It took longer than we expected to reach the village with the freed captives. Even with a cart to speed up the journey, most of them were weak enough that moving too fast was painful for them. So by the time we managed to drop them off, explained the situation, and returned to the cleared out bandit camp the sun was long set over the horizon.
“Any sign that the vampire came through before we got back?” I asked my companions after we did another sweep of the camp. We managed to hide the more overt signs of the earlier fight but it was still possible our target had come by before we returned or had smelled the blood and ran off.
“I don’t see any new tracks leading into the camp, but it’s far too dark to be sure.” Erikur said and turned to Jordis. “And what of you, fair Jordis? Did you uncover any signs of our foe?”
Well, that might not be good. The problem we were facing was that there were three scenarios to explain why we hadn’t seen the vampire and two of them were bad for us. It could simply not come by every night and wouldn’t discover the camp was destroyed until we were forced to move on, it could have come close enough that it saw the camp was attacked and simply left while we were on our way back, or it hadn’t arrived yet.
If this were a hunt for some other creature I wouldn’t care that the odds were against us finding our target, but a vampire would simply enthrall another group of bandits and continue attacking villages that simply couldn’t stand against it. And I couldn’t even be sure it would end there. This bloodsucker seemed to have plans if it was keeping captives and not just hiding it’s thralls in a cave, only sending them out to hunt more food for it.
The three of us split off again, looking for anything we might have missed the first time around. Erikur and Jordis were looking around the edges and I was digging through chests looking for a journal or some other clue on where to look next. All I had gotten so far was a couple loose coins and the unpleasant image that one of the bandits either had a partner the size of a bear or had a habit of crossdressing when no one was looking.
I was not interested in finding out which one it was.
I had just finished going through the last chest in the tent when Jordis pushed her way through the entrance flap and got my attention with her normal blunt way of speaking.
“Torches coming closer.”
That told me everything and nothing. But then again if Jorids knew anything more about who was approaching the camp, she would’ve mentioned it.
The two of us went back outside and joined up with Erikur, who was watching the small group on horseback slowly getting closer.
“Any idea who they are?” I asked as I squinted at the group, trying to get more information about them. There were three riders on horses approaching, and only the man at the front and the back were carrying torches.
“No idea. Not many travel at night and it's clear they aren’t traders or the like. I am unsure it’s the vampire either, they can see perfectly well in the dark.”
“Horses.” Jordis pointed out.
“Ah, brilliant deduction, fair Jordis. Yes, no matter the abilities of the foul creature the horses would still need light to travel these roads during the night.” It was hard to see in the low light, but Jordis flushed at the compliment. Whether Erikur noticed or not was up for debate since she didn’t react in any other manner and he was still looking at the approaching trio.
“So how do we approach them? Wait for them to get closer? Go out and meet them?” As much as I would like to watch the two obliviously flirt with each other, we did have more pressing concerns.
“We definitely need to confront them before they reach the camp. I doubt anyone not unaware of the bandit camp would be traveling this far out and with so few if they were not connected somehow. Whether it’s the vampire we are seeking or just more bandits returning to camp we can’t let them realise the camp was attacked if we want more information from them.”
I agreed with him. One of the things we had been hoping to find was a hint if there were more groups like this in the area. One destroyed group controlled by a vampire was concerning but ignorable. Several groups freed from thralldom and looking for a target to take their anger out on was way worse.
We didn’t have much time to think of a plan, so we went with something simple and hoped it would be enough. We could not let this vampire escape.
So a couple minutes later I was creeping along the side of the road, bow out, arrow strung, in an attempt to flank the trio while Erikur and Jordis dressed themselves up like the bandits and went forward to meet them. Erikur would try to get them talking as best he could and if the trio got suspicious or tried to move to the camp, we would attack them. Killing the three or capturing them would rely on exactly who they were and if we could realistically get any more info out of them.
Once the torches’ light got close enough Erikur stepped forward with an easy grin on his face and an axe in hand.
“Hold there, friend! Awfully late to be traveling, inn’t? But for a bit of coin I could show you a...real comfortable place to spend the night.”
With his normal armour obscured by some filthy furs and a bit of acting, Erikur managed to project the image of a bandit rather well. Not all that surprising from someone that spent his life acting like something out of a cheap adventure novel.
