Solitaire Till Dawn

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

Part II

Since the first word she spoke to me, a fragment of my attention has been trying to make sense of her accent: rich, lilting, all but defying identification. It is as if she had been taught English by several different persons, for none of whom it was a native tongue. Still, though the creamy café-au-lait complexion denotes mixed blood, her features are pure African, proud and imperious; hints of intonation and emphasis stir at faint ghosts of memory, and in French I ask her, “You are from Haiti?”

“I was born there,” she replies in the same language. “But I have lived in many lands since that time. You have a discerning ear.”

Her French is better than mine, and a marked improvement over her English, so I continue in that tongue. “My parents were missionaries, I was there with them for four years as a child. How did you come to this place?”

“I am la Tueuse,” she tells me, once again as if pointing out the obvious. “Where the forces of darkness gather, that is where I must be.”

“Of a certainty they have gathered here,” I agree. “But I do not understand how you found them so quickly. Have you an oracle, or some method to detect and track magical energies?”

“Such tools are available to me,” she says. She withdraws the sharp point from beneath my chin and turns back to the window, her voice suddenly remote. “But in truth, I am not here because of these monsters, they are here because of me.”

“You mystify me. Can you explain?”

“I had captured a wizard who had been performing dangerous rites,” she says. “While I was taking him to my … to those who attend and oversee my actions, there was an accident, and he escaped me. He knew I would continue to pursue him, and he had been separated from his customary instruments, so he seems to have attempted to turn this village into a generator to supply him with power.”

“A living man did this?” I gasp, appalled. “He brought about the deaths of hundreds, simply to avoid arrest? Name of God, why did you not kill him when you could?”

She sighs. “Before this, he had not appeared to be malevolent, merely irresponsible. And, as you say, he is human. My position allows me to slay only demons.” Her mouth tightens. “However, the events of this night have persuaded me I may have been mistaken regarding his humanity. If I can find him, I intend to carry his heart back to my patron, to be tested for demonic taint.”

I have to ask. “And if there is none?”

“Then I will confess my error, and accept whatever judgment they pronounce upon me.” She looks to me again. “Enough. I gave you an avenue of escape, hours ago. Why do you remain?”

My hands clench on the steering wheel, and in a second or two I trust myself to speak. “I was to meet my wife and children in this village; it is a convenient midway point between Memphis and St. Louis. I was behind schedule, so they should have arrived before me.” Despite all my efforts at control, a harsh tremor has forced itself into my voice. “I cannot leave. If they are alive, I must try to save them. If they, too, are now vampires, I must try to destroy them.”

She nods, accepting it, but her answer jolts me. “These things are not vampires. A community of this size could support no more than two or three true vampires, even if they supplemented their diet with the blood of animals.”

I look about me at the lifeless figures endlessly wandering the night streets, and I am at a loss. “What, then, are they?”

“They are mystical constructs, with characteristics of both wampyr and zuvembe. Truly, I believe the man I seek — he calls himself Ucharne — has used Delzpiyrian rites to adapt the mechanics of a vampire power-gathering ritual known as the Harvest. If I am correct, he will have bound the few resident undead to his will, and sent them out to multiply. Their offspring under this spell are but feeble imitations — true vampires are stronger than those you have seen, and much more quick — but each one can spread the infection, and each death makes their master more powerful.”

“Each death … sacred heaven, how strong must he be now?”

“Enough that I may not be able to defeat him,” she answers calmly, “though I have tried to weaken him by killing his creations while I search for him. Even so, there is more. From my studies I believe a spell such as this will peak at dawn. The accumulated energies will surge outward at that moment, consuming all life within the boundaries of the spell, probably the whole of this village. If I have not found Ucharne and overcome him before sunrise, I will die as well. If by chance I am outside the boundaries, the flood of diabolical power will still make him all but invincible for months to come.”

That settles one question: there will be no need for anyone to build traps for me, the entire town is a trap. And my family … even if they have somehow survived until now, they are inside a ticking bomb. “We have to stop him,” I hear myself say. “What can I do?”

“Nothing.” The haughty, regal face is impassive. “You cannot fight his army alone, and I cannot take you with me, I would be slowed and my attention diverted by the need to protect you. It is clear that Ucharne has hidden himself, waiting for the crescendo of his enchantment, and I cannot find him from inside this vehicle. I must return to foot search, and you must flee.”

“I cannot,” I protest. “I cannot desert my wife and children.”

“You cannot help them by remaining,” she replies. “I am sorry, but it is so.”

“Surely there must be something …” I rack my wits, frantic for inspiration. “I have a pistol, if you ever locate him I can help you to attack him.”

For the first time she shows interest. “A firearm? Ucharne would not like that, no. Wizards hate guns. A coordinated assault, with me driving in to close with him and you striking from a distance …” She looks to me. “It is a good suggestion, but you must understand: I have more than human speed, and I have been trained to evade mystical strikes. The risk for you would be much greater than for me; you would provide him with an easier target, and would serve mainly as a distraction.”

