VIII. The Devil

A ruined stone church remained where plague decimated a village longer ago than anyone remembered.

Baptiste rode out to it, with nothing more to light his way than the thinnest crescent moon.

Under his wide-brimmed hat, the black locks he wore fashionably long had new streaks of grey. His meticulously groomed mustache and French-style goatee, too, had greyed despite his youth. His tattered, muddy cloak marked him as a traveler. The battered chainmail beneath marked him as someone who'd seen his share of trouble, as did the worn handle and scabbard of the sword slung across his back. The dark scarlet cross on his chest looked as though he'd smeared it on hastily with fingers dipped in blood.

Orange light glimmered from within the church.

Baptiste dismounted. He secured Luke, the trusty white steed who'd seen him through many harrowing adventures. He patted the beloved animal, spoke soothingly to him, and treated him with a piece of carrot.

With a heavy sack slung over his shoulder, Baptiste stepped inside the ruins. Before the altar, fire blazed in a pit cobbled together from rubble. Most of the sanctuary's furnishings had succumbed to time, the elements, or some other form of decay. Only one confessional stood intact.

Baptiste strode to the fire. He drew a severed head out of the sack. The face would have been coarse, ugly, and unkempt enough in life, but undeath had sucked the bearded cheeks in, and the jutting vampire fangs rendered it inhumanly repulsive. Baptiste couldn't help recalling its furious expression as he'd battled the damned creature and its fellows, but the terror that still vibrated somewhere within him, in a part of himself he'd walled off long ago, couldn't reach the nerves that would cause a normal man to shiver.

He muttered a ritual prayer over the head, cast it in the fire, made the sign of the cross, and muttered another prayer. One after another, he did the same with four more severed heads. Five vampires. All male. All vicious brutes, accursedly strong, with cunning to spare from their former lives as a band of robbers.

That done, Baptiste entered the confessional. "Your Reverence," he said by way of greeting, before making his report: "When the Cardinal and I informed the Duke of what he'd permitted to fester in his forest, he made a most generous endowment to the cathedral."

"What is that collar you are wearing?" his Superior demanded through the screen. "Take it off at once."

Baptiste hastened to unclasp the silver band around his neck. It had saved his life several times against the fiends whose heads burned in the fire-pit.

"How dare you wear the Roman collar?" the Superior said.

Baptiste rubbed a thumb over the grooves and indentations where claws and fangs had failed to reach the flesh of his throat. "It is no Roman collar, Father, but a piece of armor, without which I would surely be dead, or worse."

"It looks like a Roman collar. I forbid you to wear it." After a pause, the Superior continued, in a tone of instruction. "Your renown as a vampire slayer has spread, but with it, your bastardy has also become more widely known. That defect of birth casts no stain on the grim calling you pursue, but it may never be permitted to sully the priesthood, even if only in appearance. Never let me see you aping priestly garb again."

Bastardy. The word always stabbed Baptiste in the heart. It was one of the few things he still felt, and he struggled not to feel it.

"Do not resent the just laws of the Church," the Superior said, as if reading his thoughts. "The sin of siring a child out of wedlock merits the sternest reprobation, and therefore must a bastard be the object of his father's shame, bearing such a stigma as to render him unfit for receiving Holy Orders. And that is why I must forbid you from wearing that collar, which might give the false impression that you are a priest. It is not to punish you. It is only that we cannot risk tarnishing the priesthood, however inadvertently, with the scandal of your bastardy. Bear it with meekness, my son! Bear it with the meekness of our Lord and all the saints."

"Yes, Father."

"You must go now to Wungoria."

Frogs croaked somewhere in the distance.

Baptiste's father, too, had served the Order, hunting and slaying creatures of great power and greater evil. He went to Wungoria and never came back.

"The priest of Gorna begs our help against a vampire," the Superior said.

"Only one?"

"So he states in his letter. He fears she's quickly gaining power over the village."

"Ah, she. A woman, then."

"A vampire."

"Yes, of course," Baptiste said. "A female of the species."

