Part III Chapter Nine

Twelfth Moon, 720

Winter solstice had arrived, a time of endings and beginnings, a time of renewal and death.

The longest night of the year.

Without sun, moon, or stars, with no means at all of measuring the hours, unless I cared to count the beats of my heart, I still felt the approach of midnight.

An important time, for at the precise moment of the turning of the year, darkness was at its deepest, and the dawn at its most remote. The powers were decidedly on the side of the shadows now, not in balance as during the equinoxes, or with the light as during the summer solstice.

In relation to the Art as it applied to me, this was an extremely important time for magical experimentation, but instead of busying myself with the furtherance of my craft, I sat in the study, staring at Tatyana's portrait.

The painting was as radiant now as it had been over three and a half centuries ago when she'd posed for it. The varnish had darkened slightly, but the artist's purpose was yet fresh. Her innocence and lively intelligence shone out, and yet she was strangely distant. No matter where one stood in relation to the portrait, her eyes always seemed to look just past the viewer and on to something else. The artist may have also come under the spell of her beauty and fallen in love with her, for it was agreed at the time that this was his masterpiece. Certainly nothing he painted afterward ever quite matched up to it - not that he'd had much chance to try, since he, along with so many others, had died from Leo's poison on that long-ago summer night.

Much had happened since then, but little had changed. The people still farmed or tended their flocks. They feared me, but were obedient; those who broke my laws rarely got the chance to repeat the offense. Life for most was hard, but they knew things were far more difficult elsewhere.

For Barovia was no longer a land alone in this pocket of existence.

As the centuries passed, the mists at the borders pulled back, revealing new countries beyond. Other lords like myself ruled them, and like myself, were trapped within their lands. This did not prevent them from warring amongst themselves, but the results were usually indifferent. For instance, Vlad Drakov of Falkovnia had been trying to invade Darkon (among other nations) with tedious monotony for the last three decades. My spies informed me that he was apparently gathering arms and soldiers for yet another attack. In two seasons he'd be ready to march again, content to send his people to certain death or worse in order to salve his pride over past defeats. During my own days of war, I'd have had a commander like him executed for the crime of rampant stupidity.

Not that I hadn't tried. His irresponsible actions had made him rather unpopular, and in exchange for favors from other lords, I'd sent out agents to deal with him. They'd come close, but he'd survived, and the balance of power remained the same, except that, by means of the favors, some of my own goals had been advanced. That was the only reason I'd agreed to the strategy, for without his constant threat, our mutual neighbor, Ivan Dilisnya - since Reinhold's death, the family line had suffered a marked decline - might then turn his full attention on Barovia. My agents had used poison, Ivan's specialty, which kept suspicions high, and kept the two occupied with one another over the years. Perhaps I should have provided the agents with a more effective toxin for Drakov... but success had not been my true purpose, after all.

And so it went with the other lands enclosed by the mists. I had spies in each, and they had theirs in Barovia. We could not fight openly in honorable battle, but only by sly and subtle political maneuver. Though I'd have preferred a more straightforward conflict, I played this lesser, if not more demeaning, variation well enough. It was necessary to Barovia's survival - and mine.

But Tatyana looked past me, as if none of this were important at all.

She may well have been right.

I could regard her now with but a twinge of pain. Constant company with the ache had made it bearable; I'd wept away the last of my tears years ago. How many times over the centuries had I met her? How many times had I lost her? I could not say. She ever wore the same face, but under a different name, sometimes a wholly different personality, though somehow I'd always found a way to touch those hidden memories in her heart.

And somehow, I'd always lost her: Marina, murdered by her adopted father... Olya, dead from a fever, so they said... and all the others, taken from me. Throughout the generations, I'd lost her over and over again, forever trading joy for grief.

If I could just once break the pattern, break whatever curse that kept us apart.

In doing that, I might find freedom for us both.

I had tried. Countless times.

