PRW Runner-up Tour: St. Andrei by Sam Hardy
Romania is bloody cold. That’s the misconception some people I’ve spoken to have about vampires; we are dead, therefore we cannot feel anything, not even cold. And it’s true in a way, we don’t get cold in the same way that humans do, which is what they usually mean. But when you turn into a vampire, everything is heightened; no sense or emotion is left out in the beginning. A heightened sense of touch is what I’m getting at here; have something under your fingertips and it feels better if it was once good, worse if it was bad; rest a hand over a human heart and its beat hums; stand outside in a harsh wind and you may not get cold but the whip against you will cut into you like knives slicing at your skin.
I repeat: Romania is bloody cold.
Seriously, I was all for the bastards eating their way through Italy’s human population. Sad though it may be, Italy’s sun rarely lies about its warmth and I’m old enough to withstand being out during cloudy days. Sure, that meant I was still working at night most of the time, but night was relatively cool. Here in Transylvania darkness, the below freezing temperature has made sure I can’t feel my hands. I can’t remember the last time I had to wrap up – winter has definitely arrived.
But that’s not important right now. The dead girl half blanketed in the fast-falling snow is – or, more to the point, the vampires who killed her are. Pale, cold, a fixed stare that only gives me blank eyes, the only thing she can tell me is that they’re here. Which I already knew – I’ve been following the corpses left behind across Europe. They leave no marks, no trace of a signature, nothing except bodies drained of blood. I only know that it’s the same coven because, due to the amount of attention they’re attracting, vampires around them have dropped off the radar. It requires more skill to find my contacts than to find these freaks.
There’s nothing I can do for the girl, but the humans on the way can – the crunch of snow beneath heavy boots and the steady stream of nervous heartbeats sounding clearly around my ears tells me that the police are close by and have brought reinforcements. We’re too close to a settlement of Romani people, a village shrouded in folklore and mystery I haven’t yet had the chance to delve into. Whispers of curses and monsters, that’s all I know. That and it’s almost sunset; they want to get their job over and done with quickly, lest they get caught by the same monsters. Here all doors are locked when the sun goes down.
I head into the woods, losing daylight the further in I get. The dark has always been preferable to me; my senses heighten, makes me faster, stronger, better. Maybe; could just be my imagination, but I’ll run with it. Anything to catch my marks. And this is my first solo case since I joined the Council’s Guards, so I have to catch these marks. The humans’ sounds fade into nothing, their scents soon following, until I’m left alone in the cold, dark wood, the silver moon no doubt shining above my head but hidden behind thick leaves and looming trunks. Silence would be my only friend if not for the breaking of snow under my shoes; how I wish for silence. To lose my element of surprise at this point would make it a wasted journey. One home has already been destroyed, an innocent family slaughtered in their beds; they know that the Council is looking for them, won’t stay here much longer, and I haven’t spotted a single vampire from this coven since Germany two weeks ago. Luck and a blood trail brought me here, so if I lose them now God only knows where they’ll end up.
It’s a scent that stops me – rich, cold and undeniably vampire, I can only hope it’s one I’m searching for. But it’s not the scent I focus on. I can’t make out the second, it’s too muddled, almost like it’s being cloaked with magic; traits of vampire surround them, but there’s a healthy dose of human fear radiating through the trees, and if I had to guess from that I’d say a dhampir is coming my way. Part human, part vampire, and with blood just too sweet to resist.
The last time I fed escapes me.
Two steps in and the scent grows, the natural mixing in with the artificial just right. Her perfume gives off a hint of raspberry, only adding to the heady aroma of blood that hums around frantic panting. Yeah, she’s definitely female. I focus on fear, keeps the hunger at bay and reminds me that I have a job to do. Despite working for the Council, I can never follow some of the Guards’ ideals – we hunt the monsters and save the innocents, they’re not collateral damage. Helping this girl is part of my job, don’t care what they say.
