Friday, August 19, 2016

BOOK SPOTLIGHT + EXCERPT: Hunter of the Dead

Hunter of the Dead
By: Stephen Kozeniewski

Genre: Horror, Paranormal, Comedy
Publisher: Sinister Grin Press
Publication date: 8.15.2016
Pages: 314

Someone has begun targeting vampires.
            Vampire leaders of the thirteen Houses attribute the string of recent losses to over-zealous vampire hunters.  Only Cicatrice, the most ancient and powerful vampire in the world, suspects that the semi-legendary Hunter of the Dead may be the real culprit.
            Carter Prince, a vampire hunter who despises the way his profession is becoming centralized and corporatized, begins to suspect the Hunter of the Dead is back, too - and no longer distinguishing between vampire and mortals.  Against his better judgment, Prince agrees to work with Cicatrice.
            The uneasy allies attempt to uncover the truth about the Hunter, while a vampire civil war brews in the background.  But perhaps most difficult of all, they must contend with their new apprentices, who seem to be falling in love with each other against every rule of man and monster...

Miranda ran her hand over the creature's bald, scaling head to calm it.  In response, it moaned in hunger through its muzzle.
            "Shh shh," she whispered gently, almost as though comforting one of her own children, "soon enough."
            The sound of gruesome dismemberment and ravenous gorging drifted under the massive oaken doors to Inessa's chamber.  As usual, the master's favorite was taking her time devouring some morsel while Miranda was stuck waiting on her to be finished so she could clean up.  The midden-beast stirred again.
            "There, there," she whispered gently, scratching it under the ears.
            Miranda knew each of the midden-beasts by sight.  Secretly, she had a name for each, and though she had never been explicitly forbidden to name them, she had a strong suspicion the master would've punished her terribly if he'd caught wind of her naming the dumb brutes.  The one she held on a leash now she thought of as Snuggles.
            Snuggles was a gangly, hunched-over creature with only the barest scraps of sackcloth and burlap clinging to its thighs hiding its disgusting manhood.  Its skin was dun, approaching gray, and its limbs were long and gaunt, almost skeletally thin.  Its face was barely human, actually more mashed in like a pig's or an owl's, and only the barest hint of human awareness flickered in its sallow yellow eyes.
            Each of the midden creatures looked somewhat similar to Snuggles, though none were identical.  All were hideously misshapen in their own way, some sporting deformities and tumors, others scaling almost like fish or reptiles.
            The sound of smacking lips and crunching bone from within the chamber abruptly ceased.  Miranda straightened her back and tugged on Snuggle's leash to keep him from bolting when permission to open the door came.  A man on the other side of the door suddenly spoke out in a recognizably Scottish brogue.
            "Oy!  Who's that, then?"
            She took a deep breath and composed herself.  She wasn't that stuttering child anymore.
            "Miranda.  Uh...sir."
            The door opened, startling her.  Since being chosen by the master to receive The Long Gift, Inessa had grown noticeably surly and lazy.  As a result, she hardly ever opened the door herself.  A man emerged from Inessa's chambers, something that was not only strictly forbidden but was completely impossible.  Grown men (except the master, obviously) were not allowed on the compound.
            Wearing a ripped, sleeveless denim vest and sporting a bleached-white Mohawk, the man seemed like a reject from an '80s band.  Though he didn't seem like the type to join the military (far from it, in fact) there was something martial about him, from the combat boots he wore to the pins and medals that festooned his vest.  Like an extension of his Mohawk, a stripe of white paint bisected his face.
            Miranda cast her eyes down.  One of the rules of the compound was not to look at men.  That had only meant the master before, but...
            The Mohawk man grabbed her chin, nearly shattering her jaw with the strongest grip she had ever felt, and forced her eyes to come level with his own.  Her long auburn hair hung over her face.  She hoped it would hide the salty wetness of her eyes from his view, but a moment later he gently tucked her locks behind her ears and laid bare her weeping face.  He seemed to stare straight through her, as though searching for something at the bottom of her eye sockets.  His nostrils flared like a bloodhound's and she realized he wasn't concentrating on what he was seeing at all.
            "You've eaten garlic today," he stated with just the barest hint of a Continental accent.  "It's on your clothes as well."
