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|Here it is - part one of the all-new, all-respiffed, no-sense-at-all, did-I-just-lose-minutes-of-my-life Number Two Finished Caius and Morgant Story! :D|
I'd like to thank B-Grade Vampire Stories everywhere, my chromasomatic malfunction, and most importantly all the lovely people who commented on Version 0.5 Beta. You all made this possible. Live with the consequences. ;D
(Oh, and if you're wondering, I changed the title because I'm corny.)
Darkness consumed the sky of a dark landscape – bleak, jagged rock unrelieved by fertile soil; torn mountains too twisted and hunch-backed to ever be labelled ‘spectacular’ or ‘beautiful’; small, tangled, stunted nests of what could only loosely be called trees. It was a desolate waste that not even the most patriotic and committed tourist bureau could ever make attractive.
Even with the castle.
The castle was black, naturally, and multi-turreted, of course, and in a poor state of repair, unsurprisingly. Gothic gargoyles and tattered, mouldering flags were the order of the day – the night, rather – and everything, right down to the distant lupine howls and blanket-thick flocks of bats swooping around the stabbing spires, was pure, classical undead foreboding.
At the foot of the narrow path that wound properly snakelike down from the summit of the hill and the dominating, toothlike silhouette of the castle, a scared and angry group of locals had gathered. They were making a visible attempt to form a full Torch-Bearing Mob, in the best tradition of their ancestors, but most of the farm and household implements they were waving along with their torches were sadly inadequate, or so the village burgher sadly reflected.
The bald burgher looked out at the nervous, orange-lit faces with a deep anxiety of his own. He was a simple, uncomplicated man, even down to his shape, which was roughly that of a pear after years of middle-age and Aunt Magda’s garlic strudel. The current situation was not in his field of experience, though he was doing his best to hide this from the others, who were as frightened and clueless as he was. Oh, his grandfather had lynched a famous undead back in the day – the dread Count Vluminus-Kloke – but his father’s time had been a time of peace, fireside drinking, and contented turnip-farming.
Why did They always go for the burgher’s daughter first?
“All right, everyone,” he said loudly, stamping the butt of his pitchfork on the ground for their attention (their village hayfields being quite small, his was one of only six pitchforks amidst the general assortment of shovels, rakes and mops). “It’s time to prove ourselves. I’m sure our ancestors were just as mortally petrified pre-lynching as we are now, but we have nothing to fear but fear itself!”
There was a thoughtful pause.
“And the undead,” the burgher conceded as the silence stretched on, wondering who’d invented that ridiculous quote in the first place. “And the werewolves and the enormous flocks of malevolent bats. But apart from those things, you have nothing to fear but fear itself. Fortune favours the brave!”
Another pause. “Um … is anyone actually feeling brave here?” someone piped up quaveringly.
“Look, I’m doing my best here,” pleaded the burgher. “I know this is tough. It’s all I can do to keep down my dinner, to be frank. But we have no choice. Now that the vampire’s gone and woken up again, we have to do something. It’ll be your girls next.”
This time there was a murmur of sympathy for the bitter twang in his voice.
“We can do this. I think there’s a solid fifteen-percent chance. So are you with me?”
“Let’s get in there!”
The burgher paused for a moment, then looked sternly towards the back of the mob. “Bessie … we all admire your courage, but we’ve discussed this already. A vampire castle just isn’t the place for a cow. You’ll have to go back.”
Bessie hung her black-and-white head bitterly as the quivering villagers grouped together and began to scale the foreboding path. Why wouldn’t they let her prove her true worth to them? She knew they were only trying to protect her, but if she only had the chance, surely they wouldn’t regret it …
As Bessie sadly turned away, her bovine courage scorned, the Torch-Bearing Huddle – not quite a Mob as yet – pushed onward towards the fearsome shadow of the castle. An anxious debate ensued.
“We’re supposed to be saying something as we advance.”
“Not saying, muttering angrily! What was it?”
“I wish I’d listened a little harder to Grandpa while he was alive …”
“It was something you could put in a dessert.”
“No, not garlic. Kind of long and thin. Leafy.”
“Ah! Got it! Celery!”
Upward they shuffled, striking up the furious mutter of “CELERYCELERYCELERY!”, and even began to draw a little courage as they waved their torches and garden implements about, thinking of their grandfathers treading the same tremulous path so many years before …
Then they saw the shadows blocking the path ahead.
All of the villagers had carefully paid a visit to the outhouse before setting out on their lynching, so no humorous narrative incontinence ensued, but more than a few torches clattered to the ground and mildly singed a neighbour’s shoes. The burgher paled to sickly cream, trying to hold the thought of his darling daughter in mind as the fearful shadows swept swiftly closer …
“Oi!” one said waspishly. “Don’t go scaring the bloody thing off!”