The Superior shifted on the other side of the screen. "I'll tell you another reason why bastards can't be priests. The fornication in which they are conceived often leaves its stamp upon their character. Priests must be holy and pure, for they administer the very mysteries of God, and the danger is too great that a bastard will continue in his father's lustful ways."

The words hit Baptiste like a slap. "What are you saying?"

"Take care that you're not too much your father's son."

"I'll never sire a bastard! God damn me if I do, I swear it on Christ's blood!" In the darkness of the confessional, the violence of Baptiste's outburst left his ears ringing.

When the Superior responded, he lowered his voice so Baptiste had to strain to hear him: "You need no oath for that. You have your vow of chastity already."

"My father had it too."

"He broke it. Would another vow have stopped him? But his sin was not unpardonable. What undid him was keeping it a secret."

Baptiste recalled his father's sporadic, furtive visits, and the long wait for the one that never came. He remembered how his mother always worried, for she knew of his father's service in the Order. When he never returned, she grew frantic until she could stand it no longer. Though it meant betraying the secret of the man she loved and the father of her child, she went to the Superior to inquire after him. Baptiste wondered what she'd hoped would come of that. What ultimately came of it was that he himself became a slayer, following in his father's dark and bloody footsteps.

"Secrets," the Superior said now. "They distract the mind. They weaken the will. Instead of turning to the merciful Mother Church for a just and holy penance, a man with secrets takes wild chances, and walks a lonely road to self-destruction. So it went with your father, I'm convinced. Wungoria is a land of many evils. I don't suppose we'll ever know which of them took him from us, but his secret made him reckless and led to his defeat. If you have any secrets, I urge you to confess them now, before you make this journey to the land from which he never returned."

"No, Father. I have no secrets to confess."

Silence followed. As it stretched on, Baptiste took affront, for in it, the Superior seemed to be calling him a liar, and waiting for him to change his tune and confess whatever secrets the old fool suspected him of harboring.

At last, the Superior sighed. "My son, you're the greatest slayer our Order has ever known. May the grace of God be upon you. Guard yourself from secrets, and come back from Wungoria."


Katia sensed him through the walls of her sarcophagus. She shifted the stone lid, and sat up.

There in the crypt, a naked young man hung upside-down by a chain around his ankles. Another chain cocooned his arms to his sides. He said, "Wh-who's there?" In the darkness, he couldn't have seen more than the red glow of her eyes. His eyes bulged in terror.

He'd provide her nourishment for the night. Wendoline had told her his blood would also be laced with a potion, "To relax you. You'll be glad for it."

Sounds of revelry filtered down from the tower above. They called to Katia, and awakened childhood fears. When she was young, Godmama had warned her about sabbats, not even to look if she ever caught a glimpse of one, but to run away as fast as she could. Tonight, at a sabbat, power would be bestowed upon her--power to work the black magic Wendoline taught her.

Katia slunk out of her tomb, toward the young man. He wriggled. He made weepy, blubbery noises. It sounded like he meant to plead with her, but couldn't form the words. She could tell his wits and strength were dulled, but fear began to sober him.

He was handsome. Nobody she knew. Someone must have brought him from somewhere else. She knew the local villagers, for she'd lain with most of them. It started with Mihail and Magda. She'd vowed never to harm their baby, which had since been born, and she earned their trust by keeping her word. On that foundation, with their help, she'd drawn the whole village into an erotic conspiracy of silence. They'd all been fearful and reluctant at first, which amused her when she recalled how eagerly the men of her old village always tried to get their hands on her. But she seduced them easily enough, and now they offered themselves to her freely, so long as she didn't take too much and gave freely of herself. She even included the women in the kisses, caresses, and lovemaking--something else she'd been learning from Wendoline. She had to smile at Wendoline's obvious jealousy of the bond she'd forged with the villagers, but Katia thought it smart to have their confidence, cooperation, and complicity.

She looked at this young man, so strong and appealing, like Mihail, her first and still her favorite. She wondered if he had a wife and child, too.

"Please," he said.

