Last Sunset on a Red Night

 

The winding cracks in the ancient stone blocks cried out for release. They were beaten, worn and weathered with time and age. The battlements atop the walls were mere slivers, shadows of the once-mighty defenses. Towers that had once loomed intimidating against the sky were broken, as though some giant had swiped the tops off in a great swing of its immense club. Crevices raced up and down timeworn walls, letting pale moonlight filter through where mighty siege engines had failed to penetrate.
The drawbridge was down. Worn and rotted now, it was made of stout oak that was every bit a match for steel in its day. The moat it spanned had long since dried up. The path leading to the ancient vampire’s castle was as old and tired as the fortress.
A young knight appeared before the castle. He felt as tall as the wind astride his night-black stallion, as invincible as stone. His magic sword and enchanted armor had never failed him thus far, and he was confident it would once again carry him to victory.
The weight of horse and rider tried the bridge terribly, but it held as the young knight crossed. The courtyard was overgrown with wild grass, moss, and black flowers that seemed to grow in the pallor of the moonlight. Two great wooden doors gave entrance to the forbidding structure. Long ago these gates might have kept back a powerful army. Tonight they gave willingly to the push of the young knight.
The brash cavalier struck a torch after leaving his destrier tied to a broken post, an ancient sliver of wood hollow with rot. The main foyer fought back his fire as the knight took his first cautious steps within. He drew his weapon at the dark and stepped forward carefully, casting wary glances to either side. The dim torchlight revealed worn paintings and rotting tapestries. Furnishings that must have once been ornate and delicate were now worn and shattered. There were no mirrors.
Forbidding hallways that should have terrified the young knight fell easily to his torch and bravado. The confidence of youth brimmed within, bolstered by his magical armaments. He knew the corridors and turns of his path well, having been carefully tutored in the layout of the fortress before making his journey. Down grim passages and up winding stairs his path led, until he stood before an ornate oaken door that seemed to have resisted the effects of time far better than the rest of the gloomy castle.
The young knight reached carefully toward the pull-ring, his hand hovering mere inches away. He let it drop suddenly and brought forth his leg, giving the door a mighty kick. It held firmly.
Suddenly the door slowly opened, swinging in as if it were opened by some invisible butler. The young man’s head cocked to one side as the room within drank the light of his weak flame. He stepped forward carefully, his eyes scanning every inch he could see. The room was unnaturally cold, telling him he’d found his destination. He raised his torch, and the room lit up.
Ornamental lamps suddenly sprang to life, shaming the pathetic glow of his torch. No flame danced within the ostentatious lanterns that emerged from the walls. The lamps had somehow caught the moonlight itself, and the room now bathed in its pallid glory.
The room was small by the standards of an enormous castle. No elaborate tapestries hung here, no gaudy paintings. A small, round table sat near a blackened and dead fireplace, flanked by two very ordinary-looking chairs. In the chair to the young man’s right sat the vampire, looking at him quizzically.
The young knight’s sword rose instinctively at the foe, who sat still as a statue. The vampire regarded the young man with cold calculation. Thousands and thousands of years had this undead creature lived, far too long to be cowed in the least by an upstart knight and his magic toys.
Waves of gray rushed through the vampire’s black hair. His mouth was closed, a faint hint of a smile curving his lips. The robes upon his body must have once been bright and colorful, but time had worked its own magic upon the fabrics. Now they were dull, faded, plain. His emotionless eyes could not give away his age, for neither they nor the vampire knew how old he really was. Countless had been the years, without end, until time itself had lost its meaning.
The two held, one standing and one sitting, until the vampire broke the impasse with words he’d thought he might have forgotten, so long had it been since he’d needed to use language at all.
“Ho, brave knight. What brings you to my hearth this evening with steel in your hand and murder on your heart?”
The young knight was taken aback.
“Murder? Nay, tis not murder to slay the evil, nor those who are already dead. Rise, and face your destiny.”
“Indeed?” The vampire raised an indifferent eyebrow to the young knight’s brashness. “How do you know that I am, in fact, evil? Have you seen or heard of foul deeds at my hand? Have you a way to know my heart and mind, so that the truth of my wickedness is truly known to you?”
