A ghoul turned back from its view through the spider web cracks of one of the innumerable windows of the old mansion, letting the tattered drapes fall back silently from its veined and withered hand. Master would be terribly displeased to learn that the Belmont-kin who was spied riding through the town of Fetra had managed to survive all of the evil that now overran the forest. The fiend gnashed its teeth and let out a pathetic moan as it considered the many punishments it might receive upon delivering this ill news.
A bright flash filled the room without warning, blinding the wretched ghoul and causing a multitude of darkling creatures to flee for the protection of languid shadows. A pentagram traced itself out line by line and circle by circle upon the rotten wood of the floor in a searing green light, followed by a stream of ethereal runes which spelt out unmentionable blasphemies against every possible good. When the seal completed itself, a great black shadow thick as a swarm of flies poured forth and began to fill the small antechamber. The ghoul sobbed into its ashen robes and wailed uncontrollably as the darkness surrounded and choked it. Then, as abruptly as the entire display had started, the shadow subsided. The ghoul lifted its face and beheld before it its master, Mas Valen, first apprentice of the Dark Priest called Shaft.
The man was arrayed in black and jade, from his imposing knee-high boots to the tall collar of his shirt. About his shoulders rested a hooded violet cape clasped with a broach of jade, upon which fell his long, black hair. On every part of his body he wore some device of ceremonial purpose: about his neck, a pendant; around his wrists, bracelets of gold and gauntlets of silver; upon his fingers, many rings; and around his waist were three studded belts. His face was sharp and cruel, yet somehow beautiful beyond compare. His dark, piercing eyes could burn through a man's soul, but these were nothing compared to his voice. Feared for its power and respected for its erudite manner, Mas Valen could use this voice to create worlds in the minds of others. And then he could destroy those worlds at will.
"Speak, my servant. What fate for the rider have your keen eyes perceived?", the dark one said. The ghoul only trembled in the presence of the mighty warlock and murmured pleas for mercy. Mas Valen had absolutely no patience for such foolishness, and he demanded again, "Tell me what you have seen at once!"
"The Belmont-kin passed by the mansion only a moment ago. He was with two others, a maiden and a princely man," the ghoul hissed. "This last one, a strange aura I fancied he had... dark and powerful. They gave barely a glance toward the mansion, my lord!"
"It was the wayward son of Dracula, I have no doubt," the warlock said, speaking mostly to himself. "Already has he seen the sacrifices scattered through the countryside by my careless followers. No matter. The time for hiding in the darkness will soon be past. I am not surprised that Fate has begun to call upon the Belmont clan and their allies to oppose me, and I am prepared to meet the challenge."
The ghoul let out a demented giggle as it listened to its master speaking about the dark times that they would all soon enjoy. This only managed to irritate the sorcerer, who dispensed with his thinking aloud to look again upon his servant with an eye of horrible wrath.
"Be not self-assured of any worth you might have to me, slave. I can give the gifts of sight I have given you to any of my disciples. Watch the path unceasingly, and do not fail in your duty. Our work here has only just begun and we must see it completed whatever the cost."
Far below, in the dank and musty basement of Berkeley Mansion, a legion of ghouls and zombies labored non-stop, digging ever deeper into the cursed earth. Whipped fiercely by their human overseers whenever they might try to stop, they worked with a feverish pace, excavating the entire foundation of the decrepit citadel, even around its most critical supports. Though not one of them knew why this chore was being undertaken, every last one understood that its importance to their master was greater than the sum of all their souls. The ones that fell were trampled by the feet and hooves of the others or even beaten to death with shovels for being in the way. Even if the mansion fell down around them, they would continue to mine for the secret treasure hidden here.
Buckets full of soil wound their way up the endless spiral staircases that lead to the surface, handed from ghoul to ghoul so that the brigade never ceased. From there, they were dumped through huge sieves so that anything of use might be found immediately. So far, nothing but common gem stones had been revealed, money for the master's coffers. Any ghoul who might think of taking even these would be rewarded by having its hands cut off and then being made to return to digging with its mouth. The operation as a whole had become incredibly efficient as the weaker minions eliminated themselves via their own ineptitude or stupidity, and the overseers, Mas Valen's own students, now estimated that they were a week ahead of schedule.
Valen left his servant to continue watching the road to Veros, though he doubted the importance of any future vigilance. He toured the lower levels of the mansion as he routinely did every evening, asking each of his followers about the day's findings. He was beginning to find himself impressed with their design for the excavation, and as he neared the working area, his dark pride swelled greater than ever before.
