All Souls Night

All Soul’s Night was produced, among other things, to bring Wulf a bit closer to the conclusion of his first cycle of tales, and to introduce the most beloved and frustrating of his various loves, the gorgeous sorceress Livia, bane and boon of our hero’s existence.

The title was lifted from the Loreena McKennit song of the same title, which was popular at the time I wrote it, and the story was inspired by driving through rural Oregon and seeing the pockets of provincialism where the light of modern civilization stubbornly refused to shine. Every land has such places, where surly locals sit silently on their front porches or pump your gas while silently watching your every move, their dark eyes hiding grim secrets. These are the backwoods, where movies such as Deliverance, Southern Comfort and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre take place. They’re also great for storytelling, since you just know dammit — you know — that on certain nights in these places the dead walk and vampires roam the shadowed forests.

So here at last is Livia, and the celebrated waterfall scene (I’ve never had sex under a waterfall, and my guess is that it isn’t really as sexy as I’ve portrayed). Personally, I like her. Thae’lynn is a villain of blackest dye, whose sexual deviance is worn right smack dab on her sleeve. On the other hand, Livia’s sweet and innocent demeanor, as disarming as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, hides the soul of a serious deviant, shamelessly pursuing her pleasure with partners of every race, sex and religion. Contrary to popular opinion (most readers actually don’t like her very much), she really does love Wulf, she just can’t bring herself to admit it, as is later explored in the Dark Vengeance saga.

And of course there are vamps here, too. My future employers, White Wolf Publications, were just entering public consciousness with roleplaying games like Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Noun: The Verb. Bloodsuckers had always been popular, but White Wolf and Anne Rice helped drag them, kicking and screaming, into the mainstream, where films such as Blade and Underworld and TV shows like Buffy and True Blood would further enhance and expose them, after which tripe like Twilight (the books and movies) would defang and emasculate them utterly, until in the end vampires had graduated from their existence as creatures of raw horror and brooding sexuality to become perfect boyfriends for pre-adolescent emo-girls.

It’s a sad, sad fate for one of the world’s most ubiquitous and terrifying mythic creatures, one from which the vampire will hopefully one day recover. In the meantime, I can reprint All Souls Night and hope that people get some enjoyment out of seeing vampires as they were meant to be.

__________ 

A word to the wise — if you ever happen to be traveling in rural Litharna on All-Soul’s Eve, stop in a podunk little village with a relatively comfortable-looking inn, and a sexy young local woman offers you generous sexual favors, take my experience as an example, and turn the sweet little creature down.

Perhaps I should explain. My name is Wulf and I am what might generously be called a creative freelance contractor. What this means in real terms is that I lie, cheat, and steal (usually from people who deserve it, mind you — I have some integrity) to make a living.

In this instance, I was in Litharna, land of gunpowder, loud noises, clanky machines, and religious fanatics, to gain a little extra income, and to pay a debt to a dead friend (more on that later). The way from the great port city of Helmsruud to Vosgraad, the capital city, passes through some pretty wild country, and I anticipated sleeping under the stars, or sampling the pleasures of various inns of the sort that reputable travel manuals tell you to avoid like a bad case of Crimson Pox. I’d never been here before, though I’d read the people were friendly, if a bit rustic, and still believed in zombies, werewolves, vampires, and other mythical beasts. Of course, unlike the authors of the various travel books, I have actually encountered a number of supposedly “mythical” creatures, and I figured that if the locals believe in something, I should at least give it some marginal level of credence.

I traveled well-armed, and took the precaution of purchasing a brace of pistols in Helmsruud. These were new weapons for me, so rare outside of Litharna as to be virtually unheard of (the Litharnans are nothing short of fanatical when it comes to keeping firearms strictly within their borders), and took some impromptu instruction in their use from a grizzled dwarf at an inn along the way. I also packed a solid cavalry saber with a razor-edge and sharp point, mail-reinforced parrying glove, and, on a whim, picked up a heartcutter (useful against demons), and a silver kris at a waterfront shop. I felt like a landsknecht on campaign, but any werewolves who attacked me would risk getting bloody in the process.

The rural roads of Litharna are both beautiful and disturbing, with vast green farmsteads and meadows interspersed with ancient woods filled with gnarled, black trees festooned with moss and lichen, and deep, quiet rivers which flow so slowly that they seem to move not at all. When you ride along these roads, you pass farmhouses on lots so overgrown and wild that you wonder if anyone actually lives in them, and if they do, what kind of people they must be. Occasionally, you encounter other travelers, who tip their hats or incline their heads solemnly, all the while looking at you as if they expect you to sprout wings and grow fangs at any moment. The people in the towns are a mixed bag — some are friendly and gregarious, while others are quiet, surly, and suspicious. These last invariably sit on front steps, or lean on split rail fences, motionless save for the slow swivel of their heads as they watch you ride past with black, unreadable eyes.

It was a land of contrasts, where science fought superstition, and technology fought to gain ground on magic. These people were on the frontier, between rulers determined to stamp out the pagan beliefs of the past, and the dark, ancient powers who did not want to be disturbed. Needless to say, I traveled in a state of unease, never certain what the next bend in the road would reveal.

As dusk gathered around me, my horse whickered nervously as the wind stirred dead leaves and rushed through twisted branches.

“Time to find some shelter,” I told her. “Hopefully there’s a village with an inn nearby. I don’t relish spending the night out any more than you do.”

She seemed to snort in agreement, and we set off at a brisk trot.

We were lucky. A good sized village lay less than a league beyond. To my relief, it was one of the friendly ones — brightly-lit, bustling even as night fell. Ahead, I saw a large structure, its windows glowing warmly yellow. It had to be an inn; I approached it gratefully.

I noted a certain festive quality in the town. Buildings were decorated with images of what I took to be the local deities — the mother-goddesses and horned green men which I’d seen elsewhere, in the Lastlands, and back in Stoneburg — as well as various abstract wheel-patterns and wildly-capering animals. Many windows, I saw, had lit candles set in them, making the village a wonderland of twinkling lights.

I hailed a man walking down the street, a little girl tagging faithfully along at his heels.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m from out of town. What’s the occasion tonight?”

He frowned, looking at me as if I was a retarded orc.

“All Soul’s Eve,” he said, simply. “The night before we remember the dead.”

I thanked him, and rode on, even as he stared after me, probably muttering to himself about how ignorant foreigners were.

I reached the inn, handed my horse over to a stable boy, and accepted a room from the slender, weasely innkeeper. With a deep sigh, I settled down in the common room, looking forward to a meal and a drink before bed.

Then, she showed up. I’d encountered attractive serving staff before, but this one put all the others in the shade.

Oh, she was lovely. Young (but not TOO young, by the gods...), full-bodied, bright-faced, with a graceful, wavy cascade of ravenswing hair, and dark, wicked eyes that latched onto mine as tightly as a dwarf’s fist around his last gold coin. I was hooked, and I certainly didn’t mind getting reeled in. Shows how much I know...

“I’m Khaera,” she said, breathily, setting down my mug of ale with scarcely a splash. She wore a white blouse, pulled down to reveal her shoulders, and the first voluptuous suggestion of two lovely white breasts, and a long dark skirt and sandals. She moved like a dancer, however, weaving through the crowd, trays carefully balanced, eyes steady. I guessed her at not more than twenty winters, and possibly less, but clearly old enough to know what she was doing.

“Wulf,” I said. “Out of Stoneburg. On my way to Vosgraad. Happy All Souls’.”

She looked at me suspiciously.

“Oh, shouldn’t I have said that?” I said, as pleasantly as I could. “I’m not from around here.”

She smiled, and I would swear the room grew a few degrees brighter. “It’s considered unlucky to actually say it, but no harm done. Besides, it’s only ‘eve,’ not ‘night’“

I indicated an empty chair next to me. “Can you sit for a few minutes?”

She scanned the room with a practiced eye. “Everyone seems taken care of,” she said, slithering down into the proffered seat. “Forgive me if I have to leap up and take an order, however.”

“No problem. As I said, I’m new here. Can you tell me what this holiday is all about, without actually naming it?”

“I think I’m equal to the task.” She settled luxuriantly in the chair, looking for all the world like a very sleek, very sensual cat, bedding down on someone’s chest. “Eve is just the night before. People don’t work — except at inns, of course, we work all the fucking time — and you get ready for the next night. That’s when we sing hymns, and walk through the streets with candles and torches, and leave out food and offerings for the dead.”

“Out of respect for their memories?”

“Hell no — so they won’t rise from their graves and kill us all.”

“How jolly,” I said. “I thought you Litharnans were all modernistic and didn’t believe in old superstitions anymore.”

Khaera chuckled. “That’s how the king and the priests would like it to be. They’d love it if we gave up on all the old pagan holidays, and didn’t do magic, and all used machines and guns, and clanking, smoking things to do all our work, and all quietly filed into church every Godsday and said our prayers to Kybor and asked Saint Orlan to protect us and deliver us, but... Well, the fact is we’re not all like that, Wulf. Old ways die hard.”

“I know,” I replied. “I’ve been to Xesh.”

Her eyes widened. “Really? They say they’re all incredibly decadent there.”

“You don’t know the half of it. I could tell stories.”

She leaned forward, face eager, chin in hands, staring at me with absolute devotion. “Tell me some.”

“I don’t know if they’re fit for mixed company,” I said, cautiously thinking of Mistress Xylara and her whips and dildoes.

“Ohhhh, I wouldn’t be too concerned,” she said. “You probably couldn’t shock me if you tried.”

Hmmmm. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I was willing to find out. “I’ve met a dark elf woman who has rings in every part of her body,” I said, quietly.

“Every part?” she asked, incredulous.

I nodded. “Just what you’re thinking.”

“How did you manage to find that out?” Her curiosity was building, and I noted that she was beginning to breathe a bit heavier.

I raised my eyebrows. “The usual way,” I said, in as off-handed a fashion as I could manage.

“Really?” It was a taut stage whisper. “How was she?”

I shrugged. “All right, I guess. I really don’t remember much, since she tried to kill me immediately afterwards.”

It impressed her. “You get around, don’t you?”

“It’s not as romantic as it sounds, believe me.”

“Oh, it’s romantic enough for me,” she said, voice dropping even further. “Wulf, I’ve a feeling about you.”

I swallowed. “I’m... glad… to hear that?” I felt nervous; why I couldn’t say.

“Go up to your room, Wulf,” Khaera whispered. “Wait for me there.” She leaned forward, warm lips brushing my ear. “I want to come up and fuck you.” With that, she rose, and returned to her work.

Now, my whirling brain said, logic flickering and fading, there is an invitation you don’t get every day...

I finished my drink and went, unsteadily, to my room, casting a surreptitious backward glance across the crowded room. Khaera’s black eyes met mine once more, and she gave me a saucy wink.

Well, I thought, what to expect? I’d had barmaids give me come-ons before, and it usually wasn’t worth the silver they asked for. Then again, Khaera was probably the most attractive woman I’d seen since arriving in Litharna, and a little innocent recreation never hurt anyone.

You know, for someone who’s been in as many scrapes as I have, and has been betrayed so often, I can be incredibly naive sometimes...

The soft rap on my door came a couple of hours later, as I lay dozing, shirt and boots off, breeches still on. I hadn’t decided whether to believe Khaera’s proposition, but figured if it was honest, I might need some rest.

I padded quietly to the door and opened it.

Yes, she was there, ethereal and darkly gorgeous in the light of a single candle which she held on a stand. She wore a light sleeping shift, and I could see the dark silhouette of her body beneath it.

“I’m here, Wulf,” she hissed. “Going to invite me in?”

I stepped back silently and let her enter, light and quiet as a ghost.

She turned and faced me, setting the candle down on the nightstand. She moved closer, eyes bright, and twined her arms behind my head.

I took a deep breath, consciously willing my heart and breathing to slow, and my bestirring cock to wait a moment.

“No offense, Khaera,” I whispered to her, “but is this going to cost me?”

She shook her head, black tresses quivering. “Not a thing, Wulf. I just want you. Now.”

As I said, this isn’t something that happens very often, and when it does I usually suspect the woman involved of having a hidden agenda, but I was willing to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. Our lips came together by mutual consent, and in an instant I felt her long, flexible tongue caressing the inside of my mouth. I tried to return the favor, but she overwhelmed me.

“Take me,” she whispered, kissing the sides of my mouth, tongue slipping sloppily out, covering my face with hot moisture. “I want it.”

With that, I figured there was no going back (and besides, I was hard as a rock). I bent down, lifted her bodily, and carried her to the bed.

“Oh... Wulf,” she gasped as I moved atop her, pushing her shift up, revealing the soft contours of her rounded, fleshy body.

“What do you want?” I asked. “Tell me.”

“Everything. Whatever you want to do to me. Kiss me.”

I complied, once more uniting my lips with hers, tongues thrusting and intertwining, her sweet spittle mingling with mine. I kissed my way across her cheeks and jawline, up to her ears, where I nibbled, then bit at the fleshy part of her ear, feeling her go rigid as I did so.

“Yes, Wulf. Yes.”

I took this as encouragement, and moved down to her shoulders, licking and biting, sliding my teeth across her warm skin, feeling it yield before me.

“Suck my nipples, Wulf. Please. I love that.”

