Castle Keep

by Jean Graham

(Currently appearing in "Shadows & Roses," a FOREVER KNIGHT
fanzine available from Nancy Kaminski:

Four days.

Four *nights,* to be exact, and seven hours and twenty-odd minutes
since he'd last fed, and the beast wouldn't -- couldn't -- be
contained much longer.

Nat was late.

Nick paced the kitchen floor, ran a nervous hand through unruly
blond hair. He'd have to get it cut tomorrow. Just hadn't had the
time, with the caseload he and Schanke had been working, and Nat
should have been here by now, she went off shift at four, and why


He slammed a fist on the table, raging at the hunger, at the
beast that clawed for release, clamored to be fed. He would not
give in to it; would not even look at the refrigerator. He would

He sank into one of the kitchen chairs, gripping the table's
edge so fiercely he
thought the wood might splinter, and willed the hunger to subside.

It paid no heed to the demand.

If Nat took much longer, the struggle would inevitably be lost
and the test results ruined anyway. If she hadn't insisted that

A car door slammed on the street below. Shoes scraped on
asphalt. Nick put his head down on the table and waited, counting
the seconds it should take her to enter the alarm code, pull open
the door... The elevator clattered and groaned, cables
hauling the aging mechanism upward until finally -- *finally* --
Natalie bustled through the door, already in full chatter.

"...late but I had a last minute call and still had to get my
equipment together
before I--"

When he lifted his head to look at her, she stopped mid-word
and mid-stride. He knew why: he could feel the fangs straining to
descend, knew that his eyes were already glowing.

Nat merely waited, said nothing while he turned away, and by
sheer force of will fought the vampire back into submission. When
he looked up again, his eyes were blue and Nat was depositing her
black medical satchel on the table beside him. Test tubes, rubber
stoppers, sterile needles and hypodermics preceded a host of other
more arcane paraphernalia onto the tabletop. He could swear her
hands trembled, but perhaps he'd imagined that.

"I thought you weren't coming," he rasped.

"Oh ye of little faith," she recited with mock seriousness,
and headed for the sink to scrub down. "This is the last blood
sample I'll need for now, but you never know, it just might be the
one that makes all the difference."

He watched as she moved back to the table, snapped the wrapper
off a needle and began prepping one of the hypos. "Why?" he
wondered out loud. "Why should this be any different from the
others? I mean, Nat..." He quelled her protest with a look.
"Nat, if coming back across were as easy as starving..."

"I know." She grasped his right arm, expert hands unbuttoning
and rolling back the sleeve, tying the length of orange rubber
tubing just above his elbow. "But the longer you fast, the weaker
the vampiric nucleotides in your DNA become. Which means..." He
felt the needle slide in and begin to draw as she continued,
"...that a serum would have a better chance of overwhelming the
vampire element when it's in this more vulnerable state. I can't
be sure, of course, until I have a chance to..."

Her voice faded to his ears, swallowed by the throbbing of a
human heartbeat, the roar of blood rushing through veins, arteries.
She was standing so close. *Too* close. He turned his head away.
Let her think him a coward, too 'squeamish' to watch the needle
drawing blood. Anything but the truth. God, she was so close, her
heartbeat strong and steady and near to drowning him with its
rhythm. So easy just to reach out and take her, here, now, to
satisfy the hunger in the way it *should* be satisfied. So very

"...should do it," he heard her say, and the needle slipped
from his arm. Before she could remove the tubing, he leapt to his
feet, scarcely conscious of the chair overturning, and fled to the
window. Fists pressed to the uncaring glass, he fought to once
more bring the beast under control. But it refused to heel.

Toronto's chill winter skyline mocked him, the first pale
blush of dawn just beginning to stain the horizon. Something
clattered behind him. The chair scraped the floor. Then Natalie's
heartbeat returned. Two hands took hold of his arms, turned him,
thrust something cold and smooth into his grasp.

"Come on," Nat's voice urged. "Test fasting phase concluded.

Oh, yes. The beast would like nothing more than to drink, but
not from this accursed bottle. One hand kept its grip on the
container, but the other flashed out to close around Natalie's
throat, to take what the vampire truly desired...

"Nick... Don't!"

She trembled when his fingers tightened, and her fear was as
intoxicating as the smell of her blood.


Her fingers pried in vain at his hand. Warm fingers, full of
life, full of blood...

