by James Seidel (12 Nov 94)
The learjet banked, jolting Brother Reuben out of his meditative contemplation. Opening his eyes, he allowed himself a few moments of idle observation before making his preparations for arrival.
This learjet did not have the plush and luxurious outfitting of many of its business-class compatriots. Rather, its spartan interior spoke of the basic but functional efficiency the Militant Orders demanded of all equipment.
One of Reuben's companions sat opposite, across the narrow isle, absently - but efficiently - stripping down and cleaning the weapon in his lap. Two other knights sat further apart, silently preparing themselves for the mission ahead.
Reuben was the only Hospitaller among the small band of knights: opposite was a Teutone and the other two belonged to the Order of the Temple. Holding the rank of Knight Lieutenant, Reuben would normally be in command of a combat team such as this. But this was no ordinary mission.
As his mind wandered, his body remembered a tenet of the Rule which had governed his life since becoming a knight so many years ago: If a you have no other task, see to your weapons. Almost instinctively, Reuben reached to the box at his feet - lifting out the first item encountered. Automatically he began to disassemble the pistol, polishing each part before placing them separately on his lap.
Reuben turned his head to study the prayerful profile of his Templar commander: Knight Captain Thomas Threaston. The grey haired, grizzled captain was something of a legend among the Orders, being a member of the first small band of knights which had successfully hunted down and captured a vampire - presenting it as irrefutable evidence to the Synod of Malta. His presence spoke of the seriousness of the mission, though details were still thin.
Reuben's hands had completed the task of breaking his weapon down, and now automatically reached for a phial of lubricant. The small city below had not been expected to produce severe trouble. Numbering only one million, only 10 vampires were expected to be counted among its populace.
But something had to have caused the complete loss of communication with the combat team sent there a month earlier. Reuben remembered the joyful face of a young Hospitaller sergeant who had been dispatched on this, his first mission. He was almost certainly dead.
The jet banked again, this time bringing the city into view through the portholes behind the Teutonic sergeant. Reuben's first glimpse of the city was a web of glittering lights, bordered on one side by the ocean and the other by a low mountain range - the golden glow of dawn gently adorning the peaks. It was a shame that something so beautiful could hide something as evil and vile as a vampire. Assembling the gun once again, Reuben paused to look at its battered handle. While the Glock 18 was a relatively new gun, it had been used hard since being placed within Reuben's care. Like all Reuben's possessions, it did not belong to him.
With only minutes left before landing, Reuben lifted his sword from its secure packaging under a Vatican Diplomatic Seal. This seal, and that of his own Order, was central in getting the Militant Order's equipment past custom's scrutiny all over the world. This was his second sword: the first having been shattered in the grip of a vengeful vampire. Only the quick actions of his companions had saved his life that day. It was a personal tragedy, losing one's first sword. He could still remember the day when it was given to him: "Take this sword; its brightness stands for faith, its point for hope and the guard for charity. Use it well . . . ".
The new blade was in all ways the same as the first - and yet it was not the same.
Testing its edge with his thumb, Reuben was satisfied with the clean part in his skin that had not drawn blood.
Reuben re sheathed the sword as the learjet made its final descent. Looking up, he saw the anticipation in the eyes of his colleagues and prayed silently for a successful outcome.
Reuben's heart lifted when he saw the chapel. The drive from the airport under dawn's early rays had not impressed him. The rust- stained hulks of abandoned warehouses and factories were the first shapes to welcome him to this new country. The imposing and blocky skyscrapers of the inner-city did little more to impress.
But the old stone chapel somehow stood in a pool of morning light. The besieging gloom of long shadows seemed incapable of storming the hallowed walls. It was not a large building, in the sense of the enormous Gothic Cathedrals, but its perfectly proportioned and suitably adorned facade spoke volumes about the faith of its constructors.