I had been on my way there in any event, so I didn’t change my pace, letting her anticipation build as I kissed down her arms, lingering at the back of her elbow, sliding my tongue along her palms, kissing and lightly biting fingertips.

“Wulf... Suck me. Suck my nipples, Wulf.”

“I will,” I said. “You have to be patient.”

A sensuous whine entered her voice, a strained longing. “I don’t want to be patient. I’ve waited for someone like you, Wulf. I’ve dreamed of him. Please do what I want.”

“I promise,” I replied, once more, feeling the exultation of being in control, dictating the pace of lovemaking (I think I understand why Xylara liked it so much, now, the horny little vixen...). “I’ll suck whatever you like.”

With that I moved back down her arm, licking and squeezing her soft bicep, tongue flicking across her shoulder, finally moving to the pale mound of her breast, rising and falling with her increased excitement, surmounted by a stiff, pink nipple, hard and swollen in the slightly chill air.

“Please...” Khaera’s voice dripped with absolute, slavish devotion, and I couldn’t bring myself to keep her in suspense any longer. I moved up to the thick, swollen pink prominence, encircled it with my mouth, and sucked, pausing occasionally to lick and bite lightly. Her breast was like a vast, whisper soft globe of flesh, larger than I could encompass with both hands. I wanted to bury myself in the warm, white flesh, lose myself completely...

“Ahhhhhh...” She breathed out, and I saw her fingers busy between her legs. I reached down and deliberately pulled them away, and was rewarded by a moan of frustration.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “we’ll get to that soon enough. Patience, remember?”

“I don’t want to be patient...” It was what I wanted to hear.

I toyed with both nipples for a time, moving from one to the other, fingering and pinching one while I licked and sucked at the other. Beneath me, I felt Khaera’s hips begin to rotate, and watched her smooth white thighs rub together slowly, but with increasing fervor.

Finally, I let one hand wander down across the gentle curve of her belly, hot to the touch now, and stroke at her thighs, moving briefly to touch her pubic thatch, then lower to brush the softness of her cunt. Another moan escaped her lips, and her legs moved apart almost involuntarily.

She was soaking by this time, to no surprise at all. Her pussy was soft and fleshy, and I felt heat radiate from it as she opened up for me.

“Put your finger in,” she said. “Stop touching the outside. Play with me. Please play with me, Wulf.”

I had to admit that this was all exciting me enormously, and I was forced to break off for a moment while I freed myself of my breeches, letting my cock free from its uncomfortable prison. Then I renewed my attention to her pussy, positioning myself between her raised thighs, admiring the soft pinkness, surrounded by dark hair, glistening in the candlelight. I stroked lips and slowly spread them apart, revealing the naked bud of her clitoris, large and prominent, swollen to bursting.

“Touch it...”

I did, moistening my fingers and stroking the exposed prominence, listening to her voice trail off into soft, squealing, uncontrolled cries. At length, I slipped a finger between the wet lips, feeling the bare interior of her pussy yielding for me. Then I put in another, and touched her clit with my tongue, sending her into another paroxysm of ecstasy.

“Lick me... Please, lick it, Wulf...”

As I continued to thrust in and out of her now fully-open cunt with two, then three fingers, I encircled her clit with my lips, licking, sucking, and biting lightly, the same way I’d dealt with her nipples.

It worked. Her groans grew deeper, fainter, and finally vanished altogether. She toyed with her own nipples, occasionally stopping to lick a finger and rub the moisture across her own swollen flesh. At last, I saw her grab a breast and bend her head forward, long pink tongue caressing her own nipple.

Okay, it turned me on. I like to watch women play with themselves (and each other, for that matter, but since I’m a man, you probably already know that), and the surge of passion I felt made me redouble my efforts on her. My fingers and tongue moved faster and I would swear the juices flowing from her cunt grew sweeter and hotter as I did so (then again, maybe it was just me...)

“Fuck me now,” she demanded. “Put your cock in me.”

“Ask nicely,” I cautioned, pulling back, saliva trailing from my tongue to her swollen clit.

“I’m not asking,” she said, firmly, “I’m telling. Fuck me now.”

By the way, I also like a woman who knows what she wants. I moved up, holding my cock against her straining cunt.

“Want it now?” I asked. I couldn’t resist a little more teasing, bastard that I am...

“Now!” she said in a voice I was afraid would wake up the inn’s other occupants. “Fuck me now.”

I thrust in an inch or so, feeling her go rigid once more.

“Fuck me,” she gasped. “Make me come. Make me come and I’ll take you in my mouth, Wulf. Do it for me.”

I complied, thrusting the rest of the way in, tight box closing around me. It sent Khaera into another frenzy of passion, silence giving way to sudden contractions, and a babble of promises, pleas and demands.

“Take me with you, Wulf... Take me with you when you leave...” Her eyes pinned me once more, hard and determined. “I’ll fuck you every night, Wulf. You can fuck me any way you want.”

Passion had pretty much seized me and run away by this time, so I was willing to listen, and my logical mind even considered taking her up on the offer, even as she went on, meeting my thrusts with grinding hips, grabbing my buttocks and pulling me into her again and again.

“You can fuck my mouth, Wulf. You can come all over me. You can fuck me between my breasts...” She gasped, and it felt as if she was coming again. “I love that. I love to feel come all over my skin... I love to rub it all... over... me...”

Damned hot stuff, and it certainly inflamed me. Maybe, I thought, feeling boiling lust race through my veins, and wondering if I’d make it long enough to come in her mouth, maybe I COULD take her with me...

“I’ll do anything for you, Wulf. You can fuck anyone you want. You can fuck another woman and I’ll watch, and I’ll fuck her, Wulf. I’ve never fucked a woman before, Wulf, but I’d do it for you... I’d do it for you. Oh, yessss...” Another silent orgasm, and she collapsed into a sweating, fleshy puddle beneath me. “I want to go with you, Wulf. Please take me.”

I was silent, pulling my cock free, watching her writhe and stare up at me from sweat-rimmed eyes, black hair plastered to her forehead and cheeks.

“Let me show you,” she hissed with a level of lewdness that would do a daemon proud. “Let me show you what I’ll do for you...” She moved suddenly atop me, hands encircling my wet cock, stroking. Her lips moved along it, tongue flicking.

“Oh, I can taste myself,” she said. “I can taste my come on your cock, Wulf. Yessss...” Then she was quiet, lips surrounding and engulfing me.

I’ve raved about the skills of the various women I’ve met in my adventures, and I won’t go into the same thing here. Suffice to say, she knew what she was doing — it made me wonder what she’d been up to in this little farm town all these years. Her mouth was a slippery furnace, wet and blood-hot, her eyes were fixed on mine, and I could feel her desire, and her urgent desire to make me come. I was already three-fourths of the way there simply from fucking her, and it wasn’t going to take much to push me over the edge.

It was her eyes, more than anything else that gave me that final push — black, probing eyes like bottomless, gleaming wells of desire, longing, devouring passion... Damn, but these country women concealed a hell of a lot more desire than city gals, or else terminally horny from the long days their husbands spent in the fields... I met her gaze and felt her eyes surround and consume me, the same way her sucking, pliant mouth swallowed up my fevered cock, and then I knew I was over the precipice, and there was no going back.

“I want to come for you,” I said, feeling the onrushing explosion. “I want to come in your mouth.”

She released me and once more whispered, “Come, then. Come in my mouth.” Then she swallowed me again, the burning black eyes seized me once more, and I felt the first contraction rage me. Hot come erupted from my cock and into her willing mouth. Her eyes widened, then closed hard as she sucked and swallowed, stroking my balls with her fingers, squeezing gently, prolonging the wracking convulsions that still tore at me. Eagerly, she continued to suck, moaning with apparent pleasure, even as my pumping subsided into weak aftershocks, and a tiny trickle of come. She let my slick, softening cock go, and looked up at me, eyes still hot, stabbing through me like twin lances.

“You come so much,” she said, wiping her mouth. “I like that.” She paused, gazing at me with a strange expression. “So will you take me, Wulf? I want to leave this place. You’re the one I want to go with.”

I was about to say yes, of course, when all hell broke loose.

The door exploded inward as if a White Empire battle wizard was behind it, and through it charged a gigantic bull of a man, his face contorted, eyes wild, clutching what looked like an oversized pair of ragged-edged pliers, and bellowing like a dragon in heat.

“Mother-grabbing foreign bastard!” he roared. “Get your filthy hands off my wife!”

Even as I leaped to avoid him, stumbling into my breeches, I got the sickening feeling that I’d been had.

“Wife? I didn’t know —” I squealed, ducking a ham-sized fist which crashed down where my head had just been. “She didn’t say —”

“I told her!” the human minotaur roared, even as Khaera screamed at him to stop. “I told her the next time she seduced some damned foreigner and tried to run off with him —”

“The next time?” I demanded. “She’s done this before?” He aimed a kick at my head, and I scrambled out of the way once more. Damn, he was slow, but if he ever connected...

“She does it all the fucking time, you foreign idiot!” He brandished the strange device he carried. “I told her the last time that I’d cut the next fucking bastard’s balls off!”

The purpose of the item suddenly became horrifyingly apparent, and my pure self-preservation instinct took over. I grabbed the rude chair which sat beside the bed and held it threateningly.

“Think that’s gonna help you, city boy?” he snarled, advancing on me. “It won’t do shit.”

“Hey, look!” I said, glancing at a point just over his shoulder. “A little monkey!”

“Huh?” he said, thickly, turning around for an instant.

I let him have it, splintering the chair into matchsticks — dammit, the rubes fall for that one every time... Gods only know why.

He went down with a thud, and I bashed him a few more times to make sure, then looked up, panting, at Khaera. She sat, pale and wide-eyed, sheets drawn modestly up around her.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“I certainly hope not,” I said. “In fact, I doubt it. His skull felt very thick.”

“I’m sorry, Wulf.”

I glared. “I value honesty in all my relationships, Khaera. You disappoint me.” I paused, and drew a breath. “On the other hand, I’m something of a chump. Do you still want to go with me?”

She looked down, fearfully, at her husband. “He’d hunt us to the ends of the earth.”

“I seriously doubt that, love. His kind thinks ‘the ends of the earth’ lie just past Uncle Elmo’s dairy farm.”

“I have to stay,” she said at last. “Gods, I want to get out of here, but...”

“But?”

“He... he needs me.”

I rolled my eyes. “Okay,” I said, firmly, gathering up my clothes and getting dressed, utterly disgusted. “If you ever get up the courage to actually leave, Khaera, look me up in Stoneburg. Just ask for Wulf in any bar. Mind you, I may not be around, I may not be alive, and I may be enjoying carnal relations with another woman, not even of the same species, but I will help you if I can. I’m funny that way.”

The husband moved and moaned fitfully.

“You’d better go,” she said, sadly. “He has friends in town. They’ll kill you if they catch you.”

“Or worse,” I muttered, glancing down at his castrating tongs, and jamming stuff into my knapsack. I looked up. Her eyes were fearful and full of mixed emotions, and I wished I could say something to get her out of this town, but there wasn’t time. “Goodbye, Khaera,” I said. “It would have been fun.”

She nodded. “Goodbye, Wulf.”

* * *

Now, I was forced to ride the roads of rural Litharna on a windy All Souls’ Eve, never certain whether Mr. Minotaur and his thick-necked farmboys were hot on my trail or not. This, I reflected, was scarcely the way I’d wanted to spend my visit to Litharna.

Then again, it was typical. I think the gods must be punishing me for something, but I’ve yet to discover exactly what it is...

The night was the sort you read about in those copper dreadfuls they crank out by the zillion in Litharna and the White Empire — you know, dark and stormy. The wind howled, the trees tossed and clutched at the sky, debris blew into our faces as my horse and I tried to ride at speed and find some kind of shelter or town we could stay in. I didn’t dare camp considering the fact that Mr. Bullneck and friends might be in hot pursuit, coupled with the possibility that I might have a tree fall on me during the night, so our search for civilization went on.

Now, I know what you’re saying. You’re probably saying, “Gee, I bet that stupid idiot takes a wrong turn in the darkness and wind and blowing shit.”

Well, the fact is that you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking so little of me and my navigational skills. Then again, maybe not, since I DID, indeed, end up taking a wrong turn.

But shut the hell up anyway.

I’m not entirely sure what happened. Perhaps the trail forked and I didn’t notice. Perhaps it forked several times — who can say? The fact is that I found myself guiding my poor mare down a treacherous, rocky slope, clinging to what appeared to be the granite wall of a deep valley or ravine. The wind howled particularly loudly here, and I realized that, what with the noise, treacherous footing and the fact that the road was wide enough only for a single horse, I wouldn’t be able to turn around until we reached the bottom.

It seemed to take an eternity to actually get to the end of the slope. My mare slipped a couple of times, but proved herself to be a real trooper, remaining relatively calm and undisturbed as we rode lower and lower.

When we at last got to the bottom, lost in windy, howling darkness, I actually reconsidered turning around, for a few hundred paces distant, I saw the lights of a village, flashing and twinkling behind tossing branches.

I paused, pulling my cloak shut against the incessant wind. I had definitely strayed from the main road, but my error might prove a blessing in disguise, for Farmer Biff and his Castrating Funsters were unlikely to find me here, and besides, I had no guarantee of finding anything like this nearby. I tugged at the reins, and guided my horse toward the lights.

