He stood with wine in hand, for hours regarding that portrait hanging above the hearth. The light and shadow rippling across the study as the fire danced bent the face painted in dozens of variations, some kind, some stern, some emotionless, and one that would appear only as the light waned and darkness descended: a monster.
He set the glass down and made his way along the winding cobble corridors of Manse Dracule. He passed his family’s banners hanging along the walls, and empty rooms from which the firelight of hearths kindled by phantoms poured through the arches in their vain yearning for warmth. Some halls were bathed black while others glittered in hues of red, blue and green as moonlight shone upon the stain-glassed windows depicting nothing. Suits of armour sighed as he passed, and their long dead bearers reached with ethereal fingers to grope at the back of his shirt, pleading company.
Any mortal walking these halls would surely have died of old age before finding their way out, had Dracula not fount them first. The bodies would crumple to the floor with their faces frozen in the shock just before death, and upon his return to the scene of the crime, there would be nothing. Yet the next time he took a trip to the Crimson Gathering, he would find a new Guest seated at the table, a life-sized wax effigy of red having taken an eerie resemblance to that body that lie on the floor but few days prior, hunched-over and regarding the empty silver platter before it as if considering its reflection, only to find nothing there.
Dracula was on his way there now, expecting a new Guest.
His footfalls echoed along the spiral staircase as he ascended to the rooftop of Manse Dracule, small families of candles set up in the alcoves along its length and colouring the walls violet.
The rooftop had always reminded him of the gardens he had seen back when he was free. Beds of flowers – red, blue and green – were trimmed clean yet stood absolutely still despite the breeze; their stems and petals were frozen from the cold touch of the mist rolling about the floor, and some beads had crystalized enough to twinkle like sapphire, ruby and emerald dust. That had always stirred a distant memory, tinged with regret, and he found himself thinking again of the portrait in his study despite he was now upon the Crimson Gathering.
The thick, winding branches of the yew tree bloomed above, casting laces of shadow over the white and gold dinning table at which the wax figures sat. All seats were occupied, save the two at either end. Were another mortal to come along, Dracula would find that next time the table would have magically lengthened to accommodate the new Guest, as was the case now. Dracula payed it no mind, and took his seat.
A couple moments passed, and nothing happened. Then, crackling sounded from the yew tree as its trunk opened up. Spores of black, glittering like obsidian, cascaded into the open air as a skeletal hand curled around the opening of the trunk. A tall figure cloaked in black emerged, and the effigies exposed to the black spores wilted, a mixture of sighs and screams as they crumbled to grey dust.
As silence settled, the figure in black placed its scythe on the table and seated itself at the other end. “Better company had you let them live,”
“I would go hungry, and you as well.” Dracula snapped his fingers and a glass of wine appeared before him. He took a sip and settled into his chair.
The figure was silent for a long while, a silence steeped in trepidation. Dracula knew it well. It was present within every cobble of Manse Dracule, waiting, watching like predator. He had once thought he was the most terrible being in the world. No. He was but the menace of a single city, and beyond that, nothing but legend. Those of true power were an ever-present thing, looming over existence like the sky itself and an inexorable force like Time… or Death.
“I do not feed; I pass judgement.” Death reared its head, regarding the branches above. “Fates weave beyond the comprehension of even the greatest among us, and it is in this I marvel, having found myself here again.” It lifted its arm with an upturned palm. The leaves of the yew tree shivered in the sudden gust of wind that passed by, and the ones shaken free of their branch bloomed into rose petals and fluttered down onto the table. One landed in hand, and Death considered it as it withered to dust. “There was a time when this place was familiar to me. It is a strange thing to remember: a life where you are not feared but welcome. Have you ever felt it, memories so far you are not sure whether they are dreams or reality?”
Dracula shook his head.
Death lowered its head as if disappointed and considered the dust of the rose petal that had slipped through the gaps in its bones. “We used to press the flowers here into paint. I would harvest the petals and press the colour, and she would paint… there,” and it pointed to the edge of the roof overlooking the moonlit clouds. “she said she could hear the angels singing. Their songs helped her paint. You have seen her work; it speaks for itself.”
