Dr. Jacob Andrews stood in the hallway of Site 19's medical ward, in front of the door to the examination room where his subject for the day was strapped to a bed. Dr. Andrews had never worked face-to-face with a living, breathing SCP object before - his degree was in Latin, after all, and the bulk of his work revolved around translating and interpreting ancient documents. As it happened, however, Latin was the only language the creature recognized that anyone at Site 19 was capable of speaking fluently - and Dr. Andrews was the only person available who spoke it.
"Just remain calm, remember the briefing, and you'll be fine," Security Director Jefferson told him as he retrieved a key ring from his belt and unlocked the door. "Do not touch the creature, allow any part of your body to come within reach of its mouth, or attempt to loosen or remove any of its bonds. We'll be watching and listening in the whole time and if anything goes wrong we'll be through the door in under five seconds. If you need out, the safe word is 'bonavox'. All clear?"
"Yes, sir," Dr. Andrews nodded.
"Then good luck," Jefferson said.
Andrews grasped the knob and turned it, slowly opening the door. A beam of light from the corridor spread out into the room and onto the Spartan bed that alone furnished it - and no sooner did those rays of light strike the thing on the bed than it began seizing and shaking, struggling against the straps that held it in place as it hissed and snarled. It shouted and shrieked in a strangely accented language that Dr. Andrews took to be an archaic dialect of Romanian, no doubt (as attested in the briefing he had received) begging that the light be put out. Andrews stepped into the room and closed the door behind him, leaving the room pitch black but for the dim readout of the heart monitor next to its bed - a monitor which read that the thing's blood pressure was impossibly low, its pulse and respiration far too meager to sustain life, its body core only a few degrees warmer than the air around it.
"I am going to need to be able to see you to perform my work," Andrews said in Latin. "May I light a dim light?"
"If you must," responded a weak, barely audible voice in kind. Andrews touched the dimmer switch that had been installed by the door and brought the ceiling lamp to its lowest setting. Even in this dim glare, the creature on the bed shook and squinted its eyes, but seemed to be in less distress than it had before.
In the amber glow, Andrews got his first good look at the tall, gaunt creature that lay before him, nude but for a hospital gown, an IV bag of blood draining slowly into its arm, leather straps around its wrists and ankles holding it in place. Its skin was a pale gray, mottled and speckled with black and purple like a slowly rotting corpse, dry and stretched taut over its bony limbs, ribs poking out of its chest like an emaciated prisoner. It was hairless, but for the shock of unkempt and brittle hair on its head, which, whatever color it had been at first, had been bleached blond by the centuries. A pair of bloodshot, pinkish eyes were barely visible behind its half-closed eyelids. Its teeth, yellow, misshapen, and cracked, were bared behind its dried, curled-back lips. The thing seemed to struggle for every breath, its chest rising and falling with great difficulty, each exhalation accompanied by a dry wheeze interspersed with bouts of violent coughing. It reeked of dried blood, rotting flesh, and the stink of the grave.
"My name is Dr. Jacob Andrews," Andrews said, "and I work for the Foundation. I have been instructed to ask you some questions so that my superiors can determine whether you pose a threat and what means will be necessary to keep you safely contained. Do you understand?"
"Your Latin is excellent," the thing replied in what Andrews now recognized to be a thick Slavic accent. "Are you from the Roman church?"
"No, I'm just a…" Andrews searched his mind for a word the thing would recognize. "…a scholar. A historian, if you will."
"Then at least I know I shall not be burned this day," the thing said, chuckling to itself before a coughing spasm overtook it. Andrews noticed that though it could barely manage a whisper, and each syllable seemed to come only at great effort, there was a certain genteel nature to its speech, a refined, carefully considered grace to each word.
"Our purpose here is to secure, contain, and protect," Andrews said. "What of you? Are you a man of God?"
"You ask if I believe in God?" the creature spat. "What kind of god would allow a thing such as I to exist? No, I am no holy man."
"Then who are you?"
