The inside of the Art Museum was deserted, just as I’d known it would be. There’d been a big sculpture in the center of the lobby, some sort of weird-looking modern art thing that I’d never understood. It was gone now: crushed into dust. Personally, I thought it looked better that way. There was a gaping hole in the roof above where the sculpture had been. The gargoyle must’ve landed on it. Maybe the behemoth wasn’t so evil after all…
Brushing the thought aside, I brought my FAL to low-ready and moved towards the stairs. My footsteps echoed off the marble walls and floor as I climbed the stairs. Added into the dark, empty museum and the fact that I knew there was a Master Vampire waiting for me, it made for a very, very spooky ambiance.
I didn’t bother clearing any of the other exhibits as I headed towards Medieval Arms and Armor. Robert wanted to deal with me himself. I could feel it. It was personal: there would be no monsters between me and him.
As I approached Medieval Arms and Armor, I heard voices coming from inside the exhibit. It was Odette. She was pleading with Robert, begging him to stop, to not do this, let her go, please. My blood began to boil. If he’d hurt her, I was going to reach down his throat and rip his black heart out of his mouth. I marched through the doorway, ready for war.
I’m not exactly sure what I’d been expecting to see in there. Probably Robert with Odette pinned up against a wall, him preparing to feed from her neck. But the two of them standing in the center of the room, Odette giving Robert a tongue-lashing that would rival one of Earl Harbinger’s, and Robert just standing there taking it? Not in my wildest dreams. He was actually grinning as she laid into him, the smug bastard. There was something else too. All of the glass in the display cases had been scratched up until the panes were opaque, but none had been broken. Weird.
“ROBERT!” I shouted, my voice echoing off the walls. Both Robert and Odette turned to me, him in surprise, Odette in fear. She knew what was going to happen to me.
“Let her go!” I continued, “You’ve got what you wanted, you don’t need her anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but who are you, exactly?” His voice was deep and had a thick Chicago accent.
“I’m the guy that iced your brother,” I said. My voice made me sound a heck of a lot calmer than I suddenly felt. “You’ve got me. It’s over. Let her go.”
“You killed Jonathan?” he asked.
“Yep,” I nodded, “put two loads of buckshot down his throat, made his head go ‘splodey all over a parking lot.”
“Oh, of course,” he said, “now I recognize you.” He began to walk towards me. I snapped my FAL up, leveling the rifle at the bridge of his nose. “Thank you.” He extended his hand towards mine. My jaw hit the floor.
“You saved me the trouble of doing it myself.”
“Jonathan was a fool. He wasn’t ready: he didn’t know how to fully harness his powers. I told him that he needed to wait before striking out on his own; I needed to train him first. But he didn’t listen, he thought he knew better than me. So he ran off and got himself killed by a pathetic blood bag. If you hadn’t killed him, I would have. So for that, I thank you, Mister Andrews.”
“Wha… wha… wha… wha…?” My mouth flopped open and closed like a fish’s as the gears in my head suddenly locked up. Robert hadn’t been gunning for me? “Then what the hell was this all about?”
“You don’t know?” Robert was genuinely surprised at my question. “You really don’t know?”
“Would I be asking if I did?” I asked, my anger again building. “Why the hell were you coming after me? What do you want with me?”
For a long moment, Robert stared at me like I’d gone bat-shitcrazy, then he threw back his head and began laughing hysterically. It was a very creepy laugh, like Vincent Price’s laughter. Remember the laughter at the end of Thriller? Kinda like that, only scarier.
“Wait… you thought… you seriously thought I wanted you?” he said, “You… all of you… really believed that it was you that I wanted?” He started laughing that Vincent Price laugh again. The sound made my skin crawl.
“You… don’t want to kill me?” Robert was creepy-laughing too hard to speak, but shook his head ‘no.’ “So… what the hell was this all about? Why send your minions after the team? What the hell do you want with us?”
“Me.” Odette’s voice was flat, completely devoid of emotion.
“He wanted me.”
