The vampire hunter grinned as he wiped the blood from his gold coin. It was the last piece he had counted from the payment he received for his last bounty, and the bounty was plentiful.
“It never ceases to amaze me how much people are willing to part with when they hear the word vampire,” Fenril Valentine said, his smooth, calming voice carrying on the silent night as he slid the gold from his palm into his money pouch. Hunting vampires had a high learning curve, but it was becoming as easy as sliding a hot knife through butter to him now. “As long as the hunting stays lucrative, I’m happy to oblige.”
As he approached the first house in his small hometown of Bran, Fenril grabbed his large-brimmed, black hat that matches his western-influenced black ensemble from the horn of his saddle. He placed his middle finger and thumb on opposing sides of his head and drew his medium-length hair back revealing his handsomely-squared features as he sat his hat on his head. With a deep breath, he looked about the town with its humble hay-roofed houses and smiled. Though he loved the western nation of his birth and raising, Bran held his family, and thus a large portion of his heart.
A blood-chilling scream rang out from the center of town, changing Fenril’s countenance immediately to fierce determination. “Yah!” he shouted as he kicked the sides of his horse without a moment’s hesitation. The clop of his mount’s hooves on the cobblestone street rang out as he leaned into the ride holding his hat to his head. His long coat fluttered behind him as he navigated through the townspeople emerging from their homes to investigate the alarming sound.
The center of town was becoming steeped in havoc. Townspeople scattered and vampires flew about grabbing their victims. As his horse was in stride, Fenril drew his pistol from his hip and effortlessly blasted a fiend through the heart as it tried to carry away a man in ragged clothes. The vampire screeched and crumbled into dust that drifted into the night air.
Pressing the button on the side of his firearm, the barrel of Fenril’s pistol fell forward, ejecting the casing of his bullet. In one smooth motion, he slid the barrel against a bullet on his bandolier and the leather slid open, dropping the ammunition in place. With a flick of his wrist, the barrel clicked back against the stock, and Fenril put another bullet through another vampire.
“Gah,” the vampire hunter cried out as one of the undead creatures slammed into the side of his horse. Fenril hit the ground rolling and drew his crossbow from his back in the action. The vampire that hit his horse was within inches of his bolt when he launched it into the creature from his weapon. Fenril took the moment’s reprieve to rush into a neighboring home and reload.
The vampire hunter’s eyes went wide as he looked in the room to see the terrified faces of the family staring at him expectantly from behind their furniture. Well, this is awkward, he thought, sliding the bolt into his crossbow. They’re probably looking for me to say something reassuring. “Hey, uh, they seem to be eating other people right now. You’ll be fine in here…” he slides his crossbow on his back, starts back out of the door, and leans back in, “…probably.”
Gotta get to my house, Fenril thinks as he slides another bullet into his gun and flips it closed. When he looks toward his home, a voice cries out above the chaos.
For the first time in his life, Fenril’s face shows a look of sheer terror. A white-skinned vampire stands in the city square, his long, purple cape lightly blowing on the night breeze. His red velvet vest is peaking out from behind a remarkably clean nobleman’s suit. He smiles as he looks at the dumbstruck Fenril.
“Surprised to see me, Fenril? You didn’t think I would let you kill off all of my clan without paying you a visit, did you?”
How’d he find my home? Don’t matter now. I’ll have to make sure his attention is on me so he doesn’t try to find my family. Fenril’s mind reeled as he tried to come up with something, anything, to say. He slid his gun into its holster and put his hands up. “Okay, Razvan. Let’s talk. We’ll work something out, just leave these people alone. They had nothing to do with this.”
“It is unfortunate, isn’t it, Valentine? A day ago, the simple people of Bran milled about zeir insignificant lives, and now zey have become a target of the Vlad Clan through no fault of zeir own. Ve vould never have bothered to travel zis far for such a little town, but zen you made var vith us. Zeir blood is on your hands.”
Fenril couldn’t bear to look around at the glares he knew were boring into him, so he kept his gaze locked into Razvan’s cold, dead eyes with his hands raised high. “Alright. Well you found me, so take me with you, and leave them out of it. You got me.”
“Not yet, I don’t.” He snapped his fingers and two vampires drug a kicking and screaming woman and child in front of their master.
“Daniela! Anne Marie!”
“Oh, you know zeese girls?” Razvan’s evil smile deepened.
“I already told you, I surrender. Let them go. You got me!”
“Yes. I do ‘got you’, Cowboy. I have you and everyvone you love.”
Fenril could see he wasn’t going to make any ground verbally, which made his stomach tense into a knot. He lowered his arms and his head dejectedly, but kept his eye trained on the vampire’s heart from beneath the brim of his hat. “You win, demon. Please don’t take my family.”
