The Hounds of Actaeon by Shawn Bilodeau, copyright 2014

She was the goddess of the moon, and the bow, and the hunt. Artemis, sister of the Sun. Virgin protector of women, and animals, and the wild land.

He was the master of hounds, and harts, and heroes. Actaeon, the greatest hunter of them all. No hart escaped him, no hound disobeyed him, no hero matched him.

This is the story of the terrible price paid because of a hunter’s pride.

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“Our quarry is an ancient master. Everyone knows what that means.” Oleg Ryan glanced around the room, catching an eye here and there, getting the occasional nod in return.

“The unknown.” said his second-in-command, Bethany “Doberman” Brown, when his gaze fell on her.

“That’s right, Dobe. The unknown.” continued Ryan. “For those not familiar with master vampires, and thank your lucky stars you aren’t, each one is different. As they ‘age’, they change. No one is quite sure how or why, but they develop odd powers. We’ve taken out one that breathed fire, and another that just faded into a shadow. Your individual briefing packets will provide a complete list of the various masters we’ve ended, with all the details we have on their observed powers, and how to counter them. You must be prepared to deal with any or all of them.”

“And the unknown,” added Brown.

“Right. The rest of the raid should be pretty standard. Because of the master, we go in hard, bright, and loud. Hard: we blow every entrance at the same time. Bright: as soon as we blow the entrances, we fill the place with ‘Sunburst’ UV flash grenades. Loud: Everyone wears a screamer, and they start screaming as we’re filling the place with Sunbursts. We can’t hear ‘em but they play bloody hell with the vamps’ ears. Past experience shows that this approach will take care of nearly 90% of the nest. The other 10%, which will most assuredly include the master, will have to taken out room-by-room.”

“Now, You’ve all been issued assault shotguns with Stakemaster rounds. These rounds are essentially deer slugs with a silver-tipped wood exterior. Be sure of your targets with those, as you can kill each other just as easily as you can the blood suckers. If you run out of ammo, stay behind someone who hasn’t, and be prepared to use your blessed machetes. One of those to a vamp’s heart will end it just as permanently as a Stakemaster, but it’s not safe being that close to a vamp’s teeth.”

“That’s it for this briefing. Go read your packets. Meet back here an hour before dawn, suited up.”

- - - - -

The raid had gone as planned. They’d gone in hard, bright, and loud, with Ryan leading one assault team, and Brown another. The resistance had been minimal, the teams catching the vampires just as they were settling down for the day. The nest was small, the room layout matching the plans in the briefing packets.

There’d been no sign of the master, yet, but there was one room left to clear, deep in the heart of the building. One door, no windows. A perfect master’s lair.

Ryan was first through the door, the first to see the two figures on the other side of the coffin-laden altar. One towered above the other, its mouth at the other’s neck, its back to the door. Ryan put three Stakemasters into it, climbing the spine: heart, neck, head.

All they appeared to do was to make it mad. Roaring, it turned towards Ryan as he moved further into the room, his team fanning out at his back. The shotguns stuttered round after round into the monster until one by one they fell silent, out of ammo. The thing laughed, and seemed to grow larger.

“Shit”. That was Brown, at the door.

“Stay out,” grunted Ryan. “Too many in here already.”

“Not for long,” laughed the vampire, now so large it had to duck to keep from banging its head on the ceiling. It lumbered forward with a snarl deep in its throat.

The fight was violent, brutal, and short lived. The monster was big, but it was slow, wearing not much more than the shreds of its clothes. Every member of Ryan’s team was fast, armored, and trained. Each time the great beast turned to deal with one attacker, another slashed at it from a different direction. The Stakemasters the team at the door were pouring into it didn’t do much more than distract it occasionally, but everywhere the machetes hit, it bled. And as it bled, it shrank.

It was nearly down to Ryan’s 6’2” height when the fight ended. Gonzales managed to get a machete into its heart just before Ryan took off its head. It fell and stayed down. And shrank more, until it was just an unremarkable woman (barring the fact that her head was six feet away from her body.) Brunette, middle-aged, plain features. Nothing to show that this was the same creature that had left one team member dead from a broken neck, two more with broken limbs, and a fourth with a concussion.

