Disclaimer: SO3 has never been my property, woe is me, etc.

Author's Notes: This fic was sort of based on one of Sorceress Myst's old challenges, see her personal profile for details. We have Albel and Vampire!Nel here, but it's definitely not a romantic tale. Expect lots of blood, not sensual kisses by moonlight. In fact, I abhor cheesy, clichéd vampire stories, which is why I wanted to offer you an alternative. You may still find it cheesy, but in an entirely different way. ;)

All possible OOCness on Nel's part was fully intended. This is an 'alternative universe/ alternative events' story, right? I believe I don't need to mention that I took the liberty of twisting the canon a little bit.

Enjoy the edited version, which was finally proofread and approved by my incredibly patient beta. BlueTrillium, I'll never be able to thank you enough. :)


Evergreen

by Lucrecia LeVrai


Albel Nox found the first corpse next to a gray, withered rosebush. It was a young man who lay facedown in the dirt, with a dagger still clasped in his rigid fingers. He had obviously tried to defend himself, and yet the killer must have been much quicker. There was no speck of blood on the long blade.

Thoroughly disgusted with his subordinate's performance, Nox crouched down to inspect the wounds. They seemed nowhere near as gruesome as he had expected, just two parallel gashes across the victim's back and nothing more, certainly no signs of torture or cruelty. The poor fool had been lucky enough to die an easy death, Albel concluded, shaking his head in a mixture of contempt and near-pity. Hadn't he told his men to leave the monster alone, and just report to him in case they found anything? They were all too weak for her, he had known it from the start. Now they had paid a high price for their stupidity.

The man stood up, taking a few moments to study his surroundings. A long time ago, perhaps, this garden could have been described as spruce and beautiful. It didn't take much imagination to picture this place all green, with hedges, bowers and fountains, gravel paths bathed in early morning mist. Back then, when the owners had still been alive, some gardener must have worked hard to keep his domain in perfect condition. It hardly mattered anymore—right now, the whole place reeked of coldness and decay. Most fountains were dry, plants had either run wild or withered. Those few that remained certainly didn't look like much, stripped of their charm by the merciless autumn chill. A thin layer of fog lingered in the air, soaking the scenery with even more grayness, muffling the faint clinking of Albel's metal-fitted boots as he finally stepped away from his subordinate's corpse.

"Some bloody melodrama," he snorted under his breath, turning to the left, so that he could catch a glimpse of the distant mansion. "I bet that one of these days, that idiot Lasselle's going to write a ballad about this place." With a final, derisive shake of his head, the man began to walk deeper into the garden, his hand never straying too far from the hilt of his sheathed sword.

If 'that idiot Lasselle', a famous yet slightly overrated bard from Aquios, ever decided to compose such a song, it would be a tragic tale of Lord Zelpher and his only daughter, Nel. She had grown up to become one of the fairest maidens in Aquaria, and it had eventually led to her downfall. Her beauty had attracted one suitor too many—an undead creature from the depths of hell, Romero, the king of the undead. Bitten by the vampire, the girl had turned into a monster herself, a beast beyond human pity and salvation. It didn't matter how or when her spirit had been broken, but the effects could easily be seen: the deserted mansion, terrified villagers, the dead man with his clean dagger.

Albel Nox was here today to put an end to this. He didn't really care if he would earn himself a place in Lasselle's ballad by killing the female vampire. At the age of twenty-four, he was already the object of court talk, folk tales and several songs. His reputation preceded him, and it was almost as lovely as the corpse he had left by the rosebush only a few moments ago. People recognized him on sight, instinctively stepped out of his way, whispered about his unmatched sword skills and numerous victims. Most couldn't even recall his surname, let alone his title—they knew him merely as Albel the Wicked, the half-crazed warrior obsessed with revenge for a tragedy that had happened nearly a decade ago.

Depending on your point of view, nine years could be a long or a brief period of time. For Nox, nine years were nothing; it seemed that he hadn't moved on an inch since the very day his father had been killed by Romero. Back then, Albel had lost the person he had loved most, five pints of blood, and his left arm, among many other things. In return, he had gained a different—more accurate—outlook on life. And a definite purpose to his own existence.

The rumor said that he was currently hunting undead monsters for a living, but like the vast majority of such tales, it was only partially true. Yes, he had devoted himself to eliminating these creatures, saving quite a few innocent worms in the process, but he had never taken a single coin for his efforts. It wasn't his line of work, it was entertainment. Just like most other nobles, he lived off his land, anyway, and with a trusted supervisor left in his manor, he was free to travel around the continent of Gaitt as much as he desired.

An old friend of his father's claimed that this 'entertainment' was slowly devouring his sanity, but what did the senile coot know? Albel's private affairs were none of that man's business.


He walked farther into the morbid garden, passing a tarnished statue of a singing mermaid, and then turned to a different gravel path, surrounded by high grapevines on both sides. He moved slowly through this half-formed tunnel, inwardly cursing the small, crunching stones under his feet. It was quite surprising, really, that the vampiress hadn't already attacked him. Perhaps she was wounded, maimed or suffering from blood loss, no longer able to sense his presence with necessary accuracy. She might have fled into the dusty mansion, but that was unlikely. Monsters like her were clever predators, focused solely on eliminating their prey. When they felt threatened, they responded by lashing out at the source, not by turning away.

