Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Random House, here's an extract from Jasper Kent's The Last Rite. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Russia – 1917. Zmyeevich, king of all vampires, is dead. History records that the great voordalak – known across Europe as Dracula – perished in 1893 beneath the ramparts of his own castle, deep in the mountains of Wallachia. In Russia, the Romanov tsars are free of the curse that has plagued their blood for two centuries. But two decades later and Tsar Nicholas II faces a new threat – a threat from his own people. War has brought Russia to her knees and the people are hungry for change. Revolution is in the air. Mihail Konstantinovich Danilov – who himself carries Romanov blood – welcomes the prospect of a new regime. Like his ancestors he once fought to save the Romanovs from the threat that Zmyeevich brought them. Fought and won. But now he sees no future for a Russia ruled by a tyrant. He is joined in the struggle by his uncle, Dmitry Alekseevich - a creature born in a different era, over a century before. For more than half his existence he has been a vampire, and yet he still harbours one very human desire; that his country should be free. But the curse that infects the blood of the Romanovs cannot be so easily forgotten and Mihail soon discovers that it – that he – may become the means by which a terror once thought eradicated might be resurrected . . .
An Anatolian Folk Tale
On the twenty-third day of the month of Nisan, in the eighteenth year of the principate of the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian,in the city of Nicomedia, the gift of martyrdom was bestowed upon the Tribune George – son of Gerontius – his head severed from his body for his refusal to renounce his faith. For this sacrifice he was acclaimed a saint. The anniversary of his death, 23 April, came to be celebrated as the feast day of Saint George. But it is not for his death that he is famed.
Long before, as the Roman Empire swept across the world, the Tribune George had slain the monster which was to make him renowned throughout history. By command of his emperor he had been dispatched to the province of Libya and one day, journeying with his slave Pasicrates, he found himself near the city which some call Lasia and others Silene, by which they may mean Cyrene. There George encountered a hermit, who told him of the city’s curse.
‘Close to this place,’ the hermit said, ‘lies a great lake, as wide as the Earth and as deep as the sea, beneath whose waters a monster makes its lair: a dragon who demands a tribute of the people. Every day they must offer up two sheep from their flocks upon which the beast may feed. They offer no resistance. They do as they are told, for they know that if they refuse the monster will drag itself from the depths and descend upon the city, breathing destruction.
‘But it is not fire that the monster breathes as many such creatures do. It breathes poison – a noxious miasma far worse than flames, which may be extinguished. The dragon’s breath brings all who scent it to die in agonizing torment, such that no man who has witnessed it can describe.’
‘Two sheep each day seems a meagre price,’ said George.
The old man shrugged. ‘Greater than our king is prepared to surrender. He paid the tribute for many years, but then famine came, and the flocks dwindled, and even two became more than the people could afford. And so now they offer up a human sacrifice, a subject of the king, which the beast is more than happy to accept. All are equal before the serpent. Lots are drawn. Any might become the chosen one – young or old, male or female. But today the duty has fallen upon the king’s daughter, the Princess Sabra. The king has tried to prevent it, but the people are adamant. They insist that the princess must obey the law which binds them all. And the princess herself is willing, knowing justice better than her father.’
The hermit looked up and pointed out across the plain towards the water. ‘Behold! There they go now, the princess and her entourage, down to where the serpent waits. It will not take long.’
But George felt only anger at the story; at the greed of the dragon, at the ingratitude of the people to their king, and at the disobedience of his daughter. The tribune mounted his horse and rode swiftly towards the lake. He passed Sabra and her attendants and shouted that they should stop; that he alone would face the creature. They did as he told them, some believing that he would do what he had said, others reasoning that this stranger would make an ample sacrifice, if only for today.
As the saint approached the shore he slowed his horse and surveyed the water, gazing into its still depths, searching for the monster. And then the waters became turbid and began to boil, even though the day was cool. The surface rose and separated and the monster was revealed, half serpent, half dragon. Its head towered above George, its body’s length five times greater than the saint’s height, with more still submerged and invisible beneath the waves. George looked up into its eyes and knew that this was no animal; no part, however vile, of God’s creation. This was a manifestation of Satan himself that had somehow burst up through the Earth from the flames below. Perhaps the monster he faced truly was the Beast of Saint John’s Revelation.
George turned his horse and galloped away from the water’s edge, seeming afraid. But the act was not born of fear. Soon he turned and saw what he had hoped to see, that the creature had followed him out of its watery domain and into the realm of men. George levelled his lance, holding it out in front of him, pointing its iron tip at the leviathan’s heart. Then he spurred his horse and began to charge. The monster reared its head, inhaling deeply before expelling a vast cloud of its noxious, death-delivering breath. But George was not deterred. As he rode forward he spoke loudly, without a break between words so that he would never have a chance to breathe in, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Thus even if some of the deadly vapour did infiltrate him the holy words would protect him from the venom.
And so George arrived beneath the creature’s shadow unharmed, and his lance was true, and although it was shattered into a thousand pieces by the armour of the monster’s scales, its iron-clad tip penetrated through them and into the dragon’s heart, killing it and sending its soul back down to Hell. But even as the dragon perished, its head thrashed and its teeth fell upon the saint, and bit into him, and drew his blood. It was the tiniest of wounds, and caused him little pain, and healed quickly. And yet he would always remember it, as would his children and their children too.
