The town guard calls it the graveyard shift, because everyone knows the most dangerous things in the dark are the dead ones. Hamlin has never found the joke funny, and especially not tonight with the rain and thunder making it difficult to see or hear much of anything as he makes his rounds.
As he passes by the cemetery, he feels his shoulders grow tense. The rain and crushing darkness obscure his view, making it impossible to tell if anything is amiss or not. After a long moment of introspection and more than one prayer, Hamlin unlatches the cemetery gate and steps inside.
He makes his way among the graves, stepping lightly as though trying not to disturb the dead. The darkness presses in close, and beyond the small circle of lantern light, every headstone is a crouching beast, every statue is poised to strike.
And then, in a tremendous flash of white lightning, Hamlin sees it.
It’s only illuminated for a split second, but in the brightness of the lightning bolt, he catches a glimpse of something moving, squirming on one of the graves.
Then the darkness crashes back in like a returning tide, and Hamlin is left scrambling for his shortsword. He takes slow, faltering steps towards the...the thing, lantern raised and sword at the ready.
“Who’s there?” he calls, voice wavering.
If there’s an answer, it’s lost to the wind and rain.
Shivering now, Hamlin edges closer, until at last his lantern light falls on the disturbed grave.
Two wide golden eyes shine up at him, set in a pale face almost entirely obscured by mud. Even filthy and wretched as he is, Hamlin recognizes the figure.
It’s the boy they’d found on the side of the road yesterday, throat torn open as though by a wild animal. “Poor lad,” they’d all murmured. “Poor fool. He should have known there were monsters in the woods.” No one had recognized him, so the town priest did the basic rites, and they buried the boy in a cheap shroud beneath a nameless marker.
Hamlin swallows hard as the boy continues to struggle, clawing his way out of the grave. Those desperate golden eyes fixate on Hamlin.
If it can talk, it’s not undead, right? Hamlin tries to think back to the brief lecture he’d gotten as a new recruit about what kinds of monsters were acceptable to kill. All the undead ones, of course, but this boy is struggling, terrified, and he’s asking for help. Clearly he’s not any kind of mindless zombie, and the wound in his neck is gone.
Making his choice, Hamlin sheathes his sword and sets the lantern down. He reaches out to grip the boy’s filthy hands and pulls, wrestling him out of the grave and onto rain-slicked grass. The boy immediately curls into a ball, shivering violently in his thin clothes.
Hamlin sheds his coat, wincing as the cold rain starts to soak through his shirt, and wraps it around the boy. He scoops him up, coat, mud, and all, hefting him bridal-style as the boy yelps in alarm.
“Ain’t gonna hurt you,” Hamlin assures him. He casts a glance back at his lantern, then grimaces and leaves its light behind as he carries the boy out of the graveyard.
“Gonna get you out of this storm,” Hamlin grumbles. “Getcha something warm to drink.”
The boy’s voice is barely audible past his chattering teeth. “Th-thank...thank you.”
Hamlin makes his way back home, where he sets the boy down on a chair near the fireplace and stokes the embers back into flame. He grabs a few blankets and exchanges them for his coat back.
“You just sit here a moment,” Hamlin tells the boy. “I’ll get my wife up, and she’ll look after you, okay? Meantime, I gotta report this to the guard station.”
The boy’s eyes widen again. He clutches the blankets tightly.
“You’re not in any trouble,” Hamlin says quickly. “But we gotta figure out what happened, right, if someone put you in the ground while you were still alive.”
The boy only blinks in confusion. “I...” he croaks. “I don’t remember anything.”
Hamlin nods. “That’s fine. I guess after an experience like that it’d be pretty hard to think about any part of it.”
“N-no, I don’t remember...anything.” The boy pulls the blankets tighter around himself. “And I’m...so hungry...”
“Ellen’ll get you something hot to eat,” Hamlin assures him, ducking into the bedroom.
Ellen is already sitting up in bed, blearily rubbing one eye with the back of a hand. “Hamlin? I heard another voice...”
Hamlin kisses her cheek. “I’m so sorry, love, but there was this kid out in the storm, and...”
Ellen tosses back the covers and gets to her feet, reaching out to squeeze one of his hands. “Say no more. I’ll get him cleaned up. You still have your shift?”
Hamlin nods. “I’ll see if someone else can cover it. Back soon.”
She gives him a last, lingering kiss before pushing him gently towards the door. “Go safely, love.”
Hamlin does, sending one last reassuring smile towards the lost-looking boy by the fire. He’ll be in good hands.
The lost boy looks up from the fire as a woman enters the room, wearing a slightly rumpled dress and a concerned expression. What did the man say her name was? Ellen?
“Oh, dear, you’re so pale!” she exclaims.
The lost boy lowers his head, feeling suddenly guilty for her worry. “I—I think I’m just like that,” he mumbles as she hurries forward.
He jerks back in surprise as she places a hand on his forehead. Her touch is warm, gentle, and it seems out of place, though he can’t put his finger on why.
“And you’re still freezing! Let’s get you dry and clean, dear.”
