Okay. It's been ages since I've uploaded, I know. I'm terribly sorry, but I have a feeling that if I give any more reasons or apologies I'll get a virtual punch to my nose and I'll look like Owen Wilson. So, skipping straight to the story. It's huger than I thought it would be, and since most of you preferred keeping the Carlisle chapters within this story, I'm obeying that. Hope the GINORMOUS chapter satisfies, and please, please review!

An added note: While I wrote this copious amount of text, I kept listening to 'Analyse' by Thom Yorke on a loop. Yes, I know, that's the best way to kill a song, and this is the first time I'm actually suggesting music to go with my stories, but seriously, it sets the mood perfectly. Keep it playing in the background while you read this chapter.

Go ahead. That's Analyse by Thom Yorke.

Oh, and review. PLEASE.


Countdown to Zero Hour

1663


30 days before Zero Hour

London was changing. He wasn't sure how exactly, but it was. The narrow streets seemed brighter, more human, less morbid. Perhaps it was the better clothes. Or the hopeful glint in people's eyes. He wondered if he had changed, as well. Most likely not.

"'Tis cold tonight," Yarwick grumbled.

"When is it not?" –came the sharp reply.

"Peace, Master Cullen. I am not complaining."

"Yes, of course, for you never complain." The sarcasm was not lost on the imposing man.

"I don't much like your highhanded tone, young master," Yarwick retaliated darkly. "I am here only on your good father's behest."

The young man finally turned to look at the angered hulk of a man. "Then you will recall upon yourself the very words my good father spoke –'follow him and his words', he said. And I tell you now, sir, for the sake of our lives, to be quiet!"

Yarwick was silenced, but his anger still showed on his face. Silence reigned upon them once more for several minutes. Then another interruption occurred.

"It is well past the hour you had in mind, Cullen. The roosters will be crowing all glory in minutes now." –a second voice whispered from across the alleyway.

With a muted swear, the young man stormed to his feet and stepped over the barrel behind which he was hiding. "Serves me right for choosing to work with mewling, lazy curs." –he mumbled, and quite audibly, for Yarwick began to raise his voice as well. The young man, however, did not stay to listen to the offenders; after his bitter pronouncement, he stormed away from the alley into another one.

The second interferer calmed Yarwick down as best as he could and ran after their disgruntled leader.

"Halloa! Cullen! Tarry a little!"

Cullen did not slow down.

"Hi, there! No need to be so angered, my man. We were not so certain for her appearing-"

"I was certain, Tench. She told me she would come –more fool I to trust the words of that serpent."

Long-legged Tench had no difficulty in matching his stride with his angry friend. "Come now, Cullen. One would think we discuss some pretty lass that you have a heart for."

To Tench's surprise, Cullen stopped still. "Do not dare say that again."

Tench seemed unmoved by his vehemence. "Why? Is it true? You are far too obsessed with this creature, Cullen. It is often that obsession and affection do not differ."

"They do, in this case. Desist, Tench. She only enters my dreams hanging from a gibbet with the crows feasting on her, as she rightly should."

They had begun walking again, and Tench did not utter a word until a few minutes later. "I think sometimes that Mary should have persisted with you."

His friend's hard expression became sterner. "Mary is of no consequence to anything."

"She was, before."

"And now she is not. Desist."

Tench seemed dissatisfied. Nevertheless, he mumbled, "As you say."

They walked in silence for some more minutes. They had soon passed through the city walls, into the wider, darker expanses of fields outside London proper. The sky was beginning to lighten, but no ray of sunlight had yet appeared. It was to be a cloudy day.

Any disappointment that Cullen still harboured seemed to have vanished. When he spoke next to Tench, his voice had lost all its antagonism and had a new edge of passion lining it.

"Well, if not tonight, it will be on the morrow. The reports were favourable before –I have hopes they will be better next."

Tench let out a short bark of laughter. "Hope by day and curse by night –that suits you well indeed. A fine, strange man art thou, Cullen!"

The mocking tone only succeeded in bringing a small smile to Cullen's face. "Well, you know me best, my friend. Until tonight, then?"

They parted with pleasantries usual to a relationship such as theirs. While Tench continued eastward toward the more open areas outside London, Cullen turned north towards Whitechapel, the streets getting narrower and dirtier as he walked. His destination was an ugly, brick-faced home; although small, it was larger than the houses and wooden huts that surrounded it. By the time he pushed open the door and walked in, every emotion had left Cullen's face.

The inside was stuffy, dingy, and dark. A figure in a far corner stirred as he shut the door to softly.

"Well?" –the figure asked.

"Nothing."

A discontented grumble was heard.

"Well, do something, boy. The people are getting restless."

"They would not be so if someone calmed their fears, as they ought to."

"How dare you speak to your sire thus! Apologise this instant."

There was a pause before Cullen answered, quite emotionlessly, "Forgive me."

"Bah! Foul-tongued swain, you are, I see it clearly enough. You never mean what you speak."

"Perhaps I should not succeed you in the cloth, then."

"If I had the choice, you would not," came the blunt reply.

"Of course. I comprehend your dilemma perfectly, Father, you have my sympathies. I shall go to bed now."

"You must up in an hour."

"Yes."

"Sleep then."

Cullen marched resolutely to another bed in a far corner, his emotions kept in tight control. Despite all the anger, and all the frustration inside his mind, all he did was pray.

It was a simple prayer, not asking for much.

Please, Lord. Grant me respite. Give me peace. Let me be able to sleep today.

Those words repeated in an endless loop in his head. And though they seemed to harbour some deep twisted meaning, a request perhaps for an unholy release from life's bondages, those words signified nothing but their actual, mundane meaning.

He wanted to sleep.

Sleep was rare and fleeting for him. His obsession made it necessary for him to stay up at nights and his father never let him slacken in the daytime. Whatever few minutes of sleep he did obtain was by stealth and careful cunning; but when he did purloin those moments of weakness, he spent a long time praying for forgiveness for those very moments, wishing that he would never require sleep. But it was a necessary human fallacy, and only the certainty that having a tired body would mean the end of his efforts pushed him to accept those moments of retirement when they came by him. He was no fool. Obsessed or not, he knew he must remain alert, that he must not sacrifice physical capability in the quest for mental satisfaction.