To my surprise, the plucky mare, who had thus far remained unfazed by the terrors nature had thrown her way, reared and screamed, fighting my best efforts to urge her forward. Of course, I should have trusted her instincts, but I was so far gone by this time that I only wanted to find a place to hide, and go to sleep.

At length, I got the mare calmed down, and resumed our way toward the lights, though she whinnied in fear, tossed her head, and rolled her eyes just the same.

The village was smaller than the one I’d left, but it seemed to have the usual collection of thatch-roofed, half-timbered houses, barns, sheds, and — to my infinite relief — a public house which appeared to harbor a couple of rooms in its upper story. Most of the glass windows showed All Soul’s Eve candles, though at this hour they burned low and guttered ominously.

I dismounted outside the tavern’s door, glancing up at the weathered sign, which flapped and squeaked in the wind. A skeleton holding a candle. Reassuring image, that.

With a silent apology to the building’s inhabitants, I pounded heavily on the door, hoping they’d hear me over the rushing roar of the wind. It took several tries before I felt the vibration of movement from within, and the “thump” of bolts being pushed back.

The door opened a narrow crack, revealing a dim sliver of yellow light. A fearful, wide eye looked out at me through the opening.

“I need a room!” I yelled. “I’m sorry to disturb you so late, but I’ve lost my way, and need a place to stay tonight! I’ve got money! I’ll pay!”

“Are you... alive?” quavered the voice, cutting though the noise of the wind.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Yes, I’m fucking alive. I’m not an All Soul’s Eve spirit wandering the mortal world in search of victims, if that’s what you’re asking.”

I guess the person on the other side of the door figured that a real ghost wouldn’t be so bloody sarcastic, and opened the door enough to look out. He was a wizened, old man, with white hair and a trembling chin. He was dressed in a nightshirt and cap, and carried a candle.

“I need a place for my horse,” I said. “She’s exhausted.”

He nodded. “Bring her around to the stables. I’ll meet you there.”

I sighed deeply once more as I led my mare around toward the back of the building. Safe again. For the moment, at least.

Shows how much I know...

* * *

I don’t remember much after stabling my horse. I vaguely recollect the wrinkled innkeeper leading me up the stairs and showing me to a ratty little room with a straw mattress, then leaving as I collapsed into virtually dreamless unconsciousness.

When I awoke at last, I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t still night. A single, dirty window, high up on one wall, admitted a feeble stream of light, barely lighting the dusty, filthy room where I’d spent the night. I got up, feeling joints creak and snap, and hobbled down to the common room.

It was about as pleasant and welcoming as the cadaver room back in the Necromancy Department at the Imperial Academy. The little old guy who’d let me in served as desultory, surly barkeep, wiping down the counter with obsessive zeal. Several patrons sat around in the light shafts and whirling dust motes, hunched over tables, glancing up at me with unabashed suspicion, then returning to their mugs of Ol’ Grandad’s Bitter.

Not all, however. A couple of reasonably personable-looking rural types noted my entrance.

“Good morning,” one said, in a surprisingly quiet and reserved fashion, gesturing with his mug. “We don’t get many strangers here. Care to share breakfast with us?”

At that point, I was ready to kill for the company of a civilized human who wasn’t intent on sexually mutilating me, so I gratefully sat down, accepting handshakes gratefully.

“Name’s Wulf,” I said. “Out of Stoneburg. On my way to Vosgraad.”

“Karl,” said the first, a burly but intelligent-looking man in a plain smock and trousers.

“Helgrun,” said the other, taking my hand in the firm kind of grip that I have come to associate with manual laborers, farmers, and other salt-of-the-land types.

“I got in late last night,” I said. “Didn’t catch the name of your town.”

“Guldensburg,” said Karl. “I’m surprised you found us. You must have strayed from the main road.”

I nodded. “Damned storm last night,” I said. “Couldn’t see for horse manure. I’m glad I found the place.”

“Your alternative was falling off the cliff,” observed Helgrun, the jolly fellow. “We find one out there every year or two. Damn city-bred fool thinking he can travel in pitch black. “Then he caught my eye and realized what he’d said. “No offense meant, mind you.”

“None taken.” I decided that it was best to avoid any direct mention of the previous night’s adventures, in case Bobo the Castrator had relatives in town. “I misjudged how fast it gets dark in these parts.”

I scanned the room once more. I saw that its occupants had, if anything, even less life and enthusiasm than they’d shown before. I was also alarmed to note a rather frightening apparition, sitting alone at a table in a shadowed alcove. She was female, but so ancient and wrinkled as to be nearly unrecognizable as human, her hair a greasy grey-white snarl, her eyes thick with cataracts and as expressionless as a dead fish, her trembling hands holding a cup of tea in a death grip, her toothless mouth moving silently as she muttered aimlessly to herself. I tore my eyes away, and returned to Helgrun and Karl, easily the most interesting people in the room.

“So why’s everyone so glum?” I asked. “Isn’t it supposed to be All —” Remembering Khaera’s admonition, I stopped myself. “Isn’t this a holiday or something?”

Karl looked nervous and lowered his voice. “All Soul’s Night,” he whispered. “It’s bad luck to mention it openly.”

“Yeah,” Helgrun said. “Used to be a real festival. Day off of work, feasting in honor of the departed, singing and drinking late into the night...”

My ears pricked up. “What do you mean, ‘used to be’? I note a distinct lack of festivity in the breakfast crowd.”

Karl sighed. “We’ve been forbidden from practicing most of the yearly rituals.”

“Forbidden? By who? It all seems perfectly harmless to me.”

Helgrun picked up the thread (they seemed to be alternating, I noted; perhaps they were brothers, or lovers, or — given the rustic locale — both...). “The new mayor. We didn’t choose him, of course; the nobles in Vosgraad appointed him and sent him here to oversee their ‘modernization’ program.”

I made a contemplative noise. “So, I would guess that, in the new mayor’s opinion, ‘modernization’ means giving up what he considers outdated, pagan rituals like All S... that is, the current holiday.”

Helgrun nodded and Karl continued. “He’s forbidden us from laying out food for the dead, saying prayers in public, the bonfire, the processional, and most of the religious services, except those certified by the Kyborists back in Vosgraad.”

“So you people think the dead will rise up and devour you without the rituals?” I asked, quietly. It certainly explained the innkeeper’s weird question of the night before.

Karl shrugged. “Perhaps,” Helgrun said, “perhaps not. Most of us realize that the rituals were just old traditions, but there’s always that nagging thought in the back of your head that maybe, maybe...”

“I hear you,” I replied with sympathy. I’d seen enough in a decade and a half to make me very reluctant to dismiss the local practices as mere superstition. I suspected that a quick exit and resumption of my journey was in order, whether or not the castration squad was waiting for me on the cliffs above.

“We’re not a large community,” Karl said. “We mostly mine coal from the valley wall. We’re apparently important enough to their imperial majesties to meddle in our affairs, however. Doesn’t make them any more popular out here, I must say.”

I gestured subtly at the bag of bones sipping tea in the corner. “Who’s the hag?” I asked. “Local wise woman?”

“Don’t know,” said Helgrun. “I’d heard she was here to visit her grandson for the festival, or something.”

“Looks awful, though,” Karl observed, darting glances at her. “How the hell did she travel in that shape?”

Given the possibility of a night of horrors ahead, I could tell that the crone’s arrival had raised suspicions. Using the magical senses which had been imperfectly and inadequately trained during my brief stay at the Magic Academy, I sent a tendril of sensation toward the woman, searching for magical emanations or any sign of sorcery. To my intense relief, I found absolutely nothing, only the stale and thin energies of a very, very old woman.

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” I said. “I’ve dealt with necromancers and their friends before. She doesn’t seem the type to me.”

“Well, she sure as hell does to me,” Helgrun commented.

I let the matter pass, and finally ordered eggs and ham when the doddering innkeeper finally acknowledged my existence. We shot the breeze, exchanging meaningless pleasantries, my companions glared with open suspicion when the old woman hobbled out of the common room and up the stairs, and we sipped our own cups of tea after the meal. It was then that Karl decided to shoot the onager.

“I certainly hope you’re enjoying your stay, Wulf,” he said. “If anything is going to happen tonight — gods forbid — you will probably get to share it with us.”

“Huh?” The comment had come from a completely unexpected quarter, and riveted my attention. “What do you mean?”

“The road,” Helgrun said, calmly blowing and sipping. “The one you came down to get there. It’s the only way in and out of town. There was a landslide last night —”

“And, of course, you can’t clear it today,” I said, “it being a holiday and all...”

“Correct,” Karl said, brightly. “Don’t worry, Wulf. There’ll be some feasting, and we’ll probably get together here tonight and drink our troubles away ‘til dawn. Then, we’ll troop up with picks and shovels and get that road clear for you.”

I sighed. My rational mind told me that there was probably nothing to worry about, and that another day’s delay down here in coal digger-town would probably put my jealous friend off the trail, but like my two companions, a nagging concern remained buried deep in my mind.

“Oh, well,” I said, simply. “I was hoping to continue on today, but if I’m stuck here, I’m stuck here.” I tend to be fatalistic when I have no other alternative.

My new friends rose and said their good-byes, claiming family commitments, then departed, leaving me to contemplate an uncertain and likely boring day in an isolated village best known for its coal products, and the specter of a bloodthirsty horde of shambling undead creatures looming, misty and threatening, in my feverish imagination.

I scouted around that day, trying to find some other way out of town. As Karl and Helgrun had so aptly noted, there was none. Guldensburg lay at the bottom of a deep ravine, with the single precarious trail, which I had so fortuitously found the previous night, apparently right before the fatal landslide. The mines lay at the northern end, while the southern end was a tangled wilderness of stunted trees, underbrush, narrow streams, talus and various other debris. I surmised that the local cemetery, the source of considerable unease, lay in that direction as well, and few really wanted to tell me anything about it.

Well, gods damn it, I wasn’t about to be frightened by a bunch of ignorant peasants and their bloody superstitions (or so I told myself). For some reason which I am still at a loss to explain, I threw back my cloak and marched south, along the single narrow trail, with an air of determination and damn-your-eyes obstinacy.

A few moments later, I began to wonder if that had been such a good idea. If the ancient, gnarled forests and their inbred inhabitants had been bad, this grim, lifeless wilderness was infinitely worse. Poisoned, I guessed, by generations of mine tailings, it was a place of dark unease, where the trees were either long dead and wasting away, or gnarled and twisted, like a man writhing in the grip of fever or poison. A few ugly birds, their feathers molting, their eyes sick and glassy, flitted here and there, but beyond that I felt as if I was the only living thing here. Some unknown motivation kept me going, however, if for no other reason than to see the place which the locals feared so much, and to prove to my own satisfaction that its occupants showed no signs of irritability.

Mind you, my desire to keep going grew less and less compelling the farther I went, and the later in the day it grew. I was well ahead of sunset, but afternoon was already casting slanting shadows when at last I emerged from the tangle and into the graveyard itself.

I gazed around in distress. Gods only knew how they managed to convey the corpses here through that nightmarish maze, or why they even wanted to. Had I been a corpse, I’d have risen from my grave simply to get out of that damned place.

They say that cemeteries are for the living, since the dead are generally beyond caring, despite what the Litharnans say about All Soul’s Night. Staring back and forth, my unease growing deeper and less easy to ignore, I wondered at that. This was a place of the dead, clearly, and one in which the living were only barely tolerated.

It had obviously been here for a long time, perhaps even before Guldensburg’s founding. Ancient stone markers lay scattered about, some tottering, others completely fallen. All were weathered almost to the point of illegibility, though a few still bore their markings — disturbing images of skulls, grim guardian spirits, swords, scythes, and antique knotwork of a sort that had all but died out since the new, forward-looking rulers of Litharna took charge.

There were easily hundreds of mounds here, ranging back as far as I could see, into shadows where tangled, twisted, tortured trees once more leaned and stretched crabbed claws toward me, and grey undergrowth lay thickly, obscuring the burial mounds, making me uncertain exactly where it all ended.

The place had a sick, poisonous feel to it, even the relatively recent graves which lay nearby, with freshly-carved headstones, now bearing sharp, angular, geometrically perfect images of angels and saints in the currently popular, Kyborist style. Dark weeds sprouted everywhere, and clouds of gnats swirled up where I walked. Overhead, grey-black clouds gathered, and a drizzly splatter of rain began to patter down. I swallowed hard. This place did little to reassure me.

A flash of movement near one of the older headstones caught my eye. Involuntarily, my hand leapt to my sword hilt, and I abruptly wished I’d brought my pistols (they were safely hidden in my room, and their absence was now sorely felt). A dark grey shape moved suddenly, leaving a low-hanging, lichen-laden branch waving behind it.

As those who have read my other memoirs are probably aware, I am not an especially brave man. My favorite pursuits include stealing from people who can afford the loss, eating fine food, and making love to as many attractive women as will have me. My current situation afforded no such opportunities, but even as my heart hammered with fear and my breath came in short, tension-laden gasps, I wondered what the hell I had just seen.

Fighting my better instincts, I drew my sword and parrying dagger, and stalked slowly forward, feeling stiff grass and weeds crunch beneath my heels. The air was deadly still, save for the off-key cawing of one of those diseased crow-creatures, sitting dejectedly on a tombstone, lamenting his lot in life.

