It was not easy for a man as handsome and as eligible as Abraham Van Helsing to remain unnoticed in a corner of a large celebration. However, for the past hour he had been content to observe from a distance the other revellers, all celebrating the wedding of Christopher Croft to a lovely but otherwise unremarkable young woman. The wedding was long overdue in Abraham's opinion. Croft had courted the wench for three years and had been engaged to her for a further year before finally deciding that she was indeed worth marrying.
The wedding was relatively small affair, someone in Christopher's line of work did not amass many friends and his family was quite small. However, those that did attend the earlier service and now the celebration held in the ballroom at Montagu House were a lively sort and the room felt just as busy as if there had been a hundred people in attendance rather than half that.
If Abraham was to turn his observations on himself, he would see that he had changed very little in the five years that had passed since his sister's death. He was just as tall and broad shouldered as ever, with not even a speck of grey showing in his neatly queued red hair. If anything, the finely tailored, elegant cut to his clothes served to make him even more handsome than he had been when he did not care for such fripperies. He sipped the brandy he held in one hand and stared over the rim towards the man of the moment; Christopher Croft who was dancing with his bride. Although she was unremarkable, Abraham did think the new Mrs Croft was a least pleasant to look at and Christopher had done well. While the two of them had never become overly good friends due to their rather different personalities, Abraham did feel a certain kinship with the man given that he had saved his life many a time and vice versa. His gaze travelled past Christopher and fell upon a rather vibrant looking blonde woman who was dancing near Christopher and Sarah Croft and the corners of his mouth curled up into the trademark Van Helsing smile, a definite smirk of appreciation. Her blonde curls cascaded down her back, framing a face that was more than pleasant to look at with flashing brown eyes and full red lips. His gaze then moved downwards and he caressed her full and creamy cleavage with his eyes. He was about to set down his drink and move to steal her away from the dull bore who was currently dancing with her when he caught sight of Giles out of the corner of his eye.
Much like Abraham himself, Giles was trying to remain unnoticed in the crowd. However, if anything, Giles looked more than a little uncomfortable in such a large public gathering. He was wedged into a corner, almost standing behind a large pedestal with a bust of some dead Roman mounted on top. Abraham found himself smirking; obviously being over five hundred years old did not improve one's social skills. He paused only long enough to pour a generous glass of brandy and top up his own before crossing the floor to join his friend and mentor.
"You look like you could use one of these," Abraham held the glass out for Giles to take.
Giles accepted it but did not take a sip; he looked almost embarrassed that he had been noticed and stepped out from his corner. He managed to incline his head towards the newly married couple dancing in the centre of the room, "Is that not a fine sight...especially for two bachelors such as us?"
Abraham took a long swallow of the drink he held in his own hand. Since Willow's passing, the relationship between him and Giles had not strengthened, if anything they had grown distant. The two of them did not often talk of matters outside those related to their work.
"It is indeed, although I would not wish to exchanges places with Christopher for all the tea in China."
"You are happy being alone then?" Giles inquired, his curiousity piqued by the tone in Abraham's voice.
The redheaded man turned to him with a knowing glint in his eye, "I am never alone Giles, just unmarried...and that is a state of things that I enjoy very much. Why be shackled to one woman when you can have your pick of many?"
Giles awkwardly set down the brandy on the corner of the pedestal beside him, "Shackled seems an odd choice of descriptor for a marriage, surely you should not speak unless you have experienced..."
"Well, I have had relations with a good number of married women who agree with me all too readily," Abraham interrupted with a harsh laugh and another sip of brandy, "They cannot escape their shackles and make for my bed fast enough."
Giles coughed uncomfortably; pleased he had not just taken a sip of his drink as he knew he would have made a frightful mess as it sprayed from his mouth. He turned his head to study the younger man but he already knew that there was no trace of jest in Abraham's voice. It was only then that Giles saw the predatory glint in his eye as he watched a young woman on the dance floor.
