More Than Mortal
By Mick Farren
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2001 Mick Farren
All rights reserved.
The candles had been made to a formula of her own devising, so rather than giving a soft orange-yellow light, their flames burned an electric blue. Columbine Dashwood had always embraced a passion for games with light and fire. Of the four primeval elements, fire fascinated her the most, even though she was forever denied the most elemental fire of all, the direct radiance of the sun. Perhaps that was the reason. For more than almost two and a half centuries Columbine Dashwood, by her very nature, had been confined to the night, restricted, on pain of her own total and agonizing destruction, to deliberately kindled fire and lights of artificial construct, except for the wax and wane and coldly bruised whiteness of the moon, the starlight and skyshine, the occasional forked lightning of a nocturnal storm, and, of course, that one time in the Western Islands when she had witnessed the aurora. Columbine was more familiar than anyone with the rich strata running through the very core of her character that fervently desired what she couldn't have. She actually admired this in herself. The perverse trait of personality was a guarantee of her existence always being interesting, although, at times it could also make her life frustrating and even dangerous.
The boy lay still, smoothly naked and knowingly vulnerable. He was scarcely more than a teenager, but over his time with her, he had learned a depravity beyond his years. His legs were pressed together, and his arms spread wide, at right angles to his body, like a supine crucifixion. One thin white hand gripped the corner of an embroidered Moorish cushion, while the fingers of the other twisted a fold in the burgundy satin sheet that covered the large circular bed. The third finger bore the ring, the one with the large single ruby in an elaborate art nouveau claw setting, which she had given him in the afterglow of their first night together in the cryptic and wafting luxury of her bedroom at the Priory. Like all the others who had been there before him, the boy loved her, and he wanted to be loved by her in return. His aura showed his breathlessly mixed emotions: anxiety and anticipation, but also a definite measure of fear. He wanted to be controlled and led by her, but part of him was apprehensive of where she was leading him. Already she had taken him to the edge of the sensual abyss, and to free fall well beyond. She knew he was aware that, sooner or later, she might conduct him to a place from which he would be unable to return. She had known from the beginning this was both what he desired and dreaded in almost equal proportions. This duality was a part of what had attracted her to him in the first place, along with the more mundane consideration that he also was possessed of a fey androgyny and the sensually geometric features of Michelangelo's David, albeit submissively softened.
Dashwood stood beside the bed, pushed back her long, pure white curls, and looked down at his face. One of the bed's tentlike draperies of the sheerest muslin gauze hung between them, softening the focus and rendering him even more idealized. "You are very beautiful."
Once, before her training had fully taken hold, he might have replied. Undoubtedly, some highly unoriginal flattery to the effect that she was even more beautiful, but he had soon learned she didn't need or even want him to speak. He lacked the intellect for any conversation she might crave. She required him silent, obedient, and objectified. She leaned forward, pushed aside the canopy, and lightly touched his smooth and completely hairless chest with her fingertips. She was as naked as he, and the blue light of the strange candles gave her death-pale skin an almost reptilian sheen. She smiled sadly and repeated herself. "Yes, my dear, you are so very beautiful."
As she lay down beside him, stretching in the dim chamber's interplay of light and shadow, her movements were sinuously nonhuman. But this was only as it should be. Columbine Dashwood was in no way human in anything but outward appearance. Of course, the boy didn't know that Yet. His mind was always open to her, and she knew he considered her strange, but he was too infatuated with the ecstatic illusions she fed him to question the nature or origin of her strangeness. He sometimes wondered why she shunned the sun, but he dismissed it with a young and overwhelmed lover's carelessness as an eccentricity of vanity. His only halfformed theory was that maybe she had a complexion that burned rather than tanned. This would certainly be in line with prematured white hair. At times she found his lack of curiosity irksome, but she supposed it went hand in hand with his passivity, and if it hadn't been for his passivity, he never would have survived to keep her amused for so long.
She moved her body against his. Too bad he had to go. He was gorgeous, stupid, and infinitely malleable, the complete plaything — really all Columbine Dashwood had needed until this current situation had arisen. Unfortunately, the imminent arrival of Victor Renquist had changed all that. Playthings were extraneous. Her long season of leisure was at an end, and to prolong him made no sense. She must finish him this night. She allowed herself a single wistful sigh; humans wilted in time, anyway, like roses from a transitory admirer. Hundreds like him had served briefly in her infinitely extended existence, and hundreds like him would serve in the future.
