Undead in the eternal ci.., p.1

Undead in the Eternal City: 1918, page 1


Undead in the Eternal City: 1918

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Undead in the Eternal City: 1918



  Will Hill




  About the Publisher

  In 1891, Abraham Van Helsing and a small number of his friends faced Dracula, the world’s first vampire. They chased him across Europe, to the mountains of Transylvania, and the castle that bore his name. Not all of them returned — but Dracula was destroyed.

  Other vampires remained, though, and so in 1892 Van Helsing and the other survivors were asked by Prime Minister William Gladstone to found the Department of Supernatural Investigation.

  The Department, which was originally based in a townhouse in Piccadilly, was charged with protecting the British Empire from the growing threat of the supernatural.

  Over the course of the twentieth century, the men and women of Department 19, as it became known, fought in every corner of the globe, holding back the rising tide of darkness, often at enormous personal cost.

  In a top-secret location, there stands a highly classified archive that records the long history of humanity’s war with the supernatural. The papers within it list the names of every man and woman lost in the line of duty, and contain detailed accounts of every act of bravery.

  Beyond the men and women of the Department, these are accessible only by the Prime Minister and the Chief of the General Staff.

  These are the Department 19 files.


  14th DECEMBER 1918

  Valeri Rusmanov strolled through the sick, bleeding city with a wide smile on his ancient face.

  He was arm in arm with his wife Ana, who wore an expression of beatific pleasure on her beautiful features. They had eaten dinner in a restaurant in the narrow backstreets behind the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, huge bowls of slippery white pasta smothered with a thick veal ragu the colour of drying blood, and were strolling contentedly along Via Milano towards the Fontana di Trevi, in search of dessert. All around them thick coughing rattled through the night, a continuous percussion of illness and pain, while the dead and dying lay slumped in doorways and piled in stable yards.

  The Italian capital, like the rest of the world, was in the grip of a pandemic.

  The panicked, fearful public called it Spanish flu, because the neutral southern European country’s press were the only publications reporting on the devastation the pandemic had unleashed; the rest of the European newspapers were still operating under wartime censorship and forbidden from printing the grisly, terrifying truth. The virus had actually originated in the deep wilderness of northern China, a strain of such viciousness that it had laid Valeri himself low for almost an entire day after he had fed on a French soldier who had been infected.

  The European outbreak had apparently originated in northern France in January, where the huge concentrations of Allied troops in close proximity had created a fertile breeding ground for the microscopic virus. Unusually, it was the young and the healthy that succumbed in the greatest numbers, their noses running with blood, their stomachs and intestines haemorrhaging, their own immune systems destroying their bodies until pneumonia finished them off.

  There was no way to stop it; the virus had infiltrated every part of the world, all the way to the Arctic and Antarctica. When the second strain, which, if rumour was to be believed, had already killed more than twenty million people, erupted through the continent in the late summer, all the authorities could do was bury the dead, try to isolate the infected, and wait for it to pass, as all pandemics eventually did.

  Valeri, who still lamented having been born more than fifty years after the Black Death devastated Europe, killing almost a third of its population, thought it was wonderful.

  The Great War, and the viral sting in the tail that had followed on its heels, had afforded Valeri and his kind an abundance of opportunity so vast it was almost bewildering. The incredible numbers of casualties on the Western Front meant that the majority of the vampires in the world had descended on northern France throughout the war, all of them unwilling to miss out on an event that was likely never to be repeated.

  Humans are stupid, thought Valeri. But I doubt that even they are stupid enough to allow another war on this scale. The damage is going to take generations to undo.

  In the pitch-darkness of the battlefields, the vampires had gorged themselves. Never before had a chance existed for them to be so utterly brazen; the number of victims they took was insignificant among the roaring, churning murder of the first mechanised war, and their presence went completely undetected. After a matter of weeks or months, the majority of the vampires had returned to where they had come from, their every appetite sated. Valeri was one of the few exceptions; he simply could not tear himself away from the horror unfolding around him.

  Before his turning, the eldest Rusmanov brother had been a general, commanding the Wallachian armies of Vlad Tepes III, the man the world would come to know as Count Dracula. At his master’s behest, and often on his own sadistic initiative, he had ordered innumerable torments upon enemy soldiers and innocent civilians alike, had sent his own men, who trusted him like a father, into battles he knew they would not survive.

  But even he could never have conceived of the slaughter that had taken place in the four long years of war that had just been concluded: the futile senselessness of the marches across no man’s land; legions of young men obliterated by the machine guns they had been ordered to walk towards; the devastating power of landmines that were tunnelled beneath enemy trenches and exploded with a noise so huge it seemed to tear the sky, leaving nothing behind except an agonising, high-pitched whine and a soft, warm rain of mud and flesh.

  As the armistices were signed, one after the other, the mood of the men that had survived their time in hell changed from fear and misery to elation and relief. Valeri, on the other hand, had felt a great sorrow; he knew that he had been witness to something unique in all of history, and its passing saddened him. Bored, he had sent to Romania for his wife, and the two of them had followed a troop train south into Italy where it was immediately obvious that the euphoria that followed the end of the war was not going to last. The flu virus that had begun to kill soldiers on the battlefields in August had accompanied the survivors home, and was hungry.

