Chapter 1: Consume, Become
Coordinates 47° 0′ 0″ N, 25° 30′ 0″ E
“Our Father, who art in Heaven—”
“Cease your blasphemy!” Anton snarls. “Mother Miranda will slaughter us all for that!”
“Hallowed be thy name.” The missionary continues to stare out the window, clutching at the crucifix at his neck. The rusted, ancient frame rattles with the force of the blizzard outside, its fury muffled by the thick wooden walls of the cabin.
“Iulian, how’re you over there?” Anton barks past the hallway, still training the Luger on the window. The shapes are getting closer.
“Got eight rounds! I count seven—eight lycans, coming in fast!” the old gamekeeper replies, his voice breaking. “Mother protect us—” he whimpers, almost too soft to hear.
“She will, my friends, she will.” Luiza places a calming hand on Anton’s shoulder. “I believe it. Now we must do our best—survive this—”
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done—” the missionary quavers, eyeing the shadows closing in on the cabin.
“Shut—up!” Anton backhands the thin, beardless youth across the face. “If you’re going to keep yammering away, take this and be useful!”
The missionary blinks, finding a hatchet in his hands. He whimpers, before placing the weapon gently upon the table.
“Friend, I—I have taken an oath against the bearing of arms,” he sputters, before making the sign of the cross.
Anton grasps the man of the cloth by his frock. “First lycan comes through that door, you’re live bait!” The burly woodsman flings the youth to the floor. “Come here, preaching your nonsense! Blaspheming our gods! Looking down on us from, from—”
A thud from above.
As one, the tired and fearful eyes spin to the ceiling.
“Merciful mother—” Luiza moans. “They’re on the roof.”
Iulian fires his shotgun just as the lycan crashes through the roof. Cold wintery air explodes into the living room, roaring like a deafening tempest, as the shaggy shape writhes on the floor, claws raking the wood.
“Again! Again!” Anton roars over the howl of the blizzard, turning his pistol to the floor. The Luger discharges again and again, the semi-automatic mechanism clinking with each revolution.
The beast rises, anaemic skin stretched over an animalistic skull, baring its teeth just as Iulian lines up the second shot.
The blast takes the monster’s skull off at the jaw, cleaving its head in half through the nape of its neck. The elongated limbs spasm once, then fall silent.
“On earth, as it is in heaven—” the missionary whispers, to himself if no one else. And then leaps to his feet, as the jagged shadows on the floor shift menacingly.
“More!” Anton raises the Luger skyward. And now mingled with the monotonous howl of the blizzard—the feral howls of lycans gathering in their packs.
Luiza looks up, hands pressed to her bosom, right into the eyes of a savage hirsute face peering from the hole in the roof.
This is the end.
The lycan is dragged backwards suddenly. And the chorus of jubilant howls suddenly turn to shrieks of rage and surprise.
The front door explodes. Luiza shields her face as shards of ruined wood fly like shrapnel; Anton cries as he teeters off balance, while Iulian trains his shotgun on the great black shape now sprawled across the carpet.
His eyes widen, and his finger slips from the trigger.
A lycan. And very, very dead. Its eyes are glassy, its lips frozen in a teeth-baring rictus. Iulian follows the horrific wound trailing from its collarbone down across its breast—the edge of shattered ribs, the loops of uncoiling intestines steaming from the residual heat.
“Dear Mother on high—” Iulian wheezes. “This beast has been cut in half.”
He peers past the ruined door, out into the raging storm, and his heart chills.
The lycans are attacking. Not at the cabin, no longer—but something in the distance, something approaching.
The roar of animals. The crunch of bone. The sickening sound of wetness hitting the ground.
Screams of rage. Of pain.
Footfalls, heavy and unnatural.
And then something emerges from the snowstorm.
Iulian raises his shotgun.
Not a lycan.
He stares, uncomprehending. He barely notices the other two figures behind it, not until he hears one yell out, and Luiza answer with a cry.
“It’s Elena!” Luiza calls, rushing towards the door. “And Leonardo—Mother be praised! They made it!”
All the while, the figure continues to approach. Never breaking stride, even dead in the face of the threat of Iulian’s shotgun and a round of buckshot. In fact, the expression on the outsider’s face—mild frustration?
Iulian swallows, as the stranger’s blood-splattered features grow more visible. Auburn hair matted to his scalp, slick with unimaginable amounts of gore; a mountaineer’s jacket soaked with blood, sleeves running so red as to almost seem dipped in wine. A pale complexion, waxy in the moonlight. The stranger does not even flinch as a length of innards slides slowly off his shoulder, plopping to the ground limply.
The outsider raises a bloody hand.
“My name,” he says in a voice far too gentle, “is Ethan Winters. These people need your help.”
Alcina Dimitrescu stands at the balcony, the cold stone of the balustrade under her gloved fingers.
The night is restless.
Spots of light dance throughout the valley, darting erratically between the shadows of ancient trees and ruined half-collapsed houses. Mindless lycans on patrol, or in pursuit of some scent or other. Beasts of burden, barely worthy of notice. She’s seen one or two of them spill the oil from their lanterns and set themselves on fire, some weeks ago. Their dying shrieks had warmed her heart, if only a little.
She inhales, her nostrils flaring. Her lips pucker as she chews on the scent as she would a fine vintage, bringing the taste to her tongue. Her pale cheeks flush. Her nose wrinkles.
That in itself is unsurprising, and hardly unfamiliar. She’s smelled it before on moonless nights, the terror of some village idiot caught out in the open by a lycan hunting party wafting up to her castle to serve as a delicious amuse-bouche before dinner.
Or when a servant girl happened to annoy one of her daughters—oh yes, that lilt of enticing aroma, mingled with the smell of urine dribbling down slender legs. Even dull menials could sense their impending doom; the despair wrought by that knowledge was almost as delicious as the torment itself, before her daughters dragged the poor creature off into the dungeons.
Yes, yes. But of course! On nights when her daughters set out to the village on their hunts, screeching and laughing freely, to take whomever they wished—yes! Rising from the valley, a glorious bouquet of terror!
She knows the smell well, can distinguish every subtle note in its composition. But here, tonight, a harsh note clashes against her palette and her breath catches in her throat.
Terror from humans is plentiful, of course. Plentiful, and as common as the cheap vin de pays that might as well be dishwater. The poor man-things balk and gibber at every little noise, every trick of the light.
But terror from lycans?
Alcina Dimitrescu sniffs again. Stiffens. Underneath her hands, the balustrade cracks.
“Cassandra!” Her voice vibrates with command. “Come here!”
The words have barely echoed, when the flies immediately hiss from their cracks in the stone to gather behind the gargantuan lady of the castle. By the time Lady Dimitrescu turns around, the swarm has assembled into the shape of a pale, gaunt figure wreathed in black funereal garb.
Her daughter bows gracefully, crimson-stained lips peeling open in a smile. “Yes, mother?”
“Something stirs in the valley. I want to know what.” Alcina sweeps her hands out. “Bring your sisters. Search the village. Whatever it is—bring it to me.”
“Of course, mother.” A chorus of buzzing, a harsh hiss—and then the swarm is gone.
Alcina Dimitrescu turns back to the balcony, continuing to stare. Sending her daughters out should have quietened her heart. Nothing could resist them—their perfection, the strength of the Cadou—any defence prepared by men would crumble before them. In fact, part of her mind had wondered if sending all three of them had been overkill.
The other part—the louder part—continues to murmur with worry and growing disquiet.
It will be sunrise soon.
It’s when she finally hands her father over to Anton and Iulian that Elena Lupu collapses to her knees.
Ears ringing, heart pounding, her lungs rubbed raw and blistering, she stays hunched over as the weariness threatens to overwhelm her. Only when a warm hand curves under her armpit does she jerk back, her eyes fluttering open.
Luiza’s face swims into view. “Come, Elena—your father is safe, he will be safe with us. Come—”
“Father—wounded—lycans attacked,” she manages to gasp hoarsely. “He’s injured—”
“We have warm soup. The priest—the Catholic—he has medicine in his bag. We will tend to your father. Now come, Elena.” Luiza tugs at her arm, and Elena struggles to her feet.
“Ethan Winters—” Elena hisses.
She feel’s Luiza’s hair brush across her cheek as the older woman turns her head. “Your friend—the American? Westerner? He walked away—he has not returned—”
“We must—barricade the house—get into the basement—can’t—get in—” Elena limps forward hurriedly, each step bringing a sharp sting of pain. Her ankle is sprained.
“The lycans? We just avoided an attack—something drove them off.” Luiza stiffens, as if spotting something in the distance. Then her shoulders relax. “We will guard against them. Iulian could—”
“No, no—not lycans—” Elena whispers, clawed fingers suddenly grasping Luiza’s collar. The matron starts, eyes wide. "You don’t understand. Not—not them. Him.”
“Elena?” Luiza mutters.
“Don’t let him in.” Elena looks over her shoulder, frantic eyes darting from tree to tree. Every shadow a threat, every howl of the wind the growl of a beast. “Don’t—he’s not what you think he is.”
Ethan grips at the stump of a dead tree, the bark splintering under his palm. Charred, ancient. Split in half.
He should be far enough now. Elena won’t be able to spot him. Not without a pair of binoculars—or the scope of a sniper rifle.
His vision is grey and red. The forest might as well be a watercolour of gradations of black, the shadows of branches and vines blending into each other like a mass of writhing eels illuminated by wan moonlight.
Spots of red dart past his vision—flies, bearing their tiny dots of vitality. Red.
The burner phone almost slips from his fingers when he finally pulls it from his pocket. The sting of the overpowering white light scalds his eyes.
He taps the only number on the contact list.
“It won’t stop—the fucking injections don’t work,” Ethan spits into the receiver, tossing an empty syringe to the ground with his free hand. “It’s getting—worse—”
“Conservation of mass. It’s the founding principle of the universe—there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The fungal stimulant was only ever a stopgap measure.” The voice is steady. Casual. And—run through a voice-changer—utterly unrecognisable. “Do you believe me now, Ethan Winters?”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” His back slams into something solid. Ethan realises he’s leaning against the dead tree. His knees—aren’t all there.
Something is growling. Something to his front, and left. Ethan feels a small trill at the forefront of his brain warning of danger. He can barely care.
“You burned through a lot of mass, and a lot of energy, in a very short time. That pain you’re feeling, that hunger, that’s the bank calling you about an overdraft,” the voice replies. “Widespread apoptosis. Neuroglycopenia. Myofibril degeneration.”
Ethan lifts his left hand. “But—before, I managed to heal—”
“Don’t be stupid, Ethan. Reattaching a severed hand or two is nothing more than chump change. The biomass is still intact on both ends; the neurovascular bundle can be reconnected. What you just did, on the other hand, that’s a debt that needs to be paid, and quick. Biomass needs to be refuelled. Your cells will convert the fungal matter to usable ATP in minutes.”
“And if not—” Ethan gasps.
“Then Rose is lost.” The voice doesn’t even hesitate.
Ethan clutches at his chest. The pain is constant now, a staccato burst of agony contracting around his chest.
“Mia died for her. Your wife—she died protecting your daughter from gunfire.” The phone crackles with another whistle of static. “You are already dead, Ethan Winters. You decide if your daughter joins you, or not.”
“Tell me what I need to do.” Ethan straightens his back, pushing himself off the tree.
“You know what needs to be done.” A burst of static over the phone. A cloud passing overhead, interrupting the satellite connection.
“Be specific, motherfucker.” Ethan takes a step, then another. Something pulls at him. Forward, in the direction of the harsh growls.
Then he sees it.
He hadn’t gotten all the mutants. Not immediately, it seems. The bastards are tougher than they look. Mindless, feral and bestial—it seems something remains of the animal brain after all. The urge to prolong life for even an hour, a minute; the irresistible impulse to crawl away and survive, scratching and clawing against the inevitable.
The Vârcolac is alive, but only just. Nothing remains of its right arm below the shoulder; its left is not much better, a mangled mess of jagged bone wrapped in a fleshy kebab of macerated muscle and marinated in dark viscous blood. Through the wound in its ribcage, a lung peeks from between the snapped ends of a rib, inflating and deflating like a succulent pink balloon.
The lupine creature kicks feebly, yelping and snapping its jaws at Ethan. One leg has been violently wrenched out of the hip socket, dangling by a pathetic tether of fleshy tendon.
Ethan looks at the product of his handiwork. The furious, ecstatic slaughter outside the mountain cabin, that whirlwind of death that left his sleeves soaked with blood and brought a wild terrified look to Elena’s eyes.
Do all the others—the dead ones—look like this?
To his eyes, now, the creature is a pulsating mess of red.
“Acts chapter 10, verse 13,” the voice comes over the phone.
“What?” Ethan says.
“Get up. Kill and eat.” The line goes dead.
The phone slides out of his hand, onto the grass below. Ethan staggers closer. The pull is stronger than ever.
What do I do?
No. He knows. Which is worse. His body knows, it’s always known. He’s not been thinking about what to do—he’s been trying to hold it back.
Ethan feels his body vibrate, the tendrils of mutamycete writhing under the thin layer of pseudo-skin. It will happen. It wants to happen.
He lets it.
The thing that was Ethan Winters drops to a crouch as its arms elongate and its back arches, its body finally giving up on the charade of humanity. Its forearms split, muscle fibres parting along their planes as dark fungal material forms into calcified blades, curved like the talons of some tremendous corvid. The same black runs down his back, the winter jacket—or a convincing imitation of it—withering away as the mycelia making up its disguise are reassigned to more useful functions.
Its mouth opens, first in a growl, then in a terrible shriek of all-consuming want. Then opens wider, and wider—and its jaw separates at the hinge and splits at the seam of its chin, talon-like fangs pointed forwards.
Its eyes, bare white, stare ahead in frank hunger as it prowls forward.
What’s left of its brain—what’s not consumed by the need—wonders if that last look in the mindless Vârcolac’s eyes is fear.
And then it pounces, and the night is full of the creature’s screams.
[REDACTED] field log, 001
Prototype mutation HEPH01-A, label [MYCO-BLADE]
The formation of fungal material into rudimentary cutting edges is an established, albeit imperfect, mutation among the bio-organic constructs known as mutamycete. The fungomorphic organisms (labelled [LYCANS]) shape the calcified edges of dead fungal hyphae into sharp blade-like projections on their paws, analogous to keratinised claws or fingernails, which they then use for evisceration and climbing.
The mutation HEPH01-A, however, has taken this adaptation to its logical extreme. By manipulation of ribosomal DNA and cyclic-AMP pathways, the resultant production of calcified fungal matter is reinforced with a microstructure of steel and titanium, with the end result being a streamlined spine of calcified crystal with immense resistance to tension and compression, and a monofilament edge comparable to modern nanotech knives. The resultant—blade—is approximately three to five feet in length with a fixed hinge at the styloid process of the ulna bone, and may be deployed from one or both arms.
I have catalogued four separate instances of subject Ethan Winters using such a blade to cleave a [LYCAN] completely in half. Of particular note is the fact that the resultant fungal superstructure is fluid and mobile—the blade can be dissolved nearly immediately and then reconstituted instantaneously with no loss of efficacy.
Further testing and optimisation highly recommended.
Chapter 2: To Sleep, Perchance, To Dream
The limitations of healthcare in a rural setting: a study
When I threw out "Let's See How Special I Am," it was a random scribble for which I fully expected to garner maybe 2-3 comments and 6 kudos from whoever stumbled across it. Needless to say, the response has exceeded my expectations. To those who've commented and left their kudos, thank you for fueling my muse; the little parasite is trilling with pleasure.
Of course, this also means I'm obligated to continue.
Read, enjoy, and please review.
She knows Bela is there, before her eldest announces herself. The buzzing dies away almost as soon as the dainty footsteps tap against the floor.
The countess lifts her head from the book, setting the heavy tome aside. Her Bela, beautiful Bela, curtseys with perfect form, her silken black cape undulating behind her in the light morning air.
“Good morning, Mother.” Ivory-white teeth glimmer as she smiles, the soft vermillion of her lips ringed by splashes of fresh crimson.
“My dearest,” Alcina Dimistrescu lifts her hand, and her daughter floats forward. Bela clasps her mother’s palm between pale, dove-like hands and kisses the signet ring.
Mother and daughter embrace, Bela fitting like a kitten in the shelter of Alcina’s body, stretching her limbs luxuriously. Alcina hears a purr of satisfaction and grins proudly.
“My daughter,” she says, caressing Bela’s soft blonde hair. “Your sisters are already searching the village. Why are you not with them?”
The hands freeze, Bela’s body tightening under Alcina’s bosom.
“Forgive me, mother.” Bela’s voice is low, almost apologetic. “I was careless last night and left a window open. The cold—it hurt me.”
She lifts her arm slowly. Against her already-pale skin, an angry splash of bleach adorns her skin from wrist to elbow, like a shard of porcelain set into flesh.
Alcina’s voice catches in her throat. “My poor, dear, daughter—”
She leans down and presses her lips to the wound, her tongue trailing along the edge of the ruined skin.
She continues her ministrations, licking, brushing, sucking gently. Against her cheek, the warmth of Bela’s sigh caresses her own skin.
Alcina pulls away at last, the pearly string of saliva trailing in the air like a line of silk before breaking. She grunts with satisfaction; the patch of skin is still paler than its surroundings, but no longer is it blistering.
“Be more careful next time, Bela,” Alcina says, combing her fingers through tresses of blonde.
“Yes, mother,” mewls Bela. “I will find it, mother, this I promise. Whatever it is that causes you unrest, if it is out there, I will drag it before you and tear out its throat.”
“I know you will, my daughter.” Alcina looks back in pride. “You have a strong spirit, and a good head on your shoulders. Your sisters look up to you, as well they should.”
Her eldest daughter rises on her elbows, dark ebony eyes fixed upon her mother and mistress. “Mother, I need to ask. Before I take flight again—I need strength, mother.”
Alcina smiles. “Of course, Bela. I know what you need.” She shifts her weight upon the divan. “And it will always be here for you. All you need do is ask.”
