Monday, February 8, 2016

Untitled: Chapter 15

The streets were far too empty and far too well-lit around the train station.

Wendell, being the fastest of the three despite his sandaled feet, tried to lead them away from the center of town, but the unfamiliar sights and smells of Belfort were unhelpful at best, disorienting at worst. Had they gotten a better head start on their pursuers, the trio could have easily turned a corner and been safely away, but the sound of their shoes striking the pavement alerted the posse whenever they happened to escape their sight for an all-too-brief moment. As they ran, Wendell looked for a place to hide, some nook or cranny that would allow Henri’s men to pass them by, but no suitable place could be found to conceal all three of them. Mr. Baine was breathing heavily and Patrice looked as if she might faint at any moment. They would not be able to maintain this pace for long. Wendell could only hope the men chasing them were as winded as these two appeared.

Rounding a corner, they found themselves running along the western bank of a river which bisected the city. A lazy mist had formed in the cool night air and now stirred sluggishly over the surface of the water.

Wendell cast his gaze, to the eastern shore, his sharp eyes picking out the bulk of a small mountain in the distance despite the haze. It was a mass of darkness rising into the moonlit sky, casting a deep shadow over the maze of buildings huddled at its base. It was less well-lit than the section of town they were currently in, having only the occasional glow from a street-corner lamp to offer any sort of definition to the area. A spark of hope kindled within him.

Wendell turned to lead Patrice and Mr. Baine across the nearest bridge and into the deeper shadows of Old-town Belfort. He had no plan, no idea where he was going, their pursuers always but a moment behind.

Passing into the shadows on the far side of the river, Wendell could feel the darkness envelop them, a cool veil of shadow that draped itself weightlessly over them. The men in pursuit stopped for a moment as the trio crossed from the fuzzy halo of light created by a handful of streetlights dotting the bridge; their eyes could not plumb the wall of darkness into which they ran.

Wendell’s ears noted the hesitation and he took the opportunity to steer Patrice and Mr. Baine off their road and on to another before Henri’s men crossed into the shadows and their vision could adjust to the deeper shadows. Another quick turn and Wendell brought them to a halt, trying to shush the pants and gasps of his companions as quietly as he was able, despite his own heaving breath.

The monk was doing his best to maintain focus, but his thoughts refused to fall in line. Damn it all. Do not think like this! Damn. it. A pang of guilt accompanied the repetition of the word, as it continued to bounce off the inside of his skull. DAMN it! Stop! A monk - a man of faith - should have more control of himself! But what was he supposed to do? He had no idea where he was going. They had gained a tiny reprieve from their pursuers, but could run into them again at any moment in the twisting darkness of the city. He hated feeling so … out of control? No, that wasn’t it. If he was out of control, people would be dying. He felt lost, but lost in a way that could not be rectified. He had to keep moving lest they be caught, but had no way of knowing if any turn he made was the right one and no way of correcting the mistake if it was not. Even the destination was a complete mystery. What should he do? Where should he go?

This would be so much easier if he were alone, but he could not abandon Mr. Baine and Patrice. They were his friends and he - wait, 'friends?' Wendell performed the mental equivalent of rolling a new taste around in his mouth. Was Patrice really a friend? A chance occurrence in the woods brought them together. He and Mr. Baine had saved her - as they would have saved anyone in that situation, honestly - and saw her safely home. She attempted to repay their kindness, as he imagined anyone in her position would have done. Was there more to it? Why did they go to such trouble to save her on the train? He certainly couldn't imagine more than a handful of people for whom he'd be willing to risk life and limb by climbing across the tops of railroad cars on a moving train.

And what of Mr. Baine? If he were honest, his relationship with the man was only a few weeks older than it was with Patrice. For a man like Wendell, who had been quick to make acqaintances, but slow to make friends, back before … in a past life. For all intents and purposes, he was putting his life at risk for a couple of strangers. Did that make them friends?