Some brave soul in the middle ranks raised a torch higher. The shadows resolved into shapes which, if not exactly ‘relieving’, were not in the least mistakable for vampires. The burgher blinked a little as he identified three Acarthian elves armed to the teeth – one dark-haired man, one fiery-haired woman, one dark-haired Main Sidekick (male) – and a genteel, aristocratic-looking blond human who might have had a fair crack at looking vampiric if he’d had less dress sense and a stronger taste for black.
“Um,” the burgher ventured at last, eyeing the redheaded woman who’d apparently spoken. “Don’t scare off the Bat-Winged Demonic Scion of the Night which has plagued our land these five centuries gone?”
“Yeah! Bloody waving your damn brooms like that! … Brooms?”
“I don’t think these are professionals, Kaliana,” said the secondary male Acarthian, whose name was Sadarion Salebryn. “I didn’t hear any angry rhubarbs.”
(“Ah! I knew it was some kind of leafy vegetable! –”)
“Look,” said the burgher, seizing on a ray of hope for his poor daughter, “am I right in thinking that you fine – er, people – are hunting our vampyre?”
Sadarion scratched at his dark hair and glanced back at the others. “I don’t know. Are we? I’m getting a bit hungry, to tell the truth.”
“Yeah, it’s all the garlic,” agreed the Main Sidekick, whose name was Morgant Salluth. “This hill is bloody murder, too. I know it’s a forbidding slope towards the castle and all, but …”
The aristocratic Lestite gentleman, whose name was Caius Chetienne, rolled his eyes skyward in rather posh exasperation. “We’re hunting it. For money. Quite a bit of it. In the castle. So you fine examples of regional colour can take your brooms home now.”
“Just the four of you want to go chasing it?” choked the burgher. “No joining forces? We’re not just talking about the hordes of vampires – there’s also a vampyre! With a real Y!”
“A vampyre is just a dead Paladin who can’t spell,” replied Caius with visible distaste. “Preening, cloak-swishing, no room in the head for anything but shiny objects …”
“I’ve got a good joke about that,” said Sadarion.
“No, Sadarion, you’re mistaken there.” The Lestite eyed the burgher again. “Unless you’d like to throw in some motivational reward money, why don’t you leave us to it?”
The burgher looked from face to atypical face. “Actually, there is the matter of –“
“Rescuing My Fiancée, 20 Crowns; Rescuing a Blood Relative, 30 Crowns; Avenging a Dead Relative, 5 Crowns extra per kinsman,” quoted Caius promptly. “All monies to my cashier there, please. And Morgant, I’m counting.”
“Well,” said the burgher wretchedly, as Morgant brightly held out one thin hand, “I can’t … quite … afford that. But I could … ah, name a village street after you … well, the village street … or commission a new counter meal named after you at the inn … and it’s just that … ah, well, you know … my daughter’s really quite dear to me … and she has the sweetest little smile …”
“Seventy-Nine Hells, don’t do that!” exclaimed Caius sharply as moisture gathered in the burgher’s dark-smudged eyes. “Look … just a moment, please.”
The Lestite and the Acarthians went into a huddle.
“You realise we’ve yet to collect any money from Kaliana’s bright idea,” said Morgant stonily.
“That’s right,” Kaliana agreed. “You let the last bastards pay us in milk.”
“Much as it horrifies me to waste the precious, rare commodity of Kaliana’s bright ideas,” replied Caius acridly, “I do believe you previously nominated me as leader here.”
Sadarion flashed a white-toothed grin. “You remember how we Acarthians treat our leaders, don’t you, Caius? We are the only nation in the world to write our coronation invitations in erasable chalk …”
“And you remember what happened the day we made Morgant the leader, don’t you, Sadarion?”
“Bloody good point,” observed Kaliana.
“We’re still here and we still have both elbows each, so I don’t know why you’re always going on about that,” said Morgant. “All right. Go do your bleeding heart work over there, Caius. Privies of the Pantheon, we’ll be starting up a suicide helpline for star-crossed lovers next …”
Ignoring the Acarthians’ angry rhubarbing behind him (several villagers began to take notes), Caius strode back to the burgher. “All right. We’ll bring back your daughter. But I want to make it very clear to you that we are not doing this for free. If I’m not strolling down Chetienne Esplanade come tomorrow morning –”
“– That is, if I’m not looking out at Chetienne Esplanade as I enjoy a Kali-Dari Daiquiri with my Salluthian Sandwich in your tavern –“
“I understand,” interrupted the burgher earnestly, trying not to let the discussion dampen his hopes for his daughter. “You won’t be able to walk through our town without tripping over a commemorative plaque, I promise.” He paused. “It’s just that …”
“We have everything in hand,” Caius assured him with a grim smile. “Not to mention a secret weapon against logically challenged undead – this!”
