Author's Note: This is a sort of preliminary character sketch/plot outline of a longer story I'm planning, so it'll probably be choppy and confusing in parts. If I ever get around to actually writing the story, it'll probably go in a completely different direction, but I wrote this to get a vague idea of the plot.
Strictly speaking, Elizabeth isn't an original character, but I think I can safely say this characterisation of her is pretty original. Kudos to anyone who can guess the character she's based on! (Here's a hint: she's from a science fiction book, and that version of Elizabeth only exists to be killed because of her fiancé's terrible choices.) Her surname isn't her original one; it's a reference to a completely book. I've meddled with times and settings, so this story/snippet/whatever-you-want-to-call-it takes place a long time after the book.
Vlad also isn't an original character, but that one's so obvious that I think everyone can guess what character he's based on. Again, though, I think this characterisation is… relatively original.
Fun fact: the working title of this was "Public Domain Characters, Witches and Monsters? In My Steampunk Alternate History?" I think that sums it up.
Warning: vampires, mentioned violence and creepiness ahead.
A Subtle Web
The Spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly Fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready, to dine upon the Fly.
– Mary Howitt, The Spider and the Fly
The first time Elizabeth met Vlad was at a science exhibition in Berlin. The man on the platform was extolling the virtues of a new and improved steam engine. Elizabeth looked at the engine. Even from where she was standing, she could see the flaws in the design.
"That thing will require absurd amounts of fuel," she said under her breath, not expecting anyone to hear her.
In trying to escape the press of the crowd, she had found herself standing off to the side of the main group of spectators. The closest person to her was a man standing almost a foot away, also on the outskirts of the crowd. She had hardly noticed his presence until he spoke.
"I agree," he said, quietly but loudly enough for her to hear. "In fact, it will require so much fuel that it will cost the owner more money that it brings him."
Elizabeth looked up, startled. She hadn't thought anyone could have heard her remark at such a distance, especially with so much noise in the background. She certainly would never have thought anyone would pay any attention to a woman's views on machinery. In Geneva her comments on the subject had either been ignored or greeted with patronising smiles. Yet the man was looking straight at her, leaving no doubt that he had been speaking to her.
Her eyes met his for a mere moment. A cold chill ran down her spine. In that moment she knew how a fox felt when the hounds were closing in, and she wanted to run as far away as possible.
The man looked away, as if dismissing her as unimportant.
For most of her life, Elizabeth had had only one goal. She would marry her cousin, and they would live happily ever after. Her own hopes and dreams were of no consequence. When her parents died, her uncle and aunt had taken her in and made it perfectly clear they expected her to marry their son and be a dutiful wife. Refusing would have been the height of ingratitude, especially when she had no real objection to her husband-to-be.
Then her cousin mysteriously vanished. The whole family waited for him to return. But he didn't. He had been missing for a year before Elizabeth decided to take matters into her own hands.
But somewhere along the line, finding Victor had become less important than finding herself.
Elizabeth had gone to Romania in search of one of her cousin's school friends. Her aunt had given her a list of people who might know where Victor was, and one of those people lived in Bucharest. This was the first time in her life that Elizabeth had ever been in Romania.
So why were the police waiting for her the minute she stepped off the train?
"Miss Clare?" said one of the policemen, using the surname Elizabeth had created for herself.
"Yes?" she said, looking around at the assembled policemen. There were four of them. Why on earth were they there at all? Didn't they have criminals to chase?
"You're under arrest."
Of all the ways Elizabeth had expected to spend her first night in Romania, a cell had never been one of them. Apparently she was suspected of stealing from a bank in Vienna. She hadn't even been in Vienna when the supposed robbery had taken place. There was something about this that made her think someone – whether it was Victor or one of his friends – wanted her to give up and go back to Geneva.
Well, if they thought that would work, they did not know the woman who called herself Elizabeth Clare. More importantly, they did not know about how many times she had been confronted with a locked door over the past year.
Lock-picking was not a skill anyone had taught her. She had learnt to do it on her own. And she had become quite good at it, if she did say so herself.
The second time Elizabeth met Vlad was at the train station.
After her brush with the law, Elizabeth was in no mood to stay in Romania a minute longer than necessary. So she ran to the train station, bought a ticket on the first train leaving the country, and waited anxiously for the train to leave.
As she stood on the platform, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible, another train pulled in. Soon the station was swarmed with people getting off it. She stood out of the way of the crowd, keeping an eye out for any policemen.
Then she noticed that one of the people looked remarkably familiar.
Elizabeth had almost forgotten the man she met in Berlin. It was just one strange incident in a long line of strange incidents. But unless her eyes deceived her, that man had just gotten off the train.