I approached the place, both weapons trembling in my grip, and stepped forward, around the base of a sizeable burial mound.

What I saw made me recoil in shock and horror. It was the crone from the inn, crouching in the lee of the mound, staring up at me with rheumy, filmed eyes, toothless mouth drawn up in a ghastly grimace.

We probably scared the hell out of each other, for with a thin cry, she leapt up and dashed back into the forest, branches and undergrowth crashing behind her. I didn’t bother pursuing, or even remaining in the area, but turned tail and fled myself, back toward the trail, back toward Guldensburg, and away from this place of death.

The farmers and their castrating tools seemed almost welcome in the face of the horrors I imagined. Something was up, no question — I wasn’t certain that the dead would rise and kill us all this night, but neither was I inclined to find out. Dashing through the muddy streets of Guldensburg, heedless of the stares I gathered in my wake, I determined to leave my noble horse behind, and climb out of this trebly-damned valley alone (I was also leaving my expensive and probably indispensable pistols behind, as well, but as noted, I wasn’t being completely rational). Then at least it would all be behind me, and the only foes I was likely to face would be living, and would bleed if you shoved a dagger into them. I almost relished it...

Of course, in my agitated state, I wasn’t as careful as I could have been. I raced up the trail, toward the landslide, intending to simply scramble over the thing. It wasn’t that easy; once I reached it I discovered it to be a slippery, treacherous pile of rubble. I launched myself onto the obstruction just the same. It was muddy, wet, and I found myself unable to maintain any kind of purchase. Bull-headedly forging ahead like an ogre mercenary at the mess table, I kept trying to scramble up. Finally, a stone slipped under my foot, and I felt myself falling. I scrabbled for purchase, and succeeded only in dislodging more stones, which cascaded down with me in another, smaller, avalanche, sending me tumbling over the edge, slipping and sliding down the canyon wall, rocks and gravel pouring after me.

I hit bottom hard, fetching up against a twisted pine tree. Then a dozen stones cascaded down upon me, one hit my head, and I crashed into darkness, neither blissful nor restful.

* * *

When I awoke, my head hurt as if a demon whip-master and his beast pack were chasing each other inside my skull, all singing dwarf love ballads with the chorus “Brace yourself, Helga!” After a brief moment of disorientation, I realized that some kind soul had transported me back to my room at the Skeleton-and-Candle. I further realized, with rapidly growing dread that the feeble ray of light from my dirty window was almost entirely absent. I’d managed to kosh myself around mid-afternoon; given a couple of hours of insensibility on my part, it was probably almost sunset.

A million horrible thoughts raced through my fevered mind, not helped by a sudden commotion of voices from the common room below. Forcibly calming myself, I inventoried my weapons — dagger and saber still there (my benefactors had, at least, been honest), and looking under my bed I found my brace of pistols safe in its case. I took a deep breath, and very deliberately loaded both pistols, ramming home cap and ball, then packed up a dozen more charges and stowed them in my belt pouch. Although I knew that the forces which controlled these pistols were entirely natural, and based in science rather than sorcery, the primitive side of me still saw them as something magical, which could shoot fire and make thunder, and drive off the creatures of the night.

Silly primitive side...

I made myself as presentable as possible, and headed for the stairs down. There, a crowd was engaged in what seemed a lively debate.

“No!” shouted a red-faced, well-dressed man with a city-bred look about him. “I am mayor of this settlement, appointed by this nation’s legal authorities. I have been charged with overseeing modernization of Guldensburg, and by Saint Orlan, I will do it!”

A man in rough garments, who looked as if he should be chewing on a stalk of wheat, protested.

“The ceremonies don’t do no harm!” he shot back. “They keep the dead at rest, and keep the rest of us happy! It’s time! We gotta have the ceremonies!”

The mayor shook his head vehemently. “The authorities have forbidden it! Any of you who participate in any procession to the cemetery will be arrested for sedition! I have my orders!”

Another villager, somewhat less of a hayseed, with a look of some intelligence about him, spoke up.

“You may have your orders, mayor, but we have ours as well,” he said, in a quiet voice, which somehow seemed to quiet the unrest around him. “They are orders far older than anything from your masters, and we will follow them, whatever the consequences.”

“Silence, Gustal!” barked the mayor. “You’ve been a troublemaker ever since I came here! I forbid you from going to the cemetery!”

“Silence, yourself, city-born fool,” Gustal replied. “We didn’t want you here. We didn’t ask the noblemen in Vosgraad to send you here, telling us to forget all the old ways. If you don’t want us to go to the cemetery, ‘Mayor’ Ulfred, then you’re welcome to stop us. For my part, I’m going. Who’s with me?”

With that, Gustal turned, and strode for the door, most of the room’s occupants following him, despite Mayor Ulfred’s blustering and bellowing. Outside, they shouted for fellow celebrants, and were joined by more, singing and laughing. Torches were lit, and the procession moved noisily out of the village. The old innkeeper shuffled in, barred the door, and returned to work.

As the crowd departed, leaving the room virtually empty save for a couple of villagers, hunched over their mugs, drinking in grim silence, I walked in, and sat down next to Ulfred, who looked for all the world like a punctured bladder in the process of collapse.

“It’s hard to enforce the rules when you’re the only one doing it,” I said, as sympathetically as I could. “Still, you can’t blame them. They’ve been doing it this way for generations.”

Ulfred looked at me, and took in my rugged traveling clothes, swords and pistols.

“Not from around here, are you?” he observed.

“Neither,” I said, tartly, “are you. How the hell did you get involved with these rubes?”

“I never wanted to,” he said, voice plaintive and tired. “I always wanted to be a lumberjack.”

“Hm.” I took a glance at his somewhat pudgy physique. “I guess civil service is the next best thing, eh?”

Since poor Ulfred seemed the only decent company, and the sun had completely set, I ordered some dinner and we chatted for the next couple of hours. My fears of the day before were receding — since the villagers had decided to do the proper ceremonies whether the authorities liked it or not, I figured that the chances of a massive uprising by the vengeful dead was considerably less likely. I even wondered what sort of rites they carried out in that gods-forsaken graveyard, and was glad I didn’t have to witness them.

At length, I turned to Ulfred, who was well into his cups by this time, and asked, “So, assuming they do all the proper ceremonies and such, when do you expect the happy revelers to return?”

Ulfred seemed about to reply, when a knock sounded at the door.

“It’s Gustal! Open up!” Outside, I saw the glitter of torches through the inn’s closed shutters.

He grinned. “About now, I’d say.”

The innkeeper moved painfully to the door, and raised the bar.

Then, all hell broke loose.

What came through the door had been Gustal once, all right, but now it was something else. His clothes were battered, torn and bloodstained, and he moved with a stiff, graceless shamble. Worse, the entire side of his face had been torn away, revealing bone, gristle, and dangling tendons. Half of his face was normal, if somewhat slack and glassy-eyed, which made the horrid death-rictus of his injured side even more terrifying.

His first victim was the innkeeper, who perished swiftly, the Gustal-thing’s hands around his neck. Both Ulfred and I stood abruptly, staring in shocked silence. I was unable to move, to grab weapons, or to even cry out in the moments that followed, as Gustal shambled into the room, gurgling loudly, followed by a dozen others, all mutilated, in torn clothing, eyes dead and clouded. In a moment, they were upon the remaining patrons, who either stared, wide-eyed, or tried to flee, but were caught and dragged down by innumerable mindless dead creatures.

Then Ulfred screamed, a loud, high-pitched shriek of pure disbelief and terror, and he dashed blindly from the table, straight into the waiting claws of the Gustal-thing. His screams continued for a moment as Gustal’s fingers, now incongruously terminating in curved talons, and his teeth, went to work on the mayor’s pudgy body, sending blood and other, even less savory, substances flying.

I admit that it broke my reverie, and I fell back toward the stairs, drawing my pistols. A black-haired zombie lurched into me, clumsily swiping at me with its dead hands. I was fortunate that not all these things were as fast and deadly as the former Gustal, for I easily eluded it, and discharged both pistols at close range into its skull. The thing’s head exploded messily, and the body fell, flopping and crawling feebly, still coming after me even without all its proper parts.

I ran for the stairs; my room had a stout bar on the door, and holding out against the zombies seemed preferable to being butchered like Ulfred.

It was Gustal who stopped me. I was bare inches from my door when powerful arms seized me, dragging me back, slamming me against the opposite wall. I fumbled for my saber, managed to get it free, and turned on my assailant. The once-handsome man emitted a low snarl.

“Livething...” it gurgled. “Gustal... You become dead, too...”

I drove my saber into Gustal’s throat, but it did no good. He raked me with dirty claws, and his snapping, near-fleshless jaws sought my neck. I swung again, hoping to decapitate him, send him falling to the floor like the first zombie, but he was too quick, parrying with his forearm, allowing the blade to sink into his nerveless flesh, then charging into me, overbearing me, sending us both down, his clawed hands around my neck.

Once again, and not for the last time, I realized that I was about to die. The snarling, grinning face of the abomination which had once been Gustal swam above me, and I felt my breath squeezed from my body. The nightmare apparition faded in and out of darkness; I fought for breath and failed, chest burning, screaming silently for air, and knew that it was all over...

Then a voice echoed in my head, a deep booming voice of authority, like the sound of thunder in the mountains.

“Leave him. He is worthy. Bring him.”

Gustal seemed to hear it, too, for his mutilated head inclined slightly, as if listening, and the pressure on my neck abruptly lessened. Not that his hostility was lessened in any way, for the zombie-creature then buffeted me heavily on the temple, grabbed me and pounded my head against the wall until the flashes of red and black overcame me, and I lost consciousness, for the second time that day.

Hell of a way to end a festival, huh?

* * *

Part of me mused that this business of waking up with pounding headaches after getting bashed in the head was likely to get old real fast. The rest of me just hurt. I sat up, opening my eyes, and tried to make sense of my surroundings.

I was a bloody mess, of course, my head bruised and cut, blood from a half-dozen small wounds caking up on my cheeks and neck. I had been divested of most of my clothing, with the exception of a pair of breeches. My clothes and possessions were nearby, however, flung into a dark corner of...

Where?

It resembled nothing less than a nobleman’s bed chamber, all gilded wood, expensive paintings, ornate furniture, expensive rugs. I myself sat on an elaborate four-poster bed, silk coverlet beneath me. Everything was in shadow, with a few candles burning, shedding wan light through the room. I swallowed hard. This was not what I’d expected.

High, velvet curtains rose nearby, which I assumed concealed windows. I dragged myself painfully from the bed and limped toward them, pulling them aside to reveal tall, leaded panels, hinged to provide access to a stone balcony. Beyond them I saw the valley, stretching out beneath full moonlight — one moon was three-quarters, the other half. With a sinking sense of disappointment, I stepped onto the balcony, feeling vertigo grab at me as I saw that I was at least a hundred paces from the ground below, at the foot of a sheer precipice. A great, turreted manse surrounded me, dark stone, hidden in a fold of the valley wall. A narrow trail led from the main gates down to the valley, but that was far below me, as well.

Steadying myself, I stepped backwards into the room. I hadn’t seen this fortress while exploring, but then most of the valley had been obscured with mist, and I hadn’t done a detailed survey of the ravine walls, in any event.

My mind was whirling with questions and possible escape routes when it suddenly became apparent that I was not alone in the room.

I whirled, and with growing fear, saw tendrils of white mist creeping in through the crack beneath the door. As I gaped, the tendrils grew thicker, more substantial, and finally wove themselves together into a tall, human shape. The shape solidified, became opaque, and...

Two glinting, black eyes regarded me with a mixture of curiosity and apparent hunger. Unable to speak, I let my gaze wander up and down, considering my now fully-materialized roommate.

Oh my... Even in the jaws of death (or worse, undeath) I hadn’t forgotten how to appreciate an attractive female. This one, despite her rather disturbing origin, certainly fit the bill. Tall, slim, an air of tangible haughtiness dripping from her every curve, she had a long, sharp-chinned face with the aforementioned black eyes, slightly slanted, exotic and deep, still gazing at me with a disturbing, if somewhat incomprehensible, expression. Straight, night-black hair cascaded over pale, bare shoulders, exposed by the long, black gown that clung to her like a second skin, revealing a spare, lithe form. As she approached me, still inspecting me with an appraising, emotionless stare, she seemed to glide across the floor, moving like a ghost...

A ghost? I wondered. Perhaps my impressions were more accurate than I thought. Her skin was nearly bone-white, but her lips were dark red, glinting in the feeble candlelight — a bit too healthy and ruddy for a ghost, I decided, staring and still trying to decide what to do. She’d taken no offensive action, and her manner was not threatening; besides, my weapons were in the opposite corner, and she’d clearly be able to intercept me should I try to go after them.

At last I broke the heavy silence, and croaked, “Who--?”

But that’s all I managed, for her eyes abruptly shifted from me to the tall windows behind me. I turned suddenly, following her gaze. When I saw what she was looking at, my frayed nerves pretty much snapped like a rotten twig.

A terrible shape was out there, descending from the moonlit sky, flapping great black wings, red eyes gleaming. It reached the balcony and abruptly changed, transforming into a second tall, obviously female form. If the first had caught my eye, the second frankly impaled it.

