The summer of 1975...
Three years since Dragosani's last trip home, and only a year short of that time when the old thing in the earth had promised to deliver up his secrets to Dragosani, the secrets of the Wamphyri. In return for which, Dragosani would give him back his life - or rather, he would return him to renewed undeath, to walk the earth again.
Three years, and the necromancer had gone from strength to strength until his position as Gregor Borowitz's right-hand man now seemed virtually unassailable. When the old man went, Dragosani would be the one to replace him. After that, with the entire Soviet ESP organisation at his command, and with all the knowledge of the Wamphyri in his hands and mind - the possibilities were vast.
What had once seemed an impossible dream might still come to pass, when old Wallachia would once more become a mighty nation - the mightiest nation of all. Why not, with Dragosani to lead the way? A mortal man can achieve very little in his short span of years, but an immortal man might achieve anything. And with that thought in mind, a question Dragosani had often asked himself cropped up yet again: if it was true that longevity meant power, and immortality ultimate power, why had the Wamphyri themselves failed? Why weren't vampires the leaders and rulers of this world?
Dragosani had long since worked out something of an answer; right or wrong he could not yet say:
To man the concept of a vampire is abhorrent �C the very concept itself! If men believed - if they were given indisputable proof of vampiric infestation - then they would seek the creatures out and destroy them. This had been the way of it since time began, since a time when men really did believe, and it had limited the vampire in his scope. He dare not reveal himself, must not be seen to be different, to be alien. He must control as best he might his passions, his lusts, his natural craving for the sheer power he knows his evil arts could bring him. For to have power, whether political or financial or of any other sort, is to be scrutinised - which is the one thing above all others that a vampire dreads! For under prolonged scrutiny he must be discovered and destroyed.
But if a mere man could control a vampire's arts �C a living man, as opposed to an undead Thing - he would suffer no such restrictions. Having nothing to hide but his dark knowledge itself... why, he could achieve almost anything!
That was why Dragosani had journeyed yet again to Romania; conscious of the fact that his duties had kept him away for far too long, he wished to speak once more with the old devil and offer him small favours, and learn whatever there was to be learned before next summer, when the time appointed would be at hand.The time appointed, yes - when all the vampire's secrets would lie naked before him, open and revealing as an eviscerated corpse!
Three years had flown by since last he was here, and they had been busy years. Busy for Dragosani because over that entire period Gregor Borowitz had driven all of his ESPers, including the necromancer, to the limits of their capabilities. Of course he had: to ensure that in the four years Leonid Brezhnev had allowed him, in which he must turn a profit, his branch would become so firmly entrenched as to be indispensable. And now the Premier had seen that it was indeed utterly indispensable. What's more, it was the most secret of all his secret services and by far the most independent - which was the way Gregor Borowitz wanted it.
Through Bbrowitz's advance warning, Brezhnev had been fully prepared for the fall from grace of his one-time political pal Richard Nixon in the USA. And where Watergate might have hindered or even ruined many another Russian premier, Brezhnev had actually managed to reap some benefits from it - but only by virtue of Borowitz's (or more properly Igor Vlady's) predictions. 'A pity,' Brezhnev had told Borowitz at the time, 'that Nixon didn't have you working for him, eh, Gregor?'
Similarly, and also as predicted, the Premier now found himself advantageously placed in his dealings with the presidential 'stand-in', at best a bumbler; and before Nixon's fall, as early as 1972, knowing in advance that there were American hard-liners still to come, Brezhnev had taken Borowitz's advice and signed satellite agreements with the USA. Moreover, and especially since America was so far advanced in space technology, he had also been quick to put his signature to the ultimate 'd��tente' coup of his career: a joint Skylab space venture, which even now was coming to fruition.
Indeed, the Soviet premier had taken the initiative on these and many other ESP-Branch suggestions or prognoses - including the expulsion of many dissidents and the 'repatriation' of Jews - and every step he had taken so far had been completely successful in bolstering his already awesome position as Leader. And much if not all of the credit due directly to Borowitz and his branch, so that Brezhnev had been pleased to honour his and Borowitz's agreement of 1971.
Thus, as Brezhnev and his regime prospered, so prospered Gregor Borowitz; likewise Boris Dragosani, whose loyalty to the branch seemed unquestionable. And in fact it was unquestionable - for the moment...
While Gregor Borowitz had secured the permanence of his branch and climbed in Leonid Brezhnev's esteem, however, his relationship with Yuri Andropov had deteriorated at a directly proportionate rate; there was no overt hostility, but behind the scenes Andropov was as jealous and scheming as ever. Dragosani knew that Borowitz continued to watch Andropov closely. What the necromancer did not know was that Borowitz also watched him! Oh, Dragosani was not under any sort of surveillance, but there was that in his attitude which had been worrying his boss for quite some time. Dragosani had always been arrogant, even insubordinate, and Borowitz had accepted that and even enjoyed it - but this was something else. Borowitz suspected it was ambition; which was fine, as long as the necromancer didn't become too ambitious.
Dragosani too had noticed the change in himself, Despite the fact that one of his oldest inhibitions, his greatest 'hangup', was now extinct, he had grown if anything colder still towards members of the opposite sex. When he took a woman it was invariably brutally, with little or nothing of love in it but purely as a release for his own pent-up emotional and physical needs. And as for ambition: at times he had difficulty controlling his frustration and could hardly wait for the day when Borowitz would be out of his way. The old man was past it, a dodderer, his usefulness was on the wane. This was not in fact the case, but such was Dragosani's own energy -the rapid acceleration and growth of his drive and character - that it seemed that way to him. And that was another reason why he had returned this time to Romania: so that he might obtain the counselling of the Thing in the ground. For like it or not, Dragosani had begun to accept the vampire as a sort of father-figure. Who else could he talk to, in absolute confidence, of his ambitions and his frustrations? Who else if not the old dragon? No one. In a way the vampire was like an oracle... but in another way he was not. Unlike an oracle, Dragosani could never be sure of the validity of any of his statements. Which meant that while he had felt himself drawn back here, to Romania, still he must be careful of his dealings with the Thing in the ground.
