I reached the corner and halted. The twisted form of Ghastek's vampire perched on top of a lamppost, wound about it like a snake around a tree limb. It looked at me, its eyes glowing with dim red, betraying an influx of magic. Ghastek was concentrating hard to hold it in place.
"Problems?" I asked softly.
"Interference." Ghastek's voice sounded like it came through clenched teeth. Someone was trying to wrestle away his control over the vamp.
I freed Slayer and laid it across Frau's back. The metal smoked. A thin sheen of moisture glistened on its surface. It could be reacting to Ghastek's vamp or to something else.
Behind me Derek's gelding neighed gently.
"Don't get off your horse," I said.
As long as Derek stayed in the saddle, he would remember to act human.
I dismounted and tied the horse to an iron fence. Ghastek's vamp uncoiled from the lamppost and slid soundlessly to the ground. It took a few unsure staggering steps into the intersection.
"Ghastek, where are you going?"
A cart drawn by a couple of horses thundered down the street at breakneck speed. The horses spied the vamp and shied, jerking the cart to the side, but not far enough. The cart's right wheel smashed into the vampire with a loud meaty thump, flinging it aside. The driver spat a curse and snapped the reins, forcing the horses into a frenzied gallop, rumbling down the street and vanishing in the space of a breath.
The vamp lay still in a pitiful crumpled heap.
Slayer in hand, I stepped into the street. "Ghastek?" I called softly.
I circled it, sword in hand. An ugly grimace froze the vampire's face. Its left foot twitched.
A faint hiss tugged on my attention. I turned. Nothing. A small drop of liquid luminescence slid off my blade and fell onto the asphalt.
A blast of icy terror hit me like a sledgehammer. I whirled, lashing out on instinct, and felt the saber graze flesh as a grotesque shape plummeted at me from above. The creature twisted away from the sword in midair and landed softly to the side.
Derek's horse screamed and galloped into the night, carrying him off.
I backed away toward Ghastek's fallen vamp. The thing followed me on all fours. It was a vampire, but one so ancient that no trace of it having walked upright remained. The bones of its spine and hips had permanently shifted to adapt to quadruped locomotion.
The creature advanced, lean and wiry like a greyhound. An inch-high bone crest shielded its spine, formed by outgrowth of the vertebrae through the leather-thick skin. It paused, hugged the ground for a moment, and rose again, ruby-red eyes fixed on me.
Its face no longer bore any resemblance to a human. The skull jutted back in a bony hornlike curve to balance the horribly massive protruding jaws. The creature had no nose, not even a hint of the nose bridge. It opened its mouth, splitting its head in a half. Rows of fangs gleamed against the blackness. It wouldn't just puncture and rip, it would shred me.
The creature's eyes focused on me. The owl-like pupils gleamed with red.
It leaped with inhuman speed. I aimed for the throat and missed, my blade sinking to the hilt into its shoulder. The thing swept me off my feet. I hit the ground hard. My head bounced off the pavement, and the world swam. Pressure ground into my chest, forcing the air from my lungs. I strained and sent a jolt of my power through Slayer's blade.
The saber's hilt was jerked from my hand and the pressure vanished. I sucked in a lungful of air and scrambled to my feet, the throwing knife in my hand.
The creature shivered a dozen feet away, dazed and uncertain. The thin blade of my saber protruded from its back. Two inches lower and to the left, and I would've hit its heart. The shoulder jerked, twisted by a powerful spasm as Slayer ground deep into the muscle seeking the heart. The flesh around the blade softened like melted wax.
The creature's head snapped, and it whipped around to face me. Two more inches. It would take Slayer at least three minutes to burrow that deep into the flesh. I had to survive for three minutes.
I hurled my dagger. The tip of the blade bounced off the bony ridge just above the left orbit. Spectacular.
The creature leaped, sailing easily across the twelve feet separating us, and a furry shape smashed into it in mid-flight. They rolled, the vampire and the werewolf, one snarling, the other hissing. I chased them. For a moment Derek pinned the bloodsucker, his claws fastened into the vampire's gut, and then the vampire raked at the werewolf and shrugged him off.
I lunged. It didn't expect me to attack, and I delivered a clean kick to its shoulder. It was like kicking a marble column. I heard the bone crunch and hammered two quick thrusts to its neck. The creature swept at me, tearing at my clothes, in a whirlwind of teeth and claws. I parried the best I could. No sound issued from the monster's mouth. A claw raked at me. A hot whip of pain stung my ribs and my stomach. The fangs snapped an inch from my face. I jerked back, expecting the horrid maw to engulf me, but the vamp let go and took a step backward.
A set of new vampire arms was growing from its back. It spun, flailing, and I saw Ghastek's vampire clinging to its neck.
The bloodsucker rode the monster's back, clawing at the massive neck. The creature tore at the arms and reared. Derek clutched its hind legs. The vamp kicked, but Derek clung to him. I took a running start and hammered a kick into the vampire's ruined chest. Bone crunched. The vampire's flesh tore like an overfilled water sack, releasing a torrent of foul-smelling liquid.
The creature shrieked for the first time, an enraged, grating sound. The veins under its pallid hide bulged and its eyes smoldered deep blood-red, illuminating its face. It had sustained too much damage and was about to succumb to bloodlust, breaking from its master's control. It flung Ghastek's vampire away like a terrier flings a rat. Derek kept clawing at it, oblivious.
"Get away from it!" I kicked the werewolf. He snarled, furious, and I kicked him again. He let go and came at me, growling. I shoved him aside.
The creature screamed again and again, its body twisting, warping, as muscles knotted and snapped. Bony spikes pierced its shoulders, curving from its frame like horns. It reared and pawed at the ground, leaving cuts in the asphalt. I could see Slayer's blade through the hole in its chest.
The vampire charged me. It came with astonishing speed, impossible to stop. It smashed into me, and I grabbed Slayer's hilt and thrust with everything I had. We hit the asphalt and skidded until we crashed into a wall.
Good thing it was in our way. We might have kept going.
I lay very still. The creature's blood surged from its ruptured heart, drenching me. Colored circles blocked my view. Gradually I became aware of two eyes glowing gentle yellow above the vampire's shoulder. I blinked, bringing the furry nightmare of a face into focus.