Solitaire Till Dawn

by Aadler
Copyright 2000


Set sometime during Season Two (I'd say before the events of "What's My Line?"), this story is heavy on action and light on formal Buffy characters. Not that it totally ignores the night world as depicted in Sunnydale, not at all; it just shows that bad things can happen anywhere, or come from any direction.

Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox.


Part I

They almost get me at the intersection. I've been nineteen hours without sleep, and when the light turns red my foot finds the brake of its own volition, and a pack of them closes on the car during that full second my brain spends processing what just went wrong. I floor the accelerator and the Accord surges forward, I go straight over three of them and several more fly away from glancing impact. It's over so quickly I've only begun to register the threat, never mind the escape, and a thin hand smashes the window on the passenger's side and begins to quest within in blind search for prey.

The street ahead is clear for the moment, I grab the thing's wrist and saw the arm back and forth across the crenellated glass in the window frame. He's not impressed, the hand clutches my sleeve and he begins levering himself in through the window from the roof and it's a woman, face bloody and snarling and bestial. I close my other hand on one of her fingers (brace the steering wheel with one knee, for the love of God don't slow down) and wrench outward. It's like bending iron sheathed in rubber, but hysterical strength can reinforce the basic bone density only so much, and I'm a bit hysterical myself just now, the finger breaks and she howls and yanks herself six inches further inside.

Five to eight seconds since my foot first touched the brake, that's how long it takes me to shift from reaction to reasoned choice. The Glock is in the open console at my right and the woman has a death grip on my right arm, I have to reach down across my body with my left hand, against the encumbrance of the shoulder belt, while holding a straight course with my knee and watching a creature from hell hauling herself toward me along my sleeve. Next to impossible, if I had a choice.

I put two 9 mm slugs into her face at a distance of inches, hammering her so hard she actually loses her hold on my sleeve, and I snatch my arm away and jam the brakes. The majority of her body is still outside the car and inertia rips her out of the window frame, I have both hands back on the wheel now and steer the Accord into a screaming end-swap, wresting back control exactly in time to drive over the woman as she's pulling herself to her knees. Some of the others have tried to capitalize on my brief detour, but I'm away again long before they can cross the distance.

I've been lucky, this is my fourth such escape in the past three hours, and the first time one of the things has actually gotten a hand on me. Nerves still shredded from the flood of adrenaline, I nonetheless force my mind into hard, clear paths of thought. It's too much to hope that something prevented Corinne from coming to this town for our planned rendezvous -- she is punctilious about such things, she would have found a way to notify me -- and next to impossible that she and the children could still be alive in the charnel house around me. Cold logic tells me they are almost surely out in the streets hunting blood, like the dreadful scarecrow I just ran down. And yet I can't leave without knowing.

To so bind myself is ridiculous, the risk exponentially out of proportion to the most remote possibility of doing them any good. My survival thus far derives from a near-miraculous concatenation of circumstances: I had to refill the tank of the Accord twenty miles before reaching the meeting point, so I arrived fully fueled; I didn't remove the Glock from the center console before leaving Memphis (I have a permit in Tennessee, but not Missouri, I'm breaking who-knows-how-many laws right now and would welcome arrest); I came in through what may well have been the only possible window of safety, sooner and I'd have been caught with the other townsfolk, later and the moving barricade at the outskirts would have picked me off.

And the girl. Her insane, hopeless, magnificent assault. What had she thought she could accomplish against the dozens converging on me while I sat uncomprehending in the truck stop parking lot, dull with fatigue after a day on the highway, unable to recognize the grim silent purpose behind their approach? She came from nowhere, leaping into their midst like a tigress, striking about her with the focused fury of total commitment and utmost desperation. These creatures are strong, strong as madmen, but she absolutely drove them back for the few crucial seconds I needed to regain my wits and plow through the closing circle.

By the time I found enough clear space to swing around and return for her, she was gone, dragged down by the relentless horde. She gave me a chance at life at the cost of her own, and I probably will never know her name.

Again automatically, I resume the loose route I've followed ever since the flight from the parking lot. Past the mini-mart, down one of the principal streets until I'm almost to the ramshackle motel. Left in the direction of what passes for the town square. Loop around the access road leading to the water tower, spray-painted with the inevitable adolescent hieroglyphics. Left again at what may be a small school or a large post office. Vary, switch over, try not to become too predictable, use familiar territory as a base point from which to range for any sight of Corinne, the children, the family minivan. Twenty-five miles an hour is sufficient speed to keep the things on the street from coming after me ... until they run out of easier victims, perhaps, or until someone with more intelligence directs them to build a trap for me.

Those I've so far encountered aren't capable of such advanced thought, but someone arranged the gauntlet of trucks endlessly circling the town, barring the few roads leading out; and someone must have taken steps to close off communication to the outside world (even my cell phone is useless, I don't know if it's because of the mountains or if something more is at work). Sooner or later that governing mind will turn its attention to tidying up the remaining details. At first, I believed I could hold out just by maintaining constant motion until the sun came up. Now I doubt it will be so simple.

In fact, I have no guarantee sunrise will improve the situation. These creatures -- go ahead, call them vampires, shying away from the truth won't change it -- aren't held firmly to the restrictions of legend. A person killed by them joins their ranks within minutes, rather than waiting the traditional three nights. They cast shadows, they have reflections, they show no obvious aversion to the cross. (That last is an extrapolation, but a reasonable one: how could they have dragged the two screaming men from the church, if they were repelled by the symbol of Christ?) If I hadn't seen them feeding, seen them shake off multiple bullets to the center of the chest, I might be able to pass this off as drug frenzy. No, these aren't movie vampires, I can't afford to assume the sun will destroy them or even drive them into hiding.

Still, I've little other hope to cling to.

