FRANCE, day 23 in the month of May, anno Domini 1661
The incidence of unexplained deaths in surrounding villages has been dramatically escalating over the course of these last few months. Though Madeleine has been diligent at her work, going out every evening and slaying two, sometimes three vampires, the evil continues to multiply, running rampant through the countryside in measures that are beyond her meager ability to control.
Rumors have reached me today of several strangers who have arrived in our little town. My suspicions have been aroused by reports from various associates in the village. Two travelers arrived at the inn this previous eve, and after what was said to be a bawdy eve of carousing and gluttony, the “foreigners” retired to their room, secreting themselves away for these past day lit hours, and had not been seen since. We do not get many visitors in Carrefour, and the tendency toward gossip is unfortunately all too commonplace among the majority of the populace, but detestable as the practice may be to my own personal proclivities, I find myself forced to endure the aimless prattle of my companions for it is the one singularly reliable method I possess to root out our elusive prey. Such is the sad state of our affairs!
I have sent Madeleine out to the inn on a reconnaissance patrol. Madame Bolets, the inn keeper’s wife, was kind enough to provide us with information concerning our “visitors”. She seemed especially enamored of the younger of the two men, going on and on about his handsome face and charming manner, an embarrassment which no doubt vexed Monsieur Bolets to no end. In speaking with the other women who assist at the inn, I was inflicted with further accountings of this “gentleman’s” rapier wit, as well as insipidly fawning descriptions detailing the perfection of his various features. One would think the women of this town had never encountered a well-groomed gentleman.
Fortunately, my Madeleine is immune to such feminine silliness. She is an excellent slayer, and would never allow herself to be come distracted from her sacred mission by the likes of such frivolous nonsense as seems to afflict most of her sex. She is completely devoted to the cause. I have no doubt that this world will be less two additional vampires by the close of this evening’s patrol.
Holding her voluminous skirts above her feet to silence their rusting, Madeleine Binoche picked her way through the dry hay littering the floor of the stable. There were times when she fervently wished she’d been born a man. Life would have been so much easier without the bother of such impractical and encumbering clothing. If she were a man, she could wear sensible trousers, and not this torturous monstrosity of material that hindered the fluidity of her every movement. And she certainly wouldn’t have to waste her time acting the part of a proper young lady, whatever that was supposed to be. Instead, she could gather at the inn with the other men, drink strong wine and listen to the exciting stories of the travelers that passed through town. Perhaps, she thought, she might even deign to regale her fellow compatriots with a few tales of her own. She would laugh as their eyes popped out in disbelief, shivering with fear and wonder on the edge their seats before the fire as she wove her stories of battles with terrible demons and monsters that haunted the very streets of her little village.
Of course, if she were a man, she probably would never have ever had any of those adventures. As a man, she wouldn’t have been born the slayer. One girl in all the world. Hunter of vampires. No, she couldn’t imagine life as ordinary man. It was just as well that she was a woman. Still, a pair of trousers would do well to greatly improve her agility. She would speak to Monsieur Prentiss. Surely, he of all people would understand the need for practicality. Yes, she would definitely mention the trousers to him. Tonight. When she made her report to him after the hunt.
Sidestepping a water bucket, Madeleine gave a cursory glance toward the occupant of the stall beyond as she passed. The large chestnut gelding’s coat gleamed like the polished tortoiseshell comb Monsieur Prentiss insisted she wear whenever he presented her to his foreign visitors. How she detested those strangers, those cold and heartless men from The Council, and the way her Watcher would debase himself bowing and scraping before them. Those men understood nothing about the battles she and her Watcher waged against the evil spreading nightly across the land. Oh, they clucked, and they pronounced about tradition and propriety, how a slayer had to maintain a certain undetectable profile, but had any one of them ever picked up a stake, or slain a vampire themselves? Madeleine laughed. She doubted so.
As she tip-toed cautiously across the front of the stall, the horse within let out a soft nicker of greeting. Extending its nose, the animal nuzzled her shoulder in search of attention, its warm lips nipping at her neck in a friendly teasing.
