Three months later…
The wild forest glistened under the high noon sun. The runoff from once snow enshrouded pine trees slushed beneath the treads of Dracula's caravan, making the journey cumbersome as his army marched from Wallachia towards the principality of Muntenia. Justina marveled at the sheer size of Dracula's troops from her seat in the middle carriage. The army stretched as far as her eyes could see, men of various ages clad in darkened armor of chainmail and greaves and wielding everything from swords and spears to spiked clubs and war hammers, each man marching in lockstep towards their destination.
The past three months had been a trying time for Wallachia. Once the smoke had cleared from the sack of Muntenia the race was on to gather the houses of Romania still loyal to prince Dracula. Ravens were sent, troops mobilized and every provision they could spare was given out in preparation for the battle. Justina was still taken aback by the entire ordeal. The prospect of death hung over Wallachia and here they were, marching straight into the storm. The rigors of the past several months seemed to have taken their toll on Dracula as well. The prince sat across from her clad in a cloak of deep vermillion. A hood obscured his face but Justina knew that his countenance was that of a death mask.
In the weeks since Madalina's funeral Dracula's pallor had become paler than snow, dark bruises punctuating the undersides of his sea green eyes. His fragile appearance belied an ever increasing sadistic nature however, one that Justina prayed would be brought to heel until the coming battle. When Turkish ambassadors travelled to Wallachia demanding Dracula's surrender, he ordered their turbans to be nailed to their heads and their bodies sent back to the sultan. It seemed as if Dracula's wrath knew no bounds, he would burn anything that got in his path until there was nothing left.
Not even himself.
The caravan crossed the still thawing Danube River, treads and horse hooves sloshing through the murky waters. Justina stared through the carriages window, beyond the tree line where the still remaining steeples of Muntenia's monasteries loomed. The journey into the ravaged city took them well into the day. The late afternoon sun watched their every movement as they arrived at the cities main gate. The gates were splayed open before Dracula's caravan and Justina was able to take in the immensity of Muntenia and its destruction.
The carriage bound across broken cobblestone roads, Dracula's troops flanking out to both sides towards the fire gutted monasteries. How pitiful the once proud and gallant monasteries looked, the gilding stripped away from their steeples and facades scorched. She could see no bodies, no mass graves littering the roads or mountain of corpses stretching towards the sky but wafting along the wind was the unmistakable scent of decay.
The carriage came to a stop before the largest of the Muntenian monasteries. Justina stepped from the cramped confines and stretched her taut muscles. Dracula emerged next, his skin covered from the chilled sun. A young scout reported sightings of Turkish troops north of Targoviste as Justina took in her surroundings. Once finished Dracula dismissed the boy and turned his attention to Justina.
"I must say that this is a better accommodation than sleeping on the forest floor." She said.
Dracula grunted. "Just because we are in times of war does not mean we must live in squalor. Come."
They entered the monastery into a vast chamber where shadows dwelled. Many of the monasteries stained glass windows were blown out, sunlight spilling into the spacious nave that was being converted into a makeshift command center.
"The city center will make the best defensive position," Dracula said. "From here we can manage our war effort and surveil the surrounding areas."
Dracula led Justina to the back of the room beyond the altar. They stalked past frescoes of religious scenes that were defaced by the Wallachian troops and entered the refectory dining hall. At a time that seemed so long ago now these halls were occupied by the boyars and their families, now the Wallachian troops feasted upon the long oaken tables. Dracula then showed Justina to her own quarters, a spartan, dimly lit chamber stocked with bookshelves and a bed that looked none to comfortable.
"I must join the others for a briefing," Dracula said. "You should get some rest as I am sure the next several days will be trying."
Dracula excused himself from the room, leaving Justina in the wake of his aura once more, only this time all she felt was concern. His pallid and lethargic appearance was a problem the prince seemed content to avoid, but she knew it was only a matter of time before his body failed him. Human or daemon, it did not matter when the body gives out like wind born ash. She could not even begin to fathom the physiology of his being, but she knew what had sustained him all these years, what he so desperately needed now.
