The night of the hunt begins as it always does- in the dead of night and unknown to the rest of the household.
I dress in silence, discarding my silken nightgown and trading it for the thick wool of my late father’s cloak and a pair of men’s trousers and black leather boots. With my deep auburn hair tied back and obscured beneath a hood, I almost look like another person. It is the mask that truly disguises my identity; its bronze face-plate hides everything but my hazel eyes and with the sharp curve of a hawk’s beak over my jaw, not even my own mother would be able to recognize me.
My bedroom window is my only way out of the estate, lest I take the risk of creeping downstairs and alerting someone of my illicit plans in the process. But I have no intentions of exposing my secret, not now, after having seven years’ experience under my belt.
A key kept around my neck unlocks the window and the silver-wrought bars beyond the glass. I slip out onto the roof and make sure to close everything behind me, partly to cover my tracks but mostly to keep out the unwanted while I am away.
Outside, the autumn air is somewhat chilly, but does not bear the cold bite that signifies winter is on its way. The full moon is luminous in the inky black sky, bathing the grounds in pale light and providing me with enough visibility to navigate across the roof tiles and down the gnarled old tree into the yard.
I keep to the shadows, moving along the edge of the property quickly and quietly. Muffled beneath my feet, the crunching of dead leaves is the only sound that follows me through the darkness and even then, it only lasts until I hit the cobblestone streets. Then all is silent.
The homes and shops of the kingdom could very well be abandoned, with their boarded-up windows and darkened interiors. But as I pass them by, I can see the signs of life. Holy artifacts had been strung up in doorways to ward off the night’s impending horrors, while the front steps of one house is littered with hastily-forgotten children’s toys. Naver was not a ghost town yet. Until the day came that it was, my monthly hunts would continue.
My weapons are stored a few paces from the fortress that I call home, strategically hidden in an underground cellar connected to a neighboring cottage. It is here that I meet my companion, leaning against the wall with a steel-toed boot placed over the trap-door on the ground.
I nod my head in greeting and Thomasin straightens upright.
“Running later than usual.” she remarks.
“Not my fault. The maids were dilly-dallying around for too long, I heard.” I reply dryly.
Thomasin removes her own hawk mask and even in the darkness, I can see her scowling. Even when I try to lighten the mood by laughing, she gives my arm a shove and indignantly folds her arms, refusing to step off the cellar doors.
“Oh, come off it.” I say impatiently, nudging her. “I was only joking.”
She doesn’t budge and so I resort to more dramatic measures.
Adjusting my mask to sit at the top of my head, I press into her closely. My right arm drapes over her head against the cool stone of the cottage, while the fingertips of my left hand gingerly lift her chin to look me in the eye. We’re so close that I can feel the heat radiating from Thomasin’s face. She inhales sharply and tries to look away, but I force her head back and grin in wolfish delight.
“You know you’re my favorite little maid.” I taunt in a low tone.
Her blue eyes narrow. We stare one another down briefly before she finally cracks an unwilling smile. I reward her with a kiss on the tip of her small, pixie-esque nose.
Thomasin relents to my advances and steps to the side. I take the opportunity to unlatch the cellar doors and pull them open, feeling down into the darkness until my fingers brush against steel. Her sword is the first to be retrieved, albeit awkwardly. It’s too small for me, too light and without any range. But Thomasin pays it no mind as I hand it over, grasping at the hilt while fastening the scabbard to her belt.
Meanwhile, I produce my battle-axe from its hiding place and am immediately satisfied to hold a weapon with more heft. I give it a test swing just once, then reach back into the ground to gather up the last of our supplies.
When at last we set off on our patrol, the two of us are armed to the teeth with our individual weapons, as well as a few sharpened stakes for backup and our newest addition - two strings of rosary. The volcanic beads feel coarse, wrapped over my hand with the finely-crafted pendant dangling between my thumb and index finger. It bears the shape of a scarlet dragon, in the likeness of the great goddess Herself. After all, creatures of the night hold an aversion to what was most important to them and not a soul alive in Eboreos does not revere the Goddess Hirel.
