24 November 2011

Excerpt Thursday: Covenant with the Vampire by Jeanne Kalogridis

This week on Excerpt Thursday, we're welcoming best-selling historical author Jeanne Kalogridis, as she celebrates the release of her DIARIES OF THE FAMILY DRACUL trilogy on Kindle. The novels are available now. Join us Sunday, when Jeanne will be here to talk about her series and give away a copy of each of the books in the series, COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE, CHILDREN OF THE VAMPIRE and LORD OF THE VAMPIRES! Today, Jeanne offers an excerpt from the first book in the trilogy. Here's the blurb:

A sensual, terrifying, incredibly accomplished novel, this fascinating prequel to the classic and most popular horror novel of all time, Dracula, focuses on Dracula's great-nephew, who inherits the job of managing his great-uncle's estate...and his appetite. 

At the castle of Prince Vlad Tsepesh, also known as Dracula, Vald's great-nephew Arkady is honored to care for his beloved though strange great-uncle...until he beings to realize what is expected of him in his new role. It seems that either he provides his great-uncle with unsuspecting victims to satisfy his needs, or Vlad will kill those Arkady loves. He is trapped into becoming party to murder and sadistic torture. And it is in his blood. When Arkady learns that his newborn son is being groomed one day to follow in his footsteps, he knows that he must fight Dracula, even if it means death.


In the excerpt, "Stefan" is the ghost of the narrator’s, Arkady, brother.  Arkady drives the carriage (caleche) into the Transylvanian forest in search of a missing houseguest (Jeffries) of his "Uncle" Vlad's; Arkady fears something sinister has happened to Mr. Jeffries.  Arkady does not yet realize who and what his Uncle Vlad is:  Dracula, who has exerted mental control over him to keep him from seeing the truth.  But Arkady's subconscious, in the form of the ghost of his younger brother Stefan, is urging him to seek the truth.  