Madeleine smiled. She recognized the aged draft horse owned by Monsieur Bolets. With its distinctive white, feathered feet and star-splashed nose, the over-sized horse was well known to all the children of the village. Most had learned to ride on the beast's safe, broad back, including Madeleine herself. Though it had been a few years since last she’d sat astride her old friend, the horse still remembered the apples and carrots she used to bring him, and shamelessly begged the slayer for a treat.
Stilling the beast with a gently hand, she whispered apologetically into a flickering ear. “I am sorry, Monsieur Bottes. I have nothing for you tonight. But if you are a good boy, and stay very quiet, I promise that I will bring you a fine bit of carrot from my garden in the morning.”
Her words appropriately nullified the restless beast, and after a rewarding scritch over its white forehead, Madeleine abandoned her equine companion and moved on.
Slipping stealthily through the darkened stable, the slayer approached the area of empty stalls located near the building’s rear. A small lantern hung outside one of the horseless berths, its faint orange glow casting great ominous shadows across the wooden floor. Using the camouflage cover of those umbra puddles, Madeleine crept closer, her every sense strained and alert. She was after one of the vampires Prentiss had told her about, the younger one with the beautiful face. She had spotted him walking with a woman toward the stable, and seizing her opportunity, had followed, hoping to make a quick and quiet kill.
Reaching into her apron, Madeleine wrapped her fingers around the sharpened stake sequestered secretively within and gave the weapon a reassuring stroke. She was sure the vampire hadn’t seen her, and chances were that no one from the inn would miss him or his companion for some while, so she would have plenty of time to do her work.
The dry straw crunched beneath her feet as Madeleine closed in on her target. Something was moving within the interior of the lamp-lit stall ahead. She tensed, and stalked silently forward, withdrawing the stake from her apron folds. Clenching the weapon firmly in her hand, she raised it to her shoulder and poised, ready to strike out at a moment’s notice.
Madeleine continued to cautiously advance, her body pressed against the boards that formed a barrier between her and the next stall. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a sultry giggle erupted, rising from the ground only inches away, its owner hidden somewhere on the other side of the wall at her back.
“Mmmmmm, such a naughty man!” A breathlessly feminine voice heaved a tremulous sigh. Another giggle followed, and the unseen woman gasped. Her sigh dissolved into a throaty purr as she playfully chastised her invisible companion. “Oh, yes! I like that. Oh, do not stop, mon amour. Give me more! I want more!”
Her heart pounding, Madeleine wedged a cheek against the wooden wall and dared to risk a peek through a small knothole. At first she could see nothing, and then light, and finally the narrow strap of a horse’s halter hanging over the hole. Shifting her gaze downward, her eye searched the blanket of hay lining the stall floor. Again, there was a dusty rustling, and then a woman’s arm flopped into view.
“Ohhhh, mon dieu, how my toes curl when you do that! Such a skilled and talented tongue! Come here, and I shall show you what wonderful tricks mine can do!”
A scarlet blush rose to color Madeleine’s face, her hand flying up to stifle a gasp. She had recognized the woman’s voice breathing so scandalously on the other side of the wall. It was Annelise Malraux, a serving girl from the inn. A sassy red-haired beauty, she was often the subject of gossip among the local women. The men of the village spoke of her, too, but their words were usually passed in whispers, and followed by rude chortles and many a conspiratorial wink of the eye.
Madeleine frowned, her teeth chewing nervously at her lower lip. Stupid girl, Madeleine cursed. What could she have been thinking? Has she not learned how dangerous it is to dally with strangers? No pretty face is worth the damnation of one’s soul forever in Hell.
A contented sigh from the other side of the wall voiced a different opinion. Annelise seemed quite happy about the prospect of an eternity in Hell, and was apparently even more eager to burn in her lover’s arms. But Madeleine knew all that would change when the girl discovered the true identity of the fiendish monster courting her favors.
The hairs at the nape of Madeleine’s neck rose as she listened to the moist smacking that emanated from the other side of the wall. It sounded like a greed suckling piglet nursing at a sow’s teat. She could only imagine what horrors Annelise was experiencing as the vampire fed upon her. The serving girl was moaning, her limbs thrashing vigorously about in her bed of hay, her strained cries begging her attacker to bring an end to it all. It made Madeleine shudder to think of the vile creature wrenching such horrifying sounds from the girl. She had to kill it, and avenge the honor of the innocent life it had taken before another drop of blood passed through over foul lips!
