In the wake of Francisc’s death, Lucian had immersed himself in Fox division operations; his missions providing brief distractions from the sombre thoughts of his former mentor and friend. Almost a year had passed since their last fateful mission together, and during that period Hungary had signed the Tripartite Pact that allied their country with Germany, Italy and Japan, thereby ensuring their participation in World War II and allowing German troops to transit the country on their way to Romania. It was during this same momentous time that Lucian and Andor were assigned to a case in Belgrade, Serbia, where two brutal killings had been reported. In each case the victims had been ripped apart and partially consumed. Furthermore, the assailant had seemingly evaded capture by paranormal means.
This latest mission brought with it further complications: the strife-torn country was now under German military occupation and one of the victims was a high-ranking SS officer, the other an inveterate alcoholic. However, at the time, the district military commander had very limited German garrison troops and police detachments to maintain order. Naturally, he concentrated his efforts and resources on the murder of the SS officer, thereby giving Lucian and Andor a relatively free hand to investigate the other.
During their inquiries one name, Jovan Begović, cropped up repeatedly. By all accounts Begović, was an arrogant, and brutish antisocial character who visited the city on rare occasions from his home on the outskirts of the city. It was, therefore, somewhat unusual for him to have been seen by independent witnesses, over several consecutive nights, prowling the streets of Belgrade; particularly on the evening of the inebriate’s homicide in which the killer was said to have evaded capture by leaping thirty feet onto a rooftop. These, and other elements of the story, Lucian recognised and became the foundation stones on which he built his theory that Begović was a pricolici – a werewolf/vampir hybrid.
Andor wasn’t so sure. There was one irregularity in Lucian’s theory, that did not match the normal modus operandi of a pricolici, it being that they never left behind their kill to be discovered. Recalling that Begović was noted for his arrogance, Lucian put forward the idea that it was perhaps his overblown sense of invulnerability and superiority that had made him reckless. There was only one way to discover the truth of the matter; they would have to stake out his home.
Furnished with a map from one of the eyewitnesses, Lucian and Andor set out for Begović’s cabin situated in the northern section of the outlying forest. Several hundred yards from the cabin stood a rocky crag that overlooked the area. It was an ideal vantage point from which to monitor Begović’s comings and goings. Having set up a rudimentary camp, Andor and Lucian settled into their vigil. A few hours passed, in which they saw neither hide-or-hair of their quarry.
Nightfall was setting in, and still there was no sign of Begović. Feeling an overpowering urge to relieve himself, Andor sloped off further uphill. From his elevated position, he noticed what appeared to be a large pile of animal bones stacked behind the cabin. In close proximity to them was a well. He related these findings to Lucian on his return.
Lucian records this, and the subsequent events that took place, in his journal.
We set off down the ridge under a blood-red crescent moon, and entered the clearing at the rear of the cabin. There were no lights visible at the windows. To all intents and purposes, the place was unoccupied. Despite this, we approached the boneyard with great caution. Much to our relief, none of the bones were human. Nevertheless, knowing that pricolici also had a liking for cattle flesh kept us on our toes.
As we were about to make our way to the front of the cabin, Andor noticed something that made him stop in his tracks. He knelt down and began feeling the ground. Looking up he said, grimly, ‘Wolf tracks. And they’re bipedal.’
My blood ran cold, and my heart began to race. What I knew of these terrifying creatures was learnt from manuscripts during my training days. I had yet to come across one in real life. Composing myself, I asked, ‘What now?’
‘We gather as much evidence as we can, and get the hell out of here before it returns’, he told me.
His words shocked me. ‘We’re not going to take it on?’
‘It’s not within our remit’, he said, ‘Our mission is to gather intelligence.’ Rising to his feet, he made for the cabin’s front entrance.
I was about to question his judgement when a faint sound from within alerted us of a presence. We stood on either side of the door, weapons drawn. Andor cautiously lifted the latch and gently pushed the door open, his Radom semi-automatic pistol in hand. What we saw bathed in the faint glow of a wood burning stove was far from what we had expected. Dominating the centre of the room was a large wooden table and four chairs. Sitting at one of them was a grey-haired female.
‘Is that you, Jovan? I wasn’t expecting you to be up so early’, she called out feebly, ‘You must be hungry.’
Andor and I looked at each other in mute surprise. The last thing we had expected to come across was a frail and blind old woman.
She rose gingerly to her feet and asked, “Can I get you something to eat, dear?’
What next took place caught us completely off guard.
‘No, Majka. I already have what I want right hear’, a voice snarled from behind.
We turned. Standing in the doorway we saw the naked form of Jovan Begović in mid- transformation, his shredding flesh falling to the floor to reveal the monster within. Andor raised his semi-automatic, but was too late in taking the shot. With incredible speed the pricolici side-stepped into the night. Mere seconds later we followed him, only to discover he had vanished completely.
Regardless of his phenomenal speed, there was no way in hell he could have crossed the expansive tract of open land into the safety of the forest in such a short time. Andor motioned to the roof. Backing away from the cabin, we looked up. There was nothing there. He then motioned to split up and go around the building to check out the other side.
As I rounded the side gable, Begović blindsided me. Leaping from the roof, he crashed down onto me, knocking me to the ground. Instinctively, I lashed out wildly with the gladius. Dodging the sweeping blow, he knocked it from my grasp and tore flesh from my arm in the process. In his all-consuming bloodlust, however, he had forgotten one thing – Andor.
