by Sandrine Shaw
The castle is cold during daytime, but it's positively freezing at night.
Alfred wraps the blanket tighter around himself, frosty fingers clutching at the rough fabric as he walks the halls in dim candlelight, the darkness turning every statue into a towering monster, every little innocuous sound into a threatening noise that makes Alfred jump. He shouldn't be here, creeping through stony pathways alone after dark. He should be in his chambers with the professor where it's safe and warm... Well, safer and warmer than here, anyway.
But the nightmares kept coming like shadow creatures, each one of them more frightening than the last one, until he was too scared to fall asleep again, tiptoeing out of the room so not to wake the professor.
Another sound, an eerie whoosh of air, and Alfred spins around, his heart racing like it wants to jump out of his chest.
"Hello? Is anyone there?" he calls out into the darkness.
The only response he gets is the hollow echo of his voice, as if someone's calling out to him. It sends an instinctive shiver down his spine, and he chides himself for being foolish. How can I save Sarah when I'm scared of my own voice?
Shaking his head, he turns back around and almost collides with a tall figure. A broken shout tears from his throat and the blanket slips from his grasp. He almost stumbles, but a hand shoots out to close around his arm, breaking his fall.
Count von Krolock raises an eyebrow at him, amusement dancing in his eyes, and Alfred feels his face heat up with embarrassment.
"Young Alfred, I would have thought it's a little past your bedtime."
He doesn't bother apologizing for startling Alfred. Of course he doesn't.
The spike of annoyance at Krolock's lack of manners emboldens Alfred, makes him forget for a moment that among all the things in the castle that he fears, Krolock is the most imposing, the one who gets under his skin more than the dark corners and the spiderwebs, more than the crypt with its spooky chill, more than Herbert's unwanted advances and Koukul's haunting appearance.
"I couldn't sleep," he announces sullenly, and his voice is almost steady.
Krolock's smile has too many teeth. "Regardless, you shouldn't be out here. It's not safe. You don't know what dangers lurk in the dark."
There's something about the way he says it – the smoothness of his voice, the way he watches Alfred with sharp, dark eyes – that turns what could easily have been a simple warning or a none-too-subtle threat into a dark promise. All at once, Alfred is acutely aware of Krolock's hand on his arm, the unnatural coolness of the touch seeping even through the linen of Alfred's night shirt.
He swallows against the lump in his throat and shivers.
Despite his towering height, it's a graceful motion when Krolock bends down to retrieve the blanket from where it lies in a heap behind Alfred's feet. He shakes it open and drapes it across Alfred's shoulders, patiently holding it up until Alfred awakens from the paralyzing shock that's taken hold of him and grips the blanket with numb fingers.
"Thank you," he mutters under his breath.
Krolock chuckles. "Can't have you getting sick before the ball, now can we?" He reaches out to let his finger trail across Alfred's cheek. "Your skin is so cold, if it wasn't for that fetching blush of yours, I'd almost think you were dead already."
The 'already' makes Alfred's blood freeze faster than the low temperatures do, and he remembers earlier in the crypt, Krolock and his son asleep in the coffins. Only, they weren't really asleep, were they?
Back at Heidelberg, Alfred used to think the professor's steadfast belief in the existence of vampires that defied the mockery of his fellow academics was questionable at best, fool-hearted at worst. Vampires... undead monsters thirsting for blood. How could they be real? And yet, here they are, right in front of him, close enough to touch – except they're not the ugly nightmare creatures the legends say they are. They're majestic and fearsome and horrible and beautiful, and Alfred wishes he'd never seen them, and yet he can't look away.
"I don't want to die," he says, voice low and shaky as he huddles further into the blanket. He can't tell truth from lie anymore, doesn't know where defiance ends and denial begins.
There's a wistfulness in Krolock's fanged smile. "No one ever does, at first. But death is not so bad, once you gotten used to it. The endless stretch of eternity. The hunger. The longing."
His finger continues its journey down Alfred's neck to where his blood beats a steady rhythm, eliciting a wince when a sharp nail presses down against chilly skin. Alfred knows he should run, far and fast as he can. Back to his room, back to the inn, back to Heidelberg where vampires are only theory and fable.
But he can't stop himself from swaying towards Krolock rather than away, can't fight the instinct that makes him turn his head and bare his neck, offering up his throat as if the coil of fear in the pit of his stomach didn't exist. He closes his eyes as Krolock leans in, his breath coming faster when he feels sharp teeth grazing against his skin.
Biting his lip, he braces himself for those teeth to sink down, for the pain and the blood and the blackness, but it doesn't happen.
"Not just yet," Krolock says, his voice barely a whisper brushing like a caress against his ear, and Alfred isn't sure if the Count is talking to himself or to him, if it's a call for self-restraint or a command for patience.
When Alfred turns and looks up, Krolock is standing tall again, but still too close. His eyes are fixed on Alfred's mouth, a hunger reflecting in them that shakes Alfred to the core. A nervous dart of Alfred's tongue across his lower lip, and he tastes blood. He must have torn the sensitive skin of earlier.
Then Krolock's mouth is on his, hard and demanding. His tongue traces the open cut, lapping up the blood from Alfred's lip, tasting him – barely a kiss, and yet so much more, and Alfred aches with want in a way that makes his feeble tender feelings for Sarah pale in comparison, that makes him forget what he came here for. His lips sting and the sweet-sharp taste of blood fills his senses, foreign and familiar and exhilarating. With a sudden clarity, he knows that Krolock was right earlier today when he taunted the professor. Alfred's soul already belongs to him.