The land was situated on the edge of Eastern Europe. Its history was a long one of West meeting East, quarrels, bared teeth, and attempts to tear each other's throats out. Their completely clashing cultures and religions led to extremely gruesome conflicts. Their perceptions of the enemy as inhuman, for whatever reason, caused an incessant escalation of the brutality. No matter the atrocity, as long as it was against their foes, it was heralded in the names of "God" and "justice".
Yet there was one among them who was feared by all, friend and foe alike, for his legendary cruelty.
His dominion was a small country surrounded by rugged mountains and deep forests. Sharing its border with the mighty Ottoman Empire and perpetually under its shadow, the country was continually involved in disputes over matters of military might and diplomacy. Born as the successor to this country, he was raised amidst disgrace and oppression, spending the days of his youth as the hostage of an opposing state. Not only that, but in order to sit his feudal seat, he was required to survive the maelstrom of plots by his allies.
After achieving status, he showed not an ounce of mercy towards either his political enemies or the soldiers of his foes. He solidified his influence in a short period of time, regulating the nobles and families who traditionally commanded great power within the territory.
He chose an old castle, protected by hillocks and forests, within which to reside. Many slaves and poor citizens were rounded up to carry out the rebuilding of the castle, driven to work under the cruel whip. The people looked up at the castle, towering above them on blood and moans, with fright in their hearts. The root of his influence was in fear. He was more widely known by his nickname than his real one. As the son of the archduke Dracul - "demon", also known as "the dragon" - he was called "Dracula". His alias was "the impaler".
He looked at the man kneeling on the stone floor. They were inside a room of indeterminate size, lit by a faint, flickering light. Sharp flashes occasionally streaked through the darkness outside of the window, illuminating the pallid face of the man sitting in a large chair.
An abundance of black hair hung across his wide forehead, the eyes below it brimming with endless wisdom and an ice-like ruthlessness which made all who looked into them tremble. The man, clad in a tunic studded with jewels in an Oriental style and a cloak fringed with luxurious fur, lightly pressed a finger against his sunken, bloodless cheek.
Stroking his glossy moustache, he spoke. "What a pity it is that there are still those who harbour doubts about my policies, even now that I have finally settled into my reign. And here I had thought that I had long ago disposed of those nobles who chased my valorous father from his seat and caused him to suffer a humiliating end. Do you mean to tell me that you, too, are in collusion with those stooges who once sold me to the Turks?"
The man finally looked up. His features were still youthful and handsome, but the smattering of bruises and the blood dripping down his brow made him appear twice his age. His fine attire, although not of the same quality as the other man's, had been torn to shreds, telling the story of his brutal treatment. Distant thunder, seeming almost to echo from the depths of the earth, made the candles flicker faintly.
"...There has been a terrible misunderstanding if you think me a spy for the Turks," the youth choked out. "I simply wished to ascertain your true motives, my lord. To think that your lordship would hear of it in such a manner... Not a soul in this region remains who would defy you, myself included."
"...Not a soul, hm?"
"No... my lord."
After answering, the youth caught his tongue as if in shock. The man stared at him, the youth's lips now even having lost their colour, the enjoyment in his smile growing.
"I see. Almost all of those who opposed me knew the folly of it. Now, it is your turn to learn."
"Please, I beg your forgiveness!" the young man pleaded, practically slamming his head down against the stone floor.
The man slowly turned his face to the window. A flash of lightning picked out the cold smile carved into his slender face once more. At the same time, it lit up the deep black hill visible from the window, as well as the forest of stakes hammered into its crest.
Crowning each and every one of the stakes were human bodies, impaled upon them as though marionettes made to stand. Tattered cloth clung to some of the bodies; others of those caught there were now no more than white bones. Still-fresh corpses, all of them with their mouths agape, stood screaming their curses for all eternity.
