A/N: Sorry for taking so long with this update. I was godawful sick for several days and it kind of killed my muse. She seems to be convalescing now though. This is sort of an intermediary chapter, but fear not, there shall be action again soon (as you might guess from this). And thecoins will be explained! Eventually!
I dropped exhausted into my bed at the end of that endless night, as dawn was casting its first pale shadows on the walls; but I woke with restless energy before the sun had reached its zenith. Only human, and still very much drained, I groaned and buried my face for a moment in the pillows, seeking sleep again, but it was determined to elude me now.
A soft oath passed my lips as I threw the covers away and rose, rubbing my eyes. Even that devil in the basement was asleep now; was I marked to have no peace? I sighed resignedly, dressed and shuffled downstairs to the library. If I couldn't sleep I might as well make use of the time.
The coin was where I had left it early this morning: centered on a page of the heavy tome through which I'd been hunting for a reference to it; that is, until I could no longer keep my eyelids propped open. Yawning, I resumed my place at the desk and plucked up the small metal disc, rubbing it between index finger and thumb as I searched the page for the last bit I could remember reading.
Someone must have heard me come down, for the butler arrived after a few minutes with a breakfast tray and a comment that Gabriel was still abed. Lucky him. I thanked the man – not, regrettably, with quite the pleasant tone I could have wished, as I was still grumpy from my pittance of rest – and nibbled on a bit of toast as I resumed my scanning of the text.
Arcane runes were a subject upon which I had quite an abundant library of sources by now; but I had never seen anything like that which was scribed on this cheap bit of metal. I was unable to identify even its origin, much less its meaning. Perhaps it was new? Still, even new runes and spells – such as that binding me to the beast now slumbering in the dungeons – were generally contrived from existing knowledge. To pioneer an entirely new conjuration would be an undertaking of… generations.
I felt my eyebrows knit together in a frown as the sound of footsteps at the door distracted me from my intent perusal. I marked my place in the tome with one finger, and looked up to scold the butler for disturbing me again so soon. In the movement, though, my eyes chanced upon the clock over the mantelpiece; I was surprised to note that it was nearly two in the afternoon. It was also not Smith in the doorway, as I had expected, but Gabriel. And another man.
"Arthur!" I exclaimed, losing my place in the book in my haste to rise from my chair. And then, to my embarrassment, I had to stifle a yawn.
Gabriel sighed. "Please tell me you've slept at least a little since last night, Father."
I waved him off dismissively. "A few hours. Duty calls – what brings you here, Arthur? I didn't hear the bell ring." My eyes surveyed his familiar form and I deduced that he looked rather ragged, himself. Dust clung to his clothing and his normally curly hair was damped down with a sheen of recent sweat. "And in such a hurry?" I ventured.
"Well, as for the bell, Gabe met me in the courtyard. As for the rest…" Arthur grimaced and stepped forward, withdrawing a torn envelope from his vest pocket and holding it out to me. I took it with a puzzled frown, fumbling the contents out. "My wife received this letter this morning from her sister, up Nottingham-way," he explained as I scanned the cramped script. "It's her daughter – my niece – I hate to ask, Doctor, but I thought—"
"Yes," I agreed, interrupting his awkward request. He nodded and looked at me with mute relief. I tucked the letter back into the envelope. "The wasting illness," I summarized aloud, for Gabriel, who was looking between the two of us rather confused. "Fatigue, loss of appetite, brought on by apparent anaemia. Lord Godalming has witnessed these symptoms before: the child," I diagnosed, becoming brisk as I handed him the letter back, "is losing blood, but the parents know not how." I laid a hand on the man's arm. "Of course I shall help you, my friend. I only thank God I returned from abroad in time to receive you; if we're not too late already. But we must hurry. Nottinghamshire is no mean distance from here."
"I've a coach and four waiting in the courtyard," he replied promptly.
"Good man. If we leave directly and don't spare the horses, we might be there by tomorrow night. Gabriel: pack up my personal effects, would you? I'll have to collect my medical kit—"
"Now hold on, Father, if you're going to fight another vampire, then I'm going with you."