The tunnel ended, and Albel's previous train of thought came to sudden halt.

The second corpse lay by a row of marble stairs that led to a small, narrow passage cut in a thick hedge. Nox recognized the broad, somewhat dull features instantly: it was Shelby, yet another one of his worthless subordinates. Judging from the man's wounds, his death must have been relatively painless, but a similar thing couldn't be said about the third body, sprawled several feet to the left, between a couple of decorative boulders. The victim's white face was frozen in a painful grimace, and the ground next to his feet was furrowed by his own heels. She had strangled him, trying not to pierce the skin with her talons, and then drunk his blood… most probably while he had still been alive.

Staring down at the man's reddened collar, Albel felt his anger rise. It was obviously these maggots' fault for letting themselves be defeated by a mere monster, but then again, they had been his subordinates. Nobody made such a mess of his men and walked away with it.

Noiselessly drawing his sword from its sheath, Albel looked up at the stairs. The vampire was there, he knew it; the corpses couldn't have been a clearer invitation. She was waiting for him. And she was going to pay.


The entrance in the hedge led to a small, circular clearing. In the middle of it stood a huge, dry fountain, decorated with a few marble dolphins, some diving into the waterless basin, several others raising their whole bodies into the air. Nel Zelpher sat astride on one of dolphins' arched backs, almost like an Aquarian noble riding a lum, only so much more graceful. She didn't launch into a lighting-quick attack the moment she saw the intruder, so Albel lowered his sword at last, stopping a few feet away from the wretched thing and her equally lifeless mount. He watched her, instead.

If she hadn't been a monster, he would have called her beautiful. She was a slender, ephemeral creature with unruly crimson hair and bright irises. Fully aware of the extent of her own attractiveness, she wore nothing but an airy, white dress that ended halfway down her thighs, not to mention hugged her full breasts and shapely hips. A small, golden medalion dangled from her neck. Her feet were bare.

Clinging to the dolphin's back like this, she resembled a water nymph, rather than a vampire. The impression of absolute beauty was marred only by the twin daggers in her lap and the bloodstains on her dress—his subordinates' blood. Albel's hand clenched around the katana's handle; he spat at the ground, yet didn't dare to take his eyes off the deadly creature.

"You found me at last, Sir Albel" – her voice was low, sweet and laced with temptation, capable of sending shivers down any man's spine. It made Nox's skin crawl, but he refused to acknowledge the sensation; he wouldn't let himself be troubled by such petty distractions.

"You weren't that hard to find," he answered, all cold and mocking, raising his thin blade a bit higher. It would be quite inconvenient to attack the beast now, when she was still perched at the top of the fountain. Sooner or later, however, she was bound to come down, and then he could make his move. It was only a matter of time, she didn't stand a chance. From his point of view, the battle was over before it even began.

"No, I suppose not," the vampiress agreed, tilting her lovely head to the side. "I knew you would come… though when you first sent those few men instead of seeking me out in person, I nearly felt disappointed. Did you think they would be able to defeat an immortal of my class?"

He clenched his teeth the moment the true implication finally hit him. "You terrorized local villages for the sole purpose of luring me into this garden…?" Not that it mattered, of course, because he couldn't care less about a dozen mutilated peasants. He smirked at her. "Why? Are you so eager to die, monster?"

"How rude of you, to address a lady in this manner…" She leant forward, managing to keep her balance with inhuman ease. "Don't you know my name? Aren't you going to ask how I knew yours?"

"Many people have heard my name," he shrugged, his lips still curled into a contemptuous grimace. He was here to cut her head off, not to humor her wishes. "Especially your people."

She sighed. "What a pathetic, conceited fool you are. Do you honestly think that wiping a few undead things out of existence makes you invincible? You haven't even faced a true challenge, yet."

"Ah, and I suppose that such a challenge is currently sitting in front of me?"

"Perhaps." She smiled wider this time, baring her sharp fangs at him.

He couldn't help but laugh. "You think yourself high and mighty because you were able to slaughter a couple of defenseless peasants? Because the light of day doesn't turn you into a charred piece of meat? High-class vampire, my ass. I'll tell you who you really are, Lady Nel—you are but a frightened girl who killed her own father, and then hid herself in this old house, terrified of what she had become. For months you would stay inside, feeding on rats and stray dogs, until you could no longer stand this accursed existence…" As he kept talking, her expression started to change: she was having trouble controlling her rage. "A week ago you emerged from the shadows, killed a few men and left enough witnesses to bring me into your garden. This is a death wish on your part, is it not?"

"All wrong, Albel Nox." She was no longer smiling. "You're here because I'm going to kill you. You have become too big of a nuisance for my Master. I've been told to end your miserable life."

"Speaking of Romero…" Without taking his eyes off her, he began to walk around the fountain, clockwise, in an uneven rhythm, in order to distract her. She began to turn her head as well, tracing his movements with a pair of viciously green eyes. "You wouldn't know his current whereabouts, would you?"