Her hand slips from her Bela’s hair, moving lower, before pausing by her bosom. The evening dress is tight, moulded to her figure as perfectly as fine wine poured into a glass. Her fingers curl around the seam of the neckline. The dress stretches as she pulls delicately, careful not to tear the fabric.
At last, it comes free. Her heaving breast springs from its prison of cloth, glabrous and pale in the dawn light, her skin breathing freely at last. Her fingers trail downward, raking over pliant, elastic flesh, her dark nipple swelling as her own body begins to respond.
Her fingers settle once more over Bela’s forehead, her daughter’s eager eyes bright and wanting.
“Drink, my daughter,” whispers Alcina.
Bela presses her lips to the waiting nipple with a throaty grunt, her eyes fluttering as she moans. Alcina’s own lips part as she sighs, feeling the familiar sensation peculiar to motherhood as her milk begins to flow. A damp spot forms upon her other breast, still clothed under the evening dress, as it awakens with its sister.
Bela drinks, swallows, her lips and tongue latching on to her mother as she always does, as she has always done ever since that glorious day when that swarm of flies had parted to reveal her daughter. Her gift, one of a set of three, to adorn a day brighter and happier than any she had known before—or since.
Alcina cradles her eldest daughter to her bosom, her eyes taking in the morning light as the sun spreads its rays over a cold and empty horizon. She whispers a prayer of thanks to Miranda for the gift. The Cadou even, as it is named—strong and pregnant with power, great enough to wash away pain.
The pain of a childhood racked with agony, of thin limbs and bruised joints, of months spent in isolation in a cloud of laudanum.
The pain, even, of three misshapen lumps of flesh lying motionless upon her birthing bed, each one attached by a thin string to a lumpy mockery of an almost-placenta.
No, she promises herself, as she watches her daughter feed. Alcina Dimitrescu would never know pain again.
He is screaming to the sky, his stomach wrung with hunger.
He is crashing through the undergrowth, claws extended, shaggy mane rippling in the wind.
She tastes like strawberries and the summer moon, slumped against the wall of the cabin, a fountain of fresh jam spurting and bubbling from her split neck as her eyes roll upwards and the flies begin to land.
His teeth close around her neck; he feels the vertebrae crack, then dislocate. Her meat tastes of honey. Beside her, her brother’s glassy corneas stare at his sister, his hands still clutched around the hole where his throat used to be.
He feasts. First upon her, then him. Then he bounds through the field, grass under his paws—
He is running with the rising moon, his pack at his back and by his side.
He sees the girl, and the wounded one. The old man smells of piss and shit, but she smells of sunflowers. He loves sunflowers. He charges.
She turns and the horror upon her face almost sends him to his knees in pure orgasmic bliss.
He is close now.
She is practically on his tongue; a warm slick dollop of earthy flavour caressing his taste buds.
He doesn’t see the fist that shatters his chest.
“What the fuck—” He pushes himself off the ground as the headache catches up to him and his eyes go dark for a dizzying second.
For moments, Ethan can do nothing but hug his knees to his chest. He rocks back and forth, nursing the churning in his stomach until it simmers and quiets down.
What the fuck was that?
It is light. He blinks, and looks around. The Carpathian sun is rising over the grey valley, its bleary rays throwing long shadows. His jacket is completely and utterly trashed. It’s not just blood sticking to it; it’s bits and pieces of soft jelly-like red stuff that he doesn’t want to think about.
The Vârcolac is—not all there. Scattered clumps of fur litter the ground, dissolving into mushy fungus in the sunlight. Bits of bone here and there, splintered and drained of marrow, jabbed into the hard soil like chopsticks. The blood splatter is drying in the warm air, its crusty brown borders demarcating the shape of the mutant like a chalk drawing at a murder scene.
But the thing is mostly gone.
And he knows where it’s gone.
Bile rises up the back of his throat, and Ethan tosses his face to the side as he vomits for real.
He keeps going, wave after wave of sickening nausea rocking his gut. He all but empties his guts onto the cold Carpathian soil, his throat ragged and blistering, his teeth stinging. Minutes feel like hours. Then it’s no longer vomit coming up—it’s a thin, viscous stream of black tar, bitter on his tongue.
When he turns his eyes to the pile of vomit and spots the half-digested tongue sitting atop the deflated eyeball, he heaves again. And again. Only this time, nothing comes out.
Ethan wants to feel sick. Wants to be near-death, barely able to breathe, because that’s normal. That’s what normal people do, once they’ve found out they’ve devoured a half-human creature alive. They curl up, they want to die. They pass out and hope to never wake.
Except now, Ethan feels like he could lift a bus with one hand.
What the fuck is happening to me?
He can’t close his eyes again. Because now he remembers the dream. The feeling of ravenous hunger and throbbing desire so powerful it’s almost sexual—and the look on Elena’s face, as he had been about to tear her open.
No, no, no—no—no. It’s all wrong.
He hadn’t wanted to eat her—he saved her, and her father, he brought them out from their cabin. He—that’s not—no.
He’s not a lycan. They were attacked by lycans. He had seen the big one—the Vârcolac, she had called it, or rather shrieked it, once it came bounding out of the forest.
It couldn’t be his hunger. It couldn’t have—
But the Vârcolac came for her first, didn’t it? Its claws were outstretched, its jaws were open, my jaws were open—
He’s kicking away from the corpse when his fingers bump into the phone.
Ethan steadies his breath, turning his eyes away from the grisly scene. And taps the screen of his phone..
The voice answers after only two rings. “You’re finally awake. Had breakfast?”
“Fuck you.” Ethan hisses. “You knew this was going to happen.”
“I was counting on it. You were about three minutes away from catastrophic cell death. You’re lucky you found a nearby specimen. Don’t cut it so close again.” The voice pauses. “You might want to think about replenishing your biomass regularly. Stock up before periods of—intense exertion.”
“Yeah. Next lycan I see, I’ll try to serve up roasted with a side of potatoes.” Ethan stands to his feet. “I wonder if lycans taste good medium-rare? Or do I need to go well done to get rid of the moldy smell? You sick fuck?”
“Don’t joke about it. Extremes of temperature will denature the proteins and drop the usable biomass to practically zero. You might as well be eating grass. Live specimens, Ethan.” The phone beeps. Low battery.
“So what?” He looks around the clearing. “So fuck normal food from now on, is that it?”
“This is normal food now, Ethan.” No hesitation, as usual. “Cooked food, human food—your body can still break it down to calories, just a little. That’s how it’s worked since the Baker house incident. But it’s piss-poor yield. You don’t need thousands of calories; you need millions. Intact biomass, not flaky building blocks.” The voice pauses. “Sooner you get used to it, sooner you can get off your ass and survive this.”
Ethan gathers his breath, then exhales. “There’s something I need to ask. You fuckers cut me up just about every way you can—I need to know about what you’ve learned. About the way I—digest. The way I eat.”
“What about?” He can hear mild curiosity.
“Do I just consume biomass? Or—other things, too?” Ethan turns away from the remnants of the Vârcolac.
“Elaborate.” The voice crackles with a curtain of static.
“I attacked a big lycan—a Vârcolac—after you hung up the phone, and then I blacked out. When I woke up, most of it was already inside me.” Ethan glances at the grisly pile of flesh, and stifles a fresh surge of acidity up the back of his throat. “But when I was out of it—I kind of had a dream. It was back after insertion, while I was escorting Elena and her dad up the mountain from their cabin.”
“Yeah.” An edge to the voice. “Continue.”
“The thing is—in the dream, I was looking through the eyes of—of—one of the things that attacked us. Seeing, smelling, feeling what it did. I saw Elena, and her dad—and I think I saw myself too. Right before I killed—well, I killed me, in that dream.” Ethan pinches the bridge of his nose. “Fuck, I’m not even making sense to myself.”
A pregnant pause. Ethan taps the phone to check the reception. Then—
“This bio-organic construct, this Vârcolac. Was it one of the ones that attacked you?”
“Must be. Don’t remember it specifically, but I can’t think of anything—anyone—else that could rip an arm and leg off the poor fucker.” Ethan swallows again and again, feeling his mouth filling with saliva. What the fuck is that smell?
“Might be an acute psychotic episode. Some patients report seeing traumatic events they’ve experienced from a third-person perspective,” says the voice.
“Yeah, maybe.” Ethan exhales. Then presses his thumb to his lower lip. “Except.”
He shakes his head. The vision is hard to clear. The smell, the taste, lingers in his mouth and nostrils as if he is still experiencing them.
“I saw something else, before that. There was a boy and a girl. Siblings living out in the woods, in a tent. I dreamed about killing them. Eating them. I—I could smell and taste and feel it.” Ethan’s voice cracks. “As if I was the Vârcolac. As if I was in its skin. Its head. It was real—but now how would I know that?”
“I have a theory.” The voice grows faint for a brief moment, as if its owner is stepping away from the phone. “During the consumption process—did you gain access to the ribcage?”
Ethan glances down at the pathetic bone scraps littered on the ground, then speaks into the receiver. “Are you shitting me right now?”
“Yes, or no?”
“Yes, damn it.” Ethan sighs. “Along with just about everything from the neck down, from the looks of it.”
“We’ve been aware of a biological anomaly, MEG-82, a Mold-mutated nematode initially identified in 1982 by our field researchers. MEG—Mutamycete-assimilated Enterobius gregorii. It was first isolated from soil samples taken from an outbreak that wiped out a Lithuanian village. Bears the marks of genomic tampering. From what we can gather, it infests the central nervous system in its larval stage before growing to maturity within the mediastinum.” The clacking of a keyboard, and then a faint beeping in the background. “That’s the space in your chest around your heart, so you know.”
Ethan waits. The condescending fuck.
“Data is incomplete—but we believe MEG-82 in either its larval or adult form to be responsible for the varying bio-organic constructs you have encountered so far. It mutates the cellular structure, eventually converting biomass to fungal matter. One thing we’ve ascertained—” Ethan hears the harsh strikes of a keyboard “—is that the nematode integrates itself in the host’s nervous system to an unprecedented degree. The host’s nerves are literally replaced with tendrils of fungal material directly synced to MEG-82.”
“At the risk of being cliched—speak English.” He’s walking away from the clearing, down the slope, towards the cabin. The smell is getting fainter, yet a thick miasma continues to fill the air.
“If you’ve consumed the central body of MEG-82 inside the Vârcolac, Ethan—” the voice stops for an audible breath. “This is just conjecture. But if this is true—Ethan, you’re seeing the memories of the Vârcolac. You’ve eaten its brain. You see what it’s seen. You know what it knows.”
Ethan sways on his feet.
“So—” he coughs, hacking up a wad of saliva. The spit hits the ground as a bullet of pure black. “You’re telling me not only do I eat the fucking things—I need to live their memories as well?” His eyes swing heavenward. “How many levels of fucked up am I?”
“You now have a source of intel. This is no time for existential horror. You need to take every advantage you have.” The voice is tense. “Listen to me, Ethan. Finding Rose is the objective. Don’t forget that.”
Ethan puts the phone down, and contemplates hurling it out into the valley. Worst thing is that the way he’s feeling now, he could probably punt it halfway across Romania in a single throw.
“Fuck,” he whispers to himself. At long last he lifts the phone to his lips again.
“I’m starting to smell things. Taste things, too. Shit’s starting to set me off—I swear this whole forest is full of rotting meat.” Ethan grips his stomach. “Worst thing—I think I’m getting hungry again.”
“It’s the Vârcolac.” The voice is breathless. “If my theory is correct, it’s not just its memories. You have its senses. Its instinct.”
The voice continues to speak, as Ethan fights the urge to double over. The ache in his stomach is growing. “You’re nauseous now because your sense of smell is razor sharp. You can taste even trace amounts of chemicals and microbes in the air. You can smell prey for miles around—it might take a few days’ acclimatisation before you stop perceiving other humans as prey.” The fucker sounds excited. What the fuck. “Wait till the sun goes down—I’m willing to bet, you’ll find you have perfect night vision for miles.”
“Are you getting off on this?” Ethan almost screams. Then winces—the sound of his own voice strikes his eardrums like hammer blows. Sensitive hearing. Fuck.
“Ethan. Keep me posted. The more biomass you integrate, the more—”
“The more what?” Ethan repeats.
He taps the phone. The black screen is still.
“Fuck.” He reaches for the other pocket, for the solar-power bank—
Now he remembers where he’s left it.
“Fuck,” he says again.
Elena lifts the hunting rifle to her shoulder. The scope is off centre, canted to the right. A droplet of sweat rolls into her aiming eye and she curses, blinking furiously.
“Elena?” Luiza places a hand on her wrist. The young woman’s hands are shaking furiously.
“Get ready. He’s coming. Anytime now.” Elena turns to her right. By her side, Anton is in position with the pistol, braced in a weaver stance.
A moan from the corner of her room jars her concentration, and she turns. Her father is now only half-lucid, slumped against the wall, one hand weakly lifting up his own shirt to expose the angry gashes on his torso.
By his side, the missionary does his work, trembling hands dabbing at the wounds with a wet cloth. The basin runs red, fresh blood dribbling into clean water like paint from a palette.
“Et clamor meus ad te veniat…” murmurs the Catholic at his work, as the devout pagans wrinkle their noses. Luiza closes her eyes, as if ignoring a bad smell.
“Iulian. You got enough shells?” She hands a fistful of 12-gauge buckshot shells to the gamekeeper. “When he shows up, aim for his body. Blow his heart right out of his chest.”
“Elena—what are you doing?” Iulian accepts the ammunition with a frown. “I don’t—he seems a good man. Elena, he saved your life.”
“He is not a man.” She braces the rifle upon the table laid across the doorway as a makeshift barricade. “He is not coming in here. No warning shots, no aiming for the legs. Unload every fucking bullet you have into him—or we are all dead.”
“I see him!” Anton’s shout is ice water pouring into her chest. Elena’s brow is pressed to the scope, her heart pounding so hard she can barely hear Anton racking the slide of his Luger.
Ethan Winters is walking through the fog, his body soaked with blood from head to toe. Striding across the half-frozen field with its petrified trees, as if he has all the time in the world.
“One hundred thirty—” she murmurs. “One hundred twenty feet—”
Elena Lupu makes her decision.
Ethan’s head snaps back and the sky spins.
He hears the distant crack of the sonic boom a split-second after the pain hits. Like a jackhammer boring into his skull from front to back—
Which it is.
His nose fills with the overpowering smell of blood—his blood. He tastes the Mold, acrid and foul against his tongue, as a curtain of blood weeps over his forehead onto his cheeks.
The feeling comes back, in his arms first, then his legs. A full system restart, the throbbing in his head as unwelcome as the scratching of an abused hard drive forced into a reboot.
Ethan reaches up, fingers digging into the trench in the centre of his skull, and pulls the dented .243 bullet from his brain.
“Nice shot, Elena,” he whispers. Then straightens up.
“What the fuck—” She hears Anton’s gasp just as her fingers slip from the trigger.
“Fuck—fuck!” Her fingers are buttery sausages, clumsy and soft, fumbling and slipping against the bolt.
She hit him.
She shot him in the head.
And Ethan Winters is getting back up.
Metal clinks on the wooden floor—she’s finally managed to eject the spent shell. Elena’s heart is pounding a maddening crescendo as she lines up the next shot.
And then the rifle swings upwards.
Elena tumbles backwards as the gunshot explodes in her ears like thunder, feeling her grip slip from the stock. Her face is wet—her hands, splattered with red. Red—blood—
Not her blood.
The American is standing over her, the rifle in one hand, its barrel still smoking with the wasted shot now embedded in the ceiling. He is drenched, from head to toe, in a charnel house of offal and gore.
His eyes are empty.
One hundred and twenty feet. One hundred and twenty feet between them, a distance just a sliver beyond how far she could comfortably shoot.
And he had closed the distance before she could even blink.
Gunshots. Muffled against her ears, pounding again and again like fists on a carpet. Her dazed eyes see the muzzle flashes of Anton’s Luger as he unloads into Ethan Winters, his mouth open in a roar. She sees the American’s tattered shirt spattered with button-sized holes.
“Stop, damn it!” The—thing—roars, a guttural sound like that of a beast. Reaches out, and grips the Luger in one hand.
And crushes it like a tin can.
Anton’s eyes are wide, his moustache quivering like a squirrel cornered by a bloodhound. The ruined pistol drops from his grip, and he stumbles backwards.
“Don’t waste your ammo.” He’s talking to Iulian now. The gamekeeper is pale, the shotgun braced against his shoulder. But his finger is off the trigger. “You’ll need it for things that you can hurt.”
He raises the rifle, staring right at her. “That was a good shot.”
The Winchester falls back into her hands, the heavy metal and wood slamming against her already-bruised wrists.
“What—are you?” Luiza whispers, from behind Elena. The matron has taken her place between the dangerous interloper and her wounded father. Behind, the useless missionary whimpers softly.
“I’m here to help.” Ethan brushes a bloody hand across his ruined shirt. “I would appreciate not getting shot at while I’m doing it.”
“Horseshit,” Elena spits. She pushes herself up. Her knees threaten to buckle under her, but she forces herself to stand up straight. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t put another bullet in you.”
Her fingers finally work. In a fluid motion, Elena slides the bolt back and brings the rifle to her shoulder, the muzzle trained upon his bleeding forehead.
“Maybe the second shot will do it.” She grits her teeth. He doesn’t even blink.
“Your father is infected,” Ethan says calmly.
Her heart stops, and her world spins.
“What?” Elena stammers.
“Those wounds are from lycan claws. He was infected the moment he got hurt.” Ethan Winters points at her father, now mumbling as he writhes against the wall, his eyes closed. “I can smell it. He already smells like a lycan. He’ll turn soon.”
“No.” Elena tightens her grip on the rifle. “No. I’m not letting you mess with my head. You’re not getting—”
“Think, Elena.” Ethan takes a step closer. “We haven’t met a single other person in this village with lycan wounds. And that’s because once they’ve been wounded—they don’t stay a person for very long.”
He looks around the cabin, at Iulian and Anton, at Luiza, at her father and the missionary. His gaze is cold, calculative, contemptuous. “You leave him here, and by sunset every single person in this house will be dead.”