As he settled himself onto the hard, lumpy cot, he realised absently that even he had started to term it an obsession. He was deluding himself, he thought wryly, if he told himself it was something other than that.

For an obsession it was; a fiery, roaring, itching obsession, an obsession of cold hands, maddening smiles and a fiery mane of red that never failed to curve his fingers into claws, his veins throbbing with bloodlust, his eyes and nostrils dilated with fury.

His father was uncharacteristically quiet, and thus Cullen let his mind wander back to that defining moment when his obsession began, when he saw her.

To understand that incident, however, one must be better acquainted with the moody young man. Who was Carlisle Cullen?


Carlisle Cullen was the second of five children to the Rev. Thomas Cullen and one Mary Cullen. They had never been affluent. Carlisle had been born in difficult times, still lived in difficult times, for that matter. England was mid-Revolution when Carlisle entered this world –an event for which his sire was not present, for he was out in the streets witnessing the hanging of 'that pompous charlatan, Strafford'. Thomas Cullen was a fierce follower of the Puritans and drank in every word of their sermons with ecstasy. Eight years later, when the 'wicked Catholic' monarch, King Charles, was similarly condemned to death, he insisted upon taking his children along to watch his execution.*

This impressive sight at the impressionable age of eight changed Carlisle Cullen. He realised many things that day. He realised that the world was a dark, morbid, savage place. He learnt that his father revered the darkness and savageness as a gift of the Almighty. He discovered that he was secretly weak, very weak: while the other people screamed for the disgraced King's blood, all he wanted was for everyone to turn away while the tired old man could die in peace. He was weak in a way his father would never forgive him for.

That day, he made himself his first ever solemn promise –he would try to be stronger. He would try all his life, till his dying breath. He would not remain weak.

The following years were hard and dull. Political upheaval dimmed every other news or fact in comparison. Thomas Cullen's leaders won, monarchy was abolished, a liberal Presbyterian church was established. None of these things meant much to Carlisle Cullen, and his personally eventless life went on. His father was extraordinarily happy and preached with renewed vigour, his mother and two youngest siblings died, the streets became darker than before, his older brother Thomas went to fight in Scotland and was killed, his younger sister Sarah married early to escape his father's oppressive fanaticism.

And so finally it was just the two of them left. The ill-tempered, lazy old priest, and his quiet, brooding, secretly weak son. For a while there had been a woman –Mary, a daughter of a haberdasher, a golden-haired, laughing, simple child. She amused him, but she did not satisfy him. His passionate thoughts and ideals went completely uncomprehended and often unheard. And so, one night, the night, he had broken it off with her. He did not regret hurting her, for he knew the hurt would be fleeting and easy to overcome. But he had found his passion. His reason to live. His path to attaining righteous strength. To make his father proud.

He would slay monsters.


30 days before Zero Hour

"Cullen!" –the sudden loud exclamation made him jump and extracted a sharp word from his father in the other end of the room.

He sat up immediately to see Tench's head silhouetted against the rapidly lightening sky beyond his window. "What is it?"

"There has been news."

"What kind?"

"She did hunt last night."

Cullen swore loudly as he dressed himself. "Where?"

"Three Cranes."

Cullen swore again, earning himself a reprimand from his father, which he ignored. Having finished his dress, he hurried outside to join Tench. "I should have guessed! I calculated wrong!" –he cried as they immediately began walking to their destination. "How could I have been foolish enough to guess Stillgate?"

"Cullen, no man could have guessed anything. That you guessed upon Stillgate is itself a fine deed."*

"Fine deed!" –Cullen hissed, his stride increasing. "Fine deed, indeed, now that another is dead!"

At that point Tench seemed to hesitate. Cullen noticed immediately. "What is it?"

"It is not one this time. She killed two."

There was a curious dead silence save for the crunch of their boots. The houses around were also eerily quiet.

"It was… an abigail of fourteen. And a tanner." –Tench continued hesitantly. Cullen did not say a word. They were approaching the scene of the happening. A large, discordant crowd had filled the streets and was completely blocking their view of the murky river.

They pushed and prodded their way through and finally made it to the centre of the gathering. The scene was grim, and made Cullen feel weaker than ever inside –but on the outside, his face remained a cold, unmoved mask.

They were on the edge of the wharf, near the stairs leading into the river. The grimy stone of the steps were spattered with blood. The crowd had formed a small empty circle around the corpses –no one dared approach them. A small, mousy young girl's body lay a few feet away from the stairs. Her throat was horribly mangled, but her dress was neat –blood-free, not clean. Cullen understood at a glance. The spattered blood was not hers. She could not have fought that much, nor would she have had that much blood in her to begin with.

He then turned to the second victim: a big-framed, menacing man's body draped over the steps to the river. His throat was not quite so brutally cut, but had bled terribly all the same. He approached the body briskly, trying his best to ignore the wails of the dead girl's mother and the dead man's wife. Tench stayed away. He did not blame him.

Carefully, Cullen half-knelt beside the body, wrinkling his nose at the thought of blood-sodden knees.

The man's throat was not cut with a knife. It was definitely teeth. Or claws, or fangs, or whatever evil weapon that monster possessed. He inspected the splattered blood closely. Next the body, for a few inches, it appeared the blood was wiped. By something like… a tongue?

Cullen leaned back, scandalised to the core, fury stirring in his heart.

"Oi! Get away from him, you! Oh, it's you, Cullen. What do you have to say, then?"

Cullen stood up and turned around, mentally sighing. Reverend Ford was a fellowman of his father –a lazier, less pious brother. He was also highly suspicious of Cullen's methods and of his success with the people.

"Concerning what, sir?"

"Why, this man! And that poor, unfortunate girl!"

"They are both dead."

"Why, I –I know that! It was the monster, then?"

