The creature had retreated to the deep shadows at the back of his cell, his form all but imperceptible but for the two glowing points of red that glared from the inky blackness with steady, sullen hatred. I crossed the stone-flagged floor of the basement study and stopped before the iron bars, reinforced with threads of blessed silver, that separated him from me. There was no indication of movement from within the cell. He was not even feigning breath this evening. I knew better than to be lulled by seeming apathy, though, and kept myself out of arm's reach.
I set my lantern down on the work desk, illuminating the stacks of dusty, moldering books on the floor and the piles of scattered parchment, with their decade's worth of my considered charts and arcane scribblings, on the tabletop itself. The lamplight did nothing to illuminate the cell and its occupant, however; if anything, the shadows in the back seemed to deepen and draw more inscrutably together.
"Good evening, Count."
There was no immediately forthcoming reciprocation of my greeting. In fact, the silence grew subtly more stifling. Accustomed to such moods, I waited patiently. A full minute passed that felt like an eternity, with no sound but that of my own blood in my ears. Doubtless he could hear it too. Finally, the silence was parted by a susurrant whisper that issued from no visible mouth:
"I wouldn't know."
The words were carefully enunciated and bitten off with bitter precision. The Count had striven diligently and with considerable success to eradicate all trace of a Hungarian accent from his speech throughout the years of his internment. Although he was rarely forthcoming with explanations for his behaviour, I had hypothesized that this particular idiosyncrasy was an attempt to further distance himself from his former, human life.
"No," I agreed, for there were no windows in these subterranean rooms, "I suppose you wouldn't. I do apologize for that."
"Your contrition is infinitely appreciated," the voice hissed dryly. Then, "What is it to be tonight, Professor: Fire? Holy water? Perhaps you've discovered a way to bottle sunlight? It's been some nights since you last visited."
I felt his presence in my mind, probing for the answers even as he asked the questions. It was like cold fingers groping along the inside of my skull. With an effort – betrayed, unfortunately, by a twitch of my cheek – I pushed him out and shut the doors tightly behind. He chuckled. I spoke swiftly over his mirth. "Did you miss me?"
"Clearly, but one day I'll strike the target," was the dark retort. Voice dripping with sarcasm, he added, "I do get so lonely down here without you." I heard a faint rustle as he shifted in the blackness, and then stepped forward quite suddenly into the lamplight.
He was a haggard-looking creature, the burning crimson eyes sunk deeply in their sockets, the face drawn in a cadaverous parody of once human features. His hair hung unchecked in straggled, dirty ebony locks over his face and shoulders; his skin looked like dried parchment and his lips were drawn back in a perpetual rictus grimace, exposing the bloodless gums and unnaturally elongated eyeteeth.
The humanitarian in me felt a momentary pang of pity for such a wasted being, but it was crushed swiftly by the remembered thought that this pitiful-seeming creature was no man, but a monster of the most degenerate calibre. He had killed, and would kill, with thoughtless pleasure at wading through innocent blood, if he were again given the opportunity.
A glimmer in the eyes, locked with mine, indicated that he had read my face if not my thoughts. "Pity the monster," he whispered mirthlessly, lifting a hand to wrap his fingers around one of the bars of his cell. Then his head tilted slightly, a new awareness coming to his emaciated features as he scented the air. "You've bled recently."
Unconsciously I touched a hand to my left elbow, from the inner curve of which I had indeed drawn a sample earlier in the day. How he could detect such a subtle pinprick was beyond my comprehension, but I managed to conceal my surprise. "How long has it been," I countered in a professional tone, "since you've fed?"
He scowled and withdrew a step from the bars. "You know the answer to that."
"I know how long it's been since you were last served. Judging by your current… state, I'll wager that's not the last time you fed."
"Pig's blood!" he spat contemptuously. A gobbet of sticky saliva slapped the floor by my foot.
"You know the difficulty in finding willing human donors to fund my research." I felt myself smile grimly. "It's hard enough to convince them that you exist, much less that your… unique abilities, shall we say, should be studied."
"The jailor need not justify himself to his prisoner," he observed, almost reproachfully it seemed to my ears. Interesting.
In any case, it was just as well for the purpose of tonight's intent that he be weakened by his prideful self-imposed starvation. I drew breath briskly, stepping over to the desk. "I should like to see your hands, please." It never hurt to be polite, I thought, as I drew from a drawer the silver manacles I'd utilized in previous experiments. The shackles were etched with a considered combination of holy and pagan symbols, and thus far had proven successful in restraining the creature from struggling in their grip.
"Why?" he asked, coyly.
