The Cross and the Thorn

a Tale of the Demon Castle

Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

He recited a silent but fervent prayer that the crumbling cornices would hold steady. Resolution alone firmed his trembling step, bound together nerves made friable by the travails of an endless night. The moon hung huge and indifferent, a ghastly golden eye glaring over his holy work and the profane acts of his enemies alike.

Scarred fingers brushed the knots of the prayer rope at his belt before he dared a breath and took another sideways step along the thin grey band of stone that had once run parallel above a banister overlooking what must have been a darkly majestic view of woodlands and craggy wilderness. Now the stairs, floor and upper wall had crumbled, blasted with age and unholy malice until it was clear that bare sorcery upheld the structure.

So even if victory is mine tonight, I may not walk from this devil fortress.

A grim thought, but practical. If he did not need to conserve any strength for a return journey or flight from the demons whose number in this castle were legion, his last stand might be all the more puissant. He took two, three more shuffling steps, and stopped. A barely perceptible change in the feeling beneath his toes warned him his next step might be a disastrous mistake; better to reassess his choices from here.

A few ells ahead, the remains of a stone banister jutted like a broken grey fang from the ruins of a staircase. If he twisted mid-leap, he might be able to latch onto the edge. If his jump was made at the right angle, he might even catch a hold of it with his fingers. If the masonry held, he might pull himself to the relative safety of the other side.

If, if, if . . .

No help for it. God will either guide my choices or punish me for my presumption.

With no more thought, he kicked off the narrow cornice that had been his anchor to this mortal life for the past several minutes, and let his right arm snap forward, extending his whip with a stuttering hiss of lacerated air. For a heart-halting moment, he hung suspended in the void between one edge of the ruined staircase and the next—between life and oblivion. Below him, the cursed valley spread out in its marred splendor alight with the pinpoint torches of a thousand of hell-creatures.

His heart hammered. Perhaps it would be easier to simply fall amongst them.

But the tip of his whip caught the old stone cylinder and coiled about it with living tenacity. Muscles bunched and tensed as he let his momentum swing him under the lip of the ancient stonework and then back. His free hand shot out and grabbed the edge of the staircase, and he dragged himself up onto the cold comfort of stone, grateful despite himself to be alive for another few minutes.

For a few moments, he squatted on the rotted remnants of what must have been a sumptuous carpet as crimson as his own locks, now moth-eaten and wormy. The stink of death—omnipresent as the damnable penumbra that covered this nighted land even in the hours that rightly should have belonged to the sun—was even stronger here.

He was close.

Simon Belmont coiled his whip back at his hip, adjusted his dagger in its sheath, and strode up the stairs towards his doom.

Balanskarpa Manor, Outskirts of Bucharest

Anno Domini 1691, Midsummer

"Boyar, a message."

The man behind the low desk shifted in his chair and massaged his brow. Missives, requests and outright threats had been crossing his threshold all week; some in the florid language of formal court, others in the rude but honest speech of the smallfolk. This one looked to be of the former kind. His servant stood nervously in front of a garishly-draped Ottoman whose dark eyes sparkled with the promise of a testing conversation.

"Come." His voice sounded hoarse, even to his own ears. Hours of dictating replies to the numerous requests for aid had left his throat as raw as his scribe's fingers were cramped. Since spring had melted the snowy cloak obscuring the mountain passes, a steady stream of diplomatic correspondence had made itself the constant refrain to his daily life. Since the last sermon-day, however, that refrain had grown into a bellowing chorus, not to be denied.

In Turkish, in Wallachian, in Magyar, in French, German, Romany and Latin, the song was the same even if the words differed: the Habsburgs had come, and brought with them fire and sword. Every village, town and province within a week's ride had felt the choking dread of expected conquest, and had hastened to call upon the lords of Balanskarpa Manor—long known for their skill in war and diplomacy alike—for salvation.

It made him sick at heart to know that he could not save them all.

Today's emissary would no doubt be from the South, seeking to renew ties of alliance—or failing that, frank military obligation. He strode forward, confident of a cordial reception and assured in his purpose. Silver thread twinkled in the brocade of his yelek, its ostentation clearly meant as a message in itself: if we can afford to outfit a lowly messenger in such, imagine what resources we could bring to bear against you if you do not give us what we command.

"Peace be unto you, Boyar," the emissary spoke. He did something complicated with his hands—something that triggered a childhood memory of lessons in holy magic.

"And with you also," the lord replied. He waved a scarred hand. "Sit, if it is your wish. You must be exhausted from your journey. Our resources are stretched thin just now, but you are welcome to refreshment."

Recognizing the cue, the servant left to fetch wine and meat.

A few moments passed in customary silence before the messenger unrolled a short scroll and spoke. "Lord Bella Monte, I humbly request your aid in this dark hour. Your lordship is no doubt aware of the threat posed by the Habsburg incursion into our sovereign territory . . ."

And so it continued. Ornate speech did little to obscure the fear that percolated through the veneer of civility. The servant returned with wine, and the messenger paused in his oration to accept a modest goblet of the ruby-colored liquid. The boyar seized the moment to interject.

"I will hear the rest of your message anon," he said. "But you must know that yours is but one of dozens that say much the same. I have sent as many soldiers and cannon as I dare already to battle the invaders. I will offer what supplies my manor may provide, but any who yet remain are needed for the defense of this land on which we stand. Only my own guard and reserves still abide."

"O lord," the messenger replied. "My master knew this even as he ordered these words penned. It is not your cannon, your fodder nor even your gold that my master begs, but your whip."

A pall of silence drifted over the chamber. The import of the words made both men still for several moments. Finally, the man in the carven chair broke the spell and shook his head.

"This is grim news." The boyar stood now and began to pace. "And a worse time there could not be. Heaven and Earth have sent enough trials for me and mine this season; must Hell also bestir itself?" He ran strong fingers through fire-colored hair. "My sire went to God not a full winter ago. He would have been the man to lay the devil to rest. But wait. Why does your master beg my aid against the Dragon Incarnate and in the same breath speak of the Empire to the West?"

"You mistake my lord's intentions," the messenger said. "Though the ages are long between then and now, our people yet remember the terror of the Impaler, and what he might wreak again upon those of our faith should he overwhelm your lands." A dark eyebrow rose, disappearing beneath a jewel-spangled turban. "My master begs to send his soldiers, his cannons—even his Janissaries if need be—as defense for your manor and lands while you march to duel the demon in his lair."

Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

Nothing had been committed to writing; of that his forebears had been adamant. Should the secrets of their holy duty be made known to the Devil's Legion—or even to enemies of Christendom—the results might prove fatal. He had recited the mnemonic poem like the rosary as he rode through the wooded hills north of his manor, as he stalked lone down the North road, as he rode incognito in cottar's carts through fields and fens.

Always his steps carried him north. If he turned east, his way would pass to Moldavia; to the west was Transylvania. But between them lay the living hell-citadel that folk called the Demon Castle. Like a cyst, it sprouted from the black and blasted rocks atop the cursed prominence every century, spewing foul vapors and fouler denizens of unnamable ilk.

His journey had lasted through the balance of summer and into the late weeks of harvest-tide. Ill-luck plagued his steps, stretching a journey of what should have been a month into nearly a full season. He let privation toughen his body, let hardship whet the blade of his resolve, in hopes that the trials he endured in his approach to the heart of shadow might forge this lesser scion of a great family into a holy weapon.

Those he also carried, though as the rhyme taught him:

"An' thou be not stout of soul and holy of heart,

Not brand nor fire nor blessed whip shall defend.

The dead shall rend clay and soul apart;

Charon shall usher thy flame to its swift end."

No, he could not rely on the blessed heirlooms he carried if indeed his soul was not pure. Doubt was his closest companion—and his greatest foe—in those weeks of travel. It did not leave him when finally he arrived at the blood-crusted gates barring entry to the unhallowed enclave. Shreds of cloud clotted wan light cast by the golden crescent of the moon as Simon nervously looped his whip around his belt.

No armor would avail him against the tainted fangs and fell claws of his foes within, so he had eschewed any corselet or helmet. Thick traveling trousers had been tucked into high riding boots—fur-lined against the chill of the season. Likewise his riding jacket—crimson as the blood on which his ancestral adversary subsisted. Under that, a tough leather jerkin of black. A broad silver-chased belt held his whip and long dagger, and tough long-cuffed gauntlets of black leather protected his hands and forearms from the incidental scratches he was sure to acquire while exploring the grounds.

Legend says that Ralph Belmont spent an entire night in holy vigil before entering the ruins of the castle-town's outskirts. Simon shook his head. That had been generations ago, when God perhaps still lent his aid to the cursed lands claimed by the Devil. And while the Almighty might have looked favorably on the Great Three, Simon Belmont knew he was no hero out of legend. If God had not heard his endless stream of prayers since midsummer, another night spent on his knees would do no further good.

The castle itself was massive—an outsize monstrosity rising higher and squatting wider than any man-made structure had a right to do. Not a place for mortal habitation, but rather a sort of staging point for demoniac invasion by the hosts of the damned: the castle itself was alive with a malign intelligence, arranging itself to suit its master's needs. At least, so the tales of his family said.

There.

Just as his grandfather had told him as a lad, a lone tower surmounted the cursed citadel, supported by an impossible-looking bridge of stone over the perilous heights to which it had been reared by unholy hands. Dimly visible from here, the only permanent structure in the entire haunted castle taunted him like an upraised talon. No light winked in its cyclopean window; the lone inhabitant clearly preferred darkness.

By contrast, the courtyard was very well-lit. Dozens of braziers cast curiously bleak light across blighted vines and cracked cobblestones. Held aloft on short stone pillars, the flaming bowls exuded an acrid smoke and a palpable sense of . . . sorrow?

It's the Vernandes blood; I may not have the makings of a sorcerer, but I can surely sense that something is amiss here.

He moved forward experimentally, half-expecting some hell-fiend to leap from the flames, jaws agape. Instead, a whelming sense of loss and loneliness washed over him as heat would do were this a normal flame.

Something twitched in his right hand, making Simon jump.

The whip shivered like a serpent caught between the gazes of two hungry eagles.

Warning me? Or eager, more like.

Wary of a trap, he unslung the whip and gave it a flick to loosen its coils. A voice tugged at the edge of his memory: a whisper so faint it might be an errant zephyr.

Fire. Something about fire. Grandfather said . . .

And bit by bit, as the wind hissed through grasping brambles and rattled dead leaves against the gate, it came to him. His grandsire's voice, trembling with fatigue and age. Soleil Belmont had been a prisoner of the Lord of Vampires himself once, even serving as an unwilling conduit for the profane forces mounted by the despot. As such, his knowledge served to deepen clan lore almost as much as that of the grand patriarch of centuries before.

"The Dragon cannot abide true flame," whispered the voice from the past. "And so he locks his victims' souls in mockeries of fire all about his castle, that no one who dies resisting him might know peace."

How this might be, Simon had never discovered. Soleil had been stubbornly silent upon the point, and young Simon had soon tired of listening to his grandfather's stories, and dashed outside to tease the ponies and practice his knife-throwing.

Now he blessed his grandfather's memory and drew back his arm. Letting it snap forward, he gazed in wonder at the transformation that took place. Even as the tip of his whip cracked with a sound like broken ice, its unwound length passing through the ersatz soul-flame, the brazier guttered out and a lambent spark crawled across the corded surface of his whip. No change in heft, nor in its supple twists, but the sacred whip now bore the resemblance and texture of cruel iron links.

A sigh winnowed through the air, voiceless to those not born with a sorceress tangled in the boughs of their family tree. Simon nodded a quick thanks to the grateful departed spirit, and trod on. The next few minutes were spent with his whip whirling hence and thence as he extinguished the unhallowed flames. Within moments, he found himself standing before the battered ruins of a grand stone arch. Weathered gargoyles perched at its apex, baleful stone gazes bent upon potential trespassers.

Simon rested his hand on the dagger at his hip and let his gaze roam over the yawning gap in the wall. Something scintillant snagged his gaze at the far side of the doorway. Cautious steps brought him closer, until he beheld a single untarnished silver aspri coin, inscribed with the cross and dragon. One questing fingertip brushed the coin, and Simon found himself scrambling sideways, heart pounding and whip raised as an unnatural bubbling erupted from behind him.

Coins?

Extruded from the ground, a rude burlap sack such as a peasant might use to carry turnips lay behind him. However, strange lights and shadows played over its surface, casting a pale light of its own that twinkled from the mass of coins clinking from its open top in a steady stream. Aspri, thalers, florins, ducats, perpers, groshes—in cheerful hues of silver and gold, the sack spat forth more and more.

Simon stared, enchanted for several moments.

This could pay for hundreds of soldiers against the Hapsburg invasion. Thousands! My people need not starve this winter. Heedless, he found himself coiling his whip and tucking it into his broad belt.

Something tickled the back of his mind as he reached for the bottomless bag of riches. A warning buzz that sharpened into an angry swarm of wasps flooded against the back of his eyes. He snatched his hand back, as if stung.

A trap. It must be a trap.

And against his own voice, another. Deep, resonant, a baritone underlaid with the iron timbre of command and wrapped in the smooth silk of a lifetime at court.

Take it, Belmont. Take it with my blessing. You have already suffered so much, and I wish you no harm. It shall be my gift to you, if you will but depart.

The Deceiver's words were fair, as his father and forefather had warned him, though they led to perdition and ruin. The son of Dracul had a poison mind; ever would Satan's chiefest servant seek to corrupt the hearts of men both small and great to his cause, through whatever means he might. Greed would doubtless be but one of the weapons in the Impaler's wicked arsenal.

Simon turned his back upon the glittering treasure.

"I have no need of your coin," he said aloud to the darkness.

A sigh, then. Weary as the bones of Methuselah and bitter as black ale left too long in the still. It may have been merely the ghost-breath of the wind passing between the penumbral places of the haunted castle, or the voice of the Vampire Lord in Simon's mind. So be it. Recall that you chose this path of sorrow when all other ways are closed to you, son of Belmont.

Simon Belmont steeled himself and strode into the open doorway while the ensorcelled whip at his side squirmed like a feral thing unjustly caged.

Throne Room, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

Again.

So and so and so. This was a dance well remembered. And, like the dancer who has mastered all the movements such that they become second nature, the man atop the throne gave no heed to the details, preferring instead to focus upon the grand design of the thing. What need to concern himself with the trivia, when the outcome was all but assured.

Once every century—that was the bargain. To be sure, he had cheated, as was to be expected. He had left devices in place to ensure his return more quickly than his allotted hundred years. Ambitious priests of profane allegiance, deep-pondered foul sorcery set like a spring-trap over years, and simple greed for immortality had all played their part in his preemptive returns to the world of the living in the past. This time, however, was special. This was a true resurgence—made under his own power and with his own scheme in mind.

And again, a Belmont's boots trod the halls of his own private redoubt.

As foreordained as the coming of snow in winter or the darkness with night, a scion of the clan of holy warriors felt the pull towards the castle, like a lodestone towards the pole-star. And with all the self-righteous bravado of their kind, this one had refused the offer of peace that had been made.

The man atop the throne sighed, though his lungs had long-ago forsaken the need for breath. How wearisome it was, and how thrilling: to watch the contest each time afresh, until at last its culmination in the throne room. With each repetition, something unique; a variation as-yet unthought. How many times had he already stood against the Men of the Fair Mountain? Though victory had never been his, with each meeting, he left his mark upon their bloodline. Soon—perhaps this time—his chance would come to deal the final blow.

So and so and so.

The Son of the Dragon stood and fanned his cloak out behind him as he descended the dais, his feet sinking into the rotted remnants of plush crimson carpeting.

So be it. Let the dance of illusions begin.

Entry Hall, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

A hideous rasping wheeze heralded the coming of the corpse as clearly as a Hapsburg trumpet might sound the beginning of a cannonade. Simon flicked the tip of his whip forward, probing. The darkness smothered his senses, a thing absolute. Smothering drapes choked both light and sound, but for the tortured groaning of the dead thing.

Panic threatened to seize him, then. He might have laid about him, or dashed forward in hopes of finding an opening into the castle proper.

No. "I will not," he said aloud. His own voice was a feeble thing, quickly throttled in the darkness. It gave him courage, though. "A Belmont never runs," he continued. "A roebuck or a hare may run when it flees the hunter, but we are the hunters. We have no need to run." His grandfather Soleil's words, but they firmed his resolve as he repeated them. "We are the light against the shadow. We are the hope that strangles despair. We are the scourge against the darkness!" As he shouted the last words, he stormed forward, his whip whirling.

As he burst into the light, the first of the corpse-men came.

Still clothed in the tattered remains of its white burial shroud, it flesh had darkened with the mottled purple of congealed blood beneath its surface. A single eye gone dun-colored rolled sightlessly as the dead thing clawed for Simon's blood, arms thrust forward. Decayed yellow teeth gnashed together at odd angles, and its hair had become brittle, worm-eaten.

Simon snapped his wrist forward, the whip-made-iron striking the thing true, directly between its eye and its empty socket. Its rotten skull pulped beneath the glimmering iron links, spattering splinters of mashed bone to either side and splashing gore and grave-rot behind it as it fell. Claw-like hands spasmed once, twice, before the whole creature erupted in a gout of heatless, unholy flame. Within a handful of seconds, the revenant had vanished, leaving only a few scratch marks on the russet-tiled floor where it had fallen.

