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My name is Aya and I am a Witch Hunter.
I am the bringer of retribution with white-hot flame. I wield the fire that will take your power and render you mortal. I can burn your soul to ash and make you beg for your life. Vampire. Witch. Hybrid. Creature of power. I am all of these things.
In twelve hundred years, I thought I’d seen everything. That was until I walked into the dark forests of Austria looking for the Devil Who Walks.
Bregenz, Austria, 1230AD
It had been a week since she heard whisperings of a horror that lived in forgotten corners of the dark forests of Austria. A feeling at first, a malice that tickled at her skin and then the stories began spreading. The villages she passed through were alive with tales of a creature that had become known as the Teufel wen laufen. The Devil who walks.
A monster that stalked the forest at night, tearing apart anyone who lingered and drank their blood. Once the sun rose, bodies would be discovered by huntsmen strung up in the treetops and smeared red. Over the course of a few short weeks, people began disappearing more frequently and the stories had evolved to include the constant scent of blood on the air. No one ventured into the forest anymore and to appease the devil, the bravest of men would go out before twilight and leave offerings of blood and flesh. They believed if the devil was sated, then it wouldn’t come into the village and they would be safe.
Aya knew better than to believe in old superstitions. The villagers didn’t need a sacrifice… they needed a stake.
The forest loomed around her as she walked, searching for signs of the devil, a million thousand year old pines that had lost their needles stretching into infinity. They looked like skeletons reaching their pointy fingers towards the sky, piercing out of the mist like hoards of the dead. But when she looked closer, the trees were in fact laced with bones.
Old pagan superstitions brought back to life by the stories of the walking devil. Human bones dug from graves, fresh sacrifices stripped and boiled of flesh. Tied into the trees as a ward to keep old powers from invading the village. It had become much worse than she had feared.
Despite her worry, Aya snorted. Useless baubles. Needless death and desecration. A breeze shifted the mist slightly, bones clicking together in the branches. If she wasn’t so devoid of fear, perhaps her spine might have tingled. Should she be afraid of the things that lurked in the darkness? Perhaps, but even she rivaled the worst of them. Her ego told her that they should be afraid of her.
The sounds of sobbing reached her ears long before she found the source. A young girl of around fourteen years was tied to a tree in the center of a clearing. Her head hung in defeat and her terror washing over Aya in waves of nausea.
She wasn’t particularly pretty; perhaps that was why she was left here. Poor families married off their daughters for the dowry and the prettier they were, the more they were worth. This girl must have been deemed worth sacrificing by her village. It was horrible and barbaric and Aya wouldn’t let her die at the hands of the devil. She would use her, but she wouldn’t die tonight. The girl would be the bait that trapped the devil.
As the forest blackened into night, she didn’t have to wait long at all. It was a prickling against her skin at first, then a weight on her shoulders pressing into her lungs. The devil was coming.
As the presence approached, she waited, eyes searching the mist. Soon enough, a form began to appear through the trees, fast at first, but when the devil sensed her lingering, it slowed to a walk. The devil seemed to be a man, or had once been, and he took slow purposeful steps towards the clearing.
Aya could smell him long before she could make out his features. He stunk of old blood and rot, like he had forgotten how to take care of himself. Before he broke through the tree line, he darted forward, intending to scare her, she supposed, but she’d always been light on her feet. As he came for her, her hand shot up and grasped the flesh of his neck, stopping him mid-stride. She stared into black eyes and fangs, but she would have recognized his features anywhere.
“Ser Tristan?” she gasped. How?
“Lady Arrow a vampire?” he said, cocking his head to the side. “Now I understand why you were so good at killing.”
For the first time that she could remember, she was truly lost for words. Lady Arrow was the name she had given him, but it was one of many identities she had taken over her long life. The last time she had laid eyes on Ser Tristan was in the Holy Land on the march for Jerusalem. And that was a very long way from the dark Austrian forests in which they now stood.
