Vampire of the Mists | Chapter 16 of 39

Author: Christie Golden | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 3178 Views | Add a Review

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FOR A MOMENT, JANDER WAS FROZEN BY STRAHD’S VOICE.

Angrily, he shook off his paralysis. He mentally took a deep breath, steeled himself for whatever might await him within, and crossed the threshold into Castle Ravenloft.

The floor of the hall was a smooth gray stone that seemed cut from the living rock of the mountain, worn in the center with the passage of generations of former inhabitants. The torches that lined the massive walls guttered in the damp air and threw an uncertain light over the suits of armor that stood rusty sentry beneath them. Jander did not yet see his host, and his eyes flickered about.

“Count von Zarovich?” he called.

“Come in, my friend,” the beautiful, deadly voice answered him.

The elf had gone about twenty feet into the hall when a second set of doors in front of him swung open. He paused, then continued on. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and started, baring his abruptly lengthening fangs and hissing. An instant later, though, he realized with some embarrassment that it was only a trick of the light. Four statues of dragons stared balefully down at him, and their eyes, like the eyes of the door knockers, were made of jewels. The precious stones had merely reflected the torches’ light.

Some of the tension left Jander’s body as he continued onward. He passed through another set of doors that opened to his touch, and entered a large room.

This was the main entry. To his left, a wide staircase twisted up into the darkness. Circling the rim of the domed ceiling were more of the stone gargoyles that had greeted him earlier. He glanced upward at the ceiling they were guarding, and for an instant his qualms faded in the face of the beauty he saw there.

The ceiling was covered with magnificent frescoes. Jander’s eye wandered from hunting parties to battles, from jousts to knightings. Sadly the frescoes were well on their way to ruin. The master of Castle Ravenloft apparently cared little for maintaining his castle and the beauty it housed. The elf returned his attention to finding his host.

Straight ahead two bronze doors stood closed. Jander had taken a step toward them when the silky voice said, “I am pleased you have come. You are welcome in my home.”

Jander turned to see his host descending the carpeted staircase, a candelabra in one strong hand.

Count Strahd von Zarovich was tall, over six feet, and his body was lithe and clearly powerful. He was dressed in a formal fashion, with black pants, a black coat, a white vest, and a white shirt. A crimson cravat on his neck stood out like a splash of blood, a luxurious background for the large red jewel on his stickpin. His skin was extremely pale, practically bone-white. In sharp contrast, the count’s eyes were dark and piercing. They missed nothing as they roamed over Jander with a hint of curiosity, coming at last to meet the elf’s silver gaze evenly. Thick, carefully coiffed black hair did not quite disguise a slight point to the count’s ears. Strahd’s expression was pleasant, but the smile of welcome seemed double-edged.

Jander bowed as Strahd approached. “I thank you for your invitation, Count. It’s an honor to be received by the lord of Barovia.”

Strahd’s smile widened, and this time it was tinged with a definite malice. “I am pleased you feel that way, Jander Sunstar. Not many deem my castle so welcoming an environment.”

“Ah, but perhaps they were not extended so gracious an invitation.”

It was a daring comment, and something red flickered deep in the count’s black eyes. Strahd smiled and nodded, acknowledging the barb.

“Very true indeed. You are not one to hide behind false courtesies, I see. That is well. I did indeed ask you here for my own reasons—as I’m certain you came for yours. Nevertheless, my welcome is genuine, I do assure you.”

They stood gazing at one another like two strange wolves circling. Yet neither was ready to cower and admit defeat.

“You may call me Strahd,” the count said at last. “I do not know your rank, but you are clearly closer to an equal of mine than those odious peasants and my mindless servants. Please, follow me. We shall be more comfortable elsewhere, and besides,” Strahd smiled coldly, “I have so few visitors that I like to display some of my home’s magnificence.” He turned and began to ascend the staircase. “I suppose you are wondering how I knew where to find you.”

“Not at all. Clearly, you are in league with the Vistani.”

“Yes, my little gypsy compatriots. An altogether better class of people than the villagers.” They had reached a landing, and Jander looked around. Here were more of the elaborate frescoes he had admired earlier, these depicting an attack on the mountain upon which the castle was built. As before, however, they were in a sad state of disrepair. Jander could make out what remained of an inscription: T    OBL N KIN   LEE  B  OR  TH   OW R O       O Y S M    OF RA EN    . He followed Strahd as they began to ascend another flight of stairs.

“Did you observe the fog as you approached?” the count queried.

“Yes, the ring of mist about the village is rather curious.”