Given that he himself was somewhat of an expert where longevity was concerned, Giles thought that Abraham had aged rather well. However, although he was still a strikingly handsome man, he had changed. Abraham's face was harsher than it had been when his sister was alive, gone were the traces of mirth and humour which had often lingered there. Even in the midst of Croft's wedding celebration, Giles suddenly felt saddened to realise that he knew the younger man only as an acquaintance or work colleague and no longer as a friend. Giles did not think that this was a fault on Abraham's part; instead he berated himself for not spending more time with him in the years since Willow's death.
Giles steered the subject away from the uncomfortable subject of Abraham's myriad of affairs, "How goes your continued search for the demon?"
Almost immediately Abraham's green eyes took on a steely glint and Giles wondered if he had brought up the wrong topic for what was supposed to be a joyous occasion.
"The treacherous demon-bitch has gone to ground, since that sighting in Paris last November I have lost its trail," Abraham growled and drained the last swallow in his glass. "Truly this is a vexing state of affairs, it has been five years since I swore to destroy it and all I have done is let it lead me on a wild goose chase around Europe, catching nary but a whiff of her foul odour."
"Well rest assured, Abraham, there is only so far she can run," Giles added helpfully, feeling as though he finally needed the drink Abraham had brought him, "Sooner or later she will make a mistake, after all, vampires are not subtle creatures."
"Dracula managed to avoid you for hundreds of years, Giles," Abraham was obviously immune to Giles's optimism, "Unlike you I do not have hundreds of years at my disposal, I must have my revenge within the short time that has been allocated to me."
Giles sighed, although he too still mourned for the lovely young woman they had both lost, he was not about to let the rest of his life be consumed by the search for her murderer. Conversely Abraham did not seem to share his opinion. It was obvious that he believed a life without revenge was a life wasted.
"I think Willow would want you to live your life, to have a family..." Giles began awkwardly.
Abraham seized up the glass that Giles had set down moments ago and took a mighty swallow, "Giles, the cock-sucking bitch murdered her. How could I ever concentrate on anything as mundane as a wife and children while that demon is out there roaming free? I never could, she's out there somewhere, probably laughing at me and spitting on the beloved memory of my sister!"
Abraham drew in a deep breath as though he finally realised that he was allowing himself to get swept off and carried towards the land of fanatics who could think of nothing but their vendettas. He drained the last swallow in the second glass and finally managed to calm himself.
With a shaking hand Abraham set the glass back down and turned to Giles with a forced smile on his face, "So Giles...how was your week?"
"Well yes, I did have a rather interesting week as a matter of fact," Giles began, pleased to be able to steer Abraham away from topics which only served to anger him, "I have been working on a new invention for some time and I think I may have finally perfected a working prototype...still very much a prototype of course but I am rather excited, you see it is a circlet of sorts, it goes around the neck and suppresses the magickal talents of the wearer. A very dangerous piece of work but that is what makes it so exciting! I think if I can tune it correctly we may have a very useful apparatus on our hands..."
Giles continued on for several more minutes in the same enthusiastic manner before he finally turned and realised he was alone. He glanced out onto the dance floor and saw Abraham whirling around the dance floor with the young blonde woman he had been eyeing earlier in his arms and a smile on his face as though he hadn't a care in the world. To the rest of the world it was a convincingly picture of a man in the prime of his life, Giles knew otherwise. It was an image carefully cultivated to conceal the seething anger that lay beneath, an anger Giles was increasingly beginning to think would destroy him.
Giles set his lips into a tight line and went to find himself a drink.
Young Benjamin Croft tried in vain to stifle a wide yawn but failed miserably and instead was forced to hide it behind his hand. He tried to erase it from his face before the tall, broad-shouldered man walking in front of him could turn around and catch him in the act. The young man managed to return his face to a mask of alertness before such a thing could happen.
Ben could hardly be blamed for being tired; he had not gained a wink of sleep the night before as he paced anxiously outside the room as his wife struggled to give birth to their first child. A small smile crossed his face at the thought of the fine baby boy, christened Jeremiah Christopher. His only regret was that his father had not lived long enough to see his first grandchild. Christopher Croft had keeled over unexpectedly a few months earlier and was dead before he hit the floor. It had been mercifully quick but Ben felt his loss keenly - although in truth his father had lost much of his sparkle ten years ago when his wife passed away after an extended illness. With the loss of his parents, Ben felt it all the more necessary to keep close his wife and now, his son.