She’s in my line of sight when I turn, though with me still half-hidden among the trees she doesn’t notice me, not until she’s close enough for me to touch. I grab her, one hand over her mouth while the other presses against her waist and pulls her closer. Our bodies aligned, there’s less for the one hunting her to find. Body thrown back against a large tree, all I can do is hold her still and wait. Thankfully, she’s too afraid to fight me.
“Little girl,” a soft humoured, male voice sings from behind us. There’s no other sound resonating from him, not even the steady beat of footprints on the ground. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
A whimper escapes her, muffled by my hand, but it still causes him to pause, to listen. Mouth to her ear, my need for her to shush is barely a breath, though it seems to do the trick and that’s all I care about. Assured that she’s quiet and going nowhere, I release my grip on her side to wriggle my hand under my coat and grab my gun from the holster I not-so-accidently stole from a cop in Atlanta. The bullets are a design I took from Damian and Carter back in London, iron casing and filled with the blood of the dead – poison if you shoot anywhere but the heart, death if you aim just right or fire enough. It’s handier than a stake, I’ll tell you that. The gun, though, this is mine.
With it in hand, I already feel more confident about going after the unknown threat than I did and when the girl pressed against me sees it, her eyes bulge but her heaving chest lessens somewhat – at least she trusts something. I let her go completely, leaving her in our hiding place. Gun raised in a defensive pose, I step away, scan the area but see nothing. So I wait with bated breath, occasionally circling my surroundings, and listen for that same patronisingly gentle tone.
Nothing comes; I cross as much woodland as I can without leaving the girl too far away and all I come to is the crackle of branches as they scrape against the wind and the occasional droplets of snow that find their way through the leaves.
Her scream comes next and from the corner of my eye, I watch her try to escape his grasp. Her feet tangle and she falls to ground, her cries as she drags her own body backward in a futile attempt to get away forcing me into action. The rush back is fast and too long all at once; I get close enough to aim and that’s all I can do, while hoping I don’t miss or hit her, because his arms are gripping hers, forcing her to her feet, and his fangs – already dripping with blood – are at her neck.
“Hey!” is all I bring myself to say, just needing that surprise to turn him around so the bullet actually hits him.
He drops like dead weight, and so does she, however while he remains unmoving she is back to pushing away. Frantic breaths are back, accompanied by a steady stream of thick tears that paint her cheeks. Acknowledging her only for a second, I kneel at his body, cursing whoever will listen for the bullet hitting his heart – the body is desiccating before I’ve even gotten to him. Another dead body is no help in finding the coven… although maybe losing one of their own will anger them enough to draw them out.
“Is he –” the girl starts, sentence cut off by an involuntary sob. Her accent is local, but her English is strong. I face her, eyes cast downward to take in her appearance, however involuntary – the skinny jeans, the killer, black heels, the flimsy red material around her chest that is held up by decently sized breasts and held in by a tight, black corset. Thick black curls that bounce as she moves are her neck’s only cover. The girl is prime blood junkie material – no wonder he was after her.
“He’s dead,” I promise, hands digging into my pockets to find my lighter and reduce the body to ash. This far into the woods, no one should see it. Once done, I hold out a hand. She refuses to take it, frozen in fear. “It’s alright. I won’t hurt you.”
She doesn’t look convinced, in fact her body begins to tremble as she whispers one word that brings everything together. “Mullo.”
I’ve spent enough time around Skylar Banica to know that in Romani culture, Mullo essentially means vampire.
“Yes,” I admit. I mean, why lie when her home has more tales for my kind than I do? We’re in freaking Transylvania for God’s sake.”But I won’t hurt you, I promise. What’s your name?”
She seems genuinely confused by the gesture, as though a creature like me could never be so concerned or… human enough to ask. But I’ve already distinguished her – more or less – as dhampir, so she must know of more from our world. Or are there no good vampires on this side of the world anymore?
“Lena,” she finally tells me, her hand out to accept mine. Why does that name sound so familiar?