My assets are meager. Two-thirds of a tank of gasoline, enough to keep the car moving until morning. The Glock, with two fifteen-round magazines (pre-ban), one unused, one with three to six cartridges remaining. Metal-and-glass shielding on top and three of four sides, the glass useful mainly to prevent the predators from securing a hold (and with the front passenger window out, I'll have to be triply watchful over that side). End of list.

Liabilities are rather more substantial. I'm outnumbered beyond reason; the sign at the city limits said POPULATION 342, and by now most or all of them are my enemies. No weapons of wood, or fire, or silver, or means to make them, or evidence they would be efficacious. An economy-sized automobile, instead of an SUV with a larger engine and more rugged suspension.

Most damaging, I'm worse than alone. By myself, I could pick my moment and abandon the car at a point nearest to one of the surrounding low mountains, trust in luck and guile and darkness to lose them in the woods, or in broken tree limbs to provide the material for spears or torches. By myself, I might have tried to thread through the roaming barricade at the edge of town. But no; the prospect, however dim, that Corinne and the children might yet be alive in some obscure sanctuary, makes it impossible for me to leave, and likewise unacceptable that I risk my life in any fashion that doesn't aid them. To attempt escape with the purpose of returning with help isn't viable, it would take far too long to convince outside authorities of the truth of events here; and if they did believe, the most expedient course of action for them would be to cleanse the town with napalm. However little I may be able to do, I can offer my family a better chance than that.

If I can stay alive myself. If I can find them.

Many IFs.

Three more times in the next twenty minutes I try my cell phone, no longer with any thought of reaching anyone on the outside, but repeatedly punching the number of Corinne's phone. Each attempt is met by the CALL FAILED readout on the tiny display. I have a voltage converter plugged into my cigarette lighter, so battery power isn't a concern. Dialing without letting myself slow down or swing into a cul-de-sac, that's a different matter ...

My eyes don't register the patterned motion until I'm past the street, and it's another three or four seconds before my brain assigns a meaning to it. Pulse quickening, I place the Glock ready at hand, and ease the Accord into a wide turn that offers no opportunity for approach, moving back to the location of the sighting.

The central town square is an island of manicured grass and graceful trees, punctuated by antique lampposts, curved benches, and the mandatory Confederate statue. Two or three dozen vampires are moving about on the grass, with more drifting in from the outskirts to join the throng. At first glance they seem to be partaking in some arcane choreography; a second look, as I circle the square at a prudent speed and distance, tells me their actions are in response to something taking place within the main body of the group. A moment later I cruise past a gap not yet filled by lurching bodies, and the inner mystery is revealed to me.

It's the girl, the one from the truck stop, moving among them with an effortless fluidity that is almost leisurely. She thrusts something into the chest of one of the lunging figures, steps away to backhand a second one and swings a looping kick into the face of a third, and has shifted three quick steps to the left to address yet another adversary by the time the first has completed his fall to the ground. The casual ease of her strikes is almost enough to mask their rapidity and force, but the square is to my right and through the shattered window I can hear the whipcrack impact of each blow: quite similar to the sound effects inserted into martial arts movies, though true weaponless combat seldom approaches such a level.

This is not at all like the lightning assault at the truck stop, and by my second circuit of the square I have identified the difference. She's pacing herself, fighting with a practiced economy of motion and energy, like a laborer who has settled into the rhythm that will allow him to continue working indefinitely. There is nobody here to rescue, so she is simply killing the creatures one by one, with no evidence of hurry or fatigue. I first saw her almost four hours ago now, and she may well have been fighting non-stop throughout the interim. Phenomenal. Breathtaking. Impossible.

I give my horn the quick tap used by drivers to attract attention without startling or angering their neighbors, and after a few seconds I follow up by blinking my headlights a couple of times. The girl detaches herself from the murderous impotent mass in the square, taking down two more of them on the way, and moves to a point I will pass on my next orbit. I've turned on the interior light so she can see me, and as I approach her position I begin to call, "I'll slow down the next time around --"

By then she is inside, sliding through the broken window as smoothly and precisely as the stroke of a piston, and is holding something quite sharp against the underside of my chin. "Keep driving," she tells me, firm and focused. "If they overtake us, you die first."

"I'm human," I protest through a throat suddenly dry and tight.

The pressure under my chin doesn't vary by a fraction. "All the more reason, then."

Technically she's asking nothing of me that I haven't already been doing for hours; all the same, at the moment I'm finding concentration somewhat more difficult. "I have no intention of letting them catch up with us, believe me. I just wanted to help you, you saved my life before, and ..." I'm not about to turn into the point she holds steady inches below my brain, but I cut my eyes toward her. "I still can't credit what I've seen. These things are two or three times as strong as normal humans, but you take them as easily as if they were children. By all that's holy, how do you do that?"

"It is my destiny," she replies, in the tone of one speaking of a matter so obvious that it requires no thought. "I was chosen by fate to fight such creatures as these." For the first time she looks away from her watch at the window, turning her gaze directly on me, and announces, "I am Kendra."

* * * * *

Part II

Since the first word she spoke to me, a fragment of my attention has been trying to make sense of her accent: rich, lilting, all but defying identification. It is as if she had been taught English by several different persons, for none of whom it was a native tongue. Still, hints of intonation and emphasis stir at faint ghosts of memory, and in French I ask her, "You are from Haiti?"

"I was born there," she replies in the same language. "But I have lived in many lands since that time. You have a discerning ear."

Her French is better than mine, and a marked improvement over her English, so I continue in that tongue. "My parents were missionaries, I was there with them for four years as a child. How did you come to this place?"

"I am la Tueuse," she tells me, once again as if pointing out the obvious. "Where the forces of darkness gather, that is where I must be."

"Of a certainty they have gathered here," I agree. "But I do not understand how you found them so quickly. Have you an oracle, or some method to detect and track magical energies?"

"Such tools are available to me," she says. She withdraws the sharp point from beneath my chin and turns back to the window, her voice suddenly remote. "But in truth, I am not here because of these monsters, they are here because of me."

