X. Pitchforks and Torches

An image of Baptiste's broken corpse lingered on the pool's surface. Rovenmare dismissed it. He turned away and drained his goblet of sambuca.

"Damn it!" He hurled the goblet at the far wall. The clatter of impact didn't satisfy him, so he stormed to a nearby chair and kicked it over. He stood there, fists clenched, actually trembling.

He'd observed the fight in a sour mood from the outset. After all the endless, grinding, frantic, futile effort he'd devoted to finding Katia, it galled him to think the Church might have located her without even trying, simply through a village priest's word-of-mouth. Seeing her in the pool finally ended his search, to his relief, but also confirmed that the Church's grapevine succeeded where all his magic failed, to his far greater chagrin.

Then, Baptiste's death came as a shocking inconvenience. It meant Rovenmare couldn't solve the problems of Katia and the Rider from the comfort of his tower. The performance of his duties had never required him to travel farther than walking distance from the castle. He'd expected Baptiste to bring Katia to him, but now he would have to journey all the way across Wungoria to her.

The thought of being so far from his tower made him feel naked enough on its own. The thought of then facing the Rider, and perhaps walking into an ambush, turned his eagerness for a final confrontation into queasy anxiety. He'd slowly come around to admitting that a simple exorcism would probably never suffice to dispatch the Rider. That specter had been anchored in this world too firmly for too long, with far too daunting a command of the black arts. Even if Rovenmare learned the Rider's identity, a head-on, full-blown, all-out magical duel seemed inevitable.

Few walked away from such duels unscathed. Rovenmare knew as well as anyone how scathing they could be. His revulsion for flesh and blood was not a natural facet of his personality. A vanquished foe inflicted it on him through a dying curse many years ago. At first, Rovenmare had no clue what had been done to him. In the days and weeks that followed, as the nature of the curse became clear, worry began to wear on him, and concentrated into near-panic. The nausea that overcame him when he handled flesh and blood threatened to cripple his pursuit of necromancy, which was certainly the purpose of the curse. Despair brought him to the edge of madness, but on that brink, inspiration showed him a way forward. He saw in bones a power and purity no other necromancer had ever quite appreciated. Thus, injury from a duel he actually won had warped the whole course of his life--for the better, it so happened, but he couldn't count on turning any more curses to such advantage. As confident as he felt that he could banish the Rider, he feared he'd come away very much the worse, even in victory.

This train of thought did nothing to improve his mood. He found the bottle of sambuca and chugged directly from it, until his nerves steadied enough that he could begin preparing to depart.

He descended through the tower to a window, and threw it open. He rang a bell to summon Fronius.

Normally, the hunchback responded at once, appearing in the snowy courtyard directly below the window to await instructions. This time, he didn't.

Rovenmare rang again, then again, harder, with mounting irritation. "Fronius!" He rang the bell furiously. The lateness of the hour shouldn't have mattered, but no amount of ringing brought Fronius out. Rovenmare stomped to the trapdoor, and flung it open. The darkness below irritated him further. He snarled an incantation, casting sorcerous illumination to light his way. His steps clanged down the iron stairs. "Fronius! When I ring, attend me instantly, no ma--!"

His voice died at the sight of the clean, empty space. Where he expected to see the filthy, crowded laboratory, he saw nothing. Not a bloodstain or speck of dirt remained. He blinked. He stepped into the chamber, alert for any hint of illusion or enchantment. But no--Fronius had simply cleared everything out. Rovenmare didn't like it. He couldn't imagine his apprentice without all that rusting equipment and rotting flesh to play with. The absence of those things, and of Fronius, disturbed him. Here was one more unwelcome surprise.

"Coming, Master," Fronius called from a distance, through the broken door that hadn't been replaced.

Snow drifted in. Rovenmare peered out through the opening.

Fronius hobbled across the courtyard as fast as his legs could carry him. "You rang, Master?"

Rovenmare waited until he ran inside. "Where were you? What's the meaning of this?"

Fronius bowed, his breathing labored behind the iron mask. "Master, the Count lodges me elsewhere until I can restore the laboratory." The mask's goggles made his eyes dark liquid blobs, impossible to read.

Rovenmare sensed there was more to it than that, but the urgency of getting underway to Gorna preoccupied him. He'd have to sort Fronius out later. "Never mind. Let's review the castle's defenses. You'll be responsible for them until I return."