As Razvan laughed, Fenril made his move. Time seemed to slow as he retrieved his pistol and brought it to bear in fluid motion. His heart thumped in his ears, and his palms sweat making him doubt he had a strong grip on the weapon. It didn’t matter. This was his one shot to save his family. He took aim.
The bullet zipped toward its target. It was a perfect shot. The projectile barreled directly toward the monster’s heart. In the second it should have connected, the vampire disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Fenril looked on in horror. The vampire’s eerie command sounded distant and muffled as it echoed from beyond.
“Noooo!” Fenril shouted, breaking into a sprint toward the vampires holding his family. He was too late.
In his desperation, the fiend approaching him from the side escaped Fenril’s notice, and it grabbed him by the arm. Its wicked bite tore through his arm at the elbow, removing it from its place. In fury, the vampire hunter drew his short sword from his side and sliced through the monster. He stabbed it again and again and again, tears floating from his face. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, he didn’t feel the pain of his arm nor care to tend to the wound. He locked his eyes on what mattered to him the most: His precious wife and daughter.
When Fenril turned his attention to his family, he noticed that the vampires had all left. He rushed to his daughter and scooped her up in his arm. “Anne Marie. No.” He wept into her chest as he pulled her close.
A tear rolled from Fenril’s cheek and fell onto the cupcake pendant he had bought Anne Marie for her sixth birthday. “My little cupcake,” he said with a quivering voice. As he ran his dirty finger over the gold necklace, he remembered the look of sincere joy on her face as she had opened the gift. With great difficulty, he worked the necklace off of her body with his remaining arm and stuffed it into his pocket before embracing her again.
As the seconds ticked by, reality crept further and further from Fenril. The loss of blood from his wound caused his consciousness to wane. Battered, bruised, and broked, he soon succumbed to his condition, and fainted.
Fenril awoke to the sound of bubbling liquid and the smell of sulfur. He tried to sit and put his hand on his throbbing head, but he couldn’t pull his arm from the leather strap holding it down.
“Hey, what is this?” The vampire hunter surveyed the room. He saw his hat and pistol on the table before him, and took note. Potions lined the shelves, scribblings and sketches of demons lined the walls, and a circle with runes and designs surrounding it sat in the middle of the room with two bodies atop it. Fenril woke right up.
“Daniela! Anne Marie! Let me offa here! Where am I?”
“Relax, Fenril. I’m here to help,” a sinister-sounding voice hissed.
“Stop it, Creed. I don’t want your ‘help’.”
The warlock stepped from behind the table Fenril was strapped to and looked him up and down. Creed was once a handsome man with long locks of auburn hair. Now he stood before the vampire hunter, a shadow of his former self. He carried himself with a dignity that spoke of his former days, his red hair slicked back, his attire pomp, and his arms resting behind his back as nobility would stand. But his time spent consorting with evil had warped his behaviors. He had told himself it was for the good of the town, but his gain was marred by new interests. The warlock had the simple townspeople fooled into believing him the only semblance they had at a doctor. Hence Fenril being brought to him for ‘help’ when he had passed out.
“Come now, Bounty Hunter. That’s no way to speak to the one who’s going to restore your arm…” Creed waved his arm toward his circle, “and your family.”
Fenril kicked and struggled with all his might against his restraints, his skin tingling with anger. “If you so much as touch them, Creed…”
“You don’t want to see them again? To hold your little girl, and caress your wife once more?”
“Not the way you’re going to do it,” Fenril screamed, his veins bulging from his neck.
“Well, be that as it may, I’m afraid you have no choice in the matter. As you can see, the ritual for your absent appendage has already begun.”
Fenril’s eyes went wide as he looked down at the stub where his arm was. For the first time he noticed the runes etched into the flesh around his wound. The vampire hunter looked back at the warlock in angered disgust as Creed smiled back at him.
“Koryo shum ainee shopuyo…” Creed’s chant reverberated with the sound of many deep voices calling out at once. Fenril kicked frantically trying to break free of his bonds, but they gave no concessions. A sudden and intense burning sensation washed over his stubbed arm.
“Gaaaahhh!” Fenril cried out and looked down to see glowing orange flesh growing from his wound. Infuriated at his helplessness, he watched with hot tears of anger streaking from his eyes as a demonic hand extended from the flesh.
“It worked! Never before in all of our circles has someone summoned a demon’s appendage on someone, but the great Creed Cordova has succeeded!”
Fenril didn’t hear the ecstatic warlock. He stared blankly at his new hand as he flexed his clawed fingers. He did hear Creed’s next exclamation loud and clear.
