Sixth Moon, 352

Head down, I held fast to the rock face like some impossible spider and let my eyes roam this section of the mountain once more, hoping to find some trace of her passage. It was a sheer drop from the castle overlook a thousand feet above, and this would be the spot where her body would have first touched earth.

Touched... and shattered.

I shook that thought from my mind. It had haunted me constantly during my initial searches. I knew what to expect. In my former life, I'd dealt with the horrid aftermath of death in countless forms: bodies hacked to pieces, burned black, in quiet repose, skeletal from decomposition, or bloated from watery immersion. For all my love for her, I could not delude myself into assuming Tatyana would be exempt from the normal course of nature.

By this time, she would have gone to bone, perhaps with some tatters of her white silk wedding gown clinging to them along with remnants of her thick russet hair. I still needed to find her, though, to at least lay those bones to rest.

Enough of that former self remained in me to want to make some memorial to her, for in so doing, I might be able to find some peace within for myself.

The night after her death had been the beginning of my search, and I'd been down here nearly every night since then, going over each stone, peering into each crevice. No trace. Nothing.

Perhaps whatever had taken Alex Gwilym's body from a locked closet had seized her as well. I did not like to think about that possibility, yet it hovered on the edge of my mind like a wisp of poisonous smoke.

When autumn set in with its cold mists, I kept up my search, moving farther down the cliff face to the wooded areas below. I'd been through them already, but as the trees and bushes lost their leaves, I'd hoped to discover anything that might have been missed earlier: a thread of silk, a seed pearl broken off from her dress. On clear nights I was able to cover a vast amount of ground, but as always - nothing.

The winter had been especially harsh; the snow and ice made footing too treacherous even for me. During the worst of it, I shut myself up in my study and resumed magical experimentation, this time with greater success than I'd ever known before. The results of my work now stalked the halls of Castle Ravenloft. They were not company, but I'd wanted servants, not diversion.

Spring came, with its shortening nights and icy rains. I'd extended my search far beyond the area below the overlook, with the idea that some animal might have found and dragged her body away. I also questioned the shepherds who dared to keep their flocks this close to the castle. Had any of them found a maiden's body clad in white? None had, and by the way that I'd questioned them, I knew they spoke the truth.

I moved sideways now, hands and booted feet finding solid holds on the smoothest planes of rock - yet another power granted to me by my "pact with Death," as I had come to call it. Since then, I'd heard no more taunting voices. Sometimes I wondered if I should be thankful or wary over their absence. Most of the time I ignored the silence, having other cares to occupy me.

Like my constant need for blood.

For the last year, Leo Dilisnya's men had fulfilled that need. Singly or in terrified groups, I'd captured the lot, taking them down to the cells far below the keep, and successfully kept most of them alive in that time. By trial and error, I learned just how much to take to feed myself, yet not kill. Not that I harbored any thoughts of mercy for them; the idea was to enforce my own self-discipline. I could have drained each to the dregs and still hungered, but that would have quickly deprived me of a larder. Hence, I made myself break away before it was too late for the subject.

Of course, when I was very hungry, this was not so easy to judge.

As the men grew weak from their blood loss and confinement, they died. Not a few went mad. But I had no pity for them, for had I not myself seen to the disposal of their own victims? How cheerfully they had carved into the guests under my protection, no doubt thinking of the fine rewards coming to them from Leo. Most had not waited, and looted the bodies as they worked. I discovered this early on when one of them got the idea of braiding his torn garments together into a rope and hanging himself. Out of necessity, I had to deprive the rest of their clothing and thus found the stolen gold and trinkets. I let them keep their treasure, allowing them the opportunity to fully contemplate its true importance and price.

My trips to the dungeons to throw them food and drink would often yield up another corpse to be removed, which I did without complaint. When that happened, I left off my search for the night and carried the body away to my working room.

There, by methods set down in detail in my books, I was able to put new life - of a sort - into it. Garbed again in my colors, they took the place of the slaughtered servants and armsmen, guarding and maintaining that which they had come to despoil.

It seemed only just.

My climb brought me to a craggy outcrop and a glimmer of white caught my eye; I clambered over to it, trying to suspend my hopes, but failing. It proved to be not a pearl or a diamond, but nothing more than a bit of quartz caught in the moonlight. I started to cast it away with a curse, then pocketed it at the last second. There was a slim chance I would have found it again on a future search and only repeated this present disappointment.

If I even bothered to continue.

