From the center of a high tower came a burst of holy, purging energy, and Morris wrapped his cloak tightly around his body to shield his eyes from its unforgiving power. As he felt the shockwave envelop him, he heard the blood-curdling screams of his kin and in his heart was born a true, full despair. They had failed in their quest, and now the price was to be paid in Belmont blood.
Suddenly he saw before him the Vampire Killer ablaze with flame. He extended his hand to grasp its handle, but even as he would take control of the weapon, it was transfigured into a serpent with seven terrible heads. One of the viper maws struck at his hand. Its sharp fangs tore through muscle and sinew, and with rhythmic contractions it injected its venom deep within.
White-hot pain seared throughout Morris's body. As the serpent released his hand, he looked down in horror to see not blood but darkness flowing from his broken veins. A deep blue light began to emanate from the serpentine beast as the spectre of a fair maiden arose from within it. She looked upon Morris with a heart-wrenching gaze that pleaded for salvation, but a mighty wind arose and carried her away like a wisp of smoke. A coldness began to spread from Morris's wound. As his arm stiffened and grew numb, he understood that his body was rapidly turning to stone. He struggled to flex his calcified fingers, which cracked and crumbled, falling from his hand like pieces of a brittle, ancient statue.
Another powerful pulse of energy exploded from the center of the room, and the warrior found himself thrown through a window of the high tower. He plummeted helplessly downward toward the sharp peaks of the rooftops far below as he continued to quickly petrify. His last thoughts turned to his family, and as he felt his face harden, one final word escaped his lips.
From far above, Morris saw his own body shatter into a million fragments, and he awoke with a scream of abject terror. Maria and Alucard were startled as the calm of the early morning was so abruptly mauled by their companion's nightmare. Alucard immediately pulled the wagon over to the side of the road, and they came to rest.
"Morris, what is it?" Maria gasped.
"Oh Maria, thank heavens! I had a terrible dream..." Morris replied between heavy breaths. He was soaked with sweat and his heart was pounding as though he had just run a quarter mile.
"You look terrible, too!" Maria said. "We're almost to Veros. We need to get you to a doctor quickly."
Alucard turned and looked deeply into Morris's eyes. As he studied his face, tattered glimpses of the vision of death and destruction the man had seen were impressed upon the dhampir telepathically. He closed his eyes and sighed, then he spoke.
"What you have seen is a vision of only one possible future. Know this, and remember it through the days to come: Nothing is truly predetermined. Through the actions of men, the fate of the world is ultimately decided." Morris looked gravely at Alucard, considering the possibility that his nightmare could become a reality. Alucard continued, "Fear and doubt are what I feel in your dream. You must endeavour to keep your faith at all times."
Morris nodded, but remained silent, still in shock from the terror he experienced in his dream. Alucard opened his eyes and looked toward his wife.
"Maria," he said, "make sure that Morris is comfortable. We must continue on toward Veros as quickly as possible." As soon as he had finished his words, the black wall of clouds which Richter earlier saw began to fill the sky. The same crack of thunder which taunted him echoed down the road, and all three of the travelers shivered as they felt the forces of evil strengthening around them. Alucard started the wagon down the road yet again while Morris and Maria huddled together for protection and warmth. Soon the pouring rain reached them as well, and Maria covered Morris with her own cloak in a vain attempt to keep the two of them dry as they drove against the quickly intensifying wind.
* * *
The heavy sheets of water pouring down through the trees above became so thick that Richter was forced to slow his horse to a trot. Through the clearing far in the distance he thought he espied the raging torrent of the Dead River. Though this tributary of the Olt had other names in the local tongues, they laid long forgotten since the river ran sanguine with every resurrection of the Dark Lord. It strived to wash away the iniquities of Dracula, but no simple current could ever suffice against his corrupting influence.
Richter continued toward the ford; his chestnut stallion snorted, exhausted from the long ride and wary of the tempest stirring about them. In short time, they reached the edge of the Jova Woods where the South Bridge stood in silent vigilance over the river. Richter approached the bridge slowly, leaving behind the canopy of the forest. Already the river had grown swollen and angry with waters from the Carpathians to the south, and at the sight of its violent flow his horse balked.
