Paradigms Lost — Chapter 30

Chapter 30: Endings and Beginnings

Winthrope waved me past the yellow barricade. I pulled up a hundred fifty feet farther on. I got out, went around and helped Sylvie out into the wheelchair. She still looked pale and weak, but it was good to see her moving at all. She smiled at me, then looked up and gave a little gasp. “Verne did that?”

I felt as awed as she looked. The hundred-foot-long, three-story warehouse was nothing more than a pile of charred boards and twisted steel, still smoking after several days. The last rays of the setting sun covered it with a cast of blood. From the tangled mass of wreckage, two I-beams jutted up, corroded fangs, mute testimony to the power of an ancient vampire’s fury.

“You still haven’t heard from him, have you?”

“No. It’s hard to believe, but… there were dozens of them in there. Winthrope’s still finding bodies. They must’ve gotten him somehow, maybe by sheer numbers.” I felt stinging in my eyes, blinked it away. “And Renee …” This time I couldn’t blink away the tears. Syl said nothing, just held my hand.

It was hard to believe I’d never see her again. But Renee had been found in her house, her body sitting in a chair and her head on the table in front of her.

“I’m so sorry.” Syl said finally. “All I remembered was looking over, seeing her, and knowing it wasn’t really her at all. What about Star?”

“I got to see her the next day. She made me promise not to say anything to anyone about her helping me; her dad was already throwing a fit that she’d even been in the hospital when it happened. She thinks her father is the greatest thing in the world, and doesn’t want to worry him. I just hope she’ll be all right; that was quick thinking on her part, but I don’t believe any kid that age could see that monster coming at her and not at least get some nightmares out of it.”

Syl started to say something, but suddenly choked off; her hand gripped my arm painfully. I turned fast.

A man was standing next to Syl. He looked at me.

I knew that face, with the dark eyebrows, crooked grin, streaky-blond hair, and green eyes. I should know it; it looked at me every day in my mirror.

I went for my gun, found to my surprise that it wasn’t there. The man before me smiled, his face shifting to the Robert Redford lookalike I remembered all too well. He held up his hand, my gun sitting in it. “Good evening, Mr. Wood. I believe we have some unfinished business.”

“Never mind the dramatics,” I choked out, hoping he’d prolong them, “Finish your business, then. Nothing much I can do.”

“Dear me. No respect for tradition? I must congratulate you; I haven’t been hurt that badly in centuries; even our mutual acquaintance, Verne, failed to injure me as grievously. Why, I’m genuinely weakened. A clever, clever improvisation, Mr. Wood. I’m minded to let you live for a while.”

I blinked. “Umm… thanks. But why?”

The urbane smile shifted to a psychotic snarl. “So you will suffer all the more while everything you value is destroyed before your very eyes!”

I read his intention in his eyes, leapt hopelessly for his arm; he tossed me aside like a doll. His hand came up and the fingers lengthened, changed to diamond-glittering blades. Sylvie stared upward, immobile with terror.

Something smashed into Virigar, an impact that flung him a hundred feet to smack with an echoing clang into one of the two standing girders. The girder bent nearly double.

Virigar snarled something in an unknown tongue. “Who dares …”

“I dare, Virigar. Will you try me, now that I am prepared?”

Between us stood a tall figure, with a streaming black cloak, seeming to have materialized from the gathering shadows of night. “Verne!” I heard Sylvie gasp.

Virigar began to snarl, wrenching himself from the beam’s grip. Then he stopped, straightened, and laughed. “Very well! Far be it from me to argue points with Destiny.” He bowed to Verne, who made no motion to acknowledge it. “You have won a battle against me, Mr. Wood. And your friend here has surprised me. This game is yours. Your souls are still mine, and shall be claimed in time. But for now, I shall leave you. One day, I shall return. But no other of my people shall touch you, for that which is claimed for the King is death for any other who would dare to take it.” He turned and began to stride off.

“Freeze! Hold it right there!” Jeri Winthrope had the Werewolf King in her gunsights, and I had no doubt that this time it was loaded with silver bullets. Even though she had to brace the gun with the cast on her arm, I was sure she wouldn’t miss.

Virigar turned his head slightly. He ignored Jeri entirely, looking at Verne. “My patience is being tried. Tell the child to put her weapon away now.”

“Do it,” Verne said.

Jeri glanced at him, startled. “But–”

Do it!” Verne’s voice was filled with a mixture of loathing, fury, and a touch of fear.

Slowly Winthrope lowered her gun. Virigar smiled, though the expression was barely visible. “Wiser than I had thought. Until later.” He turned a corner around a large chunk of warehouse.

“Why?” Jeri demanded after a moment of silence. “I had him right there!”

Verne glared at her. “Think you that something as ancient as he didn’t know of your approach? I heard you as soon as you turned from your post. Your bullet would never have found its mark, and he would have killed us all. Even the fact that he spared us was a whim. Something to amuse him,” Verne spat the word out as though he could barely tolerate the taste, “until he has an artistic way to destroy us.”

