Fiction Page 19
THEY CAME IN THE NIGHT
Lawrence R. Dagstine
In the light of the full moon, Malix could see shadowy tree trunks and crumbling walls, a cobwebbed gate, and frail oxen pulling a two-wheeled cart. When he reached the city itself, with its overhead torchlights casting grim shadows on the concrete, it seemed to him that a catastrophe had taken place. Otherwise, why would there be so many human bodies scattered about? It seemed a calamity beyond his usual ways of thinking, this utter devastation and desolation of the city, and the consumption of all its residents.
He had arrived by horse, and one of the first jaunts he took was to the shopping forum. The booths and halls were unheated and unpleasantly cold and filled with a terrible darkness, and every merchant's table for at least ten yards, or as far as Malix could see, were empty.
He sat in silence for a moment, patting his horse's cheek. He noticed at the top of a long rise a great surge of smoke. On the horizon a spot of fire was beginning to show, and as the glow brightened he soon realized his own village was ablaze. He hauled up his animal's head, clicked his heels against its belly, and the creature labored into a heavy, rocking run, returning to the valley from whence it came. The horse was blowing in a wind-broke roar; it came nearer to getting back to the village than Malix could have hoped.
By now the house fires had died down to bright beds of coals, but most were still standing; at least three quarters of the village was in ruin. Its shingles glowed in a dozen smoldering patches where, it seemed, fireballs had been cast on the roofs. For a while a great impossible hope possessed him, intense as physical pain. Then, while he was still far out, investigating the cause of the damage, he saw a light flicker. Even at a distance he could see that the light came through a broken door, hanging skew-jawed on a single hinge.
He slowed to an unwilling walk as he neared the house. It was Rafkil's residence. Wilted flowers and plants came into view, and everywhere there were broken trees and mutilated cattle, almost as if some kind of plague had struck; no, better yet, a massacre. The sods nearby were covered in blood, practically soaked in it. And just like the merchant city of Turkon, human bodies were scattered about.
Malix stepped over the legs of a dead child and went into the house numbly. The interior was a mess. Near the door a body lay covered by a blood-drenched sheet. He drew back the limp muslin, and was looking into the face of Rafkil's wife. Her lips were parted a little, and her open eyes, looking straight up, appeared bloodshot, as if she had died from fear. Her light hair was shaken loose, the lantern above picking out the gray in it, along with a peculiar mark on her neck. She had such a lot of hair that it was hardly noticeable that she had been drained.
Most of the batten shutters had been smashed in. A man lay in a heap near the splintered bathroom door, his empty hands still clawed as if grasping a weapon that was gone. The man was young, perhaps a teenager. And he had fallen in a tangled knot by the tub, his gangly legs sprawled. He looked immature and undersized as he lay there, like a skinny small boy. Malix straightened the body, then found a sheet to put over him. His eyes were filled with tears, and his hands were shaking, but he was quickly dry-eyed when he returned to the kitchen.
When Malix had got a good look at his old friend, he was afraid of him. Rafkil's face was practically stilted, but such a dreadful light shone from behind his eyes that Malix thought he had gone mad before his death. He had got another sheet and was tearing it into strips to cover the body, when a voice said, "I'm dying…" The words were deep and came unevenly, but did not sound hostile.
Malix jumped back and dropped the sheet. "Rafkil, you're alive!"
"Yes...but not for very much longer," said Rafkil weakly.
"What happened? All I did was go to Turkon to buy fruit."
Rafkil grabbed his neck in pain. He had the same scar as his wife, a pair of marks out of the ordinary. "Did they get there first?"
"Yes, I guess so," said Malix. "But who did this? And why?"
"They came in the night," said Rakfil, as he coughed up a mess of blood, "hundreds upon hundreds of them...like a swarm of killer bees. It was horrible. First they killed our animals, then the women and children…demons of the night. They filled the countryside with blood."
Malix knelt beside him. "These creatures," he said, "what did they look like?"
"They were tall and strong, not so much like giants, but more like trees. And each and every one of them had the gift of flight. The scariest part was that they had no faces, just a set of sharp wooden fangs to each of them."
"Some kind of vampires?" For a brief moment, Malix was suspended in disbelief; but then with the destruction that had taken place, he would have believed almost anything. "But aren't they just folklore?"
Rafkil vested a small laugh. "Tell that to them," he said. "You shouldn't believe everything you hear---especially that stuff about daylight, crosses, and garlic, because it doesn't work! A long time ago wooden stakes were the answer. Not anymore. Now you can only kill a vampire with a silver sword, beheading it, removing the neckpiece."
