Prologue

January, 2001

The man had to be mad.

There were few other explanations for his behaviour. He had come out on an exceedingly cold night, snow trickling down from the heavens like flower pedals caught in the wind, by himself, to one of the most feared locales in all of central Europe. That was insanity enough, but could be attributed to a tourist lacking both knowledge of the area and common sense.

That the man had voluntarily staked himself to the ground with heavy chains and was now proceeding to throw sarcasm in the face of the most powerful vampire lord still standing after the Great Holy War branded him a madman with a great hatred for his own life. There were few avenues he could have taken to end it quite so efficiently.

The wind gasped with cold January air as a little sprinkling of snow descended from the heavens above eastern Germany. It had been snowing in such a fashion for several days now, and the ground was thickly layered with white powder, tranquil and for the most part undisturbed. Most German citizens knew better than to venture near the valley forest that some had come to know as Shadow Hollow, and those sightseers who did more often than not failed to return. The locals cited that it was cursed, a sanctuary for all things vile and evil, and any farmer worth his chaff in the area had at least three good horror stories about people he knew whom had ventured into the secluded wood. Although many such tales were fictionalized or exaggerated to the point of fiction, many more were terrifyingly true.

Some were even understated.

On this cold, lonely night, the Shadow Hollow forest had again been trespassed upon by an outsider. The vampires who guarded the forest’s periphery had taken a long time in examining him warily, cautiously, attempting to figure it for a trap. Those who strayed into Shadow Hollow by accident or out of curiosity were numerous, and easily dispatched. Never before could the vampires recall a man literally binding himself in place with chains and simply waiting for them to come and hasten his departure to the next life.

The forest was now alive – so to speak – with undead activity, however, as the vampires circled their curious prey, hissing and gnashing their teeth like the hungry predators they were. Their leader, the failed quarry of vampire hunters and Slayers for over seven hundred years, was the one who addressed the doomed, helpless mortal now. Brosni the Gash was his name, characterized by the deep scar across his neck and face left by a long-dead Slayer, a wound that his natural regenerative healing had been unable to completely heal. His voice was low, with the consistency and verbal texture of ripping paper.

As he exchanged angry words with his intended prey, however, even the mighty Brosni the Gash, much less the lower vampires around him, was unaware that they too were being watched.

"They’re stupid, these nosferatu," whispered a voice in fluent German from well back in the forest, its owner, a young man, concealed in the thick shadows. "This has been a power base of theirs of years, and they’ve grown lax defending it."

"You would prefer that we were found while coming in, perhaps?" this voice was a woman’s, hushed like the first, likewise in German but with a slightly slanted accent.

"No," the first replied quickly, stubbornly. "But they should have had guards posted around the periphery. These nosferatu lack foresight." The way he said it, one gained the impression that there could be no greater insult to roll off his tongue.

That didn’t stop him from being reprimanded harshly, however. "Do not question what the Divinity has set before us. We will never have a better opportunity than what has been provided here." Several other voices from even deeper in the shadows muttered their agreement.

Another of the hidden figures turned to the woman who led them and spoke, again in the guttural German tongue. "If we wait too long, Kali, the opportunity may pass…"

"Wait for my mark."

"I vas lookeenk for an old friend but I don’t think she’s gonna show up, yah?" they heard the man, bound and chained as he was to a giant stake, stammer out. The woman had a hard time figuring out what he had said, until she realized that he was speaking English with a horribly accentuated German accent, or at least what he thought passed for one. She had to fight to keep from laughing.

"Gash is going to kill him…"

"He won’t be the first," the woman, Kali, replied softly. "Gash has killed more than any other three vampires in the world put together."

"We should at least try to save him."

"No!" another whispered, harshly. "They’re still wary of a trap now, but they’ll be entirely distracted once they begin to drink! Should we not wait, and…"

"No, we shall not wait," the woman replied once more, her voice commanding even in a whispered tone. "Let this be an object lesson in the value of life to you, Torvan. Understood?" The other nodded, reluctantly, and there was no more debate on the issue. "Good. On my mark."

The vampire – Brosni the Gash – now had his iron grip around his victim’s throat, quickly squeezing the breath from his body. "WHO ARE YOU, MEAT?" He roared, fangs dipping closer to the man’s neck. The foolish mortal tried to muster a last ounce of bravery, biting his lip and holding silent. The Gash snarled in frustration and moved in, prepared to end the mortal’s life with one stabbing blow.

