The Bone Man was done here, he had no reason to even stand and watch, let alone follow. He was nearly powerless, and he was free. And yet he kept going.
They stopped at a point a hundred yards back from the cleared space around the swamp, squatting down behind a clump of wild rosebushes. Beyond was a sight out of Hell itself.
Hundreds of vampires writhed together in a perverse orgy of unbound passion and violent ecstasy, throwing themselves at each other, sometimes biting, sometimes kissing.
They dragged each other to the ground and fed on the stolen blood in each other’s veins; they did unspeakable things to each other and enticed others to do the same or worse to them. It was a celebration of their strength, of their powers to do and take harm, of their supernatural endurance, of their vampire nature. If any human had been a part of that press or caught in those acts of fervent cruelty, he would have died within the first few moments,
LaMastra clutched at Crow’s sleeve. “There’s too many of them!”
“I know.” He nudged Mike. “Do you see Griswold? Has he risen yet?”
“No,” the boy answered in a tight whisper. “We still have a few minutes. I didn’t even think we’d be in time. It’ll happen soon, though. I can feel it.”
LaMastra made a noise. “What is it, a disturbance in the Force?”
“Vince,” Val said.
Crow closed his eyes and tried to picture the landscape as he remembered it during the day. “I have an idea,” he said and outlined it quickly. Val gasped, but she kept her comments in check.
“As plans go,” LaMastra sighed, “that really sucks.”
Mike said, “It’s the best we got.”
“Right.” Crow looked at Val. “I . . . don’t know what to . . .”
Her eyes glittered like polished onyx. “Say ‘I love you, Val Guthrie,’ and then get your ass in gear, Mr. Crow.”
He grinned. “I love you, Val Guthrie.”
“I love you, too.”
She turned away from him and focused her attention down on the writhing mass of undead bodies. Crow lingered for a moment longer, staring at her profile, then he rose, nodded to LaMastra and Mike. “Give me five minutes.”
“I don’t know if we have that much time.”
“Then give me what you can.”
Mike rose and walked the first few yards with him. “Crow,”
he said quietly, “if I don’t get a chance later . . . I just wanted to say thanks.”
“For being there for me when no one else was. I mean before all this happened. You were always cool, you always treated me like a person, like I was worth something.”
“You were the only one who acted like I was. I’ll never forget it, man.” Awkwardly, he extended his hand. Smiling, Crow took it, but then pulled the boy close and gave him a hug.
Before he let him go, Crow whispered, “Iron Mike Sweeney, the Enemy of Evil.”
Then Crow turned away and melted into the shadows.
On the floor of the Hollow, Ruger and Lois were swaying together as they watched the bodies, moving as if to the puls-ing of tribal drums, but the only music was made by the cries and screams and moans of the vampires. The level of agitation in the crowd was at a fever pitch and still it climbed higher with every moment, carving out new levels of passionate intensity. Ruger could hardly bear to just watch; his craving was so acute it was physically painful. Suddenly one scream rose higher than all the others. It was a shrill, piercing cry that stabbed upward from the press with such naked power that the revelers were shocked to an abrupt silence, and the scream exploded outward from the center of the press. Shock waves of force rolled outward, buffeting the bodies roughly backward.
Ruger crouched in a shocked silence, Sarah’s limp wrist momentarily forgotten in his grip. He looked at Lois, whose face was wild like animal excitement.
In the center of the crowd a space appeared occupied by only one of the vampires. Ruger frowned at the vampire, trying to understand what he was seeing. The creature in the center of the clearing was standing straight, his body stretched, his legs wide, feet arched so that only the tips of his shoes touched the muddy ground. What Ruger couldn’t understand was how the man was standing at all: the contact his toes made with the ground was only tenuous, and his body shook and trembled, but did not fall. The vampire’s head was thrown back in such a demonstration of total ecstasy that the corner of his mouth had begun to tear; his scream was constant and droplets of blood shot upward from his rupturing lungs, seeding the air above the Hollow with a fine red mist.