It was certainly enough for the deathly pale nord on the middle horse to dismiss him. “It’s me you idiot.” He snapped. “Have the other one come out and get me one of the cattle immediately. I need to feed.”
I froze for an instant. Was he seriously able to spot me even after I was hidden? No, as it turned out, the man I had determined was probably a vampire pointed to where Jordis had been standing just outside of the light. Another point in favor of him being a leech, and luckily for us a sign he hadn’t noticed me.
“Er ‘pologies, Lord.” Erikur replied. “But how will we know which o’ the cattle is fit for yer palette?”
“Just grab the fattest of the lot! I don’t have the patience to hold your hand for such a simple task. Not after what those damnable Dawnguard did!” the vampire barked.
That could be bad. From the sound of it this vampire hadn’t fed in a while, so while he might let more information slip than normal, it was just as likely that he would do something unexpected like attacking us out of nowhere. Erikur wasn’t giving a signal to attack just yet though, which meant he was angling for more information.
“Oblivion damned pests is what they are. Three strongholds destroyed in a month, three! Not to mention the fools who sacked the Hall of Vigilants failed to destroy the records of Dimhollow before-” the vampire cut off suddenly and studied Erikur’s face closely. “I see. Your enthrallment is fading slightly. I will need to strengthen that after I have fed.” He spat. He turned back to Jordis. “I said get going, slave, or I will use your flea-bitten carcass as my meal.”
Welp, that was a clear sign that we weren’t going to keep talking much longer. I sighted on the vampire’s torso and shot at the gap in the armour underneath his armpit. Before it had even hit, I strung another arrow and shot at the thrall acting as a rearguard.
That arrow tore through the leather armour and speared the thrall in the heart, dropping him instantly. I paid very little attention to that because not only had my first arrow failed to kill the vampire, instead the vampire either noticed something or was just lucky and had moved the second before the first arrow hit. He didn’t get off lightly though. The shaft might’ve missed an instant kill shot, but it had hit something before being deflected down into his side and was bleeding profusely.
That might have been the worst possible thing to happen. The vampire whirled around to track where the arrow came from, but I could tell by his eyes that he wasn’t in control anymore. Now the three of us had to deal with a very angry, very hungry, feral vampire going by how he was now snarling at me and the drool dripping out of his mouth.
We were already on edge with the vampire when we had assumed he would be somewhat rational, that was why I had tried to kill him first. Now he was about as predictable as a rabid skeever, something he proved when the first thing he did was use his clawed fingers to tear open his horse’s neck.
That...was definitely a surprise for all of us. So much so that the remaining thrall had free reign to cast an ice spike spell and launch it at the closest person to him. Thankfully, that person was Jordis and she was able to lift her shield just enough that the spike stabbed into the thick wooden boards instead of her chest.
My next arrow caught the thrall in the back. It took the vampire’s support out of the picture but it also had the side effect of making him drop his torch. Between the deaths of their riders, torches dropped around their feet, and the overwhelming scent of blood in the air, both horses the thralls had been on panicked. The upside was they fled away from everyone so nobody was hurt by them fleeing, the downside was they trampled the dropped torches on the way, plunging the area into darkness.
I immediately started casting magelights and floating them around the area. Erikur and Jordis were back to back covering for each other during the brief amount of time they couldn’t see. The two living horses were long gone and the dead one remained on the ground where it fell. The concerning part was that the vampire was nowhere to be seen.
Fantastic, it could go invisible.
I quickly changed out my bow for my longsword and sprinted to join my two companions. The last thing I wanted was to get blindsided by an invisible enemy with no one nearby to help.
“Anyone see him?”
“I lost sight of him as well.”
I bit out a curse. Contrary to what many people believed, when a vampire went feral it did not become any less dangerous than when it could think things through. What it traded in planning and higher level thinking it gained in cruel animal cunning. We were now facing the equivalent of a magical sabercat that wanted nothing more than to rip us to pieces and feast on our blood.
Something disturbed the brush near us and we all shifted to face it. Erikur and Jordis raised their weapons and embers danced around my fingertips in preparation to cast a spell. A shrub twitched slightly and the immediate area around it was on fire as I bathed it in a sustained burst of flames.
