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Quincey Morris: Vampire

 Chapters 3-4

by P.N. Elrod

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Three

The next night I blinked fully alert, though I had to put a hand to my face to be certain about the blinking. The smothering inkiness was absolute, and too much like my first waking wrapped head to toe in that blanket. I sat bolt upright to reassure myself I could still move about.

Such forced blindness didn’t suit one bit and I quickly lighted a candle. As before, the little flame was too much of a comfort. I was a grown man of nine and twenty and lying in the dark should not have disturbed me so. I’d either have to get used to it or find a way to have a light burning each evening when I woke. Perhaps a candle large enough to last through the whole of a day would do. Amid all this stonework there was little need to worry about a fire getting out of hand.

I stood and stretched, more out of habit than need. The instant I succumbed to the day-sleep I moved not a single muscle for the whole time, yet felt no crimp or cramp. It wasn’t natural, but then I’d have to give up that kind of thinking. 

Nothing much about me was a close cousin to natural, now.

I’d learned the truth of it well enough the night before with my first real taste of blood, and indeed it was my first. I could not count that which Nora had shared with me all those years past. Then I’d had only human-normal senses with which to appreciate the pleasure, but those limits were shattered forever. Part of me was delighted, part was dust-spitting angry for having had no choice in the matter, and a very great part was still afraid.

Just how afraid I didn’t know until the moment when Dracula bared his arm and pierced it. The sight, the very smell of that blood had near-maddened me. Though I wore a human-appearing body, the changes within had enhanced everything. It was as though when I’d cast off that shroud of a blanket I’d shed a thick, unsuspected skin as well. All my senses were vibrantly aware, alive, and demanding stimulation. The absolute need to drink had near-overpowered me. The one thing to hold me back was knowing I’d be drinking from him, taking his blood into me. That, for reasons I dared not to think about, would have been unbearable, but still I nearly lost control and seized what was offered anyway. Only at the last second did I find the strength to turn away and run.

We all fear loss of control. Sometimes it’s a rare, fine kind of fear you willingly challenge, like climbing onto a mustang that’s never known a saddle. You either break him or he does his damnedest to break you with a wild bone-jarring ride as you settle up your differences. Falling off or not isn’t as important as the fact that something else is in charge of things for a few moments.

But other times it’s a sick-making kind of fear when disaster bushwhacks you, and no matter how hard you try you can’t work things in your favor. That’s what nearly happened last night. I’d gotten too close to the edge of giving in to mindless need.

And that just had to do with my hunger. What other ugly surprises awaited? I feared for myself and for others. Should I not master this change before leaving here, what harm might I bring to some innocent in my path?

The whole of the world was new again with fresh, cruel rules to learn. Whenever I ran up against a contrast between the old and the new it gave me something like an electrical jolt. I’d have to get past feeling so surprised and grim all the time or I’d not be able to do anything for myself.

The best was to stop being such a tenderfoot was to ply Dracula with as many questions as possible and absorb whatever advice he might care to hand me. Thinking over that which he’d already given, it made a load of sense, but I needed more from him. I was all too aware of my own desperate lack of knowledge.

One could adjust to anything, with enough time. Certainly Miss Nora Jones had done well for herself. Along with many other engaging attributes, she’d struck me as being a confident woman full of high spirits and happiness. There was nothing of the grave clinging to her that I could recall. If she could do it, then so could I, but I wondered how long it would take.

And . . . would I always be afraid of the dark?

# # #

Though the chill winter days sped swiftly by unmarked and unnoticed by me during my rests in the tower sanctuary, the nights were long and fully occupied as I set about learning how to be a vampire.

First and foremost I took special care never to let myself get hungry again. I could see now what a foolish risk I’d taken, so to avoid all possibility of losing control I kept myself well-stocked and full to the brim. As it turned out I didn’t need all that much blood to be feeling my best. So far as I could judge, my first feeding had been the heaviest. A trip down to the stables every third evening seemed to suit my needs. The fine taste of horse blood was more than enough compensation for any lingering aversion I had about biting into the flesh of a living animal. For variation and to increase my skill I also fed from the Szgany’s cattle. I thought I might sample one of the chickens, but decided against it. I could soothe and quiet the other animals, but none of the fowls. Besides, they really didn’t look big enough to provide me a decent meal and still survive the experience.

That necessity seen to, I applied my energies toward getting used to other important particulars about my condition. I could move astonishingly quick when I wanted, but often with misjudgment, which made me clumsy. It was like being a boy again and going through a growing spurt. At about twelve I shot up a whole foot in height in one year and ate like any three field hands, and for all that time I seemed to be nothing but elbows, knees, and two left feet, forever bumping into things and knocking them over. Ma told me to be careful so often that I kept outside as much as possible for fear of breaking anything in the house.

I sought the same solution now, spending a good portion of the night exploring beyond the castle walls. There could I find the room to indulge my need for physical drill by clambering about the rugged country, testing my strength against the land. Running, climbing trees, scaling impossible cliffs, pushing myself beyond that which I’d known before helped me to reclaim command over my own body. It took a deal of concentration at first, same as when I’d grown out of my youthful awkwardness by learning to ride, rope, and shoot. There were moments back then when I thought I’d never get the art of it, but the hard realities of ranch life made such expertise needful for survival. To give up was not in the cards, so I’d kept at it until I forgot what it was like not to know how, until I was the best hand on the whole blessed range. So did I work myself once more.

Another, far less ordinary skill also required my most careful attention: learning to vanish—and, while bodiless, to move about in that state.

It took some powerful getting used to, I’ll say that for the experience. Not that it was so difficult to disappear, the trick of it had to do with believing I was indeed capable of doing it. Dracula was of great assistance there, guiding me—in his own unique manner and method—through my first intentional attempt. 

The lesson began in his library. One evening he traded all that writing for reading, giving me to understand he’d lost interest in it for the time being. When I once chanced to inquire about the nature of his labors, he simply replied he was making a memoir for himself about his life. The task had been somewhat inspired by the exhaustive diaries kept by my friends. He was more than willing to share additional details, for he quite enjoyed talking about the wartime exploits of his ancestors—or rather one-time contemporaries—and bent my ear for hours on end without running down. Tonight I thought it best not to raise the subject as I had the feeling I already knew more about him than was good for me.

He was very much at his ease in an old chair, his long legs stretched out before the fire and crossed at the ankles, hands steepled over the book on his chest, his head thrown back so he could stare at the wavering shadows on the ceiling. Though his face still retained some youth, his hair was quite gray now, becoming shot through with streaks of pure white, as was his lengthening mustache. It was trimmed away from his hard mouth, and I was fairly certain he’d used a touch of wax for neatness of appearance. How he could keep himself so well groomed without the use of a mirror was beyond me; perhaps one of his Szgany was a barber. The first time I tried to shave by touch was my last. After gaining a motley collection of nicks (which healed remarkably fast) I decided to just let my beard grow.

I bade him a good evening and mentioned my interest in learning how to vanish. He reminded me in turn that I’d already accomplished the task, which would make things easier.

“One can hope so,” I said. “But you’ll pardon me if I have some doubts. I don’t know how I did it.”

“You must again only believe that you can. Then will you master it.” 

“I’ll allow the truth of that. What must I do?” I half-expected him to get up and give a demonstration, but he continued to stare at the ceiling. 

“You must try to recall how it was for you in the forest,” he said. “What were you thinking at the time?”

“I can’t say that I was thinking of anything except getting away from you.”

“A very understandable reaction given the circumstances. Immerse yourself in that moment again.”

I tried, conjuring up as best I could the memory of being surrounded by wolves and facing their dread master, but nothing happened. “Maybe I’m not feeling as inspired now as I was then.”

“Perhaps I could call on my wolves to come and chase you about the room until inspiration strikes you once more.”

That raised a smile from me, until I realized he wasn’t making a joke. “No, thank you.”

He straightened slightly, directing his gaze toward one of the tall windows, his forehead puckering.

“What?”

“Listen.”

I did, for he seemed to be entirely distracted by whatever he was hearing. Far below I only heard the servants going about their business, the soft scratch of cellar rats, the wind sighing outside, and the creak and tick of trees bending to it. All was normal. I shook my head. “What is it?” 

“The wolves.”

It didn’t take much to catch on. “They’re quiet.”