Yes, he decided after a moment that felt like an hour, they are both my friends. And they are in danger and I have to get them away from these men. He was the reason they were in this mess, the reason Mr. Baine had come to France and the reason Patrice’s uncle now hounded them. The thought gave Wendell a bitter smirk. Me, hounded. Then another question shouldered its way into his thoughts: would they remain friends if they really knew him? Knew what he was capable of? Just wait, the shadow inside him whispered, they'll see what we can do.

  “Where are we going?” Patrice, with her simple breathless question, would never know how grateful he was at that moment for interrupting his thoughts.
  “And how much further 'til we're there?” said Mr. Baine, less winded, but only slightly so.
  Wendell shook his head, “I do not know.” the words tasted sour and unpleasant. “I am sorry.”
  “Sorry? For what?” said Mr. Baine, “We're not dead yet, mate. And we appear to have slipped away, if only for a moment.”

Wendell appreciated his words, but could not relinquish his discouragement just yet, “I have no idea where to go.”

  Mr. Baine turned to Patrice, “Do you know this town?”
  She shook her head, “I know we're in Belfort. Beyond that, I am as lost as you.”
  “In a situation like this,” he said, turning back to Wendell, “I trust your nose more than a hunch either of us might have." 

Wendell started to reply, but Mr. Baine quickly added, "And if the nose fails, I've no doubt you have enough good karma saved up to see us through.” He concluded by giving the monk a single, firm pat on the shoulder. Wendell managed a weak smile, but inside a ball of ice had formed in the pit of his stomach. If anything, the scales of cosmic justice were tipped permanently against him.

  “We should go.” Patrice looked nervously toward the end of the alley in which they stood.

Wendell ventured ahead and peaked around the corner. A man stood in the dim light of a lone streetlamp roughly one block ahead of them, peering into the darkness around him. Wendell froze and then eased himself as flat against the wall as he was able. He was not sure if the man could see very far in the dark, but he did not want to take any chances, given his bright orange robes. Several unbearably loud heartbeats later and the man turned and ventured down another street. Wendell exhaled and led their small company out of the alley and away from the river.

He felt like they were traveling East, though he had no way to be certain. As the moved down the street, he realized that the dark mountain that he had seen before was now looming over them, a shadow in the night sky. Cautiously rounding another corner, the trio found themselves standing at the edge of a large clearing running up to the base of the mountain. There, on a raised dais in a circle of light, crouched a gigantic stone lion. The stone visage was regal and stern; it spoke to Wendell of power at hand, but a power held in check. Despite everything else that was happening, Wendell found a moment of quiet awe for the sight.

Despite all that was going on, he could not help but feel some small measure of insigificance standing there. An unpleasant shudder tainted the moment as he considered how his own beast, the one that struggled within, might be portrayed.

  “Le Lion de Belfort,” Patrice whispered, “He is facing West.”
  “What is to the West?” said Mr. Baine.
  “Nothing. It originally faced East, but the Prussians complained, and so it was turned around.”
  “East it is, then. I thought you were lost in Belfort?” There was a hint of suspicion in Mr. Baine's voice.
  “There's not a schoolchild in all of France who does not know of the lion.” Patrice said.
  Mr. Baine looked to Wendell. “Good enough for me,” said Wendell, “Let us go.”

They skirted the edge of the clearing, every footstep thunderous and echoing to their own ears. They could not keep this up for long. Wendell caught himself wishing that one of Henri’s men would spot them, if only to break the tension. Somehow, running headlong through the streets was beginning to feel preferable to sneaking about in the dark. He very nearly got his wish as they came upon a large intersection by a cathedral.

The red sandstone facade was illuminated, being some distance from the haze of the river, and stood out in crisp detail against the surrounding darkness. Wendell, thinking they might petition for sanctuary, began to step out of the shadows in which they were concealed when the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He drew back and scanned the area, turning his eyes from the architecture to the dark streets and alleys that led to the church. Downwind from their position he caught sight of them: a handful of Henri's men crowding a door in the side of the cathedral. They appeared to be sneaking in. Had he blundered out from the darkened alley in which they crouched, they would have seen him clear as day. The church would offer no safe haven this night. Turning back, they continued in darkness, making sure to keep the mountain on their left.