The evening had started, at least for the boy, with opium and a chilled white wine. When the crucial time came, he would feel no pain. Respecting his devoted service, she stroked his mind, intensifying his sensation of being blissfully afloat. She kissed his throat, and he groaned softly. At the same time, she slowly extended her fangs, down from the twin cavities in her unusual skull. She knew that many of the supposedly sophisticated kin had forgone their fangs and had them surgically removed. Defanging enjoyed an especial vogue among her American cousins and also those in the Far East, both cultures being so taken with cosmetic surgery. They favored the small blade or steel spike, but Dashwood remained a staunch naturalist in the matter of the kill.
When she struck, the boy felt almost nothing. The penetration was so fast and smooth, he experienced only mild surprise. She drank quickly so as not to prolong his departure, and his strength ebbed with a sense of wondering bewilderment at all the last dying noises and the darkening of the blue light. When his pulse ceased, Columbine's own body convulsed, and she let out two long, soul-deep, heartfelt shudders. At the same time, the blue candles guttered. Her being was permeated with climactic power. Many of her kind might, at such a moment, rise and moon-howl, but that suited neither Dashwood nor English behavior. Concealed responses and near-silent triumphs were long-maintained traditions, and ones with which she had no intention of breaking.
She lay very still as the boy's stolen energy stilled and settled, her own trembling subsided, and her fangs involuntarily retracted. The tiny sounds of the old manor house, the small creakings and creepings, whispered around her, and outside, a breeze rustled the branches of the four-hundred-year-old oak. She raised herself on her arms and gazed at the body of the youth. If anything, in the pure whiteness of death, he was even more beautiful. Hair slightly tousled, ice-blue lips parted, and head a little turned, one hand stretched out, palm up, across the dark satin sheet like a tragic figure in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. She had fed neatly and with care. The wounds in his throat were small, and only a few drops of still-glistening blood spattered one of the multitude of damask pillows. She knew that with his passing, her protracted extravagance of indolence and hedonism was at an end. The lazy cocooned winter was about to explode into active and possibly violent spring. The secret that she had kept so long was, in one way or another, about to be revealed, and she would be compelled to deal with the consequences. The letter she had sent to Victor Renquist had already put the sequence of events in motion. No way remained to halt them.
She rose from the bed and slipped into a silk peignoir, at the same time calling out to the thralls. "Grendl, Bolingbroke, come to me now. I need the two of you to remove this empty thing to the furnace."
Immediately she remembered the ring. Ecstasy had made her careless, and she turned and eased it from the limp dead hand. Too fine a bauble to be consigned to the fire or stolen by servants. In any case, it made up part of a set, and she would doubtless use it again when the present dilemma had been addressed and resolved.
A tilting movement and then a slide forward brought Victor Renquist fully and watchfully awake. He could feel the reinforced flight case finally being unloaded. For the eleven hours it had taken to transport him from Los Angeles to London, he had remained in a half-dream, enveloped in a darkness so total even his undead senses could see little except the faintest psychic fluctuations of his own enclosed aura. Some twenty minutes earlier, the jolt as the wheels of the aircraft touched the solidity of an English runway had interrupted his somber nosferatu introspection, but even at that point, he had still not fully given himself up to the consciousness of the moment. The real danger would not come until the ground crew began to unload the small corporate jet's cargo, of which the custom-crafted aluminum flight case was the primary item. Over his centuries of existence, Renquist had taught himself a very complete patience. Anticipating a threat when he could do absolutely nothing about it would be to subject himself to pointless stress.
In theory, no threat should exist. All necessary arrangements had been made, the correct bribes had been proffered and accepted but, humans being what they were, a random danger always remained that some unforeseen error would come to pass, the chance element of ever-assertive chaos, what they called Murphy's Law. The flight case had been designed to look as little like a coffin as possible, but its very dimensions — over six feet in length and some two and a half feet across — still hinted of funeral parlor. The diplomatic stickers liberally pasted to its exterior were supposed to prevent any unexpected opening of the case. In addition, the private airfield to the southwest of London had only a minimal representative presence of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, which further reduced the chance of the case being unlocked for inspection and its strange contents being disclosed. The small jet's flight plan had been timed so the aircraft would land well after sunset, so at least an unwarranted intrusion would not expose him to sunlight and destruction in sudden and violent conflagration. Should he be discovered, however, he would still find himself subjected to what would undoubtedly be a barrage of unanswerable questions and perhaps a confinement from which he could free himself only with desperate and all too noticeable violence.