“What would you have us do?” Luiza places a hand on Elena’s shoulder.
Ethan points at the pack slung across Elena’s back. “That’s mine. What I have in that bag is something that might—might—cure the infection. But only if we act fast.” He looks back at her father. “Let him come with me. I’ll need to do it far away from other people. So that if I fail—” his voice trails off.
“I’m not letting you take him anywhere, you fucking monster,” Elena hisses, pressing the muzzle against his head. The metal tip digs into the wound, disgorging a fresh dribble of blood and brain matter. To her side, Anton turns away and retches.
“Elena.” Her father’s voice, frail and tremulous.
“Papa?” Elena’s voice breaks. She’s never heard her father so weak.
“Elena.” Leonardo Lupu pushes the Catholic’s trembling hands away. “I will go with him. He’s right. It’s—it’s for the best.”
“Papa, Papa no.” Elena blinks, her vision suddenly a blur. “Don’t listen to him. You’ve lost blood—you need rest, and water, and medicine. We can—”
“It’s too dangerous, Elena.” Leonardo pushes himself upright, tottering on shaky legs. “I won’t put you at risk. You, or anyone else here.”
Slowly, gingerly, he steps forward, his eyes trained on Ethan Winters.
“If this—man—offers a chance, I will take it.” Her father steps forward. “And if he doesn’t—then I die. But I will die a man, facing the sun like my ancestors before me. I will not die a monster. I will not condemn myself to the Pit.”
“Papa—” The rifle drops from her hands, tumbling to the floor, as she seizes her father in an embrace and the dam breaks.
Elena weeps openly, sobbing harshly into her father’s collar as she grips him tightly. Her hands brush against his skin, radiating with feverish heat, and the despair in her heart yawns like a chasm.
“Be strong, my daughter.” His hand rests on her back. “Be strong, for your mother, and for me. Take care of these people. Protect them. Remember me—and I will always be with you.”
“I will protect her, Leonardo.” Luiza’s voice, comforting and motherly, speaks from over her shoulder. “I promise you this.”
Her father pulls apart from her, a wan smile on his lips. His bleary, bloodshot eyes stare ahead, his cheeks damp.
“Let us go, Ethan Winters,” he speaks, with all the authority he can muster.
Prototype mutation HEPH04-C, label [BLOOD SONAR]
It is well-known that colonies of fungi are able to maintain complex networks of “communication”, for want of a better word, via emissions of chemicals serving as pheromones. However, recent evidence has suggested a separate modality of interconnection—perhaps ultrasound, microwave radiation, or even telegraph-like electromagnetic bursts—that enables vast supergroups of fungi to act as if a single organism.
Mutation HEPH04-C enables Ethan Winters to tap into this network, gaining the ability to sense the presence of other mutated organisms or extensions of the mutamycete with increasing accuracy as the distance from the target decreases. At a distance of 50 meters, subject has been shown to be able to distinguish basic morphology and size; at 20 meters, physiological parameters such as heart rate, blood pressure, and even pheromonal emissions are detectable.
Although this feature is useful as it is, providing a vital source of situational data, it may be speculated that further mutational adaptation could lead to a switch of the so-called ‘mycelial radio’ from ‘receive’ to ‘broadcast.’ Ethan Winters would then able to render other mycelial organisms [REDACTED – LEVEL 5 CLEARANCE REQUIRED].
Ethan grips the strap of his backpack, his other hand clasped around Leonardo Lupu’s torso. His sneakers crunch against the dried mud over the old road, uneven and overgrown with weeds. Leonardo weighs almost nothing—but with the old man too weak to support his own weight for long, progress is cumbersome.
His phone hums as it charges, tucked into his coat pocket, plugged in to the solar-power bank.
He glances backwards, at the cabin growing smaller in the distance. Overhead, a raven caws.
“You’re bringing me out to the village—to cure me?” Leonardo murmurs, slurring his words. The man’s skin feels close to catching fire.
“Yeah,” mutters Ethan.
“The cure is in your bag, isn’t it?” comes the next question, accompanied by a hiss as the old man stumbles over a pothole.
“Let me guess,” Leonardo says. “Your cure weighs about one kilogram, is manufactured in the Belarus, and carries nine rounds in its magazine. Is that right, Mr Winters?”
Ethan doesn’t answer.
Leonardo chuckles, a soft laugh that turns into a hacking cough. “There is no cure for lycanthropy. My daughter should have known better. But still—thank you. For lying to her.” He winces, clutching his chest. "Aim for the head, Mr Winters. And make it fast, if you please."
Ethan pauses, coming to a stop in the road.
“Actually,” he says, half to himself, “hold that thought.”
He unplugs the phone from the power bank. Battery at twenty-nine percent. He doesn’t even need to look at the screen to tap the number.
“Yeah.” The voice answers. “Thanks for cutting me off, Ethan. How can I help you?”
“Ran out of battery. It happens. Quick question, since you’re so damn smart.” Ethan winces as the line hisses with a high-pitched static whine. “Happen to know of a cure for a mutamycete infection?”
“If you’re talking about yourself, then yes, Ethan. If you throw yourself into a volcano, it should cure the infection pretty good.” The voice is deadpan.
“No, fucker. I mean lycan scratch wounds. Got an old man here, cut up pretty bad. He’s feverish right now. I think he got hurt—” Ethan covers the receiver and turns to Leonardo. “How long ago was it?”
“Last night—around midnight.” Leonardo stares, supporting himself against the taller American. “Who are you talking to?”
Ethan uncovers the phone. “Midnight yesterday. He’s still lucid, still himself. But he’s smelling pretty bad right now. So, yeah. Anything you can give me?”
“Ethan, are you running some sort of paramedic service right now? Aren’t you searching for your daughter? I’d have expected you to stay on mission.” They sound pissed. “Why’re you dragging along a plus-one?”
“I’m not leaving someone to just die. And besides, you said you were looking for extra data.” Ethan adjusts his grip around the older man. “A chance. That’s all. At the very least.”
The line goes silent.
Ethan sighs, as he continues to trudge along the dirt path. It was worth a shot.
He looks to his side, at the older man. His eyes are half-closed, and a trickle of drool drips from parched lips. At least Leonardo will die quickly, with a bullet to the head. Not like a monster, mauling his own daughter and his friends to death.
He knows the cause is hopeless. Because Ethan can feel the familiar hunger gnawing at his belly, growing in intensity by the minute. That ravenous hunger that grows only when he is close to prey—
His body already thinks Leonardo Lupu is a lycan.
Then the rustle of paper breaks through the phone line, and the voice returns.
“All I have are in-vitro studies, preliminary stuff. No peer reviews. No validated protocols.” Rustle, rustle. “It’s all theoretical. It’s a snowball’s chance in hell.”
“We’re already in hell, and I’ll take that snowball.” Ethan exhales, cupping the phone to his ear. “Be specific. What do you need?”
He listens intently, never loosing his grip on the older man. When he is done, he repeats the lengthy list of instructions, word for word, back over the phone. The voice sounds surprised.
“I’m a system engineer for the most complex information system in the world,” Ethan says. “I memorised every textbook on my shelves before I took my Bachelor’s Degree.”
“Hmm. And I thought I was special for doing my Masters and two PhDs while going through medical school.” The voice sounds almost petulant.
“We’ll compare dicks later on. I’ll call you once I’m there. Ethan out.” He puts down his phone, then turns to Leonardo.
“Does your village have a clinic?” he asks.
Leonardo blinks. Then nods, pointing to the left fork in the road. “Right there. A Croatian doctor used to run a service out of his shop down the road. First on the block, building with red brick.”
Ethan lowers Leonardo down upon the stump of a tree trunk, and slips his backpack off his shoulder. “Stay here. I’ll be back. Try not to die.”
“Wait, Mr Winters—” Leonardo protests weakly, clawing at Ethan’s sleeve. “That block is crawling with lycans and Moroaice. Dozens of them, in the street.”
“I’ll be alright.” Ethan pats his shoulder, and walks towards the fork in the road. He glances briefly at the signpost. Castel Dimitrescu points right.
“Wait! Mr Winters!” Leonardo waves, breathing heavily. “You forgot your gun!”
Ethan shakes his head. “I am the gun.”
Leonardo is drifting in and out of sleep when the footfalls break through the haze of near-death. The older man startles, then relaxes as he spots Ethan Winters striding through the fog. Then, seeing him more clearly—he stiffens again, his breath suddenly cold.
“Coast is clear. Come on, old man.” The American offers a hand, slick with warm blood.
Leonardo grips the taller man’s midriff, the flecks of entrails dripping off the rugged winter coat onto his bare arms. Ethan Winters smells disgusting.
They limp painfully into the village, the younger man’s blood-soaked visage staring ahead expressionlessly.
As they round the block, Leonardo has to turn away, choosing to fix his gaze on a grey patch on Ethan Winters’ jacket. He is no stranger to blood and offal—raised by a butcher, he killed and skinned his first goat at eight years old, and later found that men could bleed and die just as any animal. His heart is hard, tempered by gun-smoke and the constant violence of the shifting Carpathian borders.
Or so he had thought.
That hard heart quails now, despite himself. His estimate had been off. There are almost a hundred lycans and Moroaice infesting that small block of the village, drawn by the scent of the still-rotting dead. Or at least, there were—
His boots splash against the stream of crimson running across the cobblestones.
Hell itself had visited the village, and the demon creatures had been found wanting.
As he forces himself to look away, he turns upwards for a brief moment. Glances at Ethan Winters’ stone-like face, and wonders if the old mountain gods are making their return.
The older man crashes into the gurney, toppling an IV stand. By now Leonardo’s eyes are squeezed shut, the rigors and spasms beginning.
“Get up there, and hang on!” Ethan is desperate. He looks around. Clinic is a generous description—what he’s looking at is the collection of shit left behind by a village doctor who had to leave town in a hurry and couldn’t take everything with him.
The voice on the phone had limited the drugs to those found on the WHO List of Essential Medicines, likely to be found even in the most secluded mountain clinic. Ethan isn’t optimistic. Only a system engineer knows how shit every system is.
He forgot. Of-fucking-course the medications would be stored in the fridge. The same fridge powered by the village electrical grid—the same electrical grid now shot to shit, possibly for the past several weeks.
His best hope is probably now fermenting into vinegar in glass ampoules in a mouldy box, utterly useless.
Ethan is lifting his fist to pound the wall, when he spots the heavy metal door.
“Wait.” He steps closer, and pulls the handle. The door jerks, shudders on its hinges, and then swings open slowly.
The sharp smell and blast of cold air in his face brings an unbidden smile. Yes!
The old Croat—whoever he had been—was thinking ahead. Instead of relying on a fickle electrical supply, the doctor had been storing his precious hoard in containers in cold storage. And best of all—using perhaps the most robust method of storage available.
Ethan’s eyes run over the blue-striped tanks, lying on their sides in a pile. The main freezer unit is a cylinder in the middle of the room, emitting a constant hiss of white smoke crawling along the floor. Upon the wall is a faded warning sign in three languages. In English:
CAUTION: LIQUID NITROGEN CAN KILL! KEEP STORAGE DOOR OPEN AT ALL TIMES WHEN IN THE ROOM! DO NOT LEAVE STORAGE CYLINDER UNCOVERED IF NOT IN USE!
Ethan climbs atop the old wooden stool and twists the handle of the large cylinder. He peers inside, his eyes stinging, his fingers beginning to numb. The mist flows freely from the mouth of the giant container, sand-like particles sprinkling like flecks of snow.
The medications are arranged in alphabetical order. The list runs through his head quickly. He acts.
Five minutes later, Ethan exits the room, his hands full, the heavy door swinging shut behind him. The sturdy glass bottles tumble into the rusty kidney dish beside the gurney. Humble little containers, containing the old man’s last hope to cling to humanity.
“Hang on, Leonardo. We got this. I got this.” Ethan breathes, as he prepares the cannula. Fortunately, the old man’s veins are bulging. It takes him only one try. He hangs up the bag of saline, releases the lock, and watches the clear fluid flow.
“Amphotericin B. Five ampoules. Dilute in a hundred mils of five percent dextrose, administer over fifteen minutes—” Ethan murmurs to himself, uncapping the needle. Five times the maximum adult dose.
“Caspofungin. Eighty mils diluted in one pint of normal saline, given concurrently with Ampho B,” Ethan repeats. He syringes the drug quickly, the empty bottles clattering onto the floor. Eight times the maximum adult dose.
A double-barrel shotgun blast, to stop the mutamycete dead in its tracks. A long shot based on nothing but lab studies on white mice, now trialled on a living breathing human. A last Hail Mary, with a fifty-fifty chance of killing Leonardo first.
Ethan exhales. Those are good odds as it is.
He is about to hang up the first dose of the antifungal when his nose wrinkles. The scent has come suddenly.
Ethan freezes, one hand on the IV stand. The sensation is becoming overpowering. The hair rises along the back of his neck.
In the darkness of the unlit clinic interior, spots of red dart across his vision. He waves his hand as something buzzes by his ear.
Ethan winces, withdrawing his hand. The puncture wound drips flesh blood, neat and circular, as if a hole-puncher had taken a bite out of his skin.
He lowers his hand, his senses now on high alert. And as the red spots begin to gather, first as a wave, then as a swarm—he knows.
“Leonardo,” he hisses. “We’ve got company.”
Chapter tags: Resident Evil, Last of Us, Shitty Alpha Gameplay Survival Game Clone, Sniper Elite 4, Mommy Milkers is not a fetish it's now a gameplay mechanic, others...
Character tags: Ethan "look at me, I'm the bulletproof boss now" Winters, Alcina "Mommy Milkers" Dimitrescu, Bela "Need For Feed" Dimitrescu, Elena "why didn't I shoot him in the balls" Lupu, others...
Chapter 3: The Angler
Bela Dimitrescu has hunted down so many man-things, until their pitiful faces have blurred together. Always the same wild eyes, the same fearful look as they know death is coming and has already come.
Until now. Until this one.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Eighty-seven hours ago
The door unlocks, and Ethan Winters is ready.
He throws himself at the door and pulls it open, tumbling into the airlock with just a sliver of a second to spare. The blast of air whips across his face—everything in his holding cell is now flash-frozen by four hundred litres of liquid nitrogen.
Ethan gathers a lungful of the caustic, sharp-smelling air, and strides across the airlock.
The temperature drops, and Ethan feels himself being sucked away in every direction. Every atom of biomass is screaming—his skin is rippling, tearing and reforming, turning liquid in the churning airless vacuum.
He holds his breath even as his chest is squeezed under a hydraulic press.
The vents close. The air pressure equalises.
The door at the far end opens.
At first Ethan thinks he’s looking at a skull, the grim reaper itself peering around the edge of the doorway. Then he sees the metal rim of the respirator and the tint of the heavy-duty goggles underneath the hood of the sweater.
“Perfect timing.” The voice-changer leaves the words intelligible, but only just. “Looks like the rehearsals paid off.”
“Yeah.” Ethan brushes the particulate ice off the front of his jacket. “And whatever company you’re working for—you are all fucking crazy.”
“We don’t have much time. I’ve disabled the alarm, but I’m betting against luck they don’t have a failsafe.” The figure hands him the familiar brown backpack. Ethan is sure it’s a man—they stand at roughly the same height, and the same build. But the mask and hood hide all facial features, and the bulky jacket conceals the frame.
Ethan lifts his eyes. The walls are solid, reinforced with a steel skeleton that casts menacing shadows in the near-darkness. A constant hum reverberates through the background.
He looks behind him. His holding cell, a ten-by-ten cube of reinforced glass polymer illuminated by eight fluorescent floodlights, glows like a beacon in the cavernous black. The table, chair, and small bed are caked in solid ice.
“Why’re you helping me?” Ethan asks, rubbing the warmth back into his limbs. “What’s your angle?”
“My employers were going to have you dissected and filleted into as many pieces as they have shareholders.” The figure adjusts its respirator as it walks away from the glow of the holding cell. “You are an anomaly, Ethan Winters, and the only way they know how to deal with anomalies is to cut them up again and again until they figure out how they work.”
“Yeah. Like you haven’t already done that, you fucks.” Ethan massages his chest. The midline wound, where his breastbone had been broken and his ribcage pulled open like a book, is only just beginning to scab.
“These chimpanzees are smashing computers with rocks in order to figure out how they work.” A snort vibrates through the voice changer. “So I’m deciding to act. I’m turning you loose.”
“I’m not your lab rat.” Ethan plants a hand on the shoulder. Underneath, he feels the bulk of muscle. “All I care about is finding my daughter. And getting some answers from Chris fucking Redfield.”
“Then we can help each other.” Ethan’s hand is pulled away firmly. “I can drop you off somewhere four klicks south of where you were last picked up. That should put you—ten to twelve kilometres from Rosemary’s last known location.”
“How’re you planning on doing that?” Ethan cocks an eyebrow. “Where are we anyway?”
The figure pulls a lever on the wall, and stares back through blank goggles.
The hiss of hydraulics, the sliding of metal and metal, and then the ramp below them lowers.
Ethan steps back, the cold air tearing past his body like a hurricane. “Fuck!”
“We’re in a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy rounding the northern range of the Carpathian Mountains, 30 000 feet above sea level.” The hooded figure shouts over the roar as it peers downwards, at the curtain of clouds and the jagged peaks of freezing, inhospitable mountains. “This plane is headed straight for Manhattan with a wing of support aircraft for constant refuels—no stops, no detours. This is your only window. We’ll pass the drop point in—” the figure raises an arm, looking at a watch “—thirty seconds.”
Something is being thrust into his hand. Ethan looks at the smartphone, attached by a USB cable to a solar-power bank.
“Use this to stay in contact. You know what you can do. You know what you have to do.” The figure nods. “I’ll depressurise this chamber with shaped charges in thirty minutes. The official story will be that a mid-air malfunction led to the ‘sample’ being ejected from the hold. By then we’ll be over Yugoslavia—my employers won’t be stupid enough to risk a diplomatic incident by conducting a search in contested territory. They’ll write off the loss.”