Our masks are adjusted and once more, our faces are obscured to whomever (or whatever) we come across in the darkness.
And it doesn’t take long for us to find our first target of the night.
There is a commotion not far ahead. We pause to exchange glances, though our expressions are unreadable beneath the cruel features of our avian facades. Thomasin nods and I lead the way, sprinting for the source of the noise.
Something metal clatters and clangs, growing louder as we approach. But it’s the inhuman screech that brings us to a dead halt. A man’s grunt and fighting shouts soon follow and I ready my blade. Thomasin, however, does not touch her sword. She produces a homemade slingshot from her skirts and a pouch filled with stones. I tilt my head, questioning her. She responds by gesturing with a sweep of her arm, as if to say, “After you.”
I peer around the corner just as another chilling wail lets loose, echoing down the way. Two figures are scrambling in the dark, lunging and shoving at one another. One is a young man dressed in leather armor, but his face and weapon are unfamiliar. He is a stranger, unknown to us and certainly not one of our fellow hunters. His frame is muscular, but his height is lanky and awkward and with the way he swings his sword, it is easy to tell that his skills are lacking. Perhaps he is not a hunter at all, but just an unlucky traveler who decided to pass through when the kingdom was at its most dangerous.
The second figure does not need much evaluation. It is anything but human, with its taut pale skin, large reflective eyes and the way it paces, lithe and powerful like a predator.
It is a predator. It’s a vampire.
The broad-shouldered young man scrambles off his rear and takes a stance, but it is weak. I can see how unsteady he is and assess that he must be injured. My assumption proves correct as he shifts his weight and favors his left leg, which encumbers his balance.
His opponent howls, like a rabid animal mimicking a human child and I involuntarily shudder. This distracts me for a split second, as I see the creature lunge at the leather-clad man again and I have no time to react.
But Thomasin does.
Something whistles past my face at an incredible speed and loudly cracks across the street. The vampire recoils, then begins to scream. I turn my head and through the slanted eye-holes of my mask, I can see Thomasin loading up her slingshot once more. Something glints in the dim light of the moon and suddenly, I realize that she is not flinging rocks at all, but tiny spheres of silver.
Again, she shoots and this time, her aim lands true as the piece of metal snaps straight into the monster’s eye. It cries out and stumbles back, long fingers clawing at its face as its skin sizzles from the silver’s contact. Thick, dark, infected blood streams down the side of its face as it trips and thrashes about, doing anything to relieve itself from the pain.
That is my cue to step in.
I take the opening and rush forth, putting myself between the human man and the vampire. It swings at me blindly but with only one good eye, it misses completely and leaves itself vulnerable as I strike out horizontally. The beast is still blinking as its head is cleaved neatly from its neck. The rest of its body goes slack and tumbles into a heap atop the cobblestone.
It takes one downward swing to throw the congealed blood from my blade, but I make sure it looks as impressive as all hell. The young man gapes and lucky for me, he cannot see the giddy grin beneath the beak of my mask.
“T-thank you.” he blurts out.
Now that I’m closer, I can see his features far better. He has short, copper hair and a smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks. With almond-shaped brown eyes and a boyish charm about his face, I imagine most girls would find him attractive in that ‘handsome farm boy’ kind of way.
I point at his right leg (the one he has obviously tried to keep weight off of) and he looks troubled. He pulls back the front panel of his tabard and reveals a gash that went through the woven cloth of his pants and straight into the flesh above his knee. I kneel beside him and squint through the darkness, through my mask, to study it closer.
The wound is clean-cut and long, not jagged from raking fangs or claws, nor was it punctured with fangs. Though I’ve heard that a simple bite or scratch alone does not transfer vampirism, I do not want to take a risk. I raise my head to look at him, silently awaiting an answer.
“Oh… I uh… I did that, actually. O-on accident, I mean.” he says sheepishly.
He fumbles to hold his sword aloft and I can just barely make out the ruby-red smear of human blood along the blade’s edge. From behind me, I hear Thomasin’s muffled snicker beneath the shroud of her disguise. He looks from her to me, then lowers the weapon, the shame plain in his expression.
