It was cold, and he was nervous.
Well – maybe nervous wasn't the word, exactly: Nervy really seemed to be the better choice. And it wasn't as if he had never done this before … it was just that his partner had broken his damn arm falling off a horse the night before and he was working alone tonight. Hell, it wasn't even as though he had never worked alone before, he just didn't like doing it unless he absolutely had to. Although – at least – the stretch of highway did seem particularly placid tonight.
His horse stirred and stamped restlessly underneath him, and he unthinkingly began hissing soothing nothings to it, absentmindedly attempting to calm it down. His breath hung immobile in the late October air when he did. The chill had already started; there were plenty of places that he would rather be than hanging out on the side of the road in the middle of the night in mid-autumn – but then again, he reasoned to himself a moment later, he had to make a living somehow. Maybe one day he would actually save enough money to live on and stop having to accost strangers for a living; at the moment that seemed like wishful thinking. But he would admit that he didn't want to be around for the eventual day when someone worked out a novel answer to the question “your money or your life.”
Time dragged on until the full moon hung high overhead, illuminating the darkened forest with a pale unearthly sheen that made the otherwise-familiar shadows dance with a menacing edge. His horse stirred restlessly again and even shifted uncomfortably for a moment, as if to make a break for it and race off into the distance, leaving him in the dust. He almost jumped out of his skin when an owl hooted nearby.
This was just getting absurd. Normally he wasn't anywhere close to this jumpy, working alone or not – maybe he should just head home early tonight and claim that nobody had been out … it wouldn't be far from the truth.
… But of course he didn't leave. What else was he going to do? Even if that fire was calling his name, he at least had to try for the look of the thing.
The moon passed completely overhead and began its gradual descent toward the far horizon, and still nobody came. He had already dismounted and remounted twenty times or more at supposed noises only to come up empty-handed – now this business was beginning to get old. In his mind he could practically see the fire's warm glow suffusing the dark warmth of the front room: His partner would be back at the hut in the middle of the woods, fire roaring, maybe even with a kettle boiling on the hearth for a hot drink … oh, sweet warmth.
He had actually turned the horse around and begun trotting off into the woods when he heard it – just the faintest jingle of a harness blowing in on the night wind. It was gone as soon as it arrived.
For a minute he questioned whether it had even happened, but by the time he decided that it was only his imagination, it came blowing in again – and this time it stayed even after the wind died down: It was most definitely the sound of a horse coming up the track. Just one, from the sound of it, which thankfully might make this business a bit easier. He released the reins just long enough to try and blow some warmth back into his hands before easing through the trees and over to the side of the road.
Now he could actually hear the other horse breathing and snuffling as it clopped along on the hard-packed dirt underfoot – although he still couldn't see the other rider around the bend in the road. His own horse put her ears back flat on her head in alarm and took a step back, but he reined her in hard, determined not to give himself away before he needed to. He was missing the tips of two fingers from the last time he had prematurely announced his presence – damned if he was going to do it again. He only had so many fingers to lose.
The other horse was louder now. His mare took several more steps back and made a solid effort to turn tail and run, but he pulled her in viciously and treated her to a lengthy lecture in muttered swears for her efforts. Damned if he was going to give in now when things were so close.
Suddenly the other figure emerged around the bend in the ghostly moonlight; the eerie pale wash gleamed quite helpfully on the silver-heavy harness of the other man's horse, an enormous black charger that looked like it had cantered straight off the battlefield and onto this godforsaken road in the middle of nowhere. The man himself was plainly dressed: Black cloak, black boots, black jacket, head uncovered despite the cold – silver moonlight gleamed on hair black as a raven's wing that fell around his surprisingly youthful features in a tousle of unkempt curls. His face was hidden by shadow.
“Evening, friend! I must ask you to halt there.”
He was halfway surprised that the ghostly figure in black did as he was told, trembling as his voice sounded to his own ears – but that was the key, wasn't it, pretending to be in charge even if you knew you weren't? And he was good at that.
Beg pardon, but is there a problem?” the man – who sounded surprisingly young, if he was any judge, from the sound of his voice – asked from his position twenty or so feet away.
“Highway tax, good sir. I have to ask that you make a donation to the citizens of this fair wood so that I might allow you to go on your way unmolested.”
The figure shifted in his silver-edged saddle and made a show of looking around the night-darkened forest – maybe a bit too theatrically, in his opinion – before turning back to him and replying easily, “I don't believe I see any other citizens of this fair wood requesting money.”
Normally this was the point when people began to get nervous and decided whether they were feeling brave and foolish or pragmatic and cowardly. This gentleman sounded like he would fall into the former category – although there had been something, some unnameable nonchalance, in his tone of voice that he found decidedly … unnerving.
