Transyvlvania: A.D. 1462
“That is Aspasia’s Shadow,” Nosferatu said as he pointed across the field behind the center front of the Turkish army. He was standing next to Vampyr in the center of the Hungarian force that faced the Turks.
Vampyr was dressed head to toe in black armor, with a full visor helmet on. Strapped to his side was his Spartan xithos. Nosferatu had learned in the month he had been in Transylvania that this was how Vampyr always appeared in daylight, which, along with certain brutal practices, had led to his reputation as prince of darkness. Nosferatu himself wore a gray hooded cloak and a face mask to protect his skin and eyes. It was early morning and the Turkish army commanded by Aspasia’s Shadow had been approaching since dawn.
For thirty-seven years Nosferatu had nursed his anger toward Aspasia’s Shadow. After leaving Mount Sinai, Nosferatu had split from Tian Dao Lin. His Chinese friend had headed west to link up with what remained of Cing Ho’s fleet and go back to China. Nosferatu had journeyed from the Sinai into deepest Africa to recover Nekhbet’s tube from the Mountains of the Moon, a most arduous journey. But all had been for naught when he opened Nekhbet’s tube, brought her awake, and gave her the blood that Aspasia’s Shadow had given him. It had had little effect and she’d been drawn and tired, aging almost in front of Nosferatu’s eyes. They realized he’d been duped by Aspasia’s Shadow and given human blood instead of Airlia. Together they’d made the difficult decision once more to put her to sleep in the tube and leave her on the mountain.
Seeking revenge, Nosferatu had heard rumors of a dark lord gaining power in Hungary and he’d guessed that Vampyr was the subject of the rumors. Listening to people speak in port cities he learned that a prince called Vlad Tepes had establish a strong domain in the midst of much political turmoil in Eastern Europe. He’d united many of the warring factions, extending his power from Transylvania over most of Hungary. Nosferatu had traveled there, throwing himself on the mercy of his old comrade, seeking an alliance against Aspasia’s Shadow.
In his loneliness after so many centuries Vampyr had welcomed Nosferatu into his castle at Tirgoviste. As Nosferatu had hoped, the combined threat of two Undead together in one place and Vampyr’s growing power had drawn Aspasia’s Shadow’s attention. Unfortunately, they had not expected such a massive and swift response. The Turks Aspasia’s Shadow had under his command outnumbered the Hungarian army three to one and Nosferatu could sense the uneasiness among Vampyr’s troops.
“Lord Vlad Tepes.” Vampyr’s commanding general went to one knee in front of him, calling him by the name he had assumed since working his way into a position of power in Transylvania. Translated, the name meant Vlad the Impaler. The Turks called him Kaziglu Bey, the Impaler Prince.
They were deployed on the east side of the Danube, blocking the Turkish army’s invasion route into the heart of Hungary. Initial intelligence reports had not indicated that the opposing army was as large as what was currently deployed in front of them, but Nosferatu knew that Aspasia’s Shadow had unnatural ways of recruiting soldiers to his cause. The two armies were drawn up parallel to each other on a large two-mile-wide field that sloped from rough hills in the east to the broad Danube in the west. To the rear of the Hungarian army was a narrow pass, less than a hundred meters wide.
“We cannot hold this line,” the general said, keeping his eyes downcast. “You can hold it until you die,” Vampyr corrected him. Nosferatu noted movement near Aspasia’s Shadow, then a flag of truce was displayed on a long spear.
“Look.” Nosferatu tapped Vampyr on the shoulder. “We should go discuss the matter with my old friend.”
Vampyr spurred his horse and galloped down the small hillock on which he had set his command group, Nosferatu following. Soldiers leapt to get out of their way as they raced forward. Aspasia’s Shadow came from the Turkish lines, dressed in the fine armor expected of a high prince. They met halfway between the two lines.
“Does the sunlight hurt?” Aspasia’s Shadow greeted them as he lifted his own helmet visor, revealing his pale face.
“Only if I allow it to,” Nosferatu replied. Neither he nor Vampyr lifted their visors, as was the custom during a parley.
Aspasia’s Shadow looked past them, taking in the Hungarian forces. “You cannot hold against me.”
“How many of your men are Guides?” Nosferatu asked. “How many have you corrupted?”
Aspasia’s Shadow laughed. “Just my primary commanders. And speaking of corrupting”—he looked at Vampyr—“your manner of rule is quite notorious.”
“I rule through fear,” Vampyr acknowledged. “It is what works best.”
Nosferatu had heard rumors of Vampyr’s brutality, but having only been there a short time, he had yet to see it firsthand. The stories he’d heard seemed so outrageous that he dismissed most as having to do with the fact that Vampyr fed off live victims brought to his castle.