I'd spent much of the last year crawling all over this face of Mount Ghakis like an ant searching for crumbs; little wonder if my discouragement began to outweigh my desire for solace. My fear that she'd been taken away as had Alek was looking more and more likely now, and if I wanted her back, perhaps another pact was called for. The question was, what else might be demanded of me in sacrifice? I'd lost everything already, at least everything ordinary humans placed a value on. What I had received in return... well, there was little point to any of it without Tatyana.

Secretly, so far back in my mind as to hardly be there, was the thought that if I was able to put her to a final rest, I would join her, to be her husband in death as I'd not been able to be in life. Splitting my heart with a staff of wood, cutting off my head, stranding myself in the sunny dawn - something could be arranged with or without help from others.

Death was not beyond me, if I chose to reach for it.

This night's search was coming to an end, though. I could scent the change in the air. Turning, I scrambled up the rock as easily as another man might walk over level ground. A trivial task now, and really too slow, but I only wanted to gain some extra height. Some thirty yards up, I summoned and gave in to a now inherent ability to change my very shape. My body began to shrink: arms closed in, fingers grew long, even my clothes melded to my flesh, turning into the softest of black fur. It was painless and freeing, and once the process was finished, I launched into the open air, catching the sky with my wings.

The wind was greater than I'd estimated; it had more impact on this form.

Fingers stretched to their limit, I struck a steady beat with them and rose high, fighting the downdraft from the face of the cliff. Along with my shape, my vision had altered. I could see very well, but all color had been washed away; I still wasn't quite used to it. This was balanced by a considerable improvement to my hearing, allowing me to know within the smallest fraction the distance of any given object from me.

I spiraled up and up, first the cliff swinging into view, then the valley. Stars glowed hot above, cool darkness reigned below, and I soared carelessly in between, master of the air.

The overlook came level now, but I avoided it and sped toward the front of the keep. I'd made a small opening in an inconspicuous place above the doors and squeezed through into the front entry. Keeping this form, I flew swiftly through the rooms to the hall stairs and in a reverse of my ascent, spiraled down again.

This passage was in total darkness, forcing me to completely rely on my ears to keep from hitting anything along the way. Near the bottom, I located another minute chink in the masonry and pushed my way in.

It was a long crawl for a creature of my size, a dozen feet or more, but shorter than the other way, which called for me to cut through the chapel and use the high tower stairs instead. The chapel was long desecrated and therefore safe for me to enter, but I still didn't care to go into it. The memories hanging there along with the dusty wedding decorations were too painful to face just yet.

I emerged into a vast chamber that housed the crypts of those who had lived here before me, and of a few who had died since my own occupation. Despite these quiet neighbors, this place was not silent. The heavy air was filled with the sound and motion of thousands of other bats, who had long ago established a sanctuary in this spot.

In the past, there'd been some talk by one of my engineers about destroying them, but I chose to let them live on, unmolested. The insect population in Barovia was legendary, and the bats were very necessary to maintain control over their numbers, especially in the late spring, when the sting-flies were rampant.

They were another reason why I did not use the high tower: it was their own particular entrance. Easy-natured animals that they were, I preferred to hold aloof from the colony and spare myself from their wild rush indoors by that route. I'd tried it once, entering with them beneath the eaves of the cone-shaped roof, then half-flew, half-tumbled nearly four hundred feet down to the crypts. It wasn't an experience I planned to repeat. The bats were gregarious, I was not - though I didn't mind their company, nor they mine.

I hovered in place and, with a sudden surge of inner strength, resumed the shape of a man again. There was no light of any sort here, either, but I hardly needed it. The clustered bodies of the bats shed enough warm illumination for me to pick my way around the crypts and piles of guano. A few of the creatures knew me, perhaps recognizing one of their own in some way. They flapped down and lighted on my shoulders and arms, greeting me with joyful chirps and twitters.

Two of the more spoiled ones landed in my open palm, allowing me to stroke their backs with the lightest touch of my little finger. Their fur was so soft as to hardly be felt. The ones on my head playfully tickled my ears and tugged at my hair.

But it was very late. I had no time to spare for socializing.

With a gentle shake to tell them to flutter back to their roosts, I made my way to the right and down some steps to my... tomb.

To be honest, I didn't know what else to call it. My bedroom and study were several stories above this place and were, for all practical purposes, where I lived. This was the place where I died. I'd never really held a fear of death itself, mostly a loathing of its attendant aging. As age had been eliminated for me, only death remained, measured out in palatable doses that lasted from sunrise to sunset. I'd resigned myself to it, having little other choice, and had come to welcome the soothing forgetfulness that encompassed my brain. It was better than sleep. No nightmares.

No dreams at all.

