Arabian Knight

Chapter 12

Baghdad - 1258

"Yoshi and Demarcus spent the day sleeping, buried deep beneath the sand to avoid the deadly rays of the sun. That night, they caught up with the caravan, and one by one, attacked the thieving soldiers who had sought to enslave others. Most were asleep, while only two stood guard. Yoshi quickly demonstrated to his new pupil how to approach in silence, sink his fangs into unguarded flesh and drink his fill, then snap his victim's neck in two. Demarcus had never killed another human being before. But his newfound thirst for blood, made it easy for him to take a life without mercy. As he and Yoshi went through the camp and sought out all the soldiers, one of the enslaved women awoke and screamed out in alarm when she saw a monster attacking one of the men.

"Soon, everyone was awake. Demarcus came forward to let his people know that their captors were dead and that now everyone was free to go. But instead of being grateful and happy to see him as he had envisioned, the people were terrified of him. They cowered from his approach and cried out in fear when he ventured too close. They knew him to be dead, but now he stood before them, his skin smooth and pale, not burnt by the sun as they had last seen him. He tried to speak to them, to tell them not to be afraid. But even the girl who had been betrothed to him since birth, was too afraid to be near him. She accused him of being a devil and begged him to return to the underworld where he belonged.

"Yoshi knew it was useless to try to convince the people that no harm would come to them. He pulled Demarcus away before the crowd decided to drive the demons off with fire. At that point, Demarcus understood that he could never go home again, that he was no longer considered human; so he went quietly with Yoshi. He still owed the vampire a debt, and in the nights that followed, he worked diligently to solve the puzzle and grant Yoshi his request. When at last, the puzzle opened and it was time to make a wish, Demarcus had all intentions of speaking the words that the vampire had instructed him to. But deep in his heart, all he could think about was how he hated what his life had now become. He wished desperately that his village had never been raided by the solders in the first place, and that none of the other terrible things had come to pass. He never uttered the words aloud. He merely wished them with his heart and mind. Then, just as he was about to say what Yoshi had wanted him to, the smoke in the crystal sphere swirled about to form the words, 'As you wish.'

"The next instant, the puzzle disappeared from his hands, and Demarcus looked up to see that he was no longer sitting in the middle of the desert. He was in his own home, sitting up in bed. He thought perhaps that it had all been a dream, but it had seemed so real. When morning came, he told others of his experience, but no one believed such a strange tale. However, the elder in their village gave it more thought. He felt that perhaps what Demarcus described had been a sort of premonition of things to come if they did not take precautions. He had heard of people in distant villages being taken from their homes and made into slaves. He decided that it would be wise for them to prepare against such attacks. As for the rest of the dream, it was blamed on the effects of eating too many dates before bed. Demarcus knew better than to insist that his dream had been reality. It was enough to simply have his life back to normal, and his people safe once again."

"But what of Yoshi?" asked Nicholas when he realized that Shalimar had come to the conclusion of her tale. "Did he not get his wish?"

"No, he did not. Even though Demarcus had not put his own wish into words, the magic puzzle heard his thoughts and acted upon them. And though he was pleased with the way things had turned out for himself, he felt regret that Yoshi had kept his part of the bargain but was left unrewarded for his troubles. As for Yoshi, his search still continues, and perhaps someday he will find someone to make that wish for him. Indeed, he has all of eternity in which to look."

Nicholas rose from the bed and walked over to her. "I can think of better ways to spend eternity than searching for a silly puzzle box," he said, as his hand reached beneath her veil to caress her throat. He was very hungry now, and the young beauty before him was oh, so appetizing.

"Did you not find the story pleasing?" Shalimar asked, her voice trembling slightly as her heart beat rapidly in fear. "Shall I come back again tomorrow night?"

Nicholas started to remove her veil so that he could steal a kiss, but he knew that if he did, he would be tempted to do much more than that. He had made a bargain with her, and decided to honor it before it was too late. "No," he said as he drew his hand away slowly and stepped back. "There's no need for you to return. I shall find further entertainment elsewhere."

The dark, brown eyes which had been wide with dread, now gleamed with suppressed joy. "Thank you, my lord," she breathed in relief. After offering a quick bow of her head, she turned to leave, only to stop suddenly when she heard her name called out softly. The young woman turned her head slightly to show that she was listening. The next words that reached her ears, carried a warm and gentle tone.

