Three figures stood in darkness, the points of a triangle, above the circle of light. The subject of their scrutiny looked up and spun slowly, regarding each in turn. She paused when one of the figures spoke, voice reverberating slightly in the chamber.
“Tell us who you are,” she said, softly. The hood and the lighting made her shape indistinct, but the voice was gentle, almost motherly.
“My name is Christiana, my lords, of the Constantines.”
Another figure spoke, causing her to turn. This voice was deeper, more masculine.
“Then you must answer to me,” said this second figure. “What happened at the farmhouse?”
Christiana licked her lips as her hands clenched involuntarily. She trembled.
“My lords, we failed to kill the thing we were sent to destroy.”
“It was not a blood-drinker of our Tribes, my lords. It is a thing.”
“Very well. Balaur escaped in the Form of Bats and has already reported. We are interrogating everyone who survived. Now you will tell us what you know. Begin.”
“Yes, my lords. On the night of November twentieth, our forces gathered at the staging point. The Phrygian leader reported a successful lockdown of the neighborhood, with human agents prepared to deflect attention within the emergency management system. Other human agents—candidates for the Change—were already assigned to the vehicles we would use. According to plan, we entered the dayslumber with the understanding we would move immediately upon waking.
“Initially, all went according to plan. When we started to wake, those who rise quickly roused those who slept more deeply, and all were prepared for battle by the time we reached our target. Once at the farmhouse, Thessaloniki confirmed the presence of the target within the structure. We then deployed from the vehicles, surrounded the farmhouse, and ignited it.”
Christiana paused to shiver.
“My lords, the farmhouse burned well, but the structure was more stable than expected. It did not collapse quickly. We waited for several minutes while the flames spread, but nothing came out. We began to think our targets might have some sort of safe room against fire.
“Then…” she trailed off, shivering again at the memory.
“Then they emerged,” she whispered.
“Go on,” the voice urged.
“A wall of fire… exploded. I have seen bombs go off, and that’s how it looked. A piece of wall shattered into fragments and shot in all directions. What came through the hole—what made the hole—was the target. It moved like… like… like a stroke of lightning, only darker, faster. It went right through Kirsch, cutting him in two just… casually. Like chopping a vine out of the way with a machete. It was hard to follow, it was so fast, and I speak as a Constantine. And the partner, the turncoat, Mary of Thessaloniki, was right behind it. They were at the barn, backs to the wall, facing us, and we were still barely moving toward the breakout.”
“What of this fiery sword we’ve heard so much about?” demanded the third voice, a woman, low and angry.
“It—he had it in his hands,” Christiana replied. “It wasn’t on fire, though. He cut through Kirsch with a single swipe from a sharp piece of metal, nothing more.”
“Our gunners volleyed at the two of them, but something… magical happened. Our shots missed. All of them. All of them! Something… diverted the projectiles. Everything went around them.”
“I can’t!” Christiana half-screamed. “I don’t know! I saw the way our shots peppered the barn behind them. There were silhouettes of them in the wood. But nothing touched them. It was magic.”
“You are not qualified to make that assessment.”
“You didn’t see what I saw!” she screamed. “I saw bullets change course in mid-flight to avoid touching that thing!”
There was a moment of silence while Christiana got a grip on herself—literally. She wrapped her arms around her body, hands clutching opposite shoulders, squeezing.
“We started to close with him, we Constantines. The big-ass sword he carried caught fire, then,” she continued, staring into the shadows and her memory. “It lit like a flare, blinding white, bright as the sun. It blinded everybody, I think, except the monster and the traitor. The next thing I knew, he had already moved, waving that burning bar of metal around like… like I don’t know what. It was a blur, a line of light, and all along that line, Constantines were either burning dead or dismembered. At least half a dozen of us were downed right there, and our charge toward the barn was a charge in completely the wrong direction. The thing was too fast to follow, too fast to believe.
“I saw him throw the sword, turning end over end, and split Tony almost in two from the head down. Then—I swear it!—I saw the sword fly back to his hand when he called it, still trailing a comet’s tail of fire.
“The traitor was shooting, too. The two of them worked together with unnatural precision. He attacked some, she attacked others, and they never crossed each other up, got in each other’s way, or anything. And Mary was fast, too. Faster than any Thessaloniki I’ve ever seen, anyway. She seemed to have all the time in the world to aim and shoot, putting bullets in Constantine heads.