"But why us? And why Turkon, one of the most heavily-guarded marketplaces in the eastern territories?"
"Vampires don't need a reason," said Rafkil icily. "Neither do the undead. Just look what they did to my Mathilda. That should be enough proof. All they want to do is destroy and live off our body fluids. They seem to have a thirst for blood, a hunger, the same way we humans hunger for money and lust. In a way, they're much like us."
"They nourish themselves with blood plasma, the same way we nourish ourselves with food."
Malix was confused. "Blood plasma?"
"I know this isn't the time or the place," said Rafkil, his voice sounding thin and distant to himself, "but think of a man suffering from malnutrition. Vampires suffer malnutrition too, but unlike us humans, they require blood for replenishment. It is a known fact that vampires are globulin deficient."
"You shouldn't be telling me all this," Malix said, clenching a fist. "You're on your last leg." He turned his friend's head sideways and checked out the fang marks. The wound was fresh, deep, and penetrating. "What now?"
"What else? Vengeance! I have no one else to turn to, Malix. That's my youngest son's body out there. Please, you must seek these creatures out. Find my cousin and his friends. They have horses and weapons made of silver. Take the village priest with you if you have to. You could avenge our village better than anyone else, because unlike others, you have a head on your shoulders."
"Rafkil, be sensible! How can one man, and a couple of grungy-looking farmers, defend the land from a race of superhuman beings? The odds are against us!"
A moment of silence. Then Rafkil broke it with a peevish hiss. "Then do what you want. I thought you were stronger than the rest, but I guess I was wrong." He turned his head to the side and let out a dispirited breath of air. "I would do it myself, but I can't go on without my family's backing...not in the shape I'm in."
Malix shook his head; he felt obligated.
"All right," he decided, after giving it some serious thought. "I'll do it. But how will I know where to look?"
"The full moon sets in the mountains," said Rafkil, "where the reflection on the grass is dark and foreboding." He was referring to the Azal Plains, from where no traveler has returned. "In the twilight of a small prairie they came, and by the time the roosters crow, they will have returned there."
Malix held his hand tightly. "You have my word, Rafkil. I'll do this for you."
Rafkil gave off a half-smile; he did not have the strength to do better. "You do realize that you'll have to finish me off, don't you?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Anyone who survives a vampire attack becomes one himself." He picked up his head and set his eyes forward, and Malix followed those very same eyes to a metal chest. "There's a crossbow in there. A couple of silver-tipped arrows too. When you're done using it on me, take it for yourself. You'll need it in that wilderness."
Malix went over to the chest and retrieved the weapon. He loaded one of the dartlike bolts into the chamber, and aimed it at the man who had been like a father to him. "I---I can't do it," he wept, his hand wrapped around the base of the trigger, but shaking.
"Yes, you can," said Rafkil, his eyes burning steadily into Malix's. "Just close your eyes and put it against my chest. Please, Malix, I beg of you!"
In a moment it was over.
Rafkil took his last breath, and Malix covered the body with a sheet and left.
The next morning Malix laid Rafkil out deep under the earth beside his wife and two children. Rafkil's cousin, Ezra, and the village priest, who had survived the previous night's attack, read from a religious text and said a prayer, while Malix, and two others chosen for the pursuit stood a little way back from the open graves, holding their shovels.
Most of Malix's vitality seemed to have drained out of him, but he shared the cracking strain that was upon the rest of the village, so long as there was still hope. The priest passed him the text, and he made his own prayers as simple and brief as he could. "Let darkness fall upon those that will not see the truth, that all Thy glory may light the way of those seeking His everlasting peace…. Amen." He then handed the priest back his text, and silently crossed his chest with his fingers.
He walked over to his horse and loaded his weapon with the last "Amen", and slowly led off without a word. Ezra and the others put down their shovels and rode after him. Malix seemed to have already forgotten last night's tragedy as he turned his horse toward the village gate.
Out in the middle of a vast, flat plain, a whole day's ride from anything, lay an awful-smelling marsh that covered about ten acres of land. Nowhere around was there a river, or a stream, or any familiar village at all. Malix saw the air was changing; or perhaps revealing the change that had come over him on the night of the massacre. He rode more relaxed now, wasting no motions and no steps. His three aides, including Ezra, followed steadily behind.
Ezra first sighted, what he thought to be traces of a vampire, around mid-afternoon. Far out in front Malix brought his horse to the edge of a broken cliff, then dropped down from its back and led the animal away from the edge. He held his crossbow over his head with both hands. He looked foolish; it must have felt the same just being around these farmers, who called themselves vampire hunters.
