“A sinner, burdened with the cross of the Atonement!
A fallen angel, burdened with the wings of black!
Thou, who art all this, take up the sword of the judgment and walk alone through the darkest night...”

 

“A flower of hope, that bloomed in the frozen wasteland of a ruined city! What do these blue eyes of thine reflect?
A glorious future..? Or a despairing finale..?”

 

Dramatis Personae

Abel Nightroad
A priest from Rome
Esther Blanchett
A young nun
Gyula Kádár
The Marquis of Hungary
Dietrich von Lohengrin
Liberation Front of István

Francesco di Medici
The Duke of Florence
Caterina Sforza
The Duchess of Milano
Tres Iqus
A major of István City Guard
Gergey Radcón
A colonel of István City Guard

 

Pulpitum

(Click on the map for the full-size version)

 

Chapter 1 - “The City of Blood”

“Woe to thee, O city of blood, all full of lies and violence: rapine shall not depart from thee.”

Nahum 3:1          

 

 

One early winter evening a priest named Father Abel Nightroad arrived to István on a train from Rome. Located in the center of the marquisate of Hungaria, the free city of István served as a key link between the Vatican-dominated Western Europe and the mysterious True Human Empire in the east.

An extremely tall silver-haired young man, of a somewhat ditzy disposition, Father Abel got off the train at the main train station of István. In one hand he was carrying an old-fashioned luggage-case. With the other, he adjusted his small round glasses, whose lenses reminded one of the bottom of a milk-bottle:

However, his newly regained composure didn't last him long, as barely a few minutes later he was knocked off his feet by a young boy, clad in thick woolen clothes and a hunting cap, who was rushing heedlessly down the platform. The ensuing commotion attracted an attention of an István City Guard squad commanded by Colonel Gergey Radcón, a giant bionically-enhanced human. In the Germanicus kingdom, the technology of artificially amplifying the strength and the endurance of the human body had been salvaged from the ruins of an old high-science civilization. The civilization which perished near to a thousand years ago in a cataclysm commonly known as Armageddon. Colonel Gergey Radcón possessed all the strength of a grizzly bear - and all the charming and friendly personality of one. He proceeded to harass the two about their business at the station so close to the nightfall - and therefore to the curfew. The priest's obsequious manner and smooth-talking had almost gotten him and the boy out of trouble. The colonel, exasperated, had already turned around and started to walk off, when the boy, under his breath, spat out a few derogatory remarks on the subject of István City Guard.

They were heard.

The giant colonel whirled around and grabbed the boy by his lapels. How dared he, the giant howled, to speak like that of the glorious defenders of the civic order in István!? The boy replied in a pained but clear voice that he only spoke the God's honest truth. The enraged colonel was about to howl something else, but suddenly paused and peered closely at the boy's face. Then his giant anvil-like fist swung down... and the boy's hunting cap went flying off - in a shower of long, beautiful strands of red hair. The ‘boy’ was revealed to be a beautiful red-haired and blue-eyed young woman by the name of Esther Blanchett. The events started take a really nasty turn then, with Esther being about to be raped on the spot by the gorilla-like Colonel.

The priest tried to intervene on her behalf, but only landed himself in hot water as well. The colonel, it seemed, was amenable to inflicting some grievous bodily harm before proceeding with the rape. However, just as the Abel's spine was about to snap under Radcón's feet, the relief arrived and from a rather unexpected avenue. Major Tres Iqus, a subordinate of Radcón, a short-heighted, then and expressionless man, always immaculately dressed, arrived on the scene. The major informed his superior that, fun as it all looked, it would be well-advised for them to return to their duty immediately. For their master, the Marquis of Hungary Gyula Kádár, would be returning to István thirty minutes earlier than planned - at 19:00, instead of 19:30. Cursing profoundly, the colonel hurried away to ensure that all the security was in place for the Marquis' imminent arrival. But not before having ordered, out of the sheer spite, to have Father Abel arrested on the charges of assault against the City Guard and disruption of the public order. The priest was to be taken along to Várhegy, to the Marquis' castle, for further questioning.

* * *

Half an hour later a full escort of the dark-blue clad City Guard, led by Colonel Radcón and Major Iqus, were greeting Marquis Gyula Kádár as the latter disembarked a train freshly arrived from the True Human Empire. The Marquis was a beautiful man. He was tall, his hair was jet-black, his skin - snow-white and his facial features - delicate and refined. The light-grey eyes shone with something that brought to mind an image of a thoroughbred wolfhound. Yet their dark pupils were darker then the deepest of the night. The Marquis wore a black Inverness, a white cravat and moved around with the grace and the proud stature of a hereditary aristocrat. Noticing Father Abel, who was held under the arrest by the soldiers of the Guard, Gyula inquired to the identity of the prisoner. Despite Radcón's best efforts to shut him up, Abel managed to explain that he was a priest, freshly arrived from Vatican to take up his appointment at the St. Matthias' church. Having heard that, the Marquis scolded Radcón and ordered to have the prisoner immediately released. He shook the priest's hand and welcomed him gracefully to the city of István. Suddenly the priest paled. And then his supple arms took hold of the Marquis and threw the noble, with force, to the ground.

Colonel Radcón and his men reached for their guns, in disbelief, but then noticed that, deeply embedded into the side of the train carriage just where the Marquis' head was few moments ago, there was a crossbow bolt. Still trembling from the impact.

And then the night had exploded with masked men and the sound of gunshots.

The partisans of the István Liberation Front came pouring out of the seemingly-empty waiting-rooms and from behind the nearby trains. The guns were fired. The Molotov cocktails thrown, scattering the burning gasoline around. For few moments, a pandemonium reigned. Someone cried: “Never mind the goons! Gyula! Get Gyula!” Another crossbow bolt whistled by Abel's cheek and smashed itself into the lamppost behind him. An acrid stench filled the air - clearly the tip of the bolt was filled with acid of some kind.

After the initial shock died down, the City Guard took cover and began to return the fire in organised fashion. It soon became clear that the partisans are actually very few in number. Colonel Radcón ordered Major Iqus to take ten men and circle around the enemy to cut off their escape route. The partisans slowly began to back off. From behind a far-end carriage, the anonymous sharpshooter kept the deadly volley of the crossbow bolts coming, covering for his comrades. Noticing where the bolts came from, the Colonel emptied a bullet clip in their direction. With a sharp yell, a short-heighted man stumbled out from behind the carriage, carrying a crossbow in one hand and clutching a wounded shoulder with the other. “Csillag!”, cried one of the partisans. “The operation has failed. Escape! I shall cover for you!” The sharpshooter hesitated. “Idiot! We can't have our leader dying here! I shall hold them off, you take our people and get them out of here!”

Suddenly the fire from the City Guard side intensified as the reinforcements arrived. This decided the matter. The ‘Csillag’ put two fingers inside his mouth and whistled. Immediately all the partisans ceased fire and began to disappear into the darkness of the evening. Colonel Radcón, determined not let the partisan's dimunitive leader escape, held out his large gun, carefully took aim... and it was then that everything was suddenly drowned in a cloud of smoke. For the priest, who for the last few minutes was fumbling with something inside his cassock, had at last produced out of it an old-fashion revolver. The kind which didn't even use the bullet cartridges - the gunpowder was poured directly into the cylinder compartments. Shouting that the foul terrorists shall not escape him now, the priest pressed the trigger - and the gun misfired, spitting out a cloud of white smoke which for a few seconds obscured everything in sight.

When the smoke had cleared, the partisans were long gone. The City Guard was treating their wounded and counting their dead. The Marquis Kádár walked over to Father Abel and thanked the priest for saving his life. The priest replied by asking who were the people who had just attacked them. Colonel Radcón angrily spat out that they were the vile terrorists, who infested the István. The scum, who under the command of their leader, the ‘Csillag’, assassinated important politicians, blew up public facilities and otherwise disrupted the peaceful life of the city. The colonel's tirade was interrupted by the several soldiers ushering a prisoner before the Marquis. It was the machine-gunner, who had earlier shouted for the ‘Csillag’ to escape. Smiling the Marquis told the man that he appreciated such a warm welcome provided upon his return to István. The partisans, it appeared, were as lively as ever...

“Monster!”, the prisoner's eyes lit up with hatred. “The bane of our city..! Because of you, foul creature, the István...” “How dare you to speak of Lord Gyula like that..!?” Colonel Radcón's boot silenced the man, as it smashed into his solar plexus and threw him to the ground. Father Abel started to protest, but the Marquis ordered the colonel to stop first. The prisoner was wounded... and it wouldn't do for him to die, before he could tell them all that he knew. But first, someone had to get Father Abel home before the night had descended in the earnest. István was a very dangerous place after dark. Major Iqus was ordered to take a carriage and drive the priest to the St. Matthias' church.