“Even so, we might have won. It would be close, but the magic protecting the monster wasn’t perfect. A few bullets hit him, but nothing vital. Even the burning rounds didn’t seem to bother him too much—not even when his clothes started to burn. This monster, this vampire monster, ignored the fire, ignored being set on fire!”
Christiana squeezed herself harder, sinking to her knees, still looking at nothing and no one present, eyes wild, voice filled with remembered panic.
“But we lost, and we knew we lost, when that… that… thing… came out of the barn.”
“Describe this thing,” ordered the first voice.
“It was a horse. No,” she corrected herself, “it had a shape like a horse. A big horse, bigger than any horse I’ve ever heard of. Its eyes were holes into the heart of a furnace. It breathed fire like a dragon. It screamed like a thousand horses dying in agony and made all our ears bleed. It came out through a barn door like its master came through a burning wall—explosive, fast, unstoppable. It ran into Carmen, the Phrygian, trampled him down and crushed him to death as though under the treads of a tank. If there is a Hell, this thing came from there to drag some of us back.
“And its master cut through more of us while it did this. I took a round from the traitor, I think, because I don’t remember anything else until my head healed.”
“What else do you remember?” asked the second voice.
“I was in the barn, piled up with the rest of the survivors. Someone cut off our hands and feet, then stacked us like sacks of meat in a corner. The horse-thing stood before us, watching the pile of us, and I could almost feel it daring us to move. –no, not ‘almost.’ I could. I’m a Constantine, not a Thessalonki, and I could feel it thinking its challenge. It wanted us to move. It wanted to crush us. To burn us. To eat us. It was the predator. We were the prey. Less than that—we were fodder.”
“And did you?”
“Dare?” she squeaked. “No! I lay there and pretended to be dead. The horse-thing, this beast, this servant, was nothing I could handle, nothing all of us together could handle, and its master and his mistress were standing in the barn with it.”
“Reasonable,” decided the first voice. “Continue.”
“They… questioned us. About why we were there, who sent us, all the things you expect. They grabbed us, one at a time, out of the pile, stuck that sword through us to pin us like butterflies to the floor, and interrogated us. The monster didn’t do the questioning. He let the traitor ask the questions. He just stood there and…” Christiana trailed off.
“And?” prompted the second voice.
“Played with us,” she added, in a very small voice.
“What do you mean?”
“He… toyed with our souls. He… touched something. Inside. Tugged on it. Pulled on it. Just enough to hurt, just enough to let us know our immortal souls were his to play with, on whim.”
“You are not qualified—” began a voice, and Christiana screamed. It was a high, wailing sound that reverberated like amplified feedback for several seconds.
“He grabbed my soul and twisted it, you stupid son of a bitch!”
The echoes died down, faded away, died in shocked silence. Christiana curled into a ball, there on her knees, weeping blood and sobbing. Above, there was some shuffling as the three figures moved together and consulted, barely whispering. Eventually, they resumed their positions.
“Are you capable of continuing?” asked the second voice.
“I… yes. Yes, my lords,” Christiana replied, straightening, but remaining on her knees. Her hands fell to her lap, fingers twisting together convulsively. Blood smeared her face, her clothes. “I apologize, my lords—”
“Do not speak of it. You were interrogated. Then what happened?”
“We couldn’t give him the answers he wanted. He didn’t seem angry. He seemed… annoyed. His mistress went out and brought back handfuls of ashes from the slain.” Christiana shuddered again. “He summoned them.”
“He summoned them. The slain. The ghosts of those destroyed in the raid.”
“Impossible!” snapped the third figure. “When a vampire dies, there is nothing left!”
“Tell them that!”
“Quiet!” snapped the first figure. “Both of you! Let her tell it as she saw it. Continue, child of Constantine.”
“Yes, my lords. He used their ashes and called them back from death simply to ask them questions. He… he didn’t seem… it wasn’t much of a chore, to him. It was… troublesome?”
“How do you mean?”
“Calling up the dead was like taking out the trash. A minor trouble. The trash stank, so it needed to be taken out right then. He needed to know, so he called them up right then. He didn’t seem to think it was anything more than… than…”
“Routine?” the second figure suggested.
“Yes,” she whispered, eyes staring off into nothing—or into the past.
“Then what happened?”
“He got his answers.”
“How?” Christiana echoed. “He called up the dead to ask them questions and they told him. He expected them to, and when they didn’t want to cooperate, he forced them.”
“How? How did he force them?” demanded the third figure. Christiana looked back at it, almost sneering.
“I’m not qualified to make that assessment, but I would guess it was yet more magic.”
“Your insolence is noted.”
