Chapter Thirteen – The Great Barn

It was hot, still and dark in the hayloft of the Great Barn. The stagnant air was heavy with the smell of manure that should’ve been cleaned out this morning, and the woolen padding Erik wore under his mail was already soaked with sweat. He’d paid a wizard master smith very good money for his mail shirt. Enchantments for strengthening armor were common; Erik’s mail also had spells to keep the metal from rusting, and to make it much lighter, but it was still hot. Erik  thought of Torvald, with his mother’s eyes, and realised the discomfort was worth it. Erik walked slowly over the hay-strewn floor and its creaking timbers, far enough from the edge of the sloping thatched roof that he need not duck to avoid the rafters. Erik’s night vision was not as good as it used to be, but still far better than the other men, another reason he was the logical choice to go in first. Behind him, bright flecks of chaff swam in a shaft of late afternoon light slanting through the open loft doors. Ahead, dark masses of hay and roof beams loomed. Erik reached an open trap door leading down to the barn floor, and stared down into a black pit.

Erik paused to let his eyes adjust, and he felt Black Molly hum in his hand, warning him that a vampire was near. In the stillness, Erik’s acute hearing also confirmed the ambush he’d been expecting since he entered the barn. Behind him, he could hear a faint whisper of bare feet on wood. If he turned and faced the creatures now, they might just run and alert the others — vampires preferred the element of surprise. He also couldn’t have them stalking him as he got into position for the next phase of the rescue. Erik had to draw them out. He intentionally dropped the buckler in his left hand; it fell with a muffled thump into a pile of straw. He rested Black Molly’s point on the wooden floor, balanced himself against the sword and bent at the knees to pick up the small shield with his left hand. When Erik heard a scurrying sound behind him, he dropped his left shoulder, grabbed the strap of the buckler and then tucked his chin and did a shoulder roll. When Erik came back up into a crouch, Black Molly extended and the buckler in his left hand, the two vampires were scrambling to change their angle of attack. The taller one slid in the hay and sprawled not far from him. Erik feinted toward the shorter vampire, which sidestepped the sword but ran into the shield coming from the other direction. The bronze edge of the buckler caught the vampire on the ear, and it hissed in pain, but not for long — a quick thrust between the ribs and Black Molly snared its evil spirit with a crackle. It had been more than a decade since Erik had used Molly. Now, awakened from its long sleep, the sword thrummed in his hand. It seemed foolish to Erik now that he hadn’t used Molly when the attacks started in Westering, but that was the problem with magical weapons, they changed your way of thinking about everything, and not always for the better.

By the time Erik pulled the double-edged blade free from the body, the second vampire was on its feet and looking for a way out. Erik quickly moved to block the trap door. Now the only escape was past Erik, or through the wide swath of sunlight coming through the open loft doors. Erik advanced quickly, and the vampire retreated until its back was only inches from the beam of sunlight. Erik expected the cornered vampire to make a desperate rush to get by him and to the safety of the dark beyond. To Erik’s surprise, the vampire didn’t move at all. It just stood still, face covered with a tattered brown hood, yellow clawed hands hanging loosely at its sides, its bare white feet sticking out of short, dirty breeches. As Erik came within striking distance, the creature threw back its hood to reveal a long, thin face with serpentine eyes glittering like onyx. Like most vampires, this one was bald, but it had a dark red, roughly circular burn on its forehead. Erik hesitated. This vampire’s behavior was odd. He was trying to get a better look at the mark when the vampire licked its thin, dry lips and croaked, “To serve him again.” With that, the vampire turned, ran directly into the sun and leaped, trailing black smoke, through the hay loft door.