She laid his throat open with a wild, full-arm swing. A dripping pulp of gore dangled from her claws. She thrust her face into the ragged chasm between his chest and chin, into the explosive emptying of veins. She hadn't fed with such abandon since the night she killed the monstrous bat-lord whose skin now formed her boots. With the villagers, she had to be so careful, so dainty. All that restraint had built up into a need for this kind of frenzy. The violence of her impulse amazed her, now that she let it run unchecked, and she savored the release more than the blood itself.

The mellowing influence of the potion spread a warm euphoria through her. Dizzy, she stumbled back a step from the young man's corpse, which swayed and twisted gently on the chain. Blood still drained from the ravaged throat, coating his face and drizzling from saturated locks of hair.

As nicely as he filled her stomach, he only satisfied her by half. Accustomed as she was to taking her pleasure while she fed, the slaking of her thirst left her hungry for something else. The potion made her crave it all the more.

She giggled as she staggered up the stairs. She stood before the door to the tower's great hall. The cacophony she heard through it filled her mind with every horrible imagining she'd ever had about what a sabbat must be like. By some alchemy in the potion, the little girl's dread instilled in her by Godmama transmuted into a young woman's curiosity about what she might find on the other side of all the warnings.

She opened the door.

Chaos churned beyond. Under the phantasmal glow of stained-glass lanterns, nude women danced through swirls of incense to the tune of goat-legged pipers. She looked up. Dancers thronged every floor, and spirits circled in the air.

The dance sucked her in and swept her in a ring around the bonfire. She paid little mind to the jostle of other dancers, but hands began to reach for her, to stroke and fondle as she passed, inflaming the lust stirred by the potion.

The music grew more frenzied. The others stopped dancing. Katia couldn't. The piping compelled her to continue. The lanterns painted her with blasphemous perversions of the rainbow. She moved through a sea of hands that groped and caressed all over her body. They guided her. They pushed back when she tried to move in some directions, and buoyed her along when she went where they desired.

At last, abruptly, the music stopped, and so did Katia's feet. She stood before the altar, a massive block of rubble she'd set smooth-side-up the night before at Wendoline's instruction.

Wendoline faced her now as the Rider, with hood up to conceal her face, and the armor that fooled everyone into thinking her a man. In the Rider's sexless, spectral voice, she said, "Welcome, sister. Do you come to this altar freely, of your own will?"

The intoxicating potion, the spellbound dance, and the shoving that forced Katia to the altar made her wonder for a moment how freely she did anything tonight. The altar reminded her of the megalithic blocks of the stone circle where she submitted to the fangs and claws of vampires to become a vampire herself. Now, as then, pitiless Wendoline would lead her through a strange ordeal to grasp for dark, occult powers. She reminded herself why she vowed to kill Count Volfric, and how much she needed such powers to do so. Godmama might disapprove, but Volfric's necromancers had banished the poor little hearth spirit, and Katia would have to go through them to get to him.

"I do."

Wendoline unclasped Katia's cape, and draped it over the altar. She motioned for Katia to lie on it. When Katia did, Wendoline made her spread her legs and stretch her arms over her head. She manacled Katia's wrists and ankles, as if to a rack.

Katia tested the chains. She had no leverage in that position, and realized how much the potion weakened her. Though she had no intention of escaping, the bondage disturbed her more than she expected. Could she turn into a butterfly? Normally, the very thought set off the first tingle of transformation, but even when she pushed a bit, and then a bit more, nothing happened, and her form remained solid as ever. Another effect of the potion, she supposed. She tried the chains again. A hint of panic rippled through her. She took a deep breath. She'd agreed to this.

Wendoline led all the others in a chant. It sounded like nonsense to Katia, but as she peered down the length of her body, at the bonfire, the entrancing flames flickered to the rhythm of the voices. Her head drooped back to rest on the altar. She stared up through the tower, at level upon level of faces upon faces, staring down at her. They swam together in her vision. From the corner of her eye, she caught glimpses of Wendoline's performance of the ritual. Her eyelids fluttered shut.