"Nick, please!" The voice became suddenly smaller, pleading,

He didn't want to hurt her. There were reasons, if only he
could remember them. But he didn't want to let her go, either.
The beast needed -- demanded -- to be fed. He turned her head
aside, baring the vein at her throat, opened his mouth to

With the searing agony of flame, sunlight broke over the
horizon and streamed through the unshuttered window. Nick cried
out, pivoted away from the light, fell into the shadowed safety of
the fireplace hearth. Nat momentarily forgotten, he discovered
that the bottle had come with him, and proceeded to drain it to its
last, thoroughly unsatisfying drop. When it had clattered to the
bricks and rolled away, he found another had been placed nearby,
and that he drained as well. Most of a third followed that before
the beast subsided, subdued if not entirely satisfied by the taste
of cow's blood.

He glanced up to see Nat leaning, arms crossed, against the
table, her eyes hard. "Finished?" she asked in a voice more
brittle than icicles.

Her tone rankled, and his own voice responded, deep and
threatening. "I did warn you not to get too close."

"Right." She turned away, began re-packing the bag with items
from the table. The lights were on, he noted, the electronic shades
drawn. Nat had mastered the intricacies of his remote control, if
not those of its owner.

She jumped when he appeared without warning beside her. The
hand on her shoulder, meant to be reassuring, felt her go tense and
stiff instead. "Nat, I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean..."

"Sure," she said, her hand at her throat, still trembling.
"Like you said, you did warn me, right from the start."

She pulled out of his grasp, zipping the bag and preparing to
go. He reached out to her again, wishing he could keep her here,
assure her that she was safe now. But it would have been a lie. He
let the hand drop. No mortal woman had been safe in his proximity
in nearly 800 years. Exceptional though she may be, Nat was no
exception to the rule.

"I'm sorry," he said again, but the words rang hollow, as lame
and useless as the pretender-to-humanity who had spoken them. She
wouldn't come again, not after this, and how could he blame her?

*They will all leave you, in time,* Lacroix's voice taunted
from somewhere long ago. *Mortals, mon Nicholas, cannot be

He spun, stalked back to the fireplace and hung onto the
mantel as though it were a lifeline. The ornately carved dragon
there glared back at him. "I should never have agreed to this," he
said morosely. "I should have known better."

He could feel her eyes on him, studying him. "Four days can't
be the longest you've ever abstained?"

A question not from the woman, but from the scientist, asked
from a carefully maintained safe distance with the table now
between them. He wanted to laugh at the naivete of it. "No." In
point of fact, four days *was* the longest he'd ever been deprived
-- willingly. There had been a time...

"No," he said again curtly.

Her voice remained detached, insatiably curious. "Well if a
vampire can't really die of starvation, and if blood deprivation
doesn't bring him back across, what *does* happen if you don't...
if you don't..."

"Feed," he supplied, still not looking at her. "The word is
'feed.' And what happens is something you'd rather not see."

He heard the satchel lift, rattling, from the table. Then
she'd come up behind him, too close again, her heartbeat pounding
a temptation in his ears. He closed his eyes and told himself that
the hunger had been satisfied. But he and the beast both knew that
for a lie.

"What *does* happen?" she asked, still the doctor, still the

Nick's fingers flexed twice over the dragon's pointed snout.
"You'd better go," he grated. "Now."


"Please, just go." He hadn't meant the words to sound so
harsh. Probably was for the best, though. She backed away, and he
heard the elevator door slide open.

"I'll call you when I've run the tests," she said.

He nodded, never turning around as the lift closed and the car
wheezed its way to the lower floor.

"Believe me," he said aloud to the now-absent Natalie. "You
wouldn't want to see..."
< + >
He'd been hungry on that night as well, weakened by three days
in hiding, striving in vain to elude Lady Justine's huntsmen. Four
brief nights ago he had feigned dining at her table, the handsome
gentleman courting the noblewoman's daughter. Now he was quarry
for her hounds, nothing more than the monstrous creature that had
murdered Jocelyn, and who, should they catch him, would pay for
that offense with his life.

With his semblance of life.

The hounds began baying the instant the hunger drove him from
his lair and out into the night. They were closer than he'd hoped.
He'd have no time to find prey. So foolish, to be trapped so
easily! It had been too near dawn to fly when he had gone into
hiding: now he was too weak for flight, and would have to take his
chances on the ground.

