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The Kingmakers

By:Clay Griffith Susan Griffith

NIGHTFALL DRAPED OVER No-Man's-Land like a burial shroud. Men huddled in freezing, wet trenches and stared into the darkness, terrified of what would erupt from it.

Horror.

Death.

Vampires.

Elbows and rifles rested on the ever-crumbling dirt banks. They stared across the plain at the vague shape of their distant objective, the town of Grenoble, surrounded on all sides by the moon-white Alps. Frigid rain had flooded the trenches and the tramping of thousands of soldiers' feet churned the ground into ragged mud, now iced over from the freezing temperatures. Extremities were victims of frostbite. Every tenth man was already sick, dying, or dead. The only thing that gave them courage as they huddled and shivered in the black and dirty ice was that a legend stood among them.

Unaffected by the bitter wind blowing through the hand-hewn trenches of dirt and rock, the Greyfriar stood tall and straight, looking into the ebony maw around them. He wore a dark uniform, but from a different age. He sported the short tunic of a Napoleonic Era rifleman with its intricate piping. His grey trousers and high boots spoke of a long-lost dragoon. Over it all, he wore a heavy cloak. His hand rested on the hilt of his rapier. Even though it was the dead of night the Greyfriar wore shaded mirrored glasses and a Bedouin head wrap concealing his features.

He had walked out of the darkness from a solitary patrol, the only one of them brave enough to wander the wasteland alone. He was the Greyfriar, the mysterious swordsman of the north. He was the consort of Empress Adele. And he could hear whispers from the soldiers, about him and about the empress they loved, as he strode the line.

Colonel Raheem Roxton weaved through the mass of men and mud until he reached the swordsman's side. The colonel's broad shoulders were hunched and his hands were stiff. His face was streaked with dirt and camouflage paint. “Are you on your way back to command?”

“No, not yet,” replied Greyfriar.

“You must enjoy our company then, for I doubt you're lingering here for our moldy rations and rampant dysentery.”

“No.” His voice was quiet yet insistent. “You are about to be overrun.”

Roxton went pale. “What do you mean? You saw them?”

“Yes, they will be here very soon.”

The colonel went down the line, yelling for a runner. The men around Greyfriar stared up at him with frightened, blackened faces. The swordsman stood on the fire step, a step cut at the bottom of the trench to allow the men to crest the top. He stared toward the city.

A lone prayer was whispered as a man near Greyfriar pulled out a cross. The men around him made crude comments.

“Give it a rest, Curwood.”

“That cross didn't do Matthews any good.”

“Maybe you should wrap that round your gun barrel to improve your aim.”

Curwood ignored them while the Greyfriar felt discomfort rise from the words and object of faith. This man's belief forced Greyfriar to slip farther down the line. Curwood endured the glares of his fellow soldiers as they assumed even the famous Greyfriar was embarrassed by such trivial superstition in this world of steel and steam. Prayer hadn't saved the world when the vampires rose up 150 years ago, so why would it protect a terrified man in battle?

Greyfriar continued to walk down the trench, letting as many men see him as possible. If his presence brought them some semblance of courage, then it was worth the effort before death was upon them.

He stiffened abruptly. Leaping out onto the bank in a single flex of his legs, he landed effortlessly on its lip, ignoring the slick and precarious ice. His gaze was fixated into the pitch black.

Men leaned deeper onto the muddy rim and readied their weapons, straining to see or hear what the Greyfriar had, but everything was silent and still. His dark grey cape fluttered in the wind, billowing out over their heads.

“They are coming,” he told them.

The phrase swept down the trench as rifle bolts clacked and tensions rose.

Colonel Roxton climbed out laboriously, slipping and grunting, to stand beside the Greyfriar. “How many?”

“Thousands,” the swordsman replied, crossing his arms to draw both a rapier and a cutlass from their scabbards with a scraping hiss.

“Are you sure? I can't see a blasted thing!”

“Yes.” The rapier pointed above them to the north. “There.”

As if on cue, flares lofted into the sky about a mile ahead of them, where a brave patrol was scouting. With each phosphorous burst, the darkness receded and hundreds of black shapes born of nightmares were silhouetted briefly before the night swallowed them again. There were so many drifting shadows they nearly blotted out the flashes of light. Precious seconds passed before cannons opened up miles to their rear, near command. The boom of the guns vibrated the ground and the soldiers' breastbones. The artillery pounded the sky in a hailstorm of shrapnel, but Greyfriar could see that they had already lost their chance. Most of the vampires were inside the range of the cannons and they would soon be in the trenches, slaughtering with tooth and claw. The big guns couldn't adjust fast enough against such a swift adversary.

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