All of the villagers fell into total silence as the Lestite reached to his backpack, whipped out the Secret Vampire Weapon with a cool smile, brandished it before their faces and then returned it with a flourish. Giving a small bow to the speechless assembly, Caius Chetienne turned and set off up the savagely sloping trail, followed once more by the three rhubarbing Acarthians.
The villagers’ stunned silence persisted for a while.
Then someone said, “That secret weapon … that was a flower, right?”
“I did gather that same impression,” another agreed.
“It was a very large flower,” said the burgher defensively.
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“Very cheery and yellow.”
“Bessie! Go home, now! The situation’s firmly in hand. You just saw our champions.”
But the burgher felt no better than Bessie did as he reluctantly turned away …
* * * * *
The castle’s black spires seemed to crane closer over the tiny figures struggling up the last steep incline of the hill. Waves of bats continued to pour in and out through the crumbling gaps in the towers high overhead – gaps that were not helpfully manifest in the lower, heavy stone wall that held the toothy black portcullis at path’s end.
“Okay, Caius,” said Morgant. “This is your field.”
“Thinking, you mean?”
“You want it to be bleeding? Get on with it. It’s nippy out here.”
Caius shouldered off his backpack and passed it to Sadarion, dedicating himself to the task at hand. Situation: one iron portcullis, heavy. One stone wall, thick. Resources: three Acarthians, thick. One cow, black and wh–
“Where’d that come from?” the Lestite asked sharply.
“Moo,” said Bessie.
Morgant tilted his head. “What’s that? The children are trapped in the ravine?”
“I think she wants us to follow her,” said Kaliana.
“How come? She’s just standing there.”
Kaliana looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know. It just kind of popped out.”
“A moment of quiet, please!” Caius grit his teeth as he turned to the cow, which was making considerably more sense than his companions. In the time-honoured tradition of animal adventures everywhere, Bessie pointed her wet muzzle towards the object of her attention, mutely waiting for the bloody idiots to get her point.
Caius looked in the direction of Bessie’s impatient muzzle, his eyes lighting on one of two terribly gauche snarling-lion-statues flanking the portcullis. “Ah.”
Without hesitation, the Lestite strode over to the lion and made a few random attempts to push its eyes, shake its paw and pull its tail. It was twisting its ear that finally caused the inevitable secret door to dustily slide open in the rock, admitting entry into the courtyard beyond.
“In we go,” Caius instructed with a brisk, satisfied smile, which vanished as something large and cow-shaped nudged at his back. “No, not you, Miss – er – Cow. Thank you for your assistance, but we should be quite all right from this point. Morgant, Kaliana, S-“
The Lestite broke off. “Sadarion,” he said tightly, “when I gave you the backpack containing the rather important vampire weapon, I did not simultaneously give you tacit permission to start eating its seeds.”
“Okay. They’re nicer when you eat them toasted, anyway.”
“Or the petals.”
“You’re damn autocratic at times, Caius.” Sadarion pushed the considerably less vibrant yellow flower back into the backpack, then shoved it at the Lestite.
Caius led the way through the secret door, emerging into the desolate courtyard with its chipped, half-powdered flagstones, dry marble fountain and –
Heavy, barred oaken doors leading into the castle.
* * * * *
Just outside the courtyard, Bessie waited alone once more, stinging again with angry frustration. Why was everyone constantly tossing her assistance back in her face? Why wouldn’t they let her help, as she knew she could? Didn’t she love Miss Mellie like her own calf?
Shaking with pent rage, the faithful milk-cow vented her frustrations in a heartfelt, eloquent cry against the world –
* * * * *
“Oh, come on. Even for a vampire, this isn’t going to work.”
Other alternatives exhausted, Caius, Morgant and Sadarion all watched attentively from the concealment of the gatehouse as Kaliana strode out into the courtyard, black chainmail jingling with each firm step, and cupped her hands around her mouth to yell up at the parapets.
“OH, WHAT AM I TO DO. DISTRESSED DAMSEL THAT I AM, I HAVE BECOME LOST IN THIS CONFUSING PLUTONIAN LANDSCAPE. PERHAPS THERE IS SOME KIND STRANGER IN THIS NOT EVEN SLIGHTLY OMINOUS-SEEMING ANCIENT CASTLE WHO CAN HELP ME.”
“FOR I AM ALONE, WHICH I FORGOT TO MENTION.”
“OH, AND A VIRGIN.”
“Seventy-Nine Hells, this is just –“
“Shhh, Caius! Look!”
Deep, black shadows were beginning to gather before the moon, erasing the shifting outlines of the flocking bats above, and suddenly the lupine chorus from the surrounding wilderness doubled in deafening, baying welcome. Something blacker still blotted the moon completely, plunging the courtyard and Kaliana into thick, inky, stagnant darkness …
When the darkness cleared, a young, raven-haired man with porcelain skin and brilliant, crystal-cold blue eyes stood by the cracked fountain, smiling a thin-lipped smile as he gazed at her. His doublet was black velvet, ruffed in violent crimson, and his crimson-lined silk cape didn’t flap in the wind – it swirled.
