Zsofi never imagined she could be a victim. Nobody does.
It was a crisp Monday morning, and Zsofi was showing around a tour group of elderly American couples in straw hats and cargo shorts, a gang of British lads pretending to be of age, an extended Chinese family. The tour had ended on the shores of river Danube lined up with shoes.
She had a new job as a tour guide, and was financially stable. Her father was in the police. Her coworker Fani and her boss Erzebeth were well-connected. She knew Krav Maga and could kick down a man.
And yet, it was not a man - not a mortal human.
Zsofi grew up in the Magyar country of castles overlooking the lush-green countryside, ornate cathedrals towering over cobbled streets and lores of saints and demons from the antiquities retold by puppeteers and folk-dancers. But Hungary, Romania and Serbia held secrets too - of the dead rising from their graves and feasting upon the life-force of the living.
Rubbing her eyes, fighting to keep off her exhaustion, she said, “These shoes belong to the dead. People were forced to drown in the Danube, but not before they were humiliated. You will find more memorials of the Holocaust in the Jewish quarters but that will be a separate tour in the evening. Thank you all for choosing this tour with me. You will be emailed a satisfaction survey. Mention the guide’s name as Zsofi Jozsef. I need all the 5-stars and tips I can get. So please please please show me some love.”
“Tonight I will come”, she heard a voice growl from inside her, a voice which no one else could hear. And no one believed when she told them.
She tried to get as much sleep as possible in the afternoon before she would have to yield to her vampire.
Then, when night fell, he came.
It was a lucid dream. Zsofi found herself leaving her sleeping body behind and gliding to the windows where a red-haired man awaited her - his hands outstretched, floating in air.
“No garlics, prayers or cheap trinkets today?”, he asked, “I’m glad you’ve overcome your usual stubbornness and have embraced adventure. I’ve planned a wonderful night for us. Make most of what no mortal man can give you.”
Zsofi thought about protesting, but knew she was powerless. She quietly allowed him to fold his fingers around her wrist and together they flew over the Jewish Quarters, repurposed into a nightlife district with music and chatter booming to the sky above.
He smiled and glided carefully over the Szechenyi Bridge guarded by giant lions on its towers and reached the Buda side of the city - the previous home of royalty and aristocracy who, from the fortified hills looked over on Pest side across the river - the flat side for the commoners.
“Speak, my love”, the vampire commanded, “Silence and introversion is not a virtue.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude”, Zsofi found herself justifying, “I was just appreciating the view.”
“Do you know what I like?” The vampire said, “I love what’s underneath all of this beauty. Do you know what’s below this castle and the towers and the cathedral?”
“The Atom Bunker. The evacuation space if America had decided to vaporize this city.”
“That’s … that’s horrible.”
“Funny you should say that, I’m quite attached to it, for it speaks to me. All of these beauty around us - do you know why you humans do it? It is to be immortal in some way - to leave something behind. All art comes from one place deep within the soul - fear. Fear of being left behind, abandonment, aging, decay and death, with nothing and no one to be remembered by. When you peel away the skin, deep down, creatures of the day are the same as creatures of the night - we all fear the inevitable - underneath the cafes and wineries and gardens, we all have an atom bunker. That is our true home.”
The sun rose and Zsofi found herself on her bed, having lost a lot of time and having only hazy memories of it.
The past few days Zsofi was aggressively keeping an online journal, lest the Vampire took away her memories. Vampires possessed powerful magic, but they would be useless against modern marvels like computers.
Zsofi remembered how it all started.
She kept Skyping her boyfriend with the usual promises of long-distance for the first few days, and then, after the calls became less frequent, she began to record them, and listen to them before sleeping. Soon, she began to have lucid dreams and felt his presence in the space between sleep and wake.
Her dreams became more concrete, as she began to see him sitting on the chair next to her, smiling at her with love in his eyes, kissing her feet, squeezing the back of her neck and running his fingers over her back just like she liked it. It didn’t matter that she felt drained of energy and life by the day, she needed this at night.
It had already been a few months when she realized that the creature that was visiting her, despite looking exactly like him down to every spec of red hair on his beard and every freckle on his cheek, was not really him. It was someone else, deceiving her with his form.
Zsofi led another tour group through the wine-tasting inside medieval cellars, tasting stalls with elderly women rolling dough over a spitfire and topping them with nutmeg and honey, and cable cars running through pastel neighborhoods beneath criss-crossed wires.
After that, she didn’t remember anything until the point the Vampire was sitting next to her at night.
He said, “ I love you, because I am bonded to you, and because you belong to me, right here” he said pointing at his chest, “And people who love each other never abandon.”
Zsofi tried to move away from him but her body couldn’t move.
“Abandon? I am not going to abandon you”, she said, attempting to placate a rising anger in him.
“Of course you are, you are thinking of it. I’ve read your messages on the automaton you use. You are thinking of abandoning me, the same way your lover abandoned you.”
“He did not abandon me”
“He did, because it is in his nature. You creatures of the day are fickle. We creatures of the night know what eternal love means. Eternity is in our nature while abandonment is in yours.”
“If you are above him, then why do you take his form?”
“I do not”, the Vampire hissed, “I appear like him to you.”
“Really?”, Zosfi said, “And you appear just like other people’s love when they see you?”
“That is how our creator made me.”
“What do you see when you look into the mirror?” Zsofi asked, waiting for any hint which might bring her close to his true nature, and find a way to beat him.