With a newborn son, Ben knew he could had excused himself from patrolling the streets of London this evening, but Giles was travelling in places unknown and as capable as the man striding ahead of him was, age was creeping up on him.
Ben studied Abraham Van Helsing as he walked through the darkness, still retaining the powerful stride of his youth. He was however, growing somewhat thinner as the years went by and the red hair Ben remembered seeing as a boy was now all but lost to grey. His face was weathered from outdoor life, bearing a good number of craggy wrinkles. Although he had known Abraham Van Helsing for as long as he could remember he knew very little of the man that lay behind the public facade. Ben admired and respected the man immensely, but while Abraham was more than willing to impart all his knowledge to him regarding vampires and demons, he would say little of his personal life. He consistently seemed to have a young woman on his arm, even as he grew older, but it was rarely the same woman twice and they were never introduced to his colleagues. What little he had gleaned about Abraham Van Helsing, had been learned from Giles. It was from Giles he learned that Abraham had once had a sister, although he then made the mistake of asking Abraham himself about his long-lost sibling and he had been met with a stony wall of silence.
The only thing Ben did know for sure, was that Abraham's sister had to be connected in some way to the vampire he had spent much of his life searching for. In the same way Giles searched for Dracula, Abraham searched for a female vampire he only ever referred to as ‘the demon.' Ben was under the impression that this search had consumed almost Abraham's entire life. Given the joy he derived from time spent with his own family, Ben often thought that the older man should just let his vendetta go after all this time...although he would never voice this opinion openly for all he would receive in return would be an angry snarl. He knew determination when he saw it, and Abraham Van Helsing was beyond determined.
Ben admired and respected Abraham Van Helsing...but he had never liked him.
He's just too goddamn obsessed with his bloody demon, Ben narrowed his eyes as he stared at the man's back, That and the fact that he's an arrogant, grumpy old bastard.
Ben felt moisture tickle the back of his neck and he glanced upwards to feel rain on his face. His countenance soured as he realised that this was not going to be a pleasant evening's hunting. He began to wonder whether he should have stayed home with Abigail and Jeremiah after all...in fact, he wondered whether he should opt out of the family trade and acquire himself some honest skills, like book-binding or perhaps even medicine.
It soon became clear, as the pair entered streets which were normally a veritable paradise for demons, that the creatures of the night did not much prefer the weather either and had obviously chosen to remain indoors. Even as Abraham remained alert just in front of him, Ben found his shoulders sagging.
Although Ben knew better than to let his mind wander while on a hunt, he suddenly walked into something solid. Even as he was fumbling for the crossbow strapped to his back he realised that the solid object was Abraham's back. The older man was standing rock still, his gaze directed towards a nearby rooftop. Ben followed his gaze and frowned. Silhouetted against the already dark skyline was a figure cast completely in shadow. He could make out absolutely no details save for a swirling cloak which undulated around the figure. At his side however, Abraham was tense, as though poised for a fight.
"Van Helsing, what is it?" Ben demanded, slowly bringing his crossbow around in order to load it in front of him.
"Stay behind me," Abraham commanded in a tight, urgent voice.
Ben could not see what had Abraham so rattled, although granted a shadowy figure standing on a rooftop was usually evil, there were two of them and the figure had lost any element of surprise. Or so Ben thought. A split second later the figure disappeared, only to re-materialise a moment later directly between the two men. Although he felt no blow strike him, Ben suddenly found himself flying backwards through the air. He continued in a straight line until he slammed into a wall. His crossbow clattered to the ground and he fell with the wind knocked out of him.
Ben lay with his cheek pressed against the wet cobbles beneath him, the rain continuing to fall down and seep through the coat he wore. Struggling to focus himself, he lay listening to the harsh voices he could hear being traded across the street.
"And just when I thought you were never going to show your face again!" Ben heard Abraham growl.
"You think I am afraid of you?" a woman's throaty voice, unlike anything Ben had ever heard before.