"I shall inform the king of what a great prize he has in his harem and impress upon him that he should take care and treasure you always. You possess a wonderful talent for storytelling. Thank you for sharing your gift with me."

Shalimar glanced back at him in surprise. Even with her face covered by the veil, Nicholas could easily see the timid smile that formed beneath. The harem girl offered a simple nod of acknowledgment, then quickly and silently departed.


Nick glanced out of the window into the darkness and saw the approaching bright lights of Atlanta. He anxiously looked forward to getting off the plane, hoping that the simple act of landing would help to make him feel better. Flying had never bothered him before, but then he had never flown as a mortal. He'd already thrown up twice during the flight and was still feeling rather nauseous despite taking his medication. On top of that, an uncomfortable tightness had begun to develop within his chest, making breathing a bit difficult, and a blossoming headache was threatening to split his skull in two. He knew that he should probably tell Natalie about his newest symptoms, but decided against it, since there was little she could do to help him at the moment. Besides, they'd be on the ground and on their way to the hospital soon enough.

The only perk to being sick and traveling in first class was that the stewardess made sure that he was the first one off the plane. A wheelchair was already awaiting his arrival at the gate. He had no energy whatsoever to debate whether or not it was needed. Except for some minor coughing, he was silent as Natalie pushed him along the airport terminal on their way to baggage claim. As they approached the restrooms, he informed Nat that he had to go. She looked at him worriedly, and Nick feared that she might be considering following him into the men's room.

"I'm okay," he spoke assuredly, just barely able to suppress another cough. "I won't be long."

She nodded reluctantly and wheeled him as far as the entrance before he took over the wheels and disappeared from view. Natalie decided that she could use a trip to the ladies' room, but did what she had to do in record time. When she emerged, she saw that Nick had not returned yet and figured that it might take him a little extra time. He was still looking a bit green around the gills and his stomach might still be upset. Natalie walked across the way and into a gift shop where she plucked out a couple of free brochures on Atlanta from a convenient display. She stood outside the gift shop, out of the way of traffic to study the brochure, unaware that she was being watched.

He had spotted her from a distance. The thick, auburn curls cascading over her shoulders were what had caught his attention first. She was leaning against the wall to his left, with her eyes focused on the tourist map she held open in her hands. LaCroix had contemplated simply walking past without making her aware of his presence, but reconsidered at the last moment. He knew she wasn't alone. She was undoubtedly waiting for her companion to join her. Perhaps he was at the ticket counter or picking up their luggage. The old vampire wasn't quite sure how he felt about seeing his ex- child again, but he had to admit to a nagging curiosity concerning Nicholas' mortal life. It would be interesting to see what new developments the last ten weeks had produced.

Natalie was so absorbed in her map reading that she wasn't even aware of his approach until he stood directly in front of her. His soft, but chilling voice made her jump nervously the instant she heard it. She gaped up at him, shocked to see a surprisingly warm smile grace his features.

"Dr. Lambert. A familiar face in a sea of strangers. What are the odds?"

"LaCroix! What--?"

"I've just come from Las Vegas," he answered her unspoken question. "Wonderful nightlife they do have. I'm on my way to Paris now. It appears that the Atlanta airport is a required stopover for practically any final destination. And if I may ask, where, pray tell, is your destination, my dear?"

"Oh, well...we're here already," Natalie answered him, finally managing to subdue her unease at seeing the vampire again. "Atlanta."

"I see. Not exactly my idea of a vacation getaway, but I suppose it has its attractions. And I take it that our dear Nicholas is close by?"

"Uh, yes. He had to...." Natalie gave a nod towards the opposite side of the terminal.

LaCroix glanced over his shoulder and saw that they were directly across from the restrooms. "Ah, answering the call of nature then." Looking back at Natalie, he noted the sparkle of diamonds on her finger and reached out to take her left hand in his. "It would appear that congratulations are in order," he said upon viewing the wedding set more closely. Then his eyes returned to her face and studied it carefully. She appeared somewhat worn, but that could have been due to the hassles of traveling. Beyond that, however, LaCroix was able to detect a certain glow about her. He glanced down at her barely protruding belly and cocked his head downwards to fine tune his hearing. Even with the din of airport noise surrounding them, he was still able to pick up on the faint and tiny, second heartbeat.

"You are with child," he stated, taking her completely by surprise.

"Ahh....yes. How did--never mind."

"It seems then, that life is treating you well. You have everything you wanted."

