The world outside Sarah's window was white. The cold had crept into their village, its breath passing over the glass, the layer of frost rendering the people blurred and unclear.
Still, it was a sign of life even at a distance, her senses all too eager for any snippets of conversation to pass through the thick walls of her room. The lock on her door was ice to her touch, an impenetrable barrier against her wispy hands no matter how long and hard she battered at the unfeeling metal.
She was certain she would die of boredom.
The ratty blanket laid out on her bed held a sensation that left the cusp of her fingertips numb with familiarity. The air was stale, empty and her head felt impossibly light, rendering the faint murmur of her mother’s voice as she prepared supper to be indiscernible as words bled into each other with no meaning to string them together. She was submerged underwater, robbed of all her senses save for that of sight, greeted with the very same picture locked behind closed eyelids since she was a child. The bed, the rocking chair, the wardrobe, the bare walls – all of it suspended in time. But that was a lie, of course, as the shine of the stars replaced the burning sun as the hours passed. The hours passed with no recollection of what the previous day had brought, no slowness marked by an incessant ticking of the clock. Nothing changed, nothing happened, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing.
Sarah dropped the match she had been holding up to light the candle. Hot wax ran down her fingers, stained her dress, seared her skin. She stayed perfectly still, not making a sound.
Constriction around her throat forbid breath, the air as thick as molasses. The sharp lines of the wooden panels in the wall started into motion, weathering the distance across her line of vision. The haze of frost against the glass of the barred window had melted, seemed to instead creep in a winding path over the ceiling to spread out, consume all measure of space with vicious hunger.
Along with the ice on her flat palm came pain. A sharp contrast to the static warmth of the room made her arm jerk backwards to her side. The scorched traces of wax had painted coils of red on a canvas of white skin and the rivulets of water as they drip, dripped down to form a puddle on the floor converged into a pounding in her head so jarring as to tear her gaze away from the too bright glass of the window. The one lucid point in Sarah’s world obscured, she braced herself against the window sill. She did not know when she had let her feet lead her here, or when she had reached out to touch the frosted glass.
Sarah breathed, in, out. The constraints had retreated in their haste to abandon the drab room for freedom, for what lingered outside in painful proximity.
The voice was unmistakable. Its tone beckoned images of vast, open space that would always struggle to smother the power held within, no matter the range. It was a voice the clarity of which remained through an odyssey of emotion. Each multitude of feeling the voice contained restored the senses that had been cruelly stripped from her grasp, senses which became sharp again after years of numbness. Soft longing took the shape of an invisible caress against her cheek, and with it a lyrical calm that enveloped her frame when she leaned into the embrace. She felt the potential for anger and fury beneath the curt halt which punctuated the final syllable in a flare of renewed memory of fire against her marred skin that found soothing in the beauty imbedded in each harsh word. The voice told a story of lived tragedy in a wealth that drew unwilling, tearless sobs from her chest as the gooseflesh on her arms betrayed the heat of the room as the voice rose in volume and in intensity in a spell that left her reduced to a figure of waiting, the pure anticipation to catch each utterance of a single letter defined by the wish for an eternity of a song with no end.
It was only when silence had fallen that Sarah realized she had been standing with her eyes shut and both hands pressed against the window pane in desperation made palpable when she slowly let her arms sink to wrap them across her shoulders. She shivered in her own embrace as the glass revealed the shape of her fingers, slender lines of silver where the moonlight pierced through the returned frost, as immovable as ever.
The shrill command of her father was the scraping of a thousand nails on a chalkboard. Yet, habit had her turn in the direction of the door, awaiting temporary respite of her prison in exchange for a meal accompanied by the never-changing complaints about a shortage of garlic.
She turned her head, glanced at the window.
“I hear you.” She whispered.
The boy – Alfred - was nice, a sort she had never seen before.
It was child’s play to trick him. The poor lad almost tripped over his own two feet in his haste to follow her request to exit the bathroom in favor of his own chamber. The look on his face as he watched the door shut in front of his nose resembled that of a kicked puppy.
Alfred was sweet, handsome, and gentle. He was also entirely besotted with her and while Sarah could surely imagine the outcome of her false promise, any fantasy of enjoyment was eclipsed by the reality of the foam cloaking her body. She had not been lying when she had claimed the extent of relaxation and glee that this indulgence brought. The hot water was heavenly, steam rising in a drunken path towards the roof. She hummed a lullaby under her breath.
Then, she heard the unmistakable voice. A call.
Do not be afraid.
He was great and pale and terrible, towering over her bathtub with eyes that cast a heavy chain on her, weight coiling around her limbs to render her frozen, her hands gripping the wooden edges as she laid exposed before the creature. Out of thin air he had appeared, where before, there had been nothing but plaster to lay her eyes on.
