Episode 23: Eyes in the Dark

This entry is episode 23 of 30 in the series Tale of Tales

 

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Eyes in the Dark

 

 

Marena, seemingly dismissed by the men from the onset, had been holding back beside the tree together with Senka as the battle ensued and intensified. Now though, determining that the moment had arrived for her to act, she stepped forward, leaving a safer place under the sheltering boughs, and raised her strange staff high into the air. Chanting out a series of cryptic verses of her own, not minding the men of Morlak, her voice seemed to double in force with each new phrase, as her invocation grew in pitch and volume until it climaxed in a shriek. At the height of this wail, she thrust her staff down with all of her force, driving the bottom end deep into the ground. Both red stones at its crown now glowed with a bright, saturated light, so intense that it hurt to look upon it, and the whole head of the witching staff flared up in a white translucent flame, above which rose a thick spiral of smoke. The smoke began to spread as it ascended, but not like the smoke of an ordinary fire, bending instead unnaturally forward, like an extending hand, grasping towards the sea of flying creatures perched over the forest. This witching smoke quickly reached the throng of imps, who in their unfathomable mass had already begun to descend upon the small rise, their licks of flame now intensified to the point of spurting constantly from their small vicious mouths.

Meanwhile, a lame man named Vuk… he remembered. In a staggering flash of recollection beyond words and prehension, his body suddenly began to convulse into the throes of a terrifying transformation, just as the white light of Marena’s staff illuminated the round knoll upon which they stood, blinding everybody and halting, momentarily, the furious attack of their enemies. The cripple’s arms began to stretch and thicken, bursting through the sleeves of his torn shirt. His chest broadened, tearing through the remainder of this shirt, which now hung like rags about his body. His thighs began to swell in size, stretching his wide pants to their limits, clearly displaying the absurd musculature of his transformed legs. The hair on his chest began to thicken and erupt in waves, so even the naked eye could see a fur-like mass crawling over him like an army of ants, enveloping his neck and muscles, finally covering his entire body. His nose and jaw began to elongate, becoming one, like the snout of a beast. Then he dropped forcefully to the ground on his knees and hunched over, still a man, but with his human cries becoming more and more animalistic in their nature. And when he finally rose again, rising up from the last shudders of his wakeful transformation, he was no longer a man, for his humanness was left only in traces. The upper half of his body was now almost completely wolf-like, the nails of his hands elongated, sharp, and curved into claws. Claws had also sprung out of his toes, breaking through his shoes, now tattered by this powerful metamorphosis, while his head had taken on the form of a monstrous animal. And he raised that beastly head of sharp teeth and pricked ears, ripping apart and off with one hand (if it could still be called a hand) the remnants of his ragged shirt, casting it upon the ground like a snake removing its shed skin. The fearful maw then turned towards the full moon above the forest and let out a long, drawn-out howl. A howl akin to those that had chased them all these past hours, but with something savagely primeval in it – it was the cry of an animal finally liberated, freed after being caged for too long, a cry that screamed out its painful freedom, heralding the beast to the world again and calling out its long-lost pack. And upon this call, the two men from Morlak dropped down to their knees and fell into spasms of their own transformations. But he, who now carried his name proudly, did not wait for them. No, this Vuk, this “Wolf” in full embodiment of its name, jumped straight into the devilish wolves, like a wolf among sheep, for – hark! – the paragon and primal alpha of the Morlaks had returned. The primordial werewolf chieftain was born again.

All the while, the glimmering light from Mara’s staff was unleashing a wave of confusion upon the assailants. The demonic beasts paused, turning their heads from the light, and began to pull back to the darkness of the forest in a cacophony of shrill growls and pained yelps. The imps as well shrieked from the sudden unexpected light, but it was the smoke itself that made them retreat, the conjured smoke that had risen up as if guided, hounding them and dispersing across their multitude, which in fits of panic began to scatter apart in all directions. Even the black horseman himself flinched for a moment, letting out a scream of surprise while covering his eyes with his arm, but he just as quickly recovered, jumping from his frightened horse straight into the throng of retreating animals. Landing nimbly on his feet, he then ripped apart the air with a piercing cry: “Žaaarkooo! I will feast on your blood tonight!” And almost like Vuk, who was still in the throes of his own shapeshifting, the lord of the night now unveiled his true form, until then still masked in black robes and shadows: his face had completely distorted, his mouth opening into a gape twice as wide as it seemed possible, all his teeth protracting into long fang-like spikes, the nails on his hands extending sharply into sickles, seeming to wrap around the hilt of his giant sabre, while his eyeballs bulged forth as if torn out of their sockets just before he leapt at his prey with such speed that eyes could barely follow the movement.

