As Leon’s group drew closer to the village, he noticed stakes partially buried and pointed outward as crude fortifications, and the few villagers he could see were carrying axes, knives, and farming equipment as weapons. They moved quickly, as if they were nervous to be outside even in broad daylight.
“Looks a little tense around here,” Leon remarked.
“Five of their people were just abducted, and the only one they found was completely drained of his blood,” Adalgrim responded. “Can you blame them for being nervous and wanting to defend themselves?”
“Not really…” Leon admitted.
As the squad rode into the village and made its way toward the center, the few villagers in their way looked up and the anxiety and subtle fear in their faces immediately brightened.
“Them knights are ‘ere!” one young man who had been keeping watch on the road began shouting. As other villagers glanced over and saw the dozen riders enter their village, the young man’s shout was picked up and carried all the way to the center of the village.
In the few minutes it took Leon and Adalgrim’s party to arrive at the center, the village mayor was waiting for them with a look of complete relief on his face.
“Good Sirs and Ma’ams!” the mayor shouted as he opened his arms in welcome. “All of us are happy t’ see ye ‘ere with us!”
Adalgrim, once he brought his steed to a halt, jumped down and handed the reins to his squire to hold. With a quick glance back, he wordlessly invited Leon to join him, who did likewise.
“We’ve come from the Bull’s Horns,” Adalgrim said with a bright and comforting smile. “We received your report of what happened to your people, and we’re here to find whoever is responsible and bring them to justice!”
The crowd that was forming around the village square was too wound up to break out into cheers, but there were a few cries of joy and more than a few eyes tearing up in relief.
“And we’re truly grateful t’ Good Sir,” the mayor said as he rushed forward to shake Adalgrim’s hand. “Are yer people hungry or tired? We can set aside some space fer ye to rest…”
“I don’t mean to disrespect you, or to reject your hospitality,” Adalgrim said as he shook the mayor’s hand, “but I would feel a lot better if we could get to work as soon as possible.”
“O’ course!” the mayor replied. Any apprehension the mayor had in Adalgrim’s purpose or in the knight himself evaporated under Adalgrim’s warm and comforting gaze.
The knight spoke for a little while with the mayor, arranging for a place for his squad to store their horses and to arrange food and shelter in case they had to stay the night. Once that was done and the mayor scurried off to arrange everything, Adalgrim turned to Leon and said, “You could stand to look a little more comforting, you know.”
Leon had been standing silent and stock-still with his arms crossed, but he raised his eyebrow in confusion and looked at Adalgrim inquiringly, asking, “What does how I look have to do with the job?”
“Part of our job is to make these people feel better. They cooperate more with our investigation when you make them feel safe. It’s our job to bring safety and security to these people, and keeping your face concealed can make them nervous or scared, which can then lead to them hiding clues or otherwise not cooperate with us.”
To emphasize his point, Adalgrim turned his warm, dark brown eyes to the crowd, gave everyone a confident and comforting smile, then waved. Again, the crowd didn’t cheer, but Leon could see the grips they had on their axes, shovels, and other improvised weapons loosen, and they started talking amongst themselves a little bit more.
“I see…” Leon muttered, suddenly feeling awkward for continuing to wear his helmet. Not that he took it off, though.
After several minutes, the mayor returned and said to Adalgrim, “One of our other farmers ‘as decided to lend ye his barn fer storin’ yer ‘orses.”
“Sounds wonderful!” Adalgrim replied. They then worked out the details, and most of the squad left to get the animals secured in the farmer’s barn, leaving only Leon, Anzu, Alix, Adalgrim, and the latter’s squire with the mayor.
The mayor gave Anzu an odd look, as he expected the young griffin to accompany the horses to the barn, but when he glanced at Leon, whose face was completely hidden behind his helmet, he decided not to question it.
“Now,” Adalgrim continued, his bright and cheery demeanor taking a serious turn, “why don’t you show us the body of the man you found.”
“Uh, sure thing,” the mayor agreed with a frown appearing on his face that, in Leon’s eyes, seemed equal parts terror and revulsion.
The mayor then turned around and began leading them through the dirt streets of the village, past people whose scared and harried eyes would light up at the sight of the armed and armored soldiers passing by. Their destination was a hut on the outskirts of the village, beside a farm with several acres of apple trees planted in a rough grid. Leon’s mouth couldn’t help but water at the sight of the bright red apples, as the group didn’t stop to eat lunch on the road, but work came first so he followed Adalgrim and the mayor inside. He paused only to wave at Anzu, telling the griffin to wait outside.
“This ‘ere was Theobald’s place,” the mayor said, nodding to the bed where Leon could see something human-shaped beneath a blanket—Theobald, no doubt. The hut had begun to stink, and the cause was most certainly the poorly-stored corpse.
“Ugh,” Adalgrim grimaced as he pulled the blanket back and saw the dead grey skin of the man underneath. “You really should have tossed him in a freezer or something… There should be something like around here, right? Something big enough to store your harvests in before they’re taken to Ariminium?”
“Aye, we do,” the mayor admitted. “We got several, but no one wanted a dead person stinkin’ up the place…”
“That’s unfortunate,” Adalgrim quietly responded as he turned his attention back to the corpse.
To Leon’s eyes, the dead man seemed little different than any other he’d seen—though, admittedly, the vast majority of other dead bodies he’d seen had died in battle, and so were far more damaged than Theobald. But, Adalgrim seemed to know exactly what he was doing, as he turned Theobald’s head to the sides until he saw two tiny puncture marks on his neck. Then, he poked the man a few times in the stomach.
