And in the lower levels of Castle Chaythe, there was great rejoicing. The bats, ah, the bats! Carmila had been struggling with them for -- oh, it seemed like centuries. It probably had been. Faithful to her in her life, they remained even after her death, living beings readily available for manipulation, if rather limited in their abilities. Certainly their blood was not sufficient for her needs, but she could -- with great effort -- infuse her essence into them, so that over the generations they had become virtual extensions of herself. She could very nearly see with their eyes and hear with their ears; certainly they understood her wishes well enough and in fact had taken on a bit of her nature. Unlike Meier, Carmila did not measure the world in maps that showed where other nobles dwelled; rather, she sent the bats out on forays to find what was neither brute nor human moving upon the earth. And this may indeed have been the best strategy, for many nobles' castles were long empty or even fallen to ruin, their owners in one sense or another long departed. Carmila had bided her time, and her creatures' efforts had at last borne fruit. Here was the proof of it: not just a noble, but a noble who needed a favor. Some dark power was certainly smiling on her. Writing even a brief note in response would cost much, but it was clearly worth the investment to set the hook and reel in this long-awaited bit of hope. * * * Meier did measure the world in maps, and he was becoming increasingly aware of just how antiquated his were. In many cases he knew precisely when a particular noble house had fallen -- to professional hunters, to the proverbial mob of torch-wielding human villagers, or simply to its own despair. Lady ffoulkes, the House of Anderwalt, Lady Issyk-Koul, Lord Baranov, Clan Lamprou, Lord Morodor ... the list went on and on. This was the first time Meier had sat down with his maps and systematically observed the extent of the losses among his kind, drawing concentric circles about his own home, following the compass of each, and marking each with a black X. The question marks were too few and too far, the X's too many, and Meier was rubbing his temples with almost painful intensity when he heard the disorder of a great swarm of bats' wings and their chittering. Minutes later he saw them as well -- they flooded in, a rush of pulsing cries and swirling flight. Most circled a few times and found resting places on the walls or ceiling, but one separated out and landed in front of him -- a little awkwardly, for it had been carrying an envelope in its claws. Evidently their noble did not have Meier's compunctions about burdening the creatures. Meier broke the seal -- it _was_ the House of Bathory, which had formerly occupied Chaythe -- and unfolded the missive. He was a little surprised that it was written in German rather than the common tongue, but some vampire houses preferred the old languages: Meier had been compelled to study several of them in his day. His heart lifted more with each sentence that he read: Most worthy Count Meierling! My home holds the gateway to the stars. I hope you will soon arrive here safely. I wish you well with all my heart. In friendship Your countess C Not merely the stars, but an invitation, and so soon! As with the bats, Meier felt fewer questions were best. He smiled nostalgically at the form of address. Meierling was his family name; he had used his given names (which echoed it) for so long he scarcely ever thought of having another. His correspondent's memory went back a long way, it seemed. The paper was so thin that he at first thought he had received only one sheet, but in fact there were two. The second was a map -- not a survey map, but a sketch showing still-navigable roads, resting-houses, and ... yes, Barbarois, another place Meier remembered from his salad days. Carmila (certainly that was what "C" represented) must want his company very much. Meier could empathize, for he knew what it was to be tired of hearing no voices but his own and Robespierre's. He sifted through his store of stationery for something that befit a matter of such concern and a lady of such standing, and began (on a less valuable sheet) drafting a response explaining his circumstances and -- in no uncertain terms -- his gratitude. The note also informed his soon-to-be-host that he would depart on the morrow. His earlier optimism about Tom's lack of credibility was waning. There was no guarantee the man would be disbelieved; other factors also might intervene. Perhaps witnesses could testify that Tom had been elsewhere when Charlotte was being deflowered; perhaps humans could distinguish between the semen of his kind and theirs. It was a train of thought that Meier really didn't care to pursue. * * * His daylight rest had been uneasy, in itself an unusual and disquieting event. Most vampires lacked any consciousness worthy of the name while the sun was above the horizon, but Meier had a strange though imperfect immunity to the soporific effects of the solar orb, an immunity he had more often regarded as a curse than a blessing. He could not truly function during the day like a human: anything beyond the smallest movements he made as if entombed in molasses, while his thoughts raced alarmingly and chaotically, like a human's open-eyed nightmare. Usually, of course, he slept through the day, if that state nearer suspended animation could properly be called sleep, but when he was angry or anxious, his rest suffered as badly as that of any mortal in a like state of mind. Meier's plans, his hopes and fears, had weighed heavy on him, and by the time he rose at sunset, his eyes felt as if they had been sandpapered from flying open repeatedly during the previous two hours. That had been the beginning of an evening that grew more frustrating as the twilight deepened. The blood warmer had been malfunctioning. Robespierre was apologetic almost to the point of obsequiousness, and was simultaneously working to effect repairs on the mechanism itself and jury-rigging a substitute. During