HUNTING SHADOWS (free short story)
 
October means horror stories and Hallowe'en, but in Nottingham it also means the Goose Fair. I thought I'd take this opportunity to post up an old (and slightly re-edited) short horror/urban fantasy story of mine that was first published in the Night Terrors anthology from Kayelle Press in 2012. This was the second appearance of my urban fantasy "hero" Simon, one of the Irregulars: basically like the Scooby Gang from Buffy, only they don't have a Buffy.

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The Goose Fair truly comes alive at night.

For most of the year, the population of Nottingham largely avoids the Forest Recreation Ground unless it’s a very sunny day and they want to do some sunbathing. It’s little more than a very long, flat space with a wooded hill on one side and some five-a-side football pitches at one end, and the neighbourhoods around aren’t really anything to write home about. However, for five days at the beginning of October every year, Britain’s largest travelling funfair rolls up. By day, it doesn’t look like much. When darkness falls, it transforms into in a riot of noise and light and savoury smells.

The streets around are choked with parked cars and every entrance to the fair has people selling either hot food (always with mushy peas, that truly disgusting speciality that’s as much a part of Nottingham as Robin Hood) or headbands and kids’ swords that sparkle with LEDs. The night is pushed back by flashing bulbs and the tinny blast of popular music, and the true ethnic diversity of Nottingham is found inside; people from all backgrounds mixing together around the extortionately-priced rides, eating pies and candy floss and drinking hot drinks, chatting and laughing and screaming in a host of different languages. There are English, Polish, Kurdish, Afghan, Iranian, Indian, Bangladeshi; male and female; young and old.

And, by the coconut shy, a vampire.

I feel it before I see it; a creeping sensation spreading out under my skin from the old bite scar on my neck, like someone pouring cold, greasy dishwater over my flesh. Nothing else I’ve ever encountered gives me that feeling, and I’ve seen more weirdness in the Nottingham nights than the average person. Of course, a vampire had a perfect right to be here, blending in and pretending to be human. I've encountered them in cinemas, late-night pharmacies (although I’ve never worked out why; do they get ill? Surely they don’t need condoms?) and nightclubs, usually minding their own business and never giving a clue to the people around them that nosferatu exist outside of Hammer horror movies. Vampires in crowds of people aren’t a problem. It’s when they’re alone with one of us, far from help, that you can get trouble.

I stop, casually looking around as I lean against one of the pillars of the dodgems. The sensation I get is never directional, but I've learned to pick up a few visual clues. A vampire moves more smoothly than humans and with more assurance, and when they’re not moving they stand more still than any human can ever manage. Especially if they don’t remember to keep breathing.

The two kids running back and forth hitting each other with LED swords are out; vampires don’t Turn children. The brown-haired woman off to one side clutching a few helium balloons is clearly their mother, so she’s out too. A group of guys in their mid-twenties who look to be of Middle Eastern heritage cross my line of vision, chatting and laughing, but I only sense one vamp so it’s unlikely to be in their party. The woman talking to the kids’ mother? Younger, red-haired, good posture; she’s a possibility. I take a couple of casual steps in her direction, but the feeling fades slightly. The vampire’s the other way.

I stop and turn, as though I’m trying to work out which ride to go on next, and there he is. Standing right next to a burger van is a large white guy with dark hair pulled back in a tail and a ratty-looking moustache that extends down past his mouth, almost to his chin. Black jeans, black trainers and an Adidas sports jacket that would insulate a human well from the chill of an October night. He stands stock still, nostrils widening slightly as he smells the air, but he’s not paying any attention to the meat of dubious origin being fried a few feet from him. His pupils are perhaps slightly larger than usual, a vampire’s adaption to night-time hunting. His breath doesn’t steam in the air like mine as he exhales before breathing in again, because his body is cool.

He sees me, which is only to be expected. Word gets around in the vampire community much like it does anywhere else; word about the Irregulars, those few humans who know that the supernatural is real and will hunt it down if we hear that it’s been preying on us. Vampires have got some sort of system going on involving pig blood from farming, they apparently don’t need human blood at all. It’s just that some of them don't want to let go of the past, or else enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

To be fair, it would be easier for me to blend in with the crowd if I didn’t have bleach-blonde spiky hair, black-painted nails and a studded leather jacket, but I’m damned if I’m going to change who I am just to hide from a bloody vampire.

He turns and disappears between the burger van and the coconut shy. I follow. If he’d just stood there, stared me out or walked casually away, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. Like I said, vampires in a crowd aren’t the worry. But this one doesn’t want to be seen, which means I want to see him.