“What do I see when I look into the mirror? I see nothing. In the mirror, I don’t exist. I only exist with you, in your heart and spirit. That is why you must not abandon me, and if you do, I will make sure you don’t exist either. It is only fair, don’t you think?”
Zsofi even began to distrust her online journals, and they no longer resembled her writing style. Either the vampire hacked into her accounts or she was gradually losing her own essence to him.
Zsofi found several fake emails from her account - to her father asking him not to contact her again, to Fani saying to her their friendship was over, and to her boss Erzsebeth saying she was quitting her job.
After work, Fani, concerned by the hacking of Zsofi’s account, took her out for drinks. They went to a Ruin Pub which was made by spreading tarp over the remains of a bomb-shelled building and attaching surround-sound systems that boomed the latest EuroPunk hits.
Fani led Zsofi by her arm through the crowd between discarded dolls and teddy-bears that once belonged to children now hanging from the room and up to the bar and ordered two glasses of Bull’s Blood - a melange of finest reds of Hungary.
After they clinked glasses, Fani opened the leather pouch and pulled out a medieval book - Traité sur les a les Revenans. Fani explained it was a book written by a French monk who travelled east to Moravia and Hungaria to round up False Prophets, Specters and Revenant Dead. The styles of burying the dead recommended by him were still followed today in Hungary, Romania and Serbia until such traditions were banned to create a better national image during the bid to join the EU.
When the rituals stopped to court the modern sensibilities of Western Europe, Vampires flourished even more and deaths and disappearances increased, which were attributed to Turks or “Gypsies” instead.
“Zsofi listen, yeah?”, Fani said, “The only way to kill a vampire is to go to where he is buried and face him directly, and stall him till sunrise.”
Zsofi glanced at Fani in fear. Where did she know about this? Did she let something slip? Was she conspirng with the vampire? Or was Zsofi losing her mind?
“Haunted tour!” Fani said, “They have it in Prague and Vienna. We must do one here too. How about a Vampire theme?”
“Oh yes, of course, but Fani, I want to tell you something”, Zsofi said, “I am leaving the country.”
“Yes, I have a cousin in America. I have been saving up for a flight. It’s tomorrow.”
“How come nobody knows?”, Fani said, “sudden, yes?”
“I didn’t want anyone to find out”, Zsofi said.
Fani gave her a long hard look as the music changed to trance, and said, “You are in some trouble. I understand. No questions.”
Sofi held the train ticket in her hand - a MAV ticket with reservations which would carry her from Budapest Keleti Station to Vienna HauptBanhof, from where her flight to JFK was scheduled.
The Keleti Station was one of the most beautiful stations in Europe. With ornate pillars and gargoyles, statues of angels and saints and a giant archway entrance, one could easily mistake it for an Opera House, if it weren’t for a giant old clock at the center of the arch.
As she entered the station, the scene was different from what she expected. Under the light of exquisite chandeliers, lined up in every platform were several hundred men, women and children, laying on flattened cardboard boxes with the police patrolling around them. Sofi walked up to a pony-tailed blonde policewoman carrying a cardboard box with supplies.
Zsofi smiled at her. She nodded in acknowledgement and came forward. She eyed the people on the floor and said, “Syrians. Came this morning from Serbia. We have no instructions on what to do. Such confusion.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Ma’am, anyways, I have a ticket and seat reservation for the train to Vienna”, Sofi said showing her ticket, “Which platform should I go? I’m in a hurry, I have to catch a flight from there.”
The officer laughed. She said, “Today is - very bad day for you. All trains to Austria cancelled. Border Control. Austria is asking us to register a minimum number of refugees before opening the border.”
Sofi was shocked. She didn’t know what to say. After all these efforts, she was slapped in the face by fate. She felt anger surging through her veins. They were interrupted by the wailing of a toddler next to his mother. The policewoman walked up to them and handed them an old discarded teddy bear from the cardboard box and a water-pouch.
The officer turned back and said, “You seem like a nice girl. I have a sister that looks like you. Do you have a copy of your flight tickets? I can talk to my superiors and see if anything can be done - maybe a flight directly from Budapest Airport, or maybe some government convoy allowed to Austria?”
Sofi handed her the tickets and rested herself on the floor. She felt a chill up her spine as the last rays of the setting sun entered through the giant glass clocks and turned the whole station red with shadows of the ticking hands. She could feel His presence rising within her - the feeling of a predator watching - coming from a deep primitive reptilian part of her mind.
The sound of sirens outside and vrooms of several vehicles brought Sofi back to this world. The policewoman came back to her, panting, and said, “Sorry. You have to leave the station. Go home, right now.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You don’t understand, silly girl. Something terrible happened. ISIS released a video about forced conversion followed by beheading of a Hungarian woman. There is chaos. We received reports of a Nationalist Rally coming towards this station. It is obvious why!”, she said waving a hand at the tired Syrian people on the floor, “We have to protect them. You need to get out.”
At the front, a motorcade of Budapest Police formed on their bikes. Then another group came in with riot shields and formed a circle defending the entrance to the Keleti Station.
Sofi found herself walking away from the station taking random turns at alleyways without any awareness. Tears streamed down her eyes. Through the gap between the buildings to the street parallel to her, she saw several young men - bulked and broad-shouldered - chanting slogans and marching forward. They all wore Hungarian Football T-shirts as if it were their military uniform. They were headed to the Keleti Station. “