The Night Man Cometh by Tony-Paul de Vissage
Limousin, France, 1249: In one night, Damien La Croix loses his life and his soul, as he willingly choses Undeath rather than perish of the Plague.
Through Mankind’s long centuries, many cross his path, respond to his enticements, and are forced to make the choice. None survive to become his companion in the darkness, and so many are lost, now even Damien begins to ask himself the question: Is there no one for me to love…in spite of what I am?
…for when the Night Man Cometh, Death is never far behind…
Time…something a vampire has in abundance…time to enjoy the pleasures of Immortality…time to contemplate his mistakes. I learned that the hard way… for Time brings with it one thing: the desire for the company of another being.
One doesn’t have to be human to feel alone, to suffer the grief of loss or the need for companionship and love. That which once was a man can still harbor gentle emotions though he denies them. He may unconsciously seek forgiveness though he never says the word aloud.
May 21, 1249
Hail, Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…Holy Mother, Pray for us now and at the time of our deaths… Even as he muttered the prayer, Damien cursed himself as a hypocrite and a liar.
The priests teach Man is a Sinner from his first breath, cursed by our Primal Parents and born into willful disobedience against the Lord, and therefore should welcome death and its reward of heaven with open arms. Damien suffered the double guilt of his disbelief and of keeping that doubt secret.
To him, Death was the end, not the beginning and he was sorely afraid he would be confronting that ending very soon. It was a reasonable fear, he told himself. Everyone feared death, though some might accept it more readily than others. He tried to rationalize his terror. His life was too valuable ; his death would leave the Domaine de la Croix without an heir, but that was a mere shading of the truth. Damian didn’t care who died as long as it wasn’t himself. As far as he was concerned, Heaven was a lie fed to ignorant peasants to hide a stark reality discovered only too late… That death was Oblivion…a fall into bottomless darkness with no resurrection in sight, a snuffing of breath, heartbeat, and thought. Damien didn’t want that oblivion, he wanted to continue his existence…to be with his Antoinette…to live and love with her…not become food for some hungry worm waiting even now to grub in his grave.
He was a child of his Time, pampered and spoiled, accustomed to getting what he wanted. And at this particular moment, what he wished most was to live to enjoy the woman he loved. Nevertheless, in this instance, what he desired was being cruelly withheld. This time, Damian wasn’t going to get his way.
His traitorous mouth continued to pray as he’d been taught, spewing out words more and more desperate… Sweet Jesu, don’t let us die…protect us from this scourge….I call upon St. Jude Libraeus, Saint of the Impossible, Patron of Desperate Situations, have mercy, and bring about this miracle, I beg you…St Christopher, have mercy, I invoke your protection against this plague…Dear Lord, Holy Savior help me!
Desperation and panic mingled with unmanly tears, streaming down his clean-shaven cheeks.
St. Damien, Patron of Physicians, and my namesake, steal the power from this plague, prevent it from infecting us so my Antoinette and I may survive…oh God, I don’t want to die…!
For over a year, the Great Mortality had been in France—a year and fifteen days, to be exact—and in Limousin less than a month. If ever a Scourge from God had been placed upon Mankind, this was it. Nevertheless, no one dared question. All accepted as something deserved, for being human, if for no other reason. Sinners condemned by the mere fact of their existence to suffer and die. And be swept away into nothingness. If Damien’s doubts had previously hovered secretly in his mind, the falling of this pestilence upon the people of Limousin—his people—confirmed them with a vengeance.
Doctors attempted treatment, and he asked himself, Why? If we are already condemned, why bother? Why go through such useless motions?
And if a few survived? Did that mean those were so saintly as to be allowed to live, or were they simply now doubly-condemned, and the dead to be envied as destined for that much-touted salvation? He was well aware such thoughts were heretical and could consign him to flames much worse than the plague fires should he dare speak them aloud, so he held his own counsel and his ever-growing anger.
Who would he speak them to, anyway? His friend Armand? His betrothed Antoinette? Neither was allowed near his father’s estate, just as he was forbidden theirs. Some nonsense about isolation making one safer. He doubted that. If the pestilence is miasma borne on the wind as the physicians think, how can hiding ourselves away protect us? The wind was everywhere; even if a man climbed the highest peak or sank himself into the deepest well, that ebbing and flowing stream of air would find him.
All seclusion did was prevent his having the solace of friendship or love.
His desperate supplication ended, he got to his feet. Now for something more important. Going to his Antoinette. Crossing himself once more, he returned his rosary to his belt-purse and started down the aisle to the entrance only to stop as the doors swung open. A body blocked his path, a bulky silhouette against the late evening sun.