Gripping her stake tightly in hand, Madeleine took a deep breath to steel her courage. With a flurried rush of skirt, she raced around the end of the wall and into the lantern’s light. A swift springing step, and she threw herself at the upturned back of her target, an arm encircling its neck to tear it away from Annelise. Rolling over onto her side, she took the beast with her, flipping it over so that it lay atop her. Together they tumbled, continuing to spin over and over, stirring up great clouds of dust in the straw as they spiraled away from Annelise. Crashing against the side of the stall, Madeleine released her prey and jumping to her feet, held her stake high in the air, ready to plunge it into her enemy’s heart.
“You’ve had your last meal, you horrible creature!” she growled. “And now you die!”
Madeleine’s hand hesitated, and a puzzled frown slowly creased her features. Something was very wrong. Where were the telltale cramps that she felt whenever a vampire was close by, the yellow glowing eyes, the monstrous mask that always came upon the beasts as they fed? The gaze that stared back up at her was a brilliant, dazzling green, and it burned with a strange disturbing fire that made her belly twist in strange, tingling knots.
A loud sigh from Annelise drew away her attention. The serving girl hadn’t moved. She lay on her back, limp within her nest of straw, arms spread out to either side of her body. Not a mark, not a single drop of blood could the slayer see to mar the flawless white of the other girl’s neck. Nor could Madeleine see any blemish on her companion’s pale bosom below, where the laced bodice of the serving girl’s gown had been stripped open to reveal a pair of magnificently heaving breasts.
Now, Madeleine was not particularly shy. Before Monsieur Prentiss had taken her in to train, she’d lived in a crowded household with six older sisters. Over the course of her eighteen years she’d had the opportunity to see other women naked, and had witnessed countless mothers nursing their infant charges. But for some reason she couldn’t explain, the sight of Annelise’s naked chest brought a renewed flush of red to her face, and she anxiously turned away, but not before noting the raised skirts that framed the girl’s shamelessly parted thighs, or the lowered undergarments that lay bunched loosely around her ankles.
The heat filling Madeleine’s cheeks set her heart to racing. She tried to ignore the compromised girl lying so still and motionless at her feet. Why didn’t Annelise cover herself? Had she no shame? Curiosity finally got the better of her, and ticking her glance over, the slayer saw the reason for her compatriot’s unconcerned tranquility. Annelise was frozen in the power of some ungodly trance, her vacant gaze locked on the roof rafters overhead.
Whirling on the man-like creature at her feet, Madeleine jabbed her stake forward in a threatening gesture.
“What have you done to her?” she demanded of the beast. “What type of blasphemous magic have you worked upon poor Annelise?”
“Fear not. Your friend is unharmed,” the man-thing assured her. The words were obviously meant as a comfort, but the creature’s voice grated thickly in its throat, and Madeleine remained far from convinced. “In a few moments she will come around to herself. Please, do not be alarmed. I have no intention of causing injury anyone.”
“And I should believe the word of someone such as you?” Madeleine sneered.
The beast with the man’s face chortled as he dragged himself upright, and arranged his limbs to sit in the hay. “Do you treat all your fellow men with such distrust?” he asked with a chuckle. “Or have you made some special exception for me?”
“I think we both know that you are not a man,” the slayer retorted.
“No, that is true.” The thing’s voice was smoother now, less forced in timbre. Tilting its head to one side, the demon regarded her with a disarmingly sly grin. “And you, my dear, are no mere woman. I’ve had opportunity to wrestle with many of your fair kind in bed, yet not one has ever possessed the strength you have shown. What manner of girl is it that can wield such marvelous power?”
“I am the slayer,” Madeleine firmly replied, as if that were enough.
“Ahhhh!” The stranger nodded knowingly. “Yes, I have heard of you.” He winked, grinning at her slyly. “I wonder if your enemies would be quite so shy to make your acquaintance if they saw how exquisitely beautiful you are.”
“Do not bother to waste your breath on such deceitful flattery,” Madeleine scoffed. “It will not sway me to spare your life.”