“The citizens of this fair wood are, notably, my partner and myself, and my partner is a far less patient man than I,” he called back easily. “I highly recommend that you simply hand over any valuables in your possession, and we will let you on your way unharmed. We really hate to shed unnecessary blood.”
The wind kicked up again, gusting hard enough that it almost removed his own hat from his head, and his horse laid her ears flat against her head once more and took several more steps back. The man on the black charger didn't move for a minute; finally – right when he thought the man was going to reach for a gun, to be honest – he cocked his raven-haired head to one side and … just sat there. Almost as if he were listening for something on the wind.
Something twisted uneasily in his stomach.
“You are alone,” the other man announced, pausing only to turn his head to the other side. When he did the moonlight finally illuminated his face enough to reveal twin black eyes set like pits in his face, all pupil and no iris – or was that a trick of that moonlight? Whatever the case, he found himself shifting uneasily in his saddle, which only prompted his mare to move herself yet again.
“Do not lie to me. You are alone. Is your partner even real, or is that an excuse you use to frighten unwary travelers?”
Well, this was going downhill quickly. Time to bring out the conversation stopper.
The world always seemed to hold its breath to allow the tiny click of him cocking his pistol to take center stage; tonight was no exception. Even the stranger on his demonic black horse stopped his restless shifting and regarded him in silence.
“I will make one final offer, friend,” he said, raising the gun and pointing it directly at his new companion – “your money or your life.”
The silence that followed was palpable – he swore that he could hear his own pulse pounding in his ears. Finally, right when he was about to just pull the trigger and be done with it, the other man spoke: “I highly recommend that you put that away before you make me angry.”
He couldn't help himself. He laughed in response.
“Before I make you angry?” he returned incredulously, even as his horse swayed unhappily beneath him. The other figure cocked his head to one side again in response before finally answering, “Yes.”
He started laughing in good and earnest now, single-shot pistol trained on the other figure the entire time.
“Just hand over your money and I won't be forced to hurt you,” he said at last, barely managing to force the words out through latent peals of laughter – but again the other man answered him with silence. His amusement began to settle down and fade until it died away completely, replaced by a hard-edged annoyance that was going to cost this stupid man his life. He had already given him multiple chances.
His finger was moving to pull the trigger when the other man repeated himself: “You really need to put that away before you make me angry. I am always angrier when I have been shot.”
And that time he did put the pistol down – but it was more out of confusion than anything else. All his strength had abruptly fled his arm.
“When you've been shot?”
“When I have been shot,” the other voice affirmed, and the other man shifted slightly in the saddle again for emphasis. His horse, he noticed, wasn't exhibiting any of the signs of visible discomfort that his own mare was: That black charger just flicked its ears in annoyance and regarded him with an uncanny intelligence to match his rider's unnervingly direct stare. Another unpleasant twist jolted abruptly through his stomach.
But he was determined to hide his own nervousness. And so, without thinking, he found the arm raising itself and pointing the gun at the other man yet again, as one final warning spilled from his mouth: “I am not a violent man, but I am not opposed to pulling this trigger when necessary. Allow me to repeat myself: Your money or your life.”
“See, that is your first problem,” the black-haired man returned casually, suddenly dismounting from his horse with an uncomfortably unnatural grace; he was so surprised that the pistol arm wavered briefly rather than pulling the trigger. “You say your money or your life, but it is a false dichotomy: I believe the third option is let me go and I will let you live. You, however, have failed to account for this – no?”
To his horror the man began walking toward him, causing his mare to take several frightened steps backward. He only just managed to get her reined in because the other man paused to lead his demonic charger to the side of the road and tie its reins to a tree.
“And also more of the gun-waving,” he began again, advancing up the road once more, his voice an exasperated sigh. “If you had ceased with the gun-waving like I asked I might have been more polite to you. I warned you three times, as a matter of fact – three times! Others, they have not been so lucky. They were given one warning. After one warning I tend to start breaking arms.”
Suddenly he was no more than five feet away – but he hadn't even seen him cross that distance! One moment he had been a good fifteen feet away, the next he was barely five feet distant – if he reached out far enough he could touch the tip of his mare's nose. And there had been nothing whatsoever to betray his movements.
“So, my fine highwayman friend, this seems to be the dilemma,” he said at last, and suddenly he was standing by his knee as his mare jerked her head wildly back and forth and tried her damnedest to back away: “You insist on attempting to rob me. Fine, well, good. I suppose that is your living. But if you insist on attempting to rob me, I must insist on defending myself. And let me tell you, ever since that night when Jean le Foncé introduced me to the joys of hunting bandits – people with no homes, people with no families, people who will not be missed – I have become very good at defending myself.”
As he spoke his mouth split into something that wasn't quite a smile to reveal teeth far pointier than they had any right to be – and he just sat there, frozen to the spot, while his horse tried to tear away from his grip.