Again the young knight was, for a moment, lost for words. He’d come prepared to do battle with a malevolent villain, not bandy pointless wisdom with this weathered grandfather.
“I need not see your mind to know your vile history. Dread tales of the foul vampire abound hereabouts, and I’ve arrived to end them once and for all. Now, stand or sit, it is time to die.”
The vampire sat unmoved by the young knight’s audacity.
“Then before you proceed, you must admit you are a killer.”
“I admit nothing, villain.”
A sigh might have escaped the vampire’s lips just then, though it was widely held the undead never breathed. An emotion crossed the vampire’s face. Pity, sadness, or perhaps even compassion. It was gone as quickly as it surfaced. His steely gaze held the knight enraptured.
“Perhaps you know not my mind, but I see yours clearly. Galhadrious of Vane sees glory in his future if he slays the wicked vampire who prowls the night in search of blood and maidens.”
The young knight’s face gave away his complete surprise.
“You, you know my name?”
The faintest hint of humor pushed its way onto the vampire’s countenance.
“Of course. Steel was a glint in your ancestor’s eye when last an intruder set foot inside this castle without my knowing his name. Or hers.”
The young knight’s eyes widened further at the vampire’s mention of women attempting to best the undead creature. This amused the vampire immensely, though he showed no sign to his guest.
“Ah yes, my friend, many a maiden has darkened my door to avenge her vanity. None succeeded, though most gave far more quarrel than many men.”
The knight stood dumbfounded, owing as much to his own weak imagination as to the vampire’s enchantments.
“You are right, of course, though you know it not. I’ve committed atrocities in my ages of existence. Men have been slain, women have been taken, and whole villages have left the earth in the face of my wrath. And what has it brought me? A young brashling who believes himself to be a hero. Yet, we both know that in your heart you are no more heroic than I.”
This seemed to bring the young man out of his reverie.
“What? You suggest I am as base as you? I have not burned whole villages to the ground, nor taken young maidens against their will, or children from their mother’s breast. You who have no honor may not question mine.”
“Honor is a fleeting fancy upon a young man’s mind. Older and wiser men know this to be true. And I am older and wiser than all. My long years have given me an insight you couldn’t hope to comprehend.”
Boldness at last returned to the young knight’s heart.
“Long years are wasted on a creature such as you. Better they are bestowed upon the good and righteous, that the world might be filled with noble works. But nay, only sinful creatures such as you receive that blessing.”
The vampire laughed now. Lungs that hadn’t felt air in millennia put forth a blood-curling sound that filled the young knight with ironic dread. Terror pierced his armor of brazen youth and magic steel to freeze his soul at the sound of the hellish laughter.
“Blessing, you say? Ah, the ignorance and insolence of youth. Ever does mankind remind me. I say it truthfully now boy, you have no knowledge of what you speak. Immortality as a blessing? No, immortality is the curse of God, the ultimate curse, indeed.”
A long moment passed before the young knight found his courage again, and his words.
“Bah, so says a liar who seeks to keep such secrets to himself. Immortality would be a rose to mankind, allowing his full righteousness to flower. Long and forever could good deeds be done with the gift you spit upon.”
“Would they indeed?” The vampire’s stony expression held back his derision for this upstart who knew nothing, and less than nothing. “I know something of the human soul boy, a truth your feeble mind has yet to find. It tires. Goodness and right are not the nature of the human soul. Virtue fights a war within to make men decent and noble. Yet the bane of man is the selfish nature he is born with, and it lays siege to his spirit. Given the time you so ignobly assert you deserve, the walls of virtue would inevitably fall. The righteous man who might have left a legacy of honorable works would find them drowned beneath a tepid pool of sin and apathy. Ever does the flesh cry for its reward, and given time it will take that reward, spirit willing or no.”
The young knight listened intently, but threw aside the vampire’s wisdom as the mutterings of one who sees his fate has at last arrived.
“You speak as though everyone would use the gift as you have, pursuing hollow and selfish ends. You’ve obviously forgotten that there are many good and kind people in the world, who would always strive for decency.”
