It cut through him like a silver blade against his soul. He jerked upright as something inside him seemed to shatter. The sweet copper taste of blood was on his tongue, in his mouth along with something...else. He staggered back, letting the woman he held slip from his arms. Her body dropped limply, struck the edge of her seat, and crumpled to the floor. Lines of fire seemed to twist along the veins in his chest as he looked up.
Seeing her there on the landing, unkempt and bloodied, finished what her voice had begun. He knew who he was, what he was, and what he'd been doing. He'd been entranced, but no more.
"Mr. Shido!" she called back, her face lighting up happily. Maybe she, too, could tell that he had returned to his senses.
Just in time, too, from the feel of it. He remembered what he'd done, and what he'd drawn from the woman besides blood, what was fighting to remain within him. With his mind no longer fogged, he spat it forth, a sickly green mist that issued from his mouth and pooled into a seething mass.
"Noooo!" a voice keened as the last of the lights went out. "You cannot do this!"
Shido ripped the mask from his face. No more stupid games. He'd had more than enough of illusion and masquerades.
"It's over," he told the night breed, even as it rose up into a column, rows of flailing tendrils down each side. "You won't use me to carry you out of this place."
Riho leapt from the railing and landed next to him; he was relieved to see that though she was injured, the wounds were superficial and she would heal easily if she fed.
"Mr. Shido, what's going on?" she asked. "Are you...all right?"
"I am now, thanks to you. This breed had me under its spell. I suppose that I wanted so badly to catch the breed that possessed Abe that I sent my own mind out, calling, and this breed–the other one's master–met me halfway. I came here, entered the painting, and found myself in another dream altogether."
"So you're the puppetmaster!" Riho exclaimed.
"Yesss," hissed the breed's unnatural voice. It flowed to the nearest marionette and merged with the doll, which rose to its feet as a burly, brown-bearded man dressed as Robin Hood. "That madman Montoni," it continued in a rich bass, "trapped me here. I gave him the genius his art had always lacked, but he reneged on our deal. I was to experience the blessed light, but instead he locked me away, in the painting my power had given him!"
"So you made this place into your own little kingdom?" Shido challenged. "Who are these people?" He pointed to the scattered marionettes. "A moment ago they were celebrating, feasting. How did you turn them into this?"
The breed threw back his head and laughed.
"I may not be able to leave here, but my hounds can. When they find an acceptable host, I let them out, but in return for their freedom they bring people back for me."
"The disappearances in the painting's history!" Riho exclaimed. "Then these are really the victims!"
Shido glanced at her in surprise. It seemed that things had been happening in his absence. Riho and Yayoi had obviously learned much more about the painting and how it was connected to Abe's crimes.
Then again, that had been obvious anyway. She was here, after all.
"Some are, yes. Others are like Shido, men and women who came in close contact with Il Carnival with yearnings in their heart. I could reach them, call out to them, just as I did to you."
"And they became your toys," Shido spat back, sickened by his understanding," given life only when you will it, otherwise trapped in these shells and manipulated by your whims."
"Of course! They are held in darkness, not knowing if it will be weeks, months, even days before I grant them life again. When I give them their lives back, they are desperate for the chance to live, and so they plunge into life's sensations in a way they were far too afraid to when they were out in the world."
Shido followed it all too well. The night breed had been telling him the truth in its guise as the golden lady when it had told him about the meaning of Carnival-time and the revelers of the city. It did crave the joys of life, and forced its puppets to live vicariously for its whims.
Just as truthfully, it wanted to experience those joys for itself. Like so many of the night breeds, it was drawn to life in the light, even if the cost was the blood of innocents.
"They lead tortured lives, unable to escape, just to ease your boredom and frustration?" he accused.
"And when you don't give them life, they become your puppets instead?" Riho added. "Dolls to move around however you want, even if it gets them hurt or killed?"
"What of it? Who cares if a doll breaks? That's all they are–my marionettes to perform their show at my whim."
"But what did you want with Mr. Shido?"
"It wanted what all breeds want," Shido told her, "to escape its prison. It has dozens of hosts to choose from, but there is no day in this painting, no hours of light."
"Of course!" Riho exclaimed. "I was able to enter the painting, and the breeds it calls the hounds could come and go, but humans can't enter or leave on their own!"