She stared. Perhaps she was mistaken. There was no way that a random stranger she'd seen months ago could appear again, so far away from where they'd first met. But this man looked exactly like the man she'd seen in Berlin.
He looked around as he stepped off the train. Then he saw her. They stared at each other, and she knew he recognised her too. He looked as surprised to see her as she was to see him. Then a group of people blocked her view, and by the time they had passed, the man was gone.
Something niggled at the back of her mind as she waited for her train. It was only later that she realised what it was.
There had been a bright red stain on the man's shirt collar, as if some liquid had been spilt on it. But what liquid was such a vivid red?
The year was 1880, and Elizabeth had given up searching for Victor. Instead she had bought an abandoned factory in London. It contained plenty of old machinery for her to examine and try to improve.
How "improving old machinery" turned to "build a mechanical servant" was anyone's guess. Elizabeth certainly hadn't set out to build a servant. But it took her only a few weeks of EMMA (as she called her Extraordinary, Marvellous Mechanical Assistant) helping her lift heavy pieces of metal for her to realise that other people might be interested in an EMMA to help them.
There was only one problem. Who would believe a woman could have invented such a machine?
Elizabeth would be the first person to admit that EMMA looked… rather frightening. It was, after all, a collection of metal boxes and tubes, with wires acting as muscles and light bulbs for eyes. But really, there was no need for some busybody to come poking their noise around the factory and then tell the entire city there was a demon living there?
Honestly, some people drove Elizabeth mad. They accepted trains and steamboats without batting an eyelash. They spoke with excitement of the newly-invented dirigibles. But a mechanical servant was too much for them. Suddenly Elizabeth's home was surrounded with people waving placards and denouncing her as a witch. A witch. As if anyone believed in such things nowadays!
The factory was so large that some parts of it were completely empty. Elizabeth didn't need that much room, so what was she to do with those parts?
She asked EMMA about it. She didn't get any reply, because she could make a collection of scrap metal walk but she couldn't make it talk. She had to come up with a solution on her own.
When she did, it was such a simple solution that she didn't know why she never thought of it before. She would turn those parts into rooms, and rent them out!
It turned out that there were such things as witches.
One of them was Elizabeth's first tenant.
Brigitta Lahn had the courtesy to keep her magic spells and potions out of Elizabeth's way, however, so Elizabeth said nothing about it.
She had a few things to say about the vampire, however.
The first thing she said was, "You can't be serious!"
The second was, "You're not actually a vampire, are you?"
The third was, "Oh, very well, as long as you keep your fangs to yourself!"
And that was how Archibald Westlock became Elizabeth's second tenant.
Letting lodgings had seemed like a good idea at the time. How was Elizabeth to know that the people who would take lodgings with a woman rumoured to be mad were usually not people at all?
After the fifth vampire moved in, Elizabeth decided she might as well give up on hoping for human tenants. She wasn't even surprised when the first werewolf arrived. Really, all the factory was missing now was a ghost or two.
Naturally, that was when a ghost arrived.
The third time Elizabeth met Vlad was entirely Archibald's fault. The dratted vampire had gone missing, and Brigitta had organised the lodgers into search parties. Elizabeth sincerely doubted he had gotten into any serious trouble, but she stayed behind and got a first aid kit ready just in case.
The search parties had barely been gone five minutes when Archibald burst in, uninjured and shouting about EMMA at the top of his lungs.
"Nice of you to drop by," Elizabeth said with the most sarcasm she could manage. "And where have–"
She broke off as she realised that Archibald wasn't alone. He had brought two men and a woman with him. Months spent around supernatural creatures had taught her how to recognise them, and so she knew all three of them were vampires. And she recognised one of the men.
"Who–?" she began.
Archibald interrupted her. "These are my friends, Corene, John and Vlad. I brought them to see your inventions!"
"I don't recall giving you permission–" Elizabeth began.
Archibald wasn't listening. That was his most annoying trait. He had already run off into her workshop. John and Corene followed him. Vlad lingered for a moment.
"I daresay your inventions do not require absurd amounts of fuel," he remarked.
He was gone before Elizabeth realised what he was talking about.
Considering how many supernatural creatures resided in the factory, it was only a matter of time before someone got in trouble with the law.
Elizabeth just wished that "trouble with the law", in this case, meant something less serious than murder.
"He deserved to die!" Archibald complained. The centuries-old vampire sounded like a petulant child. "He went around kidnapping children!"
"Then you should have called the police," Elizabeth said, feeling like a put-upon babysitter. "You shouldn't have killed and eaten him."
"I didn't eat him. I only drank his blood then took his organs to sell to the medical students."
