This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
* * *
They continued to trudge up what passed for a trail. As far as Vincent could tell it was a collection of mud, rocks and bushes with sharp thorns and leaves. Everything seemed designed to ruin his suit, even through the floor length leather coat he wore. To make things worse he often had to bend nearly double to get his large pack through the most overgrown sections.
And all the while Davey kept on talking about Ol’ Man Wickleberry. How he wasn’t really dead. How people sometimes saw him in these very forests. How some people had been attacked by Ol’ Man Wickleberry. How some had simply not returned from a visit into the depths of the forest. How they had never been heard from again. How that was definitely down to Ol’ Man Wickleberry.
“It shouldn’t be much further now,” Jake said suddenly, voice normal.
Vincent relaxed a little at the additional sign his friends anger had ebbed. “We’re nearly at the lodge?” he asked.
“I reckon so.”
“You know where we’re going? I didn’t think you’d been here before.”
“I haven’t, but it’s fine. Just relax. I took a look at the maps in case we got separated from our guide.”
That hardly built confidence, but Vincent decided not to comment. He had his tents. He could find somewhere to pitch them where no one would be likely to disturb his rest. It wouldn’t be a comfortable day, stuck in the tiny inner tent, but he’d had worse.
Davey was still talking. “Descriptions of Ol’ Man Wickleberry vary, but they all agree that he’s huge, nearly seven feet tall, and that he’s more bear-like than human now.”
Vincent shook his head. Why did humans feel this need to scare themselves? Why did they feel the need to make up and exaggerate stories? Had he once been like that, before, when he’d been just a human? He couldn’t remember. It was such a long time ago, and he rarely gave those times any thought.
Davey was still talking. Vincent wondered if it was a form of verbal diarrhoea, or maybe it was to cover Davey’s own fear. His heartbeat was certainly elevated, pumping the blood through his veins faster than usual. Blood. Warm blood. Sweet blood. Vincent shook his head and clamped down hard on those thoughts. He might be a vampire, but he certainly wasn’t going to give in to that sort of behaviour. He was firmly in control of himself. He couldn’t resist flicking his eyes towards Jake and thinking at least one of them was.
“Ol’ Man Wickleberry has a hunger on him,” Davey continued. “He has a hunger for human meat. When the hunger takes him no one is safe. On nights like tonight, when the darkness is strongest, he hunts. On nights like these those who come into the woods don’t leave. On nights like this Ol’ Man Wickleberry feeds. On nights like these, no one leaves the woods alive.”
Davey had stopped now, had turned to face those following him. The group had bunched up into a crowd that huddled together. Vincent could smell the fear amongst them. This was what really confused him about humans… they sought out the stories that scared them, sought out the places that terrified them, yet often they reached a point where the fear became too much. Why did they seek out the fear if this is what it did to them?
Everyone in the group had elevated heart rates now. Vincent grimaced, shutting out the irritating sound. He glanced at Jake and amended his assessment. Everyone except Jake had racing hearts. Jake was completely chilled, which was a good thing. And Vincent’s own heart was down at its usual twenty or so beats a minute, a pace which never changed no matter what.
“So if no one comes out alive,” Jake muttered quietly. “How do they know what happened to them?”
“It’s all rubbish,” replied Vincent. “If he doesn’t get a move on I might take the chance on following your directions. Even if I end up sleeping in my tents for a day I think I’d prefer that to any more of this.”
“Do you know what else Ol’ Man Wickleberry is?” said Davey, so quietly that the normal humans had to bunch up and lean in to hear. He grinned, then yelled the next words. “He’s here! And he’s brought friends!”
Everyone jumped and stared around, before starting to laugh nervously. Davey started laughing too, a hearty laugh that seemed to shake his frame. A laugh that got louder and louder… then stretched into a roar as his body twisted and changed, growing rapidly and shredding his clothes. Within moments a massive shape stood before them, one that truly was a mixture of bear and man. One with glowing red eyes, dirty brown fur and viciously sharp teeth.