“While it is true I may flatter in hope of swaying a woman’s opinion, what I speak is not meant to deceive, but to reveal what she may simply be too blind to see.”
Madeleine scowled, and felt another hot blush fill her face. This creature was wily indeed! She could understand why Annelise had been drawn to it. The silver tongue that it used to spin its charming lies was only outdone by the attractiveness of the face that stared at her so boldly. Even as she tightened her grip on her stake, she could feel her will weakening, falling under the spell of that green-eyed gaze. Every instinct told her that she should kill the beast now, strike while she had the advantage, and yet something continued to stay her hand, allowing it to live in spite of her inclinations to the contrary.
“What are you?” she asked, frowning thoughtfully at the man-thing. “Is this form of yours some disguise? What does your real face look like?”
“I assure you, my lady, this is my real face,” the creature replied, his smile broadening. “And the only disguise I wear are these clothes upon my back.” Its polished voice sank deeper in register, the green eyes taking on a devilish twinkle as it purred. “But if you wish, I will gladly remove my vestments and allow you the privilege of seeing what lies beneath.”
A sharp, cynical bark of a laugh escaped Madeleine’s lips. “And is that the same promise you made to Annelise?” she snorted.
“Your friend, I’m afraid, required less persuasion, and was all too eager to reveal the blessings of her own charms to me,” the demon returned with a cunning shrug of its shoulders. “I can see that you, however, are less generous with your bountiful gifts. And what price, pray tell, does one have to pay for a kiss from those sweet lips of yours? Whatever the cost, I will give you twice over, and we will both be the richer for the arrangement.”
Madeleine burst in an astonished guffaw. The creature’s brazen flirting bordered on pure arrogance. Did it truly believe she would fall for such conceited flummery? And yet....
She sighed, once again swimming in the deep green pools of the beast's stare. For a monster, he was certainly a striking beast of a man. Of fair height, taller than she herself, he carried the muscle of a laboring hand, but none of the common coarseness that supposedly came with those of less high born position. His clothes were clean, and styled in what Madeleine could only suppose was the latest of fashion with plenty of turned back sleeve to expose the sweeping layers of fine lace cuff below. The colors were a bit too bright for her own taste, being one as she was to avoid drawing any undue attention to herself, but the jewel-like hues suited him fine, as did the richly textured fabrics. The beast seemed to have an obsessive affinity for sparkling gems as well. Never had she seen such a collection of rings, chains and shiny gold buttons as he wore. There was even a gold dangling ring from his one ear. But strange as it was to see such a thing, again, she found it completely fitting to his features, which were strong and comely, well balanced in their arrangement, and undoubtedly the most pleasing to the eye that she had ever been privileged to behold.
Though she couldn’t say why, she found this strange demon an appealing creature. At first glance, it seemed harmless enough, but there was no way she could possibly know that for sure. She had cut short its “activities” with Annelise, so there was no telling what its intentions for the girl had truly been, leaving her with only her slayer instincts to guide her conscience, and determine a possible need for her stake.
Casting her eye briefly over to Annelise, Madeleine frowned worriedly. Though obviously unhurt, the serving girl had yet to rouse from her enchanted slumber. In point of fact, she was snoring, lost in the haze of some peaceful somnambulism, a happy little smile playing out across her rouge painted lips. And it seemed perfectly likely that she would continue with that rest for some time to come. Not even the animated conversation of those standing about her had managed to disturb the wench’s blissful repose.
With no immediate and pressing need to dispatch her curious foe, Madeleine found herself entertaining a novel idea. Perhaps she could capture the creature. She had no doubt Prentiss would relish the chance to study such an unusual anomaly. The beast apparently made no effort to conceal his comings and goings in the human world, and was, for the most part, quite adept at its masquerade, as evidenced by the skill and speed with which it had seduced Annelise. And if she were to believe its boastful alludings, many other women had discovered its demon nature to be completely undetectable, even without the benefit of its costume finery. A demon that clever was worth learning more about, especially if she should chance to happen upon another of its kind.
But how to get the beast to her Watcher? There in lay the problem. Madeleine smiled. Perhaps it was not such a difficulty after all, she thought. She knew just the way to lure the man-thing back with her to Monsieur Prentiss.
