From the Dark We Came
J. Emery © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Vibrant pink and amber dawn streaked the sky before Belar finally clambered down from his perch in a nearby tree. He moved with spidery grace. Heights had never bothered him, not when he had perfected the art of sneaking out of his bedroom window before the age of six. He had only gotten better since then. Nothing soothed like a narrow ledge beneath his fingers and a world of sky behind him, waiting to catch him if he fell. Granted, the fall would most likely kill him. But until then—pure ease.
He should have been born a bird instead of a man.
The abandoned house was silent. He had searched the area for days before he’d found the place, half swallowed by the encroaching forest. The perfect place for a vampire to hide, empty as it was, but not so distant from human society to make feeding difficult.
There had been a brief moment earlier when he had even worried his guess was wrong, and the house really was as empty as it appeared despite the feel in the air—blood possibly—that called to him. Then he’d gotten his first sighting as the vampire had come lurching back to his nest and removed any lingering doubt. Belar had gauged him as average height (for a vampire as they ran tall) and probably quite old based on the speed of his movements. He wasn’t graceful—exhaustion rendered him clumsy—but he was certainly fast. Belar had lost track of him for seconds at a time as the vampire zigzagged through the dense underbrush in the woods. But by now the vampire should be fast asleep, hidden away where the sun couldn’t disturb him or his rest.
Belar had waited an extra hour to be certain. Not that he was worried. Because he wasn’t.
Vines grew thick over the sides of the old house, its sagging roof full of patched holes, half the windows empty staring eyes, their glass long since shattered. Utterly abandoned. Dilapidated. Save for the curtains hanging in a lower room, a cheerful, if faded pattern of blue on white like the border on a fancy plate. They had no reason to be there. Not here in an empty house, in an empty town where all but the birds had moved on. Even the bones of those caught in the fire that had destroyed the village years ago were gone. The forest had reclaimed everything but a handful of houses, their crumbling walls marked by smudges of soot and a few scattered patches of paving stone that had once been the town square. The bridge arching over the nearby stream verged on collapse. The rest was mossy, green, and still.
His eyes strayed again to the curtains in the window. Something about them unsettled him.
“Or maybe you’re just losing your touch after the last time,” he muttered. In the stillness, his voice sounded loud as a shout, and he flinched despite himself. But anyone was liable to be a bit jumpy after his recent near miss, he reasoned.
His last hunt had begun as they typically did. Weeks of research and information gathering about the area before he successfully pinpointed the resting place of the vampire and felt safe making his move. He’d always been thorough. Usually it served him well. But despite his many precautions, despite waiting for the sun to rise high enough to assure his target was deeply asleep, Belar had found himself trapped in a tomb with a very angry and very awake vampire who was fully capable of fighting back. Belar had recovered from the blow that threw him into the wall just in time to see the dark figure of the vampire eclipsing the sun streaming in the open door. For one moment, as impossibly beautiful as a wrathful god to Belar’s dazed mind. Then he ran out into the daylight. Everyone knew what happened to vampires touched by the sun. No part was pleasant. No one seemed to have told this vampire though. There were no screams. No flames. Not even the slightest sizzle of searing flesh. Nothing but a rapidly retreating vampire.
Belar had been lucky to escape with nothing worse than a black eye, a sprained wrist, and enough cracked ribs to make breathing exciting for the next few weeks. In a lifetime of brushes with death, this had been the closest of all. By rights he really should be dead. Not that he was complaining on the last point.
And clearly he hadn’t learned his lesson well enough since here he was stalking yet another vampire. Other hunters might have taken the job if he’d wanted to give it up. The thought had never even occurred to him.
Belar slithered in through one of the gaping eyehole windows and landed softly atop a floor carpeted with moldy leaves and splintered wood that had once been a shutter. He took a moment to get his bearings. There wasn’t much to see. He’d surveyed the house from every imaginable angle outside, but hadn’t ventured inside. He hadn’t dared. The risk of spreading his scent around and alerting the vampire to his presence was too great. Now it wouldn’t matter. The sun was up and so was the vampire’s time.
The stairs leading to the cellar were almost completely broken away. What remained was as rotten as everything else in this place. A few jagged timbers and a yawning darkness below. He would have to be careful climbing back up so he didn’t end up full of splinters.
Belar checked his axe and the knives strapped to his wrists before he snugged the knot of the scarf tied over his face. Then he leaped down to kill himself a vampire.
“Did everything go well this time?” Merriville asked as Belar trudged into headquarters. The director of the hunters’ organization had the starchy posture of someone who spent a great deal of time in suits and the vague stare of someone who needed to clean his glasses more often. If he’d ever been a field agent, it must have been a long time ago. Belar had known him to get lost just walking through the archives. Merriville’s lip curled up as he caught sight of Belar. “Ah. I assume so.” He took an unsubtle step backward to let Belar pass.