These were some of the thoughts which passed through his mind as he drove up through the old country from Bucharest towards Pitesti; and as his Volga passed a signpost which stated that the town was sixteen kilometres ahead, he remembered how three years ago he had been on his way to Pitesti when Borowitz had recalled him to Moscow. Strangely, he had not given thought to the library in Pitesti from that day to this, but now he felt himself drawn again to visit the place. He still knew so very little about vampirism and the undead, and what knowledge he did have was dubious in that it had come from the vampire himself. But if ever a library was the seat of local lore and legend, then surely the reference library in Pitesti was that one.
Dragosani remembered the place from his years at the college in Bucharest. The college had often used to borrow old documents and records concerning Wallachian and ancient Romanian matters from Pitesti, for a great amount of historical material had been taken there for safety from Ploiesti and Bucharest during World War II. In the case of Ploiesti this had been a wise move, for the city had suffered some of the worst bombing of the war. In any case, much of the material had not found its way back to the original museums and libraries but remained in Pitesti even now. Certainly it had been there as recently as eighteen or nineteen years ago.
So ... the old Thing in the ground could wait a little longer on Dragosani's return. He would go first to the library in Pitesti, have lunch later in the town, and only then carry on into the heart of his homeland...
By 11:00 a.m. Dragosani was there, had introduced himself to the librarian on duty, asked to be allowed to see any documents pertaining to boyar families, lands, battles, monuments, ruins and burial grounds, or any records at all for the regions comprising Wallachia and Moldavia - and especially local areas - circa the mid-fifteenth-century. The librarian seemed agreeable enough and only too pleased to assist (despite the fact that he appeared to find Dragosani's request a little amusing, or sufficiently so to cause him to smile) but after he had taken his visitor to the room which housed those old records... then Dragosani had been able to appreciate the funny side of it for himself.
In a room of barnlike dimensions he found shelves containing sufficient of books and documents and records to fill several large army trucks, all of it relating to his inquiry! 'But... isn't it catalogued?' he asked. 'Of course, sir,' the young ^librarian told him, smiling again; and he produced an armful of catalogues whose heading alone - if Dragosani had been willing to contemplate such a task - would have taken several days in itself; and that without taking down one of the listed items from its shelf.
'But it would take a year or more to sift through this lot!' he finally complained.
'It has already taken twenty,' the other told him, 'and that was simply for the purpose of cataloguing - or mainly for that purpose. But that is not the only difficulty. For even if you could afford so much time, still you would not be allowed it. At last the authorities are splitting it up; much is returning to Bucharest, a large amount is scheduled for Budapest, even Moscow has made application. It will be moved, most of it, some time in the next three months.'
'Well you're right,' said Dragosani. 'I haven't years or months but just a few days. So ... I wonder if there's some way I might narrow my search down?'
'Ah!' said the other. 'But then there's the question of language. Do you wish to see Turkish language records?... Hungarian?... German? Is your interest purely Slavicist? Is it Christian or Ottoman? Do you have any specific points of reference - landmarks, as it were? All of the material here is at least three hundred years old, but some of it dates back seven centuries and more! As I'm sure you're aware, the central span - which seems to be the seat of your interest - covers many decades of constant flux. Here are the records of foreign conquerors, yes, but we also have the records of those who thrust them out. Are you capable of understanding the texts of these works? They are, after all, half a millennium old. If you can understand them, then you're a scholar indeed! I certainly can't, not with any degree of accuracy - and I've been trained to read them...'
And then, seeing Dragosani's look of helplessness, he had added: 'Sir, perhaps if you could be more specific...?'
Dragosani saw no reason for subterfuge. 'I'm interested in the vampire myth, which seems to have had its roots right here - in Transylvania, Moldavia, Wallachia - and dates back, so far as is known, to the fifteenth century.'
The librarian took a pace back from him, lost his smile. Suddenly he seemed wary. 'But you are surely not a tourist?'
'No, basically I'm Romanian, now living and working in Moscow. But what's that got to do with it?'
The librarian, perhaps three or four years younger than
Dragosani and obviously a little awed by his almost cosmopolitan appearance, seemed to be giving the matter a deal of consideration. He chewed his lip, frowned and was silent for long moments. But at last he said, 'If you'll take a look at them, you'll note that those catalogues I gave you are mainly hand-written and penned in one uniform hand throughout. And I've already told you that there's at least twenty years of work in them. Well, the man who did that work is still alive and lives not far away, in Titu. That's towards Bucharest, about twenty-five miles.'
'I know the place,' said Dragosani. 'I drove throughhere not half an hour ago. Do you think he could help me?'
'Oh, yes - if he wanted to.' That sounded cryptic. 'Well, go on - ?'
The librarian seemed unsure, looked away for a moment. 'Oh, I made a mistake two or three years ago, sent a couple of American "researchers" to see him. He wanted no truck with them, threw them out! A bit eccentric, you see? Since that time I'm more careful.We've had a good many requests of this nature, you understand. This "Dracula" thing is something of an industry, apparently, in the West. And it's this commercial aspect that Mr Giresci is anxious to avoid. That's his name, by the way: Ladislau Giresci.''Are you telling me that this man is an expert on vampirism?' Dragosani felt his interest quickening. 'Do you mean to say that he's been studying the legends, tracing their history through these documents, for twenty-odd years?'