Having waited for the officer and the priest to disappear off the platform, Marquis Kádár turned his attention back to the prisoner. “A monster, you have said...” With a single hand, the Marquis took hold of the prisoner and lifted him up into the air. A strength far beyond the noble's delicate body. Far beyond any human body, in fact. But in the eyes of his victim there was no surprise. Just the terror - and the resignation. Beneath the Marquis's thin upper lip a pair of long fangs appeared, glistening sharply. With an expression of mild curiosity more befitting a high-society wine-tasting party than the grotesque circumstances at hand, Gyula Kádár lowered his face to the man's neck. A short scream filled the air and was cut off sharply.

Few minutes later, the Marquis discarded a now limp body to the side. “Certainly a very strong flavour... but too simplistic. I wonder if this ‘Csillag’ of yours would taste any better...” The vampire spoke softly, wiping the blood off his lips. “Pfeh. Lowly Terran. What's this ‘our city’? Don't make me laugh. This is ‘my city’...”

Colonel Radcón was told to order their intelligence network to set a watch over the priest. Discreetly. Something just wasn't right with the man. Biting down the objections, the giant saluted in obeyance. Starting to walk briskly down the platform, the Marquis asked himself if the priest's presence meant that Vatican began to suspect something? A new priest transferred to the St. Matthias' church just as his plans were nearing their fruition? Not that they could stop him now, of course, but still - all the potentially obstructive elements should be reduced to the minimum. And even if the priest was a Vatican's dog... Well then, he certainly looked... delicious.

Smiling, Marquis Gyula Kádár accelerated his pace.

* * *

When Father Abel had arrived at last to the St. Matthias' Church, he was greeted by it's overseer, Bishop Laura Vitéz, an amiable woman of about thirty years of age. Seeing how tired the newly arrived priest was, Bishop Vitéz immediately offered to have him shown to his cloister. She summoned a young nun, one of the orphans whom the church took in to be raised under its care. As soon as Sister Esther appeared, Father Abel immediately recognized in her the ‘boy’ he met at the train station earlier. After Esther guided him to his cloister,

The priest inquired as to the reason for her earlier disguise. Sister Esther replied that it was for the reasons of safety. István was no longer a place, where it was safe for a young girl to walk the streets on her own. Before the priest could inquire any further, their conversation was interrupted by the all-too-familiar voice of Colonel Radcón. The giant officer appeared in the doorway and announced that he had come on the orders of Gyula Kádár with an invitation for Father Abel Nightroad to come up to Várhegy and share a dinner with the Marquis of Hungary. Upon hearing this, Sister Esther became very agitated and implored Father Abel to stay at the church that evening. However, the colonel went on and made it very plain that the consequences of the Marquis' invitation being turned down would be very dire. First and foremost - for the residents of St. Matthias' Church. This appeared to have decided the matter for the kind-hearted priest and, despite Esther's protestations, he boarded the carriage which was to take him to Várhegy.

* * *

Meanwhile, in Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, the Vatican Council was in progress. Present were all the key power-holders of the Roman Catholic Church. On the agenda was the sortie between one of the units of the border guard at the eastern border of the Vatican Dominion and an unidentified enemy force. It was almost certain that this force belonged to the István City Guard and Duke Francesco di Medici of Florence, the Supreme Commander of the Vatican's army, pushed for an immediate and deadly retaliation. An old soldier, hardened in the flames of countless battles, Cardinal Francesco was an awe-inspiring, imposing figure, who relentlessly sought to exterminate the seeds of heresy wherever he only found them. Opposing him at the Council was a soft-spoken beautiful woman in her mid-twenties. Radiating a calm and confident elegance of a thoroughbred aristocrat, Duchess Caterina Sforza of Milano, the Secretary of State and the chief spymaster of Vatican, was the opposite of Francesco di Medici in almost every way. Except for one - the unmistakable smell of an immense political and personal power, which she exuded with her very being. The opinion of Cardinal Sforza was that Vatican didn't yet have enough evidence to justify the invasion of Hungary to the rest of the world. The damage to the political reputation of Vatican, caused by what would undoubtedly be viewed by the rulers of the other European countries as an expansive invasion, would be too great. They must stand back and wait until they had at hand an irrefutable evidence of a foul play on the Marquis of Hungary's behalf. The council had split between these two cardinals and the argument raged on. Both sides tried to appeal to the Pope, but Alessandro the XVth, the current Pope, was just a frail-looking boy in his early teens, of an ordinary - if not to say mediocre, countenance. He seemed quite afraid of both his domineering half-siblings - Francesco and Caterina were illegitimate children of the previous Pope. And though he clearly preferred the apparent gentleness of Duchess Caterina to the fierceness of Duke Francesco, he still kept endlessly swaying between the arguments of the two.

In the end, the Council's conclusion was for Cardinal Sforza to be granted one week to obtain the requisite evidence of the Marquis of Hungary's foul play.

Once the council was over, Caterina returned to her rooms fuming at ignomity of it all. She switched on the holographic transceiver and issued orders to one ‘Sister Kate’. ‘Iron Maiden II’ was to set course for István immediately. Moreover, there were changes to the orders of the previously infiltrated field operatives ‘Crusnic’ and the ‘Gunslinger’...

Chapter 2 - “A Banquet in the Darkness”

“...for they will come to kill thee, and in the night they will come to slay thee.”

Nehemiah 6:10       

 

Father Abel was staring out of the window of the carriage at the mud-strewn, tattered, half-derelict streets of Pest - the eastern part of István, the city once known as the ‘Pearl of Danube’. Aghast, the priest expressed his surprise at just how run-down the city was - and was promptly told by the giant Colonel Radcón that it was a result of the recent upsurge of the terrorist activities. But before the political discussion could progress much further, the carriage stopped before a huge iron-wrought bridge. Lánchid, the famous bridge across Danube, which served as the only link between Pest, the eastern half of István, and Buda, its western half. An armed guard asked the passengers to identify themselves. Colonel Radcón complied and the carriage was swiftly waved through. The observant priest couldn't help but notice just how heavily guarded the bridge was or the several latest-model Germanicus-manufactured tanks standing nearby. The ride continued. Buda, on the contrary to its eastern counterpart, was the very picture of prosperity. The reason for such an evident disparity was soon confided to the priest by the gigantic colonel. The lands west of Danube, including the whole of Buda, were all a private holding of the Marquis of Hungary.

Finally, the carriage reached Várhegy. It was greeted by the automata maids, beautiful - and much sought-after - doll servants, the technology of whose making was lost since the Armageddon. Having unloaded Father Abel into their mechanical hands, Colonel Radcón returned to the carriage. The giant was chuckling, unpleasantly, at the last words of the priest. The man was apparently under an impression, that quite soon he would be back at the church...

* * *

On his way through the castle, Father Abel had lingered before an old-looking portrait on one of the walls. Depicted on it was a beautiful black-haired woman, with a gentle-looking blue eyes. The priest couldn't help, but wonder - aloud - as to the identity of the lady on the portrait. “She is my wife”, announced a voice from behind the priest. Whirling around, Father Abel found himself face to face with the Marquis of Hungary. Apologizing for the involuntary intrusion, the Marquis waved for the priest to take his place at the dinner table.

During the dinner, served by the silently efficient automata maids, the priest inquired what was the delicious wine they were being served. The Marquis replied that it was the famous Egri Bikavér - the ‘Bull's Blood’ - which the Marquis's own vineyards were famous for. Its special taste was achieved through use of a certain fertilizer on the soil of the vineyard. When Father Abel asked what the fertilizer was, he was told that it was the blood. The human blood. After enjoying the expression of shock on the priest's face for a few seconds, Marquis Kádár reassured the man that it was merely a joke. The blood used was that of a bull.

The conversation moved on to the citizens of Pest. The priest implored the Marquis to look into their plight. Surely, with all his wealth, there was something he could do help the people, whose living standards were fast approaching those of livestock animals? Gyula Kádár replied that, as far as he was concerned, they were the livestock animals. And pretty dangerous animals, too. His wife had thought differently, once. She'd been like the priest, she would often say: “They are human too!” She had loved the city, and on the moonlight nights she would go down and hand out the sweets and the medicine to the poor. And nothing that the Marquis did or said had succeeded in dissuading her from doing thus. The look Gyula Kádár threw at his wife's portrait, just then, was full of nightblack sorrow. But one summer, he continued, the Plague had come to these lands. The cityfolk had begun to drop down with it, one after another. His wife, full of concern for them, had gone down to the city to distribute the medicine. She never had returned - she had been killed by the very people she had been trying to save. Now, how were they any better than animals?