“Now to focus on the girls.”
Fenril knew this was his last chance. He was going to prevent his family from becoming… whatever Creed was going to turn them into, or he was going to die trying. As he began to struggle against the restraints again, he had a strange moment of clarity. The ranger remembered the spell he had prepared.
Fenril closed his eyes, spoke the incantation, and worked his hands in the proper motions. As he finished, the caw of a bird rang out through the window. Creed stopped his spell, the light of the circle beneath the bodies fading, and turned to the window. The shudders thumped once, twice, thrice, and burst open, black feathers showering into the room. Two ravens flew into the warlock’s face clawing and screeching, sending him to the floor with his hands flying wildly in front of his face.
A third raven flew in and landed on Fenril’s shoulder. It cocked its head back and forth before flying down and biting at the vampire hunter’s bindings, its wings fluttering wildly. Soon the leather gave way, freeing Fenril’s demonic arm. He began working on freeing his other arm and paused to spread his fingers and look at the orange hand in disgust. Forcing himself to push the thoughts aside, he freed his other arm as the raven bit through the bindings holding his feet.
Creed had worked his way back to his feet and noticed his prisoner had been freed. “No!” He threw his hand out and sent a crackling purple bolt at Fenril. The vampire hunter saw a golden moment of opportunity and took it. He dove and grabbed his pistol from the table in front of him, rolled, and came up aiming. In the blink of an eye, his barrel was aimed and his shot rang out.
Creed clasped his chest in shock, looked at Fenril with his jaw agape, and fell without a word. Fenril breathed heavily. He did what he couldn’t do in the town square. He saved his family. The vampire hunter was finally able to lay his wife and daughter to rest. Now he would have to invent a life alone, without the joys and laughter of his girls.
“Please, please, Fenril! He has my child,” the woman exclaimed frantically, pulling on the bounty hunter’s sleeve.
Fenril stood placidly, working a toothpick in his mouth and rolling a bullet between his fingers. His thick goatee and long hair reflected the apathy the tragic events had planted in his heart the year prior. “I’m going to help you, Miss. Just tell me everything you remember about him.”
The woman went over everything she remembered, her tears streaking down her face and falling onto her kitchen apron, mixing with the soot into tiny charcoal balls. Such a pretty lady to be working the kitchen, Fenril thought. Her eyes kinda remind me of Daniela… He subtly shook his head. Can’t let that affect my work. This is business. I gotta eat. Won’t help no one to cut her a deal on account of her appearance.
“Pleeease. The longer you stay here, the less time Timothy has,” the woman finished.
Fenril tipped his hat to her. “If what you say is true, your boy has a few hours yet. This type o’ vampire likes to keep a reserve of victims in their dungeons. I’ll get your boy back, Ma’am. You just have that gold ready for when we return.”
It pained him to say it. He knew this lady would need the money as much as he did, but if word got out that he did a job for free, everyone would expect a handout. And a bounty hunter can’t eat on handouts.
“Yes, yes. I promise. Please just get my son.”
Fenril turned and began making his way in the direction the vampire left, his boots clopping on the cobblestone street. He looked about his bandoliers and pouches taking another quick inventory of his affects. It was all there, he knew, but Fenril Valentine risked little when it came to his work. One misplaced potion could mean the difference between life and death.
In a little under an hour, the bounty hunter came to a fork in the road. To the left was wilderness, to the right was a city that was destroyed years ago in war, and down the center was a road that led to a mansion. He knew this monster and the clan to which he belonged, the Vlad Clan, though proud would not be so arrogant as to set up their hideout in a mansion.
Too cliché, he thought, looking at the wrought iron fence to the Victorian castle on the hill. That really only left one option, but he would make sure before following a cold trail and wasting precious time. A child’s life depended on it. Dust flew about as he kicked around looking for a footprint. Carried him in vapor form. Pulling a match from his pouch, he struck it against a nearby tree and watched the flame flicker. It danced for a moment before settling in a shaky pattern toward the right, a trail of cinder floating from the fire toward the city.
“Sulfur trails don’t lie.” He dropped the match, spit out his toothpick, drew his pistol, and approached the city.
The cool wind blew dead leaves through the holes broken in the sides of the homes. Fenril’s eyes narrowed against the biting breeze as he looked for the first building he would investigate. It had to be large. Large enough to contain a few cells for forthcoming ‘meals’, yet intact and elaborate enough to sate the proud clan’s need for lavishness. His hazel eyes locked on a prime target.
Fenril kicked his pistol open to make sure it was loaded and walked up to the large, decorated front entryway. The door squeaked in protest as he slid it open. He stepped onto the filthy red carpet that ran down the aisle and ran his finger in a circle around the trigger guard of his gun as he looked about.