“Pere Gervais?” Damien put up a hand to shade his eyes from the direct glare. Under its shield, he could make out the priest’s features…eyes reddened, face pale and streaked…with tears? Thinking the Father was manifesting some new phase of the plague, he took a step backward as Gervais came toward him. Damn it, if he’s infected, I’ll kill him before I let him touch me. Priest or not.
“Damien…my son…” The words were muffled by a filled throat, so low he barely heard. One hand extended. Clutching something inside.
A folded piece of vellum. A letter.
“WH-what is it?” Damian’s own hand went to his side, remembering too late he’d left his sword and belt-dagger hanging from his saddle, obeying the priest’s command not to bring weapons into the Lord’s House. He stepped back, holding up his hands, warding him away.
The priest stopped. Lowering the upraised hand, he took a deep breath and collected himself.
“I’m sorry, my son. Truly I am.” A tear trickled down his cheek, making a new track across the others.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve just come from Chateau de Chevigny…”
“Non.” If the priest was called, that meant only one thing.
Gervais said nothing else, just held out the letter. As Damien snatched it from him, he let his hand drop to his side. Like a dead thing, like those in the Chateau would soon be. He stood without speaking, watching the young man rip away the seal and unfold the single sheet. Closed his own eyes as Damien’s frantic ones scanned the words placing a death sentence on all his hopes.
Damien, ma cher. I am stricken. In spite of your prayers, the
Scourge is visited upon me. My maman has already been taken and I
fear I will be next. As I breathe my last, I will think of you and of the
life we might have had. I pray we meet again in Heaven.
Toujours je t’aime,
“It can’t be. I saw her just yesterday.” He didn’t add it had been through the bars of the Chateau’s gates. He waved the sheet. “This letter is a lie!”
“’Tis no lie, my Lord.” Gervais dared come close enough to place a hopefully calming hand on his shoulder. “I was called to the Chateau early this morning. I-I gave Lady Antoinette her Last Rites and she, in turn, asked me to deliver that letter to you.”
With the swiftness the Plague carried away its victims, it had become the custom to call in the priest as soon as symptoms manifest. Silently, he accepted Gervais’ words. His Antoinette was going to die. Instead of coming a blushing bride to his marriage bed, she would be consigned—a rotting, blood-weeping corpse—to the plague fires.
“Lies.” Nevertheless, he said again, as if repeating it would make it so. “Just as everything else is a lie…even the Scriptures we’ve been taught all our lives.”
“Lord Damien!” Gervais staggered as if he’d been struck. Clutching the rosary at his belt, he sucked in the strength to speak. “Listen to yourself. You speak blasphemy.” He looked upward, clasping the length of beads. “Father, forgive him. ’Tis his grief speaking.”
“Grief? Aye, I’ve grief. A great one. I’m losing the woman I love, damn it! And I can’t even tell her goodbye. I have to receive her last words in a letter.” He spoke the word as if it also held pestilence. He wouldn’t even be allowed to attend the funeral, for there would be none, only the plague-wagon, coming with its tolling bell. Come to carry his Antonette to the fire.
“She’ll be placed in the de Chevigny crypt. She won’t be burned.” He hadn’t realized he spoke the words aloud until Gervais said that.
“It doesn’t matter. She’ll still be dead. Dead—and not my wife!” Damien flung the letter to the ground. Looking around wildly, he allowed tears to flow. Grief mixed with his anger. Crying because God had failed him, tears for someone lost before she’s gained. “Why is it happening, Father? I prayed…most devoutly…every day since the Plague came to la Croix. Why didn’t the Heavenly Father answer my prayers?”
He began to sob in earnest, hands pressed to his face.
“Perhaps… ” Gervais seemed at a loss for words. He left that single one fade into silence.
“Perhaps…what?” Damien’s expression startled the priest. Briefly, he appeared furious rather than grief-stricken. “Perhaps God was too busy? Perhaps he doesn’t care? Perhaps he doesn’t really exist?” He spat the words. “Why not tell the truth for once, Father?” He was ranting now, fury building with each word. “That all this—” Waving his arms to take in the now-empty pews. “—is a farce…a falsehood to make us accept dying without a struggle. Those of us fool enough to believe such deceits!”
The priest didn’t answer.
Because there isn’t an answer, and he knows it. Damien dropped his hands, looking at the guilty missive, lying where he thrown it. He lifted his foot, grinding the paper against the floor with his boot-heel. He wanted to destroy it all, smash and grind to dust every stone of this monument to the lies fed to them all their lives. Damien began to shake, the fury inside struggling to force itself free.
“My Lord, please.” Gervais was still attempting consolation, reaching out to touch a trembling shoulder. “Come. Perhaps Confession will salve your doubts, or…let us talk…”
“Confession? Aye, I’ll confess!” Damien jerked away from the priest’s grasp. Clasping his hands together, he held them out, grip so tight their tremor was visible. “Father, don’t forgive me for I have knowingly sinned…and I…don’t…care!” His words were a sarcastic twisting of those he’d spoken devoutly so many times. “I’ve long questioned everything and doubt it all. That doubt makes me now ignore the Matins and the Angelus…and I haven’t believed in that garbage you spout to us for a long, long time, either!”