In the forest behind him, the leader of the dark figures began to make rapid gestures, drawing patterns in the air with her fingers. The air shimmered and then flared with sudden light in her hands, revealing a beautiful young woman dressed in a plain, concealing cloak. She looked over at her comrades and nodded.

"Now!"

Arcane gestures came from the hands of three of them, and instantly three brightly-lit globes, shimmering with the pure light of the sun, appeared above the clearing, drenching the plethora of startled vampires and their equally-startled prey in radiance. The sudden change from almost pitch darkness to the glare of a midday’s sun blinded all of them for a few seconds, and the nosferatu covered their heads, screeching as their eyes, unable to adjust quickly, burned in pain. While the spell would not create the ultraviolet natural light that proved so fatal to vampires lurking in the day, it would be more than enough to temporarily blind them.

"For Justinian!" the man whom the leader had called Torvan roared, thrusting his blade – a vicious-looking silver punching dagger – into the air to rally the others. They too gave a thundering burst of verbal bloodlust, charging out into the small clearing and into the effect of the daylight spell. Six of them, all powerfully-built males moving faster than physics denoted that they should have been able to, swarmed into the midst of the vampires, all of them clutching silver weapons. Three more, including the robed woman who was their leader, remained just at the edge of the forest, brows furrowed in concentration as they once more began to gesture wildly, calling forth arcane incantations.

More remarkably, all of their eyes were glowing with a powerful green light.

"Go for the Gash!" bellowed Torvan over the cowardly squeals of the blinded vampires. "Let him taste silver this day!" To emphasize his point, he stabbed his sleek punching dagger through the heart of one of the nearby creatures. The vampire wailed its brief death cry before disintegrating into ash. The powerfully-built man then moved to find his quarry amidst the pandemonium.

Brosni the Gash, however, had different plans. "It’s a trap!" he howled, at least as well as he could with his neck wound. "Rally, my minions!" With the almost unconscious jerk of his fist, he knocked the helpless human out cold and turned to face the new threat, still wincing beneath the light. "It’s the Slayers!"

He was partially right, too.

The Gash’s eyes bulged out of his head, however, when two vampires, moderately recovered from the shock of the initial flare, moved to attack the one named Torvan. The stocky man, definitely of Slavic stock with his worn beard and utilitarian clothes, planted his feet into the ground firmly, then began to concentrate, his pupils fluttering up into his skull leaving nothing but the whites of his eyes. The air shimmered between them as the vampires likewise halted, unsure of what to do. Then, Torvan gestured, and the space exploded with a flash and a gust of wind that everyone in the clearing could feel. A great beam of arcane energy materialized, cutting through the air all around the man like an other-worldly scythe. The energy struck the pair of vampires, who stiffened, shuddered, and then collapsed to the ground, unmoving and finally deprived of their vile un-lives. It caught another one just before it dissipated on the other side of the man, and that vampire went down as well, not quite dead but howling as though Cain himself had come down to punish him. The frightening burst of energy had also passed through one of the man’s comrades, and had not phased him in the slightest.

The vampire lord screamed in frustrated fear.

All around him his lackeys were either falling or fleeing, caught completely off guard by the rash assault. The six fighters moved with superhuman speed and fought with superhuman strength, just like Slayers, though. The blaze in their eyes was the wrong color, and…magic? The Gash had fought and killed more Slayers than he could readily remember, and he could never remember them using magic to any real advantage…

The leader of the raid, Kali, completed a quick incantation just as one of the remaining vampires spotted her at the edge of the woods and charged. An instant before it reached her, her power crossed some invisible threshold, and a blast of searing fire sprang forth from her fingers, immolating the rash vampire and sending its charred remains crumbling back to the ground from which it had been raised. The other mages in the back likewise worked their magic, sending lightning bolts and more globes of daylight through the air and making quick work of their vampire nemeses. A few other spells were cast, but they were lost in the fog and hubbub of war that cloaked the battle.

Then the Gash caught something barreling at him, and he turned just in time to be rammed in the chest by Torvan, the punching dagger stabbing into his chest and narrowly missing his heart. The vampire lord led out a shriek of pain as he went down grappling with the strange Slayer. Had the silver blade touched his heart, it would have been instantly fatal. As it was, the nosferatu’s violently allergic reaction to silver still seared at his midsection.

