Hide and Seek
by Robert L. Sellers, Jr
Table of Contents|
“Dead Men Hanging” appeared
in issue 166.
Welcome to the Weird Wild West where the men are tough and the women can be, too. It’s a place with horsepower measured by hands or hooves, and the number of cylinders in a long gun or pistol makes the difference between life and death on the open frontier of the western United States.
The streets here are dusty, the lead hot, the women fast and the cards faster. Disagreements finish face to face with pistols drawn at noon while the undertaker waits with his pine. Quick justice is dispensed under tall trees and at the end of a short rope — if you’re lucky.
There are people here who are not as they seem, and others who watch them. Supernatural and mortal alike unite to reach what peace they can find between them. Hunters can become prey, and prey can become the hunter. This is their story.
part 1 of 2
Fall, 1898: Goblin’s Toe, Wyoming
The young girl Emily — considered by many to be overly precocious and altogether too direct for a girl of her eight years — ran through the night searching for a hiding spot. Long blond hair billowed behind her like canvas from a sail as her thin legs moved in a blur beneath her dress.
Moonlight-piercing ribbons of darkness served only to highlight the young girl as she flashed through them like a rabbit in search of its burrow. Heart beating rapidly in her chest, she chose the security of a thick tree trunk hidden in the darkness, stopping to see if she had lost what was tracking her.
Holding her breath as best she could, the girl carefully leaned around the rough bark of the tree and cast wide blue eyes back over the trail behind her. She saw movement and knew that what hunted her was not far behind. Kicking off the tree for speed, she decided to use the brush to slow pursuit and possibly make the hunter lose her trail in the process.
Behind her, a cloaked figure seemed to flitter and float from tree to tree in the moonlight like a dark wraith as it crossed, and re-crossed the path of the fleeing girl. Slender feminine fingers rested over the bark of trees as the figure paused at each, tilting her head and listening while gently sniffing the air around her.
Searching for the fleeing prey, dark red eyes flickered beneath the hood of the wraith’s long coat as the chase wound through the thicket and into the heavier underbrush. Strands of blond hair matching that of the quarry trailed from the hood of the wraith as hunted and hunter raced across the ground.
“You can run, but you can’t hide forever...” a soft sing-song voice sang out in a taunt from beneath the hood. “Come out; come out, wherever you are!”
The figure smiled, teeth shining white with fangs sharp, as she picked up the scent and turned away, projecting where the young girl had wanted her to follow and where she would find her instead.
It was not the first time the vampire Valeria had run down this particular prey. Once again she was finding amusement in how even young mortals applied their logic against a hunter that had not been mortal for centuries.
Sliding to a sudden halt as she waited for her prey to come to her, Valeria contemplated the thrill of the hunt. Her smile slowly faded as she realized it was she who’d been duped... again. The girl Emily was learning.
Spinning carefully around a tree, Valeria knelt and placed the palm of her hand flat against the ground, feeling for vibration as she listened to the woods around her.
A mortal that had been blind from birth, her only vision came when she used vampire sight. Unfortunately for her prey she’d enjoyed countless centuries of practice with her remaining senses to hone her skills to near perfection.
Like the soft touch of wood against the taught leather surface of a drum, the pitter-patter vibrations of little feet sounded in the distance. She smiled realizing what the girl had done and quickly moved to intercept her.
The house at the outskirts of the woods loomed suddenly before Valeria, windows lit bright against the night as voices filled the air and animals stirred nearby.
With practiced slowness, Valeria made her way up the dirt path, head turning one way and then the other as she tried to locate the young girl that hid from her.
“You know if you didn’t cheat, I wouldn’t have to, either.” Emily announced somewhat matter of factly from the darkness of the doorway.
Valeria quietly laughed and applauded the newfound success the girl had shown in their many games of hide and seek, a mortal game only one of her kind could truly appreciate in its application. “I knew you were there before you spoke, I just played you a bit myself... little one.”
The girl marched out and stood defiantly with her arms folded over her chest and her chin up with a pout as she looked at the red eyes of her friend beneath the hood. “I don’t think so. You used your red eyes to find me and that’s cheating.”
Valeria crouched down to the girl’s level and mused of her ability to appear older than she was. Had it really been eight years since this girl had cried as a babe for her mother’s breast? Time flies even for an immortal, she sighed.