Vampires rarely spoke, and when they did, it wasn’t in complete sentences. Once again, vampires were doing things they weren’t supposed to. It was troubling. It seemed this creature had somehow known that Black Molly could capture it, and had defied all its instincts to get outside. With some shade and some luck, there was a chance the spirit would escape into the woods like an oily plume of black smoke and eventually find another host. To serve him again. Vampires had never acknowledged any leader, but it would explain their recent organized attacks on Westering and here at Watson Farm. And that symbol on the vampire’s forehead, that must be his mark. Leadership, strategy, and now loyalty. Erik shook his head; none of these were traits you wanted to find in vampires.

Erik cleaned Black Molly with a handful of straw. Back at the edge of the trap door, Erik crouched and looked down. When his eyes were adjusted, he could see the dim outlines of walls, barrels and sacks on the ground floor of the barn, ten feet below. Erik was near the middle of the barn; on the map Collie sketched for him, the five hostages were in one of several of the north barn’s milk rooms. Erik looked to his right, where any minute now, Inigo, Reginald and Toby would open the south door of the barn and start letting out the horses. Erik expected this would bring at least some of the vampires to that end of the barn. When they had passed beneath him, Erik would climb down the ladder and block the creatures from going back to interfere with the rescue party: Isaac, Henrik and Silas, led by Nestor.

Erik hadn’t put the plan to a vote — Nestor had agreed to it earlier — but all the men had agreed it was a good one. The younger men all wanted to be in the rescue party, of course. Erik made it clear the assignments were final, but when Silas said I could walk that barn blindfolded, Mister Erik, he had grudgingly agreed to let Silas go along with the rescue party, in case the Westerings got turned around once inside the barn.

Erik waited at the edge of the trap door, listening. He could hear the restless animals several yards to his right. Silas said the south end of the barn was for the horses, the draft animals as well as the riding horses, like Master Watson’s Fuego. They had been shut up in the dark all day, and he could hear them snorting, stamping and nickering anxiously. From the north barn, Erik could hear the cows, needing to be milked. Erik assumed the vampires left the animals shut up either as another food source, or out of sheer neglect. Either way, letting those horses out was going to cause a stir. Erik adjusted the small shield on his left hand. He didn’t expect to need it for protection from armed vampires, though he was no longer willing to discount anything. A buckler was light and versatile against any foe for protection, and also as a weapon for smashing broad-faced and slashing edge-on. Erik heard a new sound over the animals and smiled at the sound of the heavy double doors of the south barn opening. A pale, golden light grew in the gloom below, and the animals immediately raised a commotion. Erik heard whinnying and stamping as Inigo and and the three younger men entered the barn and began opening the stalls. Reginald was a farm boy, and he would know his way around animals, but Erik hoped all the Westerings were all careful to stay out of the way. Those horses were desperate to be out. Erik heard snorts, loud neighing and hooves clashing against stalls — the noise was tremendous, and there was no way it wouldn’t be heard all over the barn. It was a perfect distraction. However, it was also too loud to hear a stealthy vampire approach, so Erik crouched and waited, peering down into the gloom on his left, toward the middle of the barn where Collie had seen most of the vampires gathered. Twelve or fifteen, he’d said, it was hard to tell the way they slept in a pile, like animals.