Alongside were the church's offices, guest rooms and the cloister of a convent - all built of the same pale blue sandstone. The knights had not said much to one another since their arrival. Each was engaged in their own private contemplation of this new and dangerous environment. None could shake the thought that these dark, towering glass walls somewhere contained the secrets of their missing comrades.
As the cars pulled up in front of the chapel, and the knights emerged, a sombre chime began to ring from the stunted belltower. Locals turned their heads toward the sound as they walked past. It was not often nowadays that they felt its reassuring caress.
Standing at the head of the stairs was the local Bishop - resplendent in all his official finery. Signalling to a nearby attendant, the bishop gave instructions for the knights to be taken away. They were expected to attend chapel within half an hour, in full Militant regalia.
Few places enforced this ancient but traditional ritual of greeting. Reuben felt oddly reassured that the ceremony was taking place here.
Brother Thomas led the small parade down the aisle. Reuben followed, with the Teutone and the remaining Templar behind. It was a private ceremony, attended only by the church's officers and the nuns of the convent. As the four knights walked down the aisle to their appointed places, veiled heads turned and hushed whispers danced around the hall. Few of the sisters realised what the strange, cross-adorned mantles and surcoats represented. Some identified the black habit and white Maltese cross of Reuben's ceremonial robes, but few could place the white mantles of the Templars and the Teutone with their red and black crosses respectively.
The startled murmurs fell away quickly as the Bishop turned from the altar. With the knights standing - not kneeling - he lifted his arms and gave blessing.
"Brothers, welcome to our humble city. I regret not having received your predecessors in a similar manner, and now it seems too late. Troubled times have befallen our people, but it is comforting to know the swords of the Militant Order's stand beside us."
At this, excited murmurs sprung once again from the hall - quickly silenced by the doleful glare of the mother superior. Turning toward the altar, the Bishop raised his arms once again.
"Let us give thanks to the Lord for He is truly good . . . "
Reuben waited impatiently outside the doctor's consulting rooms. Three weeks of intense investigation had revealed much about the city's accursed occupants. They appeared little worried about concealing their presence - only their identities.
Teutonic knight Karl Orselensen had quickly identified the rise of a satanic cult among the street urchins, revolving around moon and blood worship. This had provoked Reuben's greatest fears - this was no ordinary band of vampires: it was the Sabbat. Little progress had been made as to the fate of the knights. It had become quickly obvious that the local bishop had "disapproved" of the team as its commander, a Teutonic Knight Lieutenant, had been a woman.
Reuben's own investigations had located an unwitting victim of one of these blood ceremonies. Now, his international standing as a blood-disorder research scientist had gained him access to the delirious young girl, who doctors said bore unusual puncture wounds on her throat.
Her psychiatric doctor had described her as a "paranoid schizophrenic", deluded by fears of devils tracking her down for her blood. The fact that her friends had disappeared under strange circumstances had little impact on the professional's diagnosis. The psychiatric hospital in which he sat more resembled a hotel - such was the attitude towards treating mentally disturbed "guests". Reuben approved. The door swung silently open. A casually dressed nurse moved into the room, her haggard eyes betraying the difficulties of her profession.
"Dr Reuben, Sara is ready to see you now."
Reuben got up from his chair quickly, the familiar bulk of his shoulder holster brushing against his chest. He always carried it there, just in case. . . Stepping into the room, Reuben saw a pathetic sight before him. A young woman, little more than 16- years of age, sat uncomfortably in a corner. Dressed in a white smock, her pale features and limp posture betrayed her heavy sedation.
"You have 10 minutes. I'll be outside if you need anything." The nurse closed the door behind her.
Reuben glanced about the room, quickly taking in the comfortable but functional surrounds.
Moved again by the destitute sight, Reuben muttered a short prayer beneath his breath - calling upon God to restore strength to her spirit. A familiar, gentle tingle washed through his body. Reuben knew his prayer had been answered, even before the girl lifted her head and smiled - the barest hint of life sparkling again in her eyes.