“Looks like you’ve thought of everything,” Ethan yells over the din of rushing cold air. “So where’s my parachute?”
The figure points downwards, tracing the peaks of the mountains drifting slowly beneath like the masts of ships in a sea of clouds. “See that small spot over there, by that mountain? That village?”
Ethan squints. “Yeah?”
“Try and aim for that on your way down.”
A kick against his back.
And then he’s falling, falling faster and higher than he’s ever done, his final “fuck you!” stolen by the roaring wind and thirty thousand feet of empty sky.
A giggle fills the dim interior of the clinic, as the buzzing rises to a fever pitch.
“Well, hello there, little man-thing—” a voice chirps from the air, both near and far at the same time. The swarm undulates, ebbing and flowing, light reflecting off the polished surfaces of a hundred thousand beating wings.
And then like a nymph rising from bottomless dark water, she emerges.
A pale face peers from beneath a mourner’s hood from behind a veil of blonde hair, sharp feral eyes staring ahead in glee and hunger. Her skin is pellucid and smooth as marble, an insignia carved over her forehead. She bares her teeth, the wine-stains of stale blood stark against the scarlet of her lips.
“You must be who Mother is looking for.” Her slim, ebony-clad figure melts against the darkness of the abandoned clinic. She steps forward, the silken cape billowing behind her as she stretches her arm.
A shriek of metal on stone, as the ancient scythe scrapes against the wall. “Shall we play for a bit?”
Her prey hooks the plastic container up to the rusty drip stand, the saline solution dyed a faint yellow by the antifungal. Only when he unlocks the infusion set does he turn to face her.
Ethan inhales, eyes half-closing, before releasing his breath slowly.
“I am maxed out,” he growls from between clenched teeth, “on handling any more bullshit today.”
Warm, smooth, soft, nice—a delicious-looking man-thing, blond hair combed back onto his scalp, a jawline with the barest hint of stubble, a smell that drives her giddy, and those—those eyes!
Her heart is a pounding drum, the whisper of need inside her growing and swelling until it is a full chorus. His jacket is ripped, the gash in his torn shirt offering a titillating view of his bare, pale chest—the teasing peak of his nipple, that subtle bounding of the flesh underneath, rising and falling—his heart, his heart, warm, wet, bright red blood!
She can see it in her mind’s eye, the taste of his body as she runs her tongue over his bare chest, lightly biting his nipple, feeling his heart beating under her touch, right before she buries the blade into his neck—
Bela Dimitrescu licks her lips, the scythe held aloft like a carving knife as she surveys the feast before her.
Mother was worried about—this? Maybe it had been the wine, and nerves, playing havoc with her senses. Mother was always a worrywart, always thinking too far ahead. A warm bath, good food, and maybe one of the still-living maidens could play the harp to soothe Mother’s moods. Or the violin. Provided she still had all her fingers.
The wound on her hand throbs, though the pain is now dull and distant. She would be the one to bring him to the castle. Her, the firstborn. Her prey. Her work.
Until then—Mother wanted him alive, correct? Oh yes. Alive. But then—he would live, wouldn’t he? Right after she had a taste, drank her fill—humans are so fragile, so collapsible. A pint wouldn’t kill him, would it? A refreshing draught, a few wine-glasses full, before she brought him before Mother. He would still have enough, right? And if he died—well, then, even less reason to worry. No reason to be alarmed, Mother. Just another stupid mortal idiot, like any other.
It wouldn’t be wrong, would it?
No, it wouldn’t. So many humans, so many man-things, all of them ending and dying the same. Like useless flesh pressed through the same cookie-cutter. Their taste seldom varies. The light airy smell of fear and pain, that one they all have. Once in a while, the heavier notes of anger and white-hot rage, like a patina of duller flavour. The wood-notes of sorrow, more than a few. But the flavour gets tiresome after a while—yes, quite tiresome.
Tasty, but a meal like any other before. Just a man, just a simple man-thing. So—
So why is every instinct telling her to run?
“What’s wrong, little one?” She smiles, leering as she sing-songs. She sashays along the wall, hips swaying as her legs traverse the floor. “Are you sca—”
“The doctor is out. What the fuck do you want?” Ethan throws his backpack on the table.
She blinks, a stray fly crawling over an eyelid. Then, her tongue flits against her upper lip. “You must be the man-thing Mother was so worried about.”
She doesn’t flinch when Ethan draws the LEMI from the side compartment of the backpack.
Three rapid bursts of light. The shadows flare against the cracked walls. Like the flash of a camera, the light illuminates her widening smile of glee, that look of raw hunger.
Ethan looks down at the trail of smoke suspended in the air, leading to the crawling, fly-infested gaps in her body as she rapidly reforms.
Well, that’s new.
“Damn.” He glances at the muzzle of the pistol, still red-hot. “Worth a shot.”
He slams the pistol down on the table. “Alright then. Old-school it is.”
The woman comes closer. She is close enough now, for him to see the serrated edge of the rusted scythe as she steps—floats—towards him, feet barely inches above the filthy floor of the bricked-up building. Light, airy giggles chime in the gloom, her eyes glowing in the dark with the lust of a predator.
It’s almost worth it, to see those eyes widen when he does something unexpected.
His fist connects with something solid—at first. And then the resistance gives way, and suddenly he is pushing his arm through water, except the water is swirling and buzzing all around him.
The woman is gone, and in her place are more flies than he ever wants to see.
A wild swipe through the air, to clear some space. His hand passes through the swarm—ten thousand pinpricks jab into his skin, and he looks down at the raw blisters on his forearm weeping droplets of fresh blood.
What the hell is this thing?
“Hmm—such a handsome face.” The bloodstained smile leers again from the darkness, keen eyes reappearing as her body reforms from the swarm. “I wonder how you taste?”
Ethan pulls his sleeve down, the fresh blood soaking through the fabric. “Fuck around and find out, bitch.”
The swarm surges forward, and suddenly his vision is dark.
Ethan flails, the flies everywhere—buzzing wings and wriggling bodies between his eyelids, in his nostrils, in his mouth—
Then a sharp pain in his neck.
“As you wish, man-thing.” A smooth tongue drags over his skin.
The muscles in his neck scream as white-hot agony lances through his flesh. His own meat stretches, pulls, tears from bone—and then his neck and shoulders are warm and his head is light.
Her teeth are in him, her body pressed against him from behind, her hands clasped to his chest as she heaves and purrs against his neck—the torrent of blood bathes her tongue, her lips, her nose, her cheeks with an intoxicating bouquet.
She moans with lust, her gasps of pleasure mingling with Ethan’s scream.
He feels the—thing—inside respond, feels it writhing just underneath his skin like a den of live snakes beneath the carpet of a home.
Through unfocused eyes, Ethan’s sees his blood, his own blood, spewing like water from a smashed hydrant. Arcing through the air, raining down on Leonardo, still twitching and spasming on top of the gurney.
The old man’s coat is drenched, his face pockmarked by spots of red peppering his skin like pellets from a shotgun round. By his side, the precious medication continues to drip into him—a man balanced on a knife edge, between life and death, between sanity and madness.
Ethan’s own life’s blood is draining out.
Ethan drops to his knees, and his hand slaps against the kidney dish upon the table. The spent syringe tumbles from the metal tray, the medicine bottles scatter. The stainless steel is freezing cold—his fingertips sting as the kidney dish wobbles, the grains of liquid nitrogen sloshing like sand.
He grips the kidney dish. In utter desperation, Ethan swings upwards—at the creature feasting upon his neck.
The icy particles scatter in the air.
Ethan feels the pressure release, and he falls forwards.
The floor rushes up—he raises a hand to stop it. The tiles swim and twirl; the dead cockroach in the corner of his vision is crawling all over between his legs. He grips his kneecaps, seeking an anchor of stability as the world spins like a carousel. His breath comes hard and fast, the nausea slamming into him like a wave even as his ears fill with the terrible scream.
He turns. She is on the floor beside him, hands clutched to her face, her neck and chest bathed in fresh dripping crimson.
“Stupid—man-thing!” A flash of feral eyes and shining teeth. And a mark on her face—scarred, blistering white, reaching across one cheek to her ear.
It’s the cold.
The rage displaces the nausea. Fury pushes out pain, and Ethan is on his feet.
The blood gushes from his neck, a bubbling font cascading down his shoulder down his jacket and shirt. Now another pain rushes up, creeping and burning, dull rather than sharp—his biomass knitting itself back together, tendrils of fungal material joining into muscle, sealing off the leaking gap in his carotid.
Ethan grasps the heavy metal door of the storage room, and flings it open.
The blast of wintery air fills the clinic, and the thing on the floor doubles its screams. The hooded woman is hunched over on the floor, her dress covered with a growing layer of ice as she shrieks.
He grips the back of her hood. Swings—she cries out as she crashes into the floor, skidding along the icy sand-like layer of the storage unit.
“What’s the matter?” he hears himself roar, as he marches through the open door. The storage cylinder, still open, leaks smoking hissing nitrogen all over the floor. His skin is stinging, sparking with sizzling cold. He can only guess how she feels.
She is sprawled on the floor, reeling from the blisters crawling up her palms, her forearms. Crouched like a cat, she hisses at him through blood-flecked teeth.
“Don’t like the cold?” he snarls. “Then don’t fuck with somebody whose last name is Winters, bitch!”
“How dare you bare your teeth at me!” The woman screeches, lips peeling apart. “I will tear you to pieces, filthy rat!”
“Who sent you?” Ethan marches forward. “How’d you know where to find me?”
Her eyes pivot from his face, to the wound on his neck. Ethan unconsciously massages the spot; the torrent is now a trickle, firm muscle now overlays the yawning gap in his flesh, and the raw skin is beginning to heal.
Her eyes widen, her pupils dilate. “Impossible—” she mutters.
“Answer the question!” Ethan pounds his fist on the wall.
“You’re my prey—mine!” She swings the sickle viciously. Her movements are slow—painful. Ethan sidesteps the attack. “I’ll have your head for this—even if Mother wanted you alive, I’ll skin you and feast on your blood!”
Her breath is ragged, the mist gathering in front of her nose. “She won’t have to worry about you—she can focus on the child—”
Then she’s no longer speaking, because she’s suspended in the air.
An instant later, she is scrabbling weakly against his hand, her eyes rolling upwards in her head.
“What—” Ethan growls, “—child.”
Something reacts. Something in her—something in him.
The muscles in his arm vibrate. Along the planes of tissue, tendrils of mutamycete writhe and contort.
Along her chest, between her collarbones, he sees the same reaction. Her skin is peeling, splitting—instead of flies, raw flesh shows from underneath, bleeding, blistering—
—the central body of MEG-82—integration with the host’s nervous system to an unprecedented degree—Ethan, you know what it knows—
Her eyes are bloodshot, frantic. And Ethan knows he’s seeing fear, in a creature used only to seeing it in others.
That same feeling. The dam cracking, the door giving way, the walls under siege from that irresistible impulse inside him.
This time, Ethan doesn’t fight.
And suddenly he sees.
Daniela folds her limbs around the pillow, her lips creased in a pout. “Can’t we read another story? You know how I feel about cold.”
“Shh, we’re almost done.” Cassandra rests her chin on her hands, sprawled forward on the bed. “Mother, could you continue?”
Her mother smiles, ruffling her daughter’s head with a single finger as she turns the page. “Of course, my darling. ‘Whether I believe them now, I honestly do not know. There are things about which it is better not to speculate, and all that I can say is that I hate the smell of ammonia, and grow faint at a draught of unusually cool air…’” She pauses, to tug at an errant strand of Daniela’s hair.
“This Lovecraft fellow seems interesting,” Ethan hears himself speak, in a voice not his own. “Wonder what it would have been like to meet him?”
Daniela suddenly screams with laughter. “He’ll die of fright!”
“Hello, man-thing—hey wait,” Cassandra wheezes, “are you dead already? I thought you loved writing about horror!”
And suddenly they are all laughing, and the story is all but forgotten.
Ethan’s teeth are clenched, his eyes are shut tight, the flood threatening to overwhelm him. The sensations are burned into his brain as if by hot brands; silk over his skin, the cool of the castle air, the sound of laughter—imprinted into his brain like pins into flesh—
He plunges back.
Ethan shrieks at the stupid maiden, flinching back against the wall.
“You—stupid—girl!” His spittle flies into the air. “Mother’s wine is completely ruined!”
He feels himself raise a hand, and the wide terrified eyes of the servant girl are all he sees.
Ethan cannot open his eyes. His hand is a live wire, a thundering conduit of pure electricity.
“Did you see her?” Daniela whispers conspiratorially, as Cassandra leans in. She looks over her shoulder, before answering.
“Oh yes—I did!” Her eyes light up. “She is—she is so beautiful!”
“Mother doesn’t want us talking about her. Doesn’t want us to go see her.” Ethan hears her voice coming from his throat, feeling his arms fold over his chest. “We shouldn’t be talking about this.”
“Oh, don’t spoil the fun, Bela.” Daniela ribs him in the side. “What’s wrong with wanting to see a baby—I’ve never seen a human child before!”
“Might be our last chance, before the ceremony.” Cassandra glances out the window, as the twilight sun dips beneath the horizon. “Mother Miranda says she’s not ready yet, but when she is—”
“What’s her name?” The question bursts from Ethan’s lips before he can stop himself. The rush of curiosity overwhelms any guilt he feels; he glances at the door, hoping their Mother wouldn’t be listening just outside.
Cassandra leans in closer. “Rosemary.”
She giggles. Beside her, Daniela sighs dreamily.
He sees her slam into the floor, the tiles cracking from the force. His ears are filling with a roar, thunderous and rage-filled, screamed from a hoarse inhuman throat. It takes a second to realise the sound is coming from him.
“Where is she?” He slams his fist against the wall, and the brick splits along its width. “Where—is—my—daughter?”
Ethan reaches for the lid of the cylinder, and upends the residue of liquid nitrogen over the fly-creature. She shrieks, recoiling, fresh blisters appearing over her skin.
“Talk!” Ethan bellows. “Where is this castle? Who is Mother? Who are Cassandra and Daniela?”
Her eyes stare, horrified. Her lips quiver. “How—who—”
“Where is my daughter? Where is Rosemary?”
He’s not in control. Not anymore. What started as a niggling impulse is now swollen to a rolling tide, thundering through his arteries, swilling in his brain like diesel. Unimaginable violence. Unstoppable force.
“I don’t—you—stay away—” she shrinks away, kicking at the floor.
“You took my daughter from me!” Ethan spits, his voice cracking as the cords in his throat begin to tear. “The only thing I have—the only thing left of—of—Mia—the only good thing in this bullshit, fucked up, godforsaken world and you—”
He strikes the wall.
Another blow. The brick cracks.
A punch. The ceiling shudders.
Ethan sees her. Mia, cradling their child, the collection of their hopes and dreams, formed from two fucked up people who’d gone through the most fucked up years of their lives. Something good out of absolute horror—a flower growing out of mud, a diamond forged from rotting shit.
He hears the gunshots. He sees Mia fall, the blood splattering over her dress, the same one she wore three times a week and refused to change because she liked the pattern.
He sees his daughter, helpless and crying.
He sees her taken away.
And Ethan Winters is gone.
Bela is crawling on a field of glass shards. Her bare feet scrape against the freezing cold floor, blisters rupturing like bubbles in a pond. The swarm—her body—is crippled. The freedom of flight, of movement—gone. Now she looks only through a single pair of eyes, her heart beating in a single rhythm.
The blood in her lips, so sweet only a moment ago, now feels suffocating.
This can’t be.
Man-thing, she called him. Man-thing, simple, stupid man-thing. A weak façade, a skin to shed when the time is right. Daniela once told her, didn’t she? Of a type of fish—an angler-fish—with a glowing lure attached to its head dancing like a wriggling worm, that waits in the dark for a smaller fish to take the bait?
She had taken the bait.
Prey. That’s what she thought it to be, predator and prey. And that’s what it turned out to be.
All she did was get the roles confused.
Man-thing. Not a man, not any more. But the thing—
Bela has never felt fear like this.
The man’s mouth has split apart, fangs protruding from a bisected jawbone like the clawed fingers of some draconic beast. His—its—eyes are pure white, empty. It has no pupils, but it sees her.
The creature swipes, and a curved blade of pure black misses her head by inches. The wall crumbles behind her, bricks turning to dust in an instant. She crawls—
The second swipe slams into the floor, gouging a trench effortlessly through the tiling. In that instant, Bela sees the blade up close. Smooth, perfectly polished like finest glass, its dark surface reflecting her own terrified visage.
Bela scrambles to her feet. It’s like walking on shattered glass, like treading through a thorn bush.
The monster’s fury has torn through the wall of the old building like a stone from a mangonel. Through half-demolished brickwork, she sees the light, hears the chirping of songbirds—and feels the warmth on her skin.
A way out.
Bela crawls. On her hands, her elbows, pushing with her knees—
A roar, guttural and bestial, echoes behind her, and Bela’s heart quakes.
Then her ears are full with another roar. Deeper, lower, like a twister rejoinder to the hellish melody.
A dark shape rushes over her, and the floor shakes.
As Bela pulls her body over the pile of rubble, she looks over her shoulder.
It is the beast; that big, shaggy, mindless creature that the local rabble call the Urias. The scraggly mane of grey fur drapes over its filthy overcoat as it advances, the massive mace clutched in paw-like hands. It must have been attracted by the scent of blood, or the smell of prey, or both. She cares not.
The Urias roars its challenge at the once-man thing, and the lanky inhuman creature screeches its defiance.
The ground shakes, the air trembles, and her ears fill with the deafening sound of flesh on bone, of blade on metal, but she does not turn to watch the fight. Her heart is fixed only on the castle.
Two miles from Castel Dimitrescu. In her swarm form—a minute’s trifle, barely a stroll. Now? A gaping chasm of impossible distance.
The air begins to warm. Maybe, maybe far enough from here—
Her sisters. Her mother.
She pulls herself to her feet, ignoring the harsh ripping noise as the black satin dress catches against the branch of a fallen tree. The pain stings and smothers, but she can move—she can move.