"Fortinbras, what is it?" Richter asked the horse in a quiet voice. He himself felt no impending evil nor saw any threat, aside from the dangerous river at least. He urged the horse to go on, lest some unknown fiend catch them from behind, but it refused to budge, digging its hooves into the muddy earth before it. A voice called out from the trees behind Richter, which was a complete surprise to the man as he had seen no sign of other travelers on the road. He instinctively reached for the hilt of his sword as the voice called again.
"Good men will find no passage here," the voice said, its source still invisible.
"Who goes there?" shouted Richter, now facing back toward the woods, searching the trees for any sign of this mysterious advisor. Be he friend or foe, his ability to hide himself so well even from a Belmont was disconcerting. Richter blinked as droplets of rain coursed down his face and stung his eyes, and suddenly he noticed a tall, dark man leaning against one of the trees at the very edge of the woods. He was arrayed in strange, exotic clothing: his tunic was of deep red and brilliant gold, and of gold as well was the cumber bund wrapped about his waist. His black pants were made of some fine material usually reserved for kings and stopped at his knees where they revealed contrasting white tights. About his neck was tied a charcoal cape, and atop his head was a low, wide-brimmed, black felt hat which he wore tipped down such that it hid most of his face.
Far more intriguing than his attire was the staff which he held in one hand. Taller than the man himself, its sturdy shaft was made of wood which was wrapped in several places for ease of holding. The upper fourth of it was carved into an intricate lattice, and atop this sat a head of remarkable workmanship made of intertwined leaves of silver and gold. The golden leaf wound its way to the very top of the staff, where it ended in a dangerously pointed hook. From this hook dangled a beautiful gem which was hewn into the shape of an acorn. Richter knew this staff must be a magical weapon of considerable power, and that the man wielding it could easily be either a great ally or a deadly enemy.
Before Richter could approach and ask this man about his purpose, a lethal bolt of lightning lashed down from the sky and smote one of the old majestic trees across the river. A deafening wall of sound shocked the men and nearly caused Richter to be thrown from his mount. The trunk of the tree cracked sharply as it splintered, sending the flaming log crashing down toward the river. The mage lifted his staff as if to intervene, but he was too late to free the tree from its fall. The South Bridge was obliterated by tons of smouldering wood, and its ruins were swept away without remorse by the tortured river.
Richter stared blankly at the space where the bridge stood but a moment prior, filled with dismay. There were no other roads to Veros, and to cross the treacherous waters on horseback was unfathomable. Richter turned back to his unknown companion, who seemed relatively unmoved by this calamitous event.
"No passage here," the man said with a shrug of his shoulders.
"And that may be fine enough for you," Richter snapped, "but I am on a task of great import. My kin await me across the way."
"As do mine," the stranger stated with slightly more warmth in his voice. "We are encamped upon the banks of this river, since we find no welcome in town. My name is Tomas, and I see already that you are the one known as Richter Belmont. Your legend far precedes you on the road."
Richter was surprised that even foreigners knew his name so long after the greatest of his exploits were consigned to history. "From where do you hail, Tomas?" he asked.
"My clan hails from the north of Spain," Tomas explained, "but we are not called Spaniards by most. To some we are Gitanos; in this country our kin are called ţigane. We have come to Romania on business that I am not free to discuss, at least for the time being."
Richter decided not to press the man for further information at the present. Instead he turned his focus back to the path on which fate had set him. "So, what will we do? I can assure you that waiting here for help will earn us only trouble," he said, thinking of the ambush of singular cunning that was set for him by the vampires just outside of Jova.
Tomas said nothing, but he at last moved from his stance and walked past Richter to the very edge of the current where a few stray boards and clumps of paving stone hung pathetic and useless. He raised his staff and the acorn-like gemstone hanging from its sickle-sharp tip faded from blood red to royal blue. A light shone from within it, all about at first, but focusing into a dazzling beam with a thrust of the staff. Richter looked on with a smile as the river glossed over with ice where it was struck by the cold rays. As the current bathed this makeshift pathway, it swiftly widened and thickened until it could easily support both the men and the horse at once. Tomas remained silent and took two steps forward, testing the reliability of his handiwork with his life. He motioned to Richter as he continued toward the eastern bank.