            "Yes, she agreed."
            The sister wives who had not yet been granted the Long Gift had prepared spaghetti for supper and Miranda, like all the others, had done her part in the kitchen.
            "She's mortal," he finally decided.
            "Yes," she squeaked through pinched fish-lips, as though he had asked a question.
            He let go of her as abruptly as he had grabbed her.  Then his whole expression changed.  A smile spiderwebbed across his face and he clapped his hands together.
            "Italo Scavatelli," he said, bowing and doffing an imaginary cap, "at your service.  Oh, and who's this little fellow?"
            Scavatelli dropped to his knees and snatched Snuggles under the ears.
            "Scav!" the Scotsman within shouted sharply, "Who's there?"
            "Oh, it's just one of Ashley's disciples.  With a ghoul."
            Snuggles strained at its collar, eager to get into Inessa's room.  It obviously smelled something inside.  Miranda had never heard the strange creatures he called "ghouls" before but it seemed oddly fitting.
            "A ghoul?  Bring it in here."
            Scav sent the immensely heavy door flying open with a single tap from his pinky fingernail and gestured for Miranda to enter.  She obliged and immediately gasped.  The walls were painted with blood and a barely living person shivered on the banquet table set up in front of Inessa's tub, most of the flesh picked from his (or her) bones.  Shock or pain kept the nearly skeletal being conscious.
            All that was perfectly ordinary, though.  Miranda had gasped because the Scot was holding Inessa's jaggedly severed head by the spinal column, which dangled from her neck like soap on a rope.  A few vertebrae still clung to the spinal cord, but most had apparently popped off in the process of what appeared to have been a hasty decapitation.
            Snuggles must have felt the leash slacken and took advantage of her surprise, darting towards the half-dead person and snuffling at his exposed intestines.  The thing that had once been a man looked down, eyes still moving in his faceless skull.  Tongueless, an abortive moan rose from his gullet, as Snuggles disturbed what had formerly been his insides.
            "Snuggles!" Miranda cried out sharply, before covering her mouth in embarrassment and worry.
            The ghoul retired in frustration, unable to get any tasty viscera through its muzzle into its mouth.
            "Snuggles.  That's a hell of a name," the Scot said, and both of the intruders laughed.
            Miranda sheepishly took the ghoul's leash and presented herself to the two men like a schoolgirl ready to receive her punishment.  She tried not to look up, but it was hard to avoid staring at them.  Steading side by side they seemed a greatly mismatched pair.  Scav dwarfed his partner by a wide margin.
            As though he had stepped out of a photograph, the Scot wore a military uniform she would've guessed originated from some time closer to World War I than World War II.  He wore a nameplate which read "MacVicar."  Like Scav, MacVicar also wore facepaint.  A white stripe stretched from his forehead to the bottom of his neck where his throat disappeared into his blouse.
            "Name," MacVicar said.
            MacVicar shook the spinal cord in his hand, sending vertebrae flying and inspiring Snuggles to pounce on top of one that landed nearby.
            "Not your name.  Hers."
            Scav knelt down and grabbed Inessa's head, turning it so it faced him.  Her dead eyes were frozen, aghast with terror.
            "Inessa," Scav whispered, "What a gorgeous name.  And you are a thing of beauty."
            Scav kissed the corpse's upside-down lips.  Rankled, MacVicar shook the spinal cord to ward him off, and very nearly kicked him away like a dog.
            "Oy!  If you want to screw around with her the rest of her body's there."  MacVicar pointed at the ivory tub.
            Inessa's arms and legs hung splayed out of the tub, striking an oddly seductive pose despite what had been an obvious struggle.  Scav shrugged and walked over.  Dragging what was left of her out of the water, he took the body by the hand and the waist, and began to waltz, humming the tune to "I Could've Danced All Night."  There wasn't a drop of blood in the water or, it seemed, left in Inessa's corpse, judging by how pallid the jagged seam of her neck was.  Scav leaned down as though to dip her, and caught Miranda's panicky eyes as he did so.
            MacVicar turned back to Miranda.  "What was your friend's surname?"
