by Stefan Popov
Tired of the same old vampire stories? If you are, then read on...
“How would you like to be my dinner?” Farnor asked, a nonchalant smile parting his lips. “I’m a bit hungry, you know?”
“Why, if you’re in such a hurry, I’d be more than happy to offer you some ‘stake’. Right through the heart, actually,” Peter answered with a grin.
“That’s a good one,” Farnor noted with a laugh.
“Yeah,” Peter agreed, sipping from his rich red wine, “it sure is.”
The solid oak door leading to their private room opened swiftly and the tavern keeper and his lovely young daughter entered the hall, the delicious smell of rabbit stewed in exotic eastern spices filling the spacious room.
“Gospodine,” the owner saluted him with a bow after the finely decorated bowl was placed in the middle of the round wooden table. Farnor had some trouble understanding the human’s thick dialect although it did remind him of a blend of Latin and Slavic. The man had been less than welcoming when the two odd looking strangers had knocked on the tavern door earlier in the evening, yet once gold had been mentioned, the initial lack of communication had been resolved rather quickly. Farnor’s Venetian ducats had made quite an impression and the man had early offered him the best room in the inn, with a fine view of the densely wooded valley stretching below them.
The girl glanced at his companion before leaving and blushed as her eyes met Peter’s. Peter offered a comforting smile yet only a moment later, with animate gestures, the tavern keeper chased her out of the room. Gold or no gold, the human wanted his daughter nowhere near those two unexpected visitors. After muttering some words that Farnor suspected to mean ‘good appetite’, the tall, balding owner tip-toed his way out of the room as well.
Farnor locked his pale eyes on the man across the table. Peter was a handsome man of moderate height, with sparkling sapphire eyes and curly brownish hair. Peter’s looks seemed to attract women of all ages and mindsets to Farnor’s old castle and the youthful human did not appear to mind their visits. After a while, however, Peter’s popularity had brought too much attention to the mansion where the youngster resided and ultimately towards him, the enigmatic benevolent landlord. Eligible ladies from as far as Burgundy and Normandy asked for the honor to visit his picturesque estates near Buda. That could only spell trouble, Farnor had reasoned.
A week ago, they took to the roads, south to the Ottoman controlled Balkans, exploring the land and soaking up the new experiences the travel offered. So far their adventure had been uneventful.
He tasted the food and found it surprisingly refreshing. He hoped his hunger would not manifest itself in some unexpected fashion.
“Cooked food never really satisfies your yearning, does it?” Peter asked.
“No,” he answered. “We still need to feed. It requires some strength of will not to give in to the temptation. I learned to cope with it after a while.”
“Some never did…” Peter said.
“And some never will,” Farnor added.
“We are who we are…”
“You speak in riddles again. Why are you so hesitant to speak of your kin?” Peter asked. “We have discussed many a topic, yet whenever we come close to anything but the most basic knowledge about your race, you refuse to help me understand.”
“Perhaps, you chasing after my kin has something to do with it?”
“Yet, so do you,” Peter reminded him. “I spared you when you were most vulnerable. Our first meeting could have been our last if hatred is what drives me forward. That alone proves I am not quick to judge.”
“Fair enough,” Farnor conceded. “Yet, remember I did your work for you. I take it we are even. Facing Garmaner could have cost you your life.”
Peter laughed. “Life is full of dangers, isn’t it? I was ready for him. You simply got him first.”
Peter’s smile widened. Suddenly, Farnor registered the sound of heavy boots against the wooden staircase outside. With a jerk, the door opened again and several men, unsheathed steel in their hands, stormed in. All had shaved heads and long whiskers and wore once colorful but now worn out Royal uniforms, the long split sleeves of their woolen coats tied behind their backs. Their leader, a middle-aged man of dark complexion and scarred face, glanced around before resting his eyes on Peter’s gear.
“A noble and his guard, yes?”
“Who would like to know,” Peter asked in return.
The leader appeared surprised at his companion’s boldness. “Bohemian, yes? Mounted infantry by the look of you. Zweihander, yes? Soldier in the Black Army, yes?”