"Yes, I have," Natalie responded flatly as she pulled her hand out of his loose grasp.

"And yet, you don't appear all that happy," LaCroix noted the less than enthusiastic expression on her face. "Could there be trouble in paradise already?"

"No," Natalie answered a little too quickly. "No trouble. Look, LaCroix, Nick will be out any second. I don't think it's such a good idea for you to be here when he does."

"Why not? We're very old friends. Surely, a chance meeting in a crowded airport could do no harm. A quick chat over the latest events in his life before we part and go our separate ways once again. Why would you want to deny me that? Could it be that you're afraid he might get certain ideas in his head if he should see me again? Afraid he might want his old lifestyle back?"

"Not in a million years," a familiar voice spoke out from behind him.

LaCroix turned around, expecting to come face to face with his estranged son, but quickly had to readjust his line of sight and look downward to gaze upon a stranger in a wheelchair. It took the vampire a moment to realize that the pale, thin, ghost of a man before him, wearing a surgical mask over his face and a Toronto police department cap on his obviously, bald head, was none other than his beloved Nicholas. The almost lifeless, blue eyes with dark circles beneath them, proved to be only slightly more recognizable.

Nick pulled down his mask briefly in order to offer a weak smile as he greeted his former master. "Hello, LaCroix."

"Hello, Nicholas," LaCroix managed to get out after the initial shock had worn off. "You don't look well."

"That's probably because I'm not," said Nick as he replaced his mask. "You'll have to excuse this. I have to wear it to help cut down on the risk of infections."

"Your blood disease?"

"Yes. I figured you knew about it already. Would have been nice if you had clued me in."

"You would not have believed me."

Nick shrugged mildly. "Probably not."

"I take it then, this is not a honeymoon or vacation trip?"

"No. I'm here for treatment."

"Treatment you were unable to get in Toronto?"

"Yes. Experimental treatment at Emory."

"I see. And perhaps a miracle cure as well?"


"And what of our little magic box? No assistance there?"

"No. I'm afraid something else came up that was more important."

LaCroix followed Nick's soulful gaze over to Natalie and understood perfectly. "Yes, one must have one's priories. So, this miracle treatment; are you confident that it will be effective?"

"Yes," Nick answered without hesitation. "They've had good results with other patients in my condition, so I expect to do well with it."

He could sense that he was being lied to, or perhaps Nicholas was merely lying to himself. At any rate, LaCroix decided to play along. "That's good news, indeed. I wish you all the best. However, should you decide to take a shortcut back to health and longevity, I'd be more than willing to offer my services."

Nick knew exactly what his father was suggesting. He had thought long and hard of what he would say and do if the situation had presented itself. Naturally, he had no desire to die, but reentering the world of darkness that he had fought so desperately to escape, wasn't an acceptable option. To run into LaCroix unexpectedly like this, made Nick wonder if this was some divine test he had to pass before being allowed to crossover to join his sister in the afterlife.

"Thank you for offering," Nick spoke politely, "but I believe we can manage on our own. It was good to see you again, LaCroix," he added as a way to say that their meeting was now over.

LaCroix stared back ruefully for a moment, then softly uttered, "I wish I could say the same, Nicholas." He held his son's gaze a few seconds longer, then offered a curt nod of good-bye to them both before swiftly turning about and walking away.

"Wow, talk about your coincidences," said Nat, her gaze following the vampire as he strolled resolutely down the terminal. When she heard the sound of harsh coughing, she immediately turned her attention to Nick. He had his head bent down and his eyes squeezed painfully shut as his body shook with the sudden need to clear his lungs.

"Nick, are you all right?" A hand to his forehead revealed that he was running a fever, while a red stain on his face mask indicated that he was coughing up blood. "Nick?"

"Nat, I don't feel so good," he shakily admitted.

"We'll get you to the hospital right away."

As he sat, waiting for the announcement to board his plane, LaCroix tried not to think of the pathetic creature he'd just met. That thing back there had not been his Nicholas. His Nicholas had been handsome and virile and full of the wonder of life. That hollow man in the wheelchair had been homely and fragile and smelled of impending death. He wished he'd never seen him that way, because it was near impossible to shake the vision from his mind. He had known of the illness previously, and knew that Nicholas would suffer, but he had not expected the devastation he'd just witnessed. He desperately wanted to rescue him, to spare him the pain and distress of his illness, but he had given his word not to interfere. He could not force his gift if it was not welcomed.