“Oh, a visitor,” the deathly youth murmured, gliding forward in his dark clothes. “And an enchantingly beautiful visitor at that.”
“Yep, that’s me,” affirmed Kaliana, clapping the vampire on the shoulder as he drew close in an apparent attempt to kiss her hand. “Reckon you could open up the castle door, Kind and Completely Innocuous Benefactor?”
“It would be my pleasure, of course. Who would have thought that I’d find such a rare blossom shining here in my sad, dark abode?” The smirking vampire (unaware of future narrative irony) gently took the arm of the sharkishly grinning Acarthian blossom, drifting towards the front castle doors now groaning open with the expected screech of tortured hinges.
From the gatehouse, Caius softly shook his head. “Ye bloody gods and goddesses. The undead have sunk to a new low in my esteem.”
“Dead and stupid. That’s how I like ‘em,” replied Morgant. “Shall we go?”
Caius, Morgant and Sadarion crept single-file into the castle, slipping across the musty red-velvet carpets within, sneaking under portraits of busty women with too many ‘V’s in their names, frogmarching potplants of nightshade surreptitiously across balustrades (only in a vampire castle could that work, Caius observed to himself, pained). It took only an hour to decide that they were making very little progress with or without foliage.
“Let’s split up,” said Sadarion. “I’ll check the rooms down toward that picture with the moving red eyes.”
“Yeah, okay,” Morgant said. “Caius, will you be right on your own?”
Ordinarily the three Acarthians had a peculiar faith in Caius, alone among humankind (or ‘you chubby losers’), in that he always seemed to extract himself from difficulty by sheer dint of intellect, insight, or superior eyebrows. None of those virtues, however, were efficacious against the vampiric power to mesmerise their victims.
It did not work on Acarthians. Holding their attention fixedly was not a skill even the grave could grant. But Caius had no such protection against vampires … usually.
Not so this time.
“I’ll be quite all right,” he told the elves primly, briefly patting the rucksack with the Secret Vampire Weapon. “You two look around here, and I’ll go investigate the dungeons.”
“Watch out for submerged labyrinths and flesh-eating eels,” advised Morgant.
“That’s ancient temple stuff,” Sadarion snorted. “You mean subterranean crypts.”
“Subterranean crypts my backside! This castle is obviously not built on sedimentary rock –“
“I’ll see you later,” said Caius, forcing himself to be realistic, and strode off in search of the castle’s lower levels.
* * * * *
Whatever else the lower levels were – dungeons, crypts, catacombs – they were certainly dark. Caius took the torch from the lone torch-bracket provided at the head of the stairs (why do they -do- that? he wondered helplessly) and held it cautiously aloft as he descended into the darkness, keeping as much of an eye out for cobwebs as vampires. It would hardly do to have a dramatic undead face-off with one’s eyebrows adhered to one’s hair.
I really should be paid for all this, Caius thought, thinking wistfully of reward money as opposed to reward dairy goods. Vampire castles actually didn’t contain much in the way of treasure, given that the creatures valued a good bottle of hair gel above a bag of gold and wore jewellery so terribly, terribly gauche that the pawn shop owners snickered whenever Caius handed it over.
Yes … a few Crowns from a wealthy township would certainly go down nicely at this point. But Caius sighed when he tried to picture himself telling the next rotund burgher that local produce wasn’t recognised currency back in Colchar. The men were poor and desperate, and they each offered all that they could, because naturally no father liked to think of his daughter having her neck sucked …
Caius stopped walking. A bat was staring at him from the ceiling. It was wearing a small monocle.
“Oh, dear me,” the Lestite observed loudly, forcing himself to give a demonstrative stretch of his arms, “how tired my legs are. I may just pause here a moment, with my eyes on the ground, to rest ‘ere I continue.”
When he heard the soft flapping of wings overhead, he was ready, one raised hand already creeping back to the buckle of his backpack …
Cloth barely whispered behind him, and a silky gentleman’s voice spoke up in the gloom, oozing aristocracy and decanters of sharp claret. “Good eeevening, and velcome to AAAAAGGHHH!”
The AAAAGHH came as Caius spun around, his protective flower brandished before the vampire’s aghast, contorted face. The vampire dropped to its knees, shielding its face with an arm and cowering back from the cheery yellow petals amidst a peal of shrill howls.
“Aaagh! The light, the light, the curséd light -!”
“Cursèd, not cursayed,” corrected Caius reflexively, pushing his flower a little closer.
“- Oh, how it burns, how it sears, this light I have not seen for two centuries gone! O lords of shadow and evil, screen me from this fierce, this consuming radiance -!”
Caius waited longer still while the vampire wailed and groaned and writhed about for a while, its soliloquy persisting even as it delicately started crumbling into dust.