Elation was short lived; Simon cast his gaze ahead. Dimly lit by a dozens of imprisoned soul-fires and the angled light of the too-large moon through tall, leaded panes of glass in the wall, he could just make out a large red door, banded with iron and inscribed with an iron shield. It was, perhaps, a matchlock's shot away.

In between, the hall swarmed with the unliving. Bats too large to be of this world—their wings stretching a full span or more—flitted back and forth in the shadow-shrouded heights of the hall, its upper reaches draped with soiled crimson brocade. Atop a nearby balustrade, something of obsidian hue and glimmering eyes crouched, predatory.

You should have taken my coin, Belmont.

Simon gritted his teeth, squared his shoulders, and marched forward. The gravewights themselves proved no mettlesome foes—at least each unto itself. It soon became apparent to the boyar that the Impaler used them as a general might use his peasant levy; through force of numbers, they might wear down even a doughty foe.

Mindful to send the tip of his whip whistling above to a sconce holding the soul-flame of a poor victim each time he passed, Simon soon found that the grateful spirits of the departed had granted him yet another gift. By the time he had slain another dozen of the shambling dead men, his whip now resembled a spiked flail, though the chain was longer than that of any true flail, it being still in perfect proportion to his whip.

I need some surcease. He cast his gaze about, espied a gilded terrace. Stairs led to its top from either side, whence a mighty lord in times of old might have enjoyed a goblet of fine red or gold wine while overseeing the amusements of his guests—or sternly delivering orders to his gathered retainers. No cadaverous sentries roamed upon the stairs or the platform above.

Taking a few steps backwards up a winding marble staircase, he noted with relief that the dead showed no interest in following him, preferring instead to mill around at ground level. The hellish chorus of their listless moaning receded as he walked up the stairs. However, so absorbed had be become in the constant struggle to keep his path clear of the horde of shrouded wights that he forgot the shadow with gleaming eyes.

A black shape, hulking to twice the size of an earthly catamount, the edges of its pelt limned with an infernal nimbus, sprang from above. The surprised vampire hunter had a fraction of heartbeat's time to register an impression of obsidian-sharp claws, and fangs extended like a viper's. His dagger alone saved him. A veteran of dozens of hunts in the forest, Simon managed to jerk his long knife free of its sheath at his hip and jab it forward as he fell backward, his back and head impacting the marble of the staircase with a painful crunch.

The corpse-men assailed him with surprising alacrity. Simon was no stranger to the touch of dead flesh—as a child his father had required him to sleep once every moon-cycle beside a corpse from the church's boneyard. The bishop had given special dispensation to exhume the corpses in light of the Belmonts' holy duties, and Simon—like his forebears—had long since grown desensitized to the presence of lifeless clay.

This was different. It was one thing to lie beside a body when it was quiescent; it was entirely another, Simon thought to himself, when devil-magic had raised it again for acts of murder, and dead fingers groped for your throat. Half a dozen of the foul things had gathered around him as he struggled to find his feet. A few yards away, the wounded hell-cat screamed with fury and gathered itself for another spring. Slimy, crumbling hands pressed at Simon's eyes, his mouth, his throat. His left hand slashed back and forth with the sacred dagger, but he could not free his whip from the tangle of dead limbs as the panther demon charged him.

Fire. The Dragon cannot abide true fire—perhaps his servants also fear it?

Fingers made wooden with the sudden need for haste groped in his belt pouch and withdrew a small vial of holy water. Simon tore his arm free, held the vessel above his head, and cast it to the ground at his feet with a shout.

White holy fire spread in rings outward as the vial smashed against the tiled floor. Where it touched dead flesh, it turned an angry red as it burned the devil's henchmen back to hell. Within seconds, the small conflagration had cleared a small circle and Simon stood temporarily unmolested. The shadow cat pulled up short, its snake-like fangs bared. Simon quickly retrieved his whip—dropped on the floor as he had reached for his holy water.

As the fire guttered out, the demon pounced. This time, it found no startled prey, but a grim vampire hunter armed with his ancestral weapon. The ensorcelled flail smashed into the creature's breastbone and punched through as if its flesh were less than water. The beast had dissolved into a noxious smoke before it had a chance to hit the ground.

Simon breathed a sigh of relief. His pride and his ribs were bruised, but he adjudged no permanent harm had come to his person. With more caution than before, he mounted the stairs and continued. Bats with human eyes, shadow beasts and a seemingly endless procession of the recently and not-so-recently dead sought to hinder his way, but now that he had taken their measure, he found them less travail. Within several minutes, he had fought his way to the large door.

A corroded iron crest in the shape of a shield decorated it in between the massive iron bands and hinges. Its face was emblazoned with the heraldry of the Basarab—divided per pale with eight bars stacked horizontally on the left side, while the right remained blank. A faint verdigris on the blank half showed where a large Greek theta had once been nailed.

About to push the door open and march through, a final sconce caught his eye, mounted to the side of the arch into which the door had been set. This time, when his whip snuffed out the soul-flame, a large crucifix fell clattering to the floor, wound round with rosary beads. He lifted it, curious.

Why would such a thing be found in the House of the Devil? A gift from the souls whose passing he had eased, no doubt. But to what end? Did they think him lacking in piety, even after he had faced the Deceiver's legion?

"Very well," he said aloud. Kneeling, he began to recite the Jesus Prayer while holding the crucifix, letting the familiar words wash over him and carry away the weariness and the fear that the night's work had thus far brought.

As the final "have mercy upon me, a sinner," passed his lips, a brilliant flash like lightning blinded him. A sweet smell—not unlike the roses that grew wild in the vale by his manor—passed before him. And with wondering eyes, Simon Belmont beheld that the entry hall to the Demon Castle had been scoured clean of its profane inhabitants, leaving only loneliness and decay.

A miracle, and no less. Thank you, O Lord.

And with that, he pushed the iron-banded door back on its hinges and stepped into damp, mold-reeking darkness.

Balanskarpa Manor, Outskirts of Bucharest

Anno Domini 1691, Late Summer

"Lord, another visitor has come."

The boyar looked up from his preparations. One of his servants—Lucian, he remembered—stood in the doorway, a lamp held in his left hand. In his right, he held a scroll, bound in a velvet ribbon and sealed with stamped wax. On the seal, an eagle perched atop a helmet, looking over its shoulder and holding a cross in its beak.

Belmont, the boyar of Balanskarpa Manor, took the scroll wordlessly. Hardened hands slowly broke the wax and unfurled the thick paper. The dense, careful court hand in which the message had been rendered communicated as much as the words themselves. A highly-paid scrivener had done his best work in relaying this message.

"Is the Danesti here?"

"He awaits in the solar, my lord." Lucian bowed and departed, leaving his master standing over a small pack full of provisions, whetstone and oil, and a sheaf of maps and letters of passage. He had decided to travel as a commoner, rather than in full state panoply, though his rank entitled him to such. He might be of the same cloth as the great Raul Bellamondus, but to arrive at the Devil's Fortress in a coach like a rich merchant would make him weak. No, he would walk. When he grew too tired to walk, he would ask for aid from other travelers, no matter the cost to his pride.

Pride. It was pride that drove a wedge between the Danesti and the Draculesti. Had they not quarreled over the succession those many ages ago, the Dragon may never have come into the power he needed. His mouth turned down in a frown.

"That has been atoned for," he reminded himself. His steps led him to the solar, where the messenger awaited. When he arrived, the man who spoke for the fallen lesser house of the Basarab stood and bowed: a spare man, compact of frame, though leanly muscled. Flaxen hair, cinnamon-colored eyes, and nervous fingers combined to overshadow the man's modest traveling attire. Though Simon judged he could best the man in a contest of strength, something about the messenger's carriage suggested Simon might fare less well in a wrestling match. As the messenger straightened, a flash of ruby at his finger caught the boyar's eye.

"Welcome, my lord," Simon said, hoping his tone did not convey his surprise. Though the descendants of Dan I of Valahia were a house much diminished, he had not thought to meet their patriarch. Yet the gold and ruby ring bore the ancestral intaglio of the barry-and-theta that had been the signet of that dynasty for generations.

"Thank you for your greeting, Balanskarpa," the man replied.

"I pray you, come to my chamber where we may be refreshed and speak frankly." Simon gestured. "I shall make preparations for a reception immediately. I must apologize, but we had no warning that you would be visiting us."

"By design." The man's smile was open and honest, and displayed a golden tooth. "I did not come with fanfare. In fact, the coachman who brought me from Bucharest thought me a common woodsman. I did not don my ring until I was within your walls." He cocked his head a fraction of an inch. "I suspect you may understand my reasoning."

Simon nodded. "Indeed. Please, come with me. I shall have a servant bring your baggage."

"I should be most pleased for that kindness, Boyar."

Simon shook his head. "Our families share too much for that. You may call me Simon."

"In sooth? Then you may call me Gregor." The Danesti held out his hand to shake. "And I have brought you something that may be of great value, Simon."

So saying, he reached into a sack beside his stacked luggage and withdrew an axe.

Simon's breath hitched. "You grant me a mighty boon," he said, at length.

The axe was double-bit, as a woodsman might use. Its face, however, was of clean, polished steel, rather than the rude iron of a simple tool. A heavy knob at the base of its handle balanced it for throwing, and a cruel spike at its apex between blades promised use for more than simply hewing.

"We have received word even in our exile that the son of Abel Belmont now goes to war against the Vampire King." Gregor Danesti proffered the axe with both hands. "It will stand you in good stead, should your whip and your blade fail you."

Simon Belmont solemnly accepted the axe of Grant Danesti and felt the burden of responsibility press further down upon his shoulders.

Entry Hall, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

His right arm was usually iron. This night, it felt like lead.

For years he had practiced: in the tilt-yard, in the darkling forests, in the fields, in the castle hallway. With whip, sword, shield, and holy cross, he had trained. Though his father had been relentless in training young Simon, it had always been thought that the Dragon would arise some years earlier, when life still quickened his sire's breath. Abel Belmont had laid no less than three vampires to rest with the whip of legends.

No use in pleading for mercy from God now. The past hour had taxed Simon's strength; following his passage through the great door, he had been forced by an ancient ceiling collapse to descend into a half-submerged waterway at the bottom of some slick iron steps. Between leaping from one moss-covered foothold to the next in the crumbling remains of what had once clearly been a wine cellar, he had discovered the forgotten chamber's denizens: massive frog-like abominations which walked sometimes on two legs and sometimes swam like fish.

Ceaseless effort had dispatched several of the amphibious attackers, though not before they had singed his arms and legs with a sort of corrosive saliva that burst into flame in the air. After half a dozen of them had been slain, the rest of the tribe slunk back into the murky waters and disappeared by what means Simon knew not.

An inner hallway much the same as the first—walls papered but peeling and floored in red-orange tile—lay between him and his next goal. More demon-bats, their cries like unto human infants but shriller, swooped back and forth, eager to harry him. Dozens of the walking dead patrolled the way. And there—at the end of the long hall, where the brocade drapes hung thickest—a massive red door that clearly led to the castle proper stood like a sinister invitation.

Simon absently patted the ancestral axe at his side and narrowed his eyes. If his family's lore held no falsehood, there would be a guardian of some sort near that door; the Prince of Darkness did not gladly suffer intruders to his demesne.

An ancient tome bequeathed to his family by its Vernandes cousins depicted all manner of horrific creatures summoned by the master of the castle to safeguard his realm. Skin-changing man-wolves, leathern winged wyverns, massive clockwork abominations, and horrors of the classical world were just the beginning of the list of the fortress's denizens. As Simon ploughed his way through the small army of creatures, a small knot of anxiety snagged his thoughts. He ducked a large bat, its filth-crusted talons extended to rake his face, and tore it asunder with a backhand snap of his whip.

Let this be my first true test. God give me the strength not to shame my house.

His traversal of the hall passed in a dream-haze; only the door at the end presented any semblance of clarity. His whip made a muted clinking sound as its magicked chain links recoiled, and Simon was stricken by the sudden silence in the hall. Dead leaves hissed against the tall windows, which in turn shuddered in their casements. Simon pushed his red, sweat-dampened hair back and let such breeze as wormed its way through broken panes ease the heat of his brow.

Quiet. He frowned. The silence reminded him of the tense atmosphere in a forest beside a bear's cave where other beasts fear to tread. He cast his gaze about the chamber. A short staircase led from the ground level to half a story up where the massive red door waited. The pillared hall terminated without fanfare, its red tapestry curtains shredded near the end, as if by the claws of something massive.

Was this not the place? Perhaps he had misjudged his progress, and no guardian awaited him after all. Keeping a wary eye on the door, the long hall, and the shadow-shrouded ceiling, he withdrew a rolled map from within his belt pouch. There, laid out from end to end (though the castle itself followed a spiraling pattern in sooth), were the rough outlines of the Demon Castle, as his forebears had encountered it. Of course, the particulars had changed—as with every reincarnation—but unless he missed his guess, he should be close to the entrance to the network of towers leading up to the top of the castle.

A prickling sensation at the nape of Simon's neck made him cast his eyes to the ceiling again. There, like a nightmare, a shadow within the shadows unfolded itself into a massive phantom-shape—its body twice as large as a man's, and its wingspan easily twenty cubits across. Simon felt himself momentarily frozen as it noiselessly glided down from the heights, its talons hooked for gripping. As its mouth opened—greedy and gaping—he sprang into action.

His whip snarled through the air, catching the giant bat on its horned nose. It reared back, its wings beating the air and gusting a foul odor across the room. Simon bit his tongue to keep from gagging. Something black and thick—not blood—oozed from the wound on its nose as it pulled back up into the air. It circled for a moment, then dived again, this time leading with its slavering jaws.

Simon cast the whip, its sharp links slashing a line across the bat's body. It shrugged off the damage and tore at Simon's arms and legs. Talons and fangs hooked in the tough boiled wool of his riding jacket and trousers, slashing ribbons away. He battered at the thing's eyes—pupilless pink slits the size of a large man's fists. With a guttering shriek, it kicked loose of the vampire hunter and took wing.

His breath came quick and ragged as he cast a molten glare towards his circling foe. A wild keening announced its next dive, and Simon rolled to the side, wrenching at the axe in its loop at his belt. As the bat's stinking body passed over him, he punched upwards with the axe, felt it catch and tear loose from his hand.

The bat screamed and rolled in the air. Simon ducked behind a crumbling overhang, and took stock. The devil-bat hung in the air, its wings pumping up and down. Danesti's axe had torn a hole in the bat's flank under its left wing, and the foul black ichor wept from the wound. Of the axe there was no sign. Simon regretfully patted the space at his belt where the axe should be . . . and touched the cold metal of the ancestral weapon.

A wolfish, disbelieving grin split the Belmont's face. As the bat wheeled for another pass, he hurled the axe end over end to split the demon's face. With a noisy crunch and a wet splattering of black slime, the bat's head exploded beneath the curved blades. Its wings jerked spasmodically for a few moments as the body went limp.

As a boy, Simon had walked the fields of his family's Romanian estate, snapping his small whip at the heads of dent-de-lion and watching the seeds explode outward from their tightly-packed center, carried away on the wind. Something similar happened now, but in reverse. The shadow collapsed in upon itself, points of darkness gathering until they had coalesced into a black orb, as large around as a man's reach might encircle. It floated silently in midair for a moment before it burst into sanguine light, an inner flame seeming to shine out through its ruby surface. It plummeted to the ground with a crash, though no imperfection marred its surface. Simon gazed wonderingly, hesitating steps bringing him closer. Nothing in the lore of Raul, Cristoforus, Soleil, or even his father and his uncle—Abel and Desmond—mentioned such a jewel. His skull reverberated with a buzzing ache, and a need to touch the orb.

Without thought, his fingertips brushed the surface of the crystal ball—brushed it, and then snapped in place upon it, as if drawn to its center by some eldritch force. Simon found himself hefting the great jewel, his hands pressed flat against it. It was curiously light, and warm.

A voice spoke—his own, perhaps, although it sounded also like unto the voices of his patriarchs, were they to gather in chorus and speak as one. This is the true test that every Belmont must pass—the test to strip sin and weakness from oneself. Can you defeat your enemy, Simon?

"I smote his death with the axe," he replied. "With the gift of our allies."

Think you that Ralph Belmont struck the final blow to the Dragon with his whip? Did Abel send Orlock to his seat in hell by strength of arm? You have wrought violence upon the body of a demon, true. But such might even another demon do. Your test is to defeat that which the monster embodied.

Simon felt his hands grow warm—uncomfortably warm. He could not loosen his grip of the glassy sphere, and suddenly perceived that if he could not unravel this riddle, his life might be forfeit.

He racked his brain. What did the bat embody? Ferocity? True, but that was no sin. Foulness? Again, yes, but any man who had sat in sermon of a Sunday knew that while beggars might seem outwardly foul, their soul might be a pure as shriven dew. Death? To be sure, if he had been less puissant in battle. Yet death was no sin. Rather, the defiance of God's Law, as the Vampire King had done—that was the true sin.

His fingers began to blister with heat, and sweat had broken upon his brow.

