This time, as he walked down the dim corridor to the subterranean council chamber Josef kept his footsteps as silent as possible on the cool stone. While to his nose the smell of decay, the scent of vampires, still hung heavy in the air, he could not tell if any remained in the area. And if the council chamber was empty, his options were depressingly limited.
Josef paused in the doorway. The chamber was bare, the opulent tapestries stripped from the walls, the richly carved seats removed from the dais. Even Josef's keen eyes had trouble discerning anything beyond these basic details in the blackness, relieved only by a bar of faintly flickering torchlight cast through the door.
"You are surprised at our foresight?" said a voice from the shadows, and Thomas Corn stepped forward.
"Not particularly," Josef replied. "You are too old not to be careful."
Corn nodded, "This is not the first fire we have seen."
Josef smiled tightly. "I had expected—hoped—to find the Lady Elaine here."
The other vampire shook his head. "Not here. Not tonight. The flames draw too near."
"Will you take me to her?" Josef asked. "I have need of her—counsel."
Thomas Corn narrowed his blue eyes, pursing his lips thoughtfully, and inhaled. Josef observed this with some amusement. He's trying to smell the lie on me, Josef thought, as though I were some human. He had no heartbeat to speed, no breathing pattern to change, even though he filled his lungs steadily. And if Corn thought his scrutiny was enough to make Josef break a fear sweat…he was mistaken. Then a slow, cold smile spread across Corn's face. "Yes," he said, "yes, I'll take you to her."
He led Josef much further through a set of tunnels than Josef would have imagined possible. That this was done partly to confuse him, the younger vampire had no doubt. When at last they came up through a cleverly disguised set of stairs onto the street level, at first Josef was confused, not by the location—he had no idea where they were, but this was not the important thing to him at the present—but by the light. According to his time sense, the light was all wrong. He knew the sun had set, he was absolutely certain of it. Yet the streets were lit as brightly as day. In some ways it provided Josef with a visceral proof of the extent and ferocity of the fire, and evidently Thomas Corn was equally disconcerted. Differences forgotten for a moment, the two exchanged a look of mutual dismay.
"This is the vengeful hand of God come down upon us all," Corn said, "for our many sins."
Josef was unsure whether he heard apprehension or self-righteousness in Corn's voice. He carefully considered his response, having no desire to engage in theological debate. Not with the city in flames around them. "Perhaps it would be best to go as quickly as possible to the Lady Elaine," he suggested.
The look Corn returned was enigmatic. "Yes," he said, "that would be best."
They moved rapidly through the nightmare streets, the eerie light providing deep shadows to mask their passage. As the fire spread, new evacuees filled the byways, precious possessions clasped close. Josef felt a pang again for Maria, but had no sense of her to grasp, no idea of her situation. He could do nothing but follow this other path now, and trust he would find her when the flames had died.
When at length Corn slowed, and turned into an unassuming lane, it was in a near deserted district. The fire was close here, and Josef could see from a slight rise where they had paused, that the devouring flames were sweeping ever nearer.
They continued in silence, Corn noiselessly opening a small, neatly concealed gate at the back of a property and holding it for Josef to pass within ahead of him. Josef put a hand to his sword hilt, and sidled through, unwilling to trust even a seeming ally.
The courtyard was deserted, and even the incessant howl of the east wind and the roaring of the encroaching fire seemed muted here, out of place. Corn held out a hand. Under the circumstances, it seemed like a parody of the gracious gesture it imitated.
Josef gave Thomas Corn a curt and sardonic bow, and strode inside. His smile echoing Josef's, Corn followed, and together they crossed over the barren flagstones to enter the doorway of the house.
His first impression of the room was that it echoed the architecture of his own home, and wondered belatedly if there were secret entrances to that residence of which he had never been apprised. But that was a minor flash in his consciousness as he took in the scene.
Summersisle was holding a kneeling, struggling swallow by her dark hair, stretching her neck as Lady Elaine bent down, ready to plunge her fangs into the girl's neck. As Josef approached, she twisted again in a frantic attempt to escape. It was no swallow, it was his Maria.
Josef roared as he covered the space between them, seizing Lady Elaine's arm and spinning her away from the terrified girl. The elder vampire staggered back under the ferocity of his assault, catching herself against a table. She hissed at him, a mad light in her silver eyes. "In my own house, you attack me?"
Josef had turned away, back to Summersisle, and as he approached, the dark vampire released his grip in Maria's hair and sent her sprawling to the floor. Josef allowed himself no more than a flicker of a glance down to see that she was unharmed, where she huddled, sobbing. He drew his blade. Trying to watch the other three vampires in the room, he spoke to her as softly as he could. "You have to trust me, Maria. Get against the wall, and stay down. Stay out of the way."
She didn't answer, but began to scuttle to the side as he took a step towards Summersisle. "Why her? Why did you bring her here?"
The vampire smiled. "I think you know," he said. "But I think your quarrel is with the others."
