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“On guard, Rainsford...”
He had never slept in a better bed, Zaroff decided.
In the morning Zaroff woke and called out for Ivan out of habit. For a moment he laid on his bed listening for the voice that he would never hear again. Although Ivan hadn’t been the brightest of fellows, Zaroff had come to enjoy his company. With no one to do it for him, Zaroff rose and threw Rainsford’s body over his shoulder. The younger man’s swordsmanship was not nearly as advanced as his own, and therefore the fight hadn’t been as enjoyable as it could have been, but the hounds had quite a treat that day.
Zaroff fetched the strongest of his pupils from the St. Lucar - his name was Joseph - and explained what was expected of him for Ivan’s duties if he wanted to avoid playing his game. He wasn’t quite as muscular as Ivan, nor did Zaroff like him nearly as much, but he would do for now. His servants were disposable, and though they were fun to play with, he would never care for any of them very greatly. He was practically incapable of sympathy. Zaroff didn’t see it as a problem, but he could sense that other people did. Some would even go as far as to say he was insane. But if others saw his games the same way he did, he wouldn’t get so much enjoyment out of them as he did. What would be the fun in it all if his pawns played his games... Perfectly?
Zaroff sent away the young man, sat on one of the decorative chairs adorning his dark hallway and quietly recited a quote to himself. It was a phrase his father used to tell him.
“Don’t you cry, boy. Men don’t cry. Stand up straight, don’t shame me with your tears,”
Zaroff stood and composed himself. His mother had taken her last breath -died of consumption- but still his father felt no remorse. He leaned down to his young son and whispered “What greater bore is there than perfection...?”
Zaroff’s father was a sadistic, twisted man. He made it his goal to be better than his elder in any way possible. He didn’t want to see a trace of that monster in himself.
At thirteen he went on his first hunt. To Zaroff’s great enjoyment, he took to the sport like a fish to water. His father was surprised that Zaroff had any skills at all; He had previously believed his son to be completely worthless. His frustration grew as Zaroff greatly surpassed him. Angering his father was a thrill to Zaroff. The hunt became an obsession.
tap... tap... taptaptap...
Zaroff snapped out of his thoughts as he heard a weak knock on the front door. He stood and walked down a steep winding flight of stairs to meet his new guest.
“Who could that possibly be, Joseph?” He inquired. The boy glanced at him but didn’t respond. He squared his shoulders and threw open the heavy door, letting in the cool night air. The confused look on his face forced Zaroff to step forward and take a look himself.
His eyes widened as he fixed his eyes upon the pale woman standing before him with an unresponsive, blank face. He couldn’t quite place why she looked familiar - Was it her long mousy brown hair, the almost-perfect features? Or was it...
The eyes. They were the same deep black as her son’s - But Zaroff’s lacked the sparkle of kindness that had long since left him.
Although his memories of her were faint, Zaroff could never forget his mother’s eyes - He saw their reflection in the mirror every day. His face contorted into a grimace and he stumbled backwards. “But you are dead! You’ve been dead for thirty years, Mother, and I am not one to believe in ghosts.” He turned on his heel and bolted back up the staircase, dragging Joseph behind him.
“What in God’s name are you doing, are you mad?!” The boy shouted. “Who were you talking to, what is this?”
“Are you blind, Joseph?” Demanded Zaroff. “That woman - She was surely a deity here to punish me for my sins!”
“Do not let her in this manor, boy, unless you don’t value your life.”
With that, Zaroff turned and walked towards his bedchamber.
tap... tap... taptaptap...
The Cossack stopped in his tracks. The noise was directly behind him.
Before he could turn, he heard a breathy voice behind him. “On guard, Zaroff...”
He spun and found himself facing Rainsford. His shirt was stained red and torn, and he was bleeding from the mouth. “NO! You can’t be here!”
Zaroff took the dead man by the throat and shoved him against the wall. Rainsford didn’t choke, and instead cackled like a coyote.
“HA! Zaroff, you know you deserve this! You lost your morals long ago - Now your mind is gone, too! You deserve a nitch in the deepest trenches of Hell.”
Zaroff blinked, and when his eyes opened again, Joseph’s frightened face replaced Rainsford’s smiling one. The Cossack looked down at his stomach, and his grip on Joseph’s throat loosened.
The hilt of a hunting knife protruded from his belly. He lifted his head and met his young guard’s eyes. He tried to speak, but it came out in a guttural cough that splattered blood across Joseph’s face. He collapsed, and the boy tried to catch him. He laid his dying body on the floor, muttering something about self-defence.
“My sanity has finally left I suppose.”
“You poor soul. Your sanity was gone long before tonight.”
His mother’s voice rang out in his head and the world quickly started to fade from around him. “May God have mercy on your tainted soul, my love.”