"Children of Darkness!" he called out, his voice echoing through the cavernous lower reaches. For the first time since it began, the digging work stopped. He continued, delivering a speech to his minions, "Now is the time of our ascent. What we seek is near, I have no doubt. My master, the Great Shaft, left me this assurance before he was forever bound from this world by the Traitorous Son. So dig now, faster and harder than before, and all of you shall be rewarded when the work is done. Think not about the difficulties of your labor, but think only on the taste of the flesh of commoners, for they shall be your prey when even the Vampyr shall walk freely through the eternal sunless day!"
A great roar went up from the multitude of monsters, who took one last moment to wave their shovels in the air in a salute to their master before he vanished from sight. Then their work began once again, stirred to new heights of recklessness by their leader's bold promises. It would not be long until Mas Valen had exactly what he wanted, and then, he believed, there would be no force on Earth or in Hell that could stand against him.
* * *
Richter had barely been able to sleep a wink. His tossing and turning disturbed Annette so much that he finally decided to go outside and sit beneath the stars for the short time before the break of dawn. He hoped that the cool Romanian air would soothe his soul and give him some peace. He had in his hands the mighty Vampire Killer, for within it was contained all of the faith and power of his ancestors, and it always brought him great comfort.
Richter had not noticed the sickening, ruddy glare that lent the countryside a murderous tinge until he stepped out onto the great veranda of the estate. Looking up into the sky, he stared silently at the Blood Moon, cursing it in his heart.
"Die, Monster! You don't belong in this world!"
He slowly sat down upon one of the many elegant chairs that lined the veranda and held his head with both hands, almost unable to bear the weight of this evil that now surrounded him. He lowered a hand to the Vampire Killer, which glistened oddly in the red light, and he gripped its leather handle tightly. He felt like he wanted to scream, but the power flowing from the whip tempered his rage. His thoughts then turned back to his ailing son, and a few salty tears rolled down his cheeks. How would it matter if the boy survived his illness only to die facing an evil power from which his father could not protect him? Richter's anger at those who would turn the world into a living hell simply to suit their own lust for riches and power began to rise again, and he looked up once more at the moon.
"It was not by my hand that I am once again given flesh."
He found staring back at him the cold, iron face of Dracula himself, and he stood once more to his feet, rising to contend with his fated rival. He unfurled the whip and cracked it violently.
He called out, "What is a man? I am a man, and I am come to destroy the evil within you!"
Awakened suddenly by Richter's call, Annette came rushing out, but she too simply gasped and fixed her gaze upon the moon as soon as it came into view. After a moment of shocked silence, she turned to her husband, who still stood looking upward and gripping the Vampire Killer with an expression of rage etched into his normally gentle face.
"Richter, the moon...", she stammered. "Does this mean that the Dark Lord has returned... that you must fight him again?" Tears began to trickle down her face as she remembered her perilous captivity in Castlevania, the daring rescue by Richter, her marriage to the man, and finally the birth of their son.
"No, Annette," he said at last, "I do not believe Dracula has yet arisen. But the powers that flow here now are of the same evil from which he draws his strength. Someone is hard at work to restore his kingdom. The letter I received from Maria... she said that Alucard found many horrible things on their way here, and that I should meet them in Veros."
Annette ran over to her husband and began to plead with him. "No, you can't go and leave me here! What about our son? What if he dies without your strength to guide him? I won't let you go! You just can't!" She beat his chest with her hands between racking sobs, but he simply held her close to him and said nothing.
After a long silence, he whispered, "Annette, you know that it is my duty to defend the innocent. If I am indeed meant to fight this battle, there can be no question." She understood, but talk of fate and duty lent her no comfort, and she continued to sob into Richter's soft robes. Suddenly there was a noise in the trees, and both the vampire hunter and his wife glanced about apprehensively.
"Annette, go back into the house," Richter said calmly. She began to back away toward the door, but she did not go inside. The vampire hunter renewed his tight grip on the sacred whip and stood steadfast. The mysterious rustling grew closer at an alarming speed, and he prepared to strike.
The trees abruptly parted and from the thick branches flew a noble and graceful owl. Richter recognized the animal instantly, and he dropped the Vampire Killer to the ground in awe. This bird was one of Maria's oldest and most powerful familiars. He could only believe that its appearance at a time like this was an ill omen, especially for the well-being of Maria and Alucard.
The bird perched on the railing of the veranda, and Richter took a few steps closer to it. It carried in its mouth a small tattered piece of brown cloth, which was in truth a part of Morris's tunic which Maria had ripped off while treating the man's wounds. Richter extended his hand toward the owl and it dropped the fabric into his palm. He rubbed the scrap between his fingers as the owl hooted urgently.
