The Master Race [The House of Usher]
Hawk and Fisher finally come to a halt before a decrepit two-story building almost at the end of the lane. Paint is peeling off the closed front door, and the stonework is pitted and crumbling. The two narrow windows are hidden behind closed wooden shutters. Hawk looks the place over and frowns thoughtfully. There is something disquieting about the house, something he can’t quite put a name to. It is like a sound so quiet that you almost miss it, or a scent so faint that you can barely smell it … Hawk scowls, and lets his hand fall to the axe at his side.
Nosferatu … revenant … that which returns …
He’s never seen one of the undead, and doesn’t know anyone who has. He isn’t altogether sure that he believes in such things, but then, he doesn’t disbelieve in them either. In his time, he’s known demons and devils, werewolves and undines, and faced them all with cold steel in his hand. The world has its dark places, and they are older by far than anything that man has ever built. And there is no denying that people have disappeared from the Northside of late … and one person in particular.
“Well?” asks Fisher.
Hawk looks at her irritably. “Well what?”
“Well, are we going to just stand here all afternoon, or are we going to do something? In case you haven’t noticed, the sun is getting bloody low in the sky. It’ll be dark inside of an hour. And if there really is a Nosferatu in there …”
“Right. The undead rise from their coffins when the sun is down.” Hawk shivers again, and then smiles slightly as he takes in the goose flesh on Fisher’s bare arms. Neither of them cares much for the dark, or the creatures that move in it. Hawk takes a deep breath, steps up to the front door, and knocks loudly with his fist.
“Open in the name of the Guard!”
There’s no response. Silence lay across the empty street like a smothering blanket, weighed down by the heat. Hawk wipes at the sweat running down his face with the back of his hand, and wished he’d brought a water canteen. He also wishes that he’d followed regulations for once and waited for a backup team, but there hadn’t been time. They had to get the Nosferatu while she still slept. And besides, Councilor Trask’s daughter was still missing. This is why finding the Nosferatu has suddenly become such a high priority. As long as she’d kept to the poorer sections of the city, and preyed only on those who wouldn’t be missed, no one paid much attention to her.
But once the Nosferatu snatched a Councilor’s daughter out of her own bedroom, in full view of her screaming mother …
Hawk worries his lower lip between his teeth. She should still be alive. Nosferatu are supposed to take two to three days to drain a victim completely, and she couldn’t become one of the undead until she’d died and risen again. At least, that’s what the legends say. Hawk sniffs. He didn’t put much trust in legends.
“We should have stopped off and picked up some garlic,” he says suddenly. “That’s supposed to be a protection, isn’t it?”
“Garlic, at this time of the year?” asks Fisher. “You know how much that stuff costs in the markets? It has to come clear across the country, and the merchants charge according.”
“All right, it was just a thought. I suppose hawthorn is out as well.”
“I assume that you have at least brought the stake with you? In fact, you’d better have the stake, because I’m bloody well not going in there without one.”
“Relax. Love, I’ve got it right here,” with that said, Fisher pulls a thick wooden stake from the top of her boot. It is over a foot long, and has been roughly sharpened to a point. It looks brutally efficient. “As I understand it, it’s quite simple,” Fisher briskly adds. “I hammer this through the Nosferatu’s heart, and then you cut off her head. We burn the two parts of the body separately, scatter the ashes, and that’s that.”
“Oh, sure,” says Hawk. “Just like that.” He pauses a moment, looking at the closed door before him. “Did you ever meet Trask, or his daughter?”
“I saw Trask at the briefing, yesterday,” says Fisher, slipping the stake back into her boot. “He looked pretty broken up. You know them?”
“I met his daughter a few months back. Just briefly. I was body guarding Councilor De George at the time. Trask’s daughter had just turned sixteen, and she looked so … bright, and happy.”
Fisher puts her hand on his arm. “We’ll get her back, Hawk. We’ll get her back.”
“Yeah,” Hawk says. “Sure.”
He hammers on the door again with his fist. Doing it by the book … The sound echoes on the quiet, and then dies quickly away. There is no response from the house, or from any of its neighbors. Hawk glances up and down the empty street. It could always be a trap of some kind … No. His instincts would be screaming at him by now, if that were the case. After four years in the city Guard, he has good instincts. Without them, you don’t last four years.