I'd made hundreds of forays to the borders, challenging them with my own growing powers, and failing. I'd talked long with the Gypsy tribes that freely traveled the mists, but could not grasp their ways. I'd pored through every book on magic I could lay hands on and found nothing to help me understand the nature of my prison or how to leave it. This night, I should have been working, but there was no desire in me to do so. Perhaps later I might regret the lost time, but for now I did not care.

Midnight was upon me... and gone.

Whatever power I might have drawn from its darkness was waning, not to return for another year.

But that was a very short time. The seasons tended to blur past for me. One night I'd be hunting in deep snow, the next be flying in the aftermath of summer heat, the air scented with flowers. Year after year fled by; they piled into decades, massed into centuries.

How many lay before me? And were they all to be as lonely as those I'd already had?

Unable to answer, unwilling to guess, I sat and stared at Tatyana's portrait and felt one more night slipping away into the irretrievable past.

*****

The dawn was coming, along with another brief stay in my crypt. Lately, my little increments of death hadn't been enough to provide me with sufficient rest. I first thought that it might have to do with the brevity of the winter days, but instinctively knew that my growing fatigue had another cause.

The fire had burned itself out hours ago. I felt chilled, but not from the cold of the room. This was deeper and more exhausting, the chill of a weary spirit.

I was so tired, as if the weight of all my years had come upon my heart as one vast heaviness that nothing could ever lift. From my heart outward it settled upon me, the very air was too thick to move in, nor did I desire to move. I felt as if I'd been endlessly climbing a mountain and was never quite able to get to the top.

If I could just rest. I wanted to sleep, sleep for more than just a single day, sleep away all my sorrows and lose myself in... I wasn't sure.

To drift, dreamless and serene.

To forget.

To... Rest.

Epilogue Van Richten turned the page and found the next to be completely blank. He flipped through the remaining pages of the folio. Nothing. Strahd had put down his last lines... and simply walked away. He looked around the study with new eyes, once more examining the girl's portrait - Tatyana, the poor soul. And there, that place on the floor, might that be the spot where Strahd had collapsed under the force of the darkness that had come for him?

His muscles sluggish after so much sitting, Van Richten rose, picked up his lantern, and walked through the doors to Strahd's bedroom. There was the window leading to the overlook where Alek Gwilym had died; there was the closet where Strahd had hidden the body. The shadows were very thick here, and a draft from the study caused the open curtains and bed draperies to stir like restless spirits. His lantern hardly made an impression against the... Dark - it was growing dark.

He'd forgotten that the looming bulk of the mountain cut the sun off that much sooner. Blessed powers, he had to get out.

He swept back to the study, not bothering to blow out the low-burning candles.

They could gutter themselves harmlessly enough, and if their condition told Strahd that anyone had invaded his keep, then so be it. The chances were very good that Van Richten would return long before the creature's awakening. He had the knowledge he'd come for, now if the good gods would only bless him with speed and strength to escape this place before... His stiff muscles forgotten, he sped down the stairs, reckless of the uneven footing.

*****

In the bedroom, a shadow, much blacker than the rest, broke away from one corner and drifted toward the window, which silently opened. The shadow flowed over the sill and paused next to the overlook.

A few long minutes later, the little hunter emerged from the keep into the courtyard, hurrying in the direction of the portcullis.

Strahd Von Zarovich watched his progress with smiling interest. It was amazing that a fellow his age could move so fast, and even more amazing that Strahd could still find such antics amusing. He considered loosing one of his many guardians to deal with the intruder, but held off. If he was like all the others, he'd be coming back soon enough. Then Strahd would deal with him.

When the hunter was beyond the drawbridge and lost from sight in the mist, Strahd walked back to the study. His book lay open. He extended a hand and caressed the waiting page, the points of his long nails carving deep grooves into the virgin parchment.

There was so much more to tell... and so much more yet to come.

Slipping into the chair so recently vacated by the hunter, Strahd plucked up a quill pen, unstoppered a bottle of ink, and began to write.

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