Think, man, think! Who could fathom what a bat embodied? This was a task for a sage, or at the least a Vernandes magi. How was a warrior to reck such matters? A bat is a bat. Even a demon bat only wishes to eat, sleep and make others after its own kind. The thought jarred, though. No, this creature had been more than simply an outsize beast. It had demonstrated, even in the few moments of their conflict, a sort of human malevolence. Had it prevailed, it no doubt would have eaten him, as a bat eats an insect, but would that have been enough?

Gluttony. It came to him with such certainty that he knew he was correct. His foe was not just the devil bat, but the Impaler himself, who had become the very epitome of gluttony in his obscene thirst for blood. Though he spilled an ocean of it, it would never slake his hellish wants, and this servant-beast of his had simply been a manifestation of that endless desire, far beyond the need for sustenance.

And what of myself? Have I been a glutton in the past? In his twice a dozen years, he had attended countless banquets, hosted innumerable feasts in the name of diplomacy. Perhaps he had partaken of too much wine, too much meat. I always told myself it was no great sin, but who am I to know? Shall I drink naught but watered wine at Saints' Days like a Puritan Hollander? But then, how not? How am I to wield a holy weapon against the Darkness if I am drunk or fat? He breathed a sigh as he felt the stone grow cool in his arms. Thank you, Lord, for your guidance. I shall guard against the vice of gluttony as assiduously as my enemy indulges in it.

The massive red jewel abruptly shrank, growing smaller and smaller until it was the size of a marble in his hand. The pulsing light dimmed and slowed. His own heart beat strong, and he saw that his hurts had been healed—though his riding trousers still hung about his knees in shredded tatters.

No matter. If I have conquered the sin of gluttony, I shall surely not bow to its cousin vanity. The stone disappeared completely, and the great door atop the stairs creaked ponderously open. Simon Belmont took a deep breath and began his ascent up the stairs, victorious in his first battle.

Road to Balea Lake, Valahia

Anno Domini 1679, Early Harvest Tide

"You look thirsty, pilgrim."

The boyar glanced up from the hard-packed earth of the road at his newly-come traveling companion. "Indeed? Then I shall be most grateful of water, should you have some."

Abel Belmont's long strides ate up the road while his son struggled to keep pace. Dressed in a simple peasant's white trousers and shirt under a dark woolen vest and a straw hat, the mighty scion of the family of legendary vampire hunters did not strike a particularly imposing figure. On his back he carried a haversack filled with the tools and clothing of his trade. His sullen son marched behind in similar garb, wishing for the luxury of his tall riding boots rather than the rude felted shoes he currently wore.

Beside the pair walked a monk in his black habit and cassock, and felted black skufia. His simple wooden staff clicked against the ground as he walked, entwined in his right hand with a hundred-knot chotki, its tassel discolored with many years of dried tears. He had introduced himself this morning as Brother Andrei, and had begged leave to share their path towards the lake. He was barefoot.

The monk grinned. "I have no water, brother. I drink what God and my faith shall provide me. I simply noted that you look thirsty."

Abel smiled sourly. "You did not err, father."

"Not 'father.' I have not yet earned the right to bear the cross upon my robe." Brother Andrei cast a knowing glance at young Simon. "In fact, this journey is part of my theosis. I hope that I shall have stripped pride from myself in the doing, and so perhaps be worthy of induction as a stravrophore when I am finished."

Interested despite himself, Simon asked, "When will that be?"

"I suppose I shall know," the monk replied.

Abel's smile warmed as his son's shoulders slumped. So inquisitive, that one. And so impetuous. God grant that he have the strength to face the Darkness if he must. Aloud, he said, "Our road should lead us by a stream in less than an hour, Brother. It seems as if God wishes for you to take ease of your thirst after all."

"You know this road well, then?"

Abel nodded. "Aye. I travelled it once before with my father."

"When you went to affirm allegiance to the prince?" That was Simon, curse him for a mooncalf. For a boy so bright in his books, he could be a dullard in the reckoning of men's affairs. Abel's stride hitched a moment.

Silence smothered conversation for a moment, before Brother Andrei chuckled. "So. No wonder the lad chafes at walking. I thought his calves looked more suited to riding a horse than his own soles. You are boyars in disguise, then?"

Abel shot an annoyed look at his chagrined child. "On our way to do obeisance to the new Prince."

"I hear Prince Cantacuzino means to go to war alongside our overlords against the Holy Roman Empire. What say you to that, sir?"

"His Highness does not include me in his stratagems, Brother. And I would appreciate it if you did not noise about our heritage to the hills." The dark-haired Belmont cast a wary eye back and forth. "I would rather our path did not cross with ransom-greedy bandits."

For the next half hour, the monk chatted about local custom and debated with Simon's father concerning the virtues of an ascetic life as a means to theosis. Abel found himself pleased to have such a knowledgeable conversational companion—it had been long and long since he had debated theology with any but his own bishop. As their path drew alongside the stream, he noted Simon at work again throwing his little knives and mouthing the words—either of the Jesus Prayer or of the Secret Creed, he could not tell which.

"Your son is devout in his recitation," the monk noted after he had swallowed several mouthfuls of water, the drops glistening in his long, wiry beard. "I wonder that he does not seek more conversation with me concerning the contemplative life."

"Not for our family," Abel said. "Though we are true servants of the Orthodox Church, we cannot become as one with it."

"Pride is a sin, my son," the monk admonished.

"Not pride, brother. Our clan has a duty we may not forsake. A holy duty, to be sure, but not one that begins with the tonsure." Abel could not resist a reflexive tug at his pack straps.

"As you say." The monk shaded his eyes and gazed at the distant mountains. "Where do you plan to sleep tonight, mighty sir? Surely one such as yourself does not plan to take his rest under the stars?"

"Are they not God's stars?" Abel answered reproachfully. "If the stars were roof enough for the Apostles in their ministry, they shall serve for myself and my son."

Brother Andrei looked at Abel for a long moment. "You confuse me, sir. Arrogance and humility bound into one. Your speech and manner mark you as a boyar, though your philosophy belongs to mother Church."

The snap of a whip interrupted the silence. Abel gritted his teeth. The damn boy was beheading dandelions again. The monk's eyes widened slightly as he realized the import of the sound, and he bowed before his traveling companion.

"I see why you seek anonymity," the monk said solemnly. "There are many wicked folk who would see the Lords Balanskarpa wiped from this earth. Why did you not come with protection for your son?"

Abel shook his head. "I am his protection, Brother. That aside, he must needs learn to protect himself." A wry twist of the mouth underscored his next words. "No matter that he cannot keep his mouth sealed when he must."

Dark robes rustled as the monk turned to regard the young Belmont even as he spoke to the father. "My lord, is there aught I might do for you? Mother Church recognizes the service you and yours have done for God's kingdom."

"I have had pleasant conversation and now some water. If you would consent to bless this water, I would be content." Abel jerked his chin towards his returning son. "His, too."

Brother Andrei went about his work, murmuring over the water-filled vessels. After he had finished, he turned towards the grandson of Christopher Belmont. "It is done, my lord. Now tell me true; you do not truly mean to offer your allegiance to the Prince of Valahia do you?"

Belmont shrugged. "My brother Desmond will meet with us upon the road and continue to escort my son for the meeting with the Prince. I shall turn aside at that point and head west."

"For Dresden?"

Abel looked long at the fields about him before answering him. "Aye, for Dresden."

"God bless you, Balanskarpa," the monk replied. "I shall pray for you."

The vampire hunter nodded absently and stared far to the west—where Count Orlock waited for him. And his son, unknowing, whipped the heads from flowers and complained over his peasant's shoes.

Cathedral Tower, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

The armor clattered back and forth, its gait clumsy. Simon gazed at it, transfixed. Either the man within was deep in his cups or stumbling in a mesmerized state. In his hand the man held a long-hafted pollaxe, as tall as himself. The spiked tip of the queue scraped ungracefully across the stone floor.

Simon took a deep breath, considering. He could see no eyes within the slit of the crested armet, but the light cast by the wall sconces here in the tower was poor. A live man at arms protected by plate harness and mail would prove a formidable foe indeed. Though he was armed with axe and dagger, he misliked his whip's chances against articulated steel. Unless I fight with cunning. The sentry looked dazed at the least. Alert and trained, a man armed with a pollaxe and covered in tempered steel would likely be the death of the unarmored vampire hunter. But if Simon could catch him off-guard just as he turned . . .

One of the citadel's ubiquitous bats swooped from above, shrieking. Without thinking, Simon flicked the end of his whip at the creature, driving it away. Its departing cries alerted the guard, who slowly turned towards Simon.

Cursing, Simon lurched around the pillar behind which he had hidden. His whip already uncoiled, he snapped its length forward to ensnare the man's legs. With a mighty tug, he ripped his armored foe's feet out from under him. Armor and all, the man crashed to the ground with a horrendous cacophony that surely echoed to the top of the tower.

His dagger had already cleared its sheath as Simon leaped atop the armor. His left knee dug painfully into the armor of inside the man's right elbow, effectively stifling any ability to lift the long axe. The visor was cinched with a locking pin; rather than wasting time scrabbling at the latch, Simon simply jammed his dagger into the eyeslot.

The man kicked twice, and lay still. Then, to Simon's surprise, the armor suddenly clattered apart. Greaves, cuirass and pauldrons tumbled this way and that, along with the rest of the harness. No mortal shape inhabited the armor—only a thin, dark smoke rapidly curling towards the ceiling.

So. Devilled armor, enchanted to pace back and forth and to strike a foe if needs be. The Vernandes tome had mentioned such. Simon pushed back his locks and exhaled gustily. Though the foul sorcery made his skin crawl, he found it oddly comforting to know that no true intelligence sparked within the helmet. He would as lief not slay a living foe—even one who had sold his services to the unliving voivode of yesteryear.

Endless stairs marched up the red stone tower, winding this way and that, occasionally leading to a connecting hallway or to a sheltered alcove where dank, black mold covered crumbling statuary. Simon covered his nose and mouth as he passed these; he had heard tales of men overwhelmed simply by the poisonous fumes cast forth by the unholy flora surrounding the castle. From time to time, he was forced to leap over jagged holes left in the floor and stairway by the ravages of age and who knew what demonic creatures. He soon found himself taking each step with utmost caution.

Arched windows admitted silver-gold moonlight to mingle with the red haze cast by the various candles, sconces and braziers that dotted the halls and stairs. His arm grew weary with the effort of releasing the imprisoned souls within each false flame. Behind him, he left halls illumined only by honest moonlight. Avoiding or destroying countless bats and a few stumbling puppet-armors, he stopped abruptly at a large gap in the floor, bridged by an impossible floating platform of flattened brown cobblestones. Beneath yawned a dark pit, its edges roped with brambles. At the other side of the gap, a large red door.

A trap? How am I to reach the door without treading upon this cloud-stone? It was no great distance to the edge of the floating platform. Simon tested it slowly but firmly with the weight of a single foot. Once he was satisfied that it might temporarily bear his weight, he unfurled his whip and marked a sturdy-looking iron sconce fixed to the wall. If he found himself betrayed by the magicked stones, he would attempt to catch the sconce with his whip.

Oh, God, protect me. He took a quick step forward onto the platform. His heart lurched at the same time as the floor beneath him. However, instead of plummeting into briar-choked blackness, the floor smoothly glided forward to the red door. Simon took a shuddering breath and stepped back onto the firm stone floor. As he opened the door, he touched the iron sconce on which his hopes had hung. It immediately clanged to the ground, torn from rust-corroded bolts.

Simon smiled grimly and strode forward. Presently, he arrived at a long, many-storied gallery, the upper ceiling lost in shadow. He marked his route, gazing upward. It looked as though he would need to traverse around the edge of the great circular tower in order to reach the topmost landing. In the gloom above, bats fluttered here and there, as well as something else.

What in . . . ?

Its mouth open in a silent scream, a woman's head descended like a hunting kite towards him. Teeth filed to points and burning coals ensconced in scaled eye sockets made the face hideous enough, but from the back of the head sprouted dozens of writhing vipers, each horribly alive.

Simon lashed out, his ensorcelled chain-whip exploding the head. Rather than the scaly gore he had expected, the demon burst into a gravelly dust. Simon coughed and stumbled back against a pillar, wiping the detritus from his face and eyes. A sliver of exploded stone had opened up a gash on his left forearm. Simon noted with revulsion that the blood his wound wept was instantly absorbed by the stone floor without a trace.

That the Demon Castle would drink blood after the habit of its master surprised him not a whit.

He wished to simply dash ahead, then. To sprint to the top of the tower, and damn the fiendish gorgon heads. Brash, his father's voice muttered in his head. Always so brash. You must learn to walk, son. Even in the face of danger, you must never run. A Belmont is a stalker—a hunter of wicked things.

So he stalked.

Step by step, up the winding stairs of the tower, he stalked. Slowly, methodically, his whip, his axe and his dagger held the minions of the Lord of Darkness at bay. His body became a network of bruise and cuts sustained from the talons of bats, the stone fragments of the flying gorgon heads, and—once—a terrifying close-call with the butt of the pollaxe borne by more marching ghostly armor.

Beyond the next door, more horrors awaited him. Clockwork machines of cruel design, wrought to crush a man as easily as a man might crush a worm, chuffed and clanked as their gears ground round and round. Their spiked presses were stained with gore, and Simon briefly wondered who else had been brave—or foolhardy—enough to enter this far into the dwelling of Satan's servant.

A narrow hallway negated any possible thought of moving around the traps, and a low ceiling into which the crushing devices recessed as they withdrew made it impossible to climb over them. Straight through, then.

For a moment, he considered using the gift in his pouch. It sat, cool and heavy, beneath the map, herbs and vials of holy water. Perhaps it could offer a counter to the gear-driven torture devices. No. Not yet. Only when my need is greatest.

Releasing his hold, he took a step forward, wincing. This grim pilgrimage through the devil's domain had already taken its toll upon him. It would take divine intervention indeed to hold clay and soul together long enough to deal a mortal blow the fiend who called this place home. That is why my bloodline exists, though. Divine intervention is our inheritance.

He briefly considered smashing the masonry with the butt of his axe to find the mechanism which drove the crushing engines before him, but eventually abandoned it. He had not the time, nor the patience for such an undertaking. That aside, it would be Saint David of Euboia's Day at dawn—or what passed for dawn in this cursed land. He must needs make haste.

Several minutes' worth of agonizing inspection and memorization of the machines' pattern of movement eventually saw him safely through the gauntlet of traps, and at the base of the stairs leading up, he breathed a sigh of relief, his ribs complaining with the punishment of the night.

The floor erupted with a hideous phantom, its bony features contorted into a mask of hatred and desire. Skeletal claws reached for Simon, the cold emanating from them in a palpable wave. He scrambled backwards, barely avoiding contact with the ghostly apparition. His whip snapped forward twice, finding impossible purchase within the hazy depths of the specter. With a frustrated sigh, it dematerialized. Whether truly dead or simply rebuked, Simon could not say.

Shaken, he continued his climb. The tower held further trials for him: bats, ghosts, flying gorgons' heads, and—strangest of all—several pairs of large animal skulls stacked one atop another, each breathing hellfire as one drew close. Like unto crocodile skulls, but taller and less pronounced of snout they were. At length, he concluded that they must be the remains of dragons or wyverns, through their living like had not been seen—even within the Demon Castle—for an age.

Finally, singed, bruised and sore with dozens of cuts, he arrived at the top of the tower, and the chapel proper. His travail was not without reward. At the top of the tower, just as before, the spirits of the Impaler's vanquished foes became a cross, wound round with a prayer rope. Again, he repeated the Jesus Prayer, and watched in grateful astonishment as white light washed all trace of evil from the tower that had once been a cathedral.

Within the chapel itself, dozens of tall, beautifully stained glass windows lined the walls. Their narrow panes let in the moonlight in shades of blue, red, green and gold. The floor was covered with the smashed remains of wooden pews, scattered like bones in a bear's den. There, behind the altar, stood the large iron-banded door that would lead to the upper causeway connecting to the tower whence the vampire king issued his profane commands.

Atop the altar, rather than a blessed cross, a massive stone bust of a woman with flowing locks and cruel eyes watched him. Simon found himself unnerved despite himself. Moved by righteous indignation, he withdrew his own cross from its case at the small of his back. An ell in the length of its arms—all four of which were of equal length—the edges were chased with burnished silver, the face painted a deep royal blue. Holding it before him, he prepared to rebuke whatever foul demon had blasphemed this holy chapel.

As the first syllables formed on his tongue, the stone of the statue cracked and exploded, revealing a giant head. Eye sockets black and hollow punctured a haggard visage stretched over with scaly reptilian skin. A sneering fanged mouth and a twisted tangle of demon-serpents for hair completed the horrific face that had once turned men to stone upon the mere sight of it. Like the gorgon heads that had plagued him on his ascent but much larger and fouler by far, the creature hovered in place with no visible means of movement.

Medusa. God preserve me. The woman so proud of her beauty that the old pagan gods had cursed her to a life of immortal ugliness had clearly cast her lot with the Son of the Dragon. The queen of the gorgons made a hoarse rasping noise as her massive severed head rose higher in the air.