His hand clenched into a fist, raising it with such a violent movement the priest shrank back.
“Do you know why I really come here to pray each day? Would you like to know a real truth? My prayers for our survival are a test to God. If we are saved, I’ll believe, if not… “ He laughed, and the sound was so bitter, Pere Gervais felt his own heart breaking. Damien raised the fist higher, looking upward as if he’d threaten Heaven. “Well, we aren’t saved, are we?” The fury took over. He rushed toward the priest who scrambled aside. “We aren’t saved! And never will be!”
Next to the door stood the baptismal fount, placed there until needed at the pulpit, so heavy it took two men to carry it. With the strength of the furious, he seized it, flinging it aside. It crashed against the wall, the marble basin cracking, carved wooden base in splinters. Water splashed, trickling across the floor.
“God’s been tested and found wanting!” He whirled, singling out something else to destroy. A pew was lifted, heaved toward a window. The precious stained glass shattered outward in a spray of colored fragments, the broken bench lodged within the frame. Other furniture was upended, thrown against the wall, smashed against pillars holding up the roof. Fragments of wood-dust floated to the floor.
Damien ran down the aisle toward the altar.
“No! My Lord, please. Don’t do more desecration.” Gervais caught his arm, was dragged by his fury, sandaled feet skidding on the stone floor. “Don’t condemn yourself even more.”
He was slung aside, sprawling against the base of a still-standing pew as Damien’s arm swept a row of candles onto the floor. Melted wax splashed and sputtered. Flames guttered, dimmed, then rose as fire leaped from one fallen candle to another.
What have I done? For the briefest moment, Damien stared at the destruction. Then, he didn’t care. To the sound of Pere Gervais’ cries for help as the flames spread to the tapestries and the wooden images behind the altar, he turned and ran for the door.
His horse was tied to a hitching-ring set to one side, attached to a picket driven into the earth. Untying the reins, he flung himself into the saddle, jerking the animal’s head toward Chateau de Chevigny.
The plague wagon lumbered by, pulled by two slow-moving oxen. Its masked and hooded driver didn’t look up, just tugged on the bridle of the nearest animal, moving it along. It didn’t hurry; the cart crept with the rhythmic slowness of a funeral cortege, though nowhere near as solemn nor regal, plodding hooves keeping time to the ringing of the bell the attendant dully swung back and forth as he followed the wagon.
Bodies were piled high, heaved in without regard for how they landed or even if actually dead. In an attempt to contain the pestilence, a heavily-waxed cloth had been tossed over the unwieldy pile of corpses and fastened to the cart’s sides by lengths of rope. The reek of corruption, of pus and blood, vomit and rot and decaying bodies seeped from under its edges.
Some of the corpses had been dead for days before being discovered, the last of their households and having no one to bring them out for the wagoneer to gather. Others were tossed from windows, retrieved from the dirt and thrown onto the ever-growing pile. Only a few were carried out by family members and given up with tears and wails of grief.
Pulling his horse to a dust-stirring halt, Damien slid from its back and stopped. Even in his fury, he didn’t dare cross the path of a plague-wagon. Standing with head bowed, one hand clasped to nose and mouth to prevent inhaling death-laden air as the cart passed, his other hand raised to make the Sign of the Cross before he caught himself. No, no more of that foolishness.
A wagon wheel struck a rock, wobbling. The canvas lifted, then settled again. A body shifted, one arm falling out of the cart to swung inches above the road, fingers stiffly curved as if clawing at the dirt. Its skin was speckled and splotched, swollen with open sores from which yellow ichors still leaked. A few drops struck the soil, spattering a little puff of dust. Did he hear a faint moan, see a slight tremor of that wasted arm hanging through the staves?
And this will happen to my Antoinette! He didn’t believe she’d be placed in the family vault. It was Law now. All bodies were burned.
Antoinette, cherie, mon amour…
As Damien had told Pere Gervais, his last sight of his beloved had been two days before. It had been three weeks since Damien was allowed admittance to the chateau. Every day, he came to the gate, standing like a beggar waiting to be given the alms that were a sight of his Antoinette. Every day for twenty-one days, he’d ridden to the church to beg God and the Holy Mother to protect them, then to the chateau to speak with her.
She always met him at the gates where they talked but never touched. This time, she stopped a good ten yards away, hands clasped to her bosom.
“Go away, Damien. The Mayor has ordered our gates locked to all but the physician.”
“The Mayor? Antoinette, the mayor died weeks ago. How can a dead man give orders?”