"Well I seem to recall you and your Master suffering a rather embarrassing defeat at my hands the last time we met."
"And I seem to recall running your sister through with her own sword."
Those words were followed by a mocking laugh.
Ben had finally managed to drag himself up into a kneeling position as he heard those last words. He needed no more information to know who Abraham was facing...it was the demon that had killed Willow Van Helsing. He peered through the darkness and falling rain to see her outline but he could make out little more than a dark, cloaked shape. However he could see long hair whipping around her face, a face that was pale and shining even with no moonlight.
"Where is the skull, Abraham?" the demon demanded, her voice shrill with unconcealed longing.
"Why have you waited so long to ask me?" Abraham seemed in no hurry to answer the vampire's question as he circled her warily.
She cackled, "The time is nigh and you are weakened by old age...the once strong Abraham Van Helsing is now but a shadow of his former self."
Abraham narrowed his eyes, "Why have you come alone? Surely a matter as important as the skull would require the attentions of more than one lone vampire?"
The vampire snarled, "My reasons are my own, Van Helsing!"
Observing the scene, Ben wondered why Abraham made no move towards the stake concealed in his coat, or the sword belted at his waist. Instead he just kept baiting the creature, circling it even as it came closer. Ben was just about to shout a warning when the creature surged forward, its hand shooting out to seize Abraham by the neck. With inhuman strength, it threw Abraham back against the wall behind him and held him there.
"Where is the skull?" it yelled manically.
"You kill me and you will never know," Abraham threatened.
She seized Abraham by his chin and slammed his head back against the wall before repeating, "Where is the skull?"
Ben did not wait to see if Abraham would answer; instead he dragged himself all the way up onto his feet and moved forward, stumbling awkwardly at first before managing to break into a run. He drew one of his own stakes and lunged at the demon's apparently unprotected back. Even as he brought the stake downwards, she turned and whipped out her free hand, lashing Ben across his cheek. He reeled momentarily but managed to collect himself quickly and lash out with his own fist, catching her on the side of her head. She screamed in frustration and dashed Abraham to one side. Ben saw the man fly past his vision but he kept both of his own eyes focused on the demon. Now that her full attention was focused on him only, he could see her features clearly. Although her piercing blue eyes were wild and crazed, she was also strikingly beautiful. The hair that whipped about her face was so pale it was almost white. However, Ben had seen beautiful demons before and knew not to be fouled into thinking them less powerful for it. He watched her closely, trying to sense if she would use more of her foul magicks on him.
She bared her shining white teeth in what Ben supposed was a smile as she circled him. He kept the stake out in front of him, ready to strike at any moment. When she eventually did lift her arm to throw him backwards once more he was ready. He whirled around, low to the ground and brought his fist up before she could complete her movement, driving it directly into her stomach. As she stumbled backwards he brought the stake downwards once again. Both her hands shot out and caught his wrist, driving the stake backwards and away from her chest. Ben stumbled, his wrist was twisted at an awkward angle and he dropped the stake as he yelped in pain. She locked her icy fingers around his neck and drove him against the wall, even as he fumbled for the dagger he wore at his waist he found his windpipe being crushed in her terrible grip.
Even as he struggled to breathe he saw Abraham rising to his feet behind them both. Ben also saw his crossbow at the other man's feet. Struggling valiantly, Ben managed to tear himself free of the vampire's grasp and seize one of her wrists. As they struggled she stared into his eyes and there he found absolutely no mercy, nothing but pure, undiluted evil.
"Abraham!" Ben cried, struggling against the vampire as she tried to wrench her wrist free from his grip, "For god's sake man, just shoot the bitch!"
Ben waited expectedly to hear the quick flight of a bolt, the thud as it struck the demon and then the feel of her crumbling to dust in his arms. However, despite his pleadings Abraham did not loosen a crossbow bolt at the demon's unprotected back and the only thing he did feel was an agonisingly sharp pain in his midsection. He immediately let go of the demon's wrist just as she stabbed forward again with her other hand. Ben knew he ought to be screaming, the pain was so intense but his jaw slackened and no sound emerged.
