Chapter 1 - Losing Control
A figure crouched in the dark, examining the mud that coated the cobblestone street of Balzers, a sleepy city confronted by the brutal slaying of some of the townsfolk. The darkness shrouded the figure, but a pinprick of light sent the shadows skittering away from the tracks he studied.
"Werewolf," identified Van Helsing and removed his pistols from their holsters.
Deliberately, he replaced the contents in the firing chamber with silver bullets, then straightened his knees to spring himself into a standing position. Van Helsing walked cautiously along the back street, unperturbed by the blanketed darkness created by the covering up of every window.
The people had reason to fear – a monster would certainly scare anyone out of their wits without even laying eyes on it. Van Helsing snorted. He was a monster himself and his name would be enough for children to weep in fear.
Movement ahead made him snap back to awareness. A maid was holding a pail of water in trembling hands, eyes fixed on him. She sobbed, "Bitte verletzen Sie mich nicht."
Please do not hurt me.
"Be quiet," Van Helsing told her, reverting to German. "Ich bin nicht hier, Sie zu verletzen."
I am not here to hurt you.
He ignored her, walking past stealthily as if a shadow himself. The maid watched him go, frightened, then fled into the closest house and pulled the door shut. Her worried eyes peered out a crack in the sheets hung over a window. The Dunkler Mann, the Dark Man, was gone through the mist that rose from the evening rain.
Further along the street, Van Helsing found the mud trail come to an end. Horse hooves and cart tracks buried any unusual prints at the intersection he came to. He cursed softly as his pause sunk his boots into the mud and grime. While he collected himself, his eyes fell on the grubby wanted poster tacked to the wall opposite.
Van Helsing tore it off as he did with every wanted poster for a dark face wearing a hat and a cloth across the face. He noted with black amusement that the reward had risen since the last time he'd been near Lichtenstein or Austria.
He shook his boots of muck and walked on, pistols at the ready. He knew he should not let his thoughts wander, but they often did. Van Helsing had always prided himself devoid of distracted thoughts, but ever since Transylvania…
A strange smell slid past the baking from inside the cramped houses and the foul stench that lined the streets. It was a familiar scent and Van Helsing stopped his stride to try to identify it. A phrase he remembered came to mind.
Why does it smell like wet dog in here?
"Thankyou, Carl," Van Helsing muttered and scanned the nearby blocks with mistrust. For him to smell the werewolf's sodden pelt, it must be very close.
A rattling sound brought him around to face an ornate door set into a faded building. The door had not shut properly because it was half torn off the hinges. Cautiously, Van Helsing pushed the door in with one foot and entered with his pistols raised. He heard nothing but his own breathing, which sounded awfully loud in his own ears.
He could see an orange glow bouncing off the walls ahead. Van Helsing crept forwards, ready to fire a bullet between the eyes of the werewolf. He took the corner into the living room quickly and was confronted with the sight of the hunted werewolf. That wasn't all – a man was calmly sitting in a beaten arm chair by a roaring fire, stroking a chipped cup of tea.
"Ah, Herr Van Helsing," the man said slowly, his accent betraying him to be from Austria or Germany. "I have been expecting you."
Slightly unnerved by the silent, hulking werewolf, Van Helsing halted his progress into the room. "I see you already have company. It wouldn't seem fair to intrude."
The man laughed, his skeletal face, rimmed by a goatee and scraggly grey hair, contorting as though in pain. The laugh itself was scratchy and hoarse, gratingly so. He leant forward in his chair, squinting. "So you are the one they call the Dunkler Mann, the shadow of a man. The one, I've heard tell, who goes on bloody rampages, a vampiric creature intent of spreading his evil. I see you a merely a man."
"Me and half the world," Van Helsing countered, raising his pistols to take a shot at the werewolf. "I'm busy – can we have this talk later?"
The man's mouth widened, exposing more teeth than Van Helsing had ever seen in his life. "I'd be…upset if you were to slay beloved Haustier, my domesticated pet."