I had found that it was far easier to be straightforward with him than to play games. "Because," I replied in a matter-of-fact manner, as I adjusted the ungainly device to accept the prisoner's wrists, "I intend to put to trial a new etching, with a new type of ink. And as your hands are the most easily accessible parts of your anatomy through the bars…" I held up the heavy block of engraved silver, brows expectantly lifted.
"And if I refuse?" he wanted to know; as if he were inquiring what weather I thought the next day might bring.
I kept my tone even. "Then I shall ask Lord Godalming and Dr. Seward to assist me with the chains."
He hissed a definite note of displeasure. There were a bare handful of names that could enflame such raw hatred as he held for me; but those were two of them.
"Your hands, please," I insisted politely.
He continued to hiss and mumble quietly to himself, a smattering of disconnected Hungarian reaching my ears: his temper had evidently overcome his studied abandonment of his native roots. Then, quite suddenly, he quieted and approached the bars to thrust his hands through, resting his wrists on the crossbar. His expression had become calmly obedient; which put me on guard.
I stepped forward cautiously with the restraining device, observant of his eyes. They were half-lidded now with bored resignation, but I was quite certain I could detect a glimmer of dangerous mischief beneath their glazed veneer. I halted once more at the edge of arm's reach. "If you would extend your right hand, please."
Without complaint the pale, long-fingered appendage lifted and stretched forth to settle gently with wrist in the cuff of the silver shackle. I took one small step closer to give myself room to work, and painstakingly secured the restraint by its three bolted clasps. "Now the other," I instructed, continuing to eye him warily, though with one hand already secured, his options for disobedience were diminished.
Leisurely, he extended his left hand and placed it in the cuff beside the first, his eyes showing a hint of amusement at my caution. I moved to snap the shackle shut.
It was then that he struck, with such blinding swiftness that his arm seemed a blur as it shot forward out of the cuff, elongating impossibly past me. The fingers clamped a clammy grip about the back of my neck and yanked forward, pulling me off balance so that I stumbled against the bars and dropped the half-secured manacle block. It swung downward with a clatter of metal on metal, dangling from the Count's right wrist.
I gasped as the stench of his decayed breath washed hotly over my cheek. His grip was like iron, threatening to crush my spinal column at the base of my skull. "Pity me now, Professor," he invited with a whispered laugh. I felt the disgusting pressure of his tongue against my neck as it probed the contours of my throat.
My left arm flailed upward; I snatched hold of the golden cross on its chain about my neck; thrust it palm upward into the monster's throat and smelt the stench of searing flesh as it made contact with his skin. He laughed the louder, contemptuously, but I felt him give backwards by a bare inch. Enough to spare breathing space between my carotid and his fangs as my right hand fumbled urgently for the .38 Smith and Wesson in my pocket.
"In… God's name…" I gasped around the cold iron bar pressed into my cheek. As his laughter howled around me, I thrust my right hand upward with its fistful of metal, and discharged a bullet into his face.
He was flung backward by the shot, as was I, my right ear ringing painfully as I fell to the cold stone floor. I dropped the gun and clapped my hand over my ear with a breathless gasp and forced my eyes back to the cell. He, too, had fallen; but the manacle encasing his right wrist had caught against the narrow aperture of the cell bars and jolted his momentum short. He had swung around from the force and half-dangled now, his back to me, his right arm twisted at a grotesque angle above his head. The left flailed wildly as an agonized shriek sputtered from the oozing mass of thick, congealed blood that had been his face.
I fought against the trip hammer pounding of my own heart. He had moved so swiftly; his arm had reached… unnaturally, impossibly… I pushed to my feet and stumbled to the desk, yanking open a drawer and withdrawing a flask of brandy; of which I quickly consumed two swallows and then replaced.
I pressed a hand to my heart and drew a deep breath as I turned back to the cell. My fingers brushed and then grasped the cross dangling over my rumpled shirt, and I stared in grim fascination as my prisoner, still gibbering incoherently, nevertheless began inexorably to regenerate his wounds. A dull clatter rang hollowly as the bullet fell from its lodging in his skull and struck the cell floor.
I moved quickly, anxious to have him restrained before he could fully recover. Removing the gold chain about my neck, I secured it instead around my left hand so that the cross hung centered over my palm, and then daringly thrust it between the bars, catching hold of his left wrist and pulling it toward me. There was a faint hissing sensation from the cross, sandwiched between his flesh and mine. His half-reformed features let out a snarl of pain and he attempted to jerk out of my grasp, but I now had him at a disadvantage: his back to the bars, with his arms thrust upward and out behind him on my side of the barrier. I twisted the half-sealed manacle block around and forced his left wrist into the second, open cuff, and bound it securely.