"Return, Master?" Fronius looked and sounded astonished.

"That's right. I'll be away." Rovenmare hoped he spoke truly when he added, "Don't worry. Not for long."


Katia flew back to the tower as a butterfly.

Wendoline waited inside as the Rider, armored, cloaked, and mounted. The horse stood ready to burst into motion at her signal.

The instant Katia resumed human form, Wendoline commanded in the Rider's spectral voice, "Climb on."

"I won, you know."

"You played around, then panicked when he almost slew you. More than once. Congratulations. Now climb on."

The harsh assessment struck a raw nerve and rang too true. Katia was in no mood to hear it. She felt shaken and embarrassed enough already over the close calls she foolishly permitted. Somehow, she still hadn't rid herself of all Baptiste's garlic powder, a painful irritant. Although transformation healed her wounds, memories of them were still fresh as sensations. And ultimately, glutting on blood after such a brutal fight left her desperate to collapse into her sarcophagus and sleep. Struggling not to snap at Wendoline, she replied, "Why? Where are we going?"

"Away. Now hurry and climb on!"

"But why?"

Wendoline dismounted with a great show of exasperation.

Katia clenched her jaw and put her hands on her hips.

"We've grown conspicuous here," Wendoline explained, as if to a child. "To stay would be reckless. Don't shake your head at me like that."

Katia stopped, but remained defiant. Wendoline could always give a reason why they should do things her way. It always sounded sensible and true. And yet it always left Katia feeling manipulated. This time, she decided, she'd have none of it, no matter how Wendoline tried to bully her.

Wendoline continued, "If Rovenmare should find us--"

"Good! I hope he does. Let's kill him and be done with it."

"After that pathetic showing, you can't be serious. We're nowhere near ready for him."

"Like you said, I played around. Against him, I wouldn't."

"You're still so far from ready, it's not even worth discussing. Now come along." Wendoline reached for Katia's arm.

Katia slapped her hand away. "Maybe you're not ready. Maybe you never will be. Maybe you've schemed and watched and waited so long--"

"Too long to squander the only chance we'll get."

"--you forgot how to do anything else. I don't know if you're afraid of Rovenmare, or afraid to put this whole thing to the test, or afraid to finish it, because, what then? But the Devil was right--"

"Mind your tongue, girl."

"--you've lost your nerve."

Wendoline drew her hood back, baring her brown curls and flashing her enormous brown eyes. In a tremulous human voice she said, "Even if every word of that were true, the fact remains, you are not ready."

Katia recognized the ruse, having fallen for it too many times. Wendoline could seem so soft and vulnerable when it suited her, but she was the hardest, most calculating person Katia had ever known. Katia hardened herself, and said, "Why can't you be honest, just once, about your motives? The real fact remains, you only want to separate me from the villagers."

"Oh, is that what you think? You think this is about them? Well, all right. Let's discuss it."


"I know you don't believe me," Wendoline said, "but they will turn on you."

"You've surely done your part to make it happen."

"Meaning what?"

"You know what. Their baby!"

"Baby? The brat we sacrificed?"

"The one you murdered."

"You're cross about that? That's why you've been so sullen toward me? All this time, I feared you hated me for . . . all the rest of it."

"I agreed to all the rest of it. I never agreed to the murder of that child."

"Your power came at a price. I shouldn't have to tell you that. You know who set it, too. How dare you blame me?"

"Oh no you don't." For the first time, Katia could see the deception in Wendoline's argument, right in the moment, when she could throw a response back in her face. Wendoline may not have set the price, but she knew what she was doing when she chose the victim. "You could have got a baby from any other village. You meant for them to fear and hate me. Now they do. But that's not enough for you, is it? Because I still lie with them when I feed, and you can't stand it, jealous shrew, can you?"

"Why do you do it?" Wendoline looked and sounded genuinely stricken. "To hurt me? Is that why you did that with Baptiste? You knew I was watching. You want the truth? It works. You hurt me. I'm jealous. I admit it. Yes I wish you'd stop. I do want you away from those stupid, stinking yokels."

Katia's resolve almost melted. It probably would have, if she hadn't caught Wendoline at her usual tricks just the moment before. No, she wouldn't be taken in this time. Wrong as it felt, she forced herself to sneer.

