Just as promised, Nina shook me awake for the second watch. I hadn't thought I would sleep, between the memories and the confrontation with Namer, plus her avowal of love which had left me happy and amazed.
But I had gone out like a light.
I raised my head and looked at her kneeling beside me.
A cold splash of fear banished all sleep.
In the dim firelight I saw that Nina was as naked as the day she was born. Her body was as pale as moonlight; her wan face, framed by the midnight dark parenthesis of her hair, was a startling contrast to blood red lips and glowing red eyes. She smiled and I saw the teeth of a wolf.
"Oh, Nina," I groaned, as the weight of despair like a dark ocean settled over me, paralyzing me.
"Talon, my love," she hissed. She straddled me, pinning me, and lowered her face toward mine. "Come join me; it really isn't so bad. In fact, it's wonderful."
I looked into the mesmerizing infinity of her eyes and felt myself falling into them. At first glance I had thought them evil, nonhuman, but now, oh, now I had to go to the place they promised, that bewitching wonderland of dark pleasure. The despair evaporated from me like dew in the sun as I spiraled downward into her.
My whole body responded with a wave of desire unlike anything I had ever imagined.
Nina lowered her mouth to my neck and I eagerly exposed it to her fangs. There was a moment of shrill pain and then ecstasy.
My humanity cried out in the dark night as it tasted death.
"Talon, let go. Let me GO!"
I bolted awake to find that I had one hand locked around her slender throat, the other had the .45 leveled at her face. A roar of fear and rage was straining my vocal cords.
The scream died in my throat.
"It's okay! It was a dream, Talon, a nightmare. Please."
It took great effort to force my finger to relax on the trigger of the HK, and lower the gun. I released her, my heart still pounding with terror. I looked around wildly, panting. A warm wind, smelling of rain, was stirring restlessly through the trees, which looked dark and skeletal in the pallid light of the campfire.
Nightmare? Could a nightmare be so real?
"Are you okay?" Nina asked, rubbing her neck where I had no doubt bruised the flesh.
I could only nod as my breathing settled, fear of undeath replaced by the realization of how close I had come to killing her.
"Sorry," I finally managed to say as I put the .45 away. "Oh, Nina, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," she smiled, going to her sleeping bag and sitting down. "For future reference, remind me to never let you sleep with a gun. Boy, I'd hate to really piss you off."
I rose and went to her, knelt down beside her. Pulling her to me, I said, "I dreamed that you were one of them, and, and, well, you bit me, and I joined you."
"It's been quiet as a church mouse," she said. "Or it was until the wind started up. It makes me uneasy, the wind."
I knew what she meant. A whole army of vampires could be approaching us and we'd never hear them over the wind. It was unseasonably warm, and tomorrow would likely be dark and rainy, a perfect day for The Hunt.
"Get some sleep," I said at last, standing up reluctantly. I longed for the time when I could spend all my days and nights with her.
One way or the other, I thought, and shivered.
She smiled and, if possible, I wanted her more than ever. She crawled into her sleeping bag and rolled over to sleep.
I fed some wood to the fire and watched it flare up, pushing the shadows back a bit farther into the dark canopy of forest. My heart was still beating a bit too hard, the dream was still a bit too fresh in my mind, disturbing in the way that it enticed me.
I got up and walked around, remembering.
"It's time," the Minister said, "for The Hunt. Are you ready?"
I looked up from my book, a thread of unease trickling through me as the implications of his question struck me. This was the moment I had dreaded and anticipated for two years.
I carefully marked my spot in White Falcon and lay the book aside.
"Yes, sir, I'm ready," I said, standing and taking a deep breath. The Minister (his name was Frank Barclay, but to me he was always The Minister) was dressed in hunting fatigues, but he wouldn't be armed with a deer rifle; the weapons of this hunt were far more ancient.
He nodded his approval. "Good. Get dressed. And go over the things I taught you."