His voice echoed through the cramped, spartan room as if it was a ballroom the dimensions of which she would never be able to comprehend even as he spun a tale of an invitation to one just so - and the constraints around her body loosened, were replaced by electrifying warmth that intensified and was heightened with each phrase. The melody of his speech moved her into a lull as the light at the periphery of her vision softened, lost its focus next to the all-encompassing shadow. With only half a step in each direction, the billowing cape brushed against the decayed walls - and it was torture that he would submit to a prison for her sake when it was finally within her grasp to see the light of day and the shimmer of the moon with no barrier of glass to brace.
Not until she felt the scrape of one singular, long fingernail against her cheek did Sarah's senses get thrown into sharp relief along with the grip of his fingers on her chin, guiding her face to the side. He was appraising her with the same cold gaze that had, was still taking in their surroundings with a distaste that seemed a response to the mere circumstance that put her among four walls so cheap and dreary at all. Her own judgment, however, was kinder, as his eyes roamed over her figure in a manner quite at odds with his controlled manner, such as it was not polite but regal.
She yearned to speak, but she found her tongue glued to the roof of her mouth. Her lips parted, yet his piercing glare left her without speech, defenseless against the scorn in his queries.
Would you pray until you are bitter and grey, death drawing nearer with each breath? Would you be content with their lies, their false safety, their witless tedium?
Denial tightened her hold on the bathtub, splinters burrowing under her skin in spikes.
The descent towards her - his face coming closer, closer, closer - made time stand still; beholding his fangs, her breath got caught in her throat, the lingering pain of her cheek flaring up.
A shrill shriek dispelled the phantom as the Professor burst through the door, waving a wooden stake in the air as bloodshot eyes squinted in vain at empty corners. In turmoil, her father drove her stumbling through the bolted door and as she looked over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of Alfred averting his gaze from her naked profile.
The bathwater had run cold.
Running along the beaten path in the woods had Sarah gasping for breath, the cold air painful in her lungs as snowflakes swirled around her head. It was an exhilarating chase, and she thought she could hear faint shouts in the distance, which only made her run faster, faster, faster. Even in her almost childish happiness she ran – from the locked room at the top of the stairs, from her father’s rules, from Alfred’s quaint fairy tale dreams and deaf ears against her pleas.
The castle dwarfed what she knew the village to be, and she tightened the grip on her scarf as she stepped closer into the mist. The heavy, iron gate appeared immovable, ancient, a myth made tangible by an illusion. The full moon allowed for little light, yet she pressed on. She had received a personal invitation from the Count, after all.
She called out into the night, a wordless cry. She waited.
Sarah tore her gaze away from the woods, where she might have expected a living being to appear. As it was, there stood a creature a few feet of a distance from her, beckoning impatiently in feral grunts as it brandished a candelabrum in his hand. The gate was open.
A nod, followed by an even more urgent gesticulation to enter.
She complied, the sound of red boots on polished stone returning to her in a tenfold echo as she caught glimpses of blood red tapestry, and shadows scurrying across painted figures, their eyes following. She heard the gate shut behind her in a grating crash.
Koukol tugged at her sleeve, face distorted in a grimace of annoyance. The sight was not unfamiliar, as she could still picture the same expression as her father would attempt platitudes as to why he could not provide as many provisions as he may have promised last winter, years ago, years before a locked door became her jailer. She remembered the shock of an unknown realization on her father’s face as she asked who his friend was, and as he darted into the shed, waving a hammer and a nail at an invisible enemy in warning. He had told her she was beautiful, too beautiful.
It was just another instance in a village subjugated under a heavy mantle of silence. Not one would ask questions even as it suffocated them. Everyone would know enough as is.
Koukol pointed towards one of the doors in a manner that she translated to mean she should head that way, before he stomped away to leave her to pursue the fading glow of the candelabrum at her leisure.
Alone again, Sarah took from her breast pocket the box of matches she had swiped from the kitchen table while she was washing plates the evening prior in her hands and lit one, two, seven matches, slowly walking in a circle around the hall, following the wall of paintings as she ignited each candle in her path, bathing the room in a muted light.
She stopped at the second portrait, struck by the magnificent talent of the artist as they had captured welling tears in the eyes of a soldier that only served to strengthen the determination set in his spine, the intent and courage in the grip on his blunt, broken sword as he nonetheless wielded it faced with an invisible foe. As the candle below the gilded frame illuminated the plaque, Sarah could decipher a year. 1830.