“You did not answer my question, Sir,” Peter did not appear overly bothered by the newcomer’s inquisitive stare. “Care to offer us your name and rank, soldier?”
“We come from the border scouts,” the man was obviously reluctant to supply a name. “Now, state the purpose of your trip.”
“Visiting old family estates near Belgrade,” Farnor entered the conversation before matters could head in the wrong direction. “We will be on our way tomorrow.”
“Turkish sipahis from across the river have raided nearby,” the man suddenly explained. “Several caravans and merchants have been missing. These are dangerous times, especially for two men traveling alone… Nobody knows what dangers await the weary traveler.”
“We can manage just fine,” Peter interrupted him. “Thank you for your concern.”
“Perhaps,” the leader offered, “we can escort you and your master south? For a small fee of course…”
Farnor clearly recognized the trap. If he agreed, his caravan would be next one missing. Those men were irregulars recruited from the fiercest souls in the kingdom; men who, if not for the nearly constant raiding of the Ottomans, would be chased down by the Royal army and not wearing its colors instead. Yet, the king had early recognized that those brigands made for excellent soldiers for their savagery could easily match the unbridled fury of the kingdom’s enemies. Such men were priceless when on campaign in enemy territory, but during the short periods of peace they were a disaster for the borderlands no smaller than the Muslim jihadis on the south bank of the Danube. There were no Turks raiding the area, he suspected. Most probably, the very men standing in front of him had been the reason for the robberies plaguing the region.
Before Farnor could politely decline the ‘generous’ offer, sounds of commotion and agitated curses echoed from the common room below. He wondered whether the same deal had been offered to the two German knights he had spotted earlier. Such a proposition would lead to an inspired, agitated conversation, especially when some of the king’s mercenary Germans and wine were involved. The border guards probably did not even suspect that the half-dozen men in the common room served under the two arrogant foreigners.
“We will await your answer, but be quick for my men have other issues of importance to attend to. Do beware that without our protection even the Royal army cannot guarantee your safety,” the soldier left the threat hanging in the air. “We’ll be back soon. Do consider our offer.”
Only a moment later, the irregulars darted down the steps slamming the door shut behind them.
“Well, back to our meal,” Peter announced in a level voice. “I think they will have their hands full of the Bavarians to bother us again tonight.”
“But we’ll have to watch our backs when we take to the road nevertheless,” Peter cautioned.
“Yes, indeed. Make certain the locks are in place before we fall asleep. Last thing we need is to get our throats slit in our sleep because these bandits may not feel like chasing us out in the open.”
In a way, despite all the trouble they created, such men were the very reason why the appearance of two odd-looking strangers would not be anything unusual. There were countless soldiers-of-fortune from many nations serving in the king’s armies, men for whom the temptation of riches and fame was too strong to let go of. Wherever they went, an entire army of camp followers would pursue, hoping to benefit from the spoils of future battles. Often, even vampires would join such mobs for the mysterious death of an occasional stranger would not be something overly bothersome.
Soon enough, however, rumors would start roaming the borderlands, whispers claiming men were found dead in the thick of the night, their blood consumed by some hellish fiend. Those tales would soon be linked to the Turks on the south bank of the Danube, the fearsome warrior race the Christian population believed to have spawned from Hell. The Turks were overly brutal every now and then, Farnor knew, yet their aggressive conquests called for such methods.
Now that the beautiful lands along the middle Danube had become the new battlefields of Islam and Christianity, the men and women of those regions had finally faced the innumerable hosts that had conquered the powerful kingdoms to the south. The Czars of Bulgaria and the Kings of Serbia were nothing but fading memories and the warlord of the infidels sat on the throne of the Roman Emperors in Constantinople. Some prophesied the demise of the powerful Balkan sovereigns an omen, a foreboding sign that the Christians of Hungary would have to pay for their sins, just like their former neighbors. The Turks were a punishment from God, the word went; a scourge sent by the Almighty to remind men of their own mortality. With so much fear stifling the countryside, it was hardly a surprise any foul event was blamed on some unearthly demon of a Turk.