I glanced at him distractedly. "Yes, yes, of course you are." I put a marker in my book and shut it, then dropped the coin into my pocket and patted down my clothes absently, going through a mental tally of items we'd need.
Arthur drew me back to the present. "What about, ah…" his eyes were on the light bandage wrapped round my wrist as he nodded his head with meaning.
"Ah, yes." I pursed my lips in a momentary frown. "Well, he'll have to come with us. I'm not about to leave him on his own recognizance. Go on, Gabriel, don't just stand there – we need to be off!"
"But it's the middle of the afternoon?" Arthur queried as my son clattered hurriedly out of the room.
I smiled grimly. "I'll just have to wake him up then, won't I?"
Arthur was more than happy to excuse himself to assist Gabriel in loading the carriage, as I myself descended to the basement. Gloom prevailed here, even at midday, and I brought the lantern by the stairs with me to light the way. I walked past the dungeon-cum-study – he had not entered that room of his own will since the binding, save to retrieve his coffin – and counted the doorways, until I reached a junction of corridors and the dank, musty-smelling unused storeroom he had chosen as his own.
I didn't bother to knock. He'd hardly hear it anyway. I let myself inside, setting the lantern down on the remains of a table against the wall, and steeling myself, approached the coffin. It lay innocuously enough at the far end of the room, just another battered storage crate at a glance, until one noticed the peculiar shape of it. The lid still bore marks from the cross we had affixed to it years ago to imprison him within; but he had long since torn that away, leaving only the plain, weathered wood.
"Alucard," I said loudly, but there was no response. I hadn't really expected one; vampires slept quite literally like the dead. Boldly, and perhaps recklessly, I wedged my hands under the lid of the coffin and pushed it open.
I had to pause then, for the sight of the Count in his repose was unsettling. He lay upon a fine layer of soil carefully arranged at the bottom of the casket: utterly unmoving, for there was no breath, not even a heartbeat to disturb his position. His eyes were closed; his face expressionless; his hands, gloveless, folded neatly over his breast.
"Alucard," I spoke again, and dared reach down to jog his shoulder. A lock of his hair tumbled over my hand; but that was all. I muttered under my breath.
"All right then," I addressed the corpse, "I know one thing you can't ignore." I unwrapped the bandage from my wrist and prodded the small wound. It had already nearly closed; oddly enough, vampire saliva acted as a sort of healing agent. But I was able, grimacing, to pinch and squeeze a bare couple of droplets to the surface. I'd have a bruise to show for it later; but for now, I swept up the blood carefully on my index finger, bent over the coffin and wiped it on the vampire's lower lip.
I thought, then, that I saw the first hint of movement. The slightest twitch of his nostrils; the faintest lift of his chest as he drew in the scent. His lips parted; the tip of his tongue emerged to drag slowly across the smear of scarlet.
And then, with such suddenness that my eyes could not perceive the movement, he was sitting bolt upright, and I felt his hand close viselike over my throat. "Who disturbs my rest?" the inhuman voice hissed forth past bared fangs; his eyes, half-lidded, burned with fury.
I slapped impotently at his iron grip, gasping for air. "I should think," I choked, trying to force confidence into my voice though I was sure it came out only as a pathetic gurgle, "that you would know the taste of my blood by now."
He released me suddenly, his hand popping open and recoiling as though burned. I coughed, trying to regain my breath. He looked curiously at the palm of his hand, then touched two fingers to his lower lip, absently licked off the remnants of my blood, and gave me a direct, albeit puzzled, stare.
"Why did you wake me in the middle of the day?"
"Your master requires your services," I replied gruffly, still clearing my throat to sort out my voice.
"My master can wait until a decent hour," he shot back, snippily, and lay down again, stretching one long arm up to draw the lid down after him. I stopped its descent with an outthrust palm.