"Hell has waited too long to embrace your spirit, infidel!" Torvan seethed, struggling against the vampire’s grasp to bring the dagger back around again. "Allow me to hasten your journey!"

Brosni the Gash, however, had not gained his reputation as a fourth-generation powerhouse of vampire society for nothing. Nor had he gained that reputation for a lack of physical martial prowess. As the two began to lock themselves in struggle, the strange Slayer let his hand slip for just an instant, trying to reposition for a better hold. That was all the opening the vampire needed. His fist lashed out, catching his aggressor across the face once…twice…more times than could be readily counted as his entire arm blurred with impossibly fast motion. The Slayer’s grip faltered and then fell loose as he was knocked aside, coughing blood.

"Slayers with twice your meager strength have failed to do so!" he roared as best he could in his croaking excuse for a voice. "What makes you think yourself their better?"

At that instant a crackling bolt of lightning speared out from the darkness, catching the Gash in the chest and staggering him backwards before he could follow up his attack on Torvan. Smoldering steam began to rise from the wound in his chest, and the vampire grit his teeth as he looked up. The three magic-users had stepped out into the clearing now as well, and he caught a glimpse of the last of his loyal vampiric subjects disappearing into the depths of Shadow Hollow.

"Good help is hard to find," he growled to himself in German, mentally going through the delicious list of torments would inflict upon his cowardly followers when he caught up with them again. Or, more to the point, if he caught up with them again. One of the strange Slayers had fallen and was not stirring, but the other fighters were rising from the ashes of the battle and were, alongside the mages, advancing upon him.

"What we lack in strength, demon," the leader, the woman, named Kali, said to him as she advanced, already halfway through another spell, "is more than made up for."

It was at that instant that Brosni the Gash decided to opt for the better side of valour and himself make a hasty retreat. It proved a choice that very likely saved him from meeting the fate that Torvan had promised. Just as he ducked aside, Kali unleashed her spell, and a tremendous, roaring ball of magical fire streaked straight at him. Heat poured forward in every direction, causing some of her own allies to cringe. For the Gash, it was like a bath in the lip of a volcano. The fireball exploded only feet away from him, unleashing its intensive heat in a violent inferno that knocked him clear off his feet, howling in fury and pain.

Had it struck him head-on like it had been intended to, he would have been incinerated, or close enough so as to be incapacitated and at the mercy of his foes. As it was, when the explosion subsided and he found himself on the ground once more, he found that he was still able to move his scorched body.

Throwing a venomous glare back at his mysterious assailants, the Gash stumbled to his feet and began to dart off towards the deepest heart of Shadow Hollow forest.

Torvan was back on his feet, eyes blazing not just with the violet light, but now with anger and vengeance as well. "After him!" he shouted. "Gash mustn’t escape!"

"Wait!" the command came from Kali, halting him in his tracks. "Stay thy hand, Torvan. Striking at the outskirts of Shadow Hollow like this is risk enough. Venturing into its heart is suicide for all but an army of our kind."

His expression changed from one of anger to one of frustrated anxiety. "But…"

"No argument." She came over to him to examine her comrade. The blast had gone off far enough away from him to spare him the worst of the explosion, but he still had a few minor burns from the heat. These were already healing. "There will be other chances."

Torvan hung his head in shame. "I had the chance to slay him, Kali, and I failed."

"No shame in mistakes, my friend," she reminded him, her German cracking slightly now that she was tired. It obviously was not her native tongue. "Only shame in failing to remember them." As she spoke, the globes of daylight around them finally burned themselves out, cloaking the forest once more in foreboding darkness. "We have to leave. The vampires are all gone and the Rush hasn’t faded. Shadow Hollow itself stinks of evil…"

"Um…excuse me?"

The voice was in English. The quasi-victorious men and women turned about, suddenly aware of the hapless man who had tied himself to the ground and lured Gash out of hiding in the first place.

GAVAL, former Slayer Cajun and the very same crazy man who had thrown himself to the tender mercies of the most formidable vampire clan in the western world, stared at them in disbelief. He had been awakened by that particularly nasty clout to the head by the intense heat caused by the fireball only to find that all of the vampires who had been so intent on lapping at his blood were either dead or fled. The newcomers looked like Slayers and even fought like Slayers. But the green glow in their eyes was distinctly different from the tell-tale iridescent blue that appeared in the Rushed eyes of any Slayers that he knew. And the magic…

"Someone mind filling in de blanks for me here?" he asked, slightly timid. "And maybe untying me while you’re at it?"