*Do you really think you're capable of living among them?*
Lacroix's warning rang in his ears as the forest trees flashed past
him. Though their bitter argument was but two months gone, his
master's words had all come horribly true. *Did your holy wars
teach you nothing?* he had sneered. *The human race is treachery
personified. Sooner or later, they will always betray you, turn on
you. That is the nature of _their_ beast.*

Nicholas could not run short of breath, but his strength was
flagging nonetheless, slowing his pace. The hounds were gaining.

They ran him to ground against a steep cliffside covered with
deadfall. Eight dogs surrounded him, barking, snapping and
slathering. He tried futilely to swat them away. They drove him
to the leaf-matted ground instead and held him there, howling
in triumph as their masters came crashing through the trees,
lanterns held high and shouting to the others that the 'beast' had
at last been cornered.

"Where?" a voice demanded, and three pairs of booted feet
crunched across the woodfall toward him. He recognized Justine's
chief gamemaster, Adric, a fiery-haired bear of a man with a
disposition to match. At his sharp gesture, the dogs left their
conquest and heeled, leaving Nicholas, spreadeagled, alone on the
ground. Adric moved into the nimbus of light created by his
companions' lamps. Something in his hands glinted, fire on metal
and wood. The crossbow, already drawn and locked, came to bear on
Nicholas' chest.

Adric's thick finger closed over the weapon's trigger. "On
your feet," he commanded.

Absurdly shamed at the thought of dying on the ground,
Nicholas obeyed. He stumbled, fell awkwardly against the hillside
littered with deadwood, but kept his feet. If he could capture the
gamemaster's eyes somehow...

Adric merely grimaced at him, and pulled the trigger.

The bolt struck home. Too late, he tried desperately to sweep
it aside, but his hands were sluggish, not nearly quick enough.
Nicholas cried out and pitched forward to his knees. The hounds
bayed and yipped. He heard Adric shout something. At once, stout
hands grabbed his arms, hauled him up and back until he was pinned
against the hillside.

"It isn't dead," one of the men complained.

Adric's bearded face loomed closer, studying him with cold,
appraising eyes. "Yet," he amended with a snort. The huntsman
reached to grasp the crossbolt, gave it a hard shove and then
snapped off the shaft. Nicholas' scream set the dogs barking

"Off your mark a bit, weren't you, Adric?" one of the hunters
wondered. "Doesn't look through the heart to me."

"It isn't." The burly gamemaster lifted his quarry's hands,
then crossed and bound them just as though he were trussing a deer
for the spit. "Don't want it dead just yet."

One of the men hastily made the sign of the cross and bent to
snatch a sharp branch from the deadfall. "Are you mad? Use this
then. Finish it!"

The gamemaster patiently completed his knots before accepting
the proffered branch. "That will be my Lady's privilege," he said,
and tossed the piece of wood aside. "Go and tell William to bring
a horse. We'll wait here."
< + >
The soft strains of a Chopin etude woke him. Nick rolled over
and sat up in bed, knowing without seeing through the shuttered
windows that the sun had set.

He also, apparently, had company.

The etude continued, unbroken and flawless, as he threw on his
silk bathrobe and padded barefoot down the stairs. Beneath the
landing, Janette sat at his grand piano, tapers on either side
alight, a wine bottle and two crystal goblets waiting beside the
rightmost candle. Eyes closed, she finished the piece and allowed
the last echo of the final note to fade away before she spoke.

"Awake at last?"

He moved past her to the refrigerator and retrieved one of his
own bottles, returning to stand beside her. "And to what do I owe
the honor...?"

She frowned prettily. "Really, Nicola. Must I wait for an
engraved invitation?"

"No." Not that she would. Placing his bottle on the piano as
well, he lifted and uncorked hers, filled one of the wine glasses
and then repeated the motion with his own 'preferred vintage.' She
slid aside to make room for him on the bench, accepting the glass
from him with a smile. Her fingers, as cold as the crystal,
lingered on his own before their hands parted and he reached for
the second glass.

"I felt..." She hesitated, took a sip of the blood wine,
finally finished her sentence. "...that you needed me. Or that
you needed someone."

"I'm fine." But his rapid draining of the glass belied his
words. She watched as he refilled it, an earnest look of concern
in her eyes.

"I felt your hunger," she said quietly.

Nick emptied the second glass and set it down, fighting the
urge to simply grab and drain the bottle. "An experiment," he said
truthfully. "Nothing to worry about. Anyway, it's over now."