"Now," I commanded firmly. He blinked at me, his face betraying disbelief; either at my audacity or the fact that he had actually let go of the lid and was sitting up again, I wasn't certain. But in either case he rose from his bed with unnatural grace, shedding the small bits of earth that had clung to him as he slept, leaving his clothing immaculate as he stepped out of the wooden box.
We stood opposite one another, willful gaze locked with willful gaze, his form towering over mine, for several seconds; then he dipped his head, his raven hair tumbling forward just slightly out of synchrony with the rest of him, and made an exaggerated bow. "What may this humble servant do for his master, so that he might be allowed to get some sleep today?"
I ignored his dripping sarcasm and replied calmly, as I replaced the bandage on my wrist, "I'm sorry." I meant it too, to his palpable surprise. But I knew perfectly well what it felt like to be awakened on short sleep rations. Then: "We're making a trip north. You're coming with us."
"Right now?" he asked. His eyebrows had made a slight journey upward at my apology; now one side of his mouth quirked to follow them.
"Yes. Right now. There's a vampire feeding on a little girl and we're going to take care of it."
His half-bemused smirk turned into a full, knowing grin. "You mean I am."
"No, I mean we are. You are only coming along for insurance; and because I'm hardly going to leave you here by yourself."
He looked almost disappointed for a moment, then the condescending smirk returned. "You are aware of the effect the sun has on… my kind?"
"Yes," I replied briskly, picking up the lantern and moving for the door with the implied directive that he was to follow. "I also know that you are hardly what one could consider average for your… kind; as you yourself intimated last night. You're not afraid of a little daylight, are you?"
"Of course not," he growled, snatching up hat and coat from where he'd draped them over a nearby chair, and shrugging into the latter as he followed me out of the room. The hat was jammed over his head shortly after, his features falling into inscrutable shadow beneath the broad brim, and he was tugging on the second of the silk gloves by the time we climbed the stairs and re-entered the manor proper.
Gabriel was waiting for us, with my traveling case dangling from one hand. "I've got it all here, Father: your tools and reference books," he declared, lifting the bag triumphantly. "Good morning," he added with a bit of a cheeky grin to my reluctant shadow. I heard the whisper of a disgruntled growl over my shoulder.
"Thank you, Gabriel," I spoke as I extinguished the lantern and hung it on its peg by the doorway. I held out my hand for the case, so that I could verify the contents. "And the rest?"
"Loaded and ready to go. Not much: a couple changes of clothes; I thought we'd best travel light."
"I suppose I'm not allowed to bring my coffin, then," Alucard muttered irritably.
"You've slept in the earth before; you can do it again. It won't kill you," the phrase slipped out before I realized what I was saying, and with a grimace I snapped the case shut loudly; but not loudly enough to forestall the dry, basso chuckle that rumbled over my head. "We go now then," I raised my voice over the noise of the vampire's amusement, and moved resolutely to the front door.
Arthur stood awaiting us by the coach outside. It was a sleek-looking vehicle, roomy enough for four inside, but lightly built, unlike the heavy hansom cabs so common in the city. Three bays and a liver chestnut stood harnessed in matching light trappings, stamping occasionally with impatience. I fancied that the lot must have cost him a fair penny, and reflected that although the pension I still drew from the university at Amsterdam for my tenure was sufficient, it was at times convenient to have acquaintances of considerable means. There was, however, no driver.
Arthur grinned as I glanced to him in askance. "I'm not so domesticated as all that, Doctor. I can handle four-in-hand; and all the better for it, I thought, not to involve too many others." His eyes, which had begun the statement upon my face, strayed over my shoulder of their own accord.
"Lord Godalming," Alucard's greeting rippled forth from the shadows between his downturned hat and upturned collar, in a completely inappropriate tone of dark amusement. "So good to see you again."
"Get in," I uttered flatly, and he slithered aboard without further sound. A moment later the curtains were jerked peevishly shut. I handed my bag to Gabriel, who followed him in; but I chose to accompany Arthur on the box seat.
"May God go with us," he muttered as he gathered the lines in his hands. "For the Devil surely does. Hya!" He snapped the reins briskly, and we were off.