Authors: Jasper Kent
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Fiction, #Historical, #General
‘Keep back,’ he instructed Lukin. He would have told the others too, but having seen the fate of their comrade, none of the remaining soldiers dared approach. It was as if they knew what was happening.
Osokin assessed the scene. He could see nothing amiss with the bindings that should have been holding the prisoner’s right arm. The leather and chains appeared intact – and yet they were too tight for the prisoner to have slipped his hand out. But, looking at
the hand, maybe that wasn’t so certain. It was more of a stump. There was the hint of a thumb, but the whole thing was smeared with blood and pus. The prisoner reached over with it, as if trying to undo the bonds that held his other wrist, but without fingers there was nothing he could do.
And yet now there were fingers – not complete fingers but three short sticks of bone that protruded from the prisoner’s bloody, shapeless fist. He began to flex them, just like he might have done if they had been cold, or if he had slept on his arm. As he did so, they grew and were joined by a fourth.
Osokin stood in frozen inaction, unable to determine what he could or should do. If he went close, then that arm might deliver a heavy blow, but apart from that was there any danger? The prisoner still had no chance of escape. A shout broke into his thoughts.
‘Get over here! If we can hold him now we may have a chance!’ It was Lukin, shouting to the other men, but without effect. For all his technical abilities, the lieutenant had no great air of authority about him – not enough to overcome the men’s fear. But to Osokin, his and their concern seemed misplaced. There was no serious threat.
The prisoner reached over again, his nailless fingers outstretched, scrabbling for where his bonds were fastened. His hand was almost complete. The skin had returned – smooth and shiny, as though scalded, but even as Osokin watched it became firmer and more textured, matching the complexion of the rest of the prisoner’s body. The prisoner grunted and strained with his left hand, and with a splintering of wood it was free. He stood, his lower legs still fastened tight to the chair legs, and looked around him, breathing heavily. Then he bent forward.
‘Sit back down!’ Osokin’s words sounded calm, at least to himself. They had no effect on the prisoner, other than causing him momentarily to look up from his work on the straps that held his legs. ‘Sit, or I fire.’
Still there was no response. Osokin let loose three shots. In his bent position, the only target the prisoner offered was his head and shoulders. Osokin was sure that at least one bullet entered the brain. The prisoner stood and Osokin fired again, noting the slight recoil as the bullet hit his chest.
Now there was no doubt in Osokin’s mind. He was facing a creature of his nightmares – a
or something very like it; names did not matter at this moment. His gun was useless. He looked around him, trying to think what he might use as a weapon, but time was short. The prisoner had bent down again and had already begun to free one leg. Perhaps a sword or a bayonet would help, although legend said that the blade used against a vampire must be wooden. The room itself had two weapons – sunlight and the guillotine – though how either could be put to use, he could not guess. There was only a small patch of daylight left now, but at least it might provide protection. Osokin backed towards it.
At the same moment, he witnessed an act of preposterous bravery. With the prisoner still bending down, Lukin ran forward and leapt towards him. It was no direct attack. Lukin’s booted foot landed square in the middle of the prisoner’s bent back and then the other launched him from the back of the chair, sending him flying through the air to where he managed to grab the end of the dangling rope.
The canopy above shifted, and the line of daylight moved a little closer to the prisoner, but now it was no longer so much of a threat; the prisoner was free. With a shake of his leg the last strands of leather dropped to the floor. The last chain fell and coiled itself on the ground like a snake, clinking instead of hissing. The prisoner looked around.
Now the troops that Otrepyev had left on guard were stung into action. Some rushed to surround the prisoner, sabres drawn or rifles raised, bayonets pointing upwards. Most, though, went over to Lukin. After his initial success, his efforts on the rope had made no further progress. One of the soldiers jumped up, reaching up for his ankle, but missed. A second attempt found its grip and the soldier dangled from Lukin’s leg. The lieutenant managed to keep hold of the rope and the shutter moved again. The soldier began climbing up Lukin’s trouser leg, and calling on his comrades to add their own weight.