The humans had been rooted to the spot during the transformation. Only once it was complete did terror loosen its hold enough for them to consider running… and only then did they realise what Vincent had noticed immediately. Seven of their number had undergone the same transformation as Davey. The remaining fifteen humans were surrounded, with nowhere to run. They stood, eyes wide, staring in every direction. Several simply shook their heads in disbelief.
Jake and Vincent were also caught in the ring of what could only be were-bears. Vincent had heard of them but never had the misfortune to encounter any. Were-creatures generally got a bad press. Were-bears were the cause of most of that bad press. Vincent shot a venomous glance at Jake, who had the good grace to look apologetic. Before Vincent could make a pointed comment Davey was speaking again.
“I am Ol’ Man Wickleberry, and I am hungry!” The voice was rough, the words slurred, but the meaning came through. “And do you know what else I am?”
The creature grinned, a most unpleasant sight. Vincent was suddenly aware of movement to his side, then pain exploded in his chest as something was rammed in, right where his slow beating heart was located. He gasped for breath, a reflex action considering he had no actual need to breathe, then sank to the ground. Darkness was already closing in and the strength was draining from his body. Glancing down he managed to make out a wooden stake jutting from his chest. Just typical, he thought, as the darkness swept everything before it.
* * *
Jake stared in horror as Vincent sank to the ground, a wooden stake jutting from his chest.
“I am also quite capable of smelling out a vampire!” shouted Davey… Ol’ Man Wickleberry.
Jake stepped towards Vincent, reaching to pull the stake out. It might already be too late, but he had to try. The creature that had plunged the stake in growled and lashed out. Backhanding Jake across the face, sending him flying a dozen feet before he crashed into a tree. Jake slammed down onto the ground, wincing at the sounds of breaking glass from his pack.
The blow alone would have killed any normal person. The impact with the tree would have done the same. They both hurt Jake, but neither were fatal. He was far from a normal person now. He wasn’t supernatural, not a vampire like Vince or gifted in the ways that many of their other friends were, but years of self-experimenting with new potions had greatly changed his body.
One change was that it was much stronger than it had been. That was down to many different potions. The other change, the one which really mattered now he’d survived the blow and the impact, was the one brought on by that potion. It was a change that lay dormant and often overwhelmed him when he was experimenting with potions, but it always surfaced when he drank that potion. When that happened he exchanged rationality and control for pure power. Rage took over, fury that drove him.
He was normally able to retain a little control, enough to avoid attacking his closest friends, but no more than that. Anyone else in the area would be far better off not being in the area. As the rage overwhelmed him he was dimly aware that meant the real humans penned in by the were-bears were in great danger, but he was far past caring. Eyes blazing as red as those of the were-bears, muscles knotted with unnatural strength, he rose like an avenging demon. He’d been knocked well out of the torchlit area and neither the were-bears nor the humans were aware of his presence. Yet. A feral grin spread across his face. They soon would be!
* * *
Vincent’s eyes flickered open. He suppressed a groan at the pain in his chest and cautiously looked around. He must only have been out for a short while. The humans still stood where they had, corralled but unhurt. Jake was missing, though. Where was he? Vincent couldn’t see much from where he lay.
The were-bears were focused on the humans now, apparently convinced that Vincent was… well, not dead as he’d been that for many long years, but destroyed. The fact they weren’t concerned about Jake either sent a chill down Vincent’s spine. He was incredibly peeved at the situation his friend had led him into and intended to make Jake suffer, but that relied on Jake being alive to be on the receiving end. If they’d killed him… Vincent felt his control start to slip again. This time it was much harder to hold onto it.
He looked down and had to suppress an even louder groan. His suit! Not only was it covered in mud, it also had a hole in it where the stake had been thrust into his chest. The stake that could very well have killed him, if he hadn’t taken precautions.
His friends all knew he would never consider being seen without a sharp and impeccably tailored suit. What they didn’t know was what he wore under those suits. He had figured out long before that other than sunlight the most likely way he would meet his demise was via a wooden stake delivered to his heart, and so had taken precautions.
In the early days that had meant wearing a tough leather vest beneath his clothes, but he’d never been happy with that — it spoilt the line of his suits. As protective materials had improved he’d upgraded to kevlar and then on to far more advanced fabrics. Now his vest was stronger than steel yet as light as spider silk. In fact it was partly made from spider silk.
