Thorns grew everywhere around it, a thicket so tight the castle where the Beauties slept's ruined spires barely blackened the sky. There were no wolves singing in the distance, since it was just after sunrise—the hunter had been warned not to approach at night, and knew better than to do so, anyhow. But then again, people for miles around had been telling him to go elsewhere at almost every step of his journey, a kindness he certainly did not resent them for.
“Why would you, Mein Herr? The signs are clearly marked. We planted the thorns ourselves, to keep men like you from harm, along with ourselves.”
And he nodded politely, and thanked them. But as they all knew, the thorns were not quite so effective a barrier as they'd been intended to be, when one considered that the creatures who dwelt in the castle could sometimes fly.
He had heard the stories, after all, even as far as his own city, the university he taught at. Likewise, this was not a charge he took lightly, this quest; no mere hobby, though many might call him amateur, since he was entirely self-taught. It was, instead, a vocation.
At the thorn-thicket's outermost edges he stopped and trod a careful survey 'round the castle, mapping its thinnest points, its easiest access to those breaches in the walls he had mapped through study in archival documents from the time when the castle fell, before it became a shunned haunt of desolation. Eventually, having chosen his ingress, he set a fire and waited until the growth had shrivelled back far enough that whatever remained was ashy and brittle. This he hacked through, using a small axe he kept strapped on his back.
By now the sun was at its height, yet he still was not fool enough to believe himself entirely protected. He doffed his overcoat, revealing a coat of mail hung with crosses from almost every link and a silver-plated gorget he had paid to have made by a very special armourer who worked, more usually, with certain secret branches of the Church. These were as light as possible, so as not to interfere with overall speed and flexibility; their use was more as distraction than anything else, so that his other weapons might come as enough of a surprise to allow him a slight edge, were his prey to awaken during the procedure.
In the dungeons, far enough below-ground that sunlight could penetrate only weakly, he found three sarcophagi, one already ajar. The thing which usually slept inside fell on him from above, where she had been clinging to the ceiling, and he was hard-pressed to overcome her until he threw holy water in her eyes. Then he was able to extricate himself, swinging the axe high and cleaving her through the brain before staking her as she writhed on the floor with the heels of her rotten, pearl-encrusted silk shoes drumming, trying without success to heal herself fast enough to escape.
The other two were easier, theoretically. But cutting off heads and cutting out hearts takes time regardless, so it was late afternoon when he left them to cook in a brazier that had once heated implements of torture, the rising smoke of release scented with garlic.
Hiking quickly, he soon reached where he had tethered his horse and spurred it to a gallop, making the inn he was staying at by the time the sky began to purple. And since here he was safe, according to the time-honoured rules of invitation, he packed his equipment away and went down to dinner.
Just after sundown, a great dark gust of wind swept through town and made a sound outside that was clearly audible even through the usual shouts of drunken merriment, as though a thousand fluttering wings had suddenly ceased to beat at once. A knock at the door summoned the landlord, who took a horrified backwards step when he saw who it was.
“You are not...welcome here, my Prince,” he managed, at last—voice quavering, frame trembling—to which a cold voice replied: “So long as you give me my title, fool, you acknowledge that I own the land this village stands on, making you my guests, not the other way 'round.”
The innkeeper's face fell. “Yes,” he agreed.
“Very well. Is the coward who came to my house here tonight?”
“He is,” the hunter replied, mildly, from his seat at the back. “Would you have words with me, Count? If so, I am at your disposal.”
The man who nodded and entered was huge, taking up most of the doorway before stepping through with one haughty stride, barely deigning to glance around him as he shortened the distance between himself and the second chair set out at the hunter's table. All eyes scurried from him long before he sat, and though talk eventually resumed, it was at a far softer, more anxious pitch.
“You killed my brides today, Professor,” the man said, his otherwise compelling eyes shining red from lid to lid, as though inflamed. “Three Beauties, noblewomen of grace and breeding, who were my companions and helpmeets for almost three hundred of your years. Now I wake to find myself alone, and in mourning.”
