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Bait and Switch
by Darrell Whitney

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Although I went quite a different way than he did with the basic concept, I nonetheless have to thank Joel Fagin for an offhand remark he made a couple of years ago for the inspiration to write this story in this particular setting.


Moonlight drenched the Gothic forest, weaving its way through the leaves and branches of towering deciduous trees so that everything seemed overlain in ghostly silver. It was no wonder that in Gothic itself and in the surrounding villages there were whispered rumors that the dead walked the forest by night.

Of course, thought the Beast, there was also the fact that those rumors were true.

For centuries he and his kind had been forced to hide in the forest depths, feeding on animals just as the living did. They'd feared not only the pitiless eye of the sun but the equally pitiless eyes of radar scanners, infrared viewers, and bloodless metal killing machines that spat fire. Many of his ilk had sank into torpor, slumbering beneath the ground for want of human blood. Only the strongest had been able to remain active on their reduced diet, to keep from starvation or endless sleep.

Then the Master had come, had called them forth from their graves by the power of His Black Blood that filled their veins. They had feasted then, free to slake the Hunger in human blood for the first time in decades. Driven by His strength they had made the Gothic forest theirs again. Whole villages had been destroyed in an orgy of slaughter. Travelers had become few and far between. Even so, there was plenty of prey for the Beast. The remaining villagers were weak, their defenses puny, scarcely better than those from millennia ago. There were no death- machines, no blazing eyes of fire, only flesh... and blood.

Still, it was pleasant when the Beast could find a stray human. It could play with it, stalk it, build up the fear and terror until the point that when the kill came the emotion-saturated blood made a rich banquet for the Hunger. It had found one now, a girl-child. She concealed her form and features in one of the shapeless gray, hooded cloaks the fearful humans had taken to wearing, but it made no difference to the Beast. It could smell her, rich, ripe, and female. A meal that would slake the burning Hunger for days when he finally took her.

The Beast sprang from limb to limb, his clawed hind feet gripping each easily like a perching bird. His broad, flat nose sniffed the air. There was no fear from her yet, only a faint apprehension. She knew the forest was dangerous, but as yet she knew of nothing immediate to be afraid of. The Beast's long, pointed tongue ran around the edge of his lipless mouth, and he bared his fangs in a grim parody of a smile.

It was time to change that.

Spreading its winged arms, the Beast dove for the girl. Its fur tingled with the rush of air, but the mild pleasures of flying were drowned beneath the eager anticipation of the hunt to come. He'd mark her a bit, he decided, just a scratch across the back to spur her flight. He extended one clawed hand, carefully judging his angle to strike.

Then she turned.

What?

Then she ducked.

How?

His slash missed her completely, passing over her head. As her cloak parted with the movement, he saw the glint of an armored breastplate beneath.

Trap!

The Beast considered flight. The girl was equipped for battle. That meant danger. But she was alone. He smelled no one else, no living flesh, not the stink of the death-machines. Not a trap, then. Not bait. Just a young girl who happened to think herself a fighter.

The Beast had killed fighters before. In some ways, they were the best. Armored in the self- confidence of their skill at arms, their fear was all that much stronger when finally evoked than that of the hapless peasantry who knew the voice of terror as well as that of their own families. He would strip her of arms and armor, tear away the illusion of invincibility from her soul, and give the Hunger what it wanted. He turned, landed, and snarled at her.

In the moonlit darkness, the Beast knew his eyes were gleaming. Perhaps she would meet his gaze. If she did, the Hunger could reach out to her mind, magically binding her so she could not move. Then he would slice the straps of her armor with his claws, take away her weapons.

He almost laughed when he saw her draw a sword. A good sword, yes... ceramic, by the look of it... but a sword! She could hurt him with it, yes, but he would heal, no matter how badly maimed. What did she think he was? This would be easier than he thought.

Then he staggered back as it hit him, like golden light pouring into his soul. The Beast could feel the girl's dreams, her determination; her hope was a tangible force that flowed through his diseased spirit. He couldn't focus, couldn't think straight. Only the hot spike of pain as her sword pierced his side drowned the effect, but he could still feel it within his mind, warring with the Hunger.

The Hunger told him to feed.

The Black Blood of the Master told him to rend, to tear, to destroy the puny thing that had done this.

Sanity told the Beast to run!

He had not survived centuries of undeath by letting his darkling urges drown his common sense. This girl had magic about her, and the Beast was not willing to face it alone. He turned to run, powerful legs springing him into the air where the girl could not follow.

She didn't have to fly, though. She cried a single word, and twin bolts of flame pierced the Beast through. He tumbled from the air, crashing to the ground, and the girl's sword was waiting. It slashed him while he lay prone, again as he tried to rise. He tried to rip at her with his claws, found the blow parried, and took another grievous slash, this one across his face that left him too weak to move.

The Beast would heal, he knew. In a few hours, undead flesh would knit back together, restoring his strength. The wounds made by her fire magic would linger, of course--only a blood feast would cure them, but they were not fatal, not enough by themselves to kill. Then, he would gather others of his kind. Oh, yes, he would remember this girl. She would die; those who bore magic were most hateful of all to the Master. There would be no play with her, only the swift expunging of a threat.

Unfortunately for the Beast, the girl seemed to understand this. She reached beneath her cloak, unslung a pack, and rummaged inside until she found a short wooden stake and a mallet. She knew the business of vampire-hunting: incapacitate in battle, then finish the kill when the vampire was downed. It had been a trap after all, only she had been bait and jaws all in one.

She stood over the Beast, her brilliant blue eyes sorrowful, and he felt the golden light drown the Black Blood's screams of rage once more.

"I don't know how long you've been like this," she said as she rested the stake-point over his heart, "but I hope that now you can find peace."

The Beast could feel that she truly meant the benediction, too. The truth in her words all but sang through him, silencing the Blood and the Hunger for the first time in centuries. He still wished he could move, but not to run or to fight. He just wished that he could thank her before the stake fell.

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