"You want the truth?" Wendoline went on. "You want me to be honest?" She grimaced. "Can you understand how long I was alone? All those centuries, without a single kind word. Or touch. Or kiss. Not one. And then there was you. My feelings . . . what can I do? I know I muck it up. I know my jealousy pushes you away. I'm sorry. I can't help it. And I am afraid to finish this. You ask what happens then?--I lose you, that's what. The Devil will take me, and that will be the end of it. Oh Katia, after all those years alone, can you blame me for trying to hold on to this love? Because that's what it is for me. I lo--"

"Stop! That's enough." Katia chopped the air with her hand. "You promised me revenge. That's the only reason I've become this. That's the only reason I've submitted to every horrible ordeal. You should have let me fall, if you don't have the steel to see it through."

Wendoline ran to her horse. Before Katia could react, she jumped on and rode away.

As the hoofbeats quickly receded, Katia realized two things. She'd finally heard some honest truth from Wendoline, and she wasn't ready to face Rovenmare alone.


"Remember our friend Baptiste?" Rovenmare asked Volfric. "He's dead. The vampire of Gorna proved too much for him, it seems."

Volfric smiled, then guffawed. "Good!" He raised his cask of wine in mock salute, and drank a toast. "But this vampire, is he a problem?"

"Not yours, my lord." Rovenmare resisted the temptation to correct Volfric about the vampire's sex. "I'll see to it."

"Why haven't you seen to it already?"

"Well, I must reach Gorna first."

Volfric jumped up, sloshing wine. "You're going to Gorna?"

"It can't be done from here."

"But you've never left the castle. You--I'll send soldiers. Surely they can put it down."

Rovenmare savored the terror in Volfric's voice. He took it as a rare admission that Volfric still valued his service and respected his power. "No. Where Baptiste failed, ordinary soldiers won't succeed. But never fear, my lord. The defenses I've established around you and the castle are sound. They will remain so in my absence, which won't be long. And . . ."--he grinned--"you'll still have Fronius."


Rovenmare oversaw the tedious uncrating of four horse skeletons. He hated the delay, but it couldn't be helped. If he loathed human flesh and blood, that of beasts disgusted him still more. He couldn't bear the thought of living horses hitched to his white coach. Only skeletons would do. Then, he knew how unwisely he expended precious magical resources animating them--resources he would surely need against the Rider--but again, he had no choice.

Eventually, the coach-and-four was ready to depart. A skeleton from the pool, robed and cowled in white, sat up on the box and drove. Across the top, three more skeletons reposed in white caskets.

A detail of Volfric's soldiers in red leather armor rode escort on war horses.

Rovenmare sat alone in the white carriage, surrounded by grimoires he consulted in hasty preparation. He sipped often from a bottle of sambuca, trying to calm himself enough to concentrate without becoming too intoxicated. Absorbed in his studies, he paid no attention to the passing countryside. He scarcely noticed when they stopped, except nights, when he slept. They traveled by day, and thundered into Gorna at high noon.

The fields and streets were empty, and the shutters closed on every cottage. Only a few women peeked out.

The soldiers knew their orders. They drew their swords. They kicked in doors. They herded everyone into the church.

Rovenmare waited at the altar. He held a goat-skulled staff of bone. Two white-robed skeletons stood at ominous attention on his left, and two more on his right.

Under his gaze, the entire village was quickly seated and silent. The women sat rigid, holding their children quiet and still. Dazzled by sunlight, the men blinked and squinted and struggled to wake up.

"I'm Baron Rovenmare, here on behalf of Count Volfric, your lord. I've come to slay the vampire, Katia. Does anyone object?" He looked around, prepared to set his skeletons on anyone who did object.

But one woman begged, "Oh please, sir, deliver us from her evil."

Another burst into tears. "She took our baby."

That woman's husband stood and said, "We're with you, sir. I'm Mihail, at your service."

The other men rumbled, "Aye," and rose in accord.

Rovenmare nodded. He didn't wonder how these people invited Katia into their lives. In the beginning, they probably saw her in the same idealized way the child did, just before she murdered him. Inevitably, she visited tragedy upon them, and reduced them to anemic husks. Their eyes brimmed with guilt and shame, as only country people's can when they've violated their provincial, prudish mores. They'd indulged in sexual license--eagerly, no doubt, and with a corpse, no less. Now they felt dirty. In any case, they were ready to be rid of her. That much could not be plainer. "Good. All right, then. Lead me to her."