Father Abel tried to argue, but his words were soon cut short by his own scream. Having lifted the lid of a newly served plate, he discovered on it a human head. The head of one of the partisans, who took part in the terrorist attack earlier on in the evening. The Marquis smiled unpleasantly and told the priest that these were the just desserts for all the foolish Terrans who would try to defy the Methuselah. Shocked, the priest stuttered out a question. And was promptly told that yes - Gyula Kádár was a vampire. A vampire, who particularly hated priests. For it was one of these hypocritical sowers of the love of God who had his wife burned at the city square. A fanatic, dispatched from Vatican. Just like Father Abel.

A pair of crescent-shaped fangs glimmered dangerously in the twilight of the dining hall. Death, imminent - and no doubt excruciatingly painful, stared Father Abel right in the face and smiled gently. What had saved him was a huge explosion which shook the palace right then, shattering the stained-glass windows and sending the automata maids a-scatter. The arms storehouse! But before the Marquis had as much as a moment to think, the doors of the dining hall burst open and a group of armed men poured in.

The partisans, led once more by their dimunitive leader the ‘Csillag’, first attempted an assault on the Marquis. But neither them nor their weapons proved to be a match for the vampire's ‘Haste’, a special ability possessed by the Methuselah, which through temporarily stimulating the nerve system allowed them to move and react at over ten times the normal speed. One of the partisans went down with his own crossbow bolt, caught and hurled back by the Marquis, buried in his chest. A brown-eyed young man, whom the partisan leader was calling Dietrich, shouted for everyone to get the priest and withdraw. A half of them moved to do just that, while the other half covered for the ‘Csillag’, as the latter engaged the Marquis again. He shot a crossbow bolt and the vampire, once more, had easily caught it. However, this crossbow bolt was stuffed with the explosives and the subsequent blast dealt heavy damage to the Marquis, slowing him down just enough for the partisans to have thrown up a smoke screen and escaped to the outside court.

As the partisans paused briefly, waiting for everyone involved in the attack to re-assemble, Father Abel addressed the partisan leader as ‘Sister Esther’ and asked why was she doing this. Throwing off the gas mask and letting the familiar fiery-red locks fly in the air once more, the girl gestured at the open lid of a sewer chute in a corner of the courtyard. She told the priest that they were withdrawing to their hideout and that he was to follow.

* * *

The hideout of the partisans turned out to be in the wine cellar of one of the largest pubs in Pest. While most partisans engaged themselves in drinking, dancing and otherwise celebrating the success of the night's operation, the priest was questioning Sister Esther about the activities of her group. The girl, together with the brown-eyed young man whom she introduced as Dietrich von Lohengrin, her second-in-command, explained that the partisans struggled to liberate István from the vampiric Marquises of Hungary. Their clan, for centuries now, have been ruling István with the iron fist of the City Guard, all the while hiding behind the democratic facade of the City Council. The priest wondered why didn't they turn to Vatican for help. Dietrich replied that Vatican was more than aware of the situation. However, the Marquisate of Hungary was one of the supposedly free domains, which made up the neutrality belt between the Vatican-dominated Western Europe and the True Human Empire. The latter being the country of the vampires, their chief dominion in this world, situated on the Balkan peninsula and other lands surrounding the Black Sea. Presently, an uneasy ceasefire existed between these two major powers. But were Vatican to commence an armed intervention into Hungary, the situation could easily escalate into another world war. Thus Rome chose to turn a blind eye to the István's plight, leaving its citizens to fend for themselves. As this night had shown - they weren't entirely unsuccessful. But it was regretful that the partisans hadn't also managed to destroy ‘The Star of Sorrow’. A piece of what was commonly known as the ‘Lost Technologies’, the artifacts of the high-science civilization which perished in the Armageddon, ‘The Star of Sorrow’ was rumored to be a fearsome weapon capable of calling down the fire from the skies and destroying cities with a single blast. Little more was known, but that the Marquis had gained possession of it and was working to restore it to the full battle readiness.

Eventually, the priest excused himself to go to the kitchen and pour himself some more milk. As he was drinking the milk, he heard a female voice greeting him. The kitchen looked completely empty. Far from being surprised, however, Father Abel had greeted the owner of the mysterious voice as ‘Sister Kate’ and proceeded to enquire whether ‘they’ had arrived here. The answer was confirmative. Furthermore, ‘Sister Kate’ had just received a report from the ‘Gunslinger’. Apparently, the City Guard were about to be dispatched on a large-scale mission of yet unknown nature and the watch over St. Matthias' church was to be strengthened. In the view of the latter, Lady Caterina wanted all the church people evacuated to safety. But as Vatican still couldn't move directly, Father Abel was to enlist the help of the partisans for the evacuation. And there lied a complication. It seemed that just before this night's attack, almost all the ammunition had been removed from the arms storehouse which the partisans had blown up. This indicated a strong possibility that a mole had been present amongst the partisans. Father Abel should be very careful in his dealings with them. Nodding, the priest told everyone on the ‘Iron Maiden’ to take care as well and cut the contact.

* * *

Next morning a rather striking group was seen making its way down the Andrássy street towards the St. Matthias' Church. A tall and exceptionally handsome brown-eyed young priest drew the looks of almost every woman on the street. The priest was accompanied by two nuns. One nun was near to two meters tall, wore small round glasses and had unruly silver hair peeking out from under her wimple. The other was the opposite - short, red-haired and exceptionally cheerful:

These were, of course, Dietrich, Sister Esther and Father Abel, disguised so as to avoid being identified by the Marquis' spies. Upon reaching the church, they were immediately received by Mother Vitéz. Sister Esther explained the situation and told Mother Vitéz that she and every one of her churchworkers were to leave István the very next morning on a caravan bound for Vienna. Everything had already been arranged with the head of the caravan. Sister Esther herself, however, would stay behind with the partisans. Much to everyone's surprise, Father Abel had volunteered to stay behind as well. Everyone jumped to dissuade him - but before any could succeed, the door flew open and one of the churchworkers came running in. Apparently, the City Guard had surrounded the church. Indeed, even before the man had finished speaking, everyone began to hear the stomping of the army boots in the corridor outside. Loud voices had announced that they had reasons to believe that hiding somewhere in the church was one Father Abel Nightroad, suspected of aiding the recent terrorist attack on Várhegy. Mother Vitéz walked over to the bookcase and pressed in one of the books. The bookshelf slid to the side, revealing a hole in the wall and a staircase, descending into darkness. Mother Vitéz ushered the other three into the passage, telling them she had to stay behind herself to protect her fellow churchmen.

The bookcase barely had time to return to its original position before a group of the City Guard soldiers burst into the room. Leading them was the familiar figure of Major Tres Iqus in his impeccable midnight-blue uniform. Iqus demanded for Mother Vitéz to hand over the priest. When she protested that she didn't know where the priest is, Iqus took out his gun and shot. But not Mother Vitéz. Instead the 13mm bullets of his Jericho M13 ‘Dies Irae’ blasted the bookcase to pieces, revealing the secret passage behind. The major ordered all his soldiers to commence the pursuit of the priest and his companions. Just then a new voice interfered, countermanding this order. Colonel Radcón himself was standing at the doorway. Claiming to be acting on the personal orders from Marquis Gyula Kádár, he commanded for the pursuit of the priest to be abandoned. The priest was to be allowed to run loose for a while longer. Instead, Mother Laura Vitéz and all her fellow churchmen were to be arrested and taken to Várhegy, on the charges of obstructing the public justice and aiding the escape of a known criminal. The church of St. Matthias was to be burned to the ground.

When Father Abel, Esther and Dietrich got back to the partisan hideout, they were met by Ignatz. The old man, looking rather worried, told them to listen to what was being broadcast on the radio. Marquis Gyula Kádár declared himself the sole ruler of István. All the Terrans in the city - his private property. The City Council and the courthouse were to be immediately disbanded and the whole city was placed under a martial law for an indefinite period of time. Furthermore, it was established that the responsibility for the yesterday's terrorist attack lied with one Father Abel Nightroad, a priest in the St. Matthias' Church. Therefore, it was decided that, along with expressing a most emphatic protest to Vatican who undoubtedly directed the hand of the priest in question, the St. Matthias' Church would be shut down, indefinitely, and all its personnel - detained until further notice...

The last sounds of the broadcast died down, leaving only a stunned in their stead.

* * *

Not any less stunned were the members of the Vatican Council, in Castel Sant'Angelo, as one after another reports started to arrive from the Hungary border. The 14th armored infantry battalion ‘The Knights of St. Stephen’ reported being under an attack by armored vehicles, identified as belonging to the City Guard of István, and requested the permission to return fire. The border patrol airship ‘Ramiel’ reported than an unknown aircraft had just violated the border at the point 209/037, ignoring all attempts at communication. The crew of ‘Ramiel’ identified the ship in question as ‘Sárkány’ of the military airfleet of István and were requesting further instructions. Many similar reports followed.