“I thought,” I said, “he spared us because he wasn’t sure he could win against us.”

Verne shook his head. “If he appeared here, he was ready. Perhaps I could have defeated him.” I noticed that he didn’t say “we.” “But I believe he left because …” Verne seemed to be searching for the proper way to describe something. “… because he had “lost the game”, as he himself put it. This battle, even your injuring him, was to him nothing more than a game. The object was vengeance against me, and then against you once you became an impediment of note. But we managed to meet some… some standard he set for his opposition. You injured him; I reappeared from the dead. He is as immortal as I, and older; he must find his own amusement where he can. But where I find mine in the elegance of art, in friendship, in more ordinary games, he finds his in the dance of destruction and death, in evil versus good.” Verne shuddered, a movement so uncharacteristic of him that it sent chills down my spine. “Perhaps I could have defeated him,” he repeated softly. “But I very much wish never to find out.”

Jeri shrugged. “Not my problem now. Okay. We’ll talk later.” She walked off.

I grasped Verne’s hand, realizing how much it would have meant to lose him, especially after having just lost Renee. “Jesus, it’s good to see you. We thought you were dead!”

“Hardly, my friend.” He looked even stronger, more assured and powerful than he had ever been. “Though not for want of trying on their part, I assure you. How does it feel to have changed the world?”

Sylvie spoke up. “Verne, pardon me, but I don’t understand why any of them died in there. I thought–”

“That only silver could harm them? Quite so, my lady.” He gazed at the wreckage. “Once I knew the werewolves had returned, I laid in a supply of diverse forms of silver–although I must confess,” he bowed slightly to me, “it never occurred to me that preparations–compounds–of silver would be efficacious as well. Part of my armament was a large supply of silver dust. I hurled this into the warehouse from several different points with sufficient force so as to disperse it throughout the interior rather like a gas.”

I winced at the mental picture. “Instant asthma attack. Ugh.”

“Precisely. In addition, since nearly all surfaces then had silver upon them, even falling beams became capable of causing harm.”

“That still doesn’t explain where you’ve been the past few days.”

“Ah, yes.” He looked somewhat embarrassed. “Well, in the end the battle degenerated so that I was reduced to physical confrontation. By the time the last of them came for me, I found myself without silver of any kind. Your rings, I am afraid, were not meant for combat. They… ah… came apart. So when the last one attacked, I was unarmed against her great natural weaponry. I was thus forced to a course of action whose results I could not foresee.”

“Well?” I said when he hesitated.

He coughed and examined the ruby ring studiously. “I… drained her.”

“You mean you bit her? But you said that was fatal!”

He nodded. “Other vampires had tried it; they had all died along with their intended prey. I found out why.” He shook his head slowly. “The power was… incredible. No younger vampire could have survived it.”

I thought about that for a moment. “Then in a way you, also, drain souls?”

“Yes and no. There is a linking and exchange, usually, of energies. However, in the case of something like combat, it can become a direct drain, and against a werewolf or something of similar nature, it must be. As it was, my body fell into what you would call a coma for several days as my system adjusted. I was fortunate; we were underground in one of these abandoned buildings’ basements; had that not been the case, I would have faced the irony of dying in sunshine on the morning of my triumph. But survive I did, and I find that I am stronger for it.” He smiled, the predatory grin of the hunter. “It is fitting that their attempt to destroy me would only strengthen me; it is… justice.”

We nodded, then Sylvie spoke. “What did you mean when you said Jason had changed the world?”

“Is it not obvious, my lady?” He gestured at the lights of the city, silhouetted against the darkening sky. “For centuries humanity has wondered if there were others out there, beyond the sky; but always they were secure in their science and civilization, knowing that here, at least, they ruled supreme. The Others–vampires, werewolves, and so on–hid themselves away, not to be found by the scientists who sought to chart the limits of reality, and so became known as legend, myth, tales to frighten children and nothing more. On this world, at least, humanity knew that it was the sole and total ruler of all they could survey.

“But now they know that is not true; that other beings walk among them. And this is not one of their stories, a book to be read and then closed, to disappear with the morning light.” Verne shot a glance at me. “You recall, my friend, how you spoke about the horror stories, the Kings and Straubs and Koontzes?”

I thought for a moment, then I remembered the conversation he meant. “I think I see.”

“Yes. You were disturbed by their stories showing such titanic struggles, and yet no subsequent stories ever referred to them; as though such power could ever be concealed. But this is the true world. The genie cannot be replaced in the bottle. Even your government has realized the futility of a cover-up. Winthrope speaks on the news of these events to an incredulous nation, and scientists gather to study that which is left. The world changes; we have changed it. For good or ill, the world shall never be the same.”

He fell quiet, and we gazed upward; watching as the stars began to spread–like silver dust–across the sky.