'Well, among other things, yes, that's what I'm saying. It's been what you might call a hobby - or perhaps an obsession - with him. But a very useful obsession where the library has been concerned.'
Then I have to go and see him! It might save me a great deal of time and wasted energy.'
The librarian shrugged. 'Well, I can give you directions, and his address, but ... it will be entirely up to him whether or not he'll see you. It might help if you took him a bottle of whisky. He's a great whisky man, when he can afford it - but the Scottish sort and not that filth they brew in Bulgaria!'
'You just give me his address,' said Dragosani. 'He'll see me, all right. Of that I can assure you.'
Dragosani found the place just as the librarian had described it, on the Bucharest road about a mile outside of Titu. On a small estate of wooden, two-storey houses set back from the road in a few acres of woodland, Ladislau Giresci's place was conspicuous by its comparative isolation. All of the houses had gardens or plots of ground surrounding them and separating them from their neighbours, but Giresci's house stood well away from all others on the rim of the estate, lost in a stand of pines, hedgerows run wild amid untended shrubbery and undergrowth.
The cobbled drive leading to the house itself had been narrowed by burgeoning hedges, where leafy creepers were throwing their tendrils across the cobbles; the gar dens were overgrown and slowly returning to the wilderness; the house was visibly affected by dry rot in a fairly advanced state, and wore an atypical air of almost total neglect. By comparison, the other houses on the estate were in good order and their gardens well maintained. Some small effort had been made at maintenance and repair, however, for here and there at the front of the house an old board had been removed and a new one nailed in place, but even the most recent of these must be all of five years old. The path from the garden gate to the front door was likewise overgrown, but Dragosani persisted and knocked upon panels from which the last flakes of paint were fast falling.
In one hand he carried a string bag containing a bottle of whisky bought from the liquor store in Pitesti, a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, some fruit. The food was for himself (his lunch, if nothing else was available) and the bottle, as advised, for Giresci. If he was at home. As Dragosani waited, that began to seem unlikely; but after knocking again, louder this time, finally he heard movement from within.
The figure which finally opened the door to him was male, perhaps sixty years of age, and fragile as a pressed flower. His hair was white - not grey but white, like a crest of snow upon the hill of his brow - and his skin was even paler than Dragosani's own, with a shine to it as if it were polished. His right leg was wooden, an old peg as opposed to any sort of modern prosthetic device, but he seemed to handle his disability with more than sufficient agility. His back was a little bent and he held one shoulder gingerly and winced when he moved it; but his eyes were keen, brown and sure, and as he enquired as to Dragosani's business his breath was clean and healthy.
'You don't know me, Mr Giresci,' said Dragosani, 'but I've learned something of you, and what I've learned has fascinated me. I suppose you could say I'm something of a historian, whose special interest lies way back in old Wallachia. And I've been told that no one knows the history of these parts better than you.'
'Hmm!' said Giresci, looking his visitor up and down. 'Well, there are professors at the university in Bucharest who'd dispute that - but I wouldn't!' He stood blocking the way inside, seemingly uncertain, but Dragosani noted that his brown eyes went again to the string bag and the bottle.
'Whisky,' said Dragosani. 'I'm partial to a drop and it's hard stuff to come by in Moscow. Maybe you'll join me in a glass - while we talk?'
'Oh?' Giresci barked. 'And who said we were going to talk?' But again his eyes went to the bottle, and in a softer tone: 'Scotch, did you say?'
'Of course. There's only one real whisky, and that's -'
'What's your name, young man?' Giresci cut him off. He still blocked the way into his house, but his eyes held a look of interest now.
'Dragosani. Boris Dragosani. I was born in these parts.'
'And is that why you're interested in their history? Somehow I don't think so.' From frank and open scrutiny, now his eyes took on a look of wary suspicion. 'You wouldn't be representing any foreigners, would you? Americans, for example?'
Dragosani smiled. 'On the contrary,' he said. 'No, for I know you've had trouble with strangers before. But I'll not lie to you, Ladislau Giresci, my interest is probably the same as theirs was. I was given your address by the librarian in Pitesti.'
'Ah?' said Giresci. 'Is that so? Well, he knows well enough who I'll see and who I won't see, so it seems your credentials must be all right. But let's hear it from you now - from your own lips - and no holding back: just what is your interest?'
'Very well' (Dragosani could see no way round it, and little point in hedging the matter anyway), 'I want to know about vampires.'
The other stared hard at him, seemed not at all surprised. 'Dracula, you mean?'
Dragosani shook his head. 'No. I mean real vampires. The vampir of Transylvanian legend - the cult of the Wamphyri!'
At that Giresci gave a start, winced again as his bad shoulder jumped, leaned forward a little and grasped Dragosani's arm. He breathed heavily for a moment and said: 'Oh? The Wamphyri, eh? Well - perhaps I will talk to you. Yes, and certainly I'd appreciate a glass of whisky. But first you tell me something. You said you wanted to know about the real vampire, the legend. Are you sure you don't mean the myth? Tell me, Dragosani: do you believe in vampires?'
Dragosani looked at him. Giresci was watching him keenly, waiting, almost holding his breath. And something told Dragosani that he had him. 'Oh, yes,' he said softly, after a moment. 'Indeed I do!''Hmm!' the other nodded - and stood aside. 'Then you'd better come in, Mr Dragosani. Come in, come in -and we'll talk.'
