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Memento Mori

Chapter Text

Prologue

"He must receive a proper Christian burial."

The statement and the absolute conviction with which it was spoken shocked the remaining four male companions of Mina Harker. Even her husband Jonathan, who was already used to acquiescing to his wife's demands, however preposterous he found them, blanched at the idea of awarding the body of the recently deceased vampire count with such an honor.

"Mina, he is… was a beast. A monster. He deserves nothing from us, and least of all from you," Jonathan tried, but the look in Mina's large chestnut eyes told him that her mind had already been made, the decision set in stone, and no attempts at persuasion, however ardent, would change it.

"Before he became a beast, he was a man, and we don't deny this to anyone, not even the most heinous of criminals," Mina argued. Her eyes were shiny and wet with fresh tears, and her tone of voice betrayed the depth of her raw, unbridled passion for the monster they had worked so hard to hunt down and destroy.

It pained Jonathan to admit that Mina had never spoken to or about him in such a passionate manner. Even after his demise, Dracula seemed to retain his devilish hold over her, and it made the young solicitor fear for their future together. Even though they were now a lawfully wedded couple, joined before the eyes of God in holy matrimony, would he forever remain Mina's second choice for a husband? Would he have to compete for her affections with the ghost of a monster?

Doctor Seward then entered the discussion, his regal features distorted by grief as well as anger. "Quincy is dead, and you speak of the rights of this monster?" he shouted savagely enough to make the woman before him cower. "Have you no shame at all, Mrs. Harker?"

"Now, now, Jack," Van Helsing admonished, stepping forward to simultaneously console and chastise his former student with an arm across his chest. "If it bring comfort to Madam Mina to have the remains of the nosferatu buried in consecrated earth, then buried they shall be. I'll see to it. We are all weary and grieving the loss of our brave friend Quincy, but it gives us no right to abandon our sophisticated ways and act like beasts. If we did, we'd be no better than the creature we came to slay, no?"

Though not wholly convinced and looking like he had a lot more to say, Seward conceded with a small inclination of his head and did not challenge his mentor's stance. His cheeks flushed a deep scarlet.

"I apologize for shouting, Mrs. Harker," he said meekly, ashamed that his grief had prompted such an ungentlemanly reaction from him. "It wasn't my intention to intimidate or accuse…"

"Oh, Doctor Seward, worry not, for I am made of stern stuff," Mina interrupted, placing her small, white and surprisingly unsoiled hand on the psychiatrist's arm to ensure him that there were no ill feelings on her part.

It was almost unimaginable for any of the men to truly think about what those superficially frail, birdlike hands had done just recently. They all strategically avoided looking at Seward's hands, which were maroon with the caked, quickly drying blood of Quincy Morris. No one liked to be reminded of the grim reality of the young American's untimely and ultimately meaningless passing, but they all readily acknowledged that Seward had been Quincy's closest friend and thus took his death the hardest.

"So you are, Madam Mina, and the wisest and kindest of us all," Van Helsing added. "Extending your compassion to everyone whether they deserve it or not. But I must warm you, Madam, that you might be hard-pressed to find a priest willing to perform the burial rites. People in these regions, including the clergy, have a long history of burning the undead."

"I do not care!" Mina ejected hotly, her narrow shoulders squared as if subconsciously preparing for battle. "I'll keep looking until I find one that will give me what I want."

No objection was raised by the menfolk.

 

Chapter 1

Victor Frankenstein began to suspect it was time to move.

Again.

No matter how careful he was, no matter how many precautions he took and how well tried to conceal his true nature and his practices, his reputation always seemed to catch up with him sooner or later and force him to relocate. Even though the people here in Romania - his current country of residence - were more superstitious than those in the civilized parts of Europe and stayed away from him mostly out of fear, the circulating rumors of the ghoul, the grave robber, and the body snatcher always found their way back to Victor and compelled him to flee, not so much out of fear as of convenience.

He had stayed in this location for the better part of a half-year; it wasn't much and it certainly did not live up to the sophistication or opulence of is birth place in Geneva, but Victor had long since learned that beggars could not be choosers. Despite its very limited dimensions and lack of modern amenities, the small rented attic apartment offered the privacy needed for someone in his line of work, and it was spacious enough to accommodate a smaller, more mobile and readily assembled version of his laboratory; one that could be easily taken down and reassembled by only one pair of hands.

Victor may have been dubbed mad by his contemporaries, but he was no fool; the pig's heart nailed to his door the other night had sent him a very clear message of how unwanted he was in these regions. Had this been any other occasion, he would have been on the road already, laboratory and all, but an opportunity which seldom presented itself to a scientist of his caliber had compelled him to stay put until he'd had the chance to investigate the rumor.

The blond-haired man - slender but possessing a wiry strength which reflected his equally tenacious mind - raised his head from the table, his excited, thumping heart pumping hard and fast enough to cause a sharp blush in his normally pallid complexion. Victor was no longer young but wrought with the wear and tear of decades of sleepless nights, not enough food, and too much alcohol.

Finally, after such a long wait, he had been given a chance to acquire a much sought-after specimen: the body of what was rumored to be a deceased strigoi. So far there were only rumors and no way of substantiating them, but the news already had Victor on edge. Should he manage to get his hands on this creature, these parts, these materials, it could create previously unimagined possibilities in his research. Materials - not so much the supply, but the limitations imposed by rapid post-mortem cellular decay - had always been a limiting factor in his work. No matter how quickly he acquired them, how short a while they had been dead, or to whatever lengths he went in order to preserve the tissues, there was always decay, and the resulting reanimation presented as a mockery of life rather than a true imitation of the same.

He briefly turned his attention to a contraption that had no practical utility but was nonetheless very dear to him; a monkey's paw which had previously belonged to the late Professor Waldmann. Victor was sometimes comforted, sometimes dispirited by the simplicity of its construction and how utterly insufficient the techniques that had been used to create it were for restoring not only animation but a soul or a sense of purpose to a human reanimant. His research needed a new and previously untried ingredient, and he became more and more convinced that the body of the recently deceased strigoi would offer the solution to a problem that had escaped his grasp for well over a century.

Victor knew he needed to move fast. Even the smallest suspicion of vampirism in these regions was usually dealt with quickly by burning the suspect's remains. He was tempted to follow his typical coping method of using drink to calm his racing heart and frayed nerves, but the thought of what lay ahead of him in the near future  made him want to operate with a clear mind and unclouded senses. There was no room for error in a situation like this.

Victor stood up on somewhat shaky legs, momentarily cursing himself for having gravely neglected his body's need for food and rest yet again. He was not a young man anymore. He could not do this indefinitely and expect to get away with it. The limitations of man's physical existence which Victor had devoted his life to defeating constantly reminded him of its looming presence with each new grey strand of hair sprouting from his head, and with each new wrinkle that formed around his often scrunched eyes.

…with each pound of muscle lost from his frame, never to return. With eyes that required the help of spectacles to even be able to pass on important visual information to his magnificent brain. The list went on.

He shakily walked over to the settee that had served as a bed many a night when the doctor was either too weary or too intoxicated to safely make it back to the bedroom. He lay down, not to sleep, not truly, but to get perhaps a tiny wink of rest before undertaking the next big challenge in his eternal quest of battling the seemingly inevitable course of nature. He knew it was a race he was unlikely to win, but he would go down fighting right to the bitter end nonetheless. This fruitless quest was all Victor Frankenstein had left today.

Victor's sleep was usually dreamless, but this time he dreamt about a glowing pair of red eyes in the dark, accompanied by a man's voice, deep and rich, speaking in a language he did not recognize, except for a few jumbled words here and there. Amongst the words he could make out, a phrase stood out, remarkable in its similarity to Latin.

"Liberate me".

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

A loud banging on the door awakened Victor from his stuporous sleep, and a glance on the old grandfather clock told him that he had slept for a little over four hours. His mouth felt as dry as parchment and his head throbbed with the dull but familiar need for a cup of tea spiked with a spoonful or two of absinthe.

No time to worry about any of that, though. He had arranged for a carriage to arrive at five o'clock in the afternoon to take him to the supposed corpse of the vampire. Although Victor had agreed to pay a hefty sum for transport to and fro, he knew how capricious people in these regions could be, especially the gypsies, who were the ones that had brought this matter to his attention in the first place. He had better make haste and not give them any reason to believe he was not going to deliver on his part of the bargain.

The man who stood at his doorstep was undoubtedly one of the gypsies, or the Szgany, as they liked to call themselves in this part of the world, and when he spoke it was in very heavily accented German that Victor struggled to understand.

"Herr Frankenstein?" The man was dressed in the typical attire of someone of his race and social class: baggy, dirty-white linen trousers and a corresponding shirt of similar material with wide sleeves. To complement the outfit, the man also wore a short, obviously homemade fur jacket and sturdy leather boots studded with brass nails. He was short in stature but broad over the shoulders, his face was tanned and carried all the telltale marks of a life full of hardship and very little reward, and his eyes, a surprisingly pale but beautiful shade of hazel, were intelligent and spoke of an assertive, calculating character that constantly weighed risks against potential benefits. Victor knew from the way he was being scanned that the man checked if he was armed in any way.

"Herr Frankenstein?" the man repeated, a little more impatiently this time. The scanning appeared to be over and Victor could see his visitor relax, or at least temporarily lower his guard.

"Doctor Frankenstein," Victor instinctively corrected the man, and he wondered if he had made a mistake and squandered his opportunity when the man's eyes momentarily narrowed and seemed to harden.

"Doctor," the gypsy agreed with a small smile and an inclination of his head, and the tension evaporated in an instant. Despite any existing language barriers, the two men were now clearly on the same page. Victor glanced over his shoulder at the carriage the gypsy had arrived in and took a step toward it, only to be stopped by a steely hand on his shoulder.

"You pay me first, Doctor," the Szgany said, and some of the harshness crept back into his visage, reminding Victor that to people of his low social standing, nothing usually came free of cost.

One of the doctor's hands instinctively went to his gilded pocket watch just to check that it was still there, and seconds later he felt shame over having so quickly assumed that the man would pick his pockets simply because he was a gypsy. Damn it, he was better than this. Wasn't he?

"We agreed - half now, half when I see the corpse," Victor said, struggling to make his voice sound steady. He was painfully and blatantly out of his depth, this much he knew, and it occurred to him that once he stepped into this man's carriage he would put himself at his mercy and very little, if anything, could stop the man, or whomever else was waiting inside the carriage, from slitting his throat and throwing him out on the roadside for the wolves to feed on after they had gone through his pockets and divested his person of anything of value.

The gypsy briefly looked like he wanted to quarrel, but then he nodded curtly and withdrew his hand. "Half now, half later," he agreed. "But you show me!"

Nodding in agreement, Frankenstein produced from his pocket a small leather pouch containing twelve silver ducats. It was quite a hefty sum and would set him back weeks, or months even, but it was a price he would more than gladly pay for this service. Of these, he gave six to the gypsy and demonstrably replaced the remaining six in the left inner pocket of his overcoat.

"The other half when you've shown me," Victor said. They began to walk towards the carriage together, side by side. "What is your name?" he asked conversationally, still speaking in German but prepared to switch to English or French if the man would happen to prefer either of those languages over the more prosaic German tongue.

"Mircae," the gypsy said. "I drive the coach. My uncle knows the place we are going to. You sit inside with him."

He opened the carriage door for his passenger and Victor stepped inside, immediately and viciously assaulted by the pungent odor of cigar smoke. Though the doctor had many vices, some of them downright hellish and patently bad for both body and soul, smoking was not and never had been one of them. Whilst smoking was a practice generally tolerated or even encouraged in high society, Victor was never slow to admit he found the mechanics of inhaling cigar smoke into one's lungs repugnant. However, he was here in business, and his personal tastes or values had no place in this milieu.

He fixed his features into a neutral-leaning-benevolent mask and gingerly took a seat opposite the old man occupying the carriage. Two eyes, both watery and one clouded over by cataract, were fixed upon him, and even though he figured the old man was nearly sightless, he felt like he was under intense scrutiny. The man seated opposite of Victor was dressed in a similar attire as his nephew, although the amount and quality of embellishments on his clothes spoke of a higher social status, if only within the gypsies' own tight-knit community.

Victor himself was the one to break the steadily growing uneasy silence. "My name is Victor Frankenstein, and I am a physician," he said and extended his hand in greeting toward the elderly Szgany man, who then proceeded to stare at him in utter disbelief. An observer might have been tempted to believe the doctor was attempting to hand the gypsy a venomous snake instead of initiating a greeting between men.

Victor belatedly realized that he had most likely violated local customs by greeting the man as an equal, but he did not withdraw his hand, and following a moment of obvious discomfort, the old man reached forward and encased Victor's callused but otherwise clean and unmarred hand in his own. His grip was as strong and solid as wood itself, his palm warm and dry. Victor could feel the slightest brush of jagged fingernails against his wrist when he exchanged a handshake with the man with whom he was going to share a very tight, intimate space for the upcoming hours of this journey.

To his great surprise, the old man spoke to him in immaculate English, his accent pronounced but in no way hindering his ability to express himself in the Anglo tongue.

"Valery Ionescu, at your service, Doctor." He rapped his knuckled twice against the carriage wall, and the two horses took off following the crack of a whip, with Mircae acting as the coachman. "You must excuse my lack of manners. It is not often that my kind is given the attention of a gentleman such as yourself… particularly one that does not seek to exploit us."

Victor smiled in appreciation, mildly puzzled but positively surprised by the old man's learned way of speaking, as if he were not just a gypsy, but a scholar and an intellectual equal to Frankenstein himself.

"Do you and your kind often encounter foreigners?" the doctor asked, unsure if he was expected to make conversation.

It was highly awkward knowing that the man seated across from him knew about his purpose for this trip, and no matter how one chose to look at it, the life of a grave robber was an existence wrought with loneliness and rejection as well as - at times - significant risk to personal safety. Victor had found out the hard and painful way that it was most certainly not a topic suitable for casual conversation in polite society or elsewhere. The doctor knew all too well the cost of his obsession, and how it had driven away or destroyed everyone he'd ever cared about. If he had to have this talk, perhaps it was best to have it with a stranger who knew as little about it - and about him - as possible.

"From time to time," Valery replied enigmatically but chose not to elaborate. "Are you from Germany, Herr Doctor?"

"Switzerland, actually. I come from Geneva, originally," Victor explained. "Are you familiar with geography?"

"I know a little. Only from books, regretfully. I have not travelled, like yourself probably have. It was not possible. I have lived in Transylvania all my life."

Upon noticing Victor's surprised expression at this statement, the old man's smile broadened and there was an unmistakable gleam of triumph and satisfaction in his one seeing eye. "I know what you're thinking, Doctor. How could someone of my low birth have access to books or even know how to read and write? Don't deny it; it is a fair question to ask." Valery Ionescu leaned forward and gestured at Victor to do the same, as if they were conspiring about something.

"The man whose body you have requested to see. We used to be his tenants. He was kind to us, the gypsies; he let us live on his land and offered us protection in return for our undying loyalty and labor. No one else wanted us. The other Boyar and free men see us as vermin and seek to have us vanquished or destroyed. He gave to us what no one else would, and he never pressed us for rent when he knew we could not pay. My family has served him for generations. When I was but a young boy, he let me into his vast library, taught me how to read and write, and educated me about other peoples and countries, of lands I would never see, and of beasts I could scarcely even imagine existed. Count Dracula was a good man, and if I could alter the course of history to prevent his unfair demise, I would do it in a heartbeat."

Victor had to use every ounce of learned restraint to keep his excitement from showing too plainly. So the rumors were true! It was unseemly for a man of science, a physician, to learn about the death of a fellow man - a strigoi that posed as a man, no less - and express joy when he was around someone who clearly mourned their passing, yet he couldn't help it. Something that he had not learned by the way of rumor was the creature's supposed noble birth. A Boyar? He might have to rethink his approach to acquiring the body if the gypsies were as attached to their dead landlord as they appeared.

"This man, the Count…" Frankenstein said hesitantly, "if your loyalty goes as deep as you say, why give me access to his body?"

Valery Ionescu's previously warm demeanor cooled noticeably, and when he spoke again, there was a distinct edge both to his voice and words. "I swore an oath of undying loyalty, Herr Doctor. That means to my death, or to his. My Master is now dead, and myself and my family must live. Money does not grow on trees, and manna does not fall from heaven into our mouths. Not for my kind, anyway." What remained of the old man's smile now twisted into a sneer. "I heard by rumor that you, a gentleman, were prepared to pay a lot of money to be taken to the Count's grave, and since he is dead, what possible harm could there be, for him? Tell me!"

Not wanting to upset his elderly fellow passenger more than he'd already done by asking what were, to him, some rather innocuous questions, Victor decided to skip the topic of what true loyalty meant and move on to a more neutral but still highly relevant subject.

"Your family has served him for generations, you say? The same man? Is that to say he is… immortal, or…" He swallowed. "…one of the undead?"

Old man Ionescu's anger evaporated and instead a look of longing and reminiscence came over his features. "I saw the Count for the first time when I was but a boy of five. He is a very handsome man and appeared then to be in the borderland between youth and mid-age."

In Victor's experience this meant in one's early to mid-thirties. He stayed silent since he did not want to disrupt his companion's train of thought. Every piece of information offered to him about this peculiar being could perhaps be somehow useful in the time to come.

"When I was ten, he chose me to get educated and made me swear fealty to him and his great house. He is… was… the last of his kind, the only one left. There was no heir. You see, Herr Doctor, I left boyhood behind and grew and matured into a man, but the Count, he did not change. His face, his hair, his hands… all remained the same. Ageless. As I just said, I saw him for the first time when I was five, and for the last time this spring four moons ago, and I am sixty-seven years old and in the twilight of my life. Was my Master a creature of the night whom common people seek to destroy, sheep that they are? Perhaps, but to us he was a Prince, a protector, a guardian, and another like him is unlikely to ever appear in our lives again, so kindly forgive me  if we are upset about his passing."

Victor nodded solemnly at this and realized he needed to choose his next words carefully. "Your Master…" he coaxed, "he was given a burial?"

"Yes, a proper Christian burial," Valery said, in equal parts amazed and reverent. "It is highly irregular that such an honor be bestowed on a night creature, especially one as hated as our Master. Rumor has it that his body was brought to the village by a group of foreigners, four Englishmen and an English lady, and the lady insisted very strongly that the Count be given a Christian burial. The villagers would have none of it, but the lady was very adamant, and to make her stop hounding them, their priest agreed to perform the Christian burial rites as long as the Count was not interred on church ground."

"These foreigners… who were they? Were they responsible for his death?" Victor asked.

"If they were, they will not be punished for it," Valery said darkly. "They fled as soon as they were free to do so, and no worldly judge in these regions would ever convict a fellow for the murder of a vampire anyway. In fact, should they ever face the authorities, they would be handsomely rewarded."

Victor repressed a shudder, although he was not entirely sure if he was supposed to feel empathy with the murdered strigoi or with the townspeople that hated him so passionately. Mature enough - or rather cynical enough - to know that there were many forms of truth just as there were many forms of justice, Victor decided to hold off judgment until he had examined the matter more closely. Idealism was a wasted currency in a place like Transylvania, and one would do well to remember that an attitude of Realpolitik was the surest way of getting results.

The remainder of  the two-hour trek passed mostly in silence, although Victor was positively surprised when the old gypsy suddenly presented a fresh loaf of rye bread and offered to share it with him. Often one to forget the sensory realities of the harsh physical world, the doctor had neglected to pack his own food or drink and gratefully wolfed down on his share of the coarse but satisfying bread, completely abandoning the sophisticated table manners he had been raised with. From somewhere on his person, Valery then produced a flask of Romanian plum brandy, which he also offered to Victor. This, however, the doctor politely refused.

"No thank you, Valery. I must keep a clear mind," he said.

The old man shrugged, as if to say "suit yourself" and swallowed a few mouthfuls in such rapid succession that it made him grimace, no doubt to steel himself for the task that lay ahead.

Suddenly the carriage stopped, and Victor realized they must have reached their destination. He drew back the thick black curtains from the window and peeked outside, mildly surprised to discover that darkness had already fallen. Although it was September and the long, sun-filled days were over for the year, sunset had come much earlier than he had anticipated, for some reason. Victor tried not to interpret this as a sign of something ominous, but he found it hard not to.

Mircae descended from his place as the coachman and opened the carriage door for his passengers from outside. Victor, feeling emboldened, descended first and in turn offered his arm to Valery, who shook his head.

"I'll remain here if it pleases you, Herr Doctor," he said, and Victor could see how the old man's knuckles whitened from grasping the now almost empty bottle of brandy. "I knew Count Dracula, and I would rather not… desecrate his resting place, if I can help it. Besides, I suffer from gout and the cold makes it worse."

Victor found it to be an odd excuse but allowed it to pass without interjection. He redirected his attention to the spot of recently upturned soil pinpointing the location of an otherwise unmarked grave, seeming almost picturesque in its placement at the foot of an old, gnarled and very nearly giant oak tree. No tombstone or even a wooden cross had been erected at the gravesite, as was the custom here in Romania as well as other Christian countries, and there was absolutely no indication of this grave belonging to a man, one of noble birth or otherwise. Rather it was the type of gravesite one would expect to find for a beloved pet anthropomorphized by a child or a sentimental adult.

Victor heard the old man and his nephew exchange a few rapid phrases in the Romani tongue and when the younger of the two addressed him, there was trepidation in his voice, perhaps even fear.

"What now, Doctor?"

"Now we unearth the grave, of course! I need to see what is left of the body."

Victor gave a shrill, high-pitched giggle, suddenly bubbling with excitement in spite of his aging, poorly nourished and fatigued body doing its damndest to work against his ever-luminous and laboring mind. He fell to his knees, using his hands to scoop away handfuls of soft, nearly black earth, not bothering to ask if the gypsies had a shovel to lend him. He had unearthed more than a few graves in his days with nothing but his hands for tools, and this one was no different. Mircae again spoke with his uncle through the coach wall, and although Victor could not understand the language, he knew they discussed whether to intervene or not, and if so, how.

Unearthing the grave required less physical labor than Victor had expected. The Count had been afforded no casket and his grave was shallow, barely even deep enough to qualify as a proper grave, especially for a man of such distinguished stock. Victor stopped his frantic digging movements when his hands touched a clammy but unmistakably human face buried under approximately two feet of soil. Instead of continuing to shuffle soil to free the rest of the corpse from its earthy prison, he focused his efforts on uncovering the Count's visage so that he could determine if this was really the creature, the strigoi, that he had paid such money to get his hands on, or if the gypsies had deceived him by leading him to the remains of a completely ordinary human corpse.

Upon the sight of the Count's face, Mircae quickly crossed himself and began to chant a prayer, of which Victor could make out some common Latin words and phrases. This prompted him to wonder if the gypsy was merely reciting words from memory or if the dead Boyar whose grave they were at had had his tenants educated in formal Catholic liturgical rites amongst other scholarly subjects not meant to be accessible for people of the peasant stock, and particularly the Szgany. This, however, was not the time for reflection, but for action, and Victor gave the partially exhumed corpse his full attention, taking a moment to properly study the uncovered face he had initially found by means of touch.

The dead man's complexion was pale, bordering on ashen, but lacked the distinctly waxen quality of a corpse, which typically persisted even when one went to great lengths to have the tissues preserved through the practice of embalming. The eyes were open, which was hardly uncommon in a fresh corpse, but all the more uncommon was the lack of clouding in the irises. The Count's eyes were the most vibrant green Victor had ever seen; a reflection, perhaps, of the vast, great forests of his homeland; a feature so pervasive that not even death itself was able to erase it. The mouth which was also open and the lips had retained an oddly ruddy color which contrasted sharply with the surrounding pallor of the skin, although the teeth, fully visible underneath the lips, were entirely human-looking and not elongated in the least.

If the dead man had been a strigoi, he had most definitely died in his human form. If this had consequences for the subsequent possibility of reanimation, Victor did not know what they would be, but he knew from experience that every variable, no matter how insignificant it seemed in the face of everything else, needed to be taken into consideration in order to reach an optimal and well-balanced result.

"Is this the body of Count Dracula?" he asked Mircae, and the dark-haired man gave a curt nod in agreement before looking away, possibly out of reverence or repulsion, or any mixture of the two.

"And how long has he been dead?"

"Three days, counting today," Mircae said. "Buried two nights ago."

"Excellent!"

Victor resumed digging, directing his efforts toward freeing the rest of the body now that the face was visible and the man's identity had been confirmed. The discovery which followed, however, was one that Victor was not prepared for - the Count's head was no longer attached to a body, and where Victor expected to feel the widening expanse of shoulders, his hands encountered nothing at all except more soil. Momentarily startled out of his wits, he could not suppress a shout of terror, and in an instant Mircae's hand went to his belt where he kept a sheathed but plainly visible Kukri knife.

"What is it, Herr Doctor?" Valery's voice asked from within the carriage, expressing guarded alarm. "Why do you shout?"

"By God, the man has been beheaded!" Victor exclaimed. "Why did you not tell me this?!"

Mircae awarded the doctor with a look that suggested Frankenstein was at the very least a complete and utter imbecile for even asking such an obvious question, but it was Valery who answered.

"I did not know it, but I might have suspected it was so. Here in Transylvania, decapitation is a common practice when dealing with the undead. They would have burned him also, if the English lady had not insisted upon a proper Christian burial. You, Herr Doctor, did not ask, and I assumed you knew of our ways."

Victor closed his eyes and tried to will his body to calm down, to temper the anger - nay, the disappointment - he felt brewing inside his tempestuous heart. Giving in to this emotion had never served him well so far in life. The decapitation changed everything. All his plans for this subject would have to be either abandoned or radically altered, for he had never successfully achieved reanimation in parts built out of a severed spinal cord, let alone one severed this close to the brain itself. Every time he came close to a solution, Fate herself appeared to cruelly trip him, shackle him, and gradually tighten her vicious shackles… always followed by taunts and an  illusion of hope. Maybe he was truly damned, both in this life and the next.

"The payment, Doctor," Mircae reminded him gently, but with an undertone of something much more sinister. "Our agreement, remember? Twelve silver ducats to take you to the Count's body. We  have delivered, and I would suggest, for your sake, that you do the same."

"You withheld crucial information from me," the doctor objected. "How was I to know the body would be… useless for my purposes?"

Mircae's eyes narrowed with poorly concealed suspicion. "What purpose? You wanted to see a strigoi, yes? Now you have seen it. Give us the rest of our payment."

Victor bit back a scathing reply, realizing it would do him no good to quarrel with Mircae and his elderly uncle. The two men were certainly no fools and had outmaneuvered him in this negotiation, forcing him to admit he had not been specific enough in his request to make or enforce any demands regarding the integrity of the strigoi's body.

Had it all been in vain, though? Perhaps, if he shifted the goalposts and approached this from a different angle he could still make use of the body. Victor was all too aware of his flaws, which were both deep and plentiful, but narrow-mindedness had never been one of them. Yes, he could still salvage this unfortunate mess of a situation; he had to. The lack of tissue decay despite the time that had elapsed since the Count's death was an encouraging sign. If he brought the body back to his laboratory, he could tackle the challenges in his natural environment and do some more research that would hopefully yield positive results.

"As you wish, Mircae," he said and stood upright in the shallow grave, holding out the leather pouch containing the other half of the gypsies' payment. "Help me load the body into the coach and we'll be good to go."

"Whatever for?!" the younger gypsy spat, seemingly offended at the mere idea. He snatched the money pouch out of the doctor's hand and quickly slipped it into one of the many pockets sewn into his wide-legged trousers. "What do you intend to do with him? The man is dead, is that not enough for you people?"

"How is that your concern? As you so eloquently pointed out, he is dead. What difference does it make what happens to his earthly remains?"

"This was not our agreement," Valery said from within the carriage. "You cannot change the terms as you go, Herr Doctor."

"I'll pay you more," Victor promised impulsively. "Double the amount! Twelve more ducats of silver to bring back the Count's body to my laboratory."

"Do not make promises you cannot keep. You are a known debtor in these parts already, Doctor Frankenstein," Valery stated matter-of-factly, and since it was the truth, Victor did not contest it. "You may have come from wealth, but you have through your way of life squandered your fortune. What can you offer us that we could spend or sell?"

Though it greatly pained him to even consider the thought of selling or pawning his pocket watch, it was the first thing - a real, tangible object within his reach in the here and now - that came to his mind, and he reached into his pocket to display it to the two men.

"Fulfill my request, and the watch is yours," he said. "It's worth a year's salary to a peasant. What do you say?" Even though he was looking at Mircae, it was Valery whom he addressed, as it was the older man who was clearly in charge of making all the important decisions.

"Let me see it," Valery demanded, and a gnarled hand shot out of the carriage window, gesturing at Victor to hand him the watch for examination.

Though Victor was not technically a gambling man, he'd never shied away from the habit of gambling in the general decision-making department, not even when his health or his very life were at stake. Therefore, to place the watch in the old gypsy's hand was a decision that came both easily and naturally to him.

Clearly impressed with the quality of the craftsmanship and considering the proposed bargain, Valery was heard humming appreciatively through the carriage wall, still out of sight to Victor. "To my wonderful son, Victor Frankenstein, on his seventeenth birthday, from your dearest mother, Caroline Beaufort-Frankenstein," Valery spoke, now quoting the inscription found on the inside of the gilded pocket watch. "She was dear to you, your mother?"

A stab of pain, mimicking the raw, open grief he remembered feeling at the news of his mother's untimely passing pierced his chest and Victor inclined his head, hoping that the depth of his emotion was not as evidently visible on the outside. He needed to keep a cool head if he was to have any hope of pulling this off.

"My mother is the very reason I am here today," he said, hoping to convey just enough sentiment to persuade without exposing himself too much or too soon.

"Good answer, Herr Doctor. Say, if I accept your offer… Would you care to share with me what you intend to do with the Count's body?"

"Yes, I would care, Valery, and you would be wise to ask, which is why I ask you to trust me now, as your trust could prove valuable for us both, now and in future encounters. What say you if I said I could bring your beloved Master back to life? I have the knowledge and the tools to do exactly this, but I cannot do it without prolonged and unfettered access to his body. Here is where I need your help. Help me now, and you will be handsomely rewarded. Your Master would appreciate both our efforts, wouldn't you say?"

The answer originated in his brain and rolled off his tongue like a perfectly round stone would roll down a hill, gaining momentum before the doctor himself had a chance to either consciously analyze the veracity of the claim itself or the possible ramifications of making it known. Victor could hear the furious rush of blood in his ears as he waited for an answer, the seconds stretching painfully to seem like hours.

"How do you propose to do this? Are you some kind of necromancer, Doctor?"

"Not a necromancer, but a scientist. We are about to enter the 20th century, Valery. Some things that might have seemed like necromancy to previous generations are fully achievable through the application of modern medicine. I could not only resurrect this man, but improve him!"

A pregnant pause followed Frankenstein's loaded statement, but then Valery spoke again and he sounded unusually poised. "You are a passionate man, Herr Doctor, and you surely speak to convince. If nothing else, you possess the gift of oration. Say, if  agreed to aid you, what guarantee do I have that you would keep your word?"

"You have a gentleman's word. Is that not enough?"

"And you would do this, with no gain on your own part? Forgive me if I were to doubt you on this, Doctor."

"There is no higher value to me than the pursuit for knowledge. I could learn so much from this and perhaps, in time, use that knowledge to help others. What could be worth more than this?"

"My people are poor, Doctor Frankenstein. There is little in the way of gainful employment for us now that the Count is gone, and with winter on its way, we must do what we can to hoard resources until spring. Say, would you care to part with that locket you wear around your neck?"

"No, never!" Victor barked and instinctively closed his hand around the small piece of silver jewelry. Even though it held little in the way of monetary value, its sentimental value to him was far greater than anything else on his person, including the gilded pocket watch, as the locket contained the only hand-painted portrait he had left of his darling Elizabeth, cruelly snatched from him by his own folly.

"No? Then you might not want this badly enough after all, Doctor." The hint of smugness in the old man's voice solidified rather than broke the doctor's resolve.

"You can have this instead," Victor said and proceeded to remove his signet ring engraved with the symbol of his house, a decoratively styled F flanked on both sides by tiny rubies. "It's made out of solid gold and its value far exceeds that of my medallion. Do we have a bargain, Valery?"

They repeated the process of handing things to Valery for inspection through the window, and this time it did not take the old gypsy long to reach a decision.

"We do, Herr Doctor," he said. "Have a bargain, that is."

If Mircae was uncomfortable with his uncle's decision, he did not show it, and he did not object - at least not audibly - when Victor asked him to step down into the shallow grave to help the doctor lift the Count's body and load it into the carriage. Mircae grasped the body's wrists while Victor grabbed it by the ankles, and the two men lifted the corpse with little effort. The Count, in life, had been a man of average height and build, probably similar in mass to Victor Frankenstein himself. Or rather as Victor had been before he entered a stage of permanent emaciation.

There was not much else to say about the immediate state of the headless body apart from the confirmed lack of decomposition, although Victor could not help but note that the strigoi's body was pliant and appeared not to have entered a state of rigor mortis. Very peculiar; he would have to examine this phenomenon more closely in his workshop with the proper tools at his disposal.

Once the body had been safely deposited on the carriage floor, wrapped in a rug to conceal it from the awkward glances of the two living passengers that shared its space, Victor once more stepped into the grave to retrieve the head. He did not expect to be roughly shoved aside by Mircae, who reached down in his stead and lifted the Count's head, not by the matted long hair like Victor would have done, but by using both hands as if he was handling a valuable antique that risked breaking if manipulated too roughly.

Victor suggested the head be placed in a burlap sack for transportation purposes, and it took quite a bit of cajoling on his part to make the gypsies agree to this kind of undignified storage of their dead Master's remains.

If the trek to this place had been uncomfortable, the return drive in comparison made it seem like a walk in the park. Though tempted to place his feet atop the Count's prone body for comfort reasons, Victor refrained from doing this out of fear of further offending Valery, who once again offered the doctor a sip out of his plum brandy flask. This time, Victor did not refuse, and although he only had one sip, it was a generous one, indeed. Despite a few valiant attempts at conversation, the doctor fell tragically short of adding a semblance of normality to what was doubtlessly a bizarre and unprecedented situation.

The almost physically tangible stare of Valery's piercing watery eyes, loath as he was to admit it, made Victor's skin crawl after a while. He felt as if he was the one being dissected on an autopsy table, and it was not a great feeling.

Suddenly the old gypsy spoke, perhaps to break a silence that was as uncomfortable for him as it was for Victor.

"Say, Herr Doctor, if you succeed in bringing our Master back from the dead… Will he remember us? Will he remember himself, who he is, and his old life? The Count was a civilized and learned man, hungry for knowledge of all things. He was so much more than the unholy flesh-eater your people made him out to be. To be reanimated as this mindless ghoul, knowing nothing about his past or his ways… He would not wish it. Do you understand?"

"There are never any guarantees in life, Valery," Frankenstein said softly. "But I will do my utmost to restore what was always there, and if I should fail, if something goes wrong… I will take full responsibility for my errors. On this you have my word." Victor punctuated his statement with a sharp, poignant stare, prepared to elaborate on what he meant in case the old man needed it, but it turned out to be unnecessary, for even though Valery's body was frail and evidently showed the passage of time, his mind was as sharp as that of a man in his prime.

"Thank you, Herr Doctor. My grandson Radu died defending our Master three days ago. It turned out to be in vain, since the attacking party of foreigners overpowered them, but he made his family proud. If you do this, I and my great family will extend our protection to you. We don't have much in the way of material resources, but we are loyal and trained to fight. What do you say?"

"I would be immensely grateful for it," Victor said more earnestly than he perhaps would have liked. The memory of waking up to find a freshly excised pig's heart nailed to his door travelled to the forefront of his brain, and he suddenly felt very lucky to have someone, even if it was just one person, on his side, ready to do battle on his side. He had not felt this way in a long time.

Valery, however, was not done. "Of course, we would be very grateful in return if Herr Doctor deigned to reward our efforts with some money. I know you cannot spare much, and I, of course, want all your available resources to go to my Master's return, but my family still has to live, so… two coins of silver every weekend? Sounds fair to you?"

The doctor and the old gypsy proceeded to shake hands to seal their newly formed alliance, and within him Victor felt a heady combination of exhilaration mixed with the most awful trepidation, compelling him to question if this was truly the right decision to make. Whatever the answer was, he had already made his choice and would now have to carry through with it to the end.

Valery had one more question, and it was, Victor realized, a most pertinent one. "How long will it take you to achieve this?"

It was unnecessary in this context for Valery to elaborate on what "this" referred to, and Victor sensed he needed to give a generous answer while simultaneously not straying too far from what was physically possible.

"A week," he blurted out, instantly regretting it. If he was to err, it was better to err on the side of conservatism. There was so much to be done, research to be made, materials to be harvested… No, it was impossible to achieve in just one week even if he toiled around the clock, and over-exertion, which Victor still struggled with wherever he went, would in turn dampen his efficacy.

"Nay, a fortnight. If we're lucky," he added. "Perhaps more. We are dealing with a delicate matter, and I would rather not hurry more than I need to."

Valery gave a curt nod to communicate that he accepted the premise, and the rest of the coach ride passed in silence. Perhaps it was for the best, Victor thought.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

The silence turned awkward again when the carriage halted to a stop outside of Victor's residence and workshop, and the doctor asked himself if it would be a wise decision to invite the gypsies into his laboratory. There was not much in the way of valuables to a non-scientist, but as Victor knew by now that rumors travelled fast, and he did not want the hostile townspeople to find out more than what they already knew about his work. Should they discover that he was keeping the body of a strigoi… Such conduct would not be rewarded with a mere pig's heart.

Valery once again did not exit the coach, but he raised his brow in questioning surprise at Victor hoisting up the carpet-wrapped body of the Count all by himself and throwing it over his shoulder.

"Mircae would have helped you," the old man said. "After all, you employ us now."

"This is something I would prefer to do on my own," Victor replied, huffing from the exertion as he struggled to balance the weight of the body while simultaneously carrying the sack containing the Count's head tucked into his armpit. He lacked the brute, explosive strength of a bigger and more athletic man, but for the most part he made up for it in stamina.

On Mircae's continued insistence to be useful in some way, Victor finally agreed to hand him the keys to his flat so the gypsy could unlock the front door. He had taken down the pig's heart someone had nailed to his door, but there was still a knife's mark in the wood, and he had failed to scrub away the obvious blood stains. If Mircae took note of it, he did not voice his concerns.

"Uncle says to check on you in two days. Will that work for you, Doctor?"

"That sounds excellent, Mircae, I thank you."

"After nightfall, naturally. People are not usually pleased to see us. There might even be violence. Darkness has become a refuge for us, just as it was for the Count." There was a pause.  "If there is anything else--"

"Actually, there is one thing," Victor interrupted, determined to catch the thought before it left his brain. "Say, is there a woman about to give birth in your family? Any day now?"

"There is; the daughter of my uncle. She is about to become a mother for the fifth time. Why?" Mircae's brow creased in confusion, but he seemed to trust the doctor enough not to ascribe him any obvious ill intent.

"When she has given birth, bring me the amniotic fluid and the placenta."

Mircae's increasingly confused expression prompted Victor to reword his request to be more easily understood by those not acquainted with the medical profession and its specialist jargon.

"When her water breaks, catch it in a bucket, if possible, and bring it to me together with the afterbirth. Come by at any hour; you may leave them outside my door by the back entrance with no need to disturb me. Can you do this?"

"I could, but what does this have to do with the Count?"

"I could explain, but it would take time we do not have right now, so I ask you to trust me that it is highly relevant. Do this for me, Mircae?"

"I'll do what I can, Doctor. As you yourself said before, there are never any guarantees."

No further words were exchanged between the two men, and Mircae left, leaving Victor to manage the arduous task of carrying the strigoi's body up to his workshop, which was located on the attic floor and separated from his personal living areas by a narrow gallery and a steep set of stairs. As he ascended the steps with his burden, Victor felt as though his lungs were on fire and his furiously laboring heart was ready to leap out of his chest, said experience made even worse by the fact that he had no free hand to wipe the sweat off his brow or keep it from trickling into his eyes. Fearing that he currently reeked worse than the corpse he was lugging around, the doctor was once again grateful for having this place all to himself without disrupting roommates, although considering how poor his finances were, that might soon have to change if he remained here. 

Oh, well. Nothing could be done about that now, so he might as well shove the issue to the back of his brain until it became really urgent.

Victor, panting like a dog, hefted the Count's body onto an available gurney with wheels - still sticky with dried blood from previous experiments - less gently than he would have liked, and finished by positioning the burlap sack containing the severed head between the dead man's boot-clad feet. He would have to meticulously examine every individual part of this specimen, truly familiarize himself with its anatomy and physiology, and hope he could mend the parts that were broken or find acceptable replacements.

However, what he needed right now was rest. Plenty of it. With fingers that were dirty, stiff and sore from all the digging he'd done earlier plus the added effect of spending so much time out in the cold, Victor clumsily managed to unbutton his overcoat and kick off his boots before collapsing heavily once again onto the settee in his workshop, too bone-weary to bother with the rest of his clothes. He could deal with his body's more worldly needs when he woke up to a fresh new day; or as fresh as a day could seem in the laboratory of one Victor Frankenstein.

Mere seconds after the doctor placed his cheek against the rough linen pillowcase of his makeshift bed, sleep engulfed him like a sea of dark water and did not release its grasp on him for the next eleven hours.

***

Victor woke up to the feel of sunlight against his closed eyes, which illuminated a vast, expansive network of tiny blood vessels in his eyelids. He belatedly realized he must have forgotten to draw the curtains to block out the sun as well as the gazes of curious townspeople. Groaning, the doctor rolled over onto his back and nearly fell off the settee. Pain, sharp and immediate, travelled like a burning arrow through his back and shoulders, promptly reminding him of last night's activities and also that he was getting too old to place his body in such peril with the expectance of recovering like a much younger man.

He sighed. Time. Age. Sickness. Death. Had his desire to gain lordship over these concepts not been so pervasive and all-encompassing, he would not be where he was today. Whenever he experienced a moment of self-doubt, his memories went on to remind him of the life he could have led had he not indulged his obsession; that of a husband and a father, perhaps with an illustrious but conventional career in medicine. Limited, in a way, but happy and content with his place in the world, free from delusions of grandeur.

Victor shook his head to rid himself of the fantasies. He had never been one to fall in line, and he was lying to himself if he tried to claim he would have been happy with the conformist career his parents and Elizabeth had wanted for him. They were all gone, and he was still here, and abandoning his work now would be the biggest sin of them all.

Standing up and walking around for a bit to ease the stiffness in his joints, Victor proceeded to prepare himself a small breakfast consisting of salted pork and two fried eggs. He could smell himself, which was never a good sign, as it meant he was really badly in need of a bath and a change of clothes. Oh, well. There was no rush. He did not expect visitors today, and he was not exactly in the mood to spend hours heating up water for a proper bath. He had more pressing matters to contend with, and they were all centered around the body he had acquired and brought to this place yesterday and the perhaps foolish promise he had given the gypsies in exchange for their continued aid. He had actually sworn to them that he would bring their dead Master, a vampire, back from the dead.

Victor forced himself to finish his breakfast despite fighting back nausea when the tasteless fatty substance of the eggs and pork crackled between his teeth. He also prepared a pot of tea, which was easier to keep down, although he missed the calming lull an added spoonful or two of strong liquor would provide.

No, not yet. Not until he had dealt with today's most important task, which was to examine the Count's body. Once that was over and done with, he could allow himself a reward in the form of chemical bliss.

The doctor finally shed yesterday's grimy clothes and after a quick wipe-down with a damp towel, he changed into what he commonly called his "work uniform": surgeon's whites together with a long, stiff, brown leather apron which repelled blood and was very useful in shielding the rest of his person against other potential cadaver fluids. When working with cadavers, he sometimes also wore gloves made of a similar material, particularly useful if the cause of death was suspected to be an infectious disease, but that would not be necessary in this case, and Victor wanted to be able to make full use of his surgical skills. Even though the Count was dead, it would be preferable to treat his body as a live specimen.

The body was exactly where he had left it - why he even felt the need to contemplate this was a mystery in itself - and Victor was pleased to note that the typical sweet, pungent odor of tissue decay was not present now either. There was, however, an unpleasant stench, and it originated from the Count's damp, musty clothes, which now also included the carpet wrapped around the body like an improvised and somewhat impractical shroud.

After lifting the body - hopefully for the last time - onto his cadaver dissection table, Victor used a pair of gardening shears to free the form trapped within the carpet, and once this part was over and done with, the doctor was free to direct his attention to the garments the body came clad in. He had not really had any time to reflect over it last night when unearthing the grave, but now it struck him that even for a Boyar, Dracula's robes, which bore a certain resemblance to a bishop's vestments, albeit in a perverted form, were excessive in make and style. Victor wondered if they had been specifically chosen for him as burial robes, or if this was something he just happened to be wearing on the day he met his fate.

Sewn together in an odd but fascinating patchwork pattern rich in curlicues, the robe also had a wide collar with a surprising amount of gemstones molded into it. The added value of the stones combined would, if known to looters, have made the Count's grave a target. If splendid artwork such as this constituted Dracula's everyday wardrobe, what else of immense value was there to be found in the castle the gypsies had mentioned?

The fact that the gypsies themselves had not yet looted the castle spoke of their tremendous respect and ocean-deep loyalty towards this man. Their agreeing to hand over Dracula's body to him, a veritable stranger, suddenly made Victor all the more aware of the trust they had in him, and he couldn't help but be touched. 

The robes, while dirty and soiled, were so unique and exclusive that it pained Victor to have to cut them away from the Count's body, but there was no other practical way to remove them unless he wanted to once again wrestle with the deadweight of a headless man, and following last night's endeavors, he elected to go for the easier route. He chose, however, to cut the material in the side so as not to ruin the delicate artwork adorning the front. Underneath the robes Victor found a short, shirt-like undergarment resembling a woman's shift and a pair of unremarkable wool trousers. He cut away these as well, thinking that if the need arose, Dracula could probably borrow some of his clothes until new ones could be brought to him.

That was, if. He tried not to get too far ahead of himself and the actual practical circumstances. In his current state of being, the Count was hardly in need of clothes at all. Having done what he could to restore an outward semblance of normalcy to the body through clever positioning, Victor finally went on to open the burlap sack containing the strigoi's severed head.

Again the doctor subconsciously steeled himself for the experience, despite not knowing the cause for such a reaction from his own body. In spite of it lacking the hallmark trait of rapid decomposition, he was dealing with a corpse all the same. On first inspection, nothing had visibly changed about the Count's head. The eyes were still halfway open as was the mouth, although one detail that prompted Victor's curiosity was the fact that the man's features carried no outward signs of a violent death. The absence of a fixed rictus grimace suggested the Count had expected his demise and perhaps even made peace with it before it was inflicted upon him.

Victor gingerly positioned the corpse's head in its natural position above the shoulders and then placed a folded handkerchief across the neck to hide the gruesome truth of the body and head no longer being physically connected. Had someone asked him then why he did it, he would not have been able to give a direct answer other than it being more easy on the eyes. On a conscious level, he knew it was ridiculous, and in his line of work he had certainly seen worse - bodies mangled beyond any recognition; men, women and children literally hacked or blown to pieces… but he had never felt personally responsible for any of those… materials. They had always been just that - materials.

Though he was not presently at liberty to document his findings by writing them down in a journal, Victor found himself mumbling his observations aloud in his native German to better memorize them for future documentation purposes.

"Beginning with an external examination, I can conclude that the body is that of an adequately nourished white man who is… correction: appears to be in his mid- to late thirties. The skin appears normal, with no major scarring or distinctive marks, and there is no sign of outer trauma apart from the decapitation wound and what seems, at first glance, to be a stab wound to the chest…"

He touched the edges of the bloodless wound with the pads of his fingertips.

"…right above where the heart should be. It is at present not possible to determine if the wound was inflicted pre- or postmortem."

But who would stab an already dead man through the heart? Victor thought. To a physician like himself, the act appeared ludicrous, but it made just as little sense to behead an already dead man unless, of course, one was superstitious and truly wanted to make sure the man in question would stay dead.

The body was hairless except for a slight scatter of dark hair on the chest and in the pubic region, suggesting that the strigoi grew hair profusely on the head but scantily everywhere else. The genitalia itself looked unremarkable, and the doctor made a mental note to investigate whether or not the Count had retained any sexual function in his biologically altered state. Assuming, of course, that he could achieve successful reanimation of the body.

If. Always the "if", following Victor like a bad habit.

The external examination was over, and to find out what other secrets the body of the Count harbored, he would have to open it up.

Victor picked up a scalpel from his table of neatly aligned autopsy tools and slowly began to cut through Dracula's torso from the top of the sternum all the way down to the groin. As expected, the inflicted incision did not cause any bleeding, and again Victor wondered why on earth he believed it might. Only very fresh bodies bled after the heart had stopped beating, and only under very special circumstances, like when there was a build-up of gasses in the system. 

The skin beneath his fingertips was cool, certainly cooler than the ambient temperature in the room, but smooth and pliant all the same, carrying none of the other indicatives of progressing decomposition. It was almost as if this was a live man posing in a mockery of death. After the initial incision was completed, Victor made two more from the top of the shoulders to the beginning of the sternum in the typical Y-shaped pattern created to facilitate the exposure of the thoracic cavity. He pulled back the flaps of skin, fat and muscle to expose the ribcage and reached for the rib-cutting forceps with mild hesitation. There was no way to examine the contents of the thoracic cavity without cracking the ribs open, and he once again had to remind himself that the man before him was dead and would neither feel nor hear his bones being broken.

The blade that had been thrust through the Count's chest with seemingly great force had done surprisingly little damage to the ribs. Victor, propelled forward by his endless and unquenchable  curiosity, could not wait to lay his eyes - and hands - on the heart residing in this unfortunate creature's chest. The sound of ribs snapping in half had always caused a strong and visceral reaction of disgust in the doctor despite the ubiquity and utility of the procedure. Broken bones were quick to heal, even in regular humans. If this man lived again, the broken ribs would not pose a problem for his future functioning.

Victor leaned in for a closer look at the now exposed thoracic organs and spoke out loud again.

 "The lungs appear healthy and undamaged. My educated guess is that Count Dracula was not a habitual smoker."

He carefully grasped the pallid, gelatinous respiratory organs to move them aside to get a better view of the organ he was most curious of namely the heart nestled between the two lungs.

"The heart is… severely damaged by a blade. To my trained eye, it appears to have been not only penetrated but… pierced?"

Was there an exit wound on the Count's back? Victor could not remember if he had seen one during his initial external examination, but he could not flip the body over now to check, or all the organs in the abdomen risked falling out.

Utilizing the scalpel again, Victor swiftly cut the heart out of its place within the ribcage and contemplated the weight of the mangled organ in his hand before placing it on a scale specifically designed for weighing human organs removed during an autopsy.

"The heart carries a weight of… 293 grams," the doctor declared, annoyed that the bloody state of his hands prevented him from writing his findings down on paper. His short-term memory was famously lousy, although when he poured his considerable energies into memorizing something, his brain could produce something surprisingly detailed, and Victor hoped this was one of those occasions. How badly he needed an assistant!

"Given that the heart has sustained what I perceive to be irreparable damage, a replacement is needed in order to achieve reanimation in the rest of the tissues."

He would need to measure and take note of the actual physical dimensions of the organ later to be able to find a suitably sized replacement, but for now, what was he to do with the excised heart? From a rational standpoint, it was useless for anything other than medical research, and he only needed a tiny speck of tissue to examine its cellular properties with his microscope. Should he dispose of it as useless biological waste?

A feeling, one might call it intuition, compelled the doctor to hold on to the heart for now, and he placed it in one of the kidney bowls with the intention of putting it on ice later. The autopsy was far from over, and Victor needed to keep his focus. Precise knowledge of what he was dealing with could very well make or break this experiment.

The abdominal organs were the next to be put under scrutiny. Victor palpated the liver and found it to be slightly increased in size, possibly from inflammation, but carrying no other signs of disease or cirrhosis. It seemed like the Count was not a regular consumer of alcohol either, he thought grimly, and couldn't help but shudder at the thought of studying his own liver. The idea of witnessing the potential havoc his frivolous drinking habits had wreaked on the poor toiling organ was an uncomfortable mental image to contemplate, and Victor unconsciously shook his head to rid his brain of the thought. He was not the one being autopsied, after all, and when it happened, he would not be present to view the results. Thank goodness.

"As for the stomach, it appears to be… empty."

He made a small incision into the first organ in the creature's gastrointestinal tract and discovered a healthy and well-vascularized mucosa but no stomach contents. It was in itself not a very illuminating discovery; all it told him was that the Count had not consumed a meal in the last six hours of his life, unless what he ate was digested and metabolized differently than ordinary food. The size and appearance of the bloated liver certainly suggested that nutrient-rich blood passed through it on a regular basis, but that could mean just about anything when dealing with a supposed… hemophage. What happened to the blood after the vampire had swallowed it? Could the intestines themselves provide him with a satisfactory answer?

The small intestine looked, for all accounts, normal on first glance, and like the stomach it was devoid of contents, solid or otherwise. Not satisfied with performing a basic ocular inspection, Victor carefully palpated his way through the length of the entire organ, expecting to find approximately nine meters of bowel but only finding a little over six. Perplexed by the discovery and its potential meaning, Victor wondered if a shortened gastrointestinal tract was part of vampire physiology, or if it was something unique to this individual. He had come across men with shortened bowels before, but they tended to be former military men who had taken a bullet to the gut and had the damaged part cut out by a surgeon to prevent loss of life. If such a surgery was performed during one's lifetime, there were always scars in the intestines to account for it. Dracula's bowels carried no signs of having been meddled with, by a surgeon or otherwise.

If the state of the small intestine was baffling, the large intestine, or the colon as doctors called it, had it beaten by a long shot. Barely any thicker than the delicate tubular ileum it was attached to, the creature's colon appeared… atrophied. Victor had no better word to describe what he was seeing; the normally robust, thickly-muscled intestine which made up the final part of the human gastrointestinal tract seemed to have withered significantly due to what Victor guessed was lack of use, not entirely dissimilar to the useless and paralyzed lower limbs of a person with a spinal injury. He had come across malformed and defective internal organs in other corpses regardless of what they had died from, but with a colon like this, Victor couldn't help but wonder how the Count was even able to pass stool.

"Although… No, it couldn't possibly be…"

He gingerly moved the organ around, pondering its thin, bloodless, rubbery walls, before he replaced it in the abdominal cavity without excising it from the rest of the system. He had seen what he needed to see. His eyes and hands had done their part; now his brain needed to do the rest.

"What if…" the doctor said, wondering if he was on to something significant. "What if he has no need for bowel movements? Could it be that the hemophage's colon is withered because he, with his altered biology, simply has no use for it?"

Could it really be possible? If it was true, it implied that everything, every ounce of nutrition that the Count ingested, was converted into pure energy with no biological waste products. A digestive system this efficient was unheard of in the entire animal kingdom, from the lowliest flatworm to the most advanced primate, and Victor himself was stunned by the potential gravity of this discovery. If this creature's bodily functions were the key to eternal life, to eradicating disease and famine…

"You're getting ahead of yourself, as usual, Victor," the doctor reprimanded himself. Even if he had stumbled upon something previously unheard of in the modern scientific community, it did not mean that the discovery - or formula - was replicable or had any practical utility in clinical medicine. Surely he could not be the first physician to study the body of a strigoi, and yet people in all parts of the world were still being ravaged by all kinds of infernal diseases, not to mention famine and malnutrition.

"That is because most doctors are greedy men with small minds," Victor muttered, thinking back on his dealings with the odious Professor Krempe, the rector of the Ingolstadt medical academy, who had been instrumental in getting Victor expelled from the academy and subsequently ostracized by his peers. After Waldmann's death, only Henry Clerval had stood by him, and Henry was long gone as well, having left Victor to pursue his quest of defeating death in complete isolation. He wondered for a moment what his old friend would have thought of the creature lying on the slab before him now and his plans regarding it. Nothing positive, that much Victor was sure of.

Now there was only one thing left to examine, and although the internal organs so far had provided valuable information about the creature's physiology, nothing said more about a sapient being's true self than the seat of the mind itself namely the brain. Victor knew that the fact that the corpse had been decapitated posed an added level of difficulty, although there were no signs of present head trauma or anything else suggesting the brain was not intact.

Having returned the sternum and the excised portion of the ribs to their natural position, Victor began what was officially known as part three of a postmortem. He did not bother with sutures, as he would have to crack the chest open at least once more after he had acquired a donor heart. It was, however, more pleasant to be around a corpse that did not look like it had been eviscerated by a wild animal, so out of propriety Victor repositioned the skin flaps as neatly as he could and covered the body with a white mortuary sheet before moving on to focus on the part above the shoulders.

The Count's long hair - thick, dark and dirtied from having lain in soil for days - made it more difficult to locate the areas of the scalp that were optimal starting points for an incision, and the doctor thought that perhaps he should have taken the time to shave the head before moving on to this procedure. He did not know if the Count was a vain sort, but he did recognize that hair such as this would be a convenient way to hide disfiguring sutures after… well, after, so he decided to leave the hair as it was for now. A reanimant that was still able to recognize itself post-procedure would have a better chance of accepting their situation, Victor reasoned, and a man did not grow his hair out to this length unless it was a valued element of his appearance.

With hands that trembled slightly, he made a cut across the crown from behind one ear to the other, and pulled the scalp forward to rest over the face, exposing the white expanse of the dome-like skull. A scalpel alone was not sufficient to cut through bone, so Victor reached for the bone saw and started sawing into the anterior part of the cranium with the hope of removing the top of the skull without damaging the brain in the process. Once a large enough cavity had been created, the doctor traded the bone saw for a wedge and a hammer and began the delicate process of dislodging the cranial cap from the rest of the skull.

This was a task which required a steady hand; something Victor was rarely able to accomplish nowadays without some alcohol in his system. The force applied needed to be just right, and at the critical moment when the cranial bones gave in and were forced apart, Victor's hand slipped and the sharp tip of the wedge buried itself in his palm, causing blood to spray all over the Count's now exposed brain.

"Damn this to Hell!" Victor exclaimed, and his anger at his own clumsiness made him utter a second string of curses, each more vulgar than the previous. If he'd thought he needed a drink before, it was nothing compared to his needing one now. Still internally cursing, he wrapped a clean handkerchief around his injured hand and was mildly alarmed to see how quickly the blood soaked through it.

He would definitely need it after this, perhaps sooner than he had planned. Despite the sharp, throbbing pain in his dominant hand, Victor knew he needed to finish this autopsy, and the most important organ was yet to be examined.

"The brain appears to be… normal," he said with just a small hint of disappointment. Again, he was not sure what he had expected; a central nervous system as atrophied as the large intestine? The dura mater, the outermost of the three meninges, looked perfectly healthy and certainly pinker than he had ever observed in a corpse, let alone one that had been dead for days.

Then it suddenly struck him that he had bled on the Count's brain, quite profusely at that, and yet there was no blood coating the structures now. The discovery made Victor feel cold inside and simultaneously supplied him with a fresh bout of energy bordering on exhilaration. Where had it gone? The simplest and most logical conclusion was that the blood had been absorbed by the tissues and become a part of the creature. The hemophage, despite having had its head severed and its heart cut out, was still somehow absorbing nutrients, and Victor's own blood had provided it with some just now.

His injury all but forgotten, the doctor decided it was time to examine what was happening in this creature on a cellular level, and he proceeded to have a small piece of the exposed brain membrane cut away and placed in a Petri dish for immediate microscopic inspection.

Had the circumstances been anything other than what they were, Victor would have doubted his own eyes, or even his very sanity, but if one recounted all the strange things that had already occurred, perhaps it was not such a huge leap of faith to accept that the tissues he was looking at displayed all the obvious physical properties of continuous biological life.

"Not only has cellular deterioration not occurred, but the cells have retained their metabolic properties." Amazed, Victor zoomed in closer. "There also appears to be.. active mitosis, cellular division. By God, the tissues are attempting to repair themselves, to heal!"

All this achieved by a few drops of blood. What might happen if one introduced a larger amount? Would all the damaged tissues spontaneously regenerate? Could a transfusion of blood alone be sufficient to resurrect the hemophage? No, that could not be possible with a heart that damaged and a head that had been separated from the rest of the body. The damage to these key organs ensured that the use of galvanism would be required to restore life, as much as Victor had tried to forego electricity as a primary external power source for his reanimants. After all, a brain did not -  could not - regenerate, and the brain cells that were left never seemed to work properly after they had been exposed to an electric current. If only he could find a way to reattach the Count's spine and induce radical regeneration without electricity, then maybe…

"The possibilities… are endless," he rasped out, breathless just from the enormity of the discovery. "But in the wrong hands, it could also be used to… to cause great harm."

Victor raised his head from the microscope and rubbed his tired, aching eyes with his sleeve, absently noting that he was in fact ravenously hungry and probably ought to take a break. His hand instinctively went to feel for his pocket watch to check the time but found the space regretfully empty, and he remembered that he was no longer the owner of said watch; a gypsy named Valery Ionescu was.

A wave of deep bitterness momentarily clouded his mind, and his conscious self began to lecture the more emotionally driven part of his psyche, urging him to remember that a pocket watch, even one given to him as a present from his mother, was a small price to pay for a scientific discovery of this magnitude. Besides, he had given the gypsies his word that he would do everything in his power to bring Count Dracula back to life, and Victor did not want to add this particular promise to the disconcertingly long list of promises he had failed to keep.