“Do you live in the nearby settlement, Lena?” She nods shakily and I let out a relieved breath. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”
The walk to her home is stilted, full of nerves on her end. Every time I open my mouth to ask how she almost came to be dinner, I either snap it shut again because it sounds insensitive no matter how I phrase it or she hides her face and effectively ends any sign of communication. We end up crossing a small field that holds a rundown outhouse and a larger home a couple of hundred yards away. To my left, I can hear vague whispers from neighbours, but none of their houses are close enough to see. Lena stops at the front door.
“Thank you for saving me,” she whispers. “And for bringing me home.”
“May I ask why you were out there?”
“I was looking for my friend, did not get out in time,” is all she says on that matter. The urge to push for more information is strong, but she’s clearly in distress. I hold back and head out; I still have to find them, after all. “Please do not leave me tonight. I will answer your questions in the morning.”
It’s what I want; answers. Something doesn’t feel right, in the pit of my stomach I know that – I’ve trusted my instincts for a long time and I am rarely wrong. I may be new to the Council, but not to this game the coven are forcing me to play. But I have no leads, except this girl. I’m fairly sure I can take her if I need to – it’s how I know her name that bothers me.
“Alright,” I concede, if only to get out of the cold and find some answers. She’s hasty to invite me in, the door slamming shut even as I’m entering, and darkness envelopes us once more.
I need to feed. Dark circles, eye sockets that are borderline gaunt and clothes that are beginning to hang off my body. A healthy vampire, this does not make. I run a hand through straw-like hair to make it lie flat and turn away from the bathroom mirror, praying for blood soon, before I eat the girl. The girl who is still sleeping, despite it being almost noon.
I suppose I could wake her, storm into her room and demand the answers she promised me, but since she was almost killed last night I can’t quite bring myself to force her back to reality. That and I don’t feel comfortable entering a strange girl’s bedroom, though if it’s anything like the rest of the house it’s not much to look it. The whole structure is old, cracked; it’s a miracle the place hasn’t fallen down yet. The old stones crumble under my fingers and what isn’t caked in dust is black, like decay. An ancestral home is what comes to mind; there must be some sentimental or historical value to the property if neither Lena nor the village is willing to knock it down and rebuild.
The rest of the village is more modern; I’ve been wondering around since daybreak. Still older than the places I’ve been to over the years – hell, in the past few weeks – but I don’t fear for the lives of anyone in them. The village is a five minute walk from Lena’s home; granted, that isn’t long really, but to be alone with no immediate neighbours must get a little lonely. Or maybe that’s just me; always been around people, I have. Big family and all.
Lena finds me near the little square – a platform made of stone with a well in the middle.
“Children make wishes in it,” she says from behind me. Now that night has passed, she sounds a lot calmer, more eager to talk.
I turn to find her standing close enough to touch, yet we make no move to. She dressed more casually this time, all in black – the jeans, the jacket, the hint of a blouse I can see underneath. And her boots are sturdy with no heel, like a workman’s boot. Compared to me, with my washed out blue jeans, white t-shirt and plain blue shirt, she’s the fierce bounty hunter ready for battle and I’m an in-over-my-head school boy.
“I thought gypsies were travellers?” I ask. I knew this place from the moment I got here because of Skylar. The village, the well, the woods – Brasov County, a beautiful place surrounded by mountain, he said. Home to the oldest Roma settlement he knows.
Lena’s eyes narrow, her mouth twisted as she ponders my question. I haven’t offended her, it’s more of a cautious frown, but either the term I used or my ignorance has gotten to her. “We must live somewhere. My family chose Bran.” She glances around her, as though she can genuinely see the world as a map. I suppose she can in a way, seeing as she lives here she knows we’re just outside of it. “Kind of. People come and go, they are welcome here, but it is not like it was when we first settled. So few of the old families are left and I am the last of mine to be here.”
“That’s sad and all,” I interrupt, hoping I at least look sympathetic. “But I have work to do.”
“You have time. The vampires you seek are not going anywhere for at least three days and I know where they are.”