Bela Dimitrescu runs for her life.
Chapter tags: New area unlocked, New entry in bestiary, Who leaves liquid nitrogen just lying around, Horror protagonist becomes anime protagonist, You came to the wrong clinic fool, others...
Character tags: Ethan "wall-punching asshole" Winters, Bela "did I just attract aggro twice" Dimitrescu, Leonardo "guys i'm still here" Lupu, others...
Guys, I'm in desperate need of a beta because my writing's getting ridiculously chaotic and a lot of annoying bad habits are starting to creep up. Run-on sentences, repeatedly repetitive repeating words, getting out of control with metaphors, spelling mistakes, and clunky ass dialogue. If anybody can help a poor soul fix his shit, please hit me up.
PS. For the cosmic horror aficionados here, the story Lady Dimitrescu is reading is 'Cool Air' by HP Lovecraft, about a dead man trying to keep himself alive by refrigerating his body. Appropriate given the setting, eh?
Chapter 4: Krsnik
Western medicine has failed. Human cleverness avails nothing. The change arrives, inevitable as the dawn, and with it comes the end of his humanity.
And then Leonardo Lupu opens his mouth.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Hungry. Want meat.
Want meat. Want meat. WANT MEAT WANT MEAT WANT MEAT WANT MEAT WANT MEAT
Blood. Smell blood. Taste blood. Drink blood. Blood. Blood good. Blood red.
Taste blood. Swallow blood. Feel blood in stomach. Blood warm. Blood good. Blood—
Blood burn. Blood flowing. Blood pushing—
Not hungry. Not think. Think bad. No think. Only eat, eat, eat eat eat eat eat—
Blood moving. Blood making think. Head hurt. Eyes hurt. Teeth hurt. Chest hurt. No think. Think not for monsters, think not useful, think—
But am not monster. Am not monster. Am man.
I am a man. I am a man.
My name is Leonardo Lupu. And I am a man.
The fever breaks, and he rises from the gurney like a man possessed.
His head is surrounded with a blanket of cotton, his eyes smeared with oil. Leonardo retches, wheezing as the headache rolls and builds, riding the wave of pain as it cascades along the back of his head down his spine.
The metal drip stand topples to the floor, and the cannula tears out of his arm. The sharp sting of pain breaks through his nausea, and he clasps a hand to the bleeding wound. In the dark, his vision returns.
Blood. I’m covered with blood.
It’s all over me.
His tongue sweeps the inside of his mouth. Metallic, warm, viscous.
It’s inside me.
The back of his hand scrapes against his chapped lips, and he sees the fresh stain, still congealing. Leonardo’s eyes refocus. He stares at the semi-liquid ribbons sticking like hot taffy to the back of his hand.
Ethan Winters. He was here, he helped me here. And then—
Something. I remember. A woman—flies—oh, blessed Mother above.
It was a Strigoi.
Leonardo can still hear it. The taunting laugh, the shriek of claws, the growl of animalistic hunger. It had come, looking like a creature out of the old stories, an unholy mass of crawling things bearing the form of a woman in mourning garb.
Strigoi. Cursed thing, feeder of flesh and blood. Eater of children and women, terrible winged creature of the night. Formed when the Father of Lies spilled his seed in an act of shameful sin, a thing to be hidden in darkness and never seen. He remembers young Ştefan boasting of how he had bedded three peasant girls that month—three girls eager to lose their maidenhoods as soon as the first blood arrives, for it is said that the Strigoi prefers the flesh of virgins.
His heart quivers.
She—it—tore his throat out.
He had been changing. The medicine, that Western garbage, had been nothing more than piss in the wind. He could feel it even when the American had laboured over him, fussing with syringes and bottles while his muscles spasmed and his face froze into a rictus.
Ethan Winters had been wasting his time. Fool Westerner. As if curses more ancient than the hills could be banished with liquid in bottles. As if the cleverness of mere men in white coats could overcome what had been ordained since time immemorial.
He knew it had failed, even as he had been powerless to resist. The hunger had risen, like a constant roar drowning out all else, pushing back and pressing against that part of his brain that had been himself—the lycan, killing Leonardo Lupu from the inside—
Then, the shower of blood as Ethan Winters’ throat burst open, and the half-man, half-animal thing that was him had opened its maw and feasted on the bounty—
I drank his blood.
Leonardo rises off the gurney. Some signal is trying to reach his brain—some stimulus trying to break through the fog—
He puts both feet on the floor. The cold bites through his boots like the fangs of a viper, and he hisses. A cloud of white swirls and eddies along the floor, drifting from the leaking container in the storage unit. Warm sunlight casts its rays across the pile of demolished bricks and ruined metal that had been an entire wall.
Where is he?
The Strigoi killed him. The most logical first thought, until Leonardo realises the creature would have turned on him next after devouring Ethan Winters.
That left—an escape? But why would both he and the creature be gone?
He lifts his shirt, pressing a hand to the fresh wounds on his chest. His fingers gingerly probe the muscle, trailing along the skin. It takes a few seconds before Leonardo realises—
He looks down at his flesh. Where deep angry trenches had lain, scooped out of his chest by the wild swipe of a lycan’s claws, now there are only faint pink lines he needs to squint to follow. He rubs his thumb along one of the marks—smooth, firm skin.
He steps away from the gurney, and lifts his right knee. A lifetime ago, a 7.62 mm round fired from an assault rifle had passed through his leg from the top of his thigh, piercing through his knee like a loom through cloth. He had walked with a limp ever since, though he always refused a walking stick. He wouldn't let that bastard Ceaușescu have the satisfaction, not even in death.
He tests the knee, flexing and extending it, waiting for the spark of intense pain and the catch of ruined cartilage on a ligament. It is only when his knee is fully bent that Leonardo realises that he is bracing for something that would never come.
He stands firmly on both legs. Bounces slightly up and down. Then, doing something he has never done for twenty years—Leonardo jumps, and lands easily on both feet.
What has happened to me?
Leonardo leans against the wall, his mind a whirl. Elena. Elena is back at the cabin, with Luiza. He needs to return, to go see her, to make sense of all this—
Then an irresistible power grips his chest, and he takes a step forward, towards the collapsed wall and the wilderness beyond.
Leonardo staggers. The pull had been so intense as to almost feel physical.
It comes again. Somehow, he understands.
Ethan Winters. The source of all this. The enigma, the monster, the man, the father, the ghost. And now—perhaps the only remaining anchor point of sanity.
He thrusts his arm through the strap of the backpack, throwing it over his shoulder. Leonardo spends only half a minute checking the LEMI. His fingers pull the slide back with practised ease. Six rounds left in the magazine, one in the chamber. A reliable machine to serve the warriors of the Carpathians—uncomplicated, unrefined, inelegant, rugged. A resilient weapon, for a resilient people.
Leonardo pats his waist. The machete hangs in its sheath, reliable and sharp as always.
He steps beyond the wall. Without realising it, Leonardo Lupu begins to run.
Too cold. Still too cold.
Bela Dimitrescu massages her wrist, staring in desperation at the frostbitten flesh beneath. No flutter of wings, no sensation of melting relief. The swarm refuses to answer.
“Curse it all!” she snarls, fighting the pain that bites at her feet with each step. Her dress is ruined, the hem ripped and riddled by branches and rocks into a tattered mess. The black satin dress had been her pride and joy, fashioned from the most expensive materials in Europe by a seamstress whose workmanship had bought her an extra month of life.
Now—she curses again as a seam tears along her hip. Now the damn thing is nothing but a nuisance.
Castel Dimitrescu has to be close. It has to be. She has been running, crawling, treading, tripping through every thorn bush and field of stones in these mountains for so long, she has to be close—
Bela freezes in her tracks.
The horizon is teeming with movement. Her eyes facing the mid-morning sun, she sees nothing but flickering shapes darting across her vision. But the smell is familiar, as is the growling.
Dumb, brutish beasts. Appetites that could never be sated, and mouths that stink with foul rotting flesh. Bela wrinkles her nose. No doubt the simple-minded—if they even had minds—creatures had been drawn by the scent of blood. Man-blood.
Bela glances briefly over her shoulder. That—that horror, that thing—is nowhere in sight. Doubtless the Urias is keeping it busy. Fine by her.
A lycan approaches, bow-legged and claws stretched out. Its glassy eyes stare ahead with hunger, its maw open and drooling.
“Out of my way, beast,” Bela spits. Then, spits for real, down into the ground. It is when she looks down that she sees the front of her dress stained and soaked through with blood, the fabric hardening as it dries.
Bela licks her lips, and the saccharine sweetness of fresh blood brushes against her tongue. Her heart seizes up.
The lycans are gathered here by the dozens, drawn by the scent of vibrant man-blood like moths to a flame. The same man-blood she spilled upon the floor of the old building, scattering to the ground like a libation of fine wine.
The same blood now staining her lips, her clothing, her body.
The same blood warming her belly from the inside.
Bela is the daughter of a countess. A scion of the noble House Dimitrescu, an inheritor of a legacy of culture and etiquette hundreds of years in the making. And certainly not one to stoop to profanity.
“Oh, fuck,” whispers Bela.
He bounds through the forest, his legs loping easily through the old trail. The trees zip by in a blur, his legs carrying him with strength and stamina he has not felt for three decades.
The pull in his chest answers. Leonardo takes the right fork, boots pounding on the soil.
He had expected fatigue. Had been tensing up for the cramping pain in his side and the tightness around his lungs, had been rationing his energy for that reason. It never came. He feels like he could run forever.
Answers. That’s what I need.
Where are you, Ethan Winters?
Leonardo hasn’t realised how fast he had been running. Not until he bursts through the clearing, his legs carrying him all the way through the thick bush without stopping, obliterating the shrub in a shower of broken branches and dead leaves.
His eyes widen, and he reacts with the instinct of an old soldier.
It’s when he draws the LEMI that he realises he doesn’t know what the fuck he should shoot first.
There is no end to them.
Bela pants, gripping the bloody scythe. The ground is stained a heavy maroon, wide swathes of bright red painted along the soil. The warm bodies of dead and dying beasts are scattered around her.
“You filthy animals—let me pass!” She kicks aside the most-recently dead lycan, its throat torn out by her blade, and slashes at the empty air with her scythe. Globules of tainted blood splatter into the soil in a wide arc. “I am Bela—daughter of Lady Alcina Dimitrescu!” She snaps, sucking in a ragged breath. “You will obey me!”
No answer, other than a chorus of snarls. The brutes know nothing of obedience - they know nothing but to feed, feed, feed.
Inside her, the swarm remains silent. She waits, pleading inwardly, for the flutter of wings and the buzzing of little bodies within. Nothing. Nothing but cold stillness.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Bela screams, her voice ragged. “Cassandra! Daniela!” Her voice echoes, bouncing off the trees, chiming off the rocks.
A guttural roar answers, and her heart sinks through her stomach.
The ground shakes. Bela stumbles, half-whirling around, and comes nearly face-to-face with the Urias.
The beast—she is stunned it is still alive. It bares its fangs, threads of fleshy ribbons hanging from a ruin of a face and an empty eye socket. Its snout is hacked in half, the misshapen sinuses twitching in the cold air. Its right arm grips the great hammer, the rusty iron head caked with gore and matted patches of flesh.
It approaches, and as the hammer swings aside, Bela sees its left arm—or lack thereof. The shoulder simply—ends. A neat stump cut as precisely as a diamond by a master jeweller, disgorging rhythmic sprays of bright blood from lacerated arteries.
Where is the man-thing?
The Urias shakes the ground as it steps closer, its half-face turned towards Bela.
“Beast, stay back!” Bela swings the scythe. The monster does not even flinch. “See to your own prey!”
She stumbles backwards. Behind, the patter of footfalls intensifies.
This can’t happen. Not here. Not out here.
Not by them.
The Urias lifts its hammer. As the massive metallic head blots out the light of the sun above her, some crazily-calm part of Bela’s mind marvels at its immense strength. Is this what it's like to face a gorilla?
In that infinitesimal span of a moment, her mind wanders to warm grassland and distant skies, away from the frigid mountains.
“Mother,” she gasps.
The hammer falls, and Bela crumples to the ground, the impact swallowing her consciousness up in blackness for one dizzying second before the tide of pain wrings the air from her lungs in a wordless shriek. Her bones are firebrands embedded in her flesh, her muscles torn and bleeding purple stains underneath her pale skin. Bela gasps, keens, wails as she sprawls upon the ground, kicking desperately to get away, get away—looks down, and sees her right knee bent the other way, Mother, Mother it hurts so much—
A lycan has pounced, its great shaggy body poised above her. She swings the scythe, and the beast’s jugular spills foul-smelling caustic blood into the soil before the lycan collapses backwards, twitching weakly. There is no space, nowhere to run.
Pain. Lancing along her neck, along a dozen sharp points—teeth. The hot breath of another lycan against her cheek, its tongue scraping against her flesh, violent pressure building over her neck as its jaws close and tighten—the damn thing had taken her by surprise—
I will not end like this.
Bela lashes out with the scythe as she screams in pain, in anger, in horror—she gouges and carves at the creature’s face with wild swipes, yet the vice only tightens.
The Urias is advancing with the ponderous steps of an executioner approaching a chopping block, its hammer a headsman's axe. Its eyes meet hers, and the cold intelligence in its gaze stuns her with its clarity. This is no mindless monster acting on instinct—the beast wants her dead.
“Please—” Bela chokes, and then slavering jaws clamp over her windpipe and steal her voice. The air leaves her throat in an agonising rasp through blood-flecked teeth as she claws at the lycan's face. Fingers scrape shallow marks over matted fur and filthy skin, nails rake over the slimy surface of a glassy eyeball, but the beast has passed beyond pain. Hunger, pure hunger is at the reins, driving the creature's insane impulse like a carriage careening into a gorge.
Her hand passes over her eyes, and she sees the change. Starting over her fingertips, then spreading down each digit in turn. Her flesh hardening into crystal, inflexible as stone.
No, no, no! No! NO!
NOT LIKE THIS
The Urias roars, the hammer over its head. Anytime now, the swing, the blow—and then the end.
Something bursts from the undergrowth.
Bela’s neck breaks free, and the air fills her lungs like warm nectar. The lycan has leapt back, snarling and yelping. She collapses onto the soil, hair caked with dirt and dried blood.
Her eyes swing slowly away from the Urias.
It is here. The monster—the not-human—lopes on all fours, its long limbs traversing the uneven ground with the rapid unnatural jerks of a spider fashioned from bone and gristle. The terrible curved blades that sprout from its arms are rotated backwards to fold against its forelimbs, leaving bone-white knuckles to pound the earth with each bounding step.
The Urias, and it—they must have been tearing each other apart.
Its face—Bela grimaces. Not much was left that could be called a face. Most of what could perhaps be likened to human features had been torn away, leaving only a few strips of skin over glistening bone - there is nothing left of the lips and cheekbones, the nose simply a ragged empty socket beneath lidless bloodshot eyes glaring from deep sockets. The dirty-blond hair is all but gone, along with most of the scalp - a long dent gapes in the raw cranium, the viscous ooze dribbling from the opening too much of a tarry black to be brain. One segment of its bisected jawbone is ripped entirely off, leaving the torn bleeding remnants of a cheek to limply dangle along the remaining piece of lower jaw, its jagged thorny teeth clacking against the ones above it with each step.
Then the beast charges—and Bela sees nothing else.
Can see nothing else—only the air whipping around her, flashes of grey and brown darting across her vision. She hears—feels—the Urias respond to the attack, pivoting away from her. She senses the lycans diving into the hunt, feels their fury, their bloodlust. And then the furious explosion of air, the quake reverberating through the ground like ripples in a pond as two titans slam into each other.
She doesn’t care. Nothing matters anymore, because Bela can feel the change.
The crystal is creeping up her arms. Crawling across her chest, a wave of shimmering light broken up by the facets of petrified flesh forever frozen in time. Her lungs scream and tear against her ribcage, desperate for precious air even as it hisses from the gash in her throat, fighting against the growing weight as the flesh of her torso hardens and crystalises. Her arms are dead weights raking the soil like anchors scraping a seabed, numb and senseless. The stiffness comes, the cold with it, and the first time she feels it will also be the last; the feel of her skin, then her hearing, and her sight with it—to be imprisoned as a statue—
I’m so sorry.
The decision is made for him, when a lycan turns its head, peels away from its pack, and charges at him.
Leonardo braces the LEMI in both hands and fires twice. The creature’s head snaps back as the bullets impact its skull dead in its forehead. As he steps backwards, widening the distance, he realises the tremor in his hands is gone.
The lycan collapses, dead. Leonardo gathers his breath, and surveys the scene.
“Dă-i drumul de aici—” he murmurs. He holsters the pistol.
The patch of mountainside is littered with lycans—or pieces of them, rather. Something had torn through them with the fury of a typhoon, their bodies minced and diced like raw meat thrown into a jet turbine.
He sees the something, and his grip on the pistol slips.
Nothing like this had existed in legends, nothing in the stories. Even as his heart pounds a dizzying rhythm and he crouches for cover behind a fallen tree, his mind reels, searching for some inkling of information—some half-forgotten tale—to anchor himself. The myths do not speak of this—this gaunt creature with its skull-like face and a blackish substance rippling like liquid armour over its back and shoulders, prowling on all fours with claw-like blades on its forelimbs.
The pull in his chest tugs again, forward—towards that terrible, creeping thing. He resists, digs his heels into the ground, even as he struggles to comprehend the nature of this new curse.
Its prey—that, that Leonardo can place. He knows of the Urias, the giant of legend, who strides through the mountains and fields and to whom the travellers offer tribute at waypoints and crossroads. Urias with his great hammer, his steps quaking the earth.
Urias, now kneeling with his guts spilling out of a mouth-like wound over his belly, one arm gone, the other bent at an excruciating angle.
Leonardo’s breath quickens. The beast has impaled the Urias through his chest with one of its curved talons. The ground around them is a bacchanal of joyful red, thick blood pooling into hollows and drying in vast sticky sheets spread out over the rocks and grass.