To all intents and purposes, István had declared a war on Vatican.

When the Council had recovered enough from the shock to request the information on the total military assets of the Marquis of Hungary, it turned out that they consisted of a mere 2-3 regiments of infantry, a battalion of Germanicus-manufactured tanks and other armored vehicles, one armored infantry company of Germanicus-manufactured mobile armor and robotic soldiers, plus the airfleet - a destroyer and two frigates. Such a force could be handled by the border guard alone, without any reinforcements being necessary. The shock gave turn to the glee, as the Council realised that they had now all the excuse they needed for the invasion of Hungary. None were rejoicing more than Cardinal Francesco di Medici, who was roaring triumphantly that they could easily take István in under three days. But amidst all the rejoicing, Cardinal Caterina Sforza kept silence. It all seemed too perfect to her. Was the Marquis hoping to gain the support of the True Human Empire? But why would the Empire break a self-imposed ceasefire on the behalf of a single free town? That left only one possible explanation. "The Star of Sorrow"...

Chapter 3 - "The Traitorous Knight"

“Their tongue is a piercing arrow, it hath spoken deceit: with his mouth one speaketh peace with his friend, and secretly he lieth in wait for him.”

Jeremiah 6:8

 

From the ruins of an old handcraft museum in Pest, abandoned since the times of the Armageddon, Esther Blanchett watched through a looking glass an orange light of a signal rocket to soar into the skies above the palace across the river. Immediately, a series of explosions shook the residence of the Marquis of Hungary. Most of the City Guard had left István for the border with Vatican, but the remaining First Regiment, under the command of Colonel Radcón, lived up to its elite reputation - within five minutes of the first explosion most of the regiment had boarded the armored cars and were speeding towards the palace.

Having seen that in the looking glass, Esther turned around and told the assembled partisans that Dietrich and his team had completed the first step of the operation successfully. Now it was their turn. They were to take an abandoned subway tunnel to the point, 80 meters below the City Guard headquarters, where the hostages from St. Matthias' Church were held. Esther and her squad, which included Father Abel, were to rescue the prisoners. Another squad were to provide a distraction by attacking the HQ itself. It was now 6:00pm. Estimated time of the arrival to the prison facility was 6:30pm. By 7:00pm, regardless of the outcome of the operation, everyone was to withdraw to the safety. That said, Esther turned around and led her people into the darkness of the underground tunnel.

 

* * *

Upon reaching the entrance to the underground prison, Esther and Father Abel knocked out the guard with a blunted crossbow bolt. They picked up the keys from the unconscious man's body and entered the prison facility. Inside, they found pitch-black darkness. Then, suddenly, the light went on and the partisans found themselves face to face with about 50 midnight-blue uniformed City Guard - and Marquis Gyula Kádár, himself. Smiling, the vampire greeted his unwitting guests and told Esther that never had he expected the fearsome ‘Csillag’, the leader of the partisans who plagues his existence for so long, to turn out to be such a young and beautiful lady. Esther was still reeling from the shock, when Father Abel, in a small voice, advised her to surrender immediately. If they were meant to be killed, they would have been dead already. So they were wanted alive - and there was a good chance they would be imprisoned together with Mother Vitéz and her people. Convinced, Esther ordered her people to drop their weapons. The Marquis laughed and asked if the Terrans really were so foolish a species, as to have their young part with their lives so readily. Then he turned to Father Abel and asked if his hospitality was found so lacking yesterday, for the priest to have left so early in the night. Father Abel responded by complaining that it was really mean of the Marquis to use him as a lure for the partisans and then falsely accuse him - and the Church - of terrorism. "Falsely?", - the Marquis smiled wryly. "But didn't you, in fact, come here to kill me? A field operative of the Ax, Abel Nightroad..." Here, Esther interjected demanding to know where Mother Vitéz and the churchmen were. As a response, Gyula Kádár held out towards her a bloodied rosario and told Esther that he had killed the woman himself. And that, in fact, all the prisoners were executed yesterday's evening. For a moment, Esther just stood there as if struck by a thunderbolt. Then she jerked the knife off her belt and charged at the vampire in blind fury:

The Marquis dodged the girl's thrust easily, grabbed her hand and threw her across the room. Esther would have probably cracked her skull open, were it not for the priest diving forwards and catching her. Meanwhile the partisans drew knives and axes and charged the Marquis to protect their leader. But once more they couldn't match the vampire's ‘Haste’. Ignatz shouted for Father Abel to take still unconscious Esther and escape. The rest of them would try to hold off the vampire and the remaining City Guard for as long as possible. Hesitantly, the priest complied. But the Marquis had no intention of letting the two go - and had easily caught up with them using the ‘Haste’. His hand transformed and a sharp sword-shaped bone slid out of his palm. Just as the bone-sword was about to pierce the priest's heart, Father Abel somehow managed to pull out his antique revolver and fire. Cursing, the vampire jumped back, dodging a deadly silver bullet. The priest fired again. The Marquis dodged again - but the passing bullet had brushed his hair. And then he suddenly collapsed to the floor with a howl of pain. The second bullet hadn't been aimed at him - but at the steam pipe behind him. Choosing not to hang around and see how long would it take for the vampire to recover from being scolded by a jet of a boiling hot steam, Father Abel disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel, with the unconscious girl and his now empty gun in his hands.

* * *

The two shook off the pursuit by losing themselves in the air duct network of the facility. Esther, once she came to, was blaming herself for everything and feeling that all hope was lost. Father Abel had to pause and talk at her for a while, to get her out of the slump. He managed to convinced the girl that their first priority was to escape and see who else survived the massacre. As they traversed an abandoned maintenance tunnel, Esther belatedly asked the priest what did Gyula Kádár mean by the ‘Ax’ and the ‘field operative’. The question was not asked in much more than idle curiosity, but the priest suddenly got very serious and said that there was something very important he had to tell the girl. He wasn't really a priest, he was... Father Abel never finished the phrase, because a hate-filled voice out of the darkness ahead finished it for him. “...a field operative of Ax, Abel Nightroad. Codename: ‘Crusnic’. That's what he is. The ‘Ax’ is the name of the Special Operations Department of the Vatican's Ministry of State. The spymasters of Vatican. This man is a spy of Rome.”

The voice was unmistakably that of Dietrich. Indeed, it was him who subsequently emerged from the darkness of the tunnel. Battered, bloodied, bandaged - and pointing a gun at Father Abel:

He told Esther that after fiasco at the church he had started to suspect there was a mole amidst them. Now he was certain - the priest was leaking the information to Gyula Kádár all along in order to escalate the conflict and create an excuse for an armed intervention into Hungary. For the proof, Dietrich showed Esther a document he found during the today's raid on Várhegy. The burnt remains of a copy of a Vatican dossier, which read: “Abel Nightroad. Birth: Unknown. Height: Unknown. Weight: Unknown...” Almost every field read “Unknown”. In the very end, there was a hand-written note: “Can not be contacted at present due to an involvement in an undercover mission in István.”.

Shocked, Esther asked the priest to answer just one question for her. Was he really this ‘Ax Field Operative’, was he really a Vatican spy? Reluctantly, the priest nodded. Esther blew up, flying off into a fit of high hysterics. Assuming everything else Dietrich said was true as well, blaming the priest for everything, for all the deaths, screaming at him. Dietrich handed her his gun and told her to shoot the traitor. Taking the girl by the shoulders, he told her it would be her rightful revenge. The revenge for the death of Mother Vitéz.

It was then that Esther had suddenly frozen.

Turning slowly around to face Dietrich, she asked him how did he know that Mother Vitéz was dead? She herself was told this barely an hour ago - and Dietrich wasn't there at the time.

“Oh, dear... There nothing worse than the half-clever girls.”

All the fatigue and all the weakness had suddenly disappeared. Before Esther stood a stranger - a beautiful and deadly stranger, who radiated a feeling of sheer power. A malicious fire was dancing in his eyes. Esther took a step back, pointed her gun at him and told Dietrich not to move. Else she would shoot. Dietrich smiled and told Esther to shoot him if she could. The girl closed her eyes and hesitantly pressed the trigger... only to find, having opened her eyes, that she had shot Father Abel through the right shoulder. Her hands moved again, entirely of their own accord. Helpless, Esther stood and watched herself shooting the priest again, this time through the left shoulder. Something was glistening, almost imperceptibly, between the fingers of the Dietrich's right hand. The man explained amicably that the reason for Esther's seemingly inexplicable behaviour was a piece of an organic monomolecular wire. He attached it to her when he had touched her shoulders few minutes ago. A piece of the ‘Lost Technologies’ which he unearthed, the wire buried itself into the body of the victim and attached to its nerve system. This allowed the wielder to control the victim's body at will by sending the appropriate electric impulses down the wire's length. Like this, for instance. A third shot thundered through the air. Father Abel collapsed on one knee, his thigh shot through.