“You have been building up your strength for over a decade,” Vampyr continued. “All of Eastern Europe knows you plan to move north and west to conquer.”
“You know that the Grail is no longer hidden in the Roads of Rostau?” Aspasia’s Shadow asked, a surprising twist to the conversation.
Nosferatu shrugged. “Some say it is in England, where you fought Artad’s Shadow so many years ago. Others say the Watchers have hidden it. I have even heard the Watchers took it back to Giza. Another tale says that the one called Merlin carried it far to the east, into the high mountains so no man could get to it.”
“I think it is in England,” Aspasia’s Shadow said. “So I decided to go there.”
“With an army at your back?” Vampyr asked.
“Better than going alone,” Aspasia’s Shadow said with a smile. “You betrayed me,” Nosferatu said.
“Surprise, surprise.” Aspasia’s Shadow laughed. “And how is your love Nekhbet doing?”
“You did not give me the blood of an Airlia. You switched it. You gave me human blood. It did nothing for her. When I brought her awake, she was weakened and sick, not alive as she should have been.”
“For someone as old as you are,” Aspasia’s Shadow said, “you are rather naive.”
Vampyr held his horse in place with some effort. “The Eldest has always been love-struck. But now you deal with me.”
Once more Aspasia’s Shadow looked past them at the army. “You will not hold me.”
“Perhaps,” Vampyr said. “We shall see.”
“Then I suppose we will have to fight,” Aspasia’s Shadow said. “I’ve let you live too long anyway.”
“So be it,” Vampyr said. He turned his horse and as he did so, he signaled to his general. Nosferatu turned to follow and saw that the front of the Hungarian army began to fall back, the rear echelons having already been pulled back as they talked to Aspasia’s Shadow.
With great haste, the Hungarians retreated, catching the Turks by surprise. By the time Aspasia’s Shadow fully realized what was happening — that Vampyr was not going to do battle with him here — the bulk of the army was through the pass. Vampyr left a special unit to hold the pass as long as possible, five hundred knights whose families he held hostage in his castle. Nosferatu listened as Vampyr promised the knights if they held the pass to the last man, slowing down the Turks, he would free their families. If any of them retreated, he promised that not only would the coward die, but so would his family. It put chains of fear into the five hundred and they turned to face the Turks with the frenzy of the doomed.
Vampyr led his remaining army north, burning everything they passed, leaving nothing, not even a blade of grass for Aspasia’s Shadow’s horses to feed on.
Reaching Tirgoviste, Nosferatu was stunned by what Vampyr had prepared and he realized the stories he had heard were true.
On the large plain in front of the castle was a man-made forest. Over twenty thousand eight-foot-high stakes had been driven into the ground. The upright end of each wooden pole was sharpened to a point. At Vampyr’s signal, Turkish prisoners captured in previous battles were driven from their holding pens onto the plain. Working efficiently, apparently having had considerable practice, teams of soldiers used a rolling crane to lift a prisoner by his tied hands.
They then threw a loop over each ankle as he cleared the ground. The crane was turned until the prisoner was positioned directly over one of the poles. With a soldier on each ankle lariat pulling to either side and down, the prisoner was lowered, impaled on the stake until it was far enough into his body that he could not get off. The ropes were released and they moved on to the next prisoner. They could impale a man every minute and there were over twenty crews at work.
The screams began and did not stop.
“What are you doing?” Nosferatu demanded.
“You are indeed a fool,” Vampyr snapped. “Aspasia’s Shadow is right. I am amazed that you have lasted this long. How do you think I keep these people under control?” He did not wait for an answer. “Fear. It is the primary motivation of humans. It is how the Airlia ruled in Egypt.” He gestured. “A man can last up to six days impaled, depending on the angle the pole makes on its way through the body as gravity slowly pulls him down.”
Vampyr leaned close to Nosferatu. “And the smell of the blood. It is so sweet. I have found traces of the Airlia God blood once in a while. Very faint, but every so often there is some. I drink from those.”
Nosferatu wondered if his old comrade had lost his mind, having lived so long. Vampyr had not spoken of the time after leaving Egypt so many years ago or how he had survived. Nosferatu knew how heavy the weight of the years could be on the mind. He had not shared with Vampyr his own adventures or what had happened to him under Qian-Ling. Most especially, he had not told the other about Nekhbet and where she was hidden.
It took twenty-four hours for all twenty thousand prisoners to be impaled. The screams of the dying echoed off the walls of Vampyr’s castle, reaching down to the cell where Nosferatu tried to get some sleep during the day.
The Turkish army arrived on the third day. They heard the screams before they crested a hill and saw what was causing it. The sight that greeted them was more horrific than any had ever seen.