"Hello . . . Sara isn't it?" Reuben barely heard the meek, breathed reply.
"Well, Sara, I'm not like the other doctors you've seen. I know what happened to you was real, and I'm here to do something about it."
Startlement lifted her head higher, though her insidious fear soon clouded her features once again.
"There's no point. They'll get you too, just like the others."
Reuben's heart bounded. "The others?"
"Yes. You're one of them, aren't you? One of the knights?" Reuben forced down his surprise, breathing carefully before replying. "Yes I am. I am of the Order of St John, the Hospitallers. But I'd rather you not tell anyone that."
Sara looked up again, a slight hint of a smile curling her lips. "Yes. There was one of you with the others. He was nice." She looked away, her face saddened. "He's dead now, though."
A surge of sorrow welled up inside Reuben. The young knight had shown promise. "I'm sorry to hear that. He was my friend." Reuben turned, giving her a moment for her thoughts. Pulling up a chair, he sat before her, waiting for her attention to return. "Tell me Sara . . . tell me about the knights. What happened to them?"
She shifted uneasily on her seat. Reuben noticed the limpness had almost gone from her young body and color was returning to her face. He smiled inside, rejoicing in the power of his Lord. "They found us . . . mucking around in an old warehouse. We had drawn pentagrams on the floor. We'd been drinking . . . I'd thought it was nothing but a game."
As Sara hesitated, Reuben felt anger at how easily his enemy preyed upon the adventurous and naive nature of youth. He had heard this story, oh so many times . . .
"Then suddenly Brother Anthony was there. We all stopped. I . . . I was embarrassed . . . We had no clothes on. He simply walked over, put out the burners and erased the pentagram with his heel. He didn't shout or anything. We were all so shocked that we did nothing to stop him."
Reuben felt an up welling of pride for the dead knight. He had conducted himself perfectly in a situation that could easily have provoked outrage. Reuben breathed a short prayer, commending Anthony's soul to heaven.
Then, with a sob, the whole story bubbled forth. She told of how Anthony had won their support, helping them to deceive their coven as to their loyalty and compliance. Once the group of friends were invited to attend a "blood initiation rite" in an abandoned country town, the knights had prepared an ambush. It had gone horribly wrong. Sara's boyfriend had betrayed them all. She had escaped into the shadows only through a desperate diversion created by Anthony. She did not know what happened to him - or the others - only that no-one returned from the ghost town that night. Reuben led the sobbing girl from the room, giving her arm to the beleaguered nurse. He was without doubt that Sara would soon recover fully from her affliction, though the scars of memory would pain her for the rest of her life.
The cold night air chilled Reuben as he slung his sword over his shoulder, tightening the belt at his chest. The sun had just set, and the full moon had already begun its march across the heavens.
A little more than five minutes ago he had made the rendezvous with his companions at the lonely hillside road-stop. The four cars were parked in a protective circle, the knights donning their combat equipment quickly and efficiently.
His hands automatically began a re-check of his gear: spare magazine on the left forearm and right thigh - check; bayonet on left calf - check; stun grenades right hip - check; magazine pouch on rear belt - check . . .
His dark grey fire retardant suit hid the moulded ballistic plastic armor plates attached to his body.
With armor and sword, he was as ready for battle as his brethren had been in the deserts of old Outremer. Glancing around, Reuben saw the other knights had also finished gearing up.
Brother Orselensen, who would act as supportman, hefted his HK-G11 assault rifle. The burly but quiet Austrian brother's role called for strong firepower in order to support other engaged knights.
Knight Captain Threaston stood over the bonnet of his car, going over a map of the abandoned town one last time.
The Templar Knight Sergeant, Ian Dulette, was on point. He cradled the standard MP2000 in his arms, but his webbing was laden with extra items such as bolt cutters and plastic explosives. Brother Dulette was the one who had discovered the Coven was planning another ceremony at the town to mark their victory over the previous combat team. He and Captain Threaston had encountered a ghoul trying to procure young victims at a parkside debutante ball. Fearing both for his life and his soul, the pitiful creature told the knights all he knew. He now rested securely under the care of a local Dominican monastery.