He makes only meek protests as she bustles around the small home, fetching items and hanging a large kettle of water over the fire. “I’m really fine...”
“Nonsense, dear, you’re just numb,” the woman says, though not unkindly. “I promise you’ll feel even better once we’re done.”
As she helps him sponge off the worst of the mud with hot water and towels, Ellen keeps up a steady stream of chatter, which the lost boy is grateful for as it helps fill in some of his own blank confusion. He learns the town is called Bael, and the man who pulled him from his own grave is called Hamlin.
Every now and then, Ellen sneaks in a question for the lost boy as well, simple things like what his name is (“I don’t know.”) or where he’s from (“I don’t know.”) or what happened (“I don’t know.”). The questions make him nervous. Is it bad that he doesn’t know? Will she be angry?
But Ellen doesn’t get upset by his repeated answers. To the contrary, she fusses over him even more.
“Poor dear,” she sighs. “You must have had such an awful experience.”
“Mmh,” he says, noncommittal. He could tell her what waking up in his own grave felt like, with the earth crushing down on him and no room to move or breathe or think, but he decides he’d really rather not.
Once he’s dry and clean and dressed in some of Hamlin’s clothes, he really does feel better. He’s no longer shivering, and his breath comes far easier now that he’s confident he’s safe. He also realizes he’s ravenous, and eagerly thanks Ellen when she offers him a bowl of soup.
It’s delicious—something with a thick broth and bits of potato and carrots in it. Strangely, though, as much as he gulps down, it doesn’t seem to make a dent in his hunger. In fact, the longer he stays and relaxes in this warm, sheltered house, the stronger that hunger gets until his stomach feels empty and pinched with need. His brow furrows as he finishes his second bowl of soup, confused to find himself more famished than when he began.
He’s distracted from trying to puzzle it out when Ellen stifles a laugh. “Oh, dear, you have a bit of broth...” She points to an area on her face, and the lost boy tries to wipe the corresponding area on his own.
Another laugh. “No, no, other side... Here, just hold still a moment.”
Ellen leans forward with a cloth napkin to dab the offensive spot away.
As soon as her hand comes within six inches of his face, the lost boy’s nostrils flare as his mind is flooded with the smell of her, the faint note of sweat, the subtle medley from the soup ingredients...and her blood, pounding violently just beneath her skin. Like the richest of wines, like water in the desert. It’s intoxicating, overwhelming. The lost boy’s jaws part instinctually as the hunger inside of him screams in desire.
Ellen doesn’t move her hand away in time. His body surges forward to sink his teeth into it. Blood washes over his tongue, rich and fresh and perfect. Ecstasy swells in his chest, only for his meal to be snatched away with a shriek.
The lost boy stumbles back, tripping over his chair. Reality hits him at the same time as the floor.
Horror rises in his chest, overwhelming the hunger and the perfect taste of blood still lingering on his lips. He scrambles to his feet, backing away from Ellen with one hand thrown over his mouth as though he can hide what he’s just done. “I— I’m so sorry, I d-don’t know what I...”
He swallows back the rest of his words. Ellen is clutching her bitten hand to her chest, eyes saucer-round with fear.
She barely breathes the word, but the lost boy flinches back. His breath shakes as he drops to his knees. He can’t be, he can’t be, not after everything these people have done for him. “I’m so sorry. I—I won’t do it again, ever, I swear...”
His pleading seems to get through to her. She gives him a very shaky smile. “There are bandages in the pantry. Could—could you bring them?”
He nearly sobs in relief. She’s not throwing him back out in the storm. She’s not going to bury him again. “Of—of course,” he gets out. He pushes himself to his feet and opens the door she’d used to gather the ingredients for the soup. His eyes flick over the shelves inside the small closet, searching for something recognizable as a bandage.
“I don’t see—”
And suddenly there are hands on his back, not gentle this time but violently shoving. He stumbles forward into the pantry and then everything goes dark as the door slams behind him.
He whirls around and grabs blindly for the door. It takes him only a few frantic seconds to discover there is no handle on this side.
“Ellen,” he calls out. “Ellen, p-please...”
The darkness looms around him, walls pressing closer. He scrabbles at the door, then turns to ram his shoulder against it. The walls are too close, the walls are too close, the walls are too close.
Once he’s shouted her name, he can’t pull the air back into his lungs. The darkness eats up his voice until he’s choking on nothing. He loses his balance. There’s not even enough room to fall. He gasps for breath and he swears he can feel grave dirt filling his lungs again.
Starving, shaking, sobbing, he curls in on himself there on the floor of the pantry. The darkness takes him whole.
Hamlin is among the guards who come to fetch the vampire the next day at sundown. No one had wanted to move it after Ellen managed to catch it and trap it there, so the town guard posted a rotating watch in Hamlin’s kitchen.
“Been quiet, mostly,” the previous guard says, shifting aside the chair propped under the pantry door handle. “Sometimes I think I can hear him crying in there, though.”
“It,” Hamlin corrects. “Thing bit my wife. It’s a monster.”
