© Charles Vess 2019
Unconcerned with the dead man at his feet, The Huntsman kept his eyes locked on Tom. “Have you chosen then to remain in this dreary realm?”
Ignoring the casual taunt Thomas shouted over the music to Janet, “Find the rear exit. My Vincent is parked in the alley. Get on it. Leave. Leave now!”
Shocked, Janet stared at the dead body of the complete stranger that had just tried to save her life. “What about him? Can’t we do anything…”
At that moment Lottie grabbed her arm, pulling Janet toward the back of the club. “You heard the man. There’s an exit back there. Use it!”
Janet was still frozen with indecision. Directly in front of the two women, Thomas engaged The Huntsman again, their swords glittering through the air. As calmly as possible the Knight of the Rose kept on speaking to Janet, “This is what I do. Please go!”
At that same moment, a still oblivious dancer slipped in the spreading pool of blood on the floor and grabbed his partner to keep from falling. He looked down and saw the body of the dead man sprawled at his feet. Beside him his friend let out a high-pitched scream when she also saw the pool of blood they were both standing in. Immediately, other revelers began to notice the trauma as well. Soon there were more screams as people started to panic, desperately trying to shove away from the body on the floor, running and scrambling over each other toward the entrance, trying to escape whoever was doing the killing.
Janet watched in horror as her knight with no visible armor leapt over all five beasts as they lunged after him, tusks bared. His blade slashed down, glittering brightly in the dim room. Two of the enormous beasts collapsed, spitting blood, their throats cut cleanly through.
She was still looking desperately at Tom when Charlotte’s father grabbed her other arm and shouted, “Lottie, see to the band! I’ll get your friend out of here.” And abruptly her paralyzing shock dropped away.
Janet turned to follow the older man, but first she scooped Tad Lockerby’s gun off the blood-smeared tile. Frantically shoving their way through the crowd, as all around them, people were running blindly, scrambling away from the stage as fast as they could. When she heard the hunting scream of one of the huge beasts close behind, Janet was consumed by that same panic and hit the exit door running as fast as she could, only to bounce off its hard, unyielding metal surface. Close by her side, the older man grunted, “Hold on. There’s a latch here somewhere.”
She glanced behind to see the beast clawing its way straight for them both. Janet turned back to the door and frantically threw all her weight against it again. It still didn’t move. Something above her caught her eye, and she glanced up. Along the top frame of the door there was a dimly lit sign that read: Emergency Use Only!
She screamed hoarsely to her companion, “Look! Up there…”
“Damn! Forgot about the bloody security bolt!”
Hefting the gun, Janet whispered to herself, “Well, father dear, you taught me how to use a gun so thank you, just this once.”
Backing against the door Janet steadied the borrowed firearm with both sweaty, blood streaked hands, took aim at the charging beast and then emptied every chamber into it.
With a wet grunt of pain, the beast collapsed, its dead weight carrying its great carcass to a stop a few inches short of her feet.
A brittle smile of satisfaction twisted across Janet’s face as she turned back to the door. Lottie’s father is reaching up to yank the bar away. With a squeal of metal against metal it grudgingly moved, triggering a shrill alarm that barely cut through the rising volume of screams behind them. The older man grimaced, “My daughter’s way more security conscious than I ever was…”
This time when they both threw their bodies against the heavy door, it gave way. But as she stumbled out into the alleyway, Janet felt needle sharp talons rip the boot from her left foot. Then with a harsh cry, the second beast backed away. Beside her the wiry older man hefted the security bar in both hands ready to strike once again.
“Can’t see the bloody thing, but it left tracks on the floor.”
Janet cried, “No, don’t!”
Suddenly the man screamed as the hunting beast’s talons raked the arm holding the steel bar, almost tearing it from his shoulder. Slapping the frail human to the side, the creature pawed at its damaged eye, licking at the generous flow of blood falling from the long cut across its skull.
Turning, Janet sprinted across the rough cobblestones to Tom’s bike. Clutching the handlebars, she tried to kick start it. But when the engine refused to sputter to life, she looked behind her again. The great hunting beast was crouched by the exit door, spitting her boot from its cavernous mouth, preparing to launch itself after her. Without thinking, she brought the gun up once more. Again and again Janet worked the trigger. But its chambers were spent and useless.
“Bloody fucking hell!”
Suddenly Tom’s skillfully thrown sword jutted from between its shoulder blades, and the beast collapsed onto the cobbles, blood pumping from the fresh wound. In the brief moment of life left it, the beast rolled ponderously over on the sword and grew still.
Through the exit door Janet watched as Tom turned and leaped into the air. His arms caught at the tower of the heavy stage amps, bringing them smashing down on The Huntsman, leaving the leather-clad figure sprawled senselessly across the tiles. Tom, though, hit the floor, rolling with the impact and came to his feet in a single graceful movement.