"Yes. It was she."

Ford seemed uneasy. "You still maintain this creature is guised as a beautiful woman, eh?"

"I do. I saw her."

"The men think you say so to disincline them from the maids."

"The men think of nothing else," Cullen said simply, walking over to the girl's body.

"I agree with them," Ford said indignantly. Cullen's silence was pointed.

Ford chose wisely not to continue in the same vein. Instead, he asked, "What see you, Master Cullen? What devilry occurred here yesternight?"

"When were they found?" –Cullen asked instead of answering.

"Just before daybreak. They heard the girl scream."

Cullen frowned. "Not much long afore now."

"Aye."

The frown deepened. "She is desperate."

"How on earth could you divine that?"

Cullen sighed. Could these people think for themselves, at least once? He prepared himself to explain what he had deduced. "The man died first. He tried to fight but did not succeed. His blood has been drained almost completely. The girl happened upon the creature in the midst of its business. She screamed, the creature attacked, in a manner similar to its hunting technique, but less precisely, for it was worried for the scream. The girl's blood is barely drained: perhaps the creature took just a sip before fleeing."

Reverend Ford shuddered. "Lord preserve me, attend your words, Cullen. 'Took a sip' –how could you be so callous, man!"

Cullen was silent again. Inside, he was gloating. This man was weaker than him!

He said instead, "Whatever conspired, she is definitely desperate. Her kill would not have otherwise been so… wasteful, nor so numerous."

"That is good, yes? We are scaring the creature!"

"The most dangerous animal is the cornered one," Cullen said slowly.

"Bah! Do not attempt to down my spirits, boy, you shall not prevail. The creature is cornered. We will destroy it 'ere long!"

Ford hurried away to spread the news. Cullen did not try to stop him. He would heed nothing, not when he was so optimistic. With a deep sigh, Cullen rejoined Tench.

"He overreaches. Or you are overcautious. Which is it?" –Tench asked as they headed back home.

"I hope with all my heart it is the second."

"But you know it is the first."

Cullen simply bowed his head.

"How? How do you know?"

And although the answer was obvious, Cullen didn't say anything. Tench would most certainly misunderstand.

He knew, he knew for certain because he knew her.


60 days before Zero Hour

It had been a long day. Cullen had accompanied his father to witness the hanging of a man who had confessed to two grisly murders. He claimed he had been 'possessed by Lucifer and forced to act like a feral beast'. But Carlisle Cullen was unsatisfied. The man had been too stupid, too secretly weak to have committed those atrocities. The debtors were after him, and by accusing him, Thomas Cullen had offered him escape.

To avoid the various questioners in the crowd, Cullen slipped away into back alleys on his journey home. He had not walked far before he realised the alley was too quiet –no animals, whose sties and pens were abutting the alley, were making any noises. And it was dark, for the huts around were blocking the moonlight. Terribly dark. Forcing the weakness even deeper inside his thudding chest, Cullen advanced slowly, picking up a mattock* from a nearby stack of tools.

A sudden sound rent the air –a horrific sort of half-gurgle, half-shriek. It was coming from beyond the alley's twist before him. Without hesitation, Cullen ran forward, brandishing his mattock. What he saw made him stop short.

A dark corpse-like lump lay on the ground, and standing over it, bathed in the moonlight, was a woman.

She was bizarrely beautiful: a mane of flame-red hair cascading from her brow in large curls, pale, delicate skin and small hands and feet. She was dressed scandalously –no shawl, overdress, nor bodice covered her. Despite the bitter cold, she stood in only stomacher and chemise, glove-less and barefoot, hair untamed and bosom half-exposed. Any man would turn wild at her overflowing beauty.

But only for the first second. The rich, cream silk of her stomacher* had a dark stain on it, and as he barged into the scene, she looked up at him. And then, as he later often described it to himself, he saw the face of a devil.

Her face was perfect. Absolutely, wonderfully, breathtakingly perfect. But marring that perfection were two horrid features: her mouth was open in a snarl, her teeth and lips stained dark, dripping with blood. The second feature he saw clearly from the light of a torch in a graft on a wall nearby –her eyes. They were as sinfully red as the blood she had just drank.

For a moment neither of them moved, she being hauntingly still. Then-

"You monster!" –Cullen roared, and charged. But then, something shocking happened.

She disappeared.

Cullen stopped not an inch away from the corpse, staring at the spot where she had last stood.

"You know," said a voice suddenly, which made Cullen whip around. It was her. She was leaning provocatively against the corner he had just stood in. "You should have charged without yelling obscenities. It slows you down so." Her voice was deep and ever so enchanting.

"What are you?" –Cullen snarled.

"I, good sir, am a woman. And you most certainly are a man." Her eyes roved over his entire body unashamedly, and Cullen was shocked and angered at the shiver that ran down his spine. "A very fine specimen of a man." A smile curved her blood-stained lips.

Cullen swung his mattock around to point it at her. "Your words are worse than those of a fallen woman. Begone to the depths of hell whence you came!"

Her smile became wider. "It appears I have angered you. How… interesting." She took a step forward. "Do you wish me to anger you more?"

Cullen clenched his teeth, keeping his gaze focused on her terrifying eyes and not the very seductive manner in which she swayed her body as she walked. "I am warning you. Do not test me," he said curtly.

Her smile did not falter. "Or else?"

That maddening voice and that maddening smile took its toll on Cullen's self-control.

"Else I shall do this!" –he snarled and leaped at her, swinging his weapon above his head and bringing it down on her flaming head.

The mattock hit something rock-solid with such force that it seemed to jolt his elbows out of his arms. A cry of pain sounded in the silent street, and Cullen was mortified to discover he had made it. Such pain throbbed through both his arms that he sank to the ground. He had heard no responding slump of a body. Where was she? He lifted his head to look for her, and was shocked more than ever –she had not moved one inch. The shock numbed his pain while his mouth fell open –what was this creature?