Still, he couldn't help but wonder why circumstance had brought them together again. Either fate had a cruel sense of humor or it was trying to tell him something. He leaned more towards the latter when, after a forty minute wait, a voice came over the loud speaker and announced that due to mechanical difficulties, his flight to Paris was being cancelled. LaCroix contemplated what action to take next. It had to be more than just a coincidence that he ran into his son in the first place. Now that he was being forced to stay in the city a while longer, he assumed that it had to be for a reason. That reason, of course, was Nicholas.

Natalie sat in a chair next to the bed and stared solemnly at her husband as he slept. Nick had been diagnosed with acute pneumonia, and due to his already weakened state, the condition was considered to be life-threatening. There was little to do but wait and pray that he responded well to treatment. It was hard for her to stand by and watch him deteriorate, knowing that she could do nothing to help, other than hold his hand. It was so unfair, she thought. Nick was a good man who had paid his dues for the wrong he'd done in the past. He didn't deserve to have this happen to him. And she didn't feel that she deserved to lose him.

"You're going to get through this, Nick," Natalie tried sending encouraging vibes to the sleeping man, while simultaneously attempting to keep her barely contained tears from cresting. "You've got to live so you can be a dad to Little Nick. He needs you. _I_ need you. We didn't come all this way just so you could give up. I know it's hard for you, but you have to hang in there. You have to fight. You promised you'd fight it. Please, Nick. Stay with us.... Stay."

"I'm afraid you're wasting your breath," came an unexpected reply from behind her.

Natalie jumped to her feet and turned to face the unwelcome visitor. "What are you doing here?" she asked, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb Nick.

LaCroix walked over to the foot of the bed and gazed down grimly at the frail figure that lay there, connected to a wide array of equipment designed to do everything from helping him to breathe to disposing of bodily waste. "I've come to offer my assistance," the vampire directed his comment to the woman standing nearby while keeping his eyes on the patient in the bed.

"He already told you back at the airport that he didn't want your help," Natalie reminded the vampire as she stepped closer to him.

"Then perhaps you could convince him to change his mind. I assume you don't want him to die. An immortal Nicholas is better than none at all. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Nick is tough. He'll pull through this. It'll just take a little time."

"You don't seriously believe that, do you?" LaCroix asked knowingly. "Look at him, Natalie. It's quite obvious that he's dying. Is it truly fair to him to allow this tragedy to continue when you know it can be prevented?"

Natalie cast her eyes upon the love of her life, heartbroken over what he had become and terrified at the prospect of losing him forever. It was more than tempting to give in to the words of the man standing beside her. A vampire Nick was decidedly better than a dead Nick.

"You know," Nat sighed despondently, as she looked up at LaCroix, "not too long ago, I probably would have accepted your offer to help. When my brother Richard was shot, I begged Nick to bring him across because he was practically all the family I have left and I couldn't stand to lose him. And because Nick loved me so much and couldn't bare to see me unhappy, he did as I asked. But it was a mistake. A terrible mistake. I think it would be just as big of a mistake to bring Nick back across. He made it clear to me that it's not something he wants to happen, and he trusts me to make decisions for him when he's no longer capable. It doesn't matter what I want, LaCroix, or what you want." Her gaze shifted back to her husband as she added, "It's what Nick wants that counts. And he wants to be mortal. Whatever else happens, he wants to be mortal."

"Then he will die," LaCroix pointed out. "And your child shall never know its father."

"Oh, he'll know," Nat vowed solemnly. "I'll make certain of that."

LaCroix sneered at her, then moved to stand on the left side of the bed. Staring down at Nicholas, he was tempted to go against his son's wishes and force him into becoming a vampire. There was a time when he would have done just that, but the commitment he'd made not to interfere in his child's life, still took precedence in his mind. The only way he could help his son, was to get Nicholas to agree to accept it.

The vampire gently grasped a pale, limp hand, mindful of the wires and tubing that were attached, then leaned in closer to speak. "Nicholas," he called to him softly. "Wake up, Nicholas and listen to me." Heavy lids fluttered opened briefly, then closed again. "Nicholas, you are dying. I'm sure you know this. You must allow me to help you. I can put an end to your suffering. I can take away the pain. I can give you life. Tell me that you want to live, and I can make it so."

The eyes opened again and focused on the face in front of them. After a brief moment, the head moved in a negative motion to convey his rejection of the offer. LaCroix was stunned. "Are you saying that you would rather die, Nicholas?" he asked for confirmation. When he received a slight nod in response to his question, LaCroix looked urgently to Natalie. "Talk to him," he implored her. "He will listen to you."