The doctor stood up, aware of how his joints ached painfully along with his eyes, his head and his hands, and sauntered back to where his subject's body lay on the slab. He moved to replace the top of the skull and have it closed up when he noticed, hesitantly at first, that Dracula's mouth seemed to have opened wider and that his canines were decidedly more pronounced than they had been previously. The former could be his doing, but the latter could definitely not.

With a puzzled frown, Victor manually raised the creature's ruddy upper lip to have a better look inside the mouth, and what he discovered only served to confuse him further. The gums, tongue and insides of the cheeks were all grossly swollen and had taken on an angry red color, prompting Victor to question why he had not noticed such a visible and irregular manifestation until now.

While this distinct pattern of inflammation was uncommon, the doctor had encountered bodies with similar symptoms before, but only when an oversensitivity against a certain substance, an 'allergic disease' as it was called, was the cause of death. The oversensitivity in question could be against anything and everything on God's green earth and did not always make logical sense, although nut allergies were especially common in people of all origins, especially children. What had caused something like this, a clear indication of an allergic reaction, in the strigoi?

Victor forced the mouth to open even wider and leaned in to see if the angry red tissue swelling extended to the throat. Rapid and unpredictable swelling of the throat could cause death very quickly if the respiratory tract was compromised, and Victor had dealt with his share of these cases as well. The by far most common culprit was a simple bee sting. Some men - and women - were simply more sensitive to nature's own toxins than others.

The throat tissues in this case were every bit as irritated as the insides of the mouth, but Victor quickly realized that the cause was not a bee sting or a nut allergy, but something large lodged in the Count's pharynx. Using a pair of serrated forceps to grasp the foreign object and pull it out, it instantly dawned on the doctor why he was seeing such a virulent response in the vampire's tissues. The object he had dislodged and now held in a firm grasp was a grape-sized bulb of garlic, a well-known tool used worldwide to ward off vampires and other creatures of the occult.

Whoever had done this, they had taken every possible step to ensure that the strigoi was truly dead and would stay that way. To Victor it spoke of a highly organized, driven and methodical mind, potentially even brilliant and capable of great feats within their chosen trajectory. However… the acts also spoke of abject cruelty and complete disregard for the sanctity of life, whatever form it came in.

Had the man - or men - who murdered Dracula forced him to swallow a garlic bulb prior to his death, or had it been shoved down there later, when head and body were already separated? Victor was of the firm opinion that nobody, not even the most heinous of criminals, should ever be subjected to torture as a form of punishment, and it doubtlessly looked like something of that nature had been going on here.

Knowing that he was hardly a moral authority on, well, anything, including medical practices, Victor felt that it nonetheless went against his instincts as a doctor to have a sapient creature treated in this manner. A disturbing question suddenly reared itself in his brain: had there been a doctor in the group that did this to the Count?

"They stabbed you through the heart, cut your throat, beheaded you, and forced you to swallow something they knew would make your tissues swell shut? These acts speak of involvement by someone who possesses at the very least rudimentary anatomical knowledge… and a great deal of animosity. What did you do to induce such hatred in not only one man, but several?"

Victor somberly studied the vacant gaze of the unseeing green eyes, feeling that he may have been mistaken about the peaceful expression on the Count's face. Knowing what he knew now, it no longer looked the least bit peaceful. Surprised, maybe… but far from serene.

Victor lifted his hand to manually close the creature's mouth and eyes to restore a semblance of serenity to the Count's features, mainly to placate his own need for such, when suddenly a twitch in one of the nostrils made the doctor freeze in his track. Victor blinked rapidly a few times to eliminate the possibility of an optical distortion on the part of his own eyes. Another series of twitches occurred, this time bizarrely followed by a thin trail of blood emerging from the affected nostril. The scarlet substance trickled languidly down the Count's upper lip only to pool in the left naso-labial groove.

Heart already racing and ready to leap out of his chest, metaphorically speaking, Victor could feel it beginning to gallop even faster when a pair of spindly, hairy black legs appeared in the hollow of the nostril, shortly followed by the entire body of a large spider. Victor let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding and moved to pluck up the spider with the same pair of serrated forceps he had used to remove the bulb of garlic. The arachnid struggled furiously against the treatment, and the doctor wondered if perhaps Dracula had transferred some of his fighting spirit to the tiny but fierce predator.

"You gave me quite the scare there, you little crawler," he said with a chuckle that just needed to be let out. "Extraordinary survival instincts. I might just let you live because I believe you've earned it."

The spider wasted no time scurrying for safety and disappearing underneath the floorboards after Victor had released it, and for a brief moment he wished human existence could be as simple as that of a critter; devoid of sentimentality, hunger for knowledge, existential anguish and painful memories, leaving only a most rudimentary instinct to protect itself, to eat and to spawn more of its kind.

How very cynical of him. Cynicism aside, Victor had to remind himself that a world ruled by arachnids would not have produced any of the wondrous works of art courtesy of the human mind, such as the Sistine chapel or Michelangelo's David. Sentience could be both a blessing and a curse, and whichever it became was more often than not determined by the strength of a man's character. Then again, if one accepted this premise as true, what did it say about Victor and his character?

He needed to keep himself busy, or these dark thoughts would threaten to overwhelm his mind and try their absolute best to beat him to the ground and make sure he struggled as much as possible to rise again. Each time he allowed it to happen, getting back on his feet became more difficult, more arduous, and each time he lost a tiny bit more of himself fighting to keep his demons at bay. Victor feared that a time would come when he would no longer bother to rise, and what became of his mind - his soul - when that came to pass was something he feared too much to even contemplate.

The experiments had served as a distraction from his conscience for such a long time that he no longer knew who he was aside from Victor Frankenstein, the grave robber, the body snatcher, the reanimator, the unholy father of countless failed abominations. With each new reanimant and subsequently each new failure, a slice of his soul was cut away and thrown on a funeral pyre, leaving Victor with an increasingly unstable and protean foundation to work from. He always thought he was so close to solving the riddle, and each time so far the solution had stubbornly evaded him, laughing him cruelly in the face when he was left with no choice but to destroy his creation and hope that he would enjoy a greater success with his next attempt.

Success… Hope. A dangling carrot, constantly out of his reach.

But Victor had never worked with materials like this before. He was truly close this time, tethering on the edge of a breakthrough. The strigoi's body was an unexplored spring of possibilities, a well of untapped potential, and it had landed squarely in the lap of none other than Doctor Victor Frankenstein. He would be a fool, nay, a criminal, to let a chance like this go to waste.

Victor threw a casual glance toward the grandfather clock and noted that he had exceeded lunchtime by several hours and should probably not bother to eat unless he wanted to suffer through an evening of indigestion and recurrent acid reflux. He remembered, however, that he had promised himself a liquid reward after he had finished the autopsy, and as far as he knew, it was finished. Victor rose to his feet and walked in the direction of his small kitchenette, his mind firmly set on chemical bliss.

His tea from this morning had gone cold, but he did not let that stop him; with enough absinthe mixed in, he could no longer taste the original flavor of the tea anyway. Victor's hands trembled ever so slightly while he prepared his concoction. It wasn't just his mind that craved the absinthe anymore; his body did it independently of his brain and behaved in all kinds of wonky ways if it was denied its daily dose of liquid encouragement.

What did they call it, again? La fée verte

Maybe what they said was true; that the green fairy that lived in the absinthe really did want the souls of the wretched men who sought comfort in her. For someone like Victor, who had lost hope of eternal salvation a long time ago, it was almost a comforting thought. There were quite frankly far worse creatures one could lose their soul to.

Now with a head that felt deceptively light and a body that was just the opposite of that, Victor stumbled across the room and once again sought refuge on the settee. He made a grab for the blanket and pulled it up to half-rest over his legs, realizing that he had forgotten to remove his loafers prior to lying down but feeling disinclined to bother with manually removing them now. He wasn't really going to sleep, he told himself, he was just lying down for a short nap; an hour of rest, two at the most, and afterwards he would get right back to work.

Work… it never stopped for one Victor Frankenstein. The ambient sounds from the world outside his small attic space blended into a pleasant enough haze and eventually passed seamlessly into the jumbled pulp of sensory impressions his brain was both too tired and too intoxicated to properly process. When sleep finally came to him, it was not the healing kind his exhausted body craved, but another session of loosely connected nightmares, which left a permanent imprint on his subconscious mind despite his inability to remember them after he woke up.

Insistent pounding on his door roused the doctor from his drunken stupor more than three hours later, and for a brief moment he was under the impression that it was night already, given the lack of sunlight. No, not quite night yet, but it was evidently past sundown. Angrily fumbling around for his glasses in the dark, the doctor uttered a string of curses when his roving hand knocked over his teacup, which shattered upon impact with the floor and splattered what was left of his absinthe-spiked tea over his shoes.

"Hold your horses, whoever you are!" he roared. "I'm on my way!"

Victor was, to his knowledge, not expecting any visitors this evening, and he couldn't help but feel anxious about having to confront whomever was on the other side of the door. Would there be another impaled pig's heart waiting for him, or had his persecutors already moved past the stage of delivering subtle hints or warnings and instead formed an outright lynch mob prepared to use force to expel him - or worse - from his lodgings?

Regardless of the validity of his fears, no lynch mob awaited him tonight. There was no visitor behind the door when Victor finally reached it, and for a moment he believed he had been the subject of some kind of prank. Then he noticed that while no one had remained behind the door long enough to be greeted by him in person, something had been left for him on the doorstep. It was a large wooden crate, filled to the brim with crushed ice and containing the bodies of six human fetuses in varying degrees of development, from one that appeared to be no more than twelve weeks along to another that was very close to full-term.

He had received a fresh delivery from the clinic of one Doctor Jacob Rosenberg.

A handwritten note was included, and Victor instantly recognized the local abortionist's penmanship. The note itself consisted of nothing more than a series of hastily scribbled down figures offered as a rough estimate at the number of weeks each pregnancy had progressed.

Victor had found that the man's guesses were sometimes way off the mark, but he would never tell such to a fellow medical man, especially one that was brave enough to engage in this line of work, and Doctor Rosenberg was brave indeed. Even better than that he was reasonable… and reliable. The one negative was that these frequent deliveries also made an increasingly growing dent in Victor's pockets. Perhaps there would come a time when he could no longer afford this service, and the valuable fetal remains would go straight to the crematorium along with other unusable human parts.

No wonder the delivery man had not stayed put long enough to risk being seen. It was only Thursday, after all, and Victor usually received his bi-monthly batch of aborted fetuses on Sundays, when all the God-fearing townspeople were attending Mass and were thus too busy to pay attention to his activities. Part of him was excited to receive new materials for his research, especially ones that were of such visibly high quality, but another part - the newly awakened, groggy and still deadly exhausted part - dreaded the added hours of work and intense focus this batch would require of him, well-aware that he was dealing with materials that had a very short shelf-life.

Perishables, he thought. Such a waste. Victor lifted the box and carried it inside, mentally preparing himself for at least another five, six hours of cerebrally and manually intense labor. His mind was a largely self-sustaining source of power, but his body needed fuel. The new materials could hopefully be used to produce more of it, and this reminder gave Victor's mind the needed push to commit itself fully to the task ahead.

He would eat something… later. This took precedence. Work always took precedence.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Despite his vow to pause his work long enough to prepare a supper and actually consume it, Victor's promise to tend to his physical self was quickly forgotten once his brain immersed itself in the task of obtaining what he needed from the fetuses.

After seven more hours in his cramped chemistry workshop following the painstaking and intricate extraction of fetal blood and bone marrow tissue, he had managed to manufacture approximately twelve milliliters of it; a deceptively prosaic, rose-colored liquid that was arguably Victor Frankenstein's greatest achievement to date. He just wished so badly that he had discovered the vast regenerative properties of fetal tissues and their potential to be used for rejuvenation purposes in adult specimens earlier in life, before allowing his body to become this old, sickly and decrepit. Artificially postponing the natural aging process was one thing, but reversing it was something altogether different, something he had yet to master, and Victor feared his formula was steadily losing its effectiveness, if his own health and physical fitness was anything to go by. 

To add insult to injury, some of the materials he'd received last night had been dead too long to be of any use for his work. The oldest and largest of the fetuses, which the doctor initially deemed to be the most promising specimen, had on closer inspection regrettably showed signs of advanced decomposition as well as having been thawed at least once before - a discovery which made Victor not only disappointed but angry.

Rosenberg ought to know better than to send him materials like that, Victor thought, and although his overall perception of the Jewish doctor was still decidedly more positive than negative, he could not - would not - tolerate receiving substandard materials when he paid for only the finest, freshest goods. If it happened again, Victor would approach his colleague and perhaps threaten to end their professional relationship. Knowing that Rosenberg, like himself, was dependent on cash flow from practices that were not only considered immoral but illegal, Victor was sure the abortionist and himself would be able to come to a mutually beneficial agreement without too much fuss.

And if such turned out to be impossible, there was always… blackmail.

Victor swallowed, not wanting to consider it a viable option, but it was too late. His brain had already latched on to the idea and was currently laying out the pros and cons of its application in practice. Rosenberg had a lot to lose, perhaps even more than Victor himself, and if he was forced out of business in this region, desperate women who wanted to end their unwanted pregnancies would have to travel far and wide to find another doctor willing to give them what they wanted, likely for twice the price and half the skill.

No, there would be no need to resort to such extremes. He decided to tuck the idea of using blackmail into the back pocket of his brain for now and not take it out again unless something forced his hand and left him with no other choice. Victor's allies were few and far in-between, and it would not benefit him or his work to drive away the few remaining ones with his… fanaticism.

Fanatic. That was the word Henry had used to describe him shortly before their ways parted forever. The memory still hurt like a dull, pulsating throb, similar to how a healed yet persistent bone fracture sometimes throbbed during certain unfavorable weather conditions. Memories of his time with Henry felt so distant and sometimes even foreign that there were occasions - fleeting ones, granted - when Victor couldn't help but wonder if they were memories from a past life rather than past times. The thought was both comforting and disconcerting at the same time, and even though he absolutely did not actively encourage these dissociative tendencies in himself, it was tempting to think of "pre-Victor" as a separate entity unrelated to his current self.

Pre-Victor had been more emotionally complex, and, some would argue, emotionally richer, but he had also been a naïve fool, and Victor firmly believed that it was his naivety rather than his unrelenting obsession that had cost him nearly everything he held dear in this world. His present self knew better than to form pointless sentimental attachments to fleeting things regardless of their origin. If there was a God or any higher power at all, it had placed Victor Frankenstein on this earth with one strict purpose, and to deviate from it, if only for a moment, was to defy the purpose of his very existence.

However, like any well-oiled machine, Victor's body and by extension his brain were still dependent on fuel to function, and for the first time in over twenty-four hours, he made a serious attempt at preparing himself a meal. The smell which assaulted his nostrils when he opened the pantry door was almost enough to make him want to give up on the spot, but he had reached a point now where he had allowed his hunger to become almost like a physical entity which demanded to be satiated lest it slowly consume his body, bit by bit, from the inside out.

The eggs, which Victor pinpointed as the most probable cause of the horrid stench, were the first to go, leaving the doctor with little to eat apart from a piece of moldy bread and some dry cheese that was well on its way of growing mold also. He was out of milk, fortunately, or it would definitely have gone sour by now and added its own pungent aroma to the putrid fumes evaporating from his pantry. Had it really been that long since he restocked on perishables? Substituting days for nights and nights for days had a disorienting effect on his sense of time and sporadically made him forget about seemingly mundane day-to-day chores.

His mother and later Elizabeth had both told Victor more than once that he was horrible at taking care of himself, and in that regard, little had changed. He sat down by the small kitchen table, feeling tired and defeated. Would it be worth the trouble to head down to the Friday afternoon market today? It meant he would be forced to interact with people and pretend, if only for a short while, that he was interested in what they had to say, and that only included those who wanted to engage him in small talk. If he was really unlucky, he would encounter someone prepared to level accusations at him; accusations of necromancy, Satanic worship, grave robbery… The list was long, and Victor did not feel he had the strength to defend his person against attacks of any kind today, so food-wise, he'd be forced to make do with what he had and persevere.

Well, at least he could always make tea… and spike it with absinthe. It would not eliminate the hunger, but it would certainly dull his senses enough to make it bearable.

He put the kettle on and went to examine his one remaining loaf of bread more closely, deciding that it was still edible as long as he picked the moldy bits out. Although the familiar taste of mold was omnipresent and pervasive even in the parts that did not have a visible mold infestation, his taste buds had been through far worse and he hardly even noticed it after a few bites. 

Victor was just about to reach for the cheese to give it the same treatment when a sudden knock on his door displaced his train of thought and caused a brief surge of panic. If his memory served him correctly he was not expecting any visitors today either, and he wondered if the hostile townsfolk that wanted him gone would be bold enough to knock on his door in broad daylight. Another series of knocks followed, a bit more insistent this time, and Victor made a grab for the nearest sharp object within his reach before warily approaching the door.

"Yes, can I help you?" he asked in German while tensely waiting for his visitor to identify themselves and state their purpose for the visit. As he waited, Victor's brain worked practically on overdrive to map out and recall every single one of his most recent interactions with people.

He had paid his rent on time, hadn't he? Surely he would not forget about something so… mundane? Was there another debt he had completely neglected to repay? Victor's eyes instinctively darted around his living quarters, looking for things of value that could be pawned if he needed instant money. Much to his detriment, he came to realize there was barely anything at all, and if whomever on the other side of the door wanted to get paid, he would have to fall back on his admittedly poor negotiation skills to keep them off his back until he could scrape together some money.

Whatever he had expected, this was not it. The voice that answered was that of a woman, and except for his landlady, Mrs. Horvath, there was no female that Victor had exchanged more than a few cursory words with during his entire stay in this town. 

"Doctor Frankenstein? My name is Rosa, and I am here to bring you the things you requested. May I come in?"

Still suspicious of his visitor's motives even though she had addressed him correctly, Victor pushed the door slightly ajar and peered at the woman - Rosa - through the crack. She was a girl rather than a woman, he realized; surely no more than seventeen, and her piercing black eyes and  toffee complexion suggested Szgany heritage. He was aware of how badly his breath smelled and tried to avoid exhaling in her general direction out of courtesy.

"I did not order anything, Fräulein," he said. "I am a bit busy, so if you'll excuse me, I must return to my work. Good day."

Victor made an attempt to close the door, but before he could do such, the girl stuck her boot-clad little foot through the crack and spoke up again with added urgency.

"You know my cousin Mircae? I was told that the Herr Doctor had asked to be given certain…" She went quiet for a second or two, obviously looking for the right words to describe the goods she had brought with her. "…leftovers, from childbirth, yes?"

"…oh, of course!" Victor exclaimed, realizing that his obsession with the Count's body and the subsequent early delivery of fetuses from Doctor Rosenberg's abortion clinic had caused him to completely forget about the amniotic fluid and afterbirth he had requested Mircae to bring. "My apologies, Rosa, please do come in."

He opened the door wide and gestured at the girl to enter, momentarily forgetting about the miserable state of his home and his own person, neither of which were in an acceptable condition to receive visitors, especially those of the fairer sex. If Rosa in any way hesitated she hid it well and appeared to show complete trust in him in spite of the undoubtedly colorful account of the foreign scientist passed on to her by her relatives.

"I would have brought you the afterbirth as well, but one of the dogs ran away with it shortly after my little brother was born," she said, her tone apologetic. "But I got you this!"

"Oh… I see."

Only when she moved to cross the threshold into his home did Victor notice that his young visitor was carrying a pail filled almost to the brink with what had to be amniotic fluid, and he thought about asking how long she had walked to have it delivered to him but changed his mind when it occurred to him that he might not want to know the answer. Rosa maneuvered her load with a surprising amount of elegance and dexterity, as if this was something she did on a daily basis, and Victor drew the conclusion that Rosa was definitely not unaccustomed to hard labor.

"Where do you want it, Doctor?" the girl asked, her curious, lively gaze wandering to take in everything that was most likely new to her and coming to rest at the foot of the stairs which led up to his laboratory. "Up the stairs, yes?"

"It's fine, Rosa, I can take it from here," Victor assured her, nervous about the prospect of a stranger poking her nose into his workspace, especially now when he had the discovery of the century lying up there on his slab. He tried to come up with a polite way to excuse himself and make the girl leave, but before he could think of something to say, Rosa made her curiosities known with the expressive delight of a child who had just been given free reign over a candy shop.

"May I see him? May I see the Count?" she asked, her eyes once again being explicably drawn to the staircase, as if it signified a rainbow with a treasure buried at the end of it.

Victor was taken aback by the boldness of her request. "No, absolutely not," the doctor replied sternly.

"Why not?"

"Because he is not in a suitable state to be seen by anyone, least of all a young lady," Victor offered lamely, and the smirk that appeared on Rosa's face told him that his rebuke had not carried the impact he had hoped.

"I am not a lady, as you may have noticed," the girl said, gesturing at her coarse peasant's clothes. Unlike Valery Ionescu's beautifully embellished outfit, there was nothing decorative about Rosa's, and Victor believed he knew why; Rosa was expected to work hard and wore clothes whose quality and design reflected her domestic duties.

"The answer is still no," Victor stated and moved closer to the stairwell just in case the girl decided to defy him and make a mad dash toward it. "You may not see him, Rosa, and that is final."

Good grief, he was definitely not in good enough shape to engage in a physical scuffle with anyone right now, but if he had to grapple with this girl to keep her out of his laboratory, so be it.

"But he's up there, yes?" Rosa asked imploringly, and Victor could see that her pupils were blown wide with excitement to match the dark pink flush of her cheeks. "When is he coming back, Doctor? Grandfather said that you could heal him. Is this true? Can you return him to us?"

Rosa's tone had shifted from imploring to pleading, and Victor found the latter much harder to counter. Did the girl not know that her Master was not simply wounded or sick, but dead? Considering his discoveries from last night, perhaps that was not entirely true, but Victor saw no way of explaining the intricacies of the situation to the young Szgany woman in a way she could possibly comprehend, and quite frankly, he did not feel like he should be required to, either. Valery Ionescu had entrusted him with this task and Victor abhorred the prospect of having to give daily "progress reports" to anyone not familiar with his methods.

What he really needed was an assistant, someone who could help him with the heavy lifting, literal and metaphorical, that came with this type of work and understood it well enough to at least function as a sounding board for Victor's constant flow of novel thoughts and ideas. However, finding someone of the right moral and cerebral constitution had proved to be extremely difficult, and Victor knew from prior experience how easily a capricious human mind could turn against the very source that had nurtured it and taught it to grow and expand. The reanimants, though lacking in sapience, tended to at least be more predictable.

"Valery is your grandfather?" Victor asked in an attempt to steer the conversation to a less delicate topic. "He sent you here?"

"Yes, he did," Rosa replied, and the expression on her face shifted into an odd mix of boredom and curiosity. "He told us about you, Doctor. He said you're probably a madman, but he also said you were the first gentleman ever to address him as an equal, and that made him very happy."

"I firmly believe high or low birth does not determine a man's value to society," Victor said. "If somebody treats me with respect, I will award it to them in return."

With respect came trust, and while Victor was quite generous with the former, he did not as easily give the latter, and there were certain question marks surrounding the young woman's intentions which prevented him from trusting her fully just yet. "Did your grandfather send you, or did you volunteer to come here with hopes of acquiring something, Rosa?"

Rosa flashed him another smirk, and Victor got the distinct feeling that she was struggling not to outright laugh in his face.

"My grandfather is a rather old-fashioned man, Doctor Frankenstein. He believes that men should not involve themselves in women's business, or the other way around. What I brought you…" She motioned to the pail and its contents. "…is as close to women's business as things can get. He believes that no man should get involved in childbirth or what follows, he says it's bad luck, and we have had our share of that already with everything that's happened, so we don't need more. Since it was my mother giving birth, I thought I should volunteer to bring you what used to be a part of her. Are you not satisfied, Herr Doctor? Would you have preferred my cousin?"

"Oh, not at all," Victor hurried to say. "You are much fairer to look at than your cousin." As soon as the words had left his mouth, he regretted them and wished he could take them back and replace them with something less inappropriate. "N-no, Rosa, I didn't mean--"

Good God, the girl was but a child, and to suggest that he had any such interest in her was both scandalous and untrue. Fortunately Rosa took the backhanded compliment in stride and was content to simply roll her eyes at his awkward attempts at an apology.

"If I were no fairer than my cousin Mircae, I would have slit my own throat years ago, since no man would want to marry me then," she said with a surprising bark of laughter that served well to break the ice that had formed, and Victor actually found himself joining in. People capable of making him laugh were in very short supply, so finding one was always a pleasant surprise.

"So you do not have a husband yet?" he asked after the laughter petered out, figuring Rosa would not find the question too invasive judging from her earlier willingness to jest about grave and personal matters.

The girl shook her head with a coquettish frown. "Not yet," she said. "My grandfather wants me to marry, but Mother wants to keep me close, especially now that she's lost my older brother, Radu."

"He died recently? Your brother?" Victor asked, and he began to realize what the gypsies had meant by claiming to have received more than their share of recent bad luck.

"He died defending the Count, but to what use?" the girl said, and now bitterness had infected her voice and displaced her previously jovial tone. "The foreigners shot him like a dog and left his body to rot by the roadside. Grandfather says he died honorably and that we ought to be proud, but Mother is beside herself with grief to the point that we all believed she would lose the baby, yet he was born healthy and strong. She wants to call him Radu after my brother, but he doesn't look like a Radu to me. I suggested we name him after the Count to honor him, but it'll be up to Mother to decide. She rarely listens to me, but she'll have to learn now that I'm the oldest and all."

"What of your father, Rosa? Is he not with you?"

"Father died from dysentery earlier this year, shortly after Mother found out she was pregnant for the last time. So now we have one more mouth to feed through the winter and one less man to work." Rosa nodded her head as she spoke, as if he was still mentally reminding herself of the factual circumstances of her current existence, and it saddened Victor that the birth of a new family member, which ought to be an altogether joyous event, was viewed through such a cynical lens.

"If the Count does not return, we will have no protection and the ordinary people will drive us away from his land. I don't know what will happen to us then. No Boyar wants gypsies as tenants, so we'd be doomed to a life of traveling and no place to call home, like so many others of our kind. Our Clan is privileged, being in the Count's service. When I was a little girl, I learned from Grandfather that our Master could not die and we would never have to worry about being evicted by an heir of his that did not share his favorable attitude toward us. For years I actually believed it."

"I am sorry about the situation you and your family are in," Victor said truthfully, but he also realized that there was very little anyone, least of all an outsider like himself could do to remedy social problems such as these on a large scale. Lasting change could only be accomplished through absolute commitment from those involved, rich and poor alike, and he frankly could not picture the Boyar or the wealthy landowners ever giving up their social or economic power to benefit a low caste of people like the Szgany.

Rosa simply shrugged. "It's not your fault, Doctor. I know you have your own reasons for helping the Count, but by helping him you help us too and that makes you a friend in our book."

"Did you know the Count personally?"

"Know him? No, I can't say I did. I've only seen him from a distance, and he has never spoken to me. Grandfather was the one who managed our business with the Master directly for the most part, but I remember the first time I laid eyes on him." By now Rosa's voice had taken on a dreamy quality, as if her mind had exited the here-and-now and immersed itself in the vivid recollections of a highly cherished memory.

"It was winter and the earth was covered with snow, and our Master's hair swiveled in the wind, looking as white and flowy as the snow itself. I longed so much to feel it with my hands, to find out if it was truly as soft as it looked, but I told no one, of course, and I knew Grandfather would scold me for my desires if he knew of them. Instead I made a promise to myself to ask the Count himself at an opportune moment, but it never came, and I never worked up the courage to ask him anything."

The girl's description of the Count as having white hair confused Victor, as the body he had dug up with the help of Valery and Mircae was definitely a brunet, but he did not voice his doubts, suspecting that they would only make Rosa even more insistent to see the corpse with her own two eyes. 

For a moment directly following her recollection Rosa looked embarrassed, as if she was ashamed to have shared such an intimate, childish wish so brazenly with a stranger and only now came to realize how it reflected on her. 

"I should go," Rosa said and proceeded to wipe her damp hands on her apron. A flush was still very much present on her cheeks, and her stiff, nervous posture suggested she couldn't wait to get out of Victor's sight. Did she believe she had simply said too much of the wrong things, or was it Victor's puzzled response to her childhood memory that had stirred this great urgency and sense of unease in the girl?

"You don’t have to go, Rosa," the doctor said softly. "I didn't mean to make you feel uneasy. Please, forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive," Rosa replied. "It was a little girl's silly dream, that's all. I never should have brought it up. But I really need to go home now. Mother needs me to take care of her and my new brother."

"Are you walking back home?"

The girl nodded, and Victor made a quick search through his pockets for something - anything - to give her for her efforts and was relieved to find some change left over from a previous trip to the market.

"Take this and buy yourself something that you've fancied," he said, placing three copper coins in Rosa's palm. "Don't tell your cousin or your grandfather. Let this be our secret." Victor was both pleased and relieved to see a smile on the girl's face, cautious though it was, and Rosa quickly pocketed the coins, almost like she was worried he might change his mind about the gift and demand it back. The doctor suspected that her people probably did not receive a lot of unconditional aid from members of the higher classes and were justifiably suspicious when such was offered.

"One more thing before you go, Rosa," Victor called out after the girl when she was already descending the set of stairs leading onto the courtyard, and she spun around, eyebrows raised in a questioning manner. "When we spoke of your new baby brother, you said you wished to name him after the Count. What is the Count's name?"

The girl snickered and gave him a look which would have declared Victor an imbecile under less amicable circumstances. "His name is Vlad. Vlad Dracula."

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Victor tied a rubber band around his left bicep and tightened it to the point of pain to try and get the veins in his arm to pop in what was by now a familiar procedure. Finding a viable injection site - something which had been so easy in the past before he ruined his veins - was becoming increasingly difficult, and Victor supposed he had his brief but very damaging cocaine habit to thank for at least some of his vascular scarring and atrophy.

He had conquered the need for the chemical stimulant, but what he'd actually done was substitute one addiction - one drug - for another. The only real difference was that his current drug of choice did not have a name yet, and he was the only man in the world who knew how to manufacture it.

Breathing heavily and trembling despite his best efforts not to, the doctor made a third attempt to insert the hypodermic needle into his brachial vein and cursed in frustration when it punctured the blood vessel and caused a rapidly swelling hematoma underneath the skin. He pressed a handkerchief against the bleeding site and felt momentarily appalled by the persistence of the nervous tremors that refused to go away despite today's already generous alcohol intake.

There was no denying it anymore; his body was building up a tolerance and needing larger and larger doses of it to function optimally. His current formula was effective on a short-term basis but also deeply flawed, and Victor was constantly racking his brain for ways to improve it, knowing that there was only so much he could raise the dosage before the negative side effects overrode the benefits and made the formula all but useless.

He'd already had one nearly fatal incident in the past, where an accidentally administered overdose of it had kicked his body's metabolism into overdrive and given him a raging fever which almost caused him to burn up from the inside out. Victor had attributed his survival of said accident to mere dumb luck, and he was neither naïve enough nor vain enough to believe he would be as lucky a second time.

Exhausted and frustrated, Victor gave up his attempts on the brachial vein and focused his attentions on another smaller vein on the back of his hand, which was not yet as damaged from constant attempts at injection. To his surprise and pleasure, the needle slipped in neatly on his first try and Victor slowly, carefully pressed down on the plunger until one milliliter of the syringe's contents had been delivered into his vascular circulation.

It needed to be administered into his bloodstream in steps to give his body ample time to process and absorb the catalyst - something Victor had also learned from experience with himself as the ever-present guinea pig. Another piece of learned knowledge was that a simultaneous infusion of amniotic fluid made the absorption process quicker and more effective, but this time he could not afford to use what little he had on himself. The pail of amniotic fluid Rosa had brought to him was earmarked for the Count, and Victor was honor-bound to keep it that way, particularly since there was no knowing when he might get the chance to acquire a new batch.

With a relieved sigh, the doctor pulled the needle out and began to flex the muscles in his arm to speed up the blood circulation and thus quicken the distribution of it. He planned to inject another milliliter in two hours and yet another just before midnight. It would be enough to induce some changes and hopefully endow him with an excess of energy for the grueling days of work ahead.

Though Victor's puncture of the backhand vein had been nigh-perfect, a large single drop of blood appeared at the site of the entry seconds after he withdrew the needle, and he found that his eyes were drawn to it, as if the swollen, trembling dome of red liquid was trying to communicate something to his brain. Then it struck him as suddenly and unexpectedly as a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky: during yesterday's autopsy, he had neglected to microscopically investigate the Count's blood.

The realization caused the doctor to bounce up from his seat like a tightly coiled spring and run up the stairs, taking the steps two or even three at a time. How could he have overlooked something so fundamental to modern medicine as a hematological analysis? The composition of the hemophage's blood might very well contain the secret to its long life and a whole host of other physical abilities out of reach to a normal man.

Victor uncovered the Count's body with a dramatic sweep of his arm and noted in passing that decomposition had still not set in. It was a promising sign, and thus his earlier omission to have Dracula's blood tested might not matter as much, if at all. Had the body been whole, he would have regarded the neck as the safest site for drawing blood from a corpse that lacked cardiac activity, but given the situation with the head being physically separate from the body, Victor chose to get his sample from one of the Count's arms instead. The vascular anatomy, he noted, was the same as that of a regular mortal man, and he mentally filed this information away, predicting that it might come in handy for future handling of the corpse.

Victor's hands were trembling from what he suspected was a combination of plain nervous excitement and an influence of it when he squeezed a few small drops of the strigoi's blood onto a microscope slide for immediate viewing. To a casual observer there was nothing peculiar or strange about the outward color or consistency of the blood sample except that it looked like it might have come from a live specimen rather than a dead one.

To avoid the risk of falling victim to any existing preconception or bias, Victor prepared another slide with blood from himself to serve as a direct comparison before finally viewing the Count's sample.

"This is… incredible," he murmured, astonished to the point that he felt the need to check that the sample under his microscope was indeed from the hemophage and not from something else, something… cold-blooded. Something belonging to the reptile kingdom.

Without taking his eyes from his shocking new discovery, Victor passed his free hand across the surface of the table in a fervent grab for his journal. He needed to document this, knowing with absolute certainty that the nature of the creature's blood would be instrumental to its resurrection process. The doctor mouthed the words as he wrote them down, harboring a strange and irrational fear that the discovery would slip through his fingers if he so much as looked away for a short moment.

"The red blood cells are large and unlike human blood, they contain a… nucleus, much like those found in reptiles and amphibians. They appear to have entered a state of hibernation, but the usual signs of cellular decay are not present… If they could somehow be reactivated, there is a distinct chance that their metabolic properties might be reinstated… and in turn induce life in the rest of the organism."

Blood is the life.

The phrase appeared in his mind for no apparent reason. Victor could not remember if he had ever heard it before, and if he had, it was certainly not in the context of modern medicine, and yet it made perfect sense, as if he had uncovered a secret of great magnitude without realizing that he had stumbled upon something significant.

Victor closed his eyes for a moment and tried his best to remember what he already knew about hematology and of possible ways to combine his existing knowledge with the practicalities of his newest discovery.

If the blood cells were like those of a reptile, the rest of the organism might also have reptilian features, the doctor reasoned, and he focused on remembering what he had learned about the scaly, cold-blooded beings from his early medical studies.

"It is likely that the creature has a naturally very slow metabolism, which could explain its extreme longevity. He would also have lightning fast reflexes and be capable of great bursts of sudden strength, however, since nucleated erythrocytes are not very efficient distributors of oxygen, he probably also tires easily, unless…"

Victor turned his reflections toward  his earlier findings from the Count's autopsy and what he had learned about the vampire's strangely short digestive system and atrophied large intestine. There answer to the riddle was close, so close, and he felt almost as if he could physically touch it before it once again danced out of his reach and taunted him from a distance.

"…unless the creature ingests blood cells from a warm-blooded organism to give power to his own."

The concept was so simple, but what exactly did it mean in the context of his research? Was the Count's blood capable of self-sustained life? Did this creature's blood carry and trade more elements than just oxygen?

On pure impulse, Victor decided to prick his finger and add a drop of his own blood to the sample containing Dracula's and then stuck the now mixed slide back underneath the lens of his microscope for immediate study. The resulting reaction was bizarre enough to warrant a double take. Instead of the predicted mixture of cells, Victor watched as the Count's larger red blood cells surrounded his own smaller ones and voraciously began to break them down and consume them.

"There appears to be some kind of… fusion." No, not fusion. Fusion implied a merging of sorts, and this was not about merging, nor was it about symbiosis where resources were equally shared between two parties. What he had just witnessed was consumption, pure and simple; predation on a microscopic level.

"On a macroscopic level, this means… this could mean that as long as the creature has access to fresh blood cells for digestion, his own will continue to thrive and… multiply." He knew that it should be impossible, and yet he had no reason to doubt his eyes or the subsequent interpretation offered by his feverishly processing brain. Once the Count's hungry blood cells had finished breaking down and assimilating Victor's own, they went through a process of cellular division known medically as mitosis.

"Good God…" the doctor murmured. A long string of saliva loosely connected to the corner of his mouth stretched like a piece of molten cheese before finally succumbing to the pull of gravity and landing in Victor's lap. "The tentative conclusion I have drawn from this discovery is that not only can this creature, this strigoi, use consistent digestion of blood as a way to prolong their natural lifespan, but they might also be capable of healing injuries which would otherwise be fatal to a man."

A sudden memory of a breed of lizard said to be able to re-grow lost limbs popped up in Victor's mind, and he wondered if his current subject would be capable of such advanced regeneration. The scientific possibilities of this being were perhaps truly endless.

The doctor finally averted his eyes from the microscope and stood up, figuring he could use a break. A glance at the clock told him that two hours had passed since his first injection of it and thus his body was ready for another dose. Something he did not look forward to was finding another viable injection site and the very real possibility of having to prick himself half a dozen times to get it right. Maybe sometime in the future, he might be able to manufacture a formula that could be ingested rather than injected. It would certainly make the delivery method less complicated, although there were other factors to consider, like foul taste. He could endure foul taste; after all, he had gradually habituated his taste buds to absinthe, but there was no such thing as a perfect or complete conversion of energy, and passing something through the digestive tract always produced… waste. Way too much of it, in Victor's opinion.

No matter what he did, the doctor could not shake the feeling that he was on the very precipice of a vital discovery. There had to be something here that he had overlooked, some piece of information, no more than a trifle, that might help him unlock the secret to reanimating the Count without having to resort to his old and patently flawed methods.

Galvanic resurrection was a chapter in his life that Victor was done with, and he firmly intended for it to stay that way. Never again would he condemn anyone to a permanent state of half-life induced by electric reanimation; it was a hellish existence of permanent disorder and delirium with synapses firing randomly in a chaotic wasteland of a mind devoid of purpose and direction. An existence where complete and incurable insanity was the only unavoidable consequence was a life - no, a state of being - not worth living. If he could not restore life in another way, he would refrain from doing it at all. This was a promise Victor had given both to himself and to God Almighty.

But what had he missed? The doctor walked over to the Count's supine corpse and hoped that perhaps a fresh view of his subject would help jog his memory. With the dirt washed away, Dracula's body was a vast expanse of perfect alabaster skin, broken only in places by the cuts for the autopsy. Victor had noted earlier that the elongated canines had returned to their previous "normal" length, although for some unexplained reason, the Count's mouth and eyes refused to stay shut.

"What are you trying to tell me?" Victor asked and leaned over the strigoi until their noses were practically touching, wishing he could physically pull the answer out of the other.

Now that he had confirmed the presence of biological activity in the Count's blood, there had to be something he could do to spread - to transfer - that activity to the rest of his body, to his organs, to his brain. Maybe the right phrase was to infect. He needed the blood - the life - to infect the surrounding tissues. The blood is the life. Of course.

It was time for another experiment. He had seen what the Count's blood could do when exposed to his own blood cells under a microscope, but he needed to observe the phenomenon on a macroscopic level to know for sure what exactly he was dealing with and how far it could be taken.

Working methodically and with a purpose, the doctor used a scalpel to inflict a long but shallow cut on his subject's right palm and watched intently as a crimson streak of blood emerged from the wound slowly, almost lazily. It was important not to let too much of the Count's blood go to waste, so Victor hurriedly made a similar cut into his own palm and proceeded to press their hands together, absently noting that even in death, Dracula's hands were soft and completely without calluses. They seemed like the hands of a true aristocrat who had not known a single day or hard physical labor, but Victor knew better than anyone that appearances could be deceiving, and these soft, effeminate hands had most likely done things most men would recoil from in disgust. 

Blood brothers.

He and the Count were now blood brothers. Victor wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it, but instead he reluctantly reminisced the clumsy, childish bonding ritual he had once engaged in with Henry Clerval, where the two of them had pricked their thumbs and then pressed them together, swearing one another eternal fealty. Look how well that turned out.

Eager for results of any kind, Victor closely examined the Count's hand after making sure that at least some of his blood had entered the wound, but there was nothing aside from the lack of decay that suggested the flesh was in any way biologically active. Victor felt a pang of intense disappointment. Was this another occasion where he had gotten ahead of himself and assumed way too much based on far too little?

What he really wanted to do right now was to numb the brewing disappointment with some more alcohol, but it was a bad idea, as he needed to be sober enough to give himself another two injections of it before the night was over.

This time it took him three attempts to get access to a vein in his forearm that was sturdy enough to serve as an injection site, and by the time he was done, the doctor was nothing short of horrified at the state of his arm. Most of the pinpricks could be concealed from view if he kept the sleeves of his shirt permanently rolled down, but he could not discount the possibility that some of them would continue to bleed long after the bleeding ought to have stopped. It had rejuvenating capacities beyond anything he had previously tried, but one of the unfortunate side effects was reduced clotting.

Speaking of… Clotting. Coagulation. It suddenly occurred to Victor that he had forgotten to bandage the self-inflicted cut on his palm, and moments later he also realized that there was neither bleeding nor pain from the wound. Amazed, he turned to look at the state of it, and the feeling of shock increased when he saw that the wound appeared as though it had been inflicted one day rather than one hour ago. A well-developed, protective crust had formed around the edges, and instead of the usual angry red swelling, the surrounding tissues had taken on a yellow coloration reminiscent of an old bruise. Victor knew from experience that bruises did not take on a yellow or green shade until a minimum of forty-eight hours had passed, and even then they tended to turn blue before turning green. He gently balled his hand into a fist to see if the pain would return when the wound was put under mechanical pressure, but there was nothing, not even a moment of dull throbbing.

Was this a new and unexpected side effect of it, or was the cause something else entirely? Victor was both excited and scared at the potential gravity of the situation. He warily approached the Count's body, knowing that according to the fundamental laws of nature, there was nothing for him to fear from a corpse that had been beheaded on top of having had its heart physically removed. However, another voice in his head, representing a deeper, more primal part, gently reminded him that the laws of nature did not apply to this being or whatever it was that kept it from dying properly.

Natural laws, such as they were, could not be broken, but they certainly could be circumvented to accommodate the will of man, and this was for all accounts and purposes one such occasion.

Victor lifted the Count's hand to inspect the cut he had inflicted earlier, and as predicted, all of the blood - his as well as the Count's own - had been reabsorbed and seemingly induced tissue regeneration far surpassing that which had occurred in the doctor himself. Due to the lack of cardiac activity and subsequent absence of blood circulation, the tissue regeneration was restricted to a limited and confined area, leaving the rest of the organism untouched by the healing hematologic properties. If Victor could restore cardiac function and artificially replace some of the blood that had been lost in the beheading process, there was a chance he could induce systemic reanimation entirely through biochemical means without having to fall back on galvanism and electricity.

Until now, Victor had never believed this to be remotely within the realm of possibility, and while there were multiple unknown factors and some uncalculated variables, there was a chance - admittedly slim - that it actually might work.

To summarize it plainly, he needed to get the Count a replacement heart - preferably from a recently deceased donor - that still had enough biological activity to be responsive to a dose of it.

"No wonder they always burn your kind…" the doctor mumbled, simultaneously terrified and in awe of the tempestuous, deceptively placid power of the creature on his table. He could practically feel the raw, sumptuous energy emanating from the strigoi, unhampered by the concept of death, as if it was nothing but a temporary hindrance. Victor was not quite ready to believe that a gift such as this had been summarily dropped on his lap, and if there was one lesson Victor Frankenstein had learned from his mistakes it was to never take things for granted. Everything had a price; it was only the nature of the price that was negotiable.

"It's the only way to be sure."

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

In theory, acquisition of a suitable donor heart for the Count was an easy and straight-forward task, but in practice it turned out to be something entirely different. Three visits to the morgue in just as many days, and each time Victor had been forced to leave unsatisfied and empty-handed, not having found a suitable donor corpse. They were all either too old, too young, too mangled, too diseased, or any combination of the above that made them unfit for the function.

Each morgue visit, which was always precluded by a sizable bribe to the mortician in charge, also left the doctor himself progressively poorer, and unless something changed quickly, Victor suspected he would soon be unable to afford the visits. Money, no matter how one felt about it, was what made the world turn and literally unlocked doors.

Everyone, from the richest prince to the poorest pauper, did what they could to benefit financially from a situation, and although he would have liked to imagine otherwise, Victor knew he was no different. If only men like him could have had the option of trading in pure knowledge rather than money or liquid assets, and Victor might have felt somewhat less alienated by society. However, as long as money was the currency of the realm, a man's creative output would always be heavily dependent on the depth of his pockets. It was not fair. In fact it was a mockery of the concept of fairness.

There were moments when Victor's tormented soul longed almost painfully for the vibrant, casual excesses he had grown up with; the opulent ballrooms, the delicious food, the presence of a whole host of servants at his beck and call, unconditionally loyal and ready to do their master's bidding at the blink of an eye… Everything that he had traded for this…

Enlightenment.

If he succeeded in resurrecting the Count, surely he would be handsomely compensated? Victor knew he ought not to make assumptions, especially concerning matters that involved a notoriously fickle vampire Boyar and his troupe of fierce Szgany warriors. So far, however, the gypsies had been nothing but trustworthy in their dealings with him, and Victor had no reason to doubt their loyalty toward their undead Master, and by that extension, toward him. "Loyal to the death" was more than just a figure of speech to these people; it was their purpose in life - in this one and the next.

"Your previous creatures have not exactly been grateful for their monstrous births," a sneering, accusatory voice spoke inside Victor's head, somehow managing to sound exactly like the odious, spiteful and jealous Professor Krempe mocking him from beyond the grave.

"What makes you think this one will be any different? Frankenstein, you fool! This obsession has already destroyed everything you have ever loved or cared about, and yet you go on creating more of these abominations and inflicting them upon mankind? Have you become so estranged from humanity that you cannot recognize what you're doing? It's not too late yet to undo your latest mistake. Burn the vampire cadaver and banish those ideas from your mind. Be a man for once, Frankenstein, and take responsibility for your deeds."

"No, you're wrong, Krempe," Victor replied audibly even though the only voice that could be heard was his own. "It will be different this time. He is different. He is not like the rest. I can bring him back as he was. He's still alive! He only needs a small push to help him… restart. Let me do this. I can prove you wrong. I will prove you wrong!"

Krempe's voice had gone quiet, but Victor's thoughts most certainly had not; they continued to haunt him like an ever-present and never-silent phantom. It had not seriously occurred to him until now that Dracula might not thank him for his efforts, let alone be willing to compensate him for them, but Victor realized that it did not matter either way. If he did not seize this opportunity, he would suffer through a lifetime - or several - of regret.

The doctor prepared for his daily visit to the morgue with the purpose to least look somewhat presentable. He took it upon himself to shave and dressed in his finest suit, which had become alarmingly loose on his increasingly thinning frame. Victor wondered morosely if his finances would ever allow him to have another high-quality suit custom-tailored for himself. Perhaps he should take special care and not wear out the ones that were still in his possession.

How many tailored outfits did the Count have? Victor had vivid memories of the heavily adorned golden burial robes the corpse had been wearing when Victor and the gypsies disinterred it. Even though the fabric had been ripped to facilitate removal, the garment would be easy to repair, and if he became really desperate for money, he always had the option to pry off the gemstones and pawn them.

…but only if it became absolutely necessary and he had exhausted all other options. Pawning things he did not own did not sit well with Victor Frankenstein, regardless of the circumstances. Besides, with the amount of malicious gossip and rumors about him already circulating in the area, it was in his own best interest not to do things that added fuel to the fire, and pawning gemstones that someone of his standing could not have acquired through legal means was certainly one such thing.

When the doctor exited his poorly ventilated apartment there was a new shock waiting for him. A large rat had been nailed to his door together with a bloodied piece of paper carrying a most unambiguous message - the words "Geh Raus" written in German.

"Get out". No signature. It wasn't as if he needed one to understand the message or to deduce who had expressed a desire for him to leave. His time in this town was quickly nearing its end, but Victor refused to leave until he had completed his work.

The doctor freed the rat and threw its mangled, bloodless little carcass to the ground, thinking that maybe a cat or a flock of carrion birds would find it and use it to feed their young. He then crumpled up the note and threw it away also, and briefly considered leaving the knife where it was. He had his autopsy toolkit which included an array of sharp, pointy objects; excellent weapons if one had them ready at hand, but with them tucked away in a box, Victor was painfully aware of how exposed he would be if he was assaulted out on the street. He needed a readily accessible weapon to defend himself against an assailant, or perhaps even more than one.

After wiping most of the rat blood away, Victor pocketed the knife and threw a cursory look around before descending the steps, as if he were a convict on the run instead of a legitimate tenant exiting his rooms. He was used to this way of life.

Victor made it to the morgue without being assaulted or accosted, although he could have sworn that a pair of women he passed on the street gave him dirty looks. Either that or he was becoming paranoid beyond reason and would soon jump at the sight of his own shadow. Neither was a desirable option, and Victor could only pray that he would be able to get out of his town before either came to pass.

"Doctor Frankenstein, what an honor. I'm always pleased to see you," said Florian, a tall, blond, and blue-eyed young man who had recently acquired a position as a mortuary assistant. Officially he was an apprentice, but if Victor knew Florian well, the boy was ill-suited for the job even if he himself had not yet realized it. Too spontaneous, too… vivacious. Not the right temperament to spend most of his life in the company of the dead. On the plus side, Florian was easy to bribe, as he felt no real loyalty toward his office or even his employer. 

The greeting was followed by Florian's outstretched hand, eagerly awaiting his bribe, which Victor knew the young man would spend tonight on drinks and women.

"Good day, Florian," he said. "We've seen a lot of each other lately, haven't we?"

"What I see or don't see while you're here is none of my business, Doctor," Florian said with a theatrical shrug. "As long as I'm appropriately compensated for my silence, you may rely on me."

With a sigh, the doctor passed him the stack of coins and the youth's smile widened into a grin.

Victor briefly wondered if Florian had yet contracted syphilis from his frequent visits to the brothels. Had his work not depended on Florian's cooperation, he might have been tempted to ask.

Sometimes Victor felt immense gratitude to whatever God he could think of for not making the desire for female companionship one of his personal vices, plentiful though they were. Considering how prone to excesses he was when he did decide to indulge, Victor was sure he would have contracted every venereal disease in existence had women been one of his vices.

Florian walked his visitor down one set of stairs to the underground floor where the bodies were stored. The ambient temperature was low, around seven degrees centigrade, to postpone the rate of decomposition in the bodies, although it was impossible to dampen the pervasive smell of death that was practically omnipresent in every room of a mortuary. Hospitals, too, were typically infested with this smell, albeit to a lesser degree, partially camouflaged by other unpleasant bodily odors, such as urine and vomit. The stench did not bother Victor all that much; he supposed that spending so much time around corpses had habituated his nose to the smell of death and decay. Or perhaps he was slowly transforming into a ghoul himself.

"Half an hour, Doctor, like you requested," Florian piped up and pulled Victor from his thoughts. When he turned to face the boy, there was a nasty, almost indecent grin on Florian's face. "What you do during your thirty minutes is not anybody's business, but I would advise you not to leave… fluids."

"You're disgusting, Florian, as always," Victor replied, and even though his voice had sounded calm to his ears, he almost instantly regretted having dignified the vulgar jab with an answer. He had earnestly been called many things in his long life, including a necrophile, but he knew Florian had said it purely to get a rise out of his visitor.

"Now leave me."

Victor did not turn his head to see Florian leave, but he heard the youth's noisy footsteps ascend the stairs followed by the sound of a door closing. He was alone.

There were six bodies in the room, three of which he had already ruled unsuitable for the purpose of heart donation yesterday. Now he had thirty minutes… nay, twenty-eight minutes, if his sense of time was to trust, to examine the three new ones and hopefully find a match.

How badly Victor wished he had not given up his pocket watch! It was more to him than an instrument for tracking time, and over the years it had melded with him on an almost physical level and morphed into an organ necessary for survival.

Perhaps, if he succeeded in resurrecting the Count, he could somehow convince Valery Ionescu to give the watch back to him. No, it was a silly wish. The old gypsy had probably sold the watch the same day he acquired it. Victor forced his thoughts back to the present and the task he had taken upon himself to accomplish. It needed his complete and undivided attention.

The first body he uncovered was that of an old man, and although the apparent status of the body was enough to tell Victor that he was not looking at a suitable candidate, he skimmed over the information scribbled down on the corpse's toe-tag anyway.

Name: Flavius Albescu. Age: Seventy-three. Cause of death: Massive myocardial infarction.

A heart attack, then. Occlusion of the coronary arteries. Probably not even the old man's first, but definitely his last. Heart damaged to the point of uselessness. Useless to him too, as he'd suspected. Victor tried not to let his frustration get the better of him, but it was hard to continue to find inspiration in a world that seemed to actively work against him at every turn.

The second newly arrived body was that of a woman, and judging from her body temperature, coloration and lack of rigor mortis, it had not been long since she passed on. This perked Victor's interest; he had not given prior consideration to a heart transplant between the sexes until now, but from what he could tell, the woman before him was tall, well-built and in excellent physical condition, and he saw no obvious reason as to why her heart would not be fit to beat in the chest of a male recipient.

The toe-tag details identified the female corpse as Maria Simonescu, age twenty-three, with the cause of death listed as severe hemorrhaging from a difficult childbirth. Victor hoped that the absence of a newborn cadaver meant that the child had survived, but he knew it was unlikely. A more likely scenario was that the dead child had been put in the ground as quickly as humanly possible and not even made it to the morgue for practical reasons.

Well aware of the time pressure, Victor made the not altogether easy decision to let the woman's heart remain within her. It was possible that he would come to regret it if a more suitable cadaver did not arrive shortly, and skipping this opportunity also meant he would not be able to observe the effects of a female heart in a man's body. Perhaps, hopefully, after he had successfully resurrected the Count and been readily reimbursed for his troubles, he could devote more time and attention to this particular line of study.

Victor knew he could discount the third corpse as soon as he laid eyes on its shape underneath the sheet which covered it. Its size was not that of a man, or even a woman, but a child, and therefore all organs were useless by default - too small and underdeveloped to fill the void left in a grown man's chest. Victor did not even bother to uncover the child cadaver, but out of morbid curiosity he checked the toe-tag and felt a very short-lived surge of triumph at having guessed the child's age correctly. It was a boy of eleven, who'd had the misfortune of dying from a bee sting.

Allergic disease, no doubt.

"Poor mite," Victor murmured, and a sudden, most unwelcome memory of his own younger brother's pitiful, mangled corpse flashed through his mind. An innocent, vibrant soul, snuffed out like a candle much too early… by a creature Victor Frankenstein himself had given life.

There was nothing here for him today either. He had, perhaps unwisely, promised Valery Ionescu and his Szgany clan to have their Master brought back to life within a fortnight, and despite the fact that he had made a series of groundbreaking discoveries, he had nothing tangible to show for it. Five more days, and Victor Frankenstein would once again be forced to admit defeat.

The doctor prepared to leave the morgue, his bag of autopsy instruments unopened and the tools themselves unused, when suddenly the cellar door was flung open with a loud bang, startling Victor so badly that he failed to hold back a cry of alarm. Florian was the first to enter and gave his foreign visitor another amicable greeting, as if his job was to manage a bar or a tavern instead of a place that housed dead bodies until they could be interred.

"Still here, Doctor?" Florian said, and his smile, which had seemed cordial on first glance morphed into a smug smirk. "Didn't find what you were looking for today either, I take it?"

"I didn't pay you to ask questions," Victor snapped back more irately than he intended. "If I need to make a confession, I will find myself a priest. I was about to leave, anyway. Good day to you, Master Florian."

Victor was about to stomp up the stairs and not reward the cocky young mortician's assistant with another look, but the sound of a second pair of footsteps caught his attention and made him realize someone else had accompanied Florian into the room. This person in turn was pushing a gurney occupied by a fully visible, uncovered corpse, which, from the state of it, appeared to belong to a man who had died a violent death. His blood-soaked shirt sported the telltale circular rose bloom patterns of gunshot wounds to the stomach and chest, and although wounds of this kind were invariably fatal, there was no telling if the heart itself had been damaged by the bullets. Victor would have to crack open his ribcage to find out.

The man, or rather boy, who had accompanied Florian froze at the sight of the doctor and quickly lowered his eyes when Victor sought his gaze.

"Now come, Tomas," Florian cajoled, his countenance and tone of voice affable enough but also containing a hint of something more sinister underneath. "Say hello to Doctor Frankenstein. He is a frequent patron of this morgue."

The boy, whose dark eyes and nut-brown complexion suggested he was one of the Szgany people, raised a tentative hand in greeting but did not speak. He still refused to look either the doctor or Florian in the eye.

"He's a deaf-mute, Doctor," Florian interjected. "Caught brain fever as a child and never fully recovered. He can hear just enough to read lips, but it's never held him back, has it, Tomas? He is a workhorse, this one. Strong like an ox and obedient like a dog. My master has promised Tomas bed and board here as long as he's able and willing to help us with the maintenance and transport of the bodies. He's needed now, as we just got two new tenants!"

Florian and Tomas proceeded to lift the newly arrived male corpse onto an autopsy table, exited briefly, and to Victor's surprise and ill-concealed excitement, returned shortly wheeling yet another body between them.

If possible, this one was even more damaged than the first. A young man, like his unfortunate fellow arrival, whose skull was badly crushed and features eradicated to the point of making him unrecognizable even to his own mother. A horse's hoof print was plainly visible on the side of his face that was still relatively intact, suggesting that the devastating injuries had been acquired in a horseback riding accident.

An immediate ocular inspection revealed that the man's neck was broken. The outlines of multiple shattered vertebrae were visible through the skin of his hideously twisted neck. One of his ears had been almost completely torn off, and was now attached to his head only through a narrow flap of skin. A viscous, opaque fluid, a dull yellow in color, steadily leaked out of a tennis ball-sized hole in his head. This caught the doctor's attention, and when Victor leaned in for a closer look, he could observe the exposed brain tissue, pink and still pulsating, within the corpse's irreparably cracked cranium. The corpse before him was no corpse at all in a purely technical sense; its heart, in a demonstration of futility, was still beating in spite of the apparent demise of the brain and cessation of all brain functions.

Victor Frankenstein had finally, by pure chance, stumbled upon a veritable goldmine.

"Get out of here!" he barked at Florian, and the young mortician's assistant recoiled in a mixture of surprise and fright, not having expected this sort of reaction from the normally docile, phlegmatic Frankenstein. Florian, however, quickly shook off the surprise and countered with a few demands of his own.

"You got your thirty minutes. If you want more of my time, it'll cost you," Florian stated with his arms crossed over his chest in an attempt to project what Victor assumed was casual, leisurely confidence. Someone less perceptive than he might have bought it without question.

Any money he gave Florian would be quickly spent on the youth's many vices, that much he knew. The reason Florian was still able to do the work required of him was mainly due to the fact that more often than not, he lacked the financial means to embark on reckless spending sprees meant to satisfy his taste for worldly pleasures. How many times had he arrived late with a massive hangover, unfit to do the work he was assigned after a wet, raucous night spent in a tavern or a whorehouse? How many times had the mortician forgiven his wayward apprentice and decided to give him just one more chance? Victor found himself hoping, not without some malice, that perhaps he could speed up Florian's dismissal from his post by giving him a good deal of money to spend.

He had scheduled two more errands for this outing, but if he paid Florian double wages, he would have to forfeit one of them. Canceling the visit to the apothecary's shop was unthinkable, but he could survive without renewing his storage of tea and fresh produce. Victor held out a silver ducat toward the young mortician's apprentice and noted with a sense of grim satisfaction how the gleam in Florian's icy blue eyes grew to reflect his greed.

When the youth reached for the coin, however, Victor snatched his hand back.

"One hour, and I must not be disturbed," he stated. "Not by anyone, including your master. Is that clear?"

"I can't control my master's comings and goings," Florian objected. "…but I'll do my best to distract him if he intends to enter here," he added after a short staring match between the two men. The young man quickly pocketed the silver coin, but instead of leaving according to the agreement and taking Tomas with him, he sidled over to Victor until their shoulders were practically touching and then bent over to whisper in his ear.

"You know, Doctor Frankenstein, if it's young men you fancy, I could get you an hour with Tomas, if he's to your liking. I know he's a gypsy, and he's not the cleanest or most handsome of boys, but he's compliant, and you can be certain he'll never tell another living soul. I'm sure you could even make him play dead, if that's your… preference, hmm?"

Florian smiled again, a lewd, salacious grin, and Victor wondered how he could have ever thought of this asinine, smutty, filthy-minded creature as anything close to sympathetic. Had he been free to act on his impulses, he would have pounced on Florian and left him with two black eyes and a nose that would need manual resetting by a third party to ever resemble a nose again, but Victor had no such freedom, and whether he liked it or not, he still needed Florian's cooperation to succeed with this. 