“Where?” That strange feeling is back; she is wrong, I know it.
“They are in the Lost World,” Lena is happy to admit, delicate shoulders rising and falling as she smiles. “It is a hidden place for your kind and others that wander. But you do not need to go there; they will come to you tomorrow night.”
“How do you know that?”
“You come here knowing nothing of your own kind and Romanian culture,” she points out, all but laughing at me.
“I’m from Tennessee, early eighteen hundreds, and I never paid much attention in world history.”
Smile never wavering, Lena curls a finger, gesturing for me to follow her, and with very little choice in the matter, I do so. The walk back to the house takes far less time with company. We sit along the broken up wall and all I can do is wait for her to speak.
“Tomorrow night is St. Andrew’s Night; the night of the vampires some call it. There will be a celebration for it here and they will come. Nobody will work tomorrow and the party is from dusk to dawn; yes, they will come.” The resigned tone of voice worries me; it’s as though she knew this all along, like she planned it somehow. Why, though, I can’t say. “St. Andrew is the national saint of Romania. He is also the saint for wolves; it is said they talk to you on St Andrews Night but hear it and you die. There was a boy here, a long time ago. His name was Andrei Vali and he controlled the wolves. Still does, though he goes by a different name now.”
Now her smile and the knowing gaze, the spark in her eyes that wasn’t there last night, scares me. “Tristan Valerius.”
Yeah, right. Scared or not, there’s no way she can get me to fall for it. “He’s just a ghost story told to scare dhampir children; the thousand year old vampire who can control the wolves and werewolves. He’s our version of Dracula.”
“Even Dracula was inspired by true events.” Her eyes cast toward the way to Bran Castle. “Before he was Tristan, he was Andrei and he lived her with the original settlers. The Valis were one of the old families, the second to settle. His best friend was the son of the first settlers. He did not care much for the boy’s twin sister, but they were inseparable. They were three and two when they got here. In their own way, they are the reason for night of the vampires, at least here at home where it started.”
“Why are you telling me this? I’m a stranger you met in the woods because you were being chased by one of the vampires I’m after,” I point out, probably unhelpfully because she looks determined to tell me no matter what I say.
“You are here because I came looking for you, Hunter,” she murmurs, ignorant to my shock. Nobody knows my name; I am not like Carter, I don’t ask for a reputation. I am a ghost; I do my work without being noticed. Getting caught is more likely to get me killed. Nobody knows my name… except my friends. “If you understand how that night came to be, you will understand why the coven you seek are here.”
They’re here because this is their next stop in their bloody tour of Europe… right? “You set all this up just to get me here to stop them?”
“I knew they were coming, yes, but I only set up the chase in the forest to get you here,” Lena assures me, though I find it hard to believe. I say nothing more, not quite sure I can, and she takes that as her cue to continue the story she thinks I need to hear. “The twins’ father became a sort of leader to the Roma who followed, because their mother was a Seer. She was his council. He was good and wise and fair. He taught his son to follow in his footsteps, but it was his daughter he doted on the most. When they were thirteen, their father died and the son took over his responsibilities. But he was too young and needed help; their mother found a new partner to be a father, a good man to the people but a monster in the house, and his sister made sure to keep the land safe, a promise to her father. Andrei helped his friend; it was their excuse to be together. It was a secret only two ever knew about; his sister and a vampire who came here seeking sanctuary three years later.
“The sister loved the vampire, would have done anything for him,” Lena whispered, her gaze darkening as she speaks. As the story comes together, so do pieces of my memory, her name is beginning to come back to me. I just have to fill in the gaps. “But one night their mother told the vampire the name of who he was meant to be with as a way of proving her gift and it was not her. Heartbroken, she wanted him gone. Her stepfather was meant to find her and the vampire together in the barn, not her brother and Andrei.”
There’s a pause before she continues, her eyes glistening though this time no tears are allowed to fall.