However, rather than a burning humanoid figure, a terrified hare burst out from behind the bush and sprinted off.
None of us had time to react to the sudden wildlife before Erikur was tackled to the ground by the vampire and it was going for his throat. Luckily for him, he managed to get his forearm up into the vampire’s mouth so it was savaging his armored wrist instead of his throat. It didn’t do much for the claws though, those were slashing wildly at the downed Nord. Both drawing blood and trailing a sickly red light behind them that I recognised as a Drain Vitality spell.
That’s why the vampire killed his horse! And why it had gone after Erikur. My arrow must have done more damage than I suspected and now the undead creature was doing it’s best to replenish its lifeforce by going after the biggest one of us.
Jordis was closer than I was and she wasn’t about to let that happen, though. With two quick steps she closed the distance and kicked the vampire in the ribs hard enough that not only was he knocked off Erikur, he cleared a good distance by air too.
While Jordis helped her fellow Nord to his feet I made sure the vampire wasn’t going anywhere. Magical flames erupted from my outstretched hand and washed over its prone form, but it’s clothes must have been enchanted against fire because even with the flames hitting him directly the undead’s skin barely began to burn. It still hurt it though, so while the vampire was screaming in pain and thrashing on the ground, I switched to creating a ring of fire around the two of us so he couldn’t run off.
I might not have needed to bother. The vampire was back on his feet pretty quickly, but from the way his eyes were constricted to pinpricks and the way he was hissing at me through slobber drenched teeth, running was the last thing on his mind.
He launched himself at me, clawed hands and teeth looking for my blood. I ducked to the side and slashed at him, nearly managing to take his left wrist off in the process. This process repeated itself for a few seconds, the vampire would try to take a bite out of me, I would take a slice out of him in return. The berserker cunning of the vampire ensured that it never got far enough away for me to cast another spell, but also never engaged long enough for me to get a solid hit. If this was a one-on-one then it might’ve kept going on like this until one of us made a mistake.
Fortunately for me, I wasn’t alone.
Erikur burst into the fight completely unannounced, his steel armor letting him pass through the ring of flames without being hurt, and brought his greataxe down on the vampire like a lightning strike. The massive blade caught the creature from behind and cut halfway through the creature’s chest. Then the Nord brought the axe back up and did it again, this time cleaving his way down to the vampire’s navel. With one final bellowing cry, Erikur ripped his axe free one more time and with one last stroke -- decapitated the vampire and ended the fight.
All of us were breathing heavily as the adrenalin worked itself out of our systems. The entire fight had been fairly quick but that hadn’t stopped Erikur and Jordis from nearly dying anyway. We stripped the bodies, piled them, and I burned all three and the horse to ash. Then I opened the potion hatch on the Void Armory and pulled out a light red vial.
“Erikur, drink this.” I ordered, opening another compartment and pulling a few strips of clean linen to use as bandages.
“I thank you for the thought, dear Thalin, but a few scratches like these will heal fine on their own. No need to use a potion for such minor wounds.”
I shook my head and forced the bottle into his hand. “It’s not for those. Vampirism is a magical disease that can spread by one getting direct access to your blood. I’d rather not risk you catching it when we have a cure on hand. Jordis, were you injured at all?”
“No, the shield blocked it all.”
I nodded and handed the bandages over to her, where she immediately began tending to Erikur. The large Nord made a big show of saying even bandaging his scratches was excessive but I noticed he made absolutely no move to dissuade Jordis from checking him over.
I rolled my eyes as the two of them continued their weird mating dance and went back to looking through the belongings we looted from the vampire’s group. The eight pointed star was the first thing that caught my eye, marking the vampire as part of the Volkihar Clan but not much else.
The leech must have been in a hurry to get to wherever he was going. Probably why he was so desperate to feed too. If he was pushing himself to travel during the day as well as the night it would greatly reduce the period between feedings. I guess that means whoever was destroying those vampire strongholds was doing a good job.
I mentally shrugged and made a note to ask the villagers about Dimhollow. Hopefully it wasn’t close by but if it was, they deserved to know vampires were using it for something.