"A man of noble birth," the thing said, taking a deep breath in anticipation of its next sentence. "I was - I am the duke of Oltenia, as was my father before me, and his father before him, and his before him, and his before him who freed us all from the rule of the Turks."
"And what is your name?"
The thing paused. "I… I do not remember," it said. "It has been a long time since I have had need of a name."
"I guess I'll just have to call you Duke, then," Andrews replied. "How old are you, Duke?"
"I cannot say. I do not know what year this is."
"Two thousand and twelve," Duke said to himself. He was silent for a moment, seemingly taking in the realization of how much time had passed. "Then I suppose I must be seven hundred years old, or so."
"Do you not know when you were born?"
"I remember so little from those days. It was such a long time ago. I remember the sensations most of all, the things lost forever… the smell of my mother's perfume, the taste of meat roasted on the bone, the warmth of the fire, what it felt like to kiss a girl for the first time, the sting on my cheek when she slapped me for trying to reach under her skirt." Duke laughed at his own joke, and laughing once more gave way to coughing.
"What do you remember distinctly of your life before you became as you are now?"
"That I was a prince among men," Duke said. "I fought the Turks. I fought the Greeks. I fought the Serbs. I fought anyone who was foolish enough to face me! None dared challenge my word. Those who did… well, my enemies were known to whisper that I roasted the vanquished alive and dined on their flesh! Truth be told, I only did it once. I didn't care for it."
"How did you come to be as you are now?"
Duke sighed. "I didn't want to die. And I was dying."
"Consumption," Duke said before launching into another fit of coughing. Andrews noticed for the first time the fine pinkish mist that Duke ejected from his throat with each cough, and reminded himself to get a full checkup after this interview was over. "I had watched it take my mother and my sister. I did not wish to die as they did. I offered half my fortune to whoever could provide me with the secrets of eternal life."
"And someone made you an offer?"
"Many people. Doctors, priests, historians like yourself. I turned the preachers away. The doctors, I bade to try their craft on a peasant first. Most of the peasants died - and so I took those doctors and mounted them on spikes in front of my keep as a warning to those who would try to cheat a duke. Eventually, a witch came before me, one of the secret practitioners of the old cults, who proposed that I could live forever - if only I became a strigoi."
"What's a strigoi?"
Duke laughed so hard Andrews feared he might crack a rib. "You have obviously never been to Oltenia," he said, "or you would know. The strigoi are beasts. Mindless savages, born from the carcasses of unrepentant sinners. They stalk the places that are called home by the dead - cemeteries, battlefields, gallows, cities stricken by the plague - and they feast on the flesh and blood of the dead. If there is no dead meat to be found and they are hungry, they will sometimes attack the living. Their bite is poison. It brings unimaginable pain" - Duke grimaced, as if in memory of that pain - "and if the beast does not kill you and devour you itself, then you too will lose your mind and become as they are."
"Is that what you are now?"
"No," Duke said. "I am something far greater."
"I nearly killed the witch myself for suggesting I become one of those abominations. She protested that I had misunderstood her - she knew a way, an ancient secret of the heathen princes of old, that could allow me to become ageless as the strigoi are, but maintain my senses. I gave her leave to test it on a prisoner - and indeed, it worked."
"What became of the prisoner?"
"I ordered him burned at the stake," Duke said. "There was only room for one immortal in my duchy."
"So you underwent this same ritual?"
"Yes," Duke said almost mournfully. "We captured one of the wild strigoi that lurked where the bodies of plague victims were burned. On the night of a full moon, the witch brought it before me and allowed it to bite me." Duke nodded his head toward his left arm, at a solid black patch of flesh above the elbow. "For three days I was in unbearable anguish. My skin became pale and I could no longer bear the sunlight, and I felt as though I would soon go mad. On the third night, after bathing me in the blood of an unbaptized Turk, the witch slit the strigoi's throat and bade me drink its blood. I vomited at first. She forced my face back to its throat and yelled at me to keep drinking. The more I drank, the better it tasted. Once I had had my fill, the witch proclaimed the ritual was complete - and so long as I kept a watchful eye on my enemies, I would never die."