The revelers lay or stood or crouched or sat in postures of awe, their ears deafened by the shriek, their eyes filled with the glory of the event. They knew that this was some signal, the trumpet blast of something wonderful to come. The screaming went on and on, tearing apart the throat of the screamer, ripping loose the vocal chords, shattering the lar-ynx. Blood ran in lines from the wide staring eyes of the revenant; blood dripped from both nostrils and from both ears; blood spurted from around each black fingernail and it flowed from his penis and anus and soaked his trousers, it filled his shoes and overflowed to drip onto the ground. The skin of his face seemed to ripple and roll and then blood burst from every pore, showering the supplicants, who surged forward to taste it as it fell. The screaming went higher and higher and then faded as the throat filled with blood. A fountain of gore erupted from the upturned mouth and shot upward with great force. The body continued to shake and tremble with ever greater agitation as the force within it built to critical mass—and then it exploded. The vampire’s body literally flew apart as if a stick of dynamite had detonated in its chest. Limbs and parts of limbs, bits of shredded flesh, indefinable chunks of viscera smashed like a grisly hail onto the vampires, and they gasped in shock and then screamed in exultant joy.
Ruger was the first to see what now occupied the center of the clearing; he was standing too far back to be blinded by the shower of blood and meat. He saw a tall white stalk like the trunk of a slender sapling rising out of the ground. It was splashed with blood and bile and other foul fluids from the center of the vampiric body it had impaled, and it swayed above the crowd. Gradually the revelers became aware of it.
They turned to stare up at it, every pair of eyes becoming fixed and unblinking; each mouth gaped wide in unspoken cries of wonder.
The white stalk was slightly thicker than a human arm and jointed in a dozen places so that it could bend and twist in any direction, though at the moment it stood as tall and straight as pale bamboo. At the top of the stalk was a large bud which slowly blossomed to reveal five long petals. Each petal was a man-jointed finger tipped with a hard claw as shiny black as a beetle’s carapace. The fingers flexed wide to reveal a palm in the center of which gaped a hungry red mouth lined with dozens of needle-sharp teeth. One of the revenants took a tentative step toward the stalk and immediately the huge hand whipped around and closed with crushing force on the vampire’s face. Blood erupted between the multijointed fingers, but the vampire did not try to pull away. Instead he pushed forward to increase the contact with the hand and the hungry palm, helping the hand crush him and bleed him. The trapped vampire tore at his own flesh, opening dozens of cuts that bled freely, and the others around him flocked forward, feeding off him even as the hand drained him dry.
A second hand punched upward through the mud and closed around the throat of another vampire, lifting her wriggling into the air. The stalk of the arm twisted around her like an anaconda, crushing her bones and splattering everyone around her with her blood. She screamed and screamed until there was nothing left of her but pulverized bone in a shapeless envelope of desiccated skin. A third hand came up, and a fourth, and the slaughter began in earnest.
Ruger felt the pull, felt the need to throw himself into the press, felt the command deep in his mind that compelled him to die so that Griswold could live, but he stayed rooted to the ground at the edge of the clearing. Whether the power that held him there was some higher command by Griswold or his own powerful need to survive, he could not tell. Lois stood with him, and Ruger could see the look of naked hunger in her glazed eyes, saw drool hanging in streamers from her lips. Her grip on Sarah Wolfe was so tight that Ruger could hear the woman’s forearm bones grind together and then snap.
Up on the hill, Val, Mike and LaMastra watched the spectacle with minds frozen by horror. Even Mike, who had peered into the darkest parts of his dhampyr’s mind, had not seen this. In his astral wanderings during his brief detachment from life he had never foreseen such an alien horror.
Yet he knew that this was part of the Ritual, part of the blood sacrifice that would open the doorway between death and life and allow Griswold to return.
“My . . . God!” LaMastra was clutching his shotgun to his chest as if it afforded some sacred protection. “What are those things?”
“They’re . . . that’s all part of him.” Mike wanted to close his eyes, to look away, but he could not.
“What are you talking about? There must be twenty of those things! What is he? An octopus?”
Mike shook his head. “There are images in my head. I can . . . almost see him. He’s still changing. He’s changing all the time. I don’t know what he is, but he’s coming now.
He’s about to return.”
“I just hope he keeps doing what he’s doing. He’s butcher-ing the whole lot of them.”
“No,” Mike said. “He won’t kill them all. He still needs an army. He just needs to get strong enough, and he’s almost there. I can feel it. But there’s one more thing he needs. Innocent blood. That means that down there is a human who—
oh no!” His scanning eyes had fixed on the three figures standing by the edge of the clearing. Val looked to where Mike pointed with a trembling hand. “I thought she tried to save me,” he murmured wretchedly. “I thought she was different than the others.”