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He died moments before reaching the door, his stiff and withered fingers still clutching the wrought iron key needed to escape. A rusted sword lay unsheathed behind him, half submerged in the rancid brown waters of the catacombs. Two white, swollen eyes protruded from under the visor of his helmet.
Elza stared down at the rotting corpse. Pushing her square glasses up her nose, she bent down and grabbed the rusted key in one motion. She carefully placed it into the door’s old lock and turned it - the key broke immediately.
Tossing the key stub aside, she contemplated her next move. She drew her Barton & Croft top-break revolver from the wooden holster across her chest and aimed the 7” barrel at the door lock.
The door flew open and exposed a flight of steep steps leading upward.
Following the steps, Elza emerged in the wine cellar of Count Richter’s castle – a place no one had seen in over 500 years, not since the fall of the Vampire Counts that marked the end of the Archaic Era(1).
(1)Defining the Archaic Era has been a challenge for scholars but most agree it lasted roughly 5,200 years. It is characterized by primitive human cultures and virulent monster empires – most notably the Vampire Counts of Tysalvania.
This was a land that belonged to the dead. The air was sour and saturated with unholy magic, simply breathing it made Elza feel depressed and empty.
Her boots clopped through a drawing room filled with faded furniture draped in cobwebs. She passed the dining hall decorated with portraits of frightening kings and nobles long since claimed by time. She endeavored to lay hands a bottle of wine resting in the cellar but a gigantic spider crawled on top of it and menaced her with its poison-soaked fangs.
The library was her last stop. Many of the wooden bookcases had melted away, leaving piles of warped tomes on the floor. She started sorting through them until she found her prize – a thick book bound in dark leather.
“You have a discriminating taste in literature.”
Elza’s eyes ventured to discern the speaker. A young man striking in figure was leaning against the far wall, a wall that had been empty moments before. He was clean shaven with a young, boyish complexion and a head of wispy blond hair that danced over his pale face like streams of golden water.
He smiled so wide the edges of his mouth seemed to disappear off his cheeks. “That’s Gregor Dietrich’s(2) acclaimed novel Where the Sky Ends, quite possibly one of the best romantic adventures ever written.”
(2)Gregor Dietrich (A.E. 5112 - A.E. 5176): a novelist from the Archaic Era. His passionate tale of a virgin princess’s forbidden love for an infamous caper in Where the Sky Ends was a best seller in its time.
He spoke in such a velvety voice Elza could feel it resonate through her body. “Well,” she began in a firm, diplomatic voice, “What can I say? I only read the best.”
“But you’re only interested in the third volume, I see.”
“I’ve read the first two already.”
“They’ve been out of print for centuries. Tell me the truth.”
Elza shook a spider web off her hand and placed it on the butt of her revolver. “All right, you got me. The third volume of Where the Sky Ends is actually a book on vampirism published in A.E. 5162. Back in the Archaic Era, research into vampires was forbidden by the church so Gregor had to disguise his work. And he was punished for it too – spent five years in prison.”
“Very good – intelligent and beautiful, I like you already,” the young man said.
Such a statement made Elza’s mouth twitch. She had coarse brown hair tied into two low ponytails, she wore a man’s shirt and clunky steel-toe boots. Dark freckles obfuscated her twenty-two year old face. She knew she wasn’t beautiful and she hated when men called her such, because a small part of her wanted so badly to believe it.
“I am Count Richter,” he said deliberately, as if he needed no introduction.
Elza swallowed. She had heard rumors about the Vampire Counts of Tysalvania, rumors about creatures damned with the curse of Undeath. Vile and selfish creatures poisoned by dark magic and a lust for human blood, strong enough to crush a man’s skull with one hand and seductive enough to bewitch a woman’s heart.
She slowly reached out and shook his cold hand. “Elza Fay, trey-du-fa(3).”
(3)"trey-du-fa": a classy Archaic expression that has survived into modern times. Translated, it means “How do you do?” and is customarily used by unmarried women when introducing themselves to men.