And stalking among the stakes was Vampyr, sniffing, searching for any pole with blood soaking down it that contained even the least part of the Airlia virus. In over twenty years of impalement, he had found four people with very faint traces. He’d had them immediately removed from the stake and brought into the castle, where he drank their blood.
Nosferatu stood on one of the turrets of the castle and watched, his desire for vengeance lost amid the horror he was witnessing. He realized that Vampyr was no better than Aspasia’s Shadow or even the Airlia.
Even Aspasia’s Shadow and his handful of Guides could not overcome the horror the Turkish army faced. The army began to disperse, fear giving wings to men’s feet. Within an hour the invading force was racing to the south, spreading the word of the terror that dwelt in Transylvania and was known as Vlad Tepes.
Yet through the chaos, Nosferatu could see one solitary figure who remained on a distant hill, staring down at the forest of the dying. Even at this distance he knew it was Aspasia’s Shadow. And he knew that he would never know peace as long as the Airlia or their minions such as Aspasia’s Shadow or the Ones Who Wait walked the Earth. He also knew that he could not take the path that Vampyr had, trying to use humans as pawns in the fight— he would let time defeat Aspasia’s Shadow and the Airlia. Nosferatu slipped away that night, riding hard to the south. He had decided he would make his own Haven in the one place he had been where humans did not go: the Skeleton Coast. And he would bring Nekhbet there and wait. It was what he did best.
Moscow: A.D. 1533
Ironic. It was a concept that the man who had been anointed Great Khan by the Mongols was finding more and more applicable to human affairs. He now went by the name Ivan and had been in Moscow for over a century, gathering power. The previous tsar, also an Ivan, had been the one finally to defeat and stop paying tribute to the Golden Horde, the descendants of the Mongols that the Khan had led out of the west so many years before. For that he had been known as Ivan the Great.
In a palace coup the new Ivan had replaced the old Ivan, but the people did not add “the Great” to his name, but rather “the Terrible,” as he ruled Moscow and the burgeoning Russian Empire with an iron fist covered in blood. Ivan the Terrible’s greatest troubles came from the boyars, Russian noblemen, who knew that there was only so much power to be had, and the more the tsar had, the less there would be for them. This was a different type of power struggle for Ivan than when he had been the Khan, and he used different tactics. To fight the boyars Ivan developed ranks of government bureaucrats who owed their jobs, and thus their loyalty, to him. He also took land from the boyars and gave it to generals loyal to him.
Russia’s power grew as the years of his rule stretched on. He pushed Russia’s borders south and west into Siberia. He opened commercial trade routes with England through the treacherous White Sea. He brought foreigners in for technical and military advice, something later monarchs, especially Peter the Great, would imitate.
None of these efforts, naturally, was what gained him the name appendage of “the Terrible.” He earned that because of his nature. He was only about at night and, of course, in dark chambers of the Kremlin, he fed on the blood of criminals brought to him. He routinely ordered mass executions at whim. Perhaps most disastrous, he began a system of serfdom, tying workers to landowners, something that would boil over with stunning results centuries later.
He continued in this manner, his rulings growing more and more outrageous, his murderous decrees growing broader and more capricious until one morning, after he had left the throne room, the captain of the palace guard led a dozen of his bravest men in an assault on the room deep under the Kremlin to which Ivan the Terrible retired every time the sun rose. They carried flickering torches to light their way in the dark warren of tunnels, swords to slay the tsar, and chains to weigh the body down, as the plan was to throw him in the river.
They broke down the door to the room where they had determined the tsar hid every morning and were briefly stunned to see a stone coffin resting on a pedestal. Since there was no other way out of the room, and they had seen Tsar Ivan go in, they had to assume he was inside. Throwing off their shock, they wrapped the iron chains they had brought for the tsar’s legs and arms around the coffin and locked them in place. They were rewarded with the lid lifting the inch of slack that was in the chain and their tsar screaming dire threats at them, demanding that they remove the chains.
Having committed themselves, they knew they could not turn back. They dragged the coffin out of the room as the tsar continued to scream at them. They pulled it along the tunnels built under the Kremlin by the tsars, and those before the tsars, as escape routes in case of exactly what was happening at that moment — a coup — or invasion. They reached a deep, narrow shaft that went down over 150 feet. It was the remains of an attempt years earlier to reach water before someone realized the Moscow River was not even that far away laterally and a tunnel was dug to that water source.
The captain of the guard had the men place the coffin on the lid of the well.
This was better than the river, he decided, thinking of the long walk back to the surface.
They tipped the coffin on edge. It wavered, then turned vertical, sliding down out of sight, just a bit smaller than the circumference of the shaft. Seconds later the thud of the coffin hitting the bottom of the shaft reverberated up to them.