Over the long decades this precaution had saved him from four deliberate attempts to kill him, and one freak accident when a car smash had led to a tree branch nearly impaling him. Now it had saved him again, although this time things hadn’t been so simple. While the vest had prevented the wood piercing his heart the stake had been driven home by the massive strength of a were-bear. That meant that the vest had partly pierced Vincent’s heart.
That wasn’t ever going to kill him, but it had stolen his strength and driven his body into unconsciousness while it dealt with the problem. While he was out his body had pushed back, moving the intrusion away from his heart. Now he reached up slowly and pulled the stake all the way out. All the pain vanished, and the rest of his strength returned. With it flowed a deep, burning anger. The entire evening had been one irritation after another. His suit was ruined and, more importantly, he was wearing it still. Added to that was the fact the creatures had tried to kill him and might well have killed his friend. Vincent didn’t often let his control go completely… but he was looking forward to doing exactly that.
One of the humans screamed as Ol’ Man Wickleberry grabbed them and bit deeply into their arm. It wasn’t a fatal wound but it was enough to spook the rest of the humans. They ran, and the were-bears let them. Of course. Half the fun was in the chase. Still, it made Vincent’s life easier. Fewer witnesses and little chance of them all telling the same tale.
Then movement away from the group caught his eye. Movement right where two of the humans were running. For a moment his heart lifted as he saw Jake stand up… then it slammed down again as he took in Jake’s eyes. Or, technically, not Jake’s eyes anymore. These were the eyes of his alter ego.
With a curse Vincent leapt into action, bursting forward and using every ounce of his supernatural strength. He was still only just in time. He slammed into the backs of the two humans, smashing them to the ground. He heard several bones break but paid it no heed. Compared to the fate he’d spared them from they’d got off extremely lightly.
“Jake! No!” He shouted. Jake ground to a halt a few inches from Vincent, eyes burning bright enough to actually light up the area.
“No?” Jake growled, body shaking at the control he was exerting. Vincent stood his ground but even he was nervous. He’d never had to pit his own strength against Jake’s when the transformation took place, and he wasn’t sure that even the strength of a vampire would be enough to stay safe.
“No, Jake. No! Not these two.” And not me, Vincent added silently.
“Grrrrrr… why… grrrrrr…”
“They didn’t hurt you, Jake. They aren’t the ones.”
Vincent kept his sentences short, the concepts simple, to try and get through the rage. Jake shook his head, then growled again. Suddenly his head shot up, staring at something behind Vincent. The deep growl from the same direction told Vincent one of the were-bears had closed in.
“That one?” Jake managed to ask, body trembling with suppressed rage.
“Yes!” answered Vincent, moving slightly to the side.
Jake let out a roar of pleasure and leapt past Vincent, who turned to watch. The were-bear let out its own roar and leapt forward too. Vincent was struck once again by just how strong the beast was. In a straight fight he was sure he could beat it, simply because it relied on brute force and strength where he could fight much smarter, but Jake had no such control. It was a one sided fight, one that was never going to last long.
Sure enough, it was over in thirty extremely bloody seconds. Jake raised his head and let out a chilling yell, waving a severed arm above his head. The rest of the creature was scattered around the area in a disturbing number of parts.
Then Jake was off, homing in on the next nearest target. With a sigh Vincent followed. This target consisted of a feeding were-bear and three trapped humans. Well, two humans now, and one corpse. Vincent managed to steer Jake’s anger towards the creature that had ambushed him and away from the terrified humans, though it was a close run thing again.
Jake ripped his way through three more of the were-bears before the survivors realised that something was very wrong and banded together. Vincent wasn’t surprised to see that Ol’ Man Wickleberry was one of the three that had survived. He wasn’t surprised, but he was pleased. Jake could take care of every other were-bear for all he cared, but he’d had an issue with Ol’ Man Wickleberry since he was just Davey and he really needed to vent after everything that had happened.