Turning, he called to Annette, "Help me ready my horse and my supplies. I must ride for Veros immediately. I will send news back to you of the fate of our kin as soon as I meet them. I believe they are safe at the moment, but they're going to need my help... and my whip." Annette had already stopped crying, and now she felt a strong resolve to help Richter carry out his duties. Though she was concerned for her sister, she knew that Maria was strong and that Alucard was always with her.
Richter asked the owl to stay with and protect his family, and it gave a nod of its head to show its agreement. It remained watchfully perched on the handrail as Richter changed into his warrior garb and Annette gathered together everything he might need on the short trip to Veros. His whip, his short sword, vials of holy water, healing potions, cured meat, and his Bible were the most important things that Richter believed he should bring. Annette cut off a lock of her flowing blond hair and gave it to her husband along with his provisions and equipment.
"I am not complete without you, and so you must return to me," she said.
"I swear to you that I will return unharmed before the next new moon," Richter replied as he mounted his steed. In a flash, he was galloping down the road, leaving his family and estate behind and possibly setting out once more to do battle with Dracula and his legions.
As Richter rode away from his home, his young son stirred in his sickbed. "Mother," he called in a hoarse, quiet voice. It was the first word he had spoken in more than a week.
* * *
The road was cold and lonely, but there were no signs of the evil which so infested the areas to the north. Veros was but an hour's ride away, and Richter was making excellent time. Soon he crested the top of a hill, and just below him he could see the town of Jova slumbering peacefully, apparently unaware of the malaise settling in about it upon all sides.
Jova had been rebuilt within a year of its burning at the hands of the Dark Lord, and for a time, its citizens kept a weary eye out for any signs of evil. However, those times had passed; the proximity of the Belmont estate combined with so many years of peace had lulled them all into a false sense of security. Thus far they had not been made to pay for this complacency, but Richter feared in his heart how that might change in the coming days. He trotted his horse carefully down the steep grade toward the small Transylvanian border town as the stars began to fade from the sky.
Richter's horse seemed to grow reluctant as they approached the town's gates. At first Richter sensed nothing, but then he looked up into sky toward the Blood Moon, which seemed not to have budged an inch sky since he first laid eye upon it. He saw flying across its crimson disk a thick stream of bats. The howl of wolves echoed from behind him, and a cold mist drifted by on the breeze. He prodded his horse onward and it complied, seemingly now more weary of the woods behind than the town ahead. A fog was swiftly rising in the moments before dawn, and in mere seconds Richter's visibility had been reduced to nothing by the thick clouds. Though the town's gates were well fortified, they were unmanned, and Richter passed through them unnoticed by any mortal.
He stopped his horse at a hitching post and climbed down from the saddle. He took his short sword and whip from the saddle bags and hooked them to his belt. He considered the possible ramifications of a sunless day in times like these and realized that he was in immediate danger. He took two steps forward, and another cold breeze blew, sending fallen leaves scraping down the stone road. A low hiss, nearly inaudible under the rush of the wind, reached his ears.
Richter froze in his tracks and unfurled the sacred Vampire Killer just in time to see a demonic face emerge from the milky swirls of mist. Covered in thick fur and locked into an eternal grimace of malice and pain, the bat-like countenance of the vampire steeled his heart immediately. He cracked the whip at the fiend, but it dematerialized and merged with the fog. Richter knew that it could come at him again with no warning, so he refused to hesitate. He dashed forward, cutting through the mist like a razor. Another hiss came from just beside him, and he cracked the whip blindly. A tortured scream came from the gray haze, and the Vampire Killer shimmered as it was wet with demonic blood for the first time in years. It seemed to come to life in Richter's hand as he brandished it, inflicting more wounds upon the demon hiding in the fog.
The vampire phased into mist once again and escaped the wrath of the whip. It drifted away, silent and deadly. Richter was forced to stumble about blindly, totally unaware of his foe's location. To the vampire, whose vision remained unhindered, he represented the entire human race: eyes closed by their attachment to life and its material goods, ignorant of the glory of living death.
The vampire flipped acrobatically through the air, landing right before Richter's face. It lunged for him, longing to sink its fangs deep into his throbbing carotid and drink of his living blood. Richter back flipped away as he flailed the whip wildly, missing the vampire in his state of shock but forcing it to retreat a step nevertheless. He drew out his short sword with his left hand and swung it in a wide arc, slicing across the chest of the vampire. It staggered back further, clutching itself and laughing with a sickening gurgle as black vitae seeped from its rapidly closing wound. It faded into the fog once more and retreated to regain its strength.
