There was a vampire in Cress Haven, and it was Johnathan’s duty to snuff it out.
“Are you quite certain of this location?” Johnathan peered at his traveling companion as
the coach rolled through the unkempt dirt roads. Wilderness surrounded them, the relentless
forests of backcountry Maine muffling the rattle and buck of the wheels that spat up a cloud of
dust in their wake.
Dr. Evans raised an imperious brow, thick white mustache twitching over his mouth.
“You have my assurances, Prospective Newman,” said the doctor. “The legitimacy of the reports
are thoroughly verified before we assign a man on the case. There is a fiend here, squatting
among the populace. Multiple victims have gone missing. The fiend appears to have a preference
for young ladies. Your task is identification and elimination.”
“Shouldn’t be too difficult.” Johnathan eyed the roll of handwritten instructions, neat pen
scratches detailing all the requisite information he needed for a successful hunt. “The town’s
population was barely a thousand souls all told at last census. It’s somewhat baffling why a
vampire would settle here. One would think a fiend’s peculiarities would quickly pinpoint its
identity among humans.”
“Careful, Johnathan,” said Dr. Evans, catching his attention. The good doctor only used
Johnathan’s first name when he was worried. “A fiend, alone and secluded, possesses a great
deal of cunning and trickery compared to the nests we cleansed in Boston and New York. Be on
your guard and vigilant.”
Johnathan blinked. His gaze strayed to the custom-made crossbows lying on the seat
beside Dr. Evans. Most Hunters preferred melee weapons to pin their fast-moving prey, but his
mentor enjoyed the challenge. He could wield the weapon like no other, a master marksman in
archery, skilled at the art of ambushing fiends despite their extraordinary senses. Johnathan
always felt safe with the doctor, unless what he feared was the doctor himself.
That was a circumstance in which he’d found himself a time or two or twelve. Dr. Evans
was a mentor, a leader. He was also a killer, and he wouldn’t go easy on Johnathan, no matter
how fond he was of his students.
This assignment couldn’t be that dangerous, or the society wouldn’t have sent someone
like Johnathan out here. Would they? The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that
Dr. Evans was about to toss him into a pit of vipers. Trial by fire was the truest method of
ascertaining if one was suited for the life.
“Sir?” The thick wool of Johnathan’s trousers wicked the sweat from his palms.
Dr. Evans’ expression softened. “You’re at the top of your class, dear boy. I have
complete faith you’ll turn in a more than adequate performance.” There was a twinkle of
sentiment in the older man’s eyes. He clapped Johnathan on the shoulder. “We shall return in a
month to retrieve you.”
“A month?” Johnathan sputtered. “What if I require extraction before then? Or I
encounter more than a lone fiend?”
Affability drained out of the doctor’s gaze. “Adapt. Enlist local aide. Consider this your
graduation ceremony. But if you should find the situation beyond your capability, send word
through post. Our agents will be here within a fortnight.”
There was no need for the doctor to clarify further. A call for aid would be considered
Johnathan swallowed hard, the rumble of the coach accentuating the sensation of the
world sinking out from under him. There was nothing outside except trees surrounded by more
trees, but the coach was slowing. The conveyance rolled to a stop in the thick of the forest, the
setting sun swallowed up by the coniferous treetops, brushing the sky like serrated teeth.
“The society has provided you with a generous stipend to cover your expenses,” said the
doctor, “though we suggest you practice frugality. There is a reputable boarding house at the
edge of town for the seasonal woodsmen that should accommodate you.” The coach wobbled to
a standstill. Dr. Evans opened the coach door, gesturing with middling patience for Johnathan to
The young man hesitated. “It’s almost dark, sir.”
“Oh, tosh.” The doctor’s expression darkened. He seized Johnathan’s arm with surprising
strength for a man his size and stature, before tossing him bodily from the coach. Johnathan’s
battered traveling case followed a moment later, bouncing resignedly to a stop on top of his
boots. “The town is two miles down the coach road,” said the doctor. “I suggest you start
walking, lad, before true nightfall.”