However dilapidated Giresci's place might look from outside, inside it was as clean and neat as any cripple living on his own could possibly keep it. Dragosani was pleasantly surprised at the sense of order he felt as he followed his host through rooms panelled in locally crafted oak, where carpets patterned in the old Slavic tradition kept one's feet from sliding on warmly glowing, age-polished pine boards. However rustic, the place was warm and welcoming - on the one hand. But on the other -
Giresci's penchant - hisall-consuming'hobby'or obsession - was alive and manifest in every room. It saturated the atmosphere of the house in exactly the same way as mummy-cases in a museum inspire a sense of endless ergs of sand and antique mystery - except that here the picture was of bitter mountain passes and fiercepride, of cold wastes and aching loneliness, of a procession of endless wars and blood and incredible cruelties. The rooms were old Romania. This was Wallachia. The walls of one room were hung with old weapons, swords, pieces of armour. Here was an early sixteenth-century arquebusier, and here a vicious barbed pike. A black, pitted cannonball from a small Turkish cannon held open a door (Giresci had found it on an ancient battlefield near the ruins of a fortress close to Tirgoviste) and a pair of ornate Turkish scimitars decorated the wall over the fireplace. There were terrible axes, maces and flails, and a badly battered and rusty cuirass, with the breastplate hacked almost in half from the top. The wall of the corridor which divided the main living-room from the kitchen and bedrooms was hung with framed prints or likenesses of the infamous Vlad princes, and with boyar family genealogies. There were family crests and motifs, too, complicated battle maps, sketches (from Giresci's own hand) of crumbling fortifications, tumuli, earthworks, ruined castles and keeps.
And books! Shelf upon shelf of them, most of them crumbling - and many quite obviously valuable - but all rescued by Giresci wherever he had found them over the years: in sales, old bookshops and antique shops, or from estates fallen into poverty or ruin along with the once-powerful aristocracy. All in all, the house was a small museum in itself, and Giresci the sole keeper and curator.
'This arquebusier,' Dragosani remarked at one point, 'must be worth a small fortune!'
To a museum or a collector, possibly,' said his host. 'I've never looked into the question of value. But how's this for a weapon?' And he handed Dragosani a crossbow.
Dragosani took it, weighed it in his hand, frowned. The weapon was fairly modern, heavy, probably as accurate as a rifle, and very deadly. The interesting thing was that its 'bolt' was of wood, possibly lignum vitae, with a tip of polished steel. Also, it was loaded. 'It certainly doesn't fit in with the rest of your stuff,' he said.
Giresci grinned, showing strong square teeth. 'Oh but
it does! My "other stuff', as you put it, tells what was, what might still be. This crossbow is my answer to it. A deterrent. A weapon against it.'
Dragosani nodded. 'A wooden stake through the heart, eh? And would you really hunt a vampire with this?'
Giresci grinned again, shook his head. 'Nothing so foolish,' he said. 'Anyone who seeks to hunt down a vampire has to be a madman! I am merely eccentric. Hunt one? Never! But what if a vampire decided to hunt me? Call it self-protection, if you will. Anyway, I feel happier with it in the house.'
'But why would you fear such a thing? I mean - all right, I'm in agreement with you that such creatures have existed and still do, possibly - but why would one of them bother itself with you?'
'If you were a secret agent,' said Giresci, (at which Dragosani smiled inside) 'would you be happy - would you ever feel safe - knowing that some outsider knew your business, your secrets? Of course you wouldn't. And what of the Wamphyri? Now ... I think that perhaps the risk is a very small one - but twenty years ago when I bought this weapon I wasn't so sure. I had seen something which would stay with me for the rest of my life. Such creatures really were, yes, and I knew about them. And the more I looked into their legend, their history, the more monstrous they became. In those days I could not sleep for my nightmares. Buying the crossbow was like whistling in the dark, I suppose: it might not keep away the dark forces, but at least it would let them know that I wasn't afraid of them!'
'Even if you were?' said Dragosani.
Giresci's keen eyes looked deep into his own. 'Of course I was,' he finally answered. 'What? Here in Romania? Here under these mountains? In this house, where I've amassed and studied the evidence? I was frightened, yes. But now
The other pulled a half-disappointed face. 'Well I'm still here, alive after all these years. Nothing has "happened" to me, has it? And so now... now I think that maybe they are, after all, extinct. Oh, they existed - if anyone knows that, I do - but perhaps the last of them has gone forever. I hope so, anyway. But what about you? What do you say, Dragosani?'
Dragosani gave the weapon back. 'I say keep your crossbow, Ladislau Giresci. And I say look to its maintenance. Also, I say be careful who you invite into your house!'
He reached into his inside pocket for a packet of cigarettes, froze as Giresci aimed the crossbow directly at his heart across a distance of only six or seven feet and took off the safety catch. 'But I am careful,' said the other, still staring directly into his eyes. 'We apparently know so much, you and I. I know why I believe, but what of you?'
'Me?' inside his jacket, Dragosani slipped his issue pistol from its under-arm holster.
'A stranger in search of a legend, apparently. But such a knowing stranger!'
Dragosani shrugged, palmed the grip of his gun, began to turn its muzzle towards Giresci. At the same time he turned slightly to the right. Perhaps Giresci was insane. A pity. Also a pity that there would be a hole right through Dragosani's jacket and powder burns on the lining, but -
Giresci put on the crossbow's safety, set it down on a small table. Too cool by far,' he laughed, 'for a vampire faced with a wooden stake! And you know: the pressure on that wooden bolt is set to transfix a man but not pass right through him and out the back. That would be no good. Only when the stake is in place is the creature truly immobilised, and - ' His eyes went wide and his jaw dropped.
Grey as death, Dragosani had taken out his gun, applied the safety, placed it beside the crossbow on the table. 'The pressure on that,' he rasped, is sufficient to blow your heart right out through your backbone! I also saw the mirrors on the walls of the corridor - and the way you looked into them as I passed. Too many mirrors by far, I thought. And the crucifix on the door, and doubtless another around your neck - for all the good they'd be. Well, and am I a vampire then, old man?'