The thought consumed her throughout the evening and well into the night. After bathing in the monasteries balneary Justina found herself physically drained from the days travels but her mind fluttered with unassailable thoughts. She lay on the rough surface of the bed, wishing she could make sense of Dracula's plight. As a restless sleep eventually took hold of her she caressed the empty side of the bed, her mind drifting into a dark and macabre dream. Justina stood before a vast and darkened forest of the impaled. Men, women and children, young and old, all crowned atop stakes of sharpened wood, their ghastly arms stretched towards her like bare branches and their mouths twitching in silent respite. Amidst the impaled stood prince Dracula, resplendent in his blood red cloak. His face was a mask of hatred, eyes smoldering like twin hearths and raven black hair billowing around him as the cries of the impaled grew in strength until they became a tempest. Dracula beckoned her forward and Justina was enrapt, compelled to him. In a cacophony of tortured screams she floated towards his outstretched hand, so close she could almost touch him. Justina could hear the ringing of great bells over the maelstrom, a clashing so thunderous it tore down the walls of her dream world, leaving her dazed and sluggish as she returned to the land of the awakened.
She sat up, the sleep melting away from her as the bells echoed throughout the monastery. Something was wrong. She could feel it in the urgent clanging of the bell, an incessant call to arms. Justina climbed out of bed and slipped into a tunic and pantaloons. Outside her room she could hear the commotion of troops as they prepared for the imminent threat. Justina opened her chamber door and stole into the corridor. Instead of following the remaining troops however, she made her way down the opposite end of the corridor and into a recessed area where a spiral staircase stretched all the way to the monasteries roof. She took the stairs two at a time, never resting until she emerged from the torchlit stairwell and into the Muntenian night. The ringing of the bells was nigh deafening but Justina willed her thudding heart to quiet and trudged to the side of a steeple overlooking the city.
To the east she could see an advancing procession of torchlights encroaching within the city. Hundreds of spectral flames marched forward through the cobblestoned street, flickering light reflecting off their helmets and lacquered chain mail. From the monastery the Wallachian troops rushed forward to confront the invaders, their own torches swaying amidst their charge and at the forefront was Dracula himself, his bloody cape trailing him like wings.
Even the clanging of the bells could not drown out the war cry which erupted from the Wallachian troops as they charged forward. The collision of the two armies sent a terrible clamor throughout the night air, the singing of steel and rending of flesh, screams of barbaric bloodlust and those of the dying sent chills down Justina's spine. Through the mass of warring bodies Dracula carved through waves of Turks with his greatsword. He was lithe and graceful, as powerful as a bull and as swift as a snake. The Turks fell like leaves before his blade but more and more enemy troops joined the fray from the side alleys. The Wallachians were being overrun, the tide turning in the sea of battle.
Justina found herself muttering a silent prayer as the Turks forced the Wallachian troops back. A sword plunged through Dracula's ribs up to the hilt, a blow that would have felled any mortal man, but the prince wrenched the blade free from his body and drove his own sword through the attacker's throat nigh decapitating him. More blades assailed the prince, his returning blows less forceful. When it seemed as if all was lost the night exploded into a flurry of screeches and beating of wings. From the shadows of rooftops, from the cracks and crevices of Muntenia, a swarm of bats rose into the night air. Thousands, millions, of blackened, festering shadows formed a cloud so impenetrable not even the light from the moon could pass through. For a moment the fighting stopped, every man's gaze turned towards the mass in the sky. With a guttural cry Dracula raised his sword towards the sky and the cloud of bats broke away in a deluge of certain death upon the Turkish troops.
Some of the Turks tried to run, some prayed in their foreign and harsh language while others tried to slash at the horde but there was no escaping, no saving grace and no blade that could defeat the forces beyond our world and the prince who wielded it with such power. The fading screams of the dying Turkish troops was replaced by an undulating cheer that swept through the Wallachians until their voices became an uproarious cry of victory. The bats took to the night air once more, their work well and truly done. The surviving Wallachians celebrated with their prince by their side, the skirmish over and battle won, but once the reality of the aftermath set in there would be much work to do as the casualties for the Wallachians mounted.
