ANALISA . . .
He whispered her name, and it echoed back to him on the wings of the night. One kiss, he thought, one kiss would do no harm. She was so young, so alive. She radiated warmth and goodness, chasing the coldness from his being, banishing the loneliness from his soul. Four centuries of prowling the shadows had brought him few pleasures, but the nearness of her soft lips, her warm throat, promised sweetness beyond imagining. She had wandered unchaperoned to the moonlit tomb where he took refuge by day, little suspecting that with his eyes alone he could mesmerize her, compel her to do his bidding. Yet he would not take her life's blood by force or trickery. He would have it as a gift, freely given, and in exchange, he would make her wildest dreams come true.
He prowled the moonlit streets and shadowed byways, driven by a relentless hunger and an overpowering need to help, to heal. It was who he was, what he had been born for, until Tzianne swept into his life and literally turned his days to night.
He thrust her memory away. He emptied his mind of all thought, and listened to the heartbeat of the city, homing in on the one soul who had what he needed. Who needed what he had. Gathering his cloak around him, he became one with the dark shadows of the night.
She was dying. She had always feared death, certain it would be accompanied by terrible unending pain and horror. But now, lying on a narrow bed in a darkened hospital room, with long fingers of silver moonlight making ever-changing patterns on the wall, she felt nothing but an over-powering weariness and a vague sense of curiosity about what came next. Was there truly life after death, a place of peace and rest without pain, as the priest had promised her, or was there nothing beyond this life save an endless black void?
She felt herself slipping away, teetering on the brink of sleep, or perhaps the eternal abyss of death, when she felt it, a sudden coolness in the room, more a feeling than an actual physical chill, and with it the certain knowledge that she was no longer alone.
Fear came quickly, manifesting itself in the nervous shivers that wracked her body, in the sudden dampness of her palms.
"Who's there?" Filled with apprehension, she glanced nervously around the room. "Doctor Martinson? Is that you?"
He appeared out of the shadows, black against black, almost as if he were a part of the darkness itself.
"How are you feeling?" His voice was low, filled with a dark sensuality that sent a shiver of awareness down her spine.
"Who are you?" She huddled deeper into the blankets. "Where's my doctor? Where's Doctor Martinson?"
"The good doctor asked me to look in on you."
She stared up at the hooded stranger, her heart pounding as he moved closer to her bedside. He was tall and broad-shouldered beneath the fine black wool cloak that fell from his shoulders in graceful folds to the floor. She couldn't make out his features, only that his hair was long and dark, blending into the shadows around him.
"Are you a doctor?" she asked tremulously.
"Yes. I am not going to hurt you." His hand on her brow was cool, gentle. "Are you in pain?"
She shook her head, mesmerized by his eyes. They were blue, a deep, dark blue that seemed to be kindled from a light within. Strange, she could see the color of his eyes when she could see little else.
He leaned toward her. She tried to look away, but it was impossible to take her gaze from his. She felt as though she were being drawn into the very depths of his eyes, until all she could see, all she was aware of, were his eyes. Blue, so very blue, like a fathomless indigo sea beneath a moonless night.
She felt his hand at her neck as he brushed her hair aside and then leaned over her. She felt a brief, sharp pain, as though something had bitten her. Moments later, his gaze captured hers once again.
"Drink, Lisa." She tried to look down, to see what it was he was offering her, but she could not draw her gaze from his face. Something thick and warm dripped into her mouth. "Drink."
Helpless to refuse, she did as he asked and was immediately filled with a sense of euphoria . Gone was the weakness that had plagued her, the weariness that had weighed her down, the coldness so deep inside her. Warmth flowed through her veins, strengthening her, making her feel as though she could leap from the bed, as if she could run. As if she could fly.
She didn't want to sleep, not now when she seemed filled with new life, but his voice wrapped around her, low and soothing and seductive. And completely irresistible.
She stared up at him, trying to see his face, trying to fight the sudden lethargy stealing over her limbs. She wanted to ask who he was, what he was, but a blackness as deep as eternity swept her away before she could form the words.
* * *
She woke to the singing of birds and the rattle of the milk wagon on the cobblestones below, woke feeling better than she had in weeks. Almost, she felt as if she could jump out of bed, walk, run. But it was only an illusion, she thought. She had heard too many tales of people lying at death's door who experienced a last, sudden burst of false energy.
Doctor Martinson frowned as he examined her later that morning. "I don't understand it," he murmured as he looked into her eyes, listened to her heart beat. "How can this be?"
"What is it?" she asked, fearing that death was closer than she feared.
He shook his head. "Nothing." He smiled his fatherly smile at her and patted her hand. "Nothing for you to worry about, my dear. Get some rest."
But she didn't feel like resting. She grabbed hold of his sleeve as he turned away from the bed. "A strange doctor came to visit me last night," she said, still clutching his sleeve. "Who was he?"
Doctor Martinson's brow wrinkled. "A doctor, you say? I'm sure I don't know."
"But he said you sent him."
"I sent no one. Rest now. I have rounds to make."
"I'm sure it was just a dream." He tugged his sleeve free of her grasp. "I'll see you later this evening."