As might be expected of one who spends a portion of his time in death's embrace, I had a coffin. Any bed would have served, I suppose, but since it was already placed here and ready, it seemed a shame not to put it to use. It was excellent protection against intruders, human or otherwise. Though the chances were very slight of anyone finding his or her way down here, I knew most people aren't overly anxious to open up a coffin. On the other hand, anybody bold enough to get this far would hardly quail about going a bit farther, though I had allowed for that, making sure, by many different means, that no one could get close enough to disturb me.

But the primary advantage for resting in a coffin was that once the lid was lowered, I was safe from roaming insects and curious rodents. I could control and use such creatures, but didn't care to have them creeping all over me. It is a rare craftsman who likes to sleep with his tools.

The box itself was a brilliant example of the coffin maker's art, all smooth black wood with a highly polished and waxed finish, marred only by its brass fittings. When it had been commissioned years before, I'd specifically ordered them to be made from gold. The artist had promised to rectify the mistake. I was still waiting.

It rested, without dignity, right in the dirt on the floor - another problem that would likely never be corrected. The special black marble purchased for the finishing of this room and the construction of my crypt had been held up by some tariff dispute that had yet to be settled. Two years ago, I'd received a cringingly respectful notice from the owners of the warehouse where the marble sat, undelivered, inviting me to pay a nominal storage fee. I dutifully sent money and added a note that I'd be only too happy to reward them well if they could arrange a speedy delivery of the goods themselves. Again, I was still waiting.

That a man such as myself, with my dislike (while I lived) of all reminders of death, should have been so concerned with the disposal of my remains, may seem odd. The fact is, I suffered an occasional fit of practicality and had made arrangements during those brief periods, secure in the knowledge that I was the only one who would see that they were done correctly. Death, as I had come to know a thousand times over in battle, was an all-too-easy encounter for a soldier, or anyone, for that matter. Better to prepare for the worst then try to forget about it than put it off only to realize too late your survivors were going to botch things.

Of course, in all that time I had never once conceived that my coffin would be put to such an intermittent use.

The sun was coming. There were some stained glass windows facing east in another part of the crypt, so distant as to make the penetration of true light into this section impossible. But I was not about to take any risks. Yet another good reason to have a solid bit of wood between me and destruction. I raised the lid, stepped in and lay flat, lowering it as one pulls up a comforting blanket against the chill.

Silence... then oblivion. The sun was up.

*****

One year ago, my officers of the exchequer, ignorant of the terrible happenings that had taken place at Castle Ravenloft, had seen to their tasks as usual.

However, when they brought the taxes in a few days after and found the drawbridge raised and no one there to answer their hails, they grew decidedly uneasy. That evening, the wind carried the small sounds of their encampment over the walls to me.

I climbed up to the battlements of the curtain wall to have a look and was not a little surprised to find them settled between the gatehouses, cooking supper.

They were a prosaic tie to a life I thought had been left behind. Now I came to realize I was yet ruler of Barovia, with responsibilities and duties to perform.

With some changes.

Roused from my many griefs by the needs of command, I quickly realized the officers could not be allowed to come inside the keep. As former soldiers, they'd recognize the brown patches staining the grass and earth of the courtyard as blood. That was alarming enough; but one side of the courtyard was still piled with the remains of the funeral pyre I'd made for my slain vassals and servants. They'd know something very serious had gone wrong here, and to not answer their questions about it would only invite morbid and - no doubt - highly erroneous speculation.

However, giving them the truth was an equally unwise move. I had no wish for anyone to return and plague me with hammer, stake, and holy symbols under the mistaken impression they were doing me a favor. My present existence did not look wholly enjoyable at the moment, but I wasn't ready to give it up just yet.

Several ideas came to me on how to deal with this situation, including having them join Leo's men in the dungeons. That had a certain neatness to it, but was quite bereft of honor: they were sworn into my service, and I, in turn, was sworn to protect them. My change from life to unlife had not negated that pledge.

After a period of long thought, I decided not to confront them at all. Returning to my study, I drafted a simple document instructing them to leave the tax money at the gate and consider themselves honorably discharged from my service. I invited them to seek employment with Victor Wachter and gave permission to their commander to dispense twenty pieces of gold to each man - twenty-five for himself - out of the tax money, and record it in the ledger. Rather trusting of me in a way, but the man had been with me long enough to know my supreme lack of tolerance for thieves.

Closing it with my personal seal, I tucked it into a pocket, assumed the form of a bat to fly over the wall, and landed in a stand of trees close to their camp.