He had taught me many things, including martial arts, although not the usual kind. Vampires were immune to fists and feet, but there were those we'd encounter who weren't; there were the Shadow People who lived in the nether regions of evil, and, the Minister had assured me, we would encounter them along the way when we sought those they worshiped.
"Remember, fighting is not here," he'd said to me that first day, pointing to his heart. "You hear that all the time, but it's a bunch of baloney. Fighting is ninety percent here." He pointed to his head. "The mind controls the heart and the body. Train it, and the body will respond. In training you visualize what you are going to do. Go over every move enough times in your mind, and your body will react accordingly; it doesn't know the difference."
We climbed into the big black car with its strange cargo and headed out of town. The day was warm and balmy; spring like a new lover lay upon the mountains, where spring came late. The first blushes of purple and pink and white had given way to Lincoln green, the most beautiful sight in the world after a long, barren winter. The sun was just beginning to peek from behind the distant ridges that bordered Helton, KY, where we lived and the Minister shepherded his flock.
25E took us toward I-75, which had just been completed though the county. Last fall we had driven to Jekyll Island, GA to attend the Feast of Tabernacles, and had encountered long stretches where the interstate was incomplete, forcing us to use alternate routes.
"I hear there are strange things going on over in Marlton," The Minister said as we drove through smoky bars of slanting sunlight. "People disappearing without a trace. That's always the first red flag warning, son. In this business you take nothing for granted. Always act as though every rumor about such things is true. Be quick to listen, slow to talk. If anyone ever mentions vampires, which is rare, encourage them to talk.
"When a vampire takes a new victim, that victim almost always turns to his or her family first, simply because they are convenient. Dad takes mom, and then they take the kids. The neighbors are next, and so it goes until whole communities are infected. From the time someone is bitten, until the possession is complete, usually takes around ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the size of the parasite. It takes longer for a child to drink the blood of a victim. But after a couple of quarts of blood is lost, the victim is in serious trouble. Shock sets in and immediate transfusions are necessary to save him. That will rarely happen, Talon, because by the time you take care of the vampire, the victim is usually lost. Therefore, you must never count on trying to save someone. That is the hope, but seldom the reality."
"Have you ever saved anyone?" I asked.
He shook his head ruefully. "No. But I haven't given up hope on it. It's rare that you will find someone in the actual act. Vampires are not stupid, they know what they're doing."
We took I-75 a couple of exits north, and as soon as we got off on the Marlton exit, I felt it, something indefinable in the air, as though a large thunderstorm was building. The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened, and unease quickened my heart.
There wasn't much at the intersection, just a couple of gas stations and a motel; all appeared deserted. Marlton was several miles to the east, and wasn't a very big town, but still, there should have been much more activity than was here. The vacant parking lots, the dark, brooding windows, the silence, all seemed eerie in the bright sunshiny day.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Cumberland House Inn and parked in front of the office. Two cars were there, an old Volkswagen Beetle and a hopped up Ford truck. Neither looked as if it had been driven recently. The Minister shut off the car and the silence moved in, enveloped us. Rural Kentucky was, for the most part, a quiet place, but this hush was thick and ominous, tomblike, and I felt anxiety turn to the first stirrings of fear. I breathed deeply, remembering my lessons, remembering The Credo:
I am a man, but I am more than a man; I am a vampire killer.
I do not kill vampires; Yehovah kills vampires; I am just the instrument in His hand.
The fear didn't go away, not exactly, but I felt calmer, more sure of myself.
We climbed out of the car and went to the trunk. The artifacts there seemed surreal somehow in the warm golden air with the smells of spring like a fond dream, in sharp contrast to the darkness we were here to seek. We took up stakes, hammer, hatchet, crucifixes, and garlic, ancient charms against ancient evil, and then donned more modern weapons--a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum for me, an Officer's Colt .45 for my mentor--in shoulder holsters underneath our vests.
The Minister closed the trunk lid softly so that the latch didn't engage, in case we had to get inside quickly. The simple action struck me as portentous.