Their faces, already pale, turned ashen, as if he'd just pronounced their doom. But they didn't hesitate in moving to obey him.

"What's the matter? Why the long faces?"

"Please forgive us, sir," Mihail said. "We've grown to fear her so."

"It's daylight. She's sleeping."

"I beg your pardon, sir, but it's always night at the tower."

That wasn't possible in any literal sense, but Rovenmare could imagine a few ways the effect might be achieved. They all involved enchantments that would be costly in time and effort to dispel. He couldn't afford to bother with anything like that so soon before facing the Rider. "Well . . . get torches and arm yourselves, if you like. Quickly."

The men reassembled on the square, wielding stakes, scythes, pitchforks, and torches. When Rovenmare gave the order to move out, Mihail led them at the front of the procession. Rovenmare could guess how passionately he'd embraced Katia, by how passionately he seemed to hate her now. As the tower loomed into view across the fields, Mihail shouted courage to the men, and they shouted it back, until their terror turned to fury, and they merged into a single surging mass--that most blood-ravenous of creatures, a mob.

Rovenmare rode on the box-seat of his carriage, next to the skeleton who drove, curious to see how day would turn to night.

Up to a point, he had a clear view of the tower, with the sun shining on it from a blue sky.

Then mist swept in from nowhere--first as isolated wisps, then as swirling bands, until it enveloped them completely. Rovenmare understood. The mist was bewitched. Time flowed differently inside it. No matter when a man entered it, and no matter how fast or slow he moved, he'd arrive at the tower precisely after nightfall.

And so it happened. The procession carried on. The mist soon cleared. They'd traversed most of the remaining distance to the tower, but now the moon shone down from a starry velvet sky.


Katia's eyes flashed open in the darkness of her sepulcher.

Someone approached the tower. Wendoline had insisted that Katia help cast the protective spell, so both of them could sense when someone triggered it. Katia sensed it, all right. Every man from the village tramped through the mist. They didn't mean her well. So this was it. They turned on her, as Wendoline predicted. She supposed Wendoline must sense it, too. She wondered how Wendoline felt about it.

The chill of what Katia sensed next made her quiver and cry out--horse skeletons, animated by a power not of the Devil, but of Death. That could only mean one thing. The next moment confirmed it. Baron Rovenmare's presence entered her awareness as a beacon of deathly magic.

She kicked the lid open. She shot up as a butterfly, out of the crypt, up through the tower, to the rooftop battlements facing toward the village.

She turned human in time to see the first faint outlines of the villagers, and the flicker of their torches. She didn't see the mist, as that enchantment affected only them, so they seemed to take form out of thin air and grow solid as they drew closer.

Of course Mihail came first. He looked up. She realized the moon silhouetted her from behind. That and her glowing red eyes made her instantly visible. He pointed and yelled, "There she is!" An echo rolled out from behind him--the emerging mob answering his shout.

Katia watched them advance, with their torches and weapons. Though only the wooden stakes could harm her, the pitchforks and scythes worried her too. So many gleaming points and blades, all for her. Though they couldn't destroy her, she still would feel the pain, and felt a hint of it now in fearful anticipation.

Volfric's mounted soldiers followed the mob. Their red armor called to Katia's mind the worst memories of the worst night of her life. Lust to slaughter them welled up in her, but turned to ice as the horse skeletons phantasmally appeared. She couldn't have anticipated how the sight of them would horrify her. It wasn't just that they bespoke a power far superior to hers--even to a vampire, even to a witch, magic itself remained dreadful and uncanny. They drew a bone-white carriage. A white-robed skeleton held the reins. Beside him sat a skeletal white figure who could be none other than Baron Rovenmare himself.


Rovenmare jumped down from the carriage. The driver joined him. The carriage door opened, and the other three skeletons stepped out.

Mihail, utterly berserk, ran straight into the tower with torch aloft and pitchfork on his shoulder. The mob stopped short of following him. They congregated outside, shouting threats and oaths up at Katia.

Rovenmare tried to keep an eye on her as he looked around for any sign of the Rider.