A man again, I crept in close, waited for the sentry to look the other way, and tossed the scroll among them. It happened to strike the commander squarely in the face, which woke him instantly and caused no small alarm and confusion for some time thereafter.

When they finally settled down, read the thing, and discussed it thoroughly, most of the night was gone. But in the end, they obeyed my final orders, albeit with extreme puzzlement; it was for the best, whether they knew it or not.

They'd have a bit of a mystery to plague them, but better that than the truth.

The procedure of writing out my orders had worked so well, I continued to employ it for all future business, public and private. It spared me from having to deal directly with people, something I had never relished, and afforded them a degree of safety from me. Despite my ample larder in the dungeon, in those early days I was not yet sure of my ability to control my new appetite. The wisdom of this was proved out by the occasional death of one of Leo's men when I forgot myself and overfed. Vast powers were mine to command, but arrogance and over-confidence had been the downfall of many others before me.

Until I learned to master myself, I was my own greatest enemy.

But, ready or not, the first full moon after the summer solstice was on the rise, meaning it was time to take in the taxes.

*****

By written orders, given first to the local burgomasters and spread by them to all the boyars, I made it known that they were to bring their collections to the Village of Barovia or to Vallaki, whichever was closer. There, they would turn the money over to the burgomaster, who would see to its final journey up the mountain to the castle. I made several copies of the order in my own hand and with all the official seals; I expected no trouble. My initial year of occupation - along with its judicious and much-talked-about executions - had inspired a new spirit of honesty in the land, after all.

As far as I could tell from my distant view of things, all was going smoothly.

Upon awakening the next night, I went straight up to the east curtain wall and noted a number of new wagons and carts cluttering the narrow streets of the village below. There were also many more lanterns burning than usual, indicating a temporary rise in the population. The innkeepers and merchants were probably reaping a hefty benefit out of it, which they would have to account for next year, but for now all was good profit.

The night following the full moon, I looked down from the west wall and saw with approval that my orders had been carried out. Several chests stood waiting to be picked up, a task I could delegate to my silent servants as soon as I lowered the drawbridge and raised the portcullis. Summoning arcane power, I did this, adding to it a mental call for the things to trudge forth from the keep.

Wanting to supervise the task myself, I went across the bridge as soon as it was down to have a look around. This turned out to be a fortunate move on my part, as I discovered. Contrary to my instructions, someone had lingered behind.

This both angered and intrigued me. People ignored my orders at their own gravest peril. Danger aside, this was the first intrusion in a year of isolation, and I was interested in testing my self-control. Here also was my chance to speak with another person and determine if the changes in me were too obvious to go unnoticed. I discounted the opinions of the wretches in the dungeons; they had ever and always been a source of food, and I'd never bothered to conceal my true nature from them.

I paused halfway across to study my visitors: a mountain pony cropping grass just beyond the guardhouses and, standing close to it, a figure huddled in a traveling cloak. The cloak's hood was pulled well forward, for even in the summer the nights can be chilly this high up. We faced each other without speaking for a moment or two, then the pony must have caught my scent, for its head jerked up with a squeal of alarm and it tried to break away from the rope holding it to a tree.

I'd had similar experiences with the horses that had been left behind last year.

The animals either adjusted or didn't. Those that could not tolerate me I eventually set free near some of the farms in the valley.

The pony, while not at all happy about my presence, eventually calmed down - if standing stiff-legged, trembling, and covered with sweat may be considered calm.

Its owner turned toward me again, discovering that I had come in rather close.

She was a sturdy woman of thirty years, wearing the ubiquitous black clothes of mourning. The Barovian custom for females to wear black for five years after the death of even their most distant relatives lent a universal drabness to their dress. From the look of things, the woman's bereavement was a recent one, as the dyes had not yet faded in washing. The stark color suited her, though, as it did so few of her sisters. Her cloak was of fine wool, held at the throat by a brass pin with bits of glass set into it. Neither wealthy nor poor, she seemed to belong somewhere in between; probably a villager, as she looked too well-scrubbed for farming or herding sheep.

"Greetings, sir," she said, dropping into a passable imitation of a court curtsy.

"Were you unaware of the orders issued to the burgomasters?" I demanded, forgoing further preamble. "You should not be here."

"I know that, sir, but it could not be helped." Her accent was slightly different from the local one and words came smoothly to her. She'd had some education, then, and was accustomed to dealing with people.

"Explain your presence. What caused you to disobey Lord Strahd's commands?"

"I am Dagmar Olavnya, Burgomaster of Immol, a village several day's ride south of here - "

"I know where it is."