I swung the latches and twisted the bolts to secure the block to the iron bars and finally stepped back, breathing hard. The Count continued to struggle for some moments, then seemed to realize the futility of the effort and slumped, his limbs grotesquely akimbo in their awkward trappings. He was suddenly silent, no further sign of activity forthcoming but for a very faint, vague sort of sucking sound as his flesh drew together and sluggishly mended. I watched with an inward chill as the black brand mark the cross had made on his wrist faded to an angry red weal, and then nothing. I stooped to pick up the bullet where it had fallen near the bars, kneading it thoughtfully between my fingers. Silver, into the brain, and already he was recovering.
I stumbled backward and dropped into the chair at the desk, letting the bullet fall to the tabletop as I cradled my head against my hand, my gaze still morbidly fixed on the monster's back.
He was growing stronger. Ten years past, when the five of us had cornered and bound him, a priest's blessing on an ornamental cross affixed to the lid of his coffin had been enough to contain him. He had since been permanently transferred to this dungeon cell, with its reinforcements of silver and arcane inscriptions; every brick had been mixed with holy water in its formation.
I now wondered, and not for the first time, how much longer it would hold him.
To my deepest chagrin, I supposed that I was at least in part to blame for the increased threat he now represented. In my years of study, testing the abilities and limits of vampiric flesh and mind, I might have unwittingly allowed him to build a tolerance to those things that were normally bane to such creatures: fire, crosses, silver. Sunlight? I shivered. To think that ten years ago he had been unable to cross running water at will. Tonight's exhibition caused me even more concern: it seemed he had learned a new trick. How much longer before he found a way to twist his body past his restraints entirely?
I pressed my lips together firmly. All the more reason to proceed with all allowable haste.
I patted my breast pocket and fumbled the button open, withdrawing the small vial I'd placed within earlier. To my gratification, the glass was still intact. I gave it a brief shake, the deep red liquid within swirling with a faintly metallic sheen; and then decisively plucked a stylus from the desktop. If nothing else, my itinerary for tonight would be kept.
Back to my prisoner once more. I approached the bars without qualm this time, for I doubted that he could engineer a way to reach me from his current position even if he weren't occupied regenerating the upper portion of his head. I unstoppered the glass vial and tilted it to dip the writing stylus within, giving it time to absorb the thick red ink.
This was a solution of my own contrivance: the outgrowth of the past several days' concentrated research. It contained the usual basic components of most inks: gum, vitriol, tannin; but I had used holy water and a touch of silver nitrate for the solution. The final ingredient – to which it attributed its deep red coloration – was the reason I had earlier stuck myself with the needle: my own blood.
I had experimented before, with various substances, on the regenerative qualities of my prisoner's flesh, seeking the key to reproducing it. My objective tonight was otherwise: I desired – needed – to make a marking that he could not heal over. Blood, that precious substance upon which his every transgression was founded and his very existence dependent: blood, I hoped, would be the final key to binding the tattoo to his flesh on a permanent basis.
The stylus loaded, I restoppered the vial and tucked it under the last three fingers of my left hand, reaching with index finger and thumb to grasp the creature's own digits and pull them gently outward, exposing the hand. I watched him another moment for any sign of movement, and then drew a bold score across the center of his palm.
The ink scorched through his skin like a hot knife, leaving an angry, blackened reddish fissure. A screech of sudden fury emitted from his slumped form and his hand gave a convulsive jerk; but the shackles held him fast. "Save your strength," I gritted as he writhed, his legs kicking with protest at the stone floor. Indeed, I wanted him to do his best to heal this violation of his being: I had to find his limits before he grew beyond them.
I swiftly slashed four more lines across his palm, branding a rough pentagram sigil into the ancient flesh. He screamed anew with each stroke, fighting his bonds like a madman; and I felt an uplifting of hope. If this new mixture hurt him so badly, perhaps I was on the right track at least. There was no consideration of pity as I refilled my pen and duplicated the seal on his other hand. With his most recent treachery fresh in mind, I felt assured in the knowledge that I was dealing with a monster and acting in the best interests of humankind.
Leaving him shackled, hissing and swearing at me in multiple tongues, I restored my instruments to order and rearranged my clothing so as not to cause concern with the rest of the household. I fastened the cross once more about my neck, tucked it neatly under my shirt and straightened my tie. I made sure the safety was on the gun and replaced it in my pocket, then picked up the lantern, angling it for one more good look at the creature's hands. The marks still looked fresh, but I'd give him a day and see where I stood then.
"Good night, Count," I bid him calmly, crossed the room and shut the door on the frenzied invectives that followed.