“That fog is there by my command. It is poisonous. The gypsies, for their services, have been granted knowledge of a certain potion that enables them to move through the fog unharmed. They make a tidy fortune selling passage through the mist, and I keep my larders well stocked. A sound business transaction, is it not?”

They emerged at the end of an enormous hall. Moonlight pooled onto the stone floor from a window on their right. The hall loomed even bigger in its emptiness. A large throne rested at the far end from where they stood, and that was all. “In other times, this was the audience hall. It is not used often now, as you might expect.” The two continued on, passing through elaborately carved doors into a small corridor. Two suits of armor stood lonely vigil in nearly obscured alcoves. Strahd stepped up to one of the alcoves, made a movement with his thin fingers that Jander did not quite catch, and the outline of a door appeared. Strahd pushed it gently, and it swung open.

Jander tensed. Some of the rumors about Strahd were true, at least. The lord of the land was a mage.

The elf swallowed his distaste and followed Strahd obediently as his host took him up yet another flight of stairs. Jander was a bit confused. The place was a maze. “Do you dwell here alone, Strahd?”

“Oh, no. I have servants, of a sort, and the villagers supply me with whatever I may need or want. The inhabitants of the little town are quite docile, and, as I have mentioned, the gypsies and I have an agreement. It is well you chose not to harm them. I must commend you on your self-restraint.”

“Why should I wish to harm them?”

Strahd stopped abruptly and swung around to face Jander. He began to smile conspiratorially, red lips pulling back from white teeth. Jander was shocked to see Strahd’s incisors grow and sharpen.

“The thirst calls commandingly, does it not, Jander Sunstar?”

The elf could only stare. No wonder Strahd had wanted to see him! No wonder the people were so afraid in the besieged town. Strahd continued gazing at Jander for a moment, pleased with his guest’s stunned reaction. Apparently satisfied that he had put the impertinent elf in his place, the count turned with a sweep of his cape and continued upward.

The stairs ended, and Jander found himself in a large hall. A gaping hole in the ceiling let in the moon’s pale light and illuminated a long row of statues.

“My noble ancestors,” Strahd said dryly, “all of whom I have done my best to anger, ignore, or thwart. Some of them aren’t quite … gone, you see.” And Jander did see that some of the statues seemed to wear anguished expressions. Others, of course, were mere stone. The head of one had been removed, and Jander, curious, tried to make out the name on the base of the statue.

“Jander!” Strahd’s tone was imperious, and the elf hastened to catch up with his host. Another brief corridor, then the count opened the door to a room that shared little of the general decay that seemed to plague much of Ravenloft.

“My study,” said Strahd, with more warmth than Jander had yet heard from him. A large fire burned comfortably in the hearth, its ruddy glow infusing the room with heat and light. The walls were lined with hundreds of books, and Jander caught the scent of well-oiled leather. Strahd obviously valued his literature. Jander entered after the other vampire. No bare stone here; the floor was covered with a beautiful rug. The count took a seat in one of the large, scarlet velvet cushioned chairs and indicated that Jander take the other one.

“Please do sit. This is my favorite room. I have much time for reflection and contemplation.” Jander sat down obediently, and for a moment they were quiet, enjoying the comfort of the room.

“I understand,” Strahd said at last, “that you rescued one of the Vistani last evening.” Jander nodded. “You are quite the do-gooder, aren’t you?” Strahd’s rich voice was tinged with contempt.

Jander bristled. “Is there elven blood in your line, Strahd?” he asked abruptly. “Your ears are pointed.”

Strahd raised one hand as if to touch an ear, then he deliberately folded his hands together. “Actually, no,” he admitted, “though I occasionally do spread that rumor.” His eyes narrowed, and when he spoke again, it was with a deliberateness that was casual and yet unmistakable. “No one but my slaves and a few of the Vistani know of my nature. I should like it to remain so, and I would be greatly displeased if I learned that someone had revealed my secret. I have chosen to share my confidence with you because I feel we could learn from one another.”

So, we come to the real purpose for the invitation, thought Jander. The whole terribly polite conversation and labyrinthine tour had been a thinly disguised bout of testing, and now the trial was to begin in earnest. Jander shifted and crossed his legs, making himself comfortable. He met Strahd’s gaze evenly.

“Secrets are dangerous things,” he said. “They become good bargaining chips in the wrong hands.”

“I hope,” said Strahd slowly, and this time there was no mistaking the threat in his voice, “that yours are not the wrong hands.”

Jander allowed himself a smile. “Suppose they were. Suppose I were to reveal your identity as an undead. We akara are not a very sociable group. What would you do to me?”