Before long the mountain dropped off, giving way to a wall that extended from the base and curved in front of them. They began to follow the street which ran along the wall, apparently around the perimeter of the old city. Rounding a corner, Wendell stopped short.

  “What is it?” said Mr. Baine.
  “A gate.” said Wendell.
  “It is guarded.” For indeed, a pair of uniformed men carrying guns loitered by the opening in the wall. Mr. Baine uttered a quiet curse.
  “Surely they're not looking for us?” said Patrice. One of the men strolled past the gate, peering into the darkness beyond.

His companion asked a question – Wendell had no idea what – to which the first shook his head. Neither man seemed overly concerned with the streets behind them.

  “I do not think so.” said Wendell.
  Mr. Baine shook his head, “No, they're keeping people from getting in. Enforcing a curfew, perhaps.”
  “Let me talk to them,” said Patrice, “as long as they don't work for Henri, we should be fine.”

  The three of them advanced down the street, as quickly as they dared without appearing as though they were fleeing anyone. Wendell made a conscious effort not to glance nervously over his shoulder and hoped that Patrice and Mr. Baine would, as well.

  They were soon spotted and, while the men did not train their weapons on the three of them, certainly held them at the ready. Patrice stepped forward and spoke to them in French. They replied and a brief exchange took place. Wendell dared breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that the men did not attempt to apprehend them outright. His hopes were held in check, however, by the incredulous look each man wore as Patrice replied to their last question. A firm shake of the head from one of the men told him all he needed to know, this was not going as smoothly as he'd hoped. Patrice turned back to them.

  “They are with the city watch,” she said, “Apparently, when the Prussians attacked Belfort and were eventually repelled, the ruins caused by the siege became overrun with vampires. The portion of the city beyond the wall is off limits to all but the military until it is reclaimed.”
  “I'm afraid we can't wait that long," said Mr. Baine, "Did you explain that we can take care of ourselves?”
  “I did, but they are not keen to have blood on their hands.” Patrice sighed, “They think we're crazy for even asking.”
  “Tell them we are part of the reclamation effort.” said Wendell.
  “No one's going to believe that,” Mr. Baine rolled his eyes. “You look like an escaped circus peformer,” he said, nodding at Wendell. He stepped past them and raised his leather satchel to the nearest watchman, who simply stared back. “Here, take this,” he said.

Setting the butt of his rifle on the ground, the man tucked the barrel into the crook of his arm and reached up to hold the bag with both hands while his companion stared at the bag, puzzled. As soon as the man had taken hold of the bag, Mr. Baine reached into his jacket and whipped out his pistol, aiming it between the eyes of the unencumbered watchman standing nearby.

The four of them - Wendell, Patrice, and the two watchmen – were utterly stunned.

  “Now my dear,” Mr. Baine said to Patrice, gently sliding the resting rifle from the arms of the man holding his bag, “kindly retrieve my bag and ask this gentleman to open the gate, ” he cocked the hammer on the pistol, “for his friend's sake.”

Patrice shook herself from her stupor and stammered the request to the watchman. Wendell could the see fear, anger, and confusion in his eyes as he produced a large key and fumbled it into the lock that held closed a gate made of heavy iron bars. Inside the arch, a short drawbridge was raised, leaving a gap roughly twice the height of a man between it and the bridge that lay beyond. Barely wide enough to accommodate a carriage, the bridge spanned what Wendell first took to be an empty moat.


  Leaning sideways he could see that it was not in fact a moat, but a depression that would put invaders well below the handful of gates set in the sloped walls …

  “What? Sorry.”
  “The bridge appears to operate on a simple weight-driven mechanism.” Mr. Baine nodded towards a lever set in the wall opposite him, “Do you mind?”
Wendell stepped across the opening and pulled the lever. Somewhere behind the stonework, a set of gears clanked, a chain rattled, and the drawbridge lowered into place with a wooden thud.

A shout went up behind them. All five of them turned to see Henri's men come charging down the street. Patrice joined Wendell on the far side of the gate, while Mr. Baine grabbed his bag from the watchmen and, touching the barrel of his pistol to the rim of his bowler, said “Adieu” to the watchmen and bolted down the bridge after them, tossing the rifle over the edge as he went.