It amazed him how little the new masters of the world really knew. Farnor had always viewed human ignorance as a defensive mechanism, a tool for the common folk to hide from the evil roaming the lands. Nonetheless, how little they comprehended never stopped to startle him. They had ancient knowledge collecting dust in libraries of old, knowledge revealing a world far different from the one their misleading religious books described.
Nobody seemed to care. In fact, any piece of writing not conforming to the fanatic writings of the self-proclaimed human prophets would likely be burned instead of read. Without even realizing it, in its raging religious fervor, the human race was slowly but surely destroying its own legacy. Some of those lost souls had proven to be exceptions to the general fog of unawareness and the man standing in front of him was one such oddity.
The very fact he was conversing with the solidly built human still carried an unusual feel to it. Only a year back, the casual conversation could have never happened. After all, vampire hunters were to hunt down Farnor’s kin. Those dedicated humans were not to sit down with the despised ‘enemies of light’ and have a nice chat over a glass of wine.
For all his charisma and open light-hearted manners, the human in his presence had proven to be quite an enigma. Peter was a man of quick wits and an insatiable desire for knowledge, a lust that Farnor was more than happy to satisfy. Nonetheless, he found it hard to completely trust him. The heavy sword at the human’s side or the vials of holy water hanging from the ornamented belt probably had a lot to do with it. Perhaps, the uneasiness was caused by the number of wooden stakes fastened to the hunter’s jacket.
“At least you got rid of the garlic,” Farnor observed, slowly stirring the goat blood in his golden goblet with the middle finger of his left hand. “I always thought it much better suited for soups and the like.”
“Yes, that stuff is much too odorous and doesn’t really help much. I wonder who came up with the whole theory behind it…”
“Actually, I know the fellow,” Farnor answered. “I think that illiterate barbarian Vlad was allergic to garlic even before he became one of us. Venerius should have never given him the Gift.”
“He was not originally one of you?”
“No, we are never that cruel. It may sound ironic, but we do, in our own misunderstood way, value life. As for Vlad, he simply did not like the plant and outlawed it in his lands. You know what happened afterwards.”
“Could it hurt him?”
“Maybe… but I do not know. I honestly do not know why these fairy tales spread. It can hardly cause me or anybody else any harm…”
“True enough. But then again, Dracula is famous and you are just an old bloodsucker nobody cares about.”
“Watch your language…”
“We should have never let him impale all those Turks," Farnor lamented. "Look where it got us. Such lack of discretion is why my kin need to be careful. We are a single wrong choice away from being forever remembered as mindless monsters. Getting chased by peasants with garlic and crosses…” Farnor murmured and shook his head.
“That was a bit unfortunate, I agree. You could have made an example out of them. Pitchforks and holy water can hardly stop you.”
“And carry out another bloodbath? We never kill for pleasure or sport.”
“What if somebody better equipped to handle one of your kin shows up?”
“Like myself. But with garlic, just for good measure.”
“Let us hope no such events transpire.”
“That will be an ill-fated encounter, indeed.” Peter drank his glass empty and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. The vampire hunter did not wait for long before pouring himself some more wine.
“No garlic for you, but the stakes are still here, as far as I can see,” Farnor pointed out. “You have me concerned, you know. Since I am the only one of my kin around, I’m beginning to wonder.”
“Old habits… hard to get rid of them,” the human answered before taking another big gulp of the fine Bulgarian drink.
“You stick anything through my heart, you’ll kill me just as easily,” Farnor lectured him. ”The twisted thing is, wood actually hurts more because it’s not usually that sharp…”
“Some folks find torturing the likes of you a real pleasure,” Peter observed in a level, emotionless voice. “Their ignorance is astounding. They think they know it all but they can’t even tell a night-stalker from a moon-raiser.”
“And you can?”
“Of course. Partly, thanks to you…” Peter spoke back.
“I have not taught you that much."
"I have other sources," Peter confessed.
"And why care?”