what looked to be a long wait for breakfast, Meier discussed the outfitting of the traveling coach, and on the A.I.'s advice (Robespierre was at least adept at multitasking), ordered that it include not only his indispensable coffin but a few necessities, such as a chair, for the comfort and pleasure of his human passenger. At least the cyborg horses for the coach-and-four were all in good health and fine fettle. Meier felt so relieved he nearly hugged the beasts as they stepped into place for harnessing. His good mood dissipated immediately when he learned that the harnesses for the lead pair had dry-rotted over decades of disuse. Leather powder dusting down from his fingertips, Meier ordered Fido (the stable A.I., which operated independently of Robespierre) to assemble a new set of harness if it had to use its own cabling to do so. Hunger had made him quite irritable, and the passing of time had made him edgy. Charlotte would be waiting, and not for the first night. Robespierre had rigged heat sinks for a number of the castle's electronic monitoring devices into immersion heaters. The blood gained a metallic taste that Meier found matched his mood in its bitterness. The warmth and strength that flowed into him, however, rather than comforting and calming him, only made him more eager to be gone and more frustrated with the delays that had pushed his departure to well past midnight. "When shall I expect you back, noble lord?" Robespierre inquired. "Perhaps never. Maintain the castle until I come again, or another comes whose veins bear my blood." For Meier had no wish to disinherit any offspring he might ever bring into the world by his body or his blood if he himself did not -- or could not -- reclaim his home. The carriage was ready, the horses were hitched with tack cobbled together from several sets of harness ... and the night was more than half over. Meier thought of how Charlotte was probably suffering -- wondering would he come, worrying that their deception would be found out (if it hadn't already) -- and his snarl, sharp as a whiplash, sent the horses forward at a gallop. Meier's anxiety only grew as the carriage dashed toward his goal. It had grown so late! He did not realize how his aura spread out, telekinesis and influence combining in an invisible miasma. In the town, his power flew before him: street lights blinked out one by one, their feeble flames overcome by the blackness made manifest that was a noble's might, however unconsciously exercised. Through a broken grating on one darkening street a mongrel dog growled as that baleful aura drew near, and many a citizen's dream turned nightmarish when that intangible touch withered the ivy clinging to the walls and distorted beyond recognition every cross surmounting a rooftop on the street. The mongrel dog's growls turned to whimpers as it tucked its tail between its legs and slunk away from the roar of those wheels, the sparks struck by those hooves as the coach-and-four clattered by. The carriage flew past the town's fountain, and in the warm night air its streams congealed to ice. The horses' mouths were open, too-sharp teeth gleaming in the starlight that even Meier could not eclipse. Their night-adapted receptors left red trails in the vision of any brave or foolish mortal who peered out a window to see what creature dared the suddenly fearful atmosphere, when the very air bespoke the night as the domain of vampires and mutant beasts. Meier slowed the team to a trot, then a walk; too slow for his state of mind, but he was less familiar with this area -- or rather, with this pedestrian route. Faugh -- let the horses catch up! He leaped from the coachman's perch, arms outspread and cape swooping up to meet and half enwrap them as he launched himself into welcome flight. Well above the rooftops, Meier circled to get his bearings. Ah ... _there_. The great misshapen tree. He had come to regard it with something approaching affection. Tonight, however, he did not want to shift out of his winged form until he was assured he would not need its advantages, for in it he could both flee and fight more effectively. Instead, he further called on his powers of transformation: his feet, and the boots on them, split and sharpened into claws; inverted like a bat, he furled his cloak about himself and spread his senses wide, as the horses, ever obedient to his will, brought the carriage to a halt before the Elbourne mansion. The house was dark and quiet. Humans breathed; a few mice skittered. Charlotte was there, lying abed, her back to the window -- and no wonder, poor thing: at such a late hour she had probably despaired of his arriving this night. The thought of her patience and sorrow pushed Meier's own patience beyond endurance. By telekinesis he gently, gently, and almost silently turned the handle on her window so it glided open. He remembered when he had first seen her and was resolved not to wreak such violence as he had on the window that night. But there was no holding back the power that blew the wind before him, withering the vase of roses by the window sill and blasting their faded petals across the room. At the cold wind's touch Charlotte sat up with an amorphous cry of fear, fear that brought her eyes wide and froze her mouth in an O. It was not just the dark-winged, red-eyed form that seemed to coalesce from the darkness -- it was a nameless terror that flew before it and grew stronger at its approach. Meier had never before unleashed his power in her presence, and all Charlotte knew now was fear beyond fear as some invisible force enwrapped her even more strongly than the powerful wing-arms that scooped her up, so it seemed their darkness overcame her sight. The vanity mirror opposite her bed reflected only Charlotte's form suspended in midair, her head lolling back as if to invite a vampire's caress. It showed no sign of Meier -- but for all that, it felt his gaze, for it cracked clear across when his brows contracted. A moment later, both he and Charlotte were gone. End part 6 of 6 Comments welcome.