“The Council then…someone…I don’t know! You see the guards.” Her voice rose in a desperate shrill as she waved a hand at the two armed soldiers standing to each side of the gate. She was shouting to make herself heard across the distance. At that moment, the wind—that death-carrying air—swirled around her, then dipped, ruffling the edges of her wimple, fluttering the half-sleeves draped around her elbows. There was a sudden brilliant flash, sun reflecting off the band of her betrothal ring. Damien had chosen it himself, presenting it to Antoinette only three weeks before.
“I’m not leaving, Antoinette.” With his fist, he beat the gate’s stone pylon. “I came here to see you and I will, if I have to climb these walls!”
At that, one of the guards raised his lance, and Antoinette gave a short quick cry, “Please, my love. Don’t endanger yourself any more than you already have.”
“My Lady?” Marie—Antoinette’s old nurse, now her chaperon—stood a few feet away, giving her a modicum of privacy, if being in the open yelling into the wind could be considered private. Now, she plucked at the blue wool sleeve. “We must go. Your father will miss you.”
“Don’t,” Damien begged. He leaned against the gate, wrapping a hand around one of the upright iron shafts. It felt hard and cold to his skin, grains of rust from years of rain and weather, flaked onto his palm. “Stay and talk to me. If this is the only way I may see you…”
Marie continued to tug Antoinette’s arm, turning her inexorably away. She allowed the old woman to lead her down the footpath toward the chateau. After walking a few feet, she broke away and turned back. Pressing her fingers to her lips, she hurled a kiss into the air, then whirled and began to run, leaving the old woman shuffling after her.
Damien was certain he felt the kiss strike his cheek. Please God the wind brings none of the pestilence with it! He watched until Antoinette reached the chateau’s looming bulk and disappeared inside. Continued to lean his forehead against the roughness of the iron pickets, he pressed against the cold metal, letting it abrade his skin until the sun slid behind the trees and shadows lengthened.
At last, one of the guards spoke. “My Lord, you should go.”
Only then did he turn away, walking back to where he’d tied his horse to the low-hanging branch of a yew tree. Yew, symbol of darkness and death. He shivered, hoping it wasn’t one more sign.
The horse raised its head, nickering and snorting slightly. Why are the animals not affected? Some had died but it was mostly because their owners succumbed and there was no one to feed them. Starvation, not plague, killed animals. Why does it only strike their masters?
Does God favor a dumb animal over an intelligent man because he knows it won’t question Him?
There was a creaking of the gate as one of the guards swung it open. While he’d been distracted by the wagon and his own thoughts, the beak-doctor left the chateau.
Damien waited until the physician was outside before he waylaid him. “Docteur le sangsue, tell me, how is she? How is my Antoinette?”
Desperate, begging the man not to say exactly what he said.
“I’m sorry, Your Lordship.” His voice was muffled through his protective mask.
Damien wished he’d remove it. He wanted to see the man’s face as he spoke. So he could tell if he was lying. He won’t take off the mask. ’Tis his protection. His armor against death.
“’Tis a fast-moving case, faster than most.” His sigh was irritated, more at being inconvenienced by Damien stopping him from leaving than holding any regret or sympathy.
Damien’s resentment flared. He sounds as if he truly doesn’t care. You bastard! The Vicomte’s your patron. You owe him your best skill.
“I doubt she’ll last another day.” It was said flatly with no concern for his feelings. Without another word, the doctor turned and walked away. Damien kept pace with him, though far enough from the robed figure they didn’t touch. “You shouldn’t have come here. By leaving the safety of your own estate you place yourself in danger.”
Safety? Hah! How can that stupid man call my home safe when eight of our serfs already show the first signs? Damien wanted to backhand the fool. Pick him up and heave him into one of the pits where his many patients now lay waiting consignment to purifying fire. If one’s home’s so damned safe, how did Antoinette and her mother, who rarely left its confines, become ill in the first place?
He watched the sangsue remove his plague-protectors—that ludicrous mask with the long, beak of a nose making him resemble a marsh crane—while his narrow, cassock-like robe added the final, bizarre likeness to some kind of Hell-escaped demon. He pulled the covering with its crystal-shielded eye sockets from his head, the hand holding it falling to his side.
So he believes he’s safe at this distance? Fool, he wanted to shout. You’re no more protected than the rest of us. Do you think wearing some wax and leather and sniffing camphor and vinegar will protect you? Doctors die of the same things as their patients. All the time.
Didn’t the churchyard have a special section for the illustrious medical men who’d succumbed while treating others? Though now, of course, there were no new graves. There was no room; the cemetery yard of Village de la Croix was filled, the holy soil itself contaminated. Thus, the dead, whether noble or common, Marquis or serf, were now taken to a pit on the edge of town and burned, relinquished to purifying fire. And when that one was filled with too many ashes, another was dug, and when that one filled, another…
What’s the use? He said none of it. Just nodded numbly, bowed to the physician, and stumbled back to his own horse, grazing a few feet away. Will arguing save Antoinette? If that were so, he’d have been her salvation and his own the moment the first soul was stricken.