Most of the bodies there belonged to Turkish soldiers or the warriors of neighbouring countries who had fought as his enemies, but others included those like the young man who had denounced the man's policies, lesser nobles who possessed fortunes within the "lord"'s domain.
The young man, too, knew that "his turn", that which he had feared for so long, had finally come. He let out something akin to a scream.
"I offer all I have to you, my lord, if you will grant me your pardon. My fortune, my slaves - all of it is yours, free to do with as you wish..."
"All you have, hm?" he murmured softly.
The man looked back at the youth watching him with desperation on his face. He slipped his hand into the folds of his luxurious fur. With slender white fingers, he drew out an extravagant golden key.
"A wise decision. Then I shall take all you have."
The man flicked the key with his fingertips. A glimmer of gold fell beside the youth's knees with a pure clink.
"This key is the proof that I have accepted all that you have. Take it in exchange."
The young man gripped the key of gold with trembling fingers. His lips quivered, as if wishing to enquire.
"Now, you must be on your way." With no more to say, the man waved his hand in the direction of the door. "Off with you."
The youth somehow managed to stand. His gait was unsteady, due to the injuries he had sustained at the time of his apprehension, but fearing that the man would have a change of heart, he left through the door.
After watching him leave, the man finally let out a chuckle. He leaned back in his chair, his body shaking with laughter. Eventually, he muttered in a hoarse voice, "Such fools men truly are... Such fools..."
Without turning around, he issued the order come to the corner of the room.
The darkness swayed, and a huge suit of iron armour emerged into the light. Instead of human eyes, only sinister blackness peered out through the metal bars of the helmet guard.
"Follow him. Make sure."
A flash of light shot through the sky. As the suit of armour, glinting silver, passed through the door, creaking as it went, the man continued to laugh.
Thunder reverberated across the land, assaulting his ears. Bolts of lightning transformed into keen blades, slicing across the length and breadth of the heavens. Finally, the sounds and the light became almost simultaneous, filling the room as if attacking him.
He looked abruptly over at the window. The hills were burning. One of the pillars had been hit by lightning, and the cluster of pillars, fanned by a strong wind, were enveloped in vivid scarlet and gold flames. The corpses swayed atop their pillars as if life had been breathed into them anew by the fire and wind, their limbs swinging in a literal danse macabre. Their dance, beckoning others towards death, was now performed for the man alone.
"You had me impaled while I was still alive. Without casting so much as a glance at my tearful pleas for forgiveness. Without even the mercy to finish me off. Purposely keeping the stake shallow to prolong my suffering."
"It lasted for days. The birds pecked at me; the insects clung to me. Right up until the mercy of death finally ended my suffering."
At the moment their pillars scattered deep red dust as they crumbled, the corpses each screamed loudly enough to overwhelm the thunder.
"Come with us! Repent with your death! Don't forget our sorrow!"
The man simply watched, without so much as a twitched eyebrow. It was not fear that the dreadful scene carved into his face, but ridicule.
The man opened a large door in an enclosure of the castle. The room was a spacious one. The stone walls were concealed behind wood panelling and several layers of sheer silk, elegant ornaments scattered throughout the room illuminated by countless candles. This was the only room within the castle that possessed a beauty unbefitting of it.
A lone woman sat beneath a canopy. Much like the room, she, too, was like a flower unsuited to the castle. Her skin was porcelain, and sapphires glinted beneath boldly arched eyebrows. Her golden hair spread out, covering her slender body from behind and making her look like some sort of angel or goddess protected by holy light. The rigid expression she wore as she looked at the man did nothing to spoil her beauty. After acknowledging him and waving away a handmaid with a concealed face, she spoke in a stiff voice.
"Is there something you require of me?"
"That is how you would greet me?"
The man strode into the room, casually walking over to the hearth the woman sat facing. As she looked back at him, her eyes were not filled with the same terror as all of the others, simply shining brightly with a cold indifference.
"You are my consort. Are you saying I should not call upon your chambers if I have no need of you?"