"You mystify me. Can you explain?"

"I had captured a wizard who had been performing dangerous rites," she says. "While I was taking him to my ... to those who attend and oversee my actions, there was an accident, and he escaped me. He knew I would continue to pursue him, and he had been separated from his customary instruments, so he seems to have attempted to turn this village into a generator to supply him with power."

"A living man did this?" I gasp, appalled. "He brought about the deaths of hundreds, simply to avoid arrest? Name of God, why did you not kill him when you could?"

She sighs. "Before this, he had not appeared to be malevolent, merely irresponsible. And, as you say, he is human. My position allows me to slay only demons." Her mouth tightens. "However, the events of this night have persuaded me I may have been mistaken regarding his humanity. If I can find him, I intend to carry his heart back to my patron, to be tested for demonic taint."

I have to ask. "And if there is none?"

"Then I will confess my error, and accept whatever judgment they pronounce upon me." She looks to me again. "Enough. I gave you an avenue of escape, hours ago. Why do you remain?"

My hands clench on the steering wheel, and in a second or two I trust myself to speak. "I was to meet my wife and children in this village; it is a convenient midway point between Memphis and St. Louis. I was behind schedule, so they should have arrived before me." Despite all my efforts at control, a harsh tremor has forced itself into my voice. "I cannot leave. If they are alive, I must try to save them. If they, too, are now vampires, I must try to destroy them."

She nods, accepting it, but her answer jolts me. "These things are not vampires. A community of this size could support no more than two or three true vampires, even if they supplemented their diet with the blood of animals."

I look about me at the lifeless figures endlessly wandering the night streets, and I am at a loss. "What, then, are they?"

"They are mystical constructs, with characteristics of both wampyr and zuvembe. Truly, I believe the man I seek -- he calls himself Ucharne -- has adapted the mechanics of a vampire power-gathering ritual known as the Harvest. If I am correct, he will have bound the few resident undead to his will, and sent them out to multiply. Their offspring under this spell are but feeble imitations -- true vampires are stronger than those you have seen, and much more quick -- but each one can spread the infection, and each death makes their master more powerful."

"Each death ... sacred heaven, how strong must he be now?"

"Enough that I may not be able to defeat him," she answers calmly, "though I have tried to weaken him by killing his creations while I search for him. Even so, there is more. From my studies I believe a spell such as this will peak at dawn. The accumulated energies will surge outward at that moment, consuming all life within the boundaries of the spell, probably the whole of this village. If I have not found Ucharne and overcome him before sunrise, I will die as well. If by chance I am outside the boundaries, the flood of diabolical power will still make him all but invincible for months to come."

That settles one question: there will be no need for anyone to build traps for me, the entire town is a trap. And my family ... even if they have somehow survived until now, they are inside a ticking bomb. "We have to stop him," I hear myself say. "What can I do?"

"Nothing." The dark, regal face is impassive. "You cannot fight his army alone, and I cannot take you with me, I would be slowed and my attention diverted by the need to protect you. It is clear that Ucharne has hidden himself, waiting for the crescendo of his enchantment, and I cannot find him from inside this vehicle. I must return to foot search, and you must flee."

"I cannot," I protest. "I cannot desert my wife and children."

"You cannot help them by remaining," she replies. "I am sorry, but it is so."

"Surely there must be something ..." I rack my wits, frantic for inspiration. "I have a pistol, if you ever locate him I can help you to attack him."

For the first time she shows interest. "A firearm? Ucharne would not like that, no. Wizards hate guns. A coordinated assault, with me driving in to close with him and you striking from a distance ..." She looks to me. "It is a good suggestion, but you must understand: I have more than human speed, and I have been trained to evade mystical strikes. The risk for you would be much greater than for me; you would provide him with an easier target, and would serve mainly as a distraction."

My hands are clammy on the wheel. I don't want to die. I don't want to volunteer to draw the fire of a mad magician. "So," I say. "First we find him."

She shakes her head. "No. That I still must do alone. I have seen your automobile several times tonight; the village square where I joined you, do you pass it often?"

"Five or six times an hour," I confirm.

"Good." She gathers herself in the passenger's seat. "If I can determine where Ucharne hides, and if there still is time before sunrise, I will wait for you there. Stay alive, and try to conserve your cartridges." Before I can answer she is out of the window, as effortlessly as she entered, and disappears into the night at an easy run.

The air keening through the empty window seems colder somehow. At last there is a plan that extends farther than surviving the next few minutes ... but the enemy we face now has a name, and the odds against our prevailing are stark and unsettling. Then there is Kendra herself; she is a potent, vital personality, and even after such a brief acquaintance her absence makes me feel more vulnerable and isolated than when I was truly alone.

I have had far too much experience with solitude recently, although of course never under such harrowing conditions. I miss Corinne more than ever, I ache for what went out of my life when we began the necessary separation. I have an orderly, disciplined mind, and it has served me as well in my transitional pseudo-bachelor state as in holding onto my sanity through the nightmare now surrounding me; but without Corinne's passion, the volatile impetuous brilliance that made the St. Louis firm so eager to offer her a trial position, I am incomplete and unfulfilled and lonely. A part of me would rather have her here beside me, in this literal valley of death, than return to the life I have known without her these gray vacant months past.

I mouth a silent prayer that Kendra may meet with quick success in her search, and once again return to my own. Mini-mart. Motel. Town square. Water tower. A sparsely housed stretch of near-countryside, silent cattle standing in wire-fenced pastures behind homes where all the lights burn but no living human is seen. Back to the square. School/post office. Truck stop. Water tower. Square again. Watching for Corinne, watching for Kendra, watching for any group of faux vampires moving with a semblance of purpose, for purpose might be followed back to the yet-unseen Ucharne. Watching for my wife, my children, my lost life.

