Author's Notes: Sorry for the slow update, guys! Real life issues have been conspiring against me.
I owe a huge thank-you to ineptshieldmaid for all the time she spent discussing finicky little details with me when she should probably have been working on an essay instead. It's thanks to her that I was able to get this done at all.
I regret to inform you all that this chapter has NOT seen the magic super-beta-powers of xphoenixrising this time around, because she's a bit snowed under. So feel free to beat me up if you catch any glaringly obvious errors.
Chapter 4. Like Something Out Of A Cheap Horror Novel
Dawn was peeking shyly over the horizon, casting a faint blanket of dusky light over the dewy morning grass. A light breeze tugged gently at the hem of Susan's skirts as she padded across the lawn, savouring the prickling sensation of the crisp, cool air on her skin.
Morning had always been Susan's favourite time of day. Freshness seemed to infuse her very bones, and all lingering traces of the trials and tribulations of the previous day were washed away under the first tender caresses of the sun. When the sun rose a little higher she would become Queen Susan the Gentle, devoted leader and willing servant to the peoples of the land. But now, while politics and duties and social graces lay in heavy slumber, she was just Susan.
And how welcome was the reprieve! Life at the castle was becoming steadily more stressful. It had been over a month since the Lady Prunaprismia's suicide, and the mysterious deaths had escalated so much that the council were pushing to have the whole castle quarantined. Caspian was obstinate, appearing almost every day to deal with the townsfolk who came in droves seeking an audience with their King. Not that the need for quarantine had been ignored completely. The city had been shut off to outsiders, and Telmarines and Beasts alike had been ordered not to leave its walls lest they spread the plague throughout the rest of the country. So far that was proving more problematic than the deaths that had necessitated it. The city borders now had to be patrolled, and it was making trade very difficult.
Her feet carried her around the side of the castle, where the practice grounds were located. To her great amusement, she found that they were not deserted. Caspian, it seemed, had managed to lure Peter out for an early morning sparring match. Susan knew Peter well enough to wonder just how much brutal force this feat had required. The High King was not a morning person.
Neither of them noticed her approach, intent as they were on what was panning out to be a very aggressive match. Not wanting to distract the two combatants, Susan settled herself down in the shade at the edge of the field to watch. It was good, she thought, to be familiar with the techniques of the men who led her country into battle, even if she herself could not wield a sword.
The fact that Caspian looked enchantingly attractive, his muscular form showed off to its best advantage while locked in combat, had nothing to do with it at all.
She watched him lunge and parry with effortless grace, his feet seeming to glide across the ground. It was like dancing, she thought – a beautifully aggressive ballroom dance, perfected through years upon years of training. It was also – Susan blushed crimson as the idea floated through her mind – a little bit like sex. She wondered vaguely how Peter would react if she leapt from her seat and attacked Caspian with her lips.
On further thought, perhaps that wouldn't be so wise.
Her train of thought was interrupted by a familiar voice behind her. Susan turned to smile at Edmund, biting back her vague irritation at the decidedly sociable turn her quiet morning alone was taking. When she saw her brother's expression, however, she leapt to her feet immediately. "Goodness, Ed, what's wrong?"
Edmund's lips were pressed together in a tight, anxious line. His skin was uncharacteristically pale, contrasting starkly with his dark hair. Judging by the disarray of his tunic, he had risen and dressed in a great hurry. His eyes, when they met hers, were carefully guarded.
"We need you all up at the castle," he said in a tone of forced calm. "There's been some sort of mishap with Cornelius…I don't really know what's going on…"
Susan stared at him uncomprehendingly. Sighing, he stepped fast her and hurried over to the fence around the field. Finally noticing that they had company, Caspian and Peter broke apart and joined him, and a few words Susan couldn't quite hear were exchanged. Then all three were rushing back to castle, with her behind struggling to keep up.
It looked as though the place had been ransacked. Books and papers had been torn from the shelves in a great hurry, and lay scattered across the floor. An inkpot on the desk had been knocked over, creating a large black puddle on the thick carpet. The bed was unmade, and the chest at its foot had been thrown wide open with clothes flung about all over the place. The curtains rippled and in the breeze drifting through the wide-open window, causing the many loose papers to flutter and rustle across the floor.
"Apparently, he always has his breakfast delivered early in the morning," Edmund was explaining. "One of the servants was bringing up his platter and, well…this is what he found." He gestured uncomfortably at the chaotic mess that had once been the Doctor's meticulously organized chamber.
Caspian had dashed into the room ahead of them all, and promptly collapsed to his knees. For a minute Susan had thought he was overcome by grief, but when she stepped up to comfort him she realised that he was poring over the assorted texts that lay open in the middle of the floor. As she and her brothers looked on, a thoughtful frown began to crease the tanned skin of his forehead. At length, he rose to his feet and turned calmly to the other anxious monarchs.