“- The glory, the purity, I cannot bear this scouring fire! Long I thought I had wrapped myself in impervious night forever, but now I see it is not so – ah, the flames, the flames, the awful flames of day –”
The lengthy exposition trailed off into a trailing, sandy hiss as the vampire’s head finally dissolved. Caius eyed his beaming flower (minus Sadarion’s ravages) for a while, softly shaking his head at its efficacy. “Most idiotic creatures in the world,” he muttered, kicking the late pile of dust aside as he walked on.
The Lestite dusted five more vampires with his trusty yellow bloom in the same way – kicking, wailing, protracted speeches – until he heard the anticipated noise of thin, echoing snuffling somewhere in the darkness ahead. Following the sound of young misery, Caius eventually came to a heavy cell door with ‘Significant Narrative-Related Prisoner’ written all over it (though that took some time to work out, given that the handwriting was ornate Gothic).
Carefully he moved forward to peer through the small, barred window set in the door. To his surprise, the cell was quite well-lit and actually more or less as comfortable as a cell could get. A dozen candles, naturally in a twisted, black-iron candelabra that had gone beyond ‘ornate’ to the ‘osteoporotic’ stage, stood in one corner. Silken scarlet and black almost completely covered the walls and the floor in grand, sweeping curtains and soft cushions, and a table (black) against the wall bore a brimming platter of exotic fruits. Oddly, there were no ubiquitous decanters of ruby-red wine – just a small glass bottle of orange juice.
When Caius located the cell’s occupant, huddled on a cushion with a half-peeled banana, he realised why. The burgher’s daughter was about eight years old, with big, teary blue eyes and a reddened, slightly runny button nose. The vampires had dressed her in a black gown lacy enough to wear to a can-can dancer’s funeral, which luckily provided her with splendid sleeves for snuffling into.
She looked healthy, at least. Evidently the vampires were set on keeping her until she was teenage enough to properly appreciate the angsty setting.
“Ready to leave, Miss?” Caius called through the bars.
The burgher’s daughter jumped in a flutter of lace and blonde pigtails, dropping her banana and rustling to her feet. Clearly Caius’s diction was too vampiric for comfort. “Go away!”
“Well, if you’re quite sure …”
There was a cautious pause. “Aren’t you going to cackle?” the burgher’s daughter asked guardedly.
“Not a chance.”
Caius looked on as the little girl industriously piled up some cushions against the door, then climbed up to peer through the cell window herself. “You’re not wearing black!” she gasped.
“It’s not good for people of our complexion, sweet,” he replied benignly. “It makes us look pasty. Now hop down from your cushions while I open the door.”
The cell door wasn’t locked with a key; only a few thrown bolts held it shut from the outside. Caius suspected he knew why, and sighed to himself in weary resignation even as he opened it. “Are you coming, Miss?”
The burgher’s daughter paused. “Can I get another banana?”
“By all means,” replied Caius. “In fact, let’s both go right into this cell, which appears as though it can be very quickly bolted from the outside, and take some fruit from the sideboard.”
As they turned – having collected their fruit – to leave, a dark, red-eyed shape swooped from the shadows and blocked the doorway, laughing a clear, portentous laugh.
“Fool! Did you truly think it would be so easy? Now you are doomed along with – aaaggh, aiiieeeee, the dreadful, scorching light -!”
* * * * *
Caius and Miss Mellie departed the lower levels of the castle, with one of Mellie’s small, slightly damp hands clutching Caius’s very tightly, and emerged back in the hallway where he’d first left Morgant and Sadarion. To the Lestite’s surprise, Sadarion was still there, though he looked slightly the worse for wear – his tunic was in even more disarray than usual, slightly torn and pulled all askew, and his irritably pinched face was smeared with crimson lipstick.
“You’re not a vampire,” said the Acarthian peevishly as Caius approached.
“Nothing gets past you, Sadarion.”
“Is that the rescue-girl? Just your luck to get the subterranean crypts. I bet you were dusting vampires right and left. I’ve been wading through ballrooms of bloody succubuses.”
“Succubi,” said Caius. “No vampires, then?”
“Well, a few. But I should’ve chosen the side of the castle that Morgant took. He’s been gone for at least two hours now.”
Caius frowned slightly, ignoring the brief exchange between Mellie and Sadarion. For some reason, children almost always felt compelled to cautiously poke their tongues out at Acarthians, and Acarthians were never found wanting when it came to a challenge. “Hours, Sadarion? Aren’t you getting even a little worried?”
Sadarion’s green eyes flared. “Privies of the Pantheon, Caius, you’re right! He’s probably dusted most of the undead in this castle by now!”