Nat folded her arms across her chest and shrugged helplessly. "I can't....." She paused to give thought to what she was about to say. She realized that she probably _could_ get Nick to agree to becoming a vampire again. He would do it for her, if not for himself. But in the end, she knew that she would still lose him. Their relationship would never be the same. She closed her eyes at that thought, then shook her head and looked back at LaCroix. "I won't try to talk him into doing something he really doesn't want to do," she spoke emphatically. "I respect him too much for that. Maybe you think you'd be doing him a favor, LaCroix, but I know he wouldn't be happy. Yes, he'd be alive, but inside, where it counts, he'd be utterly lifeless." She threw a another quick glance over to her husband before adding, "Nick has made his decision, and I've made mine. So maybe you should just leave now."

LaCroix was noticeably taken aback by the rejection. If it had been any other time and any other person, he would have snapped her neck in an eye blink and proceeded to do as he pleased. Instead, he was strangely compelled to control his natural impulses and humbly concede to her request.

"Very well," he replied numbly, "if that is truly the way...then I shall bother you both no more." When he started to let go of the hand he'd been holding on to for the past few moments, he felt Nick's grip tighten faintly to prevent him from leaving. "Yes, Nicholas, did you want to say something?"

Nick whispered to him through dry lips. If not for his superior hearing, LaCroix might have missed the message altogether.

"Letter?" LaCroix questioned, his brow denting in confusion. "What letter are you referring to, Nicholas?"

The effort to speak was too great, so Nick looked towards Natalie and managed to convey a message to her with his eyes.

"Do you mean one of the letters you left back at the loft?" Nat asked. When she received an affirmative nod, Natalie looked up at LaCroix. "I saw him with several envelopes back at the loft," she explained. "He put them in the jewelry case he keeps on the table behind the couch. I think that they're probably good-bye letters he wrote just in case...." She paused to choke back a lump forming in her throat, then continued. "In case things didn't go too well here."

LaCroix felt the faint grip Nick had on his hand, suddenly slip away. The eyes closed once again, but this time in unconsciousness. The vampire knew instinctively that his son would not awaken from the comatose state he had just drifted into. He hesitated a moment before reaching out a hand to gently caress Nick's smooth, hairless scalp. "Sleep well, fearless knight," he whispered his good-bye. "Sleep well."

LaCroix didn't bother to make eye contact with Natalie as he moved away from the bed and slowly walked out of the room without looking back. He was unsure of what to do upon leaving the hospital. It seemed too ridiculous that with all his power, he was unable to save his child. He wondered what cruel trick of fate had brought them together this one last time and yet offered no means to repair the damage done by them both. Perhaps, he thought, there was some answer, some type of solace to be found in the letter that Nicholas had written to him. He could always go to Paris later. A side trip to Toronto might prove to be worthwhile.

He returned to the airport and attained a seat on the next plane out. It was an hour before dawn when LaCroix finally reached the warehouse his Nicholas had called home. He entered through the skylight, landing silently in the darkened living room. After switching on the lights, he headed straight for the jewelry case which Natalie had mentioned. Inside the small, wooden case, he found five envelopes. Each had been addressed with only the name of the individual that was meant to read it. There was one for Natalie, for Schanke, Baby Knight, Janette, and the last had been addressed to him. LaCroix impatiently ripped the letter open and read the contents silently to himself. His mind automatically used the voice of Nicholas to speak the words his eyes took in.

My dear LaCroix,

Please forgive my penmanship. My hand is a bit shaky today but if I don't write this now, I don't know when I'll get another chance.

Where to begin? I suppose if you're reading this, then that means I have lost my battle with mortality. You can snidely say that you told me so. My new life hasn't been exactly what I'd hope for or expected. Soon after becoming mortal, I was diagnosed with leukemia. I have a feeling you already knew I carried the disease in my blood. I imagine that's why you tried so hard to keep me from finding my way back to mortality. I can't say that these past weeks have been my idea of fun, still, I have known joy. The joy of making love to the woman I love without the fear of draining the blood from her body. And the joy of helping to create a new life. Nat believes it's going to be a boy and has taken to calling him Little Nick.