She shook her head slowly. Her golden hair fluttered gently, tumbling down her shoulders of smooth porcelain.
"...Is there some matter about which you wish to speak with me? I shall listen."
"Your senses are sharp."
The same kind of smile he had turned upon the young noble earlier was etched upon his lips.
"Just now your cousin, Sztrecsek of Balteni, surrendered his land to me."
As she listened, the colour drained from her cheeks.
"A truly laudable man he is. I accepted his offer with pleasure, and gave him a golden key in exchange. Still, the key is the key to that chest of drawers. It shan't open any doors."
The man indicated the chest of side drawers with his chin, continuing in amusement.
"Hmm. I wonder if he will be able to find his way out of the castle. Since he thoughtlessly has the key, I am sure he will find himself quite lost."
"M... My lord..." the woman murmured, her voice trembling, pressing a white hand to her throat. The iridescent green pendant that hung from her neck on a thin gold chain glittered beneath her hand, conveying her shudders.
"If he should manage to escape from the castle, I mean to spare his life. We are distantly related through you, after all. That is how he has avoided ascending a post of his own until this day."
"Is... is it not the same thing? It is surely impossible to escape from this castle alive."
"Yes. Unless true fortune smiles upon him, he shall not be able to leave my castle. However, it is due to the fact that he is your cousin that I allowed him to choose a path by which he may be saved."
She bit her lip, like a wilted petal. His cold smile grew deeper still.
Suddenly, a knock seemed to roar out from the depths of hell itself. "Impossible," he responded, hearing the creaking of metal. The door opened, and the suit of armour that had been pursuing the young man appeared in it. With an ominous squeaking sound, it knelt before him.
The woman, seated there in earnest with her body stiffened, heard nothing, but the man nodded several times as if receiving a report, letting out a sinister laugh.
"Good work. You may go."
The suit of armour got clumsily to its feet once more, then slowly left the room.
"Your cousin appears to have made it to quite an interesting place. They seem to have played a little game together in the cloister of armour. It fell into a hole, so he fled into the sculpture room, surely thinking that he had defeated it."
"And then, he went through the door inside. He must have been sorely alarmed, for that is the room in which the nobles of our neighbour countries are kept locked up. It can never be opened from the inside. As we speak he is surely trembling, surrounded on all sides by mummies, staring at what he himself shall become in the morrow."
"My lord...!" she moaned. "Are you not satisfied!? There are no longer any nobles in this country who oppose you... No; whether they try to defy you or not, hardly any remain who wield power."
"...He said the same thing."
"Everybody knows, my lord. You have dispatched with all of those who would stand in your way... Even those of my own house..."
"Your house has been united to mine by matrimony for many generations," he said quietly, the same thin smile on his face. "My mother was, too. This means that you are the only member of my bloodline left. Your house conspired in a plot to betray my father. Ordinarily, they ought to have been eradicated altogether, but the instant I returned to the country they sent you in order to curry my favour. A cunning plan it was, too, I suppose. Sztrecsek's blood lives on in your veins. Our child will be the one to inherit this nation."
She reflexively pressed her hands to her stomach. Swollen and round, wrapped in soft cloth, a new life was visibly cradled within. She shut her eyes, pained. Her thin, trembling voice spoke something almost like a curse.
"You have spilled too much blood. Bloodshed on the field of battle is natural for a knight... But this castle is filled with the blood you have spilled, enough to drown in. Voices of resentment echo throughout the castle and the skies of the nation... God will not grant us forgiveness... God's resentment will hang over our child, and his children..."
"God, hm...?" For the first time, the smile vanished from the man's face. "God means nothing! If the Holy Roman Empire were truly under the protection of God, why did Constantinople fall? Neither the Romans' God nor the Turks' God holds any power to speak of. The power," he yelled with the force of a slap, "lies within me! I will create it with my own two hands, and all shall know it!"
