If not for the passing of time announced by the discrete chimes of cuckoo clocks cleverly engineered to represent woodland birds poking their heads out of hiding spots amidst the shelves one might never know that outside, the day star, enemy to all Nobility, travelled across the skies. The dim, pleasant light of the library was constant, unchanging, as indifferent to the reality outside as one would indeed expect. Time was simply not a matter of importance to the castle's immortal inhabitants, although it had allowed some past resident to amuse him- or herself with designing the chorus of mechanical birds at some point.
Neither man made conversation as the hours drudged past. The sable cloaked hunter simply sat, unmoving, with the patient air of someone who knew from centuries of experience that everything does indeed come to he who waits. A newcomer to the library might easily have taken him to be a statue, if a bit of an odd choice given the sylvan theme of the castle's interior designs. Nearby, the hunter's two shadowy guardians stood, equally still, not breathing, unmoving, indifferent.
The vampire lord was slightly less dormant. He sat, long legs crossed, occasionally raising a hand to rub his temple, his pleasant features marred by a frown and his ruby gaze occasionally shifted from one piece of furniture to another. Once or twice he stood and walked around the table before sitting back down. He made no attempt to draw words from the taciturn hunter but his self-targeted frustration was poorly concealed and his mind clearly hard at work. Now and then he glanced over at the hunter, shook his head ever so slightly, and resumed his brooding instead.
When at last a third night black guardian faded into existence next to the Noble he looked up with obvious relief. The figure, male in form, bowed lightly and inclined its head towards the grand library doors but did not speak. "At last," Aldan murmured and stood, dismissing the servant with a nod. He glanced at the hunter. "My dear brother wishes for me – and per extension, you – to join him. I presume that this is what we have been waiting for?"
The dhampir stood as well, black cloak rustling ever so softly. "Yes. How is your head?"
"Apart from the unpleasant sensation that there is a small but vicious imp with a hammer and chisel behind my eyebrows trying to dig his way out through my forehead I'm fine. Feel very encouraged to commiserate."
Whether the viscount actually expected an expression of sympathy or not he received none. With a wave of a pale hand he dismissed the two guardians who had kept close to the hunter ever since he had left Liesl Thorne with her father in the early morning. Then the two men left the library, the Noble leading them through a series of interconnecting galleries and into the great hall with its grandiose display of nocturnal beauty.
The Count of Millefleur reclined on the dais, as statuesque and formal as the previous night; only his clothing had changed, his current choice of kimono displaying an intricate, weaving dance of silvery herons on a backdrop of bamboo reeds in pale green shades. His beautiful daughter rested at his feet, leaning against his knee, preferring a wardrobe choice of pale cream hues that caused her pale skin to appear as luminescent as a distant moon.
"Good evening," Aldan exclaimed with a cheerful air that belied his previous expression of pain. "I trust we are all in good spirits tonight?" He sat down in the armchair opposite his brother, leaving the dhampir to stand below the dais. "We're getting started, then?"
The elder Thorne nodded curtly. "Indeed. I am confident in your abilities, Aldan, but the idea of having a hunter of such repute roaming freely on the castle grounds troubles me nonetheless. It is an unnecessary risk that must be rectified."
The viscount looked sheepish. "I didn't explicitly order him to stay in the suite," he admitted. "I've forbidden him to take any aggressive action against us or the property, though."
"It doesn't matter," Landon cut him off. "He is here and he must be put to use before he figures out a way to become a liability." He gestured at the hunter's attire and at the large blue pendant on his chest in particular. "Are any of these actual enchantments or are they simply the result of a misguided fashion sense?"
Aldan steepled his fingertips. "Some of them are. Tools of the trade, so to speak. They are of little use without the will to command them, though, and the dhampir's will is subject to mine."
"You should will him to stop scowling," Liesl giggled, russet locks dancing.
"On a guesstimate, how many men in their prime would you say he compares to in terms of vitality?"
The viscount frowned. "I am not certain that I can offer a reasonable estimate there, brother. Dhampirs are usually a fair bit more, ah, energetic than their human counterparts but it is really quite difficult to separate legend from fact in this case. I have made somewhat of a point out of not having had the opportunity to see him exercise that sword."
"Very well. I shall have to find out as I work, then." The Count raised his hand dismissively. "No, don't even ask, Aldan. I am not making this an invitation. You have no business in my laboratory."