In tears, Esther asked Dietrich why had he betrayed them. The reply was that there were two reasons for that. The first was the business - the Marquis of Hungary was a client of his. The second was that he really loved Esther. And if you loved someone, you really wanted to mess them up a bit, right? Especially someone like her - a weakling, who knew only how to spew out pretty words. A happy girl, loved by all who met her, who didn't ever know what did it feel like to be hated. He always wanted a plaything like that. A twist of a hand - and Esther gasped in a soundless scream. Dietrich explained that he could send anything down the wire: a taste, a feel, a touch... or a most agonizing pain, like he was doing just at the moment. But what should he attempt next? A torture, the likes of which even the Inquisition couldn't match in their interrogation chambers deep beneath Vatican? Or an opposite - make Esther feel like a few dozen men were simultaneously ravishing her body in every way possible? But wait, said Dietrich looking back at the unconscious priest, he had just thought of a really perfect game. Esther screamed, as she watched herself repeatedly press the trigger. One after another, bullets bit into the shoulders of Father Abel. Finally, the nozzle of the gun came to point straight at the priest's face. “Please, stop..!”, begged Esther. “No, I don't think I would”, was the reply. As the shot resounded in the air, the black oblivion swallowed the girl at last as she lost consciousness.

Chapter 4 - "The Star of Sorrow"

The light and the sun rose up, and the lowly were exalted, and they devoured the glorious...” 

Esther 11:11          

 

Staring at his dead wife's portrait, Marquis Gyula Kádár silently promised her that it would all be over soon. Those who drove her to her unhappy end would soon get their just desserts. He dropped a thick tablet into a wine glass before him. Like many vampires, Marquis Kádár found the taste of fresh blood rough and repugnant, particularly in the aftertaste. He preferred to dissolve the blood extract in some refined, elegant drink, like the red wine. With some extra spices, it made for a good way of getting over the ‘Craving’ - a physiological dependence of vampires on the human blood.

An automata maid announced the arrival of Dietrich von Lohengrin. The Marquis seated both him and Esther Blanchett, whom Dietrich brought along, at the dinner table and ordered the supper to be served. Sister Esther asked where the priest was and got told that her friends were safe. Then she told the Marquis that he was finished - after what he did, Vatican would no longer stay silent. The vampire nodded and said that indeed right at that very moment the Vatican's army was smashing the last remains of the City Guard forces at the border. They were probably planning to be in István by the morrow. The way the vampire said this, made it sound like it was of no more importance than yesterday's weather. Promising to show the girl something interesting, the Marquis told Dietrich to proceed with their arrangements.

Few minutes later, a dark-gray hologram was hovering above the table. Esther peered in and saw an image of a landscape, taken from some very high vantage point. Higher than any airplanes should be able to fly. Then the dots on the landscape moved - and the girl realised the image had been live. The Marquis explained that what they were seeing took place about 200 kilometers west of István, where the 6th brigade of the Vatican's Eastern Army was battling the forces of the István City Guard - and winning. The vampire turned to Dietrich and asked him where the ‘Star’ was. The youth replied that at present the Star was was at 44·5°N, 33·3°E. The territory of the Empire, above the city of Babylon. In 40 more seconds it would have charged enough energy and in 7200 seconds it would be in an appropriate position to fire. The Marquis smiled gently at Esther and suggested she watched closely as this city they arrogant Terrans all worship, this Rome, enjoys what would become its last night.

* * *

Major-general Unbert Barbarigo stood and watched as broken remains of the István City Guard fled pursued by his ‘arditi’. “Veni, vidi, vici, is it...”, he muttered. The skirmish had barely lasted an hour, leaving the field of battle with him - and his ‘Justinians’, the 6th brigade of the Vatican's Eastern Army. “Hic iacet pulvis, cinis, nihil. And we ended up just watching from the sidelines”, spoke Major Mark-Anthony Braski, who stood by Barbarigo's side. His ‘Golden Knights’, the 28th battalion of mechanised infantry, didn't get to fire a single shot during the whole engagement. The two men proceeded to discuss how to conduct the warfare on the streets of István tomorrow. The HQ had already permitted the civilian casualties of up to 20%. Suddenly, Major Braski paused, stared intently at the sky to the south and then told Barbarigo that there appeared to be an abnormality in the concentration of the ion in the atmosphere. A few moments later, the sky to the south was lit up by a huge wall of pale blue-white light. Aurora Borealis? Here? The major-general crossed himself. Braski's mechanical voice continued talking. “What the..? A magnetic storm..? Your Excellency, I am reading off a major energy surge... It's coming from directly above us..!” The two men raised their heads to the skies above. And then the night sky, burning, fell down on them.

* * *

In Rome, the Vatican Council was listening to the reports pouring in from the east. ‘Constantinians’, the 5th brigade of the Eastern Army, had destroyed the 3rd regiment of the István City Guard. ‘Justinians’, the 6th brigade, were in a pursuit of the remains of the 2nd regiment, near to 200 kilometers west of István. Kalocsa, one of the satellite towns of István, had declared itself neutral in this conflict and asked for the protection of the Vatican's army. The battleship ‘Nathagiel’ had finished the bombing raid according to schedule, the damage inflicted was being estimated. It was clear to everyone on the Council that István would be taken by tomorrow's sunset. Within seventy two hours of its declaration, the war would be over. It was an indisputable masterpiece of military strategy and tactics on the behalf of the Supreme Commander Cardinal Francesco di Medici. Even Caterina Sforza had to agree that her half-brother's triumph was well-deserved. For all their difference, she knew full-well that he was probably the most skillful general in the Western Europe. But the doubts continued to gnaw her - the enemy was too weak. Far too weak. And there was still no sign of the Marquis Kádár's secret weapon, whose existence her spies had confirmed. ‘The Star of Sorrow’...

An operator reported that ‘Sandalphon’, the battleship which provided the air support to the ‘Justinians’, was on the line. Francesco di Medici ordered it patched through. A hologram of a middle-aged man appeared above the Council table. The captain of ‘Sandalphon’ Colonel Arnoldo diCambia reported that the ‘Justinians’ advanced to a point 200 kilometers west of István, that the enemy resistance was insignificant, but that even taking it into account, they should be able to reach István by the morrow. Just the captain was about to sign off, an interference appeared on the screen, breaking up the signal. Suddenly the whole image flashed brilliant white for a few seconds, near blinding the members of the Council, and then vanished altogether. After a few minutes the operators managed to restore just the audio link. The shaking voice of Colonel diCambia stuttered, incoherently, that all their optical devices went dead. An evil foreboding clutched the heart of Caterina Sforza. She surged forward, ignoring an aggravated look of her half-brother, and ordered the captain to get a grip on himself and report the situation as best as he could. Then the whole Council heard that there was a change on the battlefield below the ‘Sandalphon’. Both the ‘Justinians’ and the City Guard troops were annihilated. Not massacred - annihilated. There was nothing left on the ground below!

* * *

In Várhegy, Esther was struggling to regain her voice, as the swirl of light was subsiding on the holographic screen. “This is the Star of Sorrow, my trump card”, said Gyula Kádár in a voice torn between the satisfaction and the regret. A high-powered satellite-mounted laser, rotating around the Earth on a low orbit at the speed of 4000 m/s. Each of its blasts had the explosive power of near to 1 megaton. Four or five such blasts would suffice to reduce a city the size of Rome to smoking rubble. Crying, Sister Esther asked why was he doing all this. Almost sadly, the Marquis said: “To survive.” Let's be perfectly clear - this was a war. The war for the survival of the species. The Terrans and the Methuselah - one would live and the other would perish. The co-existance was but a foolish dream! No screams for mercy would stop the crazed Vatican fanatics once their silver spikes and their oaken stakes are raised. The Marquis turned to Dietrich and ordered him to prepare the Star of Sorrow for the second blast. The target coordinates were 41·53°N, 12·29°E - the center of the city of Rome. “Oh, and Sister Esther. I am afraid I have lied to you before. Your friends I captured this morning and the priest - they are no longer in this world. I had them executed already.”