"I will never understand you." Her blue eyes regarded him
over the rim of her glass. "Why do you torture yourself so? We
are not meant to be deprived. We are creatures of--"

He stopped her with a finger pressed to her lips. "I know."
He slipped the glass from her hand and placed it aside, then kissed
her, briefly but passionately. The taste of human blood on her lips
awakened the beast, conjured vivid images of the lovemaking they
had shared over the centuries. He forced himself to pull away, to
quell the stirrings.

"You delude yourself, *mon cher,*" she murmured with genuine
pity in her voice. "You know well enough that starving yourself
cannot make you mortal again. Remember Justine..."

He rose abruptly, snagging the bottle of cow's blood, and
stalked away to the kitchen. "I haven't forgotten anything."

Etiquette be damned, he tipped the bottle to his lips and
drank. If Janette had expected more courtly behavior from him, she
was going to be disappointed.

"You do still need me, Nicola. And all of us, whether you
know it or not." She came up behind him, slender hands slipping
with familiar ease around his waist. Her lips caressed the back of
his neck. "Now, just as then, you need us."
< + >
He had never wanted to need them. But that very arrogance had
cost him dearly at Justine's hands. Had he not quarreled with
Lacroix, left the master and Janette in Paris and insisted on going
his own way... The result had been, Lacroix would say, a lesson of
his own making.

Nicholas had suffered the indignity of his transport back to
the castle in grim silence. He'd been draped over the gelding's
hindquarters like a prize hart, bleeding, bound hand and foot. For
all of the three-hour journey, every step the animal took jarred
the embedded crossbolt and drove agony through the open wound. He
was very near senseless with the pain by the time the hunting party
passed through the portcullis into Castle Llewellyn's courtyard,
and the panting horse was brought to a halt at last.

Lanterns clanked. Voices spoke in hushed whispers. One of
them, Adric's, growled, "Well, go and wake her then!"

Hands unknotted Nicholas' bindings, dragged him roughly off
the horse and across the sawdust-covered yard. They entered a
structure he recognized dimly as the smokehouse. There, his
captors secured his hands once more above his head, leaving him
suspended from a meathook against the small building's back wall.
More voices. The shuffling of many feet. The puissant smell of
burning lantern oil mingled with the odor of curing venison...

Some time later, a new commotion approached the door.
Nicholas recognized Adric's voice, and then another he had last
heard three days before.

A gasp preceded Lady Justine's sickened exclamation. "Mother
of God, Adric. Surely no man could lose so much blood and live!"

"True enough," Adric answered her. "But this is not a man."

Nicholas heard the distinctive sound of a sword being drawn.
A moment later, the blade tip came to rest against his cheek,
tapped him once, twice, then a third time hard enough to draw
blood. With an effort, he lifted his head. Red eyes and beast's
fangs bared, he snarled at his tormentor. Adric retreated with a
startled oath.

Lady Justine crossed herself, drew the brocade edges of her
dressing gown tighter around her shoulders. "What demon out of
hell is this? Not the man who sat table with me three evenings

"Not a man at all," her gamemaster repeated. "A vampire. A
creature feigning humanity long enough to feed on the innocent --
as this one fed on Mistress Jocelyn."

Justine's crown of greying raven hair reflected firelight from
the lanterns as she took a step toward her daughter's killer.
Adric put out an arm to block her path. "No, my lady. Do not
stand too near."

Her face had grown stern as well as angry. "The vampire lives
forever, so legend has it. If it cannot die, how will it pay for
murdering my daughter?" She went closer in spite of Adric's
restraint and spat her next words in Nicholas' face. "How will you
pay, demon?"

The gamemaster drew her back then, gesturing with the sword as
he spoke. "No, lady, not quite forever. They may die by four
means only. By burning..." His eyes strayed to the lantern
suspended from a ceiling beam nearby. "By taking off the
head..." He ran a finger down the sword's broad side. "By a
wooden stake driven through the heart..." He smiled, showing
yellowed teeth, then pointed with the sword to the tiny room's
thatched ceiling. "And by exposure. Remove the thatching, wait
three hours hence, and the sunrise will do our work for us."
Nicholas met Lady Justine's iron gaze with eyes that were blue
once more, as well as unashamedly fearful. To die writhing in the
sunlight... Any one of Adric's other methods would have been more

But then, Llewellyn's mistress had no reason to show him any
semblance of mercy. Without warning, she wrested the sword from a
surprised Adric's hand and promptly brought its edge to bear
against Nicholas' throat. "Tell me why I should not take your head
here and now, vampire! For my Jocelyn..." Tears choked her words,
twisted them into a sob. The blade fell, thudded to the
blood-soaked earth beneath him. Justine sank to her knees,
clutched fists full of the muddy gore, and wailed her daughter's
name to the heavens.