He grunted agreement. “They’ve not hunted in the last few days and should be hungry. The moon is high, yet their song is silent. Something must be wrong.”

He left the comfort of his chair and book and swept from the room with me right behind him. I’d grown so used to the nightly singing of his children that I’d ceased to note it. Its absence might mean nothing, but was worth checking. Back home when the wild things went hush it was generally for a good reason and best to be on guard.

I followed him up the stairs that led to my tower room, but we passed its entry and continued on until the ceiling pressed close. The stairs ended at a formidable trap door in the roof; he threw the inside latch and pushed. The hand-span thick oak slab boomed back on its hinges, and we climbed through.

Icy air stung all my exposed skin as we emerged onto the roof, but was not uncomfortable. If I chose to linger without sensible coverings, then might the cold wind begin to effect me, but all was well for now. 

The sky was an intense dark blue such as I’d never been capable of seeing before my change, its vast field silvered with a dense net of bright stars. In my time I’d seen many sights that could be described as breathtaking, but this was the corker. I knew in my bones that no matter how long I lived I’d never get tired of it or lose the sense of wonder it inspired. This was decidedly one of the more agreeable aspects about my change.

The tower wall was low, extending itself only a foot above the roof’s snow-dusted wood beams, which looked to be fairly recent compared to the rest of the castle. I would guess by their weathering they’d been put in place only in the last hundred years or so. The time of wars in this area was long past, else any sentry placed here would be too exposed to enemy fire. On the other hand it would be take a rare shootist to accurately reach this far, though a good Sharps rifle would put things in his favor.

Dracula stood at the edge right next to the low wall, the strong wind at this height tearing at his clothes and whipping his hair flat along his skull. He faced into it, scenting the air. I did the same, breathing in and catching only the chill, clean snow, pine, wood smoke, and sometimes the earthy whiff of stale leaves that had escaped the last storm. He senses may have been sharper than mine or he knew better what to seek, for I took no clue from it. After a moment he gave up and walked slowly all around the limits of the wall to view the lands far below.

His castle stood proud on a high cone of rock. One side faced a terrible drop into a black valley where the pines stood guard like raised spears, the other a steep but less alarming descent which would still have been easy to defend from attack. From this vantage we had a fine broad view of the snow fields and dense stands of trees for miles in every direction. Clearly visible to my night-accustomed eyes was a thready depression marking the road my friends and I had used in the final stage of our hunt. I hoped they had a safe journey back to Galatz, and at the same time felt a deep twinge of guilt for their sorrow at my seeming loss. First my life taken away and then my body, the former bad enough, the latter making a sad situation all the more awful. At least with a body to bury one could make a true farewell and move on.

When I did return to civilization, it would have to be done with the greatest of care and doubtless be difficult, particularly in legal matters. Art, perhaps with Harker’s help, would take upon himself the dismal task of notifying what kinfolk I had and my bankers. Due to cholera, the grippe, various wars, tornadoes, blizzards, summer heat, and other like incidents that were part and parcel of living in Texas I had no real relatives left, only some very distant cousins in the east. They’d had sense enough to stay put and thrived. 

Seven years ago, when Pa passed on, the whole kit came to me, a vast ranch, more cattle than I could count, and more work than any one man needed in a lifetime. On advice from my Galveston bankers I leased the running of the place to some English investors—which was how I met Arthur Holmwood. His father had sent him as his agent to Texas to have a look at things; we struck up a fast friendship, and Art planted in me the temptation to see what the rest of the world was like. I turned the daily ranch business over to some trusty foremen to look after and the money counting to those who were good at it and took off. Because of the railroads and a new meat-packing plant, the old place kept turning a tidy profit even in bad years, leaving me free to roam. 

That’s how it enabled Art and me to circumnavigate the globe before my twenty-fifth year, hunting big game, paying our respects at various embassy parties, raising hell where and when it was appropriate, and otherwise having a good time. Whether sweltering in the Amazon or freezing in Siberia we collected enough experience for a dozen explorers in an astonishingly short time. That our tramping about together should come to an end here in the deeps of Transylvania was unthinkable, but end it did—this part of it, anyway. Going back promised to be uncommonly complicated.

But I’d worry about that later. Dracula was looking mighty annoyed as he glared out over the forest.

“Something is indeed wrong,” he said in reply to my question. “There is no sign of them I can see or feel.”

“Maybe the deer hunting wasn’t so good and the pack moved on,” I suggested.

“Were that true I would hear complaints from the peasants about missing sheep. Nay, but there is something else afoot. I know not what it could be, but I will find out.”

“Tonight?”

“Why not? Ah, your promised lesson. Very well, we will continue, but not for long. First I will—wait a moment.” He paused and stared intently into the night. “That should not be there.”

“What?” He was rather closer to the edge than I, as I’m not overly fond of heights and the wind was a nuisance. Still, I took a pace or two forward as he extended one hand to point.

“There? Do you not see it? A line of smoke about five or six miles distant.”

I peered down the length of his arm, trying to see. Just as I was about to say no I felt something slap me smart and solid between the shoulders. The force of it launched me tumbling headfirst down the castle wall. I shrieked and clawed empty air, legs thrashing, sight blurring as the ground rushed up to smash me to pulp.

Then . . . nothing.

I still felt the sickening motion of falling, but not like before. This was strangely slow and suspended. I was lost, sightless and deaf in a void, with no sense of up or down, with no body at all. 

He’s killed me, I thought. This was death, true death, and this time I’d not be coming back. 

Anger flooded me, or whatever wisp of consciousness remained that could be flooded. He’d gotten all that he’d wanted of me and in this way had disposed of an inconvenience. I’d never return home to carry the tale that he yet lived. The treachery of it was beyond comprehension. I wanted to scream my outrage, but had no mouth, no lungs; instead I seemed to roll in the nothingness like a stray piece of cloud at the mercy of the gales. Soon I’d be blown to shreds and drifting forever . . .

But another something blocked my way.

I was sensible of the wind buffeting me about, and now became aware of being pressed against a wide uneven surface. It was like swimming in murky water where you could only feel your way around things. Perhaps I’d found the bottom of the pond.

Only then did I dimly realize what had actually happened. 

It did not mitigate my rush of anger, but I managed to push it aside for the moment, which was just as well for all concerned. The world came back to me, though it was more correct to say I came back to the world. My dulled senses reestablished themselves with such suddenness and painful clarity that it took awhile before I sorted everything.

The black bulk of the castle loomed above me, for I lay flat on my back atop a drift of snow at its stony base. How I got there without injury I now fully understood. The method Dracula used to spark the process had been—no jest intended—Draconian to say the least.

Where in hell had the bastard gone?

Peering up, I made out a flurry of motion where he’d been standing on the tower. He was no longer there, but I did spy a bizarre, sinuous patch of darkness floating against the rich blue sky. This larger than man-sized patch was by no means opaque, for the stars were visible through it.

It drifted off the rampart and came spiraling lazily down toward me. As it got closer I saw it was made up of tiny specks like dust or a thick swarm of small insects. If you didn’t know where to look it was nearly invisible. Only when certain bits caught the moonlight did it become easier to see and even then one might blink and find it gone.

This extraordinary cloud came to rest a few steps from me, collected together into a rough vertical column a yard or more across, then gradually compressed until there was more solid to it than space. Eventually it turned into his face and form and held that way. Dracula looked down at me, arms behind his back like a school master, one eyebrow raised.

“I gather you found your lost inspiration, Mr. Morris?”

“How—” I croaked, so mad I had to break off to work enough spit into my mouth to talk. “How dare you?”

He gave a small shrug. “As we stood together up there I had a childhood memory of how I was first taught to swim. My loving father gathered me up and threw me into the water. It was . . . effective.”

“It’s—” Again I broke off. 

He gave me an earnest, inquiring look.

“Nothing,” I snarled and got busy picking myself up, not without difficulty for I kept sinking into the snowdrift. “It worked.”

“Do you think you can repeat what you just did?”

“I reckon I’d better. There’s too damn many cliffs around here.”

“Ha!” he said, his eyes flashing briefly with much amusement.

Cursing under my breath, I struggled free of the drift, dusting snow from my backside and sleeves. “When it happened did I look like you do? All black specks?”