Erik heard Reginald shout, Whoa! as a horse whinnied. Erik wished he could see something from here. He thought about putting his head down the trapdoor for a quick look toward the south barn, but he couldn’t risk sticking his head out just as the vampires came along below him. The sound of anxious horses made Erik think about Will Taylor and Fuego, who had narrowly escaped the barn just this morning. Jess the Herbal was tending the boy’s wounds when Erik went to talk to Nestor. Jess said Will would be fine, Lords willing. Him and the five in the milk room, assuming Nestor and his team could get them out safely. Only six people, out of more than thirty that worked at the farm and in the house, accounted for. Erik was looking straight down at the floor of the barn when Black Molly buzzed like a trapped wasp and two vampires glided by beneath him. Their pale hands sticking out of the sleeves of their dark clothes seemed to float in the air. Four, six, nine hooded shapes went by. Erik rolled his shoulders and changed his grip on Black Molly. He hoped Inigo and the boys were paying attention. Vampires didn’t like any sunlight; even indirectly, it hurt their eyes, but only direct sunlight would do any real damage. There would be no direct sun through the south door at this time of day, and the vampire’s numbers would make them bold. Number eleven passed by now. Erik wanted as many of the vampires as possible at this end of the barn, away from the milk room. At the same time, he didn’t want the vampires to overwhelm Inigo and his group, or cut them off from the south door. This lot below in the barn, two in the springhouse and two in the hay loft made fifteen, but there was no way to know for certain if that was all of them. Any minute now, Nestor, Isaac, Henrik and Silas would be throwing open the eastern doors and heading for the prisoners with the setting sun at their backs. Erik would be between the rescuers and the main group of vampires until the prisoners were safe, or the vampires were dead, or both. The layout of the south barn would help Erik secure the route back to the milk room — at the end of the long double row of stalls, the way through the horse barn narrowed as it passed between several large feed and tack rooms.

Nestor and his group were waiting for the signal. It was time. Erik took a deep breath, lowered himself quickly down through the trap door, and then dropped the remaining distance to the crushed stone floor of the barn. Both the wide barn doors were open. Through the dust and chaff swirling in the golden summer light, Erik saw the back-lit shapes of vampires, and just beyond them, a dozen horses stamping and jostling their way to the exit. Erik could make out one or two Westerings hugging the walls as the freed animals moved past them. Reginald was moving along the stalls, trying to let out the last few horses, and five vampires were stalking him. The creatures moved quickly along the empty stalls, screened from Reginald’s view by a big hand cart loaded with feed bags. With the noise of the horses up ahead, none of the vampires heard Erik approaching, and he beheaded the hindmost neatly with Black Molly before the rest realized what happened and whirled to face him. Ten left. Erik turned his head back toward the milk room and boomed “Go!” to Nestor. Reginald looked around, surprised, and the five vampires now advanced on Erik — an angry, hissing pack of black-eyed ghouls. “Erik!” It was Inigo, though Erik couldn’t see him past the horses. “Careful! There’s at least ten vampires in here!” Erik shouted.

One of the vampires coming toward Erik got in the way of a big grey draft horse Reginald had just freed from its stall, and was kicked hard by the panicked animal. Erik smiled and thanked the horse as the vampire flew several feet into the dusty air and landed in a heap against the opposite wall. The remaining  four vampires gave the horse a wide berth, and then began to fan out around Erik. Before they could encircle him, Erik moved to one side of the barn, putting the stalls on his right and a large handcart full of hay at his back. As the vampires spread out along his left, Erik punted a half-empty water barrel toward the creature directly in front of him. When vampire One ducked into a stall to dodge the barrel, Erik went after the second vampire head-on. Three and Four kept going left, moving to flank him. Vampire Two wasn’t stupid enough to fight Erik alone, but when the first vampire came out of the stall holding a pitchfork, they attacked together. Fine time to discover weapons and strategy, Erik thought. As Three and Four headed toward the handcart and out of his peripheral vision, Erik charged the vampire with the pitchfork. Vampire One made a wild stab with the  fork, Erik sidestepped and hacked the tool in half. When the vampire lashed out again with the pitchfork handle, Erik took the hit on his buckler and replied with a thrust into the ribs. Erik pulled Molly out with a crackle and then spun left with his buckler and smashed the second vampire to the ground as it lunged. The shield had two leather straps inside; Erik released one, leaving the shield still secure on his wrist. With the buckler hiding the movement, Erik drew his father’s hunting knife with his left hand and turned all the way around to face Three and Four as they leapt from the hand cart.