We took a last look around and then strode toward the office as unobtrusively as possible, just a couple of prospective overnighters.
The glass door pushed silently open, as if anticipating our arrival. We stepped into the foyer and looked around the shadowy interior. A faint odor of cigarette smoke tainted the air, which was warm and stale, suggesting that the AC hadn't been run in awhile. Straight ahead was a hallway that led out to a breezeway and the first block of rooms. To the left was a gift shop with a Closed sign on the door. Slightly to the right was the lobby, decorated with several comfortable looking chairs and a coffee table, and beyond was the reception desk.
We studied the lobby, listening for anything amiss in the thick, repressive silence. I felt it, and smelled it too: Something feral and savage that touched me on a deep, primeval level. My nose flared and the hairs on the back of my neck stiffened again. My heartbeat was a slow, heavy murmur in my ears.
"Guess we'll have to check each of the rooms," the Minister said. "I don't think we'll find anything there, it's too obvious, but we have to look. I'll see if I can find a master key."
He walked casually over to the desk and went behind it. Rummaging around, he located the key as if he knew where to look. Holding it up, he nodded me toward the hallway.
"Wait there; I'll be just a moment. I'm going to check the office."
He disappeared from sight and I padded silently across the thick carpet to the hallway. A cigarette machine and two soft drink dispensers lined one wall. On the other side were the restrooms and a room marked Private.
Should I check the restrooms?
I thought about it. The Minister had said to wait, but he was training me to be a vampire killer, and there was no time like the present to start taking the initiative.
The Minister returned before I acted however, and nodded toward the ladies room. "Go ahead, check it out. I'll check the men's."
Had I been that obvious, or was he reading my mind?
I pushed the door open and reached inside for the light. Flipped the switch up. The room remained dark, and there was nothing to prop the door open with.
So I pulled my penlight out and turned it on. My eyes had adjusted to the gloom by now, and its feeble pencil beam was just enough illumination for me to make out the shadowy interior of a typical lady's room.
I stepped into the bathroom and the door swung shut behind me, cutting off the outside light.
Several things happened at once.
In the wan backwash of the flashlight I caught a glimpse of something in the far upper corner, near the ceiling over the far stall, like an enormous spider. I swung the beam toward it just as it launched itself at me. In the blur of movement it looked like a little girl.
My training went out the window. The penlight clattered to the floor as my arms went instinctively up to protect myself, and the girl struck me full force. She couldn't have been more than five or six, and weighted perhaps forty pounds, but the force of her drove me back against the tile wall.
I caught a gleam of tiny, saliva slick fangs.
I got my hands on her just as those teeth latched on my throat. Thankfully I had managed to deflect her from my jugular, but I felt a hot, sharp pain where the shoulder meets the neck.
With a cry of fear and loathing I threw her from me, intending to pull out the gun, never mind that it was useless. It wasn't supposed to be this way; they weren't supposed to attack in the daytime.
The vampire child hit the sink, landed on the floor, and was at me again, unbelievably fast.
I felt like I was in a small cage with a large, ferocious cat.
Reflexive action saved me. I went cold and still inside. Things seemed to slow down and my training took over. I sidestepped and brushed her by me, then grabbed one of the garlic cloves from around my neck and brandished it at her as she pivoted for another attack. She struck it and recoiled, hissing.
Got her! I thought triumphantly, and pulled out one of the stakes, which was darkened with the blood of kills made before my birth. I'd pin her to the floor and ram it through her chest.
I had a lot to learn.
Catching a vampire, even a child, was like trying to catch a fly. Before I could take a step toward her she was gone. I looked around wildly, and she landed on my back, her hot, fetid breath bathing my neck. I rammed the stake at her and tried to fling her off but she clung to me like a bronco buster. I lunged backward and slammed her into the wall with all the effort I had but she hung on, trying to get at my throat.
All this in five seconds.
"Get off me!" I snapped. There was no fear now, there was no time for it in the desperate struggle for my life. She was tenacious, vicious.
