Following a brief stopover in the city of Pest, on the banks of the Danube, Francisc and Lucian moved on to Badacsony, an isolated mountain in the Transdanubian Hills. Hidden deep within its dense forest lay Francisc’s home base and the training camp where Lucian would begin his arduous two-year schooling in the multi-disciplined arts of warfare. Despite being the youngest in a group of seven new recruits, Lucian quickly surpassed his peers in trials of combat, fortitude and intelligence; qualities that Francisc admired and respected in one so young. One can only guess at the sense of pride he must have felt on presenting his protégé with the divine weapon he had proven himself more than capable of wielding, namely: a gladius, This Roman shortsword would prove instrumental in many future encounters with the Intunecatii.
Several weeks were to pass following the return of the recruits to their respective homes, leaving Francisc and Lucian behind. Occasionally, Francisc would travel into the nearest town to stock up when food supplies were running low. During the course of one of these shopping expeditions he learnt of the disappearances of four children from the region. On reading the newspaper’s front page article he was left in no doubt that the four missing children mentioned therein was the work of a Dark One – all having been taken in the dead of night or shortly after sunset. This was somewhat at odds with the normal modus operandi of the modern vampire who would choose his or her victims from the outcasts of society: people who would not be missed by anyone. He noted also that all of the children were of Jewish extraction.
Lucian best sums up what was to take place in the wake of these terrible events.
Francisc threw down the newspaper in front of me and asked what I thought of the front-page article. On reading it I looked up and spoke only one word: ‘vampir?’.
Francisc nodded, saying, ‘The evidence seems point in that direction. Given that all of the missing kids are Jewish suggests to me that we could be dealing with an anti-Semitic vampir. It could be coincidental, but I doubt it. Either way, we’d best make preparations.’
The following day, we set out for the market town of Bicske, in the district of Vál, where the disappearances had taken place. Not wishing to draw unwanted attention on ourselves we kept a low profile whilst visiting the sites from where the children were taken. All of them were within a five-mile radius of each other. Falling within that radius was a15th-century temple ruin containing several tombs. Given that such places were often associated with vámpíri we decided to check it out.
As we entered the temple grounds an hour before sunset my heart began to race wildly. This was my first assignment and I didn’t want to screw it up. My mouth was dry, and there was a slight trembling of my hands which hadn’t gone unnoticed by Francisc.
‘Nervous?’ he asked.
‘Is it that obvious?’
‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll get accustomed to it after a while’, he said, ‘Just remember your training and you’ll be fine.’
Taking a generous swig from my canteen to counter the dryness of my mouth, we walked on towards the ramshackle temple. It didn’t take long to realise that the condition of the crumbling structure offered little in the way of hiding places for a vampir, and so we moved on to the surrounding tombs. With considerable effort, we pried open the heavy stone lids and peered inside, only to discover desiccated human remains. Time was running out, and the sun was sinking lower in the sky.
Francis cursed beneath his breath, ‘Dam it! It has to be here somewhere. We haven’t the time to search every tomb like this.’
‘Maybe we don’t need to,’ I told him, pointing over to the western corner of the graveyard. There, hidden beneath a grove of trees and obscured by the glare of the setting sun, I’d caught sight of a family mausoleum. With renewed hope, we set off toward it.
Having a photographic memory is both a blessing and a curse. There are some things that are better off forgotten. What we encountered on breaking into the mausoleum was one of them.
Once inside its murky confines, Francisc lit his kerosene lamp and I closed the heavy oak door to prevent its light giving away our presence to any passer-by. What we discovered there was three stone sarcophagi. Bizarrely, the central sarcophagus had been wedged up between the rear wall and the plinth it had once rested upon. The other two had also been disturbed; their lids slightly ajar. Scattered around them were the fragments of bone and the crumbling shrouds of their previous occupants. A closer inspection of the two sarcophagi revealed several specks of congealed blood on the lids. Opening them, we came across the mutilated corpses of three of the children: a girl and two boys. The wounds on their necks and their eviscerated bodies left us in little doubt we were dealing with a vampir. But where was the fourth child – the second girl who had gone missing? A faint, distressed murmur coming from the upright sarcophagus gave us the answer.