As I write this, I fear that I shall never know my child. I'm dying. I can't explain how I know this for certain, but I sense that it will be soon. Perhaps all those centuries of tasting the death of my victims has left me with the ability to taste my own. I can feel myself slowly slipping away. At first I thought how unfair all this was. I finally get what I've always wanted, only to have it snatched from my grasp so soon. Then, I would hear your voice in my head reminding me that life itself is unfair and the world owes me nothing. The fact is, I owe the world for my past sins and indiscretions. This is my punishment for the centuries of cruelty I've dealt to others, so I have decided to accept my death sentence gracefully. What other choice have I?

Oh yes, I could seek you out and ask to join you once again in darkness. I have given this a lot of thought. At least as a vampire, I would be around to see my child grow up, but it would have to be from a distance. No driving him to school or to little league games or sunny, vacation trips to Disneyland. It would be more torturous for me to live as a vampire and not be a part of his life and Nat's. And you know my poor track record when it comes to me and mortal women. Eventually, I would be driven to taste Natalie's blood and drain her dry just as I've done with so many others. That, I could not bare. So if I cannot continue life as a mortal, I have chosen not to continue it at all.

The fact that you've received this letter, can only mean that you've made contact with Natalie again, as she's been instructed to give this to you only if you two should meet. I can only pray that you've not harmed her in any way and I ask that you continue to keep your distance from her, to allow her and our child to live in peace.

I'm getting very tired now, so I will bring this to a close. You have been like a father to me, LaCroix. Undeniably overbearing and oftentimes annoying, but I know in your heart, you care deeply for me. Love me. And in a way I can't even begin to fathom, I feel the same towards you. I forgive you all the hurt you've caused me over the years, and ask that you do the same for me.

Farewell, my father, my brother, my friend.

Yours forever, Nicholas

LaCroix stared bitterly at the pitifully scrawled words. The letter he held, was suddenly spoiled by two unexpected droplets, seemingly falling from nowhere. "Damn you, Nicholas!" he growled angrily, his hands trembling in both despair and rage. He needed to lash out at someone or something; needed a way to release all his pent up anger and frustration. It started off as a low growl and grew steadily into a ear-shattering roar. Without conscious thought, LaCroix began trashing the loft, turning over furniture, smashing lamps and anything else that got in his path. The couch ended up halfway across the room while the coffee table landed in splinters in the kitchen. The vampire took exceptional dislike to the hospital bed, and it would have flown out of the window if the metal shutters had not been closed.

Eventually, the rage drained from his body, and LaCroix dropped to the floor to sit with his back against the upturned bed. He sat motionless for a long time with his elbows on bent knees and his hands covering his bowed head, allowing the numbness to take over his body.

"I shall never forgive you this, Nicholas," LaCroix spoke in exasperation. "How dare you even...."

He didn't bother to finish the thought. Lifting his head, he glanced about at the destruction he'd wreaked, then felt a rising sense of panic when he realized that his letter had been lost somewhere within the chaos and debris. It was the only thing he had left of his Nicholas; the only proof that his child harbored no hatred for him. LaCroix rose up on his hands and knees and began searching almost franticly for the precious piece of paper. During his search, he came across something else of interest. A trash basket had been overturned, and among its spilled contents was a strange little cube. He picked it up and frowned at it in disgust.

"You! This is all your fault," he declared spitefully. "You did this to him." LaCroix started to destroy the cube by crushing it in his hand, but suddenly thought better of it. "Perchance you can undo this mess as well?"

He stood and walked over to the couch, then reached out with one hand and set it upright. He first made himself comfortable on the edge of the leather arm, then casually began to maneuver the sections of the puzzle into new positions. It took much less time than he thought it would, and within a matter of seconds, the dragon came out of hiding. When urged to make a wish, LaCroix considered carefully what he wanted to happen. His first thought was that it might be best for all concerned if the damn puzzle had never been found by Nicholas in the first place. But that would simply put them back where they had started, with his child still running away from him and seeking to be human. If he should stumble across a way to become mortal later, then the whole problem was sure to raise its ugly head again.

All LaCroix knew for certain was that he wanted Nicholas to live; wanted him to regain his health and beauty, and to find happiness once and for all. Being a vampire was not as big an issue, but hopefully someday, he might choose to return to him. It was hard figuring out just how to put his desire into words. Finally, the vampire stated with a modicum of uncertainty, "I wish...I wish my Nicholas well." When he couldn't think of anything more to add, he simply repeated the sentiment. "I wish him well."

