The Burning


Transylvania, province of the Hapsburg Empire, September, 1820

They ran their hands over his body. There were three of them. Their palms rubbed his chest, his hips and thighs, and the bulge of his biceps where his wrists were bound above his head. The nails scraped lightly, threatening. He knew what was to come. The stone bench on which he lay was hard against the bare flesh of his buttocks and shoulders, but the room was warm. They loved heat. It was a true luxury in the winter of the Carpathian Mountains. The only illumination came from the fire licking at the logs in the great stone arches. Above him, their faces were unreal in the flickering light. Their eyes glowed red. Now they would compel him. Their low moans filled the little room cut into the rocky heart of the Monastery. He knew every crevice in its stone by now. This room held his torment and possibly his salvation.

"Test him well, tonight, sisters," one of them whispered. Her breasts brushed his belly.

"Is he worthy of our father's trust?" another breathed into his ear.

He felt his loins throb, tight with a need he dare not indulge. He had no idea whether they compelled that need, or whether it belonged to him. A tongue found his nipple. He could not help but arch up into it. The chains clanked. A hand cupped his balls. He felt the scrape of canines at his throat. They wanted blood tonight. He waited for the pain. How would he bear their ministrations in the long hours ahead? Atonement. You deserve this, he told himself. A thousand years of torment would not atone for your crimes. You have one chance at redemption and they will help you to it.

He breathed as they had taught him. He focused inward, searching for an island of control. His shoulders relaxed. All emotion drained slowly away. The piercing of his carotid was a fact of pain, no more. One of them sucked at his throat while the others kept him roused.

But now he was ready for whatever they might do to him. He would become what was required. No matter the cost, he would atone.


* * *

Cheddar Gorge, Wiltshire, March, 1822

"I won't live forever, Ann." Her uncle Thaddeus frowned up under his white, beetling brows at her and folded his newspaper. "My heart isn't good."

"Nonsense, Uncle. You are too cantankerous to die." Ann Van Helsing sat in her personal chair and smiled at her uncle. He wasn't cantankerous, but it always made him sputter when she told him that he was. Tonight she didn't want to hear her Uncle talk about dying, even though his skin looked like parchment these days, and his breath grew labored at the slightest provocation. Here in the library, the cheerful fire snapped, nearly drowning out the tap of branches against the window and the bluster of the wind. Persuasion, the latest novel by Miss Austen, lay open on a small table with delicately carved legs. Ann held her wooden page turner poised above it. She couldn't touch the pages directly. Too many people had handled them at the lending library. But the library was comfortable. The moment should not be marred with talk of death.

"Young lady, you will not put me off this time." Her uncle put his paper aside and heaved his bulk out of the red leather wing chair across from her. "And I am not cantankerous."

Ann bit back her smile and looked up at his dear, worried face. He only had her best interests at heart. "Well, could we agree on…hmmm, 'of indifferent temper' perhaps?"

He wouldn't return her teasing though. "You know what very likely awaits you after I die." His eyes darkened and his voice was tight with emotion. "You must be provided for."

"I am set up quite nicely. My father saw to that. I have money and property aplenty." She said it lightly, as though that were what he meant. Indeed, Maitlands was her father's gift to her. It had come to him with his marriage to her mother, and since it was not entailed to the Brockweir title he could dispose of it as he pleased. Her uncle, who held both the title and all the entailed lands, acted as her trustee, but that was in name only since she had come of age.

"That is not what I meant." Her uncle rocked on his heels and put his hands in the pockets of his trousers, his unruly brows creased in thought. Ann said nothing, hoping his thoughts would take a cheerier turn. Then he cleared his throat. "This young cousin of yours seems a pleasant chap."

Ann shot him an astonished look. "That eel? Too slippery by half, Uncle, to say nothing of the fact that he has jowls. You can't deny he has jowls."

Her uncle wisely chose to avoid the issue of jowls. "You're just not used to town bronze, Ann, locked up here in the country as you've been. He's been on the Continent for the last six years. Nothing like a Grand Tour to give one town bronze." He cleared his throat again. "He seems interested in you."

"Well, I am most definitely not interested in him." She saw her uncle start to respond and lifted her brows. "You know you will only set up my back, Uncle," she warned.

He bit his lip. "People think you fragile because of your looks," he muttered. "If they knew your willfulness…."

She sat back in mock protest. "I am the very soul of meekness." He did love her, no matter how much trouble she was. She smiled

"I've invited him to stay at the house," her uncle said flatly.

Her urge to smile evaporated. "You what?"

"I… I think you should see more of each other." He would not meet her gaze.

"I do not want that smooth-mannered…dissembler roaming freely around Maitlands Abbey," Ann sputtered.

"He belongs at Maitlands. If your father had not settled it on you, Erich would have inherited it. He is the last of the Van Helsings. I suspect he has very little. Can you not share Maitlands with him just for a while?"

When he put it like that.... "You have more claim on Maitlands than he does. It is your home. And you can invite whoever you wish to stay."

"I do not want Maitlands," her uncle said quietly. "I shall to Hampshire after I've seen you settled."