The flight case now tilted acutely, moving down what had to be a ramp, but Renquist was held firmly in place by the form-fitted foam rubber. A human would have quickly suffocated in such an enclosed and sealed environment, but Victor Renquist was easily able to compensate for the lack of air by adjusting his nosferatu metabolism. A jarring thud, followed by a regular and mechanical vibration, indicated the case and its occupant had been loaded onto a truck that was now moving away from the aircraft. Renquist allowed his mind to drop back into the semi-sleep in which he'd spent the flight across half the world. He knew he'd be awakened again when the ground transportation reached where it was going.
Even idly drifting in the labyrinth of his almost limitless memory, Renquist found he was still, to a degree, affected by his unseen surroundings. During the previous decade, his duties as Master of the nosferatu colony that had first made its home in Lower Manhattan, and now resided beside the Pacific Ocean in one of the more isolated canyons of the sprawling city of Los Angeles, had precluded all but the most pressing individual travel. He had journeyed once to New Orleans to act as a neutral adjudicator in a potentially messy bayou clan dispute. He had also, a few months earlier, been compelled to make a fast dash to Savannah, Georgia, in the selfsame corporate jet that had just brought him to the United Kingdom, to rescue some very ancient books that should in no way fall into the hands of humanity at large. Previously the tomes had been safe, part of a highly esoteric personal library belonging to a human who could be trusted in his isolated neurosis. After the man's exceedingly messy shotgun suicide, however, the collection, along with all the rest of his personal effects, was slated to be sold at auction by the IRS to cover the eccentric's outstanding back taxes; if that happened, the hand-lettered volumes, with their unique flamelike script, and the arcane and potentially dangerous information they contained could fall into literally anyone's hands. Thus Renquist was forced to make a night flight, commit burglary, and then hightail it back to California before he was caught by the sun.
Aside from these two excursions, the nosferatu colony had been more than enough of a disquieting handful to keep him tied closely to whichever of the two Residences was its home. More than two decades had passed since Renquist had left the continental United States, and it had been longer still since he had set foot on English soil. The last time had been during the so-called swinging sixties, when he had been drawn by the license and laxity of that Western cultural revolution of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. He had also been present for the World War II Nazi blitz when the toga-wearing Hermann Göring and his Luftwaffe had attempted, and failed, to bomb the population into submission. He had been in the city during the 1890s, at the time of both the fall of Oscar Wilde and the Jack the Ripper murders. Before that, some eight decades earlier, he'd enjoyed a passing acquaintance with Lord George Byron. At the end of the seventeenth century, he had been a witness to the Duke of Monmouth's ill-advised and swiftly defeated rebellion; but by far the longest time Renquist had spent in the British Isles was during the embattled reign of Elizabeth I, when he had provided dark, highly secret, and at times, scarcely believable services for Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's genius spymaster and a shadowy grey eminence of covert power.
Of course, by original birth, Renquist was technically himself an Englishman. Almost a thousand years ago, when the world had been so much more empty of men and the great forests still held sway in northern Europe, when bear and wild boar still thrived and deer crowded the thickets, he had been simply Victor of Redlands, the out-of-wedlock son of Roger, Earl of Cambray, and Gwendoline the Saxon maid, turned loose to make his way in the world as a bastard, with only the horse, armor, and sword that were the sum payment of his father's considered debt of paternity. Despite these distant human origins, his arrival by no means represented any kind of homecoming. Perhaps he might have felt some ties to a homeland back in those ancient days of faded unreality, when he had been so young, so stupid, so human: roaming through France, England, and the Low Countries, hiring on with any lord, duke, or baron who would keep him supplied with food, drink, women, adventure, and the opportunity of pillage. Perhaps he might have felt like an Englishman in those troubled years at the start of the hideous idiocy that would become know as the Crusades. Soon after that, though, when only in his twenties, destiny had brought him under the influence of the hypnotic and frightening beautiful being known as the Great Lamia, the immensely powerful female nosferatu who changed him to what he now was. From that fateful day forth, temporal considerations like home and heritage had been consigned to an increasingly hazy past. The Great Lamia had transformed him, brought him across the mortal divide to join the somber ranks of the undead. He had crossed centuries and continents, the perpetual outcast and figure of fear except among others of his own kind, until the recall of his time as human was less than a dream. (Continues...)
Excerpted from More Than Mortal by Mick Farren. Copyright © 2001 Mick Farren. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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