"So she earned the reward you promised?"
"Of course not," Duke said. "I tore into her throat and drank her blood the next night. None but those I trusted with my life could know what I had become and remain alive. Even my wife became repulsed by the sight and smell of me. Her blood was delicious."
"Did you eat their flesh as well?"
"I never cared for the flesh. The blood was what I craved - delicious, and alive, and warm. So much of what it means to be a man, I can no longer experience. I see the fire, but I do not feel its heat. Only when fresh blood is running through my veins do I truly feel warm anymore."
"How often do you need to feed?"
"I do not need to feed at all. I… enjoy it. There are so few pleasures of the flesh available to a man in my condition."
"How often are you hungry?"
"I am always hungry. I am always thirsty. I am always tired, and sore, and aching, and sick. The old wounds never heal, the old pains never subside. I can drink until my stomach feels ready to burst, and still I hunger."
"How long did you continue to live as a duke after you changed?"
"Fifty years or so. I had to hide my face from the people and stay alone in the dark. The light burns, like being thrown into a fire. Even this glare now is quite unbearable."
"What happened to change things?"
"One of the peasant girls I intended to make a meal of escaped and informed the church of what I had become. The damned bishop incited the serfs to revolution and burned my keep. They would have burned me with it if I had not escaped into the woods."
"Where did you go then?"
"In the woods I remained until your mercenaries made a prisoner of me. I thought many times of trying to reclaim my land, but I am not…" Duke stopped to catch his breath. "I am not as strong or charismatic as once I was."
"What did you do for all those years?"
"I occupied myself with my thoughts, mostly. There have been times where I have simply crawled into a cave, or a hollow log, or covered myself with the earth and simply laid for days, or months, or years because I did not wish to move. When people came hunting the strigoi, I hid and fled. When I desired to do so, I preyed on huntsmen, and travelers, and others lost in the woods. It is quite simple to stalk a lone hunter in silence until he makes camp and falls asleep, then come upon him in the darkness and tear out his throat before he awakens. To hunt the animals is different - their senses are so much more attuned to the sound - and the smell - of death."
"Did you ever encounter other strigoi like yourself?"
"No, only the mad beasts. If they came into my woods, I killed them. They are fierce when cornered, but easy enough to lure into a well-laid trap."
"Do you ever regret what you've become?"
Duke paused a moment, looking down at his frail, emaciated frame. "If I had known this would be the price of immortality… perhaps I would have waited for another offer to come along." Duke chuckled.
"The strigoi are not truly 'immortal', I take it."
"I hunger, but I will never starve. I thirst, but I will never grow parched. I can barely breathe…" appropriately enough, Duke stopped again, struggling to catch his breath after winding himself. "I cannot breathe, but I will never choke. I am sick, but I shall never waste away. I shall live forever."
"But can you be killed?"
"I suppose. If you took my head, or pierced my heart, or set me aflame, or hacked me to bits, it would kill me as surely as any mere man."
"Have you ever tried to take your own life, or provoke someone to kill you?"
"No." Duke's answer was flat and immediate.
"Because I still don't want to die."
"I don't understand," Andrews said. "You've lived alone in the woods for seven hundred years as a frail monster that most people would kill on sight. Wouldn't death be a relief?"
"Surely a historian knows that no great man ever wants to die," Duke said. "Every ache, every pain, every pang of hunger, every moment of regret for the things I have lost - these things are gifts, Doctor. I would rather feel the greatest torment you could possibly imagine… than know that I will never feel anything again, or even exist to know that I feel it not."
"I think I've heard everything I need to hear for now," Andrews said. "The nurse will be by in an hour to change your IV."
"Don't bother," Duke said as Andrews turned off the dimmer and made his way to the door. "Sticking it into my veins like this does nothing for me. Could you ask if they could arrange to have it drip into my mouth? The blood of a woman would be ideal. Warm. Virginal, preferably. Have your masters any available?"
Dr. Andrews opened the door. "I hope not," he said.