He thought it over. “More like a dark gray cloud. But understand that others would not be able to see you, only those of our kind. Animals will sense you as well, so—”

“I know, be careful not to get caught.”

He grunted a short affirmation. “Do you require any more instruction tonight?”

“I think I’ve had more than enough. I’ll get the hang of the rest on my own, if you don’t mind.”

“Then I will bid you good evening and good practice.” So saying, he made another change in himself. I recognized the roiling darkness that spun within the outline of his body, only this time it was reversed. He seemed to shrink, his upright posture swiftly wilting, the bones of his face stretching even as those of his limbs shortened. He dropped forward, but not from injury. Four sturdy legs supported his wolf-form now. The only wonder of it was the fact that his action was now no more alarming to me than if he’d picked up a hat and cane to venture forth for a stroll.

His huge green eyes caught the moonlight and flashed again, then with little sound his shaggy black figure trotted briskly off between the trees. He was probably going to have a little hunt around for his missing children.

I slapped myself down to make sure everything was still there and intact and with some success managed to shrug off the remains of my anger. He’d surprised and scared the hell out of me, but I could see the purpose behind it. His memory about learning to swim had capped things.

Damnation, but if that wasn’t exactly how my pa had taught me.

# # #

With such an alarming start to grease the wheels, I worked to avoid any threat of his repetition of the harrowing lesson. He’d been right; belief accounted for most of the effort required. Before the night was out I captured the skill of vanishing and happily experimented for hours until the cold finally drove me back to the shelter of the castle. I made my entry by means of the gap between the door and the stone threshold, re-forming inside by slow degrees so I could watch my hands gradually regain solidity. I’d once seen photographs with double images, the second image being fainter and more ghost-like, so now did I seem to imitate them. This was completely amusing to me, though exhausting. By the time I climbed up to my room to sleep for the day I felt like a wrung rag and instinctively knew I’d feed more heavily when next I woke.

I lighted candles for comfort, settled into my earth-layered bed, and tried to fill the remaining time before dawn by means of a book. It was one of the many works in English Dracula had in his vast collection, but failed to hold my interest for more than a line or two. His pushing me off the tower had set up a train of dark thought that needed pursuing. 

You see, I’d not yet forgotten about that problem of whether or not to kill him. 

Truly kill him.

Inarguably, this was bald-faced ingratitude on my part. He’d helped me—in his own way—was continuing to help me, and I owed him quite a lot for that. But on the other hand, even if it was with the unwitting aid of Jack Seward and Van Helsing, he’d still contributed to poor Lucy’s death. There was no getting around it. 

I’d deeply loved the girl, still loved her, though she’d chosen another over me. That sort of loss I could understand and accept, but to have her taken by a lingering and unnecessary passing was the height of unfairness. She’d been cheated from the happiness of an ordinary life, and if Dracula was truthful about being Nosferatu, she’d lost even that kind of existence as well. And there I’d been right in her tomb at her second death, in my ignorance helping them to kill her again. 

If Dracula had only left her alone or if Jack had never called in the professor or if I’d known then what I knew now . . . . 

It was a path straight to madness to think such things, but I had to get through it all. Sometimes I’d tramp my way along every inch of it, pausing now and then to crash a fist against the nearby wall whenever my feelings got the better of my self-control.

Because I could still hear her screams.

Throughout all these active nights I’d been mulling this over, which is a very long while for me. In the kind of rough and ready life I’d been born to in Texas you learn to think fast or else find yourself tipping your hat to old Saint Peter at the gate. Out of sheer stubbornness I’d taken my time with that forced fasting, but for just about any other troublesome situation or individual I had a talent for coming up with a quick plan to deal with the difficulty. Then would I swiftly carry it through without hesitation—but not for this one. The situation was complex, and I would not approach the obvious solution lightly.

Along with Lucy, foremost in my considerings was Mina Harker. I was still in a worry about her, being mighty fond and respectful of the lady. She’d once called me her true friend, and that had struck deep and stayed in my heart. She had been most kind to me when I poured out my grief about Lucy to her, not something I could ever forget. I didn’t want to let her down if I could help it; honor alone forbade that betrayal of trust.

The subject of Mrs. Harker might be closed to my host but was wide open for me. Like it or not, I’d sworn to her face and before all the others that I’d see to Dracula’s death, and her husband took my hand on it. Where I was raised a handshake’s as sacred as any vow made in a church on a stack of Bibles. Though time had passed and my circumstances had changed, I still felt an obligation to fulfill my promise.

Van Helsing had been pretty clear that once Dracula was dead, Mrs. Harker would then be safe from becoming a vampire herself. At the time it made a lot of sense. But I wasn’t so sure now after hearing what Dracula had to say about her being given a “choice” when she died. Though impossible to prove or disprove, it sounded reasonable. I’d learned that the professor had been sorely wrong about a lot of things concerning vampires, might he also be wrong on this?

The professor’s version of vampires was dressed up with a lot of lore and what I would call superstition, and he and Jack Seward, both hard-headed scientists, seemed to have missed the main point of it all. If you looked at Mrs. Harker’s blood-exchange with Dracula as being less like magic and more like passing on an illness, then the rules were different. Say a person with some fatal sickness infects you, then dies himself, does that mean you’re safe from dying as well? Hardly. It struck me that destroyed or not, Dracula’s blood was still in Mrs. Harker, his death changing nothing.

That rankled. We’d all done our best, and I’d willingly traded my life thinking to spare her soul from hell. In those moments when I drew my last living breath I’d wholly believed we’d saved her and had been profoundly thankful. All for naught, it seemed.

During one of our many talks in the library I’d raised the subject with Dracula about the terrible mark on her forehead, the burn she’d gotten when Van Helsing touched her with the Host. Its miraculous healing had been proof of our success, and thus had I’d slipped peacefully into the sleep of death. (Or so it seemed.)

Because of his link with Mrs. Harker Dracula had been aware of some awful injury befalling her, but knew nothing specific and pressed me for details. These I provided, completing my description of the incident with an obvious question.

“Was she indeed being shunned by God for her association with you?” I asked. “And if so, how could she be cured if you were not destroyed after all?”

He’d been silent for a very long time and finally shook his head. “How can I of all those who walk the earth answer you? Who am I to explain His works?” He twitched his fingers toward the ceiling. “Miracles are not so common as they once were, but they must still happen or faith would fade. She thought me dead and perhaps it was enough for her healing. Beyond that I cannot say.”

“But—”

“In truth, Mr. Morris, I cannot speak of such things. Long before your thrice-great-grand-sire was born I gave part of myself to the Void. It is best you not know more of it, only understand that I am not one to consult on matters of faith.”

For all that I still wondered why it could be that he and his kind were able to sleep in hallowed ground yet must shun the cross, but I’d stirred him up enough with my questions and allowed that he would not welcome more for the time being. Perhaps he had no answer for that either.

The whole business was pretty complicated, and I wanted to be as impartial as possible, which is why I spent so much time sizing up the man to see how he compared with the monster I and the others had hunted.

Van Helsing had it nailed tight that Dracula was dangerous and resourceful as they come, but he’d missed on something he called the vampire’s “child brain.” I didn’t quite catch his meaning on that point at the time, for his accent and use of English took getting used to; I eventually worked out that he’d frozen himself on the idea that Dracula was missing a few bricks in his building when it came to new situations and worldly experience, giving us an advantage over him. He’d assumed that Dracula was all instinct, like an animal, and that his memory was flawed from lying around in his tomb for centuries on end. But I now saw this was only wishfulness and lack of knowledge on the Dutchman’s part, and we’d all foolishly fallen in with it. 

The actuality was that Dracula was wily as anyone I’d ever met—which is saying a lot—and what I would call a long thinker. After all, he’d put years of preparation into his coming to England and would hardly let himself be thwarted by our little party. There was nothing amiss with his thinking or memory, and had he been of a different mind, he would certainly have found a way to kill us with ease. 

We’d left ourselves wide open to him more times than we knew, as I learned when once he gave me the full tale of our hunt from his side of things, much of which I found to be irksome to hear because he drew such great amusement from it. But annoying or not, there was no denying that he could have picked us off one by one or all at once, such was his power.

We’d set our quarry on the run, but I came to realize he was never really in much danger from us. As the nights passed in his lonely castle, with me spending a good deal of it in his company listening to his apparently infinite hoard of stories, I soon saw that Van Helsing had most severely underestimated our opponent.

