boulder. With every bit of strength left in her, Cassandra drags the scythe against the stone—and sparks spray forth.
The explosion of heat rolls over her, and with it comes the pain. The fire scorches her body in an unstoppable wave, and she feels her flesh writhe and quail in agony—but she welcomes it, because the cold is gone. It’s gone.
The swarm has returned.
Her body reacts, and Cassandra dissolves herself. Hundreds, thousands of her fly-spawn scatter to the ground as shrivelled black lumps, immolated by the burning oil—but she is there, she is intact. The swarm tumbles, staggers, and then reforms.
I made it.
The second daughter of House Dimitrescu flings herself in the direction of the castle, and flies for her life.
Leonardo realises his mistake as soon as the bottle breaks. Before the fly-witch manages to strike her scythe against the rock, the agile veteran has already pulled—better to say, ripped—the coat from his shoulders.
As the flames explode outwards, he flings the bundle of fabric and shattered glass from him, and drops to a roll. Heat is swallowed up by cold—the creeping layer of liquid nitrogen, heavier than air, smothers the flames near instantly.
The woman is gone. The buzzing of flies has faded to a whine. For a second, Leonardo contemplates giving chase. But it’s one thing to toy with an overconfident huntress during an ambush; another altogether to chase a swarm of insects that can fly faster than he can run.
He steps free of the morass of burning fabric and spilled oil, already being suffocated by the ice-cold fumes. It was close. Another moment more, and the Strigoi would have been a pile of lifeless meat, but he had forgotten that the damn things could think too. Complacent, stupid. He should have just filled her with bullets and be done with it.
Bullets. The thought brings him back to the present, and he shoulders the Kalash. Maybe the Strigoi is beyond him, now. But the damned wolfish brutes are still here. With luck, she might even perish of her wounds before reaching safety.
The remaining lycans are almost an afterthought. Without the Strigoi—could she have been coordinating their movements somehow?—they are purposeless and isolated, and he dispatches them with something approaching contempt. The last few, he doesn’t even shoot—simply beheads, with a swipe of his machete.
A calm has settled over the battlefield. An expectant silence, one he’s come to know well. The forest is strewn with bodies, the air heavy with gun-smoke and burning petrol. Close his eyes, breathe in—and he could be back at the frontier, with the thunder of small-arms fire and the roar of helicopter rotors in his ears.
He looks at the cabin in the distance.
Elena. A pearl shielded from a thunderstorm; never having known the world he had left behind—the world he had sworn never to return to. A blossoming carnation in the rain, a song sung after the rainfall. A knife in his chest, because every passing year, time—that cruel imp—moulds her face more and more into that of the woman he had lost.
He takes a hesitant step towards the bluff.
So who is coming back to her, now?
The father who carried her on his shoulders through the village, loudly proclaiming, “make way for the princess?”
Or the killer who slaughtered one hundred and eighty two men all across the cold Carpathians, who once murdered a party official at his son’s birthday party, who once tortured a sixteen year old boy for ten hours before slitting his throat?
Leonardo Lupu—or the Wolf?
The sky is starting to darken. Elena probably believes him dead. Luiza would have known the truth, almost immediately—known that the trip to the village square was the prelude to a mercy kill. Perhaps they are mourning.
Perhaps it would be best.
In the end, it is a single intrusive thought that decides the matter for him. An image, seared into his mind as if by a brand, glowing like a holy icon—yet anything but. A young man with a crop of blond hair, clad in a mountaineer’s jacket, with the foolish air of careless youth in his wan smile.
A monster, wearing the skin of a man. A thing made of creeping things and hiding a face carved in hell itself.
And yet, a man who calls himself by a name.
I’m Rose’s father. That’s who I choose to be. She needs me. My daughter needs me.
Elena needs him.
His daughter needs him.
Leonardo slings the AKM over his shoulder. “I am who I choose to be,” he mutters.
He walks towards the cabin.
Mutamycete LR-variant Anomaly LUP-7B [label ROMULUS]
Part 2 of 2
(continued from above)
[ROMULUS] was initially infected with an aggressive mutant strain of MEG-82 via cutaneous infestation from a [LYCAN]-inflicted wound. In-vivo analysis has shown the consequent outcome to be invariably a full transformation into a mature [LYCAN] via cascading replication of malignant peptides. However, five hours following initial infection, subject [ROMULUS] became exposed to a concentrated inoculant derived from the LR-variant of the mutamycete strain known as the Baker strain. The source of the material has been confirmed to be subject Ethan Winters, although the exact nature of inoculation is yet unknown. What is certain is that in the subsequent metabolic cascade, the Baker strain has dominated, and the catastrophic brain demyelination linked to the “Cadou” infection (usually associated with loss of higher brain functions) has been arrested.
As a result, [ROMULUS] maintains an acutely high level of intelligence and agency on par with pre-infection status. In addition, field observations have confirmed the subject to possess dramatically increased physical strength, metabolic tolerance, stamina, reflexes, and sensory acuity. As the Baker strain integration into the fungal genome is yet incomplete, subsequent mutations may come to light as the subject continues to experience a variety of environmental and internal stressors.
The usage of modified biohazards as field weapons has been previously explored by a number of competitors, most notably via the Tyrant project [See: UMBRELLA]. Most of these inferior prototypes have, as far as reports go, involved direct cybernetic control of a hybrid bioweapon by a human end-user. Intelligence, agility, and adaptability have thus far been disappointing compromises. However, subject [ROMULUS] provides an alternative avenue—namely introduction of a modified biological agent stripped of its infective properties, while retaining the enhanced physical characteristics of a bioweapon. Such enhanced operatives could serve as a vital component of bioweapon containment and neutralisation in the field. Further testing highly recommended.
For relevant ongoing research initiatives, see:
- Project Orion
Chapter tags: Ethan is just sick of his blood being an aphrodisiac for no damn reason, Bela's basically the teenage girl who got caught with a guy in her bedroom, Why does all the blood drinking have to be so damn sexual, Did any of that shit even get in your mouth, Why not just stick a straw in his chest and drink it properly, LMAO his sternum a queso dip, Cassandra literally got hit by a video game projectile, Just realised that at some point during his brooding quest for vengeance Leonardo went back to the old clinic to drag a ten-liter LN tank just in case, Fuck inventory limits this isn't skyrim, others...
Character tags: Ethan "I am once again asking for you to quit fucking with my neck" Winters, Bela "i need a beer, two pints of ice cream, and four years of therapy" Dimitrescu, Alcina "Time to boost the readership of this fic like I did the sales of RE: Village" Dimitrescu, Daniela "wait a second why are you in the castle instead of out hunting" Dimitrescu, Cassandra "I can't believe liquid nitrogen caused all this mess" Dimitrescu, Leonardo "did that bitch literally win a quicktime event?" Lupu, others...