Of course someone would be breeding vampire bats in a castle whose most infamous occupant was rumored to have become a vampire. My initial impulse was to blame the headmaster, but being rash was the exact opposite of what Uncle would instruct me to do. Coming to a hasty conclusion about the identity of the culprit, and then manufacturing evidence to confirm that conclusion, wouldn’t lead to truth and justice.
“You seem… is everything all right?” asked Ileana.
Even though I’d promised Thomas to remain silent, I decided to share our discovery with her. Perhaps she had heard something about the passages from other servants or occupants.
“We found a rather… mutilated body in the morgue. Well, below the morgue. There was a trapdoor and…” Ileana went rigid. I hurried on, hoping to spare her too much talk of the dead. “Anyway, I wish we’d left well enough alone. It—was difficult to tell if there were similarities to any other case we’ve been involved with. Bats had been… feasting on the blood. I don’t know what to make of it. You mustn’t tell anyone. Not yet, at least.”
“Bats were… drinking from a corpse?” At this Ileana turned, blinking. She appeared shaky enough to fall backwards in a stiff wind. “Was it a student? Did you tell anyone?”
An image of the moon-white body assaulted my mind, viciously taunting me with each vivid detail and the lacerations she must have sustained before taking her last, damned breath. I shook my head.
“It—it was hard to make out anything. I only know her sex by her clothing. We couldn’t inspect the room with all the… bats swarming. We’re going to send the headmaster an anonymous letter if she’s not discovered by tomorrow afternoon. We thought the person responsible for the murder might happen to ‘find’ her body, and thought it best to wait a few hours.”
I closed my eyes, trying to forget the sounds of wings beating against my head, the feel of claws digging into my soft flesh. Her death must have not come fast enough. I hated thinking of how long she’d lingered while they’d drunk deeply. Again and again. Razor-sharp teeth slicing and biting. How powerless she would have felt the more her life force was drained.
I focused on the fireplace, getting lost in the flames. If I allowed my imagination to run so freely, I was sure to be sick.
“Do you think the same person who’s impaled those two others is responsible?” Ileana fiddled with the dust cloth. “Or is there another murderer in Braşov?”
I ticked off the facts I knew. “So far there are two bodies that have been impaled off grounds: one on the train, and the one reported in the newspapers. Then there’s the bloodless body of Wilhelm Aldea. Now this young woman, who likely died from being a living host to the bats. Judging from the lack of rigor mortis, I’d say she… passed away at least seventy-two hours ago. It’s hard to be certain, though.”
I didn’t mention the slight stiffness present in the limbs, or how the warm temperature of the room might have accelerated the process. Uncle had made me memorize different factors that contributed to the speeding up or delaying of the aftereffects of death last summer. Since the temperature had been moderate to warm in the room, and her body was decomposing, that meant a minimum of twenty-four hours had likely passed since she’d taken her last breath. Though I placed her time of death closer to three days earlier, maybe almost four. The stench had been horrid.
“Is it possible she was another victim of the Impaler?”
I peeled off my lace gloves, wincing at the tattered pieces as I unveiled scratches and bite marks. “I wish I knew. One pair of bodies are made to appear as if they are vampires. Another as being feasted on by vampires.”
From outward appearances, these crimes weren’t all committed by the same person. It seemed as if the woman and Wilhelm had been murdered in different ways than the other two, and than from each other.
I wasn’t even sure someone had forced her into that room. Perhaps she’d gone wandering and had the misfortune of getting trapped. It was black as pitch in that chamber—she might have stumbled in, been attacked by starving bats, then fallen, unable to escape from her hell. Until her body could be inspected, there were too many unknown variables.
“Either someone is trying very hard to stage vampiric crimes,” I said, disengaging from thoughts of her battered corpse, “or there are two murderers working—I don’t know, almost working to outdo the other. One who imitates the methods of a vampire hunter, the other those of an actual vampire. I’m not sure what to believe. There are still too many missing pieces. If Wilhelm died because of bats, we would have seen multiple wounds on him. They were quite savage.”
I held my hands up, showing the bites that had dried ruby red.
“The castle is old, as are the tunnels you found,” Ileana said, tearing her attention away. “Maybe they’ve been breeding since Vlad’s time.”
“Maybe.” A charming thought indeed. “I think someone is breeding them, all right. Thomas said they’re called vampire bats, but they’re usually found in the Americas. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how it relates, unless it’s simply misfortune.”