“All right,” he finally says. “We go in. But watch your back on this one, lass. We take it one room at a time, by the book, and keep our eyes open. Right?”
“Right,” Fisher says. “But we should be safe enough as long as the sun’s up. The Nosferatu can’t leave her coffin till it’s dark.”
“Yeah, but she might not be alone in there. Apparently most Nosferatu have a human servant to watch over them while they sleep. A kind of Judas Goat, a protector who also helps to lure victims to his mistress.”
“You’ve been reading up on this, haven’t you?” asks Fisher.
“Damn right,” says Hawk. “Ever since the first rumors. I’m not going to be caught unprepared, like I was on that werewolf case last year.”
He tries the door handle. It turns jerkily in his hand, and the door swings slowly open as he applies a little pressure. The hinges squeal in protest, and Hawk jumps despite himself. He pushes the door wide open and stares into the dark and empty hall. Nothing moves in the gloom, and the shadows stare silently back. Fisher moves softly in beside Hawk, her hand resting on the pommel of her sword.
“Strange, the door isn’t locked,” says Hawk. “Unless we’re expected.”
“Let’s get on with it,” Fisher says, quietly. “I’m starting to get a very bad feeling about this.”
They step forward into the hall and then close the front door behind them, leaving it just a little ajar. Never know when you might need a quick exit. Hawk and Fisher stand together in the gloom, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Hawk has a stub of candle in his pocket, but he doesn’t want to use it unless he has to. All it takes is sudden gust of wind at the wrong moment and the light would be gone, leaving him blind and helpless in the dark. Better to let his sight adjust while he has the chance.
He hears Fisher stir uneasily beside him, and he smiles slightly. He knows how she feels. Patiently standing and waiting just isn’t in their nature; they always feel better when they are doing something. Anything. Hawk glares about him into the gloom. There could be someone hiding in the shadows, watching them, and they’d never know it until it was too late. Something could already be moving silently towards them, with reaching hands and bared fangs … He feels his shoulders growing stiff and tense, and makes himself breathe deeply and slowly. It doesn’t matter what is out there; he has his axe and he has Fisher at his side. Nothing else matters. His eyesight slowly grows used to the gloom, and the narrow hall gradually forms itself out of the shadows. It is completely empty. Hawk relaxes a little.
“You all right?” he whispers to Fisher.
“Yeah, fine,” she answers quietly. “Let’s go.”
The hall ends in a bare wooden stairway that leads up to the next floor. Two doors lead off from the hall, one to each side. Hawk draws his axe, and hefts it in one hand. The heavy weight of it is reassuring. He glances at Fisher and smiles as he sees the sword in her hand. He catches her eye, and gestures for her to take the right-hand door while he takes the left. She nods, and pads quietly over to the right.
Hawk listens carefully at his door, but everything is quiet. He turns the handle, and eases the door open an inch, and then kicks it in. He leaps into the room and glares quickly about him, his axe poised and ready. The room is empty. There is no furniture, and all of the walls are bare. A little light filters past the closed shutters, taking the edge off the gloom. The woodwork is flecked with mould, and everywhere is thick with dust. There is no sign to show that the room has ever been lived in.
The floorboards creak loudly under Hawk’s weight as he walks slowly forward. There is a strong smell of dust and rotten wood, but underneath there is a faint but definite smell of corruption, as though something long dead lies buried close at hand. Hawk sniffs at the air, but can’t decide if the smell is really there or if he’s just imagining it. He moves quickly around the room, tapping the walls and listening to the echo, but there is no trace of any hidden panel or passageway. Hawk stands in the middle of the room, looking around him to check that he hasn’t missed anything, and then goes back into the hall. Where …
Fisher is waiting for him. He shakes his head, and Fisher shrugs disappointedly. Hawk smiles slightly. He already knew that Fisher hadn’t found anything; if she had, he’d have heard the sound of battle. Fisher isn’t known for her diplomacy. Hawk starts towards the stairs, and Fisher moves quickly in beside him.