Chapter Twenty-Six

Tehran, Iran

One Year Ago

Hugo Vox sat in his car and wept.

He had never felt pain like this before. Not during chemo or radiation. Not even the cancer hurt this bad. Upier 531 was a lot more than gene therapy. Vox knew about gene therapy and it didn’t hurt beyond the simple injections.

He felt like every cell in his body was tearing itself apart.

The car was soundproof, so his screams bounced off the windows and the leather seats and smashed into him like fists. He punched the steering wheel and dashboard.

Tears ran down his face.

“God!” he begged. “Please, God…”

But God had never once answered his prayers, even when Vox still believed.

Vox felt his mind fracture, felt pieces fall away. A fever burned through him and his skin was as hot as if he sat in a furnace. The sweat ran down so heavily that he felt like he was melting.

What had he done?

How could he have thought that this was going to save him, because now he was sure it was killing him.

Not only gene therapy.

Grigor’s pet mad scientist, Dr. Hasbrouck, had given him three injections of something else. Three syringes with long needles. Syringes filled with fluid the color of blood.

No, not just the color of blood.

Upier 531.

Blood of the damned. Blood of the monsters who tunneled like pale moles in the bowels of the earth.

Blood of vampires.

Hasbrouck had strapped Vox down for those injections. Bound his wrists and legs and chest. And then he had raised one gleaming syringe above him. A bead of blood gleamed on the needlepoint.

“This may hurt a little,” Hasbrouck had said with a sadistic chuckle. And then he had plunged the needle into his chest.

Into his heart.

Vox had screamed. Oh, how he had screamed.

The pain was so far beyond his understanding that he had no adjectives to describe it. He felt the alien blood as it entered him.

It shrieked its way into his heart, into his blood, throughout his body.

Vox did not pass out until the second needle. Hasbrouck, courteous man that he was, splashed cold water in Vox’s face before he gave him the third injection.

“You really should pay attention to this,” said the doctor. “It’s not every day that someone makes you immortal. Have a little respect.”

The third needle was the worst of all, because every inch of Vox’s skin tried to recoil from it. Like a torture victim who knows that his last inch of unburned flesh is next to feel the Inquisitor’s touch.

Vox passed out again.

And woke up behind the wheel in his own car.

The pain came and went. Discovering that he was still alive was little comfort. He put his face in his hands and sobbed.

A voice said, “Stop it. You embarrass me.”

Vox’s head shot up and he jerked sideways in his seat. A scream bubbled inside his throat, but it died on his tongue.

“How the fuck did you get in here?”

Father Nicodemus smiled. “What does it matter?”

Vox stared in mingled horror, doubt, and fascination at the old priest. It had been years since he’d seen him, but the cleric had not changed at all. Not a line, not a day.

“No, I guess not. But damn you’re a spooky bastard. And, besides, I thought you said it was too dangerous for us to meet like this,” Vox said, turning to glance through the tinted windows.

“No,” said Nicodemus, “that isn’t what I told you. I said it was dangerous for us to meet.” He smiled. “Not at all the same thing.”

A wave of agony swept over Vox and he recoiled from it as from a blow, shutting his eyes, hissing through clenched teeth. Through the haze of agony he heard Nicodemus speaking.

“Do you feel it?”

“Yes, I feel it, goddamn it. It fucking hurts!”

“No. Don’t be a child, Hugo. Look through the pain. Look into its heart, see it for what it is.”

Vox was panting like a dog, each breath a labor.

“Deep inside the pain something wonderful is happening.”

“What?” gritted Vox.

The priest bent close and whispered to Vox, “You are becoming one of them.”

Them.

“Please…” he begged.

Part Two

By the Rivers Dark

All warfare is based on deception.

Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. — SUN TZU

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