Wind made the doctor’s stiff robe sway. It rattled as it billowed, the overpowering fragrances of mint, camphor, roses, and sweet shrub floated toward Damien. Like the covering holding the corpses in the wagon, the coat was fashioned of wax-painted on leather, as were his leggings and gloves. The mask, elongated and pointed as a birds-beak, tied by a strap going around the doctor’s head. The pointed end was filled with herbs and spices, sun-dried flower petals and other aromatic substances whose strong scents were carried by straws inserted into the nostrils, perfumes filling the physician’s lungs instead of the pestilence’s deadly smell.
Caching the reins, Damien swung into the saddle and left the doctor standing there, clutching his mask.
He tried not to think as the horse broke into a canter before being kicked into a head-long gallop. Didn’t want to think, but memories of Antoinette, of what had already happened, and what might have been, crowded his mind…
Only three weeks before, they’d still been unafraid to come together in fellowship, to mingle for celebration; in this case, the betrothal of the son of the Marquis de la Croix to the daughter of his old friend, the Vicomte de Chevigny.
It was an arranged marriage, of course. Blue bloods didn’t dare do otherwise. But the two young people had known each other all their lives, and were convinced they were, indeed, in love. Shy glances—at first a novelty for the lusty Damien— timid clasping of hands, sitting side-by-side on a small couch laughing called a love seat, all under the supervision of old Marie or sometimes their parents, was the closest they came to intimacy. Damien was willing to play that game. He had other ways of seducing. Through the written word, he wooed his Antoinette, being more indiscrete and sometimes so frank on paper it brought even a blush to his own cheeks. In secret correspondence carried by servants, he told the girl he loved her, would worship her when they were wed. When she came to his marriage bed, he would show her the delights of heaven in uniting her body with his. My dagger waits for your slender sheath, my beloved. I tremble to show you the power your love gives me…I pant in expectation for the night I may caress your naked flesh and show you what is truly meant by Paradise…
Armand had made suitably doubtful noises, of course, then laughing threats of what he’d do if Damien ever was unfaithful to his sister.
“I vow I’ve misgivings of wanting such a libertine as le Seigneir la Croix even looking at my petite soeur, must less bedding her, you scoundrel!” All in jest, of course. His companion in the pursuit of carnal delights was as happy as he that soon they would be brothers by marriage.
Damien was thinking all these thoughts at the betrothal celebration, and if Antoinette’s blushes were any indication whenever her eyes met his, so was she. When everyone’s attention was elsewhere, he dared look at her and slowly run his tongue along his lower lip, then flick it quickly upward in her direction. Her blush told him she understood, if not completely that gesture’s meaning, at least its general inference. Oh, to be alone with you for even an hour, ma petite.
After toasts from both their fathers, Damien presented her with his ring, a single cabochon of red jasper, symbol of love. Holding her hand gently on his open palm—closing his fingers around it was forbidden at this point—he slid it onto the thumb of her left hand, then onto her forefinger and middle fingers before placing it on her fourth finger. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I ask you to become my wife.
Overcome by the emotion of the moment, and the look of love on his darling’s face, he dared raise her hand and press his lips to the ring. To the gasps of those present at his effrontery in performing such an intimate act before them, he turned over her hand and kissed her palm also, touching the tip of his tongue to its center. When he released her, Antoinette clasped the hand against her breast, fingers curled into a fist as if to protect the kiss inside.
“Well! You must forgive my son for allowing his emotions to get the best of him.” The Marquis touched Damien’s shoulder, fingers tightening to nearly jerk his son away from the girl, making him stand beside him again. He gave him a quick shake before releasing him. “You see he truly loves your daughter, Francois.” In an aside to Damien, he hissed, “For the Lord’s sake, control yourself, mon fils!”
The Vicomte had been sympathetic, though protective, nodding he understood. It was well-known he and his wife were very much in love in spite of having had an arranged marriage also. That gesture stated he tolerated Damien’s rashness though it must go no further. Not before the wedding, anyway.
Damien didn’t care. He told himself he’d be patient for the night he and his bride would be alone and naked in their marriage bed. Still, he thought of it…relished that image in his mind…dreamed of it to the point of several times releasing himself during the night. His Antoinette, pale and bare…their flesh brushing and uniting. He’d be gentle but passionate…loving but considerate of her untouched state.