The woman covered her ears so as not to hear, prostrating herself on the ground. Her hair fanned out like gold mist, glinting as the light bounced off it. As she began to weep softly, the jewel beetle pendant danced as though alive. The man looked on with indifference.
"The ninth sign, the Archer, represents destruction."
"Destruction? Yes, that seems befitting of me," the man muttered, sipping strong alcohol.
Three small shadows cowered before the chair upon which he sat. Wearing dull grey robes, they all looked the same. The shadows were ominous somehow, almost like solidified darkness. The shadow in the centre swayed, speaking in an oddly echoing voice.
"Right you are, my lord. This is the sign which governs your fate. You must create a statue in order to gain the protection of the stars."
"Arrows of fire soar. Their flames scorch the heavens, the earth, and your foes..." the shadow to the right said in a low, singsong voice.
The shadow to the left remained silent, pushing apart his robe and raising two bone-like hands. He drew some sort of shape in the air, and the room instantly exploded with heat. A colossal dragon of flames had appeared. The phantom dragon, summoned from the realm of magic, flew up into the high ceiling, rampaging throughout the room. Terrible waves of heat slammed against the stone walls, causing the tapestries hung upon them to smoke and smoulder.
But the three shadows didn't budge. The man, too, simply looked up at it as if in amusement. The dragon stretched upwards once more, then flipped upside down and surged toward the man. He merely narrowed his eyes slightly, catching the dragon with his whole body. The dragon vanished, as if being sucked inside the man.
"...What was that dragon?"
The darkness returned, the heat fading.
"It exists within you, my lord," the middle shadow whispered, "for you are a sacred son of the dragon."
The man shrugged lightly, as if nothing at all had happened.
"After that, please build one other statue."
"A statue of what?"
"The eleventh sign, the Water Bearer. It is the sign of your lady wife."
"Water is protection. All children are born from within water, after all."
The man's lips suddenly carved themselves into a sarcastic smile.
"Water extinguishes fire, does it not? Will it not also extinguish my power?"
"Water... it is not mere water," the right-hand shadow muttered as though chanting a spell. "Red... dark red water... It is blood. Blood flows. It fills the jug. The more it fills... The more it overflows... The more the power grows. And he who thirsts for power..."
The shadow fell silent. The man looked over at the left shadow, but he simply swayed there, doing nothing at all.
Their purposes fulfilled, the left and right shadows finally crumbled and oozed, melting away into the darkness. The remaining shadow spoke in a voice so low that it could hardly be made out.
"You have wrested for yourself the power of darkness. You should make use of it. The blood spilled in exchange shall seep through the stones of this castle, dripping down into the Land of the Dead." His voice reverberated, absorbed by the stone floor.
After some time, the man gulped down the contents of his cup and got to his feet. Pacing across the floor, now one level higher, he began to speak as if though to himself.
"I was taken hostage by the Ottoman Turks in place of my captured father, and raised at the sultan's manor. They inflicted the utmost humiliation upon me, attempting to plant the fear of opposing them within my heart. I was young, and resisted with all of my might at first, but this only served to increase their enjoyment.
"To instil me with fear, they impaled countless prisoners of war upon stakes before my eyes. They would stand me at the foot of the stakes, so the blood would pour over my head... I remember it well. Their warm blood fell from above along with struggled moans, entering my eyes and mouth... Drenching my whole body, and my insides, too, in deep red.
"There was a soldier who was skilled at impaling them without touching the heart, so as to stop them from dying right away, and they would place bets on how long the prisoner would survive for. By the end, I was joining in with their betting. Nothing would come of my futile attempts at rebellion. I was obedient... Throwing away the last scrap of my pride... I was theirs to control."
The black shadow simply lurked there fuzzily, perhaps listening to the man's monologue or perhaps not. The man continued, uncaring.
"I hated them greatly - not just the men, but my father for sacrificing his child in order to prolong his own life, too. Only one thing allowed me to endure each day: the thought that one day, I would flee Turkey and take over the country from my father, giving a taste of their own medicine to the men who had treated me this way.