The exposed crystal informed him that his wish had been granted, then promptly covered itself up again. LaCroix sat for a long while, wondering just how much success his wish had achieved. Perhaps he should have been a bit more specific, but it was too late now to make changes. He'd simply have to call the hospital in Atlanta to see how Nicholas was doing. Of course, that depended upon whether he could even find the telephone among all the destruction. He raised up off the arm of the couch and began searching for the phone. Suddenly, sensing the presence of another vampire in the room, LaCroix spun around and came face to face with an unfamiliar intruder. He was a smartly dressed, dark-haired man, slight in build and of Asian decent. The man bowed respectfully in greeting, then introduced himself.

"Forgive my intrusion," the stranger spoke with a nondescript accent. "I am called Yoshi. And you seem to be in possession of that which I have been seeking for a very long, long time."

Fast Forward

Nick smiled proudly at the small, pink bundle he held in his arms. Sitting sideways on the edge of the bed, next to Natalie, he beamed joyfully, "She's amazing, Nat. Thank you." He kissed his wife tenderly to show the gratitude he felt for the beautiful and healthy daughter she had given him.

"Well, I couldn't have done it without your help," Natalie smiled in return.

"Nat, I still don't know what I did to deserve you and all the happiness you've given me."

"You ever stop to think that maybe _I'm_ the one being rewarded here?"

"Well, that would explain things. After all you've put up with me in the beginning, you definitely deserve a reward."

"Yeah, well, I think we're more than even now. You were pretty much a saint to have put up with me these past few months. Sorry, if pregnancy makes me a little nuts."

"Really? I hadn't noticed," Nick teased.

"Oh, Nick," Natalie thought to ask, "did you call Schanke and-- "

Nick frowned and mentally kicked himself for failing to make the necessary birth announcements. "Guess I was a little too preoccupied." He took a careful glance at his watch, then asked, "Do you think it's too late to call now? Everybody's probably asleep."

"I think you'll be forgiven if you wake someone."

"You're probably right. I know I'll never hear the end of it if I don't call at all."

When the phone was picked up on the very first ring, Nick announced cheerfully into the receiver, "It's a girl!"

"Congratulations. I take it, everything went well?"

"Everything went great. The baby's fine. Natalie's resting. How's everything there?"

"Not to worry. All is well."

"Good. Well, I've got to go take care of some paperwork now. I'll hang around here for a little while longer, and be home as soon as I can."

"No need to rush, Nicholas. Take your time. I have everything under control."

"Great. Thanks, LaCroix. I'll see you later."

After hanging up the phone, LaCroix looked down and saw that the young boy who had fallen asleep sitting in his lap earlier, was now wide awake. "Was that Daddy?" the child asked.

"Yes. He called to say that you now have a little baby sister."

"Can I go see her?"

"It's very late, Little Nicholas. Perhaps tomorrow."

"I fell asleep, Uncle. I didn't finish hearing the story."

"What's the last you remember?"

"I think it was around the part when Yoshi went to see the general."

"Ah, yes. Yoshi asked the general to make a very special wish for him. He wanted to be more like humans, to be able to eat normal food and walk in the sun, among other things. And the general thought to himself of how he would like to be able to do that as well. So, after making sure that his son was truly alive and well on the road to recovery, the general set to work on solving the magic puzzle again. When it opened up and asked him to make a wish, he made a very special one for both Yoshi and himself. The two were still vampires with all their secret powers, but they could now enjoy so much more that life had to offer. Since his long search was now over, Yoshi went off to seek new adventures in far off lands. The general, on the other hand, decided to spend some time getting reacquainted with his son and having a taste of normal life. And as far as I know, that's what he's doing to this very day."

"But what about the general's third wish? Everybody else made three wishes. What about him?"

"Yes, well, the general did solve the puzzle one final time, and he made a very special request. He wanted to be reunited with a lost love. Her name was Fleur. She was an extraordinarily kind and beautiful creature who died a very long time ago. However, the puzzle, instead of granting him his wish, merely suggested that he try again. His friend Yoshi, explained to the general that some wishes are simply too much for the magic puzzle to handle, and something far less complicated should be selected instead."

"So what did he end up wishing for?"

"He wished for those in his life whom he treasured the most, to live a long and peaceful existence, free from all manners of harm, and without worry or woe."

"Does that mean they lived happily ever after?"

"Yes, mon petite. It would appear that they did, indeed, live happily ever after. The end."

The End


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