It would be a tough fight. It was a full moon. Somehow the Sabbat drew strength from this.
Reuben pulled on his respirator. Though cumbersome and bulky, it served the double purpose of protecting against any disruptive gasses and concealing his identity. He had worn the mask so often now during training he hardly noticed its presence. Reuben's role was that of defenceman and medic. His haversack contained most of the combat team's explosives and medical supplies. In action, it was his specific task to protect the pointsman and act as second in command.
"Alright, brothers. This is it. May the Lord look with favor upon our purpose."
Reuben slipped a magazine into the breach of his MP2000 as Captain Threaston ordered the small company into action.
It was the early hours of the morning when Reuben belly crawled into the small depression on the side of town that represented the knights command post. Sliding alongside Captain Threaston, Reuben made his gruesome report.
He had found the remains of Brother Anthony before the altar of a ruined church. The knight sergeant had perished from grenades tossed into the roofless building after slaying a vampire that had braved the holy ground. The fact that his body had not yet been removed indicated the grounds still protected him from evil, making it difficult for any Kindred to approach.
Reuben placed the fused plastic form of Anthony's automatic pistol in Threaston's hands. The blessed weapon had obviously melted itself in the hands of a vampire, preventing its use for wrongdoing.
Captain Threaston took the weapon reverently, placing it in his backpack. "He fought bravely and well. Martyrdom is his - we should all be thankful."
Threaston lifted his image-enhancing field glasses to his eyes. "We have not found the others. There are bullet holes and blast marks aplenty, though. It was obviously a fierce fight." Twisting onto one elbow, Threaston handed Reuben the glasses. "We've found the Sabbat. There's a group of twenty people sitting silently in the darkness on the east end of town. They started a chant about 10 minutes ago and lit their little incense burners. Give them another five minutes and they'll all be as high as clouds."
Reuben peered through the glasses. The stark black and white image jumping into his awareness.
"Ian and Karl are in the trees, waiting for instructions. We'll move once the blood-suckers arrive."
The town was hardly that. The small cluster of about 10 houses focussed on what was the regional church and school grounds. That was obviously a long time ago.
As Reuben lifted his glasses to the wood, his eye caught movement among the foliage about the reveller's small clearing. Six shadowy figures surrounded the glen before waiting motionless. The ritual was not yet complete.
Silently imploring God to reveal the forms' nature, Reuben's senses perceived a pale nimbus emanating from the shapes. "Captain, I think they've just arrived."
With silent speed only brought about by intense training, both knights rapidly closed the ground between them and the heathens.
Upon ducking into the cover of the trees, Captain Threaston thumbed the small button controlling his respirator mask's small radio unit. He spoke in Latin. "We go in once they approach their herd."
That was all that needed to be said.
With the help of his training, Reuben knew exactly where to expect his companions to emerge. Lifting his submachinegun, he centred the infra-red sights on the cold torso of a vampire standing within his designated field of fire.
The noise from the coven increased. The chant was becoming desperate, the participants enthralled by drug induced ecstasy - flinging their now naked bodies about in a primitive dance. Swiftly but silently, the vampires moved forward - toward their prey.
Simultaneously, Captain Threaston's weapon spat softly - three rounds leapt from the silenced and flash-suppressed weapon. Instantly the other knights followed suit. Reuben tightened the grip on his own trigger, sending two accurately controlled bursts at the two vampires within his zone. Both shapes jerked with the impact of a possible 15 9mm shells each. Both went down to the ground.
Quickly glancing around, he saw three of the other vampires were also down. The sixth had dashed into the middle of the now screaming mass of unclad bodies, grabbing two and holding them against him.
Automatically, Reuben leapt up - shouldering his gun and drawing his sword. At the edge of his perception he saw his comrades following suit.