My fault. I should have gone with her, supported her through the turmoil of her mushrooming professional success. Stood beside her, at least shown more patience during the telephone conversations that became progressively more brief and infrequent. Why should she look forward to talking with me, when I can't stop the reproach and resentment from darkening my voice whenever we speak? She wanted to prove she could meet life on her own terms, and I wanted to give her the chance she deserved. I still don't understand how it went wrong.

I had hoped our planned meeting in this place might provide an opportunity for us to reconnect with what we had once been. Now I will be grateful if we are still breathing after the cold, deadly advent of dawn.

* * * * *

Increasingly, as the hours pass, I see bodies on the streets and sidewalks and occasional lawns. I welcome this as evidence that Kendra continues to thin the ranks of the opposition, but I never catch further sight of her, though I long since adjusted the sequence of my automobile search so that I pass the square twice in each fifteen minutes. My efforts with the cell phone have become more perfunctory; I won't allow myself to quit, but I doubt I've tried Corinne's number more than half a dozen times since Kendra's departure. I am nearing a full day since I last slept, my driving is becoming mechanical, I have repeatedly swept practically every section of this town accessible by car and seen nothing (other than Kendra's fallen foes) to bolster my spirits. Sunrise cannot be more than an hour away, and black hopelessness creeps up on me like stagnant water.

I am about to insert a tape into the cassette desk, reasoning that loud music may help fight back the lethal weariness, when I catch a spark of light in the rear view mirror. It is almost nothing, a tiny moving streak, but anything new merits investigation. I make another of my wide turns, religiously maintaining a safe speed, and start back along my former course.

Nothing. Whatever it was is gone. From its appearance in the mirror I know it was either close and small, or far away and high. There are no tall buildings in that direction, only the vague looming mountains and ...

The water tower. I am almost as far from it as my basic route can take me, but I see the light appear again and move along the side, at once bright and flickering.

Hate and triumph erupt inside me. The water tower! A high vantage point overlooking the town, a place where a murderous diabolist could hide from the implacable huntress on his trail and from which he can watch and direct his unliving army. We have him now, as soon as I tell Kendra ...

Problem.

I speed back to the square and circle it again and again, holding down the horn. We had both assumed she would find Ucharne and return for me, we made no provision for the converse possibility, but she has to hear this din and suspect its meaning. Certainly others do; more and more shambling figures appear from side streets and alleys to line the outer limits of my careening orbit, though none try to approach me.

Ten minutes of this, and no Kendra. By the time over a hundred of the creatures have gathered, I am too impatient -- and too unnerved by the growing numbers -- to wait any longer. I veer back out into the main thoroughfare and accelerate for the water tower. If she was right, I have little chance against Ucharne by myself, but my choices are dwindling rapidly. I'm racing the sun now ... and finally, finally there is some meaningful action I can take.

I am not trained to evade mystical strikes. But perhaps Ucharne has no greater facility in evading bullets.

* * * * *

Part III

Having no wish to draw more notice to myself than necessary, I have driven without headlights for most of this night, reserving their use for areas where I needed them to see my way. They are still off as I approach the access road, and here I must make a decision. I have not left the security of the Accord since trying the pay phone at the mini-mart (at which time I established the limited effectiveness of the Glock against the walking dead). If I try to go the rest of the way on foot, I will be terrifyingly vulnerable; if I drive it, even without lights, I will lose any possible advantage of stealth.

It is not an easy choice, but it is straightforward. Added safety now will only increase the risks later, and it was in hope of such an opportunity that I refused to consider any attempt at escape. I turn before reaching the road and pass behind the motel, and there I stop the engine and quickly abandon the car, unwilling to remain near it once its protective motion has ceased. I chose a moment when I could see no one ahead or in any of the mirrors, and I walk now in imitation of the loose, aimless gait I have had ample opportunity to observe. With luck, anyone tracking the vehicle's progress from the tower will believe it has proceeded on some new or repeated variation of the pattern I have followed all night. With luck, no unliving fellow pedestrian (still none in sight, God be thanked) will hear my breath, or smell the chill sweat of dread on me.

The walk is interminable, fear a living thing clutching at my throat. I deal with it as I do with all pressing matters: icy, meticulous attention to detail. The Glock held close to my body, I remove the magazine and replace it with the unused one; then, tucking the pistol into my belt, I thumb the cartridges from the ejected magazine, counting, and reinsert them one by one. Four there, fifteen in the unused magazine, one in the chamber, for a total of twenty. I would prefer a long sword, a flamethrower, a scoped sniper rifle, and Kevlar armor around my throat, but I am not defenseless.

Halfway down the access road, I have seen no further incidence of the light that first attracted me, and it is time for me to begin thinking of the next step. A chain link fence surrounds the base of the tower, topped with barbed wire. Clearly it has done little to discourage teenaged visitors -- the spray paint on the body of the tower attests to that -- but it poses some problem for a man wishing to escape notice. Reaching the fence, I follow its perimeter to the back, where at least I am less visible from the road and the majority of nearby buildings. Even so, climbing the fence makes me feel freshly conspicuous and exposed. I use my jacket to pad the top strand of barbed wire (not how one of the undead would behave, I'm sure, but I can't afford to lacerate my hands just before entering combat) and clamber over. I don't fall, I don't drop the Glock, no welcoming party awaits me on the other side. For the moment, disaster has declined to strike.

Within the fence, a ladder leads upward to the main body of the tower. I am almost to it when I realize that the nondescript heaps of rubbish at the bottom are in fact bodies, two of them, smashed and motionless. I watch them, myself unmoving, for well over a minute before my courage returns sufficiently to allow me to continue forward. I take hold of the ladder and begin to climb.

I try to ascend quietly, and listen for some hint regarding what waits above me. At first there are only random noises, muffled by the wind and difficult to distinguish, but as I near the point where the railed walkway circles the immense water tank, I can hear scuffling noises from the far side, feel the vibrations of vehement movement transmitted to me through the tower structure, and then the sharp clang of metal striking metal.