My hands are clammy on the wheel. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to volunteer to draw the fire of a mad magician. “So,” I say. “First we find him.”

She shakes her head. “No. That I still must do alone. I have seen your automobile several times tonight; the village square where I joined you, do you pass it often?”

“Five or six times an hour,” I confirm.

“Good.” She gathers herself in the passenger’s seat. “If I can determine where Ucharne hides, and if there still is time before sunrise, I will wait for you there. Stay alive, and try to conserve your cartridges.” Before I can answer she is out of the window, as effortlessly as she entered, and disappears into the night at an easy run.

The air keening through the empty window seems colder somehow. At last there is a plan that extends further than surviving the next few minutes … but the enemy we face now has a name, and the odds against our prevailing are stark and unsettling. Then there is Kendra herself; she is a potent, vital personality, and even after such a brief acquaintance her absence makes me feel more vulnerable and isolated than when I was truly alone.

I have had far too much experience with solitude recently, although of course never under such harrowing conditions. I miss Corinne more than ever, I ache for what went out of my life when we began the necessary separation. I have an orderly, disciplined mind, and it has served me as well in my transitional pseudo-bachelor state as in holding onto my sanity through the nightmare now surrounding me; but without Corinne’s passion, the volatile impetuous brilliance that made the St. Louis firm so eager to offer her a trial position, I am incomplete and unfulfilled and lonely. A part of me would rather have her here beside me, in this literal valley of death, than return to the life I have known without her these gray vacant months past.

I mouth a silent prayer that Kendra may meet with quick success in her search, and once again return to my own. Mini-mart. Motel. Town square. Water tower. A sparsely housed stretch of near-countryside, silent cattle standing in wire-fenced pastures behind homes where all the lights burn but no living human is seen. Back to the square. School/ post office. Truck stop. Water tower. Square again. Watching for Corinne, watching for Kendra, watching for any group of faux vampires moving with a semblance of purpose, for purpose might be followed back to the yet-unseen Ucharne. Watching for my wife, my children, my lost life.

My fault. I should have gone with her, supported her through the turmoil of her mushrooming professional success. Stood beside her, at least shown more patience during the telephone conversations that became progressively more brief and infrequent. Why should she look forward to talking with me, when I can’t stop the reproach and resentment from darkening my voice whenever we speak? She wanted to prove she could meet life on her own terms, and I wanted to give her the chance she deserved. I still don’t understand how it went wrong.

I had hoped our planned meeting in this place might provide an opportunity for us to reconnect with what we had once been. Now I will be grateful if we are still breathing after the cold, deadly advent of dawn.

*                *               *

Increasingly, as the hours pass, I see bodies on the streets and sidewalks and occasional lawns. I welcome this as evidence that Kendra continues to thin the ranks of the opposition, but I never catch further sight of her, though I long since adjusted the sequence of my automobile search so that I pass the square twice in each fifteen minutes. My efforts with the cell phone have become more perfunctory; I won’t allow myself to quit, but I doubt I’ve tried Corinne’s number more than half a dozen times since Kendra’s departure. I am nearing a full day since I last slept, my driving is becoming mechanical, I have repeatedly swept practically every section of this town accessible by car and seen nothing (other than Kendra’s fallen foes) to bolster my spirits. Sunrise cannot be more than an hour away, and black hopelessness creeps up on me like stagnant water.

I am about to insert a tape into the cassette desk, reasoning that loud music may help fight back the lethal weariness, when I catch a spark of light in the rear view mirror. It is almost nothing, a tiny moving streak, but anything new merits investigation. I make another of my wide turns, religiously maintaining a safe speed, and start back along my former course.

Nothing. Whatever it was is gone. From its appearance in the mirror I know it was either close and small, or far away and high. There are no tall buildings in that direction, only the vague looming mountains and …

The water tower. I am almost as far from it as my basic route can take me, but I see the light appear again and move along the side, at once bright and flickering.

Hate and triumph erupt inside me. The water tower! A high vantage point overlooking the town, a place where a murderous diabolist could hide from the implacable huntress on his trail and from which he can watch and direct his unliving army. We have him now, as soon as I tell Kendra …


I speed back to the square and circle it again and again, holding down the horn. We had both assumed she would find Ucharne and return for me, we made no provision for the converse possibility, but she has to hear this din and suspect its meaning. Certainly others do; more and more shambling figures appear from side streets and alleys to line the outer limits of my careening orbit, though none try to approach me.

Ten minutes of this, and no Kendra. By the time over a hundred of the creatures have gathered, I am too impatient — and too unnerved by the growing numbers — to wait any longer. I veer back out into the main thoroughfare and accelerate for the water tower. If she was right, I have little chance against Ucharne by myself, but my choices are dwindling rapidly. I’m racing the sun now … and finally, finally there is some meaningful action I can take.

I am not trained to evade mystical strikes. But perhaps Ucharne has no greater facility in evading bullets.

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