In that darkness, Katia felt the manacles more starkly, and her chains called to mind the chains of the young man in the crypt. Panic threatened again, but she forced herself to think of something else--of how she might use the power she'd receive, other than in her vendetta against Volfric. She admitted to herself she'd grown quite attached to the villagers. She felt a part of their communal life in a way she'd never felt in her old village, or even in her family. As she fed on them to sate her hunger, she saw their ribs through the skin and sensed their own hunger. Willing as they were to trade their blood for nights in bed with her, she wanted to give them back something more. As Wendoline explained it, she'd receive among her powers some power over crops. She hoped to help their grains grow. She smiled and imagined the breads they'd bake, steaming right from the oven. She imagined their delight as they ate, growing healthy and strong.

A sudden flash and roar startled her. Instinctively, she tried to sit up. The chains held her down.

The bonfire blazed. The floor beneath it crumbled away. The whole conflagration fell through, into what should have been a cellar. Clouds of black smoke belched from the hole. The stench of brimstone filled the air. Otherworldly flames seethed up. Within them, a titanic form rose into view. Their gloomy light hid as much as it revealed. Katia saw nothing clearly, only a hulking mass.

From the fire, the head of a great red dragon swung out on a serpentine neck. Like the slime of birth, flames coated the skin and dripped from the beard. Katia dared for an instant to gaze into the eyes. The howling abyss of eternity gazed back.

Seven heads in all emerged, bobbing and swaying on long necks. Some had one horn and some had two. All looked Katia over just the way men always did when they thought her helpless. For the first time in her life, she truly was.

With clawed forelegs, the dragon heaved the rest of his bulk out of the pit. He shook his heads, his body, his tail--extinguishing and flinging off the sheen of fire. A stubborn patch flared on his back. He scratched it with a hind leg, then whipped a head around to lick it out.

He slouched toward Katia. As he approached, his form wavered, blurred, and shrank. The necks and heads merged into one. He stood upright to walk on two legs. His skin blackened, as if a crust of ash formed over it. With two horns and a beard, his head looked like a monstrous goat's.

He drew nearer still, and grew more human in appearance. The horns and tail remained, the black skin gave way once more to scarlet, and one foot froze into a hoof-like club. The deformities somehow heightened the archangelic beauty of his features and physique. He limped the last few steps to the altar, bathing Katia in a radiant, all-surpassing evil that raised goosebumps on every nude inch of her.

She let her eye wander down his lean torso to the manhood that stiffened and rose as he drank in the sight of her. She found it perfect--eerily so. In every contour and proportion, it embodied all her secret lusts, erotic memories, fantasies, and pleasures. She looked him in the eye again, and realized with cold, shocking certainty how transparent she was to him. She lay petrified. She'd never felt so naked.

He turned to Wendoline and said, "Ah, you. How much longer must I wait before you join me below?"

"As long as it takes to fulfill my vow of vengeance," she said. "Just as we agreed."

"I'm beginning to wonder if you've lost the will for it. And I'm losing patience."

"Well, that's too bad," Wendoline said, "because we have an agreement, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Katia gasped. Nobody else seemed to react. She didn't know which surprised her more, the tone Wendoline took with this awesome entity, or everyone's bland acceptance of it.

He smirked. "I can do anything you ask, and who knows where that may lead? It seems like only yesterday, a young man begged me to buy his soul for a little bag of gold. So he could bribe some lord not to rape his true love on their wedding night." He gestured at Katia. "Now here she lies, whoring herself on my altar for power to avenge his death. Funny, how that worked out. Who could have foreseen it?"

It took Katia a moment to absorb these words. So much had happened since the wedding, she'd forgotten about the bag of gold. She remembered all too vividly, now that he mentioned it, and his meaning was plain enough. All the bloodshed, death, and misery that brought her to this point, chained to his altar and whoring herself exactly as he said--he'd foreseen it, all of it, and with that foresight, it amused him to answer Jacob's prayer for gold.

"I'm here at your request," he told Wendoline. "I can't wait to see how this works out for you."