“A kiss?” Madeleine’s smile sweetened, her eyebrow quirked upward in a coy taunt. “This request that you would make, it is not something that I give out to anyone who asks it of me. Such a thing is most dearly precious, and I doubt that you could well afford it.”
“Ah! I see that you hold the dispensing of such a gift in great reserve. Surely it must be a valuable commodity, and well worth the procuring.”
“Indeed, it is,” she concurred. “And should you have the fortune to win it, you would become the first to do so.”
As she suspected it would, this last declaration piqued the beast’s interest. Its features suddenly lit with a joyous light, and even behind the hunger of its lascivious grin there shone through an almost childish innocence, casting its warmth our to her heart.
A grin teased at the corners of Madeleine’s mouth as she contemplated her prey. It was such a simple thing really, to lead the demon into her trap. All it took was a sweet word or two, the come hither look of a gaze, and instantly the creature was the willing servant of her charms. She had to stifled a disdainful laugh. How fitting that she would use the demon’s own method of deception to bring about its downfall.
The man-creature shifted, gracefully rising to stand on its feet before her. Once again Madeleine felt that peculiar sensation pull from somewhere deep with her belly. It was pleasant little tickle, and as the beast fixed its eyes upon her, the strange itch suddenly began building in intensity. Spreading upward, it slowly filled her breast with its radiant heat until Madeleine was panting, her heart beating wildly, thumping as if she had just run a mad race.
Madeleine felt a momentary panic. She wanted to look away, but she had been swallowed up in a sea of impossible green, a prisoner of the demon’s mesmerizing stare. The creature took a step closer, and its lips curled in a seductive smile, its pink tongue washing over its lips like a cat delicately licking cream from its whiskers.
“You are a tempting thing,” it praised her. The words rang sweetly in her ears, and Madeleine could sense her will to resist melting away. “In all my travels here in this marvelous world, I have never met anyone quite like you. Oh, there have been prettier maids, creatures like your friend, willing to share their lovely charms. I’ve tasted hundreds of kisses from as many pairs of lips, and yet, now, yours are the only pair I wish to drink from forever. I beg of you, grant me this honor, and I promise that you will never regret your charity.”
Something in her expression must have betrayed her apprehension to the demon for he cautiously softened his demeanor, his eyes reigning back their hypnotic power.
“I can see that you doubt my intentions still,” he said with a sad, small sigh. “How may I alleviate these fears of yours? All I wish is to lavish upon you the affections you so rightly deserve.”
Her mouth twisting in a cynical smirk, the hesitant slayer gave her rakish fore a glare of contempt.
“And what of these ‘prettier maids’?” she sniffed, directing the topic back to his previous reference. She was trying to be clever, but even she could detect the tinge of jealousy that had crept into her words. “You do not think they would object to you so easily dismissing their claim on these affections? Or could it be they no longer have a voice in this matter because they are all dead?”
“You cut me with your words, dear lady,” the demon pouted. “Have no fear. I assure you that each and every one is yet alive, and the better off for having received my attentions. Ah, but why should you believe me, eh? You think I but spin a pretty web of deceit. Perhaps then, if it is only my words you distrust, you would listen to those of my friend, Brother Idelfonsus. Why not ask him your questions, and lay these worries of yours to rest? You will find him waiting there...” he said, with a gallant wave of his arm toward the invisible location outside the stable. “... within the inn.”
Through the haze of her growing confusion, Madeleine recalled the man to which the demon had referred. She had noticed him in the dining area earlier that evening while she was scouting out prospective vampires. A gaunt giant of a cleric, he had been dressed in a simple, coarse brown mantle with detached cowl, and had stood out from his peers, visibly towering above them even seated as he was at a table. His partially shaven head had been crowned in an expanse of freckled scalp, while his hollowed features were composed around a spectacular hook of a nose, perhaps the largest that Madeleine had ever seen on a human. A pair of thin, pale lips had frowned at the room, though the slayer felt the intimidating scowl was more the reflection of rapt study than any degree of anger or ill humor, and his watery blue eyes had seemed to survey the world about him in a state of curious and constant wonder.
