"Oh, God," Anthony whispered, and the creature laughed sharply.
"No," it said, and Anthony recoiled, his horror magnified that the thing could speak. Despite its shape, it had seemed more animal than man. "Not Him. But imagine how grateful I am that His humans decided to kill each other and leave this feast for me." It rose to a sitting position and tossed the thumb over the cart's side. As one, Anthony and Dilby stumbled backward. "And how fortunate that I should also find living prey."
Vampire. Anthony recalled reading about such folk tales with Colin when they'd been children and trying to frighten Emily with them. What could kill a vampire? Fire? Beheading? His mind reeled, trying to remember.
He must have spoken the word aloud; the creature shook its head, still smiling, and corrected, "Nosferatu. Unlike vampires, we originate from Heaven itself." Pride swelled its voice.
"From Hell, more like!" Dilby shouted, holding the bayonet in front of him; Anthony was suddenly struck by the absurdity of it. They needed to run—there was nothing here to save, only evil.
Long teeth gleamed in the lamplight. "They didn't want us there, either." Gracefully, the nosferatu stepped down from the cart.
It was playing with them, Anthony realized. It enjoyed their fear as it slowly stalked them, and if he and Dilby fled, it would catch them.
Unless only one of them went and one stayed behind to fight it. He could keep it busy, distracted, while Dilby escaped.
A leaden weight seemed to fill Anthony's chest. He thought of his family, of Colin and Emily, and swallowed past the constriction in his throat. "Run, Dilby."
Dilby turned toward him; Anthony saw he was preparing to argue.
"Don't be stupid," he said sharply, fearful that if the other man hesitated, his own courage would fail. He added softly, before Dilby could speak, "For Sarah and little Nellie's sake."
The creature began laughing.
An indecisive, stricken expression slipped into the other man's eyes—then he flipped the bayonet around, its handle toward Anthony.
Anthony took the weapon; with a choked "Godspeed—and thank you," Dilby fled into the night.
The nosferatu chuckled. "I will be done with you in minutes and then I will track him down. Perhaps I'll keep you alive long enough to hear him screaming, so you'll know how worthless your sacrifice was."
Anthony didn't bother to reply; he simply waited. He knew he probably had only one chance to defend himself and that it wouldn't come until the creature moved much closer.
As moments passed, and Anthony failed to respond or move, the nosferatu frowned. "Run or fight," it commanded, its voice as petulant as a child with a disappointing toy.
Anthony silently stood his ground.
"I can smell your fear: so weak, so human." The nosferatu sneered, apparently hoping it would prick Anthony's pride.
They stared at each other for a long moment; finally, with a cry of rage, it attacked.
Even though he'd expected it to he strong, Anthony hadn't known it would be so fast. One instant it had been standing at the cart, the next it was on him, knocking the bayonet from his hand and grabbing him up into a crushing embrace.
Pain screamed through him but remained unvoiced as his ribs snapped under the pressure. Something tore inside him. I I wonder if Guthrie can fix this, he thought wildly, and would have laughed if he'd had the breath. Desperately, he swung the lantern against the creature's back, his one gambit for survival.
Instead of spilling oil and igniting its skin, the metal thunked solidly against muscle and fell from Anthony's hand.
The creature laughed again and dipped its head, fangs bared. Anthony closed his eyes, waiting for the nosferatu to rip at him, but as they pierced his neck the teeth were almost gentle.
The nosferatu pulled back, yelping in surprise and releasing him; Anthony collapsed on the ground. His ribs shrieked, and his lungs felt pinched by a vise, but he turned and tried to crawl away.
The creature caught him and rolled him onto his back. Its eyes glowed amber as it stared down at him. "Tell me where it is—I can feel its power; I can taste it in your blood," it said, crouching over him.
Anthony shook his head, not knowing what he was denying. He couldn't have spoken in any case; he couldn't catch his breath. A metallic, salty fluid flooded his mouth, but though his body convulsed, he couldn't cough it away. Lungs collapsed, he realized.
As if coming to the same conclusion, the nosferatu smiled, its eyes boring into his. "Show me, then," it commanded. Almost immediately, Anthony felt an insidious touch in his mind, a darkness that dug painfully at him, and tried to close his eyes against it.
"Show me," it repeated.
In the library of Beaumont Court, he and Colin with the carl's sword between them, slicing shallow cuts into their palms and pressing them together. Blood brothers.
The creature frowned. "That is why I taste it, but you have more recent knowledge of it in a different location. Show me."
Anthony resisted when the first images of the memory flashed in front of him, unable to stand the thought of it—that abomination—seeing Emily as he'd seen her: her romantic idealism shattered, the devastation that had driven her to seduction.
The nosferatu simply pushed harder, tearing through his amateur defenses.
Anthony tumbled headlong into Emily's arms once more. Then darkness crawled in, obscuring her face, her touch; all that remained was the echo of his vow.
And even that faded.
"Anthony," a voice said, and the darkness skittered away. The bright light that replaced it should have been blinding; Anthony automatically tried to squint against it but found his lids already closed.
Memory of the nosferatu rushed back.
It took a Herculean effort, but Anthony opened his eyes. He found himself lying on his side on the ground, the battlefield stretched out around him. The light surrounding him had washed its colors pale—and it originated, he realized, from the man who had spoken.
"He lives; your sacrifice succeeded—and it allows me to offer you a choice." The voice resonated through Anthony's body like music, painful in its exquisite beauty.
Anthony rolled over and looked up. He moved easily, as if the nosferatu had never crushed the life from him.
Except in his nakedness, the speaker was nothing like the creature that had attacked him. His bronzed skin seemed to glow with its own luminescence. His black hair had been cut brutally short; his face could have been sculpted from amber. Obsidian eyes stared down at him, and Anthony had to look down again, away from that penetrating gaze.
"Who are you?"
"They call me Michael," he replied. He spoke the name as if it was an explanation in itself.
Understanding dawned as Anthony took in the rest of the figure before him: black feathered wings spread elegantly out from bronzed shoulders.
His eyes flew back to Michael's, and the denial sprang from Anthony's mouth, "I made a promise that I have to keep."
Michael shook his head and held out his palm to assist Anthony to his feet. "I cannot give you that. You must be thought dead to everyone you knew before. I can only offer another choice: become as I am—a Guardian, an immortal protector, or accept your death and all that comes after."
Dead to everyone you knew. Grief touched him, but it could not grab hold. This could not be death. This could not be an end.
Anthony took the proffered hand, feeling absurdly small and weak next to the Guardian. He offers me a choice to become like him? "It appears a simple decision," he said.
The reply could have been carved from stone, along with the grim smile that accompanied it. "Appearances are almost always deceiving," Michael said.