by Jordanna Morgan

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"I'll be turning in now, Professor."

Blinking his sea-blue eyes, Abraham Van Helsing looked up from the open book before him, absently setting aside his pen to flex worn and arthritic fingers. The slivers of pain in each joint were familiar by now, like old regrets.

The innkeeper was smiling politely down at him, wiping his meaty hands on his apron. He was a short, plump, cheerful-looking man, with small gray eyes and curly, graying hair.

"Leave the lamp burning, if you please, Dieter," Van Helsing replied to him. "I'd like to continue my work here for a little while longer. Sleep well."

"Thankye, Professor. Good night." Dieter gave a slight bob at his rounded waist, and started for the staircase along the far wall of the common room. He disappeared up it, leaving Van Helsing alone with his thoughts and the crackling of a warm fire on the hearth.

He sighed quietly and looked around at the papers scattered about his notebook, a monument to work uncompleted. Only now did he notice that his half-finished dinner plate, long since abandoned, had been removed. But his glass now stood with a pitcher of wine beside it. Idly, he filled the glass and sipped from it, his mind retracing the same solemn paths they had explored for some weeks now.

So much left undone. So much undiscovered. A lifetime spent learning and researching was not enough.

And what was accomplished was largely too terrible to dwell upon.

A creak of the aged stairs caught his attention. He looked up in the firelight, expecting Dieter had forgotten something or other and was returning with apologies to attend to it. Instead, it was a woman who was casually descending from the upper floor where the rooms stood.

She looked young, but something about her seemed to conflict with that perception. Her brown hair was highlighted with gold. Her body was both tall and slim, clothed in an expensive dress of deep green, the skirts of which she held primly as she came down the steep and narrow steps. She had an aristocratic bearing, and moved with delicate grace.

Van Helsing wondered absently why a fellow guest of the inn, particularly a woman, would leave her room at this late hour. He picked up his pen, so as not to appear overly curious, and lowered his head toward his journal while continuing to watch the woman from the corner of one eye.

She was moving in his direction, hesitantly, as if trying to come to a decision about disturbing him. His vague suspicion fulfilled, he straightened again and directed a polite gaze at her. But she had apparently already made her choice, which was to come straight to his table.

"Sleep eludes me, Sir." She smiled at him—a thin smile, but a bright one. "Would you object to having company for a little while?"

Part of him didn't care for the idea, but his impeccable manners could never have said so. On the other hand, having a conversation would not be unpleasant. He returned her smile. "I would welcome it," he answered her, rising from his chair and stepping forward to seat her. But she raised her hand to still him.

"My name is Ilsa," she introduced herself, and the same fine-boned hand was now extended to him.

"Doctor Van Helsing, at your service, Fraulein." He slid his fingers beneath hers to clasp her hand in a courtly fashion. Her skin did not have the warmth of her smile... He looked up at her face, but it was almost angelic.

"The honor is mine, Herr Doctor," she replied, and sat down opposite him. He resumed his own seat, and saw her looking in curiosity at his jumbled spread of papers; which, turned in his direction, were upside-down from her perspective. "Forgive me if I have interrupted your work."

"Only a pleasant interruption." Now Van Helsing had the chance to study her face. It was lean-boned like the rest of her, without being truly thin. Her nose was narrow and high-bridged, her mouth thin as he had noted but with full, red lips. And she had a most remarkable pair of deep black eyes. They looked as if they possessed their own inner light.

"People and their doings fascinate me. What manner of work is this, Doctor, if I may be so bold?"

"Memoirs of a sort, mostly." Van Helsing felt caution creeping into him, and knew better than to argue with his instincts. "Is it work that brings you to these parts as well?"

She smiled darkly. "Of a sort," she replied, almost imitating him. "But I rather think I shall count it more of a pleasure, if my business unfolds as I hope."

"That's always to be desired." With studied nonchalance, Van Helsing reached for the pitcher on the table and tilted it toward his cup, even though the latter was nearly full. "Would you care for some wine? I'm sure we could find another glass about someplace..."

"I drink no wine, Doctor." Ilsa smiled, her chin tilting down slightly until she gazed through lowered eyelashes at him. She no longer looked at all like an angel.

Van Helsing set the pitcher down with a thump that splashed its contents onto the tablecloth, a spreading stain of deep red.

"No more need we mince words, I think," Ilsa said lightly. She raised her head, almost suggesting pride.

Van Helsing's right hand, which had rested in his lap out of sight, slid into a pocket of his waistcoat. His fingers found what he sought, a four-spoked shape on a string of beads.

"Do that," Ilsa remarked supernally, "and you'll not hear what I have to say."

"Why should I care what you have to say?"

"I think you know that, also." Ilsa drew herself up slightly, her eyes speculative as they ranged over him. That gaze felt unclean upon him, particularly combined with the ominous tone of her words—but knowledge in any form was not something in his nature to refuse.

"I don't follow," he said obtusely.

A laugh, light but harsh. "Come now, Doctor Van Helsing. You know my meaning quite well. You're dying."

His heart skipped a beat.

"A cancer, is it not?" Ilsa indulgently perused him with her eyes again, as if she could somehow pick out the site of the malignancy.

If Van Helsing had ever been shaken, it was this moment. He had known his condition, and its inevitable conclusion, for some little while now. But to hear it spoken by such a creature as his whole life had been set against... This chilled him to the core of his being.

"How do you know?" he asked numbly, his fingers slipping away from the hidden crucifix.

