Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Vampire of Kovácspéter

The village of Kovácspéter was plagued by a vampire, which was increasingly embarrassing. The year was 1873 and Hungary was on the march to modernity. They had their own prime minister, their own constitution, and their own economic development plan. Rails were being laid and industry was being developed. The future was industrial, prosperous and, most importantly, happening right now.

In the county seat—a day’s journey by carriage down the old mountain roads—they had a railway station and even a telegraph office. Yet in Kovácspéter, they still had a vampire. Every New Year’s Day before the mass, they still took a beautiful woman—one of their daughters—up to the old, decaying castle in the mountainside and left her there for the vampire, just like they always had.

“Someone ought to do something,” said old Balazs to anyone who’d listen. He was drunk and angry and planning to fix things, the same as every year. Once, it had been his older sister that they had left at the old castle. Almost everyone in Kovácspéter had lost someone, but Balazs was different. Even now, years later, he had never really recovered. “It’s just not right,” he said, and everyone else just looked the other way or pretended not to hear him until he’d drunk himself into a stupor.

Most years, Balazs slept it off in the church vestry. Most years, he swore and shook his fist and cried and it was all over by morning. But this year he woke clear-eyed and clear-headed and he knew what to do. He got out the old gold necklace—all that was left of his sister’s dowry—and caught a ride down to the county seat to send a telegram to the agency.

“HERO NEEDED” read his telegram and then, because they charged by the letter, “KVCSPTR.”

• • • •

At first old Balazs kept quiet, but he eventually let something slip to Tomi over a game of darts, and soon the entire village boiled with rumors and speculation. Everyone had a different opinion about heroes: their appearances, behavior, and relative worth. Over the next few months, a consensus formed: The hero was going to be strong, tall, and square-jawed, like the Crusaders of old—probably a Frenchman or a Swede (Russians were unpopular and Germans were right out). He would be fair-spoken and definitely unmarried and would almost certainly defeat their vampire with a magic sword, probably containing the fingerbone of Saint Emeric.

When, after the spring thaw, the hero finally arrived with the mail coach, he was small and dark-skinned—from somewhere in the East, probably, judging by his soft accent—but everyone agreed that it leant him a mysterious air that was almost as good. He did not seem to be entirely Catholic, but no one said anything. They didn’t want to be rude.

Everyone wanted the hero to lodge with them, but he deferred politely. “I’m just here for work,” he said. “Won’t sleep tonight, anyway.”

After determining who sent the telegram, he spoke a little with Balazs. Then, as night fell, he made his way out up the mountainside to the old, decaying castle where the vampire lived. Balazs and everyone watched him leave. As darkness fell behind him, a silent, practical terror descended on the people of Kovácspéter. This was no savior. This was just one man. How was he going to defeat their vampire, who had tyrannized them for centuries? He didn’t even have a sword.

“God help him,” muttered Karoly. “God help us all.”

• • • •

The hero was troubled by no such doubts. Rather, looking around in the light of his paraffin lantern, he was troubled by the castle’s poorly maintained architecture, in particular the arch of the entryway. “It’s a death trap,” he muttered to himself in his own language. “—come down in a heartbeat.” He prodded a stone and pebbles skittered into a pile of old bones. “Look at how deep those cracks run. It’s practically gravel. I could collapse this whole building with a few well-placed charges.”

He had been apprenticed to a builder, once, two continents and three names ago. It had been years. But the habits had stayed with him.

Dropping the castle wouldn’t defeat the vampire, though. Sure, the village—what was it called? Kobacsomething?—would get a few years of relief. He’d be long gone by the time the vampire returned. But the agency frowned on catastrophic collapses and other such dramatics as poor workmanship. Just last year, they’d fired Abraham—a good hero with years of experience—because a vampire’s carriage crashed to the bottom of a mountain ravine and was never found. It hadn’t been his fault—everyone said so—but the agency still considered it to be unacceptably sloppy.

The hero thought of Stephen and the restaurant they were planning: the way Stephen’s face lit up when he tasted fresh garlic or paprika, or found just the right wine for just the right sauce. They needed this job until they had enough to make a start. And the thought of all those sacrificed maidens—he sighed and, muttering under his breath, made his way inside the castle.

• • • •

He found the vampire in the great hall, of course. The room was a shambles—strewn with corpses in various states of decay, the roof partially collapsed, the tapestries rotted to whispers—but the table was in remarkably good condition, and at the end of it, lit by an old candelabra, was the vampire, who stood and swept his cloak aside in a grand gesture.

“Welcome,” said the vampire. “Would you care for some wine?” There was a single glass and a bottle on the table. “It’s the only bottle of this vintage left in the world, I think. The vineyard was burned over a century ago, when the last hero came through, and the wine hasn’t been the same since.”

