The fifth and sixtieth year of the Reign of the House of Wroan,
when the time of Man and Fey differed only by ten times.
The year of man 1837
Her room, her house were still the same. Masveh was still the same, unharmed. Shahavaw knew the madness would return but she forced a measure of confidence to relax her face and quiet her heart. She had to tell her daughter all she could about her time in the world of man, and her attempt to vanquish the undead.
“Masveh, the Acubi live; and not just as drainers of breath but drinkers of blood. They drink of human life to feel it, to touch it, to taste it, to take and to ravage. For this they use human flesh.”
Masveh reacted just as she would have long ago, had she not seen it first hand, incredulous that anything fey could survive the touch of human blood. “I returned to the world of man. Kaie, daughter of Aithne, the Brina of the Kernow, came with me. She had been instrumental in the defeat of the creators of the darkness over Britain. Together we followed the trail to the edge of the Ottoman lands and found the village Kisilova in Serbia under siege by one of those things.
“We had not been a week in Kisilova when news from Medvedja carried the same story: corpses walking, full of blood and killing for blood. We split up. Kaie went to Medvedja; I stayed in Kisilova. In their dreams I spoke with the families of the victims, and attempted to find a pattern to the hauntings. When another victim died, I started patrolling the streets at night. I saw the thing approaching the house of the widow of a man called Plogojowitz.
“Knocking on the kitchen door I awoke the woman and led her to the hearth. I breathed life into the fire, and scattered poppy seeds behind me all the way to the front door. When the thing entered, it staggered at the doorway, confused by the web of chaos on the floor. It called the woman by name, for its form was that of her dead husband. I held her back. It asked for its shoes. She refused. And the thing left that night without feeding.
“I convinced the woman to leave the village, hoping it would try to follow her and thus be lured away from the property of man into the woods, where noble fey are strong. But it did not seek her again.
“Still, I knew its identity. I used my powers of persuasion to convince Frombald, the Kameralprovisor to listen to the people. I had to hide when the priest from Gradiska came to support him. But by that time the people knew what to do. They exhumed Plogojowitz’ cadaver, found it undecomposed, hair and beard grown, and new skin and nails replacing the old ones that had peeled away. It was all the proof they needed. They drove a stake through its heart, confirming by the flow of fresh blood and the groan issuing from its torn flesh, that it was indeed a Vrykolakas. They burned the body.
“Kaie had similar success in Medvedja. And she found another clue. The man whose body was possessed there had himself been plagued in life by a walking corpse while living in Gossowa. At his wits’ end, the man had consulted a witch who prescribed a remedy: to eat the soil from the monster’s grave and smear himself with its blood. Kaie then tried to locate the witch but found only an abandoned hut in the woods near the place where three roads intersect.
“We agreed this smelled of Ikal sorcery for its ability to spread like a disease. Only they would dare to summon forth the Acubi. The fey hand was also undeniable in their weaknesses: The thing could not cross the pattern of chaos I cast before it. But more telling was its death. Once pierced by hawthorn or ash, the body is immobilized, pinned to the earth. As the roots of those trees are forever empowered to tear apart the kingdom of the cave dwarves, so their wood can pierce their hairy hide. Once pierced, whatever spell was shielding the fey within from the blood around must have given way; the fire in the blood did the rest.
“Masveh, somehow the Ikal found a way to create a place between worlds, a place they could exist in within those corpses, to control them. The Acubi must have provided the door, and the blood, in turn, the power.”
Shahavaw shook her face in agreement at the doubt that Masveh’s mind framed. “No, there were no remains to examine in those ashes, to confirm it. But the elders of the village Kilisova confided in me that this was not the first time their village had been so assailed. And this territorial preference again bespoke of fey origins.
“Given the state of the Sun, we calculated that if those things were to strike again it would be within the next five years, and no farther than the City of the Northern Tower.
“But time was passing too swiftly in our world to risk watching from the other side of the veil. Kaie volunteered to stay there among the Serbs while I would follow the trail of the witch. To do that I had to make sure we both could endure staying as long as was needed. In our travels through that land, we had encountered a gypsy family with twin daughters whose souls overlapped. To exist separately, such souls must be inclined at a considerable angle to the human plane of existence.