"Exactly. It couldn't leave by possessing a host, but I could carry it out within me." A vampire couldn't be possessed by a breed, but it could draw one out of a possessed body by drinking the host's blood. It had gotten Shido to do exactly that, and had his mind stayed fogged, he would have brought it back out of the painting with him, and then...Who knew?
"I commend your acuteness," the breed said, giving him a courtly bow. "Such was in fact my intention in bringing you to me. Indeed, that still is my intention."
"That will never happen."
"Oh, but it will. I may not be able to leave here myself, but I am master of this world, such as it is. Only with my permission can even you leave here, and I do not feel inclined to give it without some manner of benefit to myself."
Shido bit his finger, calling forth the bloodsword.
"I won't let another murdering night breed loose on the world!"
The breed only laughed, its host giving it deep, booming tones.
"So, you think to use force to persuade me to give up? Your little friend already knows how well that will go." Its smile broadened. "But why not? It will be an object lesson to you of your true position. After all, I have a spare."
It snapped its fingers, and the "hounds" returned, slipping into the hall through the main door, claws clicking on the tile floor. Riho's battle had not been all one-sided by the look of it; one breed's scaled side bore a nasty gouge where its unnatural form seemed to be scarring over. The triple lavender eyes burned balefully, and Shido wondered which of them had been the one to possess Yukito Abe. In the next instant, they launched themselves at the vampires and Shido moved to intercept one, only to find himself blocked by the puppetmaster, which parried his sword-strokes with a hand surrounded in a pulsing green aura.
"Come now, Shido, let us not be so cruel as to deny the children their fun," it said laughingly, then struck him in the chest with its other hand. The blow sent him sprawling, sliding back along the floor until he hit the steps to the dais. The breed beckoned mockingly to him.
"Come now, vampire; let us test ourselves more than that. I haven't had the pleasure of genuinely doing battle in centuries. The least you can do is to make it interesting."
Shido pushed himself back to his feet, and just in time, for the breed was all but on him again, pressing the attack despite the "I'm waiting" nature of its taunts. Shido parried the creature's hands and kicked it back a few steps. The exchange lightened his heart, though. The breed, for all its arrogance, had tried to use strategy against him, a deception rather than pure brute force.
It was being cautious. It feared that it might lose.
Shido began to hope that he might win.
He risked a glance aside, and saw that Riho was hard-pressed by the two breeds but holding her own. She was in almost constant motion, diving and dodging out of the way of the two opponents. Having fought one before while it possessed Abe, Shido knew the "hounds" were not particularly powerful breeds, but he was still proud of Riho for being able to confront two at once despite her inexperience. Still, the risk to her was great. One mistake could leave her seriously injured, and eventually even weak breeds would wear her down.
"I'm your opponent, Shido!" the breed taunted, again getting past his guard to deliver a blow to his lower abdomen. Shido grunted in pain and sprang back a dozen feet to the top of the head table to avoid the follow-up strike aimed for his throat. Without releasing the sword, he raked his teeth against his left hand and hurled a spray of bloodmissiles not at the puppetmaster but at one of the hounds. The breed was taken completely by surprise, struck multiple times, and Riho took immediate advantage. With a killer instinct he had never imagined she possessed, she plunged the point of her sword down through the wounded breed's forehead. It died, dissolving into a cloud of stinking black smoke.
Shido suddenly found himself hurtling forward; two marionettes had risen up, grabbed the table at each end, and flipped in over, dislodging him. He did not hit the floor, though, for the puppetmaster was already there, striking him a tremendous blow in the chest that smashed Shido back through the fallen table.
"If you care so much for your little friend that you can't be bothered to pay attention to your own battle," it taunted, "then maybe I should just rip your heart out of your chest and let her bring me out of here."
"You won't lay a hand on her!" Shido roared and leapt back on the attack.
"Ah, touched a nerve, have I?" the puppetmaster said, fending him off with some difficulty. "Have I finally made you serious about this fight?"
It swatted Shido's blade aside and launched a counterstrike, but the vampire pivoted away, spinning completely around to dodge the breed's lethal attack and came out of the spin into a lunging thrust that impaled the bloodsword through the breed's chest. It howled once, a completely inhuman sound, and then the green aura seemed to fade from what became merely a broken marionette. It flowed to another of the crumpled dolls, which in the next instant sprang to its feet, a young woman Riho's age with jet-black hair and a red-and-blue gypsy costume. The puppetmaster's laugh was a girlish giggle.