But the single most notable characteristic that had impressed itself upon Madeleine was the monks hands. These were gentle and supple with long, well-formed fingers, which unlike the rest of the man’s angular body, were dainty and almost feminine, as if they had been designed for some delicate purpose. Prentiss, her Watcher, had hands like that, hands suited for scholarly work, and not the hard, physical labor of common folk.
Madeleine frowned, contemplating the demon’s suggested course of action.
“You would release me to do this?” she asked, her incredulity ringing in her words. “You would allow me to leave here to speak with this man?”
“I see no bindings that would restrain you,” the man-thing replied to her question. “Unless...” His eye twinkled with impish chiding. “...I am indeed more fortunate than I had supposed, and have somehow managed to capture your heart?”
“I would enjoy a bite of that tasty treat myself,” growled a voice from somewhere behind Madeleine’s back. “And a drink from that pretty neck as well!”
Whirling around in a bustle of skirt, the slayer dropped her guard on the man-beast to confront her new foe. He was standing in the shadows just beyond the reach of the lantern’s light, his yellow eyes gleaming from the blackness that shrouded his bulky figure. There were two additional pairs of hideous eyes in the dark as well, glowering at her, flanking the vampire that had addressed her. For, indeed, that was what these creatures were. And Madeleine could feel it in the familiar nagging pinch that had gripped her abdomen.
The three demons stalked forward, entering the light. Madeleine tensed, clutching her fist around the stake in her hand. Her enemies wore their fiendish deformed visages openly, not even bothering with the pretense of a human disguise, their confidence emboldened by what they obviously felt was going to be an easily acquired meal for each of them.
Taking a step back, Madeleine turned her exposed back toward the protection of the wall behind her as the three vampires continued to advance. She was surrounded by demons, the caddish man-creature to her right, the menacing undead to her left. Outnumbered, she could see her chances for surviving this encounter plummeting with each inch of advantage her foes took. She had spent most of her life training to fight demons such as these, but it was only in the last few months, since the day of her calling that she had actually felt the strength of her birthright flowing through her veins. Before then, her Watcher, Prentiss had never entertained sending her out alone. He had always accompanied her on patrol, backing up her hunt with the comforting cover of his crossbow. And right now, Madeleine dearly wished for her Watcher at her side again, for she had never faced so many demons at one time, and in spite of the preternatural slayer power she held at her command, she could feel herself quaking in her shoes, shivering with fear at the thought of such a daunting battle as was ahead of her now.
A rustling in the straw drew everyone’s attention to the barely clothed woman lying on the ground. With a disoriented blink, Anneliese slowly tried to sit up.
“What is happening?” The red head looked on in confusion, her eyes flittering fearfully over the crowded circle of participants before her. “Who are all you people? Why am I...mon dieu! My dress!”
Annelise had noticed her state of near undress. With a horrified squeal, she gathered her splayed bodice, trying unsuccessfully to cover the ample flesh that was exposed, while simultaneously yanking her skirt down over her legs.
“Oh! Oh, my!” She stole a guilty glance toward the man-creature, her face blushing a deeper scarlet under the rouge paint she wore. “Monsieur, what did you do to me! You-you-”
It was obvious that the young girl was attempting to feign innocence, redirecting the blame for her scandalous actions onto the man she had allowed to seduce her. But even the vampires, who knew nothing of what had gone on, could see that Annelise’s protests were feeble, falling short of the truth, and their taunting laughter filled the stable, causing the red head to cringe in fear. Madeleine almost felt sorry for her friend. To be caught in such a compromise, with all these men, must surely a shameful and embarrassing thing for the girl. She herself would rather die than to have anyone know she had sinned with such impunity.
In the midst of the tense moment, the man-like creature did what Madeleine thought a most remarkable thing. As she and the others watched, he went to Annelise’s side, and in a chivalrous gesture, removed his outer jacket, draping it over the serving girl’s shoulders to cover her near nakedness. In the next moment, he dipped forward, and disentangling Annelise’s undergarments from her feet, tucked them discreetly away within the waist of his colorful breeches, thus freeing her legs to move.
