Twenty-five – The Henchmen Unveiled
Billy began to perceptibly shake and tremble; moments later, so did the very ground beneath our feet. Once more we were greeted by a spectre-like figure rising though the floor before us, although on this occasion there was no hollow scraping of slab-on-concrete. A mist, akin to the living cloud that stretched for miles to the horizon of subterranea above, enveloped our feet and the base of the altar and began to scramble across the stretched out sheet before us. The rolling mist had that same parasitic quality as the cloud, feeling as if it almost wanted to burrow beneath your skin and start eating away at you from the inside.
Distracting as this was, we could not help but witness the rising of the second henchman from beyond the altar, Billy – almost thankfully – dropping to his knees. The familiar henchman did likewise, as did Marie. Perveen shook her head at me when I turned to her for clarification; we remained upright whilst the three witnesses genuflected beside us, heads bowed, searching the floor for some invisible talisman, it seemed.
The mist settled into a serpentine carpet and, with neither pomp nor circumstance the second henchman rolled back his hood. A cloud of black smog unravelled and then dissipated to reveal, on second glance, none other than Vlad Țepeș himself, preserved in all his glory and stood not ten feet from us. Billy visibly flinched and appeared fit to swoon, even though he was already on one knee. From Perveen’s sharp intake of breath, I do not believe that she expected The Son of the Dragon to be presiding over our nuptials, either. But there he stood, as bog-eyed and moustachioed as the portraits depicted him across the centuries.
He needn’t have announced his presence because it was simply so demanding. When he was in the room, you were drawn to him; he, in turn, seemed to be looking at every one of us at the same time, drawing in the experience through his very pores, if indeed his weathered, leathered skin possessed such a feature. He spread his arms, as would a priest blessing the communion host at mass; with a flip of his fingertips, the flames of the candles reignited to their previous heights, the heat and light instantaneously intense.
He motioned for Billy and the familiar henchman to join him; like altar boys, they stood shoulder to shoulder at one end of the table with their heads bowed in respect for the ceremony Perveen and I were about to be the star turn in. Vlad looked at Billy, who looked up instantly and nodded; a similar reflex, too, from the second henchman. Without laying a hand on the sheet it whipped back as if by the trickery of some slight-of-hand merchant stripping a table of its cloth whilst leaving the ornaments that had sat atop in situ. I tried to close my eyes, but could not.
Was it morbid fascination, a sense of duty or some altogether more foreign hand forcing me to stare at my sister laid out before us? Whichever, I felt like the next of kin identifying a body at the county morgue, only, to my abject horror, I could see that my sister lived, eyes wide and petrified, unable to even turn her head to see whose company she shared. I could not help but feel her fear and panic – it emitted like some pungent aroma cloying the air above the laval streams of candle wax. My heart – what was left of it – crumbled.
This was different from the Rite of Passage – then, I could not see that fear in her eyes; yet here, I was even more helpless than back in that crystalline cavern with the Neanderthals and although she had not yet seen me, on either occasion, I saw her now.
A sensory meltdown threatened to swamp my cognisance, like the pre-emptive rotations of a washing machine drum before the final spin kicks in proper. All of these emotions, skittering like a neon Skalextric along the neurological tracks of my brain, combined to make the next passage of events even more muddled in my mind than they probably were. And they get muddier every time I try to recollect exactly what came to pass, so bear with me as I relate this particular passage of events – it is difficult on so many levels.
The sheet whipped back, like I said, that much I can remember. Vlad signalled to Billy – I caught this thought through the airwaves – as he, Vlad, did not want to get his hands dirty on a mortal. I felt heat – not anger – and directed it at Billy, not Țepeș. Whether I held Billy responsible for everything or whether the Son of the Dragon deflected the blow and I had indeed intended it for him, I cannot be one hundred percent. But from the force of the heat, Billy was stopped dead in his tracks.
With all attention suddenly focused upon me, no one saw the second henchman swipe Billy’s throwing axe from its sheath on his thigh. The first time Billy noticed it not there was when he intended to use it against me, mere seconds after the familiar henchman had procured it. At that point, Perveen transmitted through her mind Billy’s weak spot, his Achilles heel. Her message was so loud – I’m sure it was telepathic but it sounded like a scream.
For the second time, Billy was stopped in his tracks, confusion abound without his sacred weapon. As he stepped aside to see where it had dropped, the second henchman came striding into view, hood hoist away from his head with that same smog as had enshrouded Vlad disappearing in a vapour trail behind the head of…my brother. Whether he had picked up on Perveen’s projection or not, I took no chances, transmitting an image of Billy’s weak spot. My brother needed no second invitation and the axe went swooping in an upward arc, whistling through the air with the force of a double-handed uppercut, splicing the diagonal of Billy’s flag-birthmark before the vampire had a chance to grasp what was occurring, the keen blade scooting off the top of his head as if it were no more resistant than a hard-boiled egg.
Down the ancient vampire crumpled, no dignity in this second death for Billy. The wisps of dirty yellow hair were suddenly slick with slime and blood, that old ruff looked ridiculous with only half a head protruding from it, as if Billy had been hammered down inside his own costume. The light behind those soulless eyes flickered malevolence one more time through the torrents of blood and brain that streamed down features twisted even more askew than usual, before it extinguished for good. On the altar, in the chamber, a spell had been broken; my sister started to rise.