Ryan put the loss from his mind for the moment. He’d mourn later, but for now, there was a victim still to deal with.

She lay behind the altar, her head back, her face hidden by the waterfall cascade of her dark hair, her throat a bloody mess. For a moment, Ryan thought she might be dead, but then he saw her chest lift, fall.

He knelt beside her, lifted her small frame in his arms. Her eyes fluttered, opened, focussed. “It’s all right. You’re safe now. What’s your name, sweetie?” he asked.

“Diana,” she whispered.

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She had spent the night hunting, as she so often did. So fleet and light on her feet it seemed she rode the very wind. The moon smiled down, gilding its mistress with its brilliance. The doe ran before her as it had never run before, not in terror but with fulfillment. Every clench of muscles, every plunging leap, every sudden twist taught it more about itself than it had ever known.

The night waned, and the doe tired, for nothing on four legs could outrun Artemis. Just as dawn broke, the goddess of the moon claimed her prey. A leap, a reach, and a tap just above the heart. Her laughter filled the glade as the doe stopped, trembling, unable to move further.

The goddess took its head between her hands, gazed into its dark eyes, and blew into its nostrils. Its head lifted as the goddess blessed it with health, and life, and fertility. This one would be the first of a great tribe of harts; swift does and mighty stags for generations to come. Artemis patted it on the shoulder, and then slapped its rump, once. It left the glade with a flirt of its tail.

Artemis glanced around the glade. This was now a holy place, as touched by her blessing as the doe. With a tap of her mighty bow against a rock, a spring bubbled up, filled a mossy depression nearby, overflowed, and began a journey that would finally end in Poseidon’s domain.

The goddess knelt, cupped her hands, and drank deeply of the cold water, ambrosia after the long chase. Its coolness promised refreshment. Artemis slipped out of her tunic, and began to bathe.

- - - - -

He planned to spend the day hunting, as he so often did. His bow was strung, his quiver full, his arrows sharp. The hounds were eager, rested, ready to run. By dawn they were in the forested hills, the dogs baying as they found a scent.

The scent lead to tracks, but despite the speed of the dogs, the tracks (as fresh as they were) did not lead to a deer. Determined, and intrigued, Actaeon picked up his pace. As fast as the pack was, nothing on four legs could outrun the master of the hunt.

Faster he ran, and faster still. His feet sure, his speed outstripping the wind, a thrill in his heart at the thought of a worthy prey. And there she was: a doe, perhaps the largest he had ever seen, a magnificent beast. The doe twisted, leapt, ran, but nothing she did let her escape her pursuer. The doe ran, Actaeon chased, and time fled.

The trance of the chase only ended for the hunter when the doe found a glade and stopped. Actaeon’s bow was off his shoulder and in his hands, an arrow nocked, before he noticed the naked maiden. The naked maiden now standing between his arrow and his prey.

“Sweet lass, please step aside, as I wish to claim my trophy.” he said, and if his smile as he let his gaze roam over her naked form was a bit predatory, he was, after all a hunter.

“Your trophy? This animal is mine. And close your eyes before I give you cause to regret they were ever open.”

“My trophy. I ran her down, she’s mine. And how could I ever regret seeing such beauty?” This time his leer was as sharp as the arrowhead still pointed unwaveringly at maiden and doe.

“Like this,” the goddess stated, her voice growing deeper. “I curse you now, for your pride. I curse you now, for your presumption. I curse you now, for your very gender. Feel the weight of a goddess’ wrath!”

Actaeon attempted to answer, and found himself unable to move, a stature of flesh and bone.

“Should you ever attempt to speak of this to a living creature, the curse will fall. You, the hunter will become the prey. You, the proud, will know the humiliation of fear. You, the master of hounds, will feel their hot breath at your heels and their sharp teeth at your throat.”

Still frozen, Actaeon watched the goddess dress, and leave, the doe following, both disappearing from the limited scope of his unblinking eyes.