  No one knew exactly how many men and women had died in Rome. A bartender Valeri had spoken to the previous evening had heard rumours that the figure was already in excess of a million and climbing fast. This would have seemed ridiculous to Valeri had he not tasted the virus himself, felt it attack his biological system with such ferocity that even his supernatural physiology had needed the better part of a day to fight it off; what it must be doing to the bodies of normal humans, he could scarcely imagine.

  Valeri felt his wife’s arm tense and his mind swam back into the present. He had been lost in thought as they walked through the cold evening air of Rome, thick with the scents of rot and decay, and he had not noticed the woman approaching them on the other side of the street. Ana had, though; she had spotted her immediately, plucking her delicate scent from among the clusters of drunks and vendors that were ambling back and forth across Via Rasella, and had felt the familiar fluttering of desire in the depths of her stomach.

  The woman was tall, and possessed of the milky white skin and smooth lines of youth. Her black hair fell in a loose ponytail over her right shoulder and came to rest on the shelf of her breasts, where the application of a whalebone corset had engineered a startling cleavage. She walked quickly, her head lowered against the leering glances and whistles of the men she passed, her hands clasped together in front of her, the heels of her shoes cla
ttering rapidly on the cobbled street.

  Valeri stopped in the middle of the road and looked at his wife. “Do you want her?” he asked.

  “I do,” replied Ana, her eyes full of lust. “I want her.”

  Valeri smiled. “Then you shall have her.”

  Thirty yards north on Via Rasella, Captain Quincey Harker swayed unsteadily on his feet. Beside him, Charles Ellis, the polite, bespectacled Private who had taught German in a northern grammar school until war broke out in 1914, looked on with mild disapproval as two huge men in British army uniforms held up a young man, his figure so slight it appeared as though a strong wind would blow him over, by the shoulders while he vomited enthusiastically into the gutter.

  John McDonald, the enormous Scottish highlander whose hair and beard flamed red in the flickering, amber glow of the gas lamps, was booming with laughter.

  “Get it out, son!” he bellowed. “Get it all out. You’ll feel better.”

  The Private holding the man’s other shoulder was almost as huge as McDonald. His name was Stuart Kavanagh, and he was the latest in a long line of vast Somerset farmers; his wide, open face bore a grin of tremendous amusement as he watched a bottle of reasonably decent red wine erupt from the stomach of Private Ben Potts and splash on to the cobbled stone of the road.

  “Oh God,” the young man groaned. “Oh God, just kill me.”

  Potts, who had served with remarkable, deadly distinction as the unit’s sniper in some of the darkest corners of the Western Front for the last three and a half years, looked every inch the twenty-year-old boy he really was. Despite the things he had done, the things that they had all done together, he was still little more than a child, a child who was, at that particular moment, extremely drunk.

  “Potts?” said Quincey Harker, his tone stern even as he struggled to hold back the laughter that was bubbling up inside him. “Do you need to go back to the barracks?”

  “No, sir,” replied Potts, shakily. “I’m fine now. Sir.”

  Harker looked at the pale face of his sniper and felt the usual rush of paternal affection. Potts was only four years younger than him, had lived through the same mud-soaked horrors he had, demonstrating bravery and calm that would have been considered remarkable in men twice his age, but four years was enough; he was the baby of the unit, and always would be. Harker, Ellis, McDonald and Kavanagh would all have gladly laid down their lives for him, as they would for each other, if it came to it.

  Thorpe loved him too, thought Harker, and felt pain stab at his heart.

  The five happy, drunken men had once been six.

  Officially, they had been one of the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Units, highly classified teams of elite soldiers that had operated across the Western Front, doing the work that the Field Marshals at headquarters would never have publicly admitted was being done: assassinations, sabotage, propaganda, bombings. Harker had hand-picked five men to join his unit when it was commissioned in late 1914; the first of them had been Lieutenant Andrew Thorpe, his oldest and closest friend.

  The six of them had worked with astonishing success in the shadowy corners of the Great War: in Poland, Isonzo and Serbia in 1915, in the carnage of Verdun and the sucking, mud-soaked madness of the Somme in 1916, where Harker had disobeyed a direct order that would have put his men at foolhardy risk, for no possible worthwhile gain. Field Marshal Gough, whose order it had been, had waited patiently for his opportunity for revenge and, in 1917, it had presented itself; he had sent the Special Reconnaissance Unit into the village of Passchendaele on a mission they were not expected to return from. And, in one case, the Field Marshal had been correct.