Vampire Three practically jumped onto the blade as Erik thrust the knife up, but the impact made Erik’s thrust at vampire Four with Black Molly skewer the vampire’s hood, instead of its neck. The bronze guard on Erik’s right arm hit the vampire’s face, and Erik shoved back hard as long claws scrabbled at the metal guard and the exposed skin of his upper arm below the mail shirt. Erik grimaced with pain, pulled the knife out of Three as it sagged to the floor, then went under his sword arm and into the chest of Four. The creature wheezed as the knife punctured a lung. Erik let go of the knife as the vampire fell away from his bloody arm, crisscrossed with scratches from the vampire’s claws. Now, vampire Two was back on its feet and lunging at Erik with the head of the pitchfork. Erik brought the buckler around too late — the sharp iron prongs pierced his shirt and bit into the mail just above his belt, but went no further. Erik swore and brought Molly down hard between the last vampire’s neck and shoulder. As Molly claimed its spirit, Erik took a deep breath and added up quickly. Horse, one. Erik, four dead — counting the one in the loft — and this one with his knife in its chest. Erik stepped forward, finished the creature with Molly and reclaimed his knife. That was six in all, which left  five somewhere up ahead. Now, the odds were almost even, at least in sheer numbers. But Reginald and Toby had no fighting experience, and Inigo had a bad knee. Still, vampires liked to attack from ambush, and they didn’t like one on one fights.

Erik heard Inigo shout, then someone — Reginald? — yelled in pain. Erik moved toward the doors and saw several silhouettes ahead in the half-light and swirling dust. Sweat dripped from Erik’s nose; he wiped his face with the inside leather band of his arm guard and shifted his attention to two vampires approaching right and left, much more cautiously than the first four. Erik heard shouting behind him, from the north barn — that would be Nestor and his group. With luck, they were already on their way out with the prisoners. Erik’s right arm was still bleeding, but it had slowed; the wounds weren’t deep.

The two vampires in front of Erik hissed furiously, but retreated as he moved toward them. Gravel crunching beneath his boots, Erik kept driving them toward the south door, only ten yards away now. Just beyond the two vampires, Erik saw the outlines of shields and swords in the doorway. “Erik!” said Inigo. “We got two of them, but Reginald is hurt. I’m getting him outside!” Toby was covering Inigo as he helped Reginald out into the barnyard, then the young man immediately started back inside. ““I’ll help you with these two, Erik!” Toby shouted, coming straight down the middle of the stalls.

“Just stay back!” Erik roared. “I have them!” But Toby didn’t stop until a hidden vampire sprang out of a stall to his left, knocking the young man right off his feet. Erik swore under his breath and charged ahead, past the two vampires flanking him. The large vampire on top of Toby was choking him with both hands as the boy kicked and flailed desperately for his dropped sword. Without breaking stride, Erik kicked the vampire — the toe of his boot caught the creature under the chin, snapped its head back and broke its grip on Toby. With its hood thrown back, Erik saw the same burn mark on its forehead he’d seen on the vampire in the hayloft. Toby scrambled up, wide-eyed, coughing and pointing as he tried to warn Erik of the two vampires rushing toward them. Erik turned, lifted Black Molly and struck the flat of the blade against a horseshoe nailed to a nearby post. Collie called it ringing Hell’s bell — the long, otherworldly peal that drove out all other sound. It was unpleasant to anyone who heard it, but the noise drove vampires absolutely mad, as though it were the shrieking of all the kindred spirits trapped inside the sword. For all Erik knew, that’s exactly what it was, but it gave him the time he needed to keep Toby from being killed while he dealt with the vampires. The closer of the creatures was swaying unsteadily beside the open stalls with its hands clamped over its ears. Erik reached it in two great strides and drove the hunting knife under the sternum and up. He left the knife again, moved quickly to the second vampire and swung Black Molly, still ringing, in a horizontal arc over the vampire’s shoulders that removed one hand and its head. The body slumped to the ground and the peal died away. Erik wheeled to his right to find Toby. The young man was grimacing and scrambling for his short sword — knocked from his hand when the vampire surprised him — in the hay and crushed rock as his attacker rolled to his knees, face bloody, and scurried into the nearest stall.