"That's hardly sporting. Besides, you still need me to tell him what to do."
"Indeed. Tell him to do what I say."
Aldan sighed, "Right, right. Tell me, though – if it turns out that he has what your spell requires, you'll change your mind about my villagers. I really am quite dedicated to them."
The elder Thorne 's marble features twisted into a cold, annoyed mask. "We have had this discussion. We are not having it again. My word is final; get other humans if you must."
The viscount stood. Walking down the steps towards the hunter, facing away from his family, a raw expression of bleakness fluttered across his pale features for but a fragment of a breath's time. His crimson gaze locked on the dhampir for a moment He folded his arms behind his back, riding crop in one hand, and looked back up over his shoulder at his brother. "I can't let you do that, Landon. I'm sorry. I can't. I won't."
Time froze, and then thawed abruptly as the Count sprang into motion, covering the distance from dais to floor in one giant stride. His bloodless hand whipped out like a hunting cat's talons, raking across Aldan's face and knocking him to the floor. "You dare!" the Noble screamed, his sudden, explosive rage as powerful an assault on vampiric senses as the spray of ruby droplets that accompanied his brother's less than graceful tumble.
"You ungrateful cur! You twisted, worthless piece of offal!" The Count pulled his brother back up by the neck tie before clawing his face again, eyes glaring crimson with hatred. "You dare come here pretending to obey me!You bring that tainted halfbreed – " he paused in punishing his brother's face to sneer at the hunter for a second – "here to do your dirty work! You should have ordered him to attack while you could because I am not going to let you say one word now, you hear me? Not. One. Word!"
On the dais, Liesl's lips formed a little 'o'. The dark hunter watched her, his thoughts as shielded from scrutiny as always.
She stood, cream dress rustling. "Father. Father!"
Count Landon buried his fist in his brother's auburn mane, holding him up by it, and turned around. His beautiful crane kimono was covered in spatters of blood. The battered viscount was still holding on to his riding crop, his handsome face now a frayed, clawed mess.
"Don't let him go to waste," the girl said. "If you're going to kill my dear Uncle, at least let me have him. I want his life. It will be so much more satisfying."
Landon slammed his fist into Aldan's jaw once again for good measure. "You will have him when he has no mouth left to talk with." In spite of his words his tone was strangely soft as he looked at his daughter.
The hunter's great sword appeared in his hands in a blur of motion so fast that it would have escaped the eyes of humans, had any been present. He leapt onto the dais, his great cloak swirling not unlike a giant pair of bat's wings.
Liesl screamed and, with matching speed, jumped right over the nearest armchair, putting it between herself and the dhampir. The sword came whirling down, shattering the furniture and sending splinters of mahogany flying. The hunter's eyes flared crimson as his boot swept in behind the girl's knee, throwing her to the floor. The sword came down again, incredibly fast, its tip carving a white line amidst sparks in the marble as the vampiress managed to twist her head sideways and save her neck.
"No! You can't harm us!" The Count's voice was a shriek of mingled fury and disbelief as he saw his daughter scrabble backwards on her back, not unlike an injured spider, to escape the hunter's great, black blade.
Darkened steel tore through the air again, and once again Liesl managed to twist out of harm's way, her eyes wide and her beautiful face a mask of terror as she faced the silent sneer on the dhampir's pale features, the tip of his fangs raking across his lower lip, leaving thin, ruby lines. He was not a beautiful halfbreed with an oversized sword; he was whirling, craving death.
"The spell! You can't harm us!" the Count shrieked again. He flung his younger brother aside like a broken toy, leaping onto the dais in a display of agility fuelled by desperation and belying the laws of physics. His razor sharp claws slid down the steel of the crescent sword with a loud, metallic scrape as the dhampir quickly raised it to protect himself from the enraged father's attack. Below, Aldan hit the floor, ruined face first, with a squishy thud that went largely unnoticed.
Landon Thorne and the hunter came apart and then crashed together again as the Count went for the dhampir's throat, claws first, in an attack that would surely have shredded a mortal man; thin red lines appeared on the halfbreed's handsome face, matching the glow of his eyes. Behind them, Liesl got on her feet and dove off the dais, the trail of her dress dragging the remains of the splintered chair with it and scattering them in a spray of very expensive toothpicks.