- - - - -

He was still frozen some time later, when his dogs finally found the glade, and their master. He remained frozen until the bravest nudged him and he fell to his knees, dropping the bow, the arrow burying itself in moss near the small spring.

“What took you so long, you flea-bitten excuses for trackers?” he said, scratching one behind the ears. “You left me here on my own, and I got into trouble, as usual. Oh, but the trouble was worth it! I’ve never seen such beauty as a bathing goddess.”

Actaeon felt a wrenching pain begin, and realized his mistake too late. The pain was a red haze before his eyes, in every part of his body. Before he could take his next breath, before he could think his next thought, he changed.

Where Actaeon had knelt now stood a towering stag, a king of harts. Eight feet at the shoulders, the head and antlers taking it another eight feet higher. So golden was its fur that it seemed to glow in the dimness of the glade. Its hooves were platters, its tail a club, its nostrils sheer furnace pits. It was the greatest buck to ever stride the earth.

But it was still a stag, and it was surrounded by hounds, and it followed its nature. It ran. Actaeon ran for his very life.

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Diana didn’t say much. Didn’t seem to remember much beyond having spent far too long in the nest. Her looks, her slight stature, her general air of innocence all said she couldn’t have been much more than a teenager, but she didn’t know for sure. Didn’t remember any family, or friends, or where she was from, she said.

So Ryan took her back to their headquarters. This was the way he’d built his teams. With former victims, and their family. With the survivors. Accepting those who already believed. Accepting those who were willing to devote their lives to the cause. Accepting those who hated.

The training was like the breath of life to the young girl. She took to it like an olympian. Spent all day in the gym, or the library, or on the range. There wasn’t an inch of the headquarters she didn’t visit. And when she wasn’t training, she was with Ryan, asking questions.

“But what about the gentle ones?” was one of the things she wanted to know. “What do you do when you find a nest that takes only those who want to be vampires, ones that don’t kill for their blood, that use their long lives to learn and create and give back?”

Ryan snorted. “Never met one like that. But I suppose that if I did, I’d probably put a Stakemaster through its heart, cut off its head, and burn the body. The only way to end a disease is to eradicate it completely.”

Diana nodded earnestly. “I agree. Cut the head off.”

- - - - -

A week of training passed, turned into two, and then a month. By then, Diana was just part of the crew. Had served as backup on a small raid. Become just a part of the background, cognizant of the routine of Ryan’s headquarters. Knew his schedule as well as he did.

Which is how she knew that after a raid, unlike the others who partied full out, he retreated to his room. He preferred to write up the debriefing notes, update his own personal files, deal with the paper work that running this size organization required.

She found him at his desk, the only light in the room the small lamp that illuminated the papers before him. He looked up, his eyes far away for a moment before they recognized her.

“Diana, what can I do for you?” he asked.

“I just… needed to talk, I guess.” she answered, moving closer.

“About what?” He glanced at the papers he’d been working on, then put his pen down, and pushed his chair away from the desk.

“Why do you it?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“All this,” she replied, gesturing vaguely around her. “The fighting. The killing. The slaughter. Did you lose someone close, lose them to a vampire?”

“No.” he said. “No, I didn’t. I guess I do it because I’m good at it. I’d been in the Marines, but didn’t like the orders. Was fresh out of my second tour, wondering what to do, whether to re-up, or maybe find another line of work. A friend of a friend asked me if I’d provide a little backup when he re-kidnapped his kid from a cult. I said ‘Yes.’ Turned out the cult was a front for a nest of vampires. Couldn’t rescue the kid, but I did get my employer out, and managed to take out most of the nest while driving the others out of town. Discovered what I was good at. Been doing it ever since.”

“No big philosophical reasons then? No moral outrage? No need for revenge? Just because you’re good at it?”

“No, no, no, and yes.” a faint smile graced his lips as really looked at her for the first time. Her eyes were dark pools, and he felt himself falling into them.

“You remember what you said about eradicating a disease? Cut its head off?”

“Yes,” he murmured sinking deeper into her eyes.

“It’s time.” she said, and that was the last thing Oleg Ryan ever heard as Oleg Ryan.