They hurried down the hall Morgant had taken, coughing their way through piles of vampiric dust and kicking aside dismembered lupine limbs that distressed both Mellie and Sadarion greatly (if for different reasons). At first it seemed there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, and Morgant had been at his usual, marginally psychotic best. But as they strode through a big, vaulted hall, stepping over and around the pieces of a smashed crystal chandelier, and approached a sweeping staircase, they heard voices from above – anguished voices.
“That’s Morgant wailing!” exclaimed Caius, giving Mellie a small, comforting pat as she hid behind his legs. “But who’s the other?”
“I’ll go ask,” Sadarion volunteered, and hurried up the staircase taking two steps at a time, kicking up even more dust – vampiric or not was impossible to tell – as he went.
Caius didn’t even briefly consider telling Mellie to ‘hide herself until he got back’ in a place like this. “Hold onto my hand and let’s go, sweetling.”
“I want my Da,” she replied unhappily, still behind his legs. “And Bessie.”
“Soon. Be good, now.” A thought struck him, and he reached for his backpack. “Look, Mellie. A pretty flower for a pretty little girl. Would you like to hold it?”
The Lestite congratulated himself on his juvenile expertise as a shy hand emerged from behind his legs to take the not-terribly-pretty flower, and a shy, smiling face emerged with it. “Good girl. Let’s go.”
* * * * *
The unhappy wailing and moaning was coming from behind a large oaken door, as it turned out – a portal to a master bedroom if ever there was one. Standing on opposite sides of the door, Caius and Sadarion eyed each other quizzically, equally at a loss to explain the sounds at first.
Morgant’s dialogue was simple enough, his voice slightly more muffled than the other. His howls ran more or less along the lines of “No! No more! Gods and bloody Goddesses! Stop it!”
The other voice was crying out in plangent despair, echoing clearer and louder in the room beyond, seemingly in the middle of a slightly longer and considerably more complicated dialogue. “… This plague of an existence! Ah … why am I so weak? Why have I not the courage to simply end it, cast open the curtains in my highest tower and face the beauteous, scarlet wash of the sun my mother one last time ..?”
“Uh-oh,” said Sadarion warily. “Morgant’s found himself a whiner.”
“It appears so,” Caius agreed. “Well, we’d best get him out of there.”
Neither man moved. In the background, little Mellie kept up a quiet, singsong chant she’d been murmuring to herself all the way up the stairs and down the hall.
Sadarion grimaced. “Come on, Caius. I had three hours of The Light I Left Behind last time.”
“I have to look after young Mellie here.”
“I can look after a kid! … They still eat the same as you adult humans do, right?”
“You’re the Acarthian here, Sadarion. You have more defences against a vampire.”
“Yeah, but you’ve got that Secret Weapon of yours!”
Caius sighed. After years of experience in Acarthian company, he knew better than to try the clever ‘What’s the matter, scared?’ line most individuals would have resorted to. The answer tended to be ‘no’, communicated via a boot in the teeth. “Oh, all right. –Mellie, dear, could you give me your flower for a moment?”
Mellie’s singsong little chant broke off, and she dutifully passed the blossom to her rescuer.
Caius stared down at it.
“Oh, so the little ones don’t eat the same as you adults do,” Sadarion observed. “Hey, how come you gave her tacit permission to eat the petals?”
“Didn’t eat them,” Mellie mumbled at her feet. “Pulled them off and threw them away.”
“Pulled them off? Threw them away? What a waste!”
“Sadarion,” interrupted Caius, trying to ignore the belated message his ears were finally passing on to his brain: ‘He loves me, he loves me not … he loves me, he loves me not …’ “I think this means you are now our last, best and only line of defence. Gods and Goddesses help us all.”
“Oh, fine,” growled Sadarion, and shoved open the bedroom door.
Mellie timidly claimed Caius’s hand again as the Lestite moved to watch the proceedings from the doorway. The bedroom inside was lavish, in a tasteless, crimson satin kind of way; the four-poster bed was the size of a circus tent, groaning under the weight of several dozen pounds of draperies and their attached gold-ropes-with-fuzzy-pompom-ends. The oil paintings on the walls portrayed a brooding young man stretched out in various postures of tragedy, all of which the identical young man inside the bedroom appeared to be imitating as he addressed his wardrobe.
“… Cannot know the anguish, the despair of centuries of soulless perversion!” cried the dark young man, one arm flung out towards the wardrobe in appeal. He was, Caius realised, the same vampire they’d seen in the courtyard. “I was once like you! Damn you for your fortune, damn the Fates for their fickle favour! I was once like you!”
“No, you bloody weren’t!” the wardrobe wailed back. “Shut up, shut up already!”
“But I was! I breathed the sweet air, I tasted, I felt! Now all is winter, stone and desolate ash, as bereft of – who are you?”
Caius watched Sadarion recoil slightly, in mid-lift of his sword, as the vampire’s doleful blue eyes turned sharply towards the elf sneaking up on him from the side. “I’m a vampire-hunter,” the Acarthian replied gamely.