"One hour, no disruptions," the doctor ground out, removing the hand resting on his shoulder with perhaps more force than was strictly necessary. Florian seemed to get the hint and his smile morphed into a somewhat pained grimace. He rubbed the fingers Victor had squeezed and gave the most cursory of nods before leaving the morgue cellar with Tomas in tow. Hopefully the boy had not understood enough of the exchange to make sense of it, but Victor knew it was highly unlikely that he was the first man Florian had offered Tomas' services.

Taking a few seconds to establish that he was really alone, Victor immediately got to work. The man with the crushed skull no longer drew breath, but his heart, which was strong, so very strong, was still dutifully beating inside his chest, albeit more slowly now, irregularly, as if it wasn't sure what to do anymore without feedback from the brain.

When the doctor made the first incision into the dying man's chest, there was predictably a rush of blood, reminding him that he was not working on a cadaver, but someone who was technically still alive.

"You're a corpse with a pulse," Victor said to counter the reprimanding voice in his head. "Nothing more."

He sank the scalpel deeper until he came across a rib. Blood flowed out of the cut, soiling Victor's hands and shirt-sleeves, and he cursed himself for the decision to wear his best suit. Well, he hadn't exactly been able to predict he would be working with a… what was this, exactly? A headless automaton? Granted, the head had not been separated from the body, but it was damaged to the point that its existence was inconsequential.

Victor, though it made his stomach turn, turned his attention to the mangled head to see if the visible brain tissue still pulsated in turn with the ever-weakening heartbeats. What he saw shocked him badly enough to make him lose his hold on the scalpel, and it fell to the floor with a dull clang, splashing a few drops of blood on Victor's shoes.

The young man's eye - the one that had not been pushed out of its socket and hung, unseeing, on what was left of his cheek - was fixed on Victor with poised, terrible focus. Blood ringed the iris, whose original color might have been blue or teal. It was difficult to tell now, especially as the pupil had swelled and expanded to cover most of the iris, giving the illusion of a black marble swimming in a sea of red.

Death throes, Victor's racing mind reminded him. It was one of the first things he had learned in medical school and one of the easiest concepts to grasp. The dying body's final attempts to combat the inevitable with everything it had. Often followed by…

The sickening, pungent smell of a dying man's last bowel movement filled the air moments after, and although everything in Victor screamed to break eye contact and look away, something about that single, bloodied eye paralyzed him and forced him to hold the gaze of the man he had started to cut open whilst he was still alive.

Impossible as it ought to have been with his neck not only broken but shattered in multiple locations, the man made an attempt to twist his head. His mouth opened and emitted a wet, guttural noise followed by a bubble of blood and saliva which grew until it resembled a baby fist-sized red nightmare balloon. Victor stared at it, mesmerized, until the bubble finally burst and sprayed the doctor's face in tiny droplets of blood.

"Frreeeeaahhhhh…" the dying man said, opening and closing his mouth several times in rapid succession like a fish out of water. Some more attempts at forming syllables followed, and in that moment Victor could have sworn the man was trying to say his name, but his rational mind, temporarily on vacation, rebelled fiercely against that conclusion as soon as it regained mastery of his senses.

"It's alright, my friend," Victor said in German and took the man's hand and squeezed it, dimly aware that there was no possible way for him to feel it considering the spinal injury - no, spinal destruction - but he did it anyway, and he noted, oddly relieved, that the man seemed to relax.

The hand Victor had grasped did not grip back, which was only natural, but something else briefly caught the doctor's attention. The man had a tattoo on his wrist, fairly beautiful and elaborately crafted, and a far cry from the sloppy needlework one could expect to find on the bodies of former convicts or sailors. The design was somewhat difficult to work out through the smears of dried blood and grime, but it was possible that it represented a phoenix. Yes, he could see it now; a winged phoenix with more than one tail, surrounded by flames.

The glassy but concentrated look in the unfortunate man's one functioning eye lost its sharpness and became increasingly vacant, unseeing, empty… until he expired noisily for the last time, and now there was no question that he was truly dead. Just to make absolutely sure, the doctor pressed his ear against the corpse's chest, and as he'd predicted, there was no heartbeat. Death had occurred.

Even though he was undeniably still in a state of shock from the macabre experience, Victor's mind quickly switched off the part of his brain that dealt in sentiment and proceeded with his business with razor-sharp focus and stalwart determination. The heart was no longer beating, and it was therefore of vital importance that he moved quickly and got it out before tissue decay had a chance to set in. Victor Frankenstein knew from experience that a human heart, if kept cool, lasted approximately eight hours before it accrued too much damage from oxygen deprivation to be of use to the recipient. This meant he had eight hours, starting now, to get this heart out of the corpse's chest and into the Count's.

With hands that trembled ever so slightly, Victor produced another unsullied scalpel out of his toolkit bag, and when he cut into the body this time, bleeding was minimal.

Eight hours. He'd need to use his internal clock, admittedly quite accurate, to judge the passage of time until he arrived home. Once again Victor was reminded of how ardently he missed his damn pocket watch.

 

To be continued... 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Eight hours.

Well, closer to seven by the time Victor managed to return to his laboratory. He had carefully packaged the donor heart into a box of ice literally seconds after removing it from the newly deceased man's ribcage, but there was no denying that he was working within an extremely narrow timeframe.

Fortunately for everyone, Victor Frankenstein came well prepared. There was no way in Hell he would let this amazing window of opportunity slip through his fingers. Having resisted his compulsion to drink alcohol for many nights in favor of staying sober and attentively perusing every existing anatomy textbook in his admittedly quite sizable collection of medical literature, Victor could proudly state that he'd done his very best to prepare for this Herculean task.

The rest was up to the Fates. 

In preparation for the impending surgical procedure, the doctor had devoted a special amount of time and attention to the chapters that featured the anatomy of the human neck. The form and function of the arteries and veins, the shape and tissue types of the trachea and esophagus, the connection of the spinal cord to the brainstem… All of it vital knowledge when one set out on a mission to reattach a severed head.

There was, of course, no guarantee that his experiment would work, and if it did, no one knew what would come out of it. He might get the Count's new heart to beat, but fail to restore any kind of consciousness or sentience to the mind. A worse outcome was, God forbid, that an infusion of Victor's blood induced healing in the brain but not in the severed spinal cord, thus rendering the subject unable to feel or move his body beneath the neck. And an even more heinous possibility was that he somehow managed to reanimate the body but restore none of the Count's previous mental faculties.

Valery Ionescu's words about his master echoed in Victor's mind.

"To be reanimated as this mindless ghoul, knowing nothing about his past or his ways… He would not wish it."

Victor had, loath as he was to admit it, dealt with far too many variations of the last-mentioned problem already. He had experience by now; enough of it to know how to deal with them quite efficiently. Despite greatly enhanced physical strength, Galvanic reanimants were typically slow and clumsy. Uncoordinated. And, of course, stupid. He was quicker, smarter, and in many ways, also stronger. It was easy to overpower them. He'd press a rag drenched in chloroform or ether against their face to subdue them, and once their body had grown limp and stopped struggling, he'd inject a lethal dose of morphine straight into the jugular vein. Victor was always well-stocked on those drugs, and presently was no exception. If the Count came back like that, he would do the same to him.

How much morphine would be needed to kill a man with such a strange and unfamiliar - almost reptilian - metabolism? Victor had learned from his early reptile trials that the animals often appeared to be dead without actually being dead and fooled the experimenter into discarding them too early. He held on to that particular piece of knowledge, thinking it might be of significance later on. His hunches were usually correct or at least came very close to the truth.

Not that it would matter, Victor decided. He would not take any chances with the strigoi. If the reanimation failed or produced something monstrous, he would separate the head from the body and burn the remains.

It's the only way to be sure.

No one, least of all Valery Ionescu, would ever know about the experiment. He would tell the gypsy that things had not worked out in their favor and that he had been forced to abort and discard the project. There was always the risk that if Ionescu learned about his master's resurrection, he would side with the Count even if the latter was… changed. Malfunctioning. Uncontrollable. Dangerous.

"You could bring him back exactly as he was, and he'd still be dangerous," Victor said to himself and hardly even realized he was mouthing the words out loud. It was not Krempe's contemptuous voice speaking now, but rather Henry Clerval's cautious, guarded, mildly disapproving one. Victor allowed it to speak, but he had made up his mind, and the dominant part of his psyche was already forming counterarguments.

"Valery Ionescu said the Count was a fair and reasonable man toward his tenants and servants. If one treats the lower classes well, that also speaks well of a man's character. The Count lives, Valery and his clan will get their Master back, and I will head an unprecedented scientific breakthrough which will hopefully change the world as we know it. Everybody wins."

He had work to do. There would be time for internal debates with himself later. Hopefully. 

Victor made sure to eat a full meal to provide proper nourishment for his soon-to-be laboring hands and brain, but he refrained from drink of any kind, as he could hardly afford the pressing distractions caused by a full bladder if he wanted to succeed with this extremely delicate and time-consuming surgical procedure.

He had drawn sketches in preparation, page after page, obsessively detailing the various steps involved in the theoretical reattachment of the tissues in the neck. Bit by bit, he would build the Count up, starting with the arteries and veins, followed by the trachea and esophagus, and lastly an admittedly experimental surgical fusion of the spinal cord. Once all this was completed, Victor would surely be nearing the end of his eight-hour window, and he would probably only have time for rudimentary suturing of the surrounding muscles and ligaments.

The existing surgical techniques were crude and inadequate, but if the Count's blood truly possessed the vast regenerative capabilities Frankenstein had witnessed firsthand, there was a distinct possibility that the spinal cord could mend itself and restore full mobility and sensation to the rest of the body. He had to believe it. Victor had faith in himself, both as a physician and as an ethical being. If the experiment failed, he would make a diagnosis and… deal with it. Clean and simple.

Even though surgery was not the specialty young Victor Frankenstein had initially wanted to pursue, it had become his calling, and when he picked up a scalpel with the intention of cutting into human flesh, his hand was remarkably steady. Now was no exception, and his perfectly honed fine motor skills, meticulous focus and unrivaled perceptional acuity were all talents which lent themselves well to the task of manually reconnecting the large blood vessels and stitching their ragged ends together.

The arteries were the easy part. Their thick, well-muscled walls, tough and rubbery, were easily held together by the sutures. The veins proved to be somewhat more of a challenge given their thin, flaccid and translucent structure, which made them both harder to manipulate and harder to suture.

Oh, well. The work he did now did not have to be perfect, it only had to be good enough to support blood flow to and fro the brain until the Count's blood had had a chance to work its regenerative magic.

Magic. Was that the right word? His enemies would call it sorcery, or black magic. Perhaps even necromancy. Victor himself was inclined to believe that magic did not exist. It was simply a descriptive  and somewhat derogatory term for that which exceeded the understanding of lesser minds.

After almost three hours of intense focus, Victor could not deny any longer that he needed a break and somewhat shakily withdrew his hands from the surgical site. He had covered the Count's face with a linen towel and his body below the collarbones with a sheet to rid himself of unnecessary distractions which might impact the quality and precision of his work. The fact that the man's eyes refused to stay closed was reason enough to resort to this. Victor had never worked well with an audience present, and least of all when his audience and his patient were the one and the same.

Patient.

Was that what this was? Was there a moment in time when the body before him had become a "patient" rather than just raw materials? If there was, Victor was not consciously aware of it. Just as well. Now was not the time for ethical reflection.

With a sigh, the doctor pushed his magnifying goggles up and used a handkerchief to wipe the budding pearls of sweat off his brow. He was finished knitting together all of the important arteries and most of the veins, but there were still many more structures that needed to be dealt with before he could turn his focus to the cardiac issue, and he had less than three hours left to get to that point.

The doctor swallowed a few sips of lukewarm, strongly caffeinated tea and returned to his work. His hands were back to being steady.

There was a sudden noise of loud, almost violent banging on his door, which startled Victor and nearly caused him to drop his suturing needle down the Count's partially exposed trachea. An instant feeling of panic swept through the doctor like an all-consuming wave of black, crude oil, and he realized he had not prepared for this scenario at all. Who could possibly want something from him at this hour, and what was their business? Had the hostile townspeople who'd nailed the dead rat to his door this morning come back with even more sinister intentions? 

Victor instinctively held his breath to avoid making any sounds, which was admittedly ludicrous, given that the individual banging on his door would not be able to hear him through the walls regardless. They had to know he was home. Perhaps they had been spying on him and seen him enter the building or deduced that he was home by observing the light in his windows.

The banging continued, now louder and possibly even more urgent. Victor accepted that he had go down there and confront the person - or persons - on the other side of the door. Whomever this was, they were not fooled by his original pretense of having vacated the house.

With his heart clapping furiously in his chest, Victor nonetheless wrestled his burgeoning panic into submission and went through a short list of potential excuses he could use to quickly dismiss his visitor. He removed his surgeon's apron and sloppily washed his bloodstained hands but held on to the scalpel, and with his left hand hidden behind his back, he descended the stairs to receive the person on the other side of the door.

Victor considered smiling but ultimately decided against it, as a smile on his face right now would undoubtedly resemble a grinning Greek theatre mask more than a genuine expression of mirth. Instead he conditioned his features into a neutral expression of polite interest and had the words "how may I help you?" on his tongue as he turned the key and opened the door approximately ten inches.

Behind the door stood Valery Ionescu, fist still raised in a pounding motion. The sudden loss of contact with the surface he had been thumping on caused him to almost strike Victor in the chin. The doctor's first assumption was that the old Szgany man had come to beat him up or worse, but he quickly realized that it was an erroneous conclusion when he took in the appearance of Valery. The old man had not heard him approach, probably because he was in what could only be described as a massive amount of distress.

"Herr Doctor!" Valery exclaimed with a glazed and almost feral look in his one unclouded eye, which reminded Victor of a horse that was ready to bolt. Considering the state of his visitor, the metaphor  might not be too far from the truth. The gypsy patriarch wore the same ornate clothing now as he had worn during their first meeting inside the coach, but the similarities ended there; then Valery had appeared neat and well-groomed. Now he looked like he had rolled around aimlessly in the same nearly black soil from which they disinterred the Count.

"Valery?" Victor asked guardedly and tightened his grip on the scalpel behind his back. "What's the matter? Has something happened?"

The gypsy opened his mouth to reply, but his voice was broken by a coughing fit so violent that he nearly doubled over and lost his footing. Victor used his unoccupied hand to support him and keep him from toppling, and with a slow, terrible certainty it dawned on him that Valery reeked of smoke and the black substance the doctor had assumed to be dirt was not dirt at all, but soot.

Valery grasped the doctor's shirtfront, leaving stains that would require strong chemicals to remove, but at the moment neither man cared about such trivial matters. When the worst of the fit had passed, Valery made a new attempt at speaking, and this time he was more successful even though his voice was noticeably hoarse from smoke inhalation.

"It's gone, Herr Doctor, all of it - gone! Do you hear me? Castle Dracula has been looted and burned to the ground. It's no more. All of my Master's riches have been stolen and his home destroyed! We tried to stop them, we truly did. But they were too many and our weapons were no match against theirs. And my son…"

Valery's voice broke again, and the subsequent attempted phonetics twisted into a high-pitched howl which sounded more like the squeal of a dying pig than anything produced by a human voice box. Victor continued to prop Valery up, impressed and strangely honored that the old man had come here to personally deliver the news despite his infirmities. He dropped the scalpel he had been holding behind his back, now fully convinced that he would not be needing it for the purpose of self-defense. It made a dull but audible clang against the wooden floor, but Valery did not appear to have heard it, and even if he had, it was clearly sorted away as unimportant information by his shell-shocked brain. Nothing but a trifle.

"What about your son?" Victor asked, gripping the old man's shoulders with both hands. He had, of course, already intuited the answer, but considering Valery's condition, it was better to keep him talking. If he was allowed to relax now, he might never wake up.

"My Roman…" Valery said hoarsely, and new, fresh tears bulged from his eyes and promptly fell down his cheeks, creating lines in the soot that might have looked comical under less dire circumstances. "We tried to defend our Master's home. Keep it ready for him until he could return. But these men… There were two dozen at least, and they were all armed to their teeth. They caught us by surprise, I swear, Herr Doctor! They entered our camp at daybreak and set it on fire. No one died then, but some of us sustained burns trying to put the fire out. Had I known then that they did it as a distraction so that they could continue to the castle…"

Valery began to shake his head rapidly, as if his rational brain refused to accept the truth and was communicating it - albeit unconsciously - through his body language.

"I know your people did all you could," Victor said. He spoke slowly, over-enunciating every syllable like he was speaking to a child. He figured Valery in his current state might need it. "Tell me what happened to your son."

"Roman died a hero!" the old man snapped, and his eyes regained some of the fiery wildness Victor had observed when he opened the door. The same piercing stare that Valery had in all probability also passed on to his granddaughter, Rosa.

Valery continued his story and held the doctor's gaze throughout it. "My son pursued them on horseback after they set fire to our camp. He knew what their destination was, and he wanted to stop them at all costs. It was foolish, of course, and I knew it, but I've raised my sons to put honor above everything, so there he went, no thought of himself or his own safety. You see, Roman had a revolver, the only one in our possession. It used to be mine, but my eyes and my hands have grown too old to handle it, so I passed it on to my son. He used it against them, these looting scoundrels. Managed to shoot one them dead and dodge quite a few bullets at the same time. But the sound of gunshots startled his horse, and it reared, throwing Roman off. He landed badly. Oh God…"

Finally Valery's gaze wavered and his single functioning eye took on a blank, unseeing quality while the old man revisited a horrific memory. "I didn't see it happen, but the fall must have broken his neck. I could  hear him screaming, though. Roman hasn't screamed like that since he was a babe in my arms. He only stopped when the horse finished what it had started by trampling him to death. Do you see, Herr Doctor? I could hear my son's head crack like an egg! I could hear it!"

If asked about it afterwards, Victor could not have given a direct answer regarding what exactly it was that made him connect the dots, but he strongly suspected it was a combination of visual and auditory cues laced with some vague and nebulous extrasensory perception. He saw Valery's gnarly, liver-spotted hand with its swollen knuckles and twisted fingers grasp his shirtfront and pull hard enough to almost rip a seam, but it was something else that attracted his gaze, something on the inside of the gypsy's wrist, partially hidden underneath the cuff of his shirt.

It was a tattoo, Victor realized. A tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon with splayed wings and more than one tail. The same dragon he had seen only hours ago on the arm of the man whose heart now lay in a box of ice waiting to be surgically transplanted into another man's chest. Only now that man had a name and an identity: Roman Ionescu, son of Valery Ionescu.

It was not a phoenix; how could Victor have made such a perceptual error in the first place? Of course it was a dragon. The Count had in all likelihood placed a permanent marker on all his loyal servants to keep track of them. A tattoo was less painful than branding and guaranteed to last a lifetime.

The Order of the Dracul. The phrase popped into his mind, and suddenly it made perfect sense. He was looking at the Count's coat of arms. Dracul. Draculea - Son of the Dragon.

"I'm so, so sorry, Valery," Victor offered lamely, even though his mind had already shifted its focus from Valery's plight to the doctor's own secret and how to best protect it. He could absolutely not under any circumstances ever let the old man know about this.

"They chased us away when we tried to get to Roman. I knew he was dead, but I still wanted to bury my son! Those bandits would not even allow us the decency of burying our dead. When we returned some hours later, Roman was gone, as was the man he'd shot down. All that was left on the ground was their blood."

"I know what happened to them," Victor could have said. "They were brought to the mortuary at exactly the right time, and I was so eager to harvest useable organs that I cut into your son's body before he had properly died. I believe he looked at me and tried to say my name while his brain was slowly leaking out of his mangled skull. And if everything goes according to plan, your son's heart will continue to beat in your beloved Master's chest. Questions, Valery?"

Victor, of course, said none of this. He closed his own hands around Valery's and squeezed them emphatically. "There was nothing you could have done," he said sincerely. "Roman died a warrior's death, protecting his lord and master's property. His choices were his own."

A glimmer of defiance flashed in Valery's eye. "First my grandson, and now my son! How much is this going to cost us? We have no protection, so we must protect ourselves by any means necessary. That is what I came to tell you, Herr Doctor. We are leaving these lands. There is nothing more for us here."

Whatever Victor had expected to hear from Valery, this was not it. "But…" he stammered, scanning his brain for a good counterargument. "What about your Master's resurrection? Will you not wait for me? For him?"

"How close are you, Doctor? Tell me the truth."

The doctor was not sure why he thought it best to stretch the truth a bit on this particular matter. Valery was a trusted confidante and the Count's biggest champion, but for some reason Victor now believed that Valery ought not know the full extent of his progress. At least not at this time.

"A week, maybe five days," he lied. "My work is still in the research phase."

The old man appeared to deflate before his eyes, and Victor's first impression was that Valery had expressed profound disappointment. When he spoke, however, it became clear that the predominant emotion communicated was relief.

"Don't continue, Herr Doctor," Valery whispered. In his eyes was a wordless plea to match the spoken one. "I beg you, abandon your experiment. Don't bring our Master back now when his home is no more. He was such a proud man. To be without a home or riches… He could not bear it. Do you hear me? Promise me you won't proceed!"

"I… I cannot," Victor ended up saying. Was he supposed to simply give up what could be the culmination of his Life's Work to please the emotions of a man he hardly even knew? Madness! Victor opted for the truth, since he strongly suspected a lie of this magnitude would show on his face.

Valery's grief-struck countenance settled into a surprisingly harsh, cold frown. "You are prepared, then, Herr Doctor, that the Master might not thank you for what you've done," he said.

"I am," Victor said and meant it. "Where will your people go, Valery? What will you do?"

"I have a cousin in Bukovina," the Szgany leader said. "We… parted on bad terms. Our fathers did not see eye to eye on much. It was the best thing for us, then. I hope that he will show my family hospitality and mercy. Those of us that are still left."

"Is there nothing I can say to change your mind?"

Valery shook his head with a grim look of finality on his weathered, deeply grooved face. "I'm afraid not, Herr Doctor." He grasped Victor's hand one last time, and some of the previous affection returned to his voice. "You are a good man, Victor Frankenstein, and I believe you mean well, so I wish you well on your search for truth. Only you won't find it here."

With those words, Valery Ionescu turned around and walked away with shambling steps that painfully highlighted the corporeal infirmity of what was undoubtedly a great man. Victor, feeling numb and also oddly drained, as if he had already given blood, returned to his laboratory. It felt like hours had passed, while in reality, one glance at the grandfather clock told him that Valery's visit had only lasted fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, that was fifteen minutes less than he had calculated, and it meant he had to work even faster. He was too close to give up his dream now.

Much too close. Victor returned to his seat by the Count's body and resumed his work on the tissues in the neck. He could not wait to begin working on the heart transplant.

 

To be continued... 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Victor ran his hand one last time down the Count's face, hoping that on this occasion the eyes would stay shut, but of course they never did. His gaze lingered on the other's aristocratic features: the high, domed forehead, the pronounced cheekbones, the sharp aquiline nose, and finally the wide, sensuous mouth with an almost effeminately curved upper lip, no doubt developed to conceal the creature's sharp canines.

Roman Ionescu's donated heart now rested in the chest of the strigoi, Vlad Draculea (Son of the Dragon, Victor reminded himself) but it was up to Victor to make it beat again. He had exceeded the eight-hour time limit by approximately twenty minutes due to some minor but fully surmountable difficulties in attaching the pulmonary vein, and while Victor knew that the absolute cut-off point for viability was arbitrary, he also realized that he had no time to dawdle. The heart needed to start beating again soon, or it would not beat at all.

Did he know what he was doing? Absolutely not. Was he going to proceed with it? Absolutely.

The shoddy and frankly quite ugly suture work on the Count's chest made the perfectionist in Victor Frankenstein cringe, as it did not meet his desired aesthetical standards, but there was little to be done about it now. All that was required of it was functionality. He could always re-stitch it later for a more aesthetically pleasing result. That was, if Dracula would let him.

There had been reanimants in the past that had frantically torn at their fresh sutures and sometimes proceeded to tear out their organs when the sutures gave way. The Count had no reason to resort to such extreme behavior, Victor reasoned, since all of his organs except for his heart were in perfect condition - and they were also his own.

Victor plucked a hypodermic syringe with a capacity of ten milliliters from its place on the table where all his surgical instruments lay neatly arranged, and tapped it with his finger. He would start by injecting three milliliters of it - a moderate dose - straight into the cardiac tissue in hopes of jumpstarting the organ and making it beat again. First a heartbeat, then an infusion of Victor's own blood to promote healing throughout the expanse of the entire organism. Blood was the chief biogenic agent in all of nature second to none. It delivered nutrients to the tissues and helped the body dispose of waste. It was also the quickest known way for an infection to spread. In this case, Victor hoped to infect the system of the dead strigoi with life.

"It's not too late yet," Henry's voice spoke inside his head just as he sank the needle through the Count's ribcage and readied himself to depress the plunger. "You can still take it back, Victor. No one needs to know about this. Destroy the creature. Walk away. Don't look back."

"Shut up, Henry," the doctor muttered and injected the substance. "Fuck you and your moral high ground."

A short while passed during which Victor did not even dare to breathe in fear of missing out on the elusive sound of a heartbeat within his subject's chest. When his ailing lungs finally forced the breath out of him, Victor had no choice but to reconcile with the fact that the heart was still not beating.

Disappointed but far from ready to admit defeat, the doctor lifted a second prepared syringe, this one containing an additional three milliliters of the reagent. Two such sizable doses of it administered only minutes apart were undoubtedly on the wrong side of safe, and Victor knew he needed to watch out for symptoms of hyperthermia - a dangerously elevated body temperature - in the upcoming hours even if he somehow managed to get the heart started.

Still nothing. The doctor failed to suppress a shout of frustration and slammed his fist hard into the Count's chest. The body, unmoving, absorbed the blow but did not demonstrate any life signs.

"Live, you damned filthy mongrel!" Victor growled. He imagined that perhaps on some highly basic level, Dracula could sense his anger and use it to claw his way back to life. "I've dragged you back from the pits of Hell, you ungrateful piece of shit, and this is how you reward me?! I'm your Father now, you whore of Satan, and I command you to hear me! Live, my Creature! LIVE!"

The Count's eyes had opened again, as they always did, but they were staring blindly into nothingness with no hint of life behind them, and absolutely nothing to suggest that there was any budding consciousness in the brain to which they were connected. Victor punched the vampire's face, groaning in agony when his knuckles connected with the bony mass of teeth behind the lips, and a flash of searing pain shot up his forearm and through his elbow.

Good God, he might have just given his dominant hand a fracture. Whatever the Count was made of, it was sturdy stuff.

"I'd need brass knuckles to dent your face," he muttered, but delivering the blow had done its job; his anger was spent, diffused. For the moment, anyway. But there was still no pulse, and Victor knew they were running out of time. He glanced at his last prepared syringe. Whatever he chose, he would have to decide quickly. If he could not get the blood to circulate, Roman Ionescu's strong heart would begin to rot inside a non-decaying but nonetheless lifeless cadaver's grasp and potentially spread its decay to the surrounding tissues.

"God help me," Victor said from behind tightly pressed lips as he sank the last hypodermic needle into the Count's new human heart. This was a lethal dose for a man of any size, which the doctor knew perfectly well. Nine milliliters of it introduced into a human's bloodstream within such a narrow period of time would promptly cause lethal hyperthermia, which in turn would bring about an agonizing death. Of course he had no way of knowing how this formula would behave in the tissues of a creature with a naturally very slow metabolism, but he hoped the Count's vast regenerative abilities would help negate the negative side effects of it.

Hope was all Victor had at this point.

Nothing. Twelve minutes had passed since he injected the first dose, and nothing at all had changed. Victor was beginning to feel despondent. He blatantly refused to accept the reality in front of him. Could not. Would not. There was no way he was just going to abandon what he still believed to be the culmination of his life's work. There had to be something he could do, something more to try. Something he had overlooked in his hurry to produce tangible results.

"There is," Professor Waldmann's voice offered in a helpful tone. "Electricity. Electrical impulses make the heart muscle contract. Every doctor worth his salt knows this. Introduce a small current, but don’t make it the sole source of power. Merely help the heart by giving it a nudge in the right direction. Help it utilize the nine milliliters of chemical energy you have pumped into it. Do it quickly, before the organ loses the ability to run on any power except electricity."

In the seconds following, Victor made his decision.

He had acquired a rather peculiar object at an auction once, marketed by its creator as a "harmless handheld electric goad useful for driving pigs and livestock". Victor had bought the object - this goad - because of his never-ending fascination with all things electric and with the somewhat vain hope of someday incorporating the technology into his own research. Having found the invention useless for anything except potential self-defense purposes - he was no farmer, after all - Victor had shelved the prod, literally and mentally, but he had not thrown it away, and he came to think of it now as the best option for generating a quick low-current electric shock.

After years of disuse, there was no guarantee it would even work, but he would not discredit the idea before trying it out. The thing was made out of a mixture of copper and iron and was shaped like a baton, except it also sported a pair of metal electrodes from the tip and came with a rubber handle to prevent the handler from being shocked every time they used it. A simple design that could have been ingenious if it wasn't for the impracticality of rechargeable batteries being used as a power source.

"I said live!" the doctor growled and plunged the electrodes into his subject's chest with more force than was strictly necessary. Some of his earlier rage returned when he pulled the lever with everything he had, only to have the brief flash of fury immediately give way to an even stronger feeling of euphoria upon hearing the crackle of an electric current. The Count's whole body twitched - once, twice - like a clubbed fish. One of Dracula's thrashing hands knocked over the table with Victor's surgical tools, but the doctor barely even registered the event. He delivered a second electric shock through the prod, and this time the spasms were violent enough to almost cause the body to spring off of the operating table.

This was not life, merely a fleeting and momentary appearance of it.

Victor attempted to administer a third round of electroshock therapy, but there had only been enough power stored in the batteries for two trial runs. Frustrated with the instrument and his own inadequacy as a scientist, he flung the prod away and felt a surge of satisfaction, not entirely dissimilar to a low-current electric shock, when the object hit the floor and broke on impact. Useless invention. Its creator would never make any money off of it.

"Why won't you live?" Victor demanded and realized he was dangerously close to breaking down in tears. The Count's eyes, vibrantly green and framed by beautiful long dark eyelashes, were still open and just as unseeing as before. They were seemingly fixed on a point somewhere on the ceiling above them.

"I did everything I could…" Victor whispered, and his tone shifted from beseeching to pleading. "What do you want me to do? How can I make you live again? What aren't you telling me? I did everything right!"

Was it the heart? It had to be the heart. Had he misjudged the health levels of Roman Ionescu and accidentally transplanted a sickly heart into the Count's chest, or had he somehow damaged the organ during the transplant surgery itself? The potential errors were numerous and the variables practically incalculable unless he somehow managed to narrow down his options.

Could he have this heart removed and try the operation a second time when another suitable donor heart appeared? Theoretically it was possible, but Victor knew that he might have to wait weeks, months, or even years to come by a suitably sized heart from a young, recently deceased male donor, and there was, of course, no guarantee that the procedure would work better a second time around.

Victor felt ready to cover his failed experiment with a sheet and retreat to his bedroom for some well-deserved healing sleep. No, first he would drink himself into a stupor. With his project being a failure and a non-starter, there was no reason to spare the booze with tomorrow's functioning in mind. He was free to drink as much as he pleased, and right now it would please him a lot to erase this day from his bank of memories.

With the sheet already in his hands, Victor started at a sudden but undeniable flutter of movement underneath the skin in the Count's throat located just below the ugly circle of sutures. He leaned in closer and blinked, wanting to make absolutely sure his exhausted and highly emotional brain was not playing tricks on his eyes, but there it was again; a steady flicker of movements, rhythmical, almost like a…

…a heartbeat. What he had just witnessed was a heartbeat. Instantly slipping back into his role as a physician and a scientist, Victor lifted the Count's hand and pressed his fingers against a known pulse point in the wrist. Nothing there yet, probably because the blood pressure was not high enough to generate a radial pulse, but he felt it - loud and clear - when he moved his fingers against the carotid artery in his subject's neck.

To his absolute astonishment, he also observed a distinct redness and swelling in the tissues surrounding the sutures, chest and neck alike. Symptoms mimicking inflammation. Inflammation was, though many people didn't know it, a part - a really crucial part - in the healing process, and the Count's body displayed the signs mere minutes after Victor had tentatively reintroduced a circulation of his blood. It meant the vascular sutures were holding. There were no attempts at breathing yet, but Victor was not too concerned about that. If his assumptions were correct, an individual with this type of metabolism drew breath very rarely, perhaps as little as once a minute, like a submerged crocodile.

"Can you hear me?" Victor asked first in German and then repeated the question in English and French.

He had forgotten to ask Valery what languages the Count spoke, but he went on to assume that everyone in this region knew at least a little German for utility reasons, and considering Dracula's dealings with the English, it was likely that he also spoke their language. In addition to these two languages, Victor himself spoke fluent French and Italian, passable Spanish, and some broken Serbian from having lived in Serbia for a couple of years. He had once taken upon himself to learn Russian but gave up when it dawned on him just how hard and time-consuming it was to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

There was no response from the Count, nothing to suggest he'd heard the doctor's voice. Slightly disappointed but far from discouraged, Victor looked around for other things that he could measure or at least monitor, and settled on body temperature. A cursory hand-to-the-forehead check suggested that the body had not yet warmed up beyond room temperature, but if the creature was by nature cold-blooded, that was not necessarily an indication of anything significant.

Nothing about the strigoi followed any established rules or conformed to any known medical standards, but at least the heart was beating. It was best to proceed from here without any preconceived notions. Sometimes when one reached the edge of the map, one had to keep sailing to see what was out there. Columbus had done it and discovered a previously unknown continent, and Victor Frankenstein was on the verge of doing the same within his own field. He would not let the fear of the horizon hold him back. Nobody ever remembered a coward.

Since he was stuck monitoring vital signs for now, Victor took out his stethoscope to listen properly to the Ionescu boy's heart. At first the amplified sounds of the steady pulsating beats were calming to listen to, almost hypnotic, but as he listened, the heart rate suddenly began to rapidly increase. Victor felt for a pulse in the Count's wrist but found none, meaning that the donor heart was struggling against a low blood pressure as well as a lack of oxygen. There had still been no attempt at drawing breath on Dracula's part, and the doctor feared the human heart might give up before it had completed its purpose.

"Think…" Victor murmured. "Think, damn it!" He could try to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he doubted at this point that it would trigger a breathing reflex in the other's brain. Or perhaps the reflex was already there, but the severed spinal cord prevented the body from utilizing the muscles needed to draw breath.

There was no other way; Victor would have to give the Count a transfusion of his own blood to jumpstart the healing process and simultaneously provide Roman's heart with a fresh supply of oxygenated blood for circulation. A more conservative treatment method did not exist at this point. Granted there was a risk that a sizable transfusion of blood would shock the recipient's already medically unstable system, and in the worst case scenario it might even induce a process called hemolysis - destruction of the red blood cells - but he could not take any chances with the heart; not now when he had finally gotten it to beat.

With the quick, methodical movements of an experienced physician, Victor began to rig the instruments used in transfusing blood directly from person to person. He could not risk having the heart fail from hypovolemic shock. He rolled up his own shirtsleeves and felt a brief wave of nausea at the sight of all the needle marks - old, fresh and those somewhere in between - that littered his forearms. One more would hardly matter.

The blood is the life.

Victor languidly watched as the tube that connected his vascular system to the Count's gradually filled with a steady stream of red liquid. He could have momentarily sworn he saw the red blood cells themselves, invisible though they were to the naked eye, swirling around in the energy-rich plasma flow and merging with those of the vampire. The combination of their elevated erythrocytes would then spawn a microscopic army of long-lived, nigh indestructible blood cells.

Unsure of how much blood he could give without dangerously weakening himself, Victor figured, as always, to leave it to his intuition, even though he held a constant fear of not being able to properly distinguish between natural fatigue and dangerous exhaustion. Victor had put his poor body through all kinds of extremes so frequently that he had lost count of the times he had been at death's door and somehow magically pulled through despite terrible odds.

Feeling the pull of sleep, he slapped his face a few times until it tingled. If Victor's sense of volume was correct, about four or five deciliters of his blood had gone into the Count's body already, but nothing aside from the continuous heartbeat suggested that it was doing any good.

Then all of a sudden Dracula's chest heaved violently, and a deep, guttural gurgling sound escaped his throat, followed immediately by a flutter in both his lips and eyelids. Victor's impinging fatigue was gone the very next second, and he practically sprung to his feet, neither seeing nor hearing that the stool on which he had been seated toppled over behind him.

Victor, in a state of exhilaration but still very much a doctor, pressed his fingers against the pulse point in his subject's neck and discovered to his growing horror that the man's heart was racing and the skin was hot - no, not only hot, but scalding - to the touch.

"Oh, no…" Victor said with a defeated sigh. His worst-case scenario had indeed occurred; the lethal overdose of it had finally kicked into high gear and was effectively burning the Count's body from within. He had brought Dracula back to life only to have him die again thanks to a stupid and completely avoidable miscalculation on Victor's part.

What could he do? The doctor wasted some valuable seconds racking his brain for an answer to a seemingly unsolvable riddle. There was no antidote for it; he had never thought it necessary to create one. There was also no counteracting the symptoms through the use of another known chemical. The only way to survive an overdose was to ride it out, which meant that there was an admittedly slim chance of survival if the subject managed to somehow make it through the upcoming two or three days.

But Victor realized Dracula was never going to last that long. With a body temperature this elevated, he was not even going to last a couple of hours. And even if the Count's own tissues were strong enough to withstand the detrimental effects, Roman Ionescu's heart most definitely wasn't. He needed something to cool down the body. An ice bath would have been preferable, but he had none prepared, and it might already be too late by the time he had made the necessary arrangements. What Victor did have, however, was the crate of ice he had used to transport the gypsy's heart.

With no time for hesitation, Victor took off in search for the box, which meant he regrettably had to take his eyes off the Count for a minute or two. He found the ice crate by the door to his kitchenette, and while some of the ice had melted, there was a sufficient amount left for the intended purpose. With a heart that was drumming almost as quickly as the Count's, Victor ran up the stairs and briefly felt the urge to rub the remaining ice against his own damp, grimy and very hot face.

He could not have been gone for much longer than a minute, ninety seconds at most, but he discovered that much had happened during his absence. No longer lying in a supine position on the operating table as Victor had left him, Vlad Dracula was now seated upright with his legs swung over the edge, seemingly with the intent to stand. His naked body, skin clammy and glistening with sweat, was a ghostly white, almost translucent in places with the superficial venous network plainly visible. His upper body swayed slightly, betraying the instability of the recently fused spinal cord, and his long, dark hair had fallen across his face in a curtain-like manner, hiding it completely from Victor's view.

The doctor promptly set the crate of ice down, figuring he might need his one pair of hands sooner than he'd realized.

Good Lord, it might actually become necessary to grapple with this thing. It was way more mobile than Victor had expected, and he knew from experience that a creature that could sit up unassisted could also attempt to choke its creator.

"Can… can you hear me?" he asked in a small voice, already stealthily moving toward the part of his laboratory where he stored his narcotics and sedatives. His eyes were set on the chloroform, and it even surprised Victor himself how quickly his brain had abandoned the instinct to preserve life in favor of the much more primitive instinct of self-preservation. 

He would wrestle with the Count if it became necessary. The newly resurrected vampire would be clumsy and slow, probably disoriented, and possibly even mentally retarded. Victor, albeit utterly exhausted, still had the advantage of being in full possession of his mental faculties. Frankenstein needn't fear him.

Did he truly believe that?

There was no answer from his subject (no, since he lives, he's your patient now, the doctor reminded himself absently) and no other indication that Dracula had even heard the question. His shoulders heaved as if he was holding back a series of hacking coughs, and Victor understood with instant clarity what the motion meant; Dracula's body was attempting to vomit, but there were no stomach contents to expel.

Victor reached the shelf where he stored his chloroform and fumbled around for what felt like minutes before he managed to find the bottle and remove its rubber stopper. Chloroform was an odorless solution, but there was no knowing if the Count could smell it or perhaps sense it in some other way, and Victor wanted to be as prepared as possible if he had to subdue his newly risen patient.

With hands that trembled only slightly, the doctor plucked a monogrammed handkerchief out of his breast pocket and practically drenched it in concentrated chloroform. He would need to subdue the Count with one hand whilst holding the sedative-soaked rag against his face. It would not be instantaneous, he knew that much, and there was a risk - a major one - that Dracula would fight him right to the end. Whatever the cause, it was of utmost importance that it was done quickly. The longer he spent in his newly awakened state while it continued to ravage his body,  the more likely it became that the stress of it would blow out his new heart and render it useless.

Victor took a few careful, measured steps toward the vampire. He had removed his shoes so as to make his footfalls as silent as possible. Still nothing suggested Dracula had sensed his presence, but the fact that he could not see the other's face made Victor nervous.

Damn that long curtain for hair, he thought. I ought to have shaved it off, but instead I allowed him to keep it for sentimental reasons. Sentimental reasons, my arse!

Standing approximately six feet from the operating table and the sitting strigoi, Victor Frankenstein made the perhaps brave, perhaps foolish decision to address the other again.

"Vlad?" he said, his voice a bit louder this time, the hand with the chloroform-drenched handkerchief strategically hidden behind his back. To his surprise, the Count raised his head just a little, and a shudder passed through his tightly-coiled frame; perhaps a sign of burgeoning sentience, or perhaps just a muscle spasm. Victor glided even closer, his free hand outstretched with the intention of applying a diagnostic but non-threatening touch.

His fingertips first came into contact with Dracula's shoulder, and as expected, the skin was far hotter than it should be and damp with freshly oozed perspiration, but it most definitely did not feel like the skin belonging to a corpse. He felt the stiffness of the muscles underneath the dermal layers, lean but dense and undoubtedly strong.

"Vlad, can you hear me?" Victor repeated, adopting a more authoritative way of speaking in hope of provoking a predictable response to a simple command. He realized his mistake moments later; whatever the Count had been like in life, he was certainly not the type to take orders from other men.

Vlad Dracula raised his recently sewn-on head another few inches, and finally the thick curtain of hair parted, revealing the face hidden behind it. The reanimant's eyes, still as green and vibrant as ever, were focused on Victor with razor-sharp precision, and yet to the doctor it felt as though Dracula did not even see him.

"Don't be alarmed," he said, somewhat unclear on whether he was addressing his creation or himself. "Stay just where you are. I will help you get right back to sleep. All right?"

Victor moved more of the hair aside and tried to covertly slip his hand around Dracula's throat both to check his pulse and to get his head in a fixed position for the imminent sedation. He grimaced at the grim discovery he made; his subject's heart rate was at the very least two-hundred beats a minute. This could not be allowed to go on for a minute longer. Victor tugged at the man's neck and encountered some resistance, feeling the solid muscles and tendons pop underneath his fingers; the first real indication that Dracula was fighting his grasp. Victor finally withdrew his hand from behind his back and moved to press the rag against the other man's face.

Something that could only be described as a mixture between a scream and a gurgle erupted from the vampire's throat, and the very same moment two hands with the hardness of iron shackles closed around Victor's wrists and broke his grip with ease. The doctor was left with no time to recuperate before Dracula barraged into him like a raging wild boar and they both toppled over, limbs entwined, on the floor.

Victor landed heavily on his back with a thud that almost knocked the air out of his lungs, and he instantly felt the other's hands clawing furiously at his throat. The Count's fingernails, which were on the longish side but not quite claws, raked across his face and left four parallel scratches. Warm blood seeped out of the wounds and trailed down the doctor's cheeks.

The feel of his own blood against his face kicked Victor into action. A few inches lower, and the nails might have scraped his jugular vein and caused a life-threatening loss of blood. He must not give Dracula another chance to cut him; he needed to end this struggle now. Victor thrust his elbow into his opponents abdomen, aiming for the liver, and the blow fortunately had the desired effect, causing the vampire to buckle over from what was undoubtedly searing hot, animal pain. Victor took full advantage of the opportunity to roll them around and reverse their positions using a wrestling hold he had learned and memorized during his university days. The world of pub brawls seemed remote and far in the past, but the techniques were still as useful as ever.

Having gained the upper hand and not willing to lose it, Victor quickly straddled his opponent and proceeded to deliver a punch to the Count's face. Dracula raised an arm to parry the blow, but to Victor's absolute relief his movements were slow and uncoordinated. However, upon the realization that he was now trapped, the vampire began to squirm and writhe underneath Victor like a greased fish. His eyes, Victor noticed, were no longer green but a deep, horrible red with two black pinpricks for pupils, full of fury and primitive hatred, as well as something else which the doctor could not properly classify until after the brawl. That emotion was raw, unadulterated fear.

Victor had dropped the handkerchief drenched in chloroform when he was tackled by the Count, but he could see it now, and it was easily within his reach. He made a grab for the rag with his other forearm pressed firmly against the Count's throat, and then held it against Dracula's face, this time bearing down with everything he had. The body trapped between his legs bucked violently and almost managed to throw him off by the power of sheer ferocity. Victor blocked the attempts and persevered, feeling the burn of overexertion in his arms, legs and back (oh God, his back was going to scream bloody murder tomorrow, if he lived through this!) but after an agonizing half minute or so, Dracula's struggles waned as the drug finally began to take effect. 

Victor continued to press the rag against the Count's face long after his body had grown completely limp, expecting a trick or an attempt to catch him off-guard, but nothing happened and the doctor was finally willing to believe he had truly won the skirmish. He tentatively stood up and failed to hold back a groan of agony when pain exploded in his lower back and left another sharp reminder that he was getting too old for all of this.

The Count who lay splayed on the floor with his long hair spread about him like a dark brown sun-feather, was perspiring heavily, his breathing strained and erratic, as if his lungs could not inhale and expel air fast enough to keep up with the oxygen demands of his ailing body.

Victor touched the scratches on his face and was relieved to discover they had already stopped bleeding. Oh, well. There was a silver lining to everything, he supposed. With tired steps and one hand pressed firmly against the small of his back where the pain was the most intense, he walked over to get his black doctor's bag.

Feeling sort of dazed but simultaneously incredibly sober, Victor knew what needed to be done. If the uncontrollable rage and feral behavior - almost insectile in its blind simplicity - had not been enough to convince him, the glowing red eyes would have done the job. Whatever the Count had been prior to this, whatever Valery Ionescu had come to love and venerate so profoundly, that something - the essence of it - was no more. Victor had prepared for this possibility and even expected it to some degree, but his soul was still raw with disappointment. How could he have been so wrong? If tissue decay was not the key to solving the riddle, what was? How else could one restore a functioning mind to a reanimant?

Morphine. There it was, a multi-dose vial, almost full, containing enough of the deadly opiate to knock out a horse or perhaps even a rhinoceros. Victor plucked it up along with a large hypodermic syringe made out of stainless steel and walked back toward his patient. Subject-to-patient and back to subject, all in less than fifteen minutes. He'd need to make up his blasted mind sometime. 

Victor had noted, and not with a sense of pride, that he was the type of man who really oughtn't over-think things. His first hunch was not always but very often correct. If he allowed analytics and rationalism to enter his decision-making process and question his intuitive conclusion, his own psyche might talk him into doing something that was… unwise.

He had decided. The experiment was a failure, and it was his duty both as a doctor and as a scientist to destroy his creation. Victor knelt by the Count's body with both the bottle and the syringe in one hand. To his surprise Dracula's head lolled from one side to the other, and his eyes - back to pine green - sought out Victor's own, as if Dracula could see him - really see him this time, as opposed to seeing right through him.

"What the hell?" Frankenstein said out loud. Had the vampire's body already burned through the chloroform? Was it possible to have a metabolism that efficient, it notwithstanding? How much morphine would he need for this?

He quickly seized one of Dracula's arms. The limb was still mostly flaccid, but not for long, Victor realized, and with this knowledge guiding his actions, he sank the needle into the brachial vein and depressed the plunger all the way. One-hundred milligrams of the concentrated drug had gone into the Count's bloodstream, and Victor knew it was an invariably fatal dose for a man of Dracula's size, but he had more in case the strigoi fought it.

Finally the Count's strained and nearly spasmodic cycle of breathing calmed down to a more normal respiration rate, and when Victor checked how the heart was doing, he discovered that the pulse had dropped also. Having gone from over two-hundred beats per minute to about one-thirty, it was an obvious improvement. How much more morphine would be needed to stop his heart entirely? One-hundred milligrams? Two-hundred?

Victor felt tiny hooks of hesitation sink into his resolve. They appeared in the form of logic and spoke to him with the sweetest of promises.

"Don't end it just yet," they said. "See if he lives through this crisis. The rage is gone from his eyes now. He might still turn out all right. You won't find a test subject like this in a very long time, perhaps never. Give him another chance, Doctor," the voices of reason cooed. "Destroy him now, and you will forever regret it."

"If I don't kill him now, I might not get another chance," Victor told the dissenting voices. "What I should do is pump him full of morphine until his heart stops, then separate the head from the body and burn the remains. Once and for all."

Looking at the frankly pitiful, naked, trembling man on the floor by his feet, he almost managed to convince himself that he would be doing Dracula a favor by putting him out of his misery.

Pitiful at this moment, perhaps, but it was blatantly obvious that Vlad Dracula was the very definition of a warrior. His body was not only fighting a lethal overdose of it, but the chloroform and the morphine at the same time, and from the looks of it, he was not prepared to give up anytime soon.

Despite the creaking protests of his aching back, Victor went to retrieve the crate of ice he had left on the floor near the operating table along with some towels. He might as well use the ice for its intended purpose, which was getting the Count's dangerously elevated body temperature down. Even if he didn't recover, it would make his final moments more bearable, Victor thought. As a physician, he was obligated to alleviate a dying patient's suffering and make their passing as comfortable and pain-free as possible, even if said patient was not entirely human.

Cautiously encouraged, Victor fashioned a makeshift bag out of one of the towels and filled it generously with flakes of crushed ice and held it gently, almost tenderly, against the vampire's scorching cheek. Dracula blinked owlishly at him as if his vision was swimming and he was attempting to make out something familiar in the strange refraction of light.

"Who are you…?" he asked, and the unfocused look in his green eyes shifted into a jagged mixture of wondrous, almost childlike curiosity and a cynical, very mature form of skepticism.

Though Victor registered the vowels as foreign and guessed the language spoken was some ancient, probably extinct Romanian dialect, something within his mind offered a near-immediate, perfect translation of everything that was said. He smiled as benevolently as he could and placed a hand, now cool thanks to the handling of the ice, on the other man's damp, heavily perspiring forehead. The disbelief in Dracula's gaze was giving way for the curiosity, bit by bit, and Victor instinctively knew that this was the moment he had to earn the other's trust. It was now or never.

"My name is Victor Frankenstein. Don't be afraid, Count. I am a doctor."

 

To be continued... 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

The place where he woke up was familiar and at the same time not familiar at all; it was undeniably his home, but Castle Dracula had not been this teeming with life for centuries, and certainly not after its owner abandoned the natural life to be reborn as a creature of the night. 

Vlad was walking around aimlessly with no real sense of where he was headed, his thoughts strange and disjointed, as if pieces of his memories had been pulled out and shoved back in where they did not belong.

He met some servants that appropriately bowed to him - their lord and master - when he passed them, and suddenly, not remembering how he had gotten there, he was standing outside his own bedchamber. It was one of very few rooms he had bothered to maintain in its original condition since he transformed and subsequently dismissed most of his servants, even though he rarely slept there during the day and practically never entered during the night. He had not been lying to Jonathan Harker when he told the young solicitor that most of the castle was filled with bad memories. His own bedchamber was perhaps the room with the most tragic history of all.

This was the window from which his beloved wife, Jelisaveta, had made the disastrous plunge into the river four long centuries ago. Dracula himself had not been present to watch it happen, but he had suffered countless dreams where he was forced to watch Jelisaveta's anguished parting from his world, always like a specter observing everything but being unable to stop it or in any way interfere with the course of events.

Was this another one of those dreams, he wondered. Could he will it to end?

Vlad closed his eyes, now even more certain that he was dreaming or at the very least on the verge of entering a dream. His surroundings dissolved, as phenomena in dreams - events, places, and even people - were often wont to do, and for a moment this had a calming effect on his psyche. His relief was short-lived, however; when the world around him snapped back into focus, he could see that he had somehow materialized inside his bedchamber without a memory of opening the door or passing through it. The windows had been thrown wide open, and he could see the silhouette of a woman in the cold, white moonlight. Standing on the window sill with her back against him, he noticed she was dressed in nothing but a white, semi-transparent shift which billowed softly around her slender figure in the gentle breeze. The only other discernable characteristic he could make out was long, dark hair. Hair long enough for her to sit on, just like…

"Jelisaveta?" he asked, suddenly acutely aware that he did not want to know the answer. He did not want to be here in the first place, but for some reason his body had stopped obeying him, and instead of leaving the room, he began to take steps toward the woman (no, not a woman, she was wrong, everything here was just wrong) in the window.

Why was the room so unnervingly hot? That part was wrong, too; the windows were open and there was no fire in the hearth, not even glowing embers, so where was the ominous, oppressive heat coming from? It felt as though the temperature increased by the second, and had he been able, Vlad would have been tearing at his clothes, but his arms did not obey his commands anymore than his legs and remained hanging uselessly by his sides.

The heat was not the only thing that bothered him on a corporeal level, either; there was a dreadful, itching sensation in his chest as well as his neck. The closest comparable experience Vlad could reference was allowing another vampire to drink from his neck and not stopping them in time, but this was even beyond that; the itch was not restricted to his skin or the superficial layers of his body. It felt almost as though a small animal equipped with dozens of sharp claws and teeth was attempting to scratch its way out of him.

Now a mere arm's length away from the figure in the window, he could do nothing but watch helplessly as it began to turn. A wet, squelching sound accompanied the movement, and the first thing that came to Vlad's mind was charred meat crackling over a fire as it peeled away from the bones underneath.

He saw its face then, and to his utter dismay, it was the visage of his most cherished wife; oh yes, or at least how he imagined Jelisaveta would have looked had she been left in the river for days or perhaps even weeks on end. What remained of her complexion now was a nauseating mixture of a pale blue and a chalky white, and the tissues underneath the skin bore the characteristic puffiness of a decomposing waterlogged corpse. One eyeball was gone; eaten by the fish, no doubt, or perhaps crabs, but the other one, clouded over and covered by a milky sheen, was fixed on Vlad. When she saw him, her features were pulled back in a terrible grin, her partially dissolved lips revealing rotten black gums.

"Greetings to you, my dear husband," the Jelisaveta-creature spoke. Despite her partially absent lips, the words were enunciated perfectly, and her voice was soft and melodic, almost coquettishly high. Dracula was not sure anymore if it sounded like his wife, or if it was but a poor imitation. He had not heard Jelisaveta speak in such a long time, and it pained him greatly having to admit that he might had forgotten the sound of her voice.

Another disgustingly wet noise could be heard when the sodden corpse raised its hand and tapped its own cheek with a fingertip that had eroded to the point of resembling a claw.

"No kiss for me, husband?" it asked with a tone of mock offense, and its revolting countenance morphed into what was supposed to resemble a playful scowl.

"Stay away from me!" Dracula gasped. To his growing horror he realized the creature was reaching out to touch him, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. "You're not she! You're not Jelisaveta!"

The thing that was not-Jelisaveta cocked its head to its side and a cold, slimy hand snaked around his throat and pressed down with a considerable amount of strength. Despite the naked revulsion the touch provoked, it felt wonderfully cool against his burning hot skin, and entirely against his will, he leaned into it.

"I am not Jelisaveta," the thing admitted, and the grin returned. A partially severed, dark purple tongue shot out from between its lips and flicked around like the tongue of a snake. An apt comparison, perhaps. "But I'm here to give you a message from her. She burns in Hell, my sweet prince. I saw her there. She's a traitor. Did you know that? Your wife did not kill herself because she believed you had been slain in battle, you poor gullible little idiot! She killed herself because you lived!"

The thing currently inhabiting the form of his deceased wife burst into laughter, an innocent, pearly sound that would have been enticing had the source of it not been a walking, talking corpse.

"Your darling wife, Lady Jelisaveta, committed suicide because she was in league with the Sultan," the revolting specter said with a sing-song voice. "The news of your survival and imminent return to Castle Dracula would have compromised her person and unveiled her treacherous acts once and for all, so she had to put an end to it somehow. Throwing herself into the river was the best thing she could think of. She might have been a legendary beauty, your wife, but she was never very bright."

"No…" Dracula managed to say and suddenly found himself on his knees with the Jelisaveta-creature hovering above him and still gripping his neck with steadfast determination and a mockery of tenderness. Its breath washed over his face, and it smelled like the rank combination of rotting fish and old, stagnant water. However, there was also a hint of something else, something chemical, which was there one moment and gone the next.

The creature chortled happily and then spoke again. "The Sultan promised he would marry her after your death, sweet prince, but he lied. Oh yes, he lied, and your dear dumb Jelisaveta bought it all! The Sultan did not want your sloppy seconds. He wouldn't even have her as his concubine! But do not worry about your precious Jelisaveta. Satan himself stuffs her traitorous mouth with his cock every night, and your wife loves it. She's expecting you. Did I tell you that? You must know where you're going, Son of the Dragon. You made a deal with the Devil, and now it's time to give the Devil his dues. Your soul for eternal life, only He forgot to tell you no life is eternal."

Shoved onto his back by the decomposing revenant, Vlad could only watch with exponentially growing dread as it straddled him and caressed its breasts in an obscene, lecherous caricature of eroticism. The creature's skin peeled off like old parchment and fell onto his burning chest with a series of squishy, sucking sounds.

"We're all waiting for you in Hell," it hissed. "Your traitor for a wife, your heretic father, your whore for a mother, your bastard sodomite for a brother. We've missed you, Vladislas. Did you miss us as well?"

With a practically superhuman feat of willpower, Vlad managed to make his arms carry out the commands of his mind, and he was not slow to put his hands around the creature's foul neck and give it a hard squeeze. The cold, dead flesh with patches of skin missing and tendons exposed felt soft and spongy underneath his fingers, but no matter how hard he bore down, it did not stop laughing. A thick, engorged leach appeared in the thing's exposed eye cavity, and it too fell onto his stomach with a sickening plop.

"You cannot kill me, you fool!" it chirped. "Why fight? We will collect our dues. We always do."

Despite his undeniably best efforts, Vlad did not manage to free himself from the creature's grasp, and suddenly he felt rather than saw its hand descend over his face, its fingers appearing elongated and webbed. There was that harsh, chemical smell again, only this time it was dominant over everything else, and he was forced to inhale it. The ceiling of the room - not his bedchamber, after all, he thought drunkenly with a strange feeling of giddiness - was the last thing he saw before everything phased out of existence, and then he was falling into a bottomless pit of darkness where the laws of men and nature alike had ceased to apply.

Hell, he thought. He was going to Hell. And he was already burning.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

With no concept of time beyond what he was experiencing at the moment, Vlad came to and realized he had stopped falling. If this was Hell, it was decidedly more comfortable than he had imagined it to be; the burning sensation in his body, while not gone, had abated to more tolerable levels, and he was able to see, albeit his vision swam and wobbled as if he were a very drunk man moments away from passing out from the effects of alcohol intoxication. Vlad had understandably not been drunk on alcohol for centuries.

The first structural details he could make out were a sturdy set of roof beams floating high above him and the linguistic association that followed was the word "attic". Vlad blinked a few times to test the integrity of the vision, and it returned each time with increasing clarity. Now trusting his eyes to relay information about his environment to a satisfactory degree, Vlad allowed his gaze to wander.

He heard the other man's breaths before he saw him. Smelled him as well, actually; particularly from the cuts that had recently bled and would bleed again really easily if force was applied. The smell of the horrid chemical had faded, but Vlad could still taste the acrid, corrosive substance on his lips and feel the effects of it far down his throat. Had the Jelisaveta-thing forced him to swallow something, like a potion, that was actually caustic? He suddenly realized his throat did much more than just "ache"; it quite literally felt like he had been forced to swallow a string of barbed wire.

"Ahh!" A pained grunt escaped his lips and he instinctively lifted a hand to paw at this throat. At least his limbs were taking commands again, although his hand was intercepted and forced back to his side by the man whose presence he had heard and smelt. Vlad did not currently have the strength or coordination to fight him, and all remaining thoughts of resistance poured out of him like molten ice when something blissfully cool was pressed against his burning form - starting with his forehead, then his cheek, his neck, and finally his chest. 

Vlad finally caught his first glimpse of the man who presented simultaneously as a merge of a tormentor and an unknown benefactor. His vision still quivered from time to time, but he could somewhat make out the man's features now; about fifty years of age, fair skin, a chiseled but slightly receding chin, and curly, semi-long hair that had probably been a dirty blond when he was younger but was more grey than blond nowadays. Pale blue eyes that were kind and intelligent but also calculating. Clean-shaven but sporting at least two days' worth of stubble.

If this was the Prince of Hell, then Vlad had to admit the Devil was definitely not what he had expected. He also wasn't sure if he should be horrified or relieved. Nothing about this situation made any sense, and every attempt to understand it only amounted to more and increasingly stranger questions.

"Who are you?" Vlad asked, surprised that his mangled throat allowed him to vocalize in the first place. He spoke in his mother's tongue, a dialect that had not been commonly spoken in Transylvania for over two centuries, but the stranger not only showed every sign of having understood Dracula but replied to him in his own language.

"My name is Victor Frankenstein. Don't be afraid, Count. I am a doctor."

Frankenstein… It was a name he would have remembered if he'd ever heard it. Doctor? If this was another attempt at intimidation by the demonic entity that had previously appeared as a specter of his dead wife, it was much less successful this time… unless, of course, the purpose was to make him lower his guard before delivering another terrible blow.

