Before he even came in sight of Bathoria, Rudolph saw the tower that loomed over it was like a clutching claw against the sky. Keeping a wary eye on the tower and the ragged shadows flitting about its turrets, he followed the road down into the valley of crumbling buildings. The peasants all seemed to be possessed by a morbid lethargy and the roofs were all sagging and green with moss.
Rudolph knew who he sought. He was to meet the demon hunter, Josef Richter at the dwelling of Doctor Wigner, the surgeon. They had both traveled a long way for their quest to put an end to the mysterious demon worshiper who had killed countless young women. Only Richter knew his identity and that was why Rudolph would work with such a man.
The surgery was easy to find. Down a narrow side street, off the village square was a stone building with a brass plaque on which was etched; Doctor Wigner, Surgeon. Rudolph knocked and the door was opened a crack by a stooped, swarthy, wrinkly old man. His pate was bald and what little hair he had was wispy and wild.
"Well?" His accent was thick, even for a Bathorian.
Rudolph told him his business and the surgeon ushered him inside. "Well met, friend," came a familiar voice in Rudolph's own language and Richter emerged from the shadows fixing him with his characteristic steely gaze.
"It gladdens my heart to see you," said Rudolph, clapping him on the shoulder.
The corners of Richter's mouth twitched, almost forming a smile, but then his face lapsed into its normal grim mask. "You already know that I am on the trail of a bloodsucker here."
Rudolph met his gaze. "Who is this life leech? What is his name?"
"Not he and this will come as a shock. It is the one whose greatest concern should be the welfare of Bathoria, the Countess Isolde."
Rudolph nodded grimly. "I was aware female demons existed and that not even the aristocracy were safe. My own brother was a victim…" he broke off. "That is a story for another day."
Now Richter did smile, but coldly. "Then you know that all demons must die. Listen to what Wigner has to say."
The surgeon ushered them into his lab where Rudolph was mildly disgusted to see a dissected body on a bloody table.
Wigner pointed at it. "This was the victim of a vampire…"
But then the corpse raised its rotting arms. Rudolph gagged in horror at the sight of the corpse rising to its feet, lashing out with clay-like fists. But Richter reacted immediately, unsheathing his rapier blade with a practiced flourish, striking the cadaver in the ribs. It swerved, lurching towards Wigner, but Rudolph unsheathed his own sword and stabbed the cadaver in the back, breaking its spine. The horror dropped to the floor, motionless again. Rudolph swallowed and took a breath to steady himself.
"She knows we are coming. This is dire," said Richter grimly. Then he seemed to brighten. "It's now or never," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Let's get her."
The Tower of Bathoria, domain of the dread countess, stood on a blasted escarpment overlooking the village which appeared almost to cower in its ever-present shadow.
The sun had already set and Rudolph was surprised to see the gatehouse unmanned. But he was still uneasy. Something was causing gooseflesh to rise on his arms and the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end. The warriors crossed the bridge which spanned a chasm-rift in the cliff before the looming tower and entered the high walled courtyard unhindered. They climbed a broad flight of stairs that led up to a pair of double doors that Richter pushed cautiously aside. They entered a circular entrance hall, its floor polished white marble inlaid with darker stones to depict the heraldic crest of the noble house of Bathoria.
"What a house it must be," muttered Rudolph. The crest was that of a human skull surmounted by a bat with wings outstretched. At that moment a sudden gust of wind blew the double doors shut behind them and torches ensconced in the walls burst into flames that cast a bloody light over the scene.
"I smell danger," said Richter, the torchlight reflecting in his eyes. "I want more."
"There's nothing here," said Rudolph unable to keep his unease out of his voice. The banqueting table beyond the entrance hall had been laid for supper, but how long ago? The plates, candlesticks and empty goblets were all draped in the fine gossamer veils of cobweb. Rudolph turned to Richter. "Would a vampire reside in the cellar?"
"More likely the crypt."
They found a stone staircase that led down to the candlelit cellar. Wine bottles lined the walls. Some contained vodka, but one was full of a thick red liquid, horribly like…
"The bottle is warm," hissed Richter, his eyes wide as he laid a hand on the glass. "And so are we." He pointed at the entrance to another stone staircase, this one leading steeply downwards. Richter lit his lantern and they proceeded down the crumbling staircase. As they descended, they were assailed by the sickly sweet smell of decay. Richter's lantern cast flickering shadows over the damp stone walls. The crypt extended beneath the foundations of the tower, the vaulted roof supported by stone arches. Between the columns, stood numerous sarcophagi.
But what was this…? The stench of decay grew stronger and four corpses came lurching through the tombs towards the two men. With an icy feeling of horror, Rudolph realised that they were the corpses of young girls, their faces pinched and pale, there expressions locked in grins of agonising pain, their sightless eyes bulging.
Richter gave a whoop and charged the slow-moving zombies, chopping them down with enthusiasm.