Justina climbed from her stoop atop the monastery, down through the refectory where already the dead and dying were piling in. Justina was nigh taken aback by the torturous injuries she saw but she steeled herself against the grisly sights and nauseating smells and sprang into action. She commanded the surviving troops as dutifully as a wartime general, there was much to do. Fresh water was collected from nearby wells, tourniquets fashioned from all manner of cloth and medicinal herbs sorted and grinded. The wounded were sorted by the severity of their injury throughout the refectory. Men who suffered gruesome but non life threatening wounds would have to endure their pain through either milk of the poppy or the numbing embrace of wine. Justina and several other nursemaids tended to the wounded with more fatal injuries, sometimes hopelessly in vain. They worked well throughout the night, piteous cries and tortured screams the only lullaby within the sleepless night of labor.
The blood red sun of dawn rose over the city of Muntenia, illuminating the blood red refectory and the healers who worked tirelessly inside. By midday hundreds of bodies were clad in simple sheets of burlap and unceremoniously stacked outside of the monastery. Carts of intertwining station were tasked with ferrying the bodies back to Wallachia where they would be entombed beneath the castle, nameless martyrs to the greater good of Romania.
Justina worked until her hands became raw boned with fatigue and stained crimson and then she worked some more, only stopping to occasionally relieve herself and soothe her parched throat and aching gut with tepid water and boiled cornmeal. She thought often of Dracula, of how he faired during this trying time. Despite his wounds the prince had forgone medical attention, instead disappearing as the early morning sun peeked from over the horizon. Justina was almost certain conventional treatment would do him no good. She knew what he needed, what he so desperately eschewed despite his physical condition. The night attack from the Turkish forces had caught them unawares, and with their own supply line of troops trekking through the Romanian wilderness still far off they would need to rely on their prince, on his leadership and supernatural abilities.
Fiery shades of sunset lingered throughout the monastery as the evening meal was served. Justina ate pensively, her mind clouded by what must be done. After eating she retired to her chambers where she took a long bath. Despite her cleanliness she could still feel the blood about her hands, her mind's eye stained crimson. So much bloodshed, starting with Madalina and ending God knows where.
Perhaps her own.
After bathing she dressed in a simple tunic dress and leather slippers and retrieved the dagger she had borrowed from little Magda from her armoire. She stared at the mortally sharp blade and forced all doubt from her mind as she slipped the dagger into her garment. Once outside, Justina breathed deeply. It felt good to be outside of the monastery, away from the stench of blood and other less noble bodily fluids. The last vestiges of the sun glowed like embers that begged to be snuffed out by the velvet embrace of the night.
Justina made her way across the monastery's courtyard towards the entrance of the catacombs. Two armed sentries guarded the rusted iron gate that led deep into the earth, boys from the looks of them younger than she was.
"I've come to see Dracula," Justina said.
The two sentries gave each other errant glances. "The prince is resting."
Justina bowed her head, impatience dripping into her words. "The past day has taken a heavy toll on all of us, especially prince Dracula. I only wish to render any medical aid the prince may need."
She locked eyes with the young sentries for a moment that seemed to linger on but finally the guards stepped aside. The wrought iron gate squeaked harshly at her touch.
"Thank you for all that you have done." One of the sentries said.
Justina offered him the ghost of a smile and stepped passed the threshold into the catacombs. An earthen staircase illuminated by torches snaked deep beneath the monastery. Justina descended the staircase. The air was cooler the further she went down and tinged by the damp scent of soil. She finally came to a vast chamber. Dozens of candles lit the voluminous space, illuminating the hexagonal walls where the former denizens of the monastery lay interred. In the center of the room a lone coffin rested amidst the candlelight. It was a beautifully crafted piece, as jet black as the darkest of nights and as sturdy as a block of pure onyx. Justina edged closer to the coffin, each step a stab of anticipation in her heart. She stood before the coffin, mouth as dry as ashes and ice in her belly. The coffin lid was undoubtedly as heavy as it looked as she struggled to move the stone block, her muscles strained to exhaustion. With a strained groan she managed to lift the block away and stare at what lay inside.
