December 19

The housekeeper stands frozen, dumbfounded, staring at the spill on the table. Then she pushes back from the table, knocking over her chair, and backs away from the careening Master. "How...." she whispers to herself, "how is it possible?"

The Master crashes to the floor, still clawing at his throat. He reaches one hand out to her. "Help me!" he croaks. "Elizabeth, help!"

Gavril and I stare at him, rooted to the spot. The housekeeper doesn't move. I watch as the Master's hand suddenly darkens. Ashy lesions appear and spread across his skin. He wails as the darkness covers his hands and disappears under his suit. His hand disintegrates into ash. His legs sink to the floor. His upper body hovers for a moment, then crumbles to the side and collapses.

Eventually his shrieks fade into silence, though a few parts under his suit jacket still writhe and shiver on the cold floor. Finally, only a motionless pile of ashes remains.

The housekeeper inches forward and peers at it in silence. She kneels stiffly on the floor, tilts her head, and tugs on a flattened sleeve. A tiny cascade of ashes trickles out. She drops the sleeve, eases herself back on her heels, and stands. Her eyes begin to shine, and a frosty smile plays at her mouth.

I tug Gavril's arm. "Gav," I say quickly. "Gav, listen to me. The Master must have been a vampire. I know you think it's crazy, but it must be true. I'm already sure the housekeeper is one, too. Gav, it's not safe here. We have to go. We have to get out of here. Now. Gav, listen to me!"

Gavril nods but doesn't look at me. He stares at the pile of ashes where the Master once was. I sling the messenger bag over my shoulder, grab his arm and jerk him toward me. "Gav, listen!" I snap, "We have to get out of here! We-"

I'm cut off by a sudden vice-like grip on my neck. The housekeeper's breath hisses in my ear, and I can feel her fingernails digging into my flesh. "Gav!" I cry out in panic.

Gavril turns sharply and whips something out of his pocket. There's a loud bang, and my neck is suddenly released. I stumble forward. Gavril seizes my elbow and pulls me up. "You okay?" he asks.

I nod and turn around. The housekeeper is tottering backward, grabbing her stomach. She looks down at a ragged hole in the front of her dress, then back at Gavril in surprise.

Gavril keeps his grip on my arm and raises his pistol, aiming at the housekeeper. "Nobody touches my cousin like that," he says. "That's the last time you'll be grabbing anyone."

The housekeeper cocks her head to the side and stares at him, then suddenly straightens up and drops her arms. She smiles grimly. "I beg to disagree," she says. She tugs the torn dress aside, revealing a smooth patch of skin where a gaping wound should have been.

Gavril's eyes widen and he blinks. He drops my arm and staggers back. His pistol wavers. "How....did that happen?" he murmurs.

The housekeeper smiles thinly. "Must be the antibiotics," she shrugs. "Those of...my kind have always been quick healers, but this is remarkable. The medicine must have strengthened the ability. I suppose I must thank you for those pills, Gavril. Yours, of course, since Anica's had such an...unfortunate side effect." She glances at the ash-smeared suit crumpled on the floor and shakes her head. "Truly a remarkable medicine - I feel fully recovered."

She strides toward us and flings the pistol aside, then seizes Gavril's shoulder. Gavril, still in shock, makes no move. Her other hand closes again on the back of my neck. "Come with me," she announces, tightening her fingers and pulling us toward the door in her powerful grip.

"The Master may be gone, but at least you're both still here to keep me company. And since we're getting so close," she purrs, her sharp teeth suddenly growing longer, "I no longer have anything to hide."

I gasp from the sharp pain of the housekeeper's grip. "Both of you please accompany me to a more congenial environment," she hisses. "I've a sudden desire to be away from this room. The smell of ash makes me feel faint." She pivots me and Gavril toward the door and steers us up the stairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Gavril wincing under her grasp.

We pass through the hallway and onto another stairwell at the back. The housekeeper drives us up the stairs. I trip often, my black shoes sliding on the wooden stairs, the corset and the messenger bag pulling me off-balance. The housekeeper grows frustrated. "Come along, Anica," she snarls. "Surely you've been in that long enough to learn to walk like a lady."

"Oh, are there ladies here? I've yet to see any – ow!" The housekeeper doesn't answer, but her fingers on my neck tighten further.

We reach the top floor and clatter along the hallway. The housekeeper turns a corner and shoves us both into a room shrouded in heavy curtains. I stumble blindly in the darkness and grip the edge of a table for balance. My shoulder aches - the messenger bag has left a mark where the strap dug into it. I ease the bag off and rub my shoulder.

The table creaks as Gavril settles himself against it. He thumps his pistol on the table. "Guess this won't be much help," he says.

"No," the housekeeper concurs, her eyes shining. "I'm afraid it won't. But in a short while, it won't matter anyway."