The enraged Noble had the advantage of fury and purpose but the dhampir had the sword and the skill. Whirling around he brought the blade down in a low sweep to unbalance his foe and then up in a high arc that neatly severed Landon's neck. A fountain of blood spurted as his head flew with the momentum; his body took a moment longer to realise the finality of its situation before crumpling to lie in a crimson-soaked mess of blood and crane embroidered kimono at the hunter's feet.
"No!" Liesl's scream pierced the sudden silence. "Stay away from me!"
The black cloaked hunter, face streaked with blood from scratches that were rapidly mending as well as quite a lot that was not his own, turned to look at her. He cut an imposing figure, shrouded in darkness and death, and while his expression was calm, it was anything but comforting. He stepped down from the dais slowly and purposefully.
The girl moved backwards, trying to keep the distance, and nearly stepping on Aldan in the process. He groaned in response and scrabbled in an attempt to sit up, blindly clinging to her gown with his hands and pulling himself upwards. Unbalanced by his attempt Liesl fell to one knee and squirmed frantically, trying to get her blinded uncle between herself and the threat, and failing.
"Don't hurt her," the viscount murmured between broken lips.
The hunter stepped off the dais calmly and strode to stand in front of the couple on the floor. He raised the great blade slightly, pointing the tip at the girl. "Do you still want his life?"
"Please let me go," Liesl pleaded. "Please don't hurt me, take anything you want but please let me go."
"Do you?" The dhampir's voice was void of emotion.
She curled up in Aldan's lap and buried her face in his shoulder, huddling for all to see like a small, frightened child. "Please," she begged softly. He slid an arm up protectively around her, unable to see but aware in which direction danger lay. "D," the viscount said softly, "Enough."
"It's never enough." The hunter's voice bore a strange finality.
The vampire's eyes, ripped to shreds by his brother's claws, widened sightlessly and he froze before giving a low groan. Blood trickled from his neck where his niece's fangs had pierced the skin. "Why?" he murmured.
Liesl clung to him like a burr to a horse's tail, safe in the knowledge that in order to take her head off, the sword would have to decapacitate her uncle first and trusting the hunter to be spellbound not to do so. Literally sucking the strength out of her protector she glared daggers at the dhampir, pausing only a moment to spit, "You'll be sorry!"
The hunter was unmoved, statue still, waiting.
"I love you," Aldan breathed. His fist tightened around the riding crop that he still held on to. Then, using the momentum of his own collapse, he plunged it into her chest.
* * * *
The dark, cloaked form of the vampire hunter stood silently amidst the carnage. He prodded the dead girl with the tip of his sword, satisfying himself that she was truly dead and finding that the wood of the riding crop had indeed done its job, before sheathing the blade and wiping a sleeve across his face, cleaning away most of the blood.
"Now that's what I call a family get-together," his left hand muttered. "Better open a window or something before the stench of all that blood drives you nuts."
"I'll be fine," the hunter replied. He knelt down next to the two nearest bodies and rested a fingertip on the viscount's neck. "He's still alive."
"Bet you can fix that."
The dhampir took hold of the vampire lord's shoulder and pulled him free of the dead girl. Then he stood, carrying him in his arms effortlessly.
"Oh, come on, D," his symbiont groaned. "Fancypants isn't exactly going to be missed. Take his head off and let's be out of here already. This is no time to get all sentimental."
The hunter gave a rare chuckle. "He's the master of the castle now. The shades will not attack us until he tells them to. If he dies, though – it's anyone's guess."
The muffled reply from the hand supporting the unconscious man's knees was unintelligible but undoubtedly not a compliment of the taste of his trousers.
* * * *
The chestnut mare's nostrils flared at the smell of blood on Aldan's clothes and skin as she reached down to snuffle his face with her soft nose. Though she failed to prompt a reaction from her master in this fashion she apparently felt content that no danger was imminent and began nibbling on his auburn forelock. After a while the vampire gave a small grunt and turned his head. The mare patiently pursued and recaptured the escaping treat.
"Oh, look. Fangboy's back from the dead."
The hunter sat crosslegged, leaning against the rock face. The chasm with its bridge and howling ghosts was a stone's throw away and the stars were bright overhead. His black cyborg horse stood in perfect imitation of a statue next to him.
Aldan sat up, slowly. Some of his injuries had healed and his face had begun to bear some resemblance to human features again, but he was clearly still blind. "Is there a horse chewing on my hair?"
The Noble swatted at his affectionate mount who in turn gave him an indignant look and resumed grazing. "We're – outside?"