Rushing forward, Reuben's blade flashed dimly in the moonlight. The closest of his vampires had struggled to its knees, its wounds already mostly healed. Quickly, Reuben swung his sword. The decapitated creature's head barely had time to touch the ground before it dissolved.
Dust, smoke and screams filled the night air. But the sight before Reuben stood out clearly.
The second vampire, it's teeth bared and claws extended was advancing rapidly. A wave of fear passed quickly - Reuben knew what it was he faced, and had long since given his life to the Lord's service. Death would only bring him closer to God.
Quickly reaching for his thigh-holstered pistol, Reuben hesitated. Many worshippers had begun running frantically towards the town and were passing behind his quarry.
His hesitation cost him.
The vampire leapt forward at superhuman speed, its claw's raking deep scores across his fireproof suit. A brief moment of surprise flashed across the creature's face as its talons encountered the armor.
Before Reuben could react, the vampire flung a punch at Reuben's head - sending him to the ground, mind reeling. Struggling to free his bayonet, a piercing cry cut through the clearing.
"Desparte Ferre". The vampire, now stooping, ready to tear out his throat, recoiled in fear. Then its body was rent with the impact of dozens of fletchette rounds. Brother Karl had a good eye. . .
The vampire turned as if to run, but stumbled into the path of Captain Threaston instead. With the flash of a blade, another vampire returned to whence it should have been - dust.
Reuben struggled to his feet, taking in the scene rapidly. On the far side of the fire was the sixth vampire, still clutching the painted body of a woman close. Karl stood at stand-off, his assault rifle shouldered.
Brother Dulette was slumped against a tree, blood welling up from under his armor. His face was blank under the pain- reducing meditation all knights were taught as a novice. Captain Threaston was scanning the tree line, seeking a vampire which had escaped.
Reuben scrambled over to the wounded Brother and quickly examined the wound. A piece of his own armor had gouged into the flesh under his left rib-cage. Dulette's life-blood was ebbing away.
Imploring mercy, Reuben prayed in all earnestness for Dulette's life. Placing his hands above the wound, the holy tingle surged through his body and the blood flow slowed. Seeing his chance, Reuben quickly grabbed a medical kit and rapidly applied dressings and sedatives.
All this time he could hear and feel the supernatural standoff occurring behind him. But he knew his brothers could handle it, and concentrated on his task.
Finished, Reuben felt drained - his spiritual Grace was obviously wearing thin. He stood and turned to the drama unfolding behind him. Four powdery patches defiled the ground, each marking the final death of one of the Corrupt.
The vampire was in the form of a young man, decked out in all the black leather trappings of a motorcycle gang member. The unconscious form of a young woman hung limp in the vampire's grip - mercifully unconscious.
Captain Threaston made a slow display of sheathing his sword. Gradually stretching his arms out in front of his body, he spoke in a soothing tone.
"Come now. You are obviously young in the blood. There is still a chance to reconcile your soul with the Lord. Let the girl go."
"Don't give me that bullshit," came the rasping reply as it wrenched the girl's head higher. "What about the others - you didn't give them a chance to play 'confession' time!"
Threaston took a small step closer. "You were all warned by the knights who arrived two months ago."
"Yeah! We kicked their butts real fine" the creature spat. "I'll have your blood nicely chilled in a champagne bottle before this is all over."
Threaston took another soft step forward.
"Don't come any closer, man, or this girl's a rag doll." Reuben slowly retrieved his sword - his MP2000 was too far away.
The vampire saw him. Without hesitation, it moved to wrench the girl's neck.
Before it's arm had gained sufficient leverage, a hail of fletchette's ripped through the creature's face - tearing off part of its skull. The vampire went down, dropping the unconscious girl into the fire as it collapsed.