What I hate more than a werewolf, Van Helsing thought passionately, is a man who controls the said werewolf.
He lifted his chin, voice muffled as it always was through the cloth. "Is there a pattern to the killings your pet conducts on your behalf?"
"Why of course," the man chortled. "But I am being rude. I am Herr Von Schliemann. Do sit down – we have much to discuss."
"I'd rather stand."
Von Schliemann waved a dismissive hand. "Whatever suits you best. I have a proposition for you, Herr Van Helsing. I am a man interested in power over Balzers, but politics is a little out of my league. I believe force would be a more direct and efficient approach. Of course, Haustier and I cannot take control of the city without any other help. We need an icon of fear on our side."
Van Helsing glared at him. "I will not consider such a notion. I would sooner spear your head on a stake set on the battlements of this city."
"Well, I cannot say I did not try, Herr Van Helsing," Von Schliemann said forlornly. "I'll have to set Haustier on you."
Van Helsing was already firing at the werewolf. He threw his body out of the way of the beast, nearly landing in the fire, and jumped to his feet, leaning against the wall for support. Von Schliemann watched this all with no concern at all on his face. He merely smiled wickedly.
The werewolf howled in rage as silver bullets sprinkled his front. The monster shoved aside the armchair that his master was in to get to the hunter, growling with anger. Van Helsing rolled to the side and resisted the urge to wince as Haustier smashed a hole in the plaster wall.
He chased after the werewolf through the hole, firing his pistols intensely. After a blind dash out, he was thrown to one side by a powerful paw. Van Helsing shook his head, pushing his hat back on. "Nice doggy. Come to me; I've got a nice silver bone for you."
The werewolf paused for a moment, then leapt back into action as more bullets ripped into its body. Van Helsing again rolled to the side to avoid being pounded and drew out a silver stick as long as one of his pistols. He twisted it and a sharp blade shot out of its end. He brandished it out as a sword and kept his balance carefully.
The monster watched him warily, intelligence sparking in its eyes. It stayed ten metres away in what appeared to be a dining hall, almost daring for the hunter to come after him.
Great. A smart werewolf. Van Helsing sighed.
As the creature came at him, he raised the stake but was batted through the wall into another room. Overcome by a dizzy spell that had resulted from smacking his head on the ground, Van Helsing blinked several times. He heard Von Schliemann laughing and saying, "Good boy, Haustier, good boy."
The world spun. Van Helsing felt his feet leave the ground, accompanied by a sickening lurch in his stomach. His vision cleared to show the werewolf snarling at him, a paw tightening around his throat, the claws digging in. Van Helsing counted himself lucky none of them had pierced the jugular vein. He choked breaths in and out, steadily finding it harder.
To his dismay he realised he had dropped the silver stake. He had only one pistol in his hands and clicked the trigger to find the gun empty. Van Helsing fought against the werewolf's grip, but his vision was blackening.
"Kill him, Haustier! Finish the job!" Von Schliemann crowed.
Van Helsing was angry with the man, the beast and himself. He'd been in worse situations and come out better. And the worst would have been Transylvania, he admitted. There had been Anna, dead at the same hands that had slain countless others in the few years he'd been commissioned for the Holy Order.
It wasn't fair! His life was NEVER in his control. Anger and sorrow rushed through him and Van Helsing emitted a throaty growl. He closed his eyes briefly and, when they reopened, they burnt a bright, feral gold. He found strength filling his limbs and pried the paw easily away from his throat.
Van Helsing felt his skin smoulder, felt the power rushing into him. He welcomed it gladly yet when he went to yell in triumph, he was emitted as an ear splitting howl. Haustier's ears flicked backwards and forwards. There was no longer a man in front of him, but a midnight black werewolf.
"KILL HIM!" roared Von Schliemann, though terror now shot through the man's eyes. He could not fathom it – Europe's most wanted man had just turned into a werewolf.