She stared after him. Had it been a dream? But it had seemed so real. Overcome by a sense of disappointment, though she couldn't say why, she drew the covers up over her head and drifted off to sleep to dream of a tall dark man in a hooded cloak the color of midnight.
* * *
The chill in the room awakened her, the same eerie coolness she had felt the night before. Clutching the blankets to her chin, she stared into the darkness. "Where are you? I know you're here."
A dark shape detached itself from the deep shadows of the room. Last night, she had fancied that he was a part of the darkness. On this night, she knew he was the darkness.
"Who are you?" she demanded, her voice thin and shaky. "What are you doing here? What do you want from me?"
A soft chuckle floated through the blackness toward her. "Only what I gave you last night. Only what you gave me in return."
"I gave you nothing." She took a deep breath, opened her mouth to scream for help, but he was suddenly at her side, his hand on her mouth stifling her cry.
"You don't want to do that." His voice was as low, as mesmerizing, as she remembered. "Did I hurt you last night, sweet Analisa?"
She stared up at him. How did he know her name? Who was he, this dark stranger with the compelling voice and mesmerizing eyes?
"Did I?" he persisted.
She shook her head, her heart pounding loudly, erratically. He hadn't hurt her, but there was something about him that frightened her. Something dark and intangible.
"I will not hurt you tonight."
She felt a wave of sweet relief wash over her as someone opened the door. Welcome light from the hallway spilled into her room. Thank goodness. Help was here. "Doctor Martinson! I'm so glad to see you!"
"Good evening, Analisa, how are you feeling?"
She stared at her doctor, waiting for him to question the stranger's presence in the room, but Doctor Martinson walked by the stranger as if there was no one there, though she could see him plainly. He was standing in the shadows, as still and silent as death.
"Who's that man?" Lifting her hand, she pointed a trembling finger toward the stranger.
The doctor glanced around the room, his brow furrowed. "What man?"
"You don't see him?" She looked at the stranger, then back at Doctor Martinson. "He's standing right there, by the window."
Doctor Martinson smiled indulgently. "You must have been dreaming again, my dear. There's no one else here."
She stared at the stranger while the doctor examined her, wondering if she was going insane. She saw the cloaked figure so clearly, but if the doctor could not see him, then surely there was no one there. Perhaps she was having delusions of some kind. She had been ill for so long, perhaps in her weakened state she could no longer discern fact from fantasy. But she didn't feel weak and sick today. She felt stronger this evening than she had in weeks. Perhaps the hooded man was Death come for her. Perhaps that was why only she could see him. Her grandmother had told her that Death rode a dark horse. She giggled softly. Of course, he couldn't ride his horse into her room.
Doctor Martinson was smiling when he finished his examination. "I am pleased with your progress, Analisa, though I confess I do not understand it. It is quite beyond anything I have ever seen before."
She nodded, her gaze still on the hooded man.
"If you condition continues to improve through the night, I think you will be ready to go home tomorrow afternoon."
"Thank you, doctor."
He patted her hand. "Rest well, my dear."
She watched him leave the room, the stranger momentarily forgotten. Home. She had no home, no place to go when she left here.
The sound of her name on his lips sent a shiver down her spine. "What do you want? Why couldn't Doctor Martinson see you?"
He moved toward her, bringing the darkness with him. "Because I did not wish to be seen. As for what I want with you, only what I desired last night."
She was trembling now. "What did you do to me last night?" She lifted her hand to her throat. "Did you give me an injection of some kind?"
He hesitated. "An elixir of my own making. It made you feel better, did it not?" "Yes. Yes, it did. But how…"
"Then close your eyes, Analisa."
"Close your eyes, my sweet Analisa. Listen to the sound of my voice, only my voice."
His voice. It moved over her, soft as a mother's caress, soothing her, comforting her, mesmerizing her so completely that she offered no protest when he sat down on the edge of the bed and drew her gently into his embrace. She was aware of the strength of arms even as her eyelids grew heavy, heavier. Drifting between the awareness of consciousness and the forgetfulness of sleep, she felt again a quick needle-like pain at her throat, and then she was overcome with a familiar feeling of lethargy, of euphoria, that carried her gently down, down, into the velvet darkness of oblivion…
Her blood. It was sweet, so very, very sweet, and he drank and drank, despising himself, despising his inability to control the need that burned through him, yet reveling in the warmth that flowed through his limbs, chasing away the cold that was ever a part of him, giving him an illusion of life, of mortality.
He drew back to gaze at her face, imprinting her image in his mind. She was a beautiful child, her oval face framed by a wealth of ebony curls. Beneath closed lids, her eyes were the color of sun-warmed earth, large, luminous eyes, innocent and without guile. Her brows were delicately arched. Her nose was perfectly formed, her lips as pink as the petals of a wild rose, her skin smooth and unblemished. And warm. So warm, so alive.
How many times in the last four hundred years had he stolen the elixir of life from a child as pure and innocent as the one lying helpless and vulnerable in his arms? It mattered not that he drew them back from the brink of death and gave them life in return. Who was he to interfere with Fate? What right did he have to play with the lives of those whose blood he took?
This would be the last time. When he left here, he would wander the streets in the company of innocent mortals one last time. He would drink until he was replete, and then he would seek oblivion.