The Interloper awoke what felt like moments later, clutching the blanket and gasping. His clothes were stuck his skin with perspiration, but as he stretched out a gentle breeze coiled in between the trees and turned his sweat to ice. He shivered.
“Come closer to the fire,” said Blasphemy. Strange smells arose from a pot in which she was preparing a foul-smelling broth made from plant roots and mushrooms and nuts.
“He’s hunting,” she said and carefully hooked the pot away from the fire with a sturdy tree-branch. She placed it between them and decanted the mixture into two small bowls. It was a think, lumpish brew—dubious in colour. Scott snatched it up and took a sip, burning his lips.
“How does he..?”
“What Kuluck cannot see he can sense,” said Blasphemy. “Movements, smells—”
“Heartbeats,” Kuluck interrupted as he appeared at the edge of the clearing. He held two rabbits, both limp. “Even now I can hear your hearts, beating in unison.”
The Interloper didn’t know if he was more unsettled by Kuluck’s words or by the the dead rabbits; their eyes reminded him of Kuluck’s—blank and unseeing—perhaps cognizant of things that the living were not.
Kuluck passed the rabbits to Blasphemy who went away to prepare them. Kuluck remained at the edge of the clearing, standing perfectly still. A leather scabbard, dyed dark-red hung at his waist. The scabbard was curved, revealing the blade within must be shaped almost like a farmer’s sickle. A clasp with a single bronze button, secured the weapon.
Gradually, the sun resolved itself into such a position that light streamed into the clearing and fell upon Kuluck’s face. Where the light touched the vampire’s skin it appeared ancient and grey, like worn stone. For a moment the Interloper expected Kuluck to burst into flames, although his comprehension of this thought was itself vague—some truth half-remembered from a nursery rhyme.
“I made a pact with the sun, Interloper,” said Kuluck. “I gave my eyes for my life. I do not regret it.”
Blasphemy returned soon after with the butchered rabbits and set them atop the fire. The smell of roasting meat quickly made the broth seem unbearable and Scott surreptitiously emptied his bowl into the long grass at the edge of the clearing.
They did not speak while the rabbit was cooking and even less when it was done. The meat was tastier than Scott expected, despite the small, sharp bones that he constantly paused to pluck from between his teeth. The vampire stood away from them while they ate, something melancholy about his expression.
Afterwards, the Interloper reclined on one elbow and thanked his companions for the meal. His mind was beginning to fill with questions; like bubbles they collided into one another, each seeming more important than the last. Scott did not even know where to begin. Then Blasphemy rolled up the hem of his jeans and touched her fingers to his ankle and the only thing he knew was pain as a lancing, white-hot bolt burst every other thought to pieces.
Blasphemy removed the bandage and reapplied some of the salve. Then she rebound the ankle more tightly than before and asked if he was able to stand. Scott nodded, though he was not entirely sure.
Rapidly she set about gathering together the implements she had used to treat his ankle and prepare the food. She placed small cups and bowls together inside of the cooking pot and placed the pot into a small hessian sack. Most everything else went inside Scott’s blanket, which she bound into a sack strung tightly with string she had woven from forest vines.
“Where are we going?” the Interloper asked. “Is it far?”
“Try to keep up, Interloper,” said Kuluck with a grin.
Scott made it to his feet and leaned on his walking stick. He exhaled through gritted teeth and tried to ignore the pain.
“We’ve wasted too much time,” Kuluck told him. “We must stay ahead of the storm.”
After the first few steps the Interloper felt less pain in his ankle than he had been expecting, though he continued to expend at least half of his effort trying to prevent his injured ankle from ever touching the ground. After a while his arm began to ache from leaning on the walking stick and a loud groan escaped his lips. Blasphemy took out a small pouch of chara leaves and handed him one. She told him to chew on it and it eased the pain, but only a little.
Blasphemy and Kuluck moved through the forest in perfect unison. Blasphemy would sometimes warn the vampire about overhanging branches or other obstacles that might get in his way, but these little affectations seemed to have more to do with her fondness for Kuluck than out of any real necessity to protect him. Despite his blindness, Kuluck flitted through the forest with alien grace.
The forest sloped upwards. The Interloper grimaced and struggled to keep up. In places they were forced to scramble up walls of dark, leaning rock. Sudden dips in the forest formed trenches packed with ferns that they needed to drop into and climb back out of in order to keep moving. When they reached a wall of seemingly impassable vines the Interloper welcomed the reprieve.
Blasphemy rested her hand on his shoulder and he shrugged it away.
“I’m okay,” he said, although his face looked deathly pale. A moment later he was on all fours, crawling away into the bushes in order to be sick, his walking stick laying on the forest floor where he had dropped it.
He emerged a few moments later, eyes twitching, body trembling. Only now was he beginning to sense the urgency in his companions movements, a constant tension in their desire to keep moving against the tide of a forest that seemed intent on holding them back.
Blasphemy regarded the Interloper and there was something about the way her eyes sparkled that made him feel even better than the bitterness of the chara that lingered on his tongue.
At the wall of vines, Kuluck unsheathed the curved blade from its scabbard. The blade was forged from dark metal; blood steel, and even the forest was forced to yield to Kuluck’s swings.
We must stay ahead of the storm, Kuluck had said, and at first Scott had believed he had been referring only to the weather. But judging by the intensity of Kuluck’s swings as he hacked a way through the forest, it was becoming increasingly clear that his companions were fleeing from something of which they were very afraid.
Kuluck pressed forward, hewing a path. Blasphemy tied back her hair so that it would not tangle so easily in the branches and entered into the thicket. Scott attempted to follow but only made it a few steps before he fell.