  In the church at the centre of the tiny, shattered village they had found something unnatural, something none of them had seen before. A teenage German soldier had been sitting among the slaughtered remains of his platoon, a skinny, narrow boy whose eyes burned a devilish red when they tried to apprehend him, whose teeth were the fangs of an animal, vast and sharp and gleaming as he sank them into Thorpe’s neck before Harker was able to fire a single shot. Their rifles drove the boy back against a broken window frame, where a piece of wood pierced his emaciated chest, and the tormented, tortured soldier found peace. Thorpe, who had always been the first among them to offer assistance to anyone in need of it, died in Harker’s arms, blood running out of his throat in such quantities that it was over in less than a minute.

  The Special Reconnaissance Unit had returned to headquarters without discussing the thing they had seen in the church; the loss of Thorpe was too heavy in their hearts, and they found it easier not to speak of what had happened. Months later, after Harker had broken the nose of Field Marshal Gough and the squad had been despatched back to the front, after they had seen out the end of the war and been ordered to Rome for some richly deserved and much needed rest, they had still not really talked about it, except in passing.

  Thorpe’s memory loomed large, casting a shadow that never fully lifted. Quincey Harker’s grief was the deepest and most profound: the loss not only that of a brother-in-arms, but also of a friend he had known since he was a child. But it also fell to him to keep his men going, to prevent them from becoming melancholy or distracted, conditions that would have almost certainly proved fatal in the final chaotic days as the war wound down.

  Harker had done his best to keep their spirits up, even as his languished at their lowest and, once they arrived in Rome, he had seen an appreciable change in his men. They laughed more, even amid reports of the flu that was apparently sweeping through Europe. Ellis, an authority on such things, had dismissed the rumoured numbers of infected and dead as ‘fairy tales’, and he had never given Harker reason to doubt him in the past. They walked taller, as though a weight had been lifted from their shoulders: fear of potential injury, or death, or something worse. It did nothing to ease the pain Harker felt every time he thought about Thorpe, but it heartened him nonetheless, and gave him hope that perhaps a time would come when he too would recover from what had happened.

  As he watched McDonald and Kavanagh thump Potts on the back and stand him up straight, Quincey Harker, the man who would become a legend among the most secret community in the world, whose actions would save countless lives and souls, began to laugh, a robust, glorious laugh full of hope.

  “Let’s go,” he said. “Ellis, where’s this bar you were telling us about? My hand has been empty for far too long.”

  “Just around the corner,” replied Ellis, still watching Potts. The young private was attempting to stand unaided, and the sight brought a smile to the schoolmaster’s face. “Two minutes’ walk, sir.”

  “Excellent,” said Harker. “Then let’s be on our way. Kavanagh, pick Potts up if he falls over.”

  “Yes, sir,” grinned Kavanagh.

  “Lead on, Ellis.”

  The schoolmaster saluted his Captain and staggered south on Via Rasella. Harker followed him, as Kavanagh and McDonald brought up the rear, walking on either side of Potts, whose face was starting to regain its colour. Kavanagh began to sing as they made their way along the crowded street, his deep bass voice rolling out into the cold night air. McDonald joined in, and Harker was about to do the same when he heard a noise in the darkness of the alleyway they were passing that sobered him up faster than the strongest coffee.

  It sounded like a woman trying to scream.

  One of the things Valeri Rusmanov liked most about humanity was its ability not to see what it didn’t want to see.

  He strode in a straight line across Via Rasella, then stopped, allowing the woman with the lowered head to walk straight into him. She raised her face, her eyes wide, her mouth a tiny shocked O, and began to apologise for her clumsiness, until the words froze in her throat. Valeri growled at her, his fangs sliding into view, a red glow rippling in the corners of his eyes, then clamped his hand over her mouth and lifted her off her feet; he carried her effortlessly into the alleyway beside them, little more than a narrow crack between buildings.<
br />
  He moved quickly, although nowhere near as fast as he was capable; he could have taken the woman at such a speed that none of the surrounding bystanders would have been physically able to see him do it, but he didn’t, because it amused him not to. He carried the thrashing, terrified woman into the alleyway at a pace that gave five or six men, all of them soldiers back from the battlefields with rifles over their shoulders, the chance to notice the commotion, see what was happening, and then turn away from a young woman who was clearly, obviously, in distress.

  Valeri strolled down the alleyway and pressed the woman against the cold brick wall. He didn’t remove his hand, as she was screaming; he could feel the breath against his fingers, could hear the muffled, high-pitched sounds with his supernatural ears.

  “She’s scared,” breathed Ana, appearing silently at his shoulder. “I like it when they’re scared.”

  She leant forward and ran her fingers down the woman’s cheek. The flesh trembled at the vampire’s touch; the tears, which had been brimming in her eyes, burst loose and spilled down her face, dripping on to Ana’s hand. She instantly brought her hand to her mouth, licked away the salty liquid, and growled with pleasure, her eyes blooming red.

  Valeri watched his wife, saw the naked lust on her face, and felt love fill his entire body. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and thanks to the soft, tender bite he had given her more than four centuries earlier, she always would be; an immortal, savage goddess, a pure predator, her desires so urgent that sometimes they shocked even him. He watched her lean towards the petrified woman, saw her lick her lips as she prepared to take her first, sweet taste, then registered movement in the corner of his eye.

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