The vampire shook his head, as though he were scolding a disobedient child.
“No, boy I haven’t. Nor have I forgotten that there are many evil, selfish, and depraved human beings, as well as your good. Shall they be allowed to inflict their wickedness on others for infinite time, or would you bestow your precious gift on those few, good souls?”
“The good deserve long life and happiness. The evil earn only death.”
“And who shall mark them as such, boy? You?”
“If I must. Good and evil are not so difficult to discern.”
“Indeed? And what qualifies you to sit in judgment of your fellow man?”
“The righteousness of my heart and the strength of my blade gives me that right.”
The vampire could no longer hide his amusement from the upstart before him. A wicked smile showed the young knight the vampire’s long, pointed incisors.
“Good and might allow you to arbitrate justice? How naïve you are! Have you paid no heed to those who have gone before you? Have you not seen the corruption that power inflicts upon the human soul? Expand that idea a thousand times, by a thousand years. Would you perpetrate that cruelty upon your fellow man?”
The young knight opened his mouth to reply, but the words failed him. The vampire’s sardonic grin grew wider.
“And should my wisdom bear out and your righteousness one day fall to the siege of your flesh, who then may sit in judgment on you?”
Confusion and anger flew across the young man’s face.
“So everlasting life should remain the province of the undead?”
“If you wish to retain the integrity of the human soul, yes.”
“How can you know about something you have never possessed?”
The vampire, far from offended, was amused by the young knight’s indignity.
“Never, my son? Nay. Like all undead, I too was once as human as you.”
“Perhaps, but do you recall? Your own pronouncement gives you away, and perhaps you’ve truly forgotten what mortality was like? I name you a liar, villain. Or perhaps a doddering old man who wanders in his own senility.”
The vampire sensed the young man was trying to provoke him. A faint smile brought the corners of his dead mouth upward.
“I recall much and more, young man. Far more than your small mind shall ever know. Remember this, if nothing else. Immortality is the slowest form of death.”
The young knight remained unmoved.
“Never fear, villain, if you value existence so little, sit still and I shall relieve you of the burden.” The young knight lifted his sword again, albeit much slower than before.
“But therein lies a truth of existence, does it not?” The vampire raised his deep, chilling voice. “Though immortality is no gift, true death and its unknown nature force us to cling to life, no matter how desperate our cause to flee. Ages have I lived boy, ages beyond count. Many are the times I’ve suffered loneliness, hunger, and despair deeper than anything mankind has ever feared in his darkest dreams. Many are the ways I have tried to face the ultimate truth, and have suffered defeat each time. Undeath has a common cause with life boy, and that cause is fear.”
The young knight suddenly realized this foe was not nearly as terrifying as he’d been led to believe. This creature was just as afraid of dying as anyone else. Galhadrious let a small chuckle escape his lips as he considered the irony of a vampire who was afraid to die. His irony grew into a wide smile. His muscle tensed, and then he dove, his arm and his aim true. But his sword stuck in the chair, the vampire was no longer sitting in it. Suddenly the room went dark, and everything changed.
The young knight awoke. The room was dark, yet he could see through the darkness clearly. He scanned the room, but the vampire was gone. He wondered how long he’d been lying on the floor, and what the vampire had done to him to make him lose consciousness. The young knight reached for the door and emerged into the hallway. Darkness reigned here as well, but the cold stone walls were clearly visible.
Galhadrious suddenly felt an irresistible urge to climb to the battlements of the old castle. He knew the way easily, as though he’d walked these black halls for a thousand years. He emerged soon into the night air. A full moon was rising, bidding homage to the new master of the ancient castle. Though the season was cold, the wind felt almost warm against his skin. The young knight stood on the walls of the forbidding castle, looking out at his new lands and admiring them. He reached up and touched the two bite marks on his neck. Far from horrified, he was suddenly and pleasantly pleased. Now he could show the arrogant undead creature just how wrong he was.
Far away, too far away for normal human eyes to see was the small village he’d departed from not so long ago. He saw it clearly, and suddenly hunger and lust welled up within him.

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