Dracula lay supine amidst the velvet finish of the coffin's interior. He was naked save for a loincloth which covered his manhood, the grotesque state of his body laid bare before her. He resembled the corpse of a man that was many years older than Dracula, the once immaculate ivory pallor of his skin now a sickly mottled grey and pock marked with liver spots and wrinkles. His bones showed from beneath the parchment thin flesh of his body along with the half healed wounds he had suffered in battle. His once thick and ebon mustache bore the look of picked cotton about his upper lip and his hair was splayed like tatters of smoke around his head. She stared into his shriven and listless eyes, twin raisins of bloodshot orbs that carried none of the vicious cunning from when she first met him.
Dracula rose from his slumber like a man encumbered by quicksand. He gazed around lethargically, his shriveled eyes locking on Justina.
"Miss Albescu, to what do I owe the pleasure of you interrupting my rest?" The prince said. Even his voice had succumbed to the deterioration of his body, his words hoarse and full of strain.
Justina found her own voice and said, "I've come to see how you fare."
With painstaking movement Dracula half crawled from his resting place and slumped before Justina. He looked so frail, a mere shell of what he truly was. "I suppose I've seen better days."
"Aye. As we all have."
"I want to thank you for your service in tending to the wounded. I can assure you that your work will not go unrewarded. You will return to Targoviste a rich woman, free from the misery of this wretched war."
"And what of you?" Justina asked, inching ever so close.
"I regret that my role has come to a magnanimous end. Ravens have been sent to the remaining disciples of The Order of The Dragon to take up arms in my stead. I only wish that I can live to see the inevitable peace for Romania."
"You and I both know that it does not have to end like this. The peace you dream of will be steeped in bloodshed, and what of the after? This country needs a strong leader, free from the corruption and weakness of other men, because you are so much more." With shaking hands Justina pulled the right side of her tunic down, exposing the delicate flesh of her neck and cleavage. "I know exactly what you need…"
Dracula stared longingly at her and Justina wondered if he could see past the boundary of her flesh to the very blood that flowed within her veins. Dracula shook his head, conflicted between his idealism and bloodlust. "I made a promise that I would never partake in that…particular activity ever again."
"If you are so content to die just know that suicide, no matter how noble you may think, is still suicide. You shouldn't blame yourself for what happened to Madalina, she only wanted to share in your gift and all I want is to save your life!"
At the sound of Madalina's name Dracula rebuked her. "Do not invoke her name again. What I am is not a gift, but a curse, one that will die with me."
Unperturbed, Justina said, "I never was a God fearing woman. I had no use for religion in my life or profession but after meeting you I can say without question that my world view has been changed forever. You have given me what I've been missing this whole time. Faith." Justina reached into her tunic and revealed her dagger which gleamed under the candlelight.
Dracula's tired eyes narrowed dangerously. "What on earth are you planning on doing with that?"
"Showing you what it means to have faith." The blade felt like 1,000 pounds in her hand that would not stop shaking. She stared into his dark, dark eyes and wondered just how much faith he had in her.
Without thinking, Justina brought the blade up and in one deft motion slid the cold steel across her wrist. An icy pain coursed throughout her arm as if she were stricken by lightning. For a brief, fleeting moment the blood pooled about her wrist like a bracelet of pure crimson gemstones before the realization of what she had done hit her with a shock that forced her to her knees. With a strangled cry and speed that belied his decrepit form Dracula caught her in his sinewy arms before she collapsed to the floor. His eyes bore into hers, twin pebbles in a sea of anguish and confusion that masked his face.
"You foolish woman." Dracula moaned.
To her credit Justina did not scream. She did not cry or offer any consolation to the pain that assailed her. As stoic as she appeared in the face of her own mortality however, she trembled violently in his cold grasp. With a shaking arm she held her bleeding wrist towards Dracula's face. The prince recoiled from the proffered wound but as the blood flowed freely and splattered onto the stone floor his face twisted into a look of hunger and his nostrils flared at the sharp tang of iron. His eyes swam with unabashed lust that followed every drop which fell to the floor. Justina felt herself tire, her vision blurred and her breath came out in a shallow gasp.
"Bite me…" Justina whispered, perhaps with the last of her breath.
A guttural groan escaped Dracula, one born of nigh debilitating intoxication. His promise forever broken, Dracula plunged his mouth into her bloody wrist and engorged himself.