When the creature throws Urias to the ground and spreads its ruined jaws in an air-quaking bellow, an impulse forces Leonardo’s eyes shut. He knows what is coming.
He grits his teeth, even as his ears fill with the sickening sounds—the squelch of blood, the crunch of bone, the sticky zipper-like noise of flesh tearing, the pop and slither of innards. His mind’s eye embellishes the noise with terrible visions. Visions of hell—of a monster from hell.
Leonardo opens one eye, then the other. Then, the old soldier peeks from behind the tree.
The creature is gone. As is the Urias—in a manner of speaking; the lengths of pink gut and tassels of macerated flesh arrayed like a butcher’s spread must have come from somewhere. But standing in the midst of them—Leonardo’s mouth hangs open.
Ethan Winters. His blond hair painted crimson, his jacket stained red—but unmistakeably, undoubtedly, the same man.
Except he knows, now.
Not a man.
The thing wearing a man’s skin glances around slowly, as if waking from a dream, and Leonardo sees the deep, twin gashes on both forearms begin to close.
“Again?” Ethan Winters gasps. “Fucking again?”
“Vlasák, the shipment is delayed again.” The man cranes his neck to stare at Ethan, adjusting his cap. “The company people say that they want to be paid first. In cash.”
Ethan growls, folding his arms. “That is not what we agreed.”
“Yes—yes, I told them the same thing. They won’t listen.” The man massages the back of his neck. His frame is diminutive—but then again, not many men came up to his own height. “Is there something you could do?”
Ethan grimaces. He had no love for the company—those lap-dogs of Iliescu given over to Western decadence, their pockets full, their bellies fat with gleanings from the poor and downtrodden. They pay lip service to him, doffing their caps in deference to the ‘şef,’ the chief of the village, yet make excuses and delay even after their exorbitant sums have been paid.
He knows what they call him, behind closed doors or under their breaths. ‘Urias’—mountain giant. Dumb, stupid beast. Easy to confuse and fool.
He searches in his coat for the envelope, the agreement written in English yet translated—badly—into Romanian. He knows of the rights they are owed, the terms the company has violated. The snickering beardless boys working for the company would never guess that Vlasák is a graduate of the State University, and perfectly fluent in English.
‘Urias,’ is it? Well then, perhaps it is time for the giant to pay them a visit.
“Send for Anton and Iulian. Have them meet me at the square in ten minutes.” Ethan pats the man on his shoulder. “I will go speak to the company men. And—convince them—to see reason.”
He is just about to depart, when he spots a servant girl cowering somewhere in his periphery. She blanches when he turns to face her, yet he can see a stronger impulse fighting to keep her in her place. The uniform gives it away—a maid of House Dimitrescu.
“Mr Vlasák, sir?” she squeaks. “My apologies—but you have been requested to be present at Castel Dimitrescu. My lady—she asks for you at once.”
“I will be there shortly,” Ethan keeps his tone even, stifling his impatience—she has nothing to do with things. “Please inform the good lady that there is a—matter—at the town square that needs my attention.”
“My sincere apologies, sir—but—my lady says this is urgent.” The girl bows, averting her eyes.
Ethan sighs. Damn the company, and damn all Western rats.
“Very well then. Lead the way.”
Ethan opens his eyes, almost falling to his knees.
“Again?” he sputters. “Fucking again?”
He glances around, at the sheer carnage around him. If there is a patch of rock or grass or soil not covered in blood or guts or pieces of lycan, he can’t see it. He blinks hard, clearing away the images seared into his retinas—the dreary village square, the old man, the young servant girl. He had been like a man trapped under a waterfall, his mind pinned down by the onslaught of sensation and foreign knowledge.
He looks down, at the remains of a skull and a ribcage torn open.
So, this is who you used to be.
He remembers very little—only brief flashes of clarity in between the redness of slaughter. Lycans around the countryside—the broken wall of the clinic—the fight against the big creature with the hammer—the fly-witch—
He looks around.
He doesn’t recognise her at first. He had been looking for a black dress, for pale skin—what is lying in the grass is a solid sculpture of crystal, frozen in her likeness. She is petrified in a moment of terror, arms thrown over her face, body curled up—eternally cast in her final moment.
Ethan reaches for her hand, fingers probing for a pulse. At first, he thinks he’s found it—then, the fingers crack and crumble like biscuits, and then the whole wrist comes off like a shrivelled flower from a wilted branch.
“Damn,” Ethan hisses.
The monster’s heavy iron hammer is by his feet. He closes his fingers around it—it is as light as a toy—and flings it into the trees.
“Fuck!” he barks, frustration building in his chest.
Those memories—those flashes. Two sisters. A castle. Someone called Mother. And his daughter—Rosemary. His Rose. She knows where his daughter is. He could have asked more, taken more—
Ethan runs his fingers through the filth in his hair, resisting the urge to kick the crystal sculpture. Now—now—nothing. No hope of intel. A dead lead.
A metallic click snaps him back to attention.
Leonardo is advancing on him, the LEMI trained on centre-mass. His face, pale and sweaty only moments ago, is now flushed with pink. His steps are sure, his posture erect. And he is no longer bleeding.
“Leonardo.” Ethan blinks. “Is that you? You’re—shit, man, are you okay?”
“What the fuck are you, Westerner?” The older man demands, jabbing the pistol towards him.
“All the shit that just happened today, and you ask that now?” Ethan puts his hands up, before realising how stupid the gesture is. Leonardo might as well be threatening him with a BB gun. “Relax. Cool it, man. We’re good.”
“I saw it. I saw that—thing—I saw what you are, Mr Winters.” Leonardo aims down the sights of the pistol. “You are not human. You are not one of us.”
Ethan waits. He can hear the older man’s heartbeat, smell his blood. He’s not panicked. In fact, his heart is—slowing?
Then, with a sigh, Leonardo lowers the pistol. “Fuck it. Nothing makes sense anymore, anyway.”
“I know you’re the one who saved me and gave me a chance.” He holsters the LEMI. “Whatever you are—whatever your intentions—that is enough.”
“That’s enough?” Ethan asks.
“It is. It must be.” Leonardo shrugs. “The past few days have shown that the world has lost its mind. A sane man cannot think for too long if he wishes to remain sane. He must act. Just—” The Romanian grunts. “Don’t ever eat anything in front of me again. Ever.”
“Okay. Okay. Easy.” Ethan lowers his arms, taking a step closer. “You look—better. Last I saw, you were in pretty bad shape. I didn’t think the antifungal was going to work.”
“It didn’t.” Leonardo rubs the red spot on his arm where the cannula had been. “I felt the change. I was going to turn anytime. I looked up and saw you fighting the witch—the Strigoi. It tore out your throat.”
“Damn straight.” Ethan massages his neck. “Crazy bitch.”
“Then your blood was all over me. I was hungry. And—I drank your blood, Mr Winters. A great quantity of it, in fact.” Leonardo wipes his lips. His words are hesitant. “It does not make sense. I—I woke up, and suddenly I am like this. My injuries are gone. Not just the ones caused by the lycan—old ones. War wounds from years ago.”
“What?” is all Ethan can say. “You’re serious?”
He looks the older man up and down. He stares; he smells. The scent of lycan is gone. Ethan’s sharpened senses—compliments of the Vârcolac—show him that Leonardo is right. The aura of strength, of health, is miles apart from the anaemic weakness that Ethan had gathered from his first gestalt impression.
“Okay.” Add that to the list of things about me that make no fucking sense. Ethan rubs his brow. “So—so after, well, drinking my blood, you end up like this?”
“Not just that.” Leonardo rubs his chest. Weird. “I felt something as soon as I woke up. Something pulling me, a strong impulse. It was pulling me towards you, Mr Winters.”
“Towards me?” Ethan repeats. “Is that how you found me?”
Leonardo nods. “I couldn’t fight it. The closer I got—the stronger it became.” His fingers clutch at the air, forming a vice. “I do not understand, except that I swallowed your blood. Could it be—could it be your blood, calling to you from inside me?”
Ethan raises a hand, reaching for Leonardo. “Wait. Hang on. So, my blood called you to me?” His fingers are almost touching the older man’s chest. “Do you feel anything?”
Leonardo inhales, and suddenly his posture relaxes. “Mr Winters—it’s gone. The pull.” He rubs the front of his shirt, then presses into his sternum. “I feel—released. What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.” Ethan presses a hand into his hair. “I don’t know what the fuck this is. Or what the fuck I am. This—all this—is too confusing. Eating lycans, turning into some freak, having blackouts where I can’t remember anything. Now, weird fucking blood.” He pauses to breathe. “All I want to do is to find Rose. I need to get her back.”
“Your daughter?” Leonardo lowers his voice. “Do you know where she could have been taken?”
“Yeah. That fly-bitch knew something. Something about a castle. And some family that’s probably as fucked up as she was. I saw it inside her head—somehow—when I did—something.” Ethan throws his hands up. “Well, that’s all over now. I’m not getting anything from her now. Or ever.”
He flings a hand to his side, gesturing at the crystal figure. “Looks like they turn to glass once they’re dead.”
Leonardo hurriedly makes a sign with both hands. “Mother protect us. That Strigoi is a creature of darkness and death. This is good.” He frowns. “But still—this means we won’t ever find out what she knew.”
“Yeah.” Ethan looks down at the crystal sculpture, now beginning to crack and crumble in places.
It’s all too much, too fast, too soon. A week ago, he had been enjoying a peaceful life with Mia, hidden away from any and all manner of weird shit—and now, as it turns out, Chris Redfield had chosen to relocate them directly on top of Weird Shit Capital to begin with. Among other things he did to fuck them over—chief among them being shooting and killing his fucking wife.
Ethan kicks the hollowed, freshly-flayed skull of the gigantic Urias. He’s a damn system engineer, for fuck’s sake—before the whole mess with the Baker House, his last experience with a gun had been getting mugged in Utica while on a road trip as a teen. It left him with nightmares for years.
And now here he is, trying to stuff down that part of him screaming over the loss of Mia, long enough to find his daughter and save her from whatever the fuck is going on.
He doesn’t realise he’s sitting down, until his back scrapes against the tree trunk. Ethan shifts his weight on the ground, leans back, and sighs.
“A smoke, Mr Winters?”
Ethan turns to the side. Leonardo is stretching out a half-empty pack, a smouldering cigarette already clamped between his lips. He shakes the pack, raising an eyebrow.
The American hesitates, then reaches for a stick. “Fuck it. I probably don’t even have real lungs anymore.” He waits for Leonardo to light it, before taking a drag. “Do Mold-monsters get lung cancer anyway?”
“Maybe that’s one way to kill you.” Leonardo expels a spout of smoke, half-closing his eyes. “I will keep plying you with smokes until your lungs shrivel up and die. They will build statues of me—the hero who slayed the Beast—and offer packs and packs of cigarettes at shrines around the country.”
Ethan laughs, then coughs. He pounds his chest once, forcing himself to hack up a wad of phlegm. “And here I was trying not to look like a bitch. Look, man, I only did weed like once, in college. I took one hit and then three minutes later I’m clinging to a sofa trying to remember my own name.”
“Weed—cannabis, no? Vlasák made us burn any of it that made it into the village. Said it was a Western devil designed to make men dull and stupid.” Leonardo flicks ash from the tip of the cigarette. “Hypocritical bastard drank Țuică like water. Still—a bull of a man, a good chief, all said and done. Never saw him again since he was summoned to Castel Dimitrescu. Wonder what became of him.”
Ethan looks towards the pile of bone shards and offal, and decides not to divulge the fact that their ‘dear chief’ is now lying dismembered in front of them. Actually, no. Most of him is now inside Ethan.
Leonardo takes another drag from his cigarette. “I feel—strange. Stretched out. My mind thinks my body is old and crippled—but my body is full of breath and blood. I’m already getting hungry.”
“Here’s hoping you don’t eat the same way that I do,” Ethan mumbles.
“I know what you are, Ethan Winters.” Leonardo turns to him. “You are written of in legend. You are a krsnik, a shapeshifting creature of magic, taught the art of healing by the gods themselves. It is said that your blood has the power to bring life to the dead.”
“Yeah, no.” Ethan puffs on his own cig. “I took a CPR course in university and that was it. Wasn’t no god that taught me either. Was some washed up vet.”
“Your blood is a curse. But then again, I was already cursed.” Leonardo interlaces the fingers of his hands. “Perhaps those curses cancelled each other out—letting me keep my strength as well as my mind.”
Something clicks. Suddenly, Ethan stands.
“Leonardo. You got this way because you drank my blood, right?” He drops the cigarette.
“Yes.” The older man nods, head cocked to one side.
Ethan walks over to the crystal sculpture, now covered by a thin sheen of gathering ice. The blackish scythe is half-buried in the soil, stained with dried blood.
“How long has she been dead, you think?” Ethan picks up the scythe, brushing dirt off the weapon. “Maybe ten minutes? Fifteen?”
Leonardo shrugs, staring blankly as Ethan wipes the blade with the hem of his jacket. Ethan feels the man’s eyes follow him as he stands over the head of the crystal piece. The witch’s glassy eyes are fixed on the sky, her mouth open in a silent scream.
He rolls up the sleeve of his left arm.
“Mr Winters?” Leonardo calls out. “What are you doing?”
Ethan inhales, bracing the edge of the scythe against the curve of his elbow. “Something really fucking stupid.”
Chapter tags: Friendly fire will not be tolerated, Crystal torso acquired, Urias went for the head, Hepatitis doesn't exist in this universe, Neither does tetanus, Stop cutting your arteries with rusty shit, others...
Character tags: Ethan "Press E to skip flashback scene" Winters, Bela "What the fuck do you mean only 5000 Lei" Dimitrescu, Leonardo "This blood transfusion comes with an objective marker" Lupu, Urias "oh my god the hammer pulled you off", others...
Thank you again for your support, and encouraging words. From a story that started out pretty much as a crack fic, it warms my heart that quite a few people have gotten some enjoyment from it. Keep your comments coming!
EDIT: A huge thank you to GlarnBoudin and tankbuster626 for their edits and comments on the chapter! The fight scene with Bela has undergone a rewrite and been much improved upon.
Chapter 5: Talk, or I Get The LN
Death is final, even for those blessed with the Cadou. The fading of senses, the stiffening of the body, and then what is once life and breath splinters into shards of organic glass, to leave behind a crystal torso as a mockery of vitality.
And then Bela Dimitrescu wakes up.
Me: I will have a more consistent writing schedule, and manage my chapter lengths appropriately for easier consumption
Also Me: lmao 8k chapter out of nowhere
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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...
A lot of readers have been excited about the potential of Ethan's abilities (particularly his bloodborne ones) and speculating on the nature of their development. If you're one of them, this chapter is for you!
I have started a Tumblr for this fic (and associated projects) at https://www.tumblr.com/blog/plotbunnytamer. Feel free to drop a question or connect with me over there!
Chapter 6: Sanguinis Dominus
Every plan gets fucked up as soon as the enemy arrives, or so the saying goes. But Ethan Winters has never been one to worry about a plan.
lmao what even is consistent posting schedule
this is an unabashed filler episode to tide us all over
Also, this story now has a TV tropes page!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Rendezvous Echo - Undisclosed Location
Chris Redfield is off the floorboards before the alarm finishes its 8-bit chime. By the time he hears Umber Eyes call “We’ve got a problem, sir,” the vest is already halfway zipped up.
He downs the glass of water quickly; as expected, the night has chilled the tap water almost to freezing. The nausea subsides.
BSAA models its basic field training after the lifestyle of the Maasai warriors of East Africa, who are said to be able to rise from sleep to full battle readiness within a matter of seconds. Chris used to pride himself on his adherence to the same discipline; it’s harder now to admit that biology is catching up, no matter how many push-ups he can do. He’s waking slower—and staying sleepy for longer.
As he walks out of the bare room, Chris just manages to stop himself from completing the thought: I’m too old for this shit.
“What’s the situation?” The stink of cigarettes hits him as soon as he steps past the threshold. Umber Eyes must have been up all night; his eyes are bloodshot, his face bleached by the light of the laptop.
“Sir, we’ve lost connection to Panoptes.” Umber Eyes taps repeatedly on the keyboard. “We’re locked out.”
“Shit.” The backdoor into BSAA’s network of surveillance satellites had been a crucial lifeline since Hound Wolf went rogue. The connection was airtight. Chris reaches for a cigarette. “Any chance of getting us back in?”
“Not a chance. This isn’t some network error.” Umber Eyes pushes the laptop away, his lip wrinkling in disgust. “This is deliberate. Somebody just put our eyes out.” He mimes clawing his face with two bent fingers.
“It gets worse. We lost contact with safehouses Delta and Hotel.” Tundra has her hands in her hair, staring daggers at her own laptop. From the smell of it, the mug of coffee next to her would be strong enough to wake the dead. “That’s our mortar platform, resupply crates, field comms, and mobile medics. All gone. All we have now is the gear we’re wearing right now, in this room.”
“Lost all monitoring equipment around the village.” A chair scrapes as Night Howl pushes away from the low table. “Drones are disabled. Cameras are down. Sensors are sending nothing but static. This is coordinated.”
“Miranda?” asks Lobo. The question is an obvious one.
“Not her style.” Chris lights his cigarette. “She’s a particular kind of crazy, but she’s neurotic and direct, all caught up in her obsession with Slavic mythology. This sort of thing—cyber-attacks, logistical disruption—this doesn’t smell like her.”
“Someone else on to us? BSAA?” Canine still has his NV goggles strapped to his forehead. The Dragoon is balanced over his thighs, its magazine ejected and the safety off.
“Negative. Still monitoring their chatter.” Night Howl has a laptop, a smart-pad, two phones, and a mountain of paperwork in front of him, and from the looks of it, is monitoring all of it at once. “They don’t know we’re here. This isn’t them.”
“What now, boss?” Lobo uncrosses his arms, detaching from his spot against the wall. “We still moving into the village?”
“Somebody really doesn’t want us here.” Canine places the rifle onto the table. “But if they can cut us off like that, why not just kill us?”