I instinctively ran toward the faint cries, but Francisc grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me back. ‘Don’t be a bloody fool, lad,’ he whispered harshly, ‘You’re letting your emotions get in the way of your training. It might not be what you think it is.’
He was right of course. In my emotionally charged state I had forgotten that many vampiri had the ability to mimic the distress calls of their victims to draw other prey to them.
‘Take the gladius from the kit bag and ready yourself’, he ordered.
I faced the sarcophagus with sword in hand, ready to strike at the heart of anything that wasn’t human.
I had never seen a man so possessed with immense strength as I did that night. Locking the heel of the axe head against the edge of the sarcophagus lid, Francisc began tugging at it. It started to give. Inch by inch it slid across the floor. When it was approximately one third of the way open, a tiny hand reached out. I looked to Francisc. ‘Get her the hell out of there!’ he cried. Dropping the gladius, I began tugging frantically at her arm. Slowly, her pathetic body slipped free from its confines. In doing so, I caught the briefest glimpse of another figure within the sarcophagus and alerted Francisc of its presence.
‘Take the girl outside and return as quickly as you can’, he commanded.
Wrapping her in my greatcoat, I carried her out. As I returned to the mausoleum I heard what appeared to be the muffled sounds of a conversation taking place. On entering I was greeted by the sight of francisc gazing at the gaunt, sallow-faced, figure he had exposed. I made my way toward him and picked up the gladius from the floor. In the lantern light, I could now see the coal-black, soulless eyes of the vile creature.
Francisc stepped back. I raised the gladius in readiness to stab the vampir through the heart. Before I could do so it spoke to him in language I recognised as Latin but didn’t fully understand at the time.
A simple nod from Francisc was all it took, and I drove the blade deep into the foul monster’s heart. It fell dead to the floor, its body putrifying and turning to dust before our eyes.
As the tension drained from me I asked, ‘You knew him?’
‘Yes, lad’, he said, rifling through the pile of empty clothing, ‘We’ve crossed swords on a few occasions. His name’s Caius. It’s believed he was one of the original legionnaires who were tasked to guard over the relics. Legend has it he made a deal with a powerful vampir in order to save his own skin. In return, he was charged to steal a particular relic for him. He failed in that regard, and fled the country.’
‘We don’t have time for this right now, Lucian’, he said somewhat brusquely, ‘Go check on the girl. If she’s infected, you know what has to be done. I’ll look through this clothing to see what I can find.’
Out of a sense of propriety I limited my examination to the areas of the child’s body I could see, to determine whether she’d been bitten or not. It appeared she hadn’t. But appearances could be deceptive and so I chose another means to see if she tested positive for signs of vampiric infection. I prayed to God she didn’t, and that I’d be spared the ghastly necessity of having to dismember her frail body to prevent her from rising as one of the undead. I called out to Francisc to bring his kerosene lamp. Hauling her up against the wall, I leant her forward as he held the lamp in front of her. To my great relief, she was casting a shadow against the wall; something true vampiri couldn’t do.
‘Stay with her’, he said, walking back to the mausoleum. ‘I want to show you something I uncovered in there.’
Moments later he returned, carrying a large portmanteau that had been hidden behind the standing sarcophagus. Among the assorted items, we came across a German passport and business suit. Attached to the jacket’s lapel was a swastika symbol, which prompted me to ask what a Dark One was doing working for the Nazi party.
‘Caius was a notorious anti-Semite. We know from intelligence reports we’ve received from our German brothers that he was an agent provocateur for the Ministry of Propaganda’, he said. ‘Maybe his assignment here was to stir up dissent against the Jewish population. Hell, he could well have been working toward that goal with the Hungarian government’s blessing.’
Somewhat naively I asked if the Nazis knew what he was.
‘I doubt it, lad. There are rumours that Hitler has a fascination with the occult. It’s believed by some that he has a secret programme devoted to the acquirement of holy relics. My gut instinct tells me that Caius’ main purpose was to keep a watchful eye out, in the hope of getting his hands on whatever was acquired.’