His whip was in his left hand—not useless, but less practiced by far. As the cursed head swooped at him, its mouth open in a soundless scream, he threw himself to the side in a roll. Unlike the massive demon bat, however, this creature did not need wings to maneuver. It turned in the air instantly and renewed its assault. With no time or room to collect his wits, Simon drew his arm back and hurled his family's cross edge-on directly in between the monstrosity's eyes.

Rather than bouncing off the hard skull beneath as he had expected, Simon beheld another miracle. While he hurriedly transferred his ancestral whip to his right hand, the cross sheared through layers of skin and bone, spinning in mid-air. Black ichor—such as that which had sustained the giant bat—spewed from the found, and Medusa's head screamed high and shrill enough to shatter one of the ancient, brittle stained glass windows in its entirety.

Greater was Simon's surprise when—in mid-air—the cross reversed direction and returned to his hand, like a hawk returning with a slain rabbit.

"I rebuke you in the name of Christ and his Apostles!" Simon hurled the cross again, and followed with the whip. Its ensorcelled, scintillating links tore into unholy flesh as Medusa glided backwards, face crumpling with disappointment and rage.

The head opened its mouth and rasped hoarse words. It took Simon a heartbeat to recognize the mother of the tongue in which Church services were conducted every seventh day. "Not fair," the woman's head wailed in Greek. "Thou fightest with a body hale and whole, whilst I am but a head."

"A demon's head," Simon answered, catching his cross again. "Fairness is just judgment for your sin in defiling this holy place!"

"Perhapsss I shall sslay thee and take thine body for mine own!" As she so spoke, the demoness vomited forth a knot of massive adders. Simon skipped backwards, the tip of his whip slashing back and forth as he struggled to avoid the nest of poisonous creatures.

"Not fair to Medusa," the voice snarled. "I want my beauty back. I want my body back! Why ssshould you have one when I do not?" Simon's whip snapped back and forth—a serpent of chain amidst the serpents of scale and tooth. One such snake darted forth and buried its fangs in Simon's boot. Though it was tough, cured leather, he felt a sting. Within seconds, the ache of the unnatural venom had spread through his whole shin and calf.

Simon dispatched the last of the snakes and hurled the cross a final time into the huge floating head. "That is for God to judge." A sorrowful, angry wail echoed across the broken chapel, and as before, the monster drew together into a massive pulsing red jewel that fell at Simon's feet.

Envy, he surmised as he tucked away his holy cross and his whip. Forewarned this time, he reached a hand towards the ball and knelt. Though it grew painfully warm against his palm, he closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. His leg now throbbed unmercifully, and an alarming coldness had seized his toes.

How oft have I wished to look as my cousins do—unremarkable in their dark hair and clear eyes? How often have I envied the lives of others not bound to this holy and accursed duty? Much and much, I'd wager.

Time stopped as he concentrated on slowing his stuttering breath. The poisonous sensation crept further up his leg, and he willed himself calm. The orb yet remained in his grasp. What else is there? Has my life truly been so filled with the need to possess what others have that there is more yet to confess?

His heart began to beat faster. If I fail to understand the lesson here, the poison will kill me as surely as the power of the crystal. And there it was. Life. I envy life. At some level, he envied his adversary, who could never truly die, but would rise again and again to partake of the joys of the world, base though they be.

No. I will not envy that. Better that I should die in my efforts to rid the world of evil than to desire what it can offer. His heart slowed, and the crystal dissolved. His cuts sealed themselves, warmth and feeling returned to his leg, and his bruises and aches faded. Though hardly whole as he had been when he entered the citadel, he was much healed.

Simon Belmont raised himself up, cast a last glance about the ruined nave, and walked through the shattered light strained through glazed glass towards the large red door.

Town of Visina, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Early Harvest-Tide, Feast of Saint Ananias of Damascus

"Welcome to Visina, traveler." The words were spoken in Romany, and Simon replied likewise.

"Thank you, sir. Is there a place in this village where I might take some rest and replenish my supplies?" He spread his hands wide to indicate his dearth of worldly wealth. Only his clothes, weapons and water-skin adorned his progressively leaner frame.

"Surely, surely." The old man leaned on a carven cane and gestured with a knobbed finger. "Yon church succors the penniless in need, though I doubt yourself would care for such." He eyed the boyar's weapons. "An inn there is, as well, though nothing fancy, mind you. My great-nephew works there."

Simon nodded. "Plain fare is good enough for me, sir. Thank you for your advice."

"Your Romany is excellent," the old man commented.

Simon blinked. "It should be—it is the tongue I grew up speaking."

"Indeed? Pardon my presumption, sir. By your hair, I took you to be from the South, or perhaps a distant Westlander." The old man cocked his head shrewdly.

A casual wave of his gloved hand dismissed the words. "A family trait that surfaces now and again." He turned an insolent grin towards the old man. "Or mayhap I am a witch, come to blight your crops and devour your children."

"Heaven forefend!" Alarm disproportionate to the joke lit the villager's eyes. "You should not jest of such things, good sir. Not so close to . . . his domain." This last was accompanied by a furtive glance to the north and west.

"Peace, I meant no offense." Simon drew his family's cross from his belt and held it before him. "I am a loyal servant of Mother Church, see?"

"So. Just so." The man knuckled his brow. "Now that I have the wits to look, I judge you may have business to the north after all. No need to warn you of the danger, I think."

Simon sighed. "Any warning given in good faith is to be heeded. Come, would you show me to this inn?"

"Of course, boyar." The old man waved his cane aimlessly. "We should feel a great deal safer with you here. Do I mistake myself in thinking that at last we behold a true son of the Fair Mountain?"

"My name is Simon Belmont." He paused. "And I do indeed come to free the land from the devil's yoke, if I may."

As the villager hobbled in front of him, he gave a toothy grin—dotted here and there with gaps. "The village shall be overjoyed in the hearts to hear so, though do not look for glad words. After all, so many others have passed through here since the feast of Pascha that we began to despair of your arrival."

Simon felt a hitch in his stride. "Others?"

"The other vampire hunters, my lord." The man took no notice of Simon's confusion as he led him down a packed dirt side path between strong but simply built homes. "Sorcerers and priests and soldiers all marching through this village on their way to destroy the Dragon's Son. Like a flood they were at first, with their swords and guns and silver blades." He shook his head. "By midsummer that flood had slowed to a trickle." He shrugged sadly. "And you are the first in a fortnight, since the magician."

His words faded into an indistinct babble as Simon considered the horrible possibility; not only had the devil spat his strongest servant back into the world of the living, but that same servant had now been strengthened by the bloody sacrifice of countless well-meaning hunters who had sought out the Demon Castle and died within its depths.

Eastern Parapets, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

Grey-blue stone draped with moss and tiled here and there with the remnants of orange cobbles stretched beneath the moonlight and into darkness. Away on the sides of the mighty parapets Simon could see the dark points of evergreens and the occasional glimmer of reflected light from a lonely gurgling freshet winding beneath. The craggy forest surrounding the cursed citadel had its own beauty, if one had eyes to see it.

Beauty there was, yes. And something else.

Simon leaned forward, eyes narrowing. Though he stood easily hundreds of spans above the ground, he could discern shapes moving near the buttressed foundations of the castle—swarms, in fact. Dead things of which there had been no sign upon his entry now patrolled the grounds about the castle. More and more there seemed. Simon's heart beat faster as realization dawned; this was the diabolical army massing for invasion even now. He had no longer than this night alone to destroy his foe ere the legions of the damned covered the land in unholy shadow.

No time to waste, then. His strides carried him surely across the cracked stones. The parapets had once served not only as a place for soldiers to stand guard against the marauding Turks in the days of the Impaler's greatest power, but also as a many-buttressed viaduct leading to the tower of the Vampire King. If the tales did not lie, the blind arcade below swarmed with all manner of profane demons.

Ralph Belmont walked this very ground many scores of years ago. Simon cast a wary glance about him, his whip trailing beside him as he stalked. At its end he did battle with a pair of great river drakes held in thrall to the Lord of Darkness. He stifled his own fear at the thought of doing the same.

Here and there headless or limbless statuary adorned the ruined causeway, the creases in the marble grown over with foul black mold or more ordinary lichen. Stone faces made smooth or cleft asunder by the savagery of the elements stared with blind eyes as he passed.

He noted one particularly detailed statue and paused. This one looks new-sculpted. Why should that be? A man in a corselet and close steel cap lunged forward, his right arm holding a sword. Only his left hand showed any sign of wear—fingers broken off at the tips, frozen in an attitude of clasping about an object now missing.

Sickness availed him for a moment. Not a statue in sooth, but a victim of the demoness he had just slain. This man had been one of the many victims of the haunted castle—one who had penetrated further into its cursed depths than most. The stone and mortar seemed to spin around him as Simon looked into the stone face. Here had been a man of courage and prowess, intent on freeing the land from the shadow of the vampire.

Now, no more than a nameless hunk of masonry.

Such should I have been, had I not a lifetime of preparation for this fell task.

He swallowed the lump in his throat and continued forward. His melancholy musings did not distract him for long; as he approached a crumbling stairway leading further up the inner curtain, something squat and quick darted at him from the shadow of a broken statue.

Formed like a man, but twisted and shrunken, the thing hopped more than it ran, its froglike arms curled close to its body. The old Vernandes book spoke of such—wizened homunculi raised from slime and insects to their new form by means of twisted alchemy. Like their overlord, they shared a taste for blood, giving rise to their name, the flea men. Greybeards told stories of entire towns depopulated by swarms of the small creatures, who would surround a man and bear him down by their combined mass, leaving behind a dry husk of a corpse.

Simon's holy whip made short work of the creature, staving in its deformed skull and flinging it from the stony heights in a single motion. As it fell silently, more came. Dozens of the creatures emerged from hiding as if from the very stone of the castle. Though his chain-whip lashed here and there dealing death, his respite was short-lived. As soon as the ground had been cleared of the abominations, a murder of ravens—too large and spitefully single-minded to be of this world—descended from the clouded sky to harry him. Sharp obsidian beaks and talons tore at his limbs and face as he fought his way towards the stairs.

Even then his travail did not end. Standing as sentry at the base of the stairs, an impossible creature awaited him. A dead man stripped of all flesh until naught but the bone remained, scoured completely clean. Held together and animated by evil sorcery, the skeletal guardian removed pieces of itself and hurled them at Simon as he attempted to beat away the unnatural ravens. He had been stricken by a pair of ribs, a bone of the forearm and several small fingerbones by the time he finally reached the monster and shattered it with his axe.

For a moment, he rested at the top of the stairs, panting. The corpses of a dozen devil-ravens littered the ground at the base of the steps, and the skeleton lay in broken ruin, its constituent parts still twitching. Simon bled from score of small cuts, and his lower jaw ached from the impact of one of the skeleton's thrown ribs.

Stand up, Belmont! Beaten by a flock of birds, some dwarfs and a bag of bones?

His lip curled as he forced himself upright. He could almost hear Abel Belmont's scorn in his own self-recrimination. He allowed himself several deep breaths as he surveyed the next length of the walkway. The stairs had doubled back: if he fell to his left, he would land where he had started—albeit with several broken bones from a fall twenty cubits in length. If he fell to his right, his death would be assured, as the fall was considerably longer.

Moonlight made sickly yellow by the haze of ensorcelled clouds shrouding the castle lit Simon's way as he doggedly dispatched flea men, ravens and animated skeletons in his progress. Once in a while, he encountered as soul-flame and set it free. By the time he had passed the door of a small guardhouse atop the parapet, he found himself also battling more of the severed gorgon heads—seemingly all the more enraged now that he had slain their queen.

Stairs and more stairs led him to the uppermost ramparts. The ravens had all but disappeared, and the flea men had either been destroyed or had crept back into the dark crevices whence they had come—made more fearful of Simon's whip than the wrath of their master. By this time, he could plainly see the walkway leading to the clock tower, and beyond that, his adversary's chamber, impossibly suspended aloft by a single archway. His legs burned with the effort of leaping; he had perforce jumped several gaps in the masonry where the bridge had crumbled on his way to this point.

Well done, Belmont. Can you see me? A red flare erupted in the shadowed depths of the distant tower, making a Cyclops of the hulking stone for a brief moment. I can see you. I have been watching.

"I suppose even such as you needs entertainment." Simon's voice was rough with the exertion of the night.

Especially such as I. Simon could not tell if the voice held mirth. Do you know that I had trained that bat every day since it was a fingerling to follow my commands? To seek the scent of live prey as you might train one of your bloodhounds?

"What of it?" Simon leaned against a nearby statue and sucked in a gulp of air.

Did you rejoice in your victory, hunter? Did your mighty warrior's heart swell at your great deed? The words turned cold and hard. A woodsman might have done such. You murdered a witless beast, with no more thought than a child might pick a flower.

"More the fool you, to place a 'witless beast' in charge of your defense." Simon could not help the sour smirk that crept onto his face.

And Medusa. She was the last of her kind. The world shall never see her like again. If possible, sorrow had crept into the harshness of the words. Would you celebrate that, little man? You killed the last of the Gorgon Sisters, whose only sin was that she wished to be loved. Did you enjoy snuffing out that flame?

His breath steamed in the air with his reply. "Dare you judge me, Dragon-son? You, who enslaved these pitiful creatures and gave them no life but one which ended in bloodshed?" He straightened and looked directly at the tower whence his nemesis' voice emanated. "If you truly cared for them so much, you would not force this upon them."

Force? They served me willingly, as do all who call this castle home. You cannot presume to understand their motives, son of Belmont. Ever your family storms into my house with words of false humility and sickening piety, playing the great heroes.

"Your words are wearisome, and I have more of your servants to slay."

Silence, then, and the red light winked out. Simon took this as a sign that his reprieve was at an end, and he forced stiff limbs to carry him forward towards the atrium that led to the clock tower.

How did one of God's children become such a monster? Why did the Devil take such an interest in this man? Simon pushed a sweat-dampened curl from his eyes and stretched. As well to ask why Lucifer rebelled, he decided. Such things are beyond my reck. All I need worry about is the creature up ahead—or creatures.

He took a few moments to recite the Jesus Prayer, and felt a sense of peace and tranquility pass through him as a white light washed down and across the causeway, cleansing it of the filth that the Prince of Shadows had placed there. The peace did not last long, though. From behind him a dry, dusty breeze blew an unnamable scent. Not corpse-rot, but curiously reminiscent thereof.

A few crumbling steps led down into a large, spacious chamber, its corners lost in cobweb-draped shadows. A few soul-flames cast a ruddy orange light across rough-hewn walls. Silken spider-threads crisscrossed the room, draped prominently across a pair of massive gold-chased coffins lying up against the wall. Simon gave his whip an experimental snap along the ground as he considered the coffins.

Each was easily twice the height of a man, and waisted like a gourd. Human faces cast in gold and enameled in red and blue glaze gazed silently at him under their shroud of dust and webs. A frown curled the vampire hunter's lips; two coffins meant two foes—vampires most like. He reached into his pouch and withdrew another flask of holy water, keenly aware of his dwindling supply. His father had defeated three vampires in his time—only one great lord, of course, but the others had been puissant enough in their own right. Simon prayed he would be equal to the task.

"Come, then," he snarled, and rapped against the face of the first coffin. Whip raised high, he twisted the flask in his left hand, feeling its reassuring weight. A rasping creak heralded the opening of the casket behind Simon, and he spun around, simultaneously backing away from the unopened one. From within the curious coffin, a tall, tall man-shaped creature bound in rotting linen bandages stumbled forward. Its skin—visible beneath gaps where the wrappings sagged—was cracked and leathery, dry as dust.

Mumia—the preserved dead. Ralph Belmont had fought a pair of such in his legendary attack on the Demon Castle. The Vernandes book said that mumia had once been great kings of the race of Egypt—pharaohs such as he who had oppressed Moses. So great was their pride that they had dragged their possessions and their servants to hell with them in death. It had been thought that the exotic undead kings had been exterminated to the last or driven back into the blazing heat of their native climes; even Christopher Belmont had not seen their like in his two forays into the realm of the dead. Its bite would fester and spread a dry rot through the body that killed slowly.

The mouth could be seen working beneath the browning linen, voiceless words hissing through its dusty throat. Twisted arms reached for Simon, long fingers fleshless and bony. The giant corpse shuffled towards the vampire hunter, wrappings trailing behind it. Its limbs moved in uncoordinated, twitching spasms. Simon easily dodged aside from its desiccated grasp, a wary eye on the second coffin.The end of his whip slashed the air, its magicked chain links smashing into the creature's face. Chunks of dry skin and powdery bone exploded away from the site of impact, shreds of linen wrap feathering to the ground.

Viper-quick, the mummy lashed out—not with its arms, but with a serpentine length of its burial wrap. Fool! Did you think the guards of this place would be coneys? The rotten cloth snaked around Simon's arm, strangling his attempts to strike out again. As soon as he tore free from one of the bandages, another two would leap forward to entangle his limbs. Though he thrashed back and forth, hacked at the limbs of the dead thing, and slashed with his holy dagger, he could not win free.

As a pair of the prehensile funerary bindings wrapped around his throat with spiteful tenacity, the second sarcophagus opened, disgorging its profane contents. The second mummy moved forward, its movements unhurried and purposeful.

This bodes ill. The first foe will do for me just as well without any help.