Meanwhile, Thomas Corn was circling, trying to get to Lady Elaine, and Josef rounded on them. "And you," he snarled, "why did you kill my household? What end could that possibly serve?"
Lady Elaine moved forward, her hands curved into talons, her smile beautiful, ethereal, and quite insane. Whether it was the burden of her long years, or some other flaw in her nature, Josef realized something within her was quite broken. "They were contaminated, damned as we are all damned. They had to die, to end the evil." She pointed at Maria, cowering by the hearth. "As she has to die. Even if you have never drunk from her, she is polluted by your touch." And as she spoke, she launched herself forward towards Josef.
Corn, too, made his attack, trying to flank Josef as he met the shock of Lady Elaine's onslaught with his blade raised. As it touched her, Corn just behind, the auburn-haired vampire laughed. "Do you think we fear your steel, Alexander?"
Josef smiled, a feral, joyless smirk, as his blade pierced Lady Elaine's body, and she began to scream. "Steel, no," he said, withdrawing the sword from the deep wound, and riposting to open a searing gash in Corn's face. "Silver, yes."
Corn clapped a hand to his bleeding face, and tried to catch Lady Elaine as she fell. Josef spared a look at Summersisle, who was shaking his head.
"Clever," Summersisle said, "very clever. We knew you'd track down our killer sooner or later, and either way, we'd be rid of her, or you…"
"… preferably you," Thomas Corn snarled, then he looked down at the writhing woman in his arms, and his expression softened. "At first, she didn't know what she was doing…it was as though she were possessed of a demon. Then it got worse and worse. Her own fledglings were not even safe from her obsessions. I could protect her no longer."
Summersisle laughed, bitterly. "She'd ruled the city so long, that no one ever thought she could be displaced. But she can, she can be pulled down from that throne, with your help, witting or not."
Corn glared at him. "Some of us loved her. We wanted to find peace for her, at last. But this isn't peace. It's—it's damnation. For us all." Suddenly, as he spoke, the leaded windows of the great hall burst in. The flames had reached this ancient house, heating the stone of its walls past endurance. They all cringed from the flying shards of glass, and Corn attempted to cover Lady Elaine's body with his own. When the glass had settled, and with flames licking in the open windows, he put her aside, gently, and rose to charge Josef once more. "And if you've killed her, then you have to pay."
Josef, trying to watch in too many directions, didn't see the tall vampire until he was almost upon him. They grappled, Corn grabbing for Josef's blade hand to wrest his sword away. The quarters were too close for Josef to use his weapon, and the elder vampire was too strong to be overcome. He let his feet go out from under him, falling backwards to the floor and carrying Corn with him.
They rolled together across the floor, seeking some advantage, inflicting damage as they could with teeth and nails. Once Corn broke free, jumped to his feet, and seizing a chair, cracked it into splinters against the wall, grabbing a wicked-looking jagged piece, and holding it like a dagger. Josef, too, had regained his feet, and caught sight of Summersisle, slowly making his way around the perimeter of the room.
"Where do you think you're going?" Josef rasped, raising his sword in Summersisle's direction.
The vampire laughed, "Away from here, fledgling. After you all kill each other, some one has to hold power in this city." He paused. "Whatever's left of it." And with that he slipped away, seeking to outrun the flames.
The growl from Corn let Josef know he was attacking again, and he turned, slashing at the vampire as his opponent stabbed forward with his makeshift stake. Josef felt the blade bite deep into Corn's side, even as the splintered wood found a mark in his own body, and they both fell, gasping, to the floor. It had missed his heart, if barely. He was not paralyzed, but he was sorely wounded. Through the haze of his pain, he saw Thomas Corn, on his hands and knees, head hanging, the blood pouring from his poisoned wounds, moving with agonizing slowness toward the unconscious Lady Elaine. His effort was superhuman, his once-formidable strength ebbing visibly as he struggled to reach his love.
They were dead, Josef knew. Corn and Lady Elaine both. The amount of silver the blade had left in their wounds would spread through their bodies, prevent them from healing. If the flames didn't kill them all first. He began to crawl towards Maria. She was his only hope, and strangely, he was hers as well.
Josef sensed, rather than saw, when Thomas Corn reached Lady Elaine. The wounded vampire gathered her into his arms, brushing the golden hair away from her pale, slack face.
"Thomas, my beloved, is that you?" she said faintly, her eyes still closed.
"Yes, my lady, my love," he replied, gasping with the pain.
"Are we dying?"
He tightened his embrace, and calling on his last reserves of strength, stood, with Lady Elaine in his arms. "Yes," he said, "but we will be always together." And as Josef watched, disbelieving, Thomas Corn staggered across the hall, his face set in a rictus of pain, and plunged out the doorway into the inferno beyond.
