The townsfolk were lying to me, and now I knew it. The cold rain lashed my face as I made my way through the darkened alleys and I pulled my cloak tighter around me in a failed attempt to fend off the vile weather. Fenther was as filthy as any other town I had visited in the recent weeks. Drunks lolled in the alleyways, begging for a copper or three, dogs sniffed around overflowing bins, and an almighty stench rose from the privy water which sluiced through the maze of cobblestones.
The oil lamps which lined the streets barely illuminated my way as I trudged back towards the tavern. My investigation had been eventful. Whatever fiend it was that had caused the Queen’s brother to degenerate into a sullen husk had left a trail. Not one that was easy to follow, but with the right and keen abilities, the dots could be joined.
The rumours of a vampyr had led me here. As the Queen’s Beastman, I knew such a tale was a fallacy, a simple superstition dreamed of by the country folk. It was true, the young lad which had been drained of his life had puncture wounds in his neck, but they had not been made by sharpened fangs. I fiddled with the grisly object in my pocket. I had done what I had needed to, I told myself, fighting off disgust at my own actions. This was not a common creature and, as such, it could not be combated in a common way. At least that is what I tried to convince myself.
The streets grew busy as I neared the tavern. Men stumbled through the streets, already intoxicated, and whores darkened doorways, calling out sweet words. I paid them no heed as I marched down the main street. A drunk stumbled and tripped across the cobbles. He barged into me, prepared himself to launch into a foul mouthed tirade, then promptly closed his mouth when he saw the Queen’s emblem which pinned my cloak. He mumbled a quick apology, then stumbled off into the darkness. I rounded a corner and the bright lights of the tavern burst out into the night. A sign danced in the wind, announcing it as the Crafty Pig. The familiar smell of stale drink and roasted meats tinged the air.
The poor weather had brought the townsfolk inside. They kept away the cold outside with ale, song, and laughter. There were times when I wished I could enjoy such base delights, but my duty to my Queen never allowed me to mix with the population. Instead I had always watched from afar, keeping to my study of the royal bestiary, and hunting down any fiends which threatened the realm. I watched these men and women with a curious envy. I had everything I needed, a place in the royal court, money and land, and yet these people had none of that, and neither did they look like they needed it.
The bar lad, Jaten, froze as he saw me. It was not the Queen’s emblem which held my cloak that he stared at, but the fine lace work of scars that raked my face. Whereas adults saw and honoured the Queen’s emblem, the children only saw a man, ravaged by battle and age. Over the years I had heard many parents telling their children to behave, lest the Beastman come and take them away, and my appearance only added to that tale.
‘Is Hayden here?’ I asked.
The boy stared for a moment, a statue in my presence. ‘Over by the bar, sir. Where he was last time.’
I gave a nod and a copper to him, then made my way towards the bar. The bustling crowd parted as those who noticed me took a step back, and those who were sensible dragged their friends with them. As Jaten had said, Hayden was at the bar, making himself busy serving drinks. From what the locals had told me, this was a rare occurrence, his usual preference was to go out drinking and gambling than running his own inn. His jowls shook with laughter as he flirted with a couple of local women, then chased them back into the crowd with his leering eyes. He picked up an empty glass and inspected it in the light.
I stood at the bar, and was promptly ignored. I tapped my fingers at the bar until I had his attention.
Hayden looked up from the dirty glass he was attempting to clean with an equally dirty rag. His eyes widened as they met mine. ‘Ah, Beastman, did you go see Stanley’s lad? I told you, didn’t I? I bloody well told you! The work of a vampyr if ever I’ve seen it.’
‘Then you have never seen it,’ I said coldly. ‘And neither have I. Vampyrs are simple superstition, nothing more.’ I had no time for his games tonight.
The crowd at the inn quietened, trying to pry what words they could from our conversation. It did not bother me, and if it bothered the barkeeper he did not show it. ‘Come now,’ he said. ‘You’re the Queen’s Beastman. You must have seen one? I can only imagine the stories you could tell.’
‘I deal in truths, barkeeper, not stories.’ The crowd hushed further at my sharp tongue, my words cutting at the thickening atmosphere.
The barkeeper placed the glass upon the bar, his expression souring. ‘Well, what did you find out?’
‘Who did you say found the boy?’
‘Jaten, the bar lad, like I told you.’
‘Out the back of the inn?’
He nodded. ‘Face down in a puddle he was. Whiter than a ghoul. Turned him over and he bore the mark of being drained.’
I eyed him for a moment. ‘There were puncture wounds on his neck, as you said, but they were not made by fangs.’
‘Not fangs?’ He was very good at sounding surprised. ‘Then what was it?’
‘A blade,’ I said bluntly. ‘Someone cut those incisions after the boy had been killed.’
‘But his skin? How could someone look that white?’
‘I did not say he was not drained, Hayden, simply that a vampyr did not do it.’
‘Beastman, surely you’ve been at my ale?’
‘No,’ I said sharply. ‘But someone had been at him.’
The barkeeper sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. ‘The Crafty Pig is known for the warm welcome it gives to all, Beastman. It pains me to say that your welcome may be running out.’