He’s expecting to be set upon by the beast as soon as the door swings open, but instead they find it huddled on the floor, shivering and glassy-eyed. Its fingers are bloody, and some of its nails are missing. Hamlin glances over to see deep scratches in the back of the pantry door, and he curses himself again for bringing the thing into his home. Why had he been so stupid? He’d found the thing literally clawing its way out of its own grave, and yet he’d left it alone with his wife. Thank the gods Ellen hadn’t been hurt worse. Thank the gods the bite hadn’t gotten infected or cursed.
Hamlin levels his sword at the vampire on the floor. “Up.”
Those wide golden eyes flick up to him, then flinch away. “H-Hamlin, please,” the vampire whispers.
Hamlin’s expression hardens. “I said up.”
“I d-didn’t mean to hurt her.”
Hand tightening on the sword’s hilt, Hamlin nudges the point of the blade under the vampire’s chin. It falls silent.
“Get on your feet. Slowly. Hands raised.”
The vampire does as he says, though it struggles a bit when trying to stand. The other guards move quickly to bind its hands behind its back. Hamlin steps closer and clamps a hand around its neck, pushing it along in front of him as they leave the house.
The vampire squints and blinks rapidly in the last rays of the sun, but unlike some of the townsfolk had suggested, it doesn’t immediately catch fire or melt in the light. Hamlin supposes that would be too much to hope for.
He and the other guards march the thing through the streets to the town square. The moment the crowd and waiting pyre come into view, the vampire’s knees give out.
“No,” it gasps. “N-no, please...”
Hamlin grabs a fistful of its shirt—his shirt, he notes in disgust, the thing is even wearing his clothes—and yanks it upright again. “Walk,” he orders, but the vampire continues to struggle.
“Please,” it cries out as the guards start to drag it towards the stacked wood and the tall metal post. “Please, no, I-I made a mistake! I didn’t know what I was!”
They wrestle it into place and chain it to the pole, then quickly back away as it starts to thrash, tears streaming down its face.
Hamlin hesitates for the first time. The vampire’s chest is heaving with rough sobs. Only, vampires don’t need to breathe, do they? Maybe he’s just not that good of a vampire.
It. Not he.
Hamlin shakes his head and backs up as the priest begins his prayer and the blacksmith approaches with a blazing torch. There’s no place for monsters in a town like Bael, Hamlin reminds himself.
As the pyre is lit, the vampire struggles harder, begging and coughing as the smoke rises. Hamlin makes the sign of the Great Dragon over his heart, mouthing along with the priest’s prayer in hope of banishing this evil forever.
The flames rise higher.
Suddenly, a murmur goes up through the crowd, audible even over the vampire’s screams. People hurry aside, bowing or curtseying as a tall figure in expensively-tailored clothes walks between them. Hamlin sees the profile of the man’s face outlined by flames and feels his heart lurch with recognition.
“Lord Etienne,” he says, quickly saluting. “A rare honor, sir.”
Lord Etienne says nothing, gaze fixed on the pyre. He tugs off one of his black gloves, raises his bare hand, and snaps his fingers.
The roar of the flames is instantly silenced. The billowing brightness of the fire is snuffed to embers in an instant.
The vampire hangs from its restraints, singed and shaking, but still coughing in between sobs.
Another murmur of amazement ripples through the crowd at such a blatant display of magic. Townsfolk hurry out of Lord Etienne’s way again as he approaches the pyre, swinging himself up onto the half-burnt platform without fear.
The vampire looks up at its savior with those big golden eyes, stammering out gratitude before suddenly falling silent as Lord Etienne grips it by the chin and pulls its lip back. Even from several feet away, Hamlin catches the glimmer of one fang.
“A dhampir,” Lord Etienne announces in a cool voice. “Not even a proper vampire.” He tips the thing’s head from side to side, inspecting it. “Still, either has its uses.”
He turns to face the crowd, eyes falling on the town priest. “How much do you want for it?”
“M-my lord?” the priest stammers, clearly taken aback.
Lord Etienne scoffs and tosses a purse down at the priest’s feet, coins spilling onto the cobbles of the square. “Consider it a donation, then.” With a wave of his hand, the chains binding the vampire—dhampir?—rattle and slide off. The dhampir falls forward, caught by one of Lord Etienne’s steady arms.
Those golden eyes are wary again, flicking from the last of the sun glinting off the gold on the ground to Lord Etienne’s proud, impassive face. The man smiles, and he leans down to whisper something in its ear.
Hamlin can hear nothing of what’s said, but whatever it is makes the dhampir’s face go tight with fear again. Strangely, it doesn’t protest or fight as Lord Etienne pulls it down from the pyre, and it walks meekly along behind him as he leaves the square, shoulders hunched and eyes downcast.
“Well,” one of the other guards says dryly. “At least it’s gone, right?”
That’s true, Hamlin thinks. It won’t hurt Ellen or anyone in town again, wherever Lord Etienne is taking it.
A collective sigh of relief rises from amongst the crowd now that it’s over. There’s never been a place for monsters in a town like Bael.