The Vampyre's Kiss
by Derek Paterson
Originally published in 2004 by
EGGPLANT LITERARY PRODUCTIONS
Raechel Henderson, Publisher
Available again on Amazon.
Being a continuation of the adventures of Manfred, master swordsman, who first appeared in the novella,
The Kaiserine's Champion and enjoys further adventures in The Werewolf's Curse.
In my dreams the vampyre sometimes visits me. I never see his face, which is always wreathed in shadow, but I receive an impression of a fierce and dark intelligence that suggests his age must be measured in centuries. He sits for hours and tells me of his long life, of his loves and his victories. He has made many enemies during the course of his adventures. Most are safely dead but some remain, and are sworn to destroy him. Oaths of blood vengeance have been passed down from generation to generationvendettas that burn hotter than the sun itself.
He grows angry when he recalls the ambush in Guttzeig. The hunters trapped him inside the old church, sealing the doors and windows and setting fire to the building. Then they came at him from above, sliding down the bell-ropes, armed with crossbows firing silver-tipped bolts and sickles fashioned from that hated metal. In the running battle he killed a dozen men with his bare hands, but more emerged from the shadows and the wounds they inflicted upon him even as they died sapped his strength until, finally, he accepted that this was the end, the last bloody paragraph of his story.
Our conversation always ends with my asking, "What has this to do with me?"
And always the vampyre, laughing, replies: "Everything."
§ High Sazburg, capital of the Prussian Empire.
Six months later.
The stranger who sat down at my table uninvited had the kind of face one might easily remember. His bloodshot eyes suggested a life spent in pursuit of excess, while his broken teeth and scarred chin suggested he was no stranger to violence. Most striking of all, a tin cone occupied the spot in the middle of his face where his nose should have been. A leather thong looped around his head to hold the false nose in place. He laid one hand upon the table top, allowing me to study his thick, powerful fingers with their heavily callused knuckles. I knew enough about people to recognize the hands of a killer when I saw them. I wondered what had happened to his nose, and also what painful fate had befallen whoever had cut it off.
"They say you're good with a sword," he said.
"Better than you," I said. I finished my drink while watching him over the edge of my cup. His shoulder dipped and I knew was reaching for something under the table, probably a knife tucked into his boot. How I longed for subtlety but the chances of finding any in the drinking holes of High Sazburg were becoming increasingly remote. The fault was mine I suppose, for frequenting the city's beer cellars too often. Unfortunately I am the type who needs company.
He leaned forward, granting me a better view of his pox-scarred face and a whiff of his rotted vegetable breath. "That sounds like a challenge."
"Consider it a challenge if you wish," I said. "Let me have just one more drink, then we'll step outside and you can prove"
He slapped my cup from my hand, sending it spinning across the room. It shattered against a wall, narrowly missing a fellow wearing a dark blue cloak. For a moment it looked as if the fellow might take exceptionbut when he saw who was responsible he quickly took his hand away from his sword. Evidently he knew my charming companion, if not personally then by reputation.
"Bugger your drink, and bugger you," Tin Nose said. "Outside, now. You go first, I'll follow."
"What, so you can stab me in the back? No, thank you. I think I'll just sit here and enjoy the bonhomie, if that's all right with you."
His lips moved but no sound came forth. Then he stood, knocking back his chair in his haste, and thrust his unsheathed knife toward my heart. Truthfully I was almost tempted to allow it to reach its target. My thoughts over the past few weeks had become increasingly melancholic as I contemplated my miserable lot in life. I had wealth, I had fame, I had admirers. I was Manfred, the Kaiserine's Champion, winner of the bloody Arena contest that had seen too many good men die. I had rid High Sazburg of the curse of Otto Thenck, head of the Ministry of State Security, known as "The Magician" because he made so many people disappear. But I'd learned that real friends were hard to come by. More often than not the men who sought my company were only after free drinks or wished simply to boast that they knew me; and the ladies were attracted, not by my personality or my rugged good looks, such as they are, but by the scent I unconsciously exuded. I'd been living in the city for nearly six months and barely knew anyone aside from Duke Wilhelm and the Kaiserine herself. For a while my love life had been excellentthe most beautiful women in the Empire had formed a queue outside my doorbut ultimately such activity became meaningless, lacking romance and tenderness and, dare I say, love.
Such were the unhappy thoughts whirling through my head when I caught hold of Tin Nose's wrist and twisted with brutal force, snapping bones. His knife skittered across the table and fell to the floor. That should have been that, but instead of taking the hint and retreating like any sane man would, the fool reached for the sword hanging from his belt. He died with the blade only halfway out of its scabbard and a look of eternal surprise fixed upon his noseless face. Faster than his eyes could perceive and faster still than his sluggish mind could ever think, the point of my sword had found his heart, thus ending his miserable life. He'd sought the fame and the deadly reputation that would inevitably have become his upon defeating the Kaiserine's Champion. But like so many others before him who'd tread a similar path to false glory, he'd paid the ultimate price.
"En garde," I said, but he didn't hear me. His body crashed across the table and rested there, a monument to witless stupidity. I wiped my soiled blade upon his grubby jerkin before returning it to my scabbard with a flourish, since my audience expected no less. Some applauded, complimenting my skill. Others wore frightened expressions, which irritated me somewhat. What cause did they have to fear me? I was no wanton killer; I slew no one unless they sought to take my life and my name.
The beer cellar's doors flew open, scattering the crowd and revealing a half-dozen men clad all in black. They stared at Tin Nose's body, then stared at me. Their leader, a tall chap with a square jaw, smiled. "What have we here?" he said. "A lovers' tiff, perhaps?"