As Begović crouched over me, ears drawn back against his head and spittle dripping from his jaws, he let out an agonising scream. Looking down, I saw the gladius’ blade tear through his chest. He struggled desperately to dislodge it, but to no avail. Seconds later, he exploded in a cloud of ash. Wiping it from my eyes and tunic, I looked up and there stood my companion with sword in hand.
Hauling myself from the ground, and dusting off the remaining ash from my clothes, I began thanking him for his timely intervention. On looking up, I found myself staring down the muzzle of his semi-automatic. ‘Tell me you weren’t bitten’, he said. I understood his caution and rolled up my tunic sleeve, revealing the claw marks. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief and lowered the pistol. Though my injuries were relatively superficial, he insisted on having them dressed to prevent possible infection. To that end, we returned to the cabin to bathe and dress the wound.
Much to our disquiet, the cabin’s interior was not as we had left it. The stove was cold, the old woman had vanished, and the place was overlaid with a fine layer of dust and cobwebs. Apart from our own footprints, the evidence pointed to it not having being occupied for some time. Unquestionably, we had fallen prey to a glamour, a vampirical illusion cast by the pricolici to distract us.
Andor dressed my arm with strips of bed sheeting and made a rudimentary sling. Thereafter, we searched the place from top to bottom but found nothing in the way of useful intelligence. It was time to return to our camp on the outcrop.
Andor, who was by nature fastidious, decided to check out the well before returning to the camp. It was the only place we hadn’t looked for evidence. I held out little prospect of finding anything there. I was wrong. What we uncovered was both grim and informative. Caught up on the water bucket was a mouldering arm. Attached to its wrist was an attaché case bearing the Nazi insignia. Inside were official documents addressed to one Adalbrecht Neumann, the SS officer who had been slaughtered several days earlier and who was, we presumed, the owner of the limb. The contents of one document in particular immediately caught our attention. On reading it, we returned post-haste to division headquarters with unforeseen, vital intelligence.
A week later, in Budapest, a secret gathering of the Balkan states’ Regional Directors took place. There, Andor and Lucian presented their case to their speechless superiors. The documents they had uncovered presented a serious threat to them, and the continuation of their fight against the Intunecatii.
Among the recovered papers was a list of names and addresses of active members and associates of the Divine Blade within the Balkans. They were to be arrested and interrogated, their ‘assets of interest’ seized and transported to Berlin. A description of these assets followed, leaving little doubt that the communiqué was referring to the holy relics and divine weaponry.
A heated debate ensued, in which an idea was proposed that either the brotherhood and/or the Nazi Party had been infiltrated by an agent or agents of the Dark Ones. Lucian dismissed the former theory. Had it been one of their own passing on information to the Nazis, he would surely have given them the names and locations of the Divine Blade’s elite, who had far greater knowledge regarding the deployment and activities of their men. By cutting the head from the serpent they would have ensured a speedy and successful outcome. As it was, they were struggling to achieve that goal. The latter theory that the upper echelons of the Nazi Party had been infiltrated by elements of the Intunecatii seemed the more likely of the two.
A respectful silence settled in over the gathering as Lucian reminded them that a similar incident, recorded in the historical records of the Divine Blade, had occurred after the death of Pope Gregory XII. The events that followed his passing had resulted in the persecution of the founding members of the brotherhood. But for their actions the Divine Blade would have faded into antiquity, and the world would have succumbed to the intrigues of the Dark Ones. This latest debacle, insofar as Lucian was concerned, was merely a revamped continuation of their original concept to bring about the downfall of the Divine Blade.
Not everyone present accepted his hypothesis. Nevertheless, by the end of their deliberations they had agreed upon on several issues. First and foremost, the relics had to be moved to a safe haven in a neutral country. Secondly; all operations were to be put on temporary hold and anyone on the Nazi hit list was to go into hiding. Thirdly; all branches of the divine Blade throughout Europe were to be alerted to the latest threat.
By a majority vote, the USA was chosen as the safest haven for their apportioned divine relics. Their deposition and protection fell upon a small contingency chosen from the brotherhood to watch over them as they waited out the war. Andor, being the senior brother, was elected to lead the mission and Lucian to act as his second-in-command. Two weeks later they set sale for America with forged documents in hand and sufficient funds to see them through a prolonged period.
As the war raged throughout Europe, Lucian and his companions had found gainful employment as longshoremen in Baltimore Harbour, Maryland. Here, they would occasionally hear stories from merchant seamen entering the docks to offload their freight. What they heard was unsettling. But worse was to follow when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, bringing an end to America’s neutrality policy.
A period of great social, political and economic upheaval followed in the wake of these events, during which Lucian and the brothers weathered the storm as best they could. It was shortly after the war’s cessation that Lucian received a message from Miklos Tamas informing him of the murder of his family, a year earlier, by a faction of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party for aiding and abetting Jews in their escape from persecution and death.
Returning to his war-torn homeland was not an option for Lucian, as it was now under allied Soviet occupation and would remain so for the next thirteen years. He continued his missions in the US, disregarding Andor’s advice that he should take a leave of absence from his duties.
Over the ensuing decades, the American brotherhood’s numbers began to swell dramatically; as did encounters with the Dark Ones. A period of expansion was initiated by Andor and Lucian; who worked tirelessly to establish a network throughout the States in response to the Intunecatii threat.