Most of the newcomers glanced at one another as though to suggest that they didn’t understand a word he said. Kali, however, smiled softly and stepped forward, taking the hood down off of her head to fully reveal her face. She was young, and in the moonlight GAVAL could make out bold features and locks of dark hair. Her complexion looked almost Asian. More importantly, she spoke English like a native, although she had to strain a little to understand his cajun accent, which was coming through rather thick at the moment.

"You," she said, coming up behind him to try to loosen his chains, "are possibly the most foolish man I have ever seen."

"And what de hell is it with everyone speaking English here today?" he barked, practically hysterical. "Craters, we’re in de middle o’ Germany! Shouldn’t there be at least a few Germans running amuck?"

"Tell him to lower his voice before we do it for him," Torvan rumbled in German.

"There!" GAVAL shouted. "A real live German! My night…is now complete!" He turned back to Kali, and the woman could sense more than hysteric within him. There was an insurmountable anger, accompanied with bitterness. He had been here for a reason, and whatever his skewed reason had been, he had failed. "So…you’re Slayers, ain’tcha?"

"You’re perceptive," she replied, glancing back at her comrades and switching to German again. "How far back shall we wipe him?"

"If we take the whole experience from him, he might be foolish enough to try it again," Torvan suggested. "Just erase his memories of us. Safer that way."

"Agreed." She switched back to English again. "Before we part, I must ask, what were you trying to do out here? Aside from get yourself eaten."

GAVAL cringed. "You wouldn’t buhleave me if ah told ya."

She smiled, pulling the chains away from his arms. "Try me."

"I used to be a Slayer. I lost mah Rush, an’ ah was here tryin’ to force it back."

"Rush?" Her brow furrowed briefly, then she smiled. "Oh, what you call the Bloodcall. You’re knowledgeable, friend, but you’re right. I don’t believe you."

"It didn’t work," he sulked, freeing himself of the last of his shackles and folding his arms crossly. "I guess that this means it’s time for Plan D. But hey, which branch o’ the ASG are you folks from, anyway? I’ve never seen anyone use de kind of magic that you just tossed around back there like fresh chickens at a Redneck bachelor party!"

The smile on her face broadened as she began to stitch power in the air with sharp maneuvers of her hands. The Cajun looked at her with fascination. A slight glow of some arcane energy flowed up from her fingertips and embraced his head. He glanced about, only to see that he was flanked by the burly fighters, and that there was no getting away had he tried.

"Be calm," she reassured him. "You’ll feel nothing, nor remember anything. Before we part, however, I must know the name of the most foolish man I’ve ever met."

"De name’s GAVAL, ma’am," he said nervously, still managing a mock bow. "GAVAL van Helsing, at your service."

"GAVAL. What a peculiar name." Kali waved her hands in one last sharp gesture, and the glow around the Cajun’s head expanded into a full halo of glowing energy. He might have been slightly more startled had the spell’s powers not taken effect almost immediately, numbing his senses and dulling his wit and will.

"Will I…will ah ever have de pleasure of bean rescued by you again, ma’am?" he mumbled, even as his eyelids began to flutter. The other magi gathered around nodded approvingly as the halo of energy increased. The fighters looked edgy, not wanting to stay in this vampire-infested wild land an instant more than was necessary.

"Perhaps," she replied, "but if so, you won’t remember us. We Rogues value our privacy."

"R-Rogues…?"

"Hush now. May Lethe’s waters carry thee to thy rest." She murmured a few more words to the incantation as GAVAL’s eyelids finally closed and remained shut. The halo of light faded, and he began to collapse to the ground, only to be caught in the firm arms of the man named Torvan.

When GAVAL van Helsing awakened several hours later, he was miles away, lying alone in a field not far away from Berlin. He remembered his encounter with the vampires and Brosni the Gash, but after that – a blur, as in a dream fading too quickly to be fully understood. He tried in vain to grasp at it for a few moments, but it was soon forgotten as his mind plunged into attempted rationalizations. No memories of the battle, or of his mysterious saviours out of the darkness remained in his mind, but as he stumbled off in the direction of the metropolitan German capital, he could not shake the feeling that something of greater significance than he could recall had taken place.

Or the feeling that, as he stumbled away, that he was still being watched from afar…
 

 Year of the Spectre, Episode 1: The Spectral Menace