Desperately, Cullen made an effort to help himself up but, to his horror, could not move his arms. And still with that smile on her face, that creature approached him, kneeling before him gracefully, taking care give him a perfect view of her half-dressed torso.

Much to his consternation, she placed a finger beneath his chin. Even with that slight touch Cullen could feel the coldness of her skin. She was frost-cold.

"Why do you insist upon harming me," she purred softly, lifting his face so he could look her in the eye, "when we can spend the time more… productively?"

Cullen grit his teeth and snarled, "Unhand me, wench."

The smiled widened. "But I have not restrained you." More fingers cupped his chin and Cullen turned his head away sharply.

"Do not toy with me," he said stonily. "Kill me now, if you must."

"But I do not wish to kill you –it is not often that one finds such a… well-developed man."

Cullen ignored her overt compliments. "Then begone! Begone from this city and do not return –or I will destroy you."

She seemed amused. "Is that so? How brave of you. Foolish, yes, but brave."

"I will destroy you." –Cullen repeated, solemnly and quite calmly.

She regarded him for a moment. "I see you are set on it. Your persistence is… commendable." She leaned forward slowly, her perfect blood-stained lips coming into clearer focus. With a sharp exclamation, Cullen scampered backwards, using only his legs as leverage. His efforts only seemed to amuse her more. She leaned further and placed her palms upon the dirty ground, as if to crawl towards him.

"Stay away!" –Cullen snapped. Then, the impossible happened again –one moment she was crouching several feet away, the next her face was inches from his. The sudden proximity emptied the air out of Cullen's lungs and he could not speak.

"Mmmm," she purred, closing her eyes, and –sniffing him? "You are fortunate I have repasted. You smell glorious."

His heart began to thud so loudly he was sure she could hear it as well. A curious warmth was spreading in his veins, accompanied by sharp energy dancing on his skin. Was it fear? Was it lust? Was it anger? He did not know anymore.

Her eyes opened and she stared at him silently for a moment. Then she placed her hand on his cheek, which, he was sure, was flushed as red as her eyes.

"You are burning," she said softly, "as am I, in a much different sense, but…" She seemed to hesitate. "Your blood overflows inside. It will not do. I do not wish to kill you yet," she murmured, stroking his cheek gently, "for there is so much more I wish to do with you before." A grin spread across her lips again, something that seemed to break the trance Cullen was in.

"Unhand me, foul creature!" –he snapped and tried to push himself back.

She sighed and let her hand drop. "You humans are so tiring. Must you fight so hard against the obvious burn?" Her grin widened. "I know you burn for me –your skin singes with it and your heart beats it out loud. I know…" She reached forward again and placed one finger on his chest. "I know how your body thirsts for me, how it craves my perfection," she whispered, and slowly stroked her finger downwards, down his chest, his abdomen, his navel…

With a cry, Cullen lifted both his feet and kicked her stomach. The reaction surprised him –she did not budge an inch but the force of the kick pushed him backwards. Either way, it had achieved what he wanted –there was now distance between them.

"Away!" –he cried, trying his very best to ignore his twisting stomach and burning skin. "Away with you, this instant!"

She sighed, and to his profound relief, stood up. "You cannot even begin to conceive how fortunate you are," she said, her voice no longer seductive but wonderful all the same. "Were it not for your extraordinary looks and your –stubbornness, you would have been dead by now."

"The Lord helps us in mysterious ways," Cullen murmured.

"Oh, you are a religious one," she said, suddenly delighted. "It shall be quite entertaining."

Cullen ignored her words and tried to move his arms. It was obvious she would not harm him any further tonight, and he now had greater worries to resolve. His fingers were twitching but his arms still felt as heavy as lead.

She was watching his efforts calmly. "Yes," she repeated, "quite entertaining." She approached him once more, her hips swaying rhythmically. Cullen froze. Not again, Lord preserve me, not again

She stopped inches away from him, the silhouette of her form clearly visible through the flimsy chemise. "I shall hunt again soon," she said, her voice curiously formal and yet intimate at the same time. Smilingly, she continued, "And I have liked our little dance tonight. Perhaps we should make a game of it? –I do so adore games!"

"Speak not in riddles, harlot." –Cullen mumbled, her overjoyed tone affecting him aversely.

"My dear, dense, handsome man," she crooned, smirking, "the game is simple. I must hunt. You must destroy me. I will hunt a fortnight past. You will attempt to destroy me in advance. If I live, I win. If I do not, you win the game but sadly, you will lose some very amusing company."

"I have no interest in any games," Cullen snapped.

"What a pity. I suppose I will simply return to my previous pastime," said she, glancing at him slyly.

"I shall hunt you down before you do so!" –Cullen snarled.

"Then we will both be hunting –how delightful!" –she giggled. The sound was enchanting, and yet repulsive at the same time, all the more so by coming from those blood-stained lips.

"I shall hunt to kill," Cullen said.

"And so shall I," she murmured. "But do not fret, my morsel, you are not my prey yet. I will give you such an end to your life that most men would die for."

"Go rot in hell," he spat.

She grinned again. "For you, willingly."

And she was gone.

But something of her had lingered behind. To Cullen's increasing disgust, his lips now burned as though touched by pure frost. She had tainted him –and he would destroy her for doing so.


The days following his near-ambush were hazy. Every moment, awake or asleep, was spent obsessing over her. In two weeks' time she would hunt again; he had to find and destroy her before that time. He did not wonder what sort of creature she was –all he knew was that she was evil, an abomination, a murderer and a monster. She would have to be killed.

He stopped sleeping nights completely. Every day, after sundown, he patrolled some alley or other, watching for her, armed with a sharp, heavy pike he leased from a blacksmith, paying for it by helping in the forge during the day. His father's laxity in his duties became an added toll on his strength –Cullen was to perform more and more clerical functions in an effort to 'ease him into his future position as rector', according to his father. Cullen knew not to defend himself –his arguments would only fall onto deaf ears –so he shouldered the added responsibilities uncomplainingly.