Haustier and Van Helsing regarded each other with a strange sort of familiarity. An understanding passed between them. Both turned onto Von Schliemann, intent on tearing the man to shreds. The Austrian had no chance as they bore down on him.
The city quaked in fear that night, with the sounds of two monsters in their midst. The maid that had seen the Dark Man watched the street for him to return, to slice the throats of those in her household. He never came…
Van Helsing woke in the dawn light, unsure of where he was. He prodded his mind, which seemed unwilling to give up his memory, as usual. At least he knew who he was. Somewhere in the dim dark recesses of his stubborn mind, he knew that Von Schliemann was nothing to worry about. He knew by looking around that he was on a roof.
Why don't I remember killing the werewolf? Van Helsing demanded of himself.
Chills swept down his body as a gust of wind blew onto him. Van Helsing drew together his shredded coat, feeling alarmed. Why couldn't he remember anything past being choked to death?
Then he saw Haustier sleeping like the proverbial puppy, snoring loudly. That's what the gust of wind had been. Van Helsing began to feel sick in the stomach. He looked down at his hands and realised, with a lurch, that fur dotted down his arms and legs. He was only partially human.
"Oh, Lord," he said helplessly.
Van Helsing breathed slowly and tried to visualise his human ways again, his sanity. As he tried, his mind threw him flashes of the night before…the man he'd clawed to death…Sanity leapt out of his grasp. Van Helsing felt like howling with frustration, but he checked himself.
What linked him to his sanity?
He remembered Anna Valerious with pain, Count Dracula with anger. No, those memories would only aggravate the situation. He cast his mind around and it landed on the Vatican. Dim hatred surged through him. Van Helsing become panicked, but suddenly he smelt the rain, smelt Haustier, and heard the words that he'd heard from the night before.
Why does it smell like wet dog in here?
"Carl!" he exclaimed and concentrated on remembering the friar.
Carl was absent-minded, worked too hard and was afraid of anything that moved. He was so unsuited to being a friar it brought tears of mirth to Van Helsing's eyes. The hunter again looked at his hands and found them free of any fur. He breathed slowly.
He found some silver bullets rattling around the pockets of his worn jacket – the only article of clothing he still had on him – and drove them into the werewolf mercilessly with new strength. Van Helsing found himself whimpering dog-like with pain as the silver burnt rashes into his hands.
Haustier struggled, but injuries from the night before caught up with him and a man appeared in his place, gasping, "Van Helsing, Sie Mörder."
The hunter looked away. He murmured a Latin prayer then went about scavenging clothes from the surrounding washing that drifted on the roof. He was shaking. He knew now that he had not been cured.
Anna died for nothing! he thought furiously.
He felt heat shoot through his eyes. Shards of a mirror offered his reflection – golden eyes full of bitterness. Van Helsing rubbed his eyes furiously. He would overcome this. The Vatican didn't need to know. They'd see him as a monster, like the ones he'd been hunting for them.
Like a faithful dog.
Van Helsing felt truly frightened for the first time in his life. He could feel the beast within, wanting to escape. He closed his eyes in concentration and willed the werewolf that lay in wait to stay that way – in a self repressed limbo. He knew that he could not hold it for long…
"Van Helsing!" Carl wailed in dismay. "How is it that you don't take proper care of your equipment?"
The hunter feigned a casual shrug. "I lost it, that's all."
Along with my innocent ignorance of still being plagued with this curse!
Carl seemed to only notice his strange attire. The friar raised an eyebrow. "Have you been wearing that all the way from Balzers in Lichtenstein to here!?"
Van Helsing felt heat coming to his cheeks. Relieved that the subject of lost equipment was over, he allowed a faint blush to come. Of course, if you'd worn a frilly cocktail dress across a few countries, you'd have to forget about your troubles for a few moments. At least.
He was more than happy to find that the last silver bullet he had on him did not burn his raw red hands like it had done in Lichtenstein.
The beast lay within, biding its time…waiting for its master to let it out…