The wardrobe began rattling in violent agitation, strong enough to rock itself back and forth. “DariDariDari! Kill it! Kill it already!”
“Fool!” hissed the vampire, his crystal eyes blazing up brilliantly, his thin lips drawing back from his wicked, white teeth. “You know nothing of what you face! However my empty heart may burn at my existence, that fire compares none with the deadly heat of the Bloodlust! But I will make you understand – because I cannot resist!”
Sadarion wiped his nose on his sleeve as the vampire flicked back his swirling cape. “Yeah! That’s the spirit!”
Now that the situation had come down to simple, intensive violence, Caius breathed a little easier. Even Morgant couldn’t quite match up to Dari on the ‘smack down everything that moves’ scale. The vampire lunged in with a speed that would have left lightning still puffing around the corner, a black-and-crimson blur of movement – but Acarthian eyes were really rather good, and Acarthian reflexes didn’t need to be all that fast just to interpose a sword like so –
“Aieee!” cried the vampire (vampires were good at multiple vowel sounds), stopping in mid-lunge to stare down at his ruined doublet and the steel blade he had impaled himself on. He started trying to tug free, understandably, but it was a little difficult to quickly back off a foot of sharp sword, particularly when its wielder was angling it up at a very inconvenient incline.
“Sorry, just a minute,” said Sadarion, keeping the sword nicely angled for the scrabbling vampire while he turned to talk to the wardrobe. “Get out of your cupboard, Mor – I need someone to put something through its heart. Or chop its head off. Whichever you prefer.”
The wardrobe rattled again, and suddenly the doors burst open, releasing a very pale, dishevelled, wild(er)-eyed figure indeed.
“Both,” said Morgant.
Caius eyed the harried-looking Acarthian quizzically from his place by the doorway. “Never in all my days did I imagine I’d have to ask this, Mor, but … where’s your sword?”
“I think I dropped it in the hallway further back.”
“Yeah. I couldn’t cover my ears very well while I was running with it.” Morgant turned and started kicking at the wardrobe, provoking another ‘aieee’ from the vampire as one of the beautiful carven doors splintered in on itself (and a few dozen black velvet doublets spilled out).
“A stake,” Caius surmised as Morgant started fishing through the debris. “I forgot you’d need a stake for a vampire …”
Morgant paused to look at him oddly. “Actually I’m going on the grounds that a stake in the heart will pretty much do for anything.”
“My wardrobe!” wailed the vampire.
“Don’t worry, I’m giving it right back,” said Morgant, rising with a truly nasty-looking bit of wood in his hand.
“That wardrobe … it was a gift from my true love, in the days when we both still breathed and the sun still shone …”
“Quick!” warned Caius sharply … but it was too late.
“… Ah … you could not guess at the joy we shared in those old days, days I barely recall but for tattered wisps of memory, ragged and razor-edged, bringing me more pain than comfort … our wedding night was spent in the higher realms itself, a time of bliss that mortals are not freely permitted to share, and that the deathless can never forget …”
“Morgant!” Sadarion railed, one hand vainly trying to block both his ears against the wailing as his shaking sword-hand just held firm. “Put your stupid bit of wood in its chest already!”
“Aagh! Not this again! I was in that cupboard for hours, dammit -!”
“… I still remember our last kiss … our very last kiss … or perhaps I should say our last true kiss, for the kiss that followed in the night after my unmaking was nothing but bloodied theft. Ah! How could I do it, even in the freshest grip of the Bloodlust? She was my heaven and earth! The sun itself shone through her – the sun I have forever lost! How can the gods be said to have mercy while I still exist? …”
Caius clapped both hands over his ears, vainly, as the soliloquy went on. There was a heavy power in these words, unlike the other vampires’ vaguely irritating pre-mortem ranting; it was physically impossible to listen to them without being gripped by the desire to strike one’s head against the wall, cut off one’s ears, throw oneself from a tall building somewhere.
This wasn’t a vampire, Caius realised. This was the vampyre.
“Mor-gant! If you don’t stake it now I’ll cut your head off!”
“I’m trying! I’m trying! Nearly there! Don’t let go of your sword, Dari!”
“… Aelie! Aelie! My sweet, sweet Aelie! Your soul was so much sweeter than the blood I drew from your veins, the life I took into myself … how could I exchange the light in your eyes for cooling crimson? How could you look at me, even at the end, with love mixed in the sorrow of your blue, blue eyes? How could you whisper to me that you forgave me … you and our unborn chi –“
With a yell that briefly – but mercifully – drowned out the throbbing melodrama of the vampyre, Sadarion let go of his sword, shoved it and the vampyre away, and attempted to stuff both fists in his ears, doubling over on the spot. Caius was similarly too occupied with plugging up his ears with anything in reach – his fingers, his sleeves, the wall – to realise that the vampyre was already moving again, sword still embedded in his chest, sweeping for the doorway …
Frozen blue eyes loomed up before him, and a cold hand closed on the front of Caius’s shirt.