Meanwhile, try as he might, as hard as he worked, he could never find her on his nightly patrols. But in the daytime, while he walked under dark eaves and shovelled coal in the dark yard of the blacksmith's, he sometimes saw her face –always in the dark, always with that maddening mocking smile. It was as if she knew every moment of his day while he knew nothing of hers. It frustrated him further, and often, after sighting her in the day he would spend the night watching and patrolling with increased determination.

The people were hard to convince. At first they did not believe him –but Cullen had a way with his words, an earnestness in his face that endeared him to the public easily. They were not inconsequential gifts, and Cullen often had had resentment directed at him. In any case, the people began to believe him, knowing by experience that Cullen was not often wrong. His father had capitulated on Cullen's report to enhance his parishioners' faith, and found, to his delight, that more people began to attend services with much more enthusiasm.

"Fear is the greatest motivator for faith, my boy," he had said to Cullen while in a rare fine mood, "and you have done well in frightening them into piety."

"I do not lie," Cullen had said, his eyes narrowing.

"Of course you do not –someone had to have killed those people!"

His father's rationale never having made much sense to him, Cullen did not discuss it any further.

As the passing of two weeks came closer, Cullen grew more and more desperate. His thoughts were monotonous and repeated themselves in an endless cycle.

She will attack again. Another life will be lost –and I alone have the opportunity to save it!

Sleep eluded him completely, and he often spent hours working solely on sheer strength of purpose.

It was the night before the one so important to him. He was walking along the river, amidst the docks. Exhaustion finally catching up to him, he sank onto his knees near a docking stage, resting his head against the hard wooden stump that held the ropes of a docking craft.

Eyes fluttered shut, but were forced back open by him every other minute. Sleep was fighting hard to take over him, and he was fighting a losing battle against it.

The dark river swam in and out of view several times as he nodded off to sleep, his eyes opening and closing sporadically…

Dark water, blinking light on the other bank.

Darkness.

Dark water, blinking light far away.

Darkness.

Dark water, blinking light.

Darkness.

Dark water, blinking light.

Darkness.

Dark water, white face, red hair.

Darkness.

White face, red hair. Beautiful.

Darkness.

White face, red hair, red lips. Musical. "You poor man…"

Darkness.

"-how exhausted you are! I am flattered beyond…"

Darkness. Cold cheek.

"…aid you a little, because I do so want you to find me…"

Darkness. Cold chin.

"... Dowgate."

Darkness. Cold lips.

Dark water, blinking light on the far bank.

Darknesswhat?

Cullen stood up so quickly that his head spun and he nearly fell into the river. It was her! She had come, she had spoken, she had touched him, and –Cullen felt his burning lips with a grimace –kissed him, and he had slept through it all! What had she said?

He paced up and down on the wharf, cursing himself freely, and trying his best to remember what he could. To his dismay, he could not remember anything!

With a disgusted snarl, he threw himself onto the ground, placing his head in his hands in a despondent gesture.

Think. THINK. –he told himself fiercely, ruffling his long blond hair violently.

Her face reappeared in his mind –white, perfect, smiling. No blood marred her face, and the darkness muted her scarlet eyes. Had Cullen not known any better, he would have been attracted to her almost certainly. With a noise of disgust, he focused on the image of her face again. What did she say?

Her lips were moving now, but he could hear no words. He concentrated as hard as he could, pressing his eyes closed with his fists, gritting his teeth, and trying to remember…

And out of the hazy memory of dark water and blinking lights, one word rose out, clear and resonant, in her beautiful voice –"Dowgate."

He knew where to go.


45 days before Zero Hour

It was dark. Too dark. Cullen did not like it. The moon was now missing from the night sky, a complete opposite to its bountiful light in which he had seen her a fortnight past. Frost was descending on London rapidly –harsh, cold and unseasonal, the frost-bearing clouds obscured every single star so that the sky above them was an uninterrupted stretch of blackness. On the ground, lamp-light was doing little to aid them –a cold breeze kept blowing off lit lamps –only torches were left alit, but even their light could not pervade the clinging darkness with much success.

"You are certain she will come?" –Tench whispered softly.

"No," Cullen whispered back. "But she said she would come, and I would be a fool if I did not wait and see."

Tench grunted. "I am simply convinced she chose this night for its inhuman coldness."

"If you find yourself too inconvenienced, go home, Tench," Cullen muttered. "I do not wish to spend the hours consoling your discomfort."

"I asked for no consolation," Tench growled.

"Then quiet yourself. Your complaints make a hard, cold night harder."

"Watch your tongue, Cullen," Tench murmured harshly. "I give you far too much leave to speak freely when you are so disturbed."

"The two of you are far too much like a pair of jackals fighting over a carcass. Have you ever tasted jackal?"

The voice was unmistakeable. It was her.

He shot to his feet, focusing his gaze and his pike on the dark end of an alley, where he could see a hint of her fiery hair. Tench followed suit, but could not see her. "Where is she?"

"I see her," Cullen said quietly, certain. He knew he had sharper eyesight.

"Of course you see me, my pretty morsel," her voice sounded, but from another direction. "How your eyes ache for my sight!"

Cullen whipped around, while Tench seemed shocked. "Pretty morsel?" –he whispered. "You were not jesting. She is a promiscuous one."

"I never jest," Cullen said tersely, trying to find her in the thick darkness ahead of him.

"I am here, my pet," her voice sounded –from the opposite end of the alley. Cullen turned around again. "Show yourself!" –he barked.

"Such impatience! You charm me with your ways, Carlisle."

Cullen froze. None except his father called him by his given name. It was as if she knew him inside out.

"Show yourself!" –he repeated, with greater distress.

And then she did: the farthest torch from them cast its dim glow upon the silhouette of a young woman –a voluminous mane of flaming red upon her head.

"Here!" –Cullen shouted immediately and ran toward her. She fled, of course, but Cullen saw a dark cloak whip past a corner just ahead, and he gave chase.

"Cullen! Tarry! You run too fast!" –he heard Tench yell out behind him but he paid no heed to him. He would not let her slip away again, not this time.