I am late to the party; Kendra has found Ucharne after all, and engaged him without me. I pull out the Glock and go up the last several rungs one-handed, so that I emerge onto the walkway with pistol ready. Forward, as softly and quickly as possible, prepared to loose an instant sleet of bullets but determined not to endanger Kendra by firing wildly. As I round the curve of the tower body I see them, and it is clear that my arrival could not have been more opportune. There are four of them, none immediately identifiable as a renegade wizard, she has retreated up the secondary ladder that arcs up over the dome of the reservoir and there, half-reclining, she holds them momentarily at bay with a sizzling, smoking highway flare (the light, that's what I saw, that's why she didn't join me at the square) and tentative swings with some weapon I can't make out through the glare of her impromptu torch.

In her current position she can't use her speed and agility to their best effect; but her adversaries, hampered by the broad curving smooth surface, can only approach her by way of the secondary ladder she occupies. I brace myself in my best reproduction of the isosceles stance, aiming for the back of the head (body hits cause them pain, but only a direct penetration of the central nervous system will slow them for long), and squeeze off two shots in a fraction of a second. The one nearest her stands straight up, jerking as if in a seizure, and falls backward from the ladder. He doesn't knock loose any of the others, as I had hoped he might, but his body strikes the railing at an angle that sends him cartwheeling over it, to be lost in the night depths below. His companions are too slow-witted or dumfounded to react at first, but the defender with the flare gives a little cry of surprise and alarm, and the shock of that sound all but freezes the heart in my chest.

I have been deceived by the angle, the shifting light from the flare, the urgency for quick action, and my own preconceived expectations. This is not Kendra. It is Corinne.

The other three on the ladder have begun to respond to my intrusion. I shoot the bottommost, for with their attention turned from Corinne the sharpest peril is now to me, and he is best situated to reach me first. The bullet takes him in the eye -- good -- but he falls to the walkway, screaming and clawing at his face, rather than going over. I dart forward, meaning to shove him off the edge beneath the railing, but the next one drops from the ladder to land in front of him, and it suddenly seems more desirable to backpedal, firing as I go.

My aim is well out, one bullet perforates the shoulder of the deputy's uniform she wears and two more fail to find any target. The fourth catches her in the throat, and she promptly drops (spinal cord severed? that would be nice), and the last one is coming at me fast, eyes blazing golden from a face twisted into gargoyle-like planes and ridges.

I shoot as fast as I can pull the trigger, this one isn't like the others, he staggers under the desperate fusillade but keeps on coming, awful teeth bared in a grinning rictus of triumph. "I can keep this up ... longer than you can, pansy man," he gasps in a bubbling wheeze, and the slide of the Glock locks back, I eject the spent magazine and grope in my trousers pocket for the depleted spare, still stumbling backward. I have practiced in range firing but not in combat reloads, so it actually speaks well of me that I have the second magazine in place and my thumb on the slide release when the wounded vampire lunges across the distance separating us and plucks the pistol from my grasp with a speed and force that numb my fingers.

"Oughtta use this on you myself," he sneers, inspecting the Glock. His voice is stronger, the punctured lungs already healing. "But naw, living blood is too good to waste, and besides, I got orders." He casts the pistol over the railing and starts for me, the horrible toothed grin widening in anticipation. Then he halts, his face going blank; his head inclines forward in a thoughtful nod, and keeps on going, toppling free from pilotless shoulders, and head and body dissolve in a cloud of dust, instantly whirled away and dispersed by the night wind that buffets us at this elevation.

Behind the empty space where he stood is Corinne. She's a tall woman, five feet ten inches, and a dedicated racquetball enthusiast; she holds what I now recognize as a folding camp shovel, and still stands in the follow-through of the precise powerful backhand with which she decapitated my late opponent.

I am too weary for joy or even relief, I open my mouth to murmur some inane greeting and instead shriek, "Watch out!" She spins, slashing out with the shovel, the vampire I shot in the eye reels as the blade bites into his face but he reaches for her anyway, and the two of us retreat quickly as he pulls himself along the railing after us.

Corinne runs into me as I stop abruptly: we have circled the walkway, and in front of us the female deputy has come to her feet and advances on us without expression. "Shoot it!" Corinne urges.

"Gun's gone," I pant. "Flare, do you have another flare?"

She presses something into my hand. "Last one," she says, and then we are back-to-back, she facing the male and I the female. I pull the cap off the end of the flare, my fingers still stinging from the forcible removal of the Glock, and fumble with the striker. The woman recoils as the flare ignites and I jab it at her face, and I feel Corinne's shoulders bunch against my back with the effort of another swing. This can't last, the flare won't burn forever and these creatures, true vampires or no, will never quit. I thrust again at the female, and almost lose my weapon as she makes a grab for it, the fizzing flame throwing lurid patterns of light across the designs blazoned onto the surface of the tower --

It is a moment of utter clarity, perfect unity of being: instant comprehension, instant decision, instant reaction. I leap forward, jamming the burning end of the flare into the woman's chest, and as she falls backward in her desperation to escape the torturing flame I withdraw it and rake it across the side of the reservoir dome. Silver reflective paint scorches and blisters and curls back ... as do the other things drawn there, not spray paint and not initials or hearts or school slogans or even ordinary obscenities. The woman is up on one knee and about to rise and I can't even spare the time for a proper follow-up attack, I kick her under the chin with all the strength I can bring to bear and continue to sear the flare back and forth along the tower's side, scouring away the vile markings with righteous, purifying fire.

