They found him sitting beside her dead body.
She was laying on the ground, an expression of surprise immortalized on her delicate face. Lying so still, she might have been mistaken for a doll; her skin was as smooth as porcelain, and her eyes large and dark. Her lips were painted a bright blood red. There were flowers in her hair. She was dressed in silks, but they were stained with ugly brown splashes of dried blood.
He made no move when the soldiers approached; failed to acknowledge them at all. He only sat, and stroked his long white beard, and watched the girl. His sword lay, bloody, on the grass beside him.
One of the foot soldiers ran up the hill, breathing hard. “The village is empty.”
The captain frowned. “They cannot have all simply vanished.”
Below him, the old man began to laugh. One of the young soldiers cuffed him on the back of the head, and the sound cut off abruptly. The captain held up his hand. “No.”
He circled around in front of the old man, lifted his chin with the point of his sword. “Where are the villagers?”
The old man tilted his head slightly to the right. The point of the sword pressed against his sin, so paper-thin that the captain could see blue blood vessels beneath it. The sword point had pierced him, and a single drop of blood rolled down the hollow of the old man’s throat.
“Where?” the captain repeated.
The old man rolled his eyes toward the corpse on the ground beside him. “She killed them,” he said. His voice was hoarse. “She walked down the path this morning, singing. The children ran toward her, brought her flowers. She took them, bound them in her hair, caressed their faces. Then she bit their necks and sucked the blood out.”
The soldiers began to whisper among themselves.
“And the others?” asked the captain.
“She snapped the necks of the women. She disemboweled the men, spilled their guts on the ground. She enjoyed it. She was laughing.”
The captain looked down at the young woman’s body. He had heard tales of demons that stalked the forests, but surely they were hideous monsters? Not beautiful girls. The young woman looked too slight to have snapped anyone’s neck.
“Don’t let her beauty fool you,” said the old man, as if he had heard the captain’s thoughts. “The most insidious evil is that which wears the mask of beauty.”
The captain looked back at the old man. “But if this is true,” he said, each word clipped and precise, “where are the bodies?”
The old man began to laugh again, a wheezing laugh that turned into coughs which racked his thin frame. “Look up.”
The captain looked up. They were hanging from the trees, a perverse and rotten fruit. The old man continued to laugh.