Justina's body seized as if she were caught in an exorcism. A sensation akin to burning coursed throughout her arm and consumed her entire body. The vision that had begun to falter and breath that would not reciprocate her exploded within her along with her other senses. The room burned with the light of 10,000 candles, the squelching of blood roared cavernous in her ears, every blade of hair, every minute twitch of her muscles pulsed with a dark synergy between them. As Dracula continued to drink Justina could see his features transmogrify before her very eyes. The coarseness of his skin smoothed over to a muscular and marble white, his tattered hair bloomed ebon and lush about his head and when he finally removed himself from her wrist his eyes blazed like sea green stars. His bloody mouth opened in a sigh of pure emancipation, years of abstention washed away in a tide of red.
Justina stared at her wrist, the jagged wound from the dagger now nothing more than a scar which was still fading away. Two conspicuous puncture marks rested between the faded scar and Justina ran her tongue over her own teeth, felt the preternaturally pointed tips of her canines. A thin smile pierced her lips. She felt cold, as if the darkness itself had congealed inside of her very soul. Dracula beckoned her to her feet and as she stood before the prince of Wallachia she could feel his aura intermingling with her own, a sensation that left her insatiably wanting for his touch, his kiss. His manhood.
With hands that felt far too powerful for her diminutive form Justina reached out and traced the supple curve of Dracula's chest.
"How do you feel?" Dracula asked, genuine concern etched onto his words.
"I've never felt more alive…" Justina breathed.
No. Not alive.
All pretentiousness shattered, Justina fell into Dracula's arms and forced her mouth onto his. The prince kissed her back, their mouths working in perfect synch, slick tongues gliding over one another for purchase. She could taste her blood upon his breath, the iron tinge an aphrodisiac which excited her to no end. Her hands caressed and explored the broad muscles of his back as did his, filling her with an inhibitionless heat no drink could ever match. Lower and lower she went, her hands fumbling with his loincloth until she stripped him bare.
She tore her mouth away from his long enough to stare down at the length of him. She took him in her hand, felt the silken smooth shaft of him swell at her touch. God he was so cold – so was she, but their lust for one another forged a fire so fierce they both burned with a dark ecstasy, a raw, primal desire to consume one another until there was nothing left. She lunged at his throat, placed devilish kisses along the nape of his neck that were hard enough to draw blood. She marveled at the taste of him, the salty yet sweet ruby fluid of life unnaturally cold on her tongue.
Dracula's hand wrapped in her hair and forced her head back, his tongue and soft groans fluttering in her ear as she tugged at his manhood with rhythmic vigor. A smile twisted her mouth. This prince, this killer, and here he was as stricken as a frightened buck at her touch. Not content to be outdone however, Dracula ripped away her tunic dress, exposing the sensuous curves of her naked body. His dark eyes drank in the fullness of her figure like a goblet of blood, strong hands tracing the soft mounds of her breasts.
Dracula seized her by the waist and with startling ease lifted her from her feet and dumped her inside the coffin. Giggling softly, Justina nestled upon the deep velvet finish, his scent washing over her. She splayed her slender ivory legs open, an unspoken invitation. Dracula obliged her. With deliberate grace the prince climbed into the coffin between her legs. Cold flesh pressed against her and even colder lips suckled at her stiffening breast. His mouth left a glistening trail as he went lower and lower until his face rested between the hairless hump of her crotch. His tongue flicked at her swollen bud, sending waves of pleasure so profound throughout her body her moans escaped her in a strangled gasp. Her body clinched instinctively as he worked a finger inside of her, her hand clutching a fist full of his dark hair for dear life, driving his head forward, silently pleading for him to eat away at her until she was devoured.
Once his feast was finished, Dracula rose up and loomed over her, his glistening lips splitting into a smile that revealed his pointed fangs. Justina knew she wore the same expression on her face and suddenly the chamber seemed to grow smaller, the very air itself constricting and candlelight receding from their unholy communion until all that was left was the two of them. Daemons, wraiths…vampyrs. The hardened crown of his manhood caressed her wet folds for moments that stretched into eternity before finally, with a savage thrust Dracula impaled her.