Toby came up with his sword, nose bleeding, face red, looking very angry and embarrassed. Erik patted his shoulder and was about to help him finish off the vampire when he heard a scream from the middle of the barn. “Get outside and wait with Inigo,” Erik said. Toby nodded and started for the door. Erik paused to retrieve his knife and wipe it on the vampire’s hood, then moved quickly toward the milk room. He heard the sound of a sword hitting a shield hard, then more screams. Up until now, they had been lucky, all things considered. Now, something had gone wrong with the rescue.

~ ~ ~

When Nestor heard Erik shout Go!, Henrik and Isaac flung open the east doors and Nestor charged into the barn, Silas close behind him to guide the way to the milk room. Isaac and Henrik fell in immediately after Silas with swords drawn and shields raised. The setting sun was blaze of orange and gold at their backs. The east entrance led straight into the middle of the Great Barn, and soon they had reached the intersection with the corridor to the horse barn. As they hurried by, Nestor looked right — he saw Erik’s broad back not ten yards away, and a horse kicking a vampire across the room.

Their long shadows running ahead of them, Silas now led the Westerings quickly past empty stalls, stacked barrels and burlap bags, then left into a dark corridor. Ahead in the darkness was the center of the Great Barn, where Collie had seen most of the vampires gathered in the interior rooms. Beyond lay the north barn where the dairy cows were restlessly lowing in their stalls. Silas stopped at a small door on the left, where the sliding latch to the milk room was jammed shut with a broken rake handle. Silas knocked on the door, and a woman’s voice said, “Hello? Who’s there, for God’s sake?”

“It’s Silas Latham and some friends — we’ve come to get you out!” Silas yanked at the broken handle. Henrik sheathed his sword and came around to help him. Nestor watched them for a moment and then looked back into the gloom ahead of them, unable to believe their luck so far. Then a voice came from the shadows, across the room from them. “Where is Erik?”  Silas and Henrik stopped pulling at the milk room door; everyone froze. “Where is Erik Magnusson?” The man sounded calm, almost relaxed. Nestor gripped his hammer in both hands and stepped forward, in front of Silas, and strained to see who was talking. He had never heard a vampire speak so clearly, but who else would be here alone, at the center of this nest of the undead creatures?

“Who are you?” Nestor said, watching the darkness for any sign of movement.

“He’s here, isn’t he? It’s been a long time.” It was almost as though the man were talking to himself. “But I’m sure I heard him bellowing.” A chuckle from the darkness. “Well, no need to work in the dark now that you’re here,” the voice said, and then summoned a werelight. A glowing sphere of magical illumination formed in the air ten feet away from Nestor, eight feet above the ground. It was not the warm, slightly golden hue, like afternoon sun, of a typical werelight, but a cold, eerie blue glow. As it reached full intensity, Nestor and the rest of the group saw three hooded figures standing in front of a wooden interior wall twenty feet away. The figure in the middle took a few steps toward them, and all the Westerings brandished their weapons. All three strangers were wrapped in identical black hoods and cloaks, which were relatively clean, whole, and of much better quality than the tatters worn by most vampires.

The stranger laughed again. “Well, you didn’t think you were just going to walk out of here with their dinner, did you?”

“The odds are against you, my friend,” Nestor said, mostly  for the sake of the younger mens’ resolve. Silas stayed at the door, but the Westerings stepped up on both sides of Nestor, who stood a head taller than the rest of the men.

Nestor couldn’t tell about the figures on either side of this stranger, but he was certain the one in the middle was no vampire, even without seeing his hooded face. “Looks that way.” His voice was clear, his movements measured, and he was Erik’s size or bigger, not skeletal and wasted, as most vampires ended up not long after being turned, regardless of their build when alive. The stranger said casually, “We’ll do the best we can.” With that, the vampires on either side of him opened their cloaks to reveal weapons — one had a short sword, the other a wood axe — and they advanced quickly, not losing the Westerings’ surprise at seeing armed vampires.