Adric and two others rushed to her side. They pulled her
upright and then quickly re-established their proper distance,
waiting for her to regain her composure. When she had done so, the
lady of the manor drew herself up and fixed Nicholas with a glare
of unmitigated hatred. But it was the huntsmen to whom she spoke.

"Remove the thatching," she said, and swept from the room.
< + >
Janette sensed his anguish at the memory almost as sharply as
she had done on that night in Paris, so long ago. Curled
comfortably against him on the leather couch, her head against his
shoulder, she confessed, "I felt your pain then. As did he." She
knew that, in fact, Lacroix had felt it far more keenly than she.

Bitterness laced his reply. "But not enough to help me," he
said. It was an unaccusing statement of cold fact.

"I wanted to. Lacroix would not..." She lifted her head to
look into his eyes. "In nearly eighty years, it was the first time
you had rejected him. He was so angry. So..." There was no other
word for it. "So hurt."

The denial flashed in his eyes long before he voiced it.
"Nothing ever 'hurt' Lacroix."

"You did. Perhaps if you had not argued so horribly. If you
had not hated him so much..."

Nicola merely stared at her, stubbornly having none of it.
But she knew, as he could not, how the master had suffered his
fledgling's pain. She remembered it only too well.
< + >
"How can you simply stand there?!" She had all but screamed
the words at him. Her master was a dark statue silhouetted against
the Paris night. She had followed him out onto the ornate balcony
of their estate, and watched as his shoulders shook with the
intensity of Nicola's far away agony. Even over the leagues
between Paris and Cardiff, their link remained strong. So strong
that she feared Lacroix would go mad with the pain.

"You can stop it," she pleaded. *"We* can stop it."

He spoke one syllable through clenched teeth, his pale hands
clutching the balustrade so tightly the masonry might crack at any
moment. "No."

*Merde! Why must men always be so stubborn?!*

"Then he will die," she said aloud through her tears. "Nicola
will die. And then, when your heart is torn out, will you be
satisfied? *Will* you?"

"We are *not* going!!" He turned on her then, all the fury of
the ages burning in his eyes. Janette flinched, but refused to
retreat. In all their years together, he had never raised a hand
to do her harm. If only the same could have been said of Nicola...

"Why?" The question came out a broken sob: she didn't care.
Lacroix would tolerate the weakness of her tears far more readily
than he had ever forgiven Nicola his. *"Why?* If you love him as
you say..."

The ancient vampire drew in a long breath, rage dispelling
into tightly controlled anger. "Nicholas must learn," he seethed,
"that there are 'masters' far harsher than his own."

And with that he had gone. Cold air rushed over her and then
departed in the wake of his flight, leaving her alone with her
< + >

The instrument of Nicholas' death loomed, mere minutes away
now. He could no longer lift his head to see the open roof. No
matter. His senses told him dawn was near, that the eastern sky
was already beginning to brighten. He wondered how long it took to
die in the sun...

"Cut him down."

Lady Justine's voice came out of nowhere. He'd heard no one
approach. Hands touched, lifted him, severed his bonds and carried
him from the room. Where? They hadn't traveled far when he heard
the heavy scrape of a metal door. Then he was abruptly dropped
onto a stone-paved floor and left there, face down in an awkward
heap. He could open his eyes just enough to see high rounded stone
walls illuminated by flickering torchlight. Llewellyn's keep, by
the look of it. No windows, no doors save the ironclad entry, and
no way for the sunlight to enter the roof. Perhaps the Lady
Justine had chosen some other means to carry out his execution?

"I still say the risk is too great," Adric's bass voice
rumbled from somewhere out of view. "This is not a creature you
may cage like some--"

"Do as you're told, Adric." Justine's tone brooked no
argument. "Chain him, if it pleases you. But revive him. I would
tell him to his face what his punishment shall be."

Adric's mud-spattered boots moved into Nicholas' field of
vision. One of them came to rest beneath his shoulder and kicked,
rolling him onto his back. With an oath, the big man crouched
beside him. One leather-gloved hand grasped and rent the bloodied
fabric of his tunic; the other brandished a pair of blacksmith's
forceps. Nicholas wondered hazily what they were for, until the
cold iron was pressed into his wound to clamp the broken shaft of
the crossbolt.