“Your archaic is exceptional.”
“Spent two years in school learning it.”
“Why do you want a book on vampirism? Permit me to guess: you desire a life without end.”
“No – but I was hired by a woman who does. And she’s not going to be thrilled if I schlep back empty handed. So. Can I make a deal with you? Lend me the book and I promise I’ll bring it back.”
Count Richter appeared behind her with an ear-to-ear smile frozen on his face, he only needed a blink to move. “No, I don’t want you to see a single page of that cursed tome, lesser men have been driven mad by its filthy knowledge.”
“I told you, someone hired me to find the damn book, I don’t care what’s in it.”
“I haven’t seen the sun in over a thousand years. During the Archaic Era I commanded armies of the unquiet dead and waged war against the living. I can’t stand the living. I stacked their dead bodies twenty high and carried them into battle on carts like they were animal carcasses.”
“I don’t need to know all this.”
“Death is so beautiful – it can make a girl like you even more beautiful.”
“Let me show you what I speak of.”
Elza drew her revolver but Richer grabbed her wrist, forcing her to drop it. She threw a boot into his abdomen with little effect. Richter swung his fist. It missed Elza and connected with the bookcase behind her with enough force to obliterate it to pieces. The strength of his undead arm was so strong there wasn’t a splinter left.
He grabbed Elza by the throat and snarled, showing a set of fangs two inches long stained with the blood of a thousand victims. He hefted her high into the air and then slammed her down onto a table. His lips caressed her neck for a few seconds, sending warm chills through her body. They quickly turned to pain when he bit down.
Elza screamed and kicked her legs, losing blood by the pint. From her shirt she drew a double action revolver and fired two shots into Richter’s face, dislodging him.
She jumped up and used the force of her falling body to smash the table. She grabbed a splintered piece of wood. Richter’s arm swung around and connected with her stomach, knocking the contents out and sending her body flying into a wall.
In his angry and ravenous haste to empty more blood from her body, Richter charged forward. He impaled himself on the wooden splinter Elza had taken from the table.
His rotten flesh split like butter. No human had ever managed to drive a stake through a night-walker’s chest before – there wasn’t even any evidence to suggest it was fatal. But it stopped Richter dead in his tracks.
His body became tense and his movements grew lethargic, like he was stuck in molasses. Elza found no desire to see if something as prosaic as a wooden stake could fell a vampire, she fled so fast her feet slipped.
Legs weak from blood loss carried her through the dining room. She was painfully aware of the legends surrounding vampire counts, once a person was kissed by one they were doomed to its curse. But Elza felt no curse upon her, only the fatigue of exsanguination.
She stumbled through the wine cellar only to find her path blocked by eight gargantuan legs. The spider that menaced her earlier had a very big mother, and she didn’t like the loud sound of gunfire.
Both shots connected with the spider’s face, geysers of viscous fluid erupted from its carapace. The monster threw its legs up for protection and charged forward blindly, knocking her down. She dove underneath its abdomen and emerged out the back, then she somersaulted down the steps into the catacombs.
The knight’s corpse wasn’t where it was supposed to be. It was standing in front of her, its arms dangling and a rusted sword clenched in its grip. Its lips had rotted away to expose the teeth behind, putting a permanent, macabre smile on its face. Vampire Counts were the lords and master of the dead and this poor soul must have fallen under Richter’s control.
“Zeisten!(4)” Elza blurted.
(4)"Zeisten": an Archaic expression that means “Shit” or “Damn it”.
The sight of a coffin walker was frightening enough but now the bite-mark in her neck was swelling with pain. She could hear Richter’s voice in her head clear as day, commanding her to come back to him and return what she had stolen. The curse was upon her now, her skin was clammy and her mind was clouded with thoughts that weren’t her own.
The corpse-thing swung its sword. Elza easily back-stepped the clumsy swipe and fired point blank. The bullet passed through the zombie’s helmet with a quick spark, greasy brain-matter exploded out the back of its head. She shot again, severing its left arm from its body.