A flash of light snapped his full attention to the sky. Katia had cast a spell at him. The raw, awkward outburst marked her as a neophyte, and unprepared. To call it a bolt of power would suggest something too clean and precise. The blob of undefined magic squirmed and yowled and turned sickly colors in its flight. That made it all the more grotesquely spectacular than if she'd cast it properly. The villagers and soldiers gasped and crossed themselves. Even Rovenmare experienced a subtle, fleeting thrum of horror, for magic was never a trifling matter.

He swatted the thing aside with his goat-skulled staff. Toadstools sprouted every time it bounced, until it came to rest, fizzling in the grass, spitting out centipedes and toads and locusts and a pair of bats. An abortive half-formed rat crawled out of it, and promptly died. A blackbird raised its head and wings, and cawed its death throe as the bubbling mass collapsed. The steaming dregs melted and soaked into the earth.

A direct hit would have been exceedingly nasty. Rovenmare had the discipline not to waste time thinking about it. Alert for more attacks, he briskly led the skeletons inside. They hurried from the portal to the center of the hall, over and around chunks of debris. He held his staff ready. The skeletons formed a defensive ring around him, then moved out in a spiral, searching the shadows, wary of ambush.

He peered up through the crater hollowed out from centuries of collapsed floors. At one point in his research, he explored the possibility that the Rider might be the old lord of this tower. He confirmed, however, that the old lord died only recently, and then in the bat-form he'd been cursed with for so long. The Rider or Katia probably put the miserable thing out of its misery when they moved in.

One skeleton descended to the dungeons and crypt. The others followed Rovenmare up the stairs. Each peeled away to search a different level. They hunted the Rider floor by floor, room by room. As if in a dream, Rovenmare looked and looked, and couldn't find what he sought.

He came to the closed door of an upper chamber. He opened it, into what had once been a little girl's room. A pale pink cabinet lured him in. The residue of magic was thick and unmistakable on it.

Standing before it, he reached for a knob with one hand, while raising his staff in the other. He shifted his stance, the better to spring out of the way if necessary.

He threw the door open.

Something moved.

He jumped back, staff aimed, an incantation on his lips. Blinding white power glowed from the goat skull, ready to discharge.

Nothing came out of the cabinet.

He squinted.

Mirrors. He saw his own motion reflected in mirrors.

"Whoo." He relaxed. He opened the other cabinet door.

The most perfect three mirrors he'd ever seen shimmered with that residue of magic.

He understood. His image had most likely appeared in these mirrors before, observed by the Rider and Katia. They couldn't possibly have viewed him in his marble tower, but he wasn't so sure about the rest of Castle Volfric. How long had they watched? How often? What had they learned? He knew this much--the whole while, he learned nothing. Nothing, until that fool Baptiste tipped him off to their whereabouts. He still couldn't begin to guess the Rider's name.

"Damn it!" He smashed the mirrors with his staff. "Damn it!" He grabbed the cabinet and threw the whole thing over. "Damn it!"

He stalked out to the crater and looked down at his skeletons. They shrugged and shook their heads.

He looked up. He'd almost reached the top. "Where are you, Rider? Show yourself."


It scared Katia, the contemptuous ease with which Rovenmare literally slapped her spell down. Before she could cast another, he and his skeletons crossed to the tower, and entered. Suddenly faint with apprehension, she wobbled on her feet. She steadied herself with a hand on the parapet.

"To Hell, you demoness!", someone shouted. The mob took up the chant and waved their torches: "To Hell! To Hell! To Hell!"

She bared her fangs and hissed. But in her shock and confusion, the rhythm of the lights down there almost hypnotized her.

The racket of ascending footsteps snapped her out of it. She wrenched herself around to face the stairs. She knew before she saw him it was Mihail. He was her first. As she'd experienced other men, he remained her favorite. She admired his tenderness and care for both herself and Magda, his wife. Though she wouldn't say she loved him as she once loved Jacob, she felt for him an affection and attachment far beyond mere lust. He burst onto the rooftop in a frenzy of rage.

"Mihail!" She flung a hand up, partly reaching out to him, partly begging him to stop. "Wait! I didn't kill your baby!" They'd never spoken of it to each other. She had nothing to lose by mentioning it now, but feared it was too late. Still, she had to try connecting with him somehow.

"Liar!" He threw his torch at her.

She blocked it with her cape. It extinguished on contact.

He charged.

She implored him with her hands spread, palms up, completely vulnerable, "Mihail, please! Let me finish with Rovenmare, and then we'll talk abou-gghr!"