Corinne yelps with pain and I hear her rebound from the railing behind me, then something grips my shoulder with excruciating power. I stab back over my shoulder with the flare, eyes smarting from the acrid smoke, and simultaneously there is a noise like an axe chunking into cured wood. The grip on my shoulder falls away, I half-turn to put the tower dome behind me and wave the flare in a back-and-forth arc that briefly halts the two besieging us from either side, and from her knees Corinne swings the shovel into the shin of the one who felled her. The woman catches a corner of my jacket, this time I grind the flare into her face, forcing her back and down, then turn again to slash it through the cabalistic characters and symbols still remaining on the side of the tower.

We've only been fighting for seconds, and they've crowded us into a single three-foot area of walkway, our defenses crumbling by the moment. The man grabs me again, reaching over Corinne and ignoring her stab at his groin, and on her third try the woman secures a hold on the flare and tears it away from me. "Make a break for it!" I shout to Corinne, "Go under him and try to get down the ladder --!"

They both scream then, arching and jittering as if convulsed by electric current. I wrench myself away from the one holding me, but there's nowhere to go and no time and, as it happens, no need. Slivers of roiling light break through crevices in their skin, spill from their eyes and open mouths, spread and join and brighten to blinding intensity. Then they are gone, Corinne and I alone on the circled walkway, green blotches dancing in my vision.

She pulls herself to her feet, drawing in a sharp hiss of breath as she straightens. "Are you all right?" I ask her.

"I think I cracked some ribs when he bounced me off the rail." She looks to me with doubt and wonder. "I can't believe you're still alive."

Her words jolt me back to awareness of the full situation, and sick fear surges through me. "The children," I moan. "Oh, my God, where are Daniel and Jennyne?"

"I didn't bring them," she tells me. "I arranged for a weekend nanny in St. Louis." The concentrated ferocity she displayed while wielding the shovel has faded, and she smiles with rueful amusement. "I wanted the two of us to have some ... quiet time together."

I put my arms around her, remembering the injured ribs and controlling the desire to hold her as tightly as I can. We simply stand, hair ruffling in the fitful wind, and when I open my eyes again it is to see that the sun has cleared the lowest ridge to the east, bright and blessed and shining with hope.

* * * * *

Part IV

I would happily remain for hours where we stand, serenely removed from the lifeless tableau stretched out below us, but Corinne won't hear of it; that dynamic, restless mind has already darted ahead to the next point of importance. "We have to get out of this place, fast as we can," she is urging as we make our way down the ladder. (I would have expected her to move more slowly, favoring her injury, but she is not one to be daunted when she has made a decision.) "Far as the rest of the world is concerned, we were never here at all. A whole freaking town gets wiped out, every law enforcement agency in the country will be camped here by tomorrow. Probably military intelligence, too, this is going to look like a chemical or bacteriological warfare test case. No way they'll believe the truth -- hell, I don't believe it -- and I'm not about to sit in a quarantine tank for the next five years while they argue over what to do with us."

Personally, I am unsure as to what any investigators will make of this scene; the two bodies at the base of the tower are now faint outlines of gray-brown ash, stirred by a morning breeze much softer at ground level. If all the town's other former inhabitants have similarly desolidified, little if any evidence will last much past noon. "I spent the entire night looking for you," I observe. "I thought I drove over every inch of ground a car could cover, but I never gave any notice to the water tower until I saw the light of the flare."

"That was the idea." Her voice is remote, no doubt the majority of her attention still turned to the details ahead of us. "I got in early yesterday, I found a quiet place back in the woods to relax for awhile and wound up falling asleep in the car. When I came out, all this had just started." She shudders. "I saw Night of the Living Dead when I was a kid, gave me nightmares for months, I only needed one look at those things in the streets to know I didn't want to stay down here. So I ditched the car, took the flares and the shovel, and climbed up to the maintenance platform to wait it out."

Of course; as an architect, Corinne is accustomed to evaluating structures in terms of problems and possibilities. "You chose a good place to make a stand," I say with approval.

"To hide," she corrects me peremptorily. "But yes, I liked it for defense, too. First part of the night, only one of the things came looking for me, and I got him the moment his head came up past the top of the ladder. Then half an hour ago, those others showed up." She bares her teeth in a snarl of satisfaction. "I took out the first in line, no problem, split his skull with the shovel and let the fall do the rest, just like with the one before him. I figured I could handle the others the same way, if I was fast and careful, but then that last one came swarming up the side struts like some big, horrible spider." Again she shudders. "I knew that guy was more than just a mindless zombie, so I struck up one of the flares and went after him, I couldn't afford to let him get a foothold. The bastard was too crafty, though, he kept me chasing him till the others made it onto the platform, and then I had to go backward up the second ladder, poking the flare at them to keep them away. I don't know how I managed to hang onto the shovel." She looks to me with a warmth I haven't seen for many months. "I brought four flares from the car, and I was most of the way through number three when you popped in. I'm not ashamed to admit, I was really glad to see you."

"We did it together," I insist. "You picked the spot, I showed up when you were cornered and outnumbered, we backed each other up and got through it. For once, it was the way it was meant to be: we did it together."

"No argument from me." She scowls in a sudden perplexity that is very near to suspicion. "I still don't understand the business with the weird writing, though. I never even really noticed it, how did you know to burn it away like that?"

"I suppose you'd call it a hunch." I'm not sure why I hedge about Kendra's role in all this, or even her existence; though she didn't say it explicitly, I got the impression the general public wasn't supposed to know of the activities of la Tueuse, but even so I should have no secrets from Corinne. "I know, that kind of intuitive leap is supposed to be your province, so maybe I used up my lifetime allotment in one shot. If so, I got a good bargain."

At Corinne's direction I range through the grass around the tower until I find the Glock, barrel packed solid with moist dark earth. It is registered to me, of course, and she wants to leave no traceable indication of our ever having been present. By the same token she sought out the exhausted flares and had me collect the spent shell casings from the walkway before we descended, wary of any fingerprints they might carry. (I know I fired sixteen shots up there, and I only found ten casings, but I don't mention the discrepancy; while I am fairly certain any skin oils will have been seared away by the heat of cartridge ignition, I have learned not to argue with Corinne.)