'I'm not sure what you are,' the other shook his head. 'But a vampire? No, not you. You came in out of the sun, after all. But think: a man, seeking me out, specifically desiring to know about the Wamphyri - even knowing that name: Wamphyri, which few if any others in the whole world know! Why, wouldn't you be cautious?'
Dragosani breathed deeply, relaxed a little. 'Well, your "caution" nearly cost you your life!' he said bluntly. 'So before we go any further, are there any more tricks up your sleeve?'
Giresci gave a shaky laugh. 'No, no,' he said. 'No, I think we understand each other now. Come, let's leave it at that for the moment. And here, let's see what else you have in that bag of yours.' He took the string bag from Dragosani and directed him to sit at a dining table close to an open window. 'It's shady there,' he explained. 'Cooler.'
The whisky's yours,' said Dragosani. 'The rest was for my lunch - except I'm not sure now that I feel like eating! That crossbow of yours is a bloody thing!'
'Of course you can eat, of course you can! What?
Cheese for lunch? No, I wouldn't hear of it. I've wood-cocks in the oven, done to a turn by now. A Greek recipe. Delicious. Whisky as an aperitif; bread to soak up the fat of the birds; cheese for afterwards. Good! An excellent lunch. And while we eat, I'll tell you my story, Dragosani.'
The younger man allowed himself to be placated, accepted a glass which the other produced from an old oak cabinet, allowed him to pour him a liberal whisky. Then Giresci hobbled off for a moment to the kitchen, and soon Dragosani began to sniff the air as the sweet odour of roasting meat slowly filled it. And Giresci had been right: it was delicious. Another moment and he was back with a smoking oven tray, directing Dragosani to get plates from a drawer. He tipped a brace of small birds on to his guest's plate, one on to his own. There were baked potatoes, too, and again Dragosani got the lion's share.
Impressed by Giresci's generosity, he said: 'That's hardly fair on you.'
Tm drinking your whisky,' the other replied, 'so you can eat my birds. Anyway, I can shoot more any time I want them - right out of that window there. They're easy to get, but whisky's harder to come by! Believe me, I'm getting the best of the bargain.'
They began to eat, and between mouthfuls Giresci started to tell his tale:
'It was during the war,' he said. 'When I was a boy, I hurt my back and shoulder very badly, which did away with any question of my being a soldier. But I wanted to do my bit anyway and so joined the Civil Defence. "Civil Defence" - Hah! Go to Ploiesti, even today, all these years later, and mention Civil Defence. Ploiesti burned, night after night. It just burned, Dragosani! How does one "defend" when the sky rains bombs?
'So I simply ran around with hundreds of others, dragging bodies out of burning or blasted buildings. Some of them were alive but most were not, and others would have been better off dead anyway. But it's amazing how quickly you get used to it. And I was very young and so got used to it all the more quickly. You're resilient when you're young. You know, in the end all the blood and the pain and the death didn't even seem to matter very much. Not to me, nor to the others who were doing the same job. You do it because it's there - like climbing a mountain. Except this was one where we could never get to the top. So we just kept on running around. Me, running! Can you picture that? But in those days I had both my legs, you see?
'And then... then there was this night when it was very bad. I mean, it was bad almost every night, but this one was - ' He shook his head, lost for words.
'Outside Ploiesti, towards Bucharest, there were a good many old houses. They were the homes of the aristocracy, from the old days when there really was an aristocracy. Most of them were run down because people hadn't had the money to keep them going. Oh, the people who lived in them still had some money, land, but not that much. They were just hanging on, gradually decaying, falling apart along with their old houses. And that night, that's where a stick of bombs fell.
'I was driving an ambulance - a converted three-tonner, actually - between the city and the outskirts where they'd rigged up hospitals in a couple of the larger houses. Up to then, you see, most of the bombing had been in the middle of town. Anyway, when that stick fell I was blown right off the road. And I thought I was a goner... done for. This is how it happened:
'One minute I was driving along - with the old rich houses on my right behind high walls, and the sky to the east and the south ruddy where the fire was reflected from the underside of the clouds - and the next all hell erupting from the very earth, it seemed! My ambulance was empty, thank God, for we'd just completed one trip and unloaded a half-dozen badly injured people at one of the makeshift hospitals. There was just me and my co-driver, on our way back into Ploiesti, the truck bumping over old cobbled roads where debris was piled at every corner. And then the bombs came.
'They came marching across the rich old estates, thundering like berserker demons, blowing everything up into the air in great sheets of blinding light and sprays of brilliant red and yellow fire! They would have been awesomely beautiful, if they weren't so hellishly ugly! And they marched, yes, with the precise paces of soldiers, but gigantic. Three hundreds yards away, the first one, behind the private estates: a dull boom and a sudden glare, a volcanic spout of fire and mud, and the earth shuddering under my speeding truck. Two hundred and fifty yards, the second, flinging blazing trees and earth up to the sky high over the rooftops. Two hundred, and the fireball rising higher than the old stone walls, higher than the houses themselves. And each time the earth shuddering that much stronger, that much closer. Then the house on my immediate right, set back from the road at the head of a cobbled drive, seeming almost to jump on its foundations. And I knew where the next one would land. It would hit the house! And what about the one after that?
'And I was right - almost. For a split second the house was thrown into silhouette, lit up from behind, and the light so bright that it seemed to burn through stone and all, making of the gaunt old building a stony skeleton. Downstairs, behind bay windows, a figure stood with its arms held high, shaking them as in a great and terrible anger. Then, as the glare of that bomb faded and smoking earth rained out of the night, the next one hit the house.