The demon then stepped back with a smile on her face and Ben glanced downwards, he clutched at the hilt of his own dagger protruding from his body with clumsy fingers. As he sank slowly to his knees, he saw a blurry Abraham moving behind the vampire with something held in both of his hands that was most definitely not a crossbow. Before the vampire could turn, something was snapped around her neck. A spilt second after Ben heard the audible click; he heard a blood curdling scream from the vampire. She lurched in a drunken-like state and tried to tear it off. With her attention fully focused on the circlet, Abraham lashed out and struck her over the head. She too slumped to the ground.
With watery eyes Ben tried to focus on Abraham but he found he could not, even as the man knelt at his side and cradled his sagging body.
"You will be fine, son," Abraham spoke quietly, gently.
Ben knew that was far from the case, he could already feel the life ebbing quickly from his body. A part of him wanted to curse Abraham Van Helsing to the very depths of hell for sacrificing his life for the sake of his revenge, but all he could think about was his family.
"Please...see that Abigail and my son are cared for...will you promise me that?" Ben pleaded even as the edges of his vision darkened. "Please?"
"I will," Abraham replied quickly.
Ben clutched at the front of the man's coat in order to demand a firmer response but it was too late. He gasped his last breath and then died, hoping fervently that the bastard would fulfil his promise.
Abraham sighed sadly; he deeply regretted the brave young man's death. He believed he had the situation under control and cursed himself for missing the knife in the creature's hand. Still, as he gently laid Ben's body down on the rain soaked street, he knew that the young man had not died for nothing. The proof of that lay on the ground behind him. He stood and turned to gaze upon the crumpled, writhing form of the demon that had been Tara Maclay. She pawed weakly at the metal collar that encased her neck but of course found no clasp to undo.
Nor would she. The collar would bind her magickal powers until Abraham chose to remove it...and that was something he would never do.
Abraham closed his eyes and tilted his face upwards. The rain beat down on his face and he sighed deeply. Finally, after all this time he had the demon at his mercy, after years of waiting for his revenge it was shortly to be his. He spread his arms wide as though embracing the icy pellets that pelted his skin.
In the midst of this strange but simple act of celebration, Abraham Van Helsing suddenly realised that he was laughing.
"Mr Van Helsing sir, I am not quite sure I understand the exact nature of your problem."
Abraham paused for a moment after activating the lever which triggered the door to his underground training room. He regarded the wiry, nervous little man standing in front of him through narrowed eyes. Although Abraham had extensive contacts in all the right places, finding an adept magic practitioner willing to help him had been something of a challenge. All his sources indicated that Rupert Giles was the man he wanted...but Abraham could not use Giles, not for what he was about to do. John Minto adjusted his glasses and stared back at Abraham, hardly convincing as a warlock of the same calibre as the librarian. Abraham sighed and entered the narrow cylindrical passage, leaving Minto to follow him, still waiting for his explanation.
Much like the librarian, Minto also wore eyeglasses...but that was as far as the similarities went. He was exceptionally short and thin, so thin it looked as though a stiff breeze would blow him away. His worn suit hung on his frame, just like the way his skin hung from his face beneath his wiry black hair.
"Mr Van Helsing,? Minto repeated as the pair of them descended the stairs and entered the training room.
Abraham walked purposefully straight towards a set of heavily laden bookshelves, much like those that had swung inwards to reveal the door they had entered a few moments earlier. He then indeed triggered a second door.
"Just what the devil is this place?" Minto demanded as he watched the section of bookshelf in front of him swing inwards to reveal a dark, narrow corridor.
"Mr Minto," Abraham began as he moved into the darkness, "I have brought you here because I would like you to do something for me."
Minto stared at Abraham's back, now shrouded in darkness as he stopped a short way down the corridor. He studied the scene in front of him with fear written all over his face. When he finally started after Abraham, his fear was reflected in his hesitant steps. As he moved closer he saw a doorway to one side, iron bars across the entrance He peered into the cell, for that was all it could be called, but saw nothing but darkness. Beside him Abraham Van Helsing was as still as a statue and there was no sound save for his own hoarse breathing. A chill ran down his spine, something did not feel right about this.