            "She wasn't my friend."  It was clear from his look that he wasn't interested in extraneous information.  "I...I mean, we don't use last names around the compound.  We're all the master's children."
            MacVicar folded his arms in front of him, the dangling head still caught in his grasp.
            "The master, 'eh?  That'll be Cashley, then."
            Miranda swallowed a lump in her throat, not sure how to respond.  She nearly jumped as she felt a tongue tickle her earlobe and Scav's sonorous voice filled her ear.
            "Care to cut in?"
            "," she said, shaking her head sharply.
            "Then I suggest you be more forthcoming."
            As the pseudo-punk waltzed away with his gruesome dance partner, Miranda could tell that MacVicar was losing patience.  Suddenly, the half-devoured man on Inessa's dining board, with a feat of near superhuman strength, raised his head partway up and rasped out a few words.  Their exact provenance was unknowable, but the look in his lidless eyes was clear: he was asking for help.
            "Oy!  Will you let that thing off its leash?"
            She looked down, having totally forgotten about Snuggles, though the "ghoul" as Scav had called it, was whimpering and staring longingly at the mostly-dead man.  Miranda reached into her pocket, but when she brought out the key to Snuggle's muzzle, her hands were shaking so badly she dropped it.
            "Jesus suffering fuck," MacVicar muttered, walking over and easily wrenching the wrought-iron muzzle off Snuggle's face with his bare hands.
            MacVicar smacked the ghoul on the ass and it leapt up, but it hardly needed any encouragement.  With a mighty leap it landed amongst the agonized man's clump of intestines and began to greedily devour them, shit squirting out like filling out of an overstuffed eclair, as it fed.
            "Now then," MacVicar said, digging into Inessa's throat and brains like a kid searching for a prize in a cereal box, "you're telling me Cashley's calling himself the master.  Does he ever call you lot his 'House?'"
            Miranda pursed her lips, pondering what the "right" response was.  Scav was still off in his own little world, making a mockery of what was left of Inessa's corpse.  MacVicar pulled a raggedy chunk of brain from Inessa's head, and tossed it to Snuggles, who abandoned his still-struggling meal to catch it in midair.
            "Yes, Miranda said, "he speaks often of us as his House."
            "Ooh," Scav said, as though smarting, as he twirled Inessa's lifeless body in a surprisingly elegant pose, "this might be worse than we thought, Connor."
            "Well," MacVicar said, continuing to feed the eager ghoul, "the lepress thought Cashley was bringing immortals across without permission.  This Inessa here is proof positive of that.  You there, lassie.  How many other immortals has master brought across?"
            "You mean how many others has he granted The Long Gift?"
            MacVicar scowled, apparently not liking the fact she knew that term."
            "Aye, The Long Gift."
            "Six.  That I know of."
            "Fuck me in the arse."
            MacVicar turned and tossed Inessa's head through the window with a smash.  Scav dropped Inessa's corpse to the ground and Snuggles descended on it, ripping apart tendon, muscle, and sinew.  There wasn't a drop of blood in her whole body.  Scav walked over and placed a hand on MacVicar's shoulder.
            "This is bad," Scav whispered, though since Miranda could still hear him he probably isn't trying very hard to hide his thoughts.  "I always knew Cashley was looney tunes, but to form his own splinter House?  With six other immortals?  Maybe we should call for backup."
            "Backup?  No, I amnae letting anyone else share in this bounty.  This one was still eating flesh.  For all we know the other six are newborns, too.  You there, Miranda?"
            Miranda felt her heart race and the blood swished into her ear.
            "Those other immortals.  Did they eat meat the way Inessa did or did they drink blood?"
            Would lying help?  She couldn't say for sure.
            "They still people...the way Inessa did."
            MacVicar thumped Scav on his chest.
            "There, you see?  He's gone mad and gone on a siring spree, but only just recently.  Six newborns.  We can take them, and Cashley, too.  You finish this with me, my young get, and I'll give you my blessing.  That's a promise."
            Scav placed a hand on MacVicar's cheek.
            "You're too good to me, Connor."
            "Right.  Well, let's kill this mortal and go hunt down the others."
            "Wait!  I can take you to the master!"
            MacVicar smiled and snapped his fingers
            "Clever girl.  Right-o, lead the way, then."