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The greatest stag to ever live ran, a pack of the fiercest hunting hounds ever trained by man nipping at his heels. The greatest hunter to ever stride the world ran, using every trick he’d learned in all his many hunts to escape the slavering dogs close behind.

For every trick he knew, tho’, he’d trained his hounds to counter. No leap was far enough. No turn was quick enough. No horned lunge was close enough. So the great hart ran, and ran, and ran, the bellows of the hounds his final dirge.

The great hart ran until there was nowhere else to run to, trapped against a broad tangle of thorn trees. With nothing left to do but fight, the stag fought. The antlers stabbed, and the hooves struck, and the pack suffered. But the pack was trained, and many in number, and their blood lust was up.

Hound after hound fell, but for each one that fell, Actaeon paid a price. For each dog he killed, two others would sink their teeth into him, tear chunks of flesh free, make him bleed. The loss of blood left him weaker, slower, less sure. Now three, or four, would attack from the sides and behind as he turned to defend himself. And then one leg tendon was severed, and another. The magnificent animal fell, and the remains of the pack tore it apart.

So Actaeon died, at the teeth and nails of his own hounds, a victim of a goddess’ anger and his own pride.

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“Wake up,” she said, and he did, not knowing himself. “I am Diana, your mistress and your goddess, giver of life after death.”

He tried to speak, coughed from a dry throat. She ran the silver blade of a small knife up one wrist and offered the small wound to him. He drank. Drank again. Would have swallowed a third mouthful of the ambrosia he tasted had she not taken her wrist away. She licked it, and the wound healed instantly.

“Who am I?” he asked, when he could speak.

“You,” she continued, “are my Actaeon, new born, given a second life. You are my mighty hunter. You will grow strong and skilled, and when you are you will strike down my enemies. But first you must be trained.”

The training began for the new vampire. He learned to use his new-born strength and speed. He learned to control his new senses. He studied with martial artists that had honed their knowledge and their skills down long centuries.

When he had nearly finished his physical training, Diana herself began his mental training. She started with the history of the nest, which was her history, as well. She taught him how to feed properly, to take only what he needed, to leave the donors alive. She taught him arts of seduction and mesmerization and deception. She shared her powers with him each time she fed him.

And her Actaeon learned. Not like the sponge, which gives up what it has absorbed under pressure, but like the coral, which builds its body from its environment. He absorbed everything she taught him, took it in, made it a part of himself. Filled the void of himself with her words, her life, her blood. Everything he was, was due to her.

Never once in all the long hours while her new weapon filled himself with her did it ever occur to Diana that he was becoming a part of her, as well.

- - - - -

The longer one lives, the more one comes to realize that all things will end, and so it was with Actaeon’s training. A time came when there was nothing left to teach him, no skills to reveal to him, no disciplines in which to train him. With an odd reluctance, Diana fed her mighty hunter with her blood, her powers, herself one last time, and sent him after Ryan’s hounds.

“Kill them all,” she said. “Kill them all that our people may live.”

- - - - -

That was the last time she ever saw her hunter. But the seers among her nest told her of the great battle that took place in Ryan’s headquarters. Not one in four of the hunters there survived the onslaught. But they had been trained by the greatest hunter ever, and survive some did.

Despite his skills, despite his training, despite his powers, Actaeon was alone, and the hunters fought as a team. Every time Actaeon destroyed a hunter, two more left their marks upon him. The wounds mounted, multiplied, took their toll. In the final battle, Actaeon proved too weak to defend himself from Dobe Brown’s dying blow. Her last breath became his as well, and the two died entangled, his teeth in her throat, her machete through his heart.

Diana considered her revenge right, fit, and fulfilled. Her nest would be able to exist undisturbed. It would be decades before the hunters could rebuild themselves, if ever. A man like Oleg Ryan was not common.

So time passed. The nest flourished. And if the members of the nest noticed a growing distance in Diana’s gaze, wasn’t a goddess above all others?

- - - - -

And on those rare occasions when Diana is by herself, she sometimes thinks of her Actaeon. Feels every second of the centuries alone. And despairs.

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