Death considered Dracula a moment. “It must be something for you especially.”
“You as well,” said Dracula without hesitation. “when is the last time you saw your face?”
“A millennium since the birth of Time.”
“You are free to go and take a look,” but both of them knew it would not. Dracula changed subject. “Why are you here?”
“To offer you temporary leave,”
For a moment Dracula almost jumped out his seat with disbelief, but grasped the ends of his armchair to restrain himself. It would only admit Death’s victory if he did, and this was a game he planned on winning. But he thought he could still feel amusement radiating from the dark beneath that hood. The deep-rooted hatred for this thing stirred in him, and his nails grew long and pointed. He forced himself to breathe deep, but now the air had become unusually cold, and every breath, no matter how deep, felt shallow.
“You live unburdened by Deliverance,” and Death brought its scythe into its hands, considering the obsidian shaft that glittered like starlight. “You will never know the release of its touch, and in that respect, we are the same.” And Dracula heard a hiss of air likened only to a sigh. “Yet I envy you still, for you are gifted the pain of Mortals.” Death reached out, curled its hand into a fist, and pulled it back towards itself with such violent force that the air came rushing out Dracula’s mouth, leaving him gasping for air. The platters and silverware tumbled towards death in a cacophony whereupon nearing him, they turned to dust. Dracula’s glass of wine tumbled over and he watched as the crimson wine rushed down the swirling grooves within the tabletop towards Death, where they trailed up into the air and for a moment took the shape of rose petals before withering to black smoke. “You live between Mortals and Gods,” Death opened its fist. “for that reason, it is only you whom can find the terrible things lurking beyond the borders of ‘Manse Dracule’.” The naming of the great mansion sent a shiver along each cobble, branch, flower and blade of grass.
Air came rushing back into Dracula’s lungs, and he lurched backward in his seat. For a moment there was nothing but Dracula’s faint panting. He righted his glass with trembling fingers and filled it with wine again with a weak snap of his fingers. “Have… you… made another mistake, then?”
“Consider it the continuation of one I made long ago; I have only ever made one.”
“I am not a mistake!” And this time Dracula’s canines lengthened with a familiar sense of bloodlust. Yet he would not stand. There was no real harm they could do to one another.
“A mistake, a menace, a liability.” Mused Death.
“You speak of no one but yourself!”
“Your words are void. You will help.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I leave. We never meet again. You stay here, forever.”
The anger raging inside Dracula went cold, replaced by fear. Yet as the silence carried, he realized just how absurd that was. “You wouldn’t do that,” and after a moment’s consideration, peering deep into Death’s shadowed face, “you need me.”
“I could use one of your kin.”
“You would never have visited, had that been an option.” And he noticed Death’s grip tighten around Deliverance. The amusement he had felt from Death mere moments ago turned to muted rage, yet unlike Death, Dracula made it known that he was amused and gave a little chuckle. He took a sip of wine. It tasted metallic, redolent of blood. He relished it.
“You will not listen to my offer?”
“Like the dregs of Mortals, you rejoice in petty victories. I had hoped you were different.” Death stood slowly, its shadow cast long over the table and falling over Dracula. “Now I see I have made two mistakes...”
Death made its way to the yew tree and laid a hand on it.
Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream tore the air. The platters shattered with such violent force that some flew through Dracula. The flowers wilted and blades of grass flew upwards, cut midway before fluttering back down like a sea of feathers. A deep groan sounded from somewhere beneath them and a faint buzz went up Dracula’s legs from the trembling cobbles. But the most terrible thing was a single ray of light that shone through the dark sky above, widening until it covered the entirety of the garden.
Dracula struggled out his seat in this pathetic weakness likened to a Mortal’s, and stumbled over to Death, where he fell to his knees.
The upper half of the yew tree had disappeared, and a soft, blue light poured out the trunk. Death held Deliverance aloft, sap twinkling the colour of sapphire dripping off the blade.
“And now,” said Death, fear heavy in its voice. “I have made three.”