            Scav gave Miranda what was probably supposed to be a playful shove, but turned out to be so hard her shoulder nearly popped out of its socket.  Rubbing her shoulder, she led the way out of Inessa's private chambers, only risking a single glance back to see how Snuggles was doing.  The ghoul was busy tearing into its double-sized meal for the evening.  In a way, she mourned, knowing she'd never see Snuggles again whatever tonight's outcome, but in another way she knew the dumb brute would never miss her so it hardly mattered.
            They stepped out into the chilly Nevada night.  The moon was full and she felt terribly exposed as she pattered across the compound.  She knew every inch of it by heart, but was terrified that one of her sister wives in the guard towers would spot her.  If they guessed her intentions, and the intentions of the men trailing her, would they hesitate to shoot her?  She suspected not.
            Each step roiled her churning stomach, but much to her relief they finally reached the small, unobtrusive chapel where the master spent his days and most nights.  Scav gave her a not-very-gentle shove toward the entrance.  Taking a deep breath, she raised her hand and rapped on the door.
            "I'm fine, thank you," the master's voice intoned from within.
            She looked back at the two men.  MacVicar nodded to her.
            "Master," she whispered hoarsely, then cleared her throat and repeated it, "master, it's Miranda."
            There was a prolonged pause.  Miranda was terrified of what would happen next, but then realized she had no idea what it might be.  When next the master spoke, it sounded like he was closer to the door.
            "You know you're not to be here, child.  Anything you need to say you should report to Inessa, and she will decide whether to inform me or not."
            Miranda paused and straightened out her grubby gray jumpsuit.
            ",,," she bit her lip and forced herself not to stutter, "that's why I'm here, master.  It's about I...Inessa."
            That was certain to get her attention.
            "Go back to your bunk," the master said sharply.  "I'll check on my beloved.  And consider an appropriate punishment for you."
            Miranda turned to look at her captors, her jaws wordlessly opening and clenching.  Scav gently pushed Miranda aside while, much to her surprise, MacVicar began singing.  At first he sang at a light, almost conspiratorial volume, but by the final word he was belting it out.
            "The sergeant, when he enlisted me, winked his eye and then says he, 'A man like you so stout and tall, can ne'er be killed by a cannonball!'"
            There was a pause.
            "MacVicar?" the master asked.
            MacVicar put his boot to the entrance.  The doors to the temple exploded inward right off their hinges, creating an unholy noise and knocking the master flat on his back.  Though Miranda hung back, she had still never been this close to the master before, and in a way the chance to see him up close - even laid low and humble - was too much to pass up.
            Scav quickly passed through the archway and stuck a boot on the master's chest.  The master smiled, displaying two deadly fangs.  His teeth were still sticky with plasma, and the vital fluid dribbled out of his mouth, leaving a mark around his lips and chin like a clown's goatee of circus makeup.  He wore a jumpsuit identical to Miranda's, though his was red instead of gray, not to mention clean and freshly ironed.  Square plastic sunglasses obscured almost the entire top half of his face, leaving him unreadable, despite his rictus grin.  His skin sparkled in the low neon lights overhead.  It made Miranda want to reach out and touch him.
            "Well, well, well," Scav said, "if it isn't the Profane Prophet of Pravo.  How's tricks, Cashley?"
            Miranda looked to the master for some clue what was going on or what to do.  His nostrils were flaring, but otherwise he made no move.
            "I'm afraid I haven't any change for you, Scavatelli.  My House makes do without the pettiness of money."
            "You hear that, Connor?  'My House,' he says.  You're House Signari, shit-eater," Scavatelli gestured at the white stripe down his face, "at least, you were until the lepress declared you persona non grata."
            MacVicar reached behind a pew and pulled one of the sacred texts out of the slot.  Miranda lowered her eyes at the sight of the familiar black book, with its depiction of two arms coming together to hold a red apple.  MacVicar tossed the book carelessly and it landed on the ground by the master's head.  Miranda stifled a gasp at the display of blasphemy.  MacVicar bent over and aran a pair of fingers across the master's skin.  He rubbed the two fingers across his thumb and held it up for Scav to see.
            "Glitter," Scav said with a laugh.