Settled? What was he thinking? "You're not thinking we will make a match of it... You know I can never marry! After what happened to Mother?"

"I know, Ann. I know." He made shushing motions with his hands. But he had not given up. She could see it in his eyes. "But not all marriages are… physically intimate."

The hair on her arms rose. The very thought of physical intimacy with that fat flawn of a man with a fish mouth and protuberant eyes and an air of… of supercilious condescension underscored by something far less appetizing she could not name was more than she could contemplate.

"He can stay, Uncle Thaddeus." She couldn't refuse. But there were limits. "But don't think I'm going to be put on display for evaluation like the prize heifer at the village fair." She shook a mock finger at him in warning. "I will never marry. Especially not Erich Van Helsing."

"Just be polite."

She chewed her lip. "You have no idea what you ask." But she smiled at him. "Only for you. And in order to recruit my strength, I believe I shall retire." She blew her uncle a kiss and headed out of the library. Erich Van Helsing under her roof and underfoot was going to be a trial. She trudged up the stairs to the fourth floor. There, under the eaves, was the nursery, the only place where she felt secure. She closed the door gently, so as not to make the knocker bang, and put her back to it as though that would keep out the fact that her Uncle was indeed frail and that she was going to have a nightmare houseguest.

At least she had the refuge of the nursery. She looked around. The single bed, covered with a colorful counterpane, was set under the dormered windows now being rattled by the wind. The small dresser held jars and brushes. Bookshelves from floor to ceiling along the inside wall insulated the room against the rest of the world. Two slightly careworn dolls sat on the windowsill. Her nurse, Malmsy, dead now, had hooked the rugs. Everything was familiar. She walked to the dolls and touched one, feeling only the wash of her own childhood. She missed her Malmsy, who had held her since she was an infant. Malmsy was the only one whose touch was not a torment to her, the only one who had ever hugged her. Of course, her nurse had died before the full effect of Ann's affliction came on her. Would even Malmsy's touch have been torture once Ann turned fifteen?

The sense of loss that haunted the edges of her mind washed over her. Human contact was denied her. She sat heavily on the tiny stool in front of her dresser. It still almost fit her, though it was designed for a child. The face in the mirror looked as though she didn't belong to this world. White-blonde hair floated around delicate features; straight nose if small, dainty lips. The gray eyes looked as though they saw ghosts, which, of course they did in a way, at least if she touched anything. The skin was pale, almost translucent. All in all, she looked too fragile for the world. Also true, as it happened.

Her uncle was right about her future. No matter how she tried to hide her fear from her uncle with shrugs and smiles, things were bleak. Her curse, the curse of all her female line was to know things about people from touching. Touching people brought on a shower of their past, and their emotion and the raw, contradictory core of their nature. The experience of touching shocked whoever she touched almost as much as it shook her. Even touching things yielded impressions of all the people who had handled that object in the course of its life. If she wasn't careful, all the shouting information just overwhelmed her until she couldn't think at all.

That curse had driven her mother mad, and sooner or later it would close in on Ann's mind as well. She was likely to end in a cell with chains around her neat ankles and dirty straw on the floor, screaming until she was too hoarse to croak.

Her quiet life here, under her uncle's protection had staved off the inevitable. But if he died, Squire Fladgate would find a way to commit her. She was the stuff of nightmares for the village, the different one, the one who knew things no one should know. Everyone in town was sure their secrets were not safe as long as Ann was at Maitlands Abbey.

And if she married? The madhouse for certain. She shuddered at the thought of a man touching her, showering kaleidoscope experience over her. Madness overtook her mother on the very night Ann was conceived. It was the first time her parents had tried to have conjugal relations. Her mother was found, naked and drooling the next morning. She'd died in an asylum the following year, shortly after Ann was born. And her father had all but committed suicide in guilt. He volunteered for Wellington's vanguard at Salamanca-a self-imposed death sentence certainly, but one that still allowed him to be buried in sanctified ground.

No. Ann would not marry. She would never touch another man if she could help it. And the villagers were wrong. She didn't want their secrets. Her uncle was wrong, too. There was nothing Erich Von Helsing could do to "settle" her.

Couldn't she just live here with her uncle forever? A small voice inside her head whispered that it wasn't fair to him that he must live here, away from his own home. But it wasn't as if he had other family. He had not married, lest he conceive a girl child afflicted with the family curse. Better sterility and lonely death than to produce offspring like her.

Ann grimaced. There was no avoiding it, someday she would be alone, friendless.

She slipped off the dress she had made to tie in front. She had only four dresses old enough to be comfortable. It was too wearing to break in a new one, because the experience of the weaver who had made it and the shop girl who had sold it would assault her until it was broken in and they faded. She unlaced the short corset she wore so she could extricate herself without the aid of a dresser. She took up an aged linen night shift and slid it over her head. Its soft folds enveloped her as she crawled under the counterpane quilt Malmsy had made for her. Tonight she would not think about the future.

She only hoped she didn't dream.