His men chuckled but oddly enough I didn't share their good humor. "It's none of your business," I said. "Turn around and begone."
"Not likely. You're to come with us, Herr Manfred." He spoke with authority; I wondered whose.
"Am I under arrest?"
He shrugged a shoulder. "If you like. Will you come quietly or will we have to carve you up?"
"What's the charge?" I said. "I have witnesses who'll testify that this man first tried to stab me with a knife before he drew his sword. I killed him in self-defense."
"His sword is still in its scabbard."
"That's because I was faster than him."
"So it would appear. He didn't really have much of a chance, did he?"
"None at all."
"Then that's murder. Anyone as good as you could have disarmed him a dozen times over. Instead, you butchered the poor fellow." He shook his head and tut-tutted his disapproval. "Surrender your weapon. Or else." Upon his signal, his men drew their weapons.
“If you want my sword,” I said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to prize it from my dead fingers.” Again I drew the handsome blade, a gift from the Kaiserine herself, and smiled at the odds. Six against one. That seemed fair enough.
Just as I was about to step forward and engage them, the fellow in the dark blue cloak—who’d hurried outside when the six men entered—hurried inside again. He leaned close and whispered to the leader, who listened to what he had to say. No casual observer, this; he moved with purpose and deliberation. A spy? The leader certainly appeared to know him. A moment passed, then the leader and his men sheathed their swords and backed outside, never taking their eyes from me. The crowd looked at me and at each other, their bewildered expressions mirroring my own surprise. They didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved. Nor did I.
The fellow in the dark blue cloak approached me, his hands spread wide to indicate he wasn’t going to draw his sword. He gestured toward the door. “If it pleases you, Herr Manfred,” he said, “someone would like to speak with you. She says she’s an old friend of yours.”
I was short of friends, so I accompanied him outside.
I recognized the coach before I recognized its occupant, who pulled open a curtain so that I might see her face. She resembled her late father Otto Thenck not at all; rather, she was a younger version of her beautiful mother, the Kaiserine.
The men in black must surely be her father’s men—Noseys, agents of the Ministry of State Security, High Sazburg’s notorious Secret Police, who were waging a very successful war upon the bloodsucking vampyres who plagued the city.
“Good even, Herr Manfred,” Eva said.
Hearing her voice again prompted memories to dance before my mind’s eye. When Eva and I had last seen each other I’d just murdered her father. Or perhaps “murdered” is the wrong word. He’d already stabbed me and meant to complete the bloody job when the enraged vampyre within me took over and I snapped Thenck’s neck like a twig. Unfortunately Eva had witnessed everything, but in running away had denied me the opportunity to explain. Or perhaps she hadn’t wanted to hear the explanation. I knew she was still around but I hadn’t enquired after her, sensing that my attentions would not be welcome.
The vampyre had been very quiet lately, but now I sensed he had woken up again and was observing events with interest.
I said, “Hello, Eva. It’s... good to see you again.”
“I hear you’re still killing people. You really should find a more constructive and rewarding hobby, you know.” Her ruby lips curved with apparent amusement, but her blue eyes glittered with what might well be frosty contempt.
“Did you just happen to be passing by?” I asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
This time her smile appeared genuine. “There’s no need for unpleasantness between us, not any longer. Come with me, Herr Manfred. We have things to talk about.”
She opened the coach door. I hesitated, not trusting her sweet smile for an instant. The coach driver didn’t seem too bothered one way or the other, but if he was a Nosey then he’d have a brace of flintlock pistols under his cloak and probably a set of throwing knives, too. The six men who’d drawn their swords in the beer cellar were still loitering nearby pretending to fuss with their horses while watching everything. One word from Eva and they’d be upon me in a heartbeat. Nor had I forgotten the man in the dark blue cloak who stood just behind me and to my right. I’d already decided he’d be the first to die if anyone made a sudden move.
I said, “Those buffoons just tried to arrest me. They wanted to cut me up.”
She gave a little sigh. “A mistake, which I rectified immediately when I realized what was happening, as you must surely have noticed? I asked them to bring you to me, not arrest you. They misunderstood the order.”
“You just can’t get decent help these days.”
“Will you accompany me, or not?”
What did I have to lose? My life? I felt I’d lost it already. I climbed into the coach, closing the door behind me. The window blinds gave us total privacy; light came from a glass globe suspended on a short chain from the ceiling. I sat facing Eva and wondered what she could possibly want from me—aside from revenge for her father’s death. I didn’t imagine for one moment that six months would be long enough to blunt the razor edge of her desire. Not if she was anything like her father. Or her mother, for that matter.
The coach started up. Its wheels clattered upon High Sazburg’s ageless cobblestones, prompting me to remember the other times I’d occupied this vehicle. It had taken me to the Arena, where I’d fought for my life against the Empire’s deadliest warriors and, eventually, against the arch-vampyre who’d been dispatched to assassinate the Kaiserine. I’d only survived those bloody events because of the Vampyre’s Gift that flowed in my veins, lending me superhuman strength and resilience. The Gift should have worn off naturally after a couple of days, since the vampyre bitch who bit me didn’t return to finish what she’d started—but thanks to Doctor Schmidt’s experimental elixirs and Otto Thenck’s cunning machinations the Gift still remained part of me, no less potent than before. Six months later, although I still possessed vampyre strength and enhanced senses that gave me an unfair advantage over any adversary, I had never crossed that awful division between life and death, between humanity and vampyre. And didn’t intend to.