Yes, I’m aware it could be a trap, set up by some vampire whose friend I’ve killed, or maybe just a lunatic who wants to kick off a war. I’m not a total idiot. That’s why I never go out unprepared for whatever the night might throw at me, or at least whatever I’ve already met. You never know what new wonder you might run into of course, but that’s part of the fun. If by “fun” you mean “pant-wetting terror”. The two concepts seem inseparable, these days.

He’s out of sight, of course, but what he doesn’t know is that I can feel his presence. I’ve been careful never to let that slip to anyone but my friends. He’s heading out of the fair, up past the mini-rollercoaster that I’ve never been on because I simply don’t trust something that’s been assembled in one afternoon, past the ride that shoots people into the air in a tiny capsule on massive rubber cords like some sort of giant catapult. I see the white diamond of the Adidas logo on the back of his coat as he hurries away up the hill, heading in the direction of the city centre, and I follow him. He seems to be hunting something.

The noise and light are fading behind me now. He’s heading into Radford; an odd mix of large Victorian houses and smaller, newer homes for the labourers who worked locally, it’s a nest of dark back alleys and narrow streets, drug deals and social deprivation. Maybe not the most sensible place to be following a vampire into, especially not one who knows that I’ve seen him, but he may not know that I'm following him. Besides, this is my city as much as it is his. I know the ground as well as anyone; probably better in fact, given that I’m a taxi driver when I’m not out protecting the public from things that go bump in the night.

He turns into one of those narrow back alleys, a service road running between the rear gardens of towering Victorian town houses, long ago divided up into flats to maximise the potential rent. Massive, ancient trees reach out overhead, obscuring the night sky with their leaves and casting a thick darkness over the street below that’s only intermittently broken by acid yellow illumination from those streetlights that the council have kept in working order. The pavement is cracked and uneven, the road surface is pitted, and I have to step down onto it to go around an old mattress, a burnt-out microwave and other, less recognisable detritus piled outside a back gate. We’re already into a world where the city is starting to crumble and the most frequent visitors are drug addicts looking for a secluded shadow to shoot up in.

He slows. I match his pace, placing my feet carefully, keeping close to the crumbling but sturdy wall on my right. Vampire senses are sharper than human ones and he may be able to hear my anyway, but there’s no point taking chances. The night air is still, cold and dry, so my scent shouldn’t carry. He hasn’t looked back, just side to side. I frown. What could he be looking for down this back street that he needs to move stealthily for? Discarded needles and old white cider bottles don’t spook easily.

He lunges into the shadow of a gate, a large stone arch slightly set back from the wall it occupies. I hear a grunt of effort from him, and then a thin, tearing scream that can’t have come from his frame. He backs out, and I see another form trapped in his grasp, dragged into the partial illumination of the streetlight above my head. Arms and legs visibly scrawny despite the bulkiness of the black material clothing them. Pale, dirty hands and feet. Face hidden in shadow by the hood of a sweatshirt, but dark hair spilling out as it thrashes. Maybe five feet tall, and perhaps half my weight.

He’s got a child. Gods only know why it’s alone on the streets at this hour, but that’s not important right now.

Something flips inside my brain. I don’t deal well with anger, over a certain level. I have a tendency to start smashing things. Well, that isn’t necessarily going to be a problem in this situation. This vampire is about to learn why its kind has learned to leave Nottingham’s children well alone.

I let out a wordless yell and charge. Subtle? No. But in the circumstances, I want the vampire’s attention on me as soon as possible. I can look after myself, the kid can’t.

The vampire’s face turns to me, shock and anger warring for prominence. He didn’t know I was behind him, and he’s not happy about it. He holds one hand up towards me, palm outstretched in the universal gesture for me to stop. His mouth starts moving but I don’t hear the words over my shout. On the far side of his body I see one arm is still wrapped around his victim's neck, and the child’s pale fingers are digging in, trying to get free. The vamp’s not letting go, even to deal with me.

I don’t slow down as I reach him, I just duck under his arm and swing a right hook into his jaw that sends all three of us sprawling to the ground. I hear a muffled hiss of pain from the child, but it’s better than having your throat ripped open. I’m more or less on top and I raise my fist to punch the vamp again, but his right arm sweeps up in a backswing that catches me unprepared and knocks me sprawling into the road.

Vampires hit hard. They aren’t the superhuman beings of some legends because you can’t change the physics of what a formerly-human body can do, but they are at the pinnacle of human capability. If you imagine a top athlete in peak condition, that’s a vampire. And this one was already bigger than me.