Even as the fearsome Rider, she looked shaken. With far less confidence than before, she said, "It's a step toward the fulfillment of my vow. Rest assured, you'll claim me soon enough."

"You speak more truly than you know."

Wendoline jerked her hand toward the altar. "Just get on with it!"

The more Katia thought about what he said, the more she hated him. She fought the temptation to strain against the chains, which would only amuse him further, but rage must have shown on her face. When he laughed at her expression, she couldn't help calling him the vilest obscenity she knew. She understood now why Wendoline's impertinent hostility provoked so little reaction from the crowd. They'd all made their deals. They'd all been through this moment. Beneath the attitude of worship, they all nursed hatred for him.

She glared at him as he knelt between her thighs. She couldn't close them, and didn't bother trying, though she felt embarrassingly wet and open. He lowered himself over her. The searing fever of his skin contrasted bizarrely with the icy tip of his prick, which bumped and brushed her as he positioned himself. Men had told her she was cold down there, too. Perhaps they were well-matched, at least in that regard. It didn't make her hate him any less.

She lunged to bite his face. Her fangs snapped on empty air.

Just beyond her reach, he wore that infuriating smirk. "I could make this so horrible for you."

"Do it, then."

"Oh, I will. But not the way you think." He inched his face closer.

She knew he teased, but maybe in his arrogance he'd slip and let her bite him. She snapped again, and missed.

He thrust in.

Katia moaned and arched up violently. She blushed under the gaze of all those watching faces.

"The most dreadful torments of my kingdom are all rooted in pleasure."

She hadn't yet adjusted to the feel of him inside her, and could think of no reply to the strange statement.

He laughed. "You can't even conceive it. You will. Before we part, you'll worship and adore me."

She snarled. Her razor fangs flashed once more. This time, they clipped a piece out of his beard. She spat the hairs at him.

His slap turned her face and bounced her head against the altar. Stars burst before her eyes. They hadn't yet cleared when he started to move.

She rattled the chains, but gave up attacking him. He tried to kiss her mouth. She gave him her cheek. He kissed that, then her neck. In spite of herself, she tilted her chin up for him. She shivered at the touch of his lips on her bared throat, and rewarded him with an involuntary, "Ah!"

She tried to lie rigid, resisting all arousal. His infernal skill began to work on her. She caught herself responding with her hips.

An alien presence intruded in her mind.

She said, "What are you do--mmph!"

Their open mouths slid and locked together. His beard wasn't scratchy on her skin, just wonderfully masculine. Though a hint of brimstone clung to him, the smoky flavor of his breath had a purer, much more pleasant tang--just the way Jacob used to describe hers, from her nights as an ash-girl sleeping on the hearth. Perhaps they were well-matched, indeed. Before she knew it, she'd twined her tongue with his. She cursed her weakness and tried to pull away, but the kiss was too deep. It melted her, even as she struggled to escape it.

The intrusive mental presence wormed through her psyche like a finger. It left an unclean residue everywhere it probed. It found her resistance, and plucked it like a chord. Her passions vibrated between fierce desires to embrace him and push him away. The contradictory urges convulsed her body. She whimpered uncontrollably into his mouth.

He broke the kiss. A cold gleam in his eye betrayed the malice of his grin.

The presence in her mind ripped and peeled something away. This flaying, this denuding, exposed her to a terrible infinity. She'd never suspected its existence, and even now wasn't sure how she was aware of it. She shrank from its vastness, which menaced her in ways she sensed but couldn't name or comprehend.

"I've removed all limits on the pleasure you can know," he said. "The only question is how much you can endure."

She felt her crisis coming on. It would be strong and sharp. She almost feared it.

His vigor would have killed a mortal woman, but she was undead, and he held nothing back. The altar, tons of stone, rocked on its uneven base.

Katia's first contraction clenched every muscle down to her toes. Her kick snapped a chain. She curled her leg around him.

She wailed through a precipitously escalating climax. She savored inhuman ecstasies. New peaks rushed to meet her, faster and faster. Too fast to savor. They fell away as he drove her to heights remoter than the stars. Her screams grew louder and tinged with apprehension. The pleasure became too much, cruel, the torment he promised, and she realized how quickly it would turn annihilating.