"Am I… burning? In Hell?" he asked and almost allowed himself to feel cautiously optimistic about the situation. This Victor Frankenstein seemed to be the only presence in the room except for Dracula himself, and he could feel no antagonism or hostility from the enigmatic man, this doctor, with the friendly blue eyes and the soothing, almost hypnotic voice.

"No on both counts," the doctor replied, and Vlad belatedly realized he wasn't speaking Romanian at all, but German. How could he have made such a silly mistake? The stranger's German speech had an unusual and slightly lilting accent but was otherwise fluent enough for it to be his native language.

"Listen to me, Vlad. You're going to be fine," Frankenstein said, and the blissfully cool compress against his forehead was almost enough to make Dracula ignore the use of his Christian name - but only almost.

"Who are you? What is this sorcery?!" he growled and made a hasty attempt to sit up, which was immediately rebuffed by the other man who pressed him back down on the floor with both hands.

"Calm down, my friend. You're not going anywhere right now," the doctor said firmly, and the look in his previously warm eyes became much cooler, stonier, and more determined. Dracula would have fought him if it wasn't for the pesky fact that the room began to wobble again when he tried to right himself.

"How do you… know my name?"

"You needn't concern yourself about that," Frankenstein said, and the tone of his voice was such that it normally would have inspired trust, but Vlad was reluctant to abandon his suspicions. He was sick of tricks. This could very well be the precursor to something worse, and while he might not be able to stop it, at least he could mentally prepare himself for what was coming.

"What do you want?" he asked hoarsely, his throat-ache worse than ever. The pain seemed to be returning in spades. And his heart… Something was very wrong. His heart was galloping inside his chest like a furiously whipped race horse, and it frightened him more than anything thus far, because it was such an alien sensation and made him feel like a stranger inside his own body.

A vampire's heartbeat, while present, was always very slow, typically restricted to one or two beats a minute and at times even less than that, which consequently had inspired the myth that his kind had no heartbeat at all.

"I want you to calm down," the doctor said, and at that moment Dracula wanted nothing more than to scream at Frankenstein that calming down was the last thing on his mind when there was a creature inside his chest trying its damndest to claw itself out by force. The pain from speaking alongside the humiliation of having to admit just how badly his insides were hurting were what stopped him from vocalizing his experiences outright, but Frankenstein, of course, could see right through his pretense. The man was a doctor, after all. He had to be well-accustomed to signs of suffering and disease.

"You are in pain," the mysterious German-speaking man stated plainly. "Let me give you something for it."

"What…?" Vlad mumbled, suddenly feeling alarmed without a specific cause, and his sense of unease doubled when he spotted the unmistakable form of a hypodermic syringe in the doctor's hand, needle ready to be plunged into his flesh.

"Be still, my friend," Victor Frankenstein urged, and the hand not busy holding the syringe shot out to restrain Vlad. "This will take away the pain and help you sleep."

"Sleep? No…!" The thought of losing consciousness sent Dracula into a state of near panic. Going to sleep might put him face-to-face with the creature that had cruelly taunted and tormented him before he woke up here, on the floor of some stranger's attic, and even though he did not particularly like the doctor so far, he was much more pleasant company than the cruel, all-knowing demon that had appeared in the form of his dead wife. He lashed out, knocking the syringe out of Frankenstein's hand. It hit the floor with a dull clang but did not break, and the noise was accompanied almost immediately by a string of expletives by the other man.

"Be still, you blasted demon spawn! I'm trying to help you!" Frankenstein spat, and following an intense but blessedly short brawl where the doctor came out on top, Dracula felt the needle penetrate deep into the skin of his neck and inject him with… something.

As a final defense mechanism, his fingernails reflexively elongated into claws, and he swiped them across the doctor's chest, cutting through the fabric of his shirt and scraping the skin underneath. Another series of colorful curses followed, but Dracula could not be bothered to care, since he was already falling… only now the rather unpleasant sensation of losing traction was accompanied by a queer feeling of elation, and he realized he did not particularly mind falling, after all. Frankenstein had not been lying. Whatever this was, it actually did take the pain away.

He let go and fully surrendered to the embrace of the abyss.

 

* * *

 

Despite his strenuously overexerted body's objections to heavy lifting, Victor carried the Count over to the settee and left him there with the towels he'd turned into bags of crushed ice to further the cooling process. He diligently checked the creature's body temperature for the second time that night and was both relieved and simultaneously anxious to see that it had dropped from a near-lethal 41,6 on the centigrade scale to a much more manageable 39,2.

"You're strong," the doctor murmured in awe of what was before him. The Count was truly a remarkable man.

He had already decided that if Dracula survived the second lethal morphine injection, Victor would let him continue his existence and do what he could to reintegrate him into the world. He had seen firsthand to what desperate lengths a rejected and abandoned reanimant could go to get revenge on its maker, and that was a mistake Victor Frankenstein was definitely not going to repeat.

After sending his creation to the realm of Morpheus to heal and recover, Victor was finally able to devote some time to himself and the examination of his own injuries. The doctor couldn't help it; he let out an anguished groan when he stood in front of the mirror with his shirt off and saw the vast expanse of blooming bruises in a variety of colors splattered across his ribs. The lighting made the queer mixture appear almost psychedelic... like something one could expect to see when high one mescaline. Red, plum, violet, fuchsia… blended in a way nature never intended. Yet his ribs, while certainly sore, did not appear to be broken or even cracked, which was certainly a pleasant surprise. Silver lining, he reminded himself and gave a dry chuckle.

Victor Frankenstein, defying the laws of nature since 1793…

Then, of course, there were scratches. On his chest and across his face, fortunately not deep, but Victor couldn't help but worry about potential scarring. Sure enough, one or two scars on a man's face might even help promote his attractiveness, but four parallel ones? Also, there was another potential problem he would have to take into account: facial scars were commonly used as identifying marks, and for a man like himself, who tended to attract negative attention wherever he went, this was definitely not good.

"Damn you, Dracula…" he muttered, grimacing as he dabbed the cuts with an East-Asian disinfectant known in Europe as Kamfer drops. It stung and smarted like nettles from Hell, but he could not allow these cuts to become infected anymore than he could allow Dracula to inflict any more of them on his person.

"You wish," Henry Clerval's voice piped in. "You know as well as I do, Victor, that your new creation is capable of overpowering you with ease. Even when enfeebled he is stronger than you. You had your chance to destroy him, and you chose not to take it. What will happen now is up to Dracula. Pray that he becomes more amicably disposed towards you than his behavior so far has suggested."

"Oh yes, Henry, you always knew best, didn't you?" Victor sighed. He was bone-weary and had no more energy left for a full-fledged quarrel with himself. Having cleaned and bandaged his cuts, he tossed away the torn, bloodied shirt and struggled into a clean and freshly ironed one which made him feel just slightly less like a recently resurrected revenant himself. Victor's mind and body longed for sleep, but he knew better than to doze off and risk the possibility of finding Dracula gone when he woke up.

"That isn't even the worst case scenario," Henry's helpful but gently admonishing voice reminded him. The worst case scenario was not waking up at all because his creation had decided to kill him in his sleep.

If he couldn't sleep, he would settle for the next best thing right now, which was alcohol. The doctor poured himself a generous helping of brandy and sat down behind his desk with his seldom opened personal journal and a stubby leaden pencil in his grasp. He then began to write down a summary of today's events, interrupted only by the occasional clinking of glass against glass when he poured himself more brandy.

The faint rustling of fabric and an accompanying groan alerted Victor to the fact that his creation was awake and conscious. The grandfather clock in turn provided the information that morning was approaching on steady feet. Dracula's second return to consciousness was, to the doctor's relief, much less dramatic than the first.

 

***

 

Vlad Dracula had been awake for a while before he signaled his return to consciousness through sound or movement. It was a basic aspect of survival strategy to collect as much information as possible about one's surroundings before letting the enemy know one was awake. Again, he smelt the doctor, this Victor Frankenstein, before he heard or saw him, although Vlad belatedly realized that the loud, pulsating heartbeat rushing through his ears was his own rather than the other man's.

Lubb-dubb lubb-dubb lubb-dubb… The sensation, though not directly painful, was discomforting and he wished there was a way to make it stop.

"Awake at last," Frankenstein said, and the soft scraping sound of a pencil against paper revealed he was writing. "How do you feel now?"

Vlad sat up, pleasantly surprised at how steady his vision was this time around. His sense of balance, though not entirely restored, was at least improving.

"I feel… better," the vampire replied, and it was no lie. The burning ache in his chest and neck had subsided as well, although he soon discovered that the skin in those places felt undeniably itchy; irritated, somehow, as if he'd been wearing a necklace made out of garlic. He absentmindedly scratched at a spot just below his chin, and what he felt against his fingertips - that harsh, coarse and very alien feel of material resembling wool thread sewn into his skin - caused his heart to start sprinting again.

He looked down, and on some level the subconscious part of his psyche already knew what to expect - the signs leading up to this moment had been plentiful - but it was a shocking discovery to make nonetheless. A massive Y-shaped scar, flesh cut open and crudely stitched together with thick, black sutures intended for corpses rather than living people ran down the length of his torso from the collarbones all the way to the groin. It looked as if someone, a giant, perhaps, had gutted him like a fish and scooped out his intestines with one massive hand, leaving behind nothing but an empty, bony husk. The last time he remembered looking down, he had seen the Texan Quincy Morris' big Bowie knife sticking out of his chest at an awkward angle, but no matter how formidable a weapon it had been, it could not have done… this.

This had been done by something… or someone else. Just a couple of inches lower, and it would have taken his cock and balls right along with it, he realized, and the simple fact that he had been spared this particular humiliation granted him a strong sense of relief which contrasted sharply with the ambient feeling of overall shock. He could spend decades without using his genitals for their intended purpose, but to not have them at all and become a so-called eunuch was a very distasteful thought. The last two stitches were somewhat hidden by his pubic hair, which was roughly the same color as the sutures, and Vlad wondered if this had been done intentionally to soften the blow.

He couldn't help it; a half-choked but fully audible cry erupted from his chest, and he suddenly wished he hadn't seen what his body had become.

To Frankenstein's credit, the man moved quickly. Abandoning his writing in a flurry of movements, he dashed toward Vlad, and there he was again, urging the vampire to take it easy, to calm down, to breathe in and out, as if Dracula was nothing more than a helpless infant in need of instructions and guidance just to exist. Tiny droplets of saliva sprayed his face when the other man began to shout out his commands instead of merely speaking them, and this time Vlad could smell brandy on his breath. The man had been drinking rather generously judging by the thickness of the brandy fumes.

He ended up shoving Frankenstein away from himself, and the blond man landed rather inelegantly on his rear, giving an undignified huff that communicated both surprise and a degree of pain. Vlad hoped with a certain amount of sadistic glee that perhaps Frankenstein had broken his tailbone.

With none of his earlier speed or agility, Frankenstein struggled back into a kneeling position with the pain-filled, clumsy movements of a much older man who was suffering an attack of gout. He held his hands up in a disarming gesture before he spoke again.

"Trust me, it looks worse than it is," he said with a dry chuckle devoid of humor and gestured at the scar he had undoubtedly taken part in creating. Vlad did not share his mirth, but managed to calm down sufficiently to listen again.

"I had time working against me," the doctor added, sounding almost apologetic. "This was hardly my finest job, but it did what it was supposed to. If I may…?" Frankenstein placed a finger gently under Vlad's chin and tilted his head first upward and then to either side. "You have an extraordinary capacity for healing, did you know that? The possibilities…"

"What did you do to me?"

The doctor twitched as if he had been physically struck and an expression of profound hurt flickered across his features.

"Do to you?" Frankenstein asked incredulously. "I healed you. I brought you back. Do you not… remember?"

"I…" Dracula began, but whatever he had planned to say, it trailed off into nothing.

What did he remember, anyway? He had clear memories of the violent skirmish on the road back to his castle between his loyal gypsies and his pursuers, the men captained by the despicable Van Helsing, and he remembered Jonathan Harker slashing his throat and the Texan stabbing him practically at the same time… And finally he remembered lying on his back, mortally wounded, in that old, dilapidated chapel where he'd renounced God centuries earlier and begged for death with his beloved Mina by his side. She had, though it pained her greatly, granted him his final wish, and his last memory from his second, highly unnatural life was looking up at the painted fresco of himself and his wife ascending to Heaven together.

But there had been no heavenly ascent for Vlad III Dracula. One moment he had embraced death with open arms, confident that he could expect an otherworldly reunion with Jelisaveta at long last, and the next he was violently and obscenely assaulted by a phantom that bore a certain resemblance to his dead wife but had nothing in common with her. It was a trick, surely, a nightmarish apparition conjured up by his weak, fading mind not willing to let go of its earth-bound existence… And yet he could not shake off the lingering doubt that perhaps the phantom was telling the truth after all, that maybe - just maybe - he was destined for Hell along with everyone who had ever been dear to him.

That was all he could remember before he woke up, naked and feeling like he had been doused in lamp oil and set ablaze, on the floor of Victor Frankenstein's attic, wherever that was. The truth was easy enough to comprehend at a purely conceptual level, but that only made it all the more confusing - and frankly terrifying - to consider from a spiritual perspective.

"I was dead, wasn't I?" he asked dully, but the question was superfluous, as he already knew the answer.

For some reason he had expected Frankenstein to offer more of a protest, but instead the strange doctor merely inclined his head in assent.

"You were, but you're back now," he offered with a tone of very unconvincing glibness.

"You dug me up." This too was a statement rather than a question. Granted, there had been an attempt on Frankenstein's part to wash him, but Vlad could still smell the stench of sour earth wafting out of the pores of his skin and hair. He never wanted to rest in earth ever again. At least not soil that smelled like this. The idea of it surrounding his body filled him with a crawling sense of primitive revulsion, and he suddenly wondered if there would be more things he couldn't stomach now that he was… back. Back from the dead. A second time. 

The doctor neither affirmed nor denied the statement, as if he had already forgotten what he'd done or considered it altogether inconsequential. "What do you remember?" he asked instead.

"Remember…? But--"

"Of your past life," Frankenstein snapped, his patience clearly wearing thin. "Before this!" He made a dramatic gesture at the crudely stitched scar that ran down the length of Vlad's torso. "What do you remember?!"

"Everything. I remember everything." He looked at his hands and was almost embarrassingly relieved to discover that everything about them looked and felt exactly as they should. Next after his tongue, his hands had always been the most sensitive parts of his body, and having them… altered in any way would greatly diminish his quality of experience.

"Everything?" the doctor said breathily, and his bright blue eyes glistened maniacally. "You are… a magnificent being. Truly splendid. The pinnacle of my work, my Adam."

Frankenstein reverently traced his fingertips over Vlad's features, starting with his cheekbones and proceeding along the contours of his jaw, lips, chin and finally his neck. He brushed the other's long hair aside and touched the skin across the unsightly scar tissue below his left clavicle, and for a moment his reverent expression was replaced by a look of ugly disgust, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared, and Frankenstein seemed to snap out of his trance-like state of mind altogether.

"Let's get you a mirror," he said excitedly and let go of Vlad to rub his hands together, very much resembling a beady-eyed, overgrown child who couldn't wait to wolf down on a hearty slice of Sunday cake.

"No!" Dracula snarled, upper lip curled, and the ferocity of his response was enough to surprise even himself. Frankenstein recoiled from him, obviously intimidated, but the fright did not last long, and moments later the doctor flashed him a placating smile.

"Alright, fine. No mirrors. How about some clothes, then? My rooms are fairly shielded from insight, but you might feel better, more like yourself, if you didn't have to look at… this."

He passed his fingertips across the scar on Vlad's chest again and tugged lightly, experimentally, on one of the knots. When Vlad failed to give an immediate response, the doctor's hand grasped his jaw none too gently and turned his face toward himself. "Clothes," Frankenstein repeated. "You do wear them, don't you?"

"Of course I wear clothes," Dracula said, unsure if it was even a serious question. Was the doctor asking if he normally ran around naked like some kind of beast or a mindless ghoul? Was he bothered by the cold right now? Not really, he'd come to realize. He had gone from feeling like he was on fire to having a relatively normal - to him, anyway - response to the present temperature. He didn't need clothes like humans did for protection from the elements, but wearing the right kind of fabrics allowed him to blend in better, as well as provide something else that was important to Vlad: communication of wealth and social status. Born a prince, he wanted it to show.

"Come on, then," Frankenstein said, standing up and clearly expecting Dracula to do the same. The moment of rapture had passed, and although the doctor still sounded courteous enough, Vlad could tell he was somewhere far away in his thoughts.

When standing opposite each other, the two men discovered they were of almost identical height, with Dracula barely edging out the doctor, but only marginally by half an inch or so.

"This way," Frankenstein said and gripped the vampire's elbow. The touch was gentle now, almost cajoling, and yet Vlad felt the compulsion to rebuff it.

"Don't touch me," he ground out from between tightly clenched teeth.

"As you wish."

The doctor began to lead the way, and for a brief, horrible moment his soundless footfalls tricked Vlad into believing the entire man had turned into a specter of sorts, hovering across the floor rather than taking steps. However, a second take reassured him that Frankenstein's steps were only practically silent because the man was not wearing any shoes. Odd. Something about the calculated ease with which he moved also told Dracula that he possessed considerable experience in making himself unseen and unheard.

He followed Frankenstein down a narrow set of stairs, and then his host (or was it his jailor?) held a door open for him, allowing him entry into a small room, plainly furnished to the point of appearing spartan. In its simplicity, it resembled a monastic cell rather than a gentleman's bedchamber.

"This is my bedroom. You may stay here for now," Victor Frankenstein said. If the man was his jailor, he was at least a somewhat civilized sort; aside from the clothes he had been promised, the room was equipped with a simple wooden bed with clean linens, a small desk, a bedside table, and a washbasin for toileting purposes. The basin itself was empty, but Vlad surmised there was water in a white porcelain pitcher situated on the bedside table. It was as simple and common as everything else in the room.

The man who lived here was used to moving around a lot, Vlad reflected. The thought had come to him seemingly at random, but it made a lot of sense. There was nothing the least bit personal or intimate amongst these effects.

His eyes were inevitably drawn to the small window located high up on the wall above them, and even though Frankenstein said nothing, Vlad could tell that the doctor knew where his gaze and his thoughts had wandered.

"You should be comfortable here," Frankenstein said following an awkward silence. "I've left you some clothes, and should you need it, some water. If you would like, I could get you a chamber pot--"

"No," Dracula broke in. "That won't be necessary."

The doctor cleared his throat and then he smiled. "Of course. Nevertheless, if you need me, just holler, and I will come as quick as I may. I'm a light sleeper, so you really needn't worry about waking me up."

The unspoken warning hang heavily in the air between the two men, and when blue eyes locked with green, they both knew without further ado that the other also knew.

"Do you need something to help you sleep?" Frankenstein asked, one hand already on the doorknob, preparing to exit and leave his guest to his own devices. It was an innocent enough question, and yet Vlad had a strangely deep and visceral reaction to the thought of chemically induced sleep. He shook his head mutely.

"Suit yourself. I hope the clothes fit, my friend. You and I look like we're about the same size, do we not?"

"I suppose so." Vlad glanced toward the window again. Dawn was steadily approaching; he could feel the slowly creeping fatigue it always brought along with it, and although he had learned to resist its influence to a degree through centuries of rigorous training, he was in no shape to do so currently. He tried to convince himself that he had nothing to fear from the doctor; if Frankenstein wanted him dead, why go to such lengths to bring him back to life in the first place? No, it was the prospect of sleep itself that had awakened the fear, and the dreams… if that was what they were.

"I'll leave you alone now… Vladimir. To unwind. Hopefully you will feel differently about this next time we speak."

"That is not my name," Vlad muttered quietly under his breath.

The doctor, who was already in the process of closing the door behind him, perked his head with a sudden look of perplexity on his pale, finely chiseled face. "Excuse me?"

"My name is Vladislas, not Vladimir," Dracula pointed out. "And I did not give you permission to call me by my given name!" His infamous temper which had both aided and hindered him in equal amounts throughout his very long life flared hotly once more, and he just barely managed to suppress the sudden and violent impulse to lunge for the doctor and tear his throat out with his bare teeth.

"My humblest apologies," Frankenstein said with a queer, unreadable expression, which left Vlad wondering if his apology was sincerely worded or just a subtle attempt at mocking him. "That was presumptuous of me, Count. Please forgive me."

Dracula nodded curtly and turned away, hoping that the doctor would pick up on his bodily cues and end the interaction. If pressed any further right now, he might do something that he would later come to regret, and killing Frankenstein could very well be one such thing, especially since he knew next to nothing about the man or his motives. He heard the door close softly behind him, and as he had expected, a key was turned in the lock and thereby solidified Dracula's earlier suspicions that he was, in fact, a prisoner in this house despite Frankenstein's ham-fisted attempts at courteous treatment.

He tugged at the door experimentally a few times to test the strength of the lock and calculate the force that would be required to break it. Could he do it? Probably, but it mattered little, given that he would definitely not be able to break the lock without alerting Frankenstein - his captor - of his activities. Feeling discouraged but not defeated, Dracula directed his attention toward the window instead. Despite the cramped and slightly claustrophobic dimensions of the room itself, the ceiling was high and the window - thirty-six by twelve inches, by the look of it - was located so far up that he would have to scale the wall to reach it in the first place.

Vlad decided to test its accessibility as a possible escape route. He burrowed his fingernails into the dry, porous stone wall and heaved his body up, putting most of the strain on his wiry, strong arms. To his surprise and disappointment, his limbs, which normally had no difficulty whatsoever propelling or maneuvering his weight across a vertical surface, began to shake and tremble almost immediately; an inexplicable reaction followed shortly by an acute shortness of breath which forced him to abort his escape attempt.

His heart was pounding again. Nothing here made any sense. Something was very wrong. He couldn't quite put his finger on what it was, but the message it had sent was clear: he was not getting out of here tonight.

Finally having no choice but to admit defeat, Vlad turned to examine the clothes and the other effects his jailor had left out for him. The outfit consisted of white cotton knee-length drawers, a vest-like undergarment to be worn underneath the shirt, and finally a shirt and a pair of stove pipe trousers that spoke of expensive materials and excellent tailoring. The style, however, had gone out of fashion about half a century ago.

Something here did not add up… The doctor had said these were his clothes. Had they perhaps been inherited, or had he bought them cheaply from an old man's widow who had no more use for them? No, that didn't sound right, either; Victor Frankenstein had strongly implied that his clothes were custom-tailored.

It didn't matter at the moment. Vlad dressed himself in silence and realized he felt much nicer with the weight of clothes on his body instead of lumbering around naked like some prehistoric troglodyte. The doctor's clothes were a near-perfect fit except across the shoulders, where they were a bit tight. A pair of ankle boots had been left for him under the bed, and he tried them on as well, but discarded them after coming to the conclusion that his feet were considerably bigger than the doctor's and no compromise was possible there.

Amongst the other objects that Frankenstein had kindly lent to him was a boar bristle hairbrush, and for the first time since his second return to life did it occur to Dracula that his hair was, quite frankly, a mess that needed immediate sorting. His locks had always been unruly at best, curling wildly at the edges, but they were also arguably his most striking feature, and he felt a sudden wave of gratitude toward Frankenstein for allowing him to keep his hair. 

Seated on the edge of the bed, Vlad Dracula started the time-consuming and painstaking process of untangling his hair. He would have preferred a comb but had to make do with this brush, which had clearly also once belonged to Frankenstein himself; Vlad could even spot some of the doctor's medium-length, grey-blond hairs still stuck in the bristles. They curled at the edges, just like his own.

He still reeked of the soil he had been buried in, and his hair in particular seemed to have absorbed the sour stench like it had been ground into the very fibers. Close to his neck area, Vlad encountered a tangle that wouldn't give and pulled just a little bit harder than necessary only to have the hair come off as a solid clump, follicles torn and detached from the scalp. There was some pain, but not nearly as much as there ought to have been considering the amount of hair that had been yanked out, and with an irrational but nevertheless growing sense of dread, he chose to do a closer inspection of the area with his fingertips.

There were stitches in his scalp as well, starting behind one ear and reaching around all the way to the other in a near-perfect semicircle, like the trajectory of a bullet that had traveled along the edge of his skull without actually penetrating it. The discovery made Dracula feel cold inside despite the fact that he was now completely clothed. The fine hairs on his arms stood up and rubbed stiffly against the fabric of his shirt as if to remind him that his body was no longer completely his.

This particular scar would never be visible to anyone, living or undead, because his long luscious locks would cover it well, but he also intuitively knew that hair would never grow back in the place of the actual scar. The flesh would remain knotted and sort of dimpled in regardless of how much time that passed. The thought of a scar itself did not bother Dracula; his ancient body carried many scars, some better healed than others, and not all of them external. The most recent addition to the batch was a scar on his forehead caused by that whelp Jonathan Harker who had had the audacity to come at him - his host - with a shovel.

No, that was not true anymore, of course; all the stitched-up gashes on his form had been inflicted on a later occasion. He gingerly touched the scar across his throat again, grimly wondering if he would be forced to wear high collars exclusively after this. At least his face still felt… unspoiled to the touch. His eyes, lips, nose… teeth. Tongue. It was a small comfort to know that Frankenstein's cruel sorcery at least hadn't robbed him of his most important sensory organ.

Was that what the doctor was; a sorcerer? He was human, that much Vlad was certain of. He could sense other vampires on sight, and werewolves, though some had learned to conceal their presence rather well, always seemed to have a feral aura about them that made itself known through closer association. There was a time, long in the past, when he had found the presence of she-wolves - and occasionally their male counterparts - highly alluring and purposely sought them out. Werewolves, however, were fickle and dangerous creatures, and Vlad had learned his lesson once and for all when a demented werewolfess, driven mad by jealousy, brutally slaughtered one of his brides and mortally wounded another one before he could put a silver bullet through its diseased brain.

But no, Frankenstein was not a werewolf. No doubt he was cursed, maybe even damned, but not by lycanthropy. Was he a man who had devoted himself to the study of the dark arts? A necromancer? An alchemist? A warlock?

Thinking would do him no good at this time. The pull of sleep was strong, and Dracula sensed that dawn was almost upon him. He lay down on the awkwardly narrow, lumpy mattress and stuck his hands into his armpits just to prevent himself from scratching at his sutures. There was no knowing what his unconscious mind might get up to if he surrendered to sleep, and the thought scared him.

The beginnings of a scream threatened to erupt from his chest, but he couldn't - wouldn't - let Frankenstein hear it and alert the other man to the true depths of his despair. Temporarily at a loss for what to do, Vlad bit down on the fleshy part of his thumb, which stopped the cry from bubbling up to the surface of his throat, but only when the taste of his own blood filled his mouth. A wave of nausea rolled through him, but the urge to scream had thankfully passed.

He breathed in and out, swallowed, and repeated the process several times. The capricious heart inside his chest finally calmed down to a more manageable pace, and with the quickly approaching dawn, Dracula fell into a restless but fortunately dreamless slumber.

One floor above him, on the settee, Victor Frankenstein did the same.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

At dusk, Victor descended the stairs from his laboratory to pay his guest a visit. The doctor knew there was a distinct chance that Dracula would attack him the moment he opened the door, but to his own surprise, he felt rather blasé about it.

His affect was still somehow muted from last night's emotional rollercoaster, and he noted that the feeling was vaguely similar to the coming down that typically followed a really intense cocaine high. It was the unpleasant dullness which crept in after the high had dissipated that convinced Victor to give up cocaine altogether. His mind during the ruse worked better than ever, but the vigor and cerebral clarity came at a terrible cost. At least it had the added benefit of stalling his aging process. Cocaine had only sped it up.

The doctor awkwardly balanced a tray on his left hand while using his right to deliver a knock to the door. A surefire way to get himself attacked was to catch the vampire by surprise, and even someone as clumsy and shifted away from physical reality as Victor could easily work that bit out.

"Vlad? Are you awake? May I come in?" Vladislas it was, not Vladimir. His stupid mistake and the ire it had provoked suddenly compelled Victor to giggle. He suffocated the laughter and repeated his words. There was still no response, and worry - feeling very much like a small, clawed beast in the process of sharpening its talons against the walls of his gut - showed itself for the first time that day.

Victor was struck by a sudden mental image of Dracula lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood, his throat a gaping wound cut all the way to the bone, and his green eyes, still as gemlike and effervescent as ever, staring blindly into the vast abyss of true death. In his hand was a straight razor, exactly like the one Victor himself used for shaving purposes, and which - he realized - he'd left in his sleeping quarters for Dracula to find.

Oh, no.

"I'm coming in now!" he called out with a bit more urgency than he would have liked and said a quick prayer to a deity he no longer believed in before pushing the door open with the tray precariously balanced on his forearm.

The Count, alive and very much awake, was seated in the lower corner of the bed with his knees drawn up to his chest and his elegant, long-fingered hands crossed over his shins. He wore the drawers Victor had left out for him but nothing else, and the doctor wondered momentarily if he had been wrong about their measurements being similar. Maybe his clothes did not fit Dracula well or even comfortably after all? The vampire tracked him with his gaze, features set in a cautious frown, eyes evidently sizing Victor up. Nothing about his current demeanor screamed that he was preparing to attack, however, so the doctor allowed himself to relax a smidgen.

"Good… evening, I suppose it is?" Victor said with slightly forced joviality. He set the tray down on his desk and was finally able to give the other man his full and undivided attention. Dracula's eyes, however, had spotted something more interesting than Victor and began to track that instead, the object of his interest being a laboratory beaker filled with blood - Victor's own - standing on the tray the doctor had brought with him.

Victor gave him an indulgent smile. "You want this?" he asked and picked up the tray again. Some of the blood spilled over the edge and landed as bright red drops on the cream-colored lace doily the beaker stood on.

Dracula had one hand already reaching for his breakfast when Victor gave him access to the tray, but then a look of suspicion crossed his features and temporarily made him reject the offer. For Victor, who considered himself a great judge of character, it was easy to tell that there was an ongoing conflict between Dracula's two natures: on one side, there was the beast that craved sustenance and little more, and on the other was the man reliant on the use of higher mental faculties. Now Dracula the man was in obvious doubt of the sincerity of what was being offered to him, and it was Victor's job to solve the situation peacefully.

"It's for you," he said with a smile that he hoped came across as trustworthy. "Go on, drink it before it gets cold. Or coagulates, for that matter."

"Whose blood is this?" the strigoi asked, still visibly defensive but now also inquisitive. He picked up the beaker and sniffed the blood and immediately afterwards dabbed a small amount on the tip of his tongue. Testing, Victor realized. He was testing it.

"It's mine, and I didn't spike it with arsenic or any other poison," he said, not certain if he should be amused or mildly annoyed at the lack of trust displayed by the Count.

"Your blood has a very high alcohol content, Doctor," Dracula pointed out. "Let me guess… Absinthe? You shouldn't drink that much. You're letting the absinthe claim your soul."

"You needn't lecture me on the trappings of La Fée Verte. I am quite aware already." Now Victor was decidedly more irritated than amused, since he had not come here to discuss or debate his own vices.

"I recognize a cursed man when I see one, Doctor," Dracula said with a sardonic smile and finally took his first sip of the blood he'd been given. "Mhmm. Not bad. Your blood has a pleasant tang to it if you can look past the pollution of alcohol. But I would have preferred to drink from your wrist. As you probably know, blood cools quickly."

"I'm a medical man, Count. I know most things there are to be known about the human body."

Victor motioned toward the tray in a wordless request to take it back, and Dracula placed the beaker, now empty, atop the minimally soiled lace doily. The beaker was clean to the point of looking like it had been patently licked, and Victor reminded himself to properly examine the Count's tongue at some point and document his findings. In his mind he already saw it flick out from between those sensual ruddy lips, long, thin, and forked like a snake's tongue. He had to stifle another inappropriate bout of laughter by pretending to cough, and then sat down on the edge of the bed - his bed - quickly weighing his options on how to make Dracula cooperate following this.

"How are you feeling today?" Victor asked with a projected sense of ease which he knew was easy to see through. Oh, well, he'd tried.

"That is a very unspecific question," Dracula replied. His accent, while present, was much less pronounced now than it had been last night, and Victor assumed it was due to his stress levels - hopefully - being lower at this time.

"Then let's make it more specific. Are you in pain?"

"Pain?" Dracula repeated, lips pursed. "No, I don't suppose so. Not directly. But there is something… wrong… with my heart. It races. Even now, it beats like a drum. It's not right."

"I see. If I may…?" With Dracula's permission, Victor inched closer to the other man and used his stethoscope to listen to the transplanted donor heart, which now beat seemingly reliably in the chest of the vampire. The heart rate itself was perhaps slightly elevated, but other than that everything sounded completely normal. It was practically miraculous.

"Your heart is fine," Victor said with a grin of relief and hung his stethoscope around his neck. "Not even a heart murmur!"

"No, it is not fine, you fool!" the Count growled, and one of his fine-boned, alabaster hands grabbed Victor by the lapels of his coat and aggressively jerked him forward. Dracula's emerald eyes flashed with something that was not quite anger but a precursor to it… mixed with a hearty dose of fear.

"Don't you see? I cannot get it to settle down. It's driving me mad, but perhaps that was your intention all along? To weaken my resolve by turning my own body against me? Who are you, Frankenstein? What do you want from me?"

"I…I…" Victor stuttered, desperately racking his brain for potential answers he could give the Count that were close to the raw, unfiltered truth but had a lower overall shock factor. It was his expert opinion as a doctor that Dracula was not yet psychologically ready to know that his own heart had been removed, discarded and replaced with that of another man.

"You must believe I am a complete imbecile!" Dracula spat, and the hand he had used to pull Victor towards him now closed around the doctor's throat and applied a distinct amount of pressure; not hard enough to inflict any lasting damage but definitely sufficient to send a very clear message. "State your business, Doctor. I am not in the mood to play games."

"There is no game," Victor wheezed. Breathing was becoming increasingly difficult, and he understood with equal amounts of trepidation and excitement that his blood had revitalized the strigoi in both body and spirit beyond what he had dared to hope. Emboldened by his newly-gained physical advantage, Dracula added more pressure, and they could both hear the tissues in Victor's neck creak from the ungentle treatment.

"You are lying! Why did you bring me here? Whom do you serve?"

"Self-employed," the doctor croaked. "Release me, and I will explain."

Something dangerous flickered in the Count's eyes once more, but he nevertheless made the sensible decision to release Victor. When his windpipe was finally unobstructed, the doctor greedily gulped down a lungful of air which in turn triggered an attack of coughing that was authentic this time around and not being used to disguise unsuitable laughter.

"Explain yourself, then!" Dracula demanded. "Patience is not one of my virtues. Everybody who knows me can attest to that."

No doubt, Victor thought, but he was clever enough not to voice his opinion out loud. "I'm not working for an enemy of yours, and I can assure you that I did not bring you back with a hidden agenda."

Encouraged by the Count's silence and tentative willingness to at least consider his explanation, Victor continued. "And I am not a sorcerer. I know you've thought it. There is no dark magic at play here. If your body feels a little out of sorts, it's because it was put through a shock, not because you're in any way… cursed."

"Don't patronize me, Frankenstein," Dracula said bitterly. "Nothing in this world comes free of cost. Ever. If you truly wanted to help me, you would not keep me prisoner here. The longer we continue this… ridiculous charade, the more patience I lose. Who put you up to this? Was it Van Helsing?"

"I don't know a Van Helsing," Victor replied, but he made a mental note to look up the name as soon as possible. The hatred with which Dracula had spoken it was already interesting in itself. "Also, you are not a prisoner here, Count. I merely want you to recuperate and become as healthy as possible before you leave my care, and as a doctor, I am obliged to--"

Victor's spiel was cut short by the Count, who shoved at his chest quite roughly with both hands and then proceeded to fling himself off the bed and start the process of getting dressed with great haste.

"Sir, I really must protest," the doctor tried, but his objections were not heeded. A feeling of panic induced by the possibility of losing his precious, perfect creation temporarily overcame Victor and made him resort to increasingly desperate measures to keep the strigoi under his influence. "You cannot leave yet!"

"You said I am not a prisoner, so why should I stay?" Dracula countered, and although his statement was worded as a question, he was obviously making an announcement and not actually asking for Victor's input. Once the Count was fully dressed, Victor could see that his clothes indeed fit the other man close to perfectly. Well, except for the shoes, that was. Dracula had been gifted with long, narrow feet well as hands.

Victor stuck his hand into the pocket of his waistcoat and fingered the bottle of morphine he had brought with him, but he dismissed the idea almost as soon as it appeared in his brain. Attempting to chemically sedate the Count now was a fool's errand because Victor knew he would not be able to wrestle Dracula into submission this time, and even if he somehow managed to fill a syringe with morphine and find a viable method of injecting it, the problem of what to do with the vampire after he once again had subdued him would remain.

Think, Victor. Think quickly.

"Wait!" he exclaimed and reached for the other man's arm, managing to grasp him loosely by the elbow. The following second, however, his own wrist was encased in a vice-like hold and Dracula's other hand closed around his throat, promptly pressing Victor against the door.

"You would be wise not to touch me again, Doctor!" the Count snarled, their faces so close that their noses were practically touching. Close enough to kiss. For the fraction of a second Victor entertained the idea of kissing Dracula as a form of distraction but abandoned it even more readily than the thought of injecting him with morphine against his will.

"Your heart," he said instead, and the look of hesitation, however slight, that graced the Count's visage was a reward in itself. Victor was getting through to him finally, but he probably only had one chance to make it count. "It's racing again, isn't it? Living its own life and making you feel like it's not even your heart anymore. Isn't that right, Vlad? Even now, you can feel it."

The hold on his throat tightened for the briefest of moments, but then the Count made the unexpected decision to release Victor.

"What have you done to me?" he asked in a near whisper, and the vulnerability he expressed caught the doctor somewhat off-guard.

"I patched you up… I fixed you," Victor began, and he knew he needed to choose his words carefully, or he might end up with his own head separated from the rest of his body, and if such a thing happened, he could hardly expect there to be another mad scientist around to reattach it on his behalf.

"When I found you, your heart had sustained quite a bit of damage, so I had to resort to some rather… radical methods to make you whole again. But it worked. You're here, and I managed to bring you back without… compromising the integrity of your mind."

Dracula took a step back and stared at Victor as if the doctor had suddenly sprouted a second head, or worse. Maybe he'd need it if this went sideways, Victor thought and felt the oncoming urge to snicker again.

"What kind of doctor are you, Frankenstein?" the strigoi asked, and to Victor's surprise, there was a distinct tremble to his voice.

"Surgeon," Victor said plainly. "And reanimator."

The Count shook his head, at first in disbelief and then in bewilderment. "But… why me?" he asked, and there was no venom in his tone now, only genuine confusion.

"Because of what you are," Victor replied emphatically, but instead of giving way to understanding, the look of bemusement on the vampire's face deepened. "How could I leave a divine creature such as you to rot in the dirt? It would have been a crime! No, worse: sacrilege! It was of utmost importance to me not only as a physician but as a natural philosopher that you be allowed to continue your existence. And here you are. Whole. Beautiful. Magnificent. What is wrong? You can tell me. Do you not want to live?"

"I… I don't know what I want anymore."

"Do you wish for death? It would pain me to deliver it, but I will never again force continued life upon an unwilling participant." The doctor reached into his pocket and presented the vial of morphine, holding it visible to the Count. "Enough of this, and I can deliver you quietly to death's door," he said. "Tell me, is this what you want?"

Dracula shook his head. His face had taken on a sickly hue located on the color scale somewhere between snow white and chalky, but he allowed Victor to approach him again, and the doctor interpreted this as progress, however minuscule.

"Are you going to vomit?" he asked. Dracula's complexion as well as his facial expression strongly suggested that he felt sick to his stomach, and Victor would rather not get showered with a spray of his own recently ingested blood.

"No." The Count's eyes turned to the bottle, and in his own mind, after he'd had time to analyze today's experiences, Victor later arrived at the conclusion that for a second or two, Dracula had actually considered the option of asking for a lethal overdose. "What is that? Laudanum?"

"Close. Morphine. I gave some to you last night when you were in great agony."

"I've seen what it does to men during my lifetime. Great, strong men have become slaves to that vile chemical and abandoned all sense and reason to chase after it at the detriment of their families and careers. You're not putting any more of it in my veins."

"As you wish," Victor conceded and tucked the bottle away. It was best not to push his luck too much. "But I still can't let you leave."

"How are you going to stop me?" Dracula sneered and exited the small, sparsely furnished bedroom which Victor hardly ever used, but contrary to the doctor's predictions, he did not head straight for the exit.

Following some initial confusion, it occurred to Victor that the vampire was barefoot and searching for a pair of boots in his size. He thought of the boots the Count had been buried in and remembered that they were still littering a broom closet somewhere up in the attic. Completely whole. Unlike the rest of Dracula's clothes, the boots had easily come off  with some light tugging and had not required removal by scissors.

Victor chased after his reluctant guest. "Wait a minute! Listen to me! Where are you going to go if you leave now?"

"Home, of course," Dracula muttered without turning around, but his pace had slowed down noticeably.

And what will you do when you discover that your home, your fortune and all your servants are gone? Victor thought, and the accompanying mental image was so grim that he had to struggle to force it out of his mind lest it send him crashing into a depressive, paralyzing fog. He caught up with his subject and went to stand in his way, more or less forcing the Count to look at him.

"Don't leave yet," Victor implored, hoping that his tone sounded like neither a command nor a plea, but something else entirely. Whatever he was doing now, it seemed to be working. Dracula was becoming receptive to hearing his side of the argument, but no one could tell how long his influence would last.

"Give me a week." His throat was dry and sore from the excitement as well as the recent manhandling, and he had to swallow a few times in rapid succession to even be able to produce words. "For one week, you'll promise to remain here, under my protection, of course, and you will allow me to carry out some tests - mostly non-invasive - to learn from you. One week. That's all I'm asking. After that, you're free to leave and go wherever you want."

"To become your lab rat? I think not!"

"Give me time, and I might be able to solve the problem with your heart," Victor said, and although he knew that this particular claim was optimistic at best and a downright lie at worst, it did not prevent him from leveling it against his subject now. He could deal with the aftermath later. Right now he only needed to convince Dracula to stay where he was. Victor naively thought he was making some progress in getting through to the Count when the man proceeded to harshly shove him aside.

"Five days?" Victor called out, now addressing the other man's back. "Can you give me that long?"

Dracula spun around on his heels and fixated the doctor with his sparkling green eyes, which now looked ready to shoot lightning bolts. "One day," he said. "I can give you ONE day."

"Three?" Victor pressed. Negotiation had never been his strong suit, but at least they had reached the point of having something to negotiate about, which was better than the alternative.

"Two days," Dracula said, and there was a kind of finality to his words that ended the discussion between them. "That is my last offer. I'll give you forty-eight hours to find what it is you're looking for, and after that our ways will forever part, Doctor."

"Then we have a deal," Victor replied and held out his hand, and after a moment of hesitation, as if the doctor's fingers were venomous snakes about to strike, Vlad Dracula extended his own hand and grasped Victor's. His handshake was chilly, solid and appropriately final. Both men, timeless in their own way, knew the value of time and intended to use it wisely.

 

To be continued... 

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

The reanimator gave Vlad a brief tour of the apartments he had at his disposal and told him he was free to move as he wished within the rooms with the notable exception of the attic space, which contained the doctor's laboratory. The previous night's events were at best a jumbled mess of fragmented, displaced memories and sensory impressions which did not easily fit into any particular narrative, but Vlad was fairly sure some of them were from the laboratory. He remembered a high ceiling, sturdy roof beams, and the sound of movement between them, perhaps made by pigeons or a even bat colony. In case of the latter, he could use them to see.

Dracula also remembered hearing the doctor write at a near-frantic pace. He needed to somehow get his hands on Frankenstein's journal. He knew that now. Within it he would find vital clues to unlocking the secrets the mysterious scientist fought tooth and nail to protect.

Frankenstein also showed him how to operate the gas stove in case he needed to boil water, and Dracula's mood brightened considerably at the prospect of taking a proper bath. He had so far failed to expel the pungent stench of soil out of his skin or hair, although when he asked his host about it, Frankenstein said he could not smell anything out of the ordinary.

Dracula concluded that the doctor was either a liar or had been habituated to foul smells to such an overwhelming degree that he had virtually become incapable of differentiating them from their more prosaic everyday counterparts. That, or the man had caught some kind of respiratory disease that caused his nasal passage to swell shut and block his olfactory sense from doing its job. Humans contracted all kinds of virulent diseases all the time, didn't they?

Except the doctor was not entirely human. Did he really, actually believe that?

He placidly allowed Frankenstein to carry out his first round of tests, which included drawing a blood sample, checking his body temperature (twenty-eight degrees centigrade, the doctor proudly informed Dracula after he himself had read what the mercury told him) and testing his neurological abilities. Frankenstein shone a small portable light into both of Vlad's eyes, humming thoughtfully, after which he asked him to keep his eyes on a moving target, which was simply the doctor's index finger moving back and forth at a snail's pace.

There were moments when Vlad wondered if he had been made the butt of a highly elaborate jest, but he did not voice his concerns as he had promised Frankenstein two days, and Vlad Dracula was a man of his word even when others were not. Besides, the scars and his racing heart were certainly not a jest, and the creature of his dreams wasn't either. He had been at death's door, and this man had somehow, with the help of science or sorcery - or some unholy combination of the two - saved him and brought him back from…

…from the great beyond.

Vlad knew now with absolute certainty that Heaven, if such a place existed, was closed to him. He thought back on his final moments with Mina in that derelict chapel and how liberating the idea of death, of eternal peace, had felt to his dying brain, desperate to find meaning in something that was intrinsically meaningless.

Mina. His lovely, darling Mina. He had made another promise that day, to his beloved, swearing he would set her free and never again call on her in any form. Where was she now? He could not take any steps toward figuring out her location, as that would be a violation of his promise, but he was free to speculate.

Did she return to England with that insufferable whelp of a man who went by the name of Jonathan Harker? Was she fully Mina Harker now? Were they happily playing house and pretending as if the events that led up to his death had never even occurred? The thought made him feel sick for some reason, and he failed to hide his reaction from Frankenstein, who immediately demanded to know what was wrong. The doctor, for all his genius, possessed very little in the way of social graces, and Dracula could only imagine what a terror the man had been toward his professors.

Vlad quietly shook his head, signaling that he was not willing to talk about it. At least not yet. To his relief, the doctor dropped the subject and went back to what he was doing, namely testing the reflexes in the vampire's legs.

"Your nervous system has made an amazing recovery," Frankenstein announced. "Before this I believed spinal nerve damage was beyond my capacity to heal, but you… You're one of a kind, aren't you?"

"No," Vlad said. "There are others like me. They're simply better at concealing their true nature."

The doctor regarded him with an indescribable look in his eyes which made Dracula feel as though his mind rather than his body was being subject to a vivisection.

"Of course," he then replied. "To conceal their presence from men like this… Van Helsing?"

"What do you know about him?" Vlad hissed and swatted at an instrument for oral inspection which the doctor kept stubbornly shoving into his face.

"Nothing. The name is unfamiliar to me," the reanimator said, and no matter how badly Vlad wanted it to be a lie, he could find no signs of insincerity in the doctor's statement.

Frankenstein cocked his head to its side and the indescribable look was back, this time amplified. "That man has caused you a great deal of pain. I can tell," he said, and now his voice was gentle, almost caring. "You want him dead, don't you?"

Giving the detestable little man a quick death was far too kind of a wish according to Vlad, but he did not feel like explaining the true depth of his burning hatred of Van Helsing or recount all of the Dutchman's trespasses against him, so he nodded mutely in assent. The professor and his cohorts were probably long out of the country by now, and Dracula did not have the strength, resources or fortitude to devote to a chase.

"Was Van Helsing the one who put you in that grave?" the doctor asked. He had ceased all his tests and examinations and took a seat opposite Vlad at the tea table, which suggested that he was either really invested in learning the truth or struggled to do two things at the same time.

"Amongst others," Dracula admitted. "There were five of them against one of me."

Sure enough Mina had tried to defend him to the best of her ability, but it had all been for naught as the men who wanted his head had made sure that there was nothing she or anyone could do to stop their brutal onslaught. The only thing that did not make sense to Vlad was the handling of his corpse after he had been murdered. Vampires in these regions were burned without question even after a beheading or a stake through the heart to prevent the smallest chance of a resurrection. There were - thankfully - no burn scars on him now, so something must have stopped his quintet of pursuers from setting his remains on fire.

"Why was I buried?" he asked, not believing that Frankenstein would be able to provide him with a satisfactory answer, but nonetheless hopeful that it would shed some clarity on his fate.

The doctor smiled at him, appearing pleased that he had been asked a question he could finally answer unequivocally. "From what I have heard, you were brought to a church by a company of five: four Englishmen and one English lady," he said. "The lady insisted very strongly that you be given a proper Christian burial, and the priest conceded after some prodding by the group. He did not want you buried on church ground, so you were interred underneath a giant oak tree close to the village. That's the extent of my knowledge."

"Mina…" Vlad said breathily, and he remembered her kind brown eyes, large and doe-like in their innocence, shedding tears of sadness even as she reached for the Bowie knife stuck in his chest, first to try to dislodge it and save his life, and a second time to put an end to his suffering.

Oh, sweet Mina, he wanted to say. Your request to have me properly buried, though noble, did nothing for the salvation of my immortal soul.

Mina must never know, he decided. The greatest gift he could give her was to keep her in ignorance of the fate that had befallen him. The bond between them had been severed on his initiative, and he knew he ought to keep it that way regardless of how painful it was to him.

Van Helsing, on the other hand… Vlad realized in that moment that he was willing to forsake all his worldly possessions to exact his revenge on the Dutch professor who had so cruelly and methodically dismantled his entire existence in just a few short weeks.

"Not four Englishmen," he corrected Frankenstein, and the doctor raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Three Englishmen, one American and one Dutchman."

If the group that presented his body to the priest consisted of only four men, it had to mean that one of them had died from his wounds. Interesting. Vlad hoped that the deceased was not Van Helsing, because he wanted the old man to suffer before he died.

Vlad tried to recall if any of the men had been wounded in the clash between them and his Szgany warriors, but his memories consisted of disjointed images rather than a linear and reliable recollection of the actual events, and he soon had to give up his efforts to remember. It was a useless endeavor.

"How did you know where to find me?" he asked Frankenstein, curious to know if the doctor's version would match what he had managed to piece together so far.

"Rumor travels fast, especially when it involves the death of somebody," the doctor answered cryptically, and although prompted by Vlad, he refused to elaborate, thereby heavily suggesting that there were things he'd purposely left out.

"What about the clothes I wore when you dug me up?" Dracula pressed. He had been wearing his ancient and highly precious coronation robes at the time of his death, and it was not too great a leap of logic to assume that those were also the clothes he had been buried in.

The doctor grimaced, and his face conveyed a sincere apology. "I had to cut them away, I'm afraid. They were soiled anyhow… covered in blood and decrepit earth."

Vlad suppressed a flare-up of burgeoning anger, not wanting to start a quarrel over something as petty as a cherished set of clothes. He owed this man his life, after all, even though he would be hard-pressed to admit such even to himself. His overall impression of the doctor's character so far was that Frankenstein, while not inherently malignant, was enervating to have to deal with on a regular basis, and he couldn't wait for them to go on their separate ways. However, in spite of his numerous character flaws and rather appalling bedside manner, Frankenstein's marvelous intellect shone like a wire filament inside an incandescent light bulb surrounded by candles. Amazing, radiant, and so bright… but brittle and prone to burning out if given too much power.

Vlad also felt - irrationally, perhaps - that Frankenstein had wormed his way inside of his mind and somehow shifted things around in his psyche by physically prodding at his brain. He remembered the feel of the long, jagged scar on the back of his head and imagined - partly against his will - what the doctor could have done to leave such a mark on his flesh.

His train of thought was interrupted by the doctor's small, warm hand reaching across the table and closing over his own, giving it a sympathetic squeeze.

"Whatever you're thinking about, do not give into it," he said solemnly. "I spent too much time chasing ghosts, and it brought me nothing but destruction and misery. If you pursue thoughts of revenge, you will be the one to suffer the most. Trust me, Vlad. I know of what I speak."

"You know nothing about the honor of princes!" Dracula replied contemptuously, but he did not remove the hand placed atop his own.

"Perhaps not, but I know a lot about obsession."

That was an insult he was simply not going to stand for. "Remove your hand, Frankenstein, or I will remove your arm."

The doctor was not offended by the remark and merely smiled in return, but his smile was a sad one. "Please, call me Victor. 'Frankenstein' has too many syllables."

"I only count three syllables, Victor."

"Oh, well… It takes too long to say," Frankenstein said with a chuckle. "And I believe we should save time whenever we can."

Dracula almost smiled at the poignant comment, but only almost. Having sensed that things between the two of them were once again without tension, the doctor stood up and gestured awkwardly at the syringe containing his most recent sample of the vampire's blood.

"I must go upstairs and have this analyzed," Victor said. "Again, if you need me, call out to me."

Dracula was reminded of his plans to acquire the doctor's journal notes in the hope of finding a cure or at least an explanation for his new and peculiar cardiac ailment, and stood up as well. "I'll keep you company," he offered, aware of how phony he sounded and inwardly cringed. Pretending to be something he was not was surprisingly difficult for him, all things considered, and pretending to crave the doctor's company was the height of insincerity.

"No, I need to be alone with my thoughts," Frankenstein said, and the sudden transition to outright rudeness caught Vlad off-guard. "I can't have distractions."

Damn it. "I can be silent if you want," he said, but Frankenstein had already made up his mind and could not be budged.

"I don't want anyone up in the attic. It's nothing personal."

They parted without exchanging any further words, and once the doctor had gone up to his furtive workshop Vlad intended to find answers for himself by searching the rooms that Frankenstein had given him permission to explore. He was going to start with space that resembled a miniature library. Books and written documents were always reliable sources of information; often much more so than people. If Victor Frankenstein had told him any untruths, he would find out.

But first he was going to heat up some water and take a bath.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

Dracula gathered his wet hair into a utilitarian braid and tied it back with a leather string. He felt moderately cleaner now after his bath, although he had discovered that Frankenstein's soaps, if they could even be called that, smelled almost as foul as the ground he had been buried in. The doctor's rooms were in what could only be described as a pervasive and permanent state of disorganization, and in his heart Vlad wondered how such a brilliant and distinguished man could live like… this. Like a borderline savage.

The most obvious answer was lack of funds. If his brilliance had been recognized for what it was, Victor Frankenstein would be presenting his discoveries and passing on his skills to the next generation of ambitious young doctors at a prestigious university of his own choosing and never want for anything material. Just the fact that this man, this unquestionable genius, dwelled in an obscure Transylvanian town, hidden away from the academic elite, and anonymously performed his experiments from an attic laboratory was enough to convince Dracula that his host was perhaps as hated and feared as he himself.

He had already examined the room - or rather broom closet - that had been assigned to him last night to a satisfactory degree, and nothing in it contained any information that wasn't already in his possession. Vlad had his sights set on the library, but he realized he might have to spend quite a lot of time in there before - or if - he came across anything useful, so he wanted to make sure he had already explored everything else before giving the library his full attention.

Vlad found his first clue to the doctor's true identity when he came across Frankenstein's wardrobe and modest collection of clothes. Like the clothes that had been left out for him to wear during his time as the doctor's guest, these garments were of expensive make and tailoring; clearly a gentleman's clothes, made to reflect the station of a man from the upper middle classes.

They were, however, not modern. Vlad wondered briefly why Frankenstein had even bothered to keep these unfashionable clothes given that he would stick out like a sore thumb if he walked the streets in them. The peculiar scientist had many quirks and downright character flaws, but sentimentality did not strike Dracula as being one of them.

He proceeded to check the clothes, coats in particular, for marks of ownership and was simultaneously both surprised and not surprised at all to find the doctor's monogram, a stylish VF, in almost all of them. The coat that stood out the most, scarlet in color, also had a date embroidered onto a tag in the neck: 1789. The year of the French revolution. The numbers next to Victor Frankenstein's initials left little doubt that this was indeed a coat tailored for the doctor himself, but if Frankenstein had already been alive more than a century ago, how could he still live and breathe today? Vlad was certain that his strange savior was truly alive and not undead in any shape, way, or form, and therefore the discovery of the clothes had created more questions than it had answered.

"Who are you, Victor?" he murmured, taking his time to put the garments back exactly as they were before he meddled with them. Questions were circulating in a jumbled mess in his thoughts.

Had the doctor managed to solve the age-old conundrum of eternal youth and tested the miracle cure on himself? No, that did not make sense, either… Why, in that case, did he need Dracula?

He called me his 'Adam', Vlad thought. Does that mean I was his first?

If the doctor had indeed walked this earth for more than a century, that was very unlikely. Had he tried this before, but with humans? If so, what was the result? Something monstrous, no doubt.

Vlad touched the scars on his chest and neck again, and a wave of revulsion passed through his body at the thought of having to exist with such disfiguring marks. Before Frankenstein and he parted ways, Vlad would ask the doctor to remove the stitches. The idea of attempting to do so on his own made his skin crawl.

Closing the wardrobe doors, he decided to move on to the library.

Even though the room itself was cramped and had nowhere near enough space to contain such a large volume of written texts, it was obvious that Victor Frankenstein held his books in a very high regard. The violent disarray that plagued the rest of the household was nowhere to be seen inside the library; in fact, everything from the thickest tome to the thinnest pamphlet was in perfect alphabetical order, and it occurred to Dracula that if one knew what to look for in here, one could easily find it.

As a great treasurer of books himself, Dracula absently wondered if any of the volumes to be found in Frankenstein's collection were also in his own personal library at Castle Dracula. For all their apparent differences, they both seemed to possess an equal thirst for knowledge. Vlad even considered writing down the titles that tickled his fancy so that he could order copies of them once he had returned home.

After a quick browse through the contents, it became apparent to the vampire that the doctor's interests did not lie primarily in the straightforward pursuit of hard sciences like physics or chemistry, but in the metaphysical and spiritual, as well as learning ways to combine these ancient and mystical concepts with the secrets of the material world. The application of natural philosophy was perhaps an apt description, Dracula thought, and the idea had a strange kind of familiarity about it, like he had been given a small window into Frankenstein's mind.

The doctor had also heavily gravitated toward alchemy, and amongst the many ancient books in his collection, Dracula discovered the complete works of Cornelius Agrippa, who through his elemental blend of early scientific principles and decidedly non-scientific fantastical ramblings, had exerted a great deal of influence over Frankenstein's philosophical landscape. Having dabbled in alchemy himself during his younger years, Dracula wondered if occultism had provided Frankenstein with the answers he so desperately sought.

Books, however interesting, would not provide him with any useful information at this time, and therefore he refocused his attention toward Frankenstein's desk. The drawers were locked, but finding the correct key presented no problem whatsoever if one knew where to look, and it seemed that in some ways, Frankenstein was just as commonplace as the rest of the earth's unremarkable men. Ordinary men.

The thought made Vlad snort softly to himself. No doubt the good doctor would find great offense in being called ordinary.

He found a bunch of letters in the top drawer and quickly eyed through them. Most were written in German - a language he had excellent knowledge of - and were addressed to a residence in Geneva, Switzerland. Some were clearly just good-natured back-and-forth conversations between a father and son, while others appeared to be a written exchange between lovers where one of the parties was clearly Victor Frankenstein. He noted that quite a few of the letters were signed "Your Elizabeth", and judging from the doctor's passionate declarations of love and commitment, he had been very deeply in love with this woman, this mysterious Elizabeth.

Clearly she was not a part of his life anymore, or Frankenstein would not be living here in this filthy, anonymous little apartment away from the civilized world and doing covert experiments on corpses. He glanced at the date scribbled down on one of the letters. 1793. If the man had been an adult when he wrote these letters, he had to be at least one-hundred-and-thirty years old. The facts of the situation spoke for themselves: he was indeed dealing with an immortal, albeit one very different from himself.

Vlad found another letter addressed to Victor Frankenstein at his Genevese address, this one an acceptance letter for the university of Ingolstadt, signed by a Professor Krempe. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he could not recall if the doctor had mentioned it, and he saw no reason as to why he would have heard it from his host during their brief acquaintance. Overall he had found out very little of use, and none that pertained to his particular case.

Frustrated by his lack of progress, Vlad replaced the letters and tried to decide - not without a considerable degree of difficulty - how to proceed from there.

The events which followed this one made the decision for him. He could hear the creaking of stairs which signaled Frankenstein's descent from his secretive attic workspace, and Vlad realized it would spell trouble if his host caught him in here, boldly rummaging through his personal belongings, so he randomly grabbed a book from the bookshelf and promptly exited the library. 

When Frankenstein found him moments later, he was back in his room with his nose diligently buried in the book he had snatched, and he hoped that his act was convincing enough to fool the doctor into believing that he was genuinely interested in the contents.

Frankenstein looked worn and haggard when he appeared in the doorway, and Vlad could tell by the smell of his breath that he had been drinking.

"Dawn is almost upon us," he said, and the vampire resisted the impulse to snap that it was superfluous information given that his whole body could feel the approach of dawn each and every time. At least that particular thing had remained the same. "I'm here to check your vitals again. Is this a good time?"

"It is as good a time as any," Dracula said curtly, but he would comply… for now.

He allowed Frankenstein to unbutton his shirt to listen to his heart and lungs, and he endured the feel of the mercury thermometer in his mouth and the intermittent sounds of the doctor's fascinated "oohs" and "ahhs" and "hmms" as he carried out and interpreted the results of his tests. Vlad could practically visualize the gears turning in that powerful machinery for a brain, and he felt a momentary compulsion to physically rattle the doctor's head to get the answers he wanted.