The cattish smile faded. "We know everything about you, Doctor Van Helsing. Information travels among us in ways not conceived of by you, passed one to another like ripples on a quiet lake. You're a subject of much interest to us."

"Of much danger to you, rather," Van Helsing rallied.

"More irritation than danger. Quite frankly, Doctor, you have been most useful in taking care of certain... disruptive specimens of us. The ones who call attention to our kind by getting into mischief among mortals. You see you've done us a fair service. But of course, among those strays, there have been some few innocents you sought out—"

"Innocents!" Van Helsing choked on the word, bolting up out of his chair. "An innocent among you that subvert and destroy sacred human life—"

She interrupted him in turn. "It would interest you to know that the greater number of us have never tasted human blood. That of dumb beasts suffices."

Van Helsing felt his jaw go slack, as much as he struggled to keep it—and his emotions—firmly closed.

"And what of you?" he asked, in a small, hoarse voice.

Ilsa smirked. "A few murderers. A thief, here and there. All killed quite painlessly, of course, and not made as we are. You see, we serve your kind much the same purpose you've served for us."

Van Helsing paled. "Not even a criminal deserves such a fate. You are as much a murderer as any of your victims may have been."

"And what of you, Doctor? Do our kind deserve the horrible fate you bestowed on so many of us?"

Van Helsing slowly sank back into his chair.

"What I did," he said roughly, "I did to free their souls from torment. As I would free yours."

Ilsa laughed. "My, what a concept. I assure you, Doctor, the only torment I ever knew was that which I left behind with my mortality. Saved from sickness—much as yours, in fact." She narrowed her gaze. "As for this business of souls, I fear you will have a rather rude awakening. If they were soulless things you killed, as you believe, you have nothing to fear. But if you are wrong—and you are—and you killed them so cruelly, is it not you who are guilty of murder?"

"I am not wrong," Van Helsing said, in a voice that was quiet but shaking with conviction. "You are to the world like the cancer in my own body."

That devil smile of hers took on a sardonic twist. "Yes, your cancer. The bitter punctuation to your noble and holy life. How unfair for you."

"You gain nothing by mocking me."

"I do not mock you, Sir. Had you the chance, you might have learned that we have only the deepest of respect for a worthy opponent." She paused theatrically. "But then, it so happens that you do have such a chance, if your mind can possibly be opened enough to take it."

New wariness filled Van Helsing. "What are you talking about?"

"An arrangement of mutual benefit—for you, and for us. Life renewed... and more."

Horror rose like a maelstrom as Ilsa's words sank into his mind, with all their ghastly meaning.

"I will never become like you!" he thundered. He was on his feet again, shaking with rage at the very suggestion. One hand reached for the hidden crucifix.

"Years passing as days," Ilsa murmured, almost as if to herself, still calmly seated. "Time unmeasured, free to be spent as one will. Time for learning—time enough to study the rise of empires and their fall to ashes."

Van Helsing fell heavily into his seat with a thump, staring at Ilsa with wide eyes. His body and soul trembled. The revulsion in his heart warred with—something—and he feared to call it fascination.

Ilsa's eyes focused on him. Her face had changed, softening to a perverse gentleness. And when she spoke, it was in dulcet tones of compassion.

"Time enough, even, for you to discover that we are are not monsters. Only the same rare few as are in your society. The rest seek merely to live in peace, culling only your criminals, if any at all. And we ourselves know no suffering, that we should be slaughtered as devils' minions."

"No," Van Helsing whispered—and knew not whether it was in resistance, or agreement.

His mind struggled to feel some outside influence upon him. But the only compulsion was that of his own curiosity, now compressed by fear but never fully absent. He was sitting and listening to her because he willed it.

Surely, madness had taken him.

Ilsa trailed slim fingers over the scattered papers, his collected knowledge of her breed—knowledge that was either horribly correct, or horribly wrong.

"Now you understand why I was sent here, Doctor. You interest us, and few mortals can do that. We have no wish to see you die. On the contrary, we would preserve that unusual mind of yours, and see you to a higher potential. Consider the end awaiting you and all your knowledge. Could you not better serve others by continuing?"

"I will not be parted with my soul," Van Helsing replied, almost inaudibly.

"Look at me, Van Helsing."

Unwillingly, he raised his eyes to hers. She gazed back at him steadily, and he was startled by the emotions he saw in her face.

"Will you tell me that I am a soulless creature?" she asked softly. "Like you, I need both rest and nourishment. I feel pain. I feel love, as well. I'm little different than I was in mortal life, only stronger and wiser. What should make me so terrible in your eyes?"

Van Helsing looked away from her, pushing away the sight of an undead so full of life. Everything on which his own life was built seemed to be slipping away from him. There was no more fear; he was beyond fear, lost in something else, something more terrible and darkly thrilling.

Slowly, he met Ilsa's eyes again, and their dark spheres lit with quiet triumph. She rose, stepping around the table in a rustle of long skirts. His fingers reflexively twitched toward his crucifix, but then his hand dropped and he stared at her, captivated by apprehension.

Ilsa bent down beside him, one cool hand closing over his. Her face now reflected a strange kind of compassion. "Not an ending, Doctor Van Helsing, but a beginning. Believe that."

She was wrong. There would be an ending to come, a very definite one. The only question in his mind was—an ending to what.

Van Helsing weighed his options, and made his choice; the only choice he could have made.

He rose, breathed deeply, and followed her out of the inn.

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Author's note: Title, Latin; Consider The End.

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Copyright © 2001 Jordanna Morgan