Cullen had never before run like he did that night. So single-mindedly bent was he on her capture, that nothing could slow him down. Darkness was disregarded as long as he could see her cloak whipping away in front of him. Other obstacles like barrels, crates, wheels or others were simply pushed aside or leaped over.

Soon he was far away from the alley where he began. The streets got emptier, bigger and bigger patches of open land replaced the houses and huts. They were getting far outside London city. Tench had been unable to keep up with Cullen's unerring pace through the twisting, turning alleys of the town and was no longer following him.

Cullen finally slowed down near a straggling inn, finding himself suddenly alone in the light of the dim torches in the inn's yard.

"Wretched monster!" –Cullen wheezed, frustrated at having lost her after such a long and tiring chase. He had run too far and too fast, that too with a heavy pikestaff, so much so that his breaths were still coming in ragged rasps and his chest was burning. Gasping for air, he hunched over and placed his hands on his knees, trying his best to calm his thudding heart. After a moment of such respite, he straightened up –and found her standing not five feet in front of him.

A cloak covered her entire self, but the bright red curls escaping the hood was unmistakable.

"Monster!" –Cullen cried again, and lunged for her, energy surging through him at her sight.

Yet again she performed her magic trick –one moment she was there, the next, she was not. Cullen let out a snarl of discontent. He grabbed the pikestaff which he had discarded on the ground and swung it around in the surrounding darkness. "Coward!" –he barked. "Hiding in the dark like filthy vermin. Show yourself!"

"Peace, my little morsel. I am here," her soft voice sounded from his far left. Even as he rushed to the depth of the darkness, her cloaked figure stepped into torchlight from near the inn's walls –away from the darkness.

"Here, my handsome one," came her low murmur. Cullen skidded to a halt, surprised.

"Carlisle," came her voice from the dark corner.

"Carlisle," repeated the figure in the torchlight.

"I am here," the voices said in perfect unison.

Cullen froze, too confused to even move. There were two of her? Her visible figure slowly approached him, the flickering torchlight waning on her dark cloak.

"Here, my sweet, pious one, behind you," the voice from the darkness murmured.

"In plain sight, before your very eyes… it is I, Carlisle," the figure in the cloak enjoined.

"Carlisle," the voice behind him whispered, but before she could finish, the one before him also said, "Carlisle."

"Carlisle, behind you…"

"I am here, Carlisle…"

"Carlisle…"

"Carlisle…"

"Enough!" –Cullen roared, and lunged at the figure in front of him. "Do not address me so again!" –he continued furiously, his pike flying forward. Fury seemed to blind him to everything but the dull shine of his pike in the torchlight; it made him focus his entire strength into that thrust –he would destroy that creature, once and for all!

He was fully expecting his pike to rebound in the manner of his mattock a fortnight past, despite having honed the tip of the pike to the sharpest possible point. Therefore surprise interrupted fury when his weapon met little resistance and went through her body like butter.

She let out a gargled scream and collapsed at his feet. Even in the torchlight he could see blood pooling on the ground and soaking his boots. Before he could react to this astonishing turn of events –

"Allow me. My mother taught me to never waste food."

The shock he experienced at that voice was of a magnitude he had never experienced. Kneeling, at his feet, already bending over the prone cloaked figure, was his monster. The pikestaff slipped from his fingers and he staggered back a step, the world swimming around him. Had he –had he just killed

"You have a fine strong arm," the blasted woman said, turning around to glance at him, a hint of a smile visible in the torchlight. "The pike went clean through."

Cullen finally found his voice.

"Wha –what have I done?"

Her smile was more clear. "You have lost the game, by helping me win."

Things began to click in place in Cullen's mind. "What did you make me do?" –he asked, his voice laced with desperation, anger, and anguish.

"I did not make you do anything," she said, her smile suddenly mocking, wrenching his heart with its wicked twist. "Everything was done by your hand, and yours alone." Words failed Cullen once more, a cold sweat broke on his brow. That twisted, evil creature –dear God, what had he done?

"To be sure," she added as an afterthought, "you did partly win. I did not do any killing today, whereas you did. A mere half-victory, but it must suffice." She paused as if expecting an answer, and continued, "Now, if you will excuse me, I must partake of the spoils of my, shall we say, greater victory."

As she turned her gaze back to the corpse, Cullen's limbs suddenly swung into action. He pounced on her, forgetting his pike, clawing at her with his bare hands. She slipped out of his grasp with astonishing speed; Cullen then realised that her disappearing trick was not disappearance, but inhuman speed.

"Come now, Carlisle, you wish to attack me with your hands? What would you have done, strangle me?" Again, her cruel smile glimmered at him in the torchlight. "I am invincible."

Anger overflowed within Cullen. That wretched mocking face must-

"BURN!" –he snarled as he snatched the torch from behind him and brandished it at her.

For possibly the fifth time that night he was surprised again. Instead of remaining still impassively, the monster flinched away with an expression of horror and disgust.

"Keep that away from me!" –she hissed, her voice suddenly unsavoury.

It took one long moment for Cullen to understand what it meant. He looked from her to the torch and back again, before a smile slowly crept across his face. He hoped it was at least half as maddening as her own smug expressions.

"Invincible, are you really?" –he said softly.

The creature glared at him, glanced at the corpse, and snarled, "Well played, my pretty man. You have won this little joust. The next time, you shan't be half as lucky."

"I'll be prepared," Cullen said, gesturing at the torch.

The woman raised an eyebrow. "You foolish man. You think this will end with me? There are more just like me –so many more, in fact, that you shall worry your handsome head to dust over our numbers."

Cullen narrowed his eyes. "How many more?"

A small smile appeared on her lips. "No, my darling, that I cannot tell you. You see, it is forbidden."

"Forbidden by whom?"

Her smile widened. "You catch on quickly, my lovely. No, this riddle you cannot solve, but I will give you one that you can solve. It concerns where I shall hunt next. Storks, or more importantly, cranes should give you an idea. And not even the usual kind of cranes…* Ponder carefully my pet, for I do so want to see you again." With that, she disappeared once more, leaving Cullen alone with the corpse in the empty innyard.