“Ol’ Man Wickleberry sees you!” spat the were-bear. “Ol’ Man Wickleberry knows you. You think you’re the first supernatural creatures we’ve faced? Hardly! I’ve been hunting in these woods for seventy years, and I’m still here. I’ll be…”
Apparently Jake had grown tired of waiting. He leapt forward without warning, heading straight for Ol’ Man Wickleberry. Vincent spat a curse and leapt after him. The two flanking were-bears had clearly been expecting the move. They sprang forward and caught Jake between them. One on each side they lifted him clear of the ground, using their strength to overwhelm him.
That appeared to be their plan, at least. Vince winced as Jake grabbed a handful of skin and fur from each were-bear and brought them crashing together. They didn’t release him, and he was partly caught in the middle of the collision, but that only antagonised him further. The three of them fell to the ground in a tumbling, snarling, biting mass.
Vincent took the chance to dart around them and head straight for Ol’ Man Wickleberry. The were-bear’s eyes blazed even brighter and he laughed deeply, spreading his arms to the sides.
“Come on then, vampire. Come test yourself against Ol’ Man Wickleberry. The creatures your friend has killed are but pale shadows compared to me. Useful, but I can always create more. You’ll find that I am something very different.”
“You know, I don’t give a damn about your plans,” said Vincent coldly. “I don’t care what you are or what you do. I do care about the ruin my suit has become, but that’s not what I really care about right now. Do you want to know what’s really got me angry?”
“Go on then, little vampire. Tell Ol’ Man Wickleberry.”
“What’s really got me, what I just can’t get past, is your stupid tales and your ridiculous insistence on talking about yourself in the third person.”
The were-bear frowned at that. Apparently it was too complicated a concept for it in its current form. Vincent shrugged. It didn’t matter whether or not the stupid creature understood. What mattered was expressing the thought. With that out of the way he could focus on expressing himself more physically. He launched himself forwards, landing a massive blow to the creatures head.
The were-bear’s head snapped back, but it showed no other sign of being affected. A massive paw slashed out, slicing through the space that Vincent had occupied until moments before. Vincent winced at how fast the move had been and at the power he sensed behind it. Ol’ Man Wickleberry hadn’t been lying, it really was much stronger than the other were-bears.
Vincent dodged several more powerful blows, taking the chance to study his opponent and consider the options. The most obvious attack, sinking his teeth into the creature, was out. Vincent could sense the were-taint running through the creature’s veins. There was no way that was going near his mouth.
A vampire’s second most impressive weapon came from raw strength. Enough to lift a dozen men, or to rip them apart. That, too, was of no use in the current fight. Ol’ Man Wickleberry was far stronger than any of the other were-bears, more than strong enough to counter anything Vincent could do.
Then there was Vincent’s speed. He had no doubt he could flee the area with ease, leaving the were-bears far behind. Jake couldn’t though, and was currently wrestling with two mounds of muscle. So leaving was out.
That didn’t leave a lot. In fact it left only one thing that might offer a chance. Vincent studied Ol’ Man Wickleberry carefully, letting his senses be drawn to the rapid beat of the creature’s heart. As he’d suspected it wasn’t in the normal location for a human, nor where he expected a bear’s heart to be. Without his talent what he had in mind would almost certainly have failed. He focused, pulled his right hand as flat as possible, dodged the next massive swing from the creature then made his move.
He slammed his hand forward with all his might, keeping it locked into a blade-like shape. It struck the creature’s chest and dug in. Vincent continued to force it forward, smashing a rib aside and reaching his target… the rapidly beating heart of Ol’ Man Wickleberry.
The creature’s eyes flared wide and it tried to pull back but Vincent moved with it. His hand clenched, closing around the heart and squeezing hard. Ol’ Man Wickleberry roared in pain and tried to push Vincent away, but much of its strength was already fading. Vincent stared into the creature’s eyes, ensuring it was still with him, then he spoke, slowly and clearly
“Do you know what else Ol’ Man Wickleberry is?” Vincent smiled coldly. “Dead!”
He squeezed hard, crushing the heart completely, then pulling it from the creature’s chest to be sure. Ol’ Man Wickleberry let out a final gurgle, then the mighty beast that had hunted and killed thousands down the years collapsed to the ground, stone dead.