"Paracelsus," Frankenstein said with a sharp nod toward the book which Dracula had been pretending to read. "I'm glad you found something of interest in my modest little library. After all, I'm not royalty, like yourself."

Vlad had virtually lost the ability to blush after his turning, but right now he could have sworn his face heated up to uncomfortable levels. Oh, well. Perhaps he had not been as discreet as he'd liked to imagine. He felt resentment toward his host for making him feel this way and an equal amount toward himself for allowing it.

"And you used up most of my water, I see," the doctor pointed out sourly and gestured at Vlad's still-damp hair. "I don't entertain guests very often, as you've no doubt figured out, but I like it when they help themselves rather than expect me to do it."

"If you weren't drinking like a fish, Victor, perhaps you could be more attentive to your guests," Dracula snapped back, patience spent. "And I had to get that rank smell out of my hair somehow. I couldn't stomach it."

"There was no smell except in your own head. You were imagining it."

"That you choose to live like an animal doesn't mean others should lower themselves to your standard. You've never been married, have you, Doctor? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can only assume that your household has never known a woman's touch."

Frankenstein stood up stiffly, and Vlad realized his mistake when something resembling an iron curtain was drawn across the doctor's face and his eyes turned to steel. Damn it. Any chance of getting Frankenstein to open up and volunteer information had slipped by because of his ham-handed insinuation about the other's possibly involuntary bachelorhood.

"I'll leave you to explore Paracelsus, then, my friend," Victor said. He did not sound hostile or affronted now, just sort of numb, as though he had mentally disassociated from a situation he could not control. "I hope you left me enough water for a pot of tea."

Dracula stood up as well, recalling that there was one favor he actually needed to ask from the doctor before sunrise. "Could you remove my stitches?" he requested. "They're itching like mad." If he had to sleep through another day like this, he would doubtlessly scratch at them in his sleep again to the point of drawing blood.

With a concentrated frown, Victor Frankenstein examined the sutures on his subject's neck, applied some gentle prodding with the pads of his fingertips, and then concluded the business with a headshake. "We should wait until tomorrow to remove them," he said, and Vlad could have sworn he saw a glint of sadistic, perverse enjoyment in the other man's eyes that suggested Frankenstein had denied him out of pure spite.

"Why?" the Count asked, challenging the seemingly arbitrary decision.

"Because I don't want to risk wound dehiscence occurring, Vlad. In your case, that might be nothing short of catastrophic."

"I usually heal very fast."

"Do not trifle with me. I am the doctor, it's my decision," Frankenstein said irately, and it occurred to Dracula that the scientist, much like himself, did not enjoy or even tolerate constant or protracted interactions with someone else unless they were completely on his terms.

Vlad let the issue go and the doctor left, ambling back up to his laboratory with heavy, tired steps.

When did Victor Frankenstein sleep? Had he slept at all during the time Vlad had been his guest? Maybe his particular brand of immortality came with the added benefit of not requiring any sleep. Had he perhaps turned himself into something that needed no rest altogether? If so, then why did he look so tired and worn-out all the time?

All these unanswered questions about the nature of the doctor's being solidified Dracula's conviction that the laboratory would be able to provide him with at least some of the answers he sought. Of course it would be impossible to rummage through it with Frankenstein present, but the doctor would have to leave at some point, if only to get some more water from the town well, and Dracula only needed to be awake to exploit the opportunity when it presented itself.

He undressed and lay down, but not to sleep. Frankenstein would undoubtedly check on him before leaving the apartment, and Vlad needed his act to look convincing. He closed his eyes but intended to fight the pull of dawn with everything he had.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

It only became evident to Dracula that he had fallen asleep after all when he was unceremoniously awakened by a series of hard, deliberate knocks on the front door. He inwardly cursed his current state of weakness and lack of self-control, although he cynically noted that his hearing was just as acute as ever, and when the knocking progressed to outright banging, Vlad wanted to shout at his host to either admit their insistent visitor or get rid of them in some other way. Perhaps by having them bludgeoned to death with a shovel.

"Frankenstein!" a loud and demanding woman's voice yelled, and Vlad could tell from the volume of her speech and her continued hammering on the door that she would not simply give up and walk away without being dealt with first.

"Herr Frankenstein, open this door right now! I know you're in there, so it's no use you try and hide from me! Frankenstein! Come down here this instant! Frankenstein! I will not go away!"

Dracula waited for his host to respond and deal with the situation accordingly, but seconds stretched into minutes, and the banging continued without interruption. Slowly and almost reluctantly the truth sank in; Frankenstein was not answering the door because he had vacated his rooms, and that in turn meant Vlad was presented with a unique opportunity to examine the laboratory during his absence.

But he needed to get rid of the useless cow pounding on the door first, or her ruckus would undoubtedly attract a crowd, and undue attention was the last thing either of them needed. Vlad dressed hurriedly and borrowed one of Frankenstein's smoking jackets to wear on top with the hope that it would hide the ugly and plainly visible stitches around his neck.

He walked silently toward the door, alert for signs of Frankenstein's imminent return and simultaneously fought the crippling fatigue imposed by daylight hours. Unlike in the myths and legends about his kind, he would not burst into flames and burn to a cinder when exposed to sunlight, but it nonetheless weakened him to the levels of a mere mortal, and his sensitive eyes and ears, which were incredibly important assets at night, became more of a liability during daytime. 

Such as now. The woman's loud banging on the door sounded like a demolition hammer to his ears, and he realized he would have to apply a great deal of self-restraint so as not to respond with outright violence.

"Frankenstein! Frankenstein!" the woman's shrill but surprisingly resonant voice hollered. "I know you're in there, and I'm not leaving until you open the door!"

Vlad turned the key in the lock and opened the door. It opened inward, and the woman outside nearly overbalanced with her fist still raised when the vertical surface she had been pounding on was jerked away without prior notice. He stepped back just in time to avoid being pulled down with her, and what followed were the woman's ungainly attempts to get back on her feet and then her ragged breaths caused by the exertion.

She was enormous; there was no other way to describe her person. Almost as wide as the door itself and with no discernible definition to her figure, Vlad wondered why she had even bothered to wear a bodice, as it certainly did nothing to support her gelatinous mass of a body. With arms the size of ham-hocks covered by fabric that looked like it was about to split open from the strain, the woman finally managed to pull her massive body into a standing position with no help from Vlad. A highly unpleasant, combined smell of dried-up old sweat and cheap ale wafted towards him, and he wondered if he had become more sensitive to distasteful scents after his second "death".

"Who are you?" the woman asked, and if her voice had not betrayed her instant hostility, her eyes alone would have communicated said attitude all on their own. It was difficult to tell her age given the dough-like quality of her flesh, but Vlad estimated it to be fifty-five at the very least; her hair was almost entirely white, and her features - or what remained of them, anyway - were swaddled in thick  layers of adipose tissue droopy with age. The woman's cheeks, red from either alcohol or the cold air, were littered with a fine, shallow network of ruptured blood vessels, just like her nose.

"Who wants to know?" Dracula countered, doing his best to match her unashamed antagonism. It was a cloudy day and the sun was not out, but he still had to mentally struggle to remain exposed to daylight like this.

"I am Frau Horvath, Herr Frankenstein's landlady," the portly woman said and raised her hand to rudely point at Vlad with her finger. Her small, black eyes looked like two dusty pinheads stuck in a bloated, rotting potato. "Now tell me who you are and what you are doing here. Are you Herr Frankenstein's tenant? I did not give him permission to sublet these rooms!"

"Not a tenant, just a guest," Vlad said, now seriously worried that the fat cow's histrionics were going to attract a crowd. Damn it. He had to get rid of her somehow, if only to buy himself some time to explore the attic before Frankenstein returned.

But Mrs. Horvath was not in the process of leaving, nor did she intend to shut up. "Where is Frankenstein, I ask? Is he hiding behind your back now? Coward of a man, he is. Well, tell him, Herr Incognito, if he dares to show his face, that I am evicting him! All this horrible screaming and banging and other infernal noises, and coming and going at odd hours. It's impacting my business, you see. His neighbors can't stand it, and since I am his landlady, it's my job to put things right. Herr Frankenstein has three days to pack up his things and evacuate these rooms, or I will sell everything that's left at an auction!"

Dracula tried to imagine how the already volatile doctor would respond to the news of eviction, and all his envisioned scenarios were bleak. If Frankenstein had to start planning and preparing for a sudden move, there would definitely not be any time for Vlad to explore the laboratory to the extent that he wanted. He had to do something.

"Why don't you come in, Mrs. Horvath, and wait for the doctor so that you can tell him in person? He's out on errands, but he's expected to return any minute now. I could make you some tea while you wait, hmm?"

Vlad flashed the woman what he thought was a winning smile and stepped aside, ostentatiously inviting her inside. To his disappointment and added frustration, her look of suspicion grew and she did not accept his invitation to enter. Her pudgy hand reached up to grasp something hanging from a chain around her neck, and the knowledge that it was indeed a crucifix brought on such an overwhelming feeling of revulsion in Vlad that it was impossible to conceal from an onlooker. He snarled like an angry tiger and his eyes flashed in scarlet. Had the circumstances been different, Dracula would have taken great joy in the look of naked terror that spread over her shapeless, amorphous features when the full realization of what he was sank in. However, this was not a situation in which he was capable of finding any kind of joy, and the fat cow's look of terror brought him no pleasure at all, only more anger.

"Strigoi!" Frankenstein's landlady shrieked and furiously crossed herself several times in succession. Her many chins wobbled, and her previously rosy face had taken on a plum-like color. "Don't touch me! Ordog! Stay back! To hell with you!"

She held the idolatrous trinket in front of her like a shield to ward him off, and Dracula knew that unless he managed to make her stop screaming, someone would, sooner or later, come out to check what all the fuss was about.

"Be quiet, you stupid old hag!" he growled and grabbed the furiously howling woman by the ear in order to drag her into the house and shut her up for good. With his free hand, he made an attempt to snap the chain of the crucifix and thereby rob her of her only defense against him, but due to the girth of her massive neck he failed to get a good hold of it and consequently also gave the woman a chance to break his clasp.

The sound of fabric ripping preceded the heady and intoxicating smell of fresh, human blood, and Dracula was momentarily distracted by the chance to feed again. Mouth open as far as his jaws would allow, he went for her neck. Mrs. Horvath raised her short, stubby forearm to shield her throat just as his fangs grazed her skin, and she pressed him back with a surprising amount of strength.

Despite her advanced years and clumsy appearance, it became clear right away that Mrs. Horvath was not going down without a fight. Having forced him away from her neck, the woman summarily lifted her foot as high as her massive girth and chunky peasant's gown and aprons would allow, and delivered a precise kick to his shin. Pain shot up his leg like weed in an unkempt garden, and Vlad nearly doubled over, clutching at something to hold on to but finding nothing except for his attacker's skirts.

"How dare you lay your hands on me? Foul devil of the pit!" Mrs. Horvath spat triumphantly, and as if his defeat had not already been humiliating enough, she took the crucifix and pressed it smartly against his temple. His flesh sizzled like it had been burnt, forcing Dracula to his knees, and he just barely managed to suppress a cry of pain.

People would come, he realized. Nosy bastards that they were, they would follow the noise and flock to investigate. Humans in a group could be more bloodthirsty than even the hungriest vampire, hence the appeal of traveling circuses and their freak shows. Yokels with far too little excitement in their mundane lives gathered and paid good money to gawk at the freaks on display, and he was a freak now. The yokels would come, and this time they would bring their pitchforks.

He almost hoped that the fat old witch would attempt to kick him again, because he was ready for it now; if she tried, he would catch her foot in both hands and shove it backwards with everything he had. She would topple then, he was sure of it. He could already imagine her massive form hitting the floor, preceded by her pinwheeling her arms in a desperate but ultimately fruitless attempt to regain her balance. And when that happened, he would be on her supine form in an instant and silence her for good, even if it meant having to shove his whole fist down her throat.

However, Mrs. Horvath had made the same calculations as the vampire himself and wisely did not attempt any more violence against his person. She backed away from Vlad until she was standing in the doorway, practically blocking out the daylight with her square-shaped frame.

"Do you like to prey on old women, you pitiful bastard? Of course you do! But this one sure showed you, eh? Back to the bowels of Hell with you! You and that blasphemer who lives here! A grave robber, I've heard. You will burn, both of you!" the woman cackled manically, and her small, raisin-like eyes expressed the same kind of blind, wretched hatred that Dracula himself felt toward her. He didn't doubt for a second that she was serious about her threats to have him burned.

Mrs. Horvath backed out onto the street and into full public visibility, thereby ensuring that he could not pursue her without sacrificing himself in the process. Dracula hissed impotently like a cornered cat and nudged the door shut. His heart was once again hammering away like a creature possessed, and he had to spend a moment on all fours to force back the dizziness that soaked through his head like spilled ink.

His actions would have consequences; that much he had already realized, and they would be exclusively negative. Dracula had identified a look of indescribable hatred in the eyes of the woman he had attacked, and it had been accompanied by an aura of decisive resolution, very similar in nature to that which had driven Abraham van Helsing to pursue him halfway across the continent. Mrs. Horvath would return, and she would bring others. Men with pitchforks, scythes and torches.

They would come for him… and for Victor Frankenstein. But he did not intend to be here when they did. Vlad was usually a man of his word, but the circumstances had changed, and their agreement would have to be modified to reflect the changes. Frankenstein had to accept that, and if he did not, Vlad could not allow the doctor's obsession, whatever it was, to doom them both.

The strength of his will to live shocked the vampire on some levels. Less than two days ago, he had been dead meat on the reanimator's slab, and just over one day ago, he had been in such severe pain that he would have readily traded his whole existence for a moment of relief from that burning agony. He sure as hell was not going to let himself be burned now.

Vlad redirected his thoughts to his current objective: the attic. With the doctor away, it was the perfect opportunity for him to examine what was actually up there. Afterwards, regardless of whether he found anything pertaining to his case or not, he would leave Frankenstein and return home to Castle Dracula. Turning his home into a veritable fortress was one of the foremost reasons as to why he had managed to persevere as one of the undead for over four centuries. Humans were persistent but predictable in their persecution of his kind, and a castle built on the precipice of a cliff with only one entrance and exit was enough to dissuade most persecutors. Except, of course, for Van Helsing and his ilk.

He would stay long enough to warn the doctor of the imminent threat; it was the least he could do for a man who had given him his life back, but that was as far as he was willing to go to help Frankenstein. In fact, it was more than enough in Vlad's opinion.

Once he had climbed up the long set of stairs - thirty-six of them in total - and reached the entrance to the laboratory, his mood took an instant nosedive. The doors were not only locked, which he had anticipated, but they were preceded by a retractable iron gate secured to its place by a heavy padlock. Vlad knew that he needn't waste any time looking for a key, because Frankenstein was guaranteed to carry it on his person. He casually tested the strength of the chain holding the gate in place and immediately figured it was beyond his capacity to break with his bare hands. For whatever reason, Victor Frankenstein had taken every possible precaution to keep someone from coming in… Or was it the other way around, and the purpose was to keep something from getting out?

Vlad descended the stairs and returned less than a minute later with a hammer and a wedge. He had broken a few locks in his days, and it was sometimes amusing to consider how much faith mortals put into devices that could be broken literally with one measured blow. Granted Frankenstein had invested in a sturdier variant, but it was still just a metal contraption all the same, and Dracula was able to inflict a crack in one of the chain links on his second attempt. He impatiently threw the now broken chain aside and focused on the locking mechanism on the door itself. It probably would have been easy enough to open with a locksmith's tools or even a simple screwdriver, but blunt force was just as effective and saved him several minutes of precious time.

Vlad was very much past making any attempts to conceal the unauthorized entry from his host, as had been the original idea. No doubt the doctor would be less than pleased, and from what he had observed of Frankenstein so far, the man certainly had a temper and was definitely capable of turning belligerent. None of that mattered now. He could deal with Frankenstein's wrath when the time came. The doctor might be some type of immortal, but when it came to physical strength not to mention speed he was under-endowed compared to a vampire. 

The smell of mildew, decay and unwashed bodies hit him like a physical wall, and when Dracula was fully able to take in the view before him, it was suddenly so obvious why Frankenstein seemed to spend the majority of his time up here in the attic. This was where he did everything: waking up, making his toilet, ingesting his meals, sleeping, and from the smell of it, tending to other bodily needs involving a latrine that had not been emptied for some time. For a professed doctor of medicine, Frankenstein's sense of hygiene was nothing short of appalling.

All his patients are cadavers, so who are they to complain? Dracula thought grimly. The attic sure smelled like there were at least a couple of rotting corpses stashed somewhere, and the effervescent buzzing of flies strongly implied it also.

The biggest obstacle to his quest for answers, however, was deciding where to look first. Whatever system Frankenstein had utilized to organize his library, it was not in use here, given that the entire laboratory looked like a warzone. He pictured the doctor puttering around between his various workstations and abandoning whatever he was working on at the moment when he had a sudden new flight of fancy. Dracula began to understand why Frankenstein worked alone; not even the most desperate young physician or medical student would willingly agree to work under such dire conditions if they had any other options.

He looked up and saw a familiar arrangement of roof beams, confirming his theory that this was indeed the place where Frankenstein had resurrected him. He also remembered, less enthusiastically, the remarkably realistic hallucination of the Jelisaveta-creature sitting on his chest while he did everything in his power to avoid having to look at its rotting countenance. The best defense his feverish brain could come up with was to gaze at the ceiling and memorize this exact pattern of beams.

A ridiculous but nevertheless horrifying thought suddenly came to him like a buzzing wasp. Had the Jelisaveta-thing's cruel mockery of him been a dream at all? Perhaps the creature, this walking corpse, actually existed in physical reality and was hidden away up here in the attic; perhaps Frankenstein had found some way to reanimate not only him, but also his wife, four hundred years in her grave?

He pictured the creature's face - horribly disfigured by the time spent in the water and various river creatures that loved to feed off of waterlogged corpses - appearing out of the dark and grinning at him with mad delight. Just like last time, its arms would be outstretched and its fingers hooked into claws, ready to be sunk into his flesh. It was dead and yet not dead, powered by something, some eldritch energy which allowed it to defy not only death but advanced decomposition also. There would be a crackling noise, unidentifiable at first and superficially similar to the buzzing of flies, but the longer he listened, the more it sounded not like an insect but the sparkling of an electric current.

The creature had changed as well. It was not the sad, mangled remains of Jelisaveta anymore, but a man, a terrible behemoth close to eight feet tall, anthropoid, but looking more like a poor approximation of a man than the real thing. It grinned at him, its lips and gums black, and the skin of its face, so sallow it was practically yellow, was stretched so tightly around its large, primitive skull that there was a very real possibility of dermal separation. Sutures, similar to those the doctor had used on Vlad, also crisscrossed the creature's monstrous features, and in places the facial musculature could be glimpsed underneath the layers of dead skin.

Vlad blinked, and the creature - this mock-man - was gone, the attic once again silent except for the continuous buzzing of flies. Indeed they were just flies and nothing more sinister. He began to realize that the scene he had witnessed was not a figment of his imagination but rather one of Victor Frankenstein's memories.

It ought to be impossible; he had not initiated a transfer of psychic content between himself and the doctor. Vlad had never even drunk directly from his veins, and yet he was certain that the grotesque figure, which looked like it had been stitched together by someone who had never actually seen a human in real life but nonetheless decided to recreate one based off of a description from a medieval anatomy book, had existed at some point.

By God, Frankenstein had stitched together cadaver parts and somehow instilled life in the creature! Vlad was in equal parts amused and revolted. There were those that called his kind an abomination and a breach of the natural order, but what this demented scientist had done was in a league of its own.

If the gates of Heaven were closed to him, surely they would also be closed to someone like Frankenstein?

There would be time for philosophical musings later. He must not forget why he had come up here. There were plenty of chemicals everywhere; funny-shaped bottles filled with equally funny-colored liquids and crockery jars with labels straight from the apothecary's shop. And then there were sketches. If all these excellent and highly detailed charcoal drawings had been done by Frankenstein himself, the doctor must have spent a near lifetime on sketching alone. They depicted human beings, or rather parts of them, in all stages of development and dissection; the minutiae of blood vessels, nerves, exposed muscle tissue and internal organs meticulously documented and put on paper by a profane scientist with an obsessive desire to defy nature.

But alas, no journal.

He suddenly had another vivid recollection of Frankenstein seated behind a small wooden table, too simple to be called a desk, writing ardently. The desk was nowhere in sight, so that had to mean the doctor had moved it. Why? Vlad looked around for it but soon figured it was a lost cause.

He came upon a filing cabinet with four drawers and decided to start at the top and work his way down. It contained folders; some very thick, some containing only one sheet of paper, and if there was a filing system, it was certainly not alphabetical. Most of the folders in drawer one only contained notes haphazardly written in a myriad of languages - German, French, English and Latin - sometimes switching from one language to another in the middle of a sentence. Frankenstein's handwriting was just as appalling as his sense of order, and Dracula considered giving up.

Then he glimpsed something that was potentially interesting. The date on one of the folders was written down as 1803, and when he examined the others, they all ranged from the early 19th century to the 1830's. In another lifetime it might have been very entertaining to peruse Frankenstein's early work and try to make sense of it, but he did not have the time for such explorations now.

Did the doctor have a file on him as well? If he sorted his files by date, Dracula's folder ought to be in the bottom drawer. He looked around and listened for signs of trouble before squatting down, knowing that he would be putting himself in a potentially more vulnerable position, but there were no sounds except for the persistent thumping of his heart. He felt a fresh wave of resentment toward the doctor for leaving him with this peculiar and bothersome affliction. Frankenstein had sworn he could cure it, but Vlad trusted the man, this reanimator, about as far as he could throw him. Or perhaps even less than that.

He did not find a folder with his name in the bottom drawer, but there was one titled "Le Comte": the Count, and it did not take his brain long to make the connection to himself. Clearly Victor Frankenstein's output language had been set to French at the time that he wrote it. Something heavy that was definitely not made out of paper weighed down the folder, and when Vlad shook it out to investigate, he realized it was his silver signet ring.

A low rumbling growl emerged from his throat as an expression of his burgeoning anger. The doctor had taken far too many liberties with his possessions for it to go unpunished. Had he even intended on returning the ring, or was he going to pawn it to afford more of his strange chemicals and funky electric equipment?

With the ring back on his finger where it belonged, he turned to the actual paper contents of the folder. Most of it consisted of graphite drawings with some notes interspersed here and there, again in a mixture of languages which betrayed the inherently chaotic organization of Frankenstein's mind. The doctor had managed to capture his likeness well, albeit in a very cold and clinical manner. The unseeing look in his eyes and the slack-jawed expression on his face, perfectly rendered on paper, were spooky to observe, since Vlad both recognized himself and not at the same time. There were notes scribbled down here and there, anatomical words for body parts, mostly in Latin… Some questions, some statements, but more of the former.

There was a drawing which represented his torso from the hips up, showing his skin cut open in a Y-shape and pulled back on both sides to expose the ribcage and viscera. There were notes here as well, commenting on the size, make and placement of his organs, but it was the drawing that followed this one that truly caught his attention.

It was clearly supposed to be a heart, but it took him a fraction of a second longer than usual to recognize it, given that no heart was supposed to look like this. A blade (granted, the damage depicted could have been inflicted by a number of different weapons, but he knew without a shadow of doubt that this was the work of a blade, a very specific one, carried by a certain Texan fellow) had been thrust through the organ and not only pierced it but very nearly split it in two.

The heart in his chest sped up again, and Vlad no longer thought of it as his heart; not when he was so close to unveiling the terrible truth about its origins. He glanced over the notes written by Frankenstein, and the words "irreparable damage" followed by two question marks leapt at him from the sheet of paper, but even that phrase was not quite as disturbing or final as the word he spotted further down: "Substitute", again followed by a question mark.

The folder fell from his hands and the papers scattered wildly on impact with the floor, but Dracula hardly even noticed it. In spite of every fiber in his body loudly opposing it, he hobbled toward the mirror he had briefly glimpsed hanging on the front of an oak cabinet. Frankenstein did not strike him as the vain type, but even the good doctor needed to shave every now and then, and Vlad was willing to wager that this was where he did it, probably in candlelight with a straight razor. Old Victor was not the type to pay regular visits to a barber shop.

The mirror, about two feet in length and half that in width, was currently covered by a sheet made out of such sheer fabric that he could see the glass through it. Vlad wanted to act before his courage failed him, and he removed the sheet with a dramatic wave of his arm. And then he looked.

Vlad's greatest relief was perhaps his inability to see his own face reflected in the mirror, because he was certain that the sight of it would have sent him permanently and irrevocably into the country of the mad. The white hot panic of seeing the heart - this foreign thing - obliviously hammering away inside a body that cast no reflection (at least everything else is mine, thank God - or the Devil - for small favors, he thought) was only slightly mitigated by the fact that despite obviously not belonging to him, the organ was a perfect fit. With his most important and intimate body part crudely exposed like this, he could see with razor sharp clarity where his own tissues ended and the donor's began. There was no smooth transition at all there; Victor Frankenstein had summarily cut out Vlad's heart (the irreparably damaged heart, as the notes had said) and sewn another into its place - the heart of a mortal that beat far too fast for comfort but otherwise functioned faultlessly.

Frankenstein had cut out the seat of his soul and given him a new one, treating the heart like it was nothing but a piece of meat. Nothing but raw materials.

"You had no right…!" he spoke bitterly to the blindly toiling organ that lay burrowed in his chest cavity but in no way belonged to him. His emotional turmoil triggered its carnal counterpart, and the heart, seemingly floating in an invisible ether - bloodless, unmoored - began to pump and contract faster and faster until it reached its physical limit, after which it calmed down, perhaps realizing on some primitive level that it was wasting energy on something that wasn't even a real threat.

Irreparably damaged.

Substitute.

"Le sang est la vie."

What had the doctor done with his heart? Thrown it out like the slaughterhouses did with the residual animal parts that were not edible or sellable? Had he fed it to the dogs? The man himself certainly did not own any dogs, and if he ever had, they had probably died from Frankenstein's abysmally bad husbandry. If Victor wanted a dog, he could probably build himself a designer breed out of different dog parts. The mental picture of a stubby bulldog's head sewn onto a lean whippet's frame, affectionately wagging a shepherd dog's bushy tail, was almost enough to compel Vlad to laugh.

There was no doubt whatsoever that Frankenstein had started his career as a reanimator using animal subjects. These types always did.

Disgusted with what he saw, Vlad flung the mirror to the floor and took pleasure in hearing it shatter on impact. If Frankenstein accidentally stepped on some of the shards and cut his feet, he would not take responsibility for it, but he would certainly take pleasure. With the angst-inducing distraction gone, he turned his focus to the cabinet itself. It radiated cold, and after experimentally running his fingers across the space previously hidden by the mirror, he began to realize that its purpose was to refrigerate goods that would otherwise spoil if kept in room temperature. Despite its plain oak exterior, the cabinet, probably another one of Frankenstein's haphazardly constructions, functioned as a type of icebox; something which mortals, particularly of the higher classes, had been using for well over a century to preserve food items in general, and meat in particular.

However, something told Vlad that Frankenstein did not keep the icebox up here to refrigerate edibles.

He tried the doorknob, half-expecting it to be locked, but it wasn't, likely because Frankenstein had deemed it too much of a hassle to unlock every time he needed something from the cupboard. And also because he'd expected the padlock and chain to keep intruders out. Humans were surprisingly naïve at times, even if they'd somehow reached the respectable age of one-hundred-and-thirty.

The pungent odor of embalming fluid assaulted his already painfully heightened senses, and Vlad wondered how the wretched doctor could stand this mess, to spend his days - and nights - up here with his hoard of decaying body parts and embalmed organs, stitching together monstrosities that he ended up having to destroy anyway. Had the repeated inhalation of toxic gasses eaten away at his sanity, or had Victor Frankenstein had the misfortune of being born with his madness?

Brow furrowed, Dracula looked into the cabinet and noted with a certain degree of grim and morbid amusement that his assumptions had been wrong this time. The tissues stored in the icebox did not consist of limbs or organs from fully formed adults. Instead Vlad found an impressive collection of fetal remains in various stages of development, from the very early larval-like form no bigger than a man's thumb to the almost completely gestated babe mere weeks away from birth, and everything in between. Of course, none of these unfortunate creatures would ever have the privilege of being born or knowing a mother's love; they were forever trapped in a madman's refrigerator, their little bodies frozen literally and figuratively in a state of suspended animation.

Vlad picked up one of the glass jars, which at first glance appeared to contain an unremarkable second trimester fetus. On closer inspection, however, he noticed certain abnormalities in the lower back along the length of the spine. There was a gap in the skin, and a fluid sack, resembling a huge, red blister protruded from the area above the buttocks. Whoever had ripped this little one prematurely from its mother's womb had probably done both the mother and the child a favor.

"I told you not to come up here!" Frankenstein's furious voice boomed from a short distance behind him, and Vlad started, dropping the glass jar containing the baby monster. It shattered just like the mirror had done, and the toxic, nauseating smell of formaldehyde rose like vapor from the floor.

The surprise - no, the shock - of a mortal having managed to sneak up on him was enough to keep Dracula rooted to the spot for a few more seconds. The look of untamed fury in the other man's eyes was another reason. He had predicted that Frankenstein would, well, protest if he caught him rummaging through the attic, but he had not expected such a viscerally violent, volcanic reaction from the eccentric but typically mild-mannered doctor. 

"Why did you have to come up here?!" Frankenstein said shrilly, and when he exhaled, Vlad could smell the brandy fumes on his breath. Again. He had started early, as usual. His red-rimmed eyes, bloodshot and accusing, glared daggers at the vampire, and then suddenly, without provocation, his hand flew out and struck Vlad across the face.

It was a clumsy backhand blow, but Vlad was unprepared for it and staggered backwards, tasting blood on his tongue. Even though he was only peripherally aware of having stepped on the now exposed fetal corpse and made it collapse under his boot like a squishy, bloated puffball, he was grateful for managing to stay on his feet. Vlad quickly found his bearings, however, and stood up to his full height to counter Frankenstein's smoldering gaze with an equally baleful stare of his own. If the doctor attempted to strike him or otherwise assault him a second time, he would be prepared.

"I'll forgive you for that once, and only because I still want answers from you," Vlad said darkly and brushed against his bloodied lip with one finger. "What have you done with my heart?"

The doctor appeared to visibly deflate before his eyes, and the rage evaporated from his svelte form, replaced quickly by a look of absolute exhaustion.

"I suppose that we need to talk," he said.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

Victor felt woefully unprepared to answer the Count's questions at this stage, but he knew that there was nothing he could do to postpone this confrontation anymore. Another half-hearted lie or an earnest request for more time would not do, either. He had made his bed, and now he had to go lie in it.

The vampire wrinkled his nose at the smell of formaldehyde, but Victor barely even noticed it, perhaps because his sensory nerves were as fried as his insides felt right now. Victor awkwardly gestured at the settee where he used to sleep as well as perform other activities that were really better suited for the washroom and suggested they have a seat there. It was about as far away from the icebox and the recent release of formaldehyde gas as they could get without actually leaving the laboratory, which Victor also suggested but was immediately snubbed.

When they were both seated awkwardly about two feet apart, Victor impulsively reached out for his bottle of brandy with a slightly trembling hand, but the Count broke in and grasped his wrist none too gently, his intentions made crystal clear even without the addition of spoken words.

"Let me go," Victor objected weakly with feigned impassiveness and made a feeble attempt to pull his hand back, but Dracula's long, cold fingers only increased the pressure on his trapped limb like a large constrictor snake. The lack of blood flow was turning Victor's hand white.

"Don't think for an instant that I will let you drink yourself into a stupor before I have received the answers I want from you," the strigoi said acidly. "What you do after that is no business of mine, but you will answer my questions!"

The doctor nodded mutely, wondering if both or neither would still be alive after this little Q-and-A session was over, and he realized with a sense of tired resignation that he cared much less than expected.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you," Dracula commanded, and Victor had no choice but to obey. He rubbed his wrist in an attempt to reintroduce circulation and figured he'd be sporting an array of colorful bruises by this time tomorrow. Assuming he was still alive then, that was.

"This heart that you have stitched into my chest," the Count began, and despite his best attempts to project an illusion of control, Victor was not slow to detect a distinct quiver both in his voice and his gaze. "Who did it come from?"

"A boy who died in a horseback riding accident. I didn't know him." Not exactly a lie, since he had not known Roman Ionescu in life, but rather an omission of the truth baked nicely into a loaf of convenient and believable half-truths.

"You had no right to do that," Dracula said, and now the left corner of his mouth was caught in a nervous twitch, suggesting that his psyche had begun to unravel.

For some unknown reason, the statement provoked a fresh bout of anger in the doctor, and his mercurial temper made him unleash a barrage of hurtful words before he could rein them in.  

"No right? How was I supposed to get consent from a corpse?" Victor snapped with more venom than he had intended, and the expression on Dracula's face abruptly changed from pained to stunned, as if he had been physically struck again.  "I made you live again. Your heart was irrepa--"

"Irreparably damaged, yes. I read your file on me," the Count broke in. "Your artistic talent is not inconsiderable. Perhaps you could have found your calling as an artist instead of robbing graves and doing these ungodly experiments on corpses."

"For someone who claims to value personal integrity so highly, you certainly have no qualms about poking your nose into other people's business," Victor shot back. He knew that that this kind of petty squabbling would benefit neither of them but somehow he felt compelled to engage in it nonetheless. Vlad Dracula had a knack for locating cracks in his psychological armor and striking him where he was the most vulnerable.

After all, the Count had centuries of experience with warfare, which no doubt included wearing down other men's mental defenses, and Victor had virtually no experience at all engaging in mind games. On a whole, corpses were easier to deal with than the living because they expected nothing from their doctor, and while the Count was some queer and indeterminable mixture of the a corpse and a live specimen, he most definitely came with an array of expectations. 

"Not a fair comparison at all, Frankenstein. I had to find out what you were hiding because you declined to willingly share the information with me," the vampire pointed out. "Were you even planning to tell me what you had done, or did you assume I would be none the wiser and send me on my way? Did you truly believe that I would not--"

"I gave you another shot at life, and it worked! I feared you would come back… diminished, but you did not. Your mind is what matters, Vladislas. I did it because I wanted to see if there was anything to be learned from your case, something - anything - that might benefit medical science and humankind as a race, and your test results are amazing. I haven't worked out what all of it means just yet, and I might have to spend another lifetime figuring it out, but I was right. I was right!"

Victor felt the familiar pull of mania, a state in which the processing speed of his brain far exceeded his maximum output of words and consequently made his speech jumbled, disjointed and difficult to follow. He swallowed a few times in rapid succession in an attempt to stall his racing mind to more manageable levels.

"Galvanism is not the key. It was never the key, and I know that now. Because of you! Electricity must not be used as a primary power source. I got caught up in an idea that was doomed to fail until I came across you. I had theories, of course I did, but I never dared to hope they had any practical utility until I was given the chance to test them on a live subject. Well, when I say "live", I mean--"

"The heart is the seat of the soul, and you gave me someone else's," Dracula said tersely and thereby ended the doctor's ramblings. "Do you expect me to thank you for that?"

"That is superstitious nonsense!" Victor exclaimed, and his voice took on a brusque, badgering quality reflecting his vicious urge to hammer the truth into Dracula's thick skull no matter what.

"We are about to enter the twentieth century, and yet these ridiculous beliefs from the dark ages continue to fester and keep people, even learned men like yourself, trapped in dangerous ignorance. The heart is a muscle, nothing more. Its sole purpose is to pump blood through your body. Who you are, your essence, if you wish to call it that, is up here." Victor tapped his forefinger against his temple a few times to emphasize his statement.  "Your brain is the seat of your soul. I could take it out and place it in the body of another man, a mortal, and you would still be in charge. You would still be… you."

"You're mad!" Dracula said savagely and stood up, curling and uncurling his fingers. "You're a madman and a drunk, and I will listen to no more of this!"

"Perhaps I am," Victor replied with a silkily serpentine voice that was very unlike his regular one and followed with a grin to match it. "But who are you to judge my work?" He remained seated, confident that Dracula would not simply walk away from him. He knew he was playing with fire by angering the vampire, and yet he was filled with an overwhelming desire to deflect the hurt and disappointment that had been thrown his way by spitting heaps of oral venom of his own. "You belittle me and call me mad, and yet here you are, back from the dead as one of my creatures."

With the growl of a lion fighting for dominance, the vampire caught Victor by the collar and jerked him to his feet, and for the fraction of a second the disgraced doctor was convinced that his final moment had arrived at long last, but when he met Dracula's gaze, he could see that it contained more apprehension than outright anger. He had not yet made his final decision, and there was time left for a change of heart.

"I'm going to leave now, Frankenstein, and you're not going to try to stop me," the Count said slowly, and the heaviness of his accent alone was enough to tell Victor that he was not only trying to convince the doctor, but also himself.

Victor knew he needed to bite the bullet sometime soon, and it might as well be now. He was not going to get a better opportunity or a more receptive subject despite what he'd kept telling himself. How did one tell a man - even a remarkable man like Dracula - that his house had burned down along with everything he owned? Bizarrely enough, Victor had personal experience in this matter, but it did not change the fact that he was extremely poorly equipped to offer counsel.

"I won't stop you, Vlad, but I beg you to hear me out," he said. Even in his own ears it sounded lame and unconvincing. Diplomacy was another skill that Victor had not been graced with, and he supposed that the Count and he were similar in that regard.

"I think I've heard enough," Dracula said, but neither his voice nor his face expressed the gravitas of a mind that had already been made up.

"I know I should have told you sooner, and there is no excuse for not doing so, but you cannot return to your home, because it has been burned down."

There. The words were out. Victor had a tendency to babble when he was nervous or excited and often struggled to state his point succinctly in as few words as possible, and he was truthfully impressed with himself for having managed to curb said impulse to such an extent now. The ball was firmly in Dracula's court.

The Count snorted derisively, clearly unimpressed with what he perceived to be a lie. "I knew you were a man without honor, Doctor, but I had no idea you would sink this low," he said.

"I'm not lying," Victor said and forced his eyes to meet the other man's despite his body's insistent urge to look away. It was what liars did, and Victor was no liar, at least not in this particular matter. Being accused of lacking honor had hurt him more than he was willing to admit, and the doctor had to struggle to keep defensive aggression from creeping into his voice when he spoke again. When he got defensive, he could also become very hurtful, and such an expression of negative emotion would benefit neither man.

"Castle Dracula has been looted and burned down. It is the truth. I didn't want to tell you because I feared you might not… take it well."

The seconds following the statement seemed to stretch into hours while Dracula searched the doctor's face for signs of dishonesty, and when he, to his utter devastation, found none, Victor - always the keen observer - was able to view a gradual collapse of his mind and sanity.

"You're a liar!" Dracula shouted, but he lacked conviction, and it was painfully apparent to Victor that he no longer believed his own words. "You're a liar and a thief, and I don't believe a word you say!"

"Think of me what you will, but it changes nothing. If it's any comfort, I would rather it not be true, but I cannot change the past anymore than you can," Victor said and barely managed to suppress a cringe at his own words. Of course well-meaning but ultimately useless platitudes, regardless of the intent with which they were delivered, were no comfort in a situation like this. In fact, he could not think of anything that would be even with first-hand experience.

"Did you see it happen?" Dracula demanded, his normally deep, resonant voice almost as high as a woman's. He grabbed Victor by the lapels of his coat and shook him so hard that the doctor's head snapped painfully back and forth in a whiplash motion. "Answer me! Did you see it with your own two eyes?!"

"No, I did not," Victor admitted and braced himself with his hands against the Count's shoulders to prevent his head from being further shaken like a baby's rattle. "But I received the information from a man I trust. His name is Valery Ionescu. I believe you know him as well."

At the mention of Valery's name, Dracula abruptly released the doctor and dropped to his knees like a sack of flour. His face, so white and chalky that it looked like it had been sprayed with flour as well, had assumed the shape of an ancient Greek tragedy mask.

"Valery…?" he said throatily, and his gaze flickered erratically between objects in the doctor's laboratory that were physically present and things that existed solely in the Count's memories. "How do you know Valery? It's impossible… he couldn't…"

The vampire buried his face in his hands and began to emit despondent sounds that were ill-concealed, half-choked sobs, and his emotional state was further betrayed by the jerky, almost convulsive twitches of his back and shoulders. Victor stood rooted to the spot, practically petrified, and at a loss for words. He had expected rage and hostility, even outright violence directed at himself, or further denial, but nothing could have prepared him for this… sad spectacle.

"You are prepared, then, Herr Doctor, that the Master might not thank you for what you've done?"

Valery Ionescu's prophetic words echoed in Victor's head, and finally he began to understand that the old gypsy, who knew the Count better than any man alive, might have been right all along.

The doctor knelt as well and let his hands hover an inch or so over the noisily weeping man's twitching shoulders, arguing with himself over whether to touch Dracula or not. He uttered an awkward plea for the other to look at him that sounded pathetic even to his own ears, and as he'd expected, it went unheeded. It was doubtful if Dracula had even heard him.

Since the Count had covered his face with his hands, it was impossible for Victor to see exactly what was happening, but what he glimpsed made him momentarily distrust his own vision. A crimson liquid suspiciously similar to blood had oozed out of Dracula's face and formed tiny rivulets in the space between his fingers, and for a brief, horrible moment Victor was convinced that the vampire had clawed out his own eyes.

"No! Stop it!" he cried out in shock and pulled at the other's wrists, surprised at how easily they gave, and although he was relieved to have been wrong about Dracula scratching his own eyes out, what he finally saw was just as appalling, if not more so. The face that stared back at him in an open display of raw, primal grief was not the slightly hawkish but ultimately comely visage of a barely middle-aged renaissance prince, but something else altogether; something that was not supposed to exist except in the deep, dark recesses of the human mind reserved for nightmarish fantasies.

Dracula wept, but instead of producing tears, his tear ducts released blood, which had streaked his face in a macabre caricature of tribal war-paint. The effect might have been less shocking to Victor if the face underneath had remained the same, but it had not; Dracula's features had changed - or somehow morphed - into something ancient and demonic and very much inhuman. The flesh was a sickly shade of grey and covered in wrinkles so thick and deep that they practically formed folds, and his large, naturally deep-set eyes had sunk so far into their cavities that all Victor could see of them were small dots of glowing red. His lush ruddy lips were gone, replaced by a wide, protuberant lipless mouth that no longer did anything to conceal the terrible size and nature of his canines, and his long, regally curved Roman nose had transformed into a primitive pig-like snout with wide-set nostrils.

While said metamorphosis would have been of great interest for Victor to study in a clinical setting, he knew deep down in his heart that this very moment would serve as a trial by fire for him, and his actions following this event would greatly impact not only his own life but the lives of many others. Victor had sworn to himself that he would not reject another creature of his own making no matter how repulsive or hideous they turned out, and he felt that promise being tested right now. Dracula had called him a man without honor, but Victor was going to prove him wrong. 

He cupped the vampire's face in his hands, noting with mild interest that at least the jaw-line and cheekbones had remained the same, and then brought their foreheads together. Dracula's skin was clammy and cold, but Victor realized he didn't mind the sensation. Compared to everything else, it was almost normal.

"I'm not going to abandon you," he whispered softly. "We'll figure something out. Do you hear me? I'm your father now, after all. Trust me, Vlad. Give me a chance to make things right."

Thankfully, Dracula did not question his ability to fix anything, and Victor slowly guided the crying creature's head to rest against his shoulder, painfully aware that the blood-tears would stain the entire front of his shirt and likely never come out of the fabric completely. He hid his revulsion well and began to stroke the Count's back in soft soothing motions, all the while murmuring promises that he had no idea if he could keep.

Sharp, deadly fangs brushed against his neck, and for a short moment Victor was entirely convinced that Dracula would rip into his proffered throat, gorge on his blood, and drain him. But there was no bite or even an attempt at one, only convulsions and something warm dribbling down Victor's neck, that was either saliva or more blood from the vampire's tear ducts.

The doctor concentrated on the feel of the other's soft, glossy curls against his hands and tried to ignore the unsightly hideousness of the head they were attached to. Wasn't Dracula's spine suddenly much more prominent as well? Victor curiously felt the individual vertebras through the two layers of fabric, hard and knobby, as if the surrounding flesh had pulled back to give way for a larger spinal column, or - God forbid - dried up. The Count was a lean man, perhaps better described as sinewy than slender, but he was not by any means emaciated, and this discovery told Victor that whatever shifts in anatomy that had occurred, they were not limited to the parts above the neck.

But there was something else as well.

He has no idea he's shifted, Victor suddenly realized.

The doctor had casually studied local vampire lore in preparation for the Count's resurrection, and in many of the stories shape-shifting was explicitly mentioned. Vampires were purportedly able to shape-shift into an array of things, from animals like wolves or bats to more esoteric things such as mist or vapor. Frankenstein had no way of knowing which rumors were true and if so, to what extent, but he was certain that what he held and rocked in his arms like a child was a strigoi stuck in a partial transformation.

Victor's knees and back began to ache quite viciously after a few minutes spent on the floor in an awkward position cradling a man of his own size, and he made his first tentative attempt to disentangle himself from the creature's embrace. Dracula initially protested vehemently by flexing his entire body and grabbing handfuls of Victor's shirt, which he then tore with his claws.

The Count still produced harsh, ragged sobs that sounded somewhat like hiccups, but the flow of blood-tears had thankfully ceased, likely because his body had nothing left to give. Even though he struggled against it and stubbornly clung to Victor, the scientist created space between them again by firmly holding his creature at arm's length.

Dracula's face had morphed again. The animalistic and demonic aspects were gone, and Victor was back to regarding the sharp-featured countenance he was familiar with, except Dracula looked older now, as though the crying episode had aged him twenty years or more. Grey hair sprouted abundantly from his temples, and there were plentiful streaks of grey amongst his still overwhelmingly dark curls. His face, while entirely human once more, had aged the most; his cheeks now had an old man's sunken appearance, and the skin on his forehead looked translucent and paper-thin.

Transformation, the doctor realized, did not come cheap to a vampire; it sapped them of their energy very much like high altitude climbing did to men who ventured out to ascend a mountain.

Victor stood up and began to walk in circles both to reawaken the nerves in his legs and to keep his body busy whilst his mind labored on overdrive. Where were they going from this? Dracula remained seated on the floor with his legs apart and his knees drawn up to his chest so that he could rest his head between his knees like a man who had drunk too much alcohol and needed a quiet moment before attempting to stand. The curtain of hair once again prevented Victor from insight, and he was left with bodily cues as his sole source of information regarding the Count's state of mind.

"Vlad?" he asked quietly and ceased his walking. "How are you feeling?"

Vladislas Draculea, former voivode of Wallachia, first responded by digging his fingernails into his scalp hard enough to break the skin and draw blood, and Victor assumed his preferred way of distracting himself from the emotional pain was to create a physical one to match. Or perhaps he actually wanted to hurt Victor, and this was his way of showing restraint? It was hard to think of it as a thoughtful gesture.

"Vlad," he repeated a bit louder and more assertively. "Vlad, are you--?"

The word on the tip of his tongue had been "done". It wasn't the right thing to say by far, so he bit it back. In fact, it was downright disrespectful. His awful bedside manner was one of many reasons as to why Victor had never been capable of earning a living as a regular physician.

Shoulders tense, the Count finally raised his head to meet Victor's gaze. If he was embarrassed about his recent nigh-hysterical episode, he hid it well, or perhaps he was simply the type of man whose temper blazed hotly at times and cooled down just as quickly. His eyes, green again, sparkled like the gemstones they resembled, cold and harsh, and his mouth was set in a hard, determined line.

"I asked you a question, Victor," he said not unkindly but with a distinct undertone of danger. "How do you know Valery Ionescu?"

"I know him because I solicited his help to disinter you," Victor replied with complete candor. There was no need to conceal or cushion the truth in this matter. Not anymore. "Your loyal Szgany wanted their master back, and I offered them a way to accomplish it. Things were going according to plan until… well, you know of what I speak."

Shrieking, Dracula lunged himself to his feet with a sudden burst of speed that Victor's eyes could hardly even register, and he proceeded to send a wooden chair into the wall with such force that the unfortunate piece of pine furniture splintered on impact.

He's phasing through the stages of grief, the doctor, ever the analyst, thought to himself. First there was denial, then despair, and after that rage followed suit. If the literature on psychiatry could be trusted, bargaining would follow rage, and the cycle would end with a form of acceptance, but even the psychiatrists themselves stressed that far from everyone made it to the final stage.

"Useless vermin!" Dracula shouted. "Cowards! I should have them rounded up and shot like a pack of rabid dogs!"

"You don't mean that," Victor said firmly. He couldn't say exactly why he felt compelled to defend Valery Ionescu and his clan, but he knew there was absolutely no doubt regarding their loyalty to their master, and he thought Dracula should know this as well. "Valery Ionescu and his band did everything they could to defend you and your castle. Some gave their lives!"

"Well, they should have tried harder!" the Count said bitterly, his voice raw from screaming. "And so should you, Frankenstein!"

"Valery lost his son and heir. He would have died for you if he'd could." It was the truth, and Victor could tell from the look on Dracula's face that he knew it to be true, also.

The Count had made an addition deduction, however, which Victor had not yet touched upon.

"He doesn't know, does he?" he asked, but it wasn't a question as much as a statement. "Valery doesn't know… about my return."

"No," Victor admitted. "I thought… I thought you should be the one to announce it."

"He advised you against bringing me back, did he not?" Dracula asked, but he no longer sounded angry or resentful, just very tired. Weary from sorrow, perhaps. Clearly the Count knew his right-hand man as well as the old gypsy knew him.

Victor lowered his gaze and felt a - in his opinion - undeserved stab of shame for the first time in years. Dracula appeared pleased with the answer, or as pleased as anyone could be taking into account the dire circumstances, and then nodded, more accepting of the situation than Frankenstein had believed he would be capable of mere minutes ago.

"And where are they now?" the Count asked, clearly expecting the worst based on the apprehensive look on his face and his inability to stay still for longer than the fraction of a second. He spun a lock of his hair around his finger over and over, almost obsessively, and Victor wondered if Dracula, given his nervous disposition, would have turned to drink or chemicals if not for his… affliction.

"Valery informed me that they were going to stay with a relative in Bukovina. You must understand… Not many people are willing to employ the gypsies."

"Oh, I'm well aware," Dracula said with a humorless smirk followed by a dry bark of laughter. His finger kept twirling. "Just as not many people are willing to work for an undead Boyar. We helped each other, that is all."

"I'm sure we could send word to them… ask them to come back…?"

"Come back to what?" Dracula snapped. "My home is, as you adequately put it, no more. My fortune has been stolen by looters, and my brides are dead. I have little need for servants. You are a selfish man, Frankenstein. You should not have brought me back." A single blood-tear, round and bloated, appeared in the inner corner of the vampire's eye and slowly rolled down the side of his nose, morbidly punctuating his statement.

"That is not fair," Victor replied, his voice just a smidgen unsteady. "I didn't know this was going to happen."

The spinning of hair continued, and it appeared that the Count was just as shocked as Victor over the amount of grey now present amongst his curls.

"I need to feed," he stated simply, eyes firmly locked on the doctor. "Now. I need to feed now."

I'm your father now, after all.

Feeding the monster had become his responsibility. Victor knew he could not let the vampire drink from his veins without the risk of dangerously weakening himself in the process since he had already surrendered large quantities of blood on two separate occasions mere days back in time.

"I could get you some pig's blood from the butcher's shop," he offered cautiously, prepared for a rejection, and that was exactly what he received.

"Forget it!" Dracula snarled irately, fangs out. "I can't live off of animal blood. I refuse!"

He had finally abandoned playing with his hair in favor or scratching at the row of stitches on his neck, and Victor was reminded of his promise to take the sutures out as soon as possible, but somehow he didn't believe this was a suitable occasion to bring it up. Dracula would no doubt see it as an attempt to deflect attention from more pertinent matters. If Victor was to have any chance of developing a functioning relationship with Dracula, he had to learn to accurately predict the Count's needs and desires. He was, however, not prepared to give up this particular topic so easily.

"Cannot or will not?" he pressed, highly intrigued by the subject of vampiric digestion of nutrients. Victor had never shied away from an opportunity to expand his already considerable bulk of knowledge on various scientific topics, and this absolutely qualified as a top tier. His thirst for knowledge was not entirely dissimilar to the Count's thirst for human blood; they were both men propelled forward by their respective singular desires. "Can you not subsist on animal blood or does the taste repel you so much that you would rather starve?"

"I could subsist… for a while," Dracula admitted reluctantly. "But with animal blood, there is… waste. I can only assimilate a small part of what I take in. It's highly unpleasant for me. My bowels are not made for expelling waste anymore."

"Oh yes, of course," the doctor murmured, thinking back on the discoveries he'd made during his original explorative autopsy of the Count; the strangely short digestive tract with the atrophied large intestine suddenly made a lot more sense when put into perspective. Partially against his will, Victor's mind conjured up not only a vivid visual representation but also the rancid stench of a vampire's bloody bowel movement. What followed were musings on what it would be like to empty a chamber pot filled to the brink with the partially undigested evacuation of a meal consisting of pig's blood, and in possession of this new piece of knowledge, Victor found himself a lot more sympathetic towards Dracula's vehement refusal to feed from animals.

Suddenly he thought of an experiment he wanted to conduct, and this was the perfect opportunity for it. If he let this moment slip by, he might never get a second chance to prove his mastery of regenerative medicine. This very trial would serve as a definitive litmus test of its utility, and the outcome would either validate or disprove the usefulness of his developed formula once and for all. Getting the Count's consent might prove difficult, however, as Victor was simply not a natural salesman.

"I need sustenance, not a narcotic!" Dracula spat when he noticed the doctor was preparing a hypodermic syringe.

"This is not a narcotic. Give me your arm," Victor urged, convinced that he would stutter and trip over his words if he tried to explain the workings of it in depth.

The Count's refusal to cooperate, although expected, frustrated him. The rose-colored liquid, so inconspicuous yet so potent and difficult to manufacture glimmered with hope and promise through the transparent glass of the syringe barrel. He'd drawn up a modest dose; one single milliliter. The same amount he typically started with to ready his own body for a more substantial dose.

"This will make you feel better," Victor said. "Trust me."

"Trust you?" Dracula sneered back. "You have an interesting nerve, Doctor, asking me to do that after what you've done to me." The vampire had readjusted his posture, perhaps unconsciously, to brace for impact in case Victor attempted to force the injection on him. It was still daytime and the Count was visibly drained, so while there was theoretically a chance for Victor to wrestle him into submission, he also knew it would be a definitive death blow to their already fragile truce.

A relationship is built on trust.

Who had said that? It didn't matter. He needed to earn the vampire's trust. Somehow.

"You have wondered about the secret to my unnaturally long life, correct?" the doctor said, nodding in time with his words, pleased to see curiosity creeping bit by bit into Dracula's eyes. He raised the syringe. "This is my secret. I know I have wronged you, but nevertheless I am asking you to trust me in this."

To Victor's admitted surprise, Dracula actually began to roll up his sleeve with jerky determined movements. Tendons and veins alike bulged invitingly on his sinewy forearm, and Victor noticed an odd patch of white hair in the center of his palm which had definitely not been there before.

"I'll trust you this one time. Don't make me regret it," the Count said with a sinister frown which communicated his stance better than words ever could. A prick by a needle, followed suit by Victor's quick and precise injection of the substance, and an ominous silence spread across the room like a thick, suffocating blanket as they both waited for changes - good or bad - to occur.

Dracula inclined his head with one hand pressed against his forehead, and his tense body language, possibly communicating pain, was almost enough to convince Victor that he'd made a huge mistake. Then he saw the power of it on full display for the first time in someone other than himself: the grey streaks in Dracula's hair, starting at the scalp, reverted back to their original dark brown color in a matter of seconds, and likewise the sprouts of grey disappeared from his temples and restored youthfulness to his skin by erasing the liver spots and smoothing out the crow's feet of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth.

Even the strigoi himself was evidently astonished by the quick and dramatic transformation back to his youthful self without having ingested a single drop of blood. There was a healthy luster and ruddiness to the Count's face now which contrasted sharply with the way he had looked before, even prior to the partial, monstrous transformation that aged him. He looked practically alive again, like he were a breathing man as opposed to an undead one.

Victor thought it was a shame he could not show Dracula his own reflection, given that this result was definitely worthy of being seen or even admired.

"How do you feel?" he asked, trying unsuccessfully to play the part of the objective and neutral scientist observing a test subject.

Dracula looked down at his hands with an expression of deep focus and clenched and unclenched his fists a few times, perhaps to test the elasticity of his skin or the flexibility of his joints.

"I feel alive," he said simply. "I haven't felt this alive in a long time. It's like… when I've…"

"Drunk the blood of an infant," Victor finished the sentence for him and was greeted by a look on Dracula's face that consisted of shock and recognition in equal parts.

"How did you know that?" the Count asked, voice a mere whisper.

"This," Victor said, holding the small, clear bottle of it in a forceps grip between his thumb and forefinger, "is made out of fetal cells. They are incredibly potent, if harvested in the right way. I call them Ur-cells, because they are nothing, yet have the potential to become anything. If one needs blood, like you do, obviously, they'll fill that role. If a man breaks a bone, they'll become bone tissues and promote healing in the surrounding tissues as well. The only problem are nerve cells. Until I encountered you, I didn't believe it was possible to heal a severed spine, or--"

The doctor realized he was babbling again when Dracula stepped toward him and made a grab for the bottle. It slid out of Victor's grasp, but thankfully he managed to catch it before it hit the ground and splattered the contents, whose synthesis had required at least two dozen fetal corpses and countless hours spent in the lab.

"Give me more!" the vampire demanded with a look of fervor in his eyes.

"No! I can't just pull this shit out of my arse!" Victor snapped back and quickly pocketed the bottle, half-prepared to have to wrestle with the other man in case Dracula made a second attempt to take it from him. "The raw materials I need to manufacture it are hard to come by, as you may realize, and the chemicals required for the synthesis are expensive."

Victor refrained from mentioning that he had pumped a total of nine milliliters - a month's dose for himself - straight into the Count's transplant heart to make it beat again, as he didn't think it was relevant to the conversation. He also suspected he might come across as… embittered. Accusing. Not good.

Dracula gave him as searching look. "Materials? You are an abortionist, then, Frankenstein, if your raw materials come from unborn children?"

It was somewhat difficult to tell if the question had been asked with judgmental intent, but Victor would find it peculiar if Dracula was offended by abortion as a concept when he'd admittedly never hesitate to feast on an already existing child.

"No, I don't do abortions," Victor replied. Female anatomy had never been of particular interest to him, even during his study time, which was also why nearly all of his test subjects had been males. "I leave that to my gynecologist colleagues with somewhat flexible morals. There is one who practices in this town. Jacob Rosenberg. He sells me residue from his operations on desperate women, knowing, of course, nothing about my purpose for them. If he did, the price would go up considerably."

The doctor laughed, but Dracula did not laugh with him. "Those things in your icebox… did you harvest what you needed from them before you preserved them?"

"Some," Victor answered truthfully. "I only preserve medically interesting specimens. The one you dropped and stepped on had spina bifida. Quite a common affliction, and a terrible one. The children who are born with it don't tend to live long, if they're born alive at all."

"I don't understand you, Doctor," the Count said in a voice that betrayed genuine confusion. "You have found the science to reverse death and rejuvenate the old and sick, and yet you're hiding away here, in this decrepit Transylvanian town, away from your peers in medicine and prodigious universities. Why, Frankenstein? You could take your formula to the leaders of any nation and be lauded as the savior of mankind. You would have all the riches you've ever wished for and more. You would be greater than Galileo, Da Vinci… perhaps even greater than Newton."

"My work is not yet finished," Victor said and conspicuously lowered his voice even though the two of them were the only people in the room. "My serum - it - works, but it's not flawless. There are side effects, and some of them are unpleasant. Such as insomnia."

Lack of sleep was one definite side effect that Frankenstein himself had suffered, but he had no way of knowing if the vampire was going to be similarly afflicted.

"And what else?" Dracula asked interrogatively.

"One builds up a tolerance to it. The more you take, the more you need to achieve the same effect. One milliliter - the dose I gave you - used to be enough to replenish my body with energy beyond my wildest dreams for weeks on end... but not anymore. The perfect formula eludes me. I refuse to make my discoveries public until I have perfected my work."

The thought of selling his patent to some rich bonehead in charge of a pharmaceutical company only to have it wrestled out of his control and butchered repelled Victor Frankenstein far more than living in obscurity and using corpses and night creatures for his experiments.

Then there was another reason; one that Victor did not like to be reminded of. His reputation as a scientist was nothing short of tainted, and he grudgingly admitted that even though the events that led to his excommunication were over eighty years in the past, they could not be entirely disregarded, and rumors of them might very well resurface if he tried to reinsert himself into the western European medical society. Although unlikely, there could still be people alive who associated the name Frankenstein with ungodly and unlawful medical experiments on human cadavers. All thanks to Igor, the assistant who had ended up betraying him and consequently made him and everyone bearing the name Frankenstein a definitive pariah in most of the civilized world. And still people wondered why he was reluctant to take on a new assistant.

Dracula's next question surprised Victor to the point that his jaw dropped with an audible 'plip'.

"Could you teach me how to manufacture this reagent?"

"I… You want me to…?"

The Count smiled, his canines diminished but still visibly longer and sharper than a normal man's. "You heard me. Teach me your secret to chemical rejuvenation."

Victor quizzically regarded the other but quickly realized he couldn't access the mind behind that aquiline face, currently flushed a pink, healthy color thanks to its influence.

"How much do you know about organic chemistry?" he asked tentatively.