"That was when hell came. As the roof was blasted off and the walls flew outward in ruin and belching fire and smoke, so the road in front of my truck seemed to bend up and back on itself like a wounded snake, whipping cobbles through my windscreen. And after that... everything was spinning, and everything was burning!
'The ambulance was like a toy in some mad child's fist: picked up, twirled around and hurled aside, off the road, blazing. I was unconscious only for a couple of seconds -maybe not even that, perhaps it was only shock or nausea - but when I came to my senses and crawled from the blazing vehicle it was with only seconds to spare. Mere seconds, and then... BOOM!
'As for my partner, the man in the truck with me: I didn't even know his name. Or if I ever did, I've since forgotten it. I'd met him just that night, and now said goodbye in a holocaust. He had a hook nose, that's all I remember. I hadn't seen him in the truck when I got out of there; if he was still in there, well that was the end of him. Anyway, I never saw him again...
'But the bombs were still raining down, and I was shivering, miserable, shocked and vulnerable. You know how vulnerable you really are when you've just lost someone, even if you never knew him.
Then I looked towards the house that was hit before the bomb landed on the road in front of me. Amazingly, some of it was still standing. The downstairs room with the bay windows was still there - no windows, just the room - or the shell of the room, anyway. But everything else was gone - or soon would be. The place was burning furiously.
'And that was when I remembered the angry figure I'd seen silhouetted in that bay window, shaking its arms in fury. If the room was still there, mightn't the figure -mightn't he - also be there? It was instinct, the job, the unclimbable mountain. I ran towards the house. Maybe it was self-preservation, too, for one bomb had already landed on the house; it seemed unlikely that another would follow suit. Until the raid was over, I would be as safe there as anywhere. In my dazed condition I hadn't taken into account the fact that the place was burning, that its fires would be a beacon for the next wave of planes.
'I got to the house safely, climbed through the shattered bays and into what had been a library, found the angry man - or what was left of him. What should have been left of him was a corpse, but that wasn't how it was. I mean, the state he was in ... well, he should have been dead. But he wasn't. He was undead!
'Now Dragosani, I don't know how much you know about the Wamphyri. If you know a great deal, then the rest of what I have to say may not surprise you greatly. But I knew nothing, not then, and so what I saw - what I heard, the whole experience - was for me simply terrifying. Of course, you aren't the first to hear this story; I told it afterwards, or rather babbled it, and have told it several times since. But each time I've been more reluctant, knowing that if I do tell it, it will only be greeted with scepticism or downright disbelief. However, since my experience was the initial jolt - the shock which set my search, research, and yes, obsession, in motion - it remains the single dominant memory of my entire lifetime, and so must be told. Although I've drastically narrowed down my possible audiences over the years, still it must be told. Indeed you, Dragosani, will be the first to have heard it for seven years. The last one was an American who later wanted to re-write it and publish it as a sensational "true story", and I had to threaten him with a shotgun to change his mind. For obvious reasons I do not wish to draw attention to myself, which is precisely what his scheme would have done!
'Anyway, I can see how you're growing impatient, so let me get on:
'At first I could see nothing in that room but debris and damage. I didn't really expect to see anything. Nothing alive, anyway. The ceiling had caved in to one side; a wall had been split and buckled by the blast and was about to go; bookshelves had been tumbled everywhere and scattered volumes lay about in disarray, some burning and adding to the smoke and the fumes and the chaos. The reek of the bomb was heavy in the air, acrid and choking. And then there came that groan.
'Dragosani, there are groans and there are groans. The groans of men exhausted to the point of collapse, the life-giving groans of women in childbirth, the groans of the living before they become the dead. And then there are the groans of the undead! I knew nothing of it then: these were simply the sounds of agony. But such an agony, such an eternity of pain...
They came from behind an old, overturned desk close to the blown-out bays where I stood. I clambered through the rubble, hauled at the desk until I could drag it upright on to its short legs and away from the riven wall. There, between where the desk had been tossed by the blast and the heavy skirting-board, lay a man. To all intents and purposes he was a man, anyway, and how was I to know different? You must judge for yourself, but let "man" suffice for now.
'His features were imposing; he would have been handsome but his face was contorted by agony. Tall, too, a big man - and strong! My God, how strong he must have been! This was what I thought when I saw his injuries. No man ever suffered such injuries before and lived - or if he did, then he was not a man.
'The ceiling was of age-blackened beams, a common enough feature in some of these old houses. Where it had caved in, a massive beam had snapped and its broken ends had fallen. One of these - a great splinter of age-brittled pine - had driven its point into and through the man's chest, through the floorboards beneath him, too, pinning him down like a beetle impaled on the spent stalk of a match. That alone should have killed him, must have killed any other but one of his sort. But that was not all.
'Something - the blast, it must have been, which can play weird tricks - had sliced his clothes up the middle like a great razor. From groin to rib-cage he was naked, and not only his clothes had been sliced. His belly, all trembling, a mass of raped and severed nerves, was laid back in two great flaps of flesh; all the viscera visible. His very guts were there, Dragosani, palpitating before my horrified eyes; but they were not what I expected, not the entrails of any ordinary man.
'Eh? What? I see the questions written in your face. What am I saying? you ask yourself. Entrails are entrails, guts are guts. They are slimy pipes, coiled tubes and smoking conduits; oddly shaped red and yellow and purple loaves of meat; strangely convoluted sausages and steamy bladders. Oh, yes, and indeed these things were there inside his ruptured trunk. But not alone these things. Something else was there!'
Dragosani listened, rapt, breathless; but while his interest was keen, with all his attention focused upon Giresci's story, still his face showed little or no true emotion or horror. And Giresci saw this. 'Ah!' he said. 'And you're not without strength yourself, my young friend, for there are plenty who would turn pale or puke at what I've just said. And there's a lot more to be said yet. Very well, let's see how you take the rest...