Without further fanfare, the coachman steered the horses in a wide circle around
Johnathan, kicking off at a fast trot back in the direction they came.
Dr. Evans could have at least left him with a suitable weapon. Even a vial of dead man’s
blood, which slowed a fiend’s ability to heal, wouldn’t be remiss. But part of his trial was to find
weapons of opportunity in a foreign environment, no matter how sparse that environment.
Johnathan tensed, seized with the acute urge to chase down the coach and cling to the
back all the way to Boston. This wouldn’t do. For one, Dr. Evans would be terribly disappointed
in him. For another, it was likely they’d toss him right back out here, this time tied at the ankles.
He watched the coach until it rumbled out of sight through the trees before he finally
turned toward Cress Haven. It was alarming how much darker the forest seemed in those spare
moments. Shadows slithered out from between the trees, casting the coach road in intermittent
patches of deep darkness. The sun had firmly given up the sky to dusk, the light rapidly fading
with each passing second. He needed to get moving rather than stand in the middle of the road
like a slab of beef fallen off the butcher’s wagon.
Johnathan scooped up his valise. The leather case banged against his thigh in time to his
steps, a comforting thump as he picked his way over the pitted dirt road. Stones skittered out
from under his boots. It would be just his luck to twist an ankle in the dark and fall prey to the
This was to be his final exam? He doubted the assignment would occupy him more than a
fortnight. What would he do for the remaining half of the month? Take up logging, he supposed.
Maybe catch a spot of fishing. He’d heard the fishing in Maine was quite excellent.
That settled it. Hell, in a settlement this small, he would locate the fiend outside of a
week. Yes, this would be his final test, and a vacation to boot.
Caught up in plotting his leisure time, the first howl took him off guard.
Johnathan froze, eyeing the dense forest with unease. He reached for his boot knife as a
second howl split the falling night, an eerie, unnatural sound. Chills rippled under his skin.
What on earth was that? He’d heard the baying of hounds and wolves enough to compare
the two, but this sound matched neither, possessing a quality that spoke to his deep instinct to
flee the hungry dark.
A third howl rose, much closer this time. Something crashed and crackled in the woods a
moment before movement made him jump. Johnathan yelped, covering his head as several
creatures fled the woods right in his path. He didn’t recognize them at first, not until a fox
collided with his legs, panic-blind and snapping at Johnathan’s trousers.
He jumped aside, wide-eyed, as a herd of deer, several foxes, skunks, and a badger fled
past him into the woods on the other side of the coach road. He heard a whisper of sound
overhead and glanced up to find the flight extended to winged creatures as well, an assortment of
daytime birds, startled from their roosts, mixed with the hunters of night.
An owl flapped frantically overhead. That worried him.
Owls were not so easily spooked.
Johnathan shifted his stance, knife out and ready as he scanned the trees. A prickling
sensation crawled along his skin. He had the distinct impression of being watched. By what? Had
the vampire come to meet him? Unlikely. Vampires didn’t scare wild animals. The undead were
beneath their notice. Only cats reacted to fiends, and it wasn’t with fear.
Silence swallowed him up, falling thick and heavy, so that his own breath roared in his
ears. Johnathan stared hard through the trees, trying to pinpoint the source of the disturbance.
A harsh chuffing came from his left, close enough to stir the hair at his collar. Startled, he
whipped around, fear squeezing his lungs. There was nothing there. Panting, he spun in a full
circle, squeezing the hilt of his knife so tight his fingers went numb.
His frantic gaze connected with a glowing set of eyes within the trees. The snarl made his
bladder clench. It was a small miracle he didn’t void his waters as the unseen creature suddenly
bounded away. It made no noise as it took off through the bracken, but Johnathan knew it was
gone as the weighted silence dissipated.
It was still several long minutes before the sounds of wildlife filtered back into the night,
now fully fallen, and several minutes more before Johnathan’s footsteps resumed, albeit at a
much faster pace. He didn’t dare return the knife to his boot until his steps carried him past the
first houses of Cress Haven.
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