“My sincerest apologies, mon petite bonbon,” he whispered, pressing his lips to Anneliese’s cheek. “But appealing as you may be, I am afraid that our affair has come to an end before it could be. You see, I have met another, and while your lips are enticing, and I would truly have enjoyed the warm and generous pleasures you had so sweetly offered, my heart must follow its destiny. Now, run along, my dear. This is not a safe place for you to be.”
With that, he gave the stunned girl a firm nudge, directing her toward the mouth of the stall. Annelise pouted, and with a teary and affronted whimper, clutched the borrowed jacket tightly over her bosom, and bravely raising her chin, began to stalk away.
She didn’t get very far before one of the vampires stepped in her path, and blocked her exit.
“Pardon, Monsieur,” she peevishly confronted the brutish fellow that had stepped into the light. “But I wish to...”
Her next thought was cut short by a screech of abject horror as she saw the face of the beast before her. Only in her nightmares had Annelise imagined such a thing could exist. The man was terribly disfigured, his forehead bumpy and swollen, his lips a snarling mockery that framed a mouthful of sharp, wolf-like teeth. She swooned, shrinking back under the gaze of eyes that were a fiendish shade of yellow, and that glowed fiercely from beneath a prominent brow that was less than human.
“No one is leaving,” the beastly vampire sneered as grabbed the serving girl by a wrist. “Not until my companions and I have had a chance to slake our thirst.”
Annelise screamed again. To her credit, she did not faint away as Madeleine had seen some women do when in such danger. Instead, the red head slapped the vampire across its face, and wrenching her arm loose, she turned to flee...straight into the man-beast’s arms.
Madeleine was still unsure how wise her friend was. She had run from one sure death into the questionable haven of another creature’s will. Of course, Annelise had no idea that her proposed benefactor was not what he appeared. Madeleine herself was still trying to reason what danger the creature represented when, to her utter surprise, the comely demon lifted the serving girl, and in a swift and graceful move, swung her upward into the air, throwing her over the wooden partition and into the next stall. They all could hear the girl’s astonished “whoop” as she landed safely in a hay pile and then scrabbled in a panic to her feet.
There was a heartbeat of silence while Madeleine, the three vampires, and the man-beast stared at each other. Madeleine turned to the creature that had so cavalierly tossed her companion over the wall like a weightless rag doll, and as she gaped at him in astonishment, he gave her a roguish wink. In was at that instant she made her decision. Though she would not have thought such a thing possible, this thing was a good demon. She could feel it in her gut, and his rescue of Annelise had proven to her satisfaction on which side he stood. She no longer feared this peculiar creature as an enemy, but as a comrade. Suddenly, the three vampires she faced seemed a little less intimidating for she knew she would no longer be fighting them alone.
“Annelise!” Madeleine shouted at the unseen girl, her eyes focused intently on her vampire foes. “Run, Annelise! Run away and save yourself!”
She could hear the serving girl scurrying to do as bidden, and so had the vampires. Immediately, one of them turned, thinking to intercept the girl as she flew out of the next stall. But he never caught her. In the blink of an eye the man-beast was upon him, springing from a dead stand to tackle the brute. The pair went down in the straw, and there was a flurried exchange of fists, with knuckles thumping resoundingly against flesh, and crunching bone with a furious fervor. Annelise screamed out once again, and with a hasty patter of her feet, she made her escape, flying through the darkened barn and out into the night.
With the serving girl’s cries ringing all the way back to the inn, the battle within the stable began in earnest. As the man-beast continued to pummel his foe, Madeleine jumped at the larger of the two vampires before her. The undead demon skillfully blocked the kick she threw at him, ducking its head low to avoid her swinging foot. However, he was completely unprepared for the blow that followed. In a downward stroke, Madeleine plunged her stake into the vampire’s exposed back, stabbing the fiend through to its unbeating heart.
For an instant, the beast crouched frozen in shock, its hideous face staring up at her in frightened disbelief. Then with an imploding rush, its body disintegrated, busting into a moldering cloud of dirt and dust that fell to the ground at Madeleine’s feet.
“Slayer!” her remaining foe hissed. He spat out the word at her like it was some foul, unholy curse. His companion growled back, acknowledging the epithet with a muttered expletive of his own. Throwing the other demon off, he attempted to scrabble to his feet, but the man-beast was swift, and on him again like a dog worrying at a bone, allowing his foe no quarter in their demonic struggle and leaving his fellow vampire to deal with Madeleine alone.