Strahd dropped the pretense of courtesy altogether, and the hint of red deep in his eyes blazed. “I would destroy you.”

“How could you do that? Make me your slave?” Jander sat up and leaned his elbows on his knees. “I am not here to oppose you. On the contrary, I agree that we have much knowledge to share, and I hope we can become allies. I am not some peasant fool or one of your docile minions. You may be the lord of the land—”

“I am the land!”

The deep voice was thunder, and the red light in Strahd’s eyes leaped angrily. Jander wondered if he had gone too far, if perhaps indeed Strahd had some mysterious power that could destroy him.

“I am Barovia!” Strahd raged. “It has given me power, and I give it what it wants.” His lip curled in a sneer. “I am the First Vampire. Unlike you and every other undead, I need no invitation to enter a dwelling. Here, every home is my home. All creatures are mine, to do with as I will.”

He sank back in the chair and slitted his eyes. Jander heard a skittering of nails along the stone floor, and three large wolves trotted into the study. They curled up, panting happily, at Strahd’s feet. “These,” said the count proudly, “are my children. They obey my every whim.”

One of the wolves rose, its pose tense and alert. Stiffly it strode to the stone hearth and lay back down, exposing its throat. It whimpered, and Jander scented fear. A second wolf got to its feet with equal stiffness. It stalked over to its prone companion and unexpectedly bit deeply into its comrade’s jugular. Blood gushed forth, staining both beasts and the gray stone of the hearth. The first wolf kicked and flailed frantically, but the second wolf merely sank its teeth in deeper. The wolf spasmed and died. Its killer released its grip and licked its jaws. Head held low, the animal belly-crept to its master’s feet. Idly Strahd ran a hand along its smooth head. The third wolf was curled into a tight ball, trembling.

Jander half rose in protest, but something in Strahd’s gaze stopped him. The self-styled “First Vampire” was daring him to show weakness, to protest the wanton slaying of the beast. Slowly Jander sat back down, his eyes never leaving Strahd’s. The animal-loving elf was indeed angry at the careless cruelty the other vampire had displayed, but there was a better way to show it.

He gazed at the two remaining wolves, then touched the murdering wolf’s mind gently. Rest. The gray beast closed its eyes and obeyed, curling up and quickly going to sleep. He turned his thoughts, cool and reassuring, to the other wolf.

Come, my friend. Come to me. She whuffed slightly, her ears swiveling to the front. With a sound that was half-growl, half-whimper, she bounded to Jander. The animal made a ridiculous attempt to crawl into his lap, and he smiled a little as he gently pushed her down. She lay at his feet, gazing up at him adoringly, every muscle intent on satisfying whatever her new master’s next whim might be. The elf patted her head. Jander raised his eyes from the wolf to the count and allowed himself a slight smile.

Strahd, he could tell, was angry, but there was also admiration on that cold face.

“Impressive,” the count purred, the word rumbling from his chest. “Most impressive indeed. Always the wolves have answered to me and no other call. It is clear that the land’s master may learn from the land’s visitor.” He nodded slightly.

Something subtle had changed. Jander somehow knew that he had just been reclassified in Strahd’s eyes. He hoped that was a good thing. “This, actually, was why I invited you here tonight,” the count continued.

“So I assumed.” Jander threw out the comment as a test. Strahd frowned slightly and his aquiline nostrils flared, but he didn’t rise to the bait.

“Eva told me that your world is called Toril,” Strahd continued. “I am greatly intrigued by other lands. I would enjoy hearing your story.”

The crisis had passed, for the moment. Jander allowed his guard to relax slightly. “Before I answer your questions, I have a few of my own.” Strahd waved a hand, indicating that Jander should proceed. “Was there a woman in this land named Anna?”

Strahd smiled a little. “That is a common name. You’ll have to be more specific.”

Now that he had begun, Jander found he was loath to continue. Somehow it seemed vulgar to expose Anna’s condition to a stranger, but he forced that feeling aside. It was the only way to find the answers he so desperately sought.

“She was insane,” he said quietly. “She was tall and tanned, with long, reddish brown hair. She was very beautiful. I believe her to have been the victim of a spell. You see, I knew her for many years, and she never aged.”

Strahd shook his head. “Regretfully I can think of no one who meets all those qualifications. That is not to say that there has not been such a one in the town, or perhaps even in Vallaki, a fishing village not far from here. Insanity is not unusual in this place. As for magic, I am the only one I know of who performs the arcane arts in Barovia. And Jander, my friend, I have never cast a spell on a woman named Anna. I give you my word.” His voice was utterly sincere, and to Jander’s surprise, the elf found himself believing him. “I know what it is to have lost a love—more than once I have sipped at that particular bitter cup.” Strahd suddenly looked weary.