* * *

When Father Abel, his wounds barely treated, was pushed, at last, out of the car, it was already nighttime. In front of him were a long runway and a concrete watchtower. It appeared he had been taken to a remote army airport west of István. Also there were Colonel Radcón, his City Guard troops and about a hundred partisan prisoners. The giant colonel loudly announced to the prisoners, that they were found guilty of many heinous crimes against the residents of István - including murder, burglary, extortion and arson - as well as of the high treason against the city itself. They were, therefore, sentenced to death by shooting. More specifically, they they were to be used as the target practice for the machine guns of the ‘Sárkány’, the huge dirigible hovering in the sky above. They could try to run - but any who crossed the white line before the runway would be shot by Radcón's people.

The giant was clearly deriving an immense enjoyment out of the proceedings. He told the prisoners that his only regret was that he didn't have time to murder them at length, like he did Mother Vitéz and her churchmen. Father Abel paled. Then a familiar voice had inquired from behind the colonel whether they've begun yet. Tres Iqus, newly arrived, explained to Colonel Radcón that he came on the orders from Gyula Kádár to inspect the battle-readiness of the ground-to-air artillery unit, stationed at this airport. Which provided him with a fine opportunity to watch the slaughter of the prisoners. The colonel grunted and ordered one of his soldiers to have it transmitted to the ‘Sárkány’ that they could open fire.

The Gatling gun, mounted at the bottom of the dirigible, started to rotate - and little fountains of earth went up, in a line, bare inches before the first row of the prisoners. All the hell broke loose, as prisoners scrambled to get away from the guns, trampling each other in the process. The colonel shouted for the gunners to get that priest first. Just as the priest, and the old man Ignatz he was helping to run, were swallowed up by a fountain of earth, everything suddenly became very bright. Those, who looked up, could see a huge ball of fire blossoming in the night sky above. As they realised that it was emerging from the broadside of the ‘Sárkány’, a second blast had pierced the helium-filled balloon of the dirigible and skewered the hull below. With a deafening thunderclap, the dirigible split into two and fell to the ground in a trail of fire. It crashed onto a small hill nearby and a second explosion shook the air. Flabbergasted, the colonel struggled to make out what happened in the sky. When he finally saw it, he could barely believe his own eyes. A huge dirigible of pure white, sleek and elegantly shaped, was descending towards them from far above. It was both larger and more beautiful than any airship the colonel ever saw. Burning in scarlet red on its snow-white hull were a catholic cross and the words ‟Arcanum cella ex dono dei”.

A Vatican battleship.

A loud female voice announced clearly from the sky: “This is ‘Iron Maiden II’, a battleship of ‘Ax’, the Special Operations Department of the Vatican's Ministry of State. I am Sister Kate, the ship's captain. This is a warning to all the soldiers of the István City Guard on the ground below. This airport had just been brought under our armed control. Please drop your weapons and surrender immediately. I repeat, drop your weapons and...”

As an indication of the full seriousness of the threat, a blast of guns from the battleship's side tore up a few nearby biplanes as if they were paper planes. Trembling with fury, Colonel Radcón grabbed his wireless operator by the neck. What is the anti-aircraft artillery unit doing!? The giant screamed into the wireless, telling them to shoot that monster down. “It's no good”, a voice from behind the giant told him, emotionlessly, “they were wiped out, to the last man.” The colonel started to shout for Tres Iqus to stop talking nonsense, but suddenly froze. “...came on the orders of Gyula Kádár to inspect the battle-readiness of the ground-to-air artillery...”

As the colonel stood and boggled, one of the soldiers attempted to take Father Abel hostage - and collapsed with a bullet wound the size of a fist. “Were you not clearly told surrender your weapons”, inquired Tres Iqus, now holding a pair of huge guns. “Iqus, you bastard..!”, roared the colonel. “0·44 seconds too late”, replied Tres Iqus and fired. Radcón collapsed to the ground clutching his stomach. “Switching the battle program to the ‘Genocide’ mode. Commencing combat.” Four of the City Guard exploded in a shower of blood. “Major Iqus, have you betrayed us!?”, shouted one of the officers. “Negative. I was never your ally to start with”, replied Iqus and shot the officer's head off. When, eventually, his guns ran out of bullets, Major Iqus had to pause to reload. While he did so, he calmly told the remaining soldiers that they were guilty of an assault on the St. Matthias' Church and would be questioned at Castel Sant'Angelo in an appropriate fashion. “Castel Sant'Angelo..? So you are a Vatican's dog, you bastard!” Father Abel's warning shout came too late. The bionically-enhanced colonel managed, even after taking a 13mm bullet to his stomach, to grab a machine gun off one of the fallen soldiers and stand up. And now he emptied the whole clip at Major Iqus, who was still reloading his guns. “Hah! Serves you right, you traitorous bastard! Did you really think Vatican scum could kill someone like me!?”

“Negative, Colonel Radcón. I never had any intention of killing you. You will be taken to Rome alive.”

The voice from the cloud of dust raised by the machine-gun blast rung with coldness of the tempered steel. And when the dust settled down, Colonel Radcón's eyes popped out of their orbits. Standing before him was Major Iqus, arms crossed in a crucifix, a gun in each hand:

His uniform was torn to shreds, but there wasn't a drop of blood on his body. The bullets pierced the polymer-made skin, but were stopped by the artificial muscle below, made out of the shape-memory plastic. “You ain't human!”, shouted the colonel. “‘Ain't human’? Positive. Certainly, I am not human. I am HC-ⅢX (Tres Iqus), codename: ‘Gunslinger’, a field operative of ‘Ax’, the Special Operations Department of the Vatican's Ministry of State”, the android killer introduced himself in a colourless voice. With a howl of rage, Colonel Radcón charged himself at him. “Die, you robotic bastard!” “0·25 seconds too late”, calmly replied Tres Iqus. He then slid the fresh magazines into his guns, neatly side-stepped the colonel's fist and fired eight shots. Elbows, shoulders, knees and hips. “Like I said, Colonel Radcón, you are to be taken to Rome alive. A special interrogation cell had already been prepared for you in Castel Sant'Angelo. There you will tell us everything you know. This body of yours can withstand a lot.” Without sparing the collapsed giant another look, Tres Iqus turned around and informed Father Abel that, regretfully, the Star of Sorrow had been fired two hundred seconds ago. An earcuff in Father Abel's ear suddenly spoke with Sister Kate's voice, relaying the orders of Caterina Sforza. Father Tres was to stay with the partisans and help them to take possession of the city. Father Abel was to board the ‘Iron Maiden Ⅱ’ immediately and, through any means necessary, prevent the second blast of the Star of Sorrow.

* * *

In Várhegy, the thick glass of the windows designed to block out the ultra-violet rays shook audibly. The Marquis looked outside and saw a tall pillar of fire rising towards the sky to the west. Something must have happened at the airport. Dietrich said that he would go to investigate it and left, hurriedly. Meanwhile, Esther sat still at the table and contemplated her plight. All whom she cared for were dead. The only thing left to her, it seemed, was to slay the vampire responsible for this horror - or at least to die trying. Her only hope lied in the silver rosario she always carried with her. Its bottom end was sharpened, so were she to get one lucky strike in, it might prove out to be enough. The silver had an extremely adverse effect on the Methuselah. Seeking to distract the Marquis, Esther asked who was the lady on the painting which hung on the wall. Perhaps the Marquis was more in a state of mental turmoil than it appeared - for his answer was more than the girl had bargained for. He told Esther that his wife was a human who was lynched by the Vatican priests for being a wife of a vampire. But the bitter irony was that at that very time he and his wife together were working to better the lot of the humanity. The Star of Sorrow was originally an energy-relay satellite, designed to receive the energy gathered by a solar-battery unit on the Moon and relay it to the power stations on Earth. Were it to be restored to a fully-operational state, many of the dead cities, abandoned since the Armageddon, could become inhabited again.

His wife was originally a ‘Programmer’ whom he invited to work on the project. Very few such people existed still, who possessed the skills necessary to communicate with probably the most arcane artifact of the lost civilization - the ‘Electrical Intelligence’. Before long, his wife had become the chief enthusiast of the project. But in Rome they thought that the Marquis and his wife had been restoring some fearsome ancient weapon - and had the wife killed. Without a ‘Programmer’, the Marquis could no longer carry on with the project. And so he wallowed in self-misery, until one day they had contacted him. The Order. Even now he still wasn't sure who exactly they were - but they consisted of both the Terran and the Methuselah and they claimed to oppose the Vatican. They had sent him a new ‘Programmer’, Dietrich von Lohengrin, to continue with the restoration of the Star of Sorrow. Thus he gained his chance to wage a war on Terrans. To gain his revenge. But maybe... The Marquis paused, lost in a labyrinth of his memories. Maybe it was a mistake...