Belar nearly snarled at the little man. The only thing keeping him from doing so was the fact Merriville, and his abysmal tweed suit, was nominally in charge of making sure Belar got his government sanctioned hunter’s fee every month.
He knew he looked terrible, and possibly smelled terrible, but he felt even worse. Maybe it was the vampire blood he had swallowed. The scarf he wore over the lower half of his face when he hunted had slipped just as he’d beheaded the vampire and black blood had gotten everywhere: in his mouth, on his glasses, even into his ear. Down his shirt. There was a persistent itch where it had dried to a crust on his chest. He needed a bath.
But in all other respects, the hunt had been a success. The vampire hadn’t stirred until Belar’s axe cleaved head from neck, and then he had simply withered away, leaving nothing but a curl of shadow and the spray of viscous black blood that had painted Belar from nose to knee. It was textbook. One fewer vampire menacing the countryside all thanks to him and his efforts. Good job, team.
He should be pleased.
In fact he was nearly the exact opposite of pleased. Two steps to the left and he would be there. Displeased.
It was those fucking blue curtains in the window. And the neat little stack of books he had later found in the room with that window, a partially burnt stump of candle beside them.
What kind of vampire set about murdering his way through the countryside and then returned to his nest to read pastoral poetry?
“Are you absolutely sure—” he began, whirling back to face Merriville only to find him gone. Probably disappeared back to his office. Belar hadn’t even heard him scuttle away. Damn him.
The room was silent and peaceful. The stained-glass windows running along one wall fractured the light into greens and golds and blues, and at midmorning like this, he was unlikely to run into anyone else who was working. Belar took his time filing his report, typing everything out on the typewriter with careful pecks so that he wouldn’t make too many mistakes and have to begin again. His hands at least were clean. His gloves had taken the worst of it, being closest to the business end of the axe, and those he could remove. There wasn’t even a single flake of black blood beneath his nails. The rest of him probably looked like a nightmare, and he didn’t relish the idea of trying to wash out the blood clotted in his long black hair, but his hands were clean.
Belar glared at the little boxes on the report as he aligned the typewriter to fill the empty spaces.
Location. Description. Date. Current status. That last one was easy. It was always the same: deceased/closed. He had an entire drawer of filed reports, all of them marked just the same way. All except for the hunt before this anyway.
He reread the preliminary information again as he turned the platen and hit the carriage return to begin adding his final notes.
Vampires were known to be fierce and agile predators. Ruthless. Only a few centuries ago they had rampaged unchecked, killing more people in a single night of bloodlust than most plagues did in a year. Now they’d been driven back to the shadows they originated from and Belar, or other hunters like him, dealt with any real and sustained threat to the human population. After all, it was their world, and they should get to live in it. Or so went the general reasoning. It was a dangerous but necessary job, and the pay was commensurate with that risk.
Today’s vampire was suspected of having spirited away no fewer than ten people from a nearby village in the last few months before word was relayed back to headquarters, and Belar was assigned. Ten gone. There’d been no sign of any of them at the crumbling little house, but perhaps the vampire had been clever and buried them in the woods. Or thrown them into a river. There were any number of ways to dispose of bodies. Belar knew plenty himself. Not every hunt was as easy to cover as vampires. There had been plenty of cases where he’d spent nearly as long collecting leftover things from the site as he had in finding the target. Compared to that, vampires practically cleaned up after themselves. Today’s unfortunate mess aside. A strike, a whiff of acrid smoke, and the job was complete so he could return to file his report.
But nearly a dozen people dead and not a single bone or splatter of blood… That had been unexpected.
The typewriter rattled the desk as he worked, filling line after line, and trying not to think of blue curtains and a curious absence of bodies.
By the time he had finished his report, filed it, put the duplicate into Merriville’s mail slot to be collected, and checked for any new hunts in the queue, it was nearly midday and the silence was giving way to the quiet murmur of voices. There were never more than a few hunters around at any given time. Most lived in or around the city until they rated their own door linking spell and were able to move further out as Belar had. His spell was attached to an unused closet in his house and allowed him to come and go from headquarters almost as he pleased. He had only to open his closet and step straight through into the lobby. No travel necessary. It was also why he tended to pull the more far-flung hunts so the door spell was something of a mixed blessing.
Today there were only two hunters in besides him, heads bent together over a file open on one of the long worktables in the front room. The first belonged to Marta, a hunter who favored hauntings and, near as Belar could tell from the few times they’d worked together, getting thrown into open graves. She was also barely over five feet on a good day, and anytime she needed a book off the high shelves Marta decided to make Belar her own personal valet. The other hunter was Horace, a tall, broad man with a craggy face like a stone wall. Actually, everything about him had always struck Belar as being rather stony, but something had been chipping away at him since his accident in the field earlier this year. Horace bordered on gaunt compared to the last time they’d run into each other. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of months, but the difference made it seem longer. He could have been two different people. Horace Before and Horace After.