If I did decide to finish the hunt, the task would not be easy.

# # #

Dracula wasn’t in the library the next night, which was not unusual, for he frequently absented himself without a word. We weren’t exactly roped together, so his comings and goings were none of my business, and it was a bit of a relief to be free of his company. I had plenty of distractions, such as taking the opportunity to steal a look at the papers he’d been writing on—only those on top, mind you, anything more would have been truly impolite. As it was he was safe from my curiosity since it was all written in his native tongue of which I had only the bare minimum of words. The stuff looked to be pretty heavy going, too, with many pages of closely written script. The books he had stacked round his writing area were, if I could judge by the Latin titles, histories of his country, which bore out his assertion he was writing a memoir of some sort. My curiosity satisfied, I turned my attention to a collection of month-old English, French, and German newspapers that had evidently arrived that day, along with a number of magazines. These items were obviously part of the research he’d done prior to traveling west to England.

Though out of date, I spent the evening delving into them all. My last weeks in England had been hectic, and I’d not had time to read much of what was happening in the world. Sadly, little had changed when it came to the general kinds of troubles like wars, and I knew that nothing ever would. Having talked so much about the past with my Un-Dead host it was quite clear to me that century after century people kept making the same mistakes, the only variation being in the details. The idea that I would come to see like blunders unfolding again and again over an equally long span of time was both daunting and disheartening.

Living beyond the usual three score and ten seemed a right good thing at first, a sort of compensation for the inconvenience of only being up and about at night. But after thinking the notion through I realized that along with the sad march of history I’d also be watching friends I’d not even met yet age and die. Having mentioned it to my host, his suggestion was simple and practical: stay away from making close attachments to anyone. He’d apparently done so, but I was from a place where a man relies on his friends for his physical and spiritual survival. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to harden my heart in the same manner.

Dracula also assured me I wasn’t immortal, so much as ageless, and though extremely tough, I could yet be killed by those who knew how, those like Van Helsing. Certainly under his tutelage I’d learned all kinds of ways of dispatching vampires, which understandably horrified me now. Dracula’s admonitions to keep my true nature a secret did not fall on deaf ears, but I wondered whether I’d be able to manage it all the time. My temperament was such as to rankle against isolating myself too much from the company of friends. I was already feeling hemmed in by the remoteness of this gloomy castle, and the more I read of the outside world the more I thought about rejoining it.

But before that could happen, I’d have to decide what to do about Dracula.

My instincts told me I still had to study him, and as he wasn’t available tonight, my need for action drove me to borrow pen, paper, and a pot of ink from his stock. After two drafts, I was finally satisfied with a letter to be delivered to my London and Paris bankers, which would hopefully head off money troubles for me when I rejoined civilization. 

Knowing that Art would notify them of my premature death, and gambling that he’d not be forthcoming on the details, I informed them that I had, indeed, suffered an accident that separated me from my friends. In good faith Lord Godalming assumed I’d been killed, which would account for any story he would pass on. I told them to treat him kindly, but absolutely not inform him of his mistake, as I planned to do it myself as a happy surprise to him and my other friends. In the meantime, the banks were to take no action regarding my accounts until my return. As proof of my identity, they were welcome to compare the handwriting of my letter to past missives.

I prepared a similar letter to my Galveston bankers, again instructing them to take no action regarding my will since I still lived. Things would be in an almighty legal mess otherwise. I’d heard tell of a Galveston man who’d been declared dead and had suffered no end of trouble trying to prove himself otherwise so he could get his property back from his relatives. It must have been a bad day for him shouting himself hoarse before a judge trying to convince the court he was indeed alive. His family was no help, for by all accounts he was a bad sort, and they didn’t mind him being dead, and in fact preferred it.

As I had no near kith or kin to worry over, such an alarming turn did not seem a possibility, but I patiently scratched lines on the paper all the same. Better to be safe than sorry, I thought as I folded and addressed them ready for mailing.

Before I knew it midnight was upon me, so I stretched and determined to take the air. The wind blew strong as it whistled around the shutters and set them to rattling. I wasn’t familiar with the manners of the weather in this part of the world, but was willing to wager that a storm was brewing up, and I might not see the outside of the castle for a while.

I found a long sheepskin coat and a fur cap to throw on as I intended to remain abroad for as long as possible to get some real exercise. A small side door in the courtyard opened onto a snow-choked trail leading down to the woods. The winds eased somewhat with my descent from the heights, but did not entirely depart. As I made the trees it continued to mourn through their tops, shaking pale flakes upon my shoulders. Except for its keening, the silence held complete rule here, and before I’d gone half a mile I felt the utter loneliness of the land closing over me like water on a downing man.

Shrugging it off as a fancy was useless, for the desolation kept circling back on me, refusing to leave. I thought of what Dracula had said of Harker succumbing to the dark atmosphere of the castle and wondered if it was finally working its way with me. Though alert enough to normal dangers, such subtleties of the spirit are usually lost to my perception. Until a few months ago my feet were planted square on the ground, no ghosts—or vampires—need apply to the world I knew. 

That was the past, though, and this night world was crowded with far more things than I needed or wanted to know about. There wasn’t much I could do to fix it back, either. The door had opened wide, and I’d been shoved right through, and like it or not would just have to get used to what I found there.

I stood for a long time with my back to one of the tall black trunks, listening to the forest. The heaviness in my heart lingered as I remembered other places where I’d taken watch in the late hours. This one reminded me sharply of the rare tough time Art and I had of it in Siberia being tracked by wolves. The pack had been so starved they’d not bothered wasting effort on howling themselves up for a hunt. I’d have preferred their noise, for then we’d have known where they were. Art had looked on the whole business as grim sport, keeping us morbidly cheered with a number of bad jokes mostly to do with welfare of the wolves. He maintained we had to keep moving to spare them from the indigestion they’d suffer should they eat us.

Where was he now? Back in England, probably, having brandy and a cigar at Ring or one of his clubs. He’d lift his glass in a toast to me. So much had happened to him, so many deaths in so short a time: his much-loved father, dear Lucy . . . and myself. I hoped John Seward would stay with him. A man might not speak of his grief, but having a good friend around was often solace enough in bad times.

During these musings I became aware of a tantalizing scent on the air. It was not constant because I wasn’t consciously breathing. Only when speaking or by the normal motion of my body did my lungs get exercise. Now that my attention was snagged, I tried to focus on the source. After a moment I had a general direction and identified the smell. My curiosity up, I began walking toward it.

After a quarter mile I got to thinking I’d made a mistake. For me to pick up such a trail like a hunting dog and track it so far seemed ludicrous, but as it was apparently true, my senses were far sharper than I’d estimated or imagined. That, or my nose was just highly responsive to one special scent in particular.

Bloodsmell, Dracula had called it, and so it turned out to be.

Lying in the middle of a wide patch of churned-up snow I found the carcass of a gray she-wolf. No other predators had gotten to it yet, so it was complete except for the tail having been lopped off. A trophy for the hunter. There was a hole in its chest that had gone clean through the beast, as I learned when I turned it over. There was quite a lot of blood on the snow, still very red and fresh-looking. That’s what traveled on the wind to tantalize me, bringing me to the kill like a hungry buzzard. My corner teeth began to lengthen despite the fact I had no intention of touching the pitiful creature.

To get my mind off my belly, I made a long study of the area. There were wolf tracks aplenty here, a fairly large pack on the move. I also picked out two sets of men’s boot prints in the snow superimposed over the wolves’. One was unfamiliar, but the other belonged to my host. I’d spent enough time in his company to know his sign very well indeed.

So far as I could read things, the hunter had bagged his prize no more than two hours ago, approaching from the west. His shot and kill must have scared the pack, for their prints tore off to the east through the trees. He’d used a very sharp blade to take the tail, wiping it clean of blood on the wolf’s coat. That done, he walked away, following them east. The prints Dracula left were on top of the rest and so recent the edges were still sharp. He’d just come through and also traveled east, but only for a few hundred yards when his boot tracks completely stopped. That flummoxed me for a bit until I found a fresh set of wolf prints larger than any of the rest. He’d swapped two legs for four, probably for better speed.