Scott awoke a short time later to find himself slung unceremoniously across the vampire’s back. From this vantage point he noticed just how smoothly Kuluck conveyed him through the forest—seldom did branches even brush against him, although they struck out at all angles.
“Blasphemy’s right,” said the Interloper. “You see better than I do.”
“She usually is,” said Kuluck, startling the Interloper. “I can see blood,” he said. “Your heart beats crimson in my mind’s eye. I can sense your veins and your arteries. I can feel your blood vessels expanding and contracting. I know when you have bruises and swelling and could tell at once if you had any serious internal injuries.”
The Interloper wriggled, suddenly—excrutiatingly—aware that he was at the mercy of this strange creature. Did Kuluck see him as prey? Even as he squirmed Kuluck ducked a low-hanging tree branch. “I can sense wood, for it is deadly to my kind,” Kuluck said.
“It can be deadly to us as well,” said Scott, grimacing at the thought of being impaled on one of the jutting tree branches.
“Wood injures upir in ways that most metals will not,” Kuluck went on. “A single wooden splinter is enough to kill all but the most ancient upir. The scholars in Shadrath have long debated the reason.”
“Where the vampires live beneath an endless night,” said Blasphemy matter-of-factly. And then: “Stop here and set him down. We will rest here.”
Scott was thankful to have his feet back on the ground. Blasphemy handed him back his walking stick and he leaned on it to take some of the weight off of his injured ankle. “He can also hear better than us,” Blasphemy told the Interloper. “The way the wind moves between the branches, the way it wraps around the shapes of things.”
Scott lowered himself to the ground and watched as Blasphemy lit a fire. Once the flames were flickering she tended to Scott’s ankle—loosening the bandage caused the pain to change to a dull throb. He groaned and Blasphemy began unbundling the utensils in order to brew some chara.
Kuluck left them and went out into the approaching darkness. He sought sustenance and not only for his human companions. The upir required the blood of the living in order to keep his senses sharp and his body functioning.
But the forest grew emptier with each passing day. Most of the animals had already fled—but when? Had it been as the gates of Shadrath rumbled open for the first time in centuries, and the armies of upir spilled out across the Wastes?
No—before that. It would have been the psychic scream of the Arcane Vampire as Blasphemy snatched the Conduit, that simple stone, from around his neck. It had been that scream that roused Kuluck from his dreamless sleep within the sun-prison and the echoes of it still lingered in his ears. It was the scream, Kuluck was certain, that had startled every creature into flight.
Then, at last, Kuluck sensed twin heartbeats—a pair of rabbits cowering within their warren. Kuluck bore down on them: fingers outstretched, nostrils flaring, not human but something else… in his mind’s eye he saw the rabbits nestle against one another, fur against fur.
Kuluck turned away from the rabbits and headed back to camp; he would spill no blood tonight. But as he turned back he heard something that set his nerves on edge—a howl—too distant yet for his human companions to have heard.
And Kuluck knew exactly what that sound meant—the Wolves of Shadrath were loose.
“What are you running from?” Scott asked Blasphemy. He shifted in place to try and get more comfortable, but it didn’t help. Laid out before them was a selection of nuts and berries that Blasphemy had foraged throughout the day. They picked through the selection one at a time and sipped chara tea.
Blasphemy glanced at him—it was only a glance—but Scott saw something more than fear in her eyes. Her lips parted as though she was about to answer, but she only asked him how he was feeling.
“Better,” he answered. “Much better.”
Then Kuluck came crashing loudly into the camp, startling them both. There was something different about him—gone was the sense of stillness and grace that he usually possessed. Rage crackled from him untidily.
“You are feeling better, Interloper?” Kuluck said. “Then stand.”
Scott gripped the walking stick for support and tentatively rose to his feet.
A shadow moved past him faster than he could comprehend. Then the forest was spinning and he was hitting the dirt. Kuluck looked down at him with a crooked twist to his lips—an expression something like contempt.
“Stand,” said Kuluck and then he yelled it. “Stand! Stand, Interloper and come at me.”
The Interloper rose shakily to his feet. At the edge of his vision he was aware that Blasphemy was not watching.
“Come at me!” yelled Kuluck again and then struck at the Interloper before he had even had the chance.
Scott doubled over and gasped. This time he did not return to his feet but dragged himself towards the vines at the edge of the camp. He spluttered and coughed.
“Not good enough,” said Kuluck, lowering his voice.
“I don’t understand,” said the Interloper between breaths.
“That much, at least, is evident,” Kuluck responded.
For a while the only sounds were the crackling of the fire and Scott’s own heaving breaths.
Even in the unsteady light of the campfire, the Interloper could see Kuluck’s face had changed. The bones of his jaw had elongated, his eyes had gotten bigger. For the first time the Interloper saw the vampire’s fangs as his crimson lips drew back. And then Kuluck was only inches away from him, forked, serpentine tongue flicking between that pair of pointed teeth. He spoke in a voice that had also changed:
“Why do we run?” he hissed. The whites of his eyes reflected the flames of the fire. “We flee from a storm that is blotting out the sun, Interloper. We run for an army of upir give chase, pursuing a Queen and a Traitor. And now you… Interloper, appearing from nowhere like a thorn in a rabbit’s foot have made… us… lame.”
As he finished speaking Kuluck’s face softened, the extremities of his features dissolving back into those of that gentle, long-haired man. A great weariness emanated from the vampire. A moment later he was gone, vanishing into the forest without a sound.
“You’re a Queen?” the Interloper asked Blasphemy. She told him to go to sleep.
Later, amidst a cluster of nonsensical dreams, Scott heard his companions speaking. Their voices sounded distant and dreamlike: like the oversized shadows of parents arguing beyond his bedroom door.
“You hurt him,” said Blasphemy.
“He was already hurt,” Kuluck responded.
For a while, Scott slept.