Tristan seemed almost amused that she held him by the throat and unconcerned that she was much stronger than he seemed to be. “Were the Crusades bloody enough? What does the blood of the Holy Land taste like? I imagine it would be ripe with God. I imagine it would burn one from within like the devils we are.”
Yes, it was true she had fought side by side with him during the Crusades, but that had to be forty years ago. The man who stood before her didn’t look a day over thirty human years and besides, he wasn’t human anymore.
“What happened to you?” she whispered, her blue eyes trying to pierce through the blackness that his had become in his vampirism.
“I’m hungry.” His lips curled around each word like they were a delicacy. She knew he wasn’t really looking at her – even she could hear the thumping of the girl’s heart, the swooshing sound of her blood.
Aya saw Tristan’s muscles begin to tense and she pushed a shoulder into his chest, driving the air from his lungs and threw him over her shoulder as hard as she could. His body sailed through the damp air and crashed into the trunk of a pine, the branches of bones rattling violently. The girl let out a blood-curdling scream and began to run back towards the village, but Tristan was on his feet in an instant, ready to pursue, but Aya was on him again.
“You will not feed on her, Tristan,” she snarled, pushing him face first into the ground. “Not while I am here. I forbid it.”
A horrible, gut-wrenching wail tore from his throat as she pressed a knee into his back as she allowed the girl to escape into the night. Struggling with all his strength, he cried out like a wounded animal, clawing and scratching at the ground, teeth snapping. Aya didn’t have a patience to calm him down, so she wrapped her pale fingers around his head and twisted. His neck broke with a sickening snap and he fell limply on the ground, eyes open and vacant.
He wasn’t truly dead. His body would heal itself in a short while and then they would talk, whether he wanted to or not.
She carried him back the way he’d come through the macabre forest, following his scent of blood and decay until she found the ruins of a once magnificent castle. On the outside it was covered in moss and vines, leaf litter rotting in corners of once grand rooms that now housed nothing but crumbing walls and rotten roofs. The main hall seemed to be intact and this is where she knew Tristan spent his nights when the sun was asleep.
A fire burnt in the hearth and a lone chair stood at it’s foot and this is where she set him down to wait for him to wake.
How ironic that he would find the one castle that was devoid of human habitation. As a vampire, he needed to be invited into the home of his would be victims. Here, he was free to come and go in his macabre grandiose, reigning terror on the countryside. For a vampire, he’d made himself right at home. He was indeed the Lord of these forests. The villagers even brought him his meals.
With a loud gasp, Tristan’s eyes snapped open, clear and green like she remembered. He clawed at his neck as he gained his bearings once more and when he’d found enough clarity, he turned towards her with a snarl.
“There is no use trying to fight me,” she said calmly. “Understand that I am much stronger than you’ll ever hope to be. Fighting is futile.”
“Who are you?”
His question didn’t really surprise her. “Lady Arrow is but a name. A shell.”
“You’re a vampire…” he began, trying to understand.
“You say it like it is so simple. Yes,” he mimicked her voice. “Were any of the things you told me true?”
“Everything I told you was true,” she said. “Just not in the correct context. My family is dead, yes. I wanted adventure, yes. I had no reason to lie to you.”
“Did you make me…” He gestured to his eyes. Vampires could make humans do their bidding if they wished, something that she found absolutely vile.
“No, but I see you’ve taken a lot of amusement with it.”
He snarled at her, his eyes misting back in the corners. He was quite unstable wasn’t he?
“What happened to you, Tristan? How did you come to be here?”
“There was another Crusade,” he spat. “I was compelled to go. I was honor bound. They called me a hero.” He leant back into the chair, a look of disgust on his face. “They said I was the reason they could sack the city. If it wasn’t for me, then I wouldn’t have had to go down there.”
“You remember?” she asked.
“I remember…” he stopped for a moment, a far away look in his dark eyes. “I remember blood.”
“Where did this happen?”
“The Crusades went on,” he said. “Twelve oh four. I met my end in the sewers of Constantinople. Do you think what I am compares to that of the rats that made me? The rats who were once men living in shit and piss feeding on the unwary? I am civilized, Lady Arrow. I live in a castle. My Lord of a father would be proud of what his son has accomplished. Knights Templar with an Austrian castle.”