“I… I got nervous.” the young man admits in defeat. “That thing was… I mean… I never thought they would move so fast like that.”
As I thought, he is an amateur. None of the other hunters in Naver are stupid enough to take on a monster alone. Even those who act solo try to ensure another hunter is nearby before they strike.
Reassured that his wound was not from the maw of a beast, I rise and turn my back on the brawny fool. From within my cloak, I retrieve one of our stakes and move towards the vampire’s corpse that still remained motionless from where it had fallen. Never had I seen a bloodsucker reanimate after decapitation, but again, better not to risk it. My gloved hands brush away what little rags remain on the creature’s torso and clenching the sharpened point tightly, I plunge the stake downward.
The pale, rigored skin gives way right at the heart. There’s a horrible squelching sound. I turn my head just in time to avoid the splatter of coagulated blood as the corpse pops like a pimple and after that, there is nothing left but a gory mess in the street.
Behind me, I hear an audible gasp and shudder and I know that it’s not Thomasin, for she has long been accustomed to bloodshed. Rather, it’s the young man who made the shaken noise and from my peripheral vision, I see he has approached to stand next to me.
“What about the head?” he breathes.
I glance up and note the creature’s head that had rolled a few feet away after its swift removal. It’s face is contorted in pain and rage, its final moments frozen in its features. A skull does not have much use without a body or a place to store blood. Come sunup, it will evaporate to ash and blow away on the wind, wiping away its very existence. And so I leave it, as I always do, and move on to continue hunting with Thomasin.
Unfortunately for us, however, it seems as though we now have an unwanted follower. The young man is trying to match our pace, but remains a few steps behind due to his awkward, limping gait. Thomasin throws him a glance, then nudges me. I shake my head and keep walking, choosing to ignore our tag-along for now. He’s better off sticking close, anyway. Our job is to keep the people safe and leaving him alone with an injured leg was a death sentence.
So far, it’s looking to be a quiet night. On our patrol, we pass two fellow hunters with an almost comical size difference between them just as they finish taking down another beast. A smaller-sized vampire lay crumpled at their feet, already slain. The shorter of the two hunters raises their hand in greeting while the other nods sagely. Both of them wear hoods like we do, but instead of masks, they sport balaclavas that cover the bottom-half of their faces and necks. Indiscernible eyes are the only features that are visible and they narrow suspiciously at the stranger that has decided to tail us. When they look to us for an answer, Thomasin merely shrugs and we continue on, parting ways with the duo and leaving them to patrol elsewhere.
“I take it you both don’t talk much, huh?” the young man pipes up after a few more minutes of walking in silence.
I turn around and answer his remark by pressing an index finger to the beak of my mask and hiss a soft, “Sshhh.”
Voices only attract unwanted attention. Not only that, but it helps the sense of anonymity remain. You can tell a lot about a person when they talk and for people like me and Thomasin, keeping our lives separate from the hunt is crucial.
Our companion is silent now, still limping alongside us as we navigate through Naver’s streets and connecting alleyways.
An hour passes before we find ourselves traveling between a cluster of shops in the western side of town. Here, the passages are narrow, barely allowing us to move through without angling our shoulders. And as luck would have it, it’s here that we come across our second creature of the night.
It stands at the mouth of the alley straight ahead, a hulking massive shape with a spine that has been set to slouch forward. Like many of the other vampires, its clothes are little more than shredded rags and as we draw closer, it raises a head with skeletal features and sniffs the air.
I shift a bit, trying to find a comfortable way to swing my axe, but Thomasin squeezes past me and takes the lead. She is smaller in stature, even hidden beneath the layers of black, and passes through the gap without issue. I grin under the mask, watching her advance, while the boy behind us holds his breath.
The vampire teeters, its head twitching and tilting bizarrely, eyes flitting wildly about. It catches Thomasin’s scent as she approaches, drawing her sword from its sheath, and the monster makes a guttural snarl. She stops at a safe distance, but it's close enough to tease her target’s heightened senses with her smell and the faint beat of her heart. The beast has gone tense, even its large eyes have stilled to fixate on Thomasin.