The fact that she was naked had something to do with it, but she’d have been a sight wearing sackcloth and ashes. She strode into the room with all the confidence of a knight in armor, despite her nudity. Fine blonde hair fell below her waist, and her body was strongly built, but at the same time aggressively feminine — large and ripe, and bordering on downright plump (a type I’d always been fond of, by the way). Her shoulders were broad, bespeaking barely-restrained strength, arms muscular. Two large, fleshy breasts rode proudly above a round, smoothly white belly, aureoles expansive and pink, nipples barely raised stigmata in their centers. Marble-white thighs met in a shadowy tangle, moving together with strong, rhythmic action as she walked into the room — no doubt in my mind how this one moved, unlike her dark-haired companion.

The dark one spoke for the first time. “Ah,” she said, addressing the blonde woman, and I saw the flash of white, white teeth, gleaming like spearpoints in shadow, “you’ve come at last. Welcome, sister. We have a fine repast this evening.”

My heart lurched at that, and suddenly everything — the mist, the white skin, the great black flying shape, the teeth — made sense. I was definitely not in the presence of Rexxaran vestals here, I realized, and tensed for a dash at my weapons. I was determined to sell my life dearly, and hoped that my silver kris remained in my belt pouch along with the rest of my possessions. I wasn’t sure whether silver was effective against vampires (I found myself debating whether that was for werewolves, instead...), but it couldn’t be any worse that what I had, which was nothing.

I never got beyond the tensing stage. The dark vampiress’ gaze shot back to me, and I felt pinned as if by multiple crossbow bolts. My entire body went rigid, and I felt my very breath lock in my lungs. The bruises and abrasions from my fight with the zombies throbbed and protested, and I wanted to scream in agony, but couldn’t. The bitch, I realized, could probably strangle me with a whim and never lay a long-nailed finger on me, but I suspected that she had more exotic entertainments in mind.

My guess was confirmed when I was lifted bodily, as if by a huge, unseen hand, and thrust back onto the bed. The pressure on chest and throat eased, but I remained pinned, helpless as a butterfly in a nobleman’s display case.

“There,” said the dark one. “He’s yours to play with now.”

The blonde woman’s eyes widened, and her face broke out in a simpering grin, revealing her own jagged fangs. “Really?” she asked, all a-twitter. “All mine?”

Her companion nodded, and together they approached the bed. My heart hammered with fear, but as usual, my basic male nature seemed unable to completely forget terror in the face of such raw beauty. I felt my cock begin to stiffen, despite the fact that I was probably facing a fate worse than death.

The first vampiress noticed this and nodded approvingly. “He will make a fine first addition to your herd, Eva.”

Eva, the strapping blonde, moved closer, climbing up onto the bed, mouth open, face eager and savage, hair a dark golden cloud, fangs gleaming, and crawled slowly and sensuously toward me, large breasts hanging down invitingly, dragging along the silk coverlet as she approached.

“Patience, sister,” cautioned the dark woman. “I’ve a few things to teach you this evening.”

Eva drew back, with apparently great reluctance, and kneeled near me, still within easy reach of my unprotected neck. The sight of her, crouching like a stone statue, mass of blonde hair curving around great, pillowy breasts, columnar thighs united in a pale swatch of glittering pubic hair, sent pulsations of desire through me, and I felt my cock harden further.

“He is excited, Eva,” said the first, apparently senior, vampiress. “These cattle are so very predictable and easy to control. He knows you intend to kill him, yet he wishes to rut with you nonetheless.”

Eva smiled. “He is handsome, Yasmin” she said. “I would not mind rutting with him before I took him.”

Yasmin nodded. “So you shall. You will learn that human blood is an exquisite intoxicant, and blood taken when a human is at the height of ecstasy is the finest you can consume. The master spared this one so that you could have him, and see how passion can make the blood hot and delectable.”

I didn’t like the sound of that — many people make a connection between sex and death, but these vampires seemed to take it literally.

“Do as I say, Eva,” Yasmin continued. “Take off his breeches.”

Eva didn’t need too much convincing, and dug strong fingers into the fabric of my leggings, claws ripping, and in a moment the entire garment was shredded and cast aside. My cock, freed from its restraint, sprang up, uncoiling like a serpent and hardening instantly. Eva grinned happily at this.

“Look, Yasmin,” she said. “He’s so excited. Even though we’re going to kill him?”

“Not kill, really,” Yasmin cautioned, taking up a seat on the other side of my recumbent, naked, and magically-restrained body. “He’ll die, yes, but he will live on as your first slave. You can have him whenever you want, and he’ll be servant to your every whim. No mind of his own, of course, but he won’t really need one. Slaves are such fun, Eva. You’ll see.”

I wanted to yell, to scream, “Fuck you, bloodsuckers — I’ve already been a slave once and I’m not gonna do it again for the likes of you!” but Yasmin’s magical bondage kept hold of me, paralysis gripping every part of my body except the important one.

“Now,” said Yasmin, “to the real work.”

In her eagerness, Eva seemed determined to finish me there and then, and once more crawled across me, great breasts grazing the feverishly hot skin of my cock. Her mouth opened wider, fangs shining, a tiny droplet of saliva dripping from her lips to my chest. I wanted to scream, to resist, to fight or flee, but I remained helpless. And besides, Yasmin seemed to want to drag this out a bit.

“No, no, sister,” she cautioned, placing a restraining hand on Eva’s rounded white shoulder. “You must pleasure him first, if you are to fully savor his essence.”

Gods, said the little comedian which lives in my brain and makes smart-ass comments when they’re least welcome, at least you’ll die happy. My experience with the life-sapping snake-daemoness at the Alabaster Temple came back to me. I had been anything but happy in the face of death at that point, so why the bloody hell should I be now?

Yasmin’s long, black-nailed fingers encircled my cock, lifting it upright and presenting it to Eva like a prize cucumber at the harvest fair.

“You know what to do with this, don’t you?” Yasmin asked, an edge of sarcasm in her voice. “Back when you were a simple farm girl, you played with the boys, didn’t you?”

Eva’s face narrowed into a razor-thin smile. “I did, Sister,” she replied. “And the boys loved every moment of it. Like to see what I used to do?”

Yasmin nodded, and Eva positioned herself between my slightly-spread legs, a curvaceous monument of alabaster flesh and white-blonde hair, massive breasts pressing down, pillowed beneath her. My breath came faster, my heart pounded... Oh, Phaedra suck it all, I thought, I’m doing exactly what they want...

“First, I touched them lightly with my fingers, like this,” Eva said, conversationally, stroking my cock. “Then I played with their balls, like this.” Her hands cupped my testicles and squeezed lightly. I desperately wanted to moan or cry out, but my throat remained restricted, and I felt waves of burning energy rebound and chase each other back and forth inside me, building deep in my belly, roiling like an oncoming storm.

Eva continued squeezing my balls with increasing pressure with one hand, then took my cock in the other, holding tightly, and began to stroke. Damn, this woman was strong — I wondered if she’d been the proverbial horny milkmaid in her mortal life, milking cocks with the same fervor she’d milked daddy’s dairy cows; she certainly had the hand development for it.

“See?” Eva said. “He can’t move, but you can tell it’s driving him crazy. The boys just loved this. Some of them came all over me just from me touching them. I hated that. I wanted them to fuck me.”

“They were young, Sister,” Yasmin commented, settling into a nearby chair to watch the proceedings. “I’d always preferred the older mortal — they have much better control.”

Eva’s smile widened. “I agree. Those boys... They were always so embarrassed when they came quickly. I licked it up, anyway. They liked that.”

Finally, a thin groan escaped from my clenched throat, but it only spoke a fraction of the suppressed agony I felt. Damn, I was usually able to bleed off my excess energy by making noise — these bitches didn’t seem inclined to grant me that luxury. Then again, they were planning to kill me and make me a mindless slave, so my welfare probably wasn’t uppermost in their minds...

“Hear that?” Yasmin said. “His pleasure is growing unbearable. When he comes, his blood will be the finest you’ve ever consumed.”

“Mmmm,” Eva said, still stroking. “I love it. It’s like a fat white sausage, isn’t it?”

Even in my reduced state, I resented the implication, but I was unable to say anything about it.

“Those who survived this far,” Eva went on, “got my tongue. Such good boys they were.”

With that, the fanged mouth slid luxuriantly open, and a moist red tongue emerged to run itself slowly and thoroughly up the underside of my cock.

“Did they come when you did that?” asked Yasmin. I expected to see her taking notes, but no such luck.

“Sometimes,” Eva replied. “I didn’t mind that as much. I learned to like the taste of a man’s come. It can be quite a lovely thing, though it was an — what’s the word I’m looking for?”

“An acquired taste?” Yasmin suggested.

Eva nodded, making her tongue do strange things to my taut flesh. “That’s the word.”

“Your vocabulary has certainly expanded since you joined us, Sister.”

Eva giggled. “Thanks.”

Now she combined fingers and tongue, tugging with renewed enthusiasm at my cock (damn — she MUST have learned on cow teats, I thought...) as she licked and briefly enveloped my cockhead with her mouth.

“After this,” she said, “I sucked them for a while, then when they were ready, I let them fuck me. Hard.”

“Mmmmm,” said Yasmin, who clearly seemed to be enjoying the show. I saw her hand busy between her legs, and heard her breath come quickly. Hell, I guess we’re all the same, whether we’re alive or dead...

“Mmmmm,” repeated Eva, red lips encircling my cock, sharp teeth grazing flesh. From the look on her face, I was afraid that she’d chow down there and then (and imagine how painful THAT would have been), but she restrained herself.

“Oh, I want to bite him,” Eva breathed, running her lips up and down my cock. “I want to bite him so bad. I loved those boys’ come so much — I loved how it tasted... But you’ve shown me how delicious blood can be, dearest Yasmin...”

With that, she hauled herself up, straddling me, hands roughly cradling my cock, rubbing its head against distended, pink cunt lips.

“Ohhhhh, how it feels, Yasmin...” Her voice was drum-tight with excitement. “How wonderful it was to fuck them, there in the barn... Now... Now...” And with that she slid down, cock held between the glistening lips of her pussy. Then she devoured me, letting my taut member move into her tight, dark depths.

“Such a cock this one has, Yasmin, such a cock...” Eva was lost. She leaned back, heavy breasts straining. She cupped them in her hands and tweaked her own nipples, until they turned pink and hard and swollen.

Nearby, Yasmin had hiked her gown up completely and slipped a single finger into her own cunt, a dark recess between lean thighs, and moaned gently as she did so.

“Are you going to come, Yasmin?” Eva demanded, even as she moved up on her knees, letting my cock move out, then plunged down again, enveloping me in moist warmth.

“Yessssssss,” hissed the dark-haired vampire. “I’m going to...” Her fanged teeth clenched heavily. “I’m coming now...”

“Oh, so good, sister Yasmin...” Eva’s voice was tight, too. “Sooooo good...”

I was rapidly moving that way myself, even though I realized it would mean my own extinction. But Eva’s tossing halo of blonde hair, her rich, luscious body, bobbing breasts, swollen nipples, and the excited expression of barely restrained passion, eyes half-closed, lips parted and gleaming red, tongue out, her manner wild and unrestrained as an animal — it all conspired against me, and I knew I was about to come.

“He’s coming, Eva,” warned Yasmin, standing and moving toward me. “In a moment...”

That was my moment. My cock suddenly contracted, gushing hot semen into Eva, and a steady cry escaped my imprisoned throat.

Eva leaped from her position, and then down between my thighs and, in an instant of sheer agony, sank sharp fangs into my haunch, even as hot semen cascaded down upon her, running down my thighs to join with my streaming blood in her mouth. She moaned softly as hot blood surged into her mouth.

Then it was Yasmin’s turn. She attacked my throat with equal passion, and more pain shot into me... Gods, no...

My blood spewed from me and into the mouths of the two vampiresses, and I felt the room spinning, darkness deepening... Only a moment, and it would all be over...

The horrible sucking pressure on my neck lessened suddenly, and Yasmin pulled away, with the sensation of a jagged needle being suddenly withdrawn from my flesh. I abruptly realized that my paralysis was broken, and I took the opportunity to scream, loudly. It seemed to surprise Eva, who also tore her fangs from my thigh, with a similarly agonizing sensation.

Despite my sudden reprieve from damnation, I was unable to move. I remembered the sensation well, from the Alabaster Temple, where the snake daemoness had drained my life energy until I was on the brink of death. I lacked the strength to fight back, scramble off the bed, or do anything save let my scream trail off to a ragged wail, and lie, blood soaked and panting, on the silken coverlet.

Eva and Yasmin didn’t seem overly concerned about me — I was pretty much out of action in any event — their attention was focused on the balcony outside, where yet a fourth member of our little drama had appeared, amid billowing black fabric. Gods, my fading mind thought, what fresh hell is this...?

What little consciousness I retained reeled in horror. The visitor was none other than the hideous crone from the graveyard... Phaedra save my sorry ass, I thought, was she mistress to these two? Another undead monstrosity come to torment me? My mind whirled red and black, and I realized that I didn’t have long to live.

In my last moments of mortal existence, I watched as Yasmin reacted violently, hissing and abruptly transforming into a spindly, daemonic human bat, her eyes flaring red, monstrous mouth open, fangs poised... The thing which had been Yasmin launched itself at the intruder, while the less experienced Eva still crouched between my thighs, staring in perplexity.