He sighed. "She's dead."
"Yes. I've never seen a riding crop used that way before."
"I thought I might need a weapon." The vampire slumped back down and lay on his back in the grass, blind eyes staring into the night sky as if looking for an elusive answer there; the stars remained silent. After a while he murmured, "You might as well have killed me too."
"Here come the waterworks," the symbiont muttered. "Trust a vampire to angst."
The hunter stood and walked over to his horse, dipping into the saddle bags. Producing a canteen he turned back and knelt next to the vampire, putting it in his hand. "Plasma tea. Drink. It will help you heal."
"I don't want to heal. I want to die."
"You heard him, D," the symbiont's coarse voice offered cheerfully. "If we leave now we can be back at that village at noon tomorrow. Clean sheets, proper food, let's get a move on."
The dhampir ignored it. "It's not a choice, Thorne."
Aldan grimaced. "At least tell me why you suddenly care so much about my well being." He put the canteen to his lips and took a sip, then winced – although whether it was due to the pain of broken lips or the stale, dead taste of the cold, synthetic blood plasma was impossible to tell.
The hunter sat down next to him. "This valley and the castle is yours now."
"The spell that your brother cast still remains. Your niece was the spell, given form. Without her will to command it, the magic will revert to a primal state. The valley will become even more deadly than it is now. You need to live so that you can find a way to undo the spell or take control of it. The villagers depend on you for their survival,. If you cannot break the spell you'll have to resettle them on your old land."
"Lucky them." The vampire sighed. "You're right, of course. I was just too blind to see the truth. That's why you played with her instead of killing her outright, isn't it? You wanted me to see her for what she was. It was obvious to you all along."
The hunter did not reply to the question. Instead he asked, "Can you ride?"
The Noble upended the canteen and handed it in the hunter's general direction. "No. But I can cling to the saddle if you lead the horse. I can't see and I'm weak as a kitten."
The dhampir took the canteen and put it back into the saddlebag before helping the blind vampire to his feet and into the saddle. Taking the chestnut's reins he mounted his own horse and set into a slow trot up the twisting, winding ravine. The vampire lord's jaws were clenched shut but he stayed upright as they rode.
* * * *
The first birds had begun their morning hymn to the sun when the two men reached the small cave in which they had sheltered down the first day on their journey. The hunter removed the foliage and vines from the entrance, and helped the vampire off the mare, leading him into the cool darkness inside; his pale features had resumed their customary handsome looks but for a few bruises.
As Aldan sat down next to the cold fireplace he suddenly chuckled. "The irony. Last time we were here I asked if you needed to bury yourself. Now I'm the one who ought to." He laid down and stretched out on the cold rock, seeking to soak up the strength of the earth.
"You'll be fine in a day or two."
"I can't say I feel like I will be. My body will heal and my vision return, I'm sure. My heart – may take a while longer." He listened to the sounds of the dhampir removing the tack from the horses and setting them free to graze outside before re-entering the cave. Suddenly he said, "How many times?"
The hunter paused. Then, after a moment, he said, "More often than I care to remember." He unsheathed his blade and began cleaning it with the routined, calm movements of someone who knew well the importance of keeping one's tools prim and ready for use. The rythmic noise was oddly comforting in its monotony and before long, the vampire lord drifted off to sleep.
When night fell again he awoke to find the hunter and his cybernetic steed gone.
* * * *
The taproom fell silent as the tall, dark vampire hunter entered. He walked through a sea of questioning looks to the counter where Mistress Dot gave him a suspicious look. "I require lodging and feed for my horse," he said softly.
The tavernkeeper tilted her head to get a look up under the wide-brimmed hat. "You're by yourself?"
Molly put her tray of glasses down on the nearest table, much to the delight of a farmer who thus got himself a batch of free drinks, and sidled up to the counter quickly. "Sir? Is he all right?"
The hunter glanced at her, and then nodded.
The girl's ample bosom heaved with relief. "Thank you!"
"Go see to the patrons, Molly." Mistress Dot waved her serving maid off before giving the hunter a stern look. "I'm guessing you want your steak not too well done, then?"
* * * *
And with this, I conclude this little diversion. I hope you enjoyed it! I may try my luck again sometime – after all, I'm sure that D and Aldan Thorne have enough in common in spite of their apparent differences to meet again.
Special thanks to Patricia de Lioncourt for patiently digging out factoids from the novels for me.