            MacVicar stuck his hand into the master's mouth, and though he instantly bit down, severing several of MacVicar's fingers, MacVicar struggled with him until finally wrenching his fangs out of his face and revealing them to be prosthetics.
            "Fake teeth.  Fake blood.  All this shit is a whole lot of smoke and mirrors for the mortals.  I always knew you were into some funny business with your circle, Cashley, but I never thought you'd take it to the level of treason."
            "I have every right to establish my own House.  I have been in the American West since before Brigham Young..."
            MacVicar stamped down on the master's face, squishing his head like a soggy pumpkin.  Miranda gasped, but then watched in wonder as the shattered chunks of skull and pulverized brain knitted themselves back together and his entire head reformed, like a balloon reinflating.  Only his thick plastic goggles didn't mend.  The pallid, white, pupilless orbs housed in his eye sockets and the wretched landscape of scars connecting them told the tale of why he always kept that half of his face hidden.
            "Pull the other one," MacVicar spat at him.
            "Please, Mac, Scav," the master whimpered, finally sounding as though he understood how precarious his position was, "you don't understand the danger.  There's something hunting our kind."
            "Oh, yes, I've heard the fairy tale.  There's a," Scav made quotation marks with his fingers, "'serial killer' taking out immortals."
            "Aye, I heard about that, too," MacVicar agreed, "Probably just some Inquisitors getting too big for their britches."
            The master shook his head wildly.
            "No.  You don't understand.  It's far worse than you can possibly imagine.  I need other immortals to help protect me, and Father Otto won't grant me permission to turn over a single get."
            "Knowing you, Cash," MacVicar said, "I wouldnae either."
            Suddenly the brass bell at the lone entrance to the compound began ringing.  Miranda looked up to one of the guard towers.  A spotlight shone on Inessa's chambers, illuminating the carnage within.  An instant later the spotlight turned its attention to Miranda.
            Dodging too poorly aimed rounds, she scurried into the chapel.
            "Well, that'll be the alarm," MacVicar said, "I'd been hoping we might get a decent scrap out of this shit job."
            The master took advantage of the distraction to reach up and twist Scav's leg, yanking it and wrenching it from its socket.  Scav tumbled to the ground and the master popped up to his feet with a single flex of his back muscles.  He stood now in the center of the aisle, backing away from the intruders and towards the altar, brandishing Scav's severed leg like a cudgel to ward them off.
            Scrabbling to grab hold of a pew, Scav pulled himself upright, balancing on his remaining foot.  Miranda stared at Scav's stump, wondering briefly if his leg would regenerate like a lizard's but it didn't.  It seemed that immortals were capable of healing almost any damaged flesh, but could not regrow lost parts.  No wonder, then, that their clashes descended into bouts of dismemberment.
            "Toss me the lad's leg, Cashley," MacVicar growled.
            "You have no idea what's coming, fixer.  You're going to wish you'd listened to me.  I've seen things.  Dreadful things hiding in the shadows.  Otto Signari won't be able to stand against him.  Not even Cicatrice will be able to stand against him."
            Suddenly a hole exploded in the wall behind the altar.  Perhaps sensing his distress, the master's six remaining immortal brides had eschewed the door entirely and simply punched their way in.  The chosen few wore scintillating white jumpsuits to signal their elevated status in the compound.
            "Ah," the master said with a grin, "the cavalry's arrived.  Seems I have a leg up at last."
            He tossed the full grown man's leg as effortlessly as if he were passing a Frisbee.  Scav snatched it out of the air.
            "Newborns, Cashley?" MacVicar said with a snort.  "Have you even weaned them off flesh yet?"
            "All that should matter to you, fixer, is how hard they'll fight for me.  I don't intend to go gentle into the abyss."
            MacVicar clapped his hands together.
            "I do so love my job.  Nothing like putting down a traitor as well as his Houseless bastards.  How you feeling, Scav?"
            Scav had reattached his leg to his stump, but the area where it had been torn away still seemed soft and scabrous.  Suddenly his eyes alighted on Miranda, and flashed with a bestial hunger.
            "Actually, I'm feeling a bit peckish.  Maybe I'll have a quick bite before this imbroglio."