He had no strength to scream. When the fire of the bolt
pulling free tore through him, he let out a small choking gasp and
managed somehow to roll away, curling himself against the chill
comfort of the curving wall.

Adric's final affront was to clamp a leg-iron to his ankle,
the chain presumably linked to a bolt somewhere in the same wall.
After a time, a servant dispatched from the slaughterhouse brought
a wooden keg filled with hog's blood, placed it near him on the
floor, and fled.

He was able to sit up by the time Lady Justine returned. The
empty keg lay on its side in the center of the barren floor. She
came alone, smiling her triumph when the shaft of sunlight beaming
in the door, though it did not touch him, made him wince and turn
aside. The door scraped shut, leaving her in the dimmer light of
the dying torches, and he turned back again, allowing his eyes to

"What do you want with me?" They were the first words he had
spoken in three days, and they came from the vampire, a deep and
threatening growl.
It pleased him that she took a startled step backward,
surprised that her prisoner, so helpless mere hours before, could
make such demands of her now. She recovered herself, returned
threat for threat. "Is this the gratitude I'm given for sparing
your miserable life?"

"I have not heard the price as yet." He tried to hold her
gaze, but she looked away, pacing to and fro with nervous hands
running over the elaborate gown she now wore. She was careful, he
noted, to remain across the room and near the door. Probably wise,
though she could not have known that he'd not yet fed enough to
break Adric's chains.

"I hold these lands by marriage," she said, and turned her
head to look at him again. "My husband is recently dead, and
because I am foreign to this place, there are those who would
overrun my holdings, take them from me. I am in need of a way for
my enemies to... disappear."

Nicholas sank back against the wall, the gold in his eyes
fading quickly to blue. "I am not an animal performing for its
keep," he spat. "I will not kill for you."

Lady Justine's tone was as hard as her eyes. "Yes. You will.
Do not imagine that you will be given any choice. For my Jocelyn's
murder you deserve death. To save my lands, I sentence you instead
to live." She lifted her gaze toward the keep's high ceiling.

She turned her back on his look of horrified realization,
rapping twice on the door. A dour-faced Adric entered, again
casting a bright light beam eastward across the floor. The
gamekeeper escorted his lady out before returning with a small
woven cloth in hand. Casting Nicholas a wary glance, he unfolded
the bundle to reveal a wooden crucifix wound about with a pungent
string of garlic. Both of these he hung with shaking hands on the
inner side of the door, all the while mumbling a prayer. Then he
crossed himself and hurried out again. The door thudded shut, its
iron bolt dropping into place on the other side with an echoing
clang. With the draft of its closing, the last burning torch
guttered, hissed and went out.
< + >
"She locked you in that place..." Janette shivered and rose
from the couch to go nearer to Nicola's fire, wishing for the first
time in ten centuries that it could warm her. "Did you...?"

She left the question unfinished, not at all sure how he would
react. He said nothing for a time. Then, at his touch of a
control, the heavy shutters on her right hummed open on the
panorama of Toronto's newly fallen night. In another moment, he
had joined her at the window.

"The Lady Justine's enemies disappeared, one by one," he said
hoarsely. "The 'creature' in Llewellyn's keep killed all of them,
to keep from starving. There were many of them in the beginning.
Then they brought fewer, and fewer..." He took a deep breath,
released it in a shuddering sigh. "After a time, no one came

Janette stared out at the night, at the near-full moon rising
over the spire of the CN Tower. "Lacroix received word in London
that Justine had died, and that she had left instructions that the
keep be sealed. He knew you were not dead, but I swear, Nicola,
he never expected to find..." Again, she met the pain in his eyes
and could not finish.

"Do you know what hell is, Janette? Hell is being trapped in
an immortal body with nowhere to go, no way to feed, nothing but
days turning to months turning to years while you lie in a tomb,
not even granted the mercy of unconsciousness. And all the while,
with every single passing moment, you are completely,
excruciatingly aware."

Janette shivered. She had wished, on that night, not to be
aware. The horror of Castle Llewellyn's keep was one memory she
would gladly have given away...
< + >
Wind howled through Llewellyn's splintered portcullis and
across her broken battlements. Janette landed with Lacroix in the
litter-strewn courtyard, turned to gaze up at the lightless
windows. "But Lacroix," she breathed, "how can he be here? It is

Her master turned a slow circle until his eyes came to rest on
the circular tower at the courtyard's center. "He is here," he

Janette followed him to the stone structure, one of the few in
the castle complex with its walls and roof intact. It looked, in
fact, as though someone had taken great care to patch the crumbling
stone walls with lime and mortar. The recessed doorway, however,
had been filled with enormous granite blocks. Lacroix tossed them
aside as though they were made of parchment and then snapped the
rusting iron lock that held the bar. He broke that as well,
tearing it from the door as he wrenched the thing clear of its
hinges and sent it crashing into the pile of discarded stones. He
started inside, but pulled up so abruptly that Janette ran into

"Wait for me outside," he said.