Žarko and Miloš, just as their attackers, had also been startled by the sudden appearance of light that had abruptly illuminated their knoll, but Žarko braced himself for this assault in time, dodging the fierce attack of the dismounted horseman, while also swinging his mace to meet the oncoming blade. Several of the six sharp points of the mace-head grabbed the blade as if biting down on it, shattering it to pieces, and leaving the attacker with only a shank in his hand. The vampire, for this surely was a vampire, threw down the remainder of his sword, turning around on the spot and twisting with a supernatural elasticity, slamming his shoulder into Žarko who still sought to evade the attacker’s weapon lunge, all of this before the shattered pieces of the blade had met the ground. The warrior was knocked back from this blow, and as he fell backwards, he kept his eyes fixed on the two sharp unsheathing fangs that were rising with the attacker’s gaping maw and rushing for his neck faster than he could fall. As he tumbled down, Žarko attempted to swing his mace again, but his enemy prevented the intended blow with a rapid grab of his hand, gripping hard onto Žarko’s own and stopping him in the act (a feat beyond the power of any mortal man), forcing him to release the weapon. As if he had expected this, however, and completely in control of himself despite the danger, the warrior completed the motion of his left hand, which he had begun at the same time as his attempted swing of the mace with his right. This movement froze the horrific grin that had begun to form on the face of his assailant – the mustached man had imperceptibly pulled his knife from its belt-sheath, and, in an adder’s flash, stabbed the blade between the loosely-hanging tails of the vampire’s ringmail, directly into its lower stomach, then slashed violently upwards until the blade hit against the lower edge of the unbreakable breastplate.

Žarko rolled to the side quickly as the vampire tumbled to the ground, his hand gripping the handle of Žarko’s knife. He groaned, bewilderingly gazing at the blade sticking out of him. But this glimmer of seeming dismay lasted but a fleeting moment, for he then looked up approvingly in Žarko’s direction, like a hunter pleased with the vigor of his impending prize, while Žarko, with a shudder of horror, watched as his opponent straightened back up with ease, pulling the knife slowly out of himself. And now the groan transformed slowly into condescending laughter, as the hero and anti-hero held each other’s eyes: “Žarko, you fool, that will not work here… try and come at me now, brute, when you are out of weapons!” And again he threw himself at Žarko, knocking him back to the ground just as he managed to stood up.

The large man struggled furiously to grab the vampire by the neck and somehow managed to pull the monster into a lock upon his chest. Knotted together thusly, Žarko squeezed and squeezed that neck with all his might, with the strength he was widely known for, but this devil just kept on laughing. He cackled, on and on, and yet he could not free himself. His hands scrambled savagely, trying to free up his head and teeth for a wound, but they could find no chance. In this embrace, the combatants struggled, rolling left and right upon the ground, each seeking to gain any advantage, yet neither would give in. Žarko felt fear, fear like he had never felt before, drawing on every last bit of dwindling strength left in him. But this was not enough – the longer this strained embrace lasted, the more it seemed as if the vampire would prevail; despite all his effort, the mustached man could not even move his back off the ground, let alone do something more.

It was just then, pinned to the ground with his hope and stamina waning, that Žarko noticed Miloš standing behind him and looking at him, keeping to the side of the scuffle and a ways off, so as not to be noticed. Their eyes met and again they understood each other without a word being spoken – Žarko feigned as if he was about to give in, releasing with his right hand the vampire’s left, which immediately plunged its nails down, scratching deep into his cheek. The warrior groaned in pain, and, in what seemed like desperation, swayed to the side and pushed the vampire off him, yet in the same movement grabbed the handle of the sabre which Miloš had thrown through the air towards him, and, with uncanny deftness, finished the slashing action which had begun with an empty hand. With this one powerful and precise stroke, the blade sliced through the descending vampire’s neck, severing completely its head from the body! As the head rolled, with a terrible grimacing smile of triumph frozen on its face, Žarko straightened decisively, barely able to climb to his feet from exhaustion, and squeezed from his lungs one last rough shout at his fallen foe: “Laugh now, phantom head!”

Just then he heard a shout from behind: “The moth! Don’t let the moth escape!” He turned around quickly towards the voice, not comprehending in his extreme fatigue what Mara’s blathering about some moth could possibly mean, until he followed her gaze – from the mouth of the severed head, which had rolled off several steps away from the body, something was emerging. Žarko jumped quickly in that direction, but too late – already this moth, barely visible, pitch black like the night, had spread out its wings and rose up to the air. The man lunged forward and stretched out his hand in a final attempt to reach this black butterfly, but he missed, landing hard on his stomach and only bumping the severed head unintentionally, pushing it several steps further from the body. He scrambled up once again, but could now only stand, helplessly watching the nearly invisible black wings fading further and further into the night sky, and it seemed like he heard again, from somewhere far off, that familiar debased laughter hauntingly echoing on and on. The moth had escaped.

This entire battle with the vampire had transpired in but a flash, before Vuk’s transformation was even complete. As it had unfolded, the demon wolves had retreated to the forest, visible here and there and everywhere as they prowled amongst the trees, growling threateningly, their eyes still showing through the darkness in a bloody red glow. The light which had emanated from the top of Mara’s staff had begun to dissipate, and the nightmarish pack appeared to be just waiting for it to extinguish entirely to launch into attack again. It was then that the werewolf went hunting, and it was then that Senka disappeared, her silent absence then still unnoticed.

 

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