I drew a sharp breath, contemplating how the gathered crowd would react to my next move. It was a risky plan, but if it worked the truth would reveal itself. ‘If you think my welcome here is waning, then this should convince you of it.’ I put a hand in my pocket and grasped at the cold meat. I pulled it out into the light of the tavern and placed it gently on the bar.
The barkeeper stepped back, his eyes widening at the greying flesh in front of him. ‘Is that…is that…’
He could not finish his question. I answered it for him. ‘The finger of Stanley’s lad? Yes.’
His eyes narrowed as he bunched his fists. ‘How dare you?’ he bellowed. ‘You come to our town, call us liars, and now you desecrate our dead? How fucking dare you!’
The crowd behind me stood, their angry voices condemning my actions. They swarmed in closer, their stale breath and spit flying with their words. I was not a small man by any means, but I was heavily outnumbered. All I could do is rely on my Queen’s symbol to keep me safe until my plan worked. If it worked at all.
I had to raise my voice to talk above the crowd. ‘The creature that did this still resides in this very town. I am doing what is necessary to rid you of it, as is my duty to the Queen as her Beastman.’
The crowd drew back and worriedly whispered among themselves. Looks in the group ranged from anger, to fear, and to confusion. I turned my back to them and carried on.
‘The creature is known as a Leech. It was as human as any of us, but now something insidious is moving through our realm, and in its wake it is leaving some of us as Leeches. These husks look to drain and savour any healthy body that they can.’ I held the finger up to the light. ‘They will bond with whoever they take, and long for their prey to be returned to them so that they can devour them, meat, soul, and bone.’
I could see the shivers of worry in the crowd. Some of them mumbled excuses and bid goodnight before quickly disappearing through the door.
‘Someone,’ I continued. ‘Is harbouring this beast, and put a blade to Stanley’s lad to encourage thoughts of a vampyr.’ I let my eyes drift around the room, before letting them fall on Hayden. ‘Harbouring is the same as conjuring in the eyes of the Queen’s law. Someone will hang on Traitor’s Road for this.’
A shriek cut through the noise of the crowd. My plan had worked. The crowd stood in stunned silence, then another shriek sounded, coming deep from under the floor.
I turned back to Hayden. ‘I think it is time to close up, do you not agree?’
His face was as pale as the young lad I had taken the finger from. ‘Come on,’ he barked to the crowd. ‘You heard the Beastmaster, get out!’
In reality, the crowd did not need to be asked. All but the most foolhardy had remained, either limited in intelligence or in abundance of bravery. I passed a hard glare over those who remained, and they quickly withdrew into the night. Jaten secured the door behind them.
‘Send the boy out,’ I said quietly.
Hayden threw him a nod, and the boy disappeared, locking the door behind him. The barkeeper stood tall and resolute. ‘I don’t know what you are expecting to get out of me. I won’t apologise for this.’
‘A young man died,’ I said. ‘You knew the circumstances were dire, otherwise why cover it up?’
Hayden poured himself a large glass of ale. ‘She’s my sister,’ he said. ‘She became ill two weeks ago. Her skin grew pale, her hair fell out, and she begged me to help her.’ He took a long swig and wiped a hand across his mouth. ‘I don’t know what you bastard royal types are like, but we don’t abandon family out here.’
His words were as sharp as any blade. I did not blame him for protecting his family, in fact I admired it. He was a man of conviction. I had always admired a man who stood for his beliefs. It would be a shame to see him swing from the gibbet. I buried my personal feelings and returned to my duty. ‘You are charged with harbouring an unnatural creature, do you know the punishment?’
‘Death,’ he said frankly. ‘It will be much better than anything she has been through.’
‘Is there any other crimes you would admit to?’
Hayden shrugged. ‘I’m already going to hang, you’ve got your corpse.’
‘I will need to enter the cellar.’
He put his glass down soberly. ‘I know what you’re going to do, Beastman. Put a blade to my sister. And you expect me to stand aside and let it happen. She’s still my sister, underneath the illness. She is not some carrion feeder.’
I glanced away from him. All of the other Leeches I had encountered had been the same. They were not beasts of their own making. They were the unfortunate ones, the ones which the fiend blessed as it passed through their towns. Most of them had known they had done wrong, but could not help their rotten cravings. All of them had begged me for mercy before I pierced them. I thought often about finding a cure, perhaps a way to reverse the change, but the Queen’s orders had been all to clear. She had thrust my blade through her own brother herself when he had made the change. I was the Queen’s Beastman, I reminded myself. My own feelings would take no part in what would happen next.
Hayden threw his glass against the wall. ‘Just do it then, Beastman! Don’t leave me in this limbo any longer!’
‘The lantern,’ I beckoned.
He thrust it into my hand and wrenched open the cellar door. He spat in my face. ‘Damn you to the Wilds for this, Beastman. Damn you to Wilds!’
Another shriek flew up from the cellar to greet me. Below me was a maw darker than the night sky.
I drew my blade from my belt and descended, as ever, deeper into darkness.