The members of Hound Wolf fall into silence. Inevitably, all eyes swing towards Chris.
“Our mission remains.” Certainties first. Figure out the specifics later. “Eliminate Miranda. Secure Ethan and Rose Winters.” He lowers the cigarette. “Without Delta and Hotel, we won’t have the firepower to punch through the bioweapons in the village.”
He turns to Tundra. “Do we have a safehouse off the record? No electronic locks, no satellite uplink? Paper maps only?”
She turns to the laptop, typing quickly. The clatter of the keyboard echoes in the silence. Then—
“Got it. Safehouse November, about two klicks south-by-southwest. Only shows up here, on an old field report from 1987.” She squints at the screen. “Old BSAA outpost. Less a safehouse and more a crackhouse, from the looks of it. Dates back to the Cold War.” Another tap of a key. “But it’s stocked. Most of the guns were manufactured before any of us were born—but they should be reliable. No mortars, Lobo—” she shoots him a glance across the room. “But they’ve got a modified PTRS-41 anti-tank rifle. The ammunition—practically artillery shells.”
Canine whistles. “Old as shit, but can tear a hole straight through an APC.” He pauses. “Or a Tyrant.”
Chris inhales another smoke-filled breath, the cigarette tip flaring. “We regroup at November. Stay sharp. Miranda slipped away just nine hours ago, and we’ve just lost all eyes on her activities. These hills could be crawling with bioweapons.”
“Sir.” Umber Eyes rises suddenly. “This just came in.” He rotates his laptop to face the captain.
“Sir. Me too.” Tundra suddenly pulls the laptop from her desk.
“Shit.” Night Howl pushes away from his desk.
All three laptops are now facing Chris. A blank screen, filled with a single image. A logo—three red hexagons interlocked, and a line beneath: STAY OUT.
“What the fuck?” Lobo hisses.
“Shut down laptops. Now.” Chris points at all three screens, with the identical image. “Disconnect power. No phones or pads. We stick to short-range radio from now on.” He gestures around the room. “Pack up. Burn everything we can’t bring along.”
“Somebody’s fucking with us.” His hand brushes over the polished surface of his handgun, in its holster. “And I really, really don’t like to be fucked with.”
The dress is looser than she likes, smells of mothballs and decaying wood, and its substandard fabric chafes against her delicate skin—but it is enough. She wrinkles her nose at the faded burgundy, laced with cheap flannel to buttress its lack of quality satin.
The glint of reflected light stops her just as she strides towards the door. She turns towards the louse-eaten drawer tottering against the cracked wall.
Bela inhales sharply as she hooks her fingers through the pendant, and then the necklace. They had been laid there with apparent care, arranged, even—the keys and totems on her necklace are still there, dangling from the beaded thread.
She had woken up from the unending darkness bare and naked as a new-born babe. And here are her most prized adornments, laid out in this filthy place as if upon her own dresser.
Her fingers run over the pendant, nails scraping over its clasp. Seeing, in her mind’s eye, the warm, filthy, polluted man-hands around her bare shoulders, his body leaning over hers. His fingers creeping over her collarbone, his two hands joining behind her neck to undo the clasp—uniting, as if in an embrace.
He touched me.
He touched me with those—disgusting—
Her knuckles turn white as she squeezes. The sharpness of the pendant’s edge cuts into her palm as hotness fills in her belly like a smoking morass of burning oil, the heat of her anger warming her nostrils. Her other hand closes around the scythe.
She puts on the pendant and necklace with great difficulty. Trembling hands are, after all, ill-suited to fine movements.
When she emerges from the doorway into the sunlight, scythe in hand, the older man is already gone. The dirt path snakes up the mountainside between patches of dying grass and snow-flecked boulders. Briefly, she thinks about making a run for it.
“All set?” Ethan Winters’ voice is ice water down her spine. Bela just barely stops herself from flinching. He is leaning against the brick wall, the filthy jacket back over his shoulders. “I want to get going. And quick.”
She nods wordlessly. Her skin tingles, the sunlight beginning to banish the pervasive cold of the garish artificially-lit room with its strange smoke and ice gathering on every surface. Her breath is warm and light, pouring feeling back into her lips and nostrils.
“Good. That way, correct?” He points up at the path.
Bela closes her grip around the scythe. In that cold room, she had been a boat broken free of its mooring, tossed by a tempest. In the sunlight, things are starting to settle. And with it—her rage rises, hot as a flaming coal clasped between the tongs of a torturer.
She turns to Ethan Winters, her face spreading in a smile. “You want to see my home, man-thing? Then there’s only one proper way to bring you there.”
His expression is blank. He uncrosses his arms. “What do you mean?”
Bela may have lacked strength, or stamina. There, Cassandra has her beat fairly, by a close margin. But in speed—Bela Dimitrescu is unrivalled.
A powerful shove backwards, and as Ethan Winters falls onto his back, she swings the scythe. The light gleams off its edge as it darts like a silver bird—and then, unerringly, the blade impales him in the shin. The gush of bright claret bathes the leg of his trousers, soaking the ground with an intoxicating aroma. Bela can barely hear the hiss of pain from her prey as the bloodlust overtakes her mind.
Bela’s lips split in a grin as she pushes—the give of resistance as the blade splits the muscle, the grind of bone on metal—and the delicious sensation rekindles her confidence.
“Man-blood—” she trills, the saccharine bouquet filling her nostrils and warming the inside of her throat.
Bela pulls with a strength beyond any mere human, hooking her prey as she drags him forward. “Be careful what you wish for, Ethan Winters!” she exclaims, before bursting out in giggles that echo through the forest.
Damn it—damn this body!
Mother Miranda would know what to do; she would know why the swarm refuses to obey, why Bela is still stuck in this pale human imitation. Perhaps it had been that white smoke and strange hissing liquid causing her flesh to freeze—and yet after ten minutes of warm sunlight thawing her skin, nothing stirs within her.
“Bela,” comes the voice from behind.
She grits her teeth, and continues to pull. The sound of flesh scraping on pebbles brings some small comfort.
This is—this is menial’s work. He's heavier, much heavier, than any mere man has a right to be. Her arm is a throbbing rope stretched to its limit; she wills her fingers to clench around the slippery handle of the scythe, now slick with blood. A fierce pull, and the tear of muscle tugs at the edge of the blade, coming to a stop as it catches on the exposed bone of his tibia.
“Bela.” The damn thing doesn’t even sound like he is in pain.
“Quiet, prey.” The soil is soft and wet with earth and melting snow, churning with earthworms and animal excrement sliding and wriggling between her bare toes. Her soles are chafing, the hard pebbles clinging to her ankles and refusing to come off.
Maybe another cut. Slice the man-thing’s throat—it probably wouldn’t take, but at least it might shut him up. For a while.
Or wake what’s inside him. Bela dismisses the idea almost immediately. Best to keep him in this human façade, regardless of his reason for staying in this form. She barely survived the first time; she would not survive the second.
The man-thing is strong, that much is certain. Perhaps his mutated form had frightened her—but the Lords, her mother included, could do much the same with the power of the Cadou. Her own mother—it is said she could transform into an actual flying beast, though Bela has never seen it. And Mother Miranda could, of course, take on any form she desires.
The strange man is walking straight into the pit. Overconfident, careless, swollen with braggadocio. She would lead him wilfully into the jaws of the trap, exactly as he wants. Castel Dimitrescu had been the final destination of so many unfortunate man-things, their bones littered in the catacombs. What’s one more man-thing, even if he were to go willingly?
Yes. Mother and her sisters together, with or without the combined strength of the Lords—they would be enough. She would enjoy it—enjoy seeing the light go out from his idiotic eyes, seeing his limbs grow cold. Perhaps he might even be alive, just barely. Just enough for her to have her fun. Starting with his eyes, of course—and a pair of pliers.
Could she warn Mother? There is no way to communicate, no messenger raven at her disposal. She would have to stay the course until they got there. Assuming, of course, that he would not simply shed his disguise once they got to the gate, and slaughter her against its doors—
“Bela Dimitrescu,” Ethan Winters repeats.
“What?” she shrieks, turning around as her sore fingers slip from the scythe. The bleeding leg thuds against the ground, as she massages the blisters forming on her palm.
“We’ve moved like a hundred feet in ten minutes, and you’re already out of breath.” His elbows are folded across his chest, and he is staring at that strange rectangular glass. Its glowing surface bathes his face in whitish light. “You’re going to sprain your shoulder if you keep this up.”
Already, the gash in his leg has closed around her scythe, new skin creeping over the edge of the wound. Bela’s face grows hot and she chokes down a scream.
“I’ll drag you all the way to the castle myself if I have to!” she manages to hiss, chopping her irritated growl into words. “I’ll paint this whole mountainside red with your blood!”
“You’re not dragging shit.” He is still staring at the black rectangular tool. “I’ve been pushing with my hands and the other leg. I’m doing, like, seventy-five percent of the work here. And my ass hurts more than a—” He taps on the black object. “Hang on. Let me finish this text.”
Bela erupts in a frustrated cry, flinging her arms down. “You stupid imbecile! I’ll gut you like a fish right here!”
“Yeah, yeah. And string me up and yadda yadda—” Ethan Winters pockets the glass object and stands with a grunt, the scythe protruding from his leg. The wound isn’t even bleeding anymore. With a firm pull, he wrenches the handle, freeing the blade from the bone. Before her eyes, the flesh knits together; the reddish patch of raw skin fades to pink, faint threads of hair already growing from minuscule pores.
“Hold this.” The glint of the scythe breaks her stare, and Bela tears her eyes away from his leg. She accepts the weapon guardedly, her fingers slipping over the varnish of his blood on the handle.
The man-thing smooths out the leg of his trousers, muttering as he rips off a ruined patch dangling by a meagre thread. “We’re going nowhere at this rate. Remember—for this to work, you need to be the one to bring me in. You need to take the credit for my capture.”
“Don’t lecture me, man-thing! I have hunted more prey than you have met in your life. Their heads decorate the catacombs.” Bela brandishes the scythe before her. The whiff of his still-wet blood sends a quiver down her spine. Her mouth is suddenly wet.
“Yeah. And how many of those were as a swarm of flies?” Ethan Winters unslings his backpack, plopping it unceremoniously onto the ground. “All it takes to put you down is a fly-swatter. And like fifty-five thousand slaps.”
Bela snarls in derision. “Then I assume you are rummaging around in your rucksack for one?”
“No.” He reaches into one of the side compartments, and seconds later, his hand emerges clutching a dark shape. “For this.”
At first glance, it appears to be two too-short spyglasses welded together by a careless blacksmith. The material is unfamiliar, the lenses scratched. Even the least worthy telescope at their observatory would be more presentable than this—toy.
“Bushnell Marine waterproof binoculars, built-in compass and rangefinder.” He fiddles with knobs on the unwieldy blackish object, before raising the pair of lenses to his eyes. “Castle is north by north-west, two miles away, maybe two-and-half, altitude about—are you licking that?”
Bela starts, withdrawing her tongue suddenly from the blade of her scythe. She hadn’t even been doing it consciously—the taste of cold metal mingles with the sweetness of the fresh blood as her appetite purrs in satisfaction. She lowers the blade, wiping her lips. The crimson smears over her cheeks, spreading from her mouth like the wings of a butterfly.
“So what if I am, man-thing?” She had meant to sound threatening—her high voice instead makes her retort almost sulky. Bela curses inwardly. Why is she like a child caught with her hand in a candy jar?
Ethan Winters shrugs, shaking his head. “Well, I’m glad I taste good to somebody. Can’t stand the smell of my own blood, myself. Reminds me of someone’s shit cooking back in Dulvey, Louisiana.” He raises the binoculars back to his eyes, his thumb turning a small knob, his eyebrows converging in concentration. “Long ass story. Anyways, bon appetit.”
“You don’t taste g—You’re my prey. I’m hungry for blood.” Bela’s lips peel back, her teeth grinding together with more force than she intended. “Doesn’t mean it’s—you taste the same. All man-things taste the same when they bleed. There is nothing—”
“Found it.” He lowers the binoculars suddenly, stuffing it into the backpack hastily. “I’ve got eyes on the castle.” Bela watches as he takes three steps forward, then drags his right foot from front to back, carving a shallow trench in the soil.
“What are you doing?” She sidesteps him as he walks backwards along the line, then raises a thumb to the air.
“Ever heard the phrase, ‘look before you leap?’” He plants his foot right beside the line in the soil, a dancer gauging his steps. “We need to get to your castle before your sisters find us, or this is over for me—and for you.” He squats, still peering into the distance. “So, we’ve got two ways of getting there. One, you can drag me with a blade through my foot for the next eighteen hours, and I’ll give you the shittiest one-star rating on Uber Select. Or two—”
He beckons towards her, and Bela raises the scythe reflexively. “What are you playing at, man-thing?”
“I don’t care how. Climb on my back, or hang on to something.” He’s not even looking at her; his eyes are still fixed on the horizon. “Just get on.”
“I—I beg your pardon?” Her mouth drops. Her mind is a blank.
“Get on, I said.” He pats his shoulder. “And try to stay still. I’ve only done this once before, and you were unconscious.”
When I was unconscious—
Her eyes dart towards his shoulders, his arms, one and then the other—then swivel down to her own body. Her body, clad in some peasant woman’s cheap evening dress; her body which had been, until minutes ago—completely naked.
The site of that battle, the mountainside strewn with lycans. The fall, the long sleep—and then that old building again, nearly a mile away.
The threads unite finally in her mind, like the knotted wicks of a sapper’s mine, and the spark finally triggers the explosion in her chest.
“You filthy—disgusting—simpleton!” Bela explodes forward, the scythe held aloft as her feet carry her like thunderbolts. “You dare touch—me! You! With your man-hands!”
“You were dead and we had to move you, what else—” The retort is drowned out by her own heartbeat, whooshing in her ears like a waterfall.
The man-thing barely reacts, barely has time—and then the scythe swings with the rage of a day’s-worth of indignity, the blade slamming into his chest, biting into bone.
Warm blood splatters onto her face, her lips, her cheek—like a thousand grapes squeezed at once, the fresh giddy aroma staining the air, and suddenly Bela is light-headed. Her eyelids flutter, her lips peel apart, and that split-second of unguardedness costs her.
“I don’t have time for this,” he grunts, and moves.
She feels her legs swing upwards, her body flailing in the air, and then she is facing the sky. She thrashes, and the backs of her knees collide with firm unyielding muscle. An iron bar presses against her back, and a vice grips her right shoulder.
“Damn, you’re tall.” Ethan Winters grunts, as he adjusts his grip. “Now, hold still.”
“I’ll tear your throat out!” Bela screams upwards, spitting blood at Ethan Winters even as she claws at his chest. Her hands collide with the handle of the scythe, still buried in his torso. “With my teeth! You hear me? My teeth!”
She won’t be like this—like some child held in a bridal carry. Her fingernails rake the tattered remains of his shirt, gouging flesh from his bare skin. The trenches heal and fade away almost as quickly as they are laid. It’s not fair.
“Hang on tight. Hold on to that scythe if you want.” She lists to her left, her face suddenly pressed against his chest. The warm pulse of blood underneath his skin thunders against her eardrum. “You do not want me to drop you.”
Bela closes her grip around the scythe, preparing to drive it with all her might into his heart. She feels herself sink lower as his arms bend, feels the muscles coiling beneath her as he crouches.
And then the wind roars past her ears like a typhoon, her hair whipping into her face like the barbs of a scourge as she screams her lungs out into empty air.
(Chat log 00345_A)
[E. Winters] 10:34: need help search records on few names send to me
[E. Winters] 10:34: alcina dumitresk, donna benevento, salvatore moro, carl Heisenberg
[E. Winters] 10:34: also find on 3 women names cassandra daniela bela/bella
[E. Winters] 10:35: prob fucked up the spelling on all of em but find the closest
[Support] 10: 35: ehtan what the fuck
[Support] 10:35: was waiting for ur call all night
[E. Winters] 10:35: shit cam e up
[E. Winters] 10:35: fought a bitch made of flies
[E. Winters] 10:35: fought like a whole army of lycans and one big guy
[Support] 10:35: what
[E. Winters] 10:35: long story
[E. Winters] 10:35: also experiment a success patient is cured
[Support] 10:36: well shit that was unexpected
[Support] 10:37: watch for oliguria the ampho b will probs kill his kidneys without proper hydration
[Support] 10:37: how old is he? u said 65 right?
[Support] 10:37: see if u can give n-acetylcysteine 1.2g stat and twice daily
[E. Winters] 10:38: the drugs didn’t do shit. turns out it was my blood. he drank my blood. cured the infection. but now looks like hes got the same thing. stronger body stronger senses
[Support] 10:39: ur fucking with me
[Support] 10:40: (voice message 1:09)
[E. Winters] 10: 43: can we discuss specifics later
[E. Winters] 10: 43: i brought fly bitch back to life also and now she is pulling my leg
[E. Winters] 10: 43: with a scythe
[E. Winters] 10:43: see
[E. Winters] 10: 44: (image attachment: camera_0026.jpg)
[Support] 10:44: at the risk of sounding redundant what the fuck
[Support] 10:44: u gonna die of tetanus u stupid mf
[E. Winters] 10:44: got a lead on Rose, im on my way to the old castle but need intel
[E. Winters] 10:44: google has jack shit
[E. Winters] 10:44: but im sure u have access to things google dont
[Support] 10:45: fuck u for making me ur personal librarian
[Support] 10: 46: u know most of this stuff is classified
[Support] 10:46: this part of carpathians was soviet missile launch site in 1960s and all the maps and records are still blacked out
[Support] 10: 47: u know how many federal firewalls im gonna need to crack to get all this shit
[Support] 10:48: gentek has a thumb up my ass as it is
[Support] 10:48: im gonna be breaking a shitton of laws
[E. Winters] 10:49: how long is it gonna take u
[Support] 10:50: about 2 mins
[Support] 10:50: i’ll send the files to u
[E. Winters] 10:51: appreciate it
[Support] 10:51: fuck u u owe me 1
[Support] 10:51: also how long u planning to get dragged with a knife in ur leg
[E. Winters] 10:52: until u done with files
[Support] 10:54: ok here
[Support] 10:54: File attachment: alcina_dimitrescu.pdf
[Support] 10:54: File attachment: donna_beneviento.pdf
[Support] 10:54: File attachment: salvatore_moreau.pdf
[Support] 10:54: File attachment: karl_heisenberg.pdf
[Support] 10:55: File attachment: case_report_831_cc.pdf
[Support] 10:55: File attachment: sr71_map_3400023.jpg
[Support] 10:56: nothing on this miranda person, nothing on your 3 women either. and this database is airtight as shit. either u full of shit, or these ppl are good at covering tracks
[Support] 10:56: all this shit is patchy and outdated. better than nth
[Support] 10:57: 4 very old families from looks of it
[Support] 10: 57: have birth/marriage/death records back till 17th century, those r included in the files
[E. Winters] 10:58: thanks
[E. Winters] 10:58: now time to stop getting dragged on my ass
[E. Winters] 10:58: i’ll call when i get to castle
[Support] 10:59: break a leg
[Support] 10:59: oh wait looks like u already did
[Support] 10:59: dickhead
[E. Winters] 11:00: fuck
[E. Winters] 11:00: u
He fucks up the fourth jump.