Nestor stepped forward to meet the vampire closest to him, which lifted its axe. To his left, Isaac quickly maneuvered to meet the vampire with the sword and told Henrik to back him up, but stay out of the way. Silas went back to working on the jammed milk room door. Nestor would be the first to admit his own fighting style was not subtle — hit first and hit hard — but it had always served him well against vampires, who fought with little or no strategy, acting on instinct. Khawlah, Nestor’s war hammer, had a longer reach than the vampire’s splitting axe — Nestor took a quick horizontal swing and the vampire dodged the blow, then dove into the opening and landed a blow on Nestor’s round bronze and leather shield. But Nestor was stronger and quicker than the vampire expected, and the Westering drove forward with his shield, shoving the vampire back, and then sweeping its legs with a backhand blow from his hammer. Again, the vampire was quick enough to dodge the main force of the blow, but now it was off balance. Nestor thrust the bronze edge of his shield into the creature’s chest, then brought the vampire down for good with a whistling overhead blow from Khawlah. Nestor was unscathed, but it had never taken him this long to fight a vampire. He couldn’t help thinking that if he had faced opponents like these in Westering earlier this summer, he might have suffered worse than sore muscles, bruises, and a gash on his arm.

Isaac and Henrik were having trouble pinning down their foe, who wasn’t willing to fight both of them at once, while the hooded stranger watched quietly in the eerie blue light. Nestor turned quickly to the milk room door, where Silas had broken off part of the handle keeping the door shut, but still couldn’t get it open. Nestor touched the young man on the shoulder, and when Silas stepped quickly aside, Nestor smashed the jammed slide and yanked the door open. Someone inside screamed, and Silas moved quickly to the doorway. “It’s all right!”

Nestor turned back to face the hooded man and placed himself in front of the door, hammer and shield ready. Silas tried to pick up one of the two younger children, who were both crying and seemed afraid of the Westerings, or just too frightened to leave the room now that they were free. Nestor waited for the hooded man to stop the prisoners from escaping, but he seemed more interested in watching Henrik and Isaac drive the sword-wielding vampire into a corner. What is he waiting for?Nestor thought, keeping himself between the hooded man and the hostages. The women shooed Silas and Toby out, then picked up the children and began to leave the milk room as Isaac delivered the killing blow to the second vampire. As soon as the creature was dead, the hooded man moved so quickly and quietly that Nestor barely had time to shout a warning before the stranger was on top of Henrik, who started to turn, but too late. Without drawing a weapon, the hooded man dodged a clumsy swipe from the young Westering, wrenched the short sword from Henrik’s hand, pushed his shield aside and stabbed him with his own blade. As the hooded man whirled Henrik around, his shield dropped to the ground, and the stranger threw Henrik sprawling across the room. The young man landed with a groan at the feet of the first woman out of the milk room. She screamed, shielded the eyes of the child she was carrying, and ran past Henrik into the light of the eastern corridor. Silas came back to help Henrik, who was writhing in the gravel. Get him outside!, Nestor said, and started toward the hooded man, who had Isaac in the same corner as the dead vampire, raining heavy blows on Isaac’s shield. The stoic Westering cried out as the force of the blows splintered his shield, but Nestor was too late — in the blue light, he saw Isaac’s wounded arm give way, and as the Westering raised his sword to defend himself, Henrik’s own blade shoved his aside and sank deep into Isaac’s chest.