Time reversed as her journey continued and solitary impressions came to life with the flicker of flames. 1768. A floor of marble below the naked feet of a violinist reflected the crystals of the chandelier above a masquerade of silk and satin. 1713. The detail of the brushstrokes in the golden cross clutched in the hand of a young maiden took her breath away. 1690. The brazen, open laugh of an opera singer revealed a chipped tooth as faceless patrons clamored to present her with a rose. 1617. The rays of sunlight cast the blonde locks of a woman reclining in the grass in a washed out halo around her head, eyes closed.
A shudder took a hold of her, and she turned on her heel to take in the silhouette of the winding stairs, twisting upwards into the void of a black ceiling. The sight made her head spin as her gaze fell on the space that joined the construction to the floor.
The Count stood at the foot of the staircase, his right hand moving in senseless patterns against the banister while his left gestured, lured, beckoned to her and she fled towards him, her feet light as air. She shivered as every inch of exposed skin itched, the red scarf around her throat an obscene and filthy rag only worthy of being discarded to the floor, the cool air brushing over bare flesh alleviating the boiling of her blood.
Still, it was not enough, and she followed in his stride as he paced, at last in a sphere worthy of his being.
His abrupt gesture froze her tongue as all reason as to what she had yearned to ask dissipated into smoke - a barrier breached by the same hand as his fingers ghosted over her cheek.
“You yearn for freedom.”
“Yes.” Her voice was strong, the single syllable ringing out in the vastness of the room without wanting for air.
Her unwavering assertion bent the corners of his mouth into a wicked smirk, a silent condemnation of those that would strive to detain her.
Lips traced a path along the side of her throat, her eyelids fluttering closed at the sensation. Biting ache formed a stark discord, the deep graze in the flesh of her shoulders against the all too fleeting caress.
All track of time was lost in oblivion.
“No.” The desire put the edge of a sinister growl to his voice even as humor tinged his turn of phrase. “We would be remiss to lose our heads now when the pleasure to come is so great.”
On impulse, Sarah turned around to be left greeted with barren, empty air.
The painted eyes lining the walls appeared mocking as she collected the scarf from the polished tiles on the floor in a trance, her fingers shaking as she draped the rough cotton around her neck.
She staggered towards the doorway in which she had watched Koukol disappear. It seemed a world away.
“Third door to the right.”
Sarah started at the sudden sound, whirling to see a figure leaning against the pillar in a show of nonchalance so convincing that she would have believed the voice to have been a mere delusion had the hallway not been otherwise deserted.
A swift hand wave, an exhibit of razor-sharp claws amidst bright lace.
“I know.” The smooth voice was flat, the calculation of feigned interest unworthy of the effort in the face of its purpose.
Sarah frowned, raising her head up higher. She had no intention to cower. “Then we are not equal. Who are you?”
The expression on his face shifted from boredom to open amusement that she might give a kitten’s attempt to mimic a lion’s roar. Still, he twisted his lips into a gradual smile wide enough to fully display his fangs as he straightened his posture to move away from the wall.
“Herbert von Krolock.”
She bent her head, struggling to perform a curtsey.
He chuckled, dark eyes glinting with curiosity as he put a light hand on her waist to lead her through the corridor.
“You wanted to see your room?”
The perfunctory touch at her side receded as the door opened soundlessly, revealing a chamber of opulence – a bed whose dimensions surpassed her old prison, an intricately carved wardrobe, a dazzling crimson gown displayed on a bronze stand. To her left, there stood a mirror spanning the height from the carpet to the ceiling, a frame of silver holding an image of herself, where no hint of her companion’s fair hair or sapphire cashmere were to be seen.
For all its splendor, the chamber was alike to the locked room on top of the stairs in its emptiness, its furniture hollow in its shell of function.
Herbert granted her a wry smile.
“The Count.” He drawled, stressing the sharp intonation of the t. “Father has a flair for the dramatic, but the ball is always exquisite.”
“What am I to do until that night?”
Herbert shrugged, preoccupied with the view of his fingernails in the flickering light of the oil lamp. The perpetual motion of lithe hands must be a family affectation, then. “It is a very big castle.”
He grasped the door handle as he stepped outside into the hallway, dragging the weight of the door with him as he clicked his tongue.
“Truth be told, I do not much care how you spend your time. There is the library, of course. The ballroom is magnificent, but I would advise you to stay away until the preparations have been completed – it is dreadfully lackluster to behold alone. We do not often deign for guests to stay among us.”
A pause. “I suppose the grounds near the cemetery would serve adequately should you wish to go for a walk.”
The door shut, leaving Sarah to face her reflection. It was as if Herbert had never been there.
The girl in the mirror had color in her cheeks, a subdued red that paled as she put on the gown and spun, the heavy skirts nonetheless twirling around her ankles in hushed whispers along the floor. She threw her head back and laughed, her steps weightless as she danced.