Damien himself was no virgin. At twenty-four, he and Armand, like most young men of their class, had rid themselves of that useless condition as soon as they’d seen the first curl of groin-hair. Once that was done, no female was safe; they’d cut a swath through village girls and serving maids—taking maidenheads by the score—as well as serfs and willing tavern wenches who liked it hot and fast and occasionally cruel. There were very few virgins left in Village de le Croix thanks to Damien and Armand de Chevigny, they were so skillful and ruthless in their lures and pursuits. Village fathers protested…to the priests, the magisters…to no avail. The two young lechers were simply following established custom, and les autorites saw no wrong in that. It was expected young nobles should sate their burgeoning lusts with lower-class females and thus protect the gentler-bred ones. Like Antoinette…
In a fit of love, or lust, or something in between, Damien declared to her he had found his anam cara—his soul-mate—and once they joined as husband and wife, he’d never seek any other female again. For at least a month, anyway.
As far as their not being alone, tonight was no different; for the rest of the evening, they had to use their eyes and soulful glances to communicate across the dining table, each look stating quite clearly…soon, my love…soon…
And then the Pestilence struck.
Where the hell am I? His mind was so befuddled with his blasphemous thoughts, Damien hadn’t paid attention to where he rode. Just let the horse have its head. Now they broke from the forest and found themselves in a man-made clearing, butts and limbless poles of trees stacked clumsily about. At that moment, his horse stopped and the wind shifted, bringing a scent of decay and burnt flesh…and Damien knew where their location.
The plague pits.
In his distraction, he’d unconsciously guided his mount directly to the last place he ever wished to be. Not that he could see much of it at the moment. While he was riding alone in a self-induced fugue, the sun’s last rays had long ago winked out through the trees’ shielding branches.
Now he was alone. In the dark. At the edge of a charnel pit.
Got to get out of here. Damien pressed a rein against the horse’s neck, urging him to turn. The animal balked, instead giving a chest-muffled nicker. He touched ribs with his heels, pulled on the reins now. The creature refused to move, legs stiffening. This time, the sound it made was a protest, sounding almost…frightened?
’Tis the scent of death here. How could anything living not be affected? Nothing to do but lead it, then. Damien slid from the saddle, walking to the horse’s head. He gripped the bridle at the bit, stroking the fine Barbary muzzle and whispering some soothing nonsense. And then, he raised his head, and did something he hadn’t intended. He looked out across the pit.
Nothing could’ve prepared him for that sight. Not the woodcuts of Hell in the family Bible. Nor the threats of Damnation Pere Gervaise heaped upon them at services. Not even his own most secret nightmares.
The hole was nearly fifteen feet deep. It must have taken laborers a goodly time to dig it. Dirt lay in high heaps around the sides, silhouetted like low mountains in the dimness. It extended a fair fifty feet, more a gorge than a pit but to Damien’s horror-struck eyes, it appeared a valley into Hell. How many bodies can this hold? A good number of la Croix’s population, to be sure, for beyond it was a mound of the same size, piled high with tamped dirt and beyond that another, testimony to how many were already buried here.
The bodies in this one were still uncovered, a fresh layer, though the wagoneer and his helper would be back soon, pouring lamp oil over the corpses and tossing lighted faggots to send these unfortunates to their Reward. Sometimes the flames would leap so high, they could see them at the chateau, tinting the sky a lurid red. Like the flames of Hell, Maman would say and cross herself. Damien pushed thoughts of his mother out of his mind. He didn’t want to think of her right now.
As the bodies burned, those under them, already reduced to human charcoal and cinders, would burn again, transformed into even finer ashes rising with the smoke to float away on the winds. And when the pit could hold no more, it would be covered over by that waiting dirt.
The horse snuffled again, an odd little choking deep in its chest. That brought Damien out of his grisly regard. He reached up, patting the dark neck. “Quiet, now. ’Tis all—”
What’s that? Whatever else he was going to say died away as he saw something move. At the far side of the pit. It seemed to have simply appeared. He’d swear it wasn’t there a moment ago. Hunched over, a dark, unwieldly shape, picking its clumsy way among the bodies.
A survivor? Some poor soul not yet dead, awakening to find himself covered by his friends and neighbors’ corpses. Now stumbling over them in half-mad terror?
The shape halted, bent as if peering at one of the bodies, and reached out. The hand dropped and the dark form moved on. It went a few more feet, then hesitated again. This time, it seized a body, wrenching it from under another. For a moment, it seemed to embrace the corpse it held.
Is it actually kissing its neck? Damien felt his throat clog in revulsion.
The body was tossed aside, disgust in the movement. It fell with a liquid thud. The thing moved on, peering this way and that, searching for something it didn’t find, coming closer to where Damien stood.
The horse threw back its head, short, sharp squeals bursting from its throat. It began to back away, pulling the reins from Damien’s hands. He reached out to catch them, and the creature below him raised its head.