'Now, I've said there was something else inside this man's body cavity, and so there was. I caught a glimpse of it when first I saw him lying pinned there, and thought my eyes must be playing tricks with me. Anyway, we saw each other simultaneously, and after our eyes met for the first time the thing inside him seemed to shrink back and disappear behind the rest of his innards. Or ... perhaps I had simply imagined it to be there in the first place, eh? Well, as to what I thought I had seen: picture an octopus or a slug. But big, with tentacles twining round all the body's normal organs, centring in the region of the heart or behind it. Yes, picture a huge tumour - but mobile, sentient!
'It was there, it wasn't there, I had imagined it. So I thought. But there was no imagining this man's agony, his hideous wounds, the fact that only a miracle - many miracles - had so far saved his life. And no imagining that he had more than minutes or even seconds to live, either. Oh, no, for he was certainly done for.
'But he was conscious! Conscious, think of it! And try to imagine his torment, if you can. I could, and when he spoke to me I almost fainted from the shock of it. That he could think, have any sort of ordered thought process left in him, was... well, unthinkable. And yet he maintained something of control over himself. His Adam's apple bobbed, bulged, and he whispered:
'"Pull it out. Drag it out of me. The point of the beam, draw it from my body."
I recovered my senses, took off my jacket and put it carefully across his burst gut. This was for my good more than for his, you understand. I could have done nothing while his innards were exposed like that. Then I took hold of the beam.
"'It'll do no good," I told him, nervously licking my lips. "Look this will kill you outright! If I can get it out -and that's a big if - you'll die at once. I wouldn't be doing you any favours if I told you anything else."
'He managed to nod. "Try, anyway," he gasped.
'And so I tried. Impossible! Three men couldn't have shifted it. It was literally jammed right through him and down into the floor. Oh, I moved it a little, and when I did great chunks of the ceiling came down and the wall settled ominously. Worse, a pool of blood welled up in the depression in his chest where the beam impaled him.
'At that he started groaning and rolling his eyes to set my teeth grating, and his body started vibrating under my jacket like someone had sent a jolt of electricity through him. And his feet, drumming the ground in an absolute fit of pain! But would you believe it? - even while this was going on his shivering hands came up like claws to grab that splintered stump where it pinned him, and he tried to add his own weight to mine as I strained to free him!
'It was all a waste of effort and both of us knew it. I told him:
'"Even if we could draw it out, it would only bring the whole place down on you. Look, I have chloroform here. I can knock you out so you won't have the pain. But I have to be honest with you, you won't be waking up."
'"No, no drugs!" he gasped at once. "I'm... immune to chloroform. Anyway I have to stay conscious, stay in control. Get help, more men. Go - go quickly!"
'"There's no one!" I protested. "Who would there be out here? If there are any people around they'll be busy saving their own lives, their families, their property. This whole district has been bombed to hell!" And even as I spoke there came the loud droning of bombers and, in the distance, the thunder of renewed bombing.
"No!" he insisted. "You can do it, I know you can. You'll find help and come back. You'll be well paid for it. believe me. And I won't die, I'll hang on. I'll wait. You ... you're my one chance. You can't refuse me!" He was desperate, understandably.
'But now it was my turn to know agony: the agony of frustration, of complete and utter impotence. This brave, strong man, doomed to die here, now, in this place. And looking about me, I knew that I wouldn't have time to find anyone, knew that it was all over.
'His eyes followed my gaze, saw the flames where they were licking up outside the demolished bay windows. The smoke was getting thicker by the second as books burned freely, setting fire to tumbled shelves and furniture. Smoke was starting to curl down from the sagging ceiling, which even now settled a little more and sent down a shower of dust and plaster fragments.
'"I ... I'll burn!" he gasped then. For a moment his eyes were wide and bright with fear, but then a strange look of peaceful resignation came into them. "It ... is finished."
'I tried to take his hand but he shook me off; and once more he muttered, "Finished. After all these long centuries ..."
'"It was finished anyway," I told him. "Your injuries... surely you must have known?" I was anxious to make it as easy as possible for him. "Your pain was so great that you've crossed the pain threshold. You no longer feel it. At least there's that to be thankful for."
'At that he looked at me, and I saw scorn staring out of his eyes. "My injuries? My pain?" he repeated. "Hah!" And his short bark of a laugh was bitter as a green lemon, full of acid and contempt. "When I wore the dragon-helm and got a lance through my visor, which broke the bridge of my nose, shot through and smashed out the back of my skull, that was pain!" he growled. "Pain, aye, for part of me - the real ME - had been hurt. That was Silistria, where we crushed the Ottoman. Oh, I know pain, my friend. We are old, old acquaintances, pain and I. In 1204 at Constantinople it was Greek fire. I had joined the Fourth Crusade in Zara, as a mercenary, and was burned for my trouble at the height of our triumph! Ah, but didn't we make them pay for it? For three whole days we pillaged, raped, slew. And I - in my agony, half eaten away, burned through almost to the very heart of ME - I was the greatest slayer of all! The human flesh had shrivelled but the Wamphyri lived on! And now this, pinned here and crippled, where the flames will find me and put an end to it. The Greek fire expired at last, but this one will not. Human pain and agony, I know nothing of them and care less. But Wamphyri pain? Impaled, burning, shrieking in the fire and melting away layer by layer? No, that must not be..."
These were his words as best I remember them. I thought he raved. Perhaps he was a historian? A learned man, certainly. But already the flames were leaping, the heat intolerable. I couldn't stay with him - but I couldn't leave him, not while he was conscious, anyway. I took out a cotton pad and a small bottle of chloroform, and -
'He saw my intention, knocked the unstoppered bottle from my hand. Its contents spilled, were consumed in blue flames in an instant. "Fool!" he hissed. "You'd only deaden the human part!"