"Eventually, sudden tidings came to tell that my father had been betrayed and murdered. They gave me soldiers, returning me to my country, meaning to turn me into a puppet... Many moons and fierce battles passed before I was able to rule over this nation as its true lord. But the battle is not yet over. I need power - strong power - even if a wicked one it be."
"...I tell you to please make use of it," the shadow replied. "You summoned us, lord, and granted unto us an offering of blood. For as long as that offering endures, our power is your power."
"Those moons I spent with the Turks were not for nought. It was from one of the sultan's secret books that I learned the means to summon you three. They will become sacrifices to their very own ritual. Not only that, but by the stakes they favour so much."
The man let out a melancholic laugh.
"I shall build the two statues, as you said. They will make pleasant decorations when paired with a fountain or somesuch object. And they will grant me the power which I require in order to fulfil my goal, yes?"
The shadow swayed gently, providing no immediate answer. Its silhouette gradually crumbled before slowly being absorbed into the floor, just as the two shadows had before it. The man watched it go with a furrowed brow. Once the shadow had vanished, a book reinforced with metal fixtures in all four corners fell to the ground.
Quiet rumours began to spread.
"...The son of Dracul, the son of the dragon..."
"That man is no dragon, he's a demon. He is trying to strip all privileges from we nobles."
"Not just our privileges."
"No, not just our privileges - our lives, too. No matter how many guards you surround yourself with, anyone who displeases him will find themselves swept away sooner or later."
"To that castle."
"And they never return."
"A demon. This is the work of a demon. There isn't a soul on this earth who can defy a demon."
"...Talking like this will put us in danger, too."
"You don't think...?"
"No, I don't know. One never knows where he has ears..."
"Part of me does envy him, though. The landowning lords of this nation are powerful, and our ruler is king in name alone. Myself and Count D share a wish to hoist all of those nobles up onto stakes."
"You mustn't say such things..."
"Ah, impossible. If they learned that I had spoken of this, the nobles of my count would impale me upon a stake. Count D is truly powerful in that regard. If not for him, his country would not have abided throughout the war with the Turks. The enemy soldiers seem to fear him as if he were some sort of demon."
"Of course they do. The soldiers' spirit is different when he makes his stand at the head of his army."
"When did he amass that sort of power...? Exiled to Hungary after another betrayal immediately after returning from Turkey... Not long has passed since he returned yet again and took the seat of archduke."
"We must not make an enemy of him. There can be no more reliable ally than he. Still, we can't know when the situation will change..."
"I saw... I saw it. A black suit of armour came without a sound and took Karel away."
"He was out weeding the field as always. When the suit appeared, he courageously struck it with the hoe at his side. But..."
"He was known for his inhuman strength. Isn't that right? But his hoe didn't hit. It was almost like he'd struck a ghost. The hoe passed straight through the suit of armour."
"I can't believe it... I saw it with my own eyes, and even I can't believe it, but..."
"Hey, stop that!"
"The suit of armour grabbed Karel by the arm and dragged him away... It was like he had even lost the ability to speak... I don't know how a see-through ghost was able to grab onto him, but..."
"I said stop! Don't talk about it!"
"I know where they took Karel... To the castle... They took him to that castle..."
"Fool! If you speak of it, they'll drag you off, too... And me along with you..."
"There are lots of stakes at the castle. All of the people who get taken to the castle are impaled on stakes and die. There is lots and lots of blood. Lots and lots... The lord laughs."
Pale light entered through the stained glass, faintly colouring the area. A maiden with golden hair stood, holding a wand. The ruler of the night, the moon, watched over the statue of the man, the other ruler. Above the stained glass towered a large dome, which made it look like grey clouds were perpetually gathering there, even on clear days. People believed that there were no stairs leading to the top floor of the dome. Only he, the lord of the land, was able to climb up there using some mystical means. The fief-dwellers looked at the castle with fear seated deep within their hearts. The dome was his seat, the centre of the terror.