Holy Mother! It’s eyes were glowing. Red as coals. And they were looking straight at him. At that moment, the wind swirled into the pit. It stirred the thing’s cloak, making it flutter away from the thin body. For a moment, it looked like…
Lord God, save us! They are wings! Now unfurling, great dark sails dwarfing the creature’s body. Flapping as if preparing to take it airborne.
The horse was moving again. Backing frantically, Damien following. It reared, and he felt the burn of leather across his fingers as the reins were jerked out of his hand. He turned to make a futile grab for the flying straps but the animal whirled on hind legs, galloping wildly back into the safety of the trees.
There was a sound behind him. Something landing with a thump. Damien spun around.
The creature stood before him, eyes still glowing. He could swear he saw flames flickering within them. It collapsed its wings; once more they were merely clumsy shreds of cloth. Then, it took a step toward him. Hand curved into claws reached out.
Damien didn’t run. He knew now what the creature was and also there was no chance he could escape. The priests told of such night-demons and of their incredible speed and powers greater than any mortal’s. What had they said of ways to overcome them? He couldn’t remember.
He could see the thing gathering itself for a leap. It would be on him before he could run.
He barely had time to reach into the pouch at his waist, fingers scrabbling for the rosary tucked there. Thank God I didn’t toss it away! He thought of that irony as the creature launched itself. Damien thrust out his arm, crucifix dangling from the string of beads wrapped around his hand.
The creature ran directly into it. With a scream it recoiled, falling backward so quickly it appeared to have been tossed by the holy object. Perhaps it had. It fell on its back in the dirt and Damien was upon it, pressing the cross into its chest through the filthy rags, one knee on its belly to hold it down.
It gasped and struggled and a smell of rot and filth floated upward from the rags. Blackened flesh appeared under the edges of the crucifix. Damien swallowed and fought the urge to gag. He forced himself to touch the creature, catching one flailing wrist and pinning it to the ground. He was surprised at how light it felt, at the frailty of the body beneath his. He thought if he pressed harder with his knee, it might actually crush the bony chest and go through.
Suddenly, it stopped fighting. Blinking, the red glow faded and it lay still. For a moment, he thought it had died. When it spoke, he was startled.
“If you’re going to destroy me, go ahead. Oblivion is better than the existence I now suffer.” The sound was deep and hoarse. Rusty, like a gate hinge grown solid with age suddenly being wrenched open.
“What can you know of Oblivion?” Damien asked. “You’re le sansmort, aren’t you?”
There was a faint nod. Another wafting of that frightful smell. Damien swallowed, gulping back his disgust.
“Oui, I’m le sansmort but what good does immortality do me?” Damien couldn’t believe the whine in the creature’s voice. It sounded so…human. So full of self-pity. “What pleasure is there in feeding on corpses?”
“Why bother?” Damien surprised himself by laughing at that. “There’s an entire village only a short distance…”
“A dying village. No one has strength to invite me in. I can’t get to them, so I hunt among the dead, disgusting as that may be. Bah!” He made a spitting motion. Damien shrank back without releasing his hold upon the bony wrist. “Blood thick and drying…solid in their veins…and if I find one still holding a spark of life… ’Tis too mixed with pus to be palatable.” He shook his head. “Go ahead. Destroy me. I no longer care.”
By now, Damien had gotten a good look at the sansmort. It startled him, for he’d expected a distorted, inhuman face, thin, twisted, disfigured…like those in the woodcuts. The creature’s face was thin, to be sure, as was his body. Not exactly human but close enough to believe it had once been so. High cheekbones, thin lips…almost aristocratic in its luminous paleness… Emaciated but with an odd beauty. It snarled slightly—or was it a laugh?—revealing thin, needle-sharp fangs, gleaming in the dim light.
That sent a chill through Damien, thinking of those fang-points sinking into his own flesh. There was a second sensation. A brief pang of longing. He chose to ignore it.
“Perhaps I will and perhaps not.”
“What does that mean?” The sansmort’s brow wrinkled.
“It means, I also am in a dilemma, M’sieu le Sansmort. And I may have a way out for both of us. Now, you can listen to what I have to say or—” Damien didn’t finish, just applied pressure to the cross. There was a faint sizzle as he pushed it against the creature’s chest. As long as the crucifix touched it, the sansmort would be unable to move. He’d have plenty of time to release the cross, leaving it immobilized, and find a stick or tree limb and drive it through the heart. Then, he’d catch his horse, get his sword, and hack off its head. Or not, if it was agreeable to his proposal.
“I’m listening,” the creature wheezed. “You have a captive audience, I’m afraid.”
So it has a sense of irony, even when faced with its own destruction?
Damien took a deep breath. “Take me. Make me as you are, and I’ll let you go.”
“What?” He couldn’t have believed any face, mortal or otherwise, could’ve shown such surprise. Damien repeated what he’d said. “I shouldn’t argue, but why?”