The Minister's voice spoke in my head:
Always focus, always be deliberate. Never respond, but react: Response takes thought. And whatever you do, never show mercy, never.
Again that cold, calm feeling. I dropped the stake at my feet, reached up and latched both hands firmly around the neck of the little vampire and, bending forward, yanked her over my head and threw her to the floor. It was like trying to hold on to a python; she seemed all tightly wound sinew and muscle, but I calmly shoved her to the floor and knelt on her. She clawed and shrieked, loosening ribbons of blood from my arms. I put both knees on her shoulders, pinning her with my weight. Feeling around with my right hand, my left on her throat, I found the stake and grasped it firmly.
Coldly, deliberately, I raised it high to pound it into her heart.
She went limp then.
"No, please don't hurt me," she sobbed, her tiny voice that of a lost and frightened little girl. I couldn't tell the color of her eyes but imagined them to be big and blue.
She squirmed violently and almost managed to slither out from under me. I regained my balance and forced all my weight down on her, then brought the sharpened stake down as hard as I could and plunged it into her frail chest.
To the left of the chest, son, never in the center, the sternum will deflect the stake. Jim Bowie was stabbed in the sternum with a sword cane and its owner was the first victim of his new bowie knife.
A thick gout of blood, looking as black as ink in the dim light, splattered me. Her eyes went wide and her mouth opened in the shrill scream of a tortured child. Her high pitched cry echoed off the walls, and then turned to a guttural howl of pure rage as she seemed to shrivel beneath me. Revulsion filled me at the noisome, animalistic grunting that was coming from the dark puckered maw of her mummifying face.
I didn't even realize that I too was screaming.
And then it was over.
One moment I was atop a writhing body like a bag of eels, and the next I was kneeling on an empty husk as she seemed to diminish under me.
In the sudden silence I realized that I was still screaming, my voice as guttural as hers had been at the last.
I tried to stop, couldn't.
I finally did.
Fierce elation filled me. I leaped to my feet, feeling like Tarzan the ape-man, intending to pound my chest and scream forth the victory cry of the bull ape which has just made a kill.
"You did well," the Minister spoke up over the echoes of violence in my ears. He was standing in the doorway.
The savage red rage that had obscured my vision faded, leaving me breathless.
I turned toward him.
"I thought--" I panted and tried again. "I thought you said they had no power over me."
"You're alive, aren't you?"
I looked down at the loathsome corpse, suddenly disgusted with the act. My hand went to my neck, felt the slick warm blood coursing down my chest, wetting my shirt. My arms were burning where she had clawed me.
I turned to the Minister. "She bit me."
"Come out here, into the light," he said, "and let's look at that."
Time and motion blurred as I trudged out into the hallway and leaned against the wall, exhausted as though I had just ran a marathon.
"Nothing to worry about, I think," the Minister said after examining my neck. "She came close to her mark, but it's just a flesh wound. It's very unusual for them to be awake in the daytime, son, but let this be a lesson: Nothing is ever for certain; nothing. Always be on you guard.
"There's a first aid kit beneath the front desk. Stay put; I'll get it."
Dazed, I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes, but the memory of the vampire child's spider quick movements caused them to pop open and my gaze darted about, checking the ceilings, the walls, the floor. Would I ever feel safe again?
I had done it; I had killed a vampire.
We killed more that fateful day.
But the memory of the first one, the little girl, would haunt my dreams for years to come.
As well as the memory of the bite.
The wind was a constant companion as the night drew out long and dark. Nina slept four hours and woke just as the darkness began to turn to ash.
"Sleep well?" I asked as she sat up and looked at me. It was a question I hoped to ask her every morning for the rest of my life.
She smiled sleepily and yawned. Getting to her feet she stretched and ran her fingers through her hair. "Like the dead," she said. "I must look like I slept in a forest, though."
"You look beautiful," I assured her. "As always."
"Ready for coffee?" she asked.