"Even if I did, what makes you think I would tell you?"

"As I thought, you really don't know." A step, a pause, another two steps. He looked her in the eye. "You're nothing but a puppet, then."

That was it, he realized with a humorless smirk. This girl didn't have the cold mind of a killer: it only took so long to throw her off balance.

"I'll enjoy every minute of carrying out my Master's wish, I assure you," Nel hissed, reaching for her daggers. "As you already realize, I'm not an ordinary vampire. That magical sword of yours won't be enough–"

She leapt forward from her sitting position, so fast that Albel barely registered her movement, and nearly failed to parry a cut aimed at his throat. He stumbled back, raising his left hand to block the other dagger. Nel's blade hit his metal gauntlet with a loud clang, and then slid off harmlessly. Sparks flew. Albel swore under his breath. Damn it all, she was much stronger than she looked, not that he hadn't expected it. And she reeked of blood.

They broke apart a second later, but of course it was only the beginning. She disappeared from sight in a twirl of red and white, trying to stab the swordsman from behind. Spinning around, he dodged the blow and brought his own sword up, yet the vampiress was faster. She easily avoided the strike by jumping away, and then, giving her opponent no chance to recover, she showered him with vicious blows.

The charming water nymph was gone, all that remained was a rabid viper. Gone also were Albel's previous sentiments; that is, if he had had any in the first place. As they kept fighting, he wondered when and where she had picked up such skills, so uncommon for a vampire, let alone for the lady she had once been. Had Romero taught her these moves? Or had it been her father, the poor fool who had ended up as one of her victims? Albel figured that it didn't really matter. His own movements were clean and methodical. Hers were fast-paced and furious; she was getting tired already.

He didn't have to wait long for her first mistake. Nel parried his slash with one of her daggers, but she lowered the other blade too much, perhaps trying to stab his thigh. She must have been awfully surprised as Albel's metal claw tore into her right side, ripping the dress and a good portion of her flesh. She shrieked and flew backwards, pushing herself off the fountain's edge, landing safely on the dolphin's back.

Albel clenched the stained hand into a fist, watching the wounded creature with impassive eyes. She crouched on the curved, marble surface, pressing her white fingers against the five gashes in her side. Another shriek rent the air; filled with rage rather than with pain. The swordsman wiped the sweat from his brow.

"Cry as much as you want, monster. I'll still cut off that pretty little head of yours."

She stared at him for a moment, and then she was back in the air, crossing the distance between them in a long, inhumanly swift leap. Albel threw himself to the side, but he was too slow. He felt the vampiress brush against him; one of her daggers scratched his cheek. Still, he acted without a pause, twisting his upper body, turning his fingers on the handle. He aimed low, at the girl's stomach. He was lucky.

Nel gasped and tumbled to the ground. The twin daggers fell out of her hands.

He stood above her, breathing heavily, the sword already lowered, because the fighting was over. He watched the front of her dress grow dark, now drenched with her own blood, and he wasn't smirking anymore. Her green eyes looked unnaturally huge in such a pale face. She kept opening and closing her mouth, but no sound came out.

Even so, she still seemed beautiful.

"C-cold," she managed at last, the words barely audible. "Colder than the last time…"

The only thing left was to cut off the creature's head, otherwise she wouldn't die. Albel kept his sword lowered; though for what reason, he couldn't say. Nel made an effort to sit up, failed miserably, and then only looked up, meeting the man's blank gaze.

"If I a-asked you a favor," this time, her voice was even fainter than before, "would you do it for me…?"

He didn't reply at once, and when he did, his question was accompanied with a cold shrug. "Why should I?"

"Please," she all but whispered, "I… I know you are going to kill me, so… my medallion… I want you to bury it…"

Albel narrowed his eyes, focusing on the pendant she wore around her neck. If anything, he would keep it as a memento, until the day he could throw it in Romero's face. He hesitated, and then knelt down by the girl's side, leaning forward to inspect the necklace, pulling it from under her bloodied dress. "This?"

He never saw her move until it was too late.

She lashed out at him with her bare hands, slashing at his throat with long, inhuman fingernails. Albel wheezed out a curse and stumbled backwards. There was too much blood, he realized, pressing his palms against the wound. The sticky liquid flew past his fingers, staining the front of his shirt.

He rose to his feet, unsteadily, fighting against a wave of dizziness that suddenly overcame him. The vampiress lay on the ground, still conscious but no longer moving, as if that single attack had robbed her of all strength. She kept staring up at him with those huge, emerald eyes. Defeated and victorious at the same time. Albel wanted to spit in her face, but he had other problems to worry about.

He had no idea if the wound was fatal; he could only hope she hadn't managed to damage any important blood vessels. Still, the man knew he was quickly running out of time. He had to wrap something around the cut, and then reach the nearest village as soon as possible, if he didn't want to die from loss of blood. Perhaps he was going to make it. First things first, though.

Nel Zelpher didn't close her eyes even as he brought his sword down.