Jander’s hopes faded quietly. Somehow, perhaps too quickly, he had assumed that Strahd would know about Anna, could tell him who had broken the beautiful young woman’s will.

“Any further questions?” Strahd’s tone of voice suggested that he hoped the answer would be negative, but Jander pressed on.

“How could I find out more about her?”

“You are welcome to peruse the books in my library,” Strahd offered, gesturing expansively. “All other records are in the old church down in the village, however, and I doubt you’ll be going there.” The more familiar, masterful Strahd had returned, smiling at Jander slyly.

Jander had to smile himself, but his expression was tinged with sadness. “Hardly. You mentioned a place called Vallaki. Where is that? What sort of people live there? What records have they—”

Strahd’s raven brows drew together, and he gestured impatiently. “All these things I can certainly tell you, but must you solve your little mystery tonight?”

Strahd had a point, and Jander saw that the count was rapidly losing interest. “Curious as I am about this place, you must be equally as curious about me. My arrival here in Barovia is a mystery. One of the Vistani said the mists brought me.”

“Ah, the mists, the mists,” Strahd mused, his eyes gazing into the fire. “They come for many, it would seem. They came for me—they came for my entire realm, some years ago. That was when I became as you see me.” He smiled, revealing the long, white fangs that he had not bothered to retract. “A gift from the powers of this place—eternal life.”

The elf supposed Strahd was right, after a fashion. Jander had never hungered for such an “eternal life” as humans did. Elvenkind lived several centuries. That was why, he assumed, he had not heard of many other elven undead. Their nature was not well suited to that kind of existence; elves tended to lack that driving, desperate desire for things not granted to them by the fates. When he became a vampire, Jander himself would have preferred to die by his own hand rather than exist as he did, but the legend of the crimson death would not permit him so easy an escape.

Uncomfortable with the dark turn his thoughts had taken, Jander changed the subject. “You speak of Barovia as though it were a living being. The Vistani, too, spoke of the land’s powers. What is Barovia, exactly? Why does it bring people in through the mists?”

Strahd did not answer at once. He rose and went to the fire, laying a hand on the ornate mantelpiece. “I will answer your questions later. After all”—he smiled grimly—“do we not have all the time in the world?” After a pause, he added, “I would feed. Will you join me? It is becoming increasingly difficult to find wanderers in Barovia after nightfall. I keep a supply on hand at all times.”

Jander winced inwardly. He envisioned a prison of barely living beings, kept like livestock to feed the darkly elegant lord. Yet could he condemn such behavior, he who had fed for years on madmen? “Thank you, no. I prefer animal blood until I become more familiar with the territory.”

Strahd laughed outright at that. It was a chilling sound, and Jander waited it out patiently. “Ah, Jander, if I may call you that, you cannot subsist on beast blood here.”

“Perhaps you cannot, Your Excellency, but I shall. I’m sorry if that offends you.” He wasn’t.

“No, no, it only amuses me. The forest is your own, but I do not think your thirst shall be quenched by the beasts of the Svalich Woods. Somehow I don’t believe you’ll find them … suitable. Perhaps I shall see you when you return. Jander, I am the master here,” Strahd said bluntly. “You are to be my guest, for as long as you like.”

“And if I said to you, ‘Thank you, Your Excellency, but I wish to leave tonight?’ ”

“Then I would say, ‘You are free to go. But your questions will remain unanswered.’ ”

Jander laughed aloud at that, and even Strahd smiled with less than his usual iciness. “My curiosity, Count, is the best chain in the world. Thank you. I accept your offer of hospitality.”

“What are your requirements for rest? There are crypts below us, and you would be welcome to—”

“Thank you, no. I need very little sleep and no coffin. With your permission, I would like to have the free run of the castle during daylight hours. As long as I am sheltered from the sun, I shall be unharmed.”

Jander noted with a slight hint of smugness that he had caught Strahd completely off guard. Shock registered for an instant in those deep black eyes. Strahd recovered quickly, but Jander knew he had scored another point with the debonair master of Castle Ravenloft. “My home is yours, with one exception. That room, there”—he extended a long, thin finger and pointed to a wooden door across the room—“is not to be entered. What I keep there is my business. Should you try to disobey me, you will find the door magically locked. I ask you to respect my wishes.”

Jander was curious, but he certainly had no right to pry. If the count wanted a secret room, he was welcome to his privacy. “Certainly.”

“Then I bid you good night—and good hunting.”

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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