“He… he wanted… you? But… but that doesn’t make sense! Those monsters always came after me, not you…” My boiling blood suddenly turned to ice as I thought back to every encounter we’d had with Robert’s monsters. The Diner? Odette had been there. Vermont? Odette was there too. The Harpies at the compound? They’d hit us while we were coming out of Odette’s house. The month with no attacks? Odette stayed in the compound with me. She was at my father’s office when the wights hit us there. And then she’d stayed in the compound to keep me company while the rest of the team went off hunting and hadn’t gotten hit. And the gargoyle had deliberately targeted her, not me. My stomach sank into my shoes.
“What do you want with Odette?” I asked warily. He laughed again. I didn’t think it was all that creepy anymore; it was actually starting to get on my nerves.
“You really are an idiot,” Robert laughed, “Odette has always been mine, even before I was given this gift.” He raised his arms and gestured at his unnaturally-pale body. “And tonight, I will make her my queen.”
“Your… queen?” I felt a weird sense of déjà-vu, but could not for the life of me figure out why.
“Yes!” Robert said triumphantly, “Tonight, Odette and I will be reunited at last! She will partake of my blood…”
“The hell I will!” Odette spat
“…and she will become my queen!” Robert continued, too caught up in his monologue to pay attention to her, “She will share my gift, gain my immortality and my incredible power, and then we shall rule the world!” I ignored him, idly wondering why evil villains always had to monologue their evil plots as I wracked my mind, trying to figure out why this situation seemed so damn familiar. Evil villain with superhuman, “magical” powers kidnaps Odette to make her his queen… Wait a second. Odette, evil villain, castle? No way…
“You have got to be kidding me!”
“Oh, I assure you, I am not joking,” Robert said smugly, “With Odette by my side, I shall…”
“No, hang on, shut up for a second,” I said, “That’s your whole plot? Kidnap Odette, make her marry you, the two of you rule the world? That’s it?”
“Yes,” Robert bit out, not happy at all that I’d interrupted his grand-standing spotlignt moment, “That’s all there is too it. You really are stupid, even for a bloodbag.” Now it was my turn to laugh like an idiot. “What?” he demanded, “Do I amuse you? Do you think I’m a clown?”
“Oh… oh you have got to be kidding me,” I said, “Really? I mean, would it kill an evil villain to actually come up with something original for once?” Both Robert and Odette were looking at me like I’d just dived head-first off the deep end.
“Steve…” Odette said, “are you okay?”
“You don’t get it?” I asked.
“Get what?” the two of them said together.
“This!” I swept my arms up and out, gesturing at the whole room, “Us! This whole situation!”
“What’s wrong with it?” Robert asked. He looked really pretty pissed now that I’d insulted his plan twice in less than a minute.
“It’s freakin’ Swan Lake!” Odette and Robert just stared at me. Yep, they definitely thought I’d lost my mind. “Think about it! Evil villain kidnaps beautiful girl, brings her to a castle on a lake…”
“We’re on a river,” Odette said.
“Close enough. So he brings her to the castle on a lake, tires to force her to become his queen so he can rule the world, then the hero shows up to kick his butt and rescue her. I mean, come on, even our names our close. Odette; Robert, Rothbart; Steven… not all that close to Siegfried, but close enough.” I saw the lightbulbs click on over their heads.
“Ah, I see,” Robert said, “You’re right; it is very similar. But you do know how the story ends, don’t you?”
“Yeah…” I started but he cut me off.
“Siegfried fails. He vows to protect Odette, to break her curse, but he betrays her and she remains by Rothbart’s side forever.”
“You know, I’ve never liked that version,” I said.
“Really? Which do you prefer, then?”
“The one in an animated movie I had when I was a kid…”
“Oh, please, not those God-awful cartoons from Disney.”
“They weren’t Disney, and I’m not talking about those anyway. It was a Japanese anime from the 70’s.”
“I’m not familiar with it.”
“Yeah, it was pretty rare State-side.”
“How did it end?”
“Epic swordfight,” I said, “And Siegfried kicked Rothbart’s fat ass.” I hoped that my face didn’t betray the lie, even though the swordfight in the film was pretty awesome…
“You really think you can win?” Robert said as he began laughing again.
“I don’t have to win,” I said, “just kill you.” His laughter increased ten-fold.
“Foolish human. You can’t kill me.”