Rather than being intimidated by my manner, she merely nodded and accepted the information. She'd probably taken me for one of the minor servitors of the castle, someone with a rank fairly equal to her own. "I was on my way to the Village of Barovia with Lord Strahd's tax money when we were set upon by thieves - "

"Who stole it all."

She did not miss the heavy sarcasm of my tone. "Half was stolen. They would have taken the other half if not for my brothers. Both were wounded trying to drive the men off. You can send someone down to the hospice in the village if you don't believe me. The oldest is still unconscious, and the youngest isn't able to speak yet because of the stitches, but he can nod and shake his head to questions."

I came near enough to stare right into her eyes. She stood her ground and met my look, but her firmness wavered after a moment. With hardly any effort on my part, my mind touched hard upon hers. Touched... and subdued. "Do you speak the truth, Dagmar Olavnya?"

"Yes," she whispered.

She was a fine-looking woman, and I had never been immune to the effects of beauty. It would have been regrettable to have had her whipped to death, as had proved necessary for the last burgomaster who had given this same story. It was good to know she was not the liar he'd turned out to be.

Removing my influence, I allowed her to awaken on her own. She blinked once, then resumed her tale as if there had been no break. "I came here to tell Lord Strahd of this crime and ask that he give Immol time to replace the missing half of the tax."

"Why not take it back from the thieves?"

"They ran off into the woods. An army could not find them now, much less myself and two wounded men who won't be able to ride for at least a week. Even if I went alone, I'm not skilled with arms."

"And if you were, you'd go after them?"

She started to answer, then turned it into a sigh. The first indication that she could smile played once over her face, like the gleam of light that comes and goes on a swift stream. "Perhaps not alone. That might be foolish."

"Very foolish," I added, with something like a smile trying to tug at my own features. Then I crushed it and the thought behind it and stepped away from her.

"Will you see that Lord Strahd hears my story?" she asked.

"He already has."

She had a quick mind. While some of the peasants, and not a few of the nobles, might have gawked and asked for an explanation, she understood right away, instantly dropping into another curtsy and staying there.

"Forgive me, my lord, I did not know you."

I waved a hand at her, which she did not notice since her head was bowed. "Get up Burgomaster Olavnya."

She did... just in time to see the first of my servants stepping off the drawbridge. I was used to their looks by now, and though the stench was very bad, I had no need to breathe. But both of these qualities struck Dagmar - unprepared as she was - as a single heavy blow. She reeled back against her pony, her mouth opening for what should have been a hearty screech, but she seemed too much shocked to remember how.

Her pony supplied enough noise for them both. He gave out with a near-human scream and did his best to tear away again. My horseman's instincts came forth, and without thinking, I stepped in to keep him under control. If he got away in this part of Mount Ghakis, he'd be wolf food before dawn. I seized his bit and extended my will over him as I had done to his mistress, but with far less subtlely and greater strength. He instantly went quiet, though his trembling continued.

Dagmar had slipped over to the tree, her attention torn between the waiting servants and me. If I read her expression correctly, she was trying to decide which of us was the greater terror. I could have soothed her like the pony, but now seemed as good a time as any to give the peasants a tangible reason to keep their distance from the castle. Being a fearful and highly superstitious lot, it wouldn't take much.

"They won't hurt you," I said, glancing from the pony to Dagmar.

She eventually found her voice, though not very much of it. Had I still been human, I might not have heard her. "What are they?"

"Dead."

Now her eyes focused wholly on me, as though she'd made her decision. "They serve you?"

"I am their master," I confirmed.

Her self-possession, of which she had a fair quantity, failed. She made the sign of protection against evil, but it was more a reflex action than anything else.

Without true faith behind it, it had little power over me. In this case, the spiritual buffeting was negligible and easily ignored. I threw another silent command at the things, and they began lifting the chests and carrying them into the keep.

She remained frozen until the last of them had stalked back across the drawbridge.

"They said you were a devil," she murmured, watching the things go, her eyes seeming twice as big as normal. It made her look very young.

"Perhaps they were right." I withdrew myself a few yards upwind from her; the scent of her fear was just a little too tantalizing.

"What will you do with me?"

"Nothing."

That is, if she was very, very lucky. I hadn't fed tonight, and even across the space between us, I could hear the call of her blood. Another provocation from a different kind of hunger was the fact that it had been a long time since I'd lain with a woman. My appetite had changed me so that I was now finding myself as vulnerable as a new-bearded boy, and many times more eager than what was considered acceptable. I had to keep control of myself, or Dagmar would find herself unwillingly fulfilling both needs at the same time.