“I could smell ze gunpowder from a mile avay, Gunslinger,” a hollow voice echoed throughout the cathedral.
“Why do you think I ain’t hidin’?”
“Because you are a fool, Valentine. Just like you are a fool for tracking me here. Vat, did some poor helpless citizen ask you to come rescue zeir family?” came the shadowy reply.
“Gotta eat somehow… Mikele.”
“Oh, so you know my name?” A black cloud of mist floated from the rafters and coalesced into a humanoid form in front of Fenril. “Zen you are even more of a fool than I thought. You tracked a lieutenant of ze Vlad Clan to his home. Zis church shall be your tomb.” Mikele’s bloodshot eyes glared menacingly into Fenril’s indifferent stare. His tomb or his bounty, it mattered not. But if the bounty hunter managed to walk out of here, it wouldn’t be without the boy and some information on his ultimate target: Razvan.
“Then what are you waiting for?” The bounty hunter threw a punch with his demonic fist at the vampire knowing it wouldn’t hit. He was right. In a puff of smoke, the monster vanished and reappeared behind Fenril. He leapt into a roll dodging the bite he knew was coming, his long coat fluttering behind him and his hat floating off to the side. In fluid motion he drew a glass globe of water and threw it into Mikele’s face as he turned in his roll.
“Eeeeeeeee!” The vampire let out a screech as he grabbed his marred head. He looked through his fingers into the rafters and about the pews for support, showing a lack of judgment in his moment of panic.
“Oh, I’m afraid your boys won’t be back for some time. Daylight hasn’t broke, and you’ve always been one of the fastest hunters, haven’t you, Mikele?”
With blinding speed Mikele flew into Fenril, sending the two tumbling end over end. The vampire opened his mouth to bite his enemy, but Fenril shoved a full clove of garlic into the opening. Mikele vanished and reappeared behind the altar, gasping for air and clutching his throat.
Fenril’s shot blew a giant hole in Mikele’s knee. The bounty hunter leapt over the pulpit with a stake held high above his head. With amazing precision, he drove the wooden weapon into the creature’s heart pinning him to the floor. He grinned viciously as he twisted it in place, causing Mikele to cry out once more.
“Where is your master, Demon?”
Mikele rasped and coughed obviously trying to speak. The look of defiance in his eyes told Fenril he wouldn’t have been pleased with what the vampire would say could the words come.
“Tell me, or I’ll destroy every last one of your clan. I’ll give them a more torturous death than I’m giving you.”
The vampire’s eyes went wide, he opened his mouth to speak again, and his body fell into a pile of ash.
Fenril stood and cursed. “I’ll find that fangboy if it’s the last thing I do,” he said retrieving his hat and placing it back on his head. He paused and thought for a moment. The bounty hunter remembered his wife and his beautiful daughter. He remembered the way Anne Marie’s long, flowing brown locks used to bounce as she ran into his arms to embrace the father she loved so dearly. He remembered why he had to find that vampire and make him pay. The sinister voice for the clan leader echoed in his mind as his memory drifted to that moment.
Fenril closed his eyes and turned his head as he winced at the thought. A crowing rooster caught his attention. The sun would be rising soon.
“The boy.” Fenril reached into the ash and retrieved a key. He brushed the filth off of it and ran to a side room where he heard moaning in the new silence. The lock clicked as he turned the key in it. He burst through the door in a hurry. Strung about the cramped room was about a dozen starved and scared victims.
“C’mon. Day’s about to break, and they’ll be back soon.” Fenril waved them out of the door and his gaze locked onto a boy with a face very similar to the woman he met in town. Tears welled in the boy’s eyes as he froze in fear. Fenril stooped down and picked the boy up, rushing in line behind the crowd exiting the church. “I gotcha, Kid.” With one hand, he cracked his pistol open sending the spent cartridge clanking onto wooden floor. He slid the barrel into his bandolier and reloaded it.
The group made a hasty retreat down the dusty road back to town. Fenril kept a close eye on the area around them for any signs of vampires with the boy on his waste. They were lucky. Soon, he heard the screeching of the clan that returned to an empty home in the distance behind them. The sunlight of dawn caught his eye, and he sighed in relief. “We made it, Buddy. You’re safe.”
As the boy wept on his shoulder he looked at him with drawn lips, the impending task of exacting payment for this venture weighed heavily on his heart. He would fight his way through the feelings, as he had so many times before, but that wouldn’t make it easy. With the clan’s base so close, though, he knew he’d make a fortune on selling defense training to the town’s residents. Maybe he could take a smaller payment from the child’s mother. Maybe that would help quell the unease. Maybe…