Zero Hour

"So then who was the dead woman?" –Tench asked slowly, as they waited for people to gather.

"A working woman*," Cullen said shortly, his eyes focused on the end of the road where some persons were arriving.

When no further explanation was forthcoming, Tench pressed him, "And how did she come to be working with this creature?"

"Money. I found a bagful of gold on her body."

"Then this monster is a woman of means?" –Tench asked, alarmed.

"She wears some clothes for which she would need some money, yes. And she hides during the day. She does not smell of the sewers, so she does not hide herself there. Anywhere else above ground she would have to pay for."

"Perhaps she steals," Tench said.

"That is very likely."

"Here come the people!" –Tench said abruptly.

Cullen sighed, his grim expression fading momentarily into a worried one. "I do not like this, Tench."

Tench seemed surprised. "How can you not? The fire patrols have been working wonderfully. There have been no killings for weeks!"

"We are driving them to desperation. I do not like it."

"We are taking the offensive, Cullen. For once we have the upper hand!"

Cullen glanced at him, his eyes weary. "We know not what it is that we offend."

"They are monsters! Is that not enough?"

"I wish it were so." Then as more people began to come within earshot, his face hardened into coldness once more. "It is time."

"Steel yourself, Carlisle! Lead them well." –Tench said as they parted.

"Do not call me that," Cullen said irritably as people began to assemble before the scaffolding upon which he stood. He waited until a dozen more people had gathered, before he began thusly-

"Good people. We gather tonight in another holy cause, a quest to rid this mortal world of darkness and of evil. For far too long we have cowered in our homes, frightened and defenceless while the monsters roamed the streets and snatched unrightfully that thing uniquely privy to each man, woman and child; that life-sustaining elixir that flows through our veins with the pride of our fathers and those before them, that makes us mortal and makes us His worthy children; they rob us, good people, of our blood!"

A furious uproar commenced as the people before him brandished their torches and weapons ecstatically. Cullen surveyed them all emotionlessly. A chant was beginning to form, a very familiar chant by now to him –"Blood for blood! Blood for blood!" Cullen noticed that even Tench, standing at the back of the crowd, had joined in. He felt a sickening feeling rise up in him, his stomach twisting into several knots. For a minute, he remembered his own personal argument against this madness, the voice of his 'weak-self' saying, we are thirsting for blood just like she and her ilk are… How does that make us differ from her lot?

And then, in the dark sky, he saw the image of the dead human look-alike of that creature, the woman he had killed himself, spilling her blood like it meant nothing…

He shook his head slightly and returned to the present, where the people were screaming themselves hoarse, responding to his every word with fanatic approval. They depended on him –he must go on. He must be strong.

"And so," he continued, and immediately a hush descended upon the crowd, "we meet here tonight. Will we simply stand aside and let these monsters steal any more lives?" A resounding "NO!" burst forth the crowd. "Will we watch, doing nothing, while we hold the secret of their weakness, of their destruction?" Another "NO!" echoed through the alleys.

"Then tonight, we will FIGHT!"

"YES!"

"We will fight; we will hound them out of their filthy lairs, and we will destroy them, once-and-for-all!"

"YES!"

"Each and every one of you; every father, husband, brother or son that stands here tonight will sleep all the better, for tonight, we rid the alleys of evil FOREVER!"

"YES!"

"Then follow me!"

The crowd went wild as Cullen leaped off the scaffolding and accepted a torch that one of the men handed him, refusing any other weapon.

He took a deep, surreptitious breath. This is it. He glanced at the farthest corner of the street, where, he knew, his father stood watching. Cullen hoped that he was finally, to some extent, proud of him. Then he glanced up at the sky, where he could see some stars twinkling through the smoke of the torchlight.

Forgive me, Lord, for I am about to sin, his weak-self murmured in his head.

Then, forgetting all weakness, he turned to the men behind him. "Let us be off," he murmured quietly and marched toward the nearest dark alley. With another raucous cheer, the men followed him.

He had been so careful in remembering the path to their lair, that he could find his way to it from anywhere in London. Even now he couldn't believe his luck in stumbling upon it. As he had expected, it was in the sewers, near a particularly foul little wharf which seemed to be permanently steeped in bad odour.

He had been patrolling alone four nights past. A cold breeze from the river had extinguished his torch and he was forced to patrol with only moonlight as his aid. As it were, it was a good thing he had no torch. Even as he had watched from a higher road, a white figure had flashed into view near the steps, and in another flash it was gone –but with it had also disappeared the silhouette of a drunkard who had been staggering up the steps. Almost immediately, Cullen knew what he had seen. Prudence overtook his strong desire to destroy –never again would he make the mistake he did at that deserted innyard –and he quietly slunk away in the dark, waiting a few streets away for daylight to appear.

When it was bright, Cullen had waited for the opportune moment. He waited until there was a particularly large group of people hanging about the stairs, when he quickly dashed down the stairs, holding an empty crate to further the illusion of a dockyard worker. The stairs went along the quay before veering sharply to face and disappear into the river. Four feet from that sharp angle in the stairs, was a large, round opening of the sewers, with no grill and large enough for a human to stand in. Immediately, Cullen understood. He had found it. He had finally found it!

Presently, Cullen looked around momentarily to get his bearings right. Hermitage Dock. Further downstream.

As he neared the destination, Cullen's thoughts were in a hazy, excited whirl. He could barely sense his surroundings, and at times felt he was strutting down the dark streets all alone, the crowd behind him non-existent. All he could think about was when he would finally step into that filthy lair, when he would finally slay those monsters and prove his strength to the world, his hour of reckoning, his zero hour.

New Crane Stairs. Almost there.

'Crane' brought her into his mind. He hoped she would be there, but he rather doubted it. She did not seem the type to languish in sewers. Then again, not a single killing(that they knew of –Cullen suspected there had been several more disappearances like that of the drunkard he had witnessed) had occurred in the past few weeks –perhaps she too had been driven to desperation? Cullen relished the thought of adding her to his kills.