“I would love some wine,” said the hero, picking his way across the hall, “but I’ve come to kill you.”

“No matter,” said the vampire, and waved airily as he poured. “At least enjoy the wine. I never drink it myself, of course.”

“Of course,” said the hero. “But business first.” Still, he lifted the glass.

“So how does this work?” asked the vampire. “I’ve been hunted before, of course, but it’s been a while, and I understand that they do things differently now.”

“They do,” said the hero.

“I’m sure it’s all very modern,” said the vampire. “Did you know that in the county seat they have a rail station? And a telegraph office! Can you even imagine?”

“I do.”

“At least we have a king again, even if he is German and an emperor.”

The hero nodded once, politely.

“Anyway, sorry, I’m babbling, I don’t get company except once a year.”

“It’s fine,” said the hero.

“But, before we start whatever this will be, I have a request,” said the vampire. “You still do last requests, right?”

“Yes, we do.” It was old-fashioned, but the hero didn’t mention that. No sense in embarrassing him.

“Then,” said the vampire, “I would like to tell you a story. I’d like someone to know what actually happened here, who’s actually at fault.”

“That’s fine,” said the hero, eyeing the roof beam warily, “but can we go out into the courtyard?”

• • • •

Out in the courtyard, the hero lit a lamp, diligently cleared off a few bits of bone and old flesh, and sat down with his wine glass in the remnants of a collapsed tower.

“Don’t mind the mess,” said the vampire, pacing in front of him, “I’ve been meaning to tidy up, but you know how it is, things start to slip and then it all gets away from you.”

The hero nodded, but said nothing.

The vampire sat. “So,” he began.

• • • •

It was only a few centuries ago—before the empire or even the kingdom, when I was sole lord of all these lands, master of the forests and the ravens and the wolves—that they arrived from the east, fleeing the armies of the Great Khan. At first, just a few, then dozens, then hundreds, with bleating sheep and crying children and pregnant wives.

“You cannot stay here,” I told them, as soon as they arrived. “These are my lands alone. And, besides, it is not safe.”

“Please, lord,” they begged me, “please let us shelter here, away from the wrath of the Great Khan. Your land is an untamed forest, but if you let us stay here as your serfs, we could through our labors make it a fertile farmland for you and your descendants.”

“I have no need of farmland,” I said, “and besides, I have heard it said that the Great Khan is a merciful man. Return to the east and throw yourselves at his mercies. Surely he will spare you.”

“Please, lord,” they begged, “let us stay.” “Please, lord,” they cried, “have mercy on us.” “Please, lord,” they promised, “if you let us stay here we will do anything you ask.”

“Let me think,” I said, and vanished into the forest.

I thought and thought. I consulted with the wolves; I consulted with the trees. In the end, I decided that, although I loved my solitary life and my solitary forest, I could not return these people to certain death.

“I have thought,” I said, when I returned. “And I can allow you to stay here, although, I remind you, it is not safe.”

The people, hearing this, let up a great cheer and fell to their knees, screaming and crying.

“However,” I said, “I have a single requirement.”

“Anything, lord,” said the people. “Simply ask and it will be done.”

“I love my forest,” I told them truthfully, “and the wolves and the ravens and all the other creatures that dwell within it. I would not have you break my trees with your ax, or turn my soils with your plow. If you will stay, you must leave behind your seeds and your flocks. If you will live in my forest, you must live in my forest, hunting and digging as your ancestors once did in the ancient forests in the south.”

The people were taken aback by my demand, and spoke amongst themselves for some time.

“Lord,” they said, “we have taken the time to consider your offer, but we cannot abandon our herds or our plows. We are a farming people and we have always been a farming people. What if winter came, and we had nothing to feed our children? The grief would be too much to bear. No, lord, we cannot do what you have asked of us.”

“Then,” I said, quite reasonably, “return to the east and throw yourselves at the mercies of the Great Khan. Surely he will spare you.”

“Please, lord,” they begged me, “let us stay.” “Please, lord,” they cried, “have mercy on us.” “Please, lord,” they promised, “if you let us stay here we will do anything you ask.”

“Anything I ask?” I replied. “But I have just asked you something, and you have rejected me.”

“Anything but that, lord,” they said, “and we shall do it gladly.”

“Let me think,” I said, and vanished into the forest.

I thought and thought. In the end, I decided that, although I loved my solitary life and my solitary forest, I could not return these people to certain death.

“I have thought,” I said, when I returned. “And I can allow you to stay here with your farms and your flocks, although, I remind you, it is not safe.”

The people cheered and fell to their knees, screaming and crying in gratitude.

“However,” I said, “I have a single requirement.”

“Anything, lord,” said the people. “Simply ask and it will be done.”