In the onslaught of her rapture, she began to come apart. She felt her mind disintegrating. She dug her claws into her palms and shrieked, "Please! Please!"

He paused, dangling her on the brink of madness.

"Please!" she said. "Oh please!"

She saw no mercy in his face, only the smile of a victorious marauder.

He started in again.

She screamed and thrashed desperately to offset his motion. His aim never erred. Each thrust made it harder to hold on, and threatened to nudge her completely off the edge.

Her eyes rolled up in her head. The bottom fell out of her sanity. She could do nothing to stop it.

He shouted, and blasted his seed inside her. And not only his seed, it was the power he bestowed. He filled her to overflowing. The power seeped and spread throughout her being.

Such a startling sensation, yet so concrete, and even in some ways familiar--she seized on it, clung to it, and used it as a lifeline to reel herself back from the abyss.

When he finished with a grunt, he pulled out and climbed off.

She didn't come down quickly or easily. Aftershocks exploded through her. She writhed and twisted in the chains, her free leg waving in the air. She couldn't scream the name of God, so she cried out a filthy stream of vulgar words. In a distant recess of her mind, she felt humiliation at the spectacle she presented to everyone watching, but overwhelmingly she felt relieved to survive with her wits intact.

He stood beside her and stroked her long black hair until she lay relatively still, panting and trembling.

"Aaaahh," he said, "now that was worth every ounce of gold I shat out for your precious Jacob."

She licked her parched lips. In a hoarse voice, she rasped, "You think that's all it cost you?"

He arched a pointed brow.

"Some day," she said, "I'll find a way to make you pay in earnest."

His smirk never faltered, but all the fires of Hell flared in his eyes. "Silly goose. Every instant, I pay a price that even He who exacts it can't begin to understand." He traced a finger up her side. "I said you'd worship and adore me. I'm pleased you proved me wrong. Where would be the fun in that? No, you'll serve me, just because you're mine." He stabbed a claw into her armpit.

Searing agony lanced through her. She yowled and jack-knifed completely off the altar, to the taut length of the chains.

She dropped back, limp, with no more strength or will to antagonize him further. She craned her neck, expecting to find a gruesome wound. Only a little brown mole marked the spot.

He backed away, retracing his approach precisely in reverse, and as he did, he went back through the stages of his metamorphosis, until he crouched as a dragon at the lip of the pit. He seemed to wait there for something, still and expectant. It reminded her of chilling things she'd heard about from Father Gregory--the Dragon of the Apocalypse, poised before the Woman Clothed with the Sun, to devour her baby the moment she bore it. Or something more ancient, idols to which heathen people sacrificed their children by fire.

With that thought, she noticed the sound of a baby crying. It drew nearer. Wearily, she looked around.

Wendoline approached, holding an infant upside-down by the ankles.

Katia recognized it instantly as Mihail and Magda's newborn son.

Wendoline held the baby over Katia. A dagger flashed in her other fist.

"Don't--!" Katia had to look away. She cried out at the hot splash of blood and viscera on her belly.

She looked up just in time to see Wendoline hurl the carcass to the dragon. One of the heads chomped it from the air and gulped it down. He slithered the rest of the way back into the pit. It vanished, leaving the floor whole and intact, with only a charred spot where the bonfire had burned.

With armored fingers, Wendoline poked around among the entrails, examining them carefully, her face inscrutable in the darkness of her hood. She said, "A stranger comes. He means to slay you. And . . . he has a secret."


Kaushik Karforma said...

Whoa, Curt. That was one fucking insane Devil-fuck. Great stuff. Looking forward to the fight between Baptiste and Katia.


Jaakko said...

Interesting plot developments. The satanic sex was less gross than I had expected, but hit the spot nevertheless.

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks, Kaushik and Jaakko!

Vladimir Gerard said...

Amazing... Just like the first 7! I enjoy reading your work, and when it's published I look forward to purchasing the novel.