It was the face of his sleeping child that made him quiver, even as the silver blade he held grinned in the moonlight, hoisted and waiting to taste fresh blood.
In those tortuous seconds, his head and heart wrestled to grab the coign of vantage.
Bury that dagger in her heart. It’s the only way.
Wait! She’s your own flesh and blood.
As the conflict brewed inside him, somewhere in the forest that lay beyond the marshes, a lone wolf howled. Its ominous cry wafted in through the arched windows of the stately gothic manor, waking Susannah, his wife.
She squinted at first—her senses still struggling with somnolence. Rubbing the rheum off her eyes, she sat up on the bed. The wolf now had compatriots; their collective howls burgeoning into a discordant elegy.
It was perhaps their unpropitious orchestra that had jerked Susannah into her senses.
His feral gaze locked onto hers, freezing the scream that built in her throat.
17 years later
“Body—devoid of blood.Disemboweled… with something sharp,” Maria poked at the dead man with a stick, or whatever was left of him.
She ignored the murmurs that grew by the second. The villagers of SkrwawioneZiemie* were a curious lot. Maria found it mildly amusing. SkrwawioneZiemie fit the profile of an orthodox Polish village to the T. She had seen many of them before. Cold, sterile and inhospitable—these lands shared a common visage. The inhabitants of SkrwawioneZiemie, however, weren’t as timid as those whom she visited before. They were dying. Mostly the men, just like the one who lay before her, dead and mutilated.
She made some mental notes about the body as she rose and turned to the villagers.
“I want to meet the man in charge here,” she said. When she saw the village folk exchanging confused glances, she realised her mistake. She translated her request in rustic Polish.
A boy barely in his teens pointed towards the hill that lay at the other end of the landscape.
“Ten zameknaszczyciewzgórza,” he said.
Maria followed the direction of his finger and saw the old manor. Alone on the hill, it sat like the only stump in a denuded land.
It took seven knocks to get someone to open the main door to the mansion.
The boy, Filip, fled upon hearing the obscenities the servant spewed as he opened the door.
He threw a dirty look at the boy, who was already past the lawn. He then crossed his arms and loured at Maria.
Maria handed him an unsealed envelope. “I was invited,” she said. Upon perusing over its contents, he gave her a curt nod and ushered her in.
She was seated in what she presumed was the library, with a crackling fire in the fireplace. Though old, the high, vaulted ceilings of the home still looked imposing. There was no electricity in this part of the world, and it lent the house a sinister character. The light was too frail to drive away all the shadows, or allow someone who lurked under their shapes.
“I see you have been attended to.”
The deep, throaty voice that pierced the silence of the room made Maria turn and almost grasp her weapon. Creepy bushes were a part of a monster hunter’s profession. Striking, when startled, came as a natural reflex to her.
The man moved forward, allowing her to get a better view. For someone known to be an influential magnaci* in the higher circles of nobility, Ryszard Bukowski, cut a disappointing figure.
He was tall alright, but time had weighed heavily upon his stooping shoulders. His posture and walk were that of a cripple. With a handful of silver strands on his otherwise bald pate, he looked like a ghost of what he once was. Maria had seen his picture as a youth in the gallery wall when she was shown her way to the study.
“I received your letter about the curse that haunts your village,” she said.
“You look young for a hunter,” Ryszard observed her smooth, pale skin and ruddy eyes. Her dark red curls reminded him of Susannah’s, when she was young and beautiful.
“I hope you have heard of the list of creatures I have hunted before calling me here.” Maria leaned into her seat as she asked.
Ryszard bored her with his pebble-like beady eyes. He laid out his palm, which she understood to be a request for recommendation letters. Though offended by this scrutiny, Maria handled him what he had asked for.
Ryszard took a few minutes to read the letters of approval that summed up her capability as a hunter. He then gazed at her with knitted brows and asked, “have you hunted a strzyga before?”
Strzyga, the name was enough to unman even the bravest of men. The owl-faced demoness was known for its vicious killings.
“I have heard how they act. But I haven’t killed one yet,” Maria confessed.
Ryszard shook his head. Whether out of disappointment or disapproval, she knew not.
“This village has lost scores of men. All sucked dry and wasted beyond recognition,” he said.
“I saw one body on my way,” Maria replied. Her hands and legs felt numb and tense at the same time as she spoke.
“You are our last hope. Stop this beast from emptying this village.” He placed his palm on the table as he pleaded.
Maria did not miss his bulbous emerald ring, which glinted like a star on his finger. “My charges–”
“Shall be paid in gold if you succeed.”
Ryszard rose from his seat and lurched towards the door. Before moving out, he looked at her and said, “if you need more help, ask my servant, Antoni.”
“The man who escorted you inside the house.”
Maria watched like a quiet mouse as the man walked out.
She padded out of the room after him and strode towards the main door. But the hushed voices in the room next to the library halted her.