And that vampire was proving itself to be a formidable adversary for the slayer. Hulking and muscled, he moved with surprising speed, countering each of her initial blows. Determined, Madeleine renewed the vigor of her attack, parrying kick and punch, just as she had been taught by her Watcher, Monsieur Prentiss. Still, she could not get in close enough to strike at the fiend’s vulnerable heart. A mis-aimed stab to the shoulder fell short of its mark and drew a flow of dark blood, but the wound was not serious enough to effectively cripple her foe and only enraged him further. He came at her with snapping teeth, his meaty hands clawing viciously at her exposed throat. Madeleine quickly backed away in retreat, but confined within of the space of stall there was no place for her to go. And so she was forced to go on the defensive, just to keep herself from being maneuvered into a corner where she would be trapped.
But the vampire had seen a way to gain an advantage. Refusing to give up ground, he continued to press her back into the narrowing space behind. Madeleine gave a kick, and the creature backhanded her foot aside, slamming it into the wooden partition beside her. She retaliated with whirling of skirts and a complete spin of her body, coming back with a kick from the opposite direction. This one found the vampire’s side, and he roared out in pain, batting her away with a clumsy but accurate fist to her shoulder.
Madeleine tottered, crashing back against the partition again. Gritting her teeth, she gripped her stake, seeing an opportunity open up before her. The vampire had dropped to its knees in the straw, and for a brief moment, its back lay exposed. With a triumphant gleam in her eye, Madeleine leapt forward....
Something pulled the slayer back, holding her just out of reach of her target. With a frustrated cry, she glanced back, only to find her voluminous skirts firmly snagged upon a protruding nail. Grabbing up the material in a fist, she gave it a hard jerk, the very air itself ripping as her skirt tore away. Stumbling forward, she fell to the hay floor, and was instantly knocked backward as the vampire, who had since recovered its balance and its footing, delivered a savage kick to her jaw.
Madeleine felt herself thrown back at the partition. A tiny wail escaped her lips as her head struck the barrier with a resounding thump. For a moment, she saw blackness and stars dancing in her vision, and then the hulking horror of her enemy advancing upon her filled her eyes. Shaking her head, she tried to stand up from where she had fallen, but her legs would not cooperate. They were tangled in her skirts, which the vampire was standing upon and holding down. For the second time that night, Madeleine found herself wishing for a pair of trousers, for she was certain that such a luxury was all that stood between her and a measurably longer life at that moment.
The vampire gripped her throat in its clammy hands, lifting her to press back against the wall. Madeleine kicked with her feet, but between the dizzying sensation of her swimming head, and the prison of her pinned skirts, her attempts were for naught. She was weak, and it was getting difficult to breathe as the demon’s fists constricted ever tighter around her neck. With a desperate gasp, she tried to free herself, but she knew that there was no escape. The beast had her now.
As Madeleine’s struggles became more erratic, the stars in her vision grew steadily brighter. She heard a howling over the rush that filled her ears, and some small part of her brain recognized the death cry of the other vampire. At least she had the consolation of knowing that her new demon friend had finished off the horrid fiend.
The hands at her throat were now choking away the last of her precious breath. Madeleine realized that she was about to die, but strangely enough, she was not afraid. With her death, another slayer would be called to take her place in the fight against evil. Prentiss would be disappointed, of course, but he would understand. One did not go into the nightly fray and not expect casualties. She only hoped that her Watcher would extend his next pupil the courtesy and respect she had received under his tutelage in their years together.
A shadow fell across Madeleine’s eyes. She blinked, glancing over her attacker’s shoulder at a strange and amazing image. The brilliance in her vision blotted out anything but the shimmering silhouette of the thing before her, but she knew what it was. How could she not recognize the great expanse of feathered wings, the sweet scent of perfume wafting about her, filling her dying soul with such blissful calm as she had never experienced.
It was an angel come to take her to heaven.
The last thought passing through Madeleine’s mind as she blacked out was one of confusion.
Why had this holiest of God’s emissaries chosen to wear that face?