“I brought us back to my kingdom and immediately re-entered the world of man through those children. The mirrors of my grandfather were then enough to multiply that covering of humanity. Disguised as deeply as those mirrors could render us, we moved in among the people of those Serbian lands.
“I followed the trail of the witch by interviewing all that had come in contact with her, even if peripherally. Humans do not realize the capacity they have for remembering minutiae. But one glance into Gentry glass is enough to bring it all back, even from forgotten memories of childhood. To my dismay I discovered that the sorcery we were facing had been tested fifty human years earlier in Croatia. And we had missed it! It was undeniable: Whoever was behind this evil had found a new way to open the veil for the fey.”
Shahavaw shook her head again, this time at herself. “No, it may not be new.” Her next few words flowed in the language of the ancient Helenes, and then broke into the tongue of the Caphtorim. “Epimenides warned me long ago. He was a man with the sight, Masveh, and yet unafraid of us; unafraid of what he saw, unafraid of anyone. He challenged my pride at our wonders, and, pointing at the stars, asked how much had we forgotten.
“He was right, after all. Perhaps at one time we could have detected this tampering with the boundaries between the worlds. But we had ceased our communion with the other worlds long ago. And if the gates were closed, we told ourselves, what did it matter anymore?
“All I could do was search. The years passed. Little by little I pieced together the movements of the one teaching the ways of the blood drinkers. But he was never to be found. He remained ever on the periphery, obviously observing but never partaking.
“I soon realized that he was like our scientists, performing experiments, changing the conditions a fraction at a time, modifying the spells as he saw their results. The fact that he had not revealed himself and sought the crown of all mankind meant he was fallible. Even though he was calling forth ancient powers, he did not understand them. Not yet.
“By the time I returned to seek Kaie, her campaign had been fought and won. This time the Vrykolakas had spawned several of its kind among its victims. But working together, the gypsies, the Champion, and Kaie tracked them down, trapped them within their graves and destroyed them. Kaie died soon after.
“I found her grave in early April, decorated with ribbons and the first flowers of Spring. The twin gypsy girls cared for it, tending it as if it were their kin buried there. They told me the story. They assured me she had died gently, and they called me her Aunt.
“She had left with them a scroll written in a language they could not understand; with instructions to give it to a relative she assured them would come back some day looking for her. As I opened that scroll, they said in unison, ‘Do not weep, she found love.’ And those indeed were her last written words. The scroll was a journal of her life among those people and the changes she observed happening within her that eventually led to her death.
“I knew it was my Gammadim lineage that staved off that same fate in my case. But I did not know for how long it would work. The Sun was beginning to storm. I decided I could only continue my search for the man behind the sorcery from our world, and so I came back.
“His name was Diderici.”
Shahavaw stopped and hung her head. She was starting to tire, or worse. But she had to finish while her mind was still her own.
“When I returned I felt, I knew, something was wrong within me. The court physicians only prescribed rest. They found nothing wrong, but I knew otherwise. Every day became longer for me. Night did not bring rest. Instead, its silence filled my ears with voices, voices of childhood. The sounds of dreams slowly became more real than the meaningless droning of the court. I retreated to our winter palace and had all my instruments sent there. I found that in that solitude I could still think. Most of the time I could work. I could seek him.
“I found him.”
Shahavaw closed her eyes and let involuntary tears roll down her cheeks. “Diderici. He and his older brother had made a comfortable living as petty thieves in the outskirts of Galata, until they made the mistake of stealing from the entourage of a wealthy Ottoman. The rich man’s servants hunted them down.
“Caught, Diderici swore it was his brother that had forced him into complicity. He cried of his innocence convincingly and piled on the guilt on his own flesh and blood, knowing full well what they did to thieves.
“They let him hear his brother’s screams late into the night before setting him free. For several nights, the horror of that memory brought the young man to the edge of regret but each time he cast it off, relishing instead his newfound freedom from his brother’s oppression. Now he could keep everything for himself.
