Being the 3rd story of the adventures of Manfred, which began with
The Kaiserine's Champion and continued in The Vampyre's Kiss.
Sizzling flesh; indescribable pain. I didn't scream, as much as I wanted to. I refused to give my torturer the satisfaction. Instead I clenched my teeth until I thought they must shatter with the pressure.
The monk took the smoking iron away and thrust it back into the brazier fire. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear: "This is your last chance to confess. Your final chance to save your soul. Cleanse yourself of your sins, or burn in the fires of damnation forever."
I'd never really had much time for holy men. This one was no exception. I so very badly wanted to choke the life from him with my bare hands, but the thick ropes that bound me to my chair limited my options somewhat. The chair was reinforced with iron and bolted to the floor. It was almost as if this place had been prepared to contain someone whose strength far exceeded that of a normal man.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
He took another iron from the brazier and inspected its bright orange tip. "Why? Why? I should have thought it was obvious. Only by peeling away the human mask can I reveal the demon beneath. And we both know there is a demon, don't we, Master Manfred?"
I could not have been more surprised had he slapped me in the face with a wet trout. How could he possibly have guessed such a thing? Not even my closest friends in High Sazburg had known my secret. I'd guarded it jealously, for good reason.
"There was a demon," I admitted cautiously. Given these dire circumstances I was prepared to detail my recent misadventure with the arch-vampyre Count Bobo Adelhaben and his evil consort, Monika von Drache, which until that moment I had been doing my best to forget. "It has already been exorcized and cast into the abyss."
The monk, in a sudden rage, threw the hot iron across the chamber. It clanged off the wall and thudded to the floor. "You think me a fool? You think I don't recognize the sulfurous stench of sorcery that rises from your flesh and fills this room?" He paused to gasp for breath. When he spoke again, his tone was more measured. "You bear all the signs of darkness. I only have to look at you to know you are a servant of the Horned One. And I... I am the sword of shining righteousness, forged to battle the evil that seeks to overwhelm our world."
Mad as a hatter. I didn't hold out much hope for a good ending to this story.
"I should like to save the man and destroy the demon," he said, choosing another hot iron. "But this is not always possible. Sometimes one must perish in order to destroy the other." He sounded genuinely apologetic. He turned to face me again and advanced with the glowing iron. "I pray that you understand the necessity. I take no pleasure from this."
That makes two of us, I thought, wishing I could somehow travel back in time to the previous evening and warn myself about this madman. Alas....
I remember asking von Kurtz who the man in the black robe was. The adjutant-major made a sour face before answering. "His name's Razputin. He's a monk, or so he claims. He accompanied the Moskovian trade delegation that visited last week. They went back home, he stayed. The Graf has not yet seen fit to explain why." Von Kurtz drained the contents of his glass. "And it is not my place to ask." Evidently I'd hit a sore point, without realizing.
The orchestra played a pleasant melody over the hubbub of conversation and laughter that filled the ballroom. Tonight everyone in the Empire was celebrating the Kaiserine's engagement to Good King Johnnie, benign ruler of Albion. Even Wentgarten, far from the Prussian capital, on the Eastern March facing frosty Moskovia, was no exception. We men all looked our best in our formal dress uniforms, and the ladies were beautiful in their finest evenwear and glittering jewelry. Outside, cannons were firing and bells were ringing. The orchestra played louder.
Von Kurtz snatched another glass from a passing servant's tray and tossed the startled servant his empty glass. We'd struck up an easy friendship almost from the moment I'd arrived here unannounced, having escorted one of the Graf von Krazny's daughters home to Wentgarten after some highwaymen waylaid her coach. Von Kurtz had been the one who'd suggested to the Graf that the Border Guards XII Corps might benefit from my services, since their previous swordmaster had hospitalized himself—somewhat ironically—by nicking an artery whilst shaving. At first I'd been reluctant to accept the job, but it was working out rather well. My honorary rank of captain forbade the Graf's guardsmen from challenging me to personal duels and thus reminding me of recent fatal events in High Sazburg, which I was keen to put behind me.
"Hadn't you better ease up on the sauce?" I suggested to von Kurtz, only half-jokingly.
"Strange times, Manfred, strange times," he said mysteriously. I assumed he was referring to Razputin, who was speaking to the Graf at that very moment. Whatever the monk said made the Graf nod in agreement. But Razputin's gaze was fixed upon me, which I didn't like one bit. His pit-black eyes held a sinister power that touched me from across the room. For a moment I wondered whether he might be vampyre. But my senses told me no, he was not. Nonetheless I remained wary of this man, and I resolved to press von Kurtz for more information later.
A house guard officer approached von Kurtz and they leaned together to talk in whispers. While this was going on I found myself being admired from the other side of the room by a young lady. Her striking beauty and raven hair suggested she might be another of the Graf's daughters, most of whom were of age and most of whom had, one way or another, either bluntly or with knowing subtlety, expressed an interest in me. I blamed it on the uniform: while the Graf's men wore his distinctive black-and-purple colors I still wore Duke Wilhelm's livery, scarlet trimmed with gold, which made me stand out in the crowd. I also like to think I have rugged good looks, though upon sober reflection I am probably deluding myself. What man does not? Meanwhile the young lady smiled at me and I smiled back, trying to guess who she was. Constanz, perhaps, or possibly Shari, whom I had not been introduced to yet. The problem was that the Graf had so many daughters, all of whom bore a striking resemblance to their equally beautiful mother. But while such beauty was tempting, I'd heard mess gossip about misguided young officer cadets who'd allowed their passion to overcome their common sense and had ended up aboard the next transport Zeppelin bound for The Front, which fate I neither envied nor desired. Thus I chided myself for returning the lady's smile, which might be seen as encouragement, and by sheer effort of will turned my attention back to von Kurtz instead.
He placed his empty glass on a servant's tray but didn't take a fresh one this time. "Don't look at anyone, don't say a thing, just follow us," he said. Without waiting to hear my response he set off through the crowd in pursuit of the house guard officer. I went after them, as requested.
The lady moved to intercept me. We met just as I reached the door and she pressed something into my hand. She really was quite attractive, and now that I'd seen her up close I realized she wasn't one of the Graf's daughters after all. "My most sincere apologies, my lady," I said, "duty calls." Surprise and disappointment showed in her eyes. Hopefully she'd still be around when I returned. I saw she'd given me a white silk handkerchief, embroidered with the letter "V" in gold thread. I pushed it into a pocket and caught up with von Kurtz.
We left the grand ballroom, crossed the hallway and descended a flight of steps into a wide cellar stocked with barrels and bottle racks. Then we passed through a busy kitchen full of steam and clattering noises. Cooks and their assistants hastened to get out of our way. We climbed another stairway and emerged into an enclosed courtyard, one of many such within the sprawling collection of buildings and towers that comprised Schloss von Krazny von Wentgarten.
I'd been told that some parts of the castle dated back to the time of the first Eagle Dukes. The courtyard's crumbling walls and a skewed arch gateway hinted that this might be one of those original areas. The castle looked solid from the outside but here the reality was far different. A good storm could bring this section down.
Lantern light revealed a half-dozen guardsmen gathered in the far corner of the courtyard, their backs to us. As we approached they parted to admit von Kurtz. I recognized most of them; I'd been training these men and had got to know some fairly well. Usually when off duty they were full of good humor. Tonight their expressions were grim and their eyes wary.
I kept my distance until von Kurtz beckoned me closer. I wished he hadn't. The body that lay face-down in a flower bed was that of a young woman who wore a pale yellow dress and matching slippers with silk straps around her slim ankles. The Graf's daughters were all raven-haired; this poor girl was blonde. Her arms and legs were unnaturally twisted, as was her head. The pale yellow dress was spattered with blood and so were the walls behind her. I looked up, prompting von Kurtz to do the same. There was no ledge above, no bridge between the castle's towers or wings. She could not have fallen, presuming she'd had business up there in the first place. Someone had murdered her in this spot. Someone with brutal strength and fury; a madman.
"Everyone move back," I said. They obeyed without question. I took one of the lanterns, crouched and examined the earth. "Did any of you step in the flower bed?"
"No, sir," a young lieutenant named Gustav said with certainty. "None of us did. It was obvious, sir, that the lady was beyond help. I sent Schotzie here to alert the duty officer." Schotzie, beside him, nodded to confirm this.
"Do you see any prints?" von Kurtz asked me.
"No," I lied. "Not a thing. But it was worth having a look."
Von Kurtz addressed the guardsmen. "I'm pleased to see that none of you has so much as a spot of blood on his uniform. Judging from the mess on the walls, whoever is responsible for this ghastly deed may not be so clean. You will give your names and company numbers to the duty officer. Then you will pair off, split up, and take a casual stroll through the castle. Without appearing to do so, you will examine everyone you meet—officers, guardsmen, servants, maids, cooks, stable hands. Should you find anyone with blood on their clothing or boots or under their fingernails, one of you will remain to observe that person while the other reports at once to the duty officer. If you make no such discovery within the next hour, find the duty officer and do whatever he tells you. During this exercise you will not discuss what you have seen here with anyone. Is this understood?"
"Yes, sir," came the chorus. Von Kurtz nodded his approval and the guardsmen dispersed, most going back inside via the cellar stairs while one pair disappeared through the skewed arch gateway. Von Kurtz and I were left alone in the courtyard with the corpse of the unfortunate girl.