            The pseudo-punk, with half his pant leg pooled around his ankle, lunged at Miranda.
            "Wait!" Miranda shouted, pulling down her right sleeve and showing her wrist.
            Scav paused, his head bobbing in the air like a bird's.  "What's that?"
            "Just a bit of cosmetics," she said.
            She pulled her wrist across her jumpsuit, rubbing away the foundation.  Underneath the makeup was a tattoo of a green double cross, with an olive branch to the left of it and a sword to the right of it.
            "Inquisitor!" Scavatelli hissed.
            "That's right.  I spent the last three weeks infiltrating this cult for a shot at that sorry son of a bitch."  Her finger shot out in Cashley's direction.  "After all the shit I've had to take from him and Inessa, there's no way I'm letting two low-rent fixers eat my lunch."
            She plunged her hand into her front cargo pocket, slipping her fingers between the pages of her hollowed-out copy of "the sacred text," and pulled out the Colt .45 hand cannon she kept hidden there.  With her other hand she ripped open the seam of her pant leg and pulled a long, wicked blade from the scabbard that ran practically the whole length of her thigh.  Thank God for Ashley's modesty rules.  She'd managed to keep it taped there for her whole tenure in the compound.
            Scav roared and charged at the vampire hunter, even as she filled the air with bullets.  Their stopping power wouldn't do much to harm a vampire, but if she was lucky and destroyed his eyes it would buy her the precious seconds she needed to sever his head.
            She managed to catch one eye, but not the other, and then when she took her stroke it went astray.  It was enough to move him out of her guard, but the vital moment of surprise was lost.  Now she would need all of her skill - and luck - to survive.
            "Bury that glog quick, Scav,' MacVicar shouted, bracing himself for the onslaught of  Cashley and his six brides, "We've got bigger fish to fry."
            Scav hissed and leapt at her.  As though she had been struck by a bolt of lightning, she was suddenly on her back, both hands pinned to the floor and her weapons clattering away out of reach.  The blow had knocked the wind out of her and as she fought the panic of being unable to draw in oxygen, she struggled, but she wasn't even a rag doll in his grasp.  She was like a butterfly, already pinned to a board.
            Then, like a tiny miracle, oxygen flooded into her lungs and she took a deep gasp.  It had seemed an eternity, though she knew it had really only been a few seconds, and her wits finally returned to her.  Looking up she wondered why the killing blow hadn't come.  But Scav wasn't even paying attention to her.
            The vampire was staring at the door.  She glanced back down the aisle and saw MacVicar, Cashley, and the six newborns all staring at the doorway, too, paused in mid-movement like a VHS tape.  That, more than anything, brought a sinking feeling to Miranda's stomach.
            The sound of a horse snuffling cut through Miranda's torso like a knife.  Defying all the boogeymen in her intestines screaming at her not to look, she turned her head toward the entranceway and caught sight first of the black hooves dripping a substance so dark it must have been tar, but she feared it was not.
            Over her head, in a child's voice, Scav whispered, "Il cacciatore del morto."
            Miranda blinked and strained her neck to see the rest of the dark figure.  The horse was black on black, with black eyes that didn't even seem to reflect the moonlight.  The man astride the charger was sealed in a wall of black plate armor, festooned with spikes and barbs.  No mortal could have carried such armor; it must have weighed two tons.  Like the horse's hair, the man's armor dripped with the dark, syrupy substance.
            The high helmet he wore had two long, curved horns, but otherwise it was nearly impossible to pick out any part of him.  He had all the appearance of a blog of fresh black ink that had somehow been smeared on the landscape.  He held a bastard sword in one hand, and in the other, seemingly defying the laws of physics; he had a long, pointed lance weighed down with what had to be a dozen corpses.  From the hilt tot he tip, stacked one on top of each other, each of Cashley's remaining wives and concubines, at least fifteen of them or so, had been pierced directly through the heart.  Blood soaked their grey jumpsuits.
            Their feud forgotten, Miranda and Scav rose to their feet.  The horse slowly cantered into the temple.  As it did, the knight merely shifted his lance, lifting it up into the air at a downward sloping angle.  Alice's body toppled from the lance first.  Peggy's followed.