The first mummy leaned forward, its jaw working under the wraps. Simon smashed his bottle of holy water against the rotten jaw. For a moment, nothing happened, and the wraps grew tighter. The room grew grey around Simon and his pulse pounded in his temples. The water soaked into the yellow-brown wrappings around the dead king's head, and Simon's fingers scrabbled against the banded noose.

And suddenly, the choking hold loosened as holy flames burst across the surface of the undead pharaoh. Simon coughed and rolled forward, away from the advance of his second enemy. The burning mummy hunched over and curled into itself in an unmistakable picture of silent agony.

This time, he kept his distance. His holy cross kept the abomination at bay, cutting away swaths of ossified skin and muscle while his ancestral whip snapped back and forth, ripping chunks of the mummy's body away. His breath burned in his throat, and the first mummy flaked to cinders. The remaining one lashed out, but Simon stayed beyond the reach of its throttling wraps.

When both had been reduced to ruin, Simon allowed himself a deep breath. He massaged his raw, bruised throat as the flames of the burning mummy birthed a shining red crystal, its luminous pulse casting a bloody light over the room.

Pride. It could only be pride. He took several steps across the room, kicking the rotted burial wrap away, striding heedlessly through the ashes. I understand this one, oh Lord. Pride I have had, and in abundance. I nearly lost my life due to prideful carelessness in this last battle.

He grabbed the crystal and knelt. Yes, I have been proud—arrogant. I try to care for my people, but I am content to sit above them in judgment. I am happy to remain above their troubles. His throat ached. Have I thought myself better than other men because of our family's birthright? Of a certainty. Have I been cruel in my assurance of superiority? Perhaps.

He swallowed, sweat creeping under his studded leather gorget. Worse, I believed that I alone was worthy of facing the Dragon in his lair. I marched this way without thought of what should happen if I failed. Now that is pride, in truth.

Warmth diffused through Simon's battered body and the red light faded. His hurts were eased, but not healed as completely as they had been following his defeat of the giant bat or of Medusa.

Did you think it would be painless, vampire hunter? Again, the voice, tinged with mirth. Steel under velvet, rotten to the core. You weary me, and I have danced this dance too long. It is time to see if you know the steps well enough to amuse me if we meet.

The ground lurched beneath his feet, and he felt himself slipping into darkness. The masonry under him fell away, and Simon Belmont plunged into the gaping, endless black. Before the stygian plummet claimed him, he almost laughed.

Even amongst God's flock, occasionally there is a wicked child.

The Nameless Place

A Time that is No Time

On God's Earth, he had been a Prince—a voivode of great power, even before that term had come to mean anything. He had fought the enemies of God year after year, devoting his youth and his sanity to the Sisyphean task. He had persisted long after he realized the folly of it—the hollow, vainglorious futility of the thing. His brilliance as a tactician had been as nothing pitted against the endless sweep of pitiless hegira. In his desperation and his anger, he had turned to profane means in order to achieve his task.

Too late, understanding. Too late, the price made clear. By then, the goal had been subsumed by the means, and all human care and tenderness had been driven from him. Once every hundred years he had been given in return for that worthless thing that he had once held as a gift from the Almighty. He and the Gatekeeper had come to an understanding.

As a chess player, he had been peerless in life. The movements of the king, the general, the elephant, the knight, the tower, and the deceptive little pawns were as ingrained in his memory as the smile of his wives over the many ages and the laughter of his forsaken son on a sunny day. Surely, with the endless legions of the damned at his disposal, victory would at last be his.

However, for every black king upon the board, there was a white king. And across the ages, the foe with a single name but many faces had plagued him. Always the same, ever changing: Belmont—the man of the Fair Mountain—stood between himself and victory.

Once, I was called the Impaler, and my cruelty was feared by heretic and Turk alike. Had he a body in this place, he would have smiled. They called me a Dragon's Son in human form. But what dragon was ever as prideful and covetous as the self-righteous men of that line? Saladin and Cour-de-Leon had less animosity betwixt each other than we.

Once per century—that was the bargain, unless some outside agency should call him forth. Else he must languish in this place that was no place, where time had no meaning, and his suffering stretched like endless plains beneath a moonless sky. He had read Dante's vision of it once, and thrown the book into the fire in his anger. The small-minded fancies of mortals fell utterly short of the horrible reality.

Something tugged at him, and a spiteful, joyous surge of being suffused his spirit.

They call. Somebody on the other side of Existence had begun the rite, handed down over generations of loyal but deluded retainers. Even now, the black candles would burn heatlessly in a dark, secluded place. A score of voices would be raised in monophonic chant, the Latin spoken backwards and infernal subtext in each breath. Somewhere, a freshly-hewn human heart beat its last, and blood spilled over the burnt remains of the King of Vampires.

Time exploded upon him, and his body gathered from shadow. He felt the ground beneath his feet, and saw the pale flames of the candles about him. An irresistible stench of blood and gore covered a moldy, underground chamber, its pillars marching away into darkness.

Before him knelt a priest, his dark robes immaculate—all the sacrificial blood had been carefully directed towards the earthly remains of he who had now risen.

"What is the year?" His voice had lost none of its command. The priest groveled beneath its weight and majesty.

"Sixteen hundred and ninety-one, lord." The priest hesitated, then spoke again. "It is the feast of Pascha."

Easter. He nearly laughed aloud at the impropriety of it. "You have done well, my faithful servants." He felt the old power flowing through him, and his pointed teeth showed in a cruel smile. "I shall return to this place at midnight tomorrow, and we shall speak of our plans."

As a twice ten supplicants bowed, the Lord of Darkness vanished into mist and flowed through the cracks of the stone in the forgotten temple. His work would not wait, and his need for blood was great.

Balanskarpa Manor, Outskirts of Bucharest

Anno Domini 1680, Spring, Pentecost

Spring had come late to Bucharest, the tang of winter spicing the air alongside the faint scent of apple blossoms. Everywhere was light, light, light. Reflecting from the windows, the fountains, and the blade of a short knife as it skewered a blowing pink flower petal against the ground. Simon Belmont squinted against the spring sun and scraped the dirt from his dagger blade as he plucked it from the ground.

The great silver bell at the entrance gate of Balanskarpa manor tolled, its chime ringing through the crisp air. Simon's head snapped up in surprise, and a fierce grin stretched across his face. The youth tucked a cluster of throwing knives into his belt and took the stairs two at a time to the courtyard.

Staccato hoofbeats clattered across the cobbled courtyard, and Simon cleared the last four steps in a single jump.

"Father!"

The word choked halfway out of his throat as Abel Belmont rode through the front gate of Balanskarpa Manor. The grandson of the legendary Christopher Belmont that had left a son and brother at the crossroads leading to Dresden had been dour but robust—a formidable hunter of evil. The man who rode under the archstone of the ancient gate was a diminished figure, hollow-eyed and scarred. Four parallel scars ran over his face, angry pink furrows that twisted across a white, ruined eye.

"Simon." The voice was a reedy. "Come."

Obediently, the boy walked closer, his footsteps firm though his heart trembled.

Abel Belmont dismounted and beckoned with his left hand—deep scars puncturing the top of his hand in a semi-circular pattern. His right hand had curled into a claw around the leathern coils of the ancient whip. Flinty eyes tracked the boy's hand as it extended to take hold of the whip.

"I shall not take it up again, save at the uttermost end of despair." A cough rattled Abel's frame. "Yours to keep—and hopefully, never to use, my son. You know its name. May it never need to learn yours."

Simon flinched as his hand touched the whip. Images crowded on atop another as he did so—his father, bent with agony underneath the sorcerous onslaught of a rat-faced, bald vampire lord, unnaturally long fingers tipped in pointed claws. The twisted nosferatu tearing shreds of his father's hand away with pointed, venomous incisors, even as his father jammed a silver dagger into the vampire's throat. Man-wolves prowling in a circle, their feral eyes alight with the joy of slaughter as they closed around a wounded and bleeding holy warrior.

Behind that, even more shadowy images. Red, pitiless eyes, boring into him. A dark-haired, sad-faced youth in a flowing cloak, fire burning in his clenched fist. And at the last, as if faintly remembered, a blonde man in cross-emblazoned leather, his eyes shining with anger and sorrow as he lifted a black stone from the body of a slain vampire.

The youth's lip curled; a hot, savage need to destroy the servants of evil flooded his body. His heart buzzed and the space behind his eyes pulsed with white, righteous anger. And as soon as the feeling had come, it was gone—snuffed out like a candle flame at midnight.

Simon loosed a stuttering gasp as the vision released its grip upon him.

Tentatively, he met his father's weary, knowing eyes.

"Yes, lad." Abel's voice cracked on the second syllable. "It remembers, and it recognizes its future master. The blood of the Belmonts is more than simply a duty and a name, it is a holy trust handed down from time immemorial. Be mindful of that, but never be proud." The wounded hunter's face softened for a moment. "Ah, my firebrand son. You are capable and brash, and pride will come easily." The soft dirt sank under the elder Belmont's cracked riding boots as he stepped forward and put a hand on his son's shoulder. "Recall, my son, that pride comes ere the fall."

Catacombs, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

His left side was afire with the pain of displaced ribs—perhaps broken. He had pressed them close and cut strips from the sleeves of his red jacket to bind his flank underneath the black leather jerkin. While each step was no longer agony, a nettling dull pain had settled into place. Though he had trained a lifetime to inure himself to pain, it was still a distraction. His left ankle was suspiciously tender, and he had perforce relocated three fingers on his right hand—grotesquely angled from the pressure exerted on them.

The fall had been terrifying. His whip—alive with its own will, it seemed—had latched onto the protruding bramble branches as he tumbled downwards. Though the branches snapped under his weight, he hurled the whip forward again and again in his desperation to stop his madcap descent. No cornice or branch would bear his body, but they slowed his fall enough that when he finally crashed to the slime-covered stone of the forgotten catacombs beneath the castle, he was alive.

Fool! Did I think that I'd be welcomed like an honored guest? His frown turned into a wince as he turned experimentally, trying to loosen panic-tightened muscles. This is no simple obstacle course for my athletic enjoyment. I should feel lucky to walk out of here alive. His questing foot overturned a human femur, splintered in the middle. Most do not.

No time to lag about, now, or I'll end like him. Gingerly moving forward, he cast his gaze about. Down here, dark, oily water submerged much of the stonework. Piles of skulls—many with a grooved, gnawed pattern about the edges—clumped in miserable heaps from below the waterline. Winding cavern passages twisted away into darkness, lit here and there by the tormented soul-flames of the vampire's victims. This must be connected to the basement I found near the entrance.

Something splashed near his foot, and he hastily withdrew it. I'll be twice a fool if I don't prepare for a legion of his demon-bats down here. Simon glared at suspicious ripples beneath the water. Aye, and those misbegotten fish-men, as well. Two flasks of holy water yet remained in his pouch—a third had been smashed in his fall, and soaked the left leg of his breeches. The Danesti axe, his silver cruciform dagger, and the broad-faced mystic cross had survived the fall without appreciable damage.

Wrapped in lambswool and silk, the Vernandes gift stayed in place also. A quick glance revealed its smooth surfaces to be unmarred by violence. Simon breathed a sigh of relief. The whip shivered with anticipation, and Simon turned a doubtful eye upon it. Still it thirsts for unholy blood, but does not reveal its true power to me. Though he had been assailed by visions of the whip's past over the years while practicing, it had yet to fully waken to his control.

By and by, father used to say. But the time is almost nigh. What more must I do to prove myself to this fickle thing?

His reverie was shattered by a dissonant chorus of shrieks and beating wings. As fast as his tender ankle allowed, he moved to the cover of a broken column and braced his back against it as the swarm came. Like a cloud of deeper darkness within the stygian confines of the forgotten tomb, the bats came. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—battered him with their wings and teeth and claws. His whip and axe found occasional purchase within the leathern flock, but they seemed not to see him.

For several agonizing minutes, the onslaught continued. He dodged behind the pillar, but found his progress arrested by a crumbling ledge poised several cubits above the dank water that festered beneath the castle like a sore. Finally, the bats passed by. Why did they not attack? The sound of receding wings answered him. They're flying out of the hole I created in my fall—I suppose even demon bats are slaves to their nature. A sardonic grin creased his features. What does that say of me? Am I truly here by choice?

His progress was slow but steady as he navigated narrow ledges, disposed of straggling bat-monsters as they assailed him, and avoided the attacks of territorial fish-men, their bulging eyes and webbed hands and feet as grotesque as any creature he had yet seen in the haunted fortress. He soon discovered that the only creatures more plentiful than bats in this subterranean burial ground were spiders. Ranging in size from tiny gnat-like spinners to multi-legged horrors the size of a cat, the spiders populated every shadow and every crevice in the oft-broken masonry. He stepped with care to avoid rousing their ire.

Walking on the edge of what had once been a long causeway over the water—now degraded by age and water—he focused on maintaining his balance. Several heart-stopping close-calls later, involving near-drops into the murky water and its sharp-toothed, glaring denizens, he found himself at the bottom of a long stairway, spiraling upwards. Well, I ought to get used to these; I have quite a way to climb if I'm to reach the clock tower again.

Though less frightening than the fall had been, his ankle made the climb back to the inner bailey's courtyard just as agonizing. He found himself gasping with exertion by the time he emerged into the cool, open air. Despite the fetid odor that permeated the castle and its grounds, he took a deep breath, glad to be under the stars again, even if they were veiled by shadow.

His path from here was clear; across a courtyard choked with vines, overgrown statues and twisted, blackened trees, the main keep rose. He would perforce need to enter from the back now, but he could still make his way to the top and cross over to the clock tower. Wary of an ambush, he slowly made his way forward.

From above, a keening cry made him start. Swooping from the top of a broken garden wall, a giant misformed eagle clutched one of the hideous flea men in its talons. However, rather than taking its prize to its aerie to devour, it dropped low and released the demonic half-man. The twisted homunculus leaped towards Simon, jaws gaping. No sooner had he dispatched it than another dropped from the sky.

I'll never be able to kill all of them. The best I can do is forge ahead and clear a path while minding my back. For several minutes he did just that, until he reached the banded door that led inside. The evidence of his passage lay strewn behind him in a tangle of broken branches and broken flea mean.

As he stepped towards the door, a dry rattle made him tense. As if powered by a large clockwork spring, a gaping dragon skull leaped towards him from above. Unlike the stacked skulls from the cathedral, however, this one was attached to a long chain of vertebrae which terminated in the archstone of the doorway. The bony head ducked back and forth, unable to reach Simon from its current position. His legs gathered underneath him, he prepared to dodge below it and make a break for the door.

Fire erupted from the dead creature's mouth, and Simon's plan evaporated as quickly as his balance. Instead of the coordinated tuck and roll forward he had foreseen, the bone creature's attack planted him firmly on his arse, whip flailing. He could almost hear his grandfather's sad voice, My sire would not have done such—you must always be prepared youngling.

Shame and fear made his whip arm the stronger as he entangled the beast's bone neck and smashed the skull to ruin with the Danesti axe. Breathing shallowly, he pushed open the door and entered the demonic castle for the second time that night. I must be mad.

The back entrance was far less grand than the first—clearly more a servants' thoroughfare than a grand welcome hall for guests. Stone archways led to disused wine cellars, and short stairways guarded by more of the bone dragons led to a large chamber devoid of ostentation. A weird green light shone from flameless sconces on the walls, throwing sharp shadows across the floor and stonework.

Perched atop a broken square-top pillar sat another flea man, a globe of red fire in its clawed hand. Upon seeing Simon, it hissed, the sound gurgling between mismatched teeth. It hopped from the column and snapped an unintelligible mouthful of sounds that nevertheless had the feel of speech. Simon kept his knife in his hand, ready to throw.

The column shrugged and moved. Simon's eyes widened and he took an involuntary step back. What he had taken for a ruined chunk of masonry was in fact an oversized humanoid creature—easily twice the size of a normal man, garbed in dark and drab colors.

Cracked and yellowing its skin, its eyes dun and watery. The forehead climbed to unnatural blocky heights, topped by a black tangle of greasy hair. Shriveled black lips pulled back from white, lustrous teeth when it growled. Massive shoulders hulked as it took lumbering steps forward—apparently at the command of the spiteful hunch-backed thing at its feet.

The creature—Simon had no other way to think of it—opened its mouth and groaned. The deep, gravelly sound echoed from the unadorned walls and back upon itself. Simon hurled his knife at the flea man; if he could destroy the controlling agency behind the creature's movements, mayhap his fight against the colossal monster could be made easier.

The flea man brushed the knife aside, suffering only a minor slash to its hands in so doing. Its blood vanished into the stones, while the monster roared in anger. Simon fancied he could feel the very ground shaking beneath his feet at its advance. The giant wretch ground words from its misshapen maw—mangled but recognizable French.

"Not touch! Kill you!"

Simon mastered his surprise. That the fiend should have the gift of human words was strange enough, but that it would speak in the tongue of the educated elite—albeit in a debased form—was beyond the hunter's expectations. The flea man took advantage of Simon's momentary surprise to hurl its fiery missile, catching his prey squarely in the chest.

Simon's howl of pain echoed from the walls, a match for the monster's own. Full of blind fury, he lashed out and caught the shrunken monster in mid-air with the end of his chain-whip. It shrieked and clawed at its wounds, collapsing against the wall. Unintelligible commands boiled from its throat, and another globe of fire appeared in its hand.