“I can damn well try.”
“Steve, no!” Odette cried, “He’ll kill you.”
“I know,” I said evenly. “Doesn’t mean I can’t kill him too.”
“Steve, please! Don’t do this!” Odette pleaded with my. I slowly walked over to her, not taking my eyes off of Robert. I fished my keys out of my pocket and pressed them into Odette’s hand.
“The Beast is parked in front of the museum, at the bottom of the Rocky Steps,” I told her, “Take it and get the hell out of here.”
“Stephen…” tears welled up in her eyes as she pleaded with me.
“Go,” I said softly, finally turning to face her “Please, go. I don’t want you to see this.”
“Stephen, please, don’t do this.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“Why? Because some stupid dream said you were going to die here?”
“No,” I said, “Because I love you. I love you more than I love my own life.” Odette’s eyes went wide as the truth finally came out.
“Go,” I said urgently as I turned to face Robert, “Get out of here. Go, run. Run and don’t look back.”
“Are you finished?” Robert asked impatiently. I shouldered my FAL.
“I’m ready whenever you are.” I said. An evil smile spread across Robert’s face as he slowly started towards me. Then, to my surprise, he paused and began stroking his chin thoughtfully. “What?” I asked.
“You know, if this really is a scene from Swan Lake, it would be more appropriate it we stayed true to the story, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean by… oh.” I realized what he was talking about. “Yeah, yeah that would be more appropriate.” I slowly set my FAL on the floor as Robert walked over to a nearby display case.
“Steve, what are you doing?” Odette asked as I unsheathed my Mossberg and set it beside the FAL.
“Trust me,” I said, “Now go!” I drew both my SIGs and placed them atop the pile.
“No!” she said defiantly, “I won’t leave you!”
“Odette, please!” I begged.
“No, Odette,” Robert said as he reached the case. “Stay and watch.” He smashed his fist through the glass and removed something from the case.
It was the Persian Scimitar from my dream.
I walked towards him, stopping near the center of the room. He approached, sword at his side, and stopped a few feet away from me. I drew my katana and lowered myself into sonkyo, the kendo ready stance; a wide horse-stance with the katana’s pommel held below the navel and the tip of the blade pointed at Robert’s nose. Robert held the scimitar – I saw the display placard listed it as a shamshir – in front of him like a European fencer.
“To the death,” Robert said.
“To the death.”
For a long moment, we stood there, motionless, staring each other down. Then Robert raised the shamshir over his head and charged.
Odette screamed as our blades clashed together in a shower of sparks. Just like in the dream, Robert was unnaturally fast. But like in the dream, he wasn’t skilled. His attacks were wild, rushed, and sloppy. I was able to easy parry them and pass through his defenses, drawing black blood from his arms, neck and chest. But I couldn’t land the kill shots; the mann strike through the forehead into the brain, or cleaving the head clean from the body.
Robert’s intensity slowly began to rise as we circled around the room. He became more focused, his attacks less wild. He was holding back. I’d known it from the moment our swords had first touched, but only now was it becoming readily apparent.
He hacked down at my shoulder. I skilled out of the way. His blade plunged into a display case, shattering it, the force of the blow collapsing the case’s legs and sending the display crashing to the marble floor. I came in with another sweeping cut aimed at his neck. He blocked it effortlessly, then came in with a vicious downward stroke that would have taken my arm off at the shoulder if I hadn’t managed to block it. The shamshir’s ancient Damascus steel cut a deep gouge into the side of my blade.
I skipped backwards, out of range, then charged forward again with an upward cut, aiming for his wrist. If I could take off his sword hand, I could by myself enough time to take his head… only he once again slapped my blade aside and hacked at my chest. I skipped back again as the razor-sharp tip of his sword ripped through the front of my armor. He’d missed drawing blood by millimeters.
I came in again, this time for a mann strike. Robert easily batted my blade aside with his, the edge of the shamshir’s blade riding down the katana, leaving a trail sparks in its wake. The vision of Robert lopping off my fingers suddenly flashed through my mind, and I quickly lowered the blade until the tip was touching the floor. Robert’s strike grazed my knuckles, drawing blood. Ignoring the pain – it felt about the same as a papercut – I reversed my grip and swept the sword upwards, intent on cleaving Robert in two from groin to crown. Once again, Robert parried me, smiling wickedly as he did so. Then his blade shot forward and up; he wanted to do the same to me. I parried him, badly. The tip of his blade raked through my thigh.