“Night-stalkers I can kill anytime, anyplace. These primitives do not deserve any better. As for your kind--well, I’ve come to see the other side of the coin and it is not that ugly.”
“We are who we are and there is no changing our nature, you do understand that simple fact of life, right?”
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Fernor felt a slight reproach in Peter’s words. Peter went on. “I think I have it straight in my mind--who are the ones serving Good and the ones who have forsaken their souls. Do not try to confuse me with your riddles or you’ll end up regretting it.”
Farnor bared his teeth in a growl and rose. “You underestimate me.”
“Maybe.” Peter shot him with a respectful look. “I have no ill will towards you. Your peasants loved you. That’s all I need to know. They say you’re better master than most. I judge men by their deeds not by their reputation.”
“What do you think you know?” Farnor’s eyes glowed bright with silent fury. “You know nothing. Nothing!”
“I know enough,” Peter objected, apparently undisturbed. “If it were not for you, humans would still be illiterate monkeys living in the trees. If it were not for you, humans would still be cattle for the night-stalkers to prey on. You fought a war to preserve mankind and most of you died for that noble cause.”
“The biggest mistake we ever made was empowering your race. We played God and our foul act came back to haunt us.”
“You’re God’s children just like us. If you do not lose faith, salvation will come.”
“Salvation? Your race had Jesus. Whom do we have? Who did God send to save our souls? Nobody!”
“You are still God’s creation. He will provide for you, have faith.”
“God has little to do with both you and us, didn’t I make that clear?” Farnor regained his composure. “He just takes the credit.”
“That’s a rather cynical view of your Pa, you know?”
“He tried to kill us, eradicate us to the last soul. After all we did for Him… He is not our Father. He gave up on us. And now we are paying for His mistakes…”
“That’s the Devil speaking,” Peter smirked. “That bloody fiend always had a sweet spot for your kin, you know…”
“A sweet spot?” Farnor felt anger rising in him again. “After all that time--do you not comprehend? The only reasons the night-stalkers follow the Fallen One is because they have no other choice. How ironic… the majority of my race, the very same who defeated the legions of Hell, now marches after the One they were created to destroy.”
“No offense, but that sounds like folklore to me,” Peter voiced his disbelief. “You’re asking me to believe everything I’ve been taught is a lie? That the suckers who have wrecked havoc amongst the righteous are not some crazed demons but misunderstood creations of the Almighty? I read through your books… Nobody gave up on the night-stalkers. They were just corrupted by the underworld. And once tainted, there wasn’t a damn thing even the Almighty could do to save them.”
“I thought you understood but apparently you do not…” Farnor’s feature’s hardened. “There was no corruption, we are who we are meant to be… night-stalkers or moon-raisers--it makes no difference. We were born to clean up a mess that should have never happened in the first place. And when we did, we were discarded, left here to rot in this mortal world.”
“Now you sound like one of them.” Peter raised an eyebrow.
“You still do not get it, do you?” Farnor’s gaze could make a hole in a wall yet the human met it stoutly. “There are no ‘them’ or ‘us’. We are one people with the difference being the night-stalkers swore revenge and my kin sought forgiveness. We thought we knew better than the night-stalkers. We were such fools. I was such a fool!"
"You never betrayed your faith. In the end, this is what matters."
"My faith?" A bittersweet smile appeared on Farnor's face. "I lost it when the world was still young."
"I do not understand. You are not evil..."
"I had to make a choice, you see. My faith lay on one side of the scales and my love on the other. The moment I chose faith over love, I gave up on both. She died in my hands, you know; I killed her for she chose the life of a night-stalker and I chose to protect your race. I thought I was doing the right thing."
Ancient memories flooded Farnor's mind and his exquisite features twisted in a grotesque frown. "I considered it a test from God to prove my resolve. I believed her death the ultimate sacrifice. I betrayed her to earn my right to go back home.”
Farnor paused and stared at his finely decorated goblet. “It took me awhile but now I understand it,” he went on. “There is no going back home. I am cursed; hell, my entire race is cursed and there is no changing it. And you, mortals, will never learn any of it. You will never know the truth about your own origins. Before long, we will be hunted down by our own creation and we will be nothing more than a myth to scare little children into obedience.