She was drawn towards the room. Maria did not know why. When she didn’t see any of the servants, she skulked towards the room. The door was half closed. Maria peeked inside and saw Ryszard sitting at the foot of a bed. On the bed was a lady with copper hair and lifeless rust eyes. Perhaps his wife. Her features had been dulled and lined by Time, but anyone could tell she must have been a sought-after woman in her youth.
Taverns or inns weren’t a thing in the village. Maria asked around, but didn’t find one.
Filip, the boy who had accompanied her to the manor, offered her refuge and warm food for a couple of zloties.
Maria mulled over the meeting with the old aristocrat. Something was missing from the story. A strzyga was born because someone had wronged it when it was living. She had heard rumours on her way—she hunted only in this village. So, the one who offended the Strzyga must be in this village.
“Filip,” she called out to the boy, “would you know if anyone in your village was born with two sets of teeth and two hearts?”
The boy who was making her a bed stopped and shook his head. Then suddenly he bobbed it in rigorous affirmation.
“Who was it?” Maria asked.
“Jan,” he replied.
“Jan lived on the outskirts of the village.” Filip placed a pillow on the bed. “He’s dead now.”
“How did he die?”
“He was friends with the sick girl at the manor.”
“Sick girl, who?”
An unearthly shriek tore the air, forcing them to cover their ears. Maria darted out of the house and grabbed her anointed bow and arrow.
The shrieks melded with an agonised human scream as she ran out. The thuds of slamming doors and windows and the darkness that engulfed the village made her stumble more than once.
She docked her arrow on her bow and took position, surveying all the corners visible to her eye.
The full moon turned out to be an ally, and she found a rough track with footprints of the beast.
The track was how the villagers accessed the forest. As she proceeded on it, thick foliage and wild undergrowth embraced the track on both sides. Once the track ended, the woodlands took over.
Maria depended on her nose and ears when certain places turned her blind.
She picked up the alien scent she was so used to, somewhere she deemed to be the centre of the forest.
It grew stronger as she moved further in. It was the crack of bones and nauseating smell of human flesh that made her stop. She turned towards a hedge—the chief source of the dreadful chomp.
A grisly figure caught her eye when she pried the hedge apart. The beast snarled as it ripped an arm off its latest prey, a man who looked familiar.
The beast stopped crunching on the arm socket and stared at Maria. As the moon shone in its full glory, Maria saw the face of dread. The very form that seeped into nightmares, once it heard the uninterrupted breathing of those who slept on the bed, under which it lay waiting.
Through its overtly hirsute face, two gleaming, wild, red eyes observed Maria. Maria crept forward, close enough for the creature to touch her. The gigantic being hurled the torn arm away and pounced—its vicious maw glistening with yellow, jagged teeth.
It was the glint of the ring that made Susannah look up.
With all the candles blown out, she couldn’t make out the dark shadow that sat at the foot of her bed. It wasn’t Ryszard, she could tell from those slender, firm shoulders.
“Wh-who?” Susannah felt twists in her gut.
“It’s me… Matka*” A cruel smile lined Maria’s face as she moved forward.
Shafts of moonlight sneaked in through the window, grazing Maria’s face. Susannah gasped as she saw her younger self sitting before her. Blood-hued hair and flaming eyes just like her.
“You….” She trembled as panic surged in her veins.
“It’s I, you daughter. The one you killed 17 years ago.” Maria’s jaw clenched as she spoke.
“Rys–Ryszard!” Susannah cried out, but her vocal cords went dry.
“He’s dead.” Maria handed her the emerald ring, the one she had plucked off the finger of the Ryszard’s severed arm.
Maria glared at a cowering Susannah and continued, “do you remember that night, Matka, when you yelled at father when he failed to plunge his silver dagger into my heart? When he couldn’t bring himself to, you snatched it from his hand and finished me in one stroke.”
“An-Antoni?” Sussanah made one last attempt to summon help.
“Not just me, you killed my friend, Jan…. Why did you do that? Just because we both were born with two hearts and double sets ofteeth? Or, because he wanted to save me from father and you?” Maria stopped as she heard the savage growl.
The beast from the forest entered the room with Antoni’s head in its mouth.
“Actually, after you killed me, you got your servant Antoni and father to kill Jan,” Maria said. “Meet Jan, the strzygoń ravaging your village. It took me years to cross the realms of life and death. I can now change into human form. I invoked Jan from the demon realm and sent him here. When I heard father has called for a hunter, I found her first, and finished her. I couldn’t lose my last opportunity to see you, could I?”
“If you are dead, then what are you?” Susannah shuddered even as she knew the answer in her heart.
“What do you think I am, mother?” Maria’s eyes glowed red as she bared her teeth.
SkrwawioneZiemie* – ‘Bloodland’in Polish
Magnaci*–Magnate or Nobleman
Matka*–Polish for ‘Mother’