Odette screamed as I let out a gasp of pain and fell to my knees. Robert laughed triumphantly and raised the shamshir over his head for a killing blow. I brought my katana up to parry, barely managing to stop the attack.
“ROBERT!!!!” Odette screamed, not in fear, but… anger? “WE NEED TO START SEEING OTHER PEOPLE!” Robert’s face had just enough time to register surprise before a round screamed over my head and blew out his left eyeball. I threw myself to the floor and rolled out of the line of fire as Odette emptied my FAL into the shocked Master Vampire. “Nothing personal,” she said as the gun ran dry and she reloaded, “I’m just not into the whole evil-undead thing.” She lowered the gun and raced over to me. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I said, doing my best not to wince as she helped me back to my feet, “It’s just a scratch.”
“You ungrateful bitch!” Robert screamed. His wounds had healed before the rounds finished passing through his body, and now he looked really pissed. “I offer you immortality and unlimited power, and this is how you repay me? You told me that you loved me!”
“The man I loved was killed by a naga in that lake outside of Chicago,” Odette replied. There was no pain in her voice now, only cold, hard anger. “I don’t know who the hell you are.” Robert let out a scream of incoherent rage as he charged us, swinging his sword like a madman. I shoved Odette out of the way and met his attack. The force of the blow sent me staggering backwards. Pain raced down my wounded leg and I nearly fell again. Robert hacked at my head. I ducked under his attack and tried to decapitate him again. He blocked so hard that the katana was almost knocked from my hands.
He came in again, trying to lop my legs off at the knees. I skipped back and barely managed a parry, riding his blade up to his chest. He caught my blade on his cross-guard, shoved my weapon aside, and tried to stab me through the heart. I barely managed to knock his blade out of the way. The edge tore through my left arm and I let out another scream as white-hot pain shot into my shoulder.
I instinctively lashed out with my leg, catching Robert hard in the gut. He hadn’t been expecting the blow and stumbled backwards. Another wave of acute agony shot through me; I’d used my wounded leg. Fighting through the pain, I launched myself at him, trying for a desperate one-handed mann strike. Robert shot his blade up and blocked. My katana, weakened by his earlier strike, snapped in two at the brutal impact.
Odette screamed as Robert brought his blade down, slashing through my other arm and laying it open nearly to the bone. Before the pain could hit me, he brought his blade back in close and then plunged it deep into my unhurt thigh. My limbs suddenly felt like they were on fire. I let out a wailing howl of pain. I could hear Odette screaming as I clattered to the ground, my broken sword falling away. Robert began laughing triumphantly.
“It’s over!” he pronounced, “You are defeated, Stephen. Yield and I promise you a quick, painless death.”
“Thanks,” I bit through clenched teeth, “But I’d rather be forced to watch Pelosi, Napolitano and Clinton compete in a wet T-shirt contest.”
“You are a sick man,” Robert said, and I smiled as I saw him shudder at the mental images my suggestion provoked.
“So you can take your offer,” I continued, “and shove it up your undead ass.”
“Have it your way,” Robert said with a shrug.
His first kick caught me in the ribs. The sound of bones cracking echoed off the marble walls. The impact rolled me over onto my side so his second kick hit my abdomen. I felt muscles tear as the blow actually launched me into the air across the room. My arms flailed out. I landed hard on my arm. Bones snapped as my elbow bent the wrong way. Odette’s scream mingled with my own as I slid across the floor and crashed into my pile of guns. My eyes watered from the pain. I could make out Robert stalking across the floor towards me. I groped desperately for a weapon. My blood-slicked fingers brushed against my SIG P220 S4. I snatched the pistol up and fired. The recoil from each shot sent a fresh wave of pain up my arm, but I fought through it, struggling to keep the pistol from slipping out of my hand. The slide locked back. I threw the pistol at his face. He snatched it out of the air and crushed with one hand as he drew close.