Thankfully I’m in pretty good shape myself, and I’ve got a ridiculously hard head. I sit up with the knowledge that eating is going to be damn painful tomorrow, scramble back to my feet and shout ‘Run!’ at the top of my lungs, in case the kid needed a hint.

There’s no kid.

There’s a vampire, also getting back to his feet, eyes narrowed in rage and lips curling upwards to reveal his fangs, now fully extended. There’s the empty street stretching away on either side of us, towards the open space of the Forest to my right and to where it curves gently around out of sight to my left. There’s the wall behind the vampire, possibly eight feet high. But there’s no kid.

What the hell?

‘Piss off before I hurt you!’ the vampire snarls, clenching his fists.

I can’t run. He’d be fast enough to catch me. He’s got nothing to lose by talking to me. He’s not even wasting breath, since he only needs it to speak.

‘Same to you,’ I shoot back, reaching one hand into my jacket pocket. I have a cross in the back pocket of my combats, and if I can shove it into the centre of his chest it can kill him, but I need something to press against. I need him on his back on the ground, or up against a wall, and that won’t be easy against someone with his size and strength. ‘How’s your face?’

He reaches one hand up to his cheek, and winces as he encounters two small burn marks. He looks at his fingers, then touches his face again more gingerly. ‘What…?'

I wave a fist at him, grinning. His eyes focus on the silver rings on my second and fourth fingers. I have iron ones on my index and ring fingers, but iron doesn’t hurt vampires. It does hurt some other things though, which is why I have them. Oh, and the studs on the back of my leather jacket? Half of them aren’t steel.

‘You’re that Irregular,’ he growls. ‘What the hell are you playing at?’

‘Just trying to prevent idiots like you from hunting children while I'm around,’ I tell him.

‘That wasn't a child,’ he snarls, taking a step towards me.

‘Looked like one to me,’ I reply, judging distances.

‘Then you’re a fool,’ he spits, ‘and blind with it.’ A nasty smile crosses his face. ‘I’ve never hurt a human. You attacked me for no good reason. That puts you in breach of the Agreement. That means I get to kill you.’

‘That means you get to try, sunshine,’ I tell him. I want him nearer, but I can only allow him one more step until he gets too close. Fighting vampires is a very fine art, and fine art is hard to do when you’re strung out on adrenaline and having images of yourself bleeding out into a gutter. I really need to find less dangerous ways to spend my free time.

He takes the next step. He’s got no need to rush into anything; he knows I can’t get away from him, but he’s cautious because he knows that I've got rings that can hurt him, and if he’s got half a brain he knows I must have other tricks that can help me kill his kind. He knows I’ve done it before.

Still, he doesn’t react quickly enough when I pull out a sports bottle of water and squirt a jet into his face. It would be a good blinding tactic anyway, especially since I follow it up by running in and launching a punch at his throat, but it’s holy water. It burns his skin on contact and sends up something that might be smoke or might be steam, but is definitely the sign of pain. As is the scream of agony that comes from him.

 He covers up, and my punch slides off his arms. I grab him and hook one leg behind his, trying for an o-soto-gari, a basic judo throw that will get him on his back and allow me to end this quickly, but he elbows me in the side of the head which knocks me off-balance and sideways, then something like a cannonball hits the right side of my ribcage and I stumble further, nearly tripping over the kerb. I end up leaning against the wall next to the gate he grabbed that kid from in the first place.

‘I thought you were meant to be tough,’ he sneers. ‘One kick to the ribs and you’re half dead.’

‘Better than being all dead,’ I counter, but he’s not far off being right. Needing to breathe is a real handicap when doing so causes most of your right side to flash red-hot in your brain. He's keeping an eye on the bottle I've still got clutched in my left hand. He won’t stand still enough for me to splatter him again, especially now there’s less in there and I won't be able to squirt it as far, so I take a mouthful. I can spit it at him if I get close.

‘You might burn me a bit, but you can’t get out of here alive,’ he tells me flatly. ‘If you’re all there is to worry about, I don’t know why more of us don’t just hunt you.’ He starts to approach and I face off with him, right side turned away from him now. I'm right handed, so I prefer my power hand further back anyway, like a boxer. It’s just a case of whether or not I can throw anything with it hard enough to give him pause now my ribs are killing me.