It was a warm spring day.  Dawn had been clear, but early afternoon saw iron clouds filling the sky, and the air had the smell and feel of an approaching storm.  Some inexplicable compulsion drove me towards the edge of the forest where I had last seen Stefan.  As I urged the horses between the trees, a gentle rain began to fall, but the thick foliage protected us.  Even so, we grew wet as the sweeping branches sprinkled us with dew.
            The animals tossed their heads and whinnied their disapproval of my foolish decision to re-enter the forest.  I told myself that I was not afraid, though my mouth was suddenly so parched my tongue adhered to the inside of my cheek, and I held the reins taut in slightly trembling hands.  Not afraid, though I could not keep from peering up at the tops of the tallest trees, to see whether Jeffries lay swaying there with the wind.
            It was day and it was warm.  Wolves did not attack in daytime in warm weather, nor singly, but in packs, and then usually only on winter nights.  That was the prevailing folk wisdom, yet Stefan had died on a beautiful, glistening summer's day, killed by a solitary half-wolf.  I remembered Father's revolver, beside me on the seat where I had stowed it for just such an occasion.  I set it on my lap.
            There was no sign of Stefan.  I drove the horses forward a bit, slowly, straining my eyes in the showy dimness for my dead brother's small form.  We retraced the progress I remembered, finally coming to a stop at the place I decided was the one where the wolves had attacked.
            The horses lifted their hooves and snorted, impatient, nervous.  I held very still, watching the same spot in the shade of an alder tree where I believe Stefan had last been.  Watching, and listening, to a distant rustling in the trees--most likely of birds and squirrels.  A crow cawed, reproachful; a bird sang.
            I sat watching several minutes, aware of every sound around me, of the muted patter of rain against trees, of my own breathing.  At last, slowly, slowly, out of the reticulate pattern of light and sepia shadow against trembling leaves, Stefan emerged.
            And gestured onward, at the deep recesses of the forest.
            We followed, the wheels rolling against the damp, needle-strewn ground with the snap of breaking twigs.
            Once again, my brother's spectre vanished, only to reappear once I progressed a fair distance in the direction indicated.  We continued a good half hour into the forest in this manner.
            At last, Stefan appeared but gestured no more; only stared intently at me a time, as might a living loved one trying to memorise the details of my face upon parting.
            And then he disappeared.
            Confused, I looked round, and saw nothing but the same alder and pine trees.  I waited some minutes, then slipped the waist of my trousers and crawled out of the caleche.  I tethered the horses to a branch, then commenced investigating the area.  There was nothing remarkable, just the same dense foliage as before, and dark soil almost entirely covered by a carpet of dead leaves and pine needles.
            But when I walked over to the large tree where Stefan's ghost had stood, the ground abruptly sank, soft and spongy, beneath my feet.  I pushed away the damp, vegetal detritus and discovered fresh dug earth, darker and more loosely packed compared to the surrounding soil.
            My heart began to beat more swiftly.  Quickly, I swept more of the dead foliage aside.  As I did, I discovered something hard and white--a fragment of bone, from an animal, I thought.  But before I could examine it, the horses emitted high-pitched, panicked whinnies.
            I looked up to see a wolf, running swift and low between the trees, headed not towards the caleche and the captive horses, but toward me.  
            I straightened and in a split second entertained the grisly notion that Stefan had enticed me here to suffer the same fate as my two brothers; I imagined my bright blood merged with the gentle rain and bejeweling the forest with crimson dew.
            The wolf lunged.  I drew the pistol from beneath my coat and fired.  Not four feet away, the animal emitted a shrill, canine yelp and dropped in mid-leap, at the highest point of the arc, blooded at the juncture of leg and shoulder.
            Yet it gathered itself and rose, unsteady, limping on three legs, and came at me.  I was forced to shoot again; this time, the proximity permitted me to make a clean kill, and lodge a bullet just above and between its stark white eyes.  The creature sank to the forest floor with a whine that terminated in a death rattle.
            I wanted nothing better than to sag weakly against the nearest tree trunk and master my trembling--but the ominous recollection of the two dead wolves lying at the open gate of our family tomb persuaded me to remain with pistol at the ready.
            There came a crashing of twigs and leaves; the second wolf appeared bare seconds afterwards.  I forced myself to wait until he was near enough for my aim to be certain, and when at last I prepared to fire, I had to steady my shaking right arm with my left.  The wolf charged and I squeezed the trigger, but the sparse rain that dripped down through the forest canopy left the weapon beaded with moisture; it slipped in my grasp as it discharged, sending the bullet wide of its mark.
            In the fraction of a second it took to realise I had missed my target, I knew all was lost.  The wolf leapt for my throat.  Its body collided with mine, knocking the pistol from my hand.  Huge paws struck my shoulders, slamming them against damp ground.  I steeled myself for the pain of those cruel teeth upon my neck, thinking not of the irony of my fate, nor the treachery of my brother's ghost, but only of Mary and the child.
            The wolf lowered its face to mine and peered at me with large, colourless, feral eyes; its panting mouth revealed a long pink tongue and yellowed fangs glistening with saliva.  It snarled, and opened its mouth wide in preparation for the kill.  I felt its breath, hot upon the exposed, tender skin of my throat, Gasping, I squeezed my eyes shut and braced for death.
            And then the impossible occurred.
            I sensed movement beyond my closed eyes, but it was not accompanied by the pain of my throat being flayed asunder.  The heat on my neck was replaced by the cool damp of the forest; the pressure of paws against my shoulders disappeared.