“He ordered Andrei to leave and sent her brother into the house, but Andrei followed and he watched her stepfather’s rage deepen so mercilessly that he was afraid they would die at his hand. So he got the vampire, who killed the stepfather but was too late to keep the family human. Their mother begged him to turn the twins, suffered living a few extra moments to make sure he did it. Then he and Andrei buried her, making two extra graves to pretend the twins were in them. The twins’ bodies were put in the woods and they got Andrei’s blood when they woke as vampires. Andrei came back to the village to tell the people everyone was dead because of the stepfather and as the oldest Vali boy he became leader. The vampire and her brother went in one direction, and the sister, still so distraught, went in another. The graves are over there.”
Without looking back, Lena points a thumb in that direction, where I can see the small stones that make up five resting places. Careful, I get to my feet to see them, the need to know that this strange girl is telling me the truth so strong it’s overwhelming. At the back of the outhouse I stop, eyes falling on the five names carved into rock. But it’s the last three that capture my attention.
Alexandru Banica, Annalena Banica and Andrei Vali. The twins and the lover.
The scent she carries changes, the cloaked magic she still has dropping and I know her name…
“Lena Banica.” Her returning smile is answer enough and cause for me to step back. I was wrong; delicate she may look, but I can’t fight a vampire who is over one thousand years old and has Banica magic running through her veins. “You – you’re a psychotic stalker, following around Nathaniel Vega. You’re wanted by the Guards. I should bring you in.”
“So I have heard, but no you will not. I am not who you are after, Hunter. Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”
The rest? I didn’t even want to hear the beginning. And I already know this story – Alexandru calls himself Skylar now, he’s already told me this. Could have let me know that the ‘beautiful country’ he once knew was his own home, though. It would have made this discovery a lot less shocking.
“What more is there?” The answer comes to me immediately after I ask. There are five graves here, but only four of them have died in her tale. “It’s St. Andrew’s Night, not St. Alexander’s Night.”
“Almost a year to the day two more vampires came to the village, one was Nicholas Vega. He was looking for his brother. We had been told why Nathaniel was running when he got here, but Andrei was the first person Nicholas saw and he believed the other brother. They made a deal.” Lena moves around me, pulls away the weeds that had grown over her father’s grave, then her own. She leaves the others to the elements. “Andrei did not want to lead our people, he wanted travel and adventure but he did not know how to leave. He asked Nicholas to turn him, said if he could go with them he would be able to get him to Nathaniel because Alexandru would there and since Nicholas was already a wanted man he had nothing to lose and agreed to stage it, although the fact that Andrei could control the wolves helped. He gave Andrei his blood and then led him to the square, demanded to know where Nathaniel was and when Andrei bravely defended our home and people, Nicholas ‘killed’ him. That is why it is St. Andrew’s Night, night of the vampires – because of Andrei’s apparent sacrifice. No one knows that he changed his name to Tristan and left.”
“How do you?” I dread asking, but force it out anyway.
“Because I was here,” she tells me simply. “This is my home; I was not ready to just leave it. Are you ready for the final part of the story?”
How a ghost story connects to a homicidal coven I’ve been tracking all over Europe – I’m not quite sure I’ll ever be ready. I nod all the same.
“A thousand years ago this year, about one hundred and fifteen years after Andrei was turned, he came back. Nostalgia, I think. He had a lot of fun while he was here, turned a boy from the city. That boy,” Lena whispers the word, delights in shudder I involuntary make, “is the leader of this coven you have been desperate to catch. Do you see now, Hunter? This massacre that has led you here, it is one long birthday party. And you, the thorn in his side, will become the icing on top of his cake.”
She steps away, walks backward to the house, with a smile sweet as sugar. I wish to follow her, to demand how she knows all of this, why she brought me here and insisted on telling me this story when the simple fact that I’m in way over my head was easier to say.
“Tristan Valerius may be a ghost story, Hunter, but Andrei Vali is as real as you and me, and he has created a nightmare. And he will be here when the full moon rises.”
Callously, Lena turns away from me, leaving me with one dangerous question.
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