“There’s some evidence of demonic power here…” he said with a deadly serious look.
Leon’s heart almost leaped out of his chest in shock before, a second later, his logic kicked in and he realized that Adalgrim wasn’t talking about him. Still, he was so suddenly put on edge that he didn’t dare ask for clarification as he didn’t think he could keep his voice steady. Fortunately for him, the mayor had no such hang-ups.
“I think someone might have tried to manipulate this man’s corpse with… fire… yes, fire…” Adalgrim responded absent-mindedly, almost as if he were talking to himself rather than responding to the mayor. The knight then lifted Theobald’s shirt and, sure enough, there was a fist-sized hole surrounded by burned and blackened skin in the center of the man’s chest.
“Hmmm,” Adalgrim hummed in thought. He then stuck his finger into the hole and wiggled it around. “Yup, his heart is missing…”
The mayor’s face was one of complete revulsion, and it was clear that the man was fighting the urge to vomit. Leon, Alix, and the other squire were a little more composed, but no one was going to interrupt Adalgrim until he was done with his investigation.
The knight closed his eyes and scanned the body with his magic senses a few times, and visually scanned both Theobald and the farmer’s hut before finally turning back to the mayor.
“This man lived alone, right?”
The mayor, still slightly sickened at seeing the state of Theobald’s body and Adalgrim’s subsequent investigation, could only nod.
“And the other four, they were single men living alone?”
Again, the mayor nodded.
With a sigh, Adalgrim sat down in one of the few chairs in the hut and said, “Well, this seems like a fairly standard set-up, then. This is definitely the work of a vampire.”
“But what was that stuff ye said about demons?” the mayor asked.
“A vampire becomes what it is by consuming blood, usually at the behest of a demon as part of a ritual to grant the demon more power. Some of this power is then shared with the person performing the ritual. Eventually, however, their body will adapt to the consumption of blood, and then the creature will need to consume blood to survive. It’s actually a clever trick on the demon’s part—get some hapless power-hungry sap addicted to blood, and then every time they feed, the demon gains power through their contract.”
“That’s…” the mayor sputtered, unable to finish expressing his horror.
“Indeed,” Adalgrim whispered. “All that being said, there is one thing I’m curious about…”
“What is it?” the mayor hurriedly asked, desperate to change the subject to something that carried less horror.
“Why was there no word sent about this man’s missing heart? Did you somehow miss the hole in his chest?”
“We… um…” the mayor began, searching for the right words to use that wouldn’t make him look completely incompetent. “… When we found Theobald, ‘e looked like that, and there were them bite marks on ‘is neck. ‘E was already dead, and we knew what done it, so we didn’t check further…”
Adalgrim sighed again. “His missing heart does change some things, but shouldn’t be anything too major… Let’s check out the homes of the other missing people, why don’t we?”
The mayor immediately led them out of the hut and walked toward another isolated hut on the outskirts of the village. Adalgrim silently walked through it, paying special attention to the windows and doors. The group then moved on to the next hut, and then the next, and so on.
Throughout the entire process, Leon himself didn’t say a single word. Watching the brown-haired man go to work, he could tell Adalgrim was well-used to identifying demonic power; he was just such an expert in demonology that Xaphan had once warned him about when cautioning him against leaving corpses Leon killed with the demon’s power.
Needless to say, Leon suddenly found himself uncomfortable around the older knight. Unfortunately, Xaphan had felt somewhat depressed and slightly insulted that Leon had caught up to him so quickly, and so had spent the past year or so completely focused on recovering his power. Consequently, even if Leon called out to the demon, he was likely in such a deep meditative trance that he wouldn’t respond.
By the time they reached the last hut, the rest of the squad caught up to them, having secured the horses in the offered barn.
“So,” Adalgrim began outside of the last hut, “here’s what I think happened. The vamp we’re looking for probably rolled in several days before the disappearances and spied on the village for a while. It identified several people it could snatch without immediately raising the alarm. After kidnapping these people, it immediately drained him of blood sacrificed one, then ripped out his heart to try and puppet his corpse with magic. After failing, the corpse was dumped in the forest where it was later found by a village hunter. The status of the other four kidnapped men is currently unknown. Oh, and this vampire seems to be contracted with some kind of fire demon.”
“Doesn’t sound too unusual,” one of the men-at-arms in the squad said, “though it might’ve been easier to simply incinerate the body somewhere else.”
“True, but when have you ever seen demon worshippers doing something logical?” Adalgrim responded. “That being said, for a vamp to take the risk of kidnapping five people at once is fairly rare, so assume we’re dealing with a strong creature. Don’t go anywhere alone, and if you happen to see it, fetch either me or Sir Leon, here.”
Leon looked up, slightly startled at the other knight mentioning his name.
“Don’t look too surprised, Sir Leon, as I said, this vamp is likely very strong; you’re probably going to get a chance to fight before this is over…”
A smile broke out over Leon’s face and his hand went for his hip again. However, once again, it grasped nothing but empty air, and he was left profoundly unsatisfied.
“Now, then,” Adalgrim continued, “Let’s get started on tracking this monster down!”
The soldiers began to stretch and make last-minute checks on their armor and weapons while Adalgrim leaned in closer to the mayor and began asking about the surrounding forest; specifically, he was looking for the most likely place for the vampire to hide.
“Is there anywhere that is particularly hot, or at least, a place that has been notably warm over the past few weeks?” the knight asked.
“Actually, there are a couple places that spring to mind,” the mayor responded.
Adalgrim flashed him a vicious smile, the kind that graces the lips of a predator that just caught a whiff of its prey. “Show me,” he growled.
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