What his intention was toward the hunter I didn’t want to think about. He was mighty fond of his wolves, and to hear him talk he had more regard for them than his own servants. He would take this worse than bad, I was thinking, and I could understand him, too. To just shoot an animal down and take a mere trophy was wasteful to me. Where I’d been raised, we’d have skinned the body for the pelt and eaten the meat so as to get full use of it, especially during the winter when it was most needed. But I had the feeling Dracula would take grim exception to that as well.

I pressed forward as best I could, at times wishing I could turn into a wolf as well. Vanishing would have been convenient, but I needed to keep my eyes on the trail. A good thing it was, too, for the hunter’s prints suddenly veered off to the north, and I might have missed them and the single set of wolf prints following. When both reached open ground the boot prints continued, but the wolf’s ended. He’d not turned back, so he must have changed to mist or a bat so he wouldn’t be seen by his quarry. I kept going, half in the expectation of finding the hunter’s carcass next, lying dead and drained in the path. If so, then it might decide me about what to do concerning the life or death of Dracula.

The trail entered another stand of trees, and began slanting toward the east again. He must have guessed the pack would turn at some point and thought to get in front of them and upwind. It was madness to hunt at night, but not impossible, for the moonlight was strong. The wolves would show up well enough against the snow for a good marksman to pick off one or two if he had a sharp eye. I ran through the trees, but made myself pause before crossing the next open field. The sky was empty of bats or cloudy swirls, but Dracula could be anywhere.

Then one of the shadows a good distance ahead of me unexpectedly shifted. Even with my improved night sight I discern no detail. I’d have missed it completely if it hadn’t moved against the wind just when my gaze fell on the right spot.

After a few moments I decided it was my hunter, and I was mighty interested in learning who he could be and why he chose such a strange hour to be out and about. My thought that he was trying to preserve the sheep population did not seem quite right. None of the locals, even the Szgany, ever came out after sunset. Generations of fear for the castle lord was bred into them, along with a much more ancient fear of hungry wolves. What the man was doing slogging around in the snow at this hour for trophies I could not guess, but he was tempting fate in a bad way and would need to be warned away quick.

To get closer without being seen, I vanished and flowed swiftly over the snow for several minutes. It not unpleasant, for I’d made myself get used to the change of sensation this form imparted. I was aware of shapes and slopes, and could hear to a limited degree, but was quite blind. This was less alarming than it might have been, for when like this I had no need to fear about crashing into anything and causing injury to myself; I either coursed around or went through it.

I resumed solidity and got my bearings. The wind effected my course, pushing me farther east than I’d wanted, but I was considerably closer and could see much better, spying my man again. He continued forward, his movements slow and cautious, his posture distinct and recognizable; he was stalking something. I watched to see what held his attention, and in the far distance saw yet more movement. Several dark forms showed themselves against the snow: wolves.

He reached a satisfactory spot where a thick branch came down low enough for him to rest his gun muzzle. He was less interested in sport than in bettering his chances to make a kill with careful aim. His figure went quite still, and I knew he’d be trying to match his sights up with his target, getting one to mesh with the other, and in between one heartbeat and the next he’d pull the trigger.

This did not happen, though.

After he settled in—and it was obvious his entire being was consumed by making his shot—a blur of black and white erupted from the snow just in front of him. It took a full second before I realized what it was and his awful danger. The great dark form of a wolf burst from where it had been hiding under a drift and leaped up at him, knocking him flat. His gun went off, the shot going wild. My belly turned over as I recognized the distinct sound of its flat crack in the emptiness.

That clinched everything. With a shout I pelted toward them as fast as I could.

The wolf, which I assumed was Dracula, since I’d never heard of them burying themselves in snow banks to wait for prey, paused its attack and looked right at me. I wasn’t close enough to hear his growl, but saw a flash of white teeth against the black muzzle. He wasn’t pleased by my interference. The man he loomed over was fast recovering with the speed of near panic and twisting himself to face his danger. He still clutched his rifle and started to bring it around. The wolf went for it, strong jaws clamping down. I heard a thin cry as gun was dragged from his fingers. The great wolf then seized his arm, held tight, and easily hauled him several yards over the ground like a child might drag a cloth doll. The man fought. His terror and rage combined and compressed themselves into a appalling shriek that tore right up my spine so hard I damn-near pitched headlong off my feet in my haste to reach him. The last time I’d heard a screech like that had been in India when a man-eating tiger had taken a pilgrim from the road not ten yards in front of me. 

I doubled my speed and shouted again. The wolf broke off and started directly toward me, confirming his identity. A true wolf would have fled. 

The man stopped his noise as soon as he was released. He yet moved, but was feeble about it.

At a run far faster than I could ever achieve on two legs, the black wolf pelted toward me and blocked my path, head lowered, fangs bared, and rumbling a deep growl of warning.

“I have to see if he’s all right,” I said, not feeling a bit foolish for addressing the animal. I knew he understood me.

He only growled, advancing slowly. By God, even knowing that this creature was my host in a different skin, I couldn’t get past the fact he was a scarifying sight. I backed away a step before catching myself.

“Let me go to him,” I insisted.

Another growl, but this time accompanied by a completely unexpected gesture. He shook his head, not as a dog, but as a man would, deliberately from side to side. The message was clear: if I took another step I’d be the one he’d tangle with next.

“I can’t let you kill him and that’s flat. Sir.”

The growl ended, and damn me if I couldn’t almost see Dracula’s own lowered-brow expression on this thing’s lupine face. He bounded forward and butted his body hard against me, forcing me back. He wanted us out of there, and since he was leaving his quarry be, I decided to agree to a retreat. I threw a last glance at the man, who was just starting to sit up and look our way, then hurried into the thick of the trees with the wolf at my heels. Hopefully, the hunter would miss seeing us in their stark gloom.

Once we were well into forest shelter, the wolf paused and made its change back into man-form again. As a human, he looked no less ferocious. Harker had once vividly described one of Dracula’s rages; I could see now he’d made something of an understatement.

“You overstep yourself,” Dracula whispered, his lips hardly moving, but the soft sound cut like a saw. He quivered all over as though barely holding himself back from tearing me apart.

“I could not let you kill him.”

“Nor could I let him kill. Nor shall I allow him to do so again. You shall not interfere.”

“I’ll do whatever is necessary.”

He made a half step toward me, fists raised, and I braced for whatever was to come. He held himself in check at the last instant, but it must have been taken a lot of effort. I could feel the heat of his anger washing over me. We glared at each other for I don’t know how long, until my head began to ache from the strain of meeting his eye. He took another step forward, but as he did his body shimmered darkly and faded. The countless specks that took its place swarmed all around me, seemed to flow right through me. My very bones seemed to turn to ice as its touch brushed them . . . then it was gone.

I whirled and caught a passing glimpse of his shapeless progress over the snow, like the shadow of a shadow. It moved quickly and with purpose, not in the direction of the fallen hunter, I noted with relief, but back the way I’d come.

A few seconds later the wind abruptly rose with a raging force that I’d only known standing on the castle tower. It clawed at me and sent dry surface snow skittering up in tiny cyclones. More snow came loose from the trees and rained down, creating an instant storm. I ignored it and walked to the edge of the stand so I could see how the man was doing.

He was on his feet again and looking all about. He held the rifle one handed, his other arm hung straight at his side. I’d recognized the sound it made firing aright; it was a Winchester, one of the several I’d brought for our late expedition. I also recognized the man holding it: Lord Godalming, or as I knew him, my best friend Arthur Holmwood, and what the hell he was still doing traipsing around in Transylvania in the dead of winter was the devil’s own guess. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

The last, the absolute last thing I expected in all the world was for my friend to be anywhere near. Certainly if our places were reversed I’d have departed this unfriendly land as soon as possible for home once the hunt was finished.

Then it struck me that for Art, the hunt was not at all finished. I watched him from the shadows, my jaw all but scraping the ground as I realized why he’d remained behind. Though this proof of the depth of his friendship raised a lump in my throat fit to choke a horse, at the same time I was furious at him for taking such a risk. Dear God, but he had no idea what he was tempting—Dracula’s limitless wrath.

And where had he gotten to? I glanced around, but saw no sign of him. That meant nothing, though. He could be anywhere, including right next to my friend.

Poor battered Art struggled to his feet, holding his right arm close. From my vantage I could discern little more than that, though it was reassuring. If he could stand he was probably all right. We’d been in some tight spots in our time, and he was tough enough when he had to be. 

