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It was night, or somewhere near it, and Emma and the Count were lost in the mansion. At least, she thought they were lost. The Count hadn’t said anything for a while, which worried Emma in itself, but he could at least still know where they were. He knew an awful lot about the mansion and grounds, probably because he’d been coming to the Spooktacular for multiple years.

The last task had been...not good. Even though Emma had made the potion and gotten their doll into the sunlight in time, another group had failed -- and it had turned out that theirs was the cursed doll. As in, actually cursed. Darn those superheroes and their skinny, tights-clad legs that couldn’t make it outside fast enough!

The curse’s main effect was simple: In a manner of speaking, people turned into their costumes. For example, the Ice Queen could now freeze patterns on the surface of the lake, and Little Bo Peep had demonstrated remarkable skill with losing several other contestants’ stuffed animals. None of the event participants had escaped the curse’s influence, including Emma’s team members.

Distant howls attested to Mr. Wolf’s condition. The last time they’d seen Mr. Bandages, he had been unable to speak anything but ancient Egyptian. Aside from heightened senses and an increased comfort with her bow, Emma had been largely unaffected by the curse, and the Count had seemed fine too -- but now she was wondering if his luck perhaps hadn’t been so great. Had he always looked this pale?

“Are you all right?” Emma asked. The Count gave a short, jerky nod.

“Are you sure?” she pressed. “We can stop if you’re feeling tired.” Her stomach rumbled loudly, and she grimaced. I wouldn’t mind a break myself… Or dinner!

Apparently she’d said the last part aloud, because the Count stopped in his tracks and let out the world’s most heartrending sigh.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to remind you of food.” Emma patted around her pockets, but all her emergency food stores were gone (as expected). Great. Cursed, lost, and now they’d have to find a way to break the spell on two empty stomachs.

“My hunger is not for…food…”

“Eh?” Emma wrinkled her nose. Was he trying to make some dramatic statement about his desire for knowledge, specifically knowledge of how to release everyone from this stupid curse?

The Count was looking at her! Face hot, she followed his gaze from her bare shoulder, to her collarbone, to her neck. Her heart beat faster, and she didn’t miss how his eyes widened (what?) or his nostrils flared (eurgh, seriously?).

“Uh. Count?”

He drew near her suddenly, still fixated on her pulse point. He was certainly tall! Emma tried and failed not to think of the disastrous kiss on the beach.


For one long moment, she wasn’t sure whether she wanted him to close the gap between them or move away.

Then: “Forgive me,” he said, stepping back and tearing his eyes away. “It appears that my choice of costume was not without consequence.”

Emma stared at him, uncomprehending.

He bared his teeth at her.

“Oh!” Emma’s hands flew to her neck. Her face felt like one gigantic blush. “Oh. Sorry, I guess.”

“You have nothing to apologize for. I’m sorry for how I acted just now, and I’m sorry that you have to be stuck in this place with me. An inhuman monster who lusts after your blood...”

“I don’t think you’re a monster?”

“…Cursed to walk the night alone, modern man tormented by an ancestral burden…”

“I see you’ve put some thought into developing your costume’s backstory.”

“I am an actor, aren’t I? …Maddened by neverending hunger, driven to slake his thirst at the the throats of innocent maidens…”

“You’re losing me here.”

“I said he was driven, not that he actually did it!” (“And besides,” he added in an undertone, “if I did make you swoon, I’d prefer it not be from blood loss.”)

Preferring to avoid more speculation in this vein, Emma interrupted him. “All right, well. Should we start trying to find a way out? I think we're both going a little crazy after wandering around all day, and if you keep having...problems, I'm sure there's plenty of rare meat in the kitchen. We can resume the search tomorrow.”

"A sensible suggestion as always, Miss Archer." The Count looked both slightly crestfallen and like he wanted to say something more, but he stopped himself. "Ah... If we make a right at this next area..."

Sure enough, when they turned right at the bend, the dank, gloomy dungeon passageway met up with what looked like a normal corridor of the mansion. Beyond it, Emma could see light, and carpeting, and even something that resembled an ascending staircase. However, an iron grille barred their way.

"Figures," Emma muttered, hunting for a button game or puzzle panel that might operate the grille. "Hey, do you think you'd get a burst of super strength if you sucked my blood?"

"It's worth a try," the Count said smoothly. She turned to look at him, startled, and he grinned.

Emma was saved from having to respond by the arrival of two familiar figures.

"Miss Archer!" The hulking mound of fluff bounding toward them could only be Mr. Wolf, and the belinened statue trailing some steps behind him had the same glare as Mr. Bandages.

"Guys! I'm so glad to see you." Emma felt her body sag with relief, and maybe disappointment. "Can you get us out of here?"

"There's a wheel there -- I'll turn it." Mr. Wolf went and fiddled with something out of sight. Within moments, the grille started to rise, and Emma and the Count were soon able to slip underneath.

"How did you find us?" Emma asked.

"You know, I'm not really sure," said Mr. Wolf. "This place is huge. We've just kind of been running around in circles all day."

"Running around in circles? I assume you let the mummy navigate," said the Count. The mummy made an unintelligible yet clearly rude comment.

"It's not like we were doing much better," Emma chided the Count. "Do you all want to go back to the main part of the mansion?"

Mr. Wolf's ears sagged. "Yes, please. I didn't want to say anything, but I was getting tired..." Mr. Bandages emitted a contemptuous noise, but didn't seem to object.

"It's decided, then," said the Count. "Lead on, Miss Archer."

The team headed upstairs. In departing the dim and rather mold-smelling dungeon, Emma discovered that her anxieties had left as well. She was looking forward to a good meal, a hot shower, and a long rest. Maybe the curse would wear off by morning, but even if it didn't, the four of them would be all right. She was confident of it.

If, before she went to bed, her mind lingered on memories of the Count looming over her -- and if she wondered what might have happened if their teammates hadn't found them, and he had tried to drink her blood -- and even if she perhaps had a scandalous dream about vampires -- well! That was for her to know, and no one else to find out. Ever. Unless she told Mira about it. Which she wouldn't. Probably.