She stared past him into the close, dark place, took a single
breath and immediately gagged. She needed no other prompting to
flee back out into the night air, where she fell against the
granite stones and continued retching for several terrible minutes.
In her 300 years of unlife, she had seen death in nearly all its
forms, but this... The keep had been made a sepulcher, and yet the
dead had not been lovingly laid to rest there. Though the corpses
she had glimpsed were long turned to grave wax, both the horror and
stench of their deaths still lingered.

Some small sound made her look up to see Lacroix emerging from
the keep. Why in sanity's name was he carrying one of the corpses?
He came toward her, cradling the ashen grey thing in his arms like
one might hold a child. And its face...

Janette thrust a hand into her mouth to hold back a scream.
"No... Oh, no..."
Lacroix paid her hysterics no heed, but carried his burden out
into the courtyard, where he began surveying the empty, high-arched
windows of the castle proper. He chose a chamber with an intact
roof and flying to it, bore the 'corpse' inside. He reappeared a
moment later, and from the open window arch, commanded her, "Watch
over him. Find clothing and cleanse him. But do *not* feed him.
*I* will see to that."

He took flight then, vanishing into the night. Drawing in
great draughts of chilled air, Janette steeled herself to enter the
< + >
Nick placed an empty green bottle in the sink, then crossed
his kitchen to retrieve a full one from the refrigerator. He used
a glass this time, and filled another from Janette's bottle on the
piano. Both of these he placed on the mantel, under the rampant
dragon's wing.

She remained beside the window, still lost, he was sure, in
grim memories of Castle Llewellyn. Her tears had left red-tinted
droplets on her perfect cheeks. Nick leaned forward and began to
kiss them away.

"I am sorry, Nicola. If I could have found a way to go to you

"I know." He kissed her again, lingering long on her lips,
trailing down to her chin and then the lush, white softness of her
throat. It took a herculean effort to pull himself away, and he
felt her deep disappointment at the parting. He took refuge
instead in the wine glasses, handing hers across with a small,
awkward smile. Her fingers idly traced the glass rim, the shade of
her painted nails matching that of the contents.

"I have never understood why you want this thing, this...
humanity... so much. Nor did Lacroix."

"Is it so terrible a thing, to be human?"

She dipped one long fingernail into the blood wine and stirred
it absently. "It was for me."

Nick watched her toy with her drink, then quickly downed his
own. "Well not to me," he said. In truth, his own brief mortal
life had had little to speak for it. But the mortality he now
sought to gain would be very, very different. He would see to

As though conjuring forth some lurking spirit, Janette stopped
stirring and gazed into the swirling liquid in her glass. "He did
love you, you know," she said softly. "In spite of everything..."

Nick turned away. The still-fresh scorch marks blackening the
elevator door stared accusingly back at him, demanding guilt that
he adamantly refused to feel. "You have a twisted definition of
love," he said bleakly. "So did he."

The telephone warbled. Nick stood still, listened as his own
voice apologized for being asleep or incommunicado, and encouraged
the caller to leave a message. Natalie's uncharacteristically
hesitant voice echoed from the answering machine. "Nick? Look, I
know it's your night off and you might be out, but I had to... I
wanted... Damn. I don't know any other way to say this. You were
right about it being dangerous, getting too close. Maybe you were
also right about this whole thing being a mistake. I dunno. I
uh... won't be coming by the loft anymore. Safer that way. We
can say what we need to at the 'office,' I guess. I'll... talk to
you later."

The machine clicked off, and another faraway echo teased at
the back of Nick's mind. *Only _we_ are eternal, Nicholas. One
way or another, a mortal will always leave you.*

Janette appeared in front of him, pressing her empty wine
glass into his free hand. "My cue to go, I think." But she paused
to caress his cheek with the back of one slender white hand. "One
last word of advice, *mon cher,* is all that I may give you." She
leaned forward to kiss him lightly on the lips, then whispered into
his ear. "Learn to be happy as you are."