A sorcerer, then. Peradventure it holds this man-beast in thralldom. The monster crashed forward, its hands extended to tear Simon asunder if it could. A quick tuck and roll took him beneath the monstrosity's grasp, collecting his thrown dagger midway through the maneuver. He nearly bungled his recovery as the pain from the burn in his chest made him gasp. The flea man threw another ball of flame, and Simon hastily sidestepped, countering with a throw of his own dagger. This time, the blade struck true, sinking deep into the dwarfish thing's thigh. It gibbered and tore the knife free, the holy metal clattering dissonantly against mortared stone as it fell. Lamed now, the thing scrambled awkwardly to the top of a shattered column near the back of the room.

Pain exploded at Simon's left temple, and he found himself momentarily airborne. The world tilted and grew indistinct, and his eyes couldn't seem to focus. Dazed, he took in an impression of the giant monster, its body twisted in a follow-through from a massive double-fisted strike.

Stupid mooncalf! Did you think it would stand idly by whilst you assailed its master? Simon struggled to stand, but could not manage to find the right place to put his feet, and had to settle for an uncoordinated stumble behind the pillar as the monster pursued him.

"Kill you! Go away!"

He tried to croak a reply, but that was as far beyond his ability as standing upright. Fire rained nearby, but the flea man thankfully was unable to secure an advantageous angle from which to attack. Get up, Belmont. A lamed man is a dead man in battle. He ground his teeth and fumbled with something in his right hand. God above, why could he not concentrate? His head pounded.

My whip—of course, there it is. The thing in his right hand snapped back and forth as he rose to his knees, cracking in front of the great monster's face. It drew up short, and a look of cunning came into its eyes.

Damn, it's smart enough to be cautious. The room grew sharper, and his head began to clear as the outsize fiend began to stalk around him in a slow, careful circle. Simon rose gingerly to his feet and found to his relief that they stayed beneath him. His left hand reached into his pouch—if ever there was a need for the Vernandes gift, now was the time. However, his fingers were still like wood, and he couldn't close them around its smooth surface.

The axe, then. Grant Danesti's heirloom felt good in his hand. He fixed a wary eye on the hunch-backed creature atop the pillar as he backed away from the hulking mass at whip's length. Several streaks of fire shot from above in quick succession. One of them nearly burned his legs out from under him, singeing his boots and peeling the fabric of his breeches away at the knees.

And like that, the monster was atop him again. His head still throbbing abominably, Simon managed to tear a ghastly wound into the titan's face as it leaped forward, its size belying its speed. Greasy, yellowed fingers brushed Simon's face, just out of distance as he staged backwards. Rage transfigured the thing's expression as blood welled from its wound. The flea man shrilled another order, its tone goading, and the monster renewed its attack.

"Fight your own battle, son of Satan!" A pain-roughened rasp, and not the authoritative bark he had meant it to be. Still, the half-formed thing atop the pillar cocked its head and sneered.

For the next few minutes, the dance continued—a stuttering, ungainly thing composed of several crisscrossing patterns around the chamber as Simon strove to avoid the wizened sorcerer's fire and the shambling abomination alike. He inflicted a dozen wounds upon the thing with whip and axe and dagger alike, but it seemed utterly unfazed, its inexorable steps at once heavy and purposeful. Angry words croaked from it now and then, as well as short, ugly syllables that Simon did not recognize; he assumed them to be foul oaths. Its flea man master directed its movements from its perch, an air of disaffected boredom overlying its malicious sneer.

And then, his chance.

Ignoring caution, Simon dove between the monster's legs and—chest, legs and arms burning and aching—cast the axe true. It neatly bisected the hunch-back's head lengthwise, and the creature fell gracelessly from its pillar, landing in a wet, tangled heap.

The axe reappeared in his waiting hand, and he turned to face the monster, now bereft of its handler.

It stood, shoulders slumped and tears streaming from its watery eyes. Its great hands hung limp at its side and it walked past Simon as if it did not see him. A basso profundo rumble emanated from its chest, and it took the vampire hunter a moment to realize that the thing was crying.

The creature gathered up the remains of its fallen master and cast an accusing glare at Simon. Fire had inexplicably leaped up upon its frame, and Simon took a step back. The monster knelt and mumbled to itself as it rocked back and forth, as if cradling a gory infant.

"Ingwer, mon ami." Its eyes never left Simon's, and the hunter suddenly felt bone weary and absurdly guilty.

It took less than a handful of heartbeats for the monster and its slain master to disappear amidst their eldritch immolation. The fire put forth no smoke, and presently hardened into the red, throbbing orb that he had come to expect. Desperately hoping for both healing and enlightenment, he limped towards it. The stench of burned flesh was strong in his nostrils.

As he set his hands to the crystal, panic stabbed through him. I'm not ready for this—I don't even know which of the two was worse. The muted pulse of the jewel helped to steady his nerves, even as he felt the cool surface grow warmer. The flea man, I suppose. Though the great wretch had nearly killed him, it had only been following commands like a hound. Or a child, hoping to please its parent. The thought came unbidden, and shook him deeply.

Enough of that. The deed is done. He turned the problem over and over in his mind, like meat roasting on a spit. What was the greatest sin of the sorcerer, then? Sloth, I suppose. Content to let its servant fight and die for it, if needs be, whilst it sat safe atop its perch, shrilling like a sparrow.

The thought stung. How alike am I to that? Surely, I don't work in the fields with the smallfolk at home, though I am content to reap the benefit of their work. He shook his head. I protect them, though. Theirs is not a life without reward. Without the work I do to ensure their safety, they would prey to not only the Hapsburgs, but to the caprice of our Turkish overlords.

His fingertips began to burn and blister. How am I to be accused of sloth, then? I walked to this castle from Bucharest! I have hazarded my body and soul against the dangers of the devil fortress all night, despite the peril. I have taken barely a moment of rest since the gates opened!

As he marshaled his wits to justify his efforts again, understanding came.

So, it's pride again. I may be guilty of the sin of sloth as this sorcerer was, but pride seems to be my ever-enemy. Though the crystal meant to teach me of sloth, I brought pride with me. Thinking I had conquered it before was the worst arrogance of all. He took a deep breath as the stone cooled in his hands and disappeared.

As before, his hurts were healed, though not completely. I will be a study in scars when I leave this castle, he thought. Best not to dwell on that—vanity is a sin I cannot afford. He cast an eye over his bloody, torn and singed raiment. Especially not in my current condition.

He touched his head—still sore where the creature had stricken him with huge fists like stone—and walked towards the red door at the back of the chamber. As it creaked open, he could not quite dismiss the hurt, confused look the monster had given him as it burned.

Road to Poenari, Outskirts of Gulyas Village, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

A day's walk. God guide me, it lies a day's walk away. Not that day meant a great deal here. For the past fortnight, the clouds had thickened in the sky, obscuring the sun's rays. Clouds, and something else. Even when the sun shone clear beneath the clouds, it seemed oddly watery and hazy. This close to the castle, it was no more than a pale ghost drifting amongst the woolen clouds and fog that blanketed the accursed moors and woods.

Simon stood upon the road and glanced behind him. The grey brick and white stone buildings of the small village had almost disappeared behind the dark pine trees that closed it away from the rest of the world. Nestled amidst the demon-haunted, wolf-stalked murk of the riverside forest, it was the last vestige of human civilization before the Vampire King's castle, drained of color as if he had already leached its vitality.

Family lore held that the castle would be found across a river with no name several hours' walk from the last village. Like the river, the town had originally had no name itself, until a Hungarian traveler had remarked that the local stew was like the gulyas from home. Since then, the provincial population had proudly named their hardscrabble collection of houses and a tumbledown chapel after an outlandish herder's stew. The town mayor—if the head farmer in a group of forty people could be called such—had told the story himself.

Simon grimaced. He had gladly taken the hospitality of the simple villagers and heard their stories, desperate for what he assumed would be the last human contact he had before venturing into the hellish house of the unliving Lord of Darkness. Now their names and faces burned in his mind's eye; a reminder of the first victims of reprisal by demonic legions should he fail.

How did you look them in the eyes, greatsire? Christopher Belmont had assailed the home of the Dragon not once, but twice, earning him the veneration of not only all the land, but of generations thereafter. Not a day had passed since the beginning of his journey that Simon did not feel the weight of responsibility and inadequacy thrust upon him buy blood and fate.

A lesser son of greater sires. That is all I am. Why did God ordain this trial for me? His legs grew stiff, and he realized that he had been standing still, staring down the road for several minutes. Like a coward. He gritted his teeth, tightened his silver-chased belt, and walked.

For hours he walked, as the forest grew darker and the sky threatened eternal dusk. Though he could not see the bluff upon which the Demon Castle stood, he knew it to be close. Obscured by the penumbral woods about him, the profane fortress nevertheless exuded a grim atmosphere that one with a wizardess's blood in his veins felt as a brooding menace.

Long before he reached the river, he heard it. The gurgling splash of the mountain waters reached his ears in brilliant clarity, as if the woods did not stand between them. It seemed a travesty that such merry music should be made by the cursed river that marked the beginning of evil's dominion. As he mused upon this, the smell of smoke surprised him: wood-smoke, as if from a camping fire. Wary of a trap, he moved carefully forward until he beheld the blue-grey plume wending upwards through dark pine boughs and a small but bright fire.

The camp-site was nothing special: a canvas wedge of a tent erected at the edge of a small clearing, with various cooking effects and a camp-chair made of canvas and wooden posts. Simon frowned. To the side, a large chest sat, overflowing with books—the like not often seen outside of a great lord's library. No evidence of a carriage or horse could be seen. Leathern coils creaked beneath his hands as he tightened his grasp on the whip at his hip.

"Belmondo."

Simon whirled at the sound, dagger out. To the side of the camp stood a man—how had he not seen him?—dressed in simple white robes made grey with the dust of the road and flecked with countless travel stains at the hem. In his hand was an unassuming walking stick. He had perhaps twoscore years to his name, and clear grey eyes. And his hair—

Like mine?

The man spread his hands slowly. "Peace, cousin. It would not do for us to contest 'twixt each other when the true enemy is so close to hand."

Simon lowered and replaced his weapons, glad surprise suffusing him.

"Vernandes." He smiled. "I did not look to see you in this bleak place." Like the House of Danesti, the Vernandes family had a long-standing alliance with the Belmonts, dating back to the days of the Great Three and the Dragon's first terrible rise.

The man gestured to the chair. "Sit, boyar. You must have had a long journey. Does your family still hail from Bucharest?"

Simon sat, and noted that the holy wizard did the same, choosing a large fallen tree as his bench. "It does. I am Simon, son of Abel."

"Abel Belmondo is known to our family, not only for vanquishing Orlock at Dresden, but for his tireless defense against the lesser vampires that crop up like a plague in times of trouble." He nodded. "I am pleased to make the acquaintance of his son. I am Benigno Vernandes, son of Cristobal and Sperantia." He indicated Simon's red locks. "I see that my family's legacy still runs true."

"Indeed, cousin."

"I do not mean to sound rude, but where is your sire? I expected to meet Abel ere we ventured into the castle together." The older man's brow beetled. "Say not that some misfortune has befallen him?"

Simon lowered his head. "Alas, my noble father went to sit at God's side this January, at the feast of the Holy Theophany. I have to come to do what I may in his stead." He swallowed, and met his distant kinsman's gaze. "Untested though I am. I should be greatly glad of your aid in this most fell enterprise."

"Your speech is well-mannered, to be sure," the wizard replied. "And I would fain see you come to harm. However, I am in no fit state to accompany you, young Simon." He pulled aside his robe, baring his chest. Simon stifled a gasp. Benigno's entire torso was a patchwork of open wounds, stitched together with glowing lines of blue light that stretched in a lattice back and forth.

"What . . ?" Words failed him.

"This is the price of pride and brashness," the wounded man answered. "I passed through many villages on the way here, always asking if a Belmondo had come, and none knew of your arrival. I thought to myself that perhaps Abel had already gone in secret, as was his way, and been slain. Or perhaps, though less thinkable, that no Belmondo would come." He pulled the robe back into place. "As All-Saint's Day drew closer, I determined that something must have happened, and I must needs brave the hallways of the hell house myself."

Simon shook his head. "I came as directly as I could. My progress was slower than it should have been."

"You are not to blame, cousin." Benigno held up an absolving hand. "Had I but had faith, I should not be in this predicament. But I was sore wounded. I sent twoscore were-wolves to hell and scoured the approach to the castle with my magics, but in the end, the enemy were too numerous. Were I not a wizard and blessed by God and the Holy Catholic Church, these wounds would be mortal."

Simon ignored the veiled sally at his Orthodox upbringing—the Spaniard Vernandes family had always had some strange ideas about religion. Instead, he said, "I passed through a small town near a month past who said that a magician had preceded me. Was that you?"

Benigno shrugged. "Perhaps. Was that Aljiba?"

"Visinia, I thought it to be."

"Ah, yes. I remember it well. Their elder greeted me with guarded but honest words." Laugh lines inscribed themselves upon the older man's face. "Their inn had the worst stew I have eaten in many a year."

Simon could not help but chuckle himself. "Did you hear the story about yon village's name? In sooth, named after a stew."

The other man's expression grew serious. "The lore of my family calls it by another name, for the river by which we now sit."

"I did not know it had a name," Simon replied.

"Acheron. Virgil says it is the source of the Styx over which Charon ferries his hellbound charges." A wave of the hand, then. "I do not say it has its source in perdition, but it is certainly an ill-favored name."

"Then I prefer Gulyas," Simon answered. "But come, what can I do for your hurts? Is there aught I might offer? I am no physician or surgeon, but surely—"

"No, cos. I thank you, but it takes much of my power to maintain the wards which cleave clay to spirit right now." He sagged a bit. "I have failed where our matriarch succeeded. My family shall know of my shame. But there is something I may yet do to help assure the fall of the Devil's lieutenant. Come."

Simon approached his wounded kinsman.

"Sypha Vernandes crafted this object for use against the Vampire Lord when he rose to threaten all lands." Benigno reached into a belt pouch and withdrew a silver disc the size of a man's whole palm. Hinged on one side, it opened like a clam shell to reveal intricate gold clockwork inside. The gurgle of the river slowed to a curious hum, and the wind's keening wail dropped to a drone like a swarm of wasps. "Do you know, she passed as a boy in her youth and apprenticed to Bartholomew Manfredi before the Elements called her."

Like the Danesti axe, this was an heirloom of incredible importance. Simon recalled the tales of the Great Three putting this holy artifact to use in days of yore. "More than a simple watch, cousin," he remarked.

"It has been instrumental in keeping me alive this past fortnight," Vernandes affirmed. "By slowing the passage of time upon my body, it has allowed holy magic to help me heal. When your need is great, use this device to slow or stop the movements of your enemies. Merely open the faceplate, and time's flow shall slow to the rate of chilled sap in the winter for a short duration." He relinquished the pocket watch, which Simon immediately swaddled in a length of silk and scraps of lambswool from his own pouch.

"Have a care, though. It works best for the Vernandes. Though you clearly have the blood of our family in your veins as well, this clock will drain your life force if used too often—or perhaps at all. I cannot say for sure." The older man stood, bracing himself upon the walking stick. "Just as if one of my line took your ancestral whip there to use for himself."

"I understand," Simon said solemnly. "I shall keep this in trust until I return."

"I shall do my part until you come back, then." The Vernandes scion gestured about him, so saying. "In the meantime, help yourself to some meat and drink before you go. You must needs be fortified, and time is our enemy."

"How so? And what do you mean by 'your part?' Surely that is ended?" Simon reached hungrily for the haunch of meat roasting over the fire.

"Do you not know? The Lord of Darkness' powers will reach their zenith tonight at midnight. He waits only for that moment to unleash all of his demonic hosts upon the land in their full strength." He spread his hands. "And as for my part, I have been using what magic does not currently keep me alive to hold the army of hell at bay within the castle, waiting your arrival."

Simon stopped with the meat halfway to his mouth. "So. Then I must make haste. I shall go as soon as I finish this . . . this . . . what is this meat, cousin?"

"It would be no mercy to tell you," the wizard replied with a smirk. "Know only that it has been purified, and so poses no danger to your body or spirit."

Simon regarded the strange haunch, trying to imagine from what fell beast this might have been carved. Eventually, he gave up and returned to chewing. It was delicious, whatever it was.

Dungeon, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

If he had thought that the castle had shown him horrors before, it was only because he had not yet entered the dungeons of the demon-made-flesh that had once been known as the Impaler. Grey stone had been fitted with iron shackles and pierced with countless cells, covered with iron grates made red by rust and blood.

Deathless revenants haunted the halls—skeletal wanderers that had doubtless been the voivoide's victims across the ages, their mortal remains now raised to patrol his grisly abode.

The torture chambers stretched on and on—far longer than Simon would have guessed even in the citadel of the Vampire King. His mind began to gnaw upon his worries like a badger-hound. How long had he taken in his exploration and purification of this castle? Had midnight already come and gone? Perchance the hordes of hell already marched unchecked across the Valahian landscape, spreading ruin and death. Even as he freed souls from their sconce-prisons and destroyed skeletal guards and flea men alike, he fretted.