“Share my pain,” whispered the vampyre.
There was a sharp smile – a literally sharp smile – and a blur of approaching, toothy black …
Now there were other blurs to further confuse the situation – the blur of an interposing sword-hilt, just clipping Caius painfully on the side of the head as it smacked the vampyre straight in the glinting teeth; the blur of the vampyre shoving past to make a hasty retreat, complete with embedded Acarthian sword; the blur of the doorway as it loomed up before Caius’s face, hit him in the face, and unsympathetically watched him slide down to the floor.
The sounds that clamoured in his ears (apart from the ringing) were much like audio blurs, too.
“Bunch of idiots!”
“Hey, it’s got my sword!”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have let go of it!”
“Where’s your sword, Mr. Tactics?”
“Shouldn’t someone pick Caius up?”
“Bunch of idiots!”
A firm hand grabbed Caius by the shoulder – definitely the same hand that had clipped him with the sword and smacked the vampyre in the face – and sat him up against the doorway with a ‘that’s all you’re getting’ air. The Lestite blinked a few times until Kaliana’s face had more or less drifted back into focus, critically pursed.
“Bunch of idiots,” she snorted, by way of ‘I’m back’. “Three against one sooky vampire?”
“Vampyre,” said Caius grimly. “With a Y. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“I was talking about the crack in the head. Consider aiming next time.”
Caius waited a little before slowly getting back to his feet, cringing at the thought of the dark bruises that must be forming on his face (that kind of fine facial structure didn’t just grow on trees, after all). His still-uncommitted eyes found squeaky little Mellie wrapped tight around the stout neck of the village burgher.
The burgher noticed Caius’s attention and gave a deep bow, blinking hard to hold back the same tears that were reddening Mellie’s cherub-face. “I can never, never repay you …”
“What, now you tell us?” Morgant asked sharply. “You mean you won’t make a Salluthian Sandwich?”
“He means he’s terribly grateful, Morgant,” interrupted Caius. “Social Interaction 101 – we’ll have to see about enrolling you three if we find enough treasure here. … Sir, are you sure it was altogether wise to come in here yourself?”
“Call me Hamlin, please,” said the burgher. “Or Ham. I know it wasn’t a very good idea, and I’ve made trouble for you, but I just had to try to find my girl …”
“Yeah,” grunted Kaliana. “I ran into him in the vampyre’s harem. Bloody nuisance trying to keep you chubby humans from being chewed on.”
For the first time, Caius belatedly observed that Ham was not quite conventionally attired – he wore a cloak tied around his waist that appeared to be imitating a skirt, and the stringy end of a village mop was balancing on his bald crown.
“You know vampires aren’t the brightest sparks in the fireplace, Caius,” Kali replied impatiently. “Anyway, the harem was a total disaster. It started fine, mind you! That first vampire showed me into a big room with silky curtains and lots of those puffy cushions, full of girls with teeth. Then he left. So there I was, beating the cr-“
Ham coughed and gave his little daughter a pointed pat on the back.
Kaliana’s expression could have sliced cheese. “There I was, beating the crimminy out of more vampires than you’ve seen in your life, when suddenly the first one comes back with this idiot –“ a jerk of the thumb for Ham – “and sees what’s going on!”
“Great!” said Sadarion.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, but before the vampyre could join in, this idiot –“ thumb – “lifted his mop off his head and shouted at it!”
“Well, that was … brave,” Morgant suggested, with uncharacteristic charity.
“Hah! His exact words were ‘P-p-prepare to m-meet justice, p-please!’”
Ham looked down uncomfortably, hugging Mellie with a defensive air. “My people haven’t lynched a vampire for a very long time, that’s all, and no-one is really quite sure about –“
“So, the vampyre gives an evil laugh, says something about looking for Other Unexpected Guests, our time will soon come, et cetera, and takes off! And I’m left to fish this idiot –“
“Kaliana, we can infer the idiot’s identity by now without visual aids.”
“I’m standing with a whole group of idiots, Caius. I thought it was better to be specific. Anyway, I fished him out of all the toothy girls with their stacks-on, ran out and shut the harem doors, and came down here.”
“So the toothy girls are still in the harem?” Sadarion hinted broadly.
“Guess so. We’ll pass through on our way to the topmost tower as we go get the vampyre, anyway. Come on!”
“How do we know the vampyre will be in the topmost tower?” challenged Ham doubtfully.
Caius and the Acarthians only snorted as they set off down the hall again.
|Fire-Heart: Fire||Fire-Heart: The Siege Begins|
|Dragonmakers: Newspaper||The Bronze King and Winter's Daughter|
|A Night of Souls||Fire-Heart: Darkness Comes to Lyffes|