Moving toward the open back door, he helped Lottie shepherd the band safely out into the narrow alley but stopped at the battered exit.
As the night air around them began to fill with the sound of approaching sirens, they looked at each other, exhaustion and relief etched on their faces.
Eyes wide, the first singer gasped, “Man, that was weird!”
“What the fuck happened in there?”
“Hey man, our instruments…what’s up with them?”
Charlotte did her best to calm them down, but all their nervous chatter was cut short by a single sharp outburst.
“Oh Lottie, I’m so, so sorry…”
For the first time, the club’s owner noticed Janet astride the bike and cried, “Bloody hell, you okay girl?” But she faltered at the abject look of despair on the young woman’s face.
Janet points to the open exit door where Thomas stood looking defensively back into the darkened club. At his feet was the crumpled body of Lottie’s father, his arm lacerated with teeth and claws marks. With a desperate keening wail Lottie collapsed beside her father’s still form, taunt with grief and despair.
The dark-haired singer cried, “Look! I think he’s still breathing…”
“Needs a doctor, and a hospital right away!”
“The sirens are getting close. They’ll bring the medics.”
Janet gestured frantically at the singer that stood closest, “Your belt. Give me your belt, we need to help him right fucking now!”
Wiping tears away with the back of her hand Lottie grabbed for the makeshift tourniquet. A moment later she and Janet fumbled awkwardly to cinch the leather belt securely around the unconscious man’s upper arm. When the blood flow began to slow, Lottie’s body shook with relief.
Janet spared a quick glance up at Thomas. He still stood defensively at the open doorway ready to grapple whatever danger came through it.
That bloody madman is after us, not them. If we leave, they’ll be safe.
And Tom better not get tangled up with the police.
She caught at her friend’s arm, “Lottie, listen. We’ve got to go… right now.”
“Now?” The older woman turned, her face a mask of grief, “What about whatever is in there? And us? Are we safe?”
From the doorway Thomas answered without turning, “It is after us. If we leave, you will be safe.”
Standing to one side in a tight protective circle, the drummer muttered nervously, “Yeah, what the hell was in there, man?”
Thomas shrugged his shoulder, “Nothing I think that you will ever need to know about.”
Then, hearing the emergency vehicles slam to a stop in front of the club, Charlotte stared at Thomas with a million questions demanding to be answered. With an obvious effort, the older woman’s face cleared, “Of course. Get out of here,
“But, Janet, you owe me. I want some explanation for all of this, and I expect to get it. You hearing me, girl!”
“Yes, I bloody promise.” Looking down she heard the injured man’s labored breathing, “He saved my life back there. If there’s anything I can do, just ask me.”
“Right.” Then hearing the harsh shouting of police and emergency personnel inside the club Lottie cried, “Out here! We need help. Now!”
Looking up at Janet, her friend muttered, “Lord knows what I’m bloody going to tell them happened here tonight…
“Lottie I wish I could stay!”
“No, I got this. Go on. Get!”
Moments later Tom kicked the engine into life, and they roared up the alley and out into the city beyond.
Much later, after the alley was thoroughly photographed and then guerdoned off with a generous amount of crime scene tape, The Huntsman walked out into it. Casually brushing aside the bright yellow tape, oblivious to the chaos that still gripped the interior of the club. He sheathed his sword and looked back into the club thinking of the dead hunting beasts and felt discomforted for the first time. Conveniently, they had all disappeared from even his sight in a swirl of writhing shadows, long before any mortal could stumble over their bodies.
Stroking the head of the remaining beast, he whispered, “What an eventful night, my pet. This Knight of the Rose gives us an interesting chase, don’t you think?” Pausing for a moment of thought, he continued, “Though my master will not be well pleased by the death of so many of his favorite pets…”
Dim lights from the now virtually deserted music club washed over The Huntsman as he stooped to pick the knight’s blade from
offthe cobbled surface of the alley where it had fallen under the body of the now vanished beast. He paused a moment to inspect the sword more closely. “Well, a mere mortal sporting an elfin blade. A present from his loving Queen, no doubt? She does enjoys giving Her little gifts… but I doubt that he is worthy of such a blade as this.”
Directly across the street from the entrance of the alley there was an ugly two-story building whose windowless side was painted with a ‘Welcome to the Highlands’ mural, filled with kitschy renderings of characters out of folklore: Nessie, various giants and several so-ugly-that-they’re-cute witches. They were all smiling, all urgently welcoming the visitor to enjoy their stay and to please spend lots of money.
The Huntsman and his remaining beast walked straight toward it, and without hesitation stepped through its crudely-painted surface.
Moments later, two silver foxes scampered from under a car that was parked in front of the same building.
“We’ve never seen this part of the tale before.”
“Let us follow and see how the web spins its tale this time.”
Then, gracefully, they too, jumped through the unyielding surface of the mural and into the Land of Summer’s Twilight.