London, March 1822

Stephan Sincai sat alone in the coffee room of Claridge's Hotel as the sun set, with half a dozen newspapers scattered over the table in front of him. The other denizens of the Hotel were in the restaurant. He could hear the clatter of dishes and the din of convivial conversation. In the restaurant Stephan's dour visage cast a silent pall over the room. Or perhaps it was the electric vibrations in the air that always accompanied one of his kind. Humans always sensed the energy. The coffee room was deserted by night, a better situation for his purpose altogether. The windows at his elbow had a view of the corner of Brook Street and Davies Street in the daylight. Now the night glass only cast back his reflection. It had not changed in…. in forever; black eyes, black hair that curled to his shoulders, high cheekbones and a full mouth with a set that had created harsh framing lines.

It had been three days since the murder in Whitehall Lane. The London papers were still full of it. The authorities knew nothing of the perpetrator. "It was if he had disappeared into thin air," they said.

He had.

But the English authorities would never guess that. What did they know of the powers conferred on him by the parasite in his blood, his Companion? He looked like any other man. Just like the Chancellor of the Exchequer looked like any other civil servant. They weren't. They were vampires. Stephan was born to it, the Chancellor was made vampire by that renegade, Kilkenny. It was all Stephan's fault. He stared at the face reflected in the dark mirror of the window. He had murdered the Chancellor of the Exchequer because his mission was to make right what he had set loose upon the world, and eradicate the cell of made vampires that was threatening to take over the English government. He had twisted off the creature's head and then called the power and disappeared into thin air as only his kind could.

No one would ever know what he had done. His Companion was beyond their comprehension. It was the true vampire. It required that his kind drink human blood, and when the hunger was on them, they could not refuse it. But in return it granted the power of translocation and incredible strength, heightened senses. He could compel a weaker mind, and the parasite that shared his blood repaired its host endlessly. He was immortal to all intents and purposes. That made him evil incarnate to humans. Was he? He could not answer that tonight.

He pressed down a memory of the horror he had committed. Killing was his task. He was the Harrier. He must complete the task in order to atone for his crimes against the Elders. And there would be more killing to come. He only hoped he was equal to it.

Stephan jerked back to the papers and scanned the small articles, the news from the provinces. No, in England they were called "counties" and they all ended in "shire" but no one ever pronounced all the syllables; a lazy country, really. He must have read a hundred papers in the last three days. The Boots brought him armloads of them every night.

An itch ran up his veins. He would have to do something about that. It wouldn't do to let himself get too hungry. Just a sip. Enough to steady himself and not enough to hurt whoever became his donor. His control still wasn't perfect, and he needed to keep up his strength. He prayed he would be enough. His sanity and the balance of the world depended on it.

Stephan snapped a page of the paper and folded it back. He couldn't even afford the fear that he might not succeed. He was allowed no emotion in his life now. He pushed his wine aside and spread out a regional news sheet from the cathedral town of Wells just south of Bath. He started at the back, scanning….

There! His eyes snapped back to the tiny article. An animal attack, it said. The body of the unfortunate Mr. Marbury was drained of blood. He read it twice. Did they not talk of wounds? There should be two puncture wounds. They did not. Perhaps they didn't want to frighten the local populace. The body had been found in Shepton Mallet to the west of Wells. It was the second death in the area. They were searching the woods for wolves.

Now he read the rest of the paper carefully and found what he was looking for. An outbreak of what the report speculated was influenza was spreading in the area around Cheddar Gorge. It brought about a strange lassitude and made the sufferers unusually pale. The paper wondered if it was a result of insect bites. There was a preponderance of insects after flooding on the River Axe. The paper didn't say why the authorities thought it was insect bites, but Stephan could guess. He was sure the sufferers would exhibit two puncture wounds.

Deaths? Epidemics? Lord, Kilkenny's creatures were not even being circumspect!

Stephan snapped the paper shut and consulted a map he had purchased in Jermyn Street. He picked out Bath, Wells, Shepton Mallet, and Cheddar Gorge. Well enough. If they had a shred of sense they would kill farther from home, but they would be feeding closer to their nest. That meant Cheddar Gorge was his most likely target.

He folded the map and rose, leaving scattered papers and the remnants of his meal. He must get word to Rubius. He'd scribble a note and let the Eldest know that he had found a nest of Kilkenny's vampire army. He would have the note taken by courier with all possible speed to Horazu, where the villagers at Tirgu Korva would deliver it to Mirso Monastery. It would cost a fortune, but he did not care. He always had plenty of money. He was getting closer to his goal, and that of Rubius.

First he would feed. Then he must get to a livery directly and see what could be had in the way of a horse. He was for Cheddar Gorge. With luck he would find Kilkenny there and at least a part of the army of vampires he was making. Kilkenny, the root of all evil. He dared not even indulge the hope that he could complete his task and return to Rubius and Mirso, for hope was an emotion, and he was not allowed those. Not anymore.

THE BURNING by Susan Squires

St. Martin's Press
April 2006

“Susan Squires has a fascinating, unique voice; she is a rare talent.” --Christine Feehan

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