She was gone before he could respond, a rush of displaced air
the only sign of her passing. Setting the crystal goblets on the
table, Nick stalked back to the refrigerator for another bottle.
He closed his eyes, and for a long, comforting moment, held the
frosted glass to his forehead.

*Yessss, Nicholas. Do try to be happy as you are!*

The apparition stood at the elevator door -- in precisely the
place he had last seen Lacroix in 'life.' Then this room had been
ablaze, and Nick had rushed the master vampire with a flaming stake
in hand, pinning him, shrieking, to the door.


The thing, glowing an unearthly blue, lifted a hand toward
him. *How can you turn your back on all that you've been given?*
it demanded, the hushed voice unmistakably, unforgettably
Lacroix's. *You cannot deny what you _are._*

"I do not deny it." Cradling the bottle, Nick moved
unsteadily across the kitchen floor. "But I *will* find a way to
change it."

The apparition shook its head. *'How sharper than a serpent's
tooth it is to have a thankless child,'* it intoned. *No,
Nicholas. You are _my_ creature. You will always _be_ my


The loft dissolved around him, became the ruined castle
chamber at Llewellyn in which he had first heard those words.
< + >
"You are my creature, Nicholas. Now more than ever you were."
His master swept a cloaked arm toward the limp forms of two hapless
peasants sprawled on the chamber floor. "Do you think *they* saved
you from the Lady Justine's charnel house? Their blood sustains
you. *Mine...*" He pushed the cloak back to reveal his own gashed
wrist. "...gave you back your life!"

Nicholas sought Janette's eyes, and despite their pleading,
answered his master with defiance. "I will not be a slave."

The older vampire merely sneered at him. "Really?"

"I will *not* serve you!" Nicholas was appalled to hear his
voice betray him, breaking with the threat of tears.

Lacroix struck him, a blow that sent him reeling against
rotting tapestries on the south wall. Janette's cry was stifled by
an oath from Lacroix. He looked about to strike her as well, but
he seized her arm instead and pulled her roughly to the window.
He turned back to his ungrateful fledgling with the red glow of
vampiric fury in his eyes.

"You *will* follow. Or by my troth, I will seal you in that
crypt for the *rest* of eternity!" He stepped to the ledge, still
holding Janette's arm, and then both were gone into the darkness.

Nicholas' clutching fingers shredded the tapestry as he slid
down the wall. He fell to his knees on the dirty floor, and there
gave vent to his tears.
< + >
*You shame your own with this pointless quest for mortality,*
the ghost hissed at him. *You _will_ give it up.*

Nick hurled the full bottle at Lacroix's smirking image.
Glass shattered. Cow's blood ran in rivulets down the elevator
door and stained the scorch marks red. The apparition began to

"Never!" Nick screamed the word, falling to his knees and
pressing both hands to his ears as Lacroix's soft laughter filled
the room.

Blue light flashed yellow; the ghost ceased to be. A single
wisp of smoke tendrilled from the scorched and blood-stained door.
As he had in Castle Llewellyn's ruined chamber so long ago,
Nicholas Knight huddled alone on the floor, and wept as he had wept
< + >
Lost in morbid reverie, he'd passed what remained of the night
at the window. His electronic shutters had only just closed out
the dawn when he heard the elevator rising.

Natalie walking through the door was a sight he'd never
expected to see again. The look on her face, however, made him
wonder if perhaps she'd only come to say good-bye.

"Hello, Nat." The words sounded completely inane, but he
could think of nothing else to say.

"I stopped by because..." She hesitated, seemed to reach a
decision, then surprised him by moving quickly to his side.
"Actually, I uh, came to apologize," she said, and at his startled
look, she reached out to grasp both his hands. "I'm sorry about
the phone call. Can we... just forget I said any of that?"

With no idea at all what to say, Nick spoke instead with his
hand, raising it to trace the line of her cheek. She was so warm,
so alive. So *mortal.*

"I..." She faltered again, took a deep breath. "I got
scared. Guess I'm only human after all. But I still think we can
lick this thing, if you're still willing to work with me."

Was that the scientist speaking again? His hand dropped away.
"Because you can't resist a scientific challenge?"

"No..." The eyes holding his filled with tears. "No, damn
it. Because I care about *you.*"
He wrapped his arms around her and drew her to him, stroking
her head as she burrowed it against his chest.

"Don't give up on me, Nick. Don't give up on yourself."

He clung to her like the one ray of hope in his world that she
was. "Never," he murmured. He held her close and kissed the top
of her head. "Never..."

+ End +