Josef rolled onto his back, overcome with the pain of the stake in his side. He set a hand to it, but he could get no leverage. And it was so close to his heart, he feared to shift it himself. "Maria!" he called out, "Maria, for the love of--please, please, help me!"
Maria raised her face from her hands at the sound. She had been too terrified to look, but they were alone now, and Josef was only a few feet away. She crawled to his side. He seemed helpless, his big body stretched on the stone floor, and covered in blood. She had a sudden vision of her vampire play, the brave heroine nobly facing down and killing the monster. But this monster had never harmed her, never offered to harm her, had in fact, protected her from the others who would have killed her. She knew she should finish him while he was wounded, but she couldn't bring herself to it. He was looking at her with such trust, such a terrible trust on his handsome face. She laid a hand on his forehead, cool beneath the sweat beaded there. "H-how?" she faltered.
"The wood. Pull the wood from my body." Josef's words were so faint, she had to strain to hear him.
"You'll bleed to death." She'd seen such a thing once, in her youth, where an impaling rod, removed, had been followed by the headlong rush of life running out.
Josef smiled at her. "No…" he breathed, "it's all right, Maria. Just do it now."
Maria set her hand to the jagged wood, wincing at Josef's gasp as she touched it. Then she bit down hard on her lower lip, said a little prayer, and pulled.
There was no red flood from the wound, and Josef took a deep, shuddering breath. He rolled to his side and curled around the pain for a moment. But there was no time to lose. The air was becoming hotter in the hall. Much hotter. He had to get them out of there, at once. And he couldn't do it, wounded as he was, although he shied away from the solution.
Josef swallowed hard, and tried to rise. There was no help for it. "Maria," he said, "listen to me. I can save us—I know I can save us, but I need you. I need to take some of your blood."
She stared at him, eyes wide with shock, one hand to her mouth. "No!" she cried. "I can't—it's not right. It's not possible."
He held a hand out to her. "There's no other way," he said, pleading, "I swear to you, there's no other way." He stopped and fixed her with a steady stare, trying to hide the agony it cost him to move, trying to make his voice as calm as he could. "I would never hurt you."
Maria looked at him for several long seconds, and he could feel the heat rising. There was a loud crash from outside, probably one of the outbuildings collapsing. She broke her gaze away from him, then looked back, resolutely. "To save us," she said quietly, and moved closer.
Josef reached up and took her in his arms, pulling her down beside him. He could feel his fangs extend, and he almost sobbed with his need for her blood. Putting one hand on her throat, he drew her closer still, and just before he bit, he murmured in her ear, "I love you, Maria."
The girl stiffened in his arms as his fangs pierced her skin, and the blood began to flow into his waiting mouth. He sucked gently, feeling the tremors begin to build in her body, and heard her moan, but not with pain. He could feel the wound in his side closing, healing, the bright, burning sensation of the flesh knitting together. The taste was sweeter than he'd dreamed.
But there was no time, this time, to linger, to savor her blood. Reluctantly he pulled his mouth away from her and stood fluidly, bringing her languid form up with him. He cast around, searching for another door, another passage out. The kitchen…the corridor to the kitchen. Swinging Maria up into his arms, he strode forward.
The back of the house was not yet engulfed in flame. He could get through here, if he was fast enough, if he could jump the wall. He began to run, Maria clinging to his neck, her face tucked against his chest. "Hold on," he said, glorying suddenly in the deed.
The wall was easy, the rough stones providing traction for his feet, and he gained the top with a bound and a scramble, swaying to regain his balance, Maria still held close in his arms. Jumping down was like flying, and his heart soared with the joy of motion. He hit the ground at a run, intent on putting distance between the danger and themselves, leaping burning timbers and other obstacles easily. When he'd gained some breathing room, Josef stopped. Once again, he stood on a rise, and saw the burning city spread around them. Maria seemed to wake from her daze, and struggled slightly. Josef smiled down at her, and set her on her feet. "It's all right, Maria," he said, "we're safe here, for the moment."
She pushed away from him with one hand, backing up a yard or two, and shook her head. "You drank my blood," she said, her face stricken. "You bit me and drank my blood."
"I saved your life." He paused, the joy on his face turning to question, and then to doubt. "Don't you understand? We would have burned."
Maria put a hand to her neck, covering the wounds he had made. She shook her head again, and again. "I—I—can't face this. I can't be used so by an unnatural creature."
Josef reached out to her, and she cringed back. "Please, Maria. I meant you know harm. Please don't—"
"Get away from me!" Her voice was shrill, breaking from emotion. "Never come near me again." She backed away, this time not stopping, and when she was well out of reach, turned gathering up her skirts, and began to run, disappearing into the night.
Josef stood, stunned, and watched her go. He could have caught her, could have forced her to listen, but his wounded pride would not allow it. He stood for a long time, just in that spot, in case she returned, watching the flames in the city below, but she never came back.
In London, the Great Fire raged on for two more days, but in Josef's undead heart, from that moment forward, only ashes remained.