Those Who Hunt the Night
Ballantine Del Rey, 1988
|Series:||James Asher Chronicles: Book 1|
Alternate History (Fantasy)
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Who's been killing the vampires of London, tearing open their coffins to let in lethal sunshine as they sleep--and then drinking their blood?
He made his way up the back stairs from the kitchen. From its unobtrusive door at the far end of the hall he could see no one waiting for him at the top of the front stairs, but that meant nothing. The door of the upstairs parlor gaped like a dark mouth. From the study, a bar of dimmed gold light lay across the carpet like a dropped scarf.
Conscious of the weight of his body on the floor, he moved a few steps forward, close to the wall. By angling his head, he could see a wedge of the room beyond. The divan had been deliberately dragged around to a position in which it would be visible from the hall. Lydia lay on the worn green cushions, her hair unraveled in a great pottery-red coil to the floor. On her breast her long, capable hand was curled protectively around her spectacles, as if she'd taken them off to rest her eyes for a moment; without them, her face looked thin and unprotected in sleep. Only the faint movement of her small breasts beneath the smoky lace of a trailing tea gown showed him she lived at all.
The room was set up as a trap, he thought with the business portion of his mind. Someone waited inside for him to go rushing in at first sight of her, as indeed his every instinct cried out to him to do...
"Come in, Dr. Asher," a quiet voice said from within that glowing amber chamber of books. "I am alone--there is in fact no one else in the house. The young man who looks after your stables is asleep, as you have found your women servants to be. I am seated at your desk, which is in its usual place, and I have no intention of doing you harm tonight."
Spanish, the field agent in him noted--flawless and unaccented, but Spanish all the same--even as the philologist pricked his ears at some odd, almost backcountry inflection to the English, a trace of isolative a here and there, a barely aspirated e just flicking at the ends of some words...
He pushed open the door and stepped inside. The young man sitting at Asher's desk looked up from the dismantled pieces of the revolver and inclined his head in greeting.
"Good evening," he said politely. "For reasons which shall shortly become obvious, let us pass the formality of explanations and proceed to introductions."
It was only barely audible--the rounding of the ou in obvious and the stress shift in explanations--but it sent alarm bells of sheer scholarly curiosity clanging in some half-closed lumber room of his mind. Can't you stop thinking like a philologist even at a time like this... ?
The young man went on, "My name is Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadena-Ysidro, and I am what you call a vampire."
Asher said nothing. An unformed thought aborted itself, leaving white stillness behind.
"Do you believe me?"
Asher realized he was holding his intaken breath, and let it out. His glance sheered to Lydia's throat; his folkloric studies of vampirism had included the cases of so-called "real" vampires, lunatics who had sought to prolong their own twisted lives by drinking or bathing in the blood of young girls. Through the tea gown's open collar he could see the white skin of her throat. No blood stained the fragile ecru of the lace around it. Then his eyes went back to Ysidro, in whose soft tones he had heard the absolute conviction of a madman. Yet, looking at that slender form behind his desk, he was conscious of a queer creeping sensation of the skin on the back of his neck, an uneasy sense of having thought he was descending a stair and, instead, stepping from the edge of a cliff...
The name was Spanish--the young man's bleached fairness might well hail from the northern provinces where the Moors had never gone calling. Around the thin, high-nosed hidalgo face, his colorless hair hung like spider silk, fine as cobweb and longer than men wore it these days. The eyes were scarcely darker, a pale, yellowish amber, flecked here and there with pleats of faded brown or gray--eyes which should have seemed catlike, but didn't. There was an odd luminosity to them, an unplaceable glittering quality, even in the gaslight, that troubled Asher. Their very paleness, contrasting with the moleskin-soft black velvet of the man's coat collar, pointed up the absolute pallor of the delicate features, far more like a corpse's than a living man's, save for their mobile softness.
From his own experiences in Germany and Russia, Asher knew how easy such a pallor was to fake, particularly by gaslight. And it might simply be madness or drugs that glittered at him from those grave yellow eyes. Yet there was an eerie quality to Don Simon Ysidro, an immobility so total it was as if he had been there behind the desk for hundreds of years, waiting...
As Asher knelt beside Lydia to feel her pulse, he kept his eyes on the Spaniard, sensing the danger in the man. And even as his mind at last identified the underlying inflections of speech, he realized, with an odd, sinking chill, whence that dreadful sense of stillness stemmed.
The tonal shift in a few of his word endings was characteristic of those areas which had been linguistically isolated since the end of the sixteenth century.
And except when he spoke, Don Simon Ysidro did not appear to be breathing.
The carving knife still in his left hand, Asher got to his feet and said, "Come here."
Copyright © 1988 by Barbara Hambly
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