The soliders did not give chase. Instead from the yelling taking place behind them, Wendell surmised that the watchmen were refusing to give way to Henri’s men. Despite all that was happening, he hoped that no one would do something foolish and hurt someone.

On the far end of the bridge rose a squat earthen structure, the walls of which were fortified with stone. The road they followed led right into it and, as there were hardly any working streetlights on this side of the wall, promptly made a sharp right-angle into pitch-black shadow. Where the shadows inside the walls had been a welcome sight and offered an opportunity for rest and escape, now Wendell found himself feeling apprehensive about what the darkness outside the city held for them. He tried to use his nose, but the breeze was carrying their scent into the pass, and refused to offer up any clue as to a possible ambush. He came to an abrupt stop, just beside the shadowed corner.

  “Why are we stopping?” asked Patrice.
  Wendell was finding it hard to articulate precisely why he was so apprehensive. “I do not like this …”
  ”Like it or not, our options are extremely limited at the moment.” said Mr. Baine.

Another yell caused them to look back at the gate. Two of Henri’s men had slipped past the watchmen and were advancing across the bridge. They paused uncertainly as Wendell, Mr. Baine and Patrice turned towards them, still well out of reach. That was when the vampire attacked.

Leaping from the darkness with little more than a rasping hiss, the creature wrapped itself around Wendell, who had been in the lead and standing closest to the shadows. The monk’s training took over and he used the momentum of the attack to carry the vampire over his shoulder, narrowly avoiding having his ear bitten off, and slammed it to the ground. But Patrice and Mr. Baine were still standing next to him, there was no way he could release it without endangering either of them. Both the men on the bridge and those standing at the gate stared in open-mouthed shock at the ensuing struggle.

The vampire, having gone head over heels, slashed at its prey with bony fingers and elongated nails, the result of its emaciated state. Wendell, struggling to keep it pinned to the ground by the shoulders, tried to maintain control as he avoided the wild strikes and gnashing teeth. A bony elbow caught him in the cheek; the sudden shock of the strike quickly turned into a red rage within him, bubbling up from his gut. He wanted to hurt the vampire, he wanted to rip it apart with tooth and claw. He wanted to hurt those standing around doing nothing, so weak and helpless … No, he didn't want that at all - it was the beast, straining at its chains. If he didn’t do something - and quickly - they would all be in grave danger.

Wendell stepped around the prone form of the vampire, grabbed it’s other shoulder and jerked it to it’s feet. Continuing the motion, he fell backwards, rolling smoothly onto his back and, placing his feet on the vampire’s midsection, launched it with inhuman strength down the bridge. It landed with a sickening crunch halfway between them and the pair of Henri’s men who had made their way onto the bridge.

Unfazed, albeit slightly disoriented, the vampire got to its feet and hissed angrily at Wendell. It had not expected supper to withstand its initial assault. Flexing its sharp fingers, it took a step towards Patrice - perhaps she would be easier prey.

  “No time for this.” said Mr. Baine, as he stepped forward and leveled his pistol. There was a thunderous crack and a puff of smoke as hammer struck firing pin and a howl of pain echoed in the night. Behind the vampire, the man closest to it crumpled to the ground clutching his leg.

Everyone, including the vampire, looked at the man as he lifted a trembling, blood-covered hand to inspect the oozing hole in his leg. Only then did he realize his mistake. A decrepit blur of teeth and claws descended upon him before anyone could react.

  “Run!” said Mr. Baine, charging into the darkness.

Wendell, the urges within him dying along with the man’s screams, looked at Patrice. The girl emitted a single choked sob - fear? disgust? anger? Wendell wasn’t sure if those words described the girl running past him, or his own feelings at what just happened.

As he turned to follow his companions, the monk looked back just in time to see the surviving man on the bridge reach the gate and slam it shut behind him. All of them, Henri's men and the Belfort watchmen, stared in horrified silence while the creature fed. No one else would be crossing the bridge this night. Then, offering a brief, silent prayer for the dead man, Wendell headed once more into the darkness to see what new horrors this journey held in store for him.

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