The prisoner was well aware of events. He had seen the shade recede and turned to take in the cause. He reached forward and grabbed at the rifle of one of those surrounding him. The soldier
fired, but it mattered little whether the bullet found its target or not. The prisoner wrenched the gun from his hands and then rammed it forward. The butt hit the soldier in the face, splitting his cheek and lip and dropping him to the floor. Another man struck with his sword. If the blow had kept true it would have split the prisoner’s skull, but at the last moment he jerked his head to one side and the blade caught his right ear. It was impossible to see what damage had been done for the flow of blood, but the prisoner was unperturbed. He swung the rifle again, knocking the swordsman to the ground, then he plucked the bayonet from the muzzle and cast the gun aside. He turned and flung the blade at the dangling figure of Lieutenant Lukin, from whose legs three other bodies now hung, with at last some significant effect on the speed at which the roof was opening.
Osokin did not see where the bayonet hit, but Lukin’s grip slackened immediately and all four men tumbled to the floor. The three
quickly pulled themselves to their feet, but the officer remained motionless on the ground.
The prisoner – though it was now far from appropriate to consider him a captive – strode towards the doorway. Although it was still daylight outside, there was a maze of tunnels out there – both those that were a part of the city and those that the Russians had dug for themselves – and he would easily find a safe place to hide until it was night. One of the soldiers threw himself on to the creature. It was brave, but it was no real attack. The prisoner caught him with one hand and drew him closer, so that they were almost face to face. There was a scream and Osokin saw a spurt of blood spray across the ground, quickly ebbing to nothing. The prisoner did not pause to drink, but hurled the corpse away. It landed against the wooden wheel that had once operated the canopy, shattering it. The prisoner turned and looked back at the room, stains of the soldier’s blood on his chin and neck. No one else moved to intercept him.
But Osokin did move, neither towards nor away from the prisoner, but laterally, in the direction of the wheel he had just destroyed. Osokin looked down, kicking the shards of broken wood with his toe until he saw what he wanted. It was one of the spokes of the wheel, still in one piece and sharpened at one
end where it had been driven into the hub when the thing was constructed. He raised it in his right hand, and turned towards the prisoner.
The expression on the creature’s face was a fitting reflection of the futility of Osokin’s action. He did not know why he couldn’t simply let the vampire leave. He did not know whether such an implement really would be effective, or whether it would be as useless as the bullets that had already been tried. He did not even know if he would have the skill and the strength to drive it home. And yet some force deep in his gut told him that he must fight this thing – must destroy it.
The prisoner grinned and took a step away from the doorway, as if to prove that he was able to leave and that he chose not to. He and Osokin began to circle one another. He did not cut an impressive figure. He was of about the same height as Osokin, but carried no great bulk. And yet Osokin knew how futile it was to assess his appearance as if he were a human. Everyone in the room – everyone still alive – had seen what the prisoner could do.
Osokin now had his back to the door. He took a step forward, but the prisoner made no move. Osokin jerked the stake out in front of him and the prisoner raised his hands a little in mock surrender, taking a step back. Osokin moved forward again and the prisoner echoed his movements, keeping a constant distance between them. Osokin prayed that his adversary had not noticed what he could plainly see. While most of the men watched in numbed silence, one of them had begun to move, crawling on all fours and positioning himself behind the prisoner. It was the sort of trick that belonged to the schoolyard, but it might just work.
Osokin gave a roar and began to run, hoping to see the prisoner react and tumble over the obstruction behind him. The creature did move, but far more swiftly than Osokin could have imagined. He turned and picked up the soldier from the floor behind him, holding him by his belt and collar, then he straightened and hurled the helpless man into Osokin’s oncoming charge. There was nothing Osokin could do. He heard an obscene noise and felt the stake press against his hands as it entered the man’s body.
His nostrils caught the scent of human ordure. He fell backwards under the impact, letting go of the stake. The soldier rolled aside, groaning in agony.
Osokin tried to sit up, but he had no time. The next moment, the prisoner was upon him, his eyes blazing, his mouth open to reveal his fangs. Osokin fell back once again and felt the prisoner’s hand on his chin, pushing his head upwards to reveal the pale white flesh of his throat. He began to pray, not that he would live but that he would truly die. He braced himself against the pain.