“I have known your God,” I told them truthfully, “and, due to certain fundamental differences of our philosophies, He is truly repellant to me. I would not have you bring Him into my forest, where I have lived all these years as my own master by my own laws and of my own accord. Renounce your God, abandon your worship, build none of your churches within my lands, and you can stay as long as you like, even unto your thousandth generation.”

The people were taken aback by my demand, and briefly spoke amongst themselves.

“Lord,” they said, “we have taken the time to consider your offer, but we cannot abandon our God or our faith. To do so now would save our lives, but at the cost of our immortal souls, and what use is settling this good land if we burn forever in the fires of hell? It is too much to ask. No, lord, we cannot do what you have asked of us.”

“Then,” I said, quite reasonably, “return to the east, and throw yourselves at the mercies of the Great Khan. Surely he will spare you.”

“Please, lord,” they begged, “ask us anything else, anything but that, and we will surely do it.”

“Fine, then,” I said, thoughtless and annoyed, “if you must stay, and if you will not preserve my forest or abide my philosophy, then all I will ask of you is that, once a year, you bring me the finest of your herds, the best sheep or the best cow, so that I might derive some benefit, however small, from your presence on my lands.”

The people heard my demand, and spoke amongst themselves. After a short time, they returned.

“Lord,” they said, “we have considered your offer, but if we give you the healthiest and strongest of our flock, every year then, over the generations, our flocks will breed small and weak, until they are entirely insufficient. It is too much to ask.”

“Then,” I said, angry, “you must leave my lands at once. Go to the Great Khan, or to your God, or the Devil himself! As long as you do not trod my earth again, I care no more about your fate.”

“If you truly do not wish to shelter us, we will leave,” said the people. “But first, lord, we have our own offer for you, if you will hear it.”

“Oh?” I said.

“If you will let us stay here, if you will take us as your serfs and let us through our labors transform this into a fertile farmland for you and our descendants, we will, every new year, offer you the most beautiful of our daughters, to do with as you will.”

“What need have I of your daughters?” I asked.

“Surely, lord,” the people said, “you will find a use for them.”

• • • •

When he had finished, the vampire stirred. He stood above the hero with moonlight silhouetting him against the dark span of the courtyard. Kneeling down, he lifted up a dried-out head and gazed into its withered eyeballs philosophically.

“Those poor girls,” said the vampire, “it’s such a shame. If only their ancestors had been willing to part with a handful of sheep, they wouldn’t have had to die. Unfortunately—”

“Are you finished?” asked the hero.

“Yes,” said the vampire, after a moment. “Now you know the truth of it, how this whole state of affairs came to be, how I was lured and exploited and my own nature turned against me.”

“Quite true,” said the hero. He unholstered his revolver and shot the vampire twice, once in each eye.

The vampire crumpled.

“But why?” he asked, lying, still alive, in a pool of blood, his own and others. “You heard my story. You know that I am blameless. That it is the fault of these people, of their sly and callous ancestors, who have turned me into what I am.”

“That’s true,” said the hero, “but I am not a lawyer or a judge. Justice isn’t my business.”

“But why?” asked the vampire again, his voice strained and hoarse. “You’re a hero. Surely, you must care! What if it were you?”

“Heroes don’t dispense justice,” said the hero. “We kill monsters.”

“Now,” he continued, “this is the brick from an old churchyard that I’m sliding into your mouth. It will hurt, but mind that you don’t bite down on it. That will only make things worse.”

It was not long afterwards that the dawn’s light reached the courtyard and the vampire began to crumble into ash and dust. The hero tried the wine. It was extraordinary. He considered going back to the great hall for the bottle—it was exactly the sort of thing that Stephen would love; he had a real taste for wine—but the castle was already collapsing and he decided not to risk it.

• • • •

Back in Kovácspéter, the people were ecstatic. They banged their instruments; they roasted a whole sheep; they took up a cheer in the hero’s honor. You’d have thought it was Christmas and Easter all rolled into one. Old Balazs was the only one who didn’t drink, saying he’d sworn himself off liquor the moment that the castle collapsed.

One by one, the people came up to the hero, offering him prizes and rewards and tokens of their gratitude, trying to entice him to remain. “Stay with us,” they said to him, “and be the lord of our village. We will swear our fealty to you, the hero who saved us. Please, stay, and be our protector, and we’ll give you anything you ask.” Gizella, who was romantic like that, embarrassed her mother by putting particular emphasis on her anything. Balazs looked on nervously, worrying about something he could not quite put his finger on.

The hero listened and smiled, but turned down all their offers. “Just wire the usual fee to the agency,” he told them.

Balazs woke up early the next morning to head down to the county seat and wire the remains of his sister’s dowry. He had thought that they might share a coach down the mountain, but the hero was already gone.

P H Lee

P H Lee. A close-up photograph of three white plum blossoms on a branch, with an out-of-focus brown-and-green background.

P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.