He lunges. I spit, knowing it’s pointless to try and save it as I need any advantage I can get as soon as I can get it, and a mouthful of water impedes my breathing. I maybe clip an ear; he dodges most of it, and then he’s on me before I can swing, bearing me back against the gate with his hands on my upper arms, preventing me from punching or grabbing him. The impact knocks more breath from me, but now I don’t have to move my legs to keep from falling over, so I kick him between his.

Yes, testicles still hurt on a vampire. He gives a strangled grunt of pain and bends forward involuntarily, so I headbutt him. It takes a moment for my vision to clear, but he’s come off worse; his nose looks to be broken, it’s bleeding, and his eyes are slightly glazed. Now it’s my turn to lunge at him, trying to tackle him to the ground, but he manages to twist at the last moment and my own forward momentum drives me down onto the gritty tarmac with him following me down. I make a desperate attempt to roll clear, but he gets one knee on my chest to pin me down and he’s more than strong enough to hold my arms against the ground.

‘Now you’ve pissed me off,’ he snarls, face a few inches from mine. I can see the angry red skin where the holy water spattered on him, burning it away. I spit at him again just in case there’s any left in my mouth, but it does nothing except cause him to knee me in my bad ribs with his other leg. The cross is still trapped in my back pocket, and I’m out of tricks now. What I really need is one of the others to come in and club him in the back of the head, but I’m all alone out here.

All I’d wanted to do this evening was have a bit of fun at the fair.

I can feel him shifting his weight as he licks his newly-extended teeth, making sure I can see it, eyeing up first one side and then the other of my neck. He sniffs deeply, smiling at me... and suddenly he freezes. I feel his body tense, not with the strain of holding me down but with something deeper. His lips slowly close, his face becoming a blank mask, but nothing else moves. Except his eyes. They dart from side to side, the eyes of a hunted animal.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s terrified.

He sniffs again, slower, softly, as though trying not to make any noise. His eyes flick up now, looking away above my head, back towards the entrance to this street, towards the distant light and sound of the Goose Fair. Figuring that he’s got nothing much to gain by acting, I tilt my head back to try and see what he's looking at.

‘Don’t... move,’ he hisses quietly.

‘Sorry, don’t mean to disturb your dinner,’ I say in as close to a normal voice as I can get with a big vampire leaning on my ribs. He shoots me a glare that’s nearly enough to kill me in its own right.

‘You are blind,’ he mutters. He swallows nervously, which has to be a leftover human reaction. ‘I’m going to let you up in a second.’

‘…What?' That had confused me. Understandably, I feel.

‘When I do, run back the way we came,’ he tells me, lips barely moving. ‘I’ll go the other way. Stay in the middle of the road, and stay out of the shadows.’

I frown, completely perplexed. ‘Why?’

‘Because if they have to pick one of us, they might not catch either of us,’ he says cryptically. Suddenly his knee is gone from my ribs. To my astonishment, I feel him pulling me up by the wrists that a moment ago he was holding pinned against the tarmac. I’ve barely got my feet under me when he pushes me in the chest, nearly knocking me down again. ‘Go!’

He turns and runs. I’m too astonished to move, sure that at any moment he’s going to turn back and come sprinting after me, some cruel trick to make me think I've got a chance at getting away. But he doesn’t. He keeps running.

For about twenty metres, at which point there’s suddenly something at his feet that simply wasn't there a split second ago and he trips, falling to the ground. I’m staring, trying to make sense of what just happened, and then the object rises to its feet.

At first I think it’s the child from before, but it’s not. It’s taller, although still not as tall as me, maybe five foot six, and there’s the hint of slightly more heft to the limbs. Mind you, it still looks only a couple of meals this side of malnutrition, and the face is also hidden in the raised hood of a tracksuit. The hair’s different though, long and blonde instead of dark.

Something changes. I couldn’t say what, but it seems that I blink, and in the space between my eyes closing and opening again the shadows are occupied. Perhaps a dozen figures on either side of me, perched on the high walls and emerging from the dark pools of shade in gateways. All dressed similarly in dark clothes, mainly tracksuits and the like, all with hoods raised, all with faces in shadow. All I see is a faint gleam of reflected light from what might be eyes. And teeth.

The vampire struggles to get away, and it’s as though his movement triggers a feeding frenzy. There’s a sibilant murmur, like wind in the trees if the wind was hungry and sadistic, and the figures leap for the bloodsucker. He’s buried under their forms for a moment and I see pale hands rising and falling clutching weapons: a broken bottle, a plank of wood from a fence with the nails still in it, a discarded syringe. Then he’s pulled up to his feet and dragged to a streetlight, hands and feet bound to it with thin bits of black plastic; zip ties. One of the attackers grabs his chin and pulls it back and up.