He stooped to pick up the Winchester, then carefully scrutinized the surrounding forest, probably on guard for more wolvish ambushes. None jumped out at him. He followed the four-footed trail Dracula had left, but only a few paces before giving up and trudging back again, missing my tracks. Apparently he’d had ample excitement for one night. When he was well within the trees, I vanished, speeding noiselessly over the open ground after him.

A damned convenient way to travel this was, leaving no trail. Art was as good at scout work as I, and for his sake I wanted no evidence of my presence around. I’d not forgotten Dracula’s deadly intention toward his former hunters should his survival be discovered. Toward that end, I would have to keep my promise to him and remain dead to them as well.

This could go remarkably bad if I was not careful.

Sensing the bulk of a large tree in my path, I drifted close to use its cover, then materialized for a quick look.

Art was some twenty yards ahead, moving slowly. 

Now I made myself like the second image on one of those double photographs. Even as I faded, the forest faded to me. I was faint enough to see through, yet could use my eyes, though it was like trying to peer through thick fog. The darkness hid what showed of me to normal human vision, leaving me nearly invisible, and I still had the advantage of leaving no prints in the snow. Thus did I follow him, drifting wraithlike just above the ground.

His was a dark gray figure against a gray background. With all the tree trunks in the way I had to keep the space between us short lest I lose him and hurried, slowing when only ten yards off. To improve my vision I allowed myself to become just a bit more solid. Now was I able to see he was on a faint path, fighting against the rising wind.

It was becoming quite a nuisance. Little seemed to effect me in this form, except the force of a strong breeze. I had to struggle to maintain my course, yet keep far enough back to avoid Art discovering my presence. If he did, it would mean his certain death, but I wasn’t sure my caution would make any difference. His shooting of the wolf had set Dracula off like ten kegs of gunpowder. I’d read in history books about how some old kings were so selfish of their range they’d kill anyone else who trespassed looking for venison. Maybe Dracula held the same views, though it did not seem likely. He had no use for deer meat. Besides, Art hadn’t been after . . . .

Uh-oh.

So that was why Dracula had taken it so badly. God knows I’d feel the same if some hunter got it into his head to use my ranch dogs for target practice. It was probably worse for Dracula considering how close he was to the pack that roamed this part of country. No wonder he’d been ready to rip Art’s arm off.

He still could.

Art had slowed considerably. It was hard to tell whether his obvious weariness was from the hurt he’d taken, the press of the wind, or pure exhaustion. Bad going for him were it all three. I debated intruding myself. In my beard, borrowed coat, and with the hat pulled low I could pass for one of the Szgany in the dark. If need be I could approach and by gestures offer help. But Art knew me too well; there was a good chance he’d recognize me, which would seriously complicate things for us both. Yet I might have to try if he didn’t find shelter soon. The storm was limbering up. Snow fairly rained down on us, thick, sticky flakes to blur one’s sight and confuse direction. I hoped he knew where he was headed.

Then my problem happily solved itself when I spied a second figure emerging from the grayness ahead. Not quite as tall as Art and a bit more sturdy in frame, with a joyful shock I realized it was Jack Seward. Of course, he’d stayed as well, not being one to leave a friend to fend for himself in the wild. He lifted one arm and hailed loudly, and for an unpleasant instant I feared he’d seen me, but his greeting was meant for Art.

He continued to trudge on, either not hearing, or too tired to respond. Jack got close enough to startle him from his stupor. I let myself go completely solid and peered at them from behind a tree.

“Arthur, what in heaven’s name do you think you’re doing out here?” Jack demanded, his tone expressive, balanced between angry exasperation and heartfelt relief—something I felt myself for them both.

Art mumbled something I didn’t catch and indicated his injured arm.

“A wolf? Good God! How bad?”

More mumbling.

“I can’t do anything about it in this murk. Come along so I can see to this and get some brandy into you, you’re half frozen.” He took the Winchester in one hand and threw his arm about Art, leading him back along the path. “Sweet heavens, what were you thinking going out at this hour?”

I heard Art’s voice, but still could not distinguish the words.

Jack responded. “If you couldn’t sleep, then you should have told me. I’d have given you something for it. Running about like this at night is suicidal. No, it’s nothing to do with meeting vampires. You could have fallen into a crevasse or gotten lost or worse, you great blockhead. And look at you now, you’re all in. If I hadn’t heard your shot and come running . . . ”

His words were harsh, but delivered as the sort of scolding an affectionate nurse might bestow on a mildly wayward child. The doctor in Jack could be fussy at times, but had never been so toward Art. There’d never before been a need.

Resuming wraith-form again, I tagged along until their track ended at a small windowless structure that must have served as a shepherd’s hut in the summer. Smoke drifted up from its stone chimney, and firelight leaked from cracks and chinks in its crudely constructed walls. As a shelter, it looked only slightly better than being outdoors. Three horses were tethered on its lee side, heads hanging low, all looking miserable in the increasing cold.

Jack got Art in the hut, and I went solid, pressing close to one of the larger chinks for a look within. It was as primitive as could be expected, being a single bare room. The only beds were their sleeping rolls, the only comforts the supplies they’d brought and the blaze in the small fireplace. The sight of my two dearest friends settling in sharply brought back the memory of a hundred other nights when we three had made camp in similar rough places. Their being here gladdened my heart beyond measure, at the same time tearing it in two, for I longed to join them, to let them know I was all right.

Impossible, of course.

Jack got Arthur’s coat off for a look at the injured arm, but the span of my view within was limited, and I could not hear them so well with the wind playing up. Chewing my lip for a second to think it through, I decided to take the chance. I vanished, located the chink, and flowed inside.

What a relief not to have to fight to hold myself in one place. Until I was out of the wind I’d not appreciated how strong it had gotten. They were not the only ones needing shelter. I felt my sightless way to a far corner by the ceiling, held there, and listened. My need to hear their voices far overwhelmed any shred of caution left to me. I had to find out if Art was all right. After a moment, I (figuratively) breathed a sigh of relief.

“Nothing broken, just a bad bruising,” Jack pronounced. “You can thank God for the thickness of your coat sleeve, for that’s the only thing torn. If he’d bitten though . . . well, you need not worry about rabies, my foolish friend.”

“Rabies?” Art queried in a rather flat voice. He sounded used up and little wonder.

“Indeed. No normal wild animal would attack a man, so it may well have been mad. There’s a course of treatment for hydrophobia, but it’s not at all pleasant, so thank God again that you’ve been spared.”

“I do, but what if it had been one of those damned vampires? They can change themselves to wolves, can’t they? So—”

“The professor said they were all destroyed, and we’ve no reason to believe otherwise. He told me he went through every inch of the castle and sterilized it. Except for you shooting everything in the countryside, all has been perfectly quiet since, has it not? Here, have a sip of this and steady yourself. You’re in sore need of rest.”

Arthur was quiet for sufficient time to have a drink. When he spoke again, he sounded stronger. “I bagged another one of the brutes, at least,” he announced. “Here’s a fresh tail for our collection.”

“A round half dozen, then. Excellent.”

“It’s a start.”

“So you’ve been saying.”

“I warned you. I said I’d not stop until the whole cursed pack was dead, even if it took all winter.”

“As well it might. I hardly need point out to you that this is the first sighting you’ve had of any quarry for some time now.”

“They’re not stupid animals, Jack. Even if they aren’t one of those damned monsters in disguise they’ve more intelligence than you give them credit for. That’s the other reason why I went out at night.”

“Meaning they were purposely hiding from us during the day?” Jack sounded skeptical.

“Yes! If you’d done more hunting you’d see it, too.”

“What you see as cleverness probably has more to do with instinct than intellect. They know there’s another predator in the area and are avoiding you.”

“I tell you they understand more than they should. It’s not natural. There’s something about them, about this whole country that’s not right, else we’d have found some sign of poor Quincey by now, but there’s been nothing. Not one bone, not even a scrap of clothing.”

“There’s been plenty of snowfalls since that night. He’s probably long covered.”

“God, if only I’d stayed awake. To think of him lying abandoned and graveless—”

“Then don’t. My comfort is thinking some peasant found him—or will find him—and do the decent thing. This place is so backward, we may never hear of it, but it will happen.”