"Let's go, Fortinbras," Richter said. The horse looked at the new path before it, and although to any man this support would have seemed far less substantial than the bridge which the equine before rejected, it did not hesitate. Richter was astounded to find a sure footing despite the icy composition of the surface, and at no time in the crossing of the river was there any danger to him or his steed.
Once they were safely across, Tomas turned back and gave the frozen bridge a light tap with the blunt end of his staff. It cracked from end to end and then exploded into billions of icy shards, leaving the river once again unnegotiable. A fork in the forest path laid immediately ahead; one road turned north toward the Denis marsh, and the other turned south, down a steep, rocky grade, where stood the city of Veros.
"So it seems we must part nearly as soon as we met, Richter Belmont," Tomas said, "but I feel that we shall see each other again in due time. Dark creatures roam in the daytime, and nature herself is fighting a bitter war against some perverse force beyond my worst nightmare. When you tire of the city, come enjoy the hospitality of my clan. You will find a place about our campfires for you and your kin, and then we will further discuss these evil occurrences."
"You have my gratitude, Tomas, and I accept your offer. The Belmonts refuse their friendship to no one," Richter replied. Tomas turned to head up the north road, which stayed close to the river, and once again he raised his hand, this time to give a friendly parting wave. Richter nudged his horse with the heels of his boots and they too were headed off, but down the southern path, riding ever on toward fate.
* * *
The torrential rain continued to lash down like a shower of cold, steel needles. Giant drops rolled off the leaves of the tree branches sheltering the road and tumbled inexorably downward. One of these exploded on Morris's brow just as he dared to take a glance upward. He sighed and grumbled to himself as he tried to dry his bearded face with wet hands.
Alucard drove the horses relentlessly, and the distance to Veros was quickly closing. Unbroken miles of virgin forest passed them by, but now through the trees on their right there appeared the white peaks of innumerable tents. There was no sign of the occupants of this portable village; they were probably all huddled in their tents, seeking shelter from the fury of the storm.
Morris figured this was one of the traveling bands of the ţigane, known more popularly and often pejoratively as the Gypsies of Romania. Though prejudice against them burned like a wildfire with their detractors labeling them vagrants and thieves, Morris recalled that many amongst their ranks gave aid throughout the history of the war with Dracula. They long ago proved their mastery of both art and craftsmanship, and a select few preserved the arcana of civilizations long forgotten. He was well aware of his own blood connection to these brave, rugged folk, and he longed for a chance to be written in their history along with his ancestors.
Morris was startled out of his deep thought when Alucard unexpectedly spoke up.
"Look!" he said, "There by the side of the road. I thought I saw a man walking, but now it seems my eyes betray me."
Maria strained to see through the rain and the trees, but nothing was revealed to her either.
"Be prepared for anything," Alucard warned. Morris suddenly had an idea and reached into his leather bag. Drawing out two of the mystic cards he earlier used in battle, he whispered a prayer for the vision of truth. He braced himself as the magic spell amplified his natural Belmont awareness, lifting his sight fully into the spiritual plane. From above, a great golden light gave form to everything that now or once lived, but from below there also came a reaching darkness in which some things were hopelessly lost.
As they neared the spot where Alucard believed he had seen the man, a vicious bolt of lightning arced to the ground in the distance, and Morris at last saw a silhouette illuminated in deep shades of red, blue, and yellow. Time stood still in that moment, and as Morris looked into the man's dark yet softly glowing eyes he sensed the sort of familiarity he might otherwise feel when seeing himself in a mirror. The man gave a knowing nod of his head to Morris, acknowledging that he was revealed, then he tipped down his hat and turned north toward the camp. Once Morris recovered from the awe of this experience, he tried his best to describe what he saw to his companions.
"There was indeed a man by the way, enshrouded by some powerful spell of concealing. He carried a staff and had the aura of a great mage. It's strange, but when I looked into his eyes, I felt I knew him. I know for sure that he means no harm."