But no pain came. Instead, he heard a strangled, gurgling cry and felt the prisoner’s weight lifted from him. He opened his eyes and raised his head to see what had happened.
Colonel Otrepyev had returned, and had come prepared.
Around the prisoner’s neck was a loop of wire rope, which was tightened like a dog’s leash. Otrepyev held the other end and now that he had pulled his captive away from Osokin, he had his foot in the small of his back, so that he could further tighten the noose. The prisoner’s hands were at his throat, scratching in search of some way to relieve the tension, but they could find nothing.
‘Bind him.’ Otrepyev’s command was to the two men who had returned with him. They had brought a wooden trunk which they emptied on to the floor. A pile of metalwork lay before them, chains, manacles and other devices. Otrepyev maintained his grip on the wire rope, while the soldiers moved in. First they placed a helmet over the prisoner’s head. It was not solid but made of strips of metal so that his eyes, ears and nose were not covered. His mouth received no such favour. A steel tongue forced its way between his lips as the device was fastened. Osokin had seen such a thing before, in a museum in Leipzig. It was called a
– a scold’s bridle.
Next they manacled him – both his hands and his feet. The wire rope was looped through the bindings at his wrists and tied off on those at his ankles. Now Otrepyev released his grip, confident that there was no chance of escape. Finally the prisoner was bound with chains, across his arms and torso, at about the level of his elbows, and around his knees.
Under Otrepyev’s direction, the two men lifted the prisoner and
began to carry him across the room. Osokin was on his feet now and could see more clearly the box they had brought in. It was no simple crate. The sides, top and bottom were constructed of thick, solid oak, and additionally there were bands of iron, hinged so that the lid could open, and fitted with hasps so that they could be locked. From its shape anyone would guess that the box was intended for use as a coffin – only those who had witnessed the inhuman powers that had just been displayed would understand the need for it to be so strong.
The prisoner offered no struggle as he was lowered inside. Otrepyev lifted the lid and took one last, long look at the creature within before allowing it to drop with a slam that echoed around the inside of the conical chamber. Padlocks were quickly applied as a final security measure.
The two men picked up the coffin – whose weight must have been doubled by all the additional metalwork – and carried it from the room. Colonel Otrepyev took a final glance around the chamber, as if checking he had not forgotten anything.
He pointed to a couple of his men. ‘You two, come with me. I’ll need you to load the crates. The rest of you can return to your regiment.’ Then he turned to Osokin, offering a salute. ‘Thank you very much, Major,’ he said. With that, he was gone.
Osokin felt the urge to laugh. He’d always despised men like Otrepyev – men who worked for the Third Section, or now the Ohrana. Was this really what they spent their days doing? If so, it was now clear that Colonel Otrepyev was a brave man. A hero. And yet still the question niggled at the back of Osokin’s mind; why couldn’t they have just left that creature to perish in the sunlight?
He looked around him, at the bodies of the injured, dying and dead. He knew he must act. They needed a doctor. He was about to leave when he saw something on the floor – bloody and gnarled, but still recognizable. It was a human ear. At least it appeared human, but Osokin knew where it had come from. He had seen it being cut from the prisoner’s head during the struggle.
And that was enough to expel any doubt there might have been in Osokin’s mind. The creature – the prisoner – was irrefutably a
. Osokin had observed him closely as they had clamped the
over his head and seen for himself with absolute clarity. The ear, whose twin now lay in the dirt of the cell floor, was perfectly intact on the prisoner’s head. There was only one explanation: it had grown back.
LIEUTENANT MIHAIL KONSTANTINOVICH
lukin leaned on the railing of the boat and gazed north across the Caspian Sea. The breeze was cold, but even now, in the middle of January, it was nothing to what he had known in Moscow or even in Saratov. To the north, the sea often froze in the winter, and Mihail could see a few solitary chunks of ice drifting gently by. Here though, and further south, the sea was deeper and warmer, and ice, so he was told, rarely formed.