Belar gave the two a wide berth and hoped not to be spotted. He always felt a little mean while covered in gore. They would understand.
“Ah, you are here. I thought I heard your terrible typing,” Marta said, waving him over. Her dark hair was a mound of curls today, and there was a smudge of something greenish on one of her pale-brown cheeks. Very possibly mold. It wouldn’t have been the first time. “Come help us.”
“I would rather not if it’s all the same.”
Horace raised his eyes from the file on the table. Open books lay arrayed around them, woodcut illustrations staring out from many of the pages. Bestiaries it looked like. “Don’t you look charming.” He said it in such a flat way Belar couldn’t tell if it was meant merely as a statement or a taunt. It was possibly a little of both. He didn’t know Horace particularly well, though Horace had been around longer than most. Longer than Belar, he thought. After fifteen years it was hard to be sure.
Marta made a face. “Oh. You have a little—a lot—of something on you,” she said, fishing for her handkerchief and holding it out. She bit her lip. “Vampire again?”
Belar shook his head at the proffered handkerchief. “Yes.”
“That’s why I stick to ghosts. No mess.”
“Except for the occasional bit of entrails,” Belar said dryly.
“Oh no, I save those for you.” Marta smiled at him, the gap between her front teeth giving it a mischievous look.
“Too kind. Too kind. I’ll remember that next time you ask me for help.” And since there seemed to be no escape short of turning tail and running, Belar dragged himself over to their table to see what they were so intent on. It made no more sense from close up. “What is all of this?”
“A sudden rash of animal disappearances. Livestock mostly. And a lot of chickens. I want to get it cleared up before it moves on to human prey. Whatever it is,” Marta said, pointing at a messily drawn map, obviously her own. He recognized her scribbling. And that really was a lot of little Xs on it. Never a good sign.
Belar’s eyebrows lifted. “You did the usual sweep?”
“Of course. But it was unhelpful at best, so I came back to research the most likely suspects. There must be something here I can use to narrow the search.” Her lower lip turned down in a pout as she blew out an aggravated breath.
“And I’m helping instead of going back home to sleep like a sensible person,” Horace said. He flipped a few pages in one of the books and held it up. “A troll? Do trolls still exist in these parts?”
“You were only loitering and you know it. Your queue has been empty for weeks. If I was you, I would be abusing my recovery leave instead of mooning around this place. Get a hobby or something.” Marta glanced at the description and shook her head. “Doesn’t sound right. And there’s been no confirmed sightings in a century at least. I don’t think I’m that special.”
Belar sighed and perched on the corner of the table. “I could be mistaken, but I don’t think it has anything to do with how special you are.”
Marta handed him a book. “It might. You don’t know. Now help me.”
Bascom’s Field Guide of Northern Plants stared up at him. Belar turned it so she could see the spine. “Are you planning to teach it gardening?”
She snatched the book back and threw a different volume into his hands, this one bound in greasy black leather. “I must’ve grabbed the wrong one from the shelf. Try that instead.”
“You know, I had been hoping to sleep sometime this week,” Belar said dismally as he opened the book to the index.
“It’s no use. I said the same thing,” Horace said. He looked Belar over. “How long have you been here? You look foul.”
“Long enough to file my reports and to be entirely too tired for all of this. I have students this afternoon, Marta. I can’t teach them their scales if I smell like I’ve been paddling around in shit. Someone will complain. It may very well be me.” He flipped the book around again to point at a picture of something large and vaguely equine. He didn’t even know what it was or where it was commonly found. Reading the entry was too much for his strained eyes, but it looked promising. “What about this?”
She shook her head. “Already thought of that one.”
He flipped more pages. He couldn’t tell if the spots he was seeing were vampire blood on his glasses or a sign of imminent unconsciousness. “Black dog?”
“Now you’re just being insulting. Hey, where are you going?” The last was said to Horace as he straightened and headed down the hall toward the offices with surprising speed.
He held up the copy of Bascom’s but didn’t stop. “I thought I would return this for you.”
“There’s not going to be anything in the queue for you no matter how many times you look, Horace,” Marta called.
He turned the corner without answering.
While she was distracted, Belar made his own bid for freedom, hopping off the table and darting toward the main door.
“Wait. Get back here, you traitor. Help me find this thing.” She shook a fist but didn’t make a move to chase him. Just as well. She would have caught him in seconds if she had.
“Students, Marta. Students who want to give me money, and if I don’t get a few hours’ sleep soon I’m going to collapse. If you haven’t found any leads by tomorrow, send me a note through the fast post, and I’ll help you look then,” Belar said.
With a wave he tossed the door open and was gone.