“You bastard!” I hissed. It hurt just breathing; talking was pure agony. “That was a limited edition model!” Robert just smiled wickedly as he grabbed me by my armor’s drag strap and hurled me across the room. Stars exploded behind my eyes as I slammed into the cold, hard wall.
My body hurt. Everything hurt. My eyes, my ears, my teeth, even my fingernails all screamed with pain. My head swimming, I dimly saw Robert marching towards me, that evil smile stretched wide across his cheeks. He looked like a predator closing in for the kill.
Both of my arms were sliced open. One was badly broken. One leg had been stabbed, the other sliced through. I could feel the five broken ribs, and my abdomen burned. I could barely breathe. I was helpless, completely at Robert’s mercy.
And I’d be damned if I was going to go out like that.
My Mossberg’s bayonet was still strapped to my armor. I yanked it from its sheath as I slowly, painfully forced myself to my feet.
“You just won’t take a hint, will you?” Robert asked.
“I can be thick sometimes,” I hissed. I lunged at him, my weak legs almost sliding out from under me on the blood-slicked marble. Robert easily caught my wrist as I tried to sink the blade into his , then snapped it, almost as an afterthought. The bayonet fell from my hand as fresh agony raced up my already-bleeding arm. I dropped to my knees as Robert released his grip, then he savagely drove his knee into my solar plexus. I slid back across the floor, body totally awash in pain. My head swam. My eyes couldn’t focus. Something bubbled up into my mouth as I tried to breathe. I threw up, spewing a red mass all over the floor. I dimly recognized it as blood.
Through the ringing in my ears, I heard the sound of glass smashing. Then wood, metal, and string stretching, a loud click, and rustling of wood on wood. Then Robert appeared in my vision.
He was holding the crossbow.
“Now, Stephen, be a good boy,” he said as if he were gently admonishing a child, “And die.” He leveled the weapon at my heart.
“NNNNOOOOOOO!!!! Stop it! Please, Robert, stop!” Tears were streaming down Odette’s face as she grabbed Robert’s arm, desperately trying to pull him away from me. She might as well have been trying to stop a freight train. “Please!” she begged him, “I’ll do whatever you want, just please stop hurting him!”
“Odette, no!” I wheezed. Robert smiled wickedly, and I realized that this had been his plan all along.
“You will willingly partake of my blood and become my Queen?” Odette nodded, sobbing.
“No! Odette!” Robert slammed his foot down on my sliced-open arm to silence me. It didn’t work; the pain in the rest of my body was so acute, so intense, that I barely felt it. “Odette, look at me! Look at me! I’m not worth it! Please! Don’t do this! Look at me! I’m dead anyway! He’s already killed me! Don’t do it! Let him finish me! Please! Odette!” Odette closed her eyes and looked away, unable to meet my gaze.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Odette, no! Don’t!” I could only watch helplessly as Robert slowly, almost tenderly cupped his hand around Odette’s neck and pulled her face close to his, towards the kiss of eternal damnation. Robert closed his eyes and turned to face Odette, smiling with anticipation. His incisors began to slowly elongate, protruding out from his lips. The loaded crossbow never wavered away from me.
Tears streamed down my face, not of pain, but of grief. Odette knew what this would do to her, but she didn’t care. She was throwing away her life for mine, and there was nothing I could do to stop her.
At that moment, Doctor Bryson’s words echoed through my head.
“When this threat finally manifests itself and you realize its true nature, you will eventually find yourself forced to make a choice. You will have to choose between two lives. The person whose life you chose to save will be saved… the other will die.”
I was wrong Doctor Bryson hadn’t lied to me. Doug and Dominique were right. Griz’s death hadn’t been my fault. He’d made the decision up on that roof, not me. And I hadn’t known Robert’s true plot then. I knew it now. This was the time. This was the place. One life for another. And it wasn’t Odette’s decision.
It was mine.
“NO!” With the last ounce of my strength, I lurched forward, flailing out towards the crossbow. My aim was true; my numb, useless hand slapped hard against the trigger bar. The ancient mechanism worked perfectly. The sear tripped. The catch released the string. The bolt plunged into my chest.