The crone stood her ground, raised a hand, and intoned syllables which I recognized in the dim reaches of my memory as magical. The snarling vampire-thing stopped short, falling back, transforming once more into Yasmin, and suddenly one of the nearby chairs leaped up of its own accord, shattering into sharp fragments, which flew like daggers through the air, slicing into the vampire woman’s flesh, piercing her, sending cascades of black blood that was not blood pouring out onto the rich carpet.

“Bitch...” snarled Yasmin through bloody lips, as the wood fragments began to grow, sprouting leaves, transforming into heavy, vine-like growths, surrounding her body, then closing down on her in an impenetrable mass. The black mess that passes for vampire blood oozed out as Yasmin’s angry snarl turned into a drawn-out shriek of agony, then trailed into silence.

Eva screamed, hand at her mouth, looking on in disbelief. It was all she had time to do, for the great wood vines leaped with murderous intent from Yasmin’s sundered and pierced body, and enwrapped the golden-haired vampiress, bearing her to the ground, silencing her final cries. In a moment, all that remained were thick writhing vines, and rich green leaves — by far the healthiest things I’d seen since arriving in the valley.

My breath came in quick, feeble gasps. I still had trouble comprehending what had happened, and my confusion did not lessen when the crone, the hideous, malformed, snaggle-toothed and spare-haired harpy, glanced to the bed and swiftly hobbled to my side.

“You poor bastard,” she whispered, in a honeyed voice that was completely incongruous coming from that emaciated old body. “Are you killed?”

“Not yet,” I rasped in a feeble, cracked voice. “Help me...”

She looked frustrated, casting disgusted glances down at where the two vampire women had lain. “I didn’t expect those bitches to be here... Good riddance, though...” She looked at me with opaque, fishy eyes. “I’m going to have to drop my glamour to save you. I don’t need it anymore, anyway.” She drew back, her outline shimmered and melted, and in the place of the horrid, gnarled crone stood a vision of loveliness.

She wasn’t especially tall, but her curvaceousness made up for the deficiency. Slim, athletic, pale-skinned, with short blonde hair and an earnest, innocent-looking face complete with wide blue eyes, turned-up nose, and light spatter of freckles. If Eva had been a milk maid, this one was without doubt the farmer’s daughter. She wore grey traveling clothes, but these did little to disguise the fact that she was a creature of radiant beauty and fierce energy. I felt as if I’d known her before — and I don’t know, according to the Recreationists, I probably had, in a previous life — and saw in her the same hint of strength and power as I’d seen in such diverse women as Ushandra the warrioress, Xylara the Xeshite noblewoman, and Sarra the druidess. I’d loved them all, in my own way, and the mild but strong blue gaze of this woman stirred the same feelings, despite my weakened condition.

She laid hands on my chest and forehead. “Ready?” she asked and, without waiting for an answer, intoned another enchantment, blue energy flickering around her head and down her spine. A moment later, the energy coalesced in the center of her forehead, then flowed down her hands and into me.

The agony of my wounds lessened, my overtaxed heart slowed, my breath came easier. I could feel my veins fill with blood, and my very soul pulse with renewed vitality. Gods...

I looked up at her. If I’d been smitten at the sight of this vision, I was now completely ensnared, captivated, and infatuated. A beautiful woman is one thing, but a beautiful woman who saves your life out of the good of her heart...

Yeah, I was lost. It was an emotion I would come to curse in the following years, but at that moment it beat, bright and pure, in the depths of my oft-abused but still living romantic heart.

“Thank you...” I whispered. “I almost... I would have...”

She nodded. “You’d have died. You probably wouldn’t even have had the consolation of rising as a vampire, either. They weren’t quite finished with you.”

“From where I’m lying they were,” I replied, testing out my muscles as I rose to my feet. “I’m sorry for my informal attire... They shredded my breeches...”

The blonde woman threw me what remained of my clothes from their place in the corner, then rummaged in a closet and tossed me a new pair of loose trousers.

“Those,” she said, “should do. I’m Livia, by the way. I think we’ve met.”

“Wulf,” I replied. “Yes, a couple of times, and the second time you scared the living crap out of me.”

“The feeling was mutual. What the hell were you doing in the graveyard?”

“Oh, just exploring,” I replied, hurriedly pulling on clothing. “I might ask you the same question.”

“I’m here incognito,” she told me. “Then again, that’s probably obvious. I’m here looking for something that was stolen from me.”

I took a quick stock of my other possessions. My weapons, including my pistols, were intact, to my vast relief.

“What exactly are you looking for?” I asked. “I have some skill in that area. I could help. I think I owe you, anyway.”

“Yes, you do,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I think the master of this house is responsible for the massacre down in the town. He stole something from me.”

I frowned. “What? Don’t be cagey, Livia. I think we can help each other.”

She rolled her eyes. “Gods. Save a man’s life and he thinks he’s your frigging husband. All right — I think that the bastard who runs this place stole a wand from me. A magical wand. Do you know anything about magic?”

I nodded. “I’m not as stupid as I look, as hard as that is to believe.”

“It’s called the Black Wand. It can be used to raise skeletons, zombies, ghosts — that sort of thing — and bind them to the user. It normally only works on one at a time, but this son of a bitch is very powerful, and I think he used the energy of the villagers’ ceremonies to aid him. My guess is that he’s raised every corpse in the valley, and plans to create more servants from the surrounding towns.”

Damn. Images flickered through my mind of twisted, ghoulish figures motivated by creatures far more perverse and evil than the two vampire women, crawling slowly but purposefully up the walls of the valley, lurching through the night, descending on the towns nearby, converting their inhabitants into more mindless zombies... Khaera... Gods...

“So who’s this friend of yours?” I asked. “Where can we find him?”

“Lord Thazar,” Livia told me. “And he’s no friend of mine. He’s a vampire, like those two — I think they’re his wives, or concubines, or girlfriends, or something...”

“Well they’re plant food now,” I said with grim satisfaction. “Nice casting, by the way. Druidic?”

She raised her eyebrows, impressed in spite of herself. “You’re right, Wulf. You’re not as stupid as you look. All right, I accept your offer. I’m going to need help killing Thazar and taking that wand back in any event. I think he’s going to be down in his vault, raising more dead with the wand. I suspect he has visions of conquering all of Litharna and turning it into his own private mausoleum. Vampires are like that — megalomaniac assholes, every one.”

I couldn’t say I disagreed. Hurriedly, I attached my baldric and started loading my pistols.

“Those won’t do any good,” Livia cautioned. “Magic and a wooden stake are the only language a vampire understands.”

I didn’t stop, but continued, ramming powder and ball into the pistols. “These will at least slow them down. My heartcutter might hurt them. It’s designed to fight demons, and they’re a hell of a lot tougher than vampires.”

“You might be right. I’d always wanted to test that theory, anyway.”

“Well, I’m going to be your happy guinea pig, my dear,” I said, standing, black heartcutter in one hand, saber in the other, loaded pistols at my belt. “Now let’s go kick some undead ass.”

* * *

Unfortunately, despite her considerable intelligence, Livia didn’t know the manse any better than I did, other than the fact that there was a subterranean vault where one could raise undead monsters. The structure had, she told me, been the haunt of some rich nobleman until about fifty years previously, when it had been abandoned after the nobleman in question massacred his entire family and ate them with a nice pasta and a full-bodied red wine. Typically, the locals had decided the place was cursed, and avoided it, leaving it open for Lord Thazar’s occupancy.

“Why is it,” I said, as we moved tentatively down a dusty corridor, “that vampires always seem to be attracted to old, run-down mansions?”

“They believe their own propaganda, I think,” Livia replied. “Look — there are stairs here.”

I followed her, sword ready. We made our way down a narrow flight of stairs which had once been richly carpeted. I was hoping that the other undead of the mansion were elsewhere, possibly crawling off to join the swelling ranks Thazar’s zombie army. When a ragged gurgling and shuffling sound from below us suggested that I was wrong once more. A half-dozen ragged things, the remnants of a number of villagers who had been dead at least a year, shambled up the stairs at us, rotting arms outreached, their empty eyesockets glowing yellow-green.

“Stand back!” Livia ordered in a voice sharp enough to make me stop short and retreat a few steps. She unleashed a torrent of blue-white magical energy which engulfed our attackers, blotting them out completely. When the firestorm subsided, the walls and stairs were scorched and smoking, and all but two of the zombies had been reduced to smoldering fragments.

Now it was Livia’s turn to fall back, slipping past me, face drawn and pale, recovering the energy she’d expended.

“They’re all yours, swordsman,” she said, voice weak.

“Thanks a lot,” I grunted, advancing.

My fight with Gustal had taught me that subtle swordsmanship meant nothing to zombies. I would have to hack the bastards to pieces, rather than rely on a single killing blow.

Fortunately for me, these were older and slower than Gustal, and had already been weakened by Livia’s attack. As she stood behind me, panting, I tried to keep images of that pert chest rising and falling out of my mind, but they crept in nonetheless, even while I fought for my life. I hacked, taking off an arm here, a hand there.

Finally, one fell, his leg tendons severed. I swung hard, my light saber cutting into the second surviving zombie’s neck. Its head flopped backward, still hanging on by a thread of rotting flesh, and its claws swiped at me. I hacked again, and another arm fell to the stairs, where it twitched and flexed, trying to crawl up after me. Another chop severed the head completely, and one final blow bisected the thing into flapping, feebly moving sections. I cut a few more large pieces up, then urged Livia down the stairs, past the still-animated and hostile, but largely ineffectual, body parts.

It proved to be just the beginning. Our host hadn’t been lax in his security arrangements, and a regiment or so of reanimated monstrosities barred our way as we moved down stairs, through hallways, onto the main floor, and toward the ominous portal, which Livia told me led to the dreaded “vault.” We hacked our way through all of them, but by the time we reached our destination, we were both a bloody mess, clothes shredded and filthy, eyes glassy, breath short.

“Are you sure,” I said, panting, leaning on my saber, gazing with considerable trepidation at the yawning opening, “that you have enough juice left to cast anymore? You’ve been going at it like a dwarf miner at a silver vein.”

Livia heaved a deep breath and looked directly at me. True, she was haggard and weary-looking, her lovely blonde hair plastered to her face in sweaty strands, her clothes ripped and stained with obscene zombie-fluids. I doubted she had more than a spell or two left before she passed out.

“I’ve got to, Wulf,” she said. “I may not be the most morally upstanding individual in creation, but I’m partially responsible for Thazar’s having that wand, and I’m not about to be party to the disasters he’s about to bring. Besides, that bloodsucking bastard stole my property, and by Phaedra, I’m going to let him keep it without a fight.”

I cocked an eyebrow at her. A number of strange thoughts whirled through my brain, and only a few of them had anything to do with the mission at hand.

“You know something?” I asked, mildly, trying to get back the breath which our running battle with the zombies had stolen. “I’ve always wondered what I’d have been like if I’d been born female.”

She got my drift and frowned sourly. “Nice try, swordboy,” she said. “For one thing, if you’d been born female, you wouldn’t be anywhere near this good looking.”

I sighed. I was once more, it seemed, falling deeply in love with a woman who would rather sleep with a sweaty orc than me. Oh well...

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get this over with. At least we can die together.”

“Don’t count us out yet, Wulf,” she said, as I led the way through the portals and toward our destiny. It hardly reassured me.

I suspected that the long-dead nobleman built his manse atop the traditional ancient shrine to dark gods, for the stairs were obviously very old, and the walls were carved with badly eroded images whose nature would probably have really disturbed me had I inspected them too closely.

“Light?” I suggested as inky blackness closed in around us. “Or are you worried about attracting too much attention?”

Livia didn’t reply, but quickly cast a witchlight spell, surrounding us in a faint blue glow, enough so that we could see our way, but hopefully not enough to alert our foes. We’d see in a few moments, anyway.

Deep below us, I heard snatches of a deep voice, intoning what were obviously arcane syllables. I recognized one or two from my illicit reading of necromantic texts in the university library, and found myself actually quite glad that I didn’t understand the rest — necromancy is infamous for driving its practitioners mad, and I didn’t relish the thought of joining them.

At length, with the voice growing louder and more unsettling, we reached the foot of the stairs, and cautiously moved down the short stone corridor we found there. Beyond, the corridor opened into a vast, vault-roofed chamber, dimly lit by torches, and crowded with rank upon rank of grinning, rotting, milling undead creatures, all facing the raised dais at the opposite end, where stood the being who could only be Lord Thazar, vampire monarch and necromancer supreme.

He was about what one would expect from a pretentious, megalomaniacal vampire noble. He wore a long, black tunic, secured by a silver skull-belt, and a gleaming silver pectoral in the form of a skeletal bird or dragon — so, I thought, the silver is for wolves, after all... Thazar himself was a long-faced, distinguished-looking individual, who might have been handsome had he not been so preternaturally pale and drawn-looking. His eyes lived, however, dancing and gleaming with malign energy, as he continued to chant, and waved a short, black wand topped with a silver skull. I perceived, rather than saw, a tangled skein of magical force connecting him to the monsters in the chamber through the wand, like a foul puppeteer of the damned (okay, okay — I’ll try to tone down the metaphor...)