Vincent dropped the heart and clicked his tongue. The suit had been ruined anyway, but now it was covered in blood and gore as well. His skin crawled at the state of his clothes. This was not how he wished to be seen, even if only Jake and a few terrified humans were the only ones who would see him.
Thinking of Jake… Vincent turned to see if his friend needed help to deal with the last two were-bears. It was blatantly obvious the answer was no. One lay on the ground unmoving, its head twisted at a most unnatural angle. The other was desperately trying to dislodge Jake from his perch on its shoulders. A nasty cracking sound signalled the end of its efforts, and its life, as Jake broke its neck too. The corpse dropped to the ground. Jake leapt off and rolled, springing back to his feet, eyes still burning deep red.
Vincent sighed. As if the evening hadn’t been bad enough already, he now had the hardest task of all… talking Jake down from his state without letting him do any more damage, to himself or anyone else.
* * *
It took the best part of an hour to shift Jake from out-and-out homicidal ball of rage to merely incredibly angry and fired up. At that point Vincent managed to convince him to take the potion which would return him to some semblance of normality, and another ten minutes for it to have enough of an effect that Vincent could start to relax. A few minutes later Jake stood up, but he kept his eyes on the ground, only occasionally throwing glances at Vincent.
“Look, Vincent, I’m really sorry…” he started to say.
“Forget it! A camping trip wasn’t your greatest idea, but you could hardly be expected to know this was going to happen.”
“You’re not… you’re not mad? About what happened? About your clothes?”
Vincent suppressed a shudder. He was trying hard not to think about his clothes.
“I was particularly angry earlier, but I found a suitable target for my anger.”
Jake chuckled. “Yeah, I saw what happened to Ol’ Man Wickleberry. I never liked him, even when he was just being Davey.”
“Nor did I.”
“At least he’s gone now, him and the other were-bears.”
“You know it’s not over, don’t you?” said Vincent sharply. “Some of the humans that survived were bitten and scratched. You know how were-curses transmit. They’ll repeat the pattern. We may have to find them and kill them.”
“Whoa! Hold your horses. I don’t think we need to be that drastic. I should have something in my pack that will help…”
He opened the pack and let out a cry. Vincent moved closer and looked in. Dozens of vials had been broken during the fighting. The chemicals within had mixed together, and in several cases were starting to fizz as they reacted.
“Damn it,” Jake swore. “That’s going to be one hell of a pain to clean up. Still, at least the good stuff wasn’t harmed.”
He took a smaller bag out of his pack and opened it. Inside was a box. When he opened it Vincent saw it was jammed full of vials.
“So… a little bit of this,” Jake said. “Some of that, a pinch of that one… two of that… a sniff of that… and there we go. If they drink this they should be fine. They’ve only just been bitten. It won’t be strong in them yet. Can you find them all?”
“Easily. Most hid when they got a short way into the darkness. Two tried to keep running and knocked themselves out on trees.”
“Let’s get on with it then.”
* * *
Forty minutes later and they had located and dosed all of the humans, most against their will. As the alternative would have been to kill them Vincent wasn’t taking no for an answer, and with his vampire strength none were able to resist.
After the last had run off into the darkness Jake turned to Vincent, shuffling from one foot to the other.
“Vincent… can you do me a favour?”
Vincent grunted noncommittally. He was not in the mood for giving out favours. Especially to Jake. Jake grimaced but pushed on.
“Could we not mention any of this to Stan? You know how he feels about violence, and this… well, it would really upset him.”
Vincent sighed, then nodded. “Fine. I don’t really want another lecture from him either. Let’s get going. I want to get to the lodge and get settled in.”
“Ah… well… with all the excitement and my… episode… I really don’t have a clue where the lodge is. We can start to head back towards the car but the sun will be up before we cover even half the distance. You’re… well, it’s a good job you brought your tents. You’re going to have to use them.”
Vincent went still, staring intently at Jake for a long time before he spoke.
“Jake, I can say without reservation that this has been absolutely the best hiking holiday I have ever been on.”
Jake looked puzzled. “Really?”
“No! Of course it hasn’t. Now help me put the tents up before I have to add getting barbecued to a crisp to everything else that’s been wrong with it!”