There were seven of them in the street. They wore tatters of old stained robes, and called and grunted to one another like feral pigs. When one began to cry out in the night the others would join, and they patrolled the empty road as a loose, screaming pack. Their cries carried to other streets in other districts where packs of their kin joined in the crying and the city in those moments would sound haunted and primal.
And they were getting too damn close. Cosmin watched them from his study window. They were stalking up from the south, growling and snapping at one another. They were let loose from the Reaches as the horns sounded and the fires went out and now they were right below Cosmin’s house. He took a step back from the window and the moonlight that gathered there. His hands were folded behind his back like a man in repose, but his heart was hammering and his folded hands were shaking. Another chorus of howls began and he flinched at the noise.
Something crashed in a house across the street. It was an unremarkable noise, likely a person stumbling in the dark, but the howling stopped immediately and the Vacant turned to the house and fell to a panting silence. One of them began to shake. It dragged a barbed cudgel which it began to beat against the stones at its feet. It cried with every blow then turned the club to itself and thrashed at its own chest. Once, twice, then a third time before it stopped and licked at its blood. The taste seemed appalling. Others in the group spoke to it, but the sounds were low and beastial and Cosmin could make out none of the words. The pack went down the street, but the bloodied one stayed behind. It watched the house arcoss the street, then ran to it.
The windows of the house were all shuttered and the thing pressed its nose against a set of them and sniffed through the vanes. It ran its hand down the wood and moaned at what it smelled inside. It raised its cudgel and cracked it against the shutters and they first splintered then burst apart. It shoved its head through the opening and was met by a screaming voice in the darkness of the house. It screamed in response.
Cosmin looked through his study for something to throw. Something to distract the thing from its terrible work. There was an inkwell on the table beside him. It was carved of stonewood and capped in steel and was large enough to fill his hand and he grabbed it and drew it back to throw into the alley beside the house. Then stopped himself. The inkwell would have his scent on it. Everything around him would. The Vacant would find it and follow it to his house instead. It would be scratching at his window, or his wife’s… or either of the twins. He set the inkwell down. He folded his hands again and watched as the thing scrambled through the broken window then vanished inside the house.
It burst through the front door seconds later and stepped into the street. It dragged a body by the ankle. Cosmin knew the man. He couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. One of the arms seemed to raise and flail, but the Vacant hurried to catch up with its pack and the movment pulled both of the man’s arms above his head in a V as they dragged behind him. The ankle was held tight and twisted. The house behind them was silent and remained silent as they went off down the road.
Cosmin shook his head. Nightmares. They had been in Cosmin’s dreams as well. Dreams of stars polluting the sky and dark shapes stalking beneath them. Of things low and barely seen with skin pulled taut over rolling bones and eyes catching in the starlight. His wife lost in the fields. His children too. They had called to him and all the hungry, skulking things leaned to their voices. They slouched to the sound. Cosmin had cried out and the nightmares cried out as well and his voice joined theirs and then more joined besides though these new voices came from things vile and unseen and all their voices turned to howls and when he finally woke he was met by the wailing horns.
She had already been awake. Her eyes wide and terrified and she said nothing and ran from the room to put out any flames in the house. She ran to the twin’s rooms and blew out their lanterns. She doused the coals in the oven and the hearth, then headed to the basement. He had gone to his study with the last burning candle in the house and used it to write a letter.
The Vacant was gone now with its prize. Cosmin watched the broken, violated house for a long moment, then turned to the letter at his desk. He ran his finger over the warm wax seal, pressed with image of a twisting ram’s horn, the sigil of House Aurel. The same sigil was in relief on Cosmin’s ring which he spun around his finger. It was warm as well.
He heard her walking back down the hall. “Petra,” he said.
She stopped in the doorway. Cold light came through the courtyard behind her and cast her in silhouette. She didn’t move.
“Are their lights out?” he asked.
She stepped forward into the room. She held a a bloodstained rag and was using it to wipe her hands. He stared at it. The blood seemed almost black in the moonlight.
“The cellar,” he whispered. “Oh no. No, no, no… I forget about the cellar.”
“It’s ok, I took care of it.”
He shook his head. “I’m so sorry. You should have let me.”
He brought his eyes back up to hers. She had been crying, but her eyes were set hard. They were cold, unyielding and they made her beautiful and frightening all at once. Dark hair spilling over her shoulders, skin reflecting in the night. He wanted to say something comforting. He gestured to the letter instead. “I’m heading to the Lodge.”
“You’re going out now?”
“I have to.”
She only looked at him.
“I’ll be careful.”
“You damn well better.”
She walked to the window and looked down upon the dark street and at the shattered door.
“One of them got into Edrick’s house,” Cosmin said. “I think it may have killed him.”
“There must have been a candle going somewhere in that house and the thing smelled it. That’s about all I can figure.”
“There wasn’t anything I could do.”
She reached out and grabbed his hand. Her fingers were cold and sticky with blood. Another crashing sounded in the night, distant, but furious. Another chorus of howls. Wild dogs on the hunt.
“He came early,” she said at last.
Cosmin didn’t reply. He was staring down the road.
“Has he ever been early?”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think…” The words caught in her throat as she said them. Cosmin squeezed her hand.
Do you think they know? She didn’t need to say it, he knew the question.
“I have to get to the Lodge,” he said again, his voice firmer.
“What about the Guard?”
“Adrian is at the Barracks. He can handle things without me for now.”
“I don’t like any of this.”
“There isn’t anything to like.” He let go of her hand. “Make sure the twins know not to spark any flames.”
“Make sure they really know. Especially Emine. You better take the candles from her room. The lanterns as well. I’m sure she has one hidden beneath her bed.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Cosmin nodded, then turned to leave.
“I’ll be fine.” He kissed her on the forehead as he left. “We’ll all be fine.”
He waited as a second group of the Vacant scrambled down the road in front of his home. He stood alone, hidden in the shadow of the entryway. He listened as their scraping footsteps faded into the night, then he slipped out to the dark streets.
The air was cold and damp. The early autumn winds had just started chilling the nights and he pulled his coat tight as he set out across the city. His hand travelled to his front pocket where the letter was concealed. He felt the rigid parchment and the bump of the wax seal. He felt the desperate weight of his words.
He reached the alley opposite his house then turned to see Petra watching from the study window. He nodded to her, but she couldn’t see him in the dark. She only stood at the window with the breeze wisping her nightgown and her hair. She looked like a ghost in the moonlight, spectral and grieving. He wanted to call to her, but knew that he couldn’t so he mouthed the words instead. She vanished into the house.
Something caught his eye above the window, just along the edge of the eve. It was a tiny movement, a deliberate flicker. He heard a bird call out. The soft song of a night lark. It was the only good thing he heard since waking. He grinned at the whistle and whistled in response and the shadow flickered again. He turned west and pressed into the night and the shadow followed silent along the rooftops behind him.