When they were not two streets away, Cullen stopped. The men behind him stopped as well. He glanced at them. There were more than two dozen men.

"We must all be very quiet. We must surprise them and thus silence is essential."-he murmured softly. The men all nodded. "Half of you will follow me inside. The other half will remain on guard outside to catch anyone fleeing." They nodded again. "Remember, use the torches on them. No other weapon will destroy them." Another collective nod. Taking another deep breath, and feeling like his heart would burst from his chest, Cullen tiptoed forward, motioning for the men to follow him.

Everything worked to perfection. They got down the stairs with nary a sound, they placed a small wooden board between the stairs and the sewer opening just as quietly.

The second just before their advance seemed to freeze in its clarity. Cullen was acutely aware of every single block of stone to his left, every single whisper of the river breeze from his right, every single flicker of the flames from the torches, every single loud heartbeat from his own chest…

This is it.

"Now!" –Cullen whispered sharply and leapt into the opening, instantly making way for the others behind him.

And then pandemonium ensued.

There were five of the creatures. All men, all terrifyingly pale, all strikingly beautiful, and all visibly angry. They hissed and screeched even as the men began to yell, and a loud clamour began.

Cullen simply launched himself on the first creature he set eyes upon. Around him were sounds of metal clanking on stone, of fire crackling, and the requisite screeches, screams and shouts.

He could barely see what was happening. The torch light was unsteady and he thought he saw one of the creatures already with its teeth in one of the men. The sight made him more mad and he shouted with rage as he brandished his torch in his creature's face.

Several of the creatures were shrieking with pain, and to his horror, before he could stop them, escaped from the mouth of the sewer.

"Follow them!" –Cullen roared, and chased them, only mildly acknowledging that most of the men were chasing a monster further into the sewers.

He leaped out of the sewer's mouth, completely ignoring the wooden plank, climbing three of four stairs at a time, his gaze fixed on the fleeing white figures before him. The men waiting outside were stunned only for a split moment before joining into the battle fullheartedly. But even as Cullen watched, one of the monsters was escaping into a side alley.

"No!" –he hissed and gave chase. To his surprise, the creature was not running as fast as he knew it could have.

In one horrifying moment, Cullen knew why.

The creature stopped and turned towards him with a snarl. Cullen was only dimly aware that no one else stood beside him. It was him and the monster alone.

Before he could even comprehend the flash of white movement in front of him, the monster had pounced on him, its sharp teeth latched onto his neck.

No! Cullen felt the blood from his veins reduce, his screams reduced to a gargle, his hands flailing uselessly. Repeatedly he battered the creature's back with his torch, but he could only feel his life force draining away. As though within a dream, Cullen remembered the last words his father had spoken to him-

"They must all be dead tonight. We need linseed oil, Carlisle –surely you noticed that we are running dry? Bring some home when you are finished."

They would not all be dead tonight. Cullen had failed, he had failed miserably, and his father would never be proud of him. Even in death Cullen had failed him…

Almost simultaneously, a bell seemed to ring within Cullen's dulling brain. Linseed oil.

Oil.

Mustering his last reserve of strength, Cullen snatched the small clay vial of oil from a pouch on his belt. Without thinking twice, he smashed the vial on the creature's back, even as he waved his torch at the same spot.

The result was instantaneous; with an ear-piercing shriek, the monster let go off him. Cullen collapsed on the dirty street silently, watching the burning figure of the creature recede from his blurred vision with no little satisfaction. His work was done.

Finished. The end.

Barely ten minutes later, as irrational, unbelievable pain overtook his senses, he realised that it was not so. It was not the end. Just the beginning.


17th century-isms explained:

To begin with, this particular time in the 1600's is unusually uneventful. It's the time of the hiatus between the English Civil War and the return of Monarchy in the latter decades of the 17th century. As far as I can see, the war can be explained thusly-

King Charles I supported 'High-Anglicanism' and married a Catholic princess. The Puritans(or Presbyterians) are angry. The English Parliament was more of an 'advisory' sort and the King dissolved and reassembled the parliament if their proceedings did not please him.

People began to rebel, and in 1641, his lead advisor, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford was executed(whose death warrant the King himself had to sign because Parliament had condemned him). This is the hanging that Carslisle's father goes to see, at the time of Carlisle's birth.

There were several wars between the rebels(Parliamentarians) and the Royalists before the former won. In 1649, the defeated King is tried, condemned and executed. This was again, a very public execution, and this beheading was what Carlisle was made to witness at his father's behest.

Then the Kingdom of England became the Commonwealth of England for some years, the 'Protectorate' after that until 1660.

Between 1660 and 1665 I could find little that dealt with the daily life of Londoners, which is when this story takes place(curses!). The great fire of London(which destroyed half of London and established the geographically modern London as we know it) took place in 1665, and the years after that are, unfortunately for us, mentioned in a LOT of literature.


Women's dress: From innerwear to outer garments, a woman's complete costume would include, in order:

Chemise- Inner short dress worn next to the skin and breeches, often made of linen.

Petticoat- Skirt worn on top of chemise, often also white linen.

Stomacher- A corset-like piece, often triangular, and had an embroidered or patterned front since it could be seen in the whole ensemble.

Bodice- A sort of gown that came over the stomacher, part of which last could be seen in some low-necked bodices. A bodice was often full-length and had the visible sleeves of the ensemble.

Overdress- Another gown to go on top of a gown, often in a colour contrasting with that of the bodice.


The 'crane' riddle is somewhat easily explained: Three Cranes was a popular wharf on the bank of the river Thames. Stillgate, as another riverside area, was reputed for its ironworks and shipbuilding in general. It is easy to understand Carlisle assuming that the vampire meant Stillgate(building cranes) as opposed to the name 'Cranes'.


working woman/fallen woman: slang for prostitute


Oh, and the current picture is an etching of 1600's London, with the old London Bridge in view.