Igor's scientific talent had been visible right away, like a brightly shining beacon in a dark cave, and the boy, though he'd received no previous schooling of any kind, had been an amazingly quick study with the potential to someday surpass his teacher. Victor was loath to admit it even to this day, but he knew that the fear of being surpassed by his student was one major cause for the rift between them that had eventually driven them apart with catastrophic results.

"Not a whole lot, but I am not without intellect," Dracula said. "I learn quickly, and my memory is good. It won me a lot of battles back in the warlike days."

I ought to say no, a small voice in the back of Victor's head piped up. There was no knowing what the strigoi would do with the secret once he was in possession of it, and while the doctor could not claim to know Dracula well, it was quite safe to assume that the Count was not what one would call a humanitarian. And yet the drive to share his findings - to speak about them with someone who listened and understood and did not reject them as the ravings of a madman - was so great Victor doubted he would be able to resist the impulse for long even if he tried.

The self-proclaimed reanimator walked over to his filing cabinet (which, he noted dryly, had already been at least partially ransacked by Dracula) and took out a thick brown folder which he had previously guarded with his life. Within it were sixteen pages of careful writing in Victor's own hand, consisting mainly of chemical formulae but also including detailed instructions on how to extract the necessary raw materials and combine them into the potent mixture whose final constituents would form it - the finished and ready-to-use product.  He handed the folder to Dracula, pleased and oddly proud to see the vampire's brow arch in an obvious expression of awe.

"Does this make sense to you?" Victor asked, somewhat undecided on whether an affirmative response would be a disappointment or a relief.

"I believe I could learn to understand it," Dracula said after an intense moment of delay. His sparkling, keenly observant eyes darted across the pages one after the other, and following some brooding he singled one of them out and indicated a line of writing with the tip of one long, elegant finger.

"This here… is the catalyst…?"

"Yes!" Victor exclaimed, unable to keep his exhilaration in check. Not once since his bitter separation from Igor had anyone looked at his work with such a high level of immediate understanding. "That, my friend, is exactly right. You understand it, then. You understand the principle!"

The Count smiled; a tight-lipped, slightly indulgent smile of a man who had gotten what he wanted at long last without expending too much energy. It was the smile of a well-fed lion that could afford to play a little with its meal.

"Show me," he said with a caressing, mellifluous tone of voice, and Victor, fully cognizant of what was happening, realized flattery of the intellect was one of the Count's many ways of getting what he wanted out of people. He knew it and yet he didn't care. Someone had cared enough to ask him to share his knowledge. It was enough. Dracula's hand, unusually warm but still cold to human touch, came to rest on the doctor's neck, caressing the nape. "Show me how it's done."

Victor was happy to comply.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

They were barely an hour into the procedure when they were rudely interrupted by loud and very aggressive banging on the door to Victor's apartments, and the clamoring of multiple voices, male and female, suggested that a crowd had gathered outside for some reason or another.

Mildly puzzled but not yet alarmed, the doctor looked up from what he was doing, annoyed that he would have to wash his bloodied hands and change out of his equally blood-stained clothes before receiving any visitors. He had just finished giving the Count a quick practical demonstration on how to harvest the admittedly rather small quantity of undifferentiated Ur-cells from the body of a newly acquired first trimester fetus, and as expected, Dracula was both surprised and disappointed by the minuscule amount that was usable for their purpose. 

The banging continued uninterrupted, increasing in volume and intensity, and when Victor sought the gaze of his new apprentice to make sure they were on the same page regarding their approach to the situation, he noticed that the Count's expression was one of blind panic. The doctor didn't know what he had expected; mild apprehension, perhaps, but not the look of a struggling rabbit caught in a snare. Something was very, very wrong.

"Do not go down there!" Dracula hissed, and his hand shot out like the head of a cobra, closing around Victor's wrist with the will and strength to crush bones. The grasp, however, was not that of a confident predator but a terrified fox cornered by a flock of hounds, perfectly matching the unbridled terror in his eyes and the warning plea in his voice. The doctor understood then that this was far beyond a case of general anxiety about his surroundings that Dracula's kind - those that preyed on the living for sustenance - felt at all times when they feared exposure. This was a very specific type of fear, almost as if…

…as if he was expecting retaliation, Victor's mind finished the sentence for him, and his own dread expanded briskly in every direction like an inflated weather balloon.

"What have you done?!" he cried and wrestled his hand out of the other man's spasmodic grasp with considerable difficulty. His wrist was already tender from Dracula's previous manhandling of him, and Victor could feel a dull, throbbing ache pulsate in time with his heartbeats. Bruised at the very least, if not fractured.

"Tell me!"

"I was going to warn you," Dracula said and even had the decency to look ashamed, but said attempt at an apology only added to Victor's trepidation. He had been gone for less than two hours; what could the wretched creature possibly have gotten up to in that time, besides tearing through things of a personal nature that he had no business looking into? 

"Warn me about what?" His words were barely audible, given that he felt as though someone had literally punched the air out of his lungs. The banging on his door and the irate but also excited voices of the crowd outside his home faded into the background as he focused on hearing the Count's reply. It was important that he knew all the facts before engaging. Their lives - or in Dracula's case, continued existence - might very well depend on it.

A woman, Dracula told him, had come knocking while Victor was away on errands, and somehow she had figured out his true nature and attempted to corner him with a crucifix. He could not remember her name, he claimed, but the doctor had no trouble at all recognizing his landlady, Mrs. Horvath, from the Count's  vivid and illustrious description of her physical appearance, particularly her purported girth.

That fat bitch. Damn her.

The doctor found himself enraged at Dracula for attempting to kill Mrs. Horvath, and an overwhelming amount of it was anger directed at the other's abject failure to get the job done. 

It was no surprise at all that she had come to evict him. His corpulent landlady had harbored a grudge against him for as long as he had been her tenant, and Victor had been waiting for an eviction notice to arrive in his mail. Perhaps she had already sent him one and it had gotten lost in the mail, or…

Or mayhap Victor, brain muddled by absinthe, had glanced it over and crumpled it up in anger only to forget about it the next day. It didn't matter now. They weren't just coming to forcibly evict him from the premises; this much Victor knew.

Like Dracula, the crowd - these gawking yokels - were out for blood. No matter how things went, Doctor Frankenstein and his Creature would have to vacate these rooms before nightfall. Hopefully they would be allowed to leave peacefully and keep their lives, but at this point, the doctor was highly doubtful of such a positive outcome.

Victor splashed some icy water on his face, but when that did little to calm him down, he slapped himself across the cheeks a couple of times with more force than he would have used to smack someone else in a similar state of mind. He might have asked the vampire to slap him if it wasn't for the fact that the Count's claws had already inflicted enough damage to his skin. Dracula stood completely silent and unmovable, reminding the doctor of the Biblical story of the woman, the wife of the prophet Lot, who was turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment for disobeying a direct command by God Almighty.

"Vlad, listen to me," he said and grasped the Count's shoulders with both hands to punctuate his request. The flesh was taut and cold, but at least he had not turned into salt or any other non-organic chemical compound. "Do not show yourself down there, no matter what you hear. If they break through and enter my rooms, stay up here and lock the doors. Do you understand?"

Dracula nodded, still not speaking, and Victor interpreted the vampire's silence and acquiescence toward him as a sign that the Count knew he had committed a huge blunder and was prepared to accept responsibility for it. Under less grave circumstances, the doctor might have considered it a victory over the other and used Dracula's temporary lapse of confidence to exert his authority over him, but now was not the time for such frivolous power games.

In his head, Victor was already making plans for how to travel lightly and calculating how much he could bring in a single suitcase. Clothes could be replaced, and the chemicals he used in his work could be acquired from most respectable pharmacies. His books, however, could not be so readily replaced, and the thought of losing them nearly brought tears to his eyes… and yet he was willing to relinquish everything in his library including his century-old personal correspondence if it meant he could save what he had stored up here, in his filing cabinet. Victor Frankenstein had never been a sentimental man.

Aware that his shirt was ubiquitously soiled with the vampire's blood-tears but doubting that a change of clothing would impact the outcome at this point, Victor descended the stairs to greet his strident visitors and hopefully buy Vlad and himself some time. He kept one hand hidden behind his back, and in that hand was a scalpel; the same one he had brandished as a weapon when he opened the door to Valery Ionescu, and also the same instrument he'd used only minutes ago to carve out precious fetal bone marrow.

The scalpel been a gift from his father on the day he graduated as a newly fledged physician from the Ingolstadt medical academy, and it contained his initials on the handle alongside the year of his graduation. VF, 1795. There was a certain amount of shame involved, as the elder Doctor Frankenstein had been forced to personally bribe Krempe to see Victor graduate in the first place, and handing out that bribe had been one of the last things his dear old father had done in life.

A crowd of approximately a dozen people had gathered outside his door, and to Victor's dismay, most of the faces were familiar to him; these were people with whom he had politely exchanged services and information on several occasions, and it had taken one woman less than three hours to convince them to show up at his door with obvious ill and perhaps even murderous intent.

Mrs. Horvath was there in the flesh, which did not surprise Victor one bit. His landlady was the type to always buy front row tickets to a dramatic play, only the dramas she preferred to watch as well as orchestrate took place in the actual world instead of a theatrical stage. There was no doubt whatsoever regarding the identity of the ringleader of this lot. Mrs. Horvath was a rabble-rouser of great renown, and if trouble did not find her the natural way, she went out searching for it with a metaphorical lantern.

"There he is!" the portly old hag shrieked pugnaciously with an open-mouthed grin that revealed an entire row of decaying, nicotine-yellow teeth that matched the rest of her foul face perfectly. Mrs. Horvath had not looked this lively in all the time Victor had known her. She seemed younger too, somehow. Revitalized, as if she was thriving on the attention.

"Do you see? He's got blood all over him even now, probably from feeding that pet vampire of his!" Mrs. Horvath added with a triumphant but also querulous tone, perhaps because the crowd wasn't yet incensed enough for her liking. They needed to be riled up further to eradicate every lingering trace of rational thought as well as humanity and compassion. A murmur went through the crowd at the mention of a vampire, and Victor suspected that she had already filled their ears with tub-thumping rants about the pits of Hell and eternal damnation.

"I am a physician, Frau Horvath," the doctor said in a low, unobtrusive voice, figuring that the best strategy at the moment was not to appear too confrontational, as he still harbored a hope, perhaps naively, that there was a way out of this encounter without bloodshed. "I have patients, and it is my job to deal with emissions of bodily fluids, and sometimes they get on my clothes. I can assure you that there is nothing sinister going on in my rooms."

In spite of his intense and pervasive dislike of public speaking and the knowledge that he was poor at it, Victor found himself the center of attention for twelve pairs of eyes, and he wondered if any of the men - because as far as he could tell, Mrs. Horvath was the only female member of this little clique of vigilantes - had good enough eyesight to be able to tell he was sweating profusely despite the crispness of the autumn air.

"We've heard rumors that you're harboring a strigoi," the blacksmith, Ernesto Calugarul, said with an appropriately threatening scowl, but to Victor's ears he did not sound entirely convinced, which the doctor interpreted as an encouraging sign. Calugarul was an absolute mountain of a man who stood easily one head taller than Victor, and while not armed in a traditional sense, he had brought his work hammer. To stake a hypothetical vampire with, no doubt.

Victor could feel his last sliver of optimism pouring down his leg like piss. Until now, he had nurtured a vain hope that perhaps Mrs. Horvath's poisonous influence had not yet managed to fully corrupt the thoughts and beliefs of all these men. Good, ordinary, hard-working, uneducated men whose only real crime was craving a bit of excitement in their mundane lives. Hadn't the Salem witch trials begun with an offhand rumor started by an impetuous teenage girl? Victor sensed something similar at work here. If only he could nip it in the bud before it had a chance to spread further and get blown out of proportion, then maybe…

"As a man of science, I can attest to there being no such creatures," he said with a faux-easy glibness that was totally unlike him.

"Liar!" Mrs. Horvath bellowed and took a step forward. A crucifix on a chain dangled from her raised, pudgy fist, and she seemed almost disappointed that Victor did not recoil from the presence of the idol. "I saw the beast, this nosferatu, that this corrupted man has given sanctuary! It attacked me, but I was saved by my faith, and so can you!" Her black, deep-set little eyes blazed, the pupils blows to their full size. "This man is a blasphemer. A harbinger of doom! He and the abomination he's chosen to shelter deserve to be burned!"

There were some nods and noises of assent from the men she had surrounded herself with, but to Victor's temporary relief, also some vocal objections. As it turned out, not everyone was so frivolously willing to burn a fellow man who had done them no harm based only on the testimony of a raving old buzzard with an obvious vendetta.

"But he has nurtured and let loose the Fiend!" Mrs. Horvath snarled, upper lip curled in an expression of utter hatred as she raked all of the menfolk with her eyes. She was mad, certainly, but her blind, absolute conviction was also what made her so powerful. "If we don't end it now, it will come for us all!"

Victor said a silent prayer to whatever deity that might be listening to keep Dracula from leaving the attic to join the fray down here. If the Count showed himself now, whatever fragile remains of sense and sanity that kept these men from lunging at him like a pack of starving, rabid dogs would dissipate at once, and the resulting consequences would be nothing short of disastrous.

Calugarul placed a heavy, callused hand resembling a bear's paw on Mrs. Horvath's hammy arm to catch her attention but also to hold her back.

"Calm yourself, Madam," he said and turned his gaze back to the doctor. "This man before us is not one of the undead. If something unholy dwells in this building, surely the doctor here would be happy to assist us in vanquishing this evil?"

"Give us the strigoi and we'll let you walk away, Frankenstein!" squawked a nearly bald man with a puffy red face suggesting years of continuous alcohol abuse and untreated high blood pressure. This time practically everyone joined in with affirmative cheers and mutters. 

The man, whose name escaped Victor, owned and operated a small tavern on the outskirts of town, but the doctor had heard persistent rumors of poor business management and possible bankruptcy, potentially because the innkeeper himself spent most of his days - and evenings - looking for a solution in the bottom of a liquor bottle. A man caught in such a predicament would not voluntarily miss out on a chance to make himself seem important, if only for one night.

"There is no one here but myself," Victor said with projected but ultimately hollow self-confidence. "I have tried my best to be a good tenant, but if my landlady here wishes to end my tenancy, I will, naturally, oblige. I only ask for some time to make other arrangements, like a day or--"

"How would you know about the eviction? I never talked to you about it!" Mrs. Horvath interrupted, and it instantly dawned on Victor that he had made a terrible mistake. Indeed he had never discussed the issue directly with his landlady, because Vlad had been the one to give him the news. The guest whose very existence he had denied only moments ago.

Shit.

Damn.

Hell.

Victor was a lousy liar, especially when an encounter was unplanned and he was forced to improvise. Some of Dracula's slick persuasive charms and the ability to adapt quickly to a given set of circumstances would have been highly useful skills to possess at a time like this, but neither people-pleasing nor accurate situational awareness were well-developed characteristics in the doctor, and instead of avoiding verbal traps, he had almost willingly walked into one set out for him by Mrs. Horvath. The old hag had gotten exactly what she wanted, too, based on the width of her grin alone. It might have been a cheap victory, but a victory nonetheless. Victor felt a fresh oncoming wave of anger toward Dracula for failing to kill this vile, shit-stirring demagogue for a woman. Without her to lead them, the men would scatter like frightened rats, he was sure of it.

Emboldened by Victor's stumbling hesitation, the innkeeper took a step forward as well, and the doctor could see that there was a sickle in his hand. Good God. This was worse than he'd initially believed. Some of the men had indeed come to his door armed, and only a thin veil of courtesy kept them from charging at his door to make unlawful entry into his home. Or worse, to lynch him on the spot.

"We're going to search your house, Frankenstein," the innkeeper said. "If you're telling the truth, there's no harm done. We'll leave you alone. But if you're caught lying, we'll burn this house down with you in it."

"That is not going to happen!" the doctor shouted back with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he stood his ground. At least until his eye caught one of the less prominent members of the group lighting a torch. In broad daylight.

Caught firmly in the web of a burgeoning panic, Victor stepped back from the front entrance and made a clumsy and ultimately fruitless attempt to close the door on his soon-to-be home invaders, but Calugarul, who moved with surprising speed and agility for a man of such towering height, stuck his thickly-muscled forearm through the crack and simultaneously shoved at the door with the full weight of his massive frame. It hit Victor square in the face and was immediately followed by cracking noise, which he recognized as the sound of either a broken nose or shattered teeth, or, if his luck was really bad, a combination of both. The doctor lost his balance and was sent sprawling to the floor on his back, feeling like - and no doubt visually resembling - an overturned crab.

"You shouldn't have done that, Frankenstein," the blacksmith said grimly, and to the right of him, now from a worm's-eye view, Victor spotted Mrs. Horvath, her face practically scarlet and her many chins vibrating with unbridled excitement. If her body hadn't been such a formless, gelatinous mass, the tendons on her neck probably would have stood out like thick, ropey cords. Her hair, frizzy, white, and no longer contained by her bonnet, sprouted wildly in various directions. 

If only her heavily burdened heart could give out, Victor found himself thinking while blood poured in generous amounts down his upper lip and teeth. The crack had been his nose, after all. It had been broken once on a previous occasion, and he could always manually set it right later and suture the wound, assuming he made it out of this predicament alive.

He saw lit torches in the hands of more than one man now, but no one had yet taken the step over his threshold to actually carry out their threats, temporarily halted by either a rapidly disintegrating sense of morality or outright fear. Whatever it was, Victor needed to capitalize on it before it was too late. It would not stop this madness; it was too far-gone for that, but if he was lucky he might be able to buy himself some time.

Time to flee.

"Please," the doctor said, quietly realizing that he did not need to put up a theatrical performance to look or sound pathetic as he lay here crawling on the floor like a wounded animal, bleeding and seemingly at their complete mercy. "You don't have to do this…!"

His father's scalpel had fallen from his grasp when the door hit him in the face, and Victor could see it on the floor less than two feet away. He could lunge for it and possibly even reacquire it before anyone from Mrs. Horvath's murderous little congregation had time to react, but a scalpel was at best a poor defensive weapon and at worst completely useless for warding off attackers.

It was Mrs. Horvath's delirious scream that finally moved the situational roadblock and brought everyone's attention back to her. She had one of her stubby fingers in the air, pointing accusingly at something - or someone - behind Victor's back.

"There is it! It is the Fiend itself!" she yelled, sprinkling spittle from her lips, and the hand not busy pointing at her chosen target pawed around her neck area for the crucifix she wore on a chain. Or at least that was what Victor mistook it for at the time. "It's the beast that attacked me!"

Approximately half of the men - including the blacksmith and the innkeeper - who had accompanied Mrs. Horvath on this fateful day of reckoning instinctively crossed themselves at the sight of Vlad Dracula, the strigoi they most likely had sworn an oath to kill on sight.

He had made the choice to come down here, after all, despite the promise he had given Victor about not interfering. Stupid man. This would cost them both.

"Vlad, get back upstairs!" Victor shouted but without turning his head to look at the Count. If he turned his back on Mrs. Horvath's lot, a hammer or something worse would be used to bash his head in at the first opportune moment.

Dracula cast no shadow just as he cast no reflection, and without turning around to look at him, Victor knew that the sound of the vampire's footsteps was the only reliable indicator of his current position. His approach was not altogether silent, but Victor still found it jarring when a cold hand suddenly gripped his elbow and pulled him to his feet in one fluid motion. They locked gazes for just a moment, and the doctor remembered thinking to himself that Vlad's eyes had never been greener.

"Those who aid and protect the Fiend deserve death!" Mrs. Horvath bellowed, and while her voice had become hoarse and cracked when she screamed, it was still potent enough to spellbind her followers. "There is still a way to save the souls of the damned, but it requires sacrifice. We must give expiation! Through fire, we shall restore innocence! The creature must be bled dry to the last drop, and the man, this necromancer, shall be burned at the stake as a witch! He is an occultist, a sorcerer, one who dabbles in the unnatural arts, and he has come here, to our town, with one purpose, and that is to serve evil and bring about damnation for us all!"

Mrs. Horvath reluctantly tore her hate-filled, smoldering gaze from Vlad to fixate on the doctor instead. Unbeknownst to himself, Victor fumbled around for Dracula's sleeve to ensure that the other was still standing by his side. Relief and disappointment blended together into a slurry of emotions when the Count's fingers once again gripped his wrist albeit in a much gentler manner than before.

"Je t'ai dit de rester là-hout," Victor whispered into Dracula's ear, speaking in French as a precaution, given that none of these people were likely to speak that language.

I told you to stay up there.

"Ne me dis pas quoi faire de mon temps," Dracula, ever the rebel, whispered back.

Do not tell me what to do with my time.

"See! Listen! Even now they speak in tongues to confuse us!" Mrs. Horvath shouted, and her multiple chins jiggled with each spoken syllable. "As it says in the Bible, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"! THOU SHALT NOT SUFFER A WITCH TO LIVE!"

The crowd was chanting along with her now and echoing her words. Not hesitantly as before, oh no; Dracula's arrival at the scene had turned every Doubting Thomas into a true believer in no time at all.

"They must burn! They--"

"Fire doesn't cleanse, it blackens!" Dracula said unexpectedly, and both Mrs. Horvath and her chanting crowd momentarily went quiet. His sparkling green eyes met those of the woman he had unsuccessfully attempted to murder earlier that very same day, and the looks of hatred exchanged between them were so palpable that Victor could have sworn it electrified the atmosphere. 

"How dare you speak to me, you unholy abomination!" Mrs. Horvath cried, and the doctor caught her bloated hand pawing at her neck region again, this time with quicker, more insistent movements. "You foul creature of the pit, you shall be… you… you are…"

Finally the woman's cracked, over-strained voice failed her, and at first Victor assumed that the pause happened because Mrs. Horvath needed to swallow or wet her throat before she was able to produce more of those cursed noises that she called speech, but soon he realized he was witnessing something else altogether.

"Help me… I can't… I can't… breathe…!" Mrs. Horvath croaked, and now she was pawing - no, tearing - at her throat with both hands, and the crucifix, which she had boldly brandished as a weapon against them only moments ago, had slid out of her grasp and landed on the ground at her feet, useless and forgotten. It was easy to forget about weapons when the functions of your body were being challenged.

A physician even in extreme moments of stress, Victor was not slow to recognize the signs and symptoms taking place before him; his wish from earlier had come true at long last, and what he witnessed now was an old hag whose heart - heavily burdened by both her corpulent body and her choleric temperament - had finally had enough and gone on what could aptly be described as a permanent strike. The doctor also noted with a grim sort of satisfaction that he would not be gifting her with a new one.

She managed to produce a few more half-choked pleas and gurgles before her eyes rolled up into her head and her legs finally gave way, no longer able or even willing to support her bulk. Whilst the beastly old woman's death throes were morbidly satisfying to observe in real time, Victor knew that in order to have even the smallest chance of escaping this situation with his life intact, he needed to capitalize on the moment and act quickly. Mrs. Horvath's infernal noises and writhing would not hold the attention of her flock forever, and Victor had been mistaken about them scattering like mice after the loss of their leader. So very mistaken.

Dracula must have drawn the same conclusions as Victor himself, but unlike the doctor, who was prone to apathy and over-thinking, the vampire was quick to act on his instincts in the physical world and rushed at the doorway even though it was currently occupied by a man of gigantic proportions.

What the Count lacked in bulk he made up for in speed and ferocity, and the suddenness of his attack was effective enough to catch Calugarul completely off-guard. The blacksmith temporarily overbalanced when Dracula's smaller body collided with his, but he never completely lost his footing, and the man was quick, even now; Ernesto Calugarul was someone who enjoyed brawls with other men and due to his mass and speed he came out victorious in most of them.

The Count attempted a second strike to take Calugarul's legs out from under him, but this time the blacksmith was prepared for the impact and braced himself with great skill. He then countered with a strike of his own; a sideways, chopping blow with his elbow, which unfortunately connected perfectly with the side of Dracula's head and felled him like he'd been clubbed. Which, Victor supposed, was not too far from the factual truth when the striker was a mountain of a man like Calugarul; a man built like a bear with the strength to match. To kill a bear, a leopard had to make their first strike count, and Dracula had failed. The element of surprise had been lost and could not be regained.

It was obvious, however, that Calugarul had expected his opponent to stay down after dealing such a blow, and he was therefore woefully unprepared for Dracula to throw himself with his full weight - a good hundred pounds less than the blacksmith - against the door. This time Calugarul did lose his balance and Victor could practically feel the vibrations caused by his massive body hitting the ground at a highly inelegant angle, but he recovered quickly even from such an unexpected attack, and before the Count could close the door and bolt it, the blacksmith stuck his arm through the crack. His trawling hand, blind but still powerful and resembling a giant bird spider, caught a fistful of Dracula's long hair and refused to let go.

"Get him off of me!" the Count screamed in a piercing voice whose hectoring quality was eerily similar to Mrs. Horvath. "Frankenstein, get him off of--!"

After a long bout of paralytic inactivity, the doctor was finally launched into action. He knew that through his line of work, Calugarul had likely developed a strong resilience toward physical pain and would therefore be able to withstand the sudden onslaught of scratches or even bites to a much higher degree than could be expected of a regular man. He would, however, still be vulnerable to the basic structural weaknesses of the human nervous system, and Victor intended to use his knowledge as a physician to his full advantage in this fight.

He grabbed a hold of the big man's index finger with both hands and bent it back with all his strength. Even if Calugarul was accustomed to pain, the compression of the radial nerve would make him lose temporary control of the muscles in his hand, and simultaneously the hyperextension of the digital nerve would provide a large enough helping of raw pain to balance out the resulting numbness.

Victor's prediction had been accurate. The iron grip on Dracula's hair slackened practically at once, and following a shout that was part pain and part impotent rage, Calugarul withdrew his arm, and the two men inside were finally able to close the door all the way and bolt it.

They remained seated side by side with their backs resting against the door for an additional fifteen seconds or so, glancing at each other but not speaking. The sound of Victor's strained, rasping breaths mingled with the angry clamoring noises from the crowd outside, and the doctor knew he'd be extremely foolish if he thought for a moment that today's tribulations would end here.

If Dracula's breathing was at all heavy or strained, it was less noisy than Victor's own, although there were other signs of exertion and outright distress on the Count's person, such as being covered in a sheen of sweat and now sporting a large, blooming bruise on his temple where Calugarul's elbow had struck him.

"Were you just going to stand there like a slack-jawed idiot while I fought for us both?" Dracula snapped, his sudden anger further proving how harried he was by the experience. "Why did you have to open the door to them at all? I knew it! I knew this would happen!"

"I had everything under control until you came down," the doctor replied, but it was a transparent lie, and both he and the Count knew it.

"If you believe that, Frankenstein, then you are more foolish than I thought," the vampire said, but his voice lacked its usual venom.

"Until you showed up, they only had her word that you even existed," Victor argued. He figured he didn't need to explain to whom he was referring. "Now…" His intended flurry of words died in his throat when his ears alerted him to the disconcerting and ominous fact that the banging on the door had ceased altogether. "Oh my God," he sobbed instead, and had to press a hand against his mouth to stop himself from crying like a child. His fractured and throbbing nose alongside the build-up of mucus in his airways made breathing particularly laborious.

"God will not help you. They'll be back. This time with a battering ram," Dracula stated, and his grim prognosis matched the one made by Victor word by word, as did his proposed solution. "We cannot stay here."

Dracula jumped swiftly to his feet, energized perhaps by the recent injection or it or the skirmish itself or even a combination of the two. The doctor, who was not a warrior either in practice or in spirit, found himself a lot more sluggish. The Count offered Victor his hand.

"I'll get us out of here, but I cannot do that unless you're with me," Dracula said somberly, and the hand he had used to pull Victor to his feet now closed around his elbow and had a steadying and most welcome effect on the doctor's overall sense of balance. "Are you with me, Victor?"

It was the first time the Count had un-ironically called him by his first name, and for some inexplicable reason hearing his name from the lips of this inhuman man, a creature he had resurrected perhaps against his better judgment, was enough to shock him out of his lethargy and self-imposed helplessness, at least for the time being. There was no way in hell Victor was going to let his life's work be destroyed or fall into the hands of a mob of murderous, simpleminded vigilantes, nor would he submit himself to their flawed and unsophisticated form of justice. Tribal justice. Vendetta justice. Bereft of their leader, these men were little more than sheep guided solely by their baser desires at this point, and they had no right, legal or moral, to judge him. Him or a great man like Vlad Dracula.

"The back entrance," the doctor said with a sudden surge of determination, and the look in Dracula's eyes told him that the other knew what he was referring to and agreed with his decision.

However, the doctor and the Count were made acutely aware that they were not the only ones familiar with the structural layout of the house by the time they reached the door to the kitchenette and were forced to retreat from the onslaught of flames. Someone - the innkeeper, perhaps - had broken the kitchen window and thrown in a lit torch doused in generous amounts of lamp oil, and in absence of a natural barrier to contain the fire, disaster was a fact.

The dry wooden floors and furniture were quickly engulfed and consumed by the hungry flames, which found further fodder in the doctor's under-sink storage of absinthe and subsequently hastened the spread of the fire. The sound of bottles exploding in the oppressive, suffocating heat mimicked the noise of a handgun being fired several times in rapid succession. Consequently, the possibility of being sprayed with shards of glass would have been enough to deter most people, but most people were not Victor Frankenstein nor could they ever dream of reaching his level of desperation.

Victor made what could only be described as a mad dash toward the backdoor, harboring a naïve  hope that it was still a viable escape route if they were willing to tolerate a few seconds of searing heat. He came close enough to the licking flames to have most of his eyebrows singed off before Dracula pulled him back with an angry, snapping motion.

"Are you crazy?!" the vampire shouted in his ear loud enough to wake the dead. Or so Victor thought, although later he realized the volume had been necessary to drown out the roar of the fire. "You'd die, you fool!"

Victor considered struggling, but the fight left his body when his ears picked up on the sound of another window shattering in a different part of the house. This time it was his library, and he was barely given a moment to grieve over his century's worth of books and accumulated correspondence before the rapidly encroaching heat forced him and the Count back further into the bowels of the collapsing building. A dying house, soon to be structurally unsound, where the only way to go was up.

There was no need to debate the matter, and the pair ascended the attic stairs in silence.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

Fire was a prosaic but always equally effective weapon wielded by mortals against his kind, and Vlad felt a flash of anger toward himself for having failed to notice the early signs. Since he had survived many attempt at his life involving fire, he had developed a finely tuned sense for the degree of exposure that was survivable. Vlad was therefore all but mortified when the doctor - this genius who had found a way to reverse death, yet possessed nothing in the way of common sense - almost launched himself headfirst into the roaring inferno which had previously been a kitchen.

The vampire caught him by the collar of his surgeon's whites and jerked him back none too gently. "Are you crazy?!" he bellowed in the other man's ear and found it mildly amusing that Frankenstein twitched at the volume of his voice yet had been prepared to get roasted alive less than five seconds ago.

"You'd die, you fool!" he added, and finally the truth, which had been apparent to Vlad all along, sank through the doctor's thick skull, and Frankenstein plainly accepted that the back entrance was lost to them.

The sound of more glass breaking mattered little to Vlad, since he knew that the windows in the library and Victor's little cell-like bedchamber would not have been viable exit points in any scenario, as those windows all faced the street and were no doubt under strict surveillance. Their attackers were moronic for sure, but they were hardly imbeciles.

The decision to head up to the attic was a tactical mistake, and the strategic part of Vlad's mind, which had ensured his continued existence more times than he could count, rebelled at the thought of ascending in a burning, soon-to-collapse building. But they were literally out of options, and Dracula also realized that convincing Frankenstein to leave his work behind was a fool's errand even now when his very life was at risk. Besides, he was as disinclined as the doctor himself to let the rejuvenation formula go up in flames. Whatever Frankenstein had given him, he wanted more of the same. There was no way he was letting the goose that had laid this golden egg slip out of his hands.

The fire had not yet reached the wooden set of stairs that let up to the attic, but the creaking alone was cause for worry, and Vlad wondered if the haphazardly constructed staircase in this poorly maintained rental home would hold their combined weight. Due to her mountainous bulk, Mrs. Horvath had most likely not been up to the attic for decades even though she was the legal owner of the house. The sheer number of stairs alone would have constituted problems for an old woman of her size. It was just a pity that her heart attack, which was long overdue, did not happen sooner.

Frankenstein's trembling hands quickly bolted the door behind them, and Vlad considered telling him that it did not matter, as none of their pursuers would follow them into a burning building that was soon to disintegrate unless they themselves had a very real death wish, but if certain familiar rituals bestowed the doctor with the clarity of mind to act sensibly, there was no harm in allowing it.

Vlad ran his keen hawk-like gaze over the expanse of the walls and tried his hardest to form a quick but accurate mental representation of the space. There were three windows; two large square ones built into the heavily slanting roof and positioned opposite of each other, and one that was semicircular, smaller, and completely vertically situated high up on the gable that connected the two sides of the roof. One of the larger windows faced the courtyard instead of the street, and that was the window that had the potential of being useful for their escape.

During the blessedly short while it had taken Vlad to construct his three-dimensional mental map, Frankenstein had already left his side and gone to tear through his filing cabinet in search for something. The doctor's heavy, rasping breaths and near-frantic movements betrayed a state of deep urgency bordering on desperation. When Vlad reached out to still him with a hand on his shoulder, Frankenstein's head snapped up as if he'd been electrocuted, and the look in his eyes was uncontained and unfocused, almost feral. His upper body momentarily swayed, and Dracula feared the man would actually faint, but then his gaze regained focus and simultaneously returned him to the present.

"The pages with my formula," he shouted. "Where did you put them? You were the last to handle them!"

That part was true; in fact, until he made his fateful decision to join Victor downstairs, Vlad had been flipping through those very pages and tried his hardest to understand the science behind the vast array of chemical symbols and their various combinations. Decoding and translating the covert language of advanced organic chemistry was much harder than he would have taken it for, and in order to unlock the workings of the brilliant mind that had devised it he would need more time.

Much, much more. Where had he left the folder with the pages?

His fleeting inability to remember filled him with the same sort of panic he saw mirrored in the doctor's eyes. Then he visualized himself reading Frankenstein's notes from an observer's external point of view - a useful, finely honed skill that had won him many battles in medieval times - and recalled with perfect acuity the presence of the doctor's well-worn, sun-damaged work desk. In Vlad's very first memory of Victor Frankenstein, dating back to the night he brought Vlad back to life, the scientist had been seated behind that same desk, diligently writing away in his journal. It was insane to think that those events were less than two days in the past. 

I'm your father now.

The papers with Victor's formula were scattered haphazardly across the surface of the desk, accurately reflective of not only the doctor's vast but chaotic cerebral output but his capricious temperament as well. Some of them were crumpled up when Vlad assembled them with hasty, urgent hands, but that was no cause for concern at this point. Frankenstein would be able to decipher his own penmanship regardless of the state of the paper it was written on.

One sheet accidentally fell to the floor, and when Vlad bent down to retrieve it, hungry, orange flames shot up through the floorboards like groping tiger paws, consuming the paper and all its secrets in a matter of seconds. Dracula was too slow to escape injury to his hand, and the unexpected scalding pain very nearly caused him to drop the folder containing the rest of Frankenstein's work.

His uninjured hand shot out, catching the folder approximately one foot above the probing flames, and Vlad thought of how fortunate he had been to retain his snake-like reflexes during daytime. Daylight. Two more hours until sundown, and this house would stand for another two minutes if they were lucky. The flames were coming through in more than one place now, finding little resistance in the dry old floorboards. Ate through them like sawdust.

Vlad turned to give the doctor a progress report and noticed that Frankenstein, that fool, had brought out a suitcase and was busy shoveling the contents of his filing cabinet into it.

"Victor!" he snapped, but not even the use of his first name was enough to jolt the doctor out of his frenzied packing. "You can't scale the wall with that thing," Vlad continued, still cautiously optimistic that his companion would see reason. That Frankenstein was with him, not just in body but in spirit as well.

Now Victor looked up with a puzzled expression. "S-scale the w-wall…? I thought we were going to jump!"

"If you jump from this height, you'll break both your legs," Vlad stated plainly. "You'll be forced to climb."

The doctor's flickering gaze moved from his precious, half-filled suitcase back to Dracula, and the vampire could tell he had not yet given up his futile aspirations for escaping with the full body of his work intact.

"I could… strap it on my back. I could…"

"No, you cannot. You'd overbalance in a second," Vlad countered. It was the truth, and he saw no reason to sugarcoat it. He presented the folder with the rejuvenation formula - minus that one page that had gone up in flames, but the doctor need not know about that right now - and proceeded to shove it into Victor's hands.

"This is what matters now," he said. "This is what you can save. I suggest you hold on to it."

The battle of wills was over, and Frankenstein yielded his case with an inclination of his head. This degree of willfulness was not a good quality in a servant, Vlad reflected, and he foresaw many more potential conflicts in their future. He would have to find a way to make the doctor more amenable to his way of thinking to minimize the number of disagreements, because the thought of dealing with them all in this way was exhausting.

But first they needed to get out of this collapsing house. There would be time to negotiate the terms of their… partnership on a later occasion, assuming there would be one. Vlad looked around for something solid and sturdy to use to break the window, like a flower pot, but it seemed like Doctor Frankenstein was not much of a horticulturist.

"Hurry, hurry!" Victor shrieked, tugging impatiently on the vampire's arm. He had started doing something that could best be described as tap-dancing on the spot, and it would have looked comical if not for the fact that he was doing it to prevent his feet from catching fire. By now the air was filled with a thick, dark, and acrid smoke that was becoming less breathable by the second. Vlad could hold his breath, but the doctor could not, and the added issue of his eyes tearing up and obscuring his vision would make escape exponentially more difficult if allowed to progress further.

That did it. Vlad broke the window with his elbow and felt tiny shards of glass slice through the skin in his forearm, but they were just superficial cuts and the pain from this was still considerably lesser than the pain from his burnt hand. The sun would burn as well, but he could tolerate it. He had to. He had faced worse odds than these and come out on top.

Fire doesn't cleanse, it blackens.

Where had he picked up that phrase?

The wooden window frames broke easily, and within ten seconds he had created a large enough opening for them to pass through one at a time. Vlad considered letting the doctor exit first, but the possibility of being trapped in this blazing inferno due to Frankenstein's hesitation to do what needed to be done made him ultimately decide against it. If only one of them made it out, Dracula wanted to make sure it was him.

The floor finally caved in completely only a few feet away from the broken window, and the panicking doctor, no longer willing to wait for his turn, shoved at Vlad hard to speed up his exit. Weakened by the fire, one of the load-bearing roof beams snapped in two like a matchstick and fell through another part of the floor where it struck up a second huge hole. The blast of heat was so immediate and savage that Vlad was convinced the doctor would have been cooked like a lobster had he still been standing in the window. In order to have a wall to scale, they needed to move. Now.

"I can't do this…." Frankenstein said with a low, keening moan. He stood pressed against the roof panels, away from the window and the billowing smoke now pouring out of it, but refusing to move.

The roof was built at a forty-five degree angle, and in Vlad's opinion this constituted the easy part of the climb down to ground level. Frankenstein's panicked refusal to move prompted the vampire to think back on a time - now centuries in the past - when he himself had been human, but despite vivid recollections of his own experiences battling not only foreign armies but the many constraints of human biology, he had no understanding or patience for the craven behavior on display now. Attempting to relate to it was an exercise in futility and certainly did nothing to increase his sympathy for the doctor.

He could always abandon Frankenstein, he supposed, and leave the other man to fend for himself, inadequate though he was at navigating the physical world. How he had managed to become over a hundred was a mystery in itself. Wise men knew when to cut their losses, and yet Vlad could not bring himself to give up Frankenstein just yet. It wasn't just that the doctor's secrets would die with him if he perished in the fire, although that in itself was a major reason to save him. This situation had come about through a series of bad decisions on Vlad's own part, and whether he liked to admit it or not, he felt he owed Frankenstein better. If Victor could not climb, Vlad would have to do it for both of them.

I'm your father now.

"Get on my back," he snapped and was slightly taken aback - although in a positive way - by the swiftness of the other's response. Moments later, when Frankenstein had climbed on top of him and thrown both arms around his neck in what was bordering on a choke-hold, he was discouraged to find out that the wiry doctor was actually much heavier than he looked. The folder containing the miracle formula was squeezed in between their bodies, and it suddenly occurred to Vlad that he should have told Frankenstein to stick it down the front of his pants. Telling him anything at this point would be a lost cause, though, and Vlad knew better than to waste what little time they had on meaningless prompting that would not be heeded anyhow. The doctor's thighs squeezed his waist with a desperate appliance of strength, which in lack of a better description resembled the galvanic death throes of a drowning man.

Carrying his not insubstantial burden, Vlad began his descent from the roof. With the fire boiling below, the roof panels were already painful if not yet scalding to the touch, and he had nothing, not even a pair of gloves to protect his hands. The mortal's heart beat like an African drum in his chest, and he almost wished himself deaf so that he would not have to listen to it.

With the edge of the slanted roof approaching, Vlad suddenly stalled, and had he been asked about it on a later occasion, he would not have been able to pinpoint the exact reason for this momentary lapse in judgment. It might have been an attempt on his part to assume a more stable position by shifting the excess weight around or simply taking a moment too long to calculate how to best make the transition from roof to outer wall. It mattered little in retrospect, for the consequences were the same regardless of intent.

The doctor, who was not prepared for the sudden cease of forward movement, lost his grip on Vlad's neck and overbalanced, sliding in a half-arch over the vampire's head with a look of dumb surprise on his face. His hands fumbled around for purchase but found nothing apart from the leather folder, which remained in his grasp even as he went tumbling over the edge of the roof.

Victor briefly managed to postpone his inevitable fall by clutching the gutter with one sweat-greased hand, but he was unable to support his own weight either because the scalding metal burned his skin or because he was out of shape and unused to such perilous activities. Vlad threw himself forward in a purely reflexive attempt to catch the doctor and practically slid down the final stretch of roof on his stomach in what must have been a very inelegant display belying his natural aerial grace. His fingertips brushed against the cuff of Frankenstein's shirt, and he felt the radiating warmth of the human flesh beneath, however failing to close his fingers around the other man's wrist. All he got for his troubles was a detached silver cufflink.

So close and yet so far away.

The doctor's eyes bulged with a primal sort of terror that all of earth's creatures seemed to exhibit when faced with uncontrollable conditions that involved fire or great heights.

"Help me!" Frankenstein mouthed just before he lost his grip and fell, arms flailing. All Vlad could do was pray that the fall would not break his neck.

 

***

The distance was what a medical man - a professional like himself - would call a "survivable fall". Fifteen feet or so, the height of two stories. Victor was woefully unprepared for it, however, and he landed badly. Or at least that was what it felt like at the time. Perhaps he was fortunate to fall feet first, as there would have been no time to right himself prior to impact with the ground.

Who was he trying to fool? He was not a cat. The doctor's right shin thumped against the seat of a granite bench with a nauseating crack, and white-hot pain shot through his entire leg, from ankle to hip, like a searing lance.

Lips pulled back in an agonized grin, Victor bit back a scream. He was dimly aware that he probably needn't worry about his pursuers hearing his cries as the deafening roar of the fire would surely drown them out, but one could never take anything for granted in this world, and there was no reason to make a bad situation worse. He rolled over in the gravel and curled up in a fetal position, clutching his damaged limb with both hands. Blood was already soaking through the fabric of his trousers, and when he pressed his palms against the point of the fracture, he could feel the protrusion of bone at a highly unnatural angle. Dracula had predicted that he would break both legs if he attempted to jump from this height, and it turned out the vampire's prediction had been wrong, but not by much; Victor had only broken one.

The Count landed with casual, catlike grace next to him, and the doctor envied his ability to perform gravity-defying acts of athleticism even at a time like this. He shook his head to communicate the state of his leg and that he definitely could not stand up and walk.

"It's bad… It's really bad," Victor croaked and was immediately overtaken by a fit of coughing. He had not inhaled enough toxic smoke to spoil his lungs - at least he didn't think so - but that mattered little now that he had a broken leg. He was deadweight to his relatively uninjured companion. "I can't walk."

Dracula hesitated, driven simultaneously by a strong self-preservation instinct and a more long-term goal that included Victor's continued existence, and the doctor could practically imagine the various cogs turning behind those enigmatic green eyes. He considered asking the vampire to take a moment to drag him further away from the fire, because the heat from the collapsing building was almost unbearable already, and burning - or rather roasting - to death had always been one of Victor's most potent, tightly-held fears. If he stayed where he was, he might have to witness the skin slowly peeling away from his body, and while he would readily admit that he had done many loathsome things in his long, long life, he didn't think he deserved such a horrid demise.

"I regret being too slow prevent your fall," the Count said in a whisper, his voice thick with emotion, and he knelt by the fallen scientist in what Victor then assumed was a final goodbye.

Or was it the folder he wanted? It was still in Victor's grasp, sandwiched between his arm and the ground, battered and singed, but whole. Everything apart from his it-formula had gone up in flames, and he was protective of his greatest work even now with a weak, broken body. No, that wasn't strictly true anymore; the Count was his greatest work, but the Ur-cells came in a close second.

Suddenly Dracula's nostrils flared, and a glassy, haunted look came over his eyes. Perhaps he had heard or sensed something Victor and his mortal senses were unable to pick up on, but whatever it was, it spurred him on like a horse expecting to feel the crack of a whip against its back. A decision had been made.

The vampire scooped Victor into his arms, but not without some difficulty, since the pain had caused the doctor to curl up in a ball and turned his limbs into tightly coiled springs resisting movement.

"No, you can't carry me… We'll both get caught," Victor protested weakly. It was then that he noticed the hand - Dracula's dominant right hand - grasping his shoulder had been badly burnt and no doubt hurt almost as badly as his leg by now. "Leave me," he groaned. "You'll doom us both!"

"Be quiet," Dracula said, but his voice was unusually kind and devoid of sharp edges. He spent a moment to readjust his hold on the other before he started walking on somewhat shaky legs. None of their pursuers had followed them out onto the courtyard, most likely convinced that they had perished in the fire and not bothered to consider alternative scenarios. The hallmark of simple-minded men.

In Transylvania, a country built on the very edge of wilderness, the forest was always near, and that's where they were headed, away from the town where they - by virtue of existing - had made themselves most unwelcome. Even criminals had the right to a fair trial under the law, but said protections did not extend to the likes of vampires or necromancers.

Anything considered supernatural equaled lawless.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

Victor supposed that he had faded in and out of consciousness during the relatively short time it took the Count to reach a place in the forest that he deemed "safe", although he would readily admit that his sense of time was more than just slightly muddled. He'd been hoping that the sharp pain in his leg would eventually fade into a more tolerable ache, but no such thing happened, and Victor realized he needed to do something. Anything. At the bare minimum, he needed to make a diagnosis.

On the doctor's insistence, the pair finally stopped moving. Victor could tell that the Count needed a break as much as he did, if not more, but due to his inherent warrior's pride, Dracula tried very hard to conceal his exhaustion and the fact that he was extremely winded. Victor gratefully rested his back against the gnarled stem of an ancient oak tree, not dissimilar to the one Dracula had been buried under, although Victor, perhaps wisely, kept his mouth shut about this particular morbid detail.

The setting sun was now only a bright orange disc partially visible through the canopy of trees. It was no secret that the Count eagerly awaited nightfall, but Victor was torn; darkness would provide them with a certain degree of anonymity and protection from roving eyes, but he needed to figure out what exactly was going on with his leg, and in order to do that, he had to be able to see. No matter how bad it was, he had to look at it.

Dracula sat next to him still and quiet, shading his eyes with his undamaged hand. Pearls of sweat littered his hairline, and there was something else that Victor first mistook for a trick of the light; a flaky sort of redness on both his cheeks that had not been there before and looked suspiciously like…

…like a sunburn. No, that couldn't be possible, surely? They had only been out here for… how long? An hour? Ninety minutes? It should have been impossible to acquire a sunburn in this climate regardless of skin type, and Dracula had told him in explicit terms that the part of vampire lore that said vampires spontaneously combusted upon first contact with sunrays had gotten it very wrong. Well, Vlad had not combusted (not yet, Victor thought) but he sure as hell presented with an abnormal reaction that was not in his favor.

"Vlad, let me see your hand," Victor asked with a gentle nudge against the other man's arm, and the Count complied, still silent, and only winced slightly when the doctor examined his burn-injured hand. The skin, where it wasn't entirely scorched away, was red and wrinkled in odd places, and there were blisters varying in size and severity over the expanse of the palm and the inside of the fingers.

How exactly had this happened? Victor could not remember, but he figured it had something to do with his unwillingness to climb and the added burden that had placed on the Count. Had he been at liberty to do so, Victor would have dressed the wound and prescribed morphine for the pain, but of course that was not an option for either of them at present.

It didn't matter. He would have to bite the bullet sooner or later, and it might as well happen now, while there was still sunlight.

"Could you help me with my leg?" he asked, careful to make it sound like a request rather than an imperative. The unnatural bulge which tented the fabric of his trousers a few inches below his knee scared him witless, and Victor did not want to look at it anymore than he wanted to touch it. Rationally, he knew what he would find; he had seen plenty of compound fractures in both the living and the dead, but none of them had been on his own body.

"What must I do?" Dracula asked. He had turned his back on the quickly disappearing sun in the west and thus had no more need to shield his eyes.

"Let's see how bad it is first," Victor panted and straightened the broken limb to its maximum capacity. At least his knee joint seemed to be working as it should, which was a relief, as he had feared his kneecap might have cracked from the impact with the stone slab. He tried to convince himself that the hardest part was to look at the injury and everything following that would be easier and much less traumatizing.

The Count seemed to have reached a similar conclusion and wasted no time ripping the fabric of Victor's trouser leg to expose the break. A nigh-legendary feat of willpower was required on the doctor's part to not look away or close his eyes, but somehow he managed to defeat his instincts. The sight which greeted his eyes was less grisly than expected, but still somehow so alien that Victor's brain at first refused to accept it as a part of his own body. A knob of bone, white as the purest snow, was protruding through a tear in his skin. It gave the entire lower limb a distorted, slanting appearance, and as soon as he saw it Victor knew the bone needed to be set straight at once or he would never walk properly again.

"Vlad, listen to me," he said. "You need to push the bone back in and make a splint. Anything solid will do. You could use a branch or something. Vlad… are you listening to me?"

The vampire had turned his face away and covered it with his hand. Out of disgust at the sight before him, Victor first assumed, but the flash of red and white visible through his fingers suggested another, more sinister reason for this behavior. It was, after all, laughable to imply that Vlad the Impaler possessed a weak stomach.

With his bloodlust under control - for the time being, at least - the Count turned to face Victor again. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed, and he absently scratched at the scar around his neck.

"If I'm to do this, you'll need to bite down on something, or you might break your teeth," Dracula said. His eyes were focused and clear with no trace of red in them. "Here, use this." In spite of his injured hand he unbuckled his belt with quick, deft movements, folded it twice, and shoved it into the doctor's mouth without preamble. Victor burrowed his fingers into the damp soil to keep himself from thrashing, and remembered all the times he had told a live patient to think happy thoughts before performing a particularly painful surgical procedure. Suddenly he felt like the biggest of hypocrites.

"On three, yes?" the Count said. "One… Two." The 'three' never came. At 'two' Dracula grabbed him by the ankle without warning and used his other hand to press the jutting bone back into the doctor's flesh with both great precision and acuity.

"You bastard…!" Victor moaned after he was done screaming into the leather in his mouth.

What Dracula had done was both simple and crude, but Victor's bones were once again aligned adequately if not perfectly, and the result was about as good as one could expect from any trained field surgeon.

"I apologize, my friend," the vampire said in a sardonic voice that belied his words. "If I had waited, you would have tensed your muscles and made it much harder to reset your bones. It was better this way. Believe me."

Victor felt almost compelled to chuckle. "You would have made an excellent field medic," he said, awed against his will. "Had you been trained in medicine…"

The Count snorted in response. "One hardly needs a degree from a university to mend the flesh of wounded men. I have commanded armies, Victor. I have seen men die violent deaths on and off the battlefield. You doctors with your filthy hospitals kill more people than you save."

"Oh, you have no argument there," the doctor said, and the bemused expression on Dracula's face revealed that the Count had indeed expected an argument. "The medical community is made up of dusty old skeletons whose sense of pride far exceeds their will to learn and their will to do what is best for their patients, and I'm not just saying this because they rejected my ideas."

"Is that so?"

"I said I wanted them to regard death as a temporary condition, and what did they do? They laughed at me. Then I said we could extend life in people with a sick organ by giving them a new one, and they laughed at me again."

"I'm sure your peers miss you making them laugh," the Count said, "but it is a conversation for another time. I still need to dress this wound and make a splint, isn't that so?"

"Dress it? With what?" Victor asked. He didn't have any bandages on him, and he didn't believe Vlad was in the habit of carrying any around on his person, either.

"The sleeve of your shirt. Do you need it?"

"Well… no… But the nights are already cold at this time of the year."

"You can have my jacket if the cold bothers you," Dracula said with casual lightness.

He didn't look Victor in the eye whilst they spoke, but the doctor caught him glancing down at the leg fracture several times, and each time it became more difficult for him to tear his eyes away. Perhaps it was best - for them both - to have the wound covered. Another worrying aspect was the bleeding; Victor had tied Vlad's belt around his leg as a tourniquet just below the knee, but the wound still bled… liberally. And the smell of blood attracted predators not limited to the kind that looked human and walked on two feet. 

"Say, are there any wolves around here?" he asked anxiously and was nothing short of mortified at the answer he received.

"Of course. This is Transylvania," the vampire said. He was in the process of creating an emergency splint from a broken off oak branch about as thick as a young child's forearm, and Victor noted that the Count had charitably scraped away the bark from the side that would be pressed flush against the doctor's leg.

"We should try to make a fire," Victor said urgently, nodding as he spoke. Wild animals in general were repelled by fire… weren't they? He had never taken an interest ethology - the study of animal behavior - and viewed animals as little more than food and occasional spare parts for a research project. Now he figured maybe he should have taken a keener interest in animals and what incentivized them, particularly those of the canine genus.

"No, we shouldn't," the Count said and returned to Victor's side. The splint was finished and all that needed to be done now was to attach it. "There might still be townsfolk out there, looking for us. By the time that house has burned down to the ground, they will check for bodies and find none. You figure out the rest. You're the scientist."

"That will take another six hours, at least," Victor argued. He took the wooden splint made for him and fixated it to his lower leg in two places, using his own suspenders as straps. It still hurt like an absolute bastard and he would not be able to put any weight on it, but - in the event of an emergency - he would at least he able to move.

"We're not making a fire, and that's final," the Count said from between clenched teeth. His stiff posture and rough intermittent exhales suggested pain in various parts of his body, and Victor feared it would make his mood progress from bad to worse.

The sun's last dying rays graced them with their presence before the glowing orange disc - a mere sliver by now - finally winked out of existence, leaving only darkness. Perhaps 'out of sight' was a better way to frame it, as the sun would be back tomorrow morning with renewed intensity much to Dracula's undisputed discontent.

"Finally…" the Count muttered and let out a long overdue sigh of relief accompanied by a hand motion Victor first mistook for another attempt at concealing an inappropriate facial expression from him. The insistent rubbing, however, soon made the doctor wise to what the strigoi was actually doing, and he reached out to still Dracula's hand.

"Don't scratch at it," he said with a mildly chiding tone. "The skin might come off."

"What?" A look of naked alarm came over the Count's face, and Victor was once again reminded of how very vain this man was.

"It's a sunburn. Don't touch it."

"Where? What does it look like?"

Victor could see that he had not stopped the other in time, and on Dracula's left cheek there was a thumbnail-sized spot where the outer layer of the skin had already detached and come off in flaky pieces. He considered lying, but then he figured that perhaps the truth - such as it was - would make the Count more open to considering Victor's suggestions on how to proceed.

"It's bad, and if you scratch, you'll make it worse. It might scar."

"But it's itching now!"

"I know, but--"

He was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a wolf's howl, replicated perfectly through a system of echoes, or - which was the far more terrifying possibility - because others in its pack joined in. The Count's head snapped up, the sunburn instantly forgotten. He stared into the surrounding darkness, eyes wide open in an attempt to localize the threat, and Victor was momentarily unsure if he should be worried or relieved that he could not see in the dark.

"Oh my God, that was a wolf!" the doctor whimpered, and he realized he ought to feel ashamed over how pitiful and weak he sounded, but fear overrode shame in practically every instance and he could not be bothered to care. He noticed the remnants of dry, caked blood on his hands and felt rather than saw the steadily bleeding gash in his leg where the knob of bone had penetrated. The bandaging had covered up the sight, but it had done little about the smell. Dracula could smell it, no doubt, but he wasn't the only creature that could sniff out the scent of blood from a mile away.

"I told you. There are wolves in Transylvania." Despite his best attempt to sound impassive, Victor could tell that the vampire was shaken by the discovery. It was unlikely that someone like the Count regularly shared hunting grounds with wolves, and in the case of a territorial conflict with the lupine race, he'd always had the option of retreating into his castle and barring the gates. Plus he was not normally saddled with the protection and care of a wounded human.

"Make a fire," Victor pleaded, whatever scraps of self-respect he had left being rapidly overrun by fear. If he had to resort to undignified begging to get his way, then so be it. He had believed until now that burning was the worst possible way to die, but being mauled to death by a pack of ravenous wolves might be just as bad, if not worse. "Vlad, please! They'll be on us in no time. You have to!"

"No, I don't." The Count shook his head, as determined as Victor himself. "It's unwise, don't you see? We have much more to fear from men with torches than wolves. Should the animals approach… They will recognize and respect a superior predator. There is no cause for concern."

Yet.

Neither man spoke the word, but it hung in the air between them, unsaid but not unknown. Victor made the choice to back down, painfully aware that Dracula held all the power in this setting. He did not want to risk angering the vampire to the point that he decided Victor was not worth the hassle of protecting. His brilliant mind and the folder containing his formula were the only pieces of leverage he had, because for all his naivety in matters concerning sentiment, Victor was not naïve enough to believe the Count had a sentimental attachment to him.

As the doctor had predicted, nightfall and the subsequent withdrawal of the sun's warming rays brought the temperature down to levels that were not only uncomfortable but intolerable. The wind, deadly cold, hammered against the exposed areas of his skin like shards of ice. In a matter of minutes Victor's fingers had gone numb and his attempt to restore circulation by cupping his hands and blowing warm air into them was a futile endeavor. He would never last nine hours like this. Unless Dracula gave in and agreed to start a fire, Victor would perish.

"You have been through worse," a voice inside his head spoke. "You pursued that wretched thing onto the arctic tundra, and you survived. Barely, but you're still here. You plowed on in subzero temperatures literally for weeks on end, and you returned. Will you give up now after only a few hours in a light autumn breeze? Admitting defeat now would be a cruel mockery of your earlier achievements, Victor Frankenstein. You developed your it-formula to counteract the effects of your arctic experiences. You wanted something that would artificially speed up the human metabolism in cold climates and in turn save the consumer from lethal hypothermia. You did all these things, all by yourself, and to even entertain the thought of giving up now is an insult not only to your work, but to your name."

The voice that spoke in his mind now did not have a particular identity, but instead it was a blend of several influential people that had passed in and out of Victor's life at different times and left a deep and permanent mark on his character. His father, Professor Waldmann, Henry Clerval… and Igor.

Igor, the boy whose spinal deformity had prevented his voice from maturing into that of a man, and thus continued to sound like a high-pitched youngster well into his twenties. A feature which had strengthened the perception of him as an unassuming fool easy to exploit. An act which Victor himself, loath as he was to admit it, had fallen for head over heels.

"Not all by yourself," a new voice said. It was the guttural and gravelly voice of The Creature interjecting itself into his consciousness with a message of its own, and it somehow managed to sound both smug and repentant at the same time. "I saved you, Father. After all we'd been through together, did you believe I was just going to let you perish? You endowed me with the gift of life, and that made me honor-bound to return the favor. This makes us even, Father. Tit for tat."

In spite of the century that had passed since, Victor could still remember in terrible detail the moment when he came around, slung over The Creature's shoulder like a piece of meat. He remembered the sound of its gigantic lungs exhaling crisp arctic air in deep, rhythmic puffs and creating vapor so dense and heavy it resembled powder snow. Its two hearts, beats perfectly synchronized, had labored intensely to transport poorly-oxygenated blood through its system, human in name only. Victor knew this, because he had stitched it together with his own two hands. He also remembered its yellow-green eyes shining like a pair of dying streetlamps and regarding him with a grim, dogged sort of determination; intelligent yet unintelligent, aware yet unaware, alive yet not alive. They were the eyes of a faithful beast hauling its fallen master toward safety and the eyes of a leering demon dragging a wretched sinner to Hell combined in one. 

Tit for tat, Father.

The Creature had left him at an Inuit settlement and disappeared quietly into an arctic snowstorm, never to be seen or heard from again. For many years, Victor had obsessively researched the fate of the Frankenstein monster, and one thing he persistently asked himself was whether there was any possibility - nay, chance - that his creation might still exist today. Although he deemed it unlikely, Victor occasionally, often in a state of heightened intoxication, liked to toy with the idea that he and The Creature would come face to face once more, and he would be given a second opportunity to exact his revenge.

He wanted The Creature to be alive so that he could kill it himself.

He would not die in this godforsaken Transylvanian wilderness when he still had a purpose, even if that purpose had been reduced to nothing except snuffing out an existence he himself had brought into being. Having to admit that this wish had indeed festered in his thoughts and nourished his psyche for all this time was daunting but also liberating. He had done a mighty fine job lying to himself about abandoning thoughts of revenge, but Victor was not inherently a good liar, and if he survived this ordeal, he would have to face the truth, however ugly it was.