            And with barely a shake, the bodies of a dozen or more of Cashley's followers fell from the mounted figure's lance and formed a trail behind him, like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs.
            Cashley was the first to regain his senses.  He cowered, pushing his brides into a semi-circular shield wall in front of him.
            "I warned you.  I warned you, MacVicar.  Everyone's scared of a serial killer but now you see what's really happening."
            The knight raised his lance in MacVicar's direction, as though lining up a gigantic pool cue for a difficult shot.  Scav seemed to realize what was about to happen.
            "Scav, don't!"
            Scav flew through the air like a bird of prey dropping onto an unsuspecting rodent, but his trajectory was immediately arrested.  Without looking in his direction, the knight lashed out with his blade, and sliced cleanly through Scav's neck with a single stroke.  His head came to a rest, balanced on the outstretched blade, while his torso crumbled to the floor.
            "You motherfucker!" MacVicar roared, dropping to his knees.  "You cocksucking bastard!"
            His face remained dry, but Miranda could have sworn he was weeping.  He was unable to produce tears.  One of the many, dark in-betweens of being a vampire.
            The horse reared back on its hind legs.  Like a wave, the great darkling mass poured down the aisle.  Even with the preternatural speed of his kind, MacVicar couldn't get out of the way before the figure was upon him.
            The black knight's lance struck true, and the force of the blow impaled MacVicar practically up to the hilt.  Miranda had never seen a vampire actually killed with a stake to the heart.  It was nearly impossible - a joke.  Practically every vampire wore a piece of armor across their chest, and judging by the glint of metal around the hole in MacVicar's body, the Signari fixer had been no exception.  Miranda's mouth hung open as it occurred to her that the mysterious knight had pierced through an inch of plate metal and Kevlar, not to mention a man's ribcage, with a single stroke.
            There was no way.  Was it possible?  Was this really the semi-mythic Hunter of the Dead?
            The knight sat there astride his horse, holding up Scav's sire bodily, not half a meter from his featureless mask.  He seemed to be examining MacVicar like a diner looking at hair in his soup.  Then he lifted his lance over his head and snapped it forward like a bullwhip.  The crumpled mass that had been MacVicar flew off and smashed into the rear wall of the chapel, a few feet above Cashley's head.
            "Protect me!" Cashley shrieked, ducking down so that his brides formed a barrier in front of him, and stumbling off toward the hole they had punched through the brick wall.
            The bastard sword cut an arc through the air and bifurcated one of the brides through her waist, sending her torso toppling forward before the blade passed through the back of the crouching Cashley's head.  Cashley's corpse crumpled into a heap, his hasty retreat ended before it had even begun.
            The five brides whose legs remained attached to their bodies tripped over one another trying to flee through the hole in the back wall.  But that, too, was no avail.  The knight was upon them in an instant, skewering hearts and ripping heads from their bodies with only his gauntleted hands.  When those five were dealt with, he turned to look for the top half of the bride who had been split in two.
            She was scrabbling away on her palms.  The knight raised her lance.
            "No, no, no, no!" the bride began muttering.
            With a furious slam he brought the lance down through the middle of her chest, snapping the tip of the weapon with the force of the blow and sending it hurtling away to embed itself in one of the walls.  The lance was so heavy that when he let it go it toppled to the ground and raised the halved vampire off the floor.  She strained and struggled to pull herself free of the impaling lance, but her efforts were either in vain or too slow.  The knight dismounted, retrieved his bastard sword from Cashley's severed head, and lopped through her brainpan at nose level.
            Then, as if some eldritch and terrible god had cast its eye upon her, Miranda saw the horns of the knight's helmet turning in her direction.  In that instant, she became certain that this was the legendary Hunter of the Dead.
            Even weighed down with so much armor, The Hunter was upon her in a split second, and pressed his dripping sword to Miranda's breast.
            "I...I'm on your side," she said, holding up her wrist to display her tattoo, "I'm an inquisitor.  We hunt..."
            The blade drove into Miranda's sternum and exited just as quickly, drawing a trail of crimson through the air like an exploding firework.

About the author:
Stephen Kozeniewski lives in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie.  During his time as a Field Artillery officer he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where, due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star.  He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor's is in German.


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