Their mirrors rose again like the stalk eyes of an insect. The glass found a figure seated midway on the steps. It was so much smaller than Josephine's expectation that her eyes at first dismissed it as some disfeature of the shade, until it lifted a face that had taken a bright icy blue from the sheltering umbra, floating almost in isolation over a coat of engulfing fur. She threw down her mirror and tore a lanyard from inside her shirt, stuffing pendant yellow buds into her ears.
Susan hoisted herself up to the edge of the stone where she caught a glimpse of the figure on the steps. The vampyre seemed like something that might be blinked away, the distant sun dismissing her beauty like a vapour and casting her as ruined as the battered leavings of her feasts. As she was dragged back onto the crumbling ground a voice began to flow across the clearing and roll down onto their heads like a spill of cool, heavy gas. She watched the men stab soft buds deep into their ears and sit knotted up while Petrouchka's voice welled all around them, seeping through the cracks in the rock and soaking through the fibre plugging the passages into their heads. Despite their cold-sweating terror it began to stroke and coax their bones and muscle, twisting them as though between two fists and sucking them, one by one, onto their knees, and then onto their deadened feet. The voice pulsed with all the flushing speed of blood along their neural traceries until its invitation became the only course of action. Indemnified by the scars upon her neck, Susan could hear nothing of its lure and watched Josephine shout futile commands while Shaw's hand clutched her tightly against the sucking draw that he himself resisted only with his hold on her.
One by one, the conscripts heaved themselves up over the ledge like pinnipeds striving onto a shelved beach, boots battling the wet stone, eyes bulging in their hollows. The vampyre awaited them, seated in the heart of her smiling insistence while they pounded across the narrow clearing toward her. She rose to meet them with a handgun; it blew sputtering holes into the foremost's chest and face until he fell against the steps, still reaching for her. The second stumbled over him and threw himself at the same cursory fate, staggering along the wall and rolling slowly while the third swallowed her last rounds and crashed into her, crushing her small frame against the stone and wrapping around her in a sightless rapture. Susan watched Petrouchka climb the tall man swiftly and grasp his head in her little hands, tearing at his red-flushed face and disgorging gouts of blood that doused his inarticulate cries. He staggered backward from the steps and toppled down into the smothered daylight.
She fell with him, and the sun struck her through the cloud. The blackness coiling in the heart of her remaining cells burst in gentian flame that garbed her tightly, leaping skyward from the crown of her head; the man's pale hair caught, his face scorched quickly to a mask of soot and yawning blisters while his clothing melted and she savaged the new shapes of his torn face. They sank together onto his side where she let go, rising while he lay kicking, the fire eating his skin and turning his eyes a blank matte white. Blood boiled over her chin and streamed from her gaze in two dark fingers, the stench from her flickering fur redoubling as she threw it off beside the burning man.
The last of her supplicants crawled on the stone between her and his lost redoubt, faltering in his desperate need to satisfy the summons she could no longer sustain. She sank to her knees in the hissing immolation, its flames breathing flesh and air and parting the snow as it began to drift around the ruin. A black stain spread beneath her palms, hands curling inward as her form grew indistinct and lapsed into the shallow pool beneath her until it was no longer possible to discern what fueled the blaze. It sank from the height of a woman's shoulder to that of an infant's sleeping form, and then to nothing, leaving only a darkness upon the rock like the shadow of a bird between the earth and bright midday.
Shaw's mirror showed him the remaining conscript emerging from his suicidal transport. Scrabbling to his feet, the man stared up at the over-looming parapet as though waiting for it to pronounce a deferred doom. The wind flapped his clothes against his body and snow blurred him momentarily; when nothing more occurred, he murmured and began to brush himself off with mindless hands that fell once more to slack disuse while Susan searched the empty castellations on her own account, closing her eyes and dropping back onto her knees.
Still in a crouch of his own, Shaw began to struggle out of the ephemera that was strapped to him. Josephine snatched up the tracking device he had cut loose and threw it back at him, striking his shoulder.
"You won't get clear... " she promised, watching him upend his pack and gather what he needed. "She'll spill everything when they get her in the chair..."
"This place is fucking empty, she doesn't know shit and you..." Breaking off, he lunged forward after Susan's hands, too late to stop their lashing strike. She punched the split length of silvered pine butted in her fists into Josephine's thigh, committing her entire weight to the assault; driven deeply, the dry wood pierced her skin, skidding then stubbed blunt between the knot of bones and sheaths inside her knee. The woman retched out a rasping cry, clutching the leg as the shard shifted in the flesh contracting round it and Susan launched herself at her, clubbing furiously at her face with both bound hands. They slid together down the wet slope; Shaw shouted after them, but as he struggled to his feet it was the sucking crack of a bullet loosed from the ruin that stilled the women struggling below.
His head snapped forward on his neck and opened, expelling wet red and thick sodden pink through the outward dissolution of his features. The hot matter struck the side of Susan's face; his body listed, dropping to and falling forward from its knees. On the ledge the remaining conscript caught a second round and toppled before the sound of the first had died away. Susan kicked back from the woman underneath her, fingers sliding on a small stretch of half-buried black, a pistol jogged from its holster and stamped into the thin snow. Snatching it up, she planted her boots against the woman's hip and aimed the weapon at her face.
Her shot threw the pistol backward in her hands. A knocking report swept down the hillside as a booming seashore echo, leaving a dark puncture in the snow by Josephine's left ear, but before she could amend her aim, a grasp closed on her jersey and hauled her sideways; keeping his hold on her, Sachiin swung his rifle from his shoulder and struck the stranger senseless with its stock.
The soft sound of his voice puzzled Susan, seeming new to her while behind them his brother cast fresh snow over the ledge in dropping from it, holding his rifle clear. The chain still bound her to the nameless woman and she exclaimed in sudden and visceral repugnance, casting up screeds of dirty snow as she pounded her boot against the latters' arm and ribcage until Sachiin cut the black cuffs from her wrists. With her freed, he sat down on the slope as though his legs had failed him, finding the hand that hung by her side with his own and breathing a prayer of thanks, his eyes still wide and holding a ghost of their commonplace shade. Shaw's stricken body shifted weakly in a slow, petering contraction, closing on itself with a series of little shudders, like a child wracked by the distant passage of a dream.
Susan cleared her throat and slid her hand from his to push back her loosened braids. The snow wandered against her face.
"I thought you'd gone." she murmured. She drew her sleeve down over her wrist and used it to wipe the thick pink spatter from her mouth.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce