The Most Serene Republic of Venice
Midnight, 7 February 1865
The air in the alley is frigid and dank, so still that I can hear the beating of my own heart. The cold gnaws at my mantle, but even as I pull it more tightly around myself a bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck. Beneath my clothing my chainmail armor clinks.
I lean out of the shadows at the alley’s mouth, keeping close to the wall. A mist of coppery light pours from the gas-lamp mounted on the stone archway above me, illuminating the winding canal and the fondamenta, the crooked stone footpath that runs alongside it. Across the canal stands a row of tenements, packed together like fish in a tin, mottled with scabs of crumbling plaster. The glassy water mirrors the black sky. All is quiet.
I slip back into the alley. Something stirs in the corner of my eye. My hand flies to my side and I press my back to the wall, my mouth dry as dust. Nothing leaps at me. All that moves is a reflection in the window-glass of the door facing me, that of a girl wrapped in a long black mourning mantle, her skin dark and her hair tightly braided and pinned to her scalp. Her eyes are wide, frightened.
I look away, trying to breathe evenly. I mustn’t be afraid. It doesn’t matter that I’m only just sixteen. It doesn’t matter that I’ve hardly a plan. I know more of the Dead than any other on this earth. I’ve my weapon and my armor. I know what to do.
The gas-lamp burns on. A trickle of cold slips beneath my armor and slimes over my skin. The silence hangs in the air, thickening the chill and the eternal damp, as though Venice itself is fevered, shivering in a cold sweat.
I chance another look out. Only a dozen yards away is a particular tenement house. A wreath of black ribbons hangs on the weathered door. Long, splintery scratches gouge the wood, more than there were only a day ago.
It was a day ago that I first saw this door, not long before moonrise. I hurried through the crowd of the market square, huddling beneath my shawl, keeping my gloved left hand hidden and my face shadowed by the brim of my bonnet. No one cast a glance my way.
I’m fortunate. Properly dressed I’m indistinguishable from others. The sight of me won’t cause a riot.
I saw a man locking the door of a tobacconist’s shop and went to him, taking a moment to collect myself before I spoke. “Where might I find the home of Siora Amalia da Luca?”
He flinched as though I’d jabbed him and stared at me for a long moment. Then he shook his head. “I’d keep well away from that house, if I were you.”
“Just keep away.”
I wouldn’t allow the warning to stop me. I asked him again, insisting until he told me the way, and followed his directions. After a time I hardly needed them. I knew where I was bound. A feeling of guiding grew within me, drawing me forward like a lodestone tugging a compass needle, growing stronger with every step I took.
I knew what it meant.
I came to the door with the black wreath. The feeling worsened, becoming a cold that turned the marrow of my bones to ice. I knew this feeling. I’d felt it once, long ago. It was impossible to forget.
The door opened at my knock, revealing a woman with a pinched, wan face and the shrunken look of one who’d not eaten for days. The door trembled as she gripped the knob, ready to slam it shut. “What do you want? Have you come to mock me too?”
“No. I’ve come to ask you about the monster.”
I draw out my pocket-watch. Its hands glint in the dusky light, pointed at two minutes to midnight.
My heart gives a shuddering leap inside my chest. My armor turns to lead, weighing me down. The metal gorget that protects my throat shrinks, pressing in to choke me.
I close my eyes and breathe. In the darkness behind my eyelids I see it again, what happened when I entered the house. The terrible chill lessened as I followed Siora da Luca inside, past stacks of furniture piled against the windows like a barricade. Two small boys gaped at me through the bars of the balustrade, then dashed up the stairs and disappeared.
Siora da Luca led me to a parlor. A candle flickered before a portrait displayed on the mantelpiece, a tiny carte de visite photograph of a girl who looked to be only a little older than me, with black hair wound into looping braids and a large oval locket at her chest.
“My Giulia,” Siora da Luca said. “We buried her a fortnight ago. On San Michele Island, of course.” She sank onto a stool, wringing a handkerchief. “They say I’ve gone mad with grief. They say it’s the rabies that killed her, and that I’ve caught it too. They say I’m raving.”
She stared past me, gaze fixed on nothing. “They know the truth.”
“What was it that killed her?”
She turned to me, with a look so wide and haunted that I couldn’t help but shiver.
“I went to the carabinieri. They drove me off. They told me they’ve enough to contend with.” She let the handkerchief fall. “No one will come near us. We’ve nowhere else to go.”
Her voice fell to a whisper. “Every night. Every night of this past fortnight, when the bell of the Campanile rings out the midnight hour.”
She twined her fingers through her hair, winding it into ropes so tight they seemed about to twist out of her head. “Scratching. Banging. Climbing the walls like a…an insect…”
She fixed me with that same, freezing look. “It’s Giulia,” she whispered. “She’s come back.”
I glance at the pocket-watch again. One minute to midnight.
I wipe away sweat before it runs beneath my gorget. I spent all of that night and this past day pacing about, sorting through all I know of the two hundred variants of the Dead. I used the rumors and what Siora da Luca told me to narrow the range of possibilities to three: ajatar, nachzehrer, and vourdalak.
It doesn’t matter that they belong to the Lesser Dead, that their brains shriveled after death and left them witless, rotten shells driven only to devour. Each varianta is unique, and strong.
I can only hope that I’ll be stronger.
I strangle a gasp. Another thundering clang shatters the stillness as the great tower bell begins to ring.
I put the watch away and undo the clasp of my mantle.
I toss the mantle away. My battle dress is underneath: a pair of black trousers, a black jacket, black boots.
I unhook my weapon from my belt.
The bell rings on, hurling its echoes down the alleyway, until suddenly it ceases. The air stops its quivering. The silence falls again.
I search the alley, the canal, the houses nearby, my heart banging, my nerves afire.
A tiny whirr from my left arm bores through the quiet like the whine of a wasp. A faint rumble shudders through the paving-stones under my feet, the growl of the machineworks as they churn beneath the ground, keeping the city afloat.
A ripple spreads across the surface of the canal.
The deathly chill seizes me again, far, far worse than before. The sense of guiding strengthens, a rope attached to my heart, dragging me forward. I fight it, flattening myself against the brick, edging as far as I can into the shadows.
More ripples follow the first. Water laps, slurping against stone.
I slide my thumb over my weapon and release the catch that holds it shut.
Something stirs at the canal’s edge, small, black and glistening, squirming like a dug-up worm. It grows, splitting into five spindly fingers that creep over the footpath’s edge. Slowly, slowly, another bony hand crawls from the water and joins the first. Ten black talons slide from their tips and hook in a crack between the paving-stones.
I daren’t breathe. I daren’t even blink.
In an explosion of water the vampire bounds out of the canal and lands in a crouch on the footpath. It remains there, still, dark water coursing over green-black flesh, streaming from the rags of a rotting burial gown. The Dead creature is wasted, a skeleton wrapped in skin so tight that the thing might be an anatomical drawing, every muscle and tendon standing out like cords. Its head is bowed, hiding its face. Its hands lie splayed against the ground, each bearing five long, spidery fingers with too many joints.
The Dead creature, the vourdalak, rises from its crouch. It holds itself hunched like an animal preparing to spring, hands curled, ready to grab. Before I can see its face it turns to the door with the black wreath.
It starts towards it, not walking but prowling, its head weaving from side to side like a hunting snake’s. My armor clinks as I lean out of the alley’s mouth to look after it, but if the creature hears me, it gives no sign.
The vampire reaches the door. Its fingers wrap around the doorknob and rattle it. The lock holds fast. The Dead creature rattles again, shaking the door. No one responds. There’s not a sound, not even a sliver of candlelight slipping through the shutters, though no one in that house is sleeping.
The vourdalak’s ribs shift as it draws breath. The sound that leaves it is a wet, garbled croak that becomes a name. “Maaaarco…”
Its claws dig into the wood with a scratch that makes my fingernails ache. “Maaaarco…” Scraaatch. “Giiiiio…” Scraaatch. “Motherrr…”
My stomach twists. The vourdalak preys first upon those it loved in life.
“Mother…” The vourdalak scratches the door again, gouging new furrows. “Mother!”
The Dead creature slams its fist against the door. A crack splits the wood. From inside the house comes a scream.
The chill sinks deep into my bones. The vourdalak is little more than an automaton of decaying flesh. It’s neither quick nor clever, but it’s patient. Its method is to torment, to drive its loved ones mad with grief and horror until they hurl themselves into its grip to end it. But this creature is starved. It hasn’t fed since its resurrection. Its patience will run out.
I see it happen in my mind: the vampire smashing down the door. Stalking through the house. Creeping across the parlor, crawling spider-like up the stairs, calling, calling, calling…
The two boys. Siora da Luca. Slaughtered by her own daughter’s corpse.
The woman’s face flashes through my head, strands of hair hanging over eyes that changed from haunted to bewildered as she stared at me, as though seeing me for the first time.