As Minto was about to turn and leave a shape suddenly threw itself against the iron bars. The silence in the corridor was rent by the clang of the door on its hinges and a chilling snarl from the creature that emerged from the darkness in such a startling manner.
Reacting instantly, Minto let out an undignified yelp and pressed his back to the wall behind him. The still snarling creature lunged for him through the bars, fingers outstretched like claws. Her lips peeled back from her teeth to reveal a pair of what were unmistakably fangs. The snarl became a drawn out hiss and Minto contemplated running from the corridor. However, when it became apparent that escape was impossible, he managed to relax enough to gasp out a few words,
"Good god man, why are you keeping a vampire in your cellar?"
He turned to Abraham and saw the man had not moved a muscle since the demon rattled the bars of its cage. However, Minto soon realised that Abraham had moved but it was only the small but telling movements of his facial muscles that betrayed his emotions. The lines around both his eyes and upon his brow were deep furrows, his white lips were set into a tight line. Minto feared to reach out towards him lest he take sudden offence and lash out. Instead he turned back to the demon.
If Abraham's behaviour was strange then the demon's was just as confusing. As she completely ignored Minto to focus on Abraham, he was able to study the blonde vampire. Even with her white skin stretched over her skull and her hair lank about her face, she was hauntingly beautiful. Her intense blue eyes were focused on Abraham in an expression that went beyond hate. She gripped the bars in front of her with pale fingers as though she might tear them down. It was as Minto was studying her that he noticed a smooth collar of engraved silver encircling her throat. Although he could see no clasp or any other way to remove it, this had apparently not stopped the demon from trying. The skin beneath the collar was angry red and bore deep, bloody scratches and ugly welts.
"Abraham Van Helsing, have you finally found the courage to destroy me?" she purred in a low, sultry tone, "Or do you seek instead to find new methods of torture? I must say that so far you have been making a poor show of it indeed...although restraining my magicks with this collar was a rather clever idea, keeping me locked up in your basement hardly fulfils your task of making me suffer."
As Abraham maintained his stoic silence, Minto pressed further for answers, "You did not answer my question Van Helsing, why are you keeping a vampire in your cellar?"
Abraham finally drew his attention away from the demon in the cell and turned to Minto, "This is the vampire that murdered my sister."
The vampire responded with an immediate throaty laugh that had once perhaps been beautiful, "To kill someone in the heat of battle is not murder!"
His fury suddenly unleashed, Abraham whirled on the creature, his fist in the air, "You gained her trust and stabbed her in the back you foul piece of filth, if that is not the very definition of murder then I do not know what is!"
The creature shrugged as though she thought perhaps Abraham might have made his point. The contented smile did not leave her face however.
Minto nodded, he had to clear the lump in his throat before he could continue, "I have heard your sister was a brave woman, although I am too young to have known her personally, it is a testament to her that she is still sorely missed amongst our small community."
"She is sorely missed indeed," the vampire commented unexpectedly in a drawn out voice, "Even undead I still yearn for her touch." She sighed heavily and pressed her forehead against the bars as she stared directly at Minto, "I thought that spending eternity as the Queen of the damned at Dracula's side was worth killing her but now I fervently wish I had turned her...now that would have made eternity much more fun!"
The vampire closed her eyes and licked her lips as though savouring a taste on them.
Minto screwed up his face in disgust, "I can understand why you would want this demon to suffer but how can you possibly make her suffer enough to feel remorse for what she has done?"
"Ah, that dear Mr Minto, is where you will lend your services," Abraham said quietly, a fierce light burning in his eyes.
"Mr Van Helsing?" Minto was only too happy to offer his services to a man of Abraham Van Helsing's stature but he was distinctly unnerved by the sights he had witnessed and did not even want to imagine what was in store for the vampire who murdered Willow Van Helsing.
Abraham turned to regard the demon that had once been Tara Maclay through cool green eyes, his sister's eyes, and then whispered in a terribly determined voice, "You will restore the demon's soul."