I nodded. "Sure am."
"I'll go to Starbucks and get some," she said. "And a dozen donuts while I'm at it."
Funny as well as beautiful. But what on earth did she see in me?
I set about stirring the fire to life, and preparing the coffee. We had a hot coffee and cold breakfast, and then prepared to leave. Anxiety was a constant companion in me as the dawn brightened in spite of the overcast day.
"Dark Holler--Hollow--is about two miles deep," I said as we checked our weapons and donned our packs. "There are a couple dozen houses, if memory serves, and they are all empty, if what that guy told us is true, and I've no reason to doubt his word. The closest one to here is the Potter house, not too far up the road. We'll start there."
The day refused to brighten much, and the fog gathered around us like lost wraiths, muffling our steps on the leaf-strewn remnant of a road. The overarching limbs of great oaks and maples sealed us with a festive, though forlorn, gathering of leaves, which murmured in the restless breeze that smelled warmly of rain.
The Potter house looked smaller than I remembered it, as did everything about Dark Hollow. Cedars lined the road and mostly obscured the house, which sat below the road in the valley where Black Creek flowed. I had a vague memory of the creek overflowing its banks and flooding the valley, rising higher and higher and not stopping until it was lapping at the foundation stones of the white frame house. The cedars had at one time been kept trimmed in teardrop shapes but were now tall and shoulder to shoulder. The edge of the road and the slope that led down into the yard were littered with yellow sprigs which filled our nostrils with their pungent perfume.
I pushed my way between the conifers and paused at the edge of the yard, which was overgrown with weeds and scattered offspring of the cedars, their evergreen color in sharp contrast to the frost killed vegetation. The house was still in fairly good shape, although it was beginning to stoop from the depredation of time, as houses and people do. The white paint was peeling and smudged with dark rot. The ancient green shingles on the roof were sagging slightly between the rafters, giving it a rutted look. A porch spanned the right third of the front, the door centered in it. The windows, two on each side of the front door, were still intact, though darkened with the cataracts of age and grime.
Nina moved silently from the cedar boughs to stand beside me and we stood there in the windswept morning, surveying the house.
"Do you feel it?" I asked, my voice an unconscious whisper. The house had a malevolence about it, seemed to emanate evil, as though it were alive and aware, a constant watcher for those inside, who slept the sleep of the undead.
"Yes," she whispered back, and I felt her shiver in the warm wind that moved around us, whispering warnings to us.
But no wind seemed to touch the house. Perhaps it was just my imagination, or perhaps those who slept inside were so unnatural that their alien-ness had seeped into the very wood of the structure, making it a vacuum that nature abhorred.
"They're in there, aren't they?" Nina murmured against my shoulder. "Sleeping?"
Her voice suggested that she hoped fervently that they were sleeping.
"Yes," I said, raising my voice with an effort to bolster my confidence as well as hers. "And they are helpless in the daytime. We go in and kill however many we find. In and out."
"The front door opens into the living room," I said. "On each side of it is a bedroom." I pointed to the windows on either side of the porch. "Straight ahead is the dining room; a third bedroom is to the left of it; to the right is the kitchen, which leads out to the back porch. I have no idea where the opening is to get into the attic, but we'll look for it; it's probably in a closet or maybe even outside, on the back wall.
"Oh, and by the way, there's a cellar in the back." I pointed toward the left.
"Are you ready?" I asked, turning to look at her.
She looked pale and lovely in the gloom of the misty morning, and determined.
She nodded. "Let's do it."
I studied her, noting every nuance of her face, framed by the curve of her hair, and her eyes, beautiful windows to her soul. This was how I wanted to remember her, not waking in the morning swaddled with lingering sleep, but in her element, alive and vibrant, a jungle cat intent on its prey. A line from an old song by The Church came to me, about following her down to worship some god that never spoke to me.
Odd, the things a person thinks of on the brink of the unknown.