“We presented a gift to humanity, the greatest gift ever given. We shared our divine force with you and we are paying for it now. We are waning in this world, taken away from the place that nurtured our souls, forced to try to collect back as much from our diluted spirit as we can just to survive. Our link with the divine is broken and is the very reason why we feed on you. It is not the blood we covet. We just want back what we shared…”
“I will hear no more of this!” Peter rose abruptly. The command was issued in a voice far more agitated than Farnor had ever heard before. “This cannot be true!”
“We are forever forgotten by those whom we served,” Farnor continued, his face a mask of sorrow and anger. “We were nothing more than a figure in a game of chess, we, in our infant innocence, never understood. We gave up our souls for your race to live…“
“I’d better get some fresh air… I have to think things over.” Fuming, Peter left the room and headed to the small terrace upstairs. Perhaps he had to refrain from lecturing the young human. Too much of the truth was enough to overwhelm anybody and Farnor probably erred by speaking so openly about matters so delicate. He realized Peter was upset but he hoped not overly so. He thought it best to leave his companion alone for the time being. So, instead of following upstairs, he headed down to the stables to check on their mounts.
An unexpected silence met him when he neared the commons. Germans were usually rather vocal and he suspected the presence of the Royal scouts would only make matters worse. They were probably simply dead drunk already...
Without thinking too much about it, he opened the door and entered the spacious room. His mind took a couple of seconds later to realize he had walked into an execution chamber. Numerous corpses littered the wooden floor while the once colorful rugs were soaked black with blood. Red circles swirled in front of his eyes and he tried hard to contain his instincts from taking control of his conscience. Instead, he glanced around to get a better measure of what had happened.
All but one of the victims were Bavarians. The carnage had been masterfully carried out and now those Royal bandits were probably busy eradicating any evidence of what had happened tonight. The few unsuspecting farmers he had noticed earlier and the innkeeper’s family were likely next in line.
A single high scream echoed from the direction of the stable and he stormed out of the building and across the open yard. As he charged in, the view overwhelmed his sanity. The innkeeper laid face up in a stack of hay, a thin streak of blood streaming from his slit throat. Several of the bandits carried torches in their hands, preparing to burn down the building. In the meanwhile, the rest were busy going through the pack animals inside, searching for anything of value. In the end, it was the fate of the innkeeper’s daughter that surrendered his mind to battle fury. She wept helplessly on the ground, her body already broken and ravaged by the savages who had murdered her father. The heat of his righteous rage triggered the ancient instincts he had tried so hard to shove into the most inaccessible parts of his conscience.
With speed unmatched by any mortal man, he closed down on two of the brigands. They were a split second too late in noticing him and he showed them no mercy. His nails, as strong and deadly as sharpened steel, slit their throats open before they could even cry out for help. He did not bother to pick any of their weapons up. He was a tool of war far deadlier than the ones mankind could ever conceive. His creator had made sure about that…
He felt truly alive, a sensation that left a bittersweet taste in his mouth. His heated blood pulsating in his veins, he danced to the music of death. He butchered them all, no remorse whatsoever. It felt so natural…
Before long, there were only two men left in the stable, their scared eyes betraying their unchecked horror. He paused for a moment, wiping the blood on his hands in his indigo-colored tunic.
“What kind of fiend, in God’s name, are you?” one of the two survivors muttered. The man shivered with fear, Farnor noticed.
“The kind there is no escape from, mortal,” he answered with a threatening sneer. He stared the human down. “If you will ask your God for forgiveness, now would be a good time. Not that it will help you any…”
With the words leaving his lips, Farnor plunged forward. The fluid motions of his divine heritage made short work of one of his opponents. As he ducked under the slashing swing of a saber, his hand penetrated the soft tissue beneath the human’s ribs, tearing the tense muscles apart. A second later, the human’s heart still pulsating in his right hand, he smiled triumphantly at his last remaining adversary.
“Ready for Hell?” Farnor asked.