Ascending to the dungeon's next level, he found himself faced with more skeleton-sentries. However, their bones, instead of bleached white, were a sanguine red-brown, as if they had been soaked in blood. Worse, he discovered to his horror that even when he destroyed them, they would reassemble themselves, drawn back together by an invisible force and made to follow him like gory puppets. All he could do was repeatedly smash them apart and move as far away as he could before more flea men attacked.

How many innocent souls were lost here? Here and there, the half-rotted or skeletal remains of torture victims still hung from their shackles on the wall, or lay in mute piles beneath shackles whence they had fallen. It was as much trouble to avoid treading on human bones as it was to spot the spiteful flea-men nesting within them.

Past the first of the iron-banded doors bearing the rusted Basarab heraldry, an armored guard awaited him. This time, rather than shuffling back and forth as if in Laudanum-induced stupor, the armor behaved as if it were occupied. Simon's heart quickened as it turned, noticed him, and hurled an axe at him. He was able to duck under its path. Just as he was about to stand and charge the sentry, the axe came sailing back over his head, this time returning to the axeman's hand.

More sorcery. That would have been a grievous hurt. He drew his own axe and cautiously approached, ready for another thrown weapon. As the guard threw his axe at Simon, the vampire hunter rolled to the side and immediately charged. His axe slammed into the side of the crested close helm, sending the man or monster inside stumbling.

The thrown axe changed direction in mid-air, spinning back into the waiting hand of the stricken man at arms. While Simon calculated his next move, a piercing shriek caught him by surprise; a flea man had leaped out of hiding and latched onto his boot. He struggled to kick it off as its free hand clawed at his legs, raising blood.

Seeing its chance, the guard charged forward and hacked at Simon. He stumbled backwards and succeeded in kicking the flea man from his leg, crashing against the wall. The armor tore at his limbs as the guard grabbed Simon in a bear-hug. Its helmet reared back for what would surely be a lethal heat-butt. Simon let his limbs go loose and his legs drop out from under him, sliding painfully through the armored encircling grip. As the overbalanced guardsman stumbled forward, Simon slammed his own axe into the joint at the back of the neck repeatedly, until the helmet rolled forward from the headless body.

No blood. Another one of the Dragon's tricks. He smiled fiercely despite the pain. One places the elite guards closest to the heart of the fortress. I must be drawing close. With the ghost-armor dispatched, he quickly destroyed the wounded flea man and made his way up the stairs.

More armored axemen slowed his progress, though now that he had encountered one, he found dealing with them easier. So long as he avoided their thrown weapons both coming and going, he could strike back with his own axe until whatever binding spell had been placed upon the spirits in the armor was too weak to hold them together.

Exiting the dungeons at last, he found himself in a long gallery strewn with broken glass bottles and strange, coiled springs hanging from the ceiling in glass casements. A quick search of the ruined books tumbling from one of many shattered bookshelves suggested that this had once been an alchemical laboratory.

A sulfurous stench wafted through the air, mixed with the nauseating smell of a charnel house. Several bloody skeletons meandered back and forth through the wreckage, searching for likely prey, no doubt. Once, he found himself fighting off the dexterous axe-throwing armor while attempting to avoid a handful of the reanimated bloody bone-creatures at the same time. Though he escaped without serious hurt, several clawed furrows showed in his arms and legs where the he had been caught.

He leaned for a moment against a long, broad table, its metal surface scarred and fitted with restraints. More torture devices? No human could be bound by such—they would slip right out of them. They'd have to be the size of that— He shivered as realization came upon him. The size of that creature. He gazed above him at the coiled metal in its glass tubes and looked about at the smashed jars, their alchemical components scattered on the ground amidst human bones.

Something terrible happened here. Best to move on.

A pile of debris blocked the immediate north exit of the room, so Simon climbed the rickety stairs spanning the wreckage. He was ambushed at the top of the stairs by another axe-throwing full harness and a pair of bloody skull guards. Though he left ruin in his wake, the effort had begun to take its toll, and he descended towards the next red door, his breath laboring.

More eerie guards blocked his path from the ruin of the alchemical laboratory; by the time he had reached the stairs leading up and away, he had begun to despair of even reaching the next guardian alive. And who will it be? The Vernandes book is full of horrors—there are many I have not seen this night, yet I must be drawing close to the final confrontation. Will it be a lesser vampire, such as my father faced? Perhaps a great stone golem?

His body burned with fatigue as he emerged into a tall, spacious hall, draped with crimson brocade and furnished with massive gilded picture frames. Gilded columns marched the length of the hall away to darkness, punctuated by the faint red stars of trapped souls in their candle flames.

Several axe-wielding suits of animated armor marched back and forth across the hall, and near the top of the hall, almost lost in shadows, several dark shapes circled. Bats, ravens, or mayhap more severed gorgon heads. When the latter plunged towards him, maw gaping, he suppressed a hollow sigh. How is it that my heart can be pounding so, yet I can feel so weary?

The travails of the hall left him dripping sweat and near to gasping. Though a brief moment of respite with a spirit-gifted cross allowed him to clear the hall of its remaining denizens, he took no joy from it. He had none left in him; only a flame-bright purpose that drove him forward.

Thank you, God. These trials have stripped away much of my weakness and left me with a heart of fire. Please grant that it burn long enough to banish the evil that plagues this land. His prayer completed, he rose from aching, complaining knees, and stumbled into the great satin-draped chamber where he expected to face his death.

A lesser receiving room, surely. Not quite so opulent as a throne room, but built to impress nonetheless. Had the windows not been mortared over, they surely would have commanded an impressive view of the nearby clock tower and the grounds below. As it was, Simon found himself standing in a large square room amidst the remains of a grand dais and two observation balconies.

And in the middle of the room floated Death.

Simon had seen him depicted many times in the chapels of plague-wracked villages and towns. A grinning skull emerged from a hooded burial shroud, and skeletal hands gripped a scythe whose blade had never cut wheat. Though somewhat larger than man-sized, there was nothing otherworldly about him. Indeed, Simon found the sight of him—at last—oddly comforting.

"You have come a long way to meet me," the specter intoned. "I meet most of my Lord's guests at the gate."

"Our time is not yet, angel," Simon replied. "Though soon, I think. The Lord still has a purpose for me, I hope."

Bony jaws clacked together as it spoke. "You mistake my intention. The Lord I serve is not the God of Abraham and Christ, but rather the master of this castle."

"Then you are not Apollyon, nor any guise of his." Simon lifted his whip and his cross. "You serve to inflict death upon a whim, rather than to usher men's souls to paradise."

"I have many names," the figure answered, and its voice was a painful throbbing in Simon's weary bones. "Perhaps I am Abaddon, or Thanatos, or Azrael." He swooped closer. "Shall I tell you my secrets? You are a powerful warrior; perhaps they would not overwhelm you. There is time to cast your lot with the winning side."

"You shall not hinder me, demon. No matter that you call yourself Samael or even the Archangel Michael." He hurled the cross at the macabre grin. "I shall prevail!"

The room dissolved. He couldn't see anything except for his adversary.

Swathed in stygian hues, the reaper flitted back and forth, accompanied by a swarm of spinning, ghostly sickles. As he moved, the sickles arced towards Simon, sometimes disappearing halfway there, and sometimes appearing within arm's reach. Simon found himself constantly running back and forth, ducking and leaping. As chance allowed, he cast his own weapon, the cross slicing through the darkness and leaving a trail of light behind as it destroyed the whirling phantom sickles. Twice the cross came within inches of the death's headed demon, but it danced away, laughing.

Images of his own demise crowded upon him. Here, he had fallen from a precipice on the battlements of the castle, and lay broken amidst cavorting flea mean. There, a giant bat feasted upon his innards while he screamed. Choked by strangling burial wrap, petrified, or crushed beneath the hands of a stitched-together abomination, Simon saw himself die a thousand futile deaths. Each time, he barely avoided the slicing attack of a flying sickle.

You want this, the voice he had come to recognize as the castle's master spoke. It would be so easy; you would never have to live with the fatigue, the uncertainty. Why struggle so? Death comes to all men, Belmont. You have fought bravely, but this is the end for you.

"My master speaks truly." The reaper's hollow, mocking voice rang through the illusory darkness. Or was the room the illusion? Simon could no longer tell. Perhaps the streaks of light left behind by his flying cross revealed the falsehood of the castle, and darkness was the only truth. "To fight against death when your time has come is vanity, and it avails nothing."

Don't you see? Death will have you one way or another, son of the Fair Mountain. His name is Time, and he will come for you. You can step outside of time—join me—or you can accept your death here and now. So reassuring, so reasonable. But something tugged at Simon's mind.

Why should I fight? All men die eventually; if they are good and just men, they will sit at the side of God when they die. Why am I so afraid of it? As he says, time will slay me anyway.

Time . . . time . . .

The magic watch was in his hand. With a flick of his wrist, he flipped it open, and suddenly, the room blazed to life. Gone, the phantasmal hell in which he had been dancing. He had returned to the rotted grandeur of the old audience hall in the Demon Castle; decrepit, but real. At its center, a demon wrapped in black and crowned with a skull pulled its scythe back over its shoulder, ready to deal the final blow to the wounded hunter. Clustered about him were half a dozen floating sickles, all moving in slow-motion.

His cross tore through the apparition's cowl and cloak as if they were smoke. His whip tore its skeletal limbs asunder. No legs or hip-bone dangled from the rib-cage and spine, so Simon contented himself with ensnaring the arms and pulling them from the body. It turned its head slowly and spoke, its words stretched and low-pitched.

"You cannot defeat Death," the reaper snarled. "It is folly."

And as time snapped back into place with a jarring hiss, the axe of Grant Danesti smashed the grinning skull into a score of shards. An angry, ghostly wail threaded between the gilt columns of the hall and rattled the red door at its exit.

Then, silence.

"Death would have no need to do battle with me," Simon answered his fallen foe.

An orb appeared, its crystal surface shining, its carnelian depths radiating.

No silent tribunal to lay bare his sins, this time: only a refreshing sweep of energy across his wounded, weary body as the orb dissolved. His muscles regained some of their vigor, and his hurts seemed less pressing. He re-coiled his whip, closed the Vernandes watch, and placed his combat cross at the small of his back.

"Dracula," he said to the darkness. "I am coming."

Throne Room, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

Again. The rogue angel had served him well for countless years, and had indeed been instrumental in negotiating the Pact that allowed him to return to life every century. All but the most discerning, the most holy, or the wisest took the demon for Death Incarnate. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, it was. But the Belmont—as had his kin in the past—had discovered the flaw in its guise; if it were truly the Angel of Death, it would have no need for combat whatsoever.

And so it had been banished thence, until such time as it grew restless and returned to the world of the living to wreak its own brand of havoc. Rage bubbled in the vampire's chest; though he lived a thousand years, it seemed that there was none, human, demon or angel, that he could trust.

He cast a glance towards a cunningly-engraved, winged spear in its hooks upon the wall.

Not even my own kin.

Memory welled up. In this very room it had been, the five of them gathered; Vlad Tepes, the Son of Dracul, standing upon the dais in his finery, his armor cast aside, summoning fire from the ground and laughing. Off to the side, clinging to the pillar, the Danesti traitor, a knife gripped in his teeth and an axe in his free hand, ready to throw. There, floating in the air, held aloft by eldritch winds unfelt by humans, the holy witch, her white robes flapping and an icy storm whirling from her hands to counter his own fire.

In the center, the legendary Belmont, his strength and his pious certitude an affront in themselves; his whip flashing back and forth with the full unleashed fury of his bloodline, shouting commands to his allies as if he were a mighty general. I was commanding armies centuries before his birth.

And there—there , in the shadows—a tall, dark figure whose power was a reflection of his own, fire met with fire. When he became a bat, a wolf, or a mist to move about the room, so too did the other figure, always blocking his path, ever forcing him back into the teeth of his enemies. As the battle had grown more desperate, he half-expected reprieve from that one.

Never. In that, at least, he is his father's son.

Anger, then. Always the anger—the blinding rage that had driven him to abandon God and his false promises, and to strike out on his own. This world gave ample cause for anger: betrayal, lies, death, plague, corruption. What, then if he sought to re-make it in the fires of chaos and bend this broken thing to his own purposes?

Yet strive though he might to bring order to this world, humanity worked to corrupt and befoul his plans time after time. Belmont and his many heirs had worked to make it so, until even the anger seemed a rote thing. So it had been before, and so it might be this time. Or perhaps not. This one is not like the others—he can be broken, I think.

The Plan had been in motion for centuries now, and with each iteration, its great design moved further apace, like a grand piece of strategic clockwork. Steps had been taken at successive rebirths to ensure its unfolding. Though it might take him centuries more, his victory was never in question.

And yet . . .

He could bring about its fruition so much more quickly were he not thwarted by these sanctimonious scions of the Men of the Fair Mountain. Master tactician that he was, he had already amended his plan to include the weakness of this particular incarnation of his age-old enemy. Could he but prevail this time, the plan would be accelerated, and he need never return to his unbearable perdition.

The steps of doom echoed close, now. He would need to work quickly.

Western Parapets, Poenari Fortress, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Saint David of Euboia's Eve

The moon had grown massive and lurid, a shadow-lidded eye watching him with baleful intent. The night's hardship had wrought its mark upon Simon; he felt a man separate from he who had first ventured onto the cracked cobbles of the cursed courtyard this evening. His heart burned with holy purpose, his body beaten but hardened by the endless demonic assault.

He emerged from the dark chamber through an arched doorway and blinked against grim yellow haze—the silver moonlight tainted by the noxious smog that rose from Dracula's castle. Steps led to the top of the western parapets, paved in sturdy golden granite. The long viaduct leading to the clock tower had been broken in many places, the arched spans suddenly dropping into heart-stopping plummets. Moiled mist cascaded over the stone, making the path difficult to see clearly.

Simon steeled himself and climbed to the top.

As he reached the fog-throttled parapet, something swooped overhead. Simon reflexively ducked, his whip snapping forward. The mist roiled around a huge bat shape, and he stifled a groan; the winged beast could have been birthed from the same litter as the demon bat that guarded the main entrance.

Simon cast a worried glance at the moon; it was high in the sky. Midnight must fast be approaching. He was out of time, and could not tarry to fight the leathern-winged monstrosity when its ultimate master was so close. He hastily moved forward, keeping a watchful eye upon the sky and the space around the parapets alike. The giant bat passed near, claws extended. Never stopping, Simon slashed with his knife, hoping only to drive the thing away. A great gap in the stone walkway dropped into the dark wilderlands below, and Simon took a running leap to clear it.

The second giant bat came from the front as the first wheeled about in the air. Simon's heart was in his throat. I have no time for this! He kept running forward, dodging beneath the bat and leaping a second break in the viaduct. The stone beneath his feet crumbled and twisted as he landed, and for a terrifying moment, he thought he was lost. However, his momentum carried him forward as chunks of masonry fell hundreds of cubits.

More of the giant bats appeared—from beneath the long bridge, from atop the clock tower, from who knew where. Before a handful of heartbeats had passed, five of the devil-creatures pursued him in swooping, looping patterns. He silently apologized to the memory of his frowning grandfather as he dashed madly for the entrance to the clock tower: a stone archway in the shape of lion's head and open, snarling mouth.

A chorus of frustrated shrieks were his only pursuit as a final leap took him into the yawning stone mouth; the beasts could not fit through the man-sized doorway. Simon steadied his breathing and his nerves, and directed his gaze forward.

The clock tower was built of the same yellow-gold granite as the bridge leading to it, and crowded with cogs, springs and chains, all turning, twisting and whirling hence and thence. A skeletal sentry blocked Simon's immediate progress forward, but having dealt with it, he was unharried in his ascent until he reached the top of the tower.

There is no exit; must needs I circle it and leave through the other side?

Burning with anxiety and impatience, his steps led him down through the center of the tower, constantly avoiding the rotating gear-wheels and the chains attached to them. When he reached a landing a few stories down, he found himself under assault by the same flea man-bearing eagles as had defended the inner courtyard. Many of the flea men misjudged their wild leaps towards him, and fell shrieking into the grinding cogs below.

Why does the Dragon favor these misshapen homunculi so? Perhaps they are a special breed of his making. Simon pushed the thought aside; haste was what he needed now, not introspection. His path led him back up the other side of the tower and finally outside to the base of a grand staircase. Broken in a dozen spots, he would need to move along the crumbling cornices to make his way to the top.

The whip twitched; it was warm to the touch.

Why won't you wake for me?

A quick glance showed him the massive face of the clock tower, its hands perilously close to one another and pointing upwards. He closed his eyes for a moment, opened them again, and stepped onto the narrow grey band that had once run parallel above the broken banister. At this point, he had nothing to lose but his life.

Throne Room, Poenari Fortress

Dracula

So. He had come. Dracula, the Prince of Darkness, sat upon his throne, disdain clear upon his aquiline features. Dressed in unrelieved black, but for the scarlet of his great cape, the Lord of Vampires glared at his opponent.

What a sight he was: ragged, beaten, and desperate. Shod in fur-lined boots and bare-legged but for a makeshift kilt—it must have been loose trousers before the assault of countless demons—and wearing a jacket whose sleeves had been torn for bandages under a tattered leather jerkin. Long gauntlets and a flexible gorget made this vampire hunter look more like a performer than a holy warrior.