“Now might be a good time to run.”
He had already wheeled around and made a break for the trees before the sentence was even finished, letting his mare work out all her pent-up animal terror in a galloping burst that would have left even the nimblest of racehorses in her dust. He didn't even know how long he rode; terror had stretched time into a blur, just another streak in the silver moonlight, as his mind replayed over and over the image of that deathly-pale face cracking into a hungry smile beneath two bottomless black pools for eyes. Every time he remembered it he spurred his horse on anew.
He was actually making decent progress through the woods when suddenly there was a crack – and then he was floating gently through the air, watching as his horse continued on her terrified way without him, until even her gray form had disappeared into the gloom and he was left alone on the forest floor. Judging from the overwhelming pain in his head – the same pain that kept him pressed to the ground groaning, unable to move more than a fraction of an inch in any direction – he had been taken down by a stray branch. Even better … so now the forest itself was out to get him. What sort of vengeful god had he offended on that godforsaken highway?
An indeterminate amount of time passed before he was finally able to pull himself into even a sitting position – the moon was already low in the sky and threatening to dip toward the far horizon. He had only just managed to sit up and prop himself up against the closest tree, holding one hand to a head hurting so badly that painful didn't do it justice, when he abruptly stopped.
Every hair on his body stood up simultaneously. Suddenly he was aware of a decidedly animal sense of being not alone.
Somehow he managed to wrap a barely-responsive hand around one single-shot pistol and cock it again whenever a familiar voice spoke.
“Bad luck, friend. I thought you might actually get away for a moment there.”
He whipped in the direction of the voice to find the black-eyed man leaning casually against a tree, as if he had been there all along. He was actually inspecting his nails – inspecting his nails, damn it, as if this were the most God-damned casual meeting in the world … but his actions looked vaguely unnatural, like a dog shaking hands – as if he had learned them from imitating real humans, and imitating them poorly.
He didn't have anything to say in reply – honestly, it was all he could do to keep his mouth from falling open, anyway, especially when the black-eyed man pushed lazily off the tree and sauntered over to where he was propped up on the forest floor. As he dropped into a graceful squat before him he realized just how tall he was: Well taller than him, for sure – probably close to six and a half feet. He had been too busy fleeing in terror before to notice.
The man regarded him for a moment with yet another expression of blank-eyed animal curiosity, cocking his head to one side in thought. Several uncomfortable minutes passed before his voice cut through the silence again: “What is your name?”
And this time he noticed the accent, to boot – he had thought he heard it before during that soliloquy back on the road, but again, he had been too busy fighting back encroaching panic to really put his finger on it. It sounded vaguely French. It was decidedly not native English.
All of that ran through his head in the space of a few seconds before he spat out one of many aliases: “Thomas Baker.”
“Oh, do not try to bullshit me. Give me your real name. I can tell when you are lying – your heart beats faster.”
“Edward Smith, then.”
“Wrong again,” the black-eyed figure replied, slowly turning his head to the other side. “You have one more chance before I kill you and let God sort it out.”
“Fine then! John … John Black.”
And upon hearing that the ghastly-pale face before him split into some nightmare expression that could only be called a smile by the criminally insane. Every single one of his damn teeth came to a point … and instead of canines he had a set of wickedly graceful fangs so long that they barely fit in his mouth. His mouth abruptly went dry and his pulse started pounding so hard in his ears that it drowned out all other sound.
“John Black, you say?” the demonic figure before him chirped over the pounding in his head, to all appearances legitimately pleased – “not far from my own name, you know? Nuit Lenoir. 'Black night' in your ungainly Germanic mother tongue. My father had a flair for names – what can I say?”
The grin momentarily broadened. In the full moonlight streaming overhead he would have sworn that every single razor-edged tooth was stained some uncomfortably dark color.
“So, mister John Black,” the figure began again, really spitting out the words with relish, “let us talk about your decision to become a highwayman. Was it out of necessity, or do you simply enjoy shooting strangers for money?”
When he didn't answer – he was too dumbfounded to speak, really – the black-haired man prompted, “Well?”
“Necessity at first,” he found his suddenly-untangled tongue replying, “habit later on.”
“Good! Progress. I like progress. And when you realized that your career had become habit more than necessity, why did you insist on continuing?”
“I just – I don't know.”
It took what felt like several minutes for him to even spit out that much. Apparently it was not the answer that his tormentor was looking for. He clucked disapproval in such an absurdly Gallic way that he almost laughed.
“I don't know is hardly an answer to justify taking another's life, Mr. Black. At least I will own up to my reasons: I thoroughly enjoy feeling a stranger bleed to death in my arms. Very few humans understand that pleasure, I think. The ones who do are a danger and deserve to be put down. But, oh – the things you will never understand. The things you could not stomach if you did understand. … I do not miss those days of being human.”