He speared his pitchfork upward into the smooth, pale flesh between her breasts and navel. The prongs sank full length, punching bloody holes out through her back. It hurt worse than she expected. His muscles bulged. He grunted from exertion. Her boots left the ground. The sweep of his thrust hoisted her over the parapet's edge.

Impaled on the tines, she dangled high above the mob.

A triumphal cheer assailed her from below.

For a heartbeat, she and Mihail stared into each other's eyes. Her blood ran down the shaft toward his hands.

He shifted to dump her.

She slid off the tines. At the last instant, she grabbed the tip of one.

He gripped the pitchfork too firmly to let go when she yanked, and so he tumbled over with her. They plummeted together.

He seemed to realize she'd just sealed his fate. He stabbed at her again with the pitchfork. She blocked it with her cape this time. She maneuvered him beneath her, tore the weapon from his grasp, and poised to fork him when they landed.

The mob shrieked in unison. The waving sea of torches scrambled to part for them.

They struck the ground, Mihail first, flat on his back. The tines penetrated him with all of Katia's strength, weight, and momentum. His blood spurted explosively against her thighs, the underslope of her breasts, her downturned face. The pitchfork severed him in two. The halves folded gruesomely around it like a book slammed shut, then flopped apart. Blood and guts sloshed from the open ends.

Katia snorted out blood and wiped it from her eyes. She straightened.

Village men surrounded her. Their eyes mirrored the blaze of their torches. The length of their weapons let them attack from a safe distance, beyond the reach of her claws. The cape protected her back, but her front remained exposed. Cruel points relentlessly punctured her body, and gleaming blades sliced her again and again.

In desperation, she snatched a man's scythe. She soon understood why Death was imagined to carry one. In her hands, it cut men down like rye. A squishy mound of lopped-off parts and corpses piled up beneath her boots. She twirled in rapid circles on it, slashing any who drew near.

She heard a whistle and swiveled to look. A chain whipped around her throat. Off balance, she kept turning, and tried to bring the scythe around. Her eye followed the chain to the bony fist of one of Rovenmare's grinning skeletons.

Another chain wrapped around her ankles.

"Aaughk!" She found herself jerked off her feet, suspended, stretched taut between two skeletons. The scythe flew from her hands as she clawed the air for any clue which way was up or down.

Two more skeletons rushed in and grabbed her arms. They pulled them to the sides, and braced against her strength in tug-of-war stances.

Frightened cries gurgled in her constricted throat.

"Hold her," Rovenmare commanded.

The chains and grips tightened. Her spine and muscles strained under the pressure. She felt they might pull her apart, as horses quarter criminals.

Rovenmare stepped up, leaning over her. He pressed a stake into the skin above her heart, and yelled, "Where is he?"

She couldn't answer. She could only wonder, He?

"Who is he?" Rovenmare's eyes bulged. "I'll have it out of you, don't worry." He raised the stake in a wild motion that set his braided beard swinging.

Katia fought to wriggle. The skeletons held her fast.

Rovenmare didn't so much stab her as throw himself on her point-first.

She cringed, and would have screamed if it were possible.

The stake slammed through her heart.

The few surviving villagers sent up a shout. They sobbed for joy. They fell on their faces, and they wept. "Thank God! Thank God!" Those who could, embraced. Some whooped and danced. Even those bleeding their lives out on the ground trembled with emotion.

Katia saw and heard it all, though she couldn't move. Her mind shrank from the understanding of how completely Rovenmare had her at his mercy. He could torture her as he pleased--even destroy her.

She did the only thing she could. Silently, she prayed. To Wendoline.


Back in the village, Rovenmare ordered the women to scrub Katia clean.

He went to the church, and descended to the vault. His skeletons waited there, having prepared the cramped, dank space for the ritual. Circles, swirls, arrows, and stars formed patterns on the floor, traced with chalk or sprinkled powder. White candles formed patterns in the patterns. Rovenmare inspected their work, and of course found it impeccable.

Two skeletons went to fetch Katia. They carried her in and arranged her limp body in the master pentacle. Her head and limbs corresponded to the five points of the star.

The women had done well. Even Rovenmare couldn't fault their work. They'd scrubbed Katia as clean as any corpse in his experience.