She is still lining out instructions as we reach the Accord. "Neither of us ever made it here, you tell your co-workers I called to cancel because of car trouble and I'll pitch the same story to my people. You get back to Memphis and act like you were there the whole time; if anybody checks on me, I'll hint that I blew you off because I've got a little extramarital action going on the side." She stops at the sight of the car. "Damn! Look, soon as you get back, you call the police and report that somebody broke your window and took off with, oh, say they got your briefcase, in a smash-and-grab. Collect all the glass you can find and throw it away in a public dumpster. Tape something over the window and run the car through a power car wash, then do it at least twice more at different places, then get the window replaced. We'll figure out something to do about the dents in the bumper and hood and fenders, those aren't too bad and a body shop might ask questions or even, God help us, tip off the cops. Come on, James, look sharp, we don't have any time to waste here!"

The aftermath of the terrible night is catching up with me, and Corinne's direction, necessary as it is, begins to grate. "I'll do all that," I tell her evenly. "Where did you park? I'll take you there."

She points the way to a stand of trees, and when we reach it I see a jet-black Lexus coupe, sleek and ominous as some evil gleaming insect. Corinne chuckles at my reaction. "Leased this sweetheart as soon as I got to St. Louis," she explains. "Minivan's fine for family stuff, but if I ever drove it to work ... well, I might as well tattoo MOMMY TRACK on my forehead, they'd never take me seriously again. It's a beauty, isn't it?"

I hate it on sight, though I could not present my objections in any form Corinne would accept. Hers is a many-faceted personality: contempt for "chick movies" (she prefers psychological exploration films, usually foreign), ruthlessly efficient household routine, love of classic jazz and shattering nihilistic heavy metal, rapacious predatory skill at draw poker and racquetball but utter mortifying ineptitude at chess. The relentless feverish ambition that powered her through architectural school while I continued my methodical advance up the hierarchy of an eighty-year-old accounting firm is balanced by her total devotion to the happiness and welfare and growth of our children, and this is the contrast before me now. The minivan represents one face of Corinne, the Lexus another, and the dissonance between them makes me uneasy.

"It's nice," I say as she eases herself into the driver's seat. "Are you sure you can manage the trip back? I can see it hurts you to use that side."

"I may be biting through my Day Planner by the time I get there, but I'll get there." She waves it off. "You still pay cash for gas, right? Good, keep it up. I did the same thing, this trip -- didn't want to use the company card for personal travel -- so neither of us will leave a credit trail that points here. Give me a call as soon as you make it home, okay?"

"I will," I assure her. "I just ... I wish we ..."

"I know," she says. The resolute toughness falls away from her, and there is sadness in her smile. "We'll set up another meeting, first chance we have, I promise. But for now, get moving." She starts the engine and pulls away. No roaring off, no spray of gravel from spinning tires, just smoothly gathering acceleration. Absolute controlled competence. Classic Corinne.

Mindful though I am of her injunction that I make a swift departure, one matter still must be seen to. I turn again to the Accord, intending to drive back to the town square, and Kendra is emerging from the concealing screen of trees. I am no longer really capable of surprise, so I simply raise a hand in greeting. "Good morning. May I offer assistance in transportation?"

I have automatically shifted back to French, and she replies accordingly. "That would be of much help. My thanks."

We have left the outskirts of the town, past a chain of empty trucks (some wrecked against one another or against trees or buildings, some jackknifed or overturned, some just standing unattended with grumbling engines) before either of us speaks again. "I was pleased to see that you survived," she says, "and your wife also. The children?"

"Safe as well, in St. Louis." My smile is faint but heartfelt. "She meant this to be an intimate rendezvous, a surprise for me. Fortunate for us all."

"Yes, we have had a great deal of fortune. I saw the signs of fire on the side of the tower structure, and the fragments of the characters that remained. Your work, or that of your wife?"

"Mine." Already it seems unreal. "She supplied the means, but when I saw the markings I remembered what you had told me of the power spell. I think I may have beaten the sunrise by less than a minute."

She nods. "I was remiss in not investigating that area. I reasoned that Ucharne would choose a refuge that allowed him an avenue of escape; it did not occur to me that he might have set the sigils of the spell in a different location. I commend your perspicacity."

"What of Ucharne himself?" Relief at my deliverance -- and my family's -- hasn't made me forget the instigator of the original danger. "Did you find any sign of him?"

"Ucharne is dead." Neither satisfaction nor regret shows in the dark, lovely face. "He had barricaded himself inside a small manufacturing plant, with the true vampires as an inner guard. Five of them; I was mistaken about the number who could live here, perhaps the highway traffic passing through provides them with added nourishment."

"Five." I remember the feral quicksilver power and savagery of the one I faced on the tower, and feel a chill pass through me. "That must have posed some difficulty, even for you."

"It could have. But Ucharne sent them after me once he knew I had penetrated his place of hiding. An error, that; he could easily have held until dawn if he had kept them around him, but I killed them one by one as they pursued me through the building." She looks to me. "At the last I think he felt you break the sigils, and tried to construct buffers to maintain the spell, but by then I was assaulting him directly. I would not allow him to concentrate or gather his will, and the backlash consumed him as it did his infernal creations."

I nod in slow comprehension. "We were fighting the same battle, on different fronts, at the same moment. You were correct, we have enjoyed great fortune."

But, my mind insists, perhaps not blind chance. Effective diabolism shows the existence of Satan, so the corresponding presence of his greater rival is at least strongly implied. And if evil men can call on hellish forces to work their will, why should not God guide His followers in opposing them? I think of Kendra's courage and skill and dedication, of Corinne's cunning and determination and final ferocity, of my own hopeless, despairing refusal to give up my search. We were soldiers, and faithful servants, and beloved children, and He has sustained us against the blackest evil.

Minutes later I say, "I did not think to ask where you wish to be taken."