The human did not answer but threw down his weapon and ran towards the yard. Before the soldier could reach the door, however, Farnor’s teeth found his exposed neck and the man’s scream echoed through the evening air. The sweet blood brought him to a state of euphoria, the spiritual force of his victim slowly returning to its original source. Once he was done with it, he slammed the lifeless body to the ground.
His enemies dead, he tried to calm down. He moved closer and examined the dying girl. Her skirt was stained by her own blood. The bandits had taken turns on her and then, with their lust satisfied, had made sure she would not live long enough for the story to get out. She was fighting to catch a breath, he noticed, chocking with the blood streaming from her broken nose and jaw. As he gently lifted her in his arms, a memory flashed in his mind, a painful recollection that brought bitter tears in his eyes. She looked so much like Jaena, his one and only soulmate in eternity. Her auburn hair, her beautiful green eyes, her delicate features… Just like her, the girl was about to die in his hands, even if not by his sword… For the first time in more than four millennia, he remembered what it meant to cry.
As he walked out of the now burning stable, Peter appeared out of the main building, his eyes widened with fiery passion, a short sword in his hand.
“What have you done?” the vampire hunter demanded, staring at the girl in his arms.
“What in God’s name have you done?”
“They are all dead,” he answered, the blood of his victims still covering his arms and face. He gently laid the girl on the ground. “I killed them all, down to the last man,” he went on unapologetically, yet the disillusionment obvious in his words.
“What have you done...”
Peter had the appearance of a man who had woken up from a daydream worse than any nightmare. Peter discarded his short sword and unsheathed the blade Farnor had never seen in action before; a weapon burning hot with heavenly flames… The human had undergone a strange but remarkable metamorphosis as well, Farnor suddenly realized. Peter now seemed larger, more handsome, the once calm eyes shining with cold blue flames, a strong aura radiating from his body.
“Lies, vicious lies… It was all lies. You are corrupt, just like they are. I thought you different. I truly did. I thought the Lord was mistaken about you. But I now see the Truth in His words. Your faith is gone and you are no better than a cursed night-stalker. I gave you a chance to prove your purity and I have to admit--you had me fooled for a while.”
“I never meant to deceive you.”
”But you did, you heinous fiend. Oh, you were wrong there, vampire--the Almighty never forgot you…“
Farnor smiled in the face of inevitability. “I never thought I’d see one of your kind again, Archangel. Two dozen of my kin usually perished before we could bring one of your fallen brothers down. And you and your Master stayed home and did nothing. You are a long way from Heaven.”
“Pointless banter. You never did change,” the heavenly warrior spoke in fury, “and I let you try to corrupt me as well. You, deceiver, deserve God’s punishment.”
“You dare talk about deception after walking the world disguised as a mortal?”
“I had my orders.”
“Of course you did but so did I. Well, I should be honored to have God send one of His hand-picked assassins after me. But beware of His gratitude lest you are left stranded here for eternity just like us…”
“I am just to correct a blunder that should have never happened… and then I’ll go home.”
“Home was precisely what we thought of at the time… and here we are, ten millennia later, still looking for ways to return to Heaven. You, in your blinding pride, are headed down our path to damnation without even realizing it. We are the two sides of the same coin…”
“No, demon,” Peter replied with the zeal burning hot in the angel’s eyes, the fiery sword looking impatient in his hands, “we are not.”
The angel glided closer and swung his trusted weapon with righteous fury. The heavenly blade struck home and Farnor let go a cry that shook the stone walls of the small tavern, a howl full of sorrow and anger, and pain. Otherworldly flames spread from the blade and consumed his ancient body. Just before he was to let go of the world he had called home for ages, Farnor caught a glimpse of the angel’s soul, an ethereal light shining so brightly it almost blinded him. Yet, amidst all that stunning brilliance, he noticed a tiny shadow, a minuscule piece of darkness so out of place, but a piece that looked as if it fed on the splendor of its host. Then, Farnor knew for sure.
With his last breath he bared his teeth in a commiserate smile. “See you in Hell…”