I rode into the village at dusk. The foothills to the west obscured the red orb of the sun, and an oily shadow had settled over the ruddy tiled roofs of the cluster of modest dwellings. No one was there to greet me as I rode into the village center. I stopped at the single well in the middle of town and dismounted. My horse snorted, tired from the day’s ride but willing to go on if I pushed him.
I heard footsteps and muffled voices to my left, and I turned my head towards the source of the noise. A door had opened at the front of a nearby house and an old man, stooped and gnarled like an ancient weather-beaten tree, was hobbling towards me, leaning heavily on a wooden cane. A middle aged man with a thick black mustache and a stocky woman with an enormous bosom stood in the doorway, calling after him in hushed, urgent voices, but the old man muttered a curse and waved his hand at them dismissively.
The old man made a slow progress across the village square to me, and I took the opportunity to drop the bucket into the well, listening as it splashed someplace far below us. I cranked it back up and sniffed at the water; you can never be too careful.
“It is safe,” said the old man.
His voice was little more than a strained croak, but I detected a note of iron there as well, long-buried but never forgotten. Taking his word for it, I ladled out a few sips of water for myself and gave the rest of the bucket to my horse.
“You should leave,” said the old man. “It is nearly nightfall.”
He had hobbled close to me now, and I looked into his rheumy eyes. The man’s mouth was pulled back in a thin grimace, stretching the ancient skin of his face tight around his lips.
“I know what time it is,” I replied. “Go back inside, old one.”
He snorted disdainfully at me.
“You are a hunter?” he asked. “You will fight them when they come?”
“Then you will die like the others.”
I pulled back my cloak, once a regal blue but now stained and faded by the elements, and showed the man the longsword at my hip, the ashen stakes on my belt, and the phials of holy water strapped to my chest.
“I am prepared, old man. It is you who will die if you stay here.”
The old man let out a deep, wheezing laugh and tapped his cane on the ground several times.
“My name is Hermann,” said the old man. “I am the oldest man in this village, three times your age, hunter. You should respect your elders.”
“Come back inside, father!” called the man in the doorway. “Night will fall any moment!”
As if on cue, the last fingers of daylight retreated from the village. We looked up to watch the sun disappear fully behind the foothills, and my eyes settled on the derelict stone tower that stood two thirds of the way up the closest peak. As soon as the last vestiges of sunlight faded away, a swarm of bats erupted from the top of the tower and billowed down the mountain in a thick black cloud.
The bats swiftly flowed across the rocky terrain between the base of the mountains and the village. They crashed over the houses at edge of town and tore along the main avenue towards the well. I held my arms up to my face, leaving a crack for me eyes. The bats smashed into us, and I took a step back to steady myself as hundreds of screeching black rodents flooded over me.
As quickly as they came the bats vanished, turning skyward suddenly and forming a swirling black pillar. Hermann had kept his feet as well, leaning heavily on his cane for support. His bony white hands were shaking, but his milky eyes held no trace of fear. His son had slammed the door shut, and an eerie silence fell over the village.
Two new figures had appeared in the square, illuminated in the pale moonlight. One was an enormous man with red eyes and long black hair. He was shirtless and barrel-chested, amazingly muscled considering he looked to be nearing his fortieth year. The other was a young woman with the same ruby eyes and thick ebon hair trailing to her waist. Her bodice was halfway unlaced, and she grinned luridly at me. They had not yet showed their fangs, but I knew them to be the vampires I sought.
“You are not of this village,” said the man, pointing one finger at me. “Where is tonight’s offering?”
“No more offerings,” I said.
I walked slowly around the well, never taking my eyes of the pair. The vampires watched me as well, seeming amused. With the well no longer separating us, I opened my cloak to show them my longsword.
“Look, father, a hunter!” said the girl, laughing.
“Who are you to tell us where we may feed, little man?” demanded the man.
“My name is Viktor,” I replied. “But you misunderstand, Alaric. I am not telling you where you may feed. I am telling you that you and your daughter, Lisette, are about to die.”
The vampires charged at me. In an instant their mouths had sprouted grotesque fangs and their fingernails had sprouted into sharp claws. They moved with inhuman speed, coming in straight for the kill. There was never any strategy with vampires. They were so used to destroying weak humans that they never bothered with tactics. I knew that Alaric was a hundred years old at least, but all that time feeding on weaker humans had made him soft.
I flung a vial of holy water into Alaric’s face and there was an audible sizzle as it burned his flesh. He howled in pain and clutched his face. I drew my sword and raised it to strike, but Lisette stepped between us and caught my blade with her hands as it sliced through the air. Blood flowed in rivulets from her palms, but she didn’t seem to feel any pain. Lisette wrenched the blade from my grasp and tossed it to the cobblestones a few feet away. She swiped at me with one bloody hand and I barely stepped back in time to save my life. Her nails raked across my chest, leaving four bloody gashes in my skin.
I threw another vial of holy water at Lisette. She tried to bat it away with one hand, but it shattered. The vampire shrieked as the skin of her hand melted, too distracted by pain to bother with me. I rolled over to my sword, grabbing it and coming up in a crouch.
Lisette was still screaming with pain. I charged at her and swung my sword in a wide arc. She raised one hand defensively, but it was far too slow. My sword tore through the sinews and bone of her neck and severed her head from her body.
I turned to find Alaric. He had moved across the square while I dealt with his daughter, and had one massive hand wrapped around the Hermann’s neck. In the commotion I had forgotten all about him.
“Human filth,” barked the vampire. “Drop your weapon or this old man dies.”
Hermann looked like a brittle twig in the vampire’s grasp. He was quaking, and now his watery eyes were wide with terror. You should have gone back inside, old man, I thought.
I charged at Alaric. The vampire had clearly expected me to deliberate longer and was caught off guard. With a howl he squeezed down, smashing Hermann’s throat and spine with an audible crunch. By then I was in front of him, sword raised to strike. Alaric tossed Hermann’s corpse aside and tried to block the blow, but I shifted my swing to slice through his wrist, removing one of his clawed hands. The vampire stumbled back, shocked, and I drove my sword through his heart. Thick red-black blood gushed from the wound. I removed my sword from the dying vampire and cleaned it on Alaric’s pants after he toppled to the ground.
The door of Hermann’s house crashed opened and his son ran out crying. He cradled the old man’s body, too momentarily distraught to pay attention to me. I knew the villagers had likely been watching me from their windows, and I knew they were all now collectively deciding what to do with me. Am I the hero who slew the vampires or the bastard who let the old man die?
There was nothing left for me here, so I made their decision for them. Doors were opening slowly around the square and dumbstruck villagers were cautiously venturing out into the night. I hopped up on my horse and rode out of the village the way I had come in, having no wish to stay and talk. Hermann’s son would hate me for letting his father die, and he would convince the others to fear me.
Let them curse me. Let them call me a monster. Hermann was dead as soon as Alaric laid hand to him, but now there were two less abominations in the land. I had to be content with that.
I spurred my horse onward, anxious to find shelter before the winter night got much colder, and he sped to a trot as we left the village.