Again, the man sat drinking alcohol before the shadows he had summoned forth from the land of darkness.
"...I believed that humans were fragile creatures. They perish so readily with just one stake."
"But sometimes, there are curiously unyielding ones among them. That boy captured recently managed to cut a hole in the stone wall he had been chained to using the ring upon his finger. I respected his spirit, and left him there rather than have him impaled. His impressive feat shall stand for as long as this castle does."
The shadows simply swayed softly. Suddenly, the man scowled again.
"Enough with the pointless chatter. The statues of the Archer and Water Bearer are both complete. I have also set traps here and there to make sure the blood continues to flow without cessation into the basement of the castle. I also had a craftsman make those queer devices you said you required. Is there anything more that you need?"
Hearing the mildly irritated tone in the man's words, the servant of darkness ceased its hitherto easy movements. The darkness peering out from within the grey robe swirled, growing even more profound. Suddenly, the vortex spilled out, filling the room.
For the first time, the man's face stiffened. Darkness overtook the area, trying to change the room into a completely different dimension. The grey robe vanished, and the man realised that he was floating alone above a bottomless abyss.
"Thou art Dracula. Demonson..."
The miasma-tainted wind blowing out of the ravine carried on it a low, cracked voice.
"Wh-... Who goes there!?"
"I am the one chosen by you, the one who chose you."
A breeze reeking of blood fluttered around the man, wrapping itself around his arms and legs. Inside it was the hatred of the people he had impaled. The wind wound itself around the man's body, trying to drag him into the depths of the abyss.
But the man shook off their presences, showing no signs of timidness. The spirits, realising that they were still unable to harm a single hair on the man's head, cried out in further rage. The voice from the bottom of the abyss let out a wicked laugh.
"I would expect nothing less of Dracula. That is why we chose you."
"Aye. Perhaps you thought to invoke and use us yourself. But we chose you, also. Still young, you were showered by the blood from the bodies pierced by stakes, catching the dribbles upon your lips. Filled with not terror and shudders but with rage and hatred, the blood must have tasted sweet upon your tongue. At that moment, you chose human blood as the sustenance of your own life; as the sustenance for you to live for hatred, revenge and destruction. When you chose the blood, you were chosen by us. Us and you became one and the same."
The man bit down hard on his lip, his stare fixed on the depths of the darkness. It was as the voice said. Ever since then, his heart had craved blood. The endless massacre and bloodshed was not merely an offering to the darkness of the secret rite. He needed it, too, to seep into his body and fill his heart.
"You are not yet sated. In accordance, we, too, are not yet sated. You shall crave blood for all eternity, until your hunger is completely satisfied."
An intense ache bit at the man's throat. He wanted to drink blood. He lusted to sink his teeth into warm, still-moving flesh; to feel the sweet liquid trickle down his throat.
The man's hair stood on end, savage fires burning in his eyes. His elongated fingernails tore at the air as if reaching for someone, the teeth peeking out from between his crimson-stained lips tapering into sharp points in the blink of an eye. The stirring spirits around him drew back and shuddered with terror as they had done in life. The man brandished his jet black cape.
A rampaging dragon of darkness appeared from out of the dark depths. It opened wide its red-stained maw, swallowing the fleeing apparitions in an instant. The man laughed loudly as the souls' screams ran together. The abyss, the darkness, had opened up inside of his own heart.
"Drink more, more blood!" roared the voice. "You require it. We require it. Dragonson. Demonson, Dracula. If you wish for the final power, you must slurp at the blood closest of all to your own. The blood of your own blood, the flesh of your own flesh - it is his blood that shall grant you eternal life, and power immense and unparalleled."
He laughed. The key to the door that led to the final power had been given to him. The roaring voice was one he knew well. It resembled the voice of his father.
No. It was his own voice.