Alucard and Maria were intrigued and turned back in hope of catching sight of the man, yet still they could see nothing. Alucard immediately took interest in Morris's magic cards when he saw the pair of them still in his hand.
"Those cards allowed you to cast a spell for spiritual vision?" he asked.
"Indeed. I stumbled upon the set of them by accident," Morris explained. "They were in the possession of a medium who called upon my services to rid herself of malevolent spirits she had inadvertently summoned. At first I thought them to be a regular tarot deck, but closer examination revealed that they bore mythical creatures and the gods of olden days rather than the normal Major Arcana. I felt them resonate with the powers of my blood, and so I accepted them as payment for the exorcism. Each combination of two cards is activated by some chant, prayer, or even the simple will of the dealer. Each of these grants some unique offensive or defensive ability, and I am still discovering how to effectively utilize many of them."
"You are full of surprises, Mr. Baldwin," Alucard said with a nervous laugh. Maria reached toward the cards in Morris's hand out of curiosity, and he allowed her to take them for a closer look. The reverse side of the cards was unremarkable, bearing a crosshatch pattern of purple diamonds. However, upon the face of one card was an image of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, and upon the other was Anzu, the lion-headed eagle of Sumer. When Maria held one card directly over the other, she could see the eyes of Anzu begin to glow, and near the bottom edge of the card, writing in an unfamiliar language appeared:
МАТИ ТІ'А БАИРАІУЛ ѸД ТИЗЕТИ' ВА ЄСУЛ НА
"Remarkable," Maria said. She could feel magic power flowing from the union of the cards, but she did not dare to attempt its use. She handed the cards back to Morris, and he returned them to their pouch.
In mere moments they reached the same fork in the road where Richter had parted with Tomas only minutes earlier. They too took the steep, southern path and saw before them in short time the great stone gates of Veros.
Morris was filled with memories of his childhood as he surveyed the substantial, mortared walls lined with parapets and watchtowers. Long a home to Belmonts in training, this ancient city had a legacy of resistance to the rule of Vlad Ţepeş. Even now the walls bristled with sword, arrow, and spear, not a few of which were focused upon the three of them as they approached the drawbridge.
A voice called out loud and clear from within the gates, saying, "Who seeks to enter Veros?"
Alucard gave Maria a hesitant look, and she silently nodded her head. He responded to the guard, "We are Adrian and Maria Lecarde, friends of the Belmont clan, and our companion is injured. We are looking for Richter Belmont."
"Open the gates!" the same voice once again cried, and the heavy, iron portcullises began to slowly grind their way upward, followed by the lowering of the enormous wooden drawbridge. A guard came out of the gatehouse to inspect the wagon.
"We were told to expect you by Richter, so I'll make this quick. He's gone ahead to the Graves manor. I trust you can find it well enough?"
"Indeed," Alucard said in his typically demure tone. The guard waved them on and the gates immediately began to close. The city had grown dramatically since the last time any of the three laid eye upon it, and shops and homes now filled all the once-vacant space near the city's walls. Children ran and splashed each other in the deep puddles of rain water, animals called from the nearby liveries and livestock pens, and everywhere people went about the regular business of their lives despite the terrible weather and the evil atmosphere that gave birth to it. However, the great landmark of the city still rose high above it all: the towering spire of the Holy Sepulchre of Saint Wilhelm. It was a rare place hallowed to both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches; they had recently agreed to stop fighting over it, but only with some strong persuasion from the Habsburg authorities who otherwise rarely intervened in this largely autonomous city's governance.
* * *
Rosalind Graves stood silently and anxiously near the open door of her home, twirling a curled lock of her auburn hair. She was bewildered when Richter, ragged and rain-soaked, appeared only a few minutes prior asking her to keep watch on the road. He now rested in the manor's den where kerosene lamp light illuminated an impressive collection of maps, scrolls, and books assembled by the family patriarch, William Nathan Graves III, who made his fortune in trade between the Romanian principalities. Rosalind discerned from the look on Richter's face that he was withholding bad news from her, and this only added to her consternation.
A wagon turned onto the cul de sac and Rosalind called to Richter. He came racing to the door as the passengers were disembarking.