“Why have you come here? Who are you?”
“I…I’m someone who can save you.”
I stare at the vourdalak. It only appears frail. The force of its bite is tremendous, and I’ve no means to protect myself from its unique skill. Not even my own advantage will save me from that.
If my advantage still exists.
I force my shoulders back and my spine to straighten. I’m the only one who can save them. It must be me. Either I act or they die.
I won’t let another die.
I step out, onto the stone footpath.
The vourdalak halts, claws quivering.
I raise my spyglass-shaped weapon and twist its middle segment. Brass hisses against brass as it narrows and extends like an unfolding telescope, forming the long shaft of my glaive. The silver-edged blade flashes out and snaps into place, glittering, light, and sharp.
The infested corpse of Giulia da Luca turns. Its face is a skin-wrapped skull, its nose a ragged pit, its eyes shriveled white beads too small for their sockets. Its jaw gapes, toothless but for four curving fangs that glisten with viscous slime. Ikhor. Contagion.
I aim the glaive, holding it with both hands like a spear. The vourdalak studies me, tilting its head to the right, then to the left, a movement so inhuman that I know at once that nothing remains of the person it was. Giulia da Luca is dead.
The vampire’s ribs slide beneath its paper-thin flesh as the creature draws a long, hissing breath.
Panic bursts inside my chest. I charge straight at the Dead creature, swinging back my glaive to—
A wailing screech bursts from the vourdalak’s mouth, lancing into my ears. The glaive falls from my hands. I cover my ears but it does nothing, nothing to stop the knives of pure noise driving into my brain. Dizziness swamps me. The world spins around me. The ground pitches under my feet like the deck of a ship.
Another shriek strikes me. The gas-lamp above me explodes. My knees buckle. I flail about to catch hold of something and find only air. The ground gives another heave beneath me, and I fall.
The paving-stones smash into my side. Walls and doors wheel around me in a mad kaleidoscope of stone. With every spin the vourdalak stalks closer, jaws dripping slime…
The dizziness pins me to the ground. I gasp a breath, fighting my twisting insides, reaching within myself, searching for a change, any sign of—
The Dead creature crouches. My hand closes around the shaft of my glaive. I jam its base into the ground and shove myself to my feet, too late. The vampire springs.
A mass of slimy flesh barrels into me and throws us both down. Its jaw unhinges like a python’s. I ram the shaft into the vampire’s neck, shoving it back as its teeth gnash and its claws rip through cloth, raking over the links of my chainmail. Then it wrenches the glaive out of my hands and lunges for my throat.
Its jaws clamp down on my gorget. Fangs snap. I grab the vourdalak’s shoulders, shoving at it. My fingers sink into its slug-like flesh. A horrible smell crawls down my throat, a reek like a dead rat rotting inside a wall.
The vourdalak’s jaws close. Metal creaks. My gorget begins to bend.
I swing my fist into its head. The Dead creature’s bite only tightens. My gorget crumples, crushing my throat. Fog shimmers at the edges of my vision, darkening, until with one last scream I grab the vourdalak again and shove with all of the strength I have left.
The cold in my marrow surges like lightning. The vourdalak’s teeth tear out of my gorget. The vampire hurtles away from me and smashes into a high window. It tumbles down and lands on the footpath in a heap, shards of glass raining down around it.
I roll onto my feet, coughing. The crumpled gorget jabs into my neck. The coldness and its strength burn within me.
The vourdalak stirs. I snatch my glaive from the ground as the vampire climbs to its feet, shards of glass sticking from its flesh like spines, its head lolling limply onto one shoulder. It takes hold of the crown of its skull and jerks it back into place with a crunch.
Its chest expands as it draws breath. I raise my glaive and charge at it. Its mouth gapes again.
My eyes close. I swing the glaive like an axe. The blade bites into flesh and shears through with the sound of a cleaver chopping meat. A spray of cold slime spatters my face. A mass strikes the ground with a wet thud.
The sound of my breaths is a hurricane roar. The cold and the strength dissipate, evaporating like rising steam.
I open my eyes. A heap of flesh and jutting bone sprawls on the ground before me. A head lies paces away, its mouth stretched into a wide twisted scream.
The vourdalak’s body gives a violent shudder. Its joints spring apart. The entire corpse falls to pieces, rotting, but the two dead eyes remain, sinking into the putrid black pool, staring at me…
From the door with the wreath comes the scraping of a bolt, the turning of a lock.
I wheel about and run, away from the door and the Dead creature, into the dark.