“Perhaps the Impaler has a connection to the academy,” Ileana said, her focus stuck on the allegedly risen immortal prince. “The first murder occurred in the village. Then Wilhelm’s body was found there as well. If what Dăneşti said about threats being made against the royal family is accurate, then perhaps the Impaler was looking to create panic with the first two murders.”
“Or perhaps he was practicing.”
“Maybe he’s collecting blood,” she whispered.
My own blood chilled. The thought prodded the sensible part of my brain until other, more menacing ones sprouted to join it. It was certainly possible that a career murderer was living beneath this turreted roof, stealing blood for his own purposes.
Uncle’s theory on murderers involving themselves in the crimes flitted through my head. In a school composed of students and professors, who had more to gain from the murders? Unless the motivation was simply the thrill of the hunt. That bloodthirsty compulsion always terrified me the most. I wished Uncle were here now to discuss this with me. He always saw beyond the obvious.
Ileana had gotten so quiet that I started when she shifted off the stool. “You believe the Impaler exists?”
“Not in the literal sense, no,” I said. “I’m certain a very human person is re-creating methods of death made famous by Vlad Dracula. I do not believe—for one instant—he’s risen from the grave and is hunting anyone. That’s both preposterous and completely contrary to the laws of nature. Once someone is dead there is no way to reanimate them. No matter how much one wishes otherwise.”
I would not divulge how painfully familiar I was with the truth of my last statement. Fingers twitched across my memory, and I shoved the image away.
“Some villagers would disagree,” Ileana said quietly. “A few have gotten ill over the last couple of weeks. One girl has disappeared. They are certain a strigoi is to blame. Now Wilhelm’s body is discovered, his blood missing. They are not unaware of what that might mean.”
I began to comment on the village girl’s disappearance and stopped myself. I was ashamed to admit to sneaking into her home. I believed her case was simply an unfortunate one, brought on by drinking too many spirits and getting lost in the woods. No vampires or werewolves snatched her from the path.
“Do you know of anyone who’d want to shut the academy down?” I asked.
Draping her cloth over a galvanized bucket, Ileana tapped the sides, creating a hollow, echoing sound that ricocheted in my skull. I narrowed my eyes as she glanced toward the door and then swallowed. I was about to ask what was wrong when she hurried over to the settee. She pulled a leather-bound book from a pocket on her apron, handing it to me as one might pass on a reeking bedpan. I reluctantly took it.
“I… I know it’s wrong. But I found this journal. It was in Prince Nicolae’s room.” I lifted my gaze, but Ileana kept hers locked on the book and stammered on. “Remember when I told you servants are to be neither seen nor heard?” I nodded. “Well, it’s very easy for some of the more highborn students to forget we exist. Some think their fires magically light themselves, and their chamber pots grow wings to empty their waste.”
“I’m sorry people are so cruel.”
Her eyes were shards of ice before she blinked the expression away. “I’m not proud of filching the journal, but I heard him mentioning something about drawings. When I peeked inside, I saw awful images. Here.”
I flipped the leather journal open, scanning a few diagrams. Hearts, intestines, a human brain, and… bats. Skulls of bats with horrendous fangs. Bat wings with notes and details of claws at their apex. Each page proudly displayed a new section of a bat’s anatomy. I flicked my attention back to Ileana, whose gaze was locked on her hands.
“He’s got quite a few specimens in his chambers, too.”
“Why did mention of his drawings trouble you?”
Ileana wrung her hands. “I recalled what Dăneşti and Moldoveanu had said about the royal family receiving those threats. That they were drawings.”
I sat straighter, as if the movement would make what she’d said more palatable. Waves of nausea roiled my stomach. “He couldn’t possibly have sent those himself…”
“That’s why I looked. Then I saw the sketches of bats and noticed all the skeletons he has in his room… I don’t know why I took his journal. I just”—she shrugged—“I thought there might be more to see. And then I saw this one near the back.”
Reaching over, she turned the pages until she found what she’d been searching for. My breath stilled along with the rest of my body. A girl with onyx hair, eyes a deep emerald green, and lips that were dripping blood smiled boldly.
With my finger I traced the jawline up and around to the catlike eyes, then touched my own face. “I don’t—this cannot be me. He wouldn’t have had time to—”