“Your mother gave you a bath and added some almond and ginger to the water after she wiped you down with the lye soap. It is as clear to my nose as if I’d seen her do it myself,” Valeria said as directly as the young girl had. The smile she got in return warmed her stilled heart.
The girl suddenly ran forward, wrapping her small arms around Valeria’s neck in a fierce hug, resting her head against her shoulder. A motion so sudden, that she almost managed to knock Valeria over in the process.
“I’m gonna miss you, Valeria and these games we play. Where am I going to find a blind vampire that will chase me for fun in California?” Her soft voice said into Valeria’s shoulder as Valeria felt tears rise herself.
“I will miss you as well, little one, but I will also plan to find you and play again someday.”
The young girl stood back with a questioning look. “But it’s a big state. How will you find us?”
Valeria smiled and touched the girl’s nose with a narrow finger. “Simple silly: I’ll just follow the smell of lye, almonds and ginger.”
“Emily! Time for dinner!” The familiar voice of Emily’s Mother called out from the house. “And you have to finish packing yet! Say good-by to your friend Valeria for us!”
“You will write to me, won’t you?” the young girl asked, her voice etched with sadness.
Valeria rested her hands on the young girl’s arms and looked at what could have passed for Valeria’s long lost sister Nadia. “I will not only write to you, but I may just come and visit as well; but only if you’re real good and do as your mother tells you. Now go help them eat that wonderful dinner I smell, and pack like your mother asked you to.”
With a final hug, Valeria remained crouched as she watched the young girl dance-skip up the dirt path; seemingly flying through the door as only one of her youth could. Emily would be the last child to leave Goblin’s Toe, and missed by those left behind in many ways.
Sighing as she rose to her feet, Valeria turned to make her way back into town, wiping the dirt that had attached itself to her skirt. Lifting her hand, she gently sniffed and tasted the remnants of the dirt. Sadness filled her, as she could almost taste the memory of dirt she had played in along the river Donau, also known as the Danube.
Had it not been for Nadia catching a supposed knight stealing a pair of her father’s best shoes he had been trying to sell, or the armor of the dead men hung from the town walls of Semlin perhaps she would have turned to the dust that her family did on that frightful day.
Through their blood link, she had seen the visions her Sire had, and between them saw horrors like none she had witnessed since.
* * *
Summer 1096: Semlin, Hungary
Loud voices calling out from the street in panic woke Valeria from a late afternoon nap as she lay with her younger sister Nadia. They shared much in life as they did the small mat that they slept on.
Their father, a local merchant, supported them the best that he could after their mother had died the year before from an ailment that consumed her with painful slowness.
The girls were blond and lithe as if mirror images of their mother, and visitors often assumed Valeria was the mother and Nadia the daughter. The eldest of the family, Valeria had easily assumed the role her mother had left behind and enjoyed what time they had together both at play and while working their father’s booth at the market.
Rising to her feet, she left her sister and made her way toward the front of the small house as she heard several people run by in the street. There was fear evident in the sounds their feet made as well as the gasping for air as they passed in panicked haste.
Blind since birth, Valeria had found her other senses filled in what her eyes could not.
“Nadia!” She turned, suddenly frightened, Worry filled her as she remembered the men wearing crosses. They had been punished for stealing from the market. The men had thought no one was looking when they began to take what they wanted. Nadia had seen what her older sister could not and had helped raise the alarm.
The vandals were slain in the struggle to capture them, and their armor was hung on the town walls as warning to others who might venture past and have similar ideas.
Her worries of the incident were apparently coming true, as there appeared to be another fight in the market driving people out into the streets.
“Nadia!” she cried louder, turning to make her way back only to find her sister just rising from the bed.
“We must go. Let us go down where you like to play along the river Donau and wait to see what has happened. Okay?”
“But what of papa?” the young girl asked, fear clearly echoed in the soft wobble of her question.
“Perhaps he will meet us there. But we must go now!”
Hand in hand, the girl pulled her older sister along and through the streets as the sound of loud voices and crashing wood mixed with sudden screams that rose behind them.
“And where would the likes of you two be going?” An overly polite, yet familiar male voice asked from in front of them. It was Keyrnen the butcher’s son. Someone who had made unwelcome advances and been scorned by Valeria on more than one occasion.