I wasn’t entirely sure what the hell we were to do next. There was no way this side of hell that I could hack my way through the crowd of undead alone, and as I had noted, Livia’s magical reserves were nearing exhaustion. Before I could suggest a quiet retreat and emigration to the White Empire, Livia stepped from behind me, into full view of the towering vampire on the platform.

As I gaped in disbelief, she spread her arms and shouted, with considerable volume for such a petite creature, “THAZAR!!!”

That stopped the chanting, and the vampire-lord’s gaze locked inexorably onto my companion.

“So!” he shouted in a deep voice that echoed against the vaulted roof (why do villains always have to shout “So!” when things like that happen, anyway?). “I felt the destruction of my wives, and I wondered who could have accomplished such a thing. You’re just in time, you sorcerous bitch, to witness my final triumph!”

Livia laughed. “You’ve been reading too many bad novels, Thazar,” she replied. “Now, it you’d said something original, I might be worried!”

I stayed discreetly out of sight, hoping that Thazar wouldn’t realize she’d had help. I loosed my heartcutter, hoping against hope that its effectiveness on demons would at least be of concern to a vampire. It was a thin hope, I realized...

“For a woman, you’ve got stones, I’ll give you that,” said Thazar in a less melodramatic tone as he leaped lightly down from the platform, and approached Livia, the undead legion giving way before him. “But now you’re here, what are you going to do? I hold all the cards, little girl. I can tell that you’re almost exhausted, and I’ve just finish reanimating every corpse in this pathetic little valley.”

Livia seemed unfazed. “You have something that belongs to me, you bloodsucking bastard,” she growled. “Give it back and send these corpses back to rest.”

Thazar, to his credit, didn’t throw back his head and laugh like a maniac. He only smiled. “What? And waste all this effort? Gods, woman — the dead are pissed enough as it is, what with that pathetic holiday cancelled... I would have raised the dead with your useful little wand here, but adding those celebrants in the graveyard was just a pleasant diversion. There are dissatisfied dead all over Litharna. They’ll have their day soon enough.”

“Bastard!” spat Livia. “The dead want to be left in peace, not dragooned into an army for your personal glorification. Give up the fucking wand and we’ll leave you in peace!”

Thazar still didn’t seem to take her seriously. “You’re in no position to give orders, bitch,” he said. “The most you can hope for is that I take pity on you and recruit you as a replacement for Yasmin and Eva. Oh, and where is that swordsman they were playing with, anyway?”

My heart hammered, but I remained in hiding. He didn’t know that I was still alive, and there was no sense in surrendering whatever small advantage we retained.

Thazar stopped about a dozen paces short of Livia. His gaze remained fixed on her, and so far he had apparently not noticed me. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I certainly didn’t like it much. Still, Livia had proved herself resourceful, and...

And, I realized as she stretched out a hand, she still had any number of cards up her sleeve...

“Return,” she said, simply, and I saw a thread of magical force, much like the one connecting Thazar to the zombies, solidify and thicken between her hand and the Black Wand. As Thazar stared dumbly, the thread snapped back, yanking the wand from his hand and into hers.

“I always protect my property, Thazar,” she said, pointing the wand at the vampire lord. “You’ve had your chance, now it’s my turn.”

Completely disarmed by Livia’s gambit, Thazar stood in shocked silence as a stream of white magic shot from the wand, caught him in the chest, and sent him flying. His connection with the zombies was broken as well, and one after the other, they collapsed to the ground.

Another blast from Livia caught Thazar as he struggled to stand, pounding him down again. But the vampire was not completely without resources. He cast, as well, creating a globe of protective energy around himself. The blasts from the wand deflected, streaking off into the surrounding darkness, and he rose to his feet, transforming into a snarling bat-thing, racing toward Livia.

Now was my moment. I stepped out, and struck with my heartcutter. The black blade cut through Thazar’s protective bubble, but caught and skidded off his vampiric flesh. His burning eyes glared furiously at me, and a clawed hand struck me aside. I fell heavily against the wall, felt pain lance through my shoulder, and watched helplessly as Thazar bore down on Livia, who sent the last of her magical reserves into a final, pyrotechnic strike. It pushed him back, singed his brown-black fur, but it didn’t kill him. It was up to me now — as admirable as Livia was as a sorceress and fighter, she was no match for an enraged vampire lord. If I didn’t do something, we were finished.

I rose, casting my saber and heartcutter dagger aside, and drew my brace of pistols, ignoring the pain in my shoulder as I thumbed down hammers, leveled at the oncoming horror, now almost entirely bat-like, its jaws and fangs slavering, eyes bestial and full of hatred, and pulled both triggers.

Thunder and lightning filled the chamber. Fire cut into the monster’s chest, and it screamed in uncomprehending pain. I could almost feel its confusion — no, no; it was a mortal weapon, not even enchanted, it shouldn’t harm the flesh of the deathless ones...

No, I thought to myself, it shouldn’t harm you. Not unless the balls were packed with fragments of wood taken from shattered furniture in one of your bedchambers, you unnatural freak...

Yes, wood — it hurt him, drove splinters deep into Thazar’s chest, tearing enchanted, invulnerable flesh... But would it kill him? Gods, if he survived...

He didn’t get the chance.

Behind me, Livia held the wand and chanted softly. All around us, the dead once more lurched to horrific life, slowly and painfully rising, shambling forward, reaching out with ragged claws, champing with rotted teeth, growling and groaning...

“Your tormentor,” Livia whispered. “The one who would deny you rest, and make you slay your loved ones. Take him, brothers... Take him, and return to the blessed arms of Phaedra, where you will find peace...”

Swords, daggers, pistols... All were useless against vampires, for they healed too quickly, and shrugged off the effects of most mortal engines. But against the flesh of the undead, flesh driven by hatred, and the desire for vengeance — a vampire can survive for a while, but not when wounded and bleeding, and not against an endless tide of vengeful once-slaves, now-enemies, whose feeble minds remembered their mortal lives, and desired final peace beyond death...

Thazar screamed for quite a long time as wave after wave of clawing, biting, tearing bodies rolled over him. Many of the zombies fell, sundered by Thazar’s claws; even weakened and near death, he was a fearsome opponent, but in the end it was no use to him. The monster at last fell, ripped to pieces by the animated shells of those he would have used as slaves, and denied rest...

Livia muttered a last incantation, releasing the zombies, and they collapsed once more, dead now and forever. Then, eyes rolling up in her head, Livia herself fell, the Black Wand slipping from her grasp.

Oh Gods... Not again... I hastened to her side, my shoulder pulsating with agony, and lifted her up, checking for pulse and breath. No, I thought, memories of Sarra the elf druid still fresh in my mind, please...

She still lived, by the gods. Her pulse was weak, her breath shallow, but her collapse was one of exhaustion, not death.

Despite the pain which lanced through me, and the weariness which urged me to join her, to fall and sleep, I stowed the Black Wand at my belt, then lifted Livia and carried her up from the vault, from the place of death, and out through the main doors of Thazar’s manse, into the grey light of dawn...

All Souls’ Night had ended, and I wondered if a single living thing remained in the valley to appreciate it.

* * *

As it turned out, there remained a few isolated homesteads left dotted about the gorge; I located one after a long, laborious climb down the valley wall from Thazar’s manse, aching and tired, and burdened by Livia’s unconscious form. The family — a burly miner, his wife, teenaged daughter and twin adult sons — had spent a terrifying night behind barricaded walls, fighting off periodic assaults by Thazar’s undead. Fortunately for me, they realized that I was alive and didn’t feather me as I approached, calling out for help. Newly re-dead corpses littered the landscape around the house, some sprouting arrows, others rent by sword or axe blows.

After initial suspicion, the miner, Udor, and his wife, Franya, took us in with expressions of sympathy and concern.

“Where are the monsters?” Franya demanded. She was a strong woman, but the night had left her haggard and weary, dark circles under her eyes. “They stopped attacking just before dawn.”

“All dead... again,” I said. “We killed the thing that was responsible.” I took care to keep the Black Wand hidden — no telling how they’d react if they saw it. “It’s all over.”

Udor and his wife sighed with relief. Their children all lay sleeping about the house in various postures of exhaustion, and it looked as if their parents ached to join them.

I ate and rested as Franya saw to Livia. Within an hour, she had regained consciousness, and ravenously devoured the bread and vegetables offered by the family.

We spent the rest of the day, and the following night with the family; by morning Livia had recovered most of her strength, and looked a bit more like the bright-faced woman who had rescued me the night before.

We bade goodbye to Udor and his family early the following morning. Livia left them a small pouch of gold and gems, an act which made the family stare in astonishment — I suspected it would leave Udor as the wealthiest surviving landholder in the valley.

I hastened to leave the deathly silent streets of Guldensburg; as I had feared, not a living thing had survived in the town. Neither human, dog, cat, nor horse remained, though when I looked down an alley, I saw scuttling rats. At least, I reflected, they were all truly dead now, and beyond the reach of Thazar and his ilk. All the same, we wasted no time heading up the trail out of the gorge, only to find the way still blocked by the landslide that had trapped us all down here.

Livia frowned. “Dammit,” she muttered. “I’m not looking forward to this. Step back.”

With that, she intoned a series of invocations, moving enough earth and rock to allow passage. We scrambled over, back down onto the road, and finally out of the valley. I looked back. Livia’s magic would have the added benefit of helping the few remaining humans in the valley escape, as well — I doubted anyone would want to continue living down there, given its cursed history...

I wasn’t terribly concerned about the mad castrators, after the horrors we’d witnessed. In any event, we encountered nothing more terrifying than a startled deer, and reached a relatively friendly village by afternoon.

“Since I’ve done what I came here to do,” Livia said, as we sat together at the local inn that night, “I’m heading for Stoneburg.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Stoneburg? That’s where I’m from. Why the hell haven’t I met you before?”

She shook her head. “I have safe houses all over the place. I haven’t been to the ‘burg in a couple of years. I’m planning on staying there for a while, though. Perhaps we can get together some time.”

“I look forward to it,” I said, gazing at her and feeling that sinking “let’s always be good friends” sensation that I always feel with women I don’t stand a chance with. Gods, there was something about her... An intangible union of innocence and unbridled sensuality, a depth to her rich blue eyes that I wanted to dive into and explore, lose myself in...

She smiled. “Helmsruud is a little too hot for me right now so I’m shipping out through Tarnstranz. The quickest route is through Kenth, and I suspect an escort would be a very good thing to have. Care to accompany me?”

Really. Maybe, I thought... No — she obviously asked because she trusted me to be a gentleman and never make unwanted advances. Sometimes I truly wish I was one of those heartless rakes who can seduce the iciest of women, then leave them crying... Then again, I don’t think I could ever live with myself.

“I’d be glad to,” I replied. “I’ve come to enjoy your company. In any event, I think I owe you for saving my life.”

She waved a hand. “That debt’s been repaid in full, if it ever was a debt. I’m asking you as a friend.”

Oh, Gods, the siege engine has sprung... We’re doomed to friendship. Never to touch, never to kiss save in the most chaste and fraternal manner, never to fall together in passion’s embrace...

Oh, for Phaedra’s sake, shut up...

“Then I’m with you all the way,” I said. The next few words were among the hardest I’ve ever uttered. “I can only go as far as Tarnstranz, though. I have some very important business in Vosgraad before I head back home.”

I’d swear she almost looked disappointed. “Well,” she said, “then I’ll have to see you when you get back to the ‘burg.”

“We’ll do that,” I said, trying to imagine what she looked like naked, while simultaneously trying to keep myself from doing so, and frustrating myself enormously in the process. Most of you probably know what I’m talking about...

When we slept in separate rooms, I was pretty sure that she wanted to keep our relationship chaste and friendly, and consoled myself with self-abuse. Though it was far from what I wanted, at least it helped me get to sleep quickly...

Gods... Livia... The eternal unrequited love...

Well, lust anyway...

* * *

Kenth is a wild, unpopulated province of the vast Litharnan state; a few hardy pioneers have settled there, felling trees, setting up farmsteads, hunting, fishing, but in the main, it is an untouched wilderness of vast fir forests, sylvan glades, cold rushing streams, and craggy mountains touched with snow. It reminded me of the Elven Isles.

Gods know, Livia and I grew close in the days we traveled through Kenth. Friendly, but still thoroughly platonic, which is about where I expected it to remain.

Her life was about as varied and rootless as mine. She’d been raised by her mother, a small-time hedge sorceress who had had a string of boyfriends and little time for her. She’d left home at fourteen, discovered men soon thereafter, and (here, I had to bite my hand to keep from moaning) women only a little later. A string of unhappy relationships, including cohabitation with at least one highly abusive man, followed, until, as near as I could guess, Livia decided that she herself was the only individual she could truly rely on, and obtained sorcerous training at a very disreputable magical institute.

Things were hopping from then on. She hired herself out variously as security and larceny expert, salted her money away with the Kyborist bankers, and by the time she was twenty she had enough to buy a nice mansion in Godshome. Through all that, I noted, she continued to rely on herself, though got the general impression that her bed rarely stayed lonely for long.

“And now you’re an international power broker with interests in a dozen countries, right?” I asked.

She laughed. Yes, it was a melodic, joyful laughter, and she looked like one of those untouchable, but serenely beautiful angels from old Kyborist murals when she did so. “Not really, Wulf. I’m comfortable enough, but I’m not what you would call wealthy.”