'My clothes were beginning to feel unbearably hot and small tongues of fire were tracing their way round the skirting-board. I could barely breathe. "Why don't you die?" I cried then, unable to tear myself away from him. "For God's sake, die!"
'"God?" he openly mocked me. "Hah! No peace for me there, even if I believed. No room for me in your heaven, my friend."'On the floor amongst other debris from the desk lay a paperknife. One edge of its blade was unusually keen. I took it up, approached him. My target would be his throat, ear to ear. It was as if he read my mind.'"Not good enough," he told me. "It has to be the whole head."
'"What?" I asked him. "What are you saying?"'Then he fixed me with his eyes. "Come here."'I could not disobey. I leaned over him, gazed down on him, held out the knife. He took it from me, tossed it away. "Now we will do it my way," he said. "The only sure way."
'I stared into his eyes and was held by them. They were... magnetic! If he had said nothing but merely held me with those eyes, then I would have remained there and burned with him. I knew it then and know it I now. Crippled, crushed, opened up like a fish for the gutting, still he had the power!
'"Go to the kitchen," he commanded. "A cleaver �C the big one - fetch it. Go now."
'His words released my limbs but his eyes - no, his mind - remained fastened on my mind. I went, throughgathering smoke and flame, and returned. I showed himthe cleaver and he nodded his satisfaction. The room was blazing now and my outer clothes were beginning tosmoke. All the hair of my head felt singed, crisped. '"Your reward," he said. '"I want no reward."
'"But I want you to have it. I want you to know whoyou have destroyed this night. My shirt - tear it open at j the neck."
'I began to do so, and leaning over him thought for a single moment that something other than a tongue moved in the partly open cavern of his mouth. His breath in my face was a stench! I would have turned away but his eyes held me until the job was done. And around his neck on a chain of gold, there I found a heavy golden medallion. I unclasped it, took it, placed it in my pocket.
'"There," he sighed. "Payment in full. Now finish it."
'I lifted the cleaver in a trembling hand, but -
'"Wait!" he said. "Listen: the temptation is on me to kill you. It is what you would call self-preservation, which runs strong in the Wamphyri. But I know it for false hope. The death you offer will be clean and merciful, the flames slow and intolerable. But for all that, still I might strike at you before you strike me, or even in the moment of the striking. And then both of us would die most horribly. Therefore... stay your blow until I close my eyes - then strike hard and true - then flee! Strike, and put distance between. Do you understand?"
'He closed his eyes.
'In the moment the straight, shiny blade bit into his neck - even before it passed through and the head was severed - his eyes shot open. But he had warned me, and I had taken note. As his head shot free and blood spurted from his body I leaped backward. The head bounced, rolled, fell among blazing books. But God help me, I swear that however it flew, at whichever angle, those awful eyes turned to follow me, full of accusation! And oh! - the mouth - his mouth and what it contained, that forked tongue, like a snake's, slithering and flickering over lips that drained in an instant from scarlet to deathly white!
'And as bad or worse than all of this, the head itself had changed. The skin had seemed to tighten on the skull, which in turn had elongated to that of a great hound or wolf. The glaring eyes, previously dark, had turned to the colour of blood. The upper teeth had clamped down on to the lower lip, trapping the scarlet forked tongue there, and the great incisors were curved and sharp as needles!
'It is true! I saw it. I saw it - but only in that moment before the whole head began a swift decomposition. It was the heat; it could only be that the flesh was blistering and melting; but the sheer horror of it sent me stumbling away from it. Stumbling, yes, and then leaping - away from that staring, alien rotting head, but likewise from his decapitated body - in which there had now commenced the most awful commotion! A commotion... and a collapse. My God, yes! Oh, yes...
'You'll recall I had lain my jacket across his exposed guts? Now the jacket was gripped by some invisible force from beneath, torn apart and tossed violently, in two pieces, to the ceiling. Following it, lashing wildly, a single tapering tentacle of leprous flesh burst upward from his stomach, twisting and writhing in a grim paroxysm. Like a devilish whip it thrashed the air of the room, snaking through the smoke and the flames as if searching!
'As the tentacle fell to the floor and began a systematic if spastic examination of the blazing room, only recoiling from the flames themselves, I stepped up on to a chair and crouched there transfixed with terror. And from that slightly elevated vantage point I saw what was left of the corpse falling in upon itself and becoming first putrefaction, then bones with the flesh sloughed off, finally dust before my eyes. As this happened the tentacle grew leaden, retracted, drew itself back to where the host body had lain, to the dust and the last crumbling relics of centuried bones...
'And all of this, you understand, taking place in mere moments, swifter far than I can possibly tell it. So that to this day I could not swear my soul on what I saw. Only that I believe I saw it.
'Anyway, that was when the ceiling caved in and hurled me from my chair, and the entire area of the room where the horror had been burst into flames and hid whatever remained of it. But as I staggered from the place - and don't ask me how I got out again into the reeking night air, for that's gone now from my memory - there rose up from the inferno such a protracted cry of intense agony, so piteous and terrible and savagely angry a wailing, as ever I had heard and hope never to hear again.
'The skies rained bombs once more and I knew nothing else until I regained consciousness in a field hospital. I had lost a leg, and, or so they later told me, something of my mind. Shell shock, of course; and when I saw how futile it was to try to tell them otherwise, then I decided simply to let it stand at that. Mind and body, both were merely victims of the bombing...
'Ah! But amongst my belongings when they released me was that which told the true story, and I have it still.'
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