"Do you recognize her?" I asked him.
"No, I do not." Von Kurtz wiped his hand down his face. He looked drained and weary. "You should know that she is not the first." The words had come tumbling out, as if this were something he didn't wish to tell me. Or was not supposed to tell me.
"Perhaps you'd care to explain?" I said, marveling at how calm my voice sounded.
He drew a long breath before he answered. "Three women have died over the past three nights, Manfred. The other two were the wife of an officer stationed at Bear Pass, and a woman from the town who worked in the kitchens." The town was Messengart, just down the hillside, many of whose inhabitants were employed as staff in the castle. "We've been keeping things quiet, hoping the fiend responsible will make a mistake and show himself."
"Keeping things quiet? Are you insane?" Faint music from the ballroom carried to us on the chill night air. I thought of the ladies inside, and how some of them might be aware that one of their number was missing, a pretty girl who'd worn a pale yellow dress with matching slippers.
Von Kurtz looked at me sharply. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Not my decision. I have brought you into my confidence, without authorization, I should point out, in the hope you might provide some insight."
"What kind of insight do you imagine I might possess?"
"Come now, Manfred." An angry edge had crept into his voice. "Even this far from the capital, we hear stories. We've also had a couple of fellows return from leave in High Sazburg. They say there's a war going on between the Secret Police and the vampyres. It's being kept from the public, but the City Wardens warned our men."
"There was some recent unpleasantness," I replied carefully, "but I believe this was resolved to a degree before I resigned my previous commission."
Von Kurtz waved a hand, indicating the dark stains on the courtyard walls. "Do you think this, this obscenity, might be the work of a creature of the night?"
I gave the idea due consideration. "If you mean a vampyre, I would have to say no. They only take enough blood to survive. The victim often isn't harmed and probably won't even remember the incident later. The fang wounds heal very quickly so they are unlikely to be detected." I pointed to the unfortunate woman, "This is wasteful. This is unnecessary spillage of valuable blood." Even as I said the words aloud, I knew them to be true. "This isn't a vampyre's doing. This is the handiwork of a brute, an animal."
He stared at me, but I said no more. The past was the past and I wanted it to stay there, so I changed the subject. "I didn't want to say in front of the men. There is a footprint. Of sorts."
Von Kurtz followed my pointing finger. An indentation in the earth, partly hidden by scattered flowers. "Are you sure? I can't see—" And then suddenly he did. "Mein Gott," he whispered.
A strangled cry reached us from the direction of the arch gateway. I had my sword out and was running before the sound faded. On the other side of the arch gateway I found another old courtyard with the crumbling remains of a well at its center, boarded over for safety. A guardsman staggered out of a doorway, clutching his chest. He pointed back into the darkness. I pushed past him, leaving him for von Kurtz to deal with.
My boots splashed through unseen water, the sounds echoing around me. Moonlight revealed the outline of a square exit straight ahead. Through this opening I saw the second guardsman lying face-down on the ground, arms and legs thrown wide.
Something crouched over the guardsman's body, a shape, a hunched shadow. Its head turned and twin spots of orange light glared at me. I stood rooted by some base fear that demanded I turn back and flee for my life. I very nearly did. But moonlight reflected on the water and glinted off my sword, a gift from the Kaiserine herself. The inscribed silver characters glittered. The twin orange light-spots shifted to stare at the blade. The creature bared its teeth and gave a displeased growl. In a violent flurry of motion the thing disappeared, leaving only a ghostly outline behind on my eyeballs. It had leapt over a broken wall more than twenty feet away. Nothing human could have moved so fast or made such a jump.
"Manfred! Manfred!" Von Kurtz's concerned voice seemed very far away.
"Here!" I shouted back. I didn't want to move in case the creature was still out there, waiting to leap back and attack me. Splashing sounds grew louder, then von Kurtz staggered panting out of the darkness behind me. He steadied himself against the tunnel wall until he caught his breath. Then he saw the fellow who lay before us, and crossed himself. The guardsman's throat had been ripped open.
"Who did this? Did you see?"
"I saw something," I told him.
"The beast that left that footprint?"
Neither of us wanted to speak the word aloud. Werewolf. Its size, its shape, its inhuman speed and power, the fact the attacks had begun three nights ago and tonight was the third full moon of the month, all suggested that Schloss von Krazny was plagued by a monster whose reputation for brutal savagery was well known. Its kind had infested the impenetrable forests of the Upper Topol region before the Air Corps bombed said forests to ash in a firestorm campaign. It was too much to hope that the entire species would have been exterminated. This one must have survived that fiery onslaught and made its way south, ending up eventually in Wentgarten.