Art made a sort of refined snort, indication that he had little confidence in such chance. “Damned wolves. The one that attacked me was lying in wait. He’d buried himself in a drift of snow and—”

What?

Arthur found it necessary to provide full details of what had befallen him. Despite such earnestness, Dr. Jack Seward was reluctant to come around.

“You see it one way, I another,” he said after some little discussion over the behavior of the wolf. “Did it not occur to you that the beast might have curled up under the snow to keep warm and you stepped on it while it slept?”

“That’s not what happened! If I’d merely trod on it I should have known. I’m telling you the bloody thing waited and then came right up at me!”

“But it broke off and ran, which is what one might expect of an animal.”

“No—there was something else as well. I heard a man shouting at the same time. Only when he yelled did the thing stop its attack.”

“You’re sure? You heard someone? Who?”

Art groaned. “That’s the madness of it. My God, Jack, it was Quincey!”

Silence. For quite a long moment. 

“You don’t believe me?” Art demanded.

“I believe you heard a man shouting. But it had to be a peasant or some passing Gypsy.”

“Shouting in English?”

“Really, Arthur!”

“Yes, really! I swear it. I can still hear his voice, and it was Quincey bellowing away in that unfortunate Texan accent of his.”

“Arthur. . .”

What? I’m not one of your pet lunatics, so don’t give me that look.”

“My dear fellow, I apologize for the look, but you can hardly blame me for it. Just listen to yourself.”

A heavy sigh. “I know what I must sound like but it is the truth, I swear. Believe or not, as you please.”

“Look, old man, you’ve had a nasty physical shock, and you’re very tired, and I know for a fact that lack of sleep distorts one’s perceptions.”

“I’m not inventing this. I heard Quincey.”

“And it could have been wishful thinking.”

“Pah!”

Some moments went by, then: “Art, I miss him, too,” Jack said in a much-subdued tone.

I gave a groan myself, silent, of course. It took all my resolve not to materialize right then and there before them in a foolish attempt to cure their grief and my own as well.

“Shall we have a drink to him?” suggested Art, his own tone much quieter now.

“Yes. Absolutely.”

They made a simple toast to me, which I found powerfully affecting for its very restraint. With them being British and all, the less spoken the greater the meaning. Though nothing had been settled between them about what Art had heard, they’d found something to agree on and would hopefully leave it at that.

Jack the physican was still one for practicality, though. “You were very lucky tonight on many things, but I must insist you not repeat this hunting after dark ever again,” he said.

“I’m no child.”

“But you are being infernally discourteous. When that shot woke me and I saw you’d gone, I didn’t know what to think and hardly dared to try. I can understand you being restless, but please have the decency to inform me of your intent and spare me undue worry.”

“There’s nothing hereabouts to cause concern—or so you insist.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary, I’m sure, but mad wolves aside, those Szgany villains are doubtless still in the area and might harbor objections to our presence. After the fight we gave them I rather think they’d want to pay us back.”

“Humph. They’re the ones who owe us after what they did to poor Quincey. They’re probably far away from here because of it. Believe me, were I to catch sight of any one of those murdering swine I’d serve him the same as I did this wolf.”

“You don’t mean that,” said Jack, sounding shocked.

Art fell silent, giving me to understand that he did mean it. While deeply moved by this declaration I was also quite appalled. Not for the world would I want my friend to have the deaths of others on his conscience resulting from his intent to avenge my demise. Something would have to be done, but I had no idea what.

“Let’s get some sleep, Arthur—”

“And things will look different in the morning?”

“I should hope so.”

“Nothing will change for me.”

“No, but after some rest we’ll both feel improved. Trust me, I am well trained on this.”

“Yes, from those lunatics under your care. Were that true, then a bit of sleep would fix them up nicely and you’d lose your position.”

“You’re being unkind, which I forgive because the mangling you got has put you in a temper. In any case, I should be delighted if all my patients woke up restored. It would make my reputation in the field and be worth the loss of custom.”

“Certainly there’s no end of mad people in the world,” Art grumbled. “I’m sure your asylum would fill itself again in no time.”

This comment made Jack chuckle. “To sleep with you. I’ll build the fire up. Damn me, but I think it’s gotten colder.”

“It is colder. Hear how the wind howls. Like those damned wolves.”

I listened as best I could, then slipped outside and made myself solid again to hear better. My fears were thankfully for naught, for it was indeed only the wind and not wolves behind all the noise. The idea that Dracula had rounded up his pack to make some kind of assault on my friends had stabbed through my mind, but the absurdity of the notion soon asserted itself. He had no need to resort to anything like that so long as this storm continued to build.

The snow fell so thickly I could see no farther than a dozen feet. The wind drove it hard into my eyes and soon my face was coated white, forcing me to constantly brush it clean. I’d survived blizzards in my time, but this one promised to be worse than anything even Siberia had thrown at me. Van Helsing once said Dracula could command the weather, and I had the growing conviction that my missing host was behind this particular event.

If so, then Jack and Arthur stood little chance of surviving without help.

# # #

As they seemed to be all right for the present I made my way back to the castle, first following the fading tracks of my friends, then soon picking up my own. By the time I reached the point where I’d found the wolf’s carcass nearly every trace was obliterated by snow, but from here I knew what direction to take to return.

It was something of a startlement, though, to discover the carcass was quite gone. 

One set of faint tracks—of the two legged variety—led away from the spot. I guessed that Dracula had retrieved the body, for what purpose I could hardly conjecture. A talk with him about this night’s events was necessary; I might ask him then. The prospect of a showdown with him held no appeal for I knew he’d still be furious, but there was little point to postponement. I trudged in his wake, hoping to reach his destination before fresh snow filled in all trace of his passing. He’d headed straight back to the castle, but veered around its rocky base in a direction I’d not gone before. 

This new path finally led to a very narrow opening, easily missed if one were not aware of it—or close on the trail of another who was familiar with the area. A vertical slab of rough stone, looking to be a normal part of the mountain, thrust out at a shallow angle in such a way as to appear to be haphazard rubble fallen from above. His tracks went right instead of left, bending toward the base rather than going around the outer side along the path. The stone acted as a massive shield to what appeared to be a natural cleft no more than a few feet deep and of no particular interest. I knew better than to trust such semblances around a structure of this age. Its ancient builders would have left nothing overlooked in the design of this fortress, and I pressed through, gratified to find I was correct in my suspicions. A sharp turn into a forbidding shadow revealed a narrow doorway and tunnel driving up into the mountain.

It might have once served as a secret escape route during a siege. The cramped passage zigged and zagged as it climbed, cutting off all outside light. I had no liking for blundering about in the dark and resorted to partially vanishing to spare my toes and shins. Feeling my way forward in this manner was only slightly less nerve-wracking. The familiar gray that my eyes could yet perceive in this form was now a profound and unrelieved black and so disorientating that I traveled close to the ground lest I lose all sense of what was up or down.

Again was I reminded of swimming in a murky pool, though I hadn’t much experience at that since deep bodies of water of any kind are unknown in the part of Texas where I was raised. A trip to Galveston in my youth had given my pa the opportunity to provide me with that quick, unforgettable swimming lesson, but the green ocean was bright as a ballroom compared to this.

It occurred to me that it would be better to retrace my route and wait in the library for my host’s return. Dracula might be as determined to speak with me as I with him. On the other hand, I had no way of knowing when he would turn up or whether he was finished with my friends for the night. If he took it into his head to seek them out again, then I was their only protection. 

For what it was worth. 

I could guard them after dark, but during the day. . . .

They would still have their crucifixes with them, of that I was sure. As we’d all had ample proof of their effect against the Un-Dead—or at least Dracula’s particular breed of Un-Dead—Art and Jack would hold fast to such defenses, even if the danger seemed past. Thorough Van Helsing may have been in clearing the castle, my friends would err on the side of caution. For all they’d been through it would likely be a habit they’d retain for the rest of their lives; such would have been my intent had I not been so abruptly cut from the herd by a Szgany knife.

Of course, if he did not go himself, Dracula had servants who could ignore the cross to carry out their master’s orders. Perhaps they were not armed with modern Winchesters, but a few had long rifles that were just as deadly given the right circumstances. But those were hardly necessary. One man sneaking up on the hut with a burning brand could set the poor structure afire in mere seconds.