It said a great deal about how insane Elizabeth's life had become that this sentence provoked nothing but a weary sigh.
"You would be a good vampire," Archibald said one day.
Elizabeth dropped the wrench he'd just handed her. "What did you say? What makes you think that?"
"Because you want to be the greatest inventor, the greatest mechanic, the greatest engineer… And you'll never be that while you're mortal."
"Thank you," Elizabeth said dryly, "but I'm happy being mortal."
The first time Vlad visited on his own, he nearly scared Elizabeth to death.
It was late enough for most sensible people to be in bed. Elizabeth was busy in her workshop, trying to create a teapot that made tea when set to a specific time. She didn't expect anyone else to be around at that hour. That was why it was such a shock when he spoke.
"Are you human at all?"
She screamed and dropped the teapot.
"Don't scare me like that!" she snapped at him.
He looked at her as if she was an interesting puzzle to be solved. "Archibald told me he thought you would make a good vampire."
"He told me. I disagree."
"I agree with him."
"Then we will have to disagree on that."
Elizabeth picked up the teapot and went back to her work. She didn't notice when Vlad left.
If anyone had asked Elizabeth ten years ago what she thought running a boarding house for horror monsters would be like, she would have run away screaming. Now, however, the monsters were the least of her worries. The real problems were her fellow humans.
Specifically, the humans who realised her inventions were better than their own, and who dealt with this by trying to have her committed to an asylum.
If I were a vampire, she thought as she had to answer another doctor's questions, I wouldn't have to deal with this.
She dismissed the thought, but only after giving it more consideration than she ever had before.
No one who had never experienced it could understand how exasperating it was to wake up to a crowd of people outside your door, calling you a witch and a thief and goodness knew how many other horrible things.
Elizabeth gritted her teeth and went on with trying to create a second EMMA. Sooner or later they'd give up and go home.
Somehow everyone had heard by now that Archibald thought Elizabeth should become a vampire. Their opinions varied, but most of them were polite enough to keep them to themselves.
Jemira, one of the other vampires living in the factory, looked out at the crowds of protestors, then looked at Elizabeth.
"If you were one of us, they wouldn't dare bother you."
Elizabeth shrugged and turned back to her diagrams. She didn't speak. She couldn't have kept the uncertainty out of her voice if she did.
Vlad had taken to visiting at random intervals. Sometimes he spoke to Elizabeth, sometimes he merely watched her work for a while.
It was during one of his visits that someone threw a brick through the window.
Elizabeth screamed and dived for cover. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Vlad turn into a bat and fly out of the way. She thought absently that that would be a very useful skill to have. When the glass shards stopped raining down, she crawled out from under the table. Vlad turned back into a vampire. The two of them surveyed the damage.
There was a gaping hole in the middle of the window. Fragments of glass covered the workshop floor. A brick lay amidst the glass.
Elizabeth clenched her fists as she looked at the chaos. Vlad looked at her and raised an eyebrow. He said nothing, but she understood what he meant.
"Not yet," she said, which wasn't a "no". "I'd like to stay human for a while longer."
The humans who tried to have her locked up were annoying.
The humans who burnt down her factory were the real monsters.
Outside, Archibald was taking a role call of all the lodgers who'd gotten out safely while Brigitta administered first aid to those who'd been injured in the fire. Inside, Elizabeth stood amidst the ruin of her home and the ashes of the life she'd built.
The old Elizabeth, the Elizabeth raised to be nothing but a pretty ornament, would never have contemplated revenge. She would never have contemplated becoming a vampire to get revenge.
The new Elizabeth, however…
"What a mess."
She hadn't heard Vlad arrive, but she wasn't truly surprised that he was there.
"Have you anything useful to say?" she asked wearily, looking around at the twisted pieces of metal that had once been the prototype of a flying machine.
"Come with me, and you can have vengeance on those who did this."
That was the thing about vampires, Elizabeth had learnt. They never gave up. She thought about his offer. Become a vampire, and she would have millennia before her to work, to learn, to invent. What reason had she to refuse?
She reached out and took his hand.
There is a rumour in the dark corners of many large cities. It has lingered on for two centuries, and will linger for many more.
It is a warning more than a rumour.
Do not go out at night, it says, for there are creatures that lurk in the shadows.
Some of them wander all over the world, seeking whom they may devour. Others walk among humans, looking exactly like them. And one of them lives in an old house that most people have long forgotten. Her house is full of extraordinary inventions. She is one of the less vicious vampires, for she is content to stay in her home for most of the year.
But when she goes hunting, or when someone is foolish enough to anger her, the only thing anyone can do is lock their doors and windows and pray she does not find them.