"How is the other fellow?" I asked.
"He's lost a lot of blood but he'll live."
"You'll have to quarantine him."
"I know, Gott damn it!" The guardsman would have to be watched closely to ensure he had been tainted by the werewolf's curse. If he showed signs of change when the next full moon came around then he would have to be dealt with, a sad but necessary business.
Von Kurtz and I waited there for a while but nothing else moved, and no sounds reached us other than the occasional water droplet plopping into a puddle. I couldn't decide whether or not I wanted the werewolf to return. Part of me wanted the chance to cleave its foul heart. The more sensible part of me hoped I'd never see it again as long as I lived. But as time slipped by I realized it had fled into the night, having claimed another victim in addition to the young woman.
"Fetch help," I told von Kurtz. "I'll wait here."
"No. But do it anyway."
He returned some minutes later with four house guards. These men were hand-picked for their loyalty and courage but tonight their fear was palpable. I hoped mine wasn't, but I couldn't be certain. It was that kind of night. They lifted the body and carried it away. Presumably other grim, silent men were disposing of the body of the woman, too.
Once they had departed, von Kurtz swore me to secrecy. I was not to speak of this with anyone, and if asked, I must deny all knowledge of what had happened. This didn't sit well with me but the adjutant-major almost begged me to agree. No effort would be spared to track down the werewolf and end its killing spree, he promised, which satisfied me only slightly. But in the end I gave my word, and that was that.
Von Kurtz invited me to return with him to the celebrations. He didn't seem surprised when I declined. I went back to my room instead and uncorked a bottle of brandy to wash away the memory of a beautiful young woman in a pale yellow dress.
I almost succeeded.
The following day, the castle went about its usual business. Infantry companies drilled while Zeppelins of the Air Corps droned overhead, dipping and turning in the synchronized patterns of formal aerial combat. I heard not so much as a whisper from von Kurtz. His aide, Donitz, a bright, chatty lad who'd lost his left arm at The Front and who seemed to prefer books and maps to military matters, happened to mention that the Graf and von Kurtz had left Wentgarten early that morning aboard a coach under heavy escort. Donitz might have known more but his worried frown told me he didn't want to divulge what might be confidential information. I didn't press him for details, and wasn't sure if he was relieved or annoyed by this.
In their absence I continued training the Graf's officer cadre in the fine art of bladesmanship, but found myself distracted by thinking about what had happened last night. There came an incident when, due to an unforgivable lapse in concentration, I parried an over-enthusiastic thrust by a young lieutenant called Meyer and accidentally wounded him. I say wounded; it was only a scratch. He took it well, as if it was a badge of honor, and seemed miffed when I insisted he visit the surgeon to have it looked at. Perhaps he might have felt differently if he'd known how close I'd come to plunging my sword through his heart. But the encounter made me determined to buttonhole von Kurtz as soon as he returned and demand he reveal the state of his investigations. I also resolved to pay more attention to what I was doing before I maimed or killed someone. These young men were proud to show off their dueling scars but I had no intention of adding to their collection. Let them hack themselves to pieces in their own time. I taught them how to fight and if I perceived they were slacking they felt the flat of my blade, not the point.
Donitz had also told me that Razputin had been given use of one of the guest apartments in the east wing. The monk apparently prayed and meditated for hours every day, only emerging from his top floor rooms in the late evening to walk the upper battlement walls before returning to his privacy. Food and water were delivered to his apartment daily by a servant who claimed the monk waited until he departed before unlocking the door and pulling the tray inside. Not very interesting news but it served to tickle my curiosity further. Who was this man and what was his business in Wentgarten?
In between assigned training periods, I found myself with too much time on my hands. Fortunately I had discovered that the castle library contained rather an extensive collection of reading materials gathered from all over Europa by Old Graf Otto, the current Graf's late father, a civilized gentlemen whose troops had standing orders to salvage all books from whatever city they were plundering before they razed it to the ground.
I read up on werewolves. They had a long history of preying upon humans, and had been encountered in every corner of the world. Wherever man went, it seemed, werewolves were waiting for him, as if somehow they were inextricably linked. There were different kinds of werewolf, I learned. One transformed from ordinary wolf into a monster as big as a horse. In this state they were terribly difficult to kill. Knights with lances figured into these legendary stories. Another type transformed from wolf into human, and vice versa. Some authors suggested that in their non-wolf form they might actually live among people, pretending to be human. Until the moment when they would choose a victim and revert to their bestial selves to kill and feed. Scholars were divided on whether such wolf-men, or lupines, as they had chosen to call them, could mimic human speech. Probably yes. They could certainly mimic human expressions and mannerisms, concealing their true identities from the most rigid scrutiny. Their reputation for cunning was well-deserved.