Hatred and desperation shone in those eyes—Belmont eyes to be sure. So like his, long and long ago. But the hair was red, just like the sorceress's had been. Scars and open wounds covered the hunter's arms and legs, and doubtless his chest and back as well.

Vlad Dracul sneered. "You are not a welcome sight, Belmont. As one boyar to another, you might have at least made yourself presentable for our meeting."

The voice that replied was rough, and not unlike that of previous generations.

"I have not come to bandy words with you, monster, but to see to your end."

"Ha!" Dracula laughed and crossed his legs on his throne. "You can no more do that than could your ancestors." He leaned forward slightly, sure to make his fangs prominent when he spoke. "And they had mastered that whip—that cursed, abhorred whip. Tell me, son of Belmont, do you know its name?"

"Vampire Killer."

"And yet you have slain no vampires with it. Why is that, I wonder?" He gloated as he saw doubt enter the youth's expression. "How old are you, Belmont? Five and twenty, at the most? A child. A witless child, wondering if he is worthy to hoist the weapon of his gloried forebears. It is writ plain upon your face for those who can but see it." His expression hardened, the curved fangs turned down over cruel, full lips. "You are not. I have faced many of your line, and I tell you now that you are a lesser son of a greater house."

Anger in those eyes, then. Good.

"You speak of my family, son of Dragons. That is no surprise." The voice was less troubled than he would have liked, but no matter. "Ever have the Lion and the Dragon contested."

What? Impossible!

"Have a care with your words, or you shall make me wroth." Dracula stood slowly. "I took your grandsire into my castle to serve as my conduit. I could do the same for you, or worse, if you think to tempt my anger."

Belmont uncoiled his whip and snapped it once—a subtle change came upon it, then. No mere chain, as it had been before, but now topped with a cruel spiked iron globe, though the whip still moved like supple leather. "I may not be the equal of my greatsire Christopher in battle, nor of our patriarch Ralph, but I was deep in my books as a child, and discovered things that you thought hidden."

The Vampire King felt fury surge through him, and he stalked to the bottom of the stairs. A dance long remembered, and the Vampire Killer wakes in his hand, whether he knows it or not. "To your peril, then. You shall beg for oblivion when I am done."

"I think not." An insolent grin stole across the young man's face. "Cronqvist."

Throne Room, Poenari Fortress

Simon

As soon as he spoke the name, Simon knew he had guessed aright, and that his hours spent toiling in the library had stood him in as good stead as his hours practicing with whip, axe, knife and sword. The man who had been Vlad Dracul Tepes III was also, according to his family lore, a fallen crusader named Mathias Cronqvist—once the sworn companion of Sir Leon Bella Monte.

How sorcery had rebirthed him as a child in the arms of the Dracul family remained a mystery, but if Simon survived this encounter, he would be sure to investigate further. Just now, the tall sorcerer-turned-vampire garbed in midnight and bloody hue commanded his attention. The silver signet ring set in carnelian winked as Dracula spread his long, pointed fingers.

"You are a fool. Soon, a dead fool." He cast his cape wide, and flames leaped from within. Simon threw himself flat on the floor, hissed as the impact jarred his half-healed burn wound. The Dragon's voice echoed from the tall, leaded windows. "Had you but left that name unuttered, you might have been one of my captains! Chief amongst my vassals!"

He had disappeared. Simon vaulted to his feet, knees and ankle aching. The room was empty.

What in—?

"Your much-vaunted ancestor was a fool, as well!" Fire blasted into Simon from behind, and he rolled on the floor, both from agony and to put out the hell-flames. A just-glimpsed impression of Dracula in his periphery faded away. Simon forced himself to stand, cracked his whip in a circle about his head.

"He spurned my offer! Turned down his chance at godhood!" The air before Simon shimmered as if above a mirage, and the Prince of Darkness stood in his dark majesty above the fallen vampire hunter, the massive egg-shaped ruby suspended by golden links twinkling in the light of the fireball he held in his hand.

Simon rolled backwards, snapped the whip towards Dracula's face. The vampire flinched back from the holy weapon, but not quickly enough to avoid a scourging rake across the face by the spiked ball. Simon's triumph was short-lived; the pale, terrible visage showed no more hurt than if it had been carved of marble.

"Unwise," hissed Dracula, his form fading into shadow again. Simon whirled, wary of the next attack. The lore of Ralph, Christopher and Soleil said that the Shadow Lord would employ his infernal ranged attack as often as possible, until his mortal shell had been beaten such that it could no longer contain the foul spirit within.

So they danced, with moonlight their only witness. Simon felt himself in equal parts energized and wearied by it; this was what he had been born to do, and his blood sang with the need to destroy the bane of men. No more talk between them, now; no words were needed. The whip grew warmer and warmer in Simon's hand, and with each strike against the vampire's head, it seemed to seek its target almost of its own will. Though he was burned in a few places, elation began to grow in him; the vampire had begun to look haggard as well.

Laughter echoed about the chamber, and the deathless voivode's rate of movement increased. Hardly had he flickered out of existence here than he was standing there, each time unleashing blasts of hell and darkness, woven together and wrought of pain. Simon cast the holy cross, hoping to distract the vampire.

Each man had sustained numerous hurts, such that even the cast-iron countenance of the late prince showed it. Simon could barely stand for the pain; peppered with burn marks and bleeding freely from wounds reopened from exertion. The world began to seem remote and cold: greyer than he had remembered it. His limbs moved just a little more slowly with each strike.

As if sensing his opening, Dracula appeared directly in front of his ailing foe and threw his cloak wide, the crimson folds fluttering like ghastly wings behind him. Fire enveloped Simon Belmont . . .

And the Vampire Killer awoke.

Leaping unharmed from the flame, Simon found himself holding the true whip of his father; alight with holy flame that made the vampire cringe backwards. Now in sooth the King of Darkness showed his injury. Simon struck at his visage, shouting.

"We are the light against the shadow!"

"Silence!" The undead aristocrat's voice thundered with wrath.

Vampire Killer bit again, a vengeful serpent of blessed flame. "We are the hope that strangles despair!"

"Not this time!" Dracula leaped forward, his hand extended. Wolfish claws had grown from them, his face distended into a horrible snout, and his fangs long as a viper's. Hell-talons raked Simon's face and down his neck. Were it not for the tough leather he wore encircling his throat, it would have been torn open.

"We are the scourge against the darkness!" Simon smashed the flaming spiked ball at the end of his whip into the Vampire Lord's face as he fell back. His voice echoed.

With a sickening crunch, Dracula's head snapped backwards at an impossible angle, and flew across the room. Simon sucked in an elated breath despite the searing pain in his face. The vampire's body, rather than falling slack to the ground, hunched in on itself, as if in terrible pain. Simon took a wary step back.

His forefathers had warned of this as well; when the vampire's body had been damaged, the true devil that inhabited it would emerge; it had taken numerous forms in the past.

"Hhhha. Ha! Ha ha! Arrogant fool!" The body burst open, and an impossible creature emerged from it—larger than the skin it had inhabited by far, it towered over Simon by at least the height of two men. "Do you think that was victory? Here's true power! Perish in the black night!"

A massive, pale-skinned demon squatted, its square head mounted on a neckless torso and under-developed wings drooping from cruelly-clawed paws. An evil, leering grin revealed a tangle of long, sharp fangs, layered like a shark's. Simon hurled the cross at the head and stumbled backwards as fast as his battered body would let him. The demon batted the cross away as if it were an insect.

It took an awkward leap towards Simon, chuckling. Bloody spittle drooled down its chin and sizzled on the floor. Legs weak and wobbly, the air burning in his lungs, Simon threw everything he had at the transformed demon-vampire. His knife flashed through the darkness, blinding the demon in one eye. His axe curved through the air, a holy crescent hewing into the flabby, etiolated flesh.

A second leap brought the creature across the room, and Simon could not force his exhausted body to respond. He found himself choked in the demon's obscene grip, its jagged maw opened to decapitate him as it gibbered. Its warm, rank breath made Simon gag. He scrabbled at the huge, scaled hands, but could find no purchase. Desperate, he withdrew his last two vials of holy water and smashed them into the monster's face.

Stinking smoke boiled from its ruined visage, hunks of burned flesh dropping from the great, twisted skull. Simon rallied and leaped atop it, twisting his coruscating holy whip around the base of the head where a neck should have been. Bone-lappings burst and tore beneath the improvised garrote.

"Alwayssss . . . a thorn . . . in my ssside!" The demon's hands reached behind, tore the dangling Belmont from his perch on its back, and tossed him against the steps leading to the throne. Vampire Killer swung, twisted around its jaws.

Simon coughed, bringing up blood. "Then tell Satan that you were slain by cross and thorn." As Dracula lumbered blindly forward, Simon threw his weight into a blow with the holy cross, its silvered edges severing the head completely. Blood fountained from the decapitated corpse, and it shrank until it had resumed the appearance of the tall vampire. It had been flayed open; ribs scattered across the room, alongside teeth and fangs. A single eye had spattered against a bejeweled pillar, alongside several severed claws. Even the great signet ring dripped in gore nearby.

Simon let out a sigh, sick at heart. Something dark and smoky floated through the room, drifted across his wounds, and his eyes, before finally winnowing away into nothing with a palpable sense of rage.

Unexpectedly, a glowing orb appeared upon Dracula's throne, its pulsing light illuminating the carven entwined dragons' heads at an eerie angle. Simon cast a reproachful glare at the jewel, but obediently staggered forward, hand outstretched. He retrieved Vampire Killer from its place on the floor, noted with disquiet that it was completely dry, as if it had never been soaked in the blood of the Shadow Lord.

His fingers hesitated for just a moment, but when he touched the crimson globe, he understood.

Anger. That was Dracula's sin. He let rage drive him to unspeakable acts until it consumed him; as it will until his spirit utterly spent and even hell's legion will not avail him. His is a pitiable fate, though no less than he deserves for his black deeds.

I, too, have fallen prey to anger—hatred for my enemies, both mortal and immortal. I have hated the Hapsburgs for their incursion into our sovereign territory, and I hated the son of Dracul for his incursion into the world of men.

Light flowed over him, turning the world rose-colored.

Thank you, Lord. I am ready to pass, if it is your will. I have rid the world of the Dragon for another span of years, and the trial has shriven me. He felt himself lifted until his feet no longer touched the floor, and the light blinded him.

Balanskarpa Manor, Outskirts of Bucharest, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Winter, Feast of the Holy Theophany

"My lord, the boyar summons you."

Simon woke from dreams of falling, his fists clenched over the thick brocade of his coverlet. The haze of sleep fogged his mind for a few moments further, and he looked blankly at the man in the doorway, lantern held close. After a few deep breaths, he stood and pulled a dressing gown over himself. "My father?" He asked.

The servant Lucian nodded sadly. "The priest says that he is near his end."

Simon gestured hurriedly, and the servant stepped aside so that the young lord could rush past. Simon turned towards his father's bed chamber, but Lucian forestalled him. "He is at the top of Leon's Tower, my lord."

A frown creased his features. "As ill as he has become? What madness led him there?" Simon turned and took the winding stairs two at a time until he had reached the top of the oldest tower in the manor, built by the founder of the house himself.

Abel Belmont sat upon a simple chair, the wind riffling his greyed hair. Hands emaciated more by hardship and a vampire's curse than age gripped a pale, knobbly cane. His face turned up towards the midnight sky's blazing constellations. He did not move as Simon approached, but spoke in a voice so faint that it first melded with the wind.

"It will not be long now, my son."

Simon felt tears sting the corners of his eyes. Imbecile! You are a man, not a boy! Do not weep in front of him. He angrily swiped them away and knelt beside his father, the slayer of Graf Orlock and defender of Dresden. "Father, why do you sit out here in the chill? Come, we shall return to your chamber and I'll—"

"No." The word was sharp and strong as a basilard. "I have spent enough time trammeled away like an invalid amidst the smothering curtains and bedclothes. I shall go to God soon, and I wish to do so under his stars." He nodded to the cassocked episkopos nearby, beside whom stood a black-garbed nun. "Father Andrei has already heard my repentance and given unction. Mother Elenya has arranged for the necessary preparations once I am gone."

"What would you have of me, boyar?" The words stuck in Simon's throat.

"Take this." A gnarled hand extended a great signet ring wrought in white and red gold, an intaglio in the large, faceted sapphire. "You are the new head of the Belmont clan, and lord of Balanskarpa Manor. I confirm it." The ring looked somehow blurry as Simon slipped it on to his middle finger.

"And hear me. There is much of which I may not speak—that you must discover for yourself as a Man of the Fair Mountain. I have given you the tools from which you may build the rest of your life, but you must use them yourself." A cough shook his frail body. "You are a boyar, and must look to your people. But you are also a Belmont, and that is perhaps more important, for it makes all good folk your people. The duty of the Belmonts is to protect all people of just heart from the evil that plagues men."

"Dracula." The name made the parapets seem colder.

"Should that be your fate. But you must seek out evil everywhere, my son. This is my last command to you." Abel's hand gripped his own, and Simon was saddened to feel how much strength had already left it. "As a man must journey here and there in his holy theosis to rid himself of sin and understand the word of God, so must a Belmont voyage upon the sea of fate to find and exterminate the servants of Lucifer wherever he may. That is your holy duty."

They spoke for some time afterwards of simpler, happier things. At sunrise, Abel Belmont's spirit passed beyond, and Simon inclined his head to the priest and the nun who had stood silent vigil. He straightened his shoulders.

"What do you command, lord Belmont?"

Simon had no answer.

Poenari Pass, Valahia

Anno Domini 1691, Harvest-Tide, Feast of Saint David of Euboia

Earth. His feet touched solid, rocky earth.

Instead of rising to Heaven as he had half expected, he found himself standing upon a craggy bluff, watching the remains of the Demon Castle crumble into itself. Broken stone tumbled over the upthrust prominence upon which the blighted fortress had stood and into the dark valley below. Wind lifted his locks, and the first rays of sunlight touched his scarred cheek. How long did I battle? No matter, the thing is done, now. The fresh breeze had dispelled the foul vapors of the devil's demesne, and now hummed a tuneless requiem for the nameless victims that had perished within.

Even the monsters within had once been human, he reflected. Human, or something near enough as to be worthy of compassion at their passing. However, Simon merely smiled, happy to be alive, now that the nightmare had passed. A spasm crossed his back, lanced through some hidden pain, but he ignored it. He lived; it was enough.

The Hapsburg invasion yet waited for him when he returned, but that no longer seemed so bleak a prospect. He would heal his body and his soul as he journeyed back home. Perhaps once the troubles had passed, he would go on pilgrimage across the lands, seeking to destroy evil where it bred, as his father had done. He would become a hunter in truth.

A holy voyager.

Road to Poenari, Valahia

Anno Domini 1748, Spring

Atop the bluff, the ruins of a sinister, dark castle squatted, tense and malevolent. The misty forest beneath was shrouded in eternal night, chilling the pair of travelers. The first of these, a youth not yet grown to his full height or breadth, shrugged irritably, and tucked back a long strand of hair, so pale blonde it might have been white.

"This is an ill-favored place." His justacorps was a brilliant scarlet over fine white silk shirtsleeves. "Why would her kidnappers bring her to such a forsaken ruin?" He turned to his companion. "You are sure this is the place?"

Dark where his friend was fair, the other youth bore the mark of severe wounds across this face and body. "Memory fails me." He pulled the hood of a worn travelling cloak against a sudden lash of icy rain. "Yet there is something familiar here. Surely you do not doubt me?"

"Never." The reply was instantaneous and loyal. "I know you well enough. Falsehood is not your nature." So saying, Juste Belmont turned from his lifelong friend and regarded the fey citadel once more, its battlements like rotted fangs jutting into the night. Something dark and foreboding wove its way through his chest, and he swallowed.

Lend me strength, O Lord, as you did to my grandsire. Do not let me shame the heroic legacy of Simon Belmont.

Afterword

Happy Halloween, folks. This seemed like a fun thing to do for my favorite holiday, mixing my penchants for writing and extreme dorkitude. For those of you who are familiar with the Akumajo Dracula series (better known as by its portmanteau name Castlevania on this side of the pond), hopefully you found some of the "Easter Eggs" and "Hey, I remember that part!" moments.

This easily could have been a novel-length bit of self-indulgence, but I don't think it needed to be. In writing, I drew from research into Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the history of late 17th century Europe (especially Romania), the historical figure of Vlad Tepes II ( the loose historical inspiration for Stoker's Dracula), and of course, the game Castlevania itself. References to games which come earlier and later in the chronology of the series are here both for fans and to provide depth and context for casual readers.

One surprise to me was that upon reading the manual of the original Japanese Famicom Disk System "Akumajo Dracula" from 1986, was that the first two pages of the back story referred to Christopher Belmont over and over again as the family legend; I had always assumed that the character was a retcon element from the Game Boy Castlevania Adventure. I was pleased to find otherwise.

For the relatively hardcore retro gamers, did you spot the names of the music track names for each of the stages embedded in the text of the story? I added some from other games as well; bonus points to whomever finds those.

Now go watch some version of Dracula, or perhaps Vampire Hunter D.