"This is not what it looks like," he said evenly. "There has been no accident."
Peter and Susan exchanged confused glances. Edmund raised an eyebrow. "What do you think happened, then? Did Cornelius just trash the place for fun?"
Caspian rolled his eyes, stepping over to the desk and kneeling beside the large stain on the carpet. "It's dry," he muttered, seemingly to himself. "He must have left last night."
"Left?" Peter's tone was cautious, sceptical. "Caspian, did you know something about this?"
"No," was the maddeningly unclear answer. "He has been working in complete secrecy, it seems."
Silence fell for several minutes. Caspian picked up a hefty tome from the floor and sat down on the end of his old professor's bed, scanning through the pages and looking increasingly unhappy with what he found there. Edmund, looking rather irritated at the lapse of communication, began a cursory examination of the cluttered desk. Quite suddenly, he gave a small cry and snatched up a sheet of parchment that had been resting, altogether too conspicuously, atop a stack of books.
Caspian glanced up at him, curiosity etched across his face. "Edmund? What is it?"
For a moment, no answer was forthcoming. Edmund scrutinized the page carefully; then, with a puzzled shrug, handed it to Caspian.
"It looks like a letter," he said. "I can't make head or tail of it, though. It's in no language I can understand."
Caspian did not seem to be listening. He was poring over the letter, a small smile spreading gradually on his face. By the time he tossed the paper down, he wore an expression of thorough relief.
"My friends," he announced, "it seems we have allowed our imaginations to get the better of us. There is no immediate danger. He thinks he has discovered something that may help us understand what is plaguing the city, and has gone to research it further. He says…" He picked up the letter again, squinting at it. "He says that the nature of his task requires utter secrecy, and the greatest speed…well, that explains the mess he's left us." Caspian eyed the ink-stain distastefully. "He must have been in a frantic hurry. I cannot imagine what got him so excited."
Edmund nodded thoughtfully. He picked up the book Caspian had been leafing through so eagerly, frowning intently. It was very heavy and very old, and the pages felt dusty and brittle beneath his fingertips. The aged leather cover was embossed with gold symbols. He set it down again in mild disgust.
"This one isn't in English either," he muttered irritably. "By Jove, Caspian, can't your professor speak plainly for once, instead of carrying on with all this gibberish?"
The corners of Caspian's mouth quirked mirthfully. "This gibberish, King Edmund, is the ancient tongue of my forefathers. It has fallen rather out of fashion in the past few hundred years. Only Nobles and scholars speak it now."
"Ah," put in Peter. "Then I suppose he wrote that letter so that any servants who found it first wouldn't be able to understand it."
Caspian gave him a short nod. "That book…I have never seen anything like it. It looks like one of the books of magic he would never let me read. 'Not proper study for princes,'" he said wryly.
"What does it say?" Susan had thus far hung back, keeping her mouth closed and allowing the three more excitable Kings to investigate the situation, but her curiosity was getting the better of her.
Caspian eyed the thick wad of pages uncertainly. "Rather a lot," he said sincerely. When Susan's eyebrows began to pucker, he hastened to elaborate. "I am a little rusty in my translation. I would not want to pass on information until I am sure it is correct. If I could spend a few hours studying all these books more thoroughly, perhaps I could get a better idea of the professor's intentions." He gestured at the pile on the floor, many of which, it now became apparent, had been marked open.
"I can take care of the office for you." Peter grimaced slightly. "Gosh, I haven't had a chance to practice my administrative skills in ages."
Caspian nodded gratefully. "If you could smooth things over with the servants…make sure news of this doesn't spread…"
"Done." Putting on his most authoritative face, Peter turned and strode out of the room.
Caspian turned to the remaining two Pevensies. "Many of these volumes are also in your language," he offered. "If either of you-"
"I can help," put in Susan hastily. "I'm a fast reader."
Edmund snorted. Two sets of eyes turned to stare blankly at him.
"Look," he said reasonably. "You two aren't as subtle as you think you are, alright? And it's none of my business, but you both know you'll just distract each other. Perhaps it'd be better if I stayed to help Caspian."
Susan scowled, her cheeks glowing bright red. "Fine," she snapped, biting back the number of nasty retorts she longed to voice in reply. "I'll go and fill Lucy in, then." She stalked out of the room, gathering her skirts up with as much dignity as she could muster.
Edmund turned to face a rather chagrined Caspian. "It's not that I mind," he said, trying to sound placating. "Back in the day, Susan had plenty of suitors. I'm kind of used to it."
Caspian's expression nearly made Edmund laugh out loud.
"Oh, don't get yourself all wound up about it. You're the first she's shown this much favour to."
Looking considerably happier, Caspian settled down amid the pile of books and began to work.