With that terrible thought I decided I had entirely too much imagination and it was downright gruesome. Maybe the atmosphere of this place had gotten to me after all. No matter, I would speak to Dracula before the night was finished and try to head off further trouble.

The tunnel gradually leveled and widened, so I paused, allowing myself to become solid again. All was as black as before; I concentrated on listening. Naught came to me but a faint unidentifiable noise that might have been some trick of the wind except for the air being wholly still. I sniffed and determined that it was quite stale, being musty from bat droppings and the stench of old rot, indication that I was close to the tombs if not there already. I recognized it instantly from my initial visit that first waking night; it is not the sort of fetor one forgets.

Again, that faint sound came to me, like the catching of a breath. It lay ahead somewhere . . . in that unknown darkness.

Though part of the dread ranks of the Un-Dead I felt an awful chill settling over my whole being that had nothing to do with winter weather. This was the kind of basic fear that few ever really leave behind with their childhood. For me it was like my sunset wakings in that tower room, only a hundred times worse. There I knew where light might be found and should that fail I could always rush to open the door and seek escape from my inner terrors that way.

No such luxury here. I was in unrelieved blackness surrounded by the dead, the true dead. Little matter they were all gone to dust, their essence remained behind. Harker had sensed them, and now it was my turn.

My body, giving in to unvoiced desires, vanished away. I took foolish comfort for a few moments, before wondering if I might not now be even more vulnerable to whatever lay invisible about me. If I could float about like a wraith, could not a real ghost be able to . . .

To what? I finally asked myself in a surprisingly steady inner voice.

No answer presented itself, indication that I’d finally reached the limit of my idiocy.

I was in a dark tunnel, nothing more, and just because vampires existed was no reason to think the same was true for ghosts. And before my fear could make any argument against that point, I pressed forward. 

My hearing was muffled, so if the sound repeated I did not notice. The way ahead occasionally rose, but remained more or less straight. Once I encountered a second opening to the left and farther down another to the right, but ignored them for the main path. After a while I worked up sufficient courage to go solid again.

It was better this time. I was by some extremely welcome light. The glow was far away and very faint, being a mere reflection off a turn in the walls ahead. As an ordinary man I’d have missed it. Now I rushed forward, eager as a dying sinner about to grasp unexpected salvation.

That is, I rushed for all of two steps before my shins caught against something hard and nearly sent me flying head over heels. A rock or a casket, it mattered not, and I didn’t care to know, anyway. Before coming to grief I vanished once more and was spared a hard, noisy landing. When I stopped tumbling about, I gradually solidified to the point where I could see the light again and drifted toward it at a more dignified pace and in a much safer form.

It grew brighter with each turn until I knew one more would put me there, so I slowed, curious on what lay ahead, but not adverse to caution. Going solid only at the last, I peered around the final corner and beheld that the tunnel opened into a proper chamber, very wide and long and low of ceiling. Stone columns supported the roof and were thick enough hold up the whole of the castle above. The floor had been more or less leveled and smoothed, but was cluttered with many different kinds of funerary boxes, some of wood and rotted away, the pitiful bones within visible, other boxes of stone, both broken and whole. This was obviously another part of Dracula’s family vault, and it had been well-filled over the centuries.

The death stench was thick enough to cut; I was glad over having no need to breathe.

A single candle that made more shadow than light rested on the end of a stone sarcophagus. Seated on the other end was Dracula. He was turned away from me and huddled over something in his lap. I couldn’t make it out for a moment, then with a shock realized he held the body of the dead wolf—not merely held, but cradled it, gently, as a mother might enfold her sick child in her arms.

Then did I hear that strange sound again. It came in conjunction with a shudder that seized Dracula’s whole body. The back hairs rose along my neck. I could scarce-believe what I saw and heard, but it was unmistakable: this great master of the Un-Dead was entirely caught up in the throes of a profound grief.

He did not weep openly, but rather seemed to smother it within himself until it overtopped his control. Only then did his sorrow find release in a long-drawn keen of pain. He rocked back and forth, sometimes lifting his face high, sometimes burying it in the matted fur of the wolf.

How long I stood agape and stared I could not say, so great was my surprise, but eventually I woke from the astonishment and determined to quietly remove myself. Anything else would be an unthinkable intrusion. Our talk could wait.

I went nearly transparent and started to drift backwards, but my intent was headed off by the sudden appearance of his wolves coming up behind me. They’d made their way unerringly through the darkness, probably in response to some inner call he’d sent out. Dozens of them blocked the tunnel, their great eyes catching the feeble candlelight and throwing back green sparks. They were aware of me but paid little mind, simply rushing past to get to the chamber. Maybe Art was right and they were more intelligent than others of their kind.

Why are they here?

Again, to answer my curiosity, I had to risk resuming solid form—for holding a semi-transparent state was fatiguing—and waited several moments for things to resolve. 

The animals milled about, whining. Ears flat and tails tucked under, they sniffed and licked at their fallen pack member, which Dracula yet held close. They positively swarmed around him when he finally stood. He stooped and gently lay the body into the open sarcophagus.

For some time he gazed down in silence, his stillness of manner spreading to the pack, to his children of the night. A few restlessly paced, but most sat gathered about him, watching his every move, waiting. 

The transformation was swift and noiseless: one moment he was a tall man dressed in black, the next, a huge black wolf. This time I noticed that the fur on his muzzle was pure white, such as you might see on a very aged dog. 

He roamed among the others, and they, with soft whines and tucked tails, greeted him. His movements were very like to theirs, but with my eye sharpened on what to look for I noticed subtleties marking him as being different from the rest. Where an ordinary animal might wander randomly, he was most deliberate, bestowing specific time and attention upon each of them turn-on-turn. Some he quickly nuzzled, others received lengthier, more elaborate welcomes. Throughout, there was from him an attitude of what I could only perceive as a sort of tender affection.

Caught up as I was in this strange spectacle, an errant thought began nagging me just then. It teased at the edge of my mind, and however dangerous it might prove to remain here I knew I must do so for the idea to come forth.

The wolves made a rough circle around the sarcophagus. Dracula sat in their midst and lifted his head high. From him came a full throated howl that turned my spine to ice. I winced, trembling head-to-toe, unable to help myself. The awful lament reverberated through the crypt, eerie beyond belief; I could scarce hold in place. My instinct was to turn and flee, but I fought it, needing to see more, to learn more. There was something important here I should know.

The truly terrifying part was how close this sound was to his earlier keening. Much louder, much more free in its expression of sorrow, but bizarrely similar. The others joined in his song of grief, their many voices rising and falling, interweaving, growing until the very walls seemed to shake from the clamor.

But this, all this for one dead wolf?

Not just one, though, there were six of them. Rites would doubtless follow for the rest when their bodies were found. The survivors would gather here with Dracula and mourn the loss, cleaving the dank air with their heartbreaking wails. 

Never in my life had I ever experienced such a hellish chorus, yet it nearly made me weep to hear it. I’d stood strong at many a graveside service and held my peace, but this one was different. A man may go to his death with some understanding of the why of it, but not so for an animal. Within them lived a kind of sublime purity. That was what effected me so deeply now, their absolute innocence over matters that often troubled humans for the whole of their time on earth. The poor dumb brutes meet death knowing nothing of meanings and wherefores. But were things different and their perceptions raised, would they be any better off?

Perhaps this was why I’d stayed to watch, for seeing it all in this way was new to me. I lingered a little longer, testing the notion, then dismissed it. There was some other reason nagging me, if I could but grasp it. 

The dirge continued, setting my teeth on edge. A mad desire seized me to join in their song. I pushed it away.

Dracula was no longer a participant. He threaded his way throughout their circle again, making contact with each, but finally stopping with a tightly gathered group of three.

They were also black of coat and larger than the others, and though obviously very much of this pack there was a certain aloofness to them. The rest had deferred to them much as they did to Dracula. I thought they might be this year’s crop of cubs, still benefiting from having been the center of lavish attention from their guardians.

But there was something more . . .

The look of them, their manner. What was I seeing?

Then all three stared right at me, their eyes flashing green. They stared . . . and I felt my legs go to jelly. Were my heart not already stilled forever it would have stopped in that instant as the realization struck home.

My God . . . they really ARE his children!

 

To Chapters 5-7

© 2007, 2010 P.N. Elrod