"You may have survived blizzards and extended periods of subzero temperatures, but then you did not have a broken leg," his Waldmann-voice reminded him. "You know the laws of thermodynamics, boy. No one, great or small, is immune from physics. A human body can generate heat through movement, but your current condition makes you incapable of sustaining such activity, which in turn renders you entirely dependent on an external heat source. In the absence of said external heat source, your body will quickly enter a state of hypothermia, which, if allowed to progress far enough, is invariably fatal. Questions?"

The late professor had possessed a unique talent for delivering the grimmest of news with a remarkable degree of dispassionate objectivity, and the version of him that now resided in Victor's psyche was just as hard-headed as the original man.

"If you don't make a fire, I'll freeze to death," Victor said, hoping that the vampire would see reason. "If I die now, the secret you're after will die with me. Is that what you want?"

"Don't be absurd," the Count replied, but he didn't sound quite as sure of himself as earlier. "It has barely been an hour since the sun went. You're complaining too much. Ride it out, Victor."

"I c-can't… fucking… b-bel-lieve… this!" the doctor managed to say between the violent shivers that were now racking his body like he were a galvanic reanimant in the early process of resurrection. "I-if… you wanted m-me… to d-d-die, then j-just d-do it y-y-your-s-self."

The Count sighed and stood up, and for one terrible moment the doctor was convinced that Dracula was simply going to walk away and cut Victor off like a decaying limb. His viciously shivering body relaxed just a smidgen when he realized the strigoi had stood up for easier removal of his coat, which he had promised to give to the doctor in case circumstances involving a temperature drop became dire. It was not even an overcoat, but a smoking jacket - one of Victor's own, and thus smartly tailored but highly unfashionable - made to be worn indoors. He was trembling so badly by then that Dracula had to help straighten his arms to get them into the sleeves.

"You are being… what is the word? Theatrical, Frankenstein," the Count muttered, but there was more concern than contempt in his voice now. He even took Victor's hands in his own and rubbed them urgently, which did little good since Dracula's hands were just as cold and unable to transfer heat. The only difference was that the vampire was not bothered by it.

Victor released a sudden scream so shrill and piercing that it made the Count recoil from him in fright. They were being watched by several pairs of beastly eyes - a dozen at least - that glowed in the dark, not yellow like lamps or lanterns, but like silver orbs as bright and cold as the face of the moon itself.

Wolves. Even though their shaggy bodies were mostly hidden in the shadows, there was no doubt whatsoever as to what type of animal those eyes belonged to. The wolves were no longer an abstract theoretical threat. They had gone from being a hypothetical worst-case scenario to their current reality.

Icy wind and shivers momentarily forgotten, Victor began thrashing around in a desperate motion to put distance between himself and the incandescent eyes quietly watching him from the long dark shadows.

"Oh my God, the wolves are here! They're coming to kill us! Someone, help! Help us! The wolves are going to--!"

Instead of restraining him, which Victor had expected, the Count raised his hand and delivered a hard slap to Victor's face. It caused fresh ripples of pain to radiate from his fractured nose and certainly did nothing to rid them of the problem, but at least it had the desired short-term effect of temporarily pulling the doctor out of the clammy grasp of panic.

"Silence! Your hollering like a madman is not going to make the wolves go away!" Dracula said in a mixture of a snarl and a whisper. He tried hard to downplay the element of fear in his own mannerisms, but the doctor could see right through it, and it spurred on his alarm more than anything.

"Then what will?" Victor demanded, voice still several octaves higher than its usual pitch. He sounded like a boy again. Or like Igor. "If you make a fire, will they go away then? Wild animals abhor fire, isn't that right?"

There was no response from the Count, and Victor felt panic slowly but surely creeping back into his being. "That's right, isn't it?" he pressed.

"Yes, but there is a problem," Dracula said after a long, pregnant pause. He looked ashamed; humiliated even. "To collect fuel for a fire, I would have to leave your side, and I fear… it would not be wise given the circumstances."

"Oh, isn't that brilliant?" the doctor whimpered and felt compelled to hide his face in his hands to block out the nightmarish apparition of floating luminous eyes watching and waiting for an opportunity to pounce. The wolves were circling them now, their keen noses primed to sniff out blood. Blood and fear. Victor realized he probably reeked of both.

"What will they do?" he asked, feeling the need to whisper despite knowing that it mattered little since they had already been discovered and their location pinpointed by the roaming pack of predators.

"That will be up to the alpha," Dracula replied, brow set in a grim scowl. "We're in their territory. They're sizing us up as I speak. They can sense that you're wounded, but they won't attack unless they are sure they can win."

"You w-won't… let them h-have me, will y-you?" Victor asked, his voice broken by a series of hacking sobs. "If it c-comes t-to th-a-at? Promise you w-won't l-let them h-have… have m-me!"

"It won't come to that," the Count said, but he could see as well as Victor that the hovering dots of liquid silver had come closer. The wolves were getting bolder, and they weren't going to give up unless something major was done to dissuade them.

"Say, you're not a smoker, Frankenstein?" Dracula asked suddenly, and the doctor couldn't but wonder what had prompted such an odd question at this time.

"No, why?"

"I asked because habitual smokers are more likely to always carry matchsticks on their person. It might have helped us get a fire started."

Rife with disappointment, Dracula allowed his head to loll back, and the doctor had a brief but horrendous mental image of the other's head continuing to roll bonelessly backward until it was situated all the way between his shoulder blades and twisted his spine into the morbid shape of a question mark. The look of horror on his face did not pass quickly enough to go unnoticed, and the vampire spun around on his heel, expecting a real threat that was physically present.

"You're seeing specters now?" the Count muttered when it cleared to him that the thing which had frightened Victor existed only in the doctor's head. Patently relieved, he sat down again, alert for any sign of movement from the circling wolf pack. The good news was that they had stopped advancing, although Victor pessimistically predicted this to be a temporary phenomenon, and any semblance of a "truce" was merely an illusion with the wolves biding their time and preparing for an impending assault.

"Assuming we survive this night…" Dracula began and it was with great difficulty he squeezed out the continuation of that sentence. "Is there anyone you know that might give us sanctuary?"

The doctor was about to mention that body snatchers and grave robbers were hardly welcome anywhere, and with the added accusation of necromancy he was just as despised and feared as a vampire, if not more so. He briefly considered turning to Jacob Rosenberg for help; aside from Victor himself, the Viennese doctor was the brightest and most enlightened man in this hellhole for a town, and less than a week ago Victor had been sure that Rosenberg would not turn him away if he went to him for help. Due to recent developments, however, things had changed, and not to Victor's benefit. Doctor Rosenberg was a pragmatist who cared little about reputation or established moral guidelines, but he would not risk his own practice or safety to shelter two fugitives with a potential bounty on their heads already.

"No," he said simply. "N-no-one."

"Just as I thought," Dracula said curtly. "Of course you had to make an enemy of everybody."

Despite his extreme discomfort, Victor failed to hold back a burst of laugher. "T-the pot c-calling the ke-kettle black, is it?"

The Count's response to the jibe was a confused frown. "I'm sorry?"

"Ne-never mind. It was a j-jest."

Dracula made a dismissive clicking noise with his tongue and then pursed his lips. It was easy to mistake it for an expression of pure annoyance if not for the look in his eyes, which was one of deep thoughtfulness, and - Victor noted - cautious hope. 

"When you last spoke to Valery, did he tell you where he was going? The exact location?" the Count asked, and his voice had once again assumed a harsh, interrogative tone. Victor suspected that Dracula had gradually lost the ability to address others as equals from living in isolation for too long.

In his thoughts the doctor went to revisit the night Valery had come knocking on his door to give him the news of his family's imminent departure, and he tried his best to recall the old gypsy's exact words.

"He s-said he was g-going to his cousin in Bu-bukovina," he said finally. "N-nothing more s-specific than that. How s-so? Valery does not know--"

The Count held up one hand to silence Victor. "I believe I know to whom he was referring." His eyes shone brighter now, rekindled with hope. "You see, Valery and I share a strong mind connection. I have drunk from him… a few times, partaken in his memories. I might be able to reach out to him, despite the distance, and induce him to come… to my aid."

Whatever fantastical solution to their current predicament Victor had expected to hear, this was beyond even his wildest speculations. But Dracula seemed to be sincere about his idea and had not suggested it in jest or irony.

"You c-could do… that? Talk to him through t-telepathy?" Victor felt compelled to ask for clarification just to ascertain that he had interpreted the other's words correctly. The local vampire lore had mentioned many otherworldly powers and abilities, including certain types of extrasensory perception, but none of the sources had mentioned outright mindreading or astral projection.

Dracula nodded, eyes half closed as if in deep concentration. "I said it might work. The distance complicates things, and he will not expect it, but if he is receptive, he might hear my calling."

Neither man bothered to mention that there was absolutely zero doubt that Valery Ionescu would heed his Master's call if he picked it up. Were he able, the Szgany patriarch would give his life and the lives of his closest kin for Dracula several times over. Victor's thoughts returned to Rosa's brother Radu, on the cusp of manhood, who had been killed outside the gateway to his Master's castle, and Roman with the shattered skull, Valery's son and heir, whose very heart was now beating faithfully in the Count's chest. Valery had already made the ultimate sacrifice, and he would continue to give of his remaining resources if he somehow received word that his Master was alive.

Dracula seated himself in a cross-legged position that Victor commonly associated with Buddhist monks, back resting firmly against the tree trunk, and closed his eyes all the way. "This new heart that you gave me inhibits some of my natural abilities," he said, but oddly enough there was no hint of either blame or accusation in his voice. It was a simple factual statement. "Let's pray that this is not one of them."

"W-what can I do to help?" Victor asked. Although cross-country telepathic contact with the Szgany sounded like a venture unlikely to succeed, it might very well be their last and only chance. "C-can I do a-anything?"

"You could stop talking," Dracula remarked. "This requires a feat of deep concentration on my part. A voice blabbering in my ear will make it harder for me to achieve the degree of focus needed."

"O-oh. I'll b-be quiet, then."

Victor wished there was a way to stop his teeth from chattering or for Dracula to filter that particular noise out, but he could not control his body's desperate attempts to generate heat through involuntary muscular contraction anymore than the Count could control his skin's unfavorable response to sunlight.

His body practically a statue, the vampire angled his face toward the moon as if turning to it for help, except his eyes remained closed. The cold, pale light smoothed out his aquiline features and gave them an ethereal glow that was very suitable for the occasion. Victor hardly dared to move at all in fear of disturbing the other. He could still see the circling wolves - and hear them, too; their terrifying growls and yelps seemed to become bolder and more insistent by the minute - but he bottled up his burgeoning panic and forced himself to focus on the Count.

A dark, heavy cloud slid in front of the moon, obstructing the moonlight and thus obscuring Dracula's features from view. When the cloud had passed, Victor noticed that his eyes were open but rolled so deeply into his skull that only the whites were visible, as though he was in the middle of a severe tonic seizure. The doctor could hazard a guess that if he touched Dracula now, his body would feel as hard and stiff as a corpse in full rigor mortis.

There was a flicker of something - first dismissed by Victor as either a trick of the light or a hallucination induced by his progressing hypothermia - that danced across the Count's face; his features seemed to blend together and change, becoming Valery Ionescu's face superimposed onto the vampire's, and then Victor's own, dreadfully pale and clammy with eyes that roamed mindlessly like those of a lunatic. The doctor closed his eyes and when he opened them moments later Dracula's face had returned to normal. The optical illusion, if there had been one, had passed.

The Count jolted awake. If his spirit had left his body and traveled through the astral planes to visit and converse with Valery Ionescu, it was definitely back within its carnal residence now. With focused eyes, Dracula turned to share the news with Victor.

"I made contact," he said, refusing at first to elaborate.

"W-well? Did he s-say anything?" Victor pressed, slightly disturbed by the calmness Dracula was exhibiting. He grasped the Count's forearm with fingers he could barely feel anymore and momentarily forgot that both of Dracula's arms were littered with burns and cuts. Surprisingly enough, Dracula did nothing to free himself from the undoubtedly painful hold, nor did he in any way berate Victor.

"Do you speak the Romani tongue?" the vampire asked instead.

"N-no, why?"

"Then let me paraphrase. Valery asked for you. He wanted to know why "the Herr Doctor" had lied to him."

"But I d-didn't...!" Victor objected but halted his fumbling speech when he realized he had in fact purposely misled Valery Ionescu about the development on his Master's resurrection. Had the Szgany known the truth about Dracula's imminent return, they might never have left the Count's land in the first place.

"I'm sorry. It's my f-fault," Victor added numbly. There were so many variables he had failed to predict and so many scenarios he had failed to accurately plan for, and now this entire momentous endeavor was collapsing beneath him like a house of cards fighting a losing battle against a fierce gust of wind. How strange it was that failures, even those that were normally considered to be statistically unrelated, tended to pile up on one another and gain momentum much like an avalanche or a landslide. If one had started to fail, it was so very easy to keep failing with no real effort behind it.

"We have both erred, Victor," the Count said, his voice weary. "And I won't hold this against you. You could have handed me over to those men that came uninvited to your door in exchange for your own freedom, and yet you chose not to. I neither forget nor forgive easily, this is true, but likewise the opposite is true of me. If someone shows me mercy or kindness, I will remember it for a long time."

"B-but will he come?" Victor asked. "Will he h-help us?"

Was Dracula purposely obfuscating and withholding information from Victor, or was he simply fearful of delivering bad news? Had the circumstances not been so dismal, the doctor would have taken a keen interest in discussing moral philosophy and its applications with a strigoi, but now was neither the time nor the place for it. He merely wanted to know if there was any chance he might live through the night, and he resented having to drag the words out of the other man.

"Valery was sleeping, which was at the same time good and not good. Good because humans are more suggestible when they're asleep, and not good because he might believe he was dreaming."

"So it w-was for n-nothing then?"

"No, he will come. I am certain of it."

Victor tried to smile, but the outer parts of his face had gone numb just like his digits, and he couldn't be sure that what he managed to produce in any way resembled a smile or even a grin. "How l-long until they g-get here?"

"If the horses are strong and the winds are favorable… nine hours. Maybe eight if they really push their horses to the limit."

And that was assuming Valery managed to convince his people to begin the drive back to Transylvania immediately. The Szgany had trust in their patriarch, as they should, but it was unrealistic to assume there would not be a long and heated discussion preceding a decision to abandon everything and ride out into the night to rescue a master who, for all accounts and purposes, was supposed to be deceased.

But none of it mattered in the grand scheme of things, as Victor knew he would not be alive in eight hours, let alone nine. Hell, he would he fortunate to last until midnight given how quickly his hypothermia was progressing.

"I won't last until then," he stated, mildly surprised that the words had slipped out of him so easily. The recognition of one's own mortality tended to make lesser problems disappear or at least reduce their impact significantly. One perk of his rapidly declining condition was that he would not have to face Valery Ionescu and explain to him why he had thought it necessary to deliver an untruth straight to the old man's face. 

"Yes, you will!" Dracula said with a surprising display of savage emotionalism, and the closest comparison Victor could think of was a child with a bucketful of tadpoles despairing over the fact that they had all died before they sprouted legs. A child not yet old enough to understand or accept that there were things far beyond the scope of human control. A child still harboring the naïve belief that their parents - and through extension, they themselves - were omnipotent. Victor saw a glimpse of his own convictions reflected back upon him, and it was at the same time paradoxically both reassuring and startling. Despite their obvious differences, they were both men who had successfully broken the natural laws, but at a terrible cost. Victor was not sure he wanted to find out to what lengths Dracula would go to keep him alive.

Tit for tat.

Father.

"I'm making a fire," the Count announced. He stood up to gather firewood and they both knew that meant he had to take his eyes off the doctor, if only for a short time. "Make no sudden movements."

As if I could move in my state, let alone suddenly, Victor thought, but he did not voice his concerns. Soon he would lose the ability to do anything whatsoever. Including think.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

Vlad was nothing short of shocked at the rapid rate of Frankenstein's decline, and he knew he had himself and his refusal to start a fire to blame for at least part of it. One poor decision had led to many more, and now he had to bear the brunt of their the combined, cumulative effect. He could try to pretend it had begun with the visit from Frankenstein's landlady, but the truth was that his stroke of bad luck had a much deeper origin. It may very well have started with his decision to move to England.

Stupid. Stupid.

Humans were such fragile creatures, and even after all this time spent amongst them, disguised as a breathing man, it was easy to forget how dependent they were on protection from the elements, especially when wounded.

Vlad stood up to his full height and bared his teeth in a snarl, hoping that posturing alone would deter the wolves and communicate that pursuing this particular human was a wasted effort. He locked eyes with the alpha for the briefest of moments, but instead of defeat, he saw an animal ready for a confrontation, and he realized then that these wolves were not simply opportunistic hunters looking for an easy meal. They were defending their territory against intruders, and judging from their boldness and insistence, they were close to their den.

"Make no sudden movements," he told the doctor. The situation was much, much worse than he'd anticipated, and he feared that if he revealed the bleak truth in its entirety to his human companion, Frankenstein's reaction would doom them both.

Expecting another fit of panic, Vlad was somewhat taken aback by the doctor's surprisingly passive response. He sought eye contact with Frankenstein, and while the human was still able to meet his gaze and hold it, the mind behind the eyes was becoming increasingly muted. Whatever happened, he must not allow the doctor to fall asleep. If Victor in his weakened state surrendered to the allure of slumber, there was a very distinct possibility that he would never wake up. A vampire could willfully enter a state of deep hibernation to conserve energy, sometimes for years at a time, but this was not an option for mortals, who needed constant maintenance on their delicate bodies to keep them from shutting down and dying. 

Dracula could not remember the last time he had been tasked with starting a fire in the middle of a dark forest with no available tools except his own two hands, one of which was already badly damaged by burns. After a few failed attempts to set ablaze a small kindling collection of dry moss and birch bark through projection of psychic energy, Vlad was forced to accept that in order to make a fire there and then, he needed to do it the old-fashioned way by introducing a spark and catching the embers. He had already expended far too much power on contacting Valery to have any resources left for spontaneous ignition. The well was empty, and it would take a while before it filled up.

One of Vlad's many advantages was the ability to remain logical even under extreme pressure - a trait the good doctor sorely lacked - and it was fortunately a talent not capable of being expended through frequent use. He felt the wolves' roving eyes on his body, tracking his every move and searching for an opening to take him by surprise. Vlad was determined not to give it to them.

Just try, you mean, filthy beasts. Just try. I dare you.

Think.

What was the simplest way to create a spark without fire-making instruments of any kind? There was the option of banging two rocks together and hoping it would generate a potent enough spark to be captured and harnessed, but it was unlikely to yield results quickly enough to reverse Frankenstein's lethal hypothermia, unless…

Steel.

They had been forced out into the wilderness with nothing except the clothes on their bodies, but pieces of metal were often incorporated into men's clothing either as ornaments or serving a functional purpose. Vlad had given up his belt to be used as a tourniquet for the doctor's leg. Could the belt buckle perhaps be of any use? No, it was made out of brass, not steel, and the former was more or less useless for fire-making purposes.

Think harder. Use your visual memory.

Suddenly he remembered that Frankenstein's smoking jacket had metal buttons that were definitely not brass ones. He darted back to the doctor's side and had to use a considerable amount of force to unbend the mortal's arms from his chest to access the row of buttons on the front. Frankenstein fought Vlad's efforts to unfurl his body with everything he had, and the vampire narrowly dodged a vicious attempted head-butt by the doctor.

"You s-said I could h-have it!" Victor hissed savagely, spraying Vlad's face with tiny, cold drops of spittle. "I'm n-not giving it b-back!" The look in his eyes was one of primitive, defensive fury, and Dracula realized the doctor's physical decline had progressed to the point of affecting his mental faculties.

"I'm not going to take your coat. I just want the buttons," he said, more or less forcing himself to remain outwardly calm and composed despite a mounting feeling of frustration and plain old anger.

The rage on Frankenstein's face gave way for an expression of befuddlement, and Vlad wanted to shout that he did not have time to explain his plan in detail, especially as there were no guarantees that it would work in the first place. Mortals, especially in a state of cognitive decline, sometimes had a highly unfavorable reaction to being given false hope.

But to Vlad's surprise, the doctor's confusion passed quickly and was replaced by a look of instant understanding. The scientist within him might have slumbered earlier, but it had awakened now and overrode the infantile savage with ease.

"T-take them," Frankenstein said and unsuccessfully tried to pull the buttons out by himself, failing because his fine motor skills were deteriorating along with the rest of his bodily functions. "H-h-igh te-temper steel, corrosion resistant," he said with a grimace clearly intended to resemble a smile. "E-excellent for cre-creating sparks."

It occurred to Vlad then that the doctor probably knew more about primitive fire-making then he, but due to his physical decline Frankenstein was unable to translate his knowledge into practice. He could give instructions, but Vlad had to be the one to make it happen.

Dracula clasped one of the buttons between his thumb and forefinger and struck it against the flint in a downward motion. Nothing. He repeated the procedure at least a dozen times, all the while fighting to ignore the pain in his hand, but none of his attempts produced even the smallest hint of a spark. All he got for his troubles were fingers that felt like they had been dipped in boiling water and an added sense of failure. With an enraged howl, he threw the first of three buttons into the surrounding shadows and childishly hoped it would strike one of the wolves in the eye and blind them.

"Don't strike. Drag," the doctor's weak, nearly breathless voice whispered. He lay prostrate on the ground, watching Vlad's clumsy, feckless attempts at introducing a spark. Just the fact that he didn't stammer anymore prompted the vampire to temporarily abandon his efforts and look him over.

Frankenstein had stopped trembling like a leaf, which might have passed for a sign of improvement under different circumstances, but despite not having any formal medical training, Vlad knew it meant the doctor's state was worsening. His poor, enfeebled body did not have any energy left for continuous muscle spasms, and Frankenstein was left completely defenseless against the effects of the cold, merciless weather.

Just as Vlad had noticed the change, the wolves did the same. Emboldened by the obvious sign of weakness, one of them sprang forth out of the darkness, leaving the safety of the pack to take an active and definitive part in bringing down their appointed prey.

Despite his exhaustion and aches, Vlad's physical responses were still razor-sharp, and he made a number of quick observations even as he leapt to counter the wolf's attack. The rogue was an adolescent she-wolf with a persistently low rank, no doubt desperate to prove her status as a worthwhile hunter. Eager but inexperienced…Had probably never been less than a hundred feet from a human in her entire short life and definitely lacked the experience taking one down.

Nevertheless, Vlad could not allow her snapping jaws anywhere near the fading doctor. He had to make an example of her to dissuade the rest of the pack. A really gruesome example.

The young she-wolf realized her mistake when the red-eyed human-but-not-human rushed at her without fear, and for a moment Vlad could see flashes of himself through the eyes of the beast and share in her wordless, blind feeding frenzy interlaced with quickly penetrating needles of fear. She even made an attempt to abort her assault and turn back, but Dracula was far quicker and caught her shaggy, damp, squirming body in a headlock, utilizing the full strength of his arms to maneuver her neck into a position that allowed him unrestricted access to her throat.

He made quick work of the young canine. The trapped, struggling animal managed one last pitiful whimper before he broke its neck and sank his teeth through its dense fur, probing with his tongue until he encountered an artery that sprayed a thick jet of hot, almost scalding blood into his mouth. It was the bland and impure blood of a beast, but he welcomed it all the same, high on the elusive kind of ecstasy that could only be achieved through victory in battle.

Dracula spat out a mouthful of fur and snarled menacingly at the rest of the glittering eyes and bared teeth in the shadows. He lifted the still-twitching animal carcass by the skin of its neck, presenting it to the pack like a totem. No verbal language was required in this interspecies exchange of information. Wolves that habitually shared territory with tigers instinctively learned to yield silently and without protest to the big cats, and those that forgot or never picked up the skill did not live long enough to raise cubs of their own. Vlad was not a tiger, but he would fight like one if needed.

One by one, the orbs of silver retreated further into the shadows, and although the growls did not entirely cease, there was a different nature to them now. They sounded cautious… and chastised. It was good enough. He threw the she-wolf's body to the ground, knowing full well that the pack had lost nothing of value and would continue their existence practically unaltered by the demise of this sad, pathetic, desperate omega. But they would not be feasting on Victor Frankenstein. He had made sure of that.

With the contradictory feeling of simultaneous exhaustion and rejuvenation, Vlad redirected his attention to the doctor, convinced for the fraction of a second that he would find Frankenstein dead, torn to pieces by the other wolves whilst the vampire was busy dealing with the weakest link in the chain. It was nothing but a ridiculous fantasy, of course; none of the wolves had been anywhere near the doctor, and the only blood he could currently smell belonged to the lupine beast he had so easily dispatched of.

Vlad wiped his bloodied hands against his trousers so that he would not under any circumstances feel compelled to lick his fingers. Bloodlust had a funny way of making him terribly inattentive of his surroundings, and under present circumstances that would be a terrible idea. He would have time to devote to such things later… once Valery had arrived.

Frankenstein appeared to have barely moved since Dracula took his eyes off of him, but to the vampire's surprise, there were now burning embers in the small collection of kindling he had worked so hard to ignite. He brushed aside the momentary offense at having been surpassed in his fire-making skills by a mortal, and a critically injured one at that, and rushed to cup his hands around the embers to shield them from the aggressive wind.

"How did you…?" Vlad asked, nodding at the fruit of the doctor's labor, but Frankenstein merely shook his head, apparently somewhere far away in his thoughts.

"I didn't… I swear I didn't," he said, his voice but a whisper. His condition made him an unreliable witness, and yet he gave Vlad no reason to distrust his testimony. Frankenstein would not have had the strength to drag the steel button against the flint rock once, let alone enough times to catch a spark. None of it mattered now. What he needed to do was turn the glowing embers into a proper source of heat.

"Did you kill that wolf?" the doctor asked dispassionately. Vlad didn't know if he was genuinely curious or simply tried to make conversation to postpone the inevitable collapse of his conscious mind.

"Yes," the vampire said with a simple nod. He would happily converse later when he wasn't tasked with the thankless and grimy task of nurturing a baby fire, but right now he could not afford any distractions. Dracula did not particularly enjoy nor despise killing inferior predators, and for some reason he'd always had a soft spot in his heart for wolves. So reviled by humanity… the same as him.

A heart he no longer possessed because Victor Frankenstein had decided to play God with Vlad as his test subject. Did he still stand by any of his old convictions, or had his mind become infected with the soul of the man who had occupied this heart before him?

Vlad would not voice these concerns to the doctor; not after the other man had cruelly scorned his beliefs and belittled his fears, calling them primitive and outdated trappings of lesser minds. Frankenstein had made it abundantly clear that there was no support to be had from him in spiritual matters.

Dracula had decided it made no difference either way. A secure, continuous supply of the rejuvenation potion would more than adequately make up for Frankenstein's social and moral deficits, plentiful and severe though they were. Vlad had not needed a confessor for centuries, and he doubted that the mortal's heart would suddenly prompt such a outrageous and unexpected need, and in any case, it was not a scientist's responsibility to provide such a service. Even though Dracula had only known the other man for a grand total of two days, it was terribly obvious that Frankenstein was busy wrestling his own horde of demons.

And yet the damned had a tendency to attract others of their kind…

"Come on…" he muttered, blowing gently at the weakly glowing tinder nest, but the embers, relentlessly assaulted by unforgiving winds, were dying quickly alongside his hopes.

No kiss for me, my husband?

Vlad's head snapped up, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up to push against the collar like bristles.

It was the clotty, squelching voice of the creature that had appeared to him in a fever-induced hallucination wearing his dead wife's face, and just for a moment he thought he could see it in the embers, eyeless and lipless but grinning with mad mirth and definitely capable of seeing him.

I'm waiting for you, it said in a buzzing mock falsetto meant to cruelly imitate his wife's voice. The day you die for real, I'll be waiting for you, and we can finally spend eternity together, you and I, just like you always wanted. Give me a kiss, Vladislas. A proper one, with lots of tongue!

There was laughter, the putrid, bubbling kind, and the hideous creature's gaping jaw dropped so low that it came to rest practically on its chest. A stream of discolored water fell out of its mouth, accompanied by a limp, lolling tongue, decaying and forked at the tip like a snake's, blindly searching for purchase.

Or a meal.

To hold back a scream, Vlad dug his fingernails into the scorched skin of his right palm. A couple of the blisters popped, and what came out of his mouth was an undignified, muffled gulp, part pain and part relief, because the demonic entity and its scratchy, rotten voice had finally faded away. Of course he knew it had never been present in the first place. Had it been real, surely the doctor, despite his fading consciousness, would have noticed it and given a reaction, however muted.

Or so he hoped.

Vlad only realized the fire had taken hold when he saw the reflection of dancing flames in Victor Frankenstein's half-closed eyes. A look of astonishment passed over the doctor's tightly pulled, pained features, and his subsequent expression of gratitude sparked something - a fleeting emotion - within Vlad that he might have categorized as pride.

I'm your father now. Make me proud.

Had it felt anything like this on the rare occasion that he'd given his worldly father reason to be proud of him? Memories of his mortal family went so far back in time that they had become distinctively fuzzy around the edges, and Vlad had to confess, not without some regret, that he could no longer conjure up an accurate image of his father's face. Only Jelisaveta, too radiant to be forgotten or in any way diminished, remained intact, unblemished by the corrosion of time.

Having managed to raise a moderately healthy fire that would not be so easily snuffed out by the assailing winds, Vlad carefully maneuvered the doctor's body as close to the flames as possible without risking burns to his skin. Frankenstein was too weak to sit up independently and had to be propped up like a dummy against the vampire's own frame. Their awkward positioning of limbs brought the doctor's forehead to rest against Dracula's cheek, and the latter was shocked at just how cold the mortal man's skin was.

Then Frankenstein spoke, Vlad felt a puff of warm air against his neck; a hopeful sign that there was still warmth somewhere in Victor's core.

"I'm dying," the doctor said, and there was a shocking amount of gravitas to his voice considering how feeble it was; almost inaudible, but Vlad had heard it, and he almost wished he hadn't. Hearing it meant he had to acknowledge it and form a response.

"Do not say that," he whispered back, gathering the human (father) even closer to himself.

The conscious part of his psyche was convinced that he only needed Frankenstein for the synthesis of the Ur-cell formula and not because he had - for some unfathomable reason - become attached to the inventive madman. A bond had been created, perhaps without Vlad's consent and certainly not on his initiative, but he could not deny the reality of its existence, given that there had already been a psychic transfer of memories between the doctor and himself.

Dracula remembered with near-painful clarity the vision of the mock-man, resembling a poorly-made doll or a homunculus scaled up to gigantic size more than an actual man, and he had known right then and there that the creature he had glimpsed was the source of most if not all of Frankenstein's grief and misery.

"I won't last until help arrives," Victor said, and the mildly chiding tone of his voice made him sound like a tenured professor schooling a brash, inattentive student on the basics of medicine. "Don't tell me you haven't sensed it. The legends say your kind can smell sickness and impending death on people. I must reek to the high heavens by now."

"Not everything the legends say are true," Vlad remarked. "Most of them are wildly exaggerated."

But this one wasn't, and Vlad knew perfectly well that although the fire had put the harmful effects of hypothermia on temporary pause, it had done nothing to reverse the damage already done. More sophisticated care would have been required for that; care that Vlad simply wasn't capable of providing in the cold autumn night.

Victor smiled, and this time it was a genuine smile that reached his eyes. "I don't blame you for my fall," he said. "I dawdled… I was a coward. Brought this on myself. I'm so clumsy. Always was. Perhaps… my physical shortcomings prompted my interest in more cerebral matters." The doctor made an attempt to chuckle at his own words, clearly expecting Dracula to join in, but the Count remained silent, unable to see the humor in their desperate situation. He was simply not in the mood for jests.

The smile faded, and Frankenstein's bluish, chapped lips turned into a determined line. Vlad noticed then that he held something in his hand which had not been there a moment ago. It glittered illusively in the light from the fire, like fool's gold, and he realized it was indeed a small glass vial containing the last of Frankenstein's miracle remedy. Somehow, somewhere, at some undeterminable point in time, the doctor had managed to pocket the vial without Vlad's knowledge and waited until now to make his great reveal.

Frankenstein proceeded to press the bottle of rose-colored liquid into Dracula's hand, and they were both surprised at the level of dexterity the dying doctor was still capable of.

"Take this," Victor said. His other hand fumbled around, compulsively searching for the leather folder which held the secret to his formula, and he calmed down visibly when his companion nudged it into his grasp.

"You have an aptitude for higher learning," he continued, and there was a sliver of pride in his voice now, unmistakable and bright. A father's pride. "You can do it without me. Perhaps not on your first attempt… but you'll get there. You'll have… time." He grinned again, but without mirth, and pulled his numbing, soot-covered fingertips lovingly across the front of the singed brown leather.

"I really couldn't," Dracula objected, and the doctor's look of confusion prompted him to confess a truth he had dreaded to divulge. "You see, I lost a page. In the fire. It's how I burned my hand."

Vlad wasn't entirely sure why he felt it necessary to include the bit about his burn wound; he certainly wasn't in the habit of making excuses when faced with failure that was his own doing. Nevertheless, he wanted - no, needed - Victor Frankenstein to know he had done everything in his power to protect and preserve the doctor's finest work.

For a moment the affection in Victor's eyes evaporated and was replaced with a cold granite stare - a look of abject disappointment, contrasting so harshly with his recent expression of fatherly pride. A punch to the gut would have been a just as effective and probably less painful way of knocking the breath out of Vlad. A part of the Count felt disgusted with himself for putting so much stock into a mortal's opinion of him, and he wondered, just briefly, if the donor heart could be held liable for this troubling shift in sentiment.

"Just one page?" the doctor asked, blue eyes suspiciously squinting. His voice was hoarse and throaty and sounded like he was trying his best to hold back an outright sob. The vampire nodded, and Frankenstein's steely gaze regained some of its previous warmth. "It complicates things… but it's not an insurmountable hurdle."

Victor lifted one cold, slightly trembling hand and cupped his companion's jaw. "Listen to me carefully, Vlad. You must head to Munich, and there you must look for a man by the name of Igor Woycek. He'll work for you. He'll work for anyone who will pay him." Another chuckle, more of a scoff. "Tell him… tell him my regards. He's an old acquaintance."

A queer and oddly triumphant smirk had manifested on the doctor's face, and while the reason for said smile remained ambiguous, it was not at all difficult to deduce that whoever this Igor fellow was, he and Frankenstein probably had significant history together, and not all of it positive.

"How will I find him?" Dracula asked. He didn't care so much for the content of what was said; his aim was instead to keep Frankenstein talking so that he would not fall asleep and fade away from the world of the living. Vlad had no intention of traveling to Munich or anywhere else without his prized mad genius in tow, but if rehashing old memories would keep Frankenstein's spirit moored to his carnal form for the time being, Vlad was more than happy to oblige. 

"How will I find Igor?" he repeated in a somewhat louder voice and applied a series of gentle taps to the other's cheeks. Focus and awareness returned to the doctor's eyes after the brief wink out of consciousness. He was grinning again, and this time there was a conspiratorial quality to his smile, as if the two of them were exchanging secrets. Great, big secrets, capable of moving heaven and earth.

"You won't have to. Just mention my name, and he will find you." Victor made another attempt to chuckle, but this time the quiet laughter turned into a fit of coughing, which finally restored some color to the dying man's face, albeit not in the way anyone would have desired. Vlad tried frantically to remember how one was supposed to act when a barely-conscious mortal stood to suffocate from a coughing fit, and the best he could come up with in the moment was to sit Frankenstein upright and deliver some hearty open-palmed slaps to his back.

The fit eventually died down and Victor's face assumed a less alarming tint of red, but the strain had weakened him even further, and he now struggled just to keep his eyes open. Further aggressive prompting from the vampire kept them from sliding shut, but Dracula sensed that although Frankenstein was looking directly at him, the other man had lost most if not all of his ability to see.

An invisible but simultaneously opaque curtain, figuratively similar to the sturdy, dark drapes Vlad himself used to block out the sunlight from his abode, had been drawn before the doctor's eyes, likely in a final attempt by his ailing body to preserve energy by shielding his rapidly deteriorating brain from stimulus it was no longer able to process.

Having read somewhere that the ability to hear was the last of the five senses to abandon a dying person, Vlad decided to focus his efforts exclusively on providing auditory input from now on.

"Victor, tell me more about this Igor. How will I recognize him?"

There was no response. The doctor was becoming increasingly more lethargic and uncommunicative, and as ridiculous as it sounded given the context, it seemed like the current topic of discussion bored him. Vlad needed to introduce a more emotionally charged subject to hold Frankenstein's attention and keep him from zoning out, but despite his best efforts to explore the mad scientist's past by combing through his correspondence, he knew very little about the man himself apart from his ongoing obsession with reanimation and apparent skill with a scalpel. Swiss precision at its finest.

Was there anything he remembered from the letters that could possibly be of use now? Dracula flipped through the names he had memorized from the letters: Waldmann, Krempe, Clerval, "Father", Elizabeth… Your Elizabeth.

Of course. The fiancée.

"Tell me about Elizabeth," he said on impulse and knew he had struck gold when Frankenstein's unseeing eyes widened with immediate passion. A variety of emotions flitted across his features, and there was a moment when Vlad was hopeful that he had managed to cajole the doctor's psyche out of its collapsing ivory tower sanctuary. However, the moment passed before Dracula could even hope to capitalize on it, and the metaphorical curtain gave way to a wrought iron gate. Impenetrable. His plan had backfired.

Shit.

"No?" he challenged, digging his elongated fingernails into the doctor's bony shoulder. The trick was to induce just enough pain to keep the person rooted in the present, but not enough for the body to see unconsciousness as a viable escape route. "Then let's talk about Him, Victor. Would you rather do that?"

"Wha…?" Frankenstein slurred, and despite the look of genuine bewilderment, Vlad's emphasis on the masculine pronoun had perked his curiosity.

Finally. His gamble had paid off. Doctor Frankenstein was hooked.

"You know of whom I speak," Vlad continued, emboldened by the feedback. His embrace tightened as an unconscious response to the display of liveliness. "Him. The Creature. Your… should we say, mock-man? He was your first, was he not? You created him, and then you lost control. What did he do? Slaughter everyone you'd ever cared for? Don't deny it, Victor. I've seen him. I too would be repulsed if my brain had birthed… that. You still see his face before you in your dreams, do you not? You see his yellow eyes and fear that he's found you at last and arrived to finish you off for good."

The tendons on the doctor's neck stood out like ropes underneath his ghastly pale skin, and he began to struggle vigorously against the arms that simultaneously propped him up and restrained him.

"How can you know about Him? I never told you!" Frankenstein spluttered with great indignation, as if the idea of Vlad knowing his most well-guarded secret had gravely offended him.

"I don't know, Victor. Perhaps you could shed some light on it," Dracula said conversationally. "How did some of your memories get mixed in with my own? Did you do something before you brought me back? Such as… drink my blood?"

He felt the strong pulsations of a heartbeat against the arm which was pressed flush against Frankenstein's neck. And not only that, but the doctor's heart began to beat with increased frequency while his brain processed the new information and labored to form a response.

"D-drink your blood…?" he murmured. "It's not possible, I don't drink bl--" Frankenstein interrupted himself in the middle of his vehement refutation, mouth agape with incredulity and shaped like a perfectly round "o", the man himself looking nothing short of dismayed at his own forgetfulness and stupidity.

"I had to transfuse you with my own blood," the doctor explained. "The circulating volume… was too small… to induce healing throughout your body. I couldn't know you'd end up with my memories. I do apologize."

"That is inconsequential at this point," Vlad said, but he only meant it in part. He had not fully forgiven Frankenstein for this particular breach of boundaries, and he didn't know if he ever could, but he recognized the futility in holding a grudge against a dying man when his full and undivided attention should be focused on keeping said man breathing.

"No, I'm sorry, because… you had to see it… Him. He's absolutely hideous, isn't he?" Victor asked, and both his voice and his countenance communicated a deep, even profound feeling of revulsion, which was no small feat given his current state of health and the limitations it brought on his ability to emote. For all his social flaws, narcissism, and superiority complex, Frankenstein at least had the good sense to be disgusted at his own creation.

Keep him talking, Vlad. Engage him.

"Indeed he is. Where is he now?" Dracula asked without pause. If he allowed pauses, the gate might slam shut again right before his nose, and the doctor would be forever lost.

"I haven't the faintest clue," Victor said with a sudden bark of reedy laughter. "It's been… over a hundred… years since. But he still lives. I can feel it in my heart. I would know… if he had died."

"And you still fear him. You fear he will come after you and finish what he started."

"No." The doctor gave an almost affectionate snort, which made Vlad feel like a child having their grammar corrected by a stern yet benevolent tutor.  "That is not my fear. My fear is that he will die by someone else's hand than mine."

Finally an utterance that Dracula could actually sympathize with. Despite Frankenstein's superficially earnest claims to have abandoned thoughts of vengeance, Vlad had heavily suspected that it was all just a front; lies concocted by the higher faculties of the brain to dampen the bloodlust of the baser, more primitive regions. Urges of this nature could be suppressed or even repressed but not ignored forever. It was interesting how the prospect of imminent death tended to prompt even the most cerebrally developed minds to abandon lies and falsehoods.

"I… gave him life. By divine rights I should be the one to take it away. But it does not matter anymore." Victor managed a tired nod at his ailing body. "I am dying, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it now."

"And what if I could promise you revenge?" the vampire said spontaneously, and the briefly visible fiery gleam of zeal in Frankenstein's eyes provided Vlad with the welcome confirmation that this was indeed still a deep-seated desire in the doctor's soul. One he had temporarily abandoned due to self-deceit and what Vlad suspected were mostly practical reasons; the human form had limitations that even the brightest mind could not overcome. Vampires were not bound by these worldly restrictions, and Dracula decided in that very moment that he would lend his otherworldly abilities to the tracking and hunting of this yellow-eyed behemoth if his human charge still drew breath at daybreak.

That was, of course, after his own cravings for revenge had been satisfied. Van Helsing was his top priority. Nothing would come between him and the odious Dutchman.

"Revenge?" The doctor sighed, and to Vlad's disappointment the earlier zeal was gone from his eyes. "My dear Vladislas… You are my revenge. Don't you see, I gave you the one thing he desperately desires but can never have. You can walk among humans, blend into a crowd, go unseen and unnoticed. He wants these things more than anything, but he can never have them. You are my work… perfected at last."

Although Dracula bristled at the thought of being owned or claimed in any capacity by another being, he also intuited that this was a poorly chosen occasion for a quarrel over an abstract matter such as ownership.

I'm your Father now.

"I don't believe you," he said instead. "Men like you are never satisfied. You always seek to perfect what you have created. If you give up now, you will never get another chance to outdo yourself."

Vlad was clutching at straws now, desperate to pursue any option available, however uncanny, to extend the doctor's life. "Your potion!" he exclaimed, feeling like an utter imbecile for not having thought of it sooner. "You could drink it, could you not? It would undo the harm done to your body and promote healing, yes? Victor! Answer me!"

"It doesn't… work that way," Frankenstein said with a look on his face that was simultaneously both indulgent and supercilious; an abhorrent quality in a servant which, if allowed to go unchecked, would drive the former prince mad. "It must be… injected… into the bloodstream. If ingested, the stomach acids will destroy the reagent before it can be… absorbed… by the… It must… I didn't… a syringe…"

Of course. Dracula cursed in his native Romanian. He ought to have known it was not that simple. It was never that simple with these scientist types. Scientists in general and inventors in particular seemed to delight in adding complexity where none was needed, which in turn caused people of a simpler mental constitution to reject their ideas and dismiss them as lunacy. Despite everything Victor Frankenstein had going for him, he appeared to have fallen into this very trap.

The doctor was still breathing, but very faintly. The final vestiges of strength poured out of his neck like water, causing his head to loll limply against Vlad's arm. A sip of Frankenstein's treasured cognac might have restored some warmth to his cooling form and kept him breathing for a little while longer, but it was ultimately a race against time that they were destined to lose. Or rather one that they had already lost.

No, Dracula would not let it be so.

He brought his wrist to his mouth and bit through the skin. It was a sudden decision; barely more than a whim at this point in time and a potentially ill-advised one, but sudden decisions had served Vlad well both in life and in his continued existence as one of the undead. He allowed the balmy red liquid seeping from his veins to fall in large drops onto the doctor's slightly parted lips to let Frankenstein know what was coming. Contrary to Dracula's hopes but entirely according to his expectations, his offer was bluntly rejected by the dying man, who proceeded to press his lips tightly together with dogged stubbornness the moment he could taste the blood.

"Drink!" Vlad compelled, using his other arm to trap Frankenstein's face in the crook of his elbow. "You made yourself my father, so now allow me to make myself yours."

"No." The doctor spat out the blood that had somehow passed through the barrier of his sealed lips, teeth red and unseeing eyes burning with defiance. "I won't… become… a hemophage."

Hemophage. Vlad was tempted to sniffle at the cold clinical term Frankenstein had used to describe his kind. The refusal was disappointing but understandable, considering most humans cognitively detested the concept of vampirism even after they themselves had fallen victim to it and been consumed by its curse.

"You endowed me with life not of my own choosing, Father. Now let me return the favor," Dracula said and progressed to the more aggressive method of pressing his wrist against the doctor's mouth while his other arm immobilized Frankenstein's neck and made him incapable of turning his face away.

Vlad had perhaps underestimated the other's tenacity and willfulness, as Frankenstein continued to defy him in spite of being so close to death. The doctor had locked his jaws shut like a crocodile, and all attempts by Vlad to pry his teeth apart were unsuccessful. The cut on his wrist was about to close, and none of his blood had yet entered Victor Frankenstein's stomach.

"Open your mouth, you fool! I'm trying to save your life!" the vampire exclaimed, but his imperative fell on deaf ears and the doctor's mouth remained shut.

"You don't want to turn him, anyway," a voice spoke inside Dracula's mind, and it sounded so remarkably like the doctor that Vlad felt compelled to check if Frankenstein had had any opportunity to physically utter the words.

"Him? Me? It matters little, doesn't it?" the voice piped up again, and this time Vlad was entirely sure that Victor's physical body was silent. "I'm a part of you now, whether you like it or not, and if you plan on going the scientist route, it sounds like you'll be needing me. Anyway, back to what I was saying. Dear old Victor here really wouldn't make a good fledgling. Even if he doesn't immediately oppose you or self-destruct, The Thirst will eradicate all of his prior interest in science. He will be like a child again, and your role in his life will be relegated to that of a child-minder. Be sensible. Don't force something that you will most certainly regret. Besides, he would make a rather ugly bride, wouldn't you say?"

Vlad could not claim to know the scientist well, nor could he easily define his complex feelings for the man, but he was certain that there wasn't the slightest trace of an erotic spark between himself and the haggard Swiss. Not now and not ever. He saw in Frankenstein a long-term ally and potentially a stimulating companion, but not a lover. If those needs ever arose again, he would satisfy them with someone else. Now convinced of the futility of his idea, Vlad ceased his efforts to get Frankenstein to drink his blood and allowed the wound on his wrist to close. Thoughts were flying through his head at breakneck speed, illusive like fireflies in the dark and just as impossible to sustain on the rare occasion that you happened to catch one alive.

There was something else he could try; the odds certainly weren't in his favor, but when had they ever been? Vlad had come back from impossible odds more than once, having not only survived but triumphed.

Dracula exposed the white column of the doctor's neck and briskly sank his fangs into it before feelings of hesitation or regret had an opportunity to surface and stall his hand. There was a welcome pulsation of blood against his tongue, which meant it was not yet too late.

Good.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

Victor's mind slowly clawed its way back to consciousness, and had he been asked in that moment to rate his level of unease, he would have categorized it as somewhere above dread but below terror. Just barely. As awareness returned, so did the pain, and when his struggling body compelled him to accelerate his intake of air, the doctor couldn't help but wonder if his entire mid-face had collapsed in on itself and effectively rendered breathing impossible. It took his dazed brain a moment to realize he could switch to breathing through his mouth, and the relief when he found his airways unobstructed was an immediate and palpable feeling. After his first proper lungful of precious oxygen had been exhaled, Victor gulped hungrily for more, but his diaphragm refused to cooperate and instead prompted a series of noisy, convulsive hiccups. 

The doctor's return to consciousness had not gone by unnoticed, and before his eyes cleared enough to process any visual stimulus beyond blurry outlines, his ears registered the Count's eager, hectoring voice addressing him.

"Victor! Victor? Can you hear me? Are you awake?" Dracula demanded, all the while tapping his cheeks and applying other forms of ungentle touch.

Cold, jagged fingernails scraped against Victor's scalp when the vampire placed one hand behind his neck and the other on the small of his back to hoist Victor into a seated position. The doctor's world swam for a moment before snapping back into focus, and slowly but surely his eyesight returned, allowing him to discern the Count's features mere inches away from his face.

There were traces of blood on Dracula's ruddy lips and a smudge of the same in the right corner of his mouth. This both terrified and confused the doctor, but he wasn't exactly sure why; he was well-acquainted with the nature of the vampire, and it was no business of his how or where Dracula procured his sustenance. And yet…

The Count put an end to Victor's bewildered internal musings by speaking up again. "There you are, Doctor," he said contentedly and smiled. "Back from the world of Morpheus at last. Do you believe you can stand? I am done lugging you around like a sack of flour. It's time you pull your own weight."

Stand? Had Dracula lost his mind? How was one supposed to stand with a broken leg? Victor was about to release a verbal barrage of objections to counter the ridiculous demand when he realized that while his leg was most assuredly still broken, his pain had subsided to substantially more tolerable levels. On top of that, complete sensation had returned to his fingers and toes, and there was now a pleasant, tingling warmth in the pit of his belly.

Victor looked around to locate the fire, but he neither saw nor heard the presence of one. Had Dracula even managed to start a fire in the first place? Victor had memories of the Count's many unsuccessful attempts to catch a spark and the violent, torrential downpour of frustration that had followed in the wake of failure, but not a whole lot beyond that. His last memorable sensory impression before fading into unconsciousness had been of a terrible cold that went so deep it made Victor feel like his bowels were being gradually pulled out of his body and their pockets replaced with icy water.

None of that had persisted into his present experience. Apart from the stubborn aches and pains that could be expected after everything he had put his poor old body through, he felt surprisingly… hale. Having been able-bodied his whole life, the doctor could certainly not attest to knowing what it was like being crippled, although he figured that having to temporarily rely on someone else for ambulation was as close to disability as one could get without actually losing any limbs. Upon considering this novel perspective, Victor suddenly became far less opposed to the idea of walking on his own, even though he didn't think his leg was quite yet ready for such action.

Seemingly aware of the doctor's limitations, Dracula proceeded to sling one of Victor's arms around his neck before slowly standing up. Their being so close in height facilitated the arrangement, and Victor took his first tentative, hobbling steps, slowly coming to the realization that not only could he walk, he was able to do it relatively free from pain.

Victor looked around to sample his surroundings. His vision had finally cleared enough to provide relevant data about his location, and he noted that the ancient oak tree under which they had pitched temporary camp was nowhere in sight. It had to mean Dracula had carried him away with a goal in sight, but Victor could for the life of him not understand what said goal might be.

"Where are you taking me?" the doctor asked, doing his best to downplay the echo of anxiety in his voice. He tried to tell himself to trust the Count and remind the skeptic within him that Dracula still needed him, especially now when it was revealed that he had lost a whole page from the formula notes. 

"To the road, of course," the Count answered. "Valery will arrive soon, and it's easier for us to go to him than vice versa."

"H-how do you know?" Victor was perfectly aware that one normally heard a rider before seeing them, but he could hear nothing approximating the clopping of hooves or human voices. "Can you hear them?"

"No," Dracula said, "but the bats do."

"What bats?" the doctor inquired, struggling to keep up with the pace set by the Count.

There was a slowly expanding strip of hot pink visible behind the mountaintops in the east, heralding the oncoming sunrise, and Victor had correctly intuited that Dracula was racing against dawn with the doctor as a passenger. There was no answer to his question, but Victor noticed the other's quick, anxious glances thrown in the general direction of the rising sun. Dracula's number one priority was to get indoors before daybreak, but in case this could be not achieved, the best he could hope for was an overcast sky.

Even though the tall trees and dense autumn vegetation blocked out most of the available light, Victor could tell that the sky was covered by steel-grey rainclouds. The thought of becoming soaked filled the doctor with heavy dread, especially considering his very recent brush with nigh-lethal hypothermia, but Victor believed rain was still the preferable option, as he did not want to find out what would happen if Dracula was exposed to the full and unobstructed power of the morning sun.

Victor cried out as he suddenly tripped and fell over a root covertly embedded into the leaf-strewn ground, and a fresh stab of pain shot through his injured leg, this time also involving his ankle. The pair had the vampire's superhuman reflexes to thank for remaining upright in the first place, and Victor knew the Count would not easily let him forget it.

"Watch your step," Dracula hissed with a clear note of frustration in his voice, and Victor was once again reminded of the fact that helping someone out of the goodness of his heart was probably a foreign concept altogether to the Count.

"How am I supposed to do that? I can barely see three feet in front of me," Victor snapped back and cried out in dismay upon discovering that his ankle would not support him. He tasted bile in his mouth and resisted Dracula's attempts to get him to stand and continue moving forward. Not only was the Count much faster than Frankenstein, but he was also better at spotting and had so far avoided potential tripping hazards in their path. He was, however, unwilling to accept that the other man could not keep up with his brisk pace.

"You have to move," Dracula insisted with a disdainful glower, and his grip on Victor's wrist hardened to the point of discomfort. When the doctor still resisted, he tried cajoling instead, albeit his words to Victor came across as incredibly insincere. "The road is near. We will reach the edge of the forest soon."

"When?" Victor pressed. They were surrounded by nothing but trees as far as the eye could see, and there were no paths, streams or landmarks that could have helped Victor gain his bearing. Rather it felt like he was walking blind. "You don't even know where we are, do you?"

"Don't be ridiculous. I know every inch of my land as well as my own palm," the Count retorted. His next word was a direct command issued at Victor. "Walk."

The doctor tried to take steps and simultaneously avoid putting any weight on his injured ankle, but it was a lost cause, and he quickly realized he could not skip next to the other with only one functioning leg. The improvised splint helped little and only served to aggravate the constant, needling pain in his foot by keeping it hyper-extended.

"We have to keep moving, Victor," Dracula urged, and the note of desperation in his voiced had increased to dangerous levels. "There might still be men out here looking for us. We have nowhere to hide. Anyone close by could spot us. Or hear us argue," he added, thereby making it clear as to whom he found responsible for their precarious situation.

"You're acting as if I twisted my ankle to spite you," Victor growled.

He had no desire to escalate the conflict any further, but Dracula had a peculiar talent for getting under his skin in ways that  no one with the possible exception of his late father had ever had. The great thing about working with corpses was that he could easily get under their skin, but they couldn't get under his. Their interactions over the past couple of days had likely already cemented the Count's opinion of Victor as a cowardly thin-skinned fop out of touch with the real world, and yet there was no point in playing into stereotypes.

"And you're twisting my words, Doctor," Dracula snarled back. "If you wish to remain in my employment, I suggest you stop doing that."

Against his better judgment, Victor laughed. "Employment? How do you intend to compensate me? Will you drop me on my head next time and hope I'll forget about the events that transpired from your actions? I lost everything because of you!"

The doctor realized he had crossed a line when a wrinkle as thick as a leaden pencil appeared between Dracula's eyebrows, and he wished he could take back his accusatory, hurtful words, but of course it was too late for regret or afterthoughts; Victor Frankenstein had ended up with his foot in his mouth yet again.

Dracula grabbed Victor by the collar of his jacket and summarily threw him to the ground. The doctor landed ungracefully face-first on the damp, leaf-covered forest floor. He was momentarily relieved not to be wearing his glasses, as they most certainly would have broken on impact, but his fractured nose, not yet set right, caused a sensation that could best be likened to having run headfirst into a brick wall. A long, keening groan escaped his lips, and he began to writhe in what must have been a singularly pathetic display of clumsiness and ungainly limbs. Victor dug his fingers into the ground for traction and thought the soil beneath him was as soft and moist as the earth on top of a freshly dug grave. Perhaps his own, if he wasn't more careful with his words.

He expected a kick to his kidneys to keep him down, but none came. It appeared Dracula had deemed the humiliation of being flung prone into the wet dirt as punishment enough. Next the vampire's pale talon for a hand wrapped around Victor's bicep and pulled him into a seated position.

"Laugh at me again, and it might be the last thing you do!" Dracula hissed in his ear savagely enough to sprinkle Victor's ear with saliva that was just as cool as the rest of his body.

Victor averted his gaze and held up his hands in a submissive gesture. "I apologize. I shouldn't have laughed," he said with a tone that he hoped communicated sincere regret. "But I still cannot walk."

The Count rolled his eyes and said something in his mother's tongue - a guttural noise - that Victor, despite not speaking the language, took to be a curse.

"Fine. I suppose I'll have to carry you, then. Again," Dracula said dryly and quickly repositioned his body with a series of jerky movements that very effectively conveyed his annoyance. He was now kneeling on the forest floor next to Victor, and the doctor realized he was once again expected to climb onto the vampire's back to be carried like a rucksack.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't drop me this time," Victor said in jest to add some humor to an otherwise tense situation, but the smoldering glare he received in reply told him that his efforts had not been appreciated.

Victor clung anxiously to the wiry body currently tasked with carrying their combined weight, suddenly concerned about the possibility of being discovered by a group of hostile men - not even necessarily the same ones who had tried to kill them yesterday - and having no feasible way of defense. The strip of pink in the eastern sky was growing wider and brighter by the minute and stealthily reminding them of the oncoming sunrise.

Dracula had seen it too and probably felt its influence a thousand times more intensely than the doctor. Victor was reminded of the flaky, peeling patches of burnt skin that had appeared on the Count's face from just a short while of exposure to the weak afternoon sun. They were superficial burns and would heal without scarring, but he couldn't help but think about what would follow if Dracula was forced to endure the sunlight for hours on end.

"You spoke of a road," Victor said, failing to conceal his mushrooming nervousness. "When will we get there?"

"Eventually," Dracula replied. His breath came in short intermittent bursts, and just as Victor had failed to contain his anxiety, the Count failed to hide his fatigue. Dracula's ropey muscles felt hard and stiff under the cool exterior of his skin, and Victor wondered to himself what it would take to make his body emit heat. Another overdose of it?

"You're tired," the doctor pointed out, his voice trembling. "And the sun--"

"I am not an automaton!" Dracula snapped irritably. "And yes, the sunlight will weaken me, as you already know. Once the sun has risen, you might have to carry me."

"But I can't!"

"Precisely."

It took the doctor a few seconds to process the fact that Dracula had just made an attempt at a joke, albeit a very dry one, and when the realization hit him, he giggled almost manically.

"You truly are an insufferable man, Frankenstein," the Count said with a tone of voice that was most definitely accompanied by an eye-roll, even though Victor couldn't see it from his current position. "No wonder you could not keep an assistant. Your deficits, while completely social, are enough to repel--"

Dracula's grand speech about Victor's shortcomings in the realm of interpersonal interactions was brusquely cut off when the former stepped into a foxhole and lost his footing. Both their bodies toppled over and hit the ground, and Victor was actually grateful that he managed to land square on his back instead of letting his already battered and broken right leg break his fall.

The Count, now just as covered in dirt and leaves as Victor himself, struggled to his knees on the muddy ground and unleashed another string of heated curses in his native language. He then grabbed a moss-covered log off the forest floor and flung it against the nearest tree in a brutal display of savage wrath. The rotten old wood splintered on impact and showered the doctor in tiny pieces resembling wet sawdust.

Victor had struggled his whole life relating to others on an emotional level, but he now felt the other man's desperation and impotent rage like they were his own feelings. And perhaps they were. They were in this together, after all, no matter how they felt about it.

Dracula was kneeling in the mud, feet partially mired the sludgy clay-like soil and head cradled in his hands. His curly waist-long hair, whilst an impressive physical attribute when well-groomed, now resembled the bushy and tangled mane of a male lion that had been thrown down to the ground repeatedly by a superior opponent. On impulse Victor crawled toward him on all fours and reached out to brush a handful of broken-off twigs and autumn leaves out of his hair. The Count did not take kindly to the breach into his personal space and reflexively slapped the doctor's hand away.

"Don't touch me, you feckless idiot!" he snarled menacingly, although Dracula's body language now spoke of weariness rather than aggression. His rage had been spent flinging the log against the tree trunk, and now there was nothing left. Exhaustion had driven out and replaced the anger.

Victor was all too familiar with the feeling and began to understand the reason for it; the sun had progressed from illuminating a strip of sky in the east to actually making an appearance. Even though the sky was mercifully clouded over and blocked most of the sunrays, Victor could observe the top of the hazy but brightly glowing orb peeking out over the horizon. Had the doctor been travelling by himself or in the company of regular human beings, he would have been overjoyed at the oncoming sunrise as it allowed him to actually see where he was putting his feet. However, the Count was not a regular human being and as things were, Victor was dependent on him for transport. If Dracula could not continue, then neither could Victor.

"My eyes…" the vampire said in a quiet, quivering voice. "The sun… it hurts my eyes. I don't think that I can--"

They were interrupted by a series of loud cracks which to Victor's untrained ears sounded like air-filled balloons popping under the wheels of a cart, and in less than a second Dracula had forgotten about his exhaustion as it was overridden by another, more potent emotion: fear. Something very large was approaching them and the cracking noises signaled underbrush breaking under feet of gargantuan size.