            I opened my eyes and saw that the wolf had withdrawn.  He now sat on his haunches at my feet like an obedient, panting dog, tongue lolling out the side of his deadly mouth.
            I pushed myself to a half-sitting position.  The wolf snarled and snapped, and moved to charge again--but reluctantly held himself back at the last instant, as though an invisible, unwanted barrier held him in check. 
            I wasted no time questioning the reason for this remarkable phenomenon.  I found the revolver nearby on the ground and moved slowly, stealthily towards it as the wolf growled his displeasure, but remained otherwise still.  At last, I reached swiftly for the gun and fired point-blank at the creature, who remained so unresisting that I felt a stab of pity.  It died with a soft whine as its head sank onto its forelegs.
            Afterwards, there was only silence--not even the scurrying of a squirrel, or the singing of a bird, only the soft, steady drum of rain upon foliage.  The third wolf never appeared.  When my trembling eased, I determined with footsteps the limits of the sinking soil.  It was much smaller than I expected, perhaps only three square feet--far too small for a body.  With dark mirth that verged on hysteria, I began to laugh:  perhaps the tales of the moroi were true.  Perhaps my brother had led me to a buried cache of jewels or golden coins.
            Obsessed, I began to do with nothing more than my hands.
            It was sweaty work.  The soil was heavy with moisture and after an hour, perhaps two, I was soaked, covered with mud, aching.  The rain was coming down hard.  I was on the verge of giving up when my chilled fingers finally struck something soft and yielding beneath the inch of muddy water.
            It felt like a thick layer of fabric.  I frantically cleared away enough mud to determine the dimensions of the hidden prize:  it was a square roughly twelve inches on each side, and when I dug deep enough to get my fingers beneath it, I could feel that it was apparently a perfectly square box of some very hard material, either metal or wood, beneath the cloth.
            I knelt on the wet, yielding ground and leaned forward, wriggling first fingers, then hands, beneath the box.  It took several moments before I could get a good enough grip and enough momentum to pull it from the wet earth, but at last I gave a mighty yank and it came forth with a loud sucking sound.  
            I fell back onto m haunches and studied my treasure:  it had been wrapped in several layers of fine black silk, now soaked and filthy, but too new and in too good shape to have been more than a day in the earth.  Eagerly, I unwrapped it, and discovered beneath a simple, unvarnished wooden box fashioned from the native pine, with a crude brass latch.
            I set the box on the ground and unfastened the latch, cutting my thumb on its sharp, unpolished edge, but in my fearful excitement, I did not care.  I flung back the latch, slipped my fingertips over the top, and attempted to pry the box open.  It took a good deal of effort, as the wood was swollen from the moisture, but at last it came, and I threw back the top.
            And screamed when I stared into Jeffries' wide, death-clouded eyes.
            I sprang to my feet; the box fell from my hands.  Jeffries' head rolled out across the soggy foliage with a damp crackling sound and came to rest face up on the very edge of the gaping grave.,  As it rolled, something fell from the open mouth, which was frozen in the same anguished rictus it had worn in my dream.  I reached for the white object on the dark glistening ground, and picked up a head of garlic.
            His neck had been sawed through in the same manner as father's, and his mouth crammed full of the pungent herb,  His skin was whiter than I thought it possible for any human's to have been; it was precisely the colour of chalk, even paler than the tufts of tousled hair that stuck out wildly in all directions from his scalp.
            Thunder rumbled as I stared, aghast, down at the severed head.  An abrupt cloudburst beat down through the sheltering trees, spilling a violent cascade on me and my unfortunate erstwhile guest, washing mud from my trouser legs and sleeves.  The rain pounded down on Jeffries' open, unseeing eyes, glued his hair to his scalp, swept away twigs and soil and the solitary alder leaf that had clung to his marble-white cheek.
            For an instant, I thought I would vomit; but what erupted from the depths of my terrified being was entirely unexpected,
            I began to laugh.
            Low at first, then rising higher in pitch until the sound became hysterical.  I threw back my head and laughed harder, weeping, letting the rain mingle with my tears, letting it drum against my open eyes as it did Jeffries' sightless ones, letting it fill my grinning rictus of a mouth until I bent forward, gagging, still convulsed by hellish glee.
            For I realized that Stefan had first appeared before Jeffries' death.  Jeffries was merely coincidental, an afterthought.
            There was more treasure to be found.
            And I found it, little brother.  Oh, I found it.
            I spread my arms wide, embracing the rain, whirling in circles like a child seeing how much he could bear before becoming dizzy.  I danced, crashing through the brush, unmindful of wolves, uncaring, pressing my feet into the loamy, carpeted soil, pausing when it yielded to dig in the mud like a dog hell-bent on retrieving a bone.
            I found bones, a graveyard full of them--and all of them skulls.  Big skulls and little ones, too.  The infants were buried without any amenities,; I found their heads in a mass grave.  Many of the tiny skulls were irregularly shaped, and hinted at gross deformity.   One child had half an extra head emerging from his cranium, as if he had endeavoured and failed to give birth to Athena.  
            I stopped opening the boxes after the second one--which contained the head of a man several months' decayed and slippery with moss--though I continued my mad excavation, collecting the small boxes like so many trophies.  But after some two dozen--in addition to too many infants' skulls to count--I found my maniacal energy exhausted, though the ground still gave way in several places immediately surrounding me.
            And how many more graveyards like this lay hidden in the endless forest?

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