Aya looked around at the ruin and laughed. “This pile of rubble? This is not a true dwelling Ser Tristan. No one had to invite you in here.”
“Enough.” He slammed his fists against the arms of the chair, splintering the wood. “You take away my blood and now you insult me?”
“You insult yourself. This is not the Tristan I know.”
“What were we crusading for Lady Arrow? How different am I from what I was?”
“You were different, Tristan. You fought, we all did, but you didn’t take it further. You didn’t rape or plunder. You didn’t relish in death.”
“Stop it,” he roared, hands in his wild hair. “My blade still sunk into the flesh of children just as my fangs do. The only difference is that now… I like it. I need it.”
“There’s another way.”
“There is no other way.” He was on his feet and across the room in a blink of an eye, hands around her throat, black eyes digging into hers. “What does your blood taste like, Lady Arrow?”
He crushed her to the stone floor and she let him sink his fangs into her neck, she let him pull the blood from his veins. If he tasted her, then he would understand what she was. But, only a drop. She kicked him off as she felt his fangs pierce her skin and landed on his back with a grunt, but didn’t move to get up.
“You taste like infinity.”
He’d never said anything more appropriate in his life. She was infinity.
“Tell me the rest, Tristan,” she held her hand out to him, hauling his weary frame from the floor.
Leaning against the mantle, he looked into the fire, wiping her blood from his lips with the back of his hand. “After the city was sacked, I went into the aqueducts searching for survivors. It was there I was set upon by devils in the darkness. Vampires,” he laughed. “Animals. No longer human. I fought, but you already know how that ends. They fed on me until I was almost at the point of death.”
“They wanted to change you?” she asked, trying to mask her horror.
“No. Another group of Templar came and scared them away. The took me to the healers, but it was too late and I died during the night, I suppose. But, I woke in the morning and who was around to know? Who was I to understand? When they brought me food and water, it was something else I was hungry for. I killed the servant and…” he choked on his words, seemingly unable to continue.
“Then what happened?”
“Therold came to see me. When he saw the body on the floor and the darkness where my eyes once were… he drew his sword. I didn’t understand what I had become and it was so easy. Tearing into flesh and bone. Drinking. I was so strong everything I touched seemed to crumble. I didn’t want to die, so I fled in the night and it wasn’t until the next morning that I understood what the sun could do.”
“Tristan…” Aya said, moving to put a hand on his shoulder, but he jerked away.
“Is this what you are, Lady Arrow? A devil? Doomed to wander the night forever?”
“No,” she shook her head. “There are parts of me that are the same, but I can teach you control.”
“Control?” he spat at her. He was on his feet again, fangs bared. “I’m hungry. Every minute of every day. I’m not satisfied until I tear into human flesh. Until I feel warm blood flow through my cold, dead hands. How can you control that?”
Aya twisted away as he came for her again, his rage simmering to the surface. Any sliver of control he’d had to tell his story was gone. He had regressed into an almost animal state, like that of the ones who had changed him, and he’d fight until he couldn’t fight anymore. There was only one way to deal with him and that was to deny the one thing he wanted. Blood.
She was twelve hundred years old and faster than Tristan. As he lunged, she was out of the dungeon, slamming the heavy iron door behind her, the bolt driving home with a satisfying boom. Walking up the stairs into the ruined castle, Tristan’s cries of rage followed, but she paid him no heed. Either he’d learn to control himself or he would die at the end of a stake.
Whichever path he’d take was left to him to choose, but his days of stalking humans in the forest like a specter of death were over.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nicole R. Taylor is a Paranormal, Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Romance author from country Victoria, Australia. Previously, she has written for various small street press music and entertainment publications as a gig and album reviewer before publishing her first Urban Fantasy novel in early 2013. When she isn’t writing, Nicole likes to spend time curled up with a good book and her 3-year-old rescue cat, Burger. She gets itchy feet more often than not and has lived in three countries and travelled to three times as many.
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