“I am sorry for that, Count. Believe me, I would gladly have done the same to you as well, thus sparing you this pain, had I only been able to discover your hiding place before the light began to fade.”
The man nodded again. “But a general does not risk himself so foolishly, and as I have said, everything here still belongs to me. This allows me to move my bed almost every night, often dispensing with a coffin entirely.”
“Which explains the dirt on your cloak, I suppose,” the hunter agreed. “Well, then—since I assume our exchange of niceities is over, what is it you intend?”
The man considered the hunter a moment, sitting there straight-spined and stirring his tea in the English fashion, his clever hand—nails only vaguely still pinked with vampire blood—betraying barely a tremble. “You are elegantly made, Professor, for a peasant,” he said, at last. “And have practiced your trade for long enough, if rumour be believed, that I hardly think you do not know enough to fear me...”
“I fear you exactly as much as is practical, Count; you are owed that respect at the least, like any other fatal creature. Though they do say the Devil is practical, as well.”
“Ah yes, and you believe in that bugbear, do you not, little Templar? Devoutly, I'm sure. So perhaps I shall enjoy teaching you that there is no such thing to fear, not really—only God on the one hand, that old traitor, and myself on the other.” Continuing, as the hunter merely watched him, carefully: “Expert in your trade as you are, I am sure you see very well just how easy it would be for me to kill every living thing in this benighted place, simply for giving you shelter. Then burn it to the ground and carry you off, to work some suitably horrifying series of punishments upon you over a score of nights in vengeance for my bereavement, before finally allowing you to die.”
The spoon stopped, laid down with a quiet clink. “That...would be your right,” the hunter replied, after his own slight pause.
“My droit de signeur, yes. But since I sense a certain inclination to martyrdom in you, I do not think I will. Will you be so polite as to thank me for it?”
“I hoped not. So...let us make a bargain, instead.”
“Of what sort?”
“You may have heard I admired boldness while I was alive, and this is true enough—one who pits himself against insurmountable odds, as you do, stirs me immensely. You are a scholar and a warrior too, at least of a sort; I would prefer not to have to destroy you...”
“I sense an 'and yet' in the offing.”
“...and yet, what choice do you leave me? I cannot be seen to be merciful, not in front of those whose fear provides me sustenance.”
“Then we are at an impasse, I think.”
“Perhaps not. I repeat: martyrdom I will deny you, if only in repayment of kind for what you took from me earlier. But self-sacrifice in the service of others, so that many may live on, no matter your own fate...this is different, for a true believer.” He leaned in further, shadowing the hunter's fine-planed face. “Swear yourself to me, therefore, and I will consider the matter settled. You will stay with me, as they did; you will add your strength to mine. We will negotiate this new age together, as my three Beauties and I never could.”
“And lose my soul, in the process? I did not begin to do what I do in order to become the king of monsters' minion.”
“No, to be sure. Yet what choice do you have? Your life, for theirs; your soul for theirs, which your own mistakes first set in jeopardy. It is a bargain that Nazarene of yours would have approved of, and you know it.”
The hunter drew a breath, perhaps considering options but finding few, then discarding each in their turn, as they all logically proved to lead in directions equally Pyrrhic. And here, while he hesitated, the man gave him a grim, cram-toothed smile—adding, as he did—
“Beside which, I far prefer the term...consort.”
In the village square, even today, a plaque stands to the hunter's memory; the castle stays unoccupied and those who live around it die mainly of natural causes, for the Prince who once continued to lodge there long after his death—in blatant defiance of God's laws—is said to be making a tour of the world, inflicting himself on other places entirely. And along with him travels a far younger creature of the night, the semi-saint who gave up his chance at an incorporeal eternity in order to keep the Devil company.
The Beauties sleep on, meanwhile, redeemed in their dust and probably thankful for it, or so the story goes. For they too were saved by this same bargain, in a way.