The day was getting on when Caspian and the Pevensies met again to discuss what they had found. Lucy, having been informed of the development by Susan, had insisted on being included, which meant they had to wait until Regalian had been put to bed and settled for the night. Finally, though, the five monarchs had managed to escape the call of duty and were gathered comfortably around the fire in Caspian's sitting room. Caspian, for his part, had been appalled at the scandalous notion of having ladies invited into his private chambers, but necessity had overridden his deeply ingrained etiquette and they had all agreed to meet there to hear what Caspian and Edmund had unearthed in the professor's study.
"Well, it all leads to absolutely nothing," Edmund was announcing wearily. "Our most esteemed Doctor has been sitting around in his study, scaring himself witless with silly tales for children."
Caspian, standing by the fireplace with his hands behind his back, frowned slightly at Edmund. "It was not so long ago," he said rather curtly, "that you, too, were considered naught but a 'silly tale for children'."
Edmund rolled his eyes. "There is such a thing as having too much of an open mind, Caspian. Just because we turned out to be real doesn't mean that you should believe everything any old nutter tells you."
"What are you talking about?" Lucy, curled up on the hearthrug like an oversized kitten, stared sternly at them.
Edmund heaved a reluctant sigh. "Those books the Doctor's been collecting. They're nothing but old wives' tales compiled by a bunch of superstitious fools. It wasn't even proper black magic."
Peter, stretched out in a large armchair with his boots on the low coffee table, shot his brother a suspicious look. "How do you know what proper black magic looks like?"
"I've seen it in action," Edmund reminded him dryly. "This stuff was all about summoning spirits that never existed, and taking baths in concoctions of frog's liver under the light of the full moon…"
Caspian gave a loud huff. "I am not saying that it is all true. I just do not believe that professor Cornelius would study it without good reason."
"That's all very well," said Peter, "but what good is it to us if we don't know what his reasons are?"
"But we do know. At least, he has made it clear enough where his focus lies." Despite Caspian's confident tone, his face betrayed a nervous scepticism that suggested he didn't trust his professor's judgements as much as he wished the others to believe.
"Go on." Perched in the deep window seat, Susan stared pensively out at the shadowy grounds as she listened to the conversation unfold.
"Well…" Caspian cleared his throat. "There was a scrap of paper folded inside one of the books. It seems he took references for all the pages that served his purpose. From looking up each one, it has become clear to me that the passages he found most useful were those concerning the, er, undead."
Susan's head whipped around so fast that she nearly lost her balance and toppled from the window seat. "The undead? You mean vampires?" Her eyes grew very wide. "But…vampires don't exist in Narnia…do they?"
Edmund raised his eyes to the heavens. "Not you as well, Su. Goodness, why so pale? There never were any vampires in Narnia! I'm telling you, this is all a load of nonsense."
"Su, you're overreacting," said Peter gently. "We're just hypothesising."
Susan took a shaky breath. "Sorry," she mumbled, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks. "I've just…read rather a lot about vampires, you know."
Her three siblings raised their eyebrows in unison. Caspian shuffled closer to the fire, looking politely confused.
"Is that what you were doing when you used to lock yourself away for hours in your bedroom?" asked Edmund incredulously. "Reading penny dreadfuls?"
"Not penny dreadfuls!" Susan's face reddened still more. "They were Gothic romances, if you must know. I only hid them because I knew mother wouldn't approve."
"Look," said Peter quickly, before Edmund could utter anything derisive. "There's no point in us sitting around and arguing about whether or not vampires exist. That's obviously what Cornelius is off doing." He sat up straighter in his chair, adopting the commanding air that always seemed to make it clear just why he had been crowned High King Peter the Magnificent. "I know we're all dying of curiosity right now, but for the time being there's nothing to do but carry on as normal until the Doctor gets back. We're jumping to conclusions, in any case. We don't even have any real evidence."
"He's right," chipped in Lucy unhappily. "We'll just have to trust that Doctor Cornelius knows what he's doing, I suppose."
"Who are you? How did you get in? I will call father-"
"You will do no such thing." The voice was low, seductive; repulsive and yet deliciously alluring at the same time.
The vampire smiled – a dark, humourless smile infused with hatred and passion and lust. She crawled, graceful and feline, up the bed, her cold hands prying the covers away. The Telmarine girl whimpered as the thin white nightgown was ripped from her body. Naked and trembling, she felt as if her throat had closed in on itself – she could not speak, could not cry out. Those hands, so cold and dry and weightless, brushed teasingly over her skin, and a spell was stealing over her as the whole world seemed to evaporate around her and there was nothing, nothing but this strange and beautiful woman with her increasingly bold caresses. She stopped fighting the terror, and as it washed over her she found that it had turned into…something else. Now the stranger was kissing her, and such heat surely could not come from someone so cold…and a hand was fluttering up her leg, stealing between her thighs, and that was it. Her back arched helplessly, and a wild euphoria stole over her as she felt a sharp, piercing pain just below her jaw.
And all was darkness.
In a large, plush bed in her empty guest chamber, Susan woke up screaming.