"Not bad, vampire," it said. "You defeated me quite nicely, and took only a few minor injuries in return." It favored him with a thoughtful pout. "Do you think that you can do it a dozen more times? Two dozen? Two hundred?"
Shido understood what it meant. The puppetmaster had an effectively limitless supply of new hosts to inhabit. If Shido defeated one, it would simply leap to another, and spring up as good as new, whereas Shido would feel the effects of each fight mounting up, until at last he would be beaten.
"Perhaps I'll show you a new trick or two this time?" the puppetmaster said conversationally, and picked up a plate from the table where its new host had been sitting. The china burst into the same green fire as its hands and the breed hurled it discus-style at Shido. He dodged aside easily and heard it detonate behind him.
He'd been wrong. It wasn't strategy at all, but games–the amusements of a cruel creature suffering from boredom and frustration. It had all the advantages in this, its own little world, and it had no intention of risking death, although it apparently had no qualms about letting its minions fall to eternal darkness. Shido couldn't defeat it over and over until it ran out of bodies, and he certainly couldn't count on any help from the hosts' own minds, which the breed had long since conquered. Nor would it fight him in its natural shape, where it would be at risk.
Maybe there's another way, though.
Shido summoned up the bloodwhip, letting the sword drop. This weapon was not as useful defensively, and he was given a few bad moments by the night breed until he could take the opportunity to lash out and coil the whip around the puppetmaster's body. He then called upon the power of his blood, and an aura of blue flame engulfed the breed.
"Foolish vampire! You can't purge me from this body; its soul has been mine for generations."
"I'm not trying to cast you out," Shido said, gritting his teeth with the effort it took to hold the breed fast. "Riho!" he shouted.
Shido could feel the puppetmaster's power pushing against his own. It would break free in seconds, too short a time for him even to explain his plan. He'd hoped for more time, a chance to tell her what to do now, once the breed was already trapped.
He didn't need to worry, though, because she figured it out at once. Riho sprang for the breed, and with a titanic swing of her bloodsword, severed the gypsy girl's head while Shido held the puppetmaster trapped within the shell of its latest puppet.
The head bounced once.
Shido left the whip go.
And the world fell apart.
-X X X-
"Shido! Riho! You made it!" Yayoi exclaimed. They'd hit the floor hard, appearing out of thin air as the painting burned to ash in a pale blue flame.
"Geez, Riho, you look like hell," Guni commented as Shido helped her to her feet. Her hair had been torn out of its bow, tumbling down over her shoulders, and her dress was a shredded, bloodstained ruin.
"She destroyed a breed by herself," Shido said, "and she helped me defeat two more, including the painting's master. She saved me." The light in her golden eyes wasn't just the unearthly glow of vampirism; his praise clearly meant more than he could imagine to her.
Riho was barely able to stand without leaning on him, but she still asked, "What about all the people? Why aren't they here, too?"
He shook his head sadly.
"I'm sorry. There was nothing we could do for them."
"They were already lost. Whatever life they had was only because of the breed's power. All we can do now is hope that their souls found peace."
She took a moment to absorb his explanation, then nodded firmly.
"You're right, Mr. Shido. To be trapped eternally like that, only given life to amuse a monster, and only often enough that they were eternally hungry for it..." He felt the shudder that ran through her. "They were trapped in the darkness just like the breeds were. I just wish there had been a way to help."
He gently stroked her hair.
"I can see there's going to be a lot to this story," Yayoi said briskly in an obvious attempt to break the suddenly grim mood.
"I can see that Riho's going to be impossible to live with for the next month," Guni chimed in. "The secretary saves the boss's life! It's like a bad TV movie!" The words lacked any of her usual bite, though; it was obvious she was as elated as any of them by the safe return.
"Well, although I usually try to play hard-to-get, I think that the conquering heroine needs a bite to eat before we go any further." Yayoi fumbled at her collar.
"Thank you, Ms. Yayoi."
"Don't thank me. Just make sure Shido doesn't throw out those tights!"
Guni cracked up laughing and the two vampires blushed. Friends could always get under one's skin. But then again, Shido thought, looking at the three women who in one way or another shared his life, that was the point. The fact that things in his life didn't always go his way was just proof that what he had was real–and therefore, worth living. Which wasn't bad at all for the walking undead.