The sun peeked over the horizon and the gossamer veil of fog lifted higher into the sky, giving Richter hope. But from Wallachia to the south there came rolling a thick sheet of angry clouds, quickly snuffing out the pathetic dawn. Lightning tore across the sky and thunder rumbled ominously, echoing off the walls of the narrow road and jarring Richter to the bone. His horse, still tied to the hitching post, whinnied and reared up in fright, struggling violently against its bindings.
Richter proceeded to search for his enemy, turning down a side street. The window of a small shop on his left read Pékség, and within, a wide assortment of cakes and pastries were on display. A high-pitched screeching sound came from somewhere high above, and Richter scanned the sky as small rain drops began to fall around him. Seeing nothing, he turned to continue down the road.
The giant bat careened toward Richter from behind, approaching in silence with fangs and claws bared. Fortunately it was at times like this that he was best served by his Belmont sense. He whirled about just in time to thwart his opponent's stealth attack. He ducked and the bat soared over his head, banking in the air to make another pass.
The vampire bat came screaming down toward Richter, but he met it midair with a devastating uppercut to the stomach. It whirled madly like a pinwheel and disappeared over the rooftops lining the street. Only a moment later, the vampire leaped down to the road, now in the form of a black wolf. It came running at full gait with a feral growl.
Richter braced himself as the wolf started to leap toward him, and he cracked the whip, lashing the full length of its body. It howled in agony as the holy weapon ripped away chunks of its flesh, but its momentum was far too great to be stopped by a mere whip lash. It barrelled into Richter, knocking him backward. The two of them crashed through the window of the bakery, toppling cakes and perforating loaves of bread with flying shards of glass.
Richter separated from the wolf as he rolled across the floor, and he leaped to his feet as soon as he regained his composure. He saw that the vampire had been severely wounded by a large piece of glass which jutted grotesquely from its lupine abdomen. It whined like an injured pup, perhaps trying in vain to purchase sympathy from the man it had tried to kill but a moment prior.
Richter raised the Vampire Killer high into the air, ready to bring it down upon this demon with all of its lethal force. But in the very moment that he would have completed its destruction, something stopped him. A vague coldness seemed to crawl down his arm from the handle of the whip. It coiled around him, sapping his very life force through tentacles of icy pain, rendering him unable to act despite his iron will.
This moment of hesitation bought the vampire all the time that it needed to make one final escape. It transformed for the last time into a swarm of rats which scattered in all directions. Richter fell to his knees as the bizarre sensation passed, leaving him dumbfounded. Never before had he failed in his line of work so miserably.
An angry Hungarian man emerged from a stairwell inside the bakery, swearing in his mother tongue.
"A fene egye meg! What is going on? My cakes!"
"Vámpír," Richter told the red-faced baker as he returned to his feet. "Go back to your bed chamber and lock all the doors and windows. It is not safe here! When daylight comes, warn the others in town. I will not be here to help them."
The man recognized Richter once he had calmed himself, and after staring blankly at him for a moment, he turned and ran back up the stairs, slamming the door of his bedroom behind him. Richter spun around and stepped out through the broken window of the bakery. He ran through the mist until he reached his horse, which was still spooked from the battle and the rumbling of the storm. He spoke to it in a soothing voice and it responded, recalling all of its years of training to become the steed of a Belmont warrior.
Richter untied the horse as quickly as he could. Leaping into the saddle, he tore off in a gallop down the central road of Jova, passing the site of his battle with the vampire and continuing on. A few weary citizens scowled from the windows of their homes and shops, some of them clutching crosses, garlic, and holy water. It appeared that news of their visitor had already spread, and their state of preparation was a small relief to Richter as he left them behind. In just a few short minutes, he was well into the forest on the other side of town.
He would find it foolish in retrospect that he dared to think himself safe. The same high-pitched hissing that earlier announced the emergence of the vampire again came from behind him, this time multiplied by five. He glanced back to see a number of vampire bats in hard pursuit. He gave his horse a sharp tap to its ribs with his heels, and it began to run as hard and as fast as it could. The bats were still gaining on them.
Quickly considering his options, Richter reached down to rummage through his saddle bag. His hand came upon the lock of Annette's hair that she had cut off and tied for him, and suddenly all of the fear and doubt that clouded his mind was swept away. He brought out one of the many vials of holy water he had packed. As the bats swooped down upon him, he flung its contents out in a wild arc, splashing all of the creatures. Azure flames consumed them as they let out ear-piercing shrieks and crashed hard into the ground.
Richter again looked forward and continued his flight to the South Bridge. As if to mock him, lightning again filled the sky, and with it came an icy, pouring rain that drenched the man and his horse instantly, making both of them even more miserable. It would be a long trip to Veros after all.
All original content copyright © 2007 James Haley. Permission is granted to distribute and create derivative works from this story in any format under the condition that this notice remains intact.