The mistake had been the landing. His foot had come down hard on impact, crushing a hollow in the soil—a rabbit warren, or foxhole—and then the momentum had pitched him forward. What he should have done was to stop. Readjust, get onto firmer ground, and then lift off with both legs.
But Bela had screamed, sunk her teeth into his arm. With the result that Ethan ends up kicking off with his left leg—and fucking up the trajectory.
The trees whip past, then the treetops merge into a bleary carpet of thorny brown underneath him as the grey sky yawns above. He’s too far left, his momentum is out of control—the castle looms ahead, pitching and yawing in the distance.
His body lists, turns irreversibly forward as he tumbles, and Ethan realises he won’t be landing on his feet.
Bela’s shriek fills his ear as the wind whips past his face. Unconsciously, his arms grip tighter, pressing her body against his chest. “Hang on!”
He loses height. The carpet of brown thorns separates into a looming wall of spikes—then his eyes squeeze shut as a thousand stinging barbs scourge his skin while he falls.
The pain is a freight train smashing into him at full speed, a boot crushing a coke can underfoot. He crumples inwards, joints folding, muscles tearing—he bounces, rolls, and then a wall slams into his back and every nerve in his body catches fire.
Ethan doesn’t move. Doesn’t open his eyes. Only lies there, willing himself into staying as still as he can—because movement is pain—
Then the counterwave of agony strikes him, and he seizes up. The biomass moving through his body, working overtime—the snap of joints being forced back into place, sizzling irons pressing into his skin as muscle closes over open wounds, the thundering electric shock of nerves regenerating themselves.
“Fuck!” He flexes his neck, his arms curling reflexively around his chest—and then his chin hits something solid. His eyes are almost pressed against the intricate black-and-white tattoo of a flower, inked on the forehead of a very, very pissed off woman.
“You—you filthy—” she stammers, her eyes glowing like coals. Only now does he notice that both hands are clenched around his chest, claws buried deep between his ribs. Her eyes are wide, her lips trembling. “You almost killed—” she says, before her breath catches in her throat.
“Thank you—for choosing Air Ethan,” he manages to wheeze. “Now please disembark.”
He raises one knee, then the other, and pushes himself to his feet. A limpet clinging to a ship, she rises with him, standing unsteadily on shaky legs. Bela’s breath is hot against his chest. Frightened.
“Alright, let go.” He pries her fingers from his chest, the bullet-sized wounds closing as soon as the nails pull free. “We’re wasting time.”
Bela staggers, clutching her head. “Man-thing,” she says quietly, “when we get to the castle, I will feed you feet first into an oven as I eat the eyes from your skull, I promise you this. Mother will find a way to kill you, I swear—no matter how fast you can heal—there will be—” Her voice trails off into a gasp of pain as she clutches her side.
“Promises, promises.” The nausea is back. His vision is starting to grey at the edges. Oh shit.
Ethan clutches his knees, barely stopping himself from heaving. He senses Bela’s eyes on him, and forces his spine to straighten. Standing back upright feels like riding the Slingshot back in LA a lifetime ago as a college student. The acid stings the back of his tongue.
What were the rules? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. You don’t need thousands of calories; you need millions. Now here come the symptoms again. The nausea bubbles in his gut; the hunger growls at the edges of his brain.
I eat the Vârcolac, then Elena and her gang turn me into target practice. Then Leonardo, then the whole bullshit at the clinic. I turn—again—and then tear my way through a whole army of lycans.
Eat the Urias. So, I’m stocked up again. Jump my way back to the clinic. And then jump to the castle, botch the landing, get fucked up by the ground, and now—
By his side, Bela is smoothing out the dress, her blonde hair tousled and caked with dirt and dead leaves. The stains around her lips are turning a sticky brown; she wipes with the back of her hand, smearing a streak across her chin.
That pain you’re feeling, that hunger, that’s the bank calling you about an overdraft.
So bringing her back to life—
Ethan looks down, at the scythe still embedded in his sternum.
How badly does that fuck up my credit rating?
Ethan grits his teeth. Careless. Fucking stupid. Complacent. Two days, two fucking days out in the wild, and you’ve got it all figured out? Test out the rules, take notes while on the phone, and then what starts as a gut feeling blooms into overconfidence and then he starts driving one-handed with the elbow leaning out the window. Driving himself off the road into a ditch.
But he’s not off-road. Not yet. The brakes still work. The plan is only half-fucked.
First step. Check the tank.
He grips the handle of the scythe. Pulls at it, slowly at first—working it free of the bone. The pain is dull—nerves are probably still regenerating, but the whip-crack of his sternum snapping is just as bad. The blade slips out, along the curve of its edge, stained with crimson ropes, and Ethan exhales.
The wound gapes. The edges are frayed, the macerated skin bubbling with fine movements he can barely perceive—the biomass wriggling, the muscle reuniting. A thick stream of blood oozes in a steady string, viscous and dark. Ethan keeps his eyes on it for a full minute.
It doesn’t stop.
Running on fumes.
Ethan pulls the jacket over his chest. The zipper is stuck, but it covers the wound—just.
She is rubbing her wrists, staring out at the treeline. Getting her bearings. Hasn’t looked at him—or the injury.
Option one. Repay the loan.
The thing inside purrs, and Ethan squashes the thought almost immediately. No telling what would happen after eating Bela, or whether he could reclaim what’s been lost. The energy—mass?—he lost in bringing her back, that could be a sunk cost. Kill her, maybe a fraction goes back to his body. And then? One lead gone. One fly-swarming, blood-drinking daughter missing, and then the enemy goes on full alert and he’s further up shit’s creek with the paddle stuck up his ass.
A tactical decision. But—
That’s not the real reason, is it?
The big ugly wolf-thing, that’s pretty much a dog on steroids. Its thoughts were simple, direct, animalistic. The Urias—that one, he had memories. But Vlasák Grosu died that evening outside Castel Dimitrescu; the thing made from his body had been rage-filled and steered by impulses outside his control. Death came as a release—Ethan could almost hear a quiet, barely audible thank you from what had been left of his brain.
He catches her eye. She glares at him from behind glimmering eyes smeared with coal-black shadow, before turning away quickly.
Not a thing. Not it. Her.
Ethan Winters. Valedictorian. Second place in the shopping cart race down the hill road from the cemetery at Fresno (two stitches over his scalp). Ethan Winters, who once pounded two shots of tequila at Sequoia Bar and Grill before taking a bet to approach the hottest girl in the room, and walked out two hours later with her dragging him by the collar.
Ethan Winters, who had later stumbled into her apartment as she pressed him against the wall and pressed her lips to his; who had his boxers around his ankles and her panties between his fingers before he blurted out loud, ‘is that the collector’s edition of D&D 3.0 on your table?’
Ethan Winters, who ended up putting his pants back on and playing a completely improvised half-drunk two-person game of D&D with Mia Evans, who turned out to be a really shitty player and a really kickass DM. Mia Evans—who became Mia Winters, five years later on the happiest summer day of his life.
Ethan Winters. Dork. Sensitive. Awkward. And hopelessly romantic, according to Mia.
Ethan Winters. Cannibal. Monster. Savage. Killer.
He pinches his nose, the scent of blood still heavy in his sinuses. No. Not going to happen.
So what’s left?
Ethan Winters, the gunslinger. Who wrote the code that won him the MIT hackathon while he was still tripping balls on LSD, and had to be guided to the stage by his flatmate while still high as fuck. Who once built a model airplane in twelve hours for a competition he found out about the night before, and won a scholarship he never applied for. Who once saved a CERN defence contract and put a hacker in prison by dropping his wallet behind his desk—along with two hundred dollars (he tried to file it under ‘travel expenses’)—with a false password written on the back of a business card as bait.
Improvise. Work with what you have.
He reaches out his hand.
How did it feel, with Leonardo?
Do it in reverse.
Bela yelps, her breath suddenly cut off as if by a hand around her throat. She takes two steps backwards—no; her legs move, and she is carried along. And then she’s right in front of him, heaving, panting.
Well shit. It fucking worked.
“What did you do to me?” She bares her fangs, growling under her breath. Her throat moves as she swallows. Her skin is cool, her diaphragm moving erratically. He smells it on her skin like the scent of sweat. Fear. “Man-thing—what did you do to my body?”
Improvise. Bullshit like your life depends on it.
No. Not your life. Your daughter’s.
Ethan gives the widest smile he can. “Can you feel that? Inside you, inside your veins?” The scythe is light in his hand, and he taps the flat of the blade against his neck. “My blood, Bela. Mine. Right now, it’s giving you life. Letting you talk, breathe, move. But it’s still mine—and it obeys me.”
Yeah, real smooth Alucard.
But Bela’s quivering eyes show no sign of disbelief. Her nostrils are flared, her lips are stretched thin. He has her full attention.
“Leonardo? He was brought back, just like you. Except now he does everything I tell him to. He was about to kill you. I stopped him. I could ask him to finish the job—just like that.” Ethan tries to keep the smile up. His cheeks hurt. “Now, you listen carefully. You take me to the castle. You get me close enough to find out where my daughter is. And if I’m in a good mood? I’ll spare your family, and I’ll cut you loose.” He pauses. Fuck it—he throws in a final line. “And who knows? Maybe I’ll even let you turn into a swarm of flies again. Or butterflies, or bats. Whatever you prefer.”
Bela’s eyes dart from his face, to the rest of his body. As if the very sight of him perplexes her.
“What are you?” she whispers, fingers curved in the air like the claws of a raven.
He holds out the scythe, handle-first. He doesn't take his eyes off it until her hesitant fingers close around the handle.
“Castel Dimitrescu.” He nods towards the mid-morning sun, to the north. “Let’s go.”
“Vasile,” Leonardo mutters, sighing. “Shit.”
The body is slumped against the wall of the watermill, stiff and pale. His stomach is torn open, entrails spread over his thighs and groin like a grey carpet of sausage-meat, the beaded egg-clumps of gathering flies already visible over the sticky lining of the omentum. Empty eye sockets gape at the sky, thin ribbons of muscle draped over his cheeks—the crows got here first.
The Romanian sniffs the air. The stink of lycans is heavy—not all the blood on Vasile’s jacket had been his. The heavy hunting knife in his hands is stained brown, almost black.
Leonardo folds up the note, tucking it in his coat pocket. Luiza would get her husband’s final message—and know that he tried to seek help, and that he went down fighting.
He picks up the Kalash, prying Vasile’s cold fingers from the trigger. The magazine is empty, as expected—Vasile must have been jumped just as he was reloading; two full mags are scattered beside his body, one of them spilling loose rounds into the soil. The weapon is old; the hinge of the shoulder stock is bent, and the patina of the wooden finish is cracked and peeling. But the slide retracts smoothly, and the iron sights are calibrated correctly. He’s been maintaining it. Sneaky bastard.
Vasile must have been concealing the old Soviet weapon in some hiding place at the watermill, in direct violation of the tenets of Mother Miranda. Thou shalt carry no weapon to hunt men. Breech-loaded shotguns for waterfowl and beasts, pistols for squirrels and vermin, maybe old bolt-actions to hunt deer—those were permitted. But the last man found with an automatic weapon had been dragged out from the village—and never returned.
In theory, Mother Miranda’s law was absolute. As for reality, Leonardo had spent a lifetime living in a country where the divide between what the authorities thought was happening, and what was actually taking place, was as wide as night and day; the village was no different. Automatics—AKMs from the rebellion, FN-FALs from misplaced NATO caches, even Shpagins from the Second Great War—lie under floorboards and in the hollows of trees, disassembled and concealed among pieces of rubbish. Spare parts and military-grade ammunition were traded under tables and behind abandoned sheds, each more precious than a month’s worth of income.
Of course they would make such a command. Leonardo glances at Vasile’s disembowelled corpse. What use is a sheep pen, if the sheep have teeth? Take away our ability to fight back—and we would be like lambs to the slaughter.
He knows of the other hiding spots—at least six of them. He would need them. Their owners—would likely not. Not anymore.
Leonardo loads the Kalash, tucking the spare magazine in his belt. Vasile had hidden two more mags behind the workbench under a false panel—two mags now in his pockets. He would need every round.
It takes him only ten minutes to siphon of what is left of the petrol into the glass bottles, and two more minutes to stuff oiled rags down their mouths. He fits them into the makeshift rope harness around his chest. Leonardo pauses, exhaling deeply, before pouring the remaining morsel of petrol over Vasile’s body.
The old man lights a cigarette, taking two drags—one for himself, and one last one for Luiza’s husband. Vasile had been a member of an institution that represented oppression and tyranny, had worn that hated uniform—but in the end, he had fought for Romania, not Ceaușescu. And that final honour, Leonardo would not deny a dead man.
“Travel well, Vasile.” Leonardo exhales a spout of smoke. “You were a damn tough opponent—and a damn good husband to Luiza. Happy hunting, războinic.”
He tosses the lit cigarette back over his shoulder, striding away as the blaze warms his back. He walks away, eager to leave the mill before the smell of sizzling human flesh reaches his nostrils. Though given his newly-sharpened senses—he would probably be able to smell it for miles.
The weight of the weapon over his forearm is the embrace of a familiar lover; his thumb runs over the protuberance of the metal bolt, caressing each detail of the Kalash. He knows her intimately, though he had only just taken her up—he had made love to so many of her sisters’ bodies time and time again, a lifetime ago, the staccato thunder of their passion resonating through the mountainside as they fought an endless series of rear guard actions against Ceaușescu’s dogs.
He never thought, thirty years later, that he would dance again.
Leonardo Lupu would not be able to save his family. Leonardo Lupu had been a sixty-five-year-old farmer, a half-cripple who would curse with every step up a flight of stairs. Leonardo Lupu, who made Drob de miel each spring solstice with his own hands, had died on that gurney, feverish and in pain.
What had risen again is not Leonardo Lupu—could not be, because Leonardo Lupu would never be enough. Not for this world gone to hell.
He would need something else to save Elena, and to aid Ethan Winters. Someone else, who had haunted the Carpathians and led dozens of Romanian soldiers into his version of hell on earth. Someone that had been buried for years—someone he promised would never return.
They wanted the wolf.
They will get him.
Chapter tags: Bela basically dislocating her shoulder while Ethan is texting is a mood, You know you're in your 30s when you jump wrong and next minute you are 3.2 seconds from death, Chris Redfield exists as well, Hound Wolf is like naming your squad Moon Moon, Leonardo just having a whole ass internal monologue while on a sidequest, Ethan's been stabbed so many times he's not even gonna bother healing, Just gonna use that chest wound to store his phone, others...
Character tags: Ethan "Not enough mana" Winters, Bela "where the fuck is the seatbelt" Dimitrescu, Chris "Forgot to update Norton Antivirus" Redfield, Leonardo "Cheeki Breeki" Lupu, Vasile "Lootbox", others...
I'm so encouraged by your comments and reviews thus far. I honestly read each and every single one - though at this point they are coming in faster than I can reply to them!
Your enthusiasm for the story, and the characters I have tried to bring to life, has been fuel for my writing. At the same time, I would love to hear from those of you who have specific comments on my writing technique and things I could improve on. My writing is still rough around the edges, and I have a load of bad habits to shake. Thank you and hope to hear from you again!
Chapter 7: Wolf
Ethan gets a tour of Castel Dimitrescu from the least willing guide in the world. Elsewhere, the huddle of survivors in their cabin get a visit from a certain hungry sister.
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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...
Thank you everyone for sticking with this story so far! I really appreciate your comments and speculations on what could happen next. As to the slight delay in posting frequency, all I can offer are my apologies; the pandemic has made work much busier and much less forgiving with regards to free time.
I contemplated having Ethan meet Lady D in this chapter, but the resultant piece would have been so long as to bloat the chapter and make it too much of a drag to plough through. Plus, writing flashback pieces and switching genres in the middle of a story is never not fun.
As always, I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing from you!
Chapter 8: Of How Ethan Winters Came To House Dimitrescu
A bloodthirsty countess three times the height of an average man, one daughter on the verge of a mental breakdown, and another one with no concept of personal space. Under the best of circumstances, Ethan Winters would be in deep shit.
These are not the best of circumstances.
It's finally here, Moldboi meets Tall Busty Vampire Mommy is finally happening
Like I'm going to make it easy lmao
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And of course, follow me on Tumblr for extra stuff, notes, fanart, or just to chat: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/plotbunnytamer
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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...
I know many of you have been eagerly awaiting Ethan's confrontation with the Dimitrescu brood, and I've got to be real with you guys - the mental stress of the high expectations attached to it has been the main reason for delaying this chapter. That being said, I hope I did it justice!
And yes, the scenes with Leonardo have been an absolute blast to write.
Fair warning that the way things are going, there is a possibility of - occasional sexual content creeping up. The appropriate tags will be appended to each individual chapter, in case you're not a fan.
i swear it's plot relevant please believe me