“He moved away to another land, and schemed on a safer way to ply his trade. He decided it was easier to rob by becoming servant and valet, and applying his superior intellect to prey on the complacent rich. Again his greed took him too far. He chose to steal more than just his farmer master’s gold; he lusted after his wife, and he got caught. The man came after him, sword in hand. In the struggle, the blade cut down into Diderici’s skull, cleaving his brain, and there it broke. The man had the body thrust outside as refuse to be eaten by the wild beasts.
“That night a pair of hungry she-wolves found his body. Exhausted and famished they circled it, debating for a moment if they should just tear what they could eat or attempt to carry it whole to their lair. They had run many miles, fleeing the mob of farmers and their dogs that were hunting them down. Just as they were about to start feeding, Diderici stirred, spoke incoherent words to the beasts, and collapsed again. Shocked at seeing a man with a broken sword sticking out of his skull and still alive, they dragged his body deep into the woods, into a cave connected to a honeycomb of forgotten tunnels.
“When he woke up, he found two women tending to him. They had bandaged his head but dared not remove the piece of metal. With time, he started remembering who he was. And eventually Diderici found he could stand up and walk again. Every time the women left that cave, he arose to explore it. He found their collection of ancient books and a library of scrolls on witchcraft, many apparently newly written in a dark brown ink, on pages torn from books stolen from a monastery. He studied those writings, memorizing long passages, eventually quoting back to himself spells spanning twenty pages. And he watched them.
“By day convalescing under their care, by night pretending to give in to the fever and sleep, he soon understood their routine. Early in the evening, the women disappeared through an iron gate into another chamber of the cave complex. But they did not leave that chamber. Instead, within an hour, he would hear a pair of wolves slipping out into the darkness.
“The women returned to him every dawn, most of the time carrying stolen and butchered farm animals. Their continued care of him made no sense. He had heard enough of their whispers to know that what they really thirsted for was human sacrifice. They settled for cattle and dogs because the farmers, the human hunters, were hemming them in. Why then was he still alive?
“One day he gathered enough courage to ask them. He could tell their amusement was partly feigned. But they replied as matter-of-factly as possible that they thought he might be the antichrist. That answer triggered a very old memory of a story he had once heard: the story of a man wounded by the sword, in the head, but still living. ‘We will know soon enough,’ they finished; and they crowned that enigmatic answer with a shared laugh.
“The next night, emboldened by the certainty that he knew their routine by heart, he arose past midnight to peer behind the iron gate. He found the witches lying naked in the middle of a blood-scribed pentagram emblazoned with symbols. The room was full of the stench of death, mingled with the pungent aroma of an ointment that covered their bodies, and a fire that breathed acrid smoke.
“His eyes feasted on their forms for a long time. They were immobile, hardly breathing, defenseless, ready for the taking. He stepped forward, ready to ravage their bodies; but as soon as his foot crossed the pentagram, that fleshly lust was overcome by a hunger that twisted his insides, a hunger for blood and power. The shock at the depth of that hunger sent him running back to his place in the cave. He lay there pondering what had just happened, and continued to observe and listen.
“Within days the witches’ conversation told of approaching nights of power, when they could call upon their demon lover. Then they would put this puzzling man to the test. But by this time he had read all their books. ‘What will your lover say when all you offer him is animal flesh?’
“Startled by his challenge and his response to every answer they gave, they listened to his proposal. ‘I will give you a human life. I know the farmers are hunting you. I know their ways and their plans. You fail because, what you kill for food, you have to drag miles across the fields to this place. How many times have they almost caught you? They don’t fear you because you act as wolves act. What you must do is to strike terror into their hearts. Carry nothing. Simply kill.’
“His scheme was to wreak so much carnage among the livestock that the farmers would have to call on the authorities, and gather together in council to make new plans. And when they did, they’d leave their precious wives at home. ‘We pick whatever we wish’. His choice was his former master’s wife. The night of the council, he led them into her house. They overpowered her, drugged her, and carried her away.