The front door was locked, but the wood was ancient and warped, flimsy. It burst open with one kick and I stepped across the threshold, my eyes everywhere.
A noisome odor wrinkled my nose, the smell that had lingered in my darkest dreams, the smell of vampires in their lair. The living room was as I remembered it all those years ago: A couch along the wall to my right, to the left, along the opposite wall, a television, antique now, and the hulk of an old coal stove between us and the bedroom door on that side, which was flanked by an easy chair in the far corner. Everything was draped in a thick coating of dust.
I nodded to the bedroom on the right and we crept silently toward it. It was a nondescript room like a million others: A bed, two nightstands, a chest of drawers, a dresser with a shattered mirror. Shards of glass lay scattered about like cheap diamonds.
I had expected them to be difficult to find, but the years had diminished their caution, their need of close narrow spaces.
Two of them, a man and woman of indeterminate age, were on the bed, as close together as newlyweds. They lay on their backs, arms crossed over their chests, pale, cadaverous creatures, like giant grub worms. But their cheeks glowed with the flush of blood freshly devoured.
Mr. and Mrs. Potter, I thought, and shuddered. I had grown older, as had the world, but they were as I remembered them.
The sight of them stirred the old revulsion in me, and something else, something like excitement, or anticipation. This was what I had been born to do, just as some men were born to hunt big game.
I looked at Nina. Her dark eyes were narrowed as she looked upon the two undead beings. But her right hand clutched a stake, and her left the crucifix around her neck.
"They may awaken when we stake them," I whispered into her ear, the scent of her hair a
wonderful antidote to the poison of the stale air around us. "But they can't harm you if you don't look into
their eyes. Keep your eyes on what you're doing."
She nodded, and I saw some of the same emotions I was experiencing stirring in her eyes.
It was over amazingly quick. We drove the stakes down into their chests at the same time. Their eyes flew open, as did their mouths, in wide Os of horror and surprise. Mr. Potter grasped one birdlike claw at the stake in his chest, convulsed on the rickety bedsprings, and then diminished into a mummified corpse. Mrs. Potter's arms and legs jerked spasmodically and she made a strange grunting noise, but she too died with little struggle.
Nina looked at me, the disgust and triumph mingled in her eyes.
"What now?" she said in a stage whisper.
I yanked out the stake and put it away; she followed suit.
"Let's search the house for more of them," I said. "They had a bunch of kids; most likely they too are undead. Then we'll torch the house, since we don't have the time or the resources to bury them properly."
But we found no others, though we searched the house thoroughly.
A soft rain was falling from an ashen sky as we departed the house, so we set it afire and walked away, unconcerned that the flames would spread on such a damp and drizzly day.
We climbed back up through the cedars and paused on the olden road to watch the smoke billow.
"Well," I said as the roar of the fire began to grow. "You are a vampire killer; how does it feel?"
She studied my face, searching for sarcasm, I suppose, or levity, and finding neither, said, "It feels good to know that I have rid the world of such an evil, but there's a certain amount of revulsion as well, like I will never feel clean again.
I watched the fire reaching for the somber sky, then said, "How did you first encounter vampires?"
"Can we discuss this later?" she asked evasively. "When we are through?"
I didn't think we would ever be through, but I nodded. "Sure, my love. Or we can never discuss it, if you prefer. I know all about keeping things under wraps."
We headed deeper into Dark Hollow, to the next house, where the boy Caleb had once upon a time discovered that his mother was a witch, or so he told me.
It was a big white plantation style house, haunted by misdeeds, and there we killed ten more vampires, four adults and six children of varying ages. Leaving the house in flames, we carried onward. And with every kill, Nina seemed to harden in her resolve, taking to the new practice as she did everything else that had to do with combat: As though she were born to it.
By early afternoon we had completed our purging of Dark Hollow: Every house was swept clean and burned to the ground.
But we hadn't found Namer.
I wasn't surprised. He was too smart for that.
But I had a good idea where we might find him.
And we had plenty of daylight left.