“You’re what I would call wealthy,” I growled. “But then again, I’m the one who blows all his money on petty luxuries and loose women.”

“Mm.” It seemed to come as no surprise to her. “I’m not without my own petty luxuries,” she said. “Or with my own loose...” she paused, mulling over her next choice of words “...companions.”

I took this all in stride, and we moved on to my own life story. I actually told her the entire story of my adventures during and after the Imperial Veldt Lands disaster — the invasion, the battle, my transformation into a lion-man, enslavement in Xesh, and my part in the great goblin invasion of the Elven Isles. I even told her about the women — the late and lamented Sarra, the very much alive and perverse Nineh and Xylara, the supple and submissive Alrynna, the evil snake daemoness, the multiply-pierced and infinitely twisted dark elf Thae’lynn, and of course my beloved Ushandra, who remained at the top of my list of cherished memories...

I glanced over at her. She seemed interested, if relatively unimpressed — I suspected that my sexual escapades were nothing compared to hers (even though she had been distressingly spare with details, I realized that she was hiding some tales that would have curled my hair).

“Interesting,” she said. “I suspect that you’ve got quite a variety of spiritual influences. That would explain your wanderlust, and the fact that you took to being a lion-man so easily. I wonder what else we could turn you into —”

“Not a chance,” I cut in. “I enjoy being human too damned much. I don’t want to be a lion-man again, even if I was hung like a —” I bit my words off suddenly. “Uhhhh, you know what I mean.”

She smiled what I can only described as a wickedly warped smile. “Don’t be so sure what you want, Wulf. There’s a lot in your future. I can tell such things.”

“Really? Precognitive as well as beautiful and sorcerously talented. So what do you see in my future?”

“Oh, I never said I could see your future. I just know you have one. I’m talented that way.”

“Hm. Talented.” And probably talented in ways I would never get to find out, either. Saint Kybor’s Testicles, this woman had begun to frustrate me...

We rode for days, through uninhabited wilderness, following the only major trail in the province. It was unspoiled land, all right — we met no one, and were menaced by neither man, beast nor spirit. It was easily one of the most pleasant and relaxing journeys of my life.

It happened the day we rode near a towering granite wedge of mountains. Rivers flowed down from the mountains, creating great, thundering waterfalls, and our trail led us past a particularly spectacular specimen.

There are certain places that I consider “special.” Not necessarily magical — magic is a tangible, measurable thing that can enhance and improve a place, but there are “special” places that have a magic of their own, separate and distinct from the kind that turns people into frogs and cuts down shambling zombies.

This, I think, was one such place. The waterfall roared down from on high, around a great boulder rounded and smoothed over the centuries, and landed in a deep, icy blue, almost perfectly circular pool. Trees grew nearly to the water’s edge, stopping just short on a rocky ledge which surrounded the pool. The world was a study in blue, white, green and grey, from the blinding blue-white canopy overhead to the stark, featureless gray of the stone and the rolling waves of green which surrounded us. I sighed, drinking in the beauty, listening to the rush of water, soft at this distance, flowing around us, and felt cool gentle moisture on my skin from the veil of mist surrounding the falling column of water.

Sudden inspiration seized Livia. She vaulted down from her horse and bounded over to a nearby ledge, just a few handspans above the chill blue water.

“Let’s go swimming!” she declared, flinging arms overhead, bending backward, and whirling merrily. I blinked hard as she shed her clothes like a lithe, blonde selkie emerging from the waves, and stood before me like an image carved of pure ivory, warm and alive, eyes bright, white teeth bared in a broad grin.

Oh, such a sight... Everything I’d imagined and more — taut, creamy pink and white, a perfect union of angles and curves... I felt a stirring between my own thighs, and struggled to ignore it.

“Well?” she demanded. “What are you waiting for?” With that, she dove in, a geometrically flawless arc of white flesh, splashing into the water, becoming instantly one with the element, vanishing from sight, and reappearing, glistening and sleek, a dozen paces distant.

I approached, still unsure of what to do, and seated myself on the ledge from which she had launched herself.

“So how’s the water?” I called as Livia’s lithe, pale form dove in and out of the pool with the grace of a porpoise.

She surfaced, crystalline water sluicing from her face as she pushed her hair back and cast me an impish grin.

“Great!” she said, her melodic voice cutting like a knife through the roar of the waterfall. “Damned cold, though. Want to join me?”

I chuckled. “I’m afraid icy water isn’t my favorite medium, my dear,” I replied. “I’d love to stay and watch, however.”

Her expression suddenly evolved from sweet and innocent to downright predatory, then her head and shoulders vanished beneath the water.

I was still wondering how to react when a geyser of water shot up in front of me, and Livia’s lithe, naked body appeared, hauling herself up onto the rock with me. Her pink skin was white with cold now, her delicate pink nipples swollen, breasts bouncing lightly, blue eyes wide and gleaming.

“You stay and play or get out,” she said, wickedly, and before I could respond, wound slender but strong arms around my neck, and fell backwards, dragging me, yelping helplessly, into the pool.

The cold hit me like a very large club, driving breath out of my body, sending me streaking to the surface, sputtering and gasping, dragging her along with me. I didn’t have long, for an instant later, Livia’s lips met mine, and I slipped under once more, still struggling despite the fact that my mind frantically screamed something like, “She wants you, you idiot! Kiss her back! This is your chance! The woman you’ve been lusting after finally wants your hot monkey love!!!”

Not that anything was terribly “hot” in that ice-bath, but I was willing to go with it. My hands were too numb to really feel anything, but I stroked up and down her back nonetheless, pulling her close, feeling her lips once more search out mine, and the heat of her tongue upon my own, in burning contrast to the cold water around us.

By this time, I was completely out of breath once more, and struggled again to the surface. I looked at her, and saw pale blue eyes hot with passion that could melt the snowpack in the mountains that soared above us, and bring the cold water to boiling.

With unspoken consent, we moved to the shallows, and onto a ledge near the thundering curtain of the waterfall. Icy spray misted the air, and I was so cold as to be completely insensate, and didn’t mind terribly shedding my wet clothes, and pulling her naked body against mine.

I saw her lips move, but couldn’t hear anything over the waterfall. I suspected I knew what she was saying; something along the lines of “take me now, you stupid ape,” sentiment with which I was entirely in agreement.

Gods, but she was beautiful, more so now because of the wild, uncivilized place, and the feral gleam in her large blue eyes. Gone was the demure, pale-haired sorceress, replaced by a ravenous white-skinned goddess, delicate fingers stroking my face, my lips, my chest, lips moving across my body, kissing and biting lightly. Her body was a gentle combination of curves and angles, neither overly slender nor excessively fleshy. Her breasts were perfectly sized to her body, and exquisitely formed, with nipples tight and hard in the cold. Her stomach was slightly curved, leading with near architectural grace to her muscular thighs, and downy, almost invisible pubic hair.

In a moment, I was on my back, heedless of the rough stone behind me as she moved astride my chest, taking my hands in hers and moving them to her breasts, which I stroked and squeezed, watching with growing excitement as she leaned back, eyes half-closed, mouth open in a moan, exposing tiny, pearly teeth and sharp pink tongue. Obviously, feeling was coming back to Livia’s extremities, and I tested the hypothesis by squeezing first one nipple, then the other, feeling her tense and shake against me.

Then she kissed me again, moving down this time to kiss her way down my chest, bite at my nipples, then flick her soft tongue along my stomach, to my thighs, and across the head of my surprisingly erect cock. She grinned up at me nastily, and encircled my tumescent organ with both hands, running a stiffened tongue up and down its underside, stroking around its head, stroking and sucking at my balls...

Well, I WAS pretty numb, but my blood was definitely flowing again. As her tongue continued its insistent exploration of my now completely engorged prick, I ran my fingers over her wet hair, face and shoulders. Blessed heat enwrapped my penis as she finally took it into her mouth and slowly, slowly — maddeningly — slipped it deeper and deeper inside. Teeth grazed my skin lightly, and her tongue moved wetly up and down it. Then, cold overwhelmed me as she slid me out, then in again.

I was moaning a blue streak by this time, though no one could hear me over the roaring waters a few feet away. An odd sensation swept over me — desire mixed with deep affection and protectiveness for this strange sorceress who was both innocent and sybarite in a single body. When she released me, I grabbed her shoulders, looking deeply into her eyes, and pulled her up until she was entirely atop me, my erect cock sandwiched between us. I smothered her with a deep kiss, and she responded, wrapping her arms tightly around me.

I felt the vibrations of loud cries from her throat and lips as I slipped one hand between her thighs, feeling hot waves pulsing from her soft, moist pussy. I rubbed swollen lips, and felt the place where her clit sprang erect, a hard nub of wet flesh. I squeezed and stroked, feeling her moans and a cyclic tensing of her body as I stroked more and more forcefully.

Gods, I wanted this woman — more, perhaps than any woman I’d ever wanted before, which is saying a lot. She was definitely ready for me, but I wanted this to be special. I stood with great effort, feeling muscles and joints protest, and old scars ache, but I didn’t care. I lifted her in my arms, feeling her slender but strong body against mine, arms twined around my neck, eyes still fiery and passionate. Her lips continued moving, and it wasn’t difficult to figure out what she was saying.

I carried her into the steady, pounding rain of the waterfall, and set her down upon the smooth rock beneath it. Cold, stinging water pounded down on us, filling the world with noise and icy sensation. She moved onto hands and knees, shapely buttocks thrust up toward me, short blonde hair plastered across head and shoulders, leaning on her forearms, her most intimate places revealed for my pleasure, waiting for my touch...

I slipped a finger into her cunt, feeling heat and wetness, then stroked my cock against its pink, yielding flesh. A cry echoed from her throat, over even the roar of the water as I slipped my rock-hard member into her, feeling the walls of her cunt close around me, clamping down tightly, giving way only with difficulty, yielding before me, and finally sucking me deeply inside.

I pressed in, burying my cock inside her, feeling the softness of her ass cheeks against my hips, her thighs against mine. I held her hips and pushed off, pulling out, then plunging in again, again, again, again. I moved faster, and I felt her honey-sweet cunt grow still tighter, and watched her tense, convulse and writhe beneath me.

She was a pale hourglass of flesh, angular shoulders tapering to slender waist, then flaring once more into the rounded softness of hips and buttocks, moving forward, back, forward, back, my cock buried between her white thighs, plunging in and out, driving her on and on...

I was driving on pretty well, too, and I realized that I wanted to come for this woman. After more long minutes of thrusting, hot flesh alternating with ice-cold water (I suppose that it was a tribute to the burning lust I felt for Livia that I never once worried about losing my erection in the cold), I felt whirling lines of sensation center on my cock, felt myself racing toward final release. She didn’t stop me, and hadn’t expressed any concern about getting pregnant (since she’d apparently had dozens of lovers before I burst onto the scene, I suspected that she had dealt with such eventualities), so I drove on, pushing myself toward the edge, felt it rush up and over me, felt that last, desperate moment tottering at the brink, then tumbled over into sensation, my body contracting, crying out in a voice swallowed up by the roaring waters, feeling my cock pour my passion deep inside Livia’s own orgasm-racked cunt...

I don’t remember much after that; my next clear memory is of the two of us, lying together in warm sunlight on the dry rocks at the water’s edge, dozing in each other’s arms, not speaking, simply enjoying each other’s presence in silence and with a closeness that went beyond simple words.

* * *

Of course, it wasn’t going to last, and I should have known it. We continued on the next morning, and despite my enthusiastic suggestions, there was no repeat performance. Livia was polite, even affectionate, but she had my measure, and knew that I would not press the issue. I remained frustrated, and wondered whether it would have been better had we never had our moments of passion beneath the waterfall.

Well, by the Gods, I wasn’t going to be dismissed that easily. We reached Tarnstranz, a bustling port which sat alone along the northern coast of Kenth, and was the region’s sole outpost of civilization, several days later. My last moments with Livia were spent on the docks, as she waited to board the sleek cruiser, Skate, a ship which she had chartered for her personal use.

“Goodbye, Wulf,” Livia said, hugging me close. She fitted nicely beneath my chin, and her body was warm against mine. “I’m sorry that I’ve been so difficult these last few days. We’ll talk more back in Stoneburg.”

I was sorely tempted at that moment to join her, and sail aboard Skate back to the hustle and bustle of Stoneburg, where I could prove to her I was a worthy addition to her stable of “special” friends. But duty called. I had made a promise, and it was a promise I intended to keep.

“I don’t like goodbyes,” I said. “I’ve had too damned many of them. I prefer ‘see you later’.”

“Well,” she said, smiling up at me, “see you later then.” She kissed me, with more passion than I expected, lips parting slightly, and a faint trace of tongue touching mine, before she drew away, and hastened down the gangplank and onto Skate.

I waved as the ship departed and, to my own surprise, watched as it dwindled on the horizon and vanished altogether.

I sighed and gritted my teeth. Vosgraad, I thought. Vosgraad next, then home to Stoneburg. Back to Livia and an uncertain future... Would we see each other as more than friends, I wondered? Or would I always be her best buddy, like a beloved brother in a family that didn’t believe in incest? Would that magical moment beneath the waterfall be an isolated incident, a cherished memory separate from all else, or was it the curtain-raiser to greater things?

Once more, and not for the last time in my life, I had no idea.

— END —