"Last night you spoke of Memphis," she says. "If you are willing, I will travel with you that far. The city has a regional airport hub, and as I no longer need to contend with the awkwardness of transporting Ucharne, I can take a plane back to my current home."

I can't help smiling. "I never would have pictured you flying the friendly skies, like a common tourist."

For an instant she returns the smile. "Sometimes I use an alternative system, so that I do not grow soft."

No, she could not afford to become soft. "I did not argue with you last night," I say to her, thinking as I speak. "We were in a death trap, and the only real hope of survival for us all was to find our enemy and destroy him. But now ... how can you do what you do? Forgive me, I can see that you are superhumanly capable, but still you are little more than a child. What kind of life is this for you?"

"The only one I have ever known," she replies, in the same pointing-out-the-obvious tone she used last night. "My destiny was read when I was very young, and those who watch over me have spent many years preparing me. Though the powers of la Tueuse came to me only recently, when the previous bearer died, there was never any doubt of what I would be."

"Died," I repeat blankly. Why the word so affects me I can't say; I believed her dead before, following my rescue at the truck stop. But after speaking with her, after experiencing the electric vitality she radiates, such a thought seems impossible. "Died?"

"It is the way of my kind. 'One girl in all the world ...' When that One dies, the next is called." She turns her gaze on me, eyes as fierce and unflinching as those of a hunting falcon. "You are dismayed? Death awaits us all in the end; I will fall in battle, for a cause that makes a difference on this earth, and my name will be remembered in the annals of Those Who Watch. There are worse truths to face." I can only stare, stricken, and her expression softens. "I ask your pardon. I know you mean to be kind, but such kindness would only weaken me. My fate was written at my birth, and cannot be changed. I did not choose this, but I choose to accept it."

At last my voice returns to me. "I do not envy you, or your station," I say with careful gravity. "But neither do I pity you. If you will tell me your full name, I will see that my children, too, remember you and what you have done for us."

Some shadow crosses her face, and she answers quietly. "I do not remember my family's name, if I ever knew it. That, too, is our way. I am alone; there is only Kendra."

I do not know how to answer that, but something inside me is already speaking. "If it is not unwelcome or presumptuous of me, my family's name would be honored if you were to use it as your own."

She is so long in replying that I am sure I have offended or at least embarrassed her. When she does speak, it is with soft regret. "I do not wish to do what must be done. You do not deserve it, you are brave and loyal and full of caring. But it is necessary. I cannot turn away from what is necessary."

This doesn't sound good; do the watchers of whom she so glancingly spoke require that she remove inconvenient witnesses? I can't believe such a thing of her, but all the same I am disturbed. With complete sincerity I say, "I do not understand."

"I observed you with your wife, the few minutes before she departed. I kept myself hidden because I did not wish to interrupt your farewell with her, but there was another reason: I was concerned for your safety." She looks to me then, her eyes holding a quality I can't identify, but something inside me involuntarily clenches in response. "I do not know how matters stand between the two of you now, but this I say to you: the village where you were to meet her, where you found her at last, she came there intending to kill you."

The words carry no impact, so distant are they from anything my mind can grasp. "You are wrong," I tell her with unstressed flatness, my reply coming without thought and without heat. "What you say is insane."

"No, it is not. Attend: after the accident which facilitated his escape, Ucharne reached that village through the forest to the south, I following some hours later. As I passed through in pursuit, I came across a small pit dug in the earth: half a metre wide, a metre and a half long and deep. It was a grave, with tire marks leading away from it --"

"You know not what you speak of," I interrupt her, anger stirring within me. "You saw and heard her for only moments, you never met her at all. You have no conception of who she is --"

"Indeed, you know her as I do not," she says, breaking in as I did. "But I know what my eyes have seen. Also at the excavation were footprints, their maker wearing ..." She shakes her head. "Rubber boots, rain boots, I do not remember what Americans call them." Her eyes meet mine again, still brimming with that nameless emotion, and a dead weight settles in my chest as I finally name it: helplessness, for here is a pain against which, for all her martial prowess, she cannot protect me. She believes what she says, and aches at saying it. "Seeking you after Ucharne's immolation, I found your wife's vehicle just before you brought her to it, and in the back were those boots, alongside a roll of plastic sheeting."

"No." The word is a dry croak. "You are wrong. This cannot be."

"I saw what I saw. I sorrow for you, I have seen your devotion to her, but I speak the truth. Until her plans were disrupted by Ucharne's, she meant to kill you, wrap you in the sheeting to prevent any stains of evidence on the upholstery, and drive your body to a grave already prepared, then fill the grave again and leave. It could have been done in twenty minutes or less."

I say nothing, speech is impossible, madness roars in my ears. She raises a hand as if to touch me, and my arm jerks away in an automatic spasm of revulsion. The hand falls, and she turns in her seat to look straight ahead. "I have said what must be said," she tells me in the voice of the warrior. "Whether you believe, how you respond, these are yours to choose, but I have done what honor demands."

Still I make no answer. She is insane, her view of the world warped by those who shaped her into a weapon. She doesn't know Corinne, has no experience of the depth and complexity and interlinked contradictions that make up this intense, tempestuous, extraordinary woman.

... I got in early yesterday, found a quiet place back in the woods ...

... I don't know how I hung onto the shovel ...

... extramarital action going on the side ...

... no credit trail pointing this way ...

No. Please, God, no.

The highway unreels before us, and Kendra and I hurtle forward into the barren miles. Beside me she sits mute and motionless as chiseled stone, the beautiful fearsome stranger who has saved and destroyed me in the space of hours. The distance that separates us is measured in inches and infinity, the first fluttering threads of connection between us forever severed. Far back in our wake, long lost from sight, the empty town bakes under the pitiless sun, life and dreams and promises burned away to random ash.

So, too, my heart. So, too, the scorched mocking desolation of my heart.

end


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