Rudolph fought to stop himself trembling.
Richter pointed at the cadavers. "See the vampire fang marks on their necks? She drained them and reanimated the corpses. Why, what ails you, my Lord?"
"I have nieces… the thought of something like this…" such a thing happening to any of them was truly unthinkable and the idea of it befalling his two favorite nieces, Kori and Erika, was the stuff of a nightmare world.
"We can stop it. Do you not relish the prospect?"
Among the broken tombs and moldering sarcophagi they found a blackwood coffin finished with brass fittings, resting on a polished granite plinth. "That is suspicious," said Richter and he shoved the coffin to the stone floor and proceeded to smash it to pieces. "A vampire's coffin is their last retreat. Hopefully we now have her cornered."
They returned to the ground floor and then proceeded up a flight of marbled stairs. Rudolph screwed up his courage to a sticking point. It would all be over now, one way or another. Richter was looking cheerier than Rudolph had ever known him to be. Higher up the tower, they came to a long corridor lined with portraits in heavy frames. They depicted various members of the same noble household, their shared likeness being a hungry, hawkish look. The paintings ranged from severe looking gentlemen in ill-fitting ceremonial armour, to full-length portraits of a striking platinum-blond lady.
Richter strode to the end of the gallery. "Nothing else here."
One painting grabbed Rudolph's attention. It was a representation of the platinum-haired noblewoman realised in earth-toned oils and broad brushstrokes. She stood before crenelated battlements, a stormy night sky behind her and the silhouettes of bats flitting across the glowing orb of the moon. Rudolph felt as though she was staring right at him and he could not tear his eyes away from her haunting beauty...
"Don't look!" hissed Richter. "That is the countess herself."
Rudolph turned away from the painting, but couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched.
They climbed higher still. In a small ante-room off the main staircase they found a set of black-lacquered double doors. Above them was the crest from the entrance hall with the skull and bat. They nodded to one another and flung open the doors, swords drawn. They were in a grand, high ceilinged chamber, decorated with velvet drapes of black and red. The lady from the portrait was here and now she arose from a high-backed wooden chair. She was just as beautiful in person, with sculpted features and skin as white as ivory. At her side stood a feral looking man in rags.
A sinister smile formed on the vampire's rose red lips and she gazed directly into Rudolph's eyes. "We have no reason to quarrel. It is the blood of girls I want."
"Do not meet her gaze!" yelled Richter, but his voice seemed to echo as though in a dream. He yelled louder and this time it broke Isolde's hypnotic spell. But at that moment, the ragged servant gave a high pitched shriek and lurched forward, morphing shockingly as he came. His arm bones contracted and lengthened and his ears tapered as his face crumpled into an ugly snout. His hairy body burst free of his rags and he swooped upon Richter as the vampiress gave a banshee scream and flung herself at Rudolph, the illusion of alluring beauty gone and replaced with her true bat-like undead form, her cloak spreading behind her.
Rudolph took a weapon from his belt, a special item from his collection, a silver edged chakram from the far eastern lands which he flung at the countess who hissed as it pierced her side, although it did not stop her. She moved with lightning swiftness out of the reach of his blade and her fists struck him with the force of hammers. She hissed and grabbed him by the shoulders, gleaming fangs bared and he caught the stink of blood on her breath. But then she wailed and staggered backwards. Richter had defeated her servant who lay dead on the floor and he had thrust a rapier in her back. Rudolph struck then, piercing her side with his own blade, but then her entire body dissolved into an oily cloud of mist.
"Don't let her escape!" cried Richter.
The cloud of mist sped across the palatial chamber, disappearing behind a tapestry. Richter pulled the hanging aside to reveal a door. Beyond that was the vampire's remaining coffin. Throwing back the lid, Rudolph revealed the reforming body of the undead dominatrix. Richter gave a howl of triumph and plunged his blade into her chest, piercing her shriveled black heart. Her eyes flickered open and her mouth went wide in a silent scream as she expired. Her flesh dissolved into slime and her blackened skeleton crumbled into dust.
"So perish all necromancers, all demons and all demonspawn," said Richter with a grin. "No exceptions. We are of one mind, my lord."
But were they? Back in the Dark Forest, Rudolph mulled over his adventure. He had mentioned to Richter that he had nieces, but had not told him anything of Kori. Back in the village where she lived as the ward of the local healer, he trod the path to the cottage once again and was greeted by Kori who gave an ear-splitting squeal and ran up to hug him, grinning from ear to ear.
"Dear uncle, it's been too long."
"I've been on an epic quest, dear Kori." She gazed up at him. Her shiny green face bespoke her demonic heritage. To think that crazy Richter would want to hurt her if he knew. What was that brand of heroism worth?
"Please tell me about it uncle? And of father too? And Erika?"
"I will. And I hope someday you will meet them both."
But she would never know of Richter.