“If you expect me to be afraid, after what I’ve seen, you’ll have to work for it. He still has one of my hands.”
“Is that a concern?”
“I was fetching a vehicle, so I didn’t see it myself. I’m told he picked a random hand out of the pile, ignited the severed end a little, and the owner burned. He doesn’t trust us not to follow your orders and bother him again.”
“There is no such spell!”
“I’m not qualified to make that assessment,” Christiana repeated, sincerely, “but after what I actually witnessed, I believe he can do it. Completely. With all my black little heart.”
“That will be enough,” said the first voice. “Continue with your account. He used the ashes to call back the spirits of destroyed vampires?”
“It took him three tries to find the one he wanted. Each time, he seemed mildly annoyed, more from the… the tediousness, I guess, of picking a destroyed vampire at random and finding it was the wrong one. But he kept at it with an air of… of… I don’t know how to describe it. I can’t really judge that thing’s mental state. He seemed… ‘annoyed’ may be too strong a word. Mildly vexed, perhaps.
“He did it again and again, almost casually, until he summoned Phillip, who told him you sent us, and that you wanted him destroyed because of his cure for vampirism. Phillip’s ghost also told him about Balaur’s escape in the bats, and that he didn’t have much time. Then this thing… it sucked up the soul of the dead, Phillip’s ghost, like he did with the first two. He… it ate their souls.” Christiana shot a look up at the third figure as though daring it to challenge her statement, but it remained silent.
“He singled me out,” Christiana continued, “maybe because I was on top of the pile. He looked at me with those eyes,” she shuddered. “Those empty, black, soul-sucking eyes! He fixed me with them and there was nothing I could do. He had me crawl over to the pile of severed limbs and pick out mine. He stuck my feet back on, as well as one hand. He… he touched them, sort of melted them where they were cut, and they were attached again. They didn’t work perfectly, but they were on and my healing started making them work. He told me to get one of our vehicles, and I did. He let us go.”
“Did it occur to you he might be following you or tracking you?”
“No. Not then, not later, not ever. Not even when I pulled into the building we used as a staging area,” she declared. “He didn’t give a cold fuck about us! He wasn’t interested. He didn’t care! And don’t tell me I’m not qualified to have an opinion! I was there! That gives me all the qualification I need!” Christiana calmed herself a little and resumed.
“He wasn’t interested in us,” she repeated. “He never was. We were never… never anything but things. Obstacles. Problems to be solved, cold equations. He was as impersonal as a… as an AI with the social module broken. A chessplayer moving his pieces. A person with a jigsaw puzzle, trying to assemble the picture. There was nothing remotely human about him, just an infinitely cold, calculating machine.” Christiana paused for thought. “No. No, not a machine. A thing. A machine you can take apart and understand. He’s… a thing. A creature. I can’t even call him a monster, not really.”
“What do you mean?” inquired the third voice, sounding curious.
“A monster is something that wants something from you. Your life, your suffering, the meat from your bones, whatever it is. He was a creature. It—not he; it—didn’t care. We didn’t have anything it wanted, so it ignored us as much as possible, killed the ones it needed to, and couldn’t be bothered to concern itself with the rest of us, couldn’t bring itself to waste the effort—no, couldn’t be bothered to waste the effort to kill us. Those who survived encountering this thing did so because it was too lazy to kill what was no threat to it.”
“I see,” the female voice replied.
“Tell me this,” demanded the first voice. “What do you think of this thing? What are your opinions of it? What does it want, what will it do? Guess.”
“A wild guess? It wants to be left alone. Bothering it will make it notice you, and if it notices you, it will crush you—impersonally, dispassionately, but thoroughly enough to keep you from bothering it again.”
“You realize you are speaking to the Elders of the Tribes?” the second voice asked, softly, menacingly.
“I sort of suspected, yes.”
“And you still maintain this position?”
“If it notices you, it will crush you—impersonally, dispassionately, and thoroughly,” she repeated. “It’s like a vampire finding the tomb of Christ: we should leave it alone, and for similar reasons. Stay away from it. I will have nothing to do with it again unless it comes to me—and I will paint the doorway of my house with blood if that’s what it takes for it to pass over me. If it looks at me, I will fall to my knees and put my face on the ground and hope—and pray, to a God that despises us, or even pray to it, if it will listen—that it takes no notice of me. If you kill me tonight for what I’ve said or how I’ve said it, then I will die. And I will hope from beyond this world it never sees fit to call me back.”
A silence settled on the chamber for several seconds.
“You may go.”