It was then, that Esther swung down the rosario from behind, aiming at the back of the vampire's neck. The Marquis' story threw her into a turmoil - but still she had found it within herself to strike. The vampire's last words, however, caused her to falter for an instant - and that instant proved fatal. The vampire had time to turn around and block the improvised weapon with a palm of his hand. An acrid stench filled the air. The enraged vampire grabbed the girl and threw her across the room so hard that she almost had broke her spine slamming into the opposite wall. Cursing all the filthy Terrans in this world, the Marquis strode over to where Esther had collapsed. Grabbing the girl by the chin, he bared his fangs... and with a deafening noise the anti-UV window behind them shattered. “Miss Esther!”, cried a familiar voice. And the Marquis of Hungary went flying to the floor with a silver bullet lodged in his shoulder.

* * *

Without sparing the collapsed vampire a glance, Father Abel ran over towards Esther. The girl was unharmed. Hurriedly, she explained to the priest that they must stop the Star of Sorrow before it destroys Rome. Half-way through her explanation, the priest whirled sharply around, having seen something reflected in her eyes. Advancing on them from behind was the Marquis of Hungary. The vampire had extruded the bone-blade from within his palm and used it to carve the silver bullet out of his body. Along with a better part of his shoulder. Cursing Father Abel for a rotten Vatican dog that he was and inviting him to feast his eyes on the destruction of Rome, the vampire charged. The two of them fought. Marquis Kádár turned his other hand into a second bone-blade and was able to vibrate the pair of blades, each composed of many razor-thin plates extending one from under another, in such a way as to produce between the blades a high-frequency high-energy sonic wave which shredded anything that came near it. In particular, it shredded all the priest's bullets, rendering his gun useless. But the priest threw the gunpowder flask he kept on his belt to refill his gun with into the air and shot it. This created a small explosion and the Marquis ran straight into it. The shock-wave of the explosion had interfered with the sonic shield for long enough to allow the priest to shoot off the Marquis' right arm. The vampire couldn't use the sonic shield anymore and Father Abel fired his last shot, almost regretfully, straight between the Marquis' eyes. But the one who collapsed in a shower of blood was the priest himself. At the last moment, the vampire managed to kick his torn-off arm, sending it towards Father Abel's stomach and skewering the priest with the bone-blade. The silver bullet whizzed harmlessly by the vampire's ear and buried itself, with a thud, in the portrait of the Marquis' wife.

Right between the eyes.

It was over. The Marquis glanced at the holographic display which hovered above the dinner table. There was ten seconds left until the second blast. Behind him the girl rushed over to her collapsed friend. Seven. A stream of blood spurted out of the priest's mouth. Five. Somewhere high above the surface of the Earth, the Star of Sorrow, rushing at the speed of near to 4,000 m/s, began to concentrate the charged energy. The energy which Gyula Kádár and his wife meant to present to humanity as a gift. Three. It really was all over now. One.

And then the air exploded.

 * * *

Even after the blinding flash of light had subsided, it took a considerable length of time before either the Marquis or Esther could see anything. And when the vampire had finally regained his sight, he lost his breath instead. Out of the shattered window he could see that, on the opposite shore, a large part of Pest was simply no longer there. In its place was a giant smoking crater. The waters of Danube were pouring into it with a roar.

Flabbergasted, the Marquis checked the data on the holographic screen. Indeed the coordinates for the second blast were nothing like what he had specified. While the Star of Sorrow was already preparing for the third blast. Dietrich! He needed Dietrich! As if answering to the Marquis' thoughts, Dietrich's face appeared on the holographic screen above the dinner table. The Marquis told him that something went wrong with the coordinates they had entered, so Dietrich needed to return re-program the system. “Wrong? No, Your Excellency, these coordinates are exactly right”, the youth smiled back from the screen. “The second blast was centered on the City Guard headquarters. The third blast will hit the very center of Pest. And the last blast will be aimed at Várhegy and Your Excellency's palace. My program is in perfect order.” “Dietrich!? You've... betrayed me..? You've used me!?” The Marquis made the only possible conclusion. “No. I haven't used you. I've used the Star of Sorrow. Of what use could a one stupid monster be? You flatter yourself, Your Excellency.” Dietrich proceeded to explain that the goal of his Order here was to escalate an armed conflict between Vatican and the True Human Empire. The last major skirmish between the two occurred 270 years ago, when the 11th Crusade, summoned forth by Pope Sylvester XIXth, was massacred near Debrecen. Not the least reason for this long-lasting peace lied with the neutrality belt of free domains like István, which humans thought was ruled by humans and the vampires knew was ruled by a vampire. An occupation of Hungary by Vatican, therefore, was certain to be followed by an armed retaliation from the Empire. “But why would the Order want that?”, cried the Marquis. “What is your game!? Who side are...” “We are not on anyone's side”, interrupted him Dietrich. “We are contra-mundi. ”

Leaving the Marquis to gape, the youth turned his attention to Esther. He apologized at length for what he had done to her, claiming that he always quite like her beneath it all. As a token of how sorry he felt, he would teach her a magic spell: “IGNE NATURA RENOVATUR INTEGRA.” At the sound of this words, the eyes of Father Abel, whose limp body Esther held in her arms, flew wide open. Unmindful of that, the girl asked what were these words. Dietrich replied that they were the self-destruction code for the Star of Sorrow, which he programmed in, unbeknown even to the Marquis. She only had to enter them using the keyboard on the table and the Star would explode. Provided, of course, she could enter them without someone interfering first... The stares of Marquis Kádár and Esther collided, almost striking a spark. Dietrich laughed and wished Esther good luck. That done, he vanished off the holographic screen.

The girl and the vampire raced each other to the keyboard. Esther stood closer at first - but the Marquis was significantly faster. He overcame Esther and slammed her away from the keyboard, projecting the girl halfway across the room. He then took up the keyboard and looked desperately for a way to regain the control of the satellite. But Esther took hold of the priest's gun and, threatening him with it, demanded for the vampire to step aside and let her destroy the Star. Cursing, the Marquis extended the bone-blade out of his palm. He'd have had to kill her anyway - no one who knew the self-destruct code could be allowed to live. He advanced on the girl. Esther fired - and immediately realized her mistake. The gun was out of bullets. “Die, Terran!” The bone-blade swept down in a flash... and it was then that a tall cassock-wearing figure suddenly stepped in between the girl and the vampire.

* * *

Father Abel caught the descending blade in between his palms and held it there, few inches above his head. The Marquis tried to aim a kick at the priest's mid-stomach - but went flying across the room himself. Having crashed onto the floor, the vampire stared in disbelief at the man before him. The man, who still had a bone-blade protruding from his stomach. The man, who had so many injuries he should have been dead twice over. “What are you!?”, cried out the Marquis. “The humans feed upon the cows and the chick”, replied Father Abel. “The vampires feed upon the humans. Don't you think that there should be something, somewhere which feeds upon the vampires?” The priest pulled the Marquis' hand out of his stomach and brought it to his lips. Sharp fangs, the vampire fangs, bit into the dead flesh. The hand started to shrivel... to wither... until it became no more than a bone clad into a thin gauze of the flesh. A deep dark voice, which sounded as if it came out of the bowels of the Earth, boomed:
   “Nanomachine ‘Crusnic 02’ initiating the operation at 40% limit.
    Acknowledged.”

The color of the priest's eyes changed from its usual pale-blue of a midwinter lake to the scarlet of the blood. “I am Crusnic”, he told the Marquis, “The vampire who drinks the blood of the vampires.”

The two of them fought.

The Marquis split the bone-blade in his left hand into three and was able to vibrate them so as to create a miniature version of the sonic wave he employed earlier. Father Abel's hands burst - and the dark liquid which flew out instead of the blood solidified into a giant monolithic two-bladed scythe, which the priest used to fight with.

In the end, the vampire used his blade to dead-lock the priest's scythe and then his sides burst open. Eight bone-spears, eight ribs, sped towards the priest from all sides like giant snakes... and bounced off, shattered, as something dark enveloped the priest's body, something tough enough to withstand the diamond-like bone-spears. A pair of huge jet-black wings sprouted from Father Abel's and enfolded him completely.

“What... what on Earth is ‘Crusnic’!?”, cried out the Marquis.

“I am...”, said the priest and whispered something into his ear.

“It can't be..! Then you... no, thou art our...”

Giant black wings fluttered, unfolding with a rustling noise. The black scythe swept down and the bone-blade shattered in its wake, depriving the vampire of his last weapon.

“This is the end.”

The shining jet-black blade swept down once more.

* * *

“Is he dead!? Who... who are you!?”

Esther had many questions to ask. But Father Abel, whose body returned to its normal state and whose eyes were once again the pale-blue of a midwinter lake, silenced them all and told the girl that first of all they had to enter the code. He pointed towards the holographic screen, where the countdown to the third blast of the Star of Sorrow was still running. Esther hesitated. But there being no better option left, she walked over to the keyboard and entered the code. “Igne Natura Renovatur Integra.” The girl checked it over once more and pressed the return button. Nothing happened. The countdown continued to run. The priest walked over to her. Together they were staring, puzzled, at the screen when suddenly Dietrich's face appeared on it.