"NO!" bellowed Karl, dropping his gun and sprinting to the fire. Threaston was closer. He dived into the flames, lifting the now screaming girl out of the heat as he rolled. He jumped up, brushing the clinging cinders from his fire retardant suit. Reuben immediately ran to the girl's side, rolling her onto her unharmed front. Large charred welts extended from her thigh to her shoulders.
Karl did not hesitate. He kept running, pulling the safety cap off a flare as he ran.
The vampire was almost on its feet again, it's shattered skull miraculously whole.
Karl leapt at the creature, thrusting the spark-spitting torch at it's face. It reeled back in horror, but retained enough presence of mind to lash out with a desperate kick.
It struck Karl on the hip with a sickening crunch of bone. The sergeant stumbled, but to the creature's surprise remained standing.
Karl reached for his pistol: the vampire turned and ran. Lifting the pistol to a firing pose, the Teutone let go a full 18 round clip of 9mm shells. He saw some impact, but the creature sill kept going.
Threaston charged past, his own pistol in hand.
With the vampire out of sight, Karl sprawled on the ground - a moan of pain escaping from his lips.
Reuben, seeing the girl was out of any immediate danger, went to his brother knight's side.
"I'm sorry brother, but I'm all used up." He hesitated. "I've only got enough Graal water for the other two, I'm sorry." Reuben removed a pain-killing needle from his pouch, injecting it into the crumpled hip.
Karl chuckled: "Our Hospitaller has all his ward's full. Don't worry. Leave me some time to meditate and I'll make a start on it myself." More seriously: "Bring me my gun, they may return yet."
Reuben complied before removing his rucksack and pulling out a small metal phial. Pouring some over the sobbing girls wounds, he looked on with wonderment as the blisters receded and the welts closed. God's power never ceased to amaze him.
After muttering a few words of encouragement, he moved to Dulette's side, lifting the phial to his lips. The Teutone coughed and spluttered, then fell into a deep sleep.
Threaston came jogging back into the clearing, his movement tracked all the way into the light by Karl's assault rifle.
"They both got away."
"Sire, I have come before God, before you and the brothers and sisters of this Order, and I beg and require you in the name of God and of Our Lady to accord to me your company and the benefits of the house, as one who will henceforth always be its servant and slave."
Reuben allowed himself a smile as the familiar words echoed around the old stone chamber. His stark black robes stood out among the white-clad company he was in. This was a chapter meeting of the Teutonic Knights. While not unprecedented, it was rare for a member of one Order to attend a Chapter of another.
But then, these were rare circumstances.
The supplicant before the altar had been sponsored by Reuben as a novice for his own Order. However, her skills and ambition soon proved beyond what the Hospitallers were prepared to grant women.
Her solution was simple: petition the Teutonic Knights for a "transfer". Such a move had caused quite a stir among the Orders, but Reuben - as her guarantor - had supported her every move.
It was five years after finding the emotionally bruised but determined young Sara sleeping on the steps of a foreign chapel - awaiting the return of his combat team from confronting the creatures that had done her harm.
Now, Reuben watched as they grey novitiate cloak was taken from her shoulders, and the Knight-Preceptor stepped forward with a white mantle with the Teutone's black "iron" cross. "Good sister, you are asking a great thing, for you see only the outer shell of our religion. . . "
Reuben had seen her rarely in the intervening years, though reports from her superiors demonstrated the promise of her abilities and the strength of her faith. Five years was a short time in which to complete a novitiate and gain all the skills necessary to become a knight. Reuben hoped she had learnt well, as her life and those of others depended upon it.
"Take this sword, its brightness stands for faith, its point for . . . "
A twinge of sadness intruded upon Reuben's thoughts. The blade she was about to receive had belonged to Brother Anthony who sacrificed his life in order to save hers. Reuben prayed she would do honor to its previous owner.
The ceremony drew near its close: the atmosphere charged with emotion and worship.
Sara stood before the chapter, presenting herself to her comrades. The Knight-Preceptor turned from the altar:
"Now go, may God make you worthy men."