Even though she was blind she could still see him for what he was and what he wanted from her.
“Keyrnen, we must go to the river. Will you help us?” She asked pleading with the one man whom she would normally have wanted to avoid.
Nadia gasped suddenly as she backed into Valeria: there was more trouble nearby. Heavy boots crushed dirt, and Valeria heard the creak of armor like that of the robbers in the market.
“Normally I would, sweet Valeria and lovely Nadia. However, these men have told me they will let me live if I find them someone like you for their pleasures. I figure if you won’t give me what I want, then I should let them have you so that I can live and see another day.”
The last carried a smile through his words. She heard Nadia scream out as her hand yanked free from hers. “Nadia!” Valeria cried out in painful agony, hearing sounds of the struggling girl being dragged away, her voice muffled as she cried out Valeria’s name.
Slowly, filled with a newfound malice so deep that she felt she could kill without hesitation, Valeria turned and glared in the direction of her nemesis’ voice. “Keyrnen, how could you?” Valeria yelled, striking out with clenched fists at what was now but empty air. Laughter came from all sides as she heard several feet shuffle in the dirt around her.
She never sensed the blow coming that felled her, nor the violence that was to come to her body.
Later, as she lay bloody and broken in the dirt, she realized she was never going to be able to run her fingers over the familiar outline of her sister or father’s face.
Only then did she cry out for death so that she could rejoin them. Laughter from the men nearby as they put on their armor was her only answer.
Eventually they moved off and left her naked and alone as tears creased the blood and dirt on her cheeks. Crying in shame, she rolled over to her stomach and began to crawl in search of her sister; hands out in front looking for anything that would direct her.
Unfortunately, death had other plans for her, and not even the pilgrims of the People’s Crusade were aware they had played a part in them.
* * *
Grace stood looking at the devastation that surrounded her. The living left behind mourned the broken bodies of those who were gone, and there were thousands of them to mourn.
Red eyes flashed here and there, as others of her kind knelt to feed or deliver mercy to the almost dead. By evening, the nightwalkers would appear and take those who remained that were unable to defend themselves, or not recovered by their loved ones.
Such was afterlife for those who fell upon the battlefield of mortals.
The middle-aged woman at her feet looked up to see the light olive complexion, wide dark eyes, long narrow nose and full lips framed as they were with long strands of raven dark hair beneath the hood of her long coat.
The woman was impaled with what appeared to be a broken spear; her thin lips moved like those of a fish out of water as she looked pleadingly at Grace and raised a hand for help.
Crouching down next to the woman, Grace gently caressed her soft chin, cupping it with one hand before quickly snapping the woman’s neck with a quick twist and jerk back.
Watching the light of life fade, she reached up and gently closed the dead woman’s eyes with her fingers. Silently she bowed her head in prayer for the woman — and what might yet survive of her family.
Pulling the shattered end of the spear from the woman’s chest, she flung it far across the field of dead and dying. Painful results of yet another religious war.
Rising to her feet and filled with disgust, she made her way through the carnage and moved into what remained of the ruined town.
Putrid wafts of smoke filled the air from fires set to destroy rather than provide warmth. She smelled the sickly odor of flesh as it roasted amongst the embers and flame.
She had been following the army led by Walter Sans-Avoir while they served the religious direction of the man named Peter. From the day in March that they had left Amiens, things had been going smoothly for the men, until their forces spread too thin and long across the countryside.
Orders given at the front by Peter himself became less and less important to those who had taken up the rear. By the time this current town had fallen, it was doubtful that Peter himself was aware of what happened to those in his wake.
Debris crunched beneath her boots as she walked through the devastated streets, looking at what little humankind had learned in the thousands of years her life had spun around watching those she hunted for sustenance. Religion was supposed to help guide the inhabitants, not bury them.
Her own order and peoples had fallen upon such a harsh ending in much the same way. People sacrificed simply so that they would ensure complete and total cooperation, especially once the conquerors had made her one of many to serve their few.
Left to roam as a rare reminder of the invaders who had turned her, she had enjoyed watching their numbers dwindle and die as time passed and their arrogance consumed them.
Someone once mentioned to her in passing that history is doomed to repeat itself in new and increasingly strange ways too evil and vile to contemplate.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert L. Sellers, Jr