She was no ordinary vampire. He'd never seen such a healthy specimen with his own eyes. Curious, he gave her leg a trial touch with one fingertip. The flesh was cool and firm, which made it less repulsive. He flattened his hand along her hip, and slid it over the muscles of her stomach. He stopped at the stake. Small as her breasts were, they still looked too soft for his comfort.

He leaned over her face. "Who is he?" He stared into her vacant eyes. No longer the fiery orbs of the undead, they were the same dark brown they'd been in life. "Who is the Rider? You can't speak, but you will tell me. And then I'll find him. And I'll send him to Hell." Her eyes showed no response, but he sensed her inner turmoil.

The skeletons raised their hoods. They seated themselves at the pentacle points near her hands and feet.

Rovenmare mixed various ingredients in the mortar of a skull, and mashed them together with a pestle of bone. He mixed in liquids, and recited necromantic incantations. He poured the finished potion out on Katia's torso. It hissed on contact. Vapors steamed off her skin.

He took his place on a white silk pillow at the pentacle point nearest her head. "Now, then." He took up a wand of bone. "Who is the Rider?"

The vapors gathered into a cloud. Within that cloud, an image coalesced, very dimly at first, but Rovenmare coaxed it with the wand through degrees of clarity. The corners of his mouth turned down at what he saw: two figures, nude, entwined in intimate embrace, kissing and caressing. Such carnality revolted him, but he'd endure it, if only he could learn the Rider's name. He easily recognized one partner as Katia. He couldn't believe his eyes when the other turned out to be a woman, too. He watched, stunned, as they writhed together in Sapphic love.

His mind raced to figure out what might have gone wrong with the spell, for something surely had. He wondered if counter-magic was involved. Had Katia or the Rider foreseen this method of interrogation, and cast a spell against it, to project this image instead of anything that might give the Rider away? The Rider had always been so meticulous in guarding his identity, Rovenmare supposed that wasn't impossible. But then who was this woman? He analyzed the vision with rapid, darting motions of the wand. He could find nothing amiss, and yet something had to be.

Something began to nag at the back of his mind.

He noticed the skeletons watching him.

"What?" he snapped. "Why do you gape at me?"

"Master," one said, in a grating voice from the other side of death. "Do you not see?"

"See what?"

The skeletons would elaborate if they could. When they didn't, he knew better than to ask again. He also knew better than to disregard anything they called to his attention. He couldn't imagine, though, what this scene of women licking each other's genitals could possibly have to do with the Rider.

The mystery woman neared her crisis. She threw her head back, moaning loudly. At a loss for anything else to focus on, he closely examined her face. It did look familiar, and that's what nagged at him. She wore the most intense expression of erotic bliss. That, too, struck an eerily familiar chord for him, which perplexed him all the more. Where could he have seen this face with that expression?

"Oho! That's it!" He dropped the wand and jumped up so abruptly he kicked over candles and broke the spell. The startled skeletons sprang to their feet. "That's it, that's it, that's it!" He danced a jig around the crypt. "Saint Wendoline." It fit. The woman's expression matched the one in every depiction of Saint Wendoline's martyrdom. All of it fit. The name, the face, the armor and arms, the magic, the history with the House of Volfric, the tower. Yes, every bit of it fit.

No wonder her identity had proven so elusive. He assumed all along the Rider must be a man. But even if he hadn't, even if he ever suspected Wendoline, the court magicians of her day left records claiming to have exorcised her. They must have been mistaken.

"That's it. It has to be. No wonder. No wonder." He caught his breath, and barked orders at his skeletons. They hastened off to fulfill them.

He strutted to Katia and knelt beside her. He smoothed some hair back from her forehead. "Well, well, well, my dear. It's finished. You're finished, and Wendoline is finished. I don't know where she is, but I know how to draw her out. She'll come for you." He chuckled. "Oh yes she will. And when she does--" He whipped his hand across his throat in a cutting motion. "Finished!"


Jaakko said...

An excellent chapter, no dead moments, but lots of undead ones. Rovenmare and his skeletons kick ass!

Curt Purcell said...

Heh--nice pun, Jaakko, and thanks!

Anonymous said...

Just read through all the posted chapters, like your work Curt. Dark, gripping, and sexy. It's kept me entertained these past few endless days of work.

Any idea when the next chapter will be up?

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks for the encouragement! I'm working to get that next chapter up, believe me!