Malix looked…and looked…and looked some more. There was nothing but an empty field and an empty sky, except for a few clouds and trees, of course. "Another false alarm," he said angrily, talking down to all three men. "I don't know what you think you saw, but I don't see a goddamn thing! And you call yourselves hunters?"
The men kept silent, and put their heads down in shame.
Malix rethought what he said. "I'm sorry if I hit a soft spot, especially where your pride is concerned. I'm sure the three of you didn't ask to be vampire hunters. I know I didn't. I'm not here to avenge our village, nor am I here to avenge the merchant city. I'm doing this in the name of a friend. And I plan to carry out that friend's last wish."
"I am here for Rafkil as well," said Ezra amiably. "When a storm hit our village and destroyed my house, Rafkil took me in. He helped me build a new one from scratch."
"He was good like that, wasn't he?" Malix remembered fondly. "All the more reason to be serious about this. The Azal Plains are not far, so let's not waste anymore time."
Toward sundown, they began to worry. Malix remembered Rafkil's words. Not one, not ten, but ultimately hundreds of vampires lurking in the Azal Plains. He had a right to be nerve-raw at this point, perhaps; the emptiness of the forest had taken on a haunted, evilly enchanted feel since he left the marsh….
He had dismounted near the top of an old ridge, overlooking a small prairie. He went on by foot, and suddenly froze at sight of what stood on the grass and rock-filled shoulder beyond. For a moment he was petrified, but it was nothing more than a stump; it was in the form of similar stumps he had seen three or four times before in his life, and always with the same weird black color effect. What a strange form of plant life. The twisted remains of the tree, blackened and scoured, had vaguely the shape of a man, or the withered corpse of a man; branches were upraised in a writhing gesture of agony, almost like arms, reaching out to perhaps warn of impending evil. But nothing about it explained the awful sinking of the heart, the terrible sense of inevitable doom that overpowered him when he encountered such a shape.
A coward would have turned back, giving up whatever he was about; for he probably would have known the thing for an object of evil, with a powerful spirit living inside it, placing a deadly curse upon him. And Malix more or less believed it was some kind of omen.
Feeling shaken, Ezra and the other two men came pounding toward him, raising a reckless dust. "Did you find anything?" Malix asked them. They had gone up ahead and circled the area for clues.
"Just the skeletal remains of women and children," said Ezra nervously. "The forest beyond is littered with them."
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
"Then maybe Rafkil got the location wrong," Malix said, as he watched the sun go down.
But then maybe Malix did not think of something.
Maybe the vampires were camouflaged.
Suddenly the stump behind Malix took humanoid form. Many more like it in the area did the same. The prairie was filled with them. They took the form of faceless, fang-bearing creatures, tall and strong as trees, just like Rafkil had said, but with fiery spores and plant life growing out of their arms and backs. The one nearest to the three men sprang forward, pulled one of the horsemen down, and drained his life energy within a matter of seconds. Malix could only define this as one kind of curse upon man.
Knowing he was outnumbered, Malix was not about to become a victim himself. He had heard the many legends about vampires that amalgamated with the wilderness, but he never thought it would be like this. Fearing for his life, he moved through the woods, crossbow at the ready. The most he had gained was a minute's start. The other men, including Ezra, had already been taken out. The vampires, with fangs made of ivory and wood, and fiery spores composed of sulfuric leaves and potassium chlorate, were surprisingly fast in their kill, and before Malix knew it, they were already tracking him down. Escape through the Azal Plains seemed almost impossible. Malix had to give them the slip in the woods and somehow make it to a populated area.
As he struggled through the trees and bushes Malix cursed his own weakness. It wasn't Rafkil's wish, but curiosity (that ancient vice of man) had ensnared him into a web of trouble. Now, in this entangled wilderness, which plucked his clothes and tore at his skin, he was discovering the ultimate price of his folly.
The sounds of his pursuers grew nearer. Malix breathing grew tighter and his limbs began to tire, but fear and the will to survive forced him on.
Then without ebbing he broke into a small clearing. He paused and listened. Not a sound. Maybe the hunt was falling behind. He gulped for air, and suddenly became aware of another, more horrifying sound. A low rasping hiss. The vampires, now hovering above the ground, advanced toward him. Panic-stricken, Malix pumped arrows into the towering mass of creatures, but they had no effect. There was just too many of them. Malix turned to run. As he did so he tripped over a log and crashed to the ground. High above, one of the vampire plants let out a blood-curdling hiss and plunged downward for the kill.