Afterwards George went into the city of Lasia and was honoured for what he had done. The king begged to know what reward he would accept, and in return George asked only that the people of Lasia should become Christians, a request to which the king happily agreed. That day twenty thousand were baptized, not counting the women and the children. The king had a church built in honour of Saint George and of the Virgin, and from its altar there still issues a natural spring whose waters cure all illnesses.
But this is not George’s story. Neither is it the story of the monster he slew, nor of the princess he saved nor even of his slave Pasicrates, though it is through Pasicrates that we know all this to be true. This is the story of the lance that George used to slay the dragon, an artefact that would outlive all of them; that as yet did not even have a name.
As George was returning to Lasia to claim his laurels, it fell to Pasicrates to deal with the destruction he had wrought. Pasicrates surveyed the scene and felt proud of his master. The monster was dead. The lance was broken. But as Pasicrates looked he saw that the tip of the spear still protruded from the serpent’s scales. He reached forward and grasped it, putting his foot on the creature’s chest to brace himself. And after more than a little effort the shaft came free – like the sword Arthur pulled from the stone, although that story was yet to be written.
Pasicrates looked at his prize. There was little of it left – less than the length of his forearm, and he was not long-limbed. The iron tip remained embedded in the monster’s heart, but the wood he held was still sharpened to a point – still stained with the blood it had drawn. It would make a fine relic, better certainly than the other shattered fragments of the lance that lay strewn beside the lake. Others might take them and sell them as sacred artefacts, but his was the shaft that had killed the beast. And he would not sell it. He would keep it for when the time came for him to write his story – which was to say the story of his master, the Tribune George.
Pasicrates travelled with his master until George’s martyrdom in Nicomedia. But a slave cannot be held to account for his master’s faith – and Pasicrates lived long enough to write an account of the life of Saint George. He left Nicomedia and travelled throughout Anatolia and into the Holy Land, settling finally in the town of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, not far from Jerusalem. And there he died, bequeathing the lance and all his possessions to the Karaite elders of the city by way of thanks for the kindnesses they had shown him. For almost eight centuries the lance remained there.
And it was during that time the lance inevitably acquired its name – the name of the city in which it dwelt – ‘Ashkelon’, or ‘Ascalon’ as the Crusaders who captured both the city and the relic pronounced it.
It was in 1099 that Ashkelon fell to the Christian knights and that Ascalon was taken from it, along with the rest of their plunder. Many of the Crusaders had been looking for relics – for the Ark of the Covenant or for the Holy Grail – but none of them understood what they held in their hands. A few might have taken it for a fragment of the true cross, but there were plenty enough of those being sold in market places across Palestine – across the whole of Europe.
The Karaite elders of Ashkelon pleaded for the return of their treasures, and for the ransom of captives, offering money they had collected from every citizen. Whether they got all they wanted, no one knows, but it was not the Jews that the Crusaders regarded as their enemy, and so Ascalon was returned.
But the lance did not stay long in the city whose name it bore. The Karaites were a scattered community and they shared their possessions across the world, knowing that anywhere would be safer than the turbulent Holy Land. Ascalon was sent north, across the Dark Sea to a citadel high in the mountains, known as Chufut Kalye. The Karaites who lived there claimed they had settled in the cave dwellings at the time of the Babylonian Exile, but few believed it. They lived there by the sufferance of the Crimean Khanate, but Ascalon could not be kept hidden from the ruling Tartars and soon it disappeared once again.
And it is here, just as we might expect mists of history to begin to reveal their secrets, that the story becomes its most vague. Ascalon was next seen in Buda, a city on the river Hister, also known as the Danube. It was 370 years since the Crusaders had taken it from Ashkelon, 200 since it had arrived in Chufut Kalye. How it reached Buda remains shrouded in confusion, but it cannot be mere chance that Constantinople had so recently fallen to the Muslim hordes, and it would have been no great journey for the lance to be carried from Chufut Kalye to the ancient capital of the Roman Empire. Who it was that brought it from there to Buda is untold, but it is claimed by some that the man who then took it from Buda to Visegrád was Fyodor Kuritsyn, emissary of the Grand Prince of Muscovy. Others deny that Kuritsyn could ever have been in Hungary at the time, but none doubt the identity of the solitary prisoner in the castle at Visegrád.
Prince Vlad, later known as T¸epes¸, once Voivode of Wallachia, had been betrayed by a man he thought his friend; it was neither the first nor the last time it would happen to him. He had come to Hungary seeking refuge and had instead been thrown into gaol, and left there friendless and alone. Is it any wonder that, when he was visited by the Russian Boyar and spoken to kindly by him, he began to place his trust in the man?
Kuritsyn – or whoever it may have been – showed Ascalon to the Wallachian prince, showed him the traces of the dragon’s blood that still tainted it, and told of the power that it possessed. The Muscovite ambassador had reasons of his own for what he disclosed, but that did not mean that the magic he spoke of was not real. He spent many long hours talking to Vlad, but in the end he left him alone, left him with Ascalon, and with the knowledge of what it could do for him, if only he would dare allow it.
And so in the depth of his despair, after twelve years in gaol, with no hope of release – with no hope at all – T¸epes¸ took Ascalon, cradling it in his hand. And with only a moment’s hesitation he performed with it the rite that Kuritsyn had described. And just as the Boyar had explained, Vlad entered immortality. And at the same moment, just as Kuritsyn had known he would, but had never told, Vlad descended into Hell.