"Adrian, Maria!" Richter shouted as he scrambled toward them. For a moment he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him when the two of them helped Morris climb down. "Morris? Morris Baldwin?" he said with a hearty laugh. He quickly took up position next to his cousin's side and ushered him through the rain into the warm house. Once within, everyone assembled in the den.
"Morris is injured and should see a doctor," Alucard said. Rosalind called for her son and a few moments later he came sliding down the banister of the manor's ornate grand staircase.
"Yes, mother?" Nathan answered. He was a stout lad of only eight years' age with his mother's hazel eyes and his father's silver hair. Already the Belmont blood burned brightly inside him, and he desperately wanted to begin real training like his father.
"Nathan, run to Doctor Rǎdescu and ask him to come here as soon as he can," she implored the child.
Nathan was in awe when he realized that all the people from his family's stories were gathered in a single room of his house. When he saw Morris he became excited and forgot his new mission entirely.
"Uncle Morris!" he exclaimed. Though Morris was not in actuality the boy's uncle, Nathan had decided to call him this when the two first met on a vacation two years prior.
Morris laughed and ruffled the boy's spiky hair. "Nathan, you've grown all the way up! Richter, give him your blessing. He looks ready to fight the Dark Lord as far as I'm concerned," Morris teased.
Richter and Maria chuckled as Nathan glanced about bashfully, but Rosalind was still concerned for Morris. She sternly reminded Nathan of his task and the boy scurried away without another word. As he left, his father came striding through the still wide-open door with a look of alarm on his face.
"Rosalind!" he exclaimed as he rounded the corner into the den. The unexpected sight of his kin lining the room startled the man and he started to babble, "Master Richter! And Morris too? Ma... Maria Renard? No..."
"Julian, calm down," Rosalind said to her husband as he reeled about the room looking at this curious group of visitors each in turn. Alucard rose from the antique armchair in which he had casually lounged and moved to the center of the room. He offered Julian a strong handshake and spoke.
"I am Adrian Ţepeş; you probably know me as Alucard," he began as Julian nodded his head repeatedly. "We've come here in a dire race against time. Though I destroyed the Dark Priest Shaft long ago, it seems his best student has survived. He has arisen and is working a curse upon this land. His undead armies have already challenged each of us as we made our way here. If history proves as reliable as usual, then he is sure to soon attempt the resurrection of Dracula." As Alucard spoke the name of his father, a portentous crack of thunder rolled over the manor and brought in its wake an uneasy silence.
Julian looked once more into the eyes of each person as they sat petrified, and he struggled to find words of his own at this overwhelming information. Never one to hesitate, he immediately began to plan out an entire war in his mind.
"We are Belmonts," Julian finally said, "and we have a calling from Heaven. I swear by the sword at my side that the Dark Lord will not be permitted to rise. Let's go now and make this cowardly priest taste the sort of destruction he brings upon others!" Alucard crossed his arms and said nothing. Maria stood and came to her husband's side.
"You don't understand the forces that are at work," she lectured the much younger man. "Look at Morris; he was nearly killed and is badly hurt. We sent Nathan to get him a doctor just before you arrived. If not for us, he might have perished in those woods despite all of his strength. Now, before any of us set out, we must make plans and be at our full power."
Julian paced to Morris's side where the man laid resting on the soft, cushioned couch. "Master Morris, it's been two years hasn't it?" he asked.
"And short ones at that, cousin," Morris quipped. "I should be alright with some rest. At worst I think it's a broken rib, but maybe not even that." He groaned quietly and clutched his aching side as he tried to shift his weight to look squarely at Julian. Julian sat down on the floor beside the couch and remained quiet as he more maturely contemplated all the things that were said.
Doctor Rǎdescu arrived a few minutes later with Nathan tagging along behind him. He carefully examined Morris from head to toe and he discerned that the man's ribs were only severely bruised rather than broken. Morris grinned from ear to ear despite his persistent pain and everyone else breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Alucard retreated to his armchair where he began darkly brooding. To himself he quietly remarked, "We have a calling from Heaven."
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.