As Silas dragged Henrik out, he heard a wild war cry; he looked up to see Nestor charge the hooded man like a bull and carry him backwards against the wall with a crash that broke several boards and sent dust billowing. The force of Nestor’s impact knocked Henrik’s sword from the hooded man’s grasp, and now he used both hands to grab Nestor’s shield and shove him away. Nestor staggered back. As he realized how strong this man was, Nestor thought of his son and what he told him about fear earlier that day. Nestor hesitated in his doubt; the hooded man pulled free of the broken boards, scooped up Henrik’s sword in his left hand and came straight for Nestor. The hostages were outside by now; there was no need to hold off this man alone. Nestor knew he had much to lose, but he had also never run from a fair fight, and he wasn’t ready to back down yet. Nestor widened his stance and held his ground. The hooded man never paused, crossing the room in a few long, fast strides, and when he landed the first blow on Nestor’s shield, the Westering flinched at the force of the impact.

Nestor swung Khawlah right at the hooded man’s head, who dodged the blow and answered with a vicious swing at Nestor’s legs that the Westering blocked with his shield just in time. The hooded man was able to change the angle of his attack with a speed Nestor had never seen before in years of  training and battle. He barely had time to raise his shield as the next blow landed from above, glancing off the large bronze boss of the shield and knocking Nestor off-balance. Nestor struck out straight and hard with Khawlah at the hooded man’s chest. The hooded man turned the blow aside as if it were a practice parry, then grabbed the edge of Nestor’s shield with his right hand and began to pull. Nestor tried to pull his shield arm back, only to have it yanked forward so hard that one of the leather straps broke, and the other pulled free from its rivets. As the hooded man tossed his shield aside, Nestor landed a blow on his left shoulder that should have broken bones. The hooded man snarled, angry, but far from crippled, and swung Henrik’s sword down at Nestor’s head just as the Westering raised Khawlah’s handle to block the blow.

Where. Is. Erik?!” the hooded man punctuated each word with a blow on Khawlah’s handle so hard that the big man felt it in his teeth. Nestor had never known such force. On the fourth blow, Khawlah’s handle snapped, and Henrik’s sword broke near the crossguard. Nestor fell to one knee, hands and forearms numb from the shock, and struggled to get up again, but the hooded man kicked him hard in the chest, and Nestor fell back against the wall of the milk room. As Nestor struggled for his next breath, the hooded man opened his cloak, drew his own sword with his right hand, and put the flat of the blade under Nestor’s chin.

“For the last time,” he said, flexing his left shoulder. “Where is Erik Magnusson?”

Nestor managed to smile as he looked up and wheezed, “Why don’t you look in the last place you saw him?” It was something he heard his wife say to their son every day, and Nestor expected these to be the last words he ever spoke. He had promised to take Salah fishing. Nestor wished he had kissed them all, just once more. “Nestor?!” Erik’s voice came booming down the corridor, and as the blade dropped from his chin, Nestor turned his head to see his friend round the corner — bloody and  bristling, with a weapon in each hand.

Erik tried to mask his shock at seeing Nestor sitting in the dirt, his hammer broken, with a sword at his throat. Isaac was slumped in the corner, motionless, maybe dead. Erik turned his attention to the hooded man holding the sword. He was not as big as Nestor, but taller than Erik by an inch or two. It was hard to tell more with the hood, in the weird blue light. The hooded man turned fully toward Erik and spread his arms wide, as if in greeting, the tip of the long sword in his right hand almost touching the ground. “You’re here!” the hooded man said with relief. “I was beginning to wonder.”

“Be careful, Erik!” Nestor said, and the blade flashed back to Nestor’s neck. The hooded man laughed. “Good advice!” The blade dropped, and the hooded man said, “Nestor, is it? I hope you’re a good storyteller, my friend. I want you to do this justice.”

“This?” Nestor said, grimacing in pain and holding his ribs.

“Oh,” Erik grunted, “You mean the story of how you hid here while we cleaned out a nest of vampires, and then ambushed my friend in the dark?”

“I didn’t know you had a sense of humor, Erik,” the hooded man replied, “but no, this will be a lot more exciting.” He lifted his long blade, blue light running along its edges, until it pointed straight up. “This is the story of how I killed Erik Magnusson.”

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