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
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
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
Her urge to smile evaporated. "You what?"
I think you should see more of each other."
He would not meet her gaze.
"I do not want that smooth-mannered
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.