“I don’t want to die of the plague, and that’s inevitable. Make me
as you and I’ll be immortal. You can’t be harmed by human illness, can you?” Doubt slithered through Damien, momentarily quashing his plan. What if the creature could be infected? Then I’m certain to die, lying against him as I am. He felt his skin cringe, his whole body wanting to jerk away. He forced himself to stay still.
“I’m well beyond the reach of any human malady,” le sansmort growled.
“Make me as you, and I’ll give you a chateau full of living bodies, and all the blood you can drink.” Callously, he offered his servants, the serfs, and his family to the creature in exchange for his own survival.
Surprisingly, the thing appeared to hesitate.
“Think of it…freedom to enter whenever you wish…good, rich, red blood…no more scavenging…” Damien startled himself by the fervor in his words. “You don’t enjoy being a ghoul, do you? Why continue when I offer you exactly what you need?”
“You have a point, and not just the one on the end of that damned thing burning into my chest.” The creature coughed, swallowed, and nodded. The movement made a dry rustling in its flesh. “Very well, I accept.”
One last doubt niggled. “How do I know I can trust you? Mayhap I let you go and you’ll simply kill me.”
“And do myself out of an estateful of meals? I’m sansmort, not stupid. Besides,” it looked thoughtful. “It would be good to have a compagnon de nuit. I’ve been alone a very long time.” Its tongue, pale and long, thrust out, raking across its lower lip. “You look a tempting morsel. I could enjoy you in more ways than one.”
That sent a shiver through Damien. Whatever that means, I’ll worry about it later. For now… Nodding, he removed the cross and stood up.
Like a ragged shadow, the creature rose with him. Wings rustled and flapped. It made a leg, bent with remarkable grace, one hand gesturing delicately. The bow of a man at court. Can this creature have once been a noble?
“Geraint LeMaitre.” It was a travesty of a formal introduction. “And whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
“Damien la Croix, fils de le Marquis la Croix.” In case the creature had no idea of its location, he added, “Village de la Croix is a short distance from here. In Limousin.”
“Ah,” LeMaitre nodded. “I wondered the name of this place. ’Tis so different from Paris. Oui, I’ve come a long way in my wanderings,” he said to Damien’s surprised look.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, just that you’re here.”
“You can get rid of that now.” LeMaitre gestured and Damien looked down at the rosary. “You’ll have no need of it soon.”
“Oui,” he agreed. He tossed it into the pit. With the other hand, he unbuttoned the neck of his tunic. “Let’s get on with it.”
“With pleasure.” Le Matire took a step forward, placing a hand on Damien’s shoulder. Bony fingers brushed his forehead…and stopped. The thin face turned toward the trees. Damien followed the red gaze. A faint gleam peeked through the branches. “I can’t. Not now. Morning comes.”
“Then hurry.” Damien caught the hand on his shoulder, gripping the wrist, preventing him from pulling away. Now that he’d come this far, he had to finish. If I must wait, I may not again have the courage. “The sun won’t be up for minutes yet.”
“Non. This takes time. There’s ritual involved. It must be done properly or you won’t rise…and that would defeat your purpose, n’est pas c’ainsi?” Stepping back, LeMaitre pulled his arm from Damien’s grasp. He looked at the trees again, speaking quickly. “Go home. I’ll come to you tomorrow night. You have my word.”
“Let me give you directions…”
“No need.” LeMaitre took his hand, leaning forward. For a moment, Damien thought he was bowing over it. Then, he felt the sting, saw a welling of blood, and the sansmort’s tongue snake out and lick it away. It was wet but cold as a sliver of ice. Damien shivered. “I’ll find you by the call of your blood.” He raised his head, breathing deeply. “Ahhh…you’re truly delicious, my young chevalier. I’m going to enjoy quenching my thirst at your well!”
With that, he began to disappear, body breaking into fragments, dissolving bit-by-bit into dust until nothing but a vague man-shape hovered in the air. Then the wind swept through, tossing the transparent shards upward as the sun broke through the trees.
Staggering back, Damien rubbed his eyes. He was alone in the early morning sunshine. Standing at the edge of the charnel pit, bleak and stark and stinking in the pale light. I’ve been here all night? Did I imagine it all? Or…
The back of his hand stung. Looking down, he saw a long, red scratch across his knuckles. He remembered again LeMaitre’s tongue slithering across his skin, and the sensuous shudder it produced. He thought of the coming night, wondering what the ritual involved and found he was looking forward to that with as much fear and expectation as to his coming immortality.
A writer of French Huguenot extraction, Tony-Paul de Vissage saw his first vampire movie on television at age 6—the old Universal horror flick, Dracula’s Daughter—and was scared sleepless. He’s now paying his very permissive parents back by writing about the Undead.
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