His voice, which had taken a terrifyingly wistful tone somewhere in the middle of his speech, suddenly gained a hard-edged bite at the end that forced him further up against the tree in a feeble attempt to get away. His companion didn't fail to notice.
“Trying to run away, now?” he asked slyly, voice now entirely inhuman. “And how many have you given a chance to run away? Such a coward – here you are trying to take chances that you have never given to others. It makes me sick.”
He was still regarding him curiously – but now his voice had a growing angry edge that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up once again. The black-haired man began saying something else in that coldly teasing tone of voice, but suddenly latent instinct kicked in and he found his previously-unresponsive hand raising the pistol and firing.
The gun discharging sounded like an explosion in the deathly-still night. Somewhere in the distance birds flocked angrily from the trees, protesting loudly, as other night birds raised a chatter in agreement. He found that he had closed his eyes unthinkingly the moment he pulled the trigger, but in the split second before he did, he had seen surprise and some unholy kind of anger reflected back at him in those bottomless black eyes.
After several deep breaths he forced his own eyes open again.
The man was still there – only now there was an enormous dark stain spreading like molasses on his shoulder. He stared at it for a brief eternity before turning back to John Black and deadpanning, “I told you not to shoot me.”
Suddenly he was being hauled to his feet in a blur, the pistol dropping abruptly from a hand that had been wrenched so hard it went completely numb, and he realized fully just how much this strange demonic Frenchman towered over him: He barely came up to the man's shoulder. Apparently frustrated by the distance, the black-eyed man grabbed him by the unresponsive arm and lifted him into the air until his feet dangled off the ground and they could see eye-to-eye.
“Did you really think that you could stop me with a puny gun? Did you?”
He didn't give him a chance to answer – as he spoke he began shaking him accusingly, still holding him by the bad arm, with enough force that he could feel the bone creaking in its joint. His head started pounding again. When he didn't answer right away the man threw him on the ground and wrenched his arm hard enough to make him yelp.
“I just – I cannot believe that you did not listen to me – after I warned you three times not to shoot me. Three times! What are you, mentally deficient? Are you an idiot?”
Again he didn't give him a chance to reply – this time he ground his face into the dirt and pulled the same arm again, twisting harder and ignoring every creak and groan (not to mention the actual groans coming from his mouth) with which his body replied – until finally there came a decisive pop and his arm was on fire.
He said something else, his voice barely more than an animal snarl, but his mind was still reeling between the tree blow and the newfound pain in his arm – he couldn't even make out the other man's words. It was probably better that way. The tone of voice alone was enough to make his gut curl up on itself in sheer animal terror.
Suddenly he was being rolled over on his back, the other man not noticing (or maybe not caring) as he rolled across his bad arm and yelped again, and then that ghastly-pale black-eyed face was mere inches away from his. From here he had a perfect view of every razor-pointed tooth. He would even swear that the man's breath smelled like blood.
“ … might have let you live,” he gradually realized the black-haired man was saying, “but certainly not now. Any last words?”
He was still asking himself if the other man had actually said that whenever he apparently grew tired of waiting.
“Your time is up,” he sneered.
The last thing he felt before the lights went out was a mouthful of razor-edged teeth tearing into the soft flesh of his throat and jerking away with enough force to take a mouthful of gore with them. Unfortunately he still lived long enough to see the demonic blood-smeared face hovering over him light up with hungry pleasure before the man buried his face in the mess where his neck used to be and began drinking with every sign of enjoyment. Then – finally, blessedly – everything quietly slipped away into oblivion.
The sun was just beginning to lighten the deep velvety purple of the eastern horizon when a figure in black slipped back through the woods toward the highway and an overly-large demonic-looking black charger. It untied the animal from its post on a tree and mounted with deceptive ease before pointing the beast back onto the path and resuming its journey toward the next village.
Luckily he wasn't far away. That stupid man – doing business so close to civilization … at least when he had been a young fullblood, freshly blooded and full of hunger and anger and a burning desire to rip out every throat he could get away with, the highwaymen had the decency to hang around in the woods far outside of town. Then none of the villagers could hear their screams when he and Jean would descend on them like a two-man pack of wolves. Those had been the days, indeed.
He paused briefly to glance down at his wounded arm; the bleeding had already stopped completely. After that lovely meal – a full one, for once – he would probably have no problems with it whatsoever by nightfall tomorrow. The thought was enough to make him sigh with something approaching contentment.
He dug his heels into the flanks of his horse and prodded it along faster, eager to get somewhere nice and dark before the sun really had a chance to get over the horizon – Nuit Lenoir, after all, had a decided preference for the element for which he had been named. Eventually horse and rider disappeared around a bend in the road and quiet fell over the woods once more, the silence broken only by the soughing of the cold wind cutting through the predawn darkness of the forest.