The child’s sudden whimpering brought an end to our discussion. Though still in shock, she was coherent enough to tell us her name was Aliz and that she lived a mere four miles east of our location. Packing up our gear, we began the hike to her village. We had no idea at the time why she kept referring to Caius as the “black bubble man”; his features being demonstrably European. Why she used the term “bubble” was also beyond us, as was her story of being somewhere else when he was feeding from the other children.
We watched from a safe distance as she entered her home into the welcoming arms of her tearful parents before we scurried off into the darkness, little knowing at the time that this child would have a profound influence on events that had yet to come about.
Following their encounter with Caius, Lucian became aware of some disturbing changes in Francisc’s demeanour. Back at the base camp he noticed his friend had become less communicative and increasingly withdrawn. Something was troubling him. When asked what, he would evade the subject. When pressed further for answers concerning the history between himself and Caius he became angry. Storming out of the cabin, he told Lucian to mind his own damned business.
After their quarrel, Lucian decided to give Francisc some time-out in the hope he would resolve whatever issues he had going on inside his head regarding Caius. Clearly, there was a history between them – a history that Lucian suspected was more than adversarial.
Over the ensuing days his mentor appeared to distance himself even further. For hours at a stretch he would disappear into the forest without explanation or a by your leave. The tension escalated. Finally, Lucian snapped and confronted Francisc on his return from one of his jaunts – an incident he faithfully recorded in his journal:
Grabbing him by the arm, I spun him round to face me. ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’
‘Nothing’, he snapped, wrenching loose from my grip.
‘Then why are you avoiding me? What have I done to piss you off?’
‘Nothing!’ he growled, making his way to the cabin.
‘Don’t fucking walk away from me when I’m talking to you!’ I hollered.
He spun on his heels to face me. ‘Don’t push your luck, boy’.
‘What is it between Caius and you anyhow?’
For the briefest of moments, it looked as though he was about to unburden his secret on me. It wasn’t to be.
Miklos Tamas’ arrival into the camp at that very moment couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time.
This is the first mention of Miklos Tamas in Lucian’s journal. In it, he describes him as being a middle-aged, officious man with a proclivity towards grand entrances. His arrival into the camp on a white stallion and a small entourage of men in tow that morning must certainly have lived up to Lucian’s expectations.
As a Regional Director of the Divine Blade, Miklos was responsible for assigning the brothers and sisters into their respective branches; they being the ‘Sword’, the ‘Fox’, and the ‘Shield’. Each division served a different function. Kill missions were carried out by the Sword division. The Fox division was the eyes and ears of the Divine Blade; the intelligence gatherers. Last, but not least, came the logistical division; the Shield. Their responsibilities included the detailed organisation and implementation of complex operations.
Lucian had fully expected, given his martial skills, to be assigned to the Sword unit. It came as a great shock to him, therefore, to hear he had been assigned to the Fox unit on Francisc’s recommendation.
Under the pretext of having to go out and cut timber for the base camp’s wood burners, Lucian left the group to their discussions and went out into the forest. He was as angry as hell and needed to vent his anger on something, rather than someone.
With the departure of Miklos and his men Lucian wasted no time in confronting Francisc.
‘Bullshit!’ I told him, after hearing his lame explanation as to why he had put me forward as a candidate for the Fox division. ‘You know as well as I do my skills would be better served in the Sword unit’.
‘You think two encounters make you a seasoned warrior, boy? Think again! Besides, your eidetic memory would make you a perfect candidate for intelligence gathering. That’s why I put your name forward’.
I’d listened long enough to his hogwash and double-talk. ‘Why don’t you just tell the truth? The reason you’re getting rid of me is because I’ve been asking too many uncomfortable questions about you and Caius, isn’t it?’
‘Whatever history we had is none of your bloody business, and you’d best keep your nose out of it! Discovering the truth of it would open a Pandora’s box that could bring about the downfall of the Divine Blade.’