The zombie’s stabbed and in her haste to dodge, Elza fell down.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Elza could hear Richter’s scornful voice, “Return to me - now!”
“Get out of my head!” Elza yelled while firing. The bullet shattered the corpse’s rusted breastplate but did little else; it barely lost velocity.
“You’re not going to let me die, get this stake out of my chest,” Richter hissed.
The zombie was poised to deliver a fatal blow.
Elza’s life flashed before her eyes. It wasn’t a great life, lots of wine and debt, but it was her life made with her decisions. She had obtained a great deal of fame going to the far corners of the earth, but underneath it all she often felt the grip of more mature dreams. She wanted to get married and have kids, she wanted a family she could come home to.
It all seemed so far away right now. But the thought of giving up was more sickening than the sight in front of her. She discharged her final bullet which sailed along a swirling stream of heat and connected with the sword, destroying it. She jumped up and tackled the monster, her fingers sank into its muddy flesh. She raced into the darkness of the catacombs moments before succumbing to the curse - succumbing to Richter’s commands.
Before she knew it, she was walking back the way she came.
Richter was lying on the floor of the library like an invalid; he couldn’t find the strength to stand. His once youthful face was sagging and wrinkled, like all of the centuries were finally catching up with him. He reached out for Elza with a frail, claw-like hand. Driven by the curse put upon her, she dragged herself across the library towards him.
“R-Remove the stake …,” he told her over and over again in a weak voice.
Elza felt like a helpless observer watching her body obey. The motivation flowing through her limbs was magical in nature, she was like a puppet and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t break the strings.
“Get it out,” he grabbed Elza by the hair, “Take it out now!”
Elza’s hand was reeled in like a struggling fish. She spewed curses and grunts of defiance, she grinded her teeth and banged her head against the floor but still her hand moved.
“Take it!” Richter’s body slowly solidified into stone, he’d be dead within moments. His voice faded: “Take … take … ta …,”
“Gaaahhh!” Elza gripped the end of the stake and started to pull. Then, in a moment of sudden caprice, she jammed it in deeper, bringing Richter the death he so justly deserved.
“Goddess!(5) Mother of – son of a bitch! I told you I’d return the book.”
(5)Religion in the modern era believes the world was created by an omnipotent female known as Goddess. Her name is used quite often by the layman during times of frustration or crisis.
Richter’s voice was finally gone, as was the throbbing pain in her neck. She laid hands on the book she had gone through so much to pilfer and tapped it against her knee. She was only twenty-two years old, barely a woman, but she had managed to both kill that which was thought un-killable and procure one of the most elusive pieces of history known to man.
But she felt no jubilance, only the need to sigh.
The Order of Saint Margaret was a small habit of nuns stationed on the border of the Vampire lands. Those unfortunate enough to go any further usually found themselves in their care sooner or later. Elza made sure to visit them for a checkup.
She awoke from surgery on a stone pedestal surrounded by stain glass windows bearing the likeness of holy prophets.
“Don’t worry, you’re perfectly fine,” explained one of the sisters, “the curse is gone for good.”
Elza reached up and found scabs over Richter’s bite mark.
“Why you girls risk life and limb venturing into that castle to meet vampires is beyond me.”
“I went for a book, not a vampire,” Elza explained. “And don’t baby me. I’m Elza Fay – adventurer extraordinaire, I’ve been to hell and back so many times I get travel discounts. I’ve got boyfriends all over the world.”
The young sister smirked. “I would expect a girl your age to brag about such things, but remember it was I who put you to sleep before surgery. There is a part of your body that is … intact, shall we say?”
“Are we done here?” Elza snapped.
“You’re free to leave at anytime.”
Elza sat up and straightened out her pleated skirt.
The sister spared a glance at the book Elza had in her hands. “Why did you do it?”
Elza drew air into her nostrils and gripped the cylinder of her revolver. “Because I could.”
Raymond Coulombe, Michael Gallant, Timothy O. Goyette
|Louisville's Silent Guardians|