The mausoleum was grey and beautiful and crumbling, deep cracks in the stone splitting the gravestone in two. As she stepped closer, Sarah felt a pang of recognition at a flash of blonde hair. The elegantly carved script spelled the year 1617.
She gasped, rushing to kneel at each year marked by a chisel, each portrait frame set in the ground of the crypt in turn. As more and more dirt soiled her knees, the numbers grew distorted. 1830, 1768, 1630, 1713, 1809. She could read no more – each sallow face was smeared, each cipher buried behind a veil of fog.
“They are dead.”
His cool touch wiped the tear from her eye as a wordless howl escaped her throat. A shroud of warmth enveloped her shoulders, and she rested her head against his chest as she was elevated to her feet, the silky cape forming a cloak of darkness around them both.
“What happened to them?” She whispered.
A hard, vacant expression set his face in stone, his eyes dark as charcoal as he strayed from her side, walking past each grave in turn. She thought she saw a quiver in his hands.
“Beheaded, burned, starved, stabbed. Mortals. I cannot tell their end apart in its cruelty. Their lives carried infinitely more weight than their demise.”
“No.” He snarled, the cape whirling as he turned to meet her gaze, her outstretched hands. The lines of his mouth softened, the hold of his arm on hers delicate. “This is not your fate.”
Sarah exhaled, the light of the moon casting the corners of the mausoleum in jagged shadows – a grim reminder of the past so far removed from the brilliance of shining chandeliers, of the fading glamour of passing centuries, of knowledge and tragedy and rapture.
She looked up, searched the set of the angular lines of his jaw, emerged wholly without doubt. Eternity was within hand’s reach.
The ball would soon begin.
The guests were clad in the most beautiful, decadent gowns, movements stiff and garish in their dance as he buried his fangs in her neck.
She was floating in his arms, their faces spinning around her in blurry streaks of white, a cacophony of screams distorted - though she could not say whether the cries were hers or theirs. Against her collarbone was touch, travelling down, the pressure of a claw too sharp and deliberate to be a caress. Once on her feet, she staggered, blindly grasping and reaching for the Count. They were to dance, after all, were they not?
He took her hands in his iron grip and in the light of the chandelier a feral sneer greeted her, with the blood on his lips forming a perfect match to the color of her gown. What had seemed noble and dignified had now become vibrant, bold, sparkling life to be washed away with a single swipe of a silken handkerchief, leaving nothing but a smooth and cold surface. The Count's face was motionless in its languid contempt and in the demeanor of a wild animal in all of its aggression and grace, he threw her to the ground.
Sarah fell, the smell of rot and death overwhelming as she braced herself, eyes mindlessly taking in the spectacle around her. This was freedom; agony, vertigo, abandon amidst slaughter.
As fleetingly as he had discarded her, he sunk his claws into the flesh of her arm, tears of impatience blooming in scarlet. Her feet floated in a perfect minuet of their own accord.
The world was brighter, clearer, sharper. All she saw was red.
A familiar voice passed her in pleading, no more important than a fly at the periphery of her vision.
The Count put his hands together, a command immediately turning her blood to ice, rooting her to the marble floor, her hand immobile in her maker’s grasp. The clumsy stumbling of two masked figures was deafening in a hall of statues.
She heard sardonic laughter, atrociously restrained behind Herbert’s closed fist. His fangs flashed in blinding white, greedy eyes tracking his prey against the wall of mirrors.
The two reflections grew rigid, the Professor searching the ballroom in confusion. Alfred was shaking, panic plain on his face as his mask had fallen from his trembling fingers.
“Suck them dry.”
The order was a crack of a whip, stirring the rabble into flight. The vampires descended on the Professor, giving chase as he discarded the candelabrum to flee, but it was no use. Alfred rushed into her arms, screaming how he would save her, how they had to leave at once, how he would protect her from all evil. Sarah cradled his face between her hands, smiling softly.
Such a pretty fool. Such a shame he had not listened to her.
His blood on her tongue was electrifying, the deep red behind her eyelids gaining a pulse in harmony with the slowing beat of his heart. Beyond the pounding in her ears, the Count’s triumphant cry rang out.
Alfred slumped down against her shoulder, eyes glazed and fingers limp, fight drained from his being. Sarah ran a soothing hand through his hair, spotting Herbert standing but a few feet from her side.
She released Alfred from her embrace, knowing he would be caught. Even in his reanimated struggle his movements became stronger, stripped of the simpering insecurity and bumbling ungainliness that had dominated his manner in the light of the sun.
The malevolent smile of the Count was an adornment of bright understanding. She had never felt the vivid, metallic taste of possibilities so near, no distance too far to conquer, no lock to ever hold her again.
She would dance eternity away.