The Count leapt up from the ground like a spring, and to Victor's shock and astonishment, he started like an arrow in the direction of the noise. The injured doctor made a pathetic attempt to follow on his hands and knees, feeling the unpleasant sharpness of pine needles against the exposed skin of his palms but not caring in the slightest. Victor didn't know what scared him more at this point: the thought of whatever that had made the noise finding them, or being abandoned by his companion and left to fend entirely for himself.

"Vlad, wait!" he cried out in desperation. "Don't leave me here!"

Victor's mind was temporarily overrun with the most nightmarish visions of what was about to transpire, and he had to force his galloping senses back to the present to perceive the actual physical events taking place around him. Dracula was far ahead of him now, descending a hill with a casual sort of elegance that would not have been possible for Victor to achieve even if he didn't have a broken leg and or a twisted ankle. The Count gave no response when Victor shouted after him. It was as if the doctor had ceased to exist.

He heard the clopping of hooves and raised men's voices before he saw the road and the objects he had mistaken for beastly giant's feet. This particular error of judgment felt so laughable in the early morning light penetrating through the overcast sky that Victor was ashamed to have entertained such notions in the first place, if only for a few moments. Headed in their direction was a party of travelers, consisting of two men on horseback closely followed by a horse-drawn wagon with high arched wheels located outside the body. Its stylized build and decoration were immediately recognizable as being of the vardo type and belonging to the Szgany - as was the spoken language. The Count threw himself onto the road before the riders to catch their attention, manically waving his arms around and shouting words in Romanian that Victor was unable to understand.

The horses making up the vanguard instinctively retreated from the stranger that had suddenly and inexplicably fallen out of the underbrush, and one of them reared in fright, provoking an angry shout from the man seated on its back.

Victor was nothing short of horrified at the Count's rash decision to halt the party of strangers without possibly knowing if they were friend or foe, but when one of them spoke the doctor instantly recognized the voice.

It was Valery Ionescu.

The old man himself was seated beside the coachman in charge of driving the cart, and although he wore a broad-brimmed hat that concealed his features, most likely to shield his face from vicious imminent downpour, there was never any doubt in Victor's mind after the Szgany patriarch had uttered his first words.

"Master!" Valery rasped in a queer mixture of an exhale and a croak, and despite his ill health and ailing body, both made worse by the cold and foul weather, the old man struggled down from his seat without any kind of aid and hobbled toward the Count, the cane he normally relied on for walking either lost or forgotten. Valery stumbled and fell down, but he didn't let this stop him and walked the final distance to Dracula on his knees. He gazed up reverently with his one sighted eye, and Victor could have sworn he had not seen such a look of utter devotion anywhere else, including Renaissance paintings where an Angel of the Lord had appeared before a canonical saint. The Szgany's very own dark angel had returned to once again grace them with his presence and guidance, and Victor was fortunate enough to bear witness.

Tears in abundant amounts were running down Valery Ionescu's deeply grooved, leathery visage and he grasped both of the Count's hands with his own and brought them to his mouth to slather them with kisses. He repeatedly chanted a combination of words, which despite the doctor's inability to translate them, could only mean one thing; Valery was begging Dracula for forgiveness.

The other three men had dismounted as well and followed their leader onto their knees in acknowledgement of their Master. The Count finally silenced Valery with a finger to his lips and tilted his face upward so that their eyes could meet.

"I forgive you, my child," he said in the mellifluous voice Victor knew was reserved for occasions when Dracula had gotten what he wanted. "Stand up, Valery, please. Do not excite yourself. I am well and all is forgiven."

Dracula, managing to look regal and dignified despite being covered in mud and having twigs and leaves stuck in his hair, turned his head to look in the doctor's direction and gave an almost imperceptible nod followed by a curt command in Romanian.

Immediately two of the men accompanying Valery set out to execute the order, and Victor felt a brief stab of panic, wondering if Dracula had ordered the gypsies to kill him. Their stony faces gave nothing away as they advanced through the foliage, and Victor suddenly wished he could make himself smaller to avoid discovery. They each grabbed one of the doctor's arms and lifted him off the ground with ease, Victor being unsure if he was expected to take steps or allow his feet to be dragged along the sloping forest floor.

Valery Ionescu had struggled back into a standing position, partially supported by the Count, whose hands he was still fervently gripping with his own knobby arthritic fingers. The old man's face fell when he laid eyes on Victor, and he awkwardly wiped at his steady flow of tears with the back of one hand. His body swayed dangerously and for a horrible moment the doctor feared his emergence had given Valery a heart attack very much like the Count had done with Mrs. Horvath.

"Herr Doctor!" the gypsy exclaimed, and a ghost of a smile passed across his worn features before Valery suddenly remembered that he had more reason to be angry with Victor than happy to see him. The hapless scientist, still flanked by Valery's two burly confederates, neither of whom he recognized, was half-dragged and half-carried to stand before the Szgany patriarch. Valery's unclouded eye was fixed upon the doctor and the look in it was more or less indescribable.

What followed came as a complete surprise to Victor, although on a later occasion, after he'd had time to reflect over the course of events, he wondered why he was caught off-guard given that Valery had exuded plenty of non-verbal cues. The old man raised his hand and struck Victor across the face with an open palm. The blow itself was rather feeble, reflecting the advanced age and corporeal frailty of the man who had delivered it, but to the doctor, whose nose had been broken less than one day in the past, it felt as though he had been shoved face-first into another door. Only the celerity of Victor's two handlers prevented him from being planked by the blow, and as if one slap had not been enough, the old man lifted his hand anew to deliver another.

This time, however, Dracula caught his wrist before any more blows could rain down on the doctor.

"That's enough, Valery," the Count said sternly, speaking in English presumably because he wanted Victor to understand what was said. "He did a despicable thing lying to you about me, but he has paid for his mistake in blood. In fact, you should thank him for bringing me back in the first place. Without his doing I would still be in the earth and you would be without a place to call home. Show some respect."

Valery visibly deflated under his Master's austere reprimand, and Victor was fascinated by the shift in his demeanor from unrestrained reactive aggression to total submission. It was both strange and mesmerizing to witness such a servile response from a man who was so used to issuing orders.

Respect your elders.

"F-forgive me, my Lord," Valery stammered, gaze darting from the Count over to Victor, who was carefully feeling his face for further fractures. His nose still needed manual resetting, but apart from the broken cartilage no new damage had been inflicted. Victor hated to think what a blow thrown by a young Valery Ionescu would have felt like.

The old man's gaze wandered back to the Count, but rather than look him in the eye, Valery fixated on the ugly ring of sutures that served as a constant reminder of the terrible truth that Dracula's head had once been separated from his body and his flesh crudely stitched together by Victor's urgent hands. Dracula made an attempt to appear unfazed, but the doctor could tell he was bothered by the scrutiny. Victor foresaw plenty of high collars and scarves in Dracula's future.

"Did you bring it?" Dracula asked, the question addressed to Valery. He tried to shield his eyes from the onslaught of the rising sun by scrunching them up into slits.

"Yes, of course, Master," the old man said quickly. "It is inside, prepared according to your instructions."

The doctor wanted to ask how the Count could have possibly left instructions given that they had just recently been reunited, but then he remembered that there were aspects of Dracula's supernatural powers that could not be explained through science or logic. In fact, Victor would be more likely to find answers in a grimoire.

Dracula wasted no time getting out of the sunlight and climbing into the caravan through a door built into the rear. The two windows facing in opposite directions were covered with thick, black and heavy curtains to ensure no sunrays could penetrate. No sound came from within the wagon for a good two minutes, and Victor was tensely waiting for cues or instructions on how to proceed from here-on.

Good God, he was so tired.

Victor staggered on his feet and was once more caught swooning by one of Valery's cohorts. His ankle finally allowed itself to be bent and used, but he could not trust it to carry his weight for some time ahead. The doctor was just about to voice an inquiry on what they were supposed to do now when the heavy rainclouds above decided they'd had enough of amassing water and unleashed a torrential downpour on the hapless group of men. Victor, not wearing a hat, found his hair soaked through in less than twenty seconds, and he couldn't help but think that if he contracted pneumonia on top of everything his body would probably not stand for it and go out on a strike.

"Come on, let's go inside," Valery said brusquely and gave his younger companions a series of curt orders in the Romani tongue. His attitude toward Victor was still somewhat antagonistic if not downright hostile, but he was not going to defy his master's wishes of having the doctor accommodated for.

The insides of the vardo were considerably more spacious than one was led to believe observing the vehicle from outside. Victor collapsed onto one of the cushioned built-in seats and was momentarily so overcome with exhaustion that he failed to reflect over the whereabouts of the Count. Valery took a seat opposite him and took out a box of cigars from a storage compartment under the seat, offering one to Victor.

"No, thank you, I do not smoke," the doctor said and did his best to hide his true feelings about the act of smoking with moderate success. Valery struck a match and lit his cigar, immediately filling the closed-off space with a thick grey smoke that appeared almost blue despite the warm orange glow from the oil lamp. It was the sole source of light inside the vardo and its flickering, almost frail quality made the old man's face look eerie bordering on esoteric.

The horse-drawn equipage softly rolled into motion, and Victor suddenly realized he had no idea where they were headed, and the thought of spending hours or possibly even days in close quarters with a man who outright despised him caused a spike in the doctor's anxiety. Without Dracula to mediate between Valery and himself, the trip might feel long, indeed.

Where was the Count, anyway? Victor had observed him entering the wagon with great haste, but the only two people present were the gypsy and the doctor, and the latter was sure he had not seen Dracula exit. Valery's cool demeanor suggested he had no concern over the state or safety of his Master, but it did nothing to still Victor's curiosity. He gave up the guessing games and posed a direct question.

"Where is Dracula?" 

Valery jabbed with his thumb in direction of a wooden crate that sat on the floor close to the end of the caravan. "Resting, of course," he muttered. "After all that's happened, I say he's earned it."

Victor was familiar with the myths that associated vampires with cobwebs and coffins, but since he had acquired practical experience in dealing with one himself, he failed to understand why Dracula would choose a literal wooden box as a resting place when there were more comfortable alternatives available.

Valery noticed the doctor's puzzled expression and said with a scoff, "Go on, look inside. The Master won't mind."

Victor's body balked at the mere thought of moving again, but his boundless curiosity had always been the driving force in his life and this time was no exception. He stood up despite the pain in his leg and ankle and slowly began to shuffle toward the crate Valery had indicated to be the Count's resting place.

The vardo unexpectedly lurched when encountering a bump on the road, and the careening motion caused the doctor to lose his already precarious sense of balance. Victor fell across the Count's crate, but instead of giving way and skidding across the floor as expected, the rectangular pine box absorbed the full brunt of Victor's weight and the momentum behind it as though it had been nailed to the floor or filled with a very heavy substance. The doctor swore in German and felt a stab of anger at the sound of Valery's smoke-hoarse voice laughing at him, but he rapidly forgot about the anger when he glimpsed Dracula's face through a crack in the wooden lid. It came as no surprise to Victor that Dracula occasionally slept with his eyes open, but he didn't think he could ever quite get used to the glassy corpse-like look or the absolute stillness of his features.

Valery Ionescu exhaled another lungful of cigar smoke and for a brief moment the sharp-featured old man bore a remarkable resemblance to the sinister dragon tattoo on his wrist. Victor felt compelled to ask him if Dracula would insist he get one as well to mark him as one of the Count's familiars. If so, Victor had decided to refuse. Any future dealings between them would happen as equals or not at all.

Both fascinated and disturbed by the Count's unresponsive state and puzzled by Valery's laid-back attitude to it, the doctor decided to open the crate for a closer look. There was always a chance that he would be presented with valuable data about the enigmatic night creature's unpredictable and often contradictive physiology by observing his resting state.

The Count lay neatly on his back, legs fully extended and hands elegantly folded across his chest. He showed no reaction whatsoever to Victor's approach, and his eyes, while open, were as unseeing and devoid of life as they had been on the evening Victor disinterred his decapitated corpse. This, while confusing and bordering on the paradoxical, was not even the strangest aspect of the discovery he'd just made: Dracula was resting atop a thick layer of dark, recently upturned soil. Victor vividly remembered the Count's distress at the acrid stench of earth lingering on his skin despite repeated washing, so it was utterly incomprehensible to him why Dracula would request a box of soil to be used for a bed.

"The Master needs to rest in the earth of his homeland to recover his strength," Valery offered helpfully upon noticing the doctor's bemusement. "Fortunately there were still a few boxes in our possession."

"That sounds like superstition to me," Victor replied before cognitively reflecting on the hurtful delivery of his words. When he did reflect, the words had already left his mouth and it was too late to retract them.

So much for staying on Valery's good side.

When the gypsy spoke again, his tone was dry but not wounded. "You men of science want everyone to abandon their beliefs even though the alternative brings them nothing but misery." He scoffed and paused for a bit, but Victor sensed that Valery had more to say. "Have you read Karl Marx, Doctor? Are you familiar with his saying 'Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes…?' I cannot deny that his ideas hold a certain allure for a lowborn cur like myself, but I also believe in the value of maintaining the natural order of things, and those who defy it do so at a terrible cost."

Karl Marx, the philosopher and economist? Although it came as no surprise to Victor that the erudite Szgany had familiarized himself with Marx' revolutionary theories on class struggles, he suspected that it was not on the Count's initiative. Victor himself only possessed superficial knowledge of the Marxist manifesto and its contents. Economy as a concept had never been his forte, and he would readily admit that his practical knowledge of economization was as abysmal as its theoretical counterpart. Money tended to slip through the doctor's fingers like water.

"No," he said simply. "And I apologize for my rudeness. I didn't mean to imply--"

"Of course you meant it," Valery said with a snort of unpleasant laughter. "I thought we were past such tedious pretenses, Herr Doctor. I am willing to look past your ignorance of our ways because I believe there is good in you, and although I don't know how you did it, your science returned my Master to me." There was an unexpected tremble in Valery's voice, and Victor was reminded of the grim fact that the old man had lost both his son and grandson in his tireless efforts to defend Dracula.

"How is your new grandson?" the doctor asked in an attempt to steer the topic of discussion to something less grim. The Count showed no sign of listening in on their conversation, but Victor was not quite ready to discount the possibility that Dracula was simply playing possum.

"He is strong, like his brother, whom he never got a chance to meet," Valery replied. "Vera, my daughter, has decided to name him Vlad."

"That's wonderful," the doctor said stiffly. He was abysmal at all kinds of small talk and suddenly found himself wishing Dracula would be awake to buffer his social ineptitude. The Count and Victor clashed a lot and rarely saw eye to eye, but around the vampire he was at least not required to feign an interest in things that failed to hold his attention.

"Do you think he can hear us?" Victor asked as a purely rhetorical question and moved his hand experimentally across the slumbering strigoi's field of vision to test if there was any response, if only a purely reflexive one. Nothing, not even the slightest twitch of the eyelids. Auditory input was different, however, and Victor knew from personal experience that even the profoundly comatose could sometimes pick up on sounds in their environment.

"My guess is as good as yours, Herr Doctor, but I would not speak ill of him in his presence regardless," Valery answered.

This drew a chuckle from the doctor, and he gently lifted one of Dracula's hands (pliant, he noted, and not the least bit corpse-like) and pressed two fingers against the pulse point on his wrist to check his cardiac function. Ten seconds passed, then twenty, and then a full minute. Nothing. Not even the faintest flutter of a heartbeat.

Victor had to fight to contain his brewing panic and remind himself that this could very well be a completely normal facet of vampire biology and not necessarily an indication of the donor heart failing. He abandoned his attempts to find a radial pulse and instead focused his attentions on the neck area. Sometimes a very low blood pressure and consequent absence of a pulse in the peripheral arteries could fool a physician into believing that there was no heartbeat at all.

Twelve angst-ridden seconds passed before Victor finally felt a familiar "lubb-dubb" against his fingertips, and his relief in that moment was large enough to prompt a veritable sob. Something that he had hardly even dared hope for had occurred; the Ionescu boy's human heart was beginning to adapt to the vampire's peculiar and slow metabolism. The relief, however, was quickly replaced by another feeling that sent a series of chills down the doctor's spine.

Valery must never know what had become of his son's heart.

Momentarily certain that his well-guarded secret was written all over his face, Victor felt another palpable punch of relief when the old gypsy introduced a different subject altogether.

"You look like you're on edge, Herr Doctor," Valery remarked. "It cannot be good for your heart. Come sit with me and have a drink."

"My heart is fine," Victor said, but the thought of a drink sounded heavenly and he began to crawl towards Valery and the built-in benches on all fours like an animal, not wanting to risk standing up only to lose his balance again over another inequality in the road.

The old man produced a flask of Slivovitz and two small glasses, pouring a generous amount of the clear plum brandy for both himself and the doctor. Victor greedily reached for the glass and downed its contents in one single sweep and three swallows. The bitter liquor burned his tongue and throat, but his body was so habituated to the taste and tang of alcohol by now that the burning sensation was nothing but white noise.

"Be careful," Valery warned, sounding more amused than genuinely concerned. "You don't want to drink too much on an empty stomach."

Victor replied with a dismissive grunt and a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders before raising his now empty glass in a wordless request for more. Valery indulged him albeit somewhat hesitantly. The doctor leaned back against the wooden wall with the drink clutched firmly in his hand and sighed contentedly when the familiar, hazy lull of alcohol intoxication began to set in. His body and mind both craved the chemical relaxant, and he hadn't even realized how badly he needed it until the welcome heat in his stomach worked its magic.

Having noticed over the years that alcohol made him more perceptive instead of the opposite, which was the norm, Victor could not help but take note of Valery's intense, clinical scrutiny of his person. It reminded him of the way he himself would look at his test subjects, and being on the receiving end of such a stare made him decidedly uncomfortable.

"Is something the matter?" the doctor asked finally, fingers anxiously trailing the area around his chin and searching for suspended strings of saliva. Based on Valery's staring alone, there was something wrong with his appearance besides being battered, bruised and partly covered in mud and conifer needles.

"Plenty, but you needn't concern yourself with that now," the old man retorted gruffly, but at least the staring had ceased. "I brought something for you, Herr Doctor." Valery slowly, almost languidly reached into his breast pocket; a motion that meant nothing to Victor until he saw the faint but unmistakable glimmer of gold between the gypsy's tightly-clenched, liver-spotted fingers.

Even though the object was still mostly hidden from view, Victor recognized it in an instant.

"My pocket watch!" he exclaimed, too astounded to remember how to properly swallow, which resulted in some of the brandy going down the wrong pipe. In spite of convulsive coughing, the doctor practically flung himself across the table with the intent of reclaiming his prized possession before Valery had a chance to change his mind.

Once the watch was firmly in his grasp, Victor ran his dirty grease-covered fingertips reverently over the expanse of the gilded surface and finally pried it open to assure himself that the watch in his hands was authentic and not a cruel attempt at deception by the old gypsy. Fresh tears of joy mixed with relief sprang up from Victor's eyes when he was greeted by the familiar inscription of his mother's words, which consequently ended any and all speculation regarding the authenticity of the pocket watch.

"I thought you had sold it," he murmured, still in awe of the thoughtful gesture.

"I considered it," Valery replied with a shrug of his shoulders. "And I was certainly tempted to go through with it. But then it occurred to me that I could keep it to test your resolve."

"I had every intention of keeping my word," Victor chimed in, slightly saddened to learn that the gypsies had never wholeheartedly trusted him, but the delight of holding his mother's gift in his hand at long last was enough to override the former sentiment. "Thank you, Valery."

"No, Herr Doctor. I should be thanking you. Having our Master back… gives me hope that my sacrifices meant something. That it was worth it."

"To my friends, I am known as Victor," the doctor said tentatively. He was intimately aware of the human losses suffered by the Ionescu clan and wished to avoid any discussion that might prompt Valery to question the circumstances regarding his son's death. "You may call me Victor, if you wish."

The old man scoffed at first, but after he had given the offer some thought, he shot Victor a cocky, lopsided grin that was eerily reminiscent of his Master the Count.

"Victor, then," he said.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

The travelling party of men were soon joined by the remaining members of the Ionescu clan, and to the relief of Victor, who had always hated being on the road for longer stretches of time, the Szgany set up camp by a hunting lodge which he assumed was part of Dracula's property. Based on the dilapidated state of the building, it had not been in active use for the past half-century or so, but the Count's loyal gypsies wasted no time getting the lodge prepared for habitation, and Victor noted with a degree of private amusement that one of the first things to be readied for Dracula was a hot bath.

The doctor had to make do with a rudimentary washbasin and a sponge that had seen better days, but at least the water was fresh, and he was given a small room - with a functioning door no less - for privacy reasons.

After much prodding and some downright begging, the Szgany had agreed to acquire a small handheld mirror for the doctor so that he would be able to properly surmise the damage done to his face and act accordingly. The Count's blatant distaste for any reflective surface had undoubtedly influenced a similar attitude in his servants, although it hadn't slipped Victor by that Dracula in this particular instance was being an evident hypocrite. Despite having denounced mirrors as a "foul bauble of man's vanity", the Count himself was one of the vainest creatures Victor had ever encountered.

The mirror, which was brought to him by Rosa, was a simple square piece of glass, six by six inches and scratched in places, but fully serviceable for this purpose.

Victor failed to suppress an unadulterated shudder of revulsion upon seeing his face for the first time since a door was slammed against it by the gargantuan blacksmith Ernesto Calugarul. Not a lot of time had passed since the damage was inflicted, but for some reason the healing process was much farther along than could be expected. New cartilage had formed across and around the break, which unfortunately meant that Victor would need to manually break his nose a second time and reposition the pieces assuming he did not want to spend the rest of his days resembling a ferocious prizefighter whose nose had been broken repeatedly throughout his career.

He also really badly needed to shave. Considering none of the Szgany men sported a full beard, a shaving razor ought to be easy enough to procure. With their acquired aversion to mirrors, they most likely helped one another shave or delegated said task to their women.

On further inspection, the doctor spotted several blooming bruises in various shades of blue and purple across the expanse of his neck. Most were shaped like fingertips, and Victor was not slow to attribute them to Dracula's occasional temper tantrums and the blatant and unashamed bouts of physical aggression which tended to accompany them. It was a non-issue from a purely medical standpoint, although when Victor studied his neck in closer detail, he came to the shocking realization that bruises and claw marks weren't the only injuries his skin had sustained. There, on the right, positioned neatly above his jugular vein, were two small pinprick marks roughly one inch apart, crusted over but still fresh enough to have been inflicted recently.

Such as last night, when he had lain dying in Dracula's arms. The discovery turned Victor's bones into white ice, and he was fairly certain that his heart actually skipped a beat before taking off like a premium quality race horse. At some point Dracula had - most likely when Victor was physically and cognitively incapacitated by hypothermia, as he would have remembered it otherwise - bitten into his neck and fed on his blood.

Everything made sense now: his unlikely survival and swift return to consciousness from the brink of death, his quick recovery and advanced healing… The Count had purposely and without consent infected Victor with vampirism.

The doctor spent an indeterminable amount of time simply staring at his reflection in the mirror, too petrified to move or speak. When he finally regained limited movement in his hands, he brought his trembling fingers to touch the slightly raised puncture wounds on his throat and had to force back a sudden bout of nausea, tasting bile and acidic, half-digested stomach contents in his mouth. The admittedly tasty paprika goulash and Tokay wine he had been served earlier threatened to come back up, and Victor suddenly wished he had asked for water instead of an alcoholic beverage to drink with the food. He had not conversed with Dracula or even seen him since they set up camp here at the hunting lodge, presumably because the Count had business to attend to elsewhere that did not involve Victor.

Oh, but they definitely had business now, or at least Victor's fist would have business with Dracula's face. It was only regrettable that Frankenstein was not currently in possession of brass knuckles.

Breathing quietly through his mouth, the doctor was able to pick up on Dracula's far-from-quiet return to the lodge, and he ground his teeth at the sound of the Count's commanding, imperious voice issuing orders to those around him like ordinary men issued glances. Victor considered calling out to get his attention, but he refrained from doing so because he could not trust himself to remain coherent throughout the exchange if he initiated it. It was better to let Dracula come to him.

Two voices, Dracula's and Rosa's, engaged in some kind of… flirtation. Even though Victor barely knew a word of Romanian, it was ridiculously simple to decipher both the content and the tone of the exchange; an appreciative remark or a compliment delivered by the Count's silver tongue and the responding teenage girl's modest giggle and accompanying murmur, heart undoubtedly swelling with pride over having been not only noticed but flattered by a childhood hero.

Nay, 'hero' was not nearly a sufficient enough term to describe what the Count meant to these people; in the eyes of the Szgany, Dracula was practically a divinity. There was no doubt whatsoever that the vampire would have Rosa in his bed and his teeth in her neck whenever he wished.

Victor, facing away from the door, did not actually see the Count's entry, but he heard the rustle of the door handle moving and Dracula's subsequent footsteps. He was familiar enough with the vampire's way of carrying himself to be able to identify him from his footfalls alone, but despite the familiarity there was something different about the way he walked, and when the doctor finally turned to regard him, he noticed the reason; Dracula had acquired a new pair of boots with a higher, more pronounced heel.

His lips curved up in a disarming smile, and as usual Dracula was too self-absorbed to pay attention to the look of smoldering rage on the scientist's face.

"Victor!" the Count said cheerfully, rubbing his hands together above his chest in a theatrical display of excitement. "How are you faring? Is the Szgany cuisine to your liking?" He swept inside the room as if he owned it - which he technically did, much to Victor's chagrin - not really expecting a response and therefore remaining unperturbed by the doctor's lack of reciprocation.

Observing him properly for the first time since his return to the cottage, Victor could tell that the high-heeled boots were not the only new addition to the Count's wardrobe. Gone were Victor's mud-stained, unfashionable and poorly fitted clothes, replaced by an outfit perfectly tailored for Dracula's precise measurements and aggressively communicative of his wealth and status as a member of the aristocracy. Clad in a dark grey, almost black, tightly-fitted frockcoat with wide shoulders and a cinched waist that promoted his slim but athletic build, Dracula cut quite a striking figure. A high-collared shirt and a loosely-tied brocade necktie held in place with a golden stickpin had been cleverly chosen by the Count to keep his unsightly scar from showing. Victor noted the presence of a glimmering emerald stone on the stickpin, undoubtedly included because it perfectly matched the wearer's eyes.

A bath and a change of clothing were not the only two changes about Dracula's person; his hair, which had been a filthy, tangled mess after their nightly foray into the woods, had been washed, combed and tamed and now cascaded down his back and shoulders in large, perfectly styled ringlet curls, which Victor knew were only possible to achieve through careful application of heat. 

Still not actively discouraged by the Victor's uncommunicativeness, the vampire walked over to where the doctor was seated, presumably to make sure he had Victor's undivided attention, but upon spotting the mirror in Victor's hand, Dracula recoiled, hissing like a disgruntled cat.

"Bah! That foul thing has no place in my house! Do what you need to with it, and then throw it away."

It was not the words themselves but rather the cavalier way in which they were said that finally blew Victor's cork. On impulse he threw the object in question at the Count and was simultaneously both disappointed and relieved when the mirror missed its target and shattered noisily against the wall behind Dracula's back, spraying him with thousands of minuscule shards of glass.

The responding look in the Count's green eyes was one of shock rather than anger. "Have you gone mad?" he shouted, promptly combing through his hair with all ten fingers to dislodge any errant pieces of glass that might have gotten stuck in his locks.

"You bastard!" Victor snarled, bouncing rather than rising to his feet. They were naturally quite close in height, but the boots added another couple of inches to the Count's frame, forcing Victor to look up at him and consequently also allowing Dracula to peer down at Victor over his nose in a classic display of superciliousness. Further enraged by the other's nonchalance and feigned astonishment, Victor shoved hard at the vampire's chest, and Dracula, wholly unprepared for this level of rage and ferocity, failed to brace himself and stumbled back.

"What is your problem now?" the Count asked, confusion littering his features in a display of mock surprise that Victor had to admit looked quite convincing. "Did you not like what you saw in the mirror?"

"Oh, that's rich, coming from you!" the doctor spat. "I suppose I should memorize what I see there now, as it might be the last time I can even see my reflection."

"What on earth are you babbling about? I have no intention of tur--"

"Liar!" Victor roared and made a slashing gesture at the puncture wounds on his throat with all four fingers of his right hand.

Finally a look of understanding crept into the Count's eyes, but when he spoke, his words were laced with ice. "Sit down," he ordered, pointing to the pinewood chair where the doctor had been previously seated. "Right now."

"So that you can attempt to feed me more lies? Thank you, but I'll stand."

"Suit yourself." Dracula pulled out the chair opposite of Victor's and took a seat himself, his movements appearing lax and easy, although the doctor suspected that this was yet another ploy to make him lower his guard. The Count elegantly crossed his long, toned legs and gazed up at Victor with mild apprehension. "Will you let me speak, or need I worry about being attacked by you again?" he asked frankly.

"That depends on what you have to say for yourself," Victor retorted, tightly balled fists hanging by his sides.

"Fair enough." Dracula rolled his eyes as if he just barely deigned to have this conversation at all. "For a supposed genius, you really are quite thick at times, aren't you, Victor?" he added then, cruel mouth quirked in a haughty smile.

Finally the doctor sat down, secretly relieved that there was a table between them, as Victor did not trust himself to have enough self-control to steer clear from violence. "Am I wrong?" he asked, matching the deadly chill in Dracula's voice.

"I did bite into your throat, but not for the reason that you believe," the Count said. "You? A vampire? Do you know anything about us besides the most obvious? When you woke up in the woods after your stint with death, do you remember how you felt? A newly transformed fledgling will know nothing but an uncontrollable thirst for blood. Had this been your experience, I would have seen it. I gave you a taste of your own medicine, Doctor, and I mean that in a most literal sense."

Dracula reached into the side pocket of his frockcoat and demonstrably placed an object on the table in front of Victor. It was the vial containing the last of it, now in greatly reduced quantity. A thought - instantly rejected by his conscious cognitive framework as not only absurd but downright unfeasible - flitted through the doctor's mind. It was useless if ingested because Victor had failed to create a serum that could withstand the corrosive effects of the stomach acids long enough to be absorbed by the bloodstream. There was just no way Dracula's implications could be true. It was a practical impossibility.

"You're lying," Victor said, albeit a tiny tremor had manifested in his conviction. A tremor, and then a crack. "It has to be injected intravenously to work."

"I heard you the first time," Dracula said. "So I had to bite you to access your bloodstream."

The look of astonishment on the doctor's face must have been a nigh-legendary spectacle based on the Count's response to it alone. With a derisive scoff, the vampire leaned forward, elbows planted firmly on the table, and gave the bottle between them a gentle nudge with his forefinger. "Do you believe me now, or must I explain the mechanics of what I did in closer detail?"

Victor swallowed, and if it were possible for a person to feel new synapses forming in their brain, he could have sworn he sensed that very process occurring right now in his own. "So y-you bit m-my neck, and then p-poured…?"

"I filled my mouth with your substance and tried to ascertain that at least some of it got into your veins," Dracula said plainly and then shrugged, as if his actions were completely commonplace. "It was a gamble. You would either perish or recover; I had no way of knowing which, but turning you into a vampire was never in the cards."

Flooded by a sense of relief so immediate and palpable that it threatened to make him regurgitate his food all over again, the doctor momentarily covered his face with his hands to force his galloping thoughts back to the present. When the initial rush of relief had passed, it gave way to another emotion namely shame. Victor had lashed out prematurely and mounted heinous accusations against the Count with nothing in the way of proof besides his own prejudices.

"Je suis désolé," he muttered into his hands, feeling very much like the five-year-old boy who had been caught red-handed stealing from the cookie jar by his mother. Her admonishments had been delivered in French, so it was only natural that his attempts at an apology were given in French, also. "Pardonnez-moi, s'il vous plaît. J'ai sauté aux mauvaises conclusions. J'avais tort."

Please forgive me. I jumped to the wrong conclusions. I was wrong.

"I appreciate your attempts to convey a sincere apology, but let us converse in English as much possible," Dracula requested. "I need to brush up on my English language skills before the move back. I'd hate to sound like an obvious foreigner."

"England?" Victor asked, mouth agape with amazement, shame practically forgotten. He was cycling through emotions fast. "You want to go back there, even after everything… that happened?"

He was reluctant to refer to the events involving Van Helsing and his ruthless persecution of the Count even in vaguely neutral, nondescript terms. No matter how one chose to frame it, it was an unpleasant memory for Dracula, but the other's response was not what Victor had come to expect from the Count whenever Van Helsing's name was mentioned or even alluded to.

"Certainly, and you are going to travel with me," the vampire said in a suave, honeyed voice and tilted his head forward in what could best be described as a seductive nod.

He could be sweet when he wished; downright saccharine, and Victor knew he was currently in the process of seduction and not mere persuasion; the latter was too plebeian a word for this manner of conduct. It was difficult indeed not to feel drawn in when one was the singular target of Dracula's considerable energies. However, while the Count was the unquestionable owner of a silver tongue, it was Victor Frankenstein who possessed the golden mind, and that gave the doctor some room to negotiate.

"Am I now?" Victor countered with a raised brow. His one attempt at inserting himself into the London academia had not gone well, and Victor had not been to England since. His latest visit had to be almost ninety years in the past. No doubt much had changed since then, and the prospect of finding out just how much was more than just slightly daunting.

"Not as yourself, you understand," the Count said in a tone that communicated that it should have been obvious. "You'll be travelling as my personal physician, under an assume name. The English are old-fashioned in more than one regard; they might not respect visionaries like yourself or ascribe to them much worth, but they have plenty of respect for titles, even if the man attached to it is a foreigner."

Victor, of course, knew what Dracula was implying. If the doctor attached himself to the Count, a nobleman, he would not be questioned or doubted nearly as aggressively. The idea held a certain amount of allure, although as things were now, Victor could not envision how they could possibly pull off the practicalities of such an arrangement.

"But where would we go? I thought Van Helsing and his men destroyed all your sanctuaries in England?"

At the mention of the Professor's name, Dracula's eyes narrowed with obvious contempt, but then something else flickered in them that was close to mirth, or perhaps even glee. It was the mischievous look of a misbehaving child who had successfully managed to avoid punishment by a parent or guardian.

"They believe that they did, surely," he said with a smug chuckle. "But there was one property that I acquired under an alias, or rather one that Robert Renfield - my first English solicitor - acquired on my behalf before any involvement from the others. It did not meet my standards at the time, so I did not bother to even go see it… but I still own it all the same. And I can prove it. I left the title deeds with Valery for safe-keeping in case I would someday be in dire straits and need to make use of it. Of course I had no idea it would be this soon…"

"Where is it?" the doctor asked, cautiously optimistic but wary of investing too much hope into something that may just be a mirage of sorts, ready to dissolve once his sights had been firmly set on it. An estate at Dracula's disposal was certainly more than Victor had expected to gain out of this whole sordid affair, but the problem of how they were going to travel across Europe without means of any kind remained in their way like a giant roadblock.

"Exeter," Dracula said with a small shrug of his shoulders and an expression which indicated that the location certainly hadn't been his first choice. "Have you been there? Neither have I. I hear it's windy."

"How are we supposed to live?" Victor asked bluntly. Everything of Victor's that could be pawned or traded for money had gone up in flames the previous day, and the exact same thing had happened to Castle Dracula a few days prior.

The Count looked at Victor slyly, almost teasingly, and the doctor began to suspect he was made the butt of some kind of covert joke. The vampire's emerald eyes twinkled playfully before he finally answered the question.

"I may have lost the bulk of my fortune to looters, but I was not so stupid as to put all my eggs in one basket… Isn't that what the English say? I have stashes elsewhere in the case that I would need money at a short notice. Not unlimited riches, mind you, but enough to set up an estate on the countryside of England and to keep you, my very own doctor."

"And to equip my laboratory, I trust?" Victor asked pointedly, hoping that Dracula would translate the existence of a hypothetical laboratory as a non-negotiable condition for any future collaborative efforts involving himself and Victor Frankenstein. 

"Absolutely," the Count said with a smile that showed his teeth. Human teeth for now. For a man who had lost his home and had his entire existence upended within a few short weeks, Dracula had shown an amazing aptitude for quick, almost instantaneous adaptation.

"You cannot travel or enter the country under your true identity, however," Dracula pointed out. "And neither can I. But worry not; the authorities in this part of the world are incredibly corrupt. Present an English banknote that can be cashed in for gold at the international bank in Bucuresti… and you will have your papers and travel documents ready in no time."

"And what will your assumed name be?" Victor asked. He was hoping that he would at least have a say in choosing his new public identity. "Victor" was a fairly common name in all of Europe, and the doctor doubted he could train himself to answer to another first name, and most definitely not at the pace that was expected from his partner.

"The same one I purchased the Exeter estate under," Dracula replied with slight hesitation, and both his facial expression and voice communicated a degree of regret or perhaps even embarrassment over his choice. "Comte de Ville. You speak French better than myself, so feel free to choose an alias that matches mine."

"Deh-Vill? Devil?!" Laughter, strong and immediate, bubbled out of Victor's chest before he could choke it down, and he half-expected the Count to reach across the table to slap him for his insolence, but no such thing happened. Instead Dracula joined in, which in turn surprised Victor to such a degree that his laughter got stuck in his throat and came out as a hiccup.

Dracula's mirth quickly dissipated and he went back to looking uncomfortable. "You must understand that I never intended to have to use this pseudonym or anything acquired through it, but it seems the Fates wanted otherwise."

Victor tried to visualize their future interactions with the English gentry and determine whether or not Dracula's claims to be a French nobleman would cause them problems. Raised bilingual and with a mother who had originated from a French-speaking family, Victor spoke the language fluently enough to be a native speaker, even though the French themselves would have immediately pegged him as Swiss due to his dialect. The English, with a few notable exceptions, would not have a refined enough ear to make such a distinction. 

"You may speak the language, but there is really nothing about you that reads as French," he told the Count. "Did you learn it from books like you did with English?"

"No," Dracula said dryly, clearly not appreciating the insinuation. "I learned it during my lifetime because it was required of princes to know the language of the diplomats. I might have been a failure as a diplomat, but at least I learned French thoroughly."

Victor laughed again, thinking he would never be able to anticipate the other's dry, deadpan delivery of jokes. "Have you ever been to France, though?" he asked.

"No, I have not," Dracula said, "but assuming by the look on your face, you have."

Victor nodded mutely, preferring not to have to go into detail about his own experiences with the Parisian community of intellectuals, so erudite and yet so closed to radical new ideas. Truthfully, he found them worse than the laconic Englishmen, whose norms on what constituted proper behavior held them back from voicing the most caustic and hurtful remarks about someone's character. The French, who were a much more outspoken race and less culturally bound by taboos on rudeness, had wounded the doctor's ego so deeply that he never wished to return to Paris.

Dracula seemed to be contemplating Victor's remark on his assumed nationality, and the doctor could tell he had planted a seed of doubt in Dracula's mind. In order to appear French, and French nobility in particular, the Count would have to put up an act which had a high chance of failure by coming across as too much of a parody.

"I suppose I could be Belgian, also," Dracula finally said. "Or Swiss, like yourself. Some of you grow up speaking only French and have French-sounding surnames, correct?"

"Yes, but--"

"Like your good friend… Clerval, was it?" Dracula recounted having gone through Victor's private correspondence like he was fully entitled to it. "Henry Clerval. Henri." He pronounced it the French way, with a liquid trill. "In fact, you could call yourself Henry Clerval if you wished. Your former friend has likely been deceased for many decades, and he was not significant enough during his lifetime to be remembered after his death. No one would suspect a thing."

"No," Victor said reflexively. Larvae of ice burrowed through his gut at the thought of using Henry's name. Dracula was perceptive enough to notice he'd hit a wall and did not push the subject any further, but he did raise a brow at the doctor, clearly expecting Victor to offer a suggestion himself.

"My mother's maiden name… was Beaufort," he said slowly and hesitantly, as if to habituate his mind to the idea of using that name as his own. The chief language spoken in the Frankenstein household had been German, but Victor still remembered how his mother's soft, lilting voice had struggled to form the thickened, staccato consonants so prevalent in the German tongue. Victor Beaufort? Could he get used to thinking of himself by that name?

"It suits you," Dracula said, his tone unreadable, and Victor wondered if he had just received a compliment or an insult. "Victor Beaufort, my personal physician," he added, eyes beaming with a mildly deranged form of pride. "My genius. I believe we will make an extraordinary team, Victor. Don't you?"

"There is one thing I would like to make clear before we continue," the doctor said, trying to keep his voice and gaze steady despite the furious roar of blood in his ears. It was now or never. He would never get a better opportunity to make his move. "If the two of us are to join forces… it will be as equal partners."

The expression on Dracula's face could be likened to that of a man being forced to drink battery acid. He studied Victor intently, looking for signs that the doctor had made his demand in jest. Upon finding none and realizing Frankenstein had spoken in earnest, he visibly balked.

"You cannot be serious!" the Count exclaimed. "It's my money. My house! I'll be keeping you."

Having foreseen this reaction but hoped for a more concessive attitude nonetheless, Victor sniffled disappointedly. He had a few more cards up his sleeve, and if he wanted to play them, now would be an excellent time.

"I cannot force you to accept my proposition, of course," he said softly, fighting to keep his voice low and even. Victor's voice tended to go up several octaves when he was under pressure, and although he knew from a rational standpoint that Dracula could both hear and sense his rush of blood and thereby deduce his nervous agitation, he still wanted to project a veneer of superficial coolness. "But if you believe you can manufacture my reagent without me..."

A gleam of uncertainty flashed in the vampire's eyes, but just as quickly as it had manifested, his gaze returned to flint. The cool undercurrents circulating their respective bodies could practically be felt in the air, and it made the hairs on Victor's arms rise, but he held the vampire's gaze, willful and determined not to be the first one to look away. He would not be intimidated by the strigoi just as he had refused to be intimidated or wrestled into verbal submission by the likes of Krempe.

"Your formula is flawed. You have said so yourself," Dracula pointed out, every bit as stubborn as the doctor and not prepared to yield to the human's demands. His long sharp fingernails rapped against the wooden table between them in a series of rhythmic movements meant to unsettle Victor by implying impatience on the part of the Count. "I could hire a talented chemist of my own to perfect it."

"You would have to search far and wide for someone as extraordinary as myself," the doctor countered icily. "And should you happen to find someone quickly, you're not guaranteed absolute loyalty or discretion. They might not accept your nature. It could leave you vulnerable to betrayal."

Check.

Dracula's gaze wavered as his brain worked furiously to come up with a logical refutation. Victor, emboldened by the response, decided to go for the killing strike and thrust the metaphorical dagger in all the way to the hilt.

"Then there is the issue with your heart…" he said in a faux contemplative voice, as if the idea had only just occurred to him. "Should you develop problems, no one except I will know what to do. After all, I am the only man in the world to have performed an organ transplant with any measure of success."

Checkmate. He had the proverbial king backed tightly into a corner. Victor felt a sliver of intense pride at having skillfully outmaneuvered a master military strategist like Vlad Dracula, but the softer part of him that felt the Count's wounded pride made it a hollow victory.

"Of course, if you still feel you can get by without me… You're welcome to try your luck," the doctor added, nudging the small vial containing the last of it across the table toward the Count. "After all, it is your money, and I have no say in how you choose to invest your assets."

Dracula's lower lip was trembling, and the muscles in his jaw clenched and unclenched convulsively. His eyes, when he looked at Victor, expressed profound hurt. "You purposely gave me a defective heart to keep me under your thumb, is that so?" he asked in a near whisper.

The doctor internally cringed at such a heinous accusation, but he knew the value of keeping a calm and collected façade during negotiations. "Oh, no. No, no. You misunderstand. I gave you the best, strongest heart I could find." Which was the truth. "Look, all I'm saying is that we have entered unknown waters, and there is no empirical ground for any of my accomplishments. Your new heart could still be fine in one year…or ten.  But there is a distinct possibility that it will age whilst the rest of you does not… and eventually need replacing."

The look of horror and despair on the Count's face was glaringly felt by the doctor, who wondered just for a second if he had pushed Dracula too hard. Victor tried fervently to think of something to smooth over his mistake without negating the entire premise of his argument for being crucial to the Count's continued survival or surrendering his demands for equal partnership. 

"But if I succeed in perfecting my reagent, it won't come to that," Victor said, feeling like he was rehearsing a sales pitch, and promoting himself and his work had never been one of his strengths.

"If I can manufacture a formula that circumvents programmed cell death, you won't ever have to worry about acquiring a new organ. The possibilities are truly limitless. Do you ever wonder where humanity would be if the greatest minds the world has ever known could have lived decades or even centuries past their natural expiration date?" His words flowed more easily now, and Victor could feel himself becoming increasingly animated. "Think of the accomplishments if brilliant men like Da Vinci and Newton could have lived to be as old as you are now, Vlad. Our people could have unlimited power… and unlimited wisdom. We could eradicate all illness, not just the contagious diseases. Imagine a world where doctors like myself would be obsolete. Instead of fighting sickness and death we would be free to explore other branches of science. Who knows where it might lead. Just imagine… interstellar travel. Connecting with other civilizations from faraway galaxies, learning from them."

Victor held his breath in anticipation, cautiously hoping that his passionate spiel had won the Count over and convinced him once and for all to give in to the scientist's unorthodox demands.

Dracula made a sweeping motion with his hand meant to symbolize a new dawn.

"You're a slippery one, Frankenstein, but you can be a competent lecturer when you believe in your own words," Dracula said finally, but he sounded nowhere near as sold on Victor's idea as the doctor had hoped.

The time had come for him to play his very last card; the ace up his sleeve. Victor was somewhat loath to stoop this low, as he wanted to keep his work as free as possible from personal sentiment, but he had - partly through his own folly, by overestimating his ability to engage and persuade - entered into a situation that called for its use.

"There must have been someone in your life that death took prematurely," Victor said and watched a spark ignite in the Count's irises. He had struck gold. "Would you not have given anything to have her back in your arms, healthy and whole?"

Dracula's eyes were now glazed over with tears, and Victor noted with a degree of mild fascination that the fluid was clear this time, containing no traces of blood. One tear escaped his eye and slowly travelled down his alabaster cheek like a translucent ship on a sea of ivory. But instead of extrapolating on the subject that had moved him to tears, Dracula changed the topic of discussion entirely and posed a question of his own.

"Were you raised Catholic, Victor? Had you mentioned any of this to your confessor, he would have told you that you blaspheme."

"No, Protestant," the doctor murmured. Denominations mattered little, since both men of the church and men of the world had dismissed his theories as fantastical lunacy. "Why do you ask?"

The Count's eyes were still slightly damp, but his impulse to weep had passed. When he spoke his voice was low and steady. "You speak of celestial travel and lofty scientific discoveries, Victor, but you appear to have overlooked that in the wrong hands, your discoveries could result in genocide. Soldiers that do not die… Your serum might become a plague upon mankind rather than a blessing."

"I understand you're not what one would call a philanthropist, Vlad," Victor replied sardonically, but he held his ground and returned the ice in the vampire's gaze. "Nor do you hold a high opinion of humanity as a race, and normally I would agree with you, but I also believe that we are able to transcend our current state of semi-barbarism with a nudge in the right direction. Say… does the possibility of being rid of your bloodlust hold any appeal?"

"I would prefer it if you didn't make promises you cannot keep," Dracula said testily. "I've long since come to accept my state as a terminal condition. Giving a patient with a terminal condition hope when there is none is nothing short of cruel. Besides… maybe I like the hunt."

"Do you mean to say that the danger excites you? The thrill of being caught enhances the experience?"

"I have always been fond of hunting, Doctor. My condition necessitates it, certainly, but I am not a needlessly cruel man. Those that fall prey to me are granted a quick passing, and peasants have little to look forward to besides a short life of starvation and consumption."

"You cannot continue living like that if we go to England," Victor argued. He felt like smugly adding "remember what happened last time?" to his statement to give it additional oomph but wisely decided to leave it out. The events were undoubtedly fresh and raw in Dracula's memory and in no need of being jogged.

"I still have to feed, and do not suggest I limit myself to the blood of beasts, or I might throttle you on the spot, Frankenstein."

Frankenstein. The Count only called him that when he was angry or otherwise displeased with Victor, and the doctor could certainly feel the hostility and aggravation emanating from him now. His progress in negotiating better terms for himself had hit a rock-hard wall.

"So as not to attract undue attention to ourselves, I would advise that you limit your sustenance to my Ur-cells and willing live donors. Like myself."

Dracula let out an indignant, reedy bark of laughter. "You're a malnourished alcoholic, Doctor," he pointed out. "If I drink from you too often, I might become one myself."

Touché.

"How about the following," the doctor said, reluctantly reneging on his prior decision not to accept anything less than equal partnership, as it was the only way to move forward from their current stalemate. "You will be my Master everywhere except the laboratory. All financial and logistical decisions are yours to make, but I decide over my own research, and should you wish to participate, it will be as my research assistant."

Dracula opened his mouth supposedly to make an objection, but it died on his tongue because Victor's proposition sounded sensible and would allow him a way out without compromising his stubborn royal pride.

"Those are reasonable terms," the vampire admitted after roughly one minute of tense silence. He leaned across the table toward Victor, and some of his perfectly styled ringlet curls fell in front of his face, partially obscuring his intense green eyes. Dracula picked up the bottle containing the last of the reagent in a dainty grip between thumb and forefinger and held it to his face. The glass distorted his strong aquiline features and made them look almost comically exaggerated.

"I am willing to agree to your terms, on one condition," he said. "You will allow me complete and unrestricted access to your research, and I also want full disclosure on any progress that you make. The laboratory will be your domain, but if I discover that you're attempting to keep something from me, there will be… sanctions." Dracula pursed his lips and hollowed his cheeks in a contemplative expression. "I will cover your living expenses, of course, and I will also give you a monthly allowance to spend how you see fit. Tell me, you're not a gambling man, are you, Victor?"

"Never was." Gambling in a technical sense had never held any appeal to Victor, and he did not see a potential future change in that mindset regardless of what happened around him.

"I am relieved to hear that." The Count stood up and Victor assumed he was going to exit the room, but instead he walked over to the doctor and cupped his face in two long, pale hands, tipping Victor's chin up toward himself. Dracula's sensuous lips were drawn back in an enraptured smile that looked somewhat misplaced on his cruel, hawkish visage, prompting the doctor to wonder if it was his person or the cosmic secrets his mind had the potential to unlock that had caused such a reverential response.

"Then we have an agreement," Dracula said, and although the smile was gone, the expression of reverence partially remained.

"I have but one question," Victor said, and the furious pulsation of blood was back in his ears, loud enough to almost drown out his own voice.

"Oh?" Dracula's fingers carded gently through the doctor's hair, the sensation both soothing and disquieting due to its intimate nature.

"What you said about helping me track down my first creation… did you mean it?" 

The Count chuckled and went on to massaging Victor's scalp with his fingertips. It did wonders for the practically constant tension in the doctor's neck, and Victor realized he would not mind if this treatment became a regular exchange between them.

"I knew you weren't as delirious as you wanted me to believe. But yes, I meant it. I always keep my promises. Should you still wish it, I will help you exact revenge against him."

"But… why?"

"Like I said before, I always enjoy a good hunt. And a good challenge. I bore easily, Doctor. It is in my nature." The vampire leaned forward and planted a chaste but surprisingly warm kiss on Victor's forehead. To exude this kind of heat he must have fed very recently. "My brilliant doctor," he said. "My reanimator."

Dracula was his creature, perfected at last.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Epilogue

Abraham van Helsing noticed that there was a stranger in the audience only moments before he concluded his biannual lecture on 'Tropical Diseases of the Blood' at the University of Amsterdam.

There was nothing about the man that stood out as noteworthy let alone threatening, but as soon as the professor laid eyes on him and was given a moment to study his conduct, he could tell that the stranger had a decidedly nervous disposition. His eyes darted randomly between objects and people, not content to settle on anything for longer than a fraction of a second, and he was anxiously chewing on lips that were unusually dry and chapped, almost raw. The stranger was a blond, mousy bespectacled fellow of average height and a build so thin that his clothes hung from his frame in thick wads of shapeless fabric. He did not look like much to the world, and yet from the way he carried himself, Van Helsing instantly recognized his inherent high intelligence and unquestionably high birth.

The man's age was slightly harder to determine; whilst the crow's feet surrounding his mouth and dark circles around his eyes spoke of many sleepless nights and frivolous drinking habits, his movements were brisk and his joints unhindered by the type of degeneration that generally befell men of an advanced age, Abraham himself included. If he'd had to make an educated guess, he would have estimated the man to be in his early fifties, although it was entirely within the realm of possibility for him to be a badly-aged forty or a well-preserved sixty.

Van Helsing made a mental note to memorize the stranger's features so that he could engage him and quiz him on his intentions if he ever happened to show up again, but this turned out to be unnecessary, as the stranger lingered in the auditorium even after the other listeners began to vacate the premises. The nervous tics displayed by him increased in both strength and frequency, and Van Helsing was suddenly overcome with a feeling of sympathy that was so strong it bordered on pity. Whatever reason the stranger had come for, it was obvious to everyone with two eyes and half a brain that he was under an extreme amount of duress.

To facilitate a contact with the humbled man, Van Helsing made the decision to approach him first. When finished gathering his lecture notes and packing up the items used for practical demonstrations, he called out to the man, unnecessarily loudly, perhaps, given that the two of them were now alone in the lecture theater.

"Sir? May I be of assistance?" he asked in his native Dutch.

The man twitched at either the volume of the professor's voice or the fact that he was now under Van Helsing's intense scrutiny. He peered owlishly from behind his spectacles and seemed at a loss for words. When Abraham came close enough to get a good view of his hands, he noted with some interest that the man's fingernails were all bitten down to the root. Nervous disposition, indeed.

"I… Do you speak English, Professor?" the stranger asked meekly in syntactically excellent but heavily accented English, revealing that he was neither an Englishman nor raised with English as his first language.

Van Helsing smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. "I speak it, yes, but I also speak fluent German, if you would prefer that as our language of communication," he said. Judging from what he'd heard so far, he believed the man's native language to be German, and Abraham rarely missed his mark when he set out to determine somebody's country of origin by the intonation of their speech. The man before him was either a Swiss or a German who had spent many of his childhood summers in Switzerland.

The stranger anxiously looked around as if to ascertain that they were truly alone before daring to speak again. "Do you have a moment to spare, Professor van Helsing?" he said in a near-whisper. "I apologize for imposing on you like this, but I have no one else I could turn to."

"Do not apologize, my friend. My door is always open for people in need," Van Helsing replied softly. "I didn't catch your name, mister…?"

"Oh, pardon me, it's doctor, actually. I am doctor Victor Beaufort." The man offered Van Helsing his hand, and when the professor took it, he realized that Beaufort's skin was just as cold and clammy as it looked.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Doctor," Van Helsing said, but he had to force the words out, and the sentiment expressed was becoming less true by the second. There was something decidedly unsettling about the other man's demeanor and mannerisms, particularly his frequent glances toward the exit, as if he was expecting an imminent assault on his person.

"Are you here to consult me in professional capacity on the topic of rare and obscure diseases?" the professor asked. "If so, it would be an honor to extend my aid to a fellow physician, but at the moment I am a bit pressed for time, so if it's fine by you, Doctor Beaufort, we could set an appointment in the near future to--"

"No!" Beaufort interjected, and the look of abject fright on his face was enough to start the professor as well. When the doctor became aware of the rudeness of his outcry, his features took on an appearance of despondence and he reached for Van Helsing's hand with both of his. "I apologize deeply for my lack of manners, Professor," he said. "But I meant to say that I am not here to consult you on your knowledge of medical things - vast and thorough though it is, I'm sure - but rather… You know… I have received certain information that you…" Beaufort swallowed, salivary glands no doubt working on overdrive to provide moisture to his laboring vocal cords. "That you have certain experience in matters of the supernatural."

A chill ran down Abraham van Helsing's spine, and his fingers suddenly itched to touch the crucifix hanging securely on a chain around his neck for moral and spiritual reassurance. His practice of wearing it at all times was frowned upon by some of his Protestant colleagues who considered it idolatrous, but Abraham was secure in his knowledge that his faith and expressions of the same had saved not only his immortal soul but his corporeal body many times.

The look in his fellow physician's eyes was one of complete conviction; either the man was a lunatic who believed his own delusions, or he was genuinely a man in dire need of help to combat a supernatural enemy. Either way, Van Helsing had to tread carefully from now on.

"What manner of supernatural entity are we talking about?" he asked cautiously. The other man's nervousness was highly infectious, and Van Helsing found himself glancing toward the exit to ensure himself that he was not in danger of being cornered with no way of escape.

"A… a…" Beaufort's lips and then his entire jaw trembled. "…vampire."

"I see. Doctor Beaufort, many of the traditional methods of repelling these creatures are quite sufficient to ward them off. Decorate your home with flowers of wild garlic and rub their scent avidly against the windows and doorways. Always carry on your person a crucifix, and remember to say your prayers at night. The vampire seeks easy victims, so make sure that you don't appear to them as one."

Instead of manifesting relief over having been taken seriously, the fair-haired man projected despair which doubled or even tripled in intensity. "I'm afraid it's too late for such precautions," he whispered. "My mind has been invaded, and I fear that my thoughts are no longer my own. I have strange urges that are foreign to my character, and terrible dreams of destruction and mayhem." Two bright pink spots had appeared on Beaufort's gaunt cheeks, giving color to his otherwise pale, bloodless countenance.

With the added complexity explained to him, the professor's own level of dread rose from mild trepidation to something that was quickly approaching alarm. A vampire powerful enough to attempt mind control of its victims had to be en Elder; two-hundred years old at least and equipped with the strength and resilience only centuries of feeding off of the living could give them. Some garlic flowers, sacred symbols, and a devout expression of faith would not be enough to ward off such a powerful night creature. Before the professor could help Beaufort, however, he needed to conduct a few tests to guarantee the safety of himself as well as that of the man asking for his aid.

"Come here, child," he said mildly. "Do not fear me." Van Helsing pulled the mortified doctor into an awkward embrace with one arm, whilst his free hand deftly unhooked the crucifix from its chain around his neck and then, without warning, pressed the cool golden idol against Beaufort's forehead.

There was no sizzling heat, smoke, or a pained outcry from the doctor to suggest he was infected with vampirism, and when Van Helsing withdrew the crucifix it left no mark on the other's skin. The man was still fully human, which meant there was hope.

"I apologize for my lack of trust, but I needed to make sure you are not here under false pretenses," he explained. "Vampires are masters of lies and deception. Honest, God-fearing men and women who've fallen under the spell of a vampire may act in ways that are in complete opposition of their natural selves."

Beaufort looked puzzled for a moment and then touched the spot on his forehead that had been in contact with the crucifix, acting almost like he didn't trust the outcome. "Do you have personal experience, Professor van Helsing?" he asked. "W-with vampiric possession, that it?"

"As a spectator, but never as a victim," the professor replied, uncertain as to why his dread about the situation had not only remained but intensified despite the fact that he had established Doctor Beaufort to be nothing but an ordinary man. Night creatures and other accursed folks instinctively cowered from the sign of the cross, but the good doctor had barely even batted an eyelid.

Unnerved by the awkward silence, Beaufort reached into his jacket pocket and produced a hip flask from which the unmistakable scent of Dutch brandy emanated strongly. He downed a mouthful of the liquor, which seemed to calm him down enough to allow him to speak again, and Van Helsing concluded with a measure of resigned sadness that it was only natural that a man with such a saturnine temperament would find permanent solace in alcohol. 

"I came to you, because… because I have heard… that you…" Beaufort noisily cleared his throat before speaking the words out loud. "There are rumors, Professor, that you killed The Fell One himself. The Prince of Vampires; Draculea. Is it true?"

"Who told you that?" The moment his question was out, Van Helsing realized it came out much harsher than intended, and he expected the timid stranger to flinch away from him or at the very least avert his gaze, but Beaufort did neither. There was now a hardness to both his eyes and stance that had not been present moments ago, and it awakened something within Abraham that quickly morphed and expanded into pure unadulterated terror. He had made a terrible mistake in allowing this man to approach him in the first place, and since they were alone together, he could not even rely on the public to protect him.

"Actually…" Beaufort narrowed his eyes as though he was solving a mental puzzle. "He did."

In any other context, the bizarre utterance would have provoked disbelief or even outright ridicule given that Van Helsing had personally seen to the beheading of The Fell One and taken ample precautions to make sure Dracula's body would forever remain true-dead. The sound of a door opening and closing drew his attention, and there was a clicking of heels against the marble floor of the auditorium, magnified by the built-in acoustics that allowed for sound to travel without hindrance.

Van Helsing recognized Dracula by his movements before he ever even saw his face. Back from the dead a second time with his head returned to its rightful place on his shoulders, the Count looked rosier and more alive than ever, his green eyes ablaze with demented glee.

"Professor," he said with a toothy grin. "I knew we'd meet again. How are you?"

Van Helsing instinctively raised his hand holding the crucifix toward the Fiend, but he was forced to drop it when Beaufort dealt a devastating blow to his arm from the side that was followed immediately by an expertly delivered punch to the liver. Gasping for breath, the professor was forced down to his knees, and he could only watch through pain-filled terror when the blond man resolutely kicked his golden idol away and forever out of Abraham's reach.

"You don't have to do this, Beaufort," he rasped, knowing it was probably a useless petition but not prepared to give up just yet. "Fight his hold! You are your own man!"

"Oh no, you misunderstand," the doctor said with a disappointed headshake. He shoved the elderly professor down all the way to the floor with relative ease and then knelt by his side, effectively trapping Van Helsing's wrist underneath his knee. Bones ground against one another and creaked audibly within the extended limb, and all Abraham could do was moan helplessly through his pain. The bespectacled man leaned over him, unabashedly showering Van Helsing's face with breath that smelled of brandy and death.

"You see, I am not his creature," he whispered in the professor's ear. "He is mine."

 

                                                                                                     The End