The blonde one that tripped the vampire in the first place walks forward, pulling something from its sleeve. It’s a knife of some kind, the blade made of some dark grey substance that shimmers faintly, sort of like polished stone. The vampire's struggling to get free, but he can’t. He's bleeding from half a dozen wounds that I can see, and probably many more than I can't. He’s trying to scream or shout, but with his mouth clamped shut it’s coming out muffled. Nonetheless, he’s making enough noise that sooner or later someone might come and see what’s going on.

The blonde figure places its blade almost lovingly against the base of the vampire's throat. I want to look away, but I don’t dare. I want to see what’s happening, to judge when I can get the hell out of here. That doesn’t mean I'm prepared to see the blonde figure punch the knife into the vampire’s flesh and perform a simple but brutally effective tracheotomy.

My stomach churns and I struggle to hold on to my dinner. It’s self-preservation that helps me, in the end. I don’t want to do anything that might draw attention to myself. The vampire is trying to scream, but the air’s just whistling out of the gaping hole in his throat. He won’t be making enough noise to bring anyone running now, however long he tries. He might have to try for a long time. Sure, he’s bleeding, but you’re going to have to do a lot more than that to finally lay a vampire to rest. They can take damage that would kill a human. Suddenly, that looks like being a bad thing for him.

They start to slice his clothing off him with the same expert ease that a professional chef might use to peel an onion. Then they start on his skin, with what sounds like whispered glee bouncing back and forth amongst them.

It’s too much. They seem occupied, and I can't watch any more of this. Whether or not my movement will spur them to attack, I have to try and get out of here. So I turn to run, and find my way blocked by the creature that I’d originally taken to be a child. Somehow, despite no distinguishing features, I recognise it.

‘Halt, mortal,’ it whispers in a thrumming hiss, odd harmonics bouncing around its voice. I pull up short, uncertain of what to do.

‘Why do you run?’ the creature asks, head tilting to one side. Its speech sounds stilted, as though it is speaking an unfamiliar language. Which it almost certainly is.

‘I think I left the gas on,’ I hear my voice say. Way to go. A wisecrack and a cultural reference this thing almost certainly won’t understand? I sure know how to make friends.

‘Why did you come to my aid?’ the creature asks. I notice that the light from the pole where the vampire is tied up is behind me. I should be able to see into the hood, should be able to see this thing’s face, but I can’t. It’s still hidden in darkness, and that both reassures and unnerves me at the same time. I realise that I’ve been asked another question, and panic as I try to find an answer.

‘I thought you were a child,’ I say, then curse myself. Mistaken identity. Yes, I’m really going to piss this thing off.

‘You care for the young of your species?’ it hisses curiously.

‘Not in general,’ I shrug. ‘I don’t like kids much. Doesn’t mean I want to see a vampire get one.’ Answering the last one honestly didn't get me killed, may as well stick with it. The creature tilts its head again, and I get the impression that I'm being regarded intently from inside that dark hood.

‘You are interesting, mortal,’ it hisses after a few seconds which seem to last about three hundred years. Then it nods its head to me slightly. ‘I thank you for my life. I was careless. The drinker would have taken me.’

‘Don’t mention it,’ I say, nonplussed. There is something really, really odd about having this polite conversation while the vampire in question is being tortured to death behind me.

‘If you insist,’ the creature says, and makes a motion with one hand towards its mouth. I realise it took my statement literally. Note to self: avoid expressions like ‘well, bugger me’ when talking to it.

It stands to one side, removing itself from my path. ‘Go, mortal. Your gas is waiting.’

‘Uh... okay. Thanks.’ I take a step, unable to believe my luck. But yes, I did save this thing’s life. Some debts will still be honoured, no matter how depraved the creatures involved.

I find my mouth moving without my brain’s intervention once more. ‘Wait.’

Its hood turns towards me again.

‘What are you?’ I gesture around, trying to express with a gesture my confusion at its companions emerging from apparent thin air. ‘You’re just like… shadows?’

‘“Shadow” is a good name,’ the thing hisses in what I take to be amusement. ‘But no, mortal, we are not shadows. We are aelfar.’

It prowls off towards the others, like a cat if it walked on its hind legs and was really, seriously creepy. I watch it until my eyes fall on the red ruin of the vampire, still twitching and thrashing as the aelfar have their fun. Then I turn, set my eyes on the end of the road and start walking, firmly and quickly. There are far worse things than vampires haunting the darkness of our cities.

The elves are still here.