Turning from her, I dug my hands into my pockets. My fingers closed over the piece of quartz I'd found the other night. I clenched it tight, grinding its rougher edges into my palm. The pain was good. Distracting.

It also reminded me of Tatyana and my long search for her. I'd have to forgo it tonight in favor of other errands.

"Tell me about the thieves," I said, my voice somewhat harsh. "Tell me everything you remember, where and when, how many, their weapons... everything."

Dagmar had a store of courage in her, else she wouldn't have come up the mountain alone and against my orders in the first place. She drew upon it again and managed to give a fairly complete account of her misfortune.

"You were overmatched. Your brothers must have fought very bravely."

"They were soldiers during the war."

"Their commander?"

"Lord Markous."

He'd been one of the wedding guests. "A good man." Now a dead one.

"He trained them well."

"And it served them well." I paced up and down, working out times and distances in my head and concluding the trip wouldn't require me to stay out for the day.

I'd speculated about journeys that would take me out of the sanctuary of the keep, but had never really planned anything. Though this one had been thrust upon me, I was suddenly looking forward to it. I'd shut myself away for far too long, and whether she knew it or not, Dagmar had caused me to realize the fact.

Pacing finished, calculations finished, I had but one more detail to see to.

"I shall have to insist you remain here for the rest of the night," I said. "It is too dangerous a journey down to the village in the dark, and the accommodations of the castle are, at present, limited." I was being diplomatic, thinking she wouldn't care to be in close quarters with the servants.

"There is plenty of moonlight. I can find my way back."

"Can your pony outrun wolves?"

She glanced at the shivering creature, then at the unrelieved blackness of the surrounding forest. I recalled that even the brightest noon sun had difficulty penetrating some of its more dense tangles. Though I could have commanded all the wolves in the area not to molest either of them, it would be better for her to stay here. Traveling over Mount Ghakis during the day was hazardous enough, at night she could lose her way... fall... No. I would not have that happening again.

"Come over here." She followed me to one of the guardhouses. I pushed the door open, it was dusty inside, and we disturbed some birds nesting high above, but the space was dry and enclosed. "There's enough room for you both. The wolves of Mount Ghakis are ferocious, but I've yet to hear of one who could break through a handspan of oak. Have you food enough for the night?"

She nodded. "And water."

"Very well. Stay here. I may be back before morning, or I may not. Either way, you'll return to the village tomorrow." Again, if she was very, very lucky.

"Yes, my lord." There were questions on her face, but something within her may have warned of the folly of asking them.

She got her pony, leading him into the guardhouse, and I walked away into the darkness before I might forget myself and change her luck for the worse.

As soon as the road made its curve to the north, I took on wings, climbed high, and traveled east toward the village, leaving behind all the great switchbacks, covering several hours of travel in a fraction of the time. Flying more like a bird than a bat, I held my wings out and coasted on the air with little effort.

Yes, I had shut myself away for far too long. The air was clear and cold, with just enough wind to force me to work, and the labor felt good. It exhilarated and charged up my imagination with the potentials awaiting me. Tonight I would dance with the stars; tomorrow I'd race along the forest carpet with my brothers, the wolves, or flow like smoke into secret places never touched by a man. A fresh restlessness had come upon me; it was time to give up my constant brooding, and to explore.

*****

Once past the village and the ancient gates of Barovia, I paid strict attention to landmarks; just because I had mastered the art of flying did not mean I was used to reading the details of the ground. That which is familiar at eye-level looks totally different a thousand feet up. The castle was always at my back and would serve as my best guide for the return trip, but I needed to keep track of landmarks so as not to miss the spot where Dagmar and her brothers had been attacked.

About five miles past the gates, the Old Svalich Road and the River Ivlis made a gradual push to the north to go around a high spur of Mount Ghakis. It was an outcrop of equal height to the one the castle had been built on, and it might have also made a fine spot for a fortress. In fact, I had sent an architect and a party of engineers to see if just such a project was feasible and learned what previous generations had learned: the rock wasn't stable enough to support any structures. Faults riddled the summit, constantly breaking off boulders that littered the narrow pass at its feet; some of the stones even crashed down with enough force to splash into the river itself.

It was here that half a dozen men had burst, shouting, from the trees north of the road to trap Dagmar's party against the river. The fight had been vicious but short; the thieves were interested only in whatever money they could take - that, or Dagmar's brothers had made them think twice about the risks of taking aught else. They'd fled down the Svalich Road, boldly using it as though they had as much right to do so as any law-keeping citizen.