“Dear Esther. If you are watching this, then you've done as I'd told you and entered the code.” Dietrich proceeded to explain that, firstly, this was a pre-recorded video file and that, secondly, he needed to apologize her once more. The code which she'd just entered wasn't the self-destruct code. It was a target-change code, instead. Yes - the target of the next blast was no longer István. It was now Byzantium. The capital of the Empire. The nest of the vampires, whom Esther hated so much. Of course, their capital attacked. the Empire would retaliate. There would be a war. The last, the ultimate war between the vampires and the humans.

“How does it feel, to have pressed the button which would trigger off the Armageddon? You really are an idealist, Esther, to have believed me once more, after being deceived so much already. But then it was, perhaps, this very naivete that I always found so attractive about you... Bye-bye, Esther. Hope we shall meet again some day.”

The image vanished. Esther kept standing there, gaping at the screen, until the blood-splattered fingers of Father Abel hadn't touched the keyboard in front of her. The girl tried to protest... but was firmly told to step away and not interfere.

For a little while Father Abel just stood there and stared at the screen. Then he started to type. Hesitantly at first, but then faster and faster with each click of a key. Once more Esther tried to warn him that it was dangerous to experiment with such a technology. She was plainly told to be silent. The finger of the priest were now flying up and down the keyboard as if they belonged to a virtuoso pianist. A mechanical voice continued the countdown: “39... 38... 37...” Finally, the priest stopped typing and looked at the screen. In a clear voice he spoke out: “Voice input to the super-user program. Requesting to switch the system to the administrator mode.” For a moment, the countdown stopped. The numbers on the screen froze up. A soft female voice, quite unlike the mechanical voice the computer employed before, replied: “Acknowledged. Switching the system to the administrator mode. Welcome. All tasks are running normally. The time remaining until the next blast is 30 seconds... 29... 28... 27...”“Give priority to all the emergency-use commands. Freeze all the ordinary tasks.”“The command file has been erased by the administrator. An error at the address R200055, the...” “Unnecessary. How many commands are available in the system-freeze mode? There is not the time, so don't quote the addresses.” “Acknowledged. Search in progress... completed. Found 1 item matching the query.”“What is it?”“The self-destruction command, based on the security directive #3090.” “Inputting the self-destruction command. Carry out the self-destruction, as per the security directive #3090”. ”An input of the self-destruction command requires a security level clearance of the Special-A class and higher. Please present your administrator pass.” “My administrator pass is...” Father Abel took a deep breath. “...UN Air and Space Force Commander Abel Nightroad. Affiliation: The “Red Mars” Program, Administrative Department, Security Section. ID#: UNASF 94-8-RMOC-666-02ak.” “Security clearance confirmed. The system shall carry out the self-destruction according to the security directive #3090. This will also entail the destruction of all the satellites on the orbit 9982. Thank you for using this system.” The voice went silent. All the numbers disappeared. Father Abel stared at the dark screen and sighed. Glancing through window to the skies above, he said, to no one in particular: “Thanks for all the hard work all these years...”

Esther watched the scene, which played out in front of her, with a puzzled expression. What happened..? The Star..? “The Star is gone”, spoke a voice from the floor, “It's finished now. Or rather, it has been finished. So I've guessed right about you, Father Nightroad...”

His right arm had been torn off at the shoulder, his stomach had a deep gash through it, but Marquis Kádár was alive. Father Abel told the vampire that his purpose was not to kill the vampire, but to stop the Star of Sorrow. The Marquis replied that if he were to be taken to Rome, he would die there anyway. And if he were to die, he'd rather it wasn't in a torture cell of the Inquisition. The vampire asked for Esther to be permitted to exercise her right of revenge. He did, after all, kill so many people dear to her. For a moment, the priest was silent. Then he took his revolver gun, handed it over to Esther and told her it was loaded with the silver. A shot through either the head or the heart - and the vampire would die. The girl took the gun, aimed... but in the end didn't find it in herself to press the trigger. What was the difference between her taking revenge for Mother Vitéz and Marquis Kádár taking revenge for his wife? Was there a difference?

With an expression of relief Father Abel took the gun back from the girl. In the city below the Castle Hill the shooting and the explosions had begun to die down. A familiar figure appeared in the doors of the dining hall. Tres Iqus walked in and reported that 97% of the City Guard forces have been subdued. After their HQ had been blown up, most of them lost any desire to carry on fighting and surrendered. At present, the partisans were sweeping up those few who chose to fight to the bitter end. By the time the Vatican forces arrived, it would all be over. Father Abel heard the report out and nodded. Then it was the time for them to withdraw as well. The rest could be left for the partisans to handle.

Unfortunately, at that point they were interrupted by Colonel Radcón. The bionically-enhanced soldier managed to overcome his near-fatal injuries, avoid the partisan patrols and come all the way out to Várhegy. In his eyes only one thing still remained - a thirst for revenge. He aimed Esther's own crossbow at the girl. Tres, in one smooth motion, drew his M13 out of its holster and fired it over his shoulder. Without even turning around. The bullet hit the colonel between the eyes and went clean through, bursting his brains out of the back of his head. But not before the giant managed to press the crossbow's trigger. The arrow sped towards Esther - and buried itself in the Marquis of Hungary's chest as the vampire stepped forth to protect the girl. The arrowtip was full of silver nitrate and the vampire's end was swift. Within a few seconds, the convulsions had started. Crying, the girl dropped down on the floor and lifted the Marquis' head into her arms.

Why did he do it, Esther cried. The vampire replied that he didn't know himself. Really, why would he care to save a Terran..? A nun..? Half-delirious, the Marquis rasped: “Really. Where did it start to go wrong... All I wanted to see was your smiling face, Maria... When did it suddenly become...” Esther understood whom was the vampire seeing before him and spoke in the stead of the woman who for decades now lived only within the Marquis' memories: “Thank you, dear... You can rest now. Thank you for everything...”

The last expression on the face of the Marquis was that of a smile.

Tears streaking down her cheeks, made the sign of the cross over the dead body.

“Lord, have mercy upon this poor soul. And let him meet once more those he loved so dearly.

 Amen.”

Epilogue - “The Hunter's Afternoon”

“Defile not the land of your habitation, which is stained with the blood of the innocent: neither can it otherwise be expiated, but by his blood that hath shed the blood of another.”

Numbers 35:33

 

The spring in the Southern Europe came early. The Duchess of Milano Cardinal Caterina Sforza reflected on that, as she stood at a window and watched crowds of pilgrims bustling with activity at the Piazza Sant'Pietro below.

The whole of Vatican was still busy dealing with the aftermath of the István incident, which took place three months ago. The beautiful scarlet-robed woman at the window was no exception. Turning back towards the room, she motioned for a small priest in an impeccably tidy cassock to continue with his report. In a mechanical voice Father Tres Iqus pronounced the whereabouts of one Dietrich von Lohengrin still undetermined. Caterina Sforza was not particularly surprised. If the man was indeed who the report indicated him to be, he was unlikely to have left any traces behind. They were always very, very prudent... “Igne Natura Renovatur Integra. So the Contra Mundi are still very much in good health...” Caterina Sforza, who went up against them a number of times in the past, knew of their prudence more than the most. Father Iqus complained that the resources of the Ax were stretched to their limit by the investigation and asked if there were anyone else who could be asked to assist them. “Well, I wonder... Come to think of it, when was Father Nightroad going to return to Rome?”, inquired the world's most beautiful Cardinal as drily as she could.

* * *

In István, still under a shroud of snow, Sister Esther placed a bouquet of winter-roses on the Mother Vitéz's grave. She told her dead teacher that she was leaving István. She had requested a transfer to a church in Rome and now her train was leaving in less than an hour. As she sped towards the entrance gates of the church graveyard, the girl threw a glance towards an unmarked gravestone next to the rows of the graves of the priests who were slaughtered three months ago. If anyone were to learn who slept under that gravestone, undoubtedly her transfer orders would be swiftly replaced by an arrest warrant issued by the Holy Inquisition.

Near the gates, Esther met Father Abel. The silver-haired priest was entering the graveyard with a bouquet of winter-roses in his hands.

“Leaving now..?”

“Yes, leaving now.”

The girl sped towards the carriage which waited for her just outside the gates. The priest walked on towards the graves. Neither of them looked back. Both knew full well their paths would cross again.

In Rome.

 

The End

“Trinity Blood : Reborn on the Mars I : The Star of Sorrow”

 

 

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