Drawn by the smell of dried blood lingering in the air, I found the place. A great patch of blood stained the dust of the road. One of the brothers had successfully killed a thief here. The body had been dragged off the road and interred in a hasty grave, I noted. Once Dagmar had reached Barovia, the burgomaster had sent people out to investigate, and they'd performed the burial, probably without benefit of any services - something that suited me well enough. I dropped down here and stretched into a man's shape again.

The grave was shallow and currently under excavation by wolves, who were enthusiastically digging at the mound of earth in hopes of an easy meal. They broke off when they sensed my approach. A pack of eight or nine adults, they now crouched and whimpered, anxious of my temper. I said a few words of encouragement and had the lot of them fawning at my feet, like hunting hounds looking for a scratch behind the ears. I indulged only a few and invited the rest to continue their digging. When they reached the body, I ordered them away.

Whining unhappily, they obeyed, perhaps worried I would deprive them of their banquet.

I wrested the body from the hole and laid it out flat. He'd been a young man, and the earth clinging to him did not improve his already rough features, but I wasn't interested in his looks so much as the latent knowledge that might still be taken from him.

That would require the dark magic, but I'd performed the ceremony often enough, and carried the necessary components with me.

A drop of blood... a bit of flesh... a scant amount of bone, combined with the right words of power and he rose as one of mine, a new servant brought back for a specific task.

When he stood once again, empty eyes staring at nothing, the wolves fled silently into the forest. As their master, I could call them back if needed, but for now they could follow their instincts and leave in peace; their help was no longer required.

"Seek out your former companions," I told the thing.

It did not move very fast, but then, his friends had not gone very far. They'd made their camp less than a mile down the road from their crime and had taken no pains to conceal it. Outwardly, they looked no different from any other travelers; something they may have cultivated as cover.

In my time as a ruler, I noticed that those who, by circumstance or inclination, made their living from theft and murder were not especially gifted with a surfeit of brains. There were many exceptions to this, but for the most part thieves thought of little else beyond their next meal or the gratification of some immediate want. They were cunning enough to learn the skills needed for their work and to hide themselves either in the wilds or amongst the other men, but beyond that I found them to be rather naive. They always seemed horribly surprised when the consequences of their actions caught up with them.

The surprise of this particular band was all the more intense, though, since it was one of their own who walked in on them. To be fair, the fact that he was dead had the most striking influence on their reaction.

They'd posted a guard to watch while they slept, and he must have been on the verge of nodding off himself when he saw my servant emerge from the darkness beyond their fire. He gave a jump and caught himself, as though having second thoughts about what his eyes told him. Then, when the apparition failed to vanish before his now wide-awake mind, he let out a yell that carried all through the valley.

The rest of the band were jolted from their rest and on their feet and ready to fight before they had quite sorted themselves out. My servant stood motionless among them, and I derived much amusement watching the fools as they suddenly discovered his presence.

Their initial astonishment was soon replaced by the instant revulsion most people have for the dead - particularly for those magically animated. Their reaction was violent, and it made full use of their weapons. While their target was not at all fast, the damage he wrought against them barehanded was appalling. He crushed the head of one man with a single blow, another got a broken arm when he strayed too close in his attack. The others learned caution, but had given themselves over to fear - a sign that they'd already lost the battle.

The watchman had backed out of the melee entirely. I could see he was preparing to risk the perils of the forest over this threat. He got only as far as the edge of the clearing before I swept him from his feet and slammed him into a convenient tree.

My servant, who was keeping the rest busy, was coming to the end of his usefulness. Of the two men left, one was either unconscious or too injured to move, and the other looked ready to bolt despite the fact that he was close to finishing off his former friend. He'd severed one arm at the elbow, restricting its ability to fight, but perhaps was unnerved because the arm continued to crawl toward him. That action appeared to alarm him more than anything else.

I might have found continued amusement in his frantic attempts to avoid it, but the night was passing. I canceled the magic that animated the corpse so that it collapsed back to its natural state of non-movement, then stepped in and saw to the temporary disposal of the last able man.

Later, when they awoke to find themselves bound and helpless, with me standing over them as their judge, I saw to it that they made up for their late mischiefs in the fullest possible measure. Any other time, they'd have been put to the sword - the standard fate of a thief in this land - but as final arbiter of my own laws, I could make changes as I saw fit. Besides, such scum were beyond any honorable death from a blade. Instead, I raised the nearest struggling man up and, with the greatest of pleasure, tore into his throat.

And fed.

His blood raced through me like wind and fire, like the hot rage of battle, with its delirious blending of terror and joy.

When I'd finished with this one, I seized another who was screaming and fighting to get away and did the same to him, drinking deeply until nothing was left.

No need to ration myself, no need to take care not to kill, tonight I'd sup on the lot of them, adding their strength to my own.

*****

Some time after the feasting, I saw to my other work, deriving an unfamiliar satisfaction from labor that in the past I would have delegated to my lesser troops.

I'd found the stolen taxes on the bodies, along with a number of other monies, indication that they had been at their trade for a goodly time. I left the latter scattered about the clearing along with the bodies, free to any passing scavengers, whatever their interest.

As far as the money was concerned, one might liberally interpret this as being wasteful; I'd gone to such trouble retrieving Immol's tax that it might be thought I had sore need of the funds, but not so. This half of their paltry due was nothing to me. All I cared about was the fact that someone had boldly dared to take it, defying my authority. The armies I'd commanded were gone now, but I would always uphold the legacy we'd brought to this land, namely that I was lord and law here, and I would not suffer any incursions against me, whatever their form.

So it was that these thieves, now beheaded (the heads impaled on tall staves of wood to keep them out of reach of the wolves), would serve as an example to others who might think of taking up their base trade. I rammed the poles firmly into the earth next to the road, then, on a leather jerkin stripped from a body, carefully printed my warning, using blood for ink. It would do until the village burgomaster, under the orders he would soon receive, put up something a little more permanent.

I hung the garment from a crosspiece tied to one of the poles. It read: "Thieves beware. I, Strahd, walk the land."

Making my way to the banks of the Ivlis, south of the road, I bathed the stink of my work from my face and hands, careful not to fall into the deadly stream, myself. (I'd learned from books of necrological lore that running water was no friend to me, but could only really be harmful if I were foolish enough to let my heart be immersed.) I finished my ablutions and took to the air again, beating my way back to the castle.

On her journey home, Dagmar would pass the place and perhaps shudder. Or perhaps not. She'd already seen my castle guards, and they were far worse to look upon than these harmless relics. She was a strong spirit.

Since she'd last seen me walking down the road, it seemed best to return from that direction, just in case she were watching. I could have saved myself the trouble; the door of the guardhouse was shut, and when I pressed an ear to it, I heard the steady breathing of one who is fast asleep.

Her pony - damn the beast - sensed me once again and made enough commotion to wake her. I heard her gasp of alarm, then soft movements as she got up and came to the door to listen. It made me think of some staged farce where two players unknowingly mirror each other's actions on each side of a door. I straightened and stepped back, then called to her.

She eased the door open, a knife in her hand. The woman had courage as well as spirit.

"My lord has seen some trouble?" she asked, putting the knife away. The moon was only just past its full, and it still rode high in the sky, shedding more than enough light for her to see clearly. My clothes were not in the same orderly state as when I'd left her.

"Not really. I found the men, avenged your brothers' injuries, and took back Immol's taxes."

"So fast? But they were miles to the east."

I waved a hand with vague unconcern. "I have my ways."

"Magic?"

"You could call it that."

She started to make the protective sign, but caught herself this time. She didn't quite smile. A pity. I would have liked to see it. "I thank you, my lord.

All Immol thanks you."

"You're welcome."

And at that point, she did finally smile, and I was not disappointed. As I'd suspected, it was most charming.

"The tales they tell of my lord are true, then," she added.

I raised one brow. "What tales?" Village gossip was bound to be unkind.

"That he is a brave fighter for those in need."

Yes, perhaps. Once upon a time. Her flattery was more than a touch obvious, but not unwelcome. Vanity aside, I realized Dagmar was definitely interested in me, or else she would have asked leave to go back to her broken sleep by now. When I made the suggestion for her, she politely declined and, while watching me closely, indicated sleep was the last thing on her mind.

Well, well, I thought. Despite the other stories she'd doubtless heard and the walking horrors she'd seen herself, she was still willing to keep me company.

Women had always amazed me with their ability to ignore a man's drawbacks so long as they found him attractive. On the other hand, men such as I once was suffered from the same malady; but in Dagmar's case, there were no drawbacks.

"You're in mourning," I stated. "May I ask for whom?"

"My mother's oldest sister. A fever took her last month."

"That is too bad. You have a large family?"

"Very large."

"A husband?"

"He died eight years ago," she said in a tone that settled things between us.

I had never been one to deny a lady anything reasonable, and this particular request stuck me as being well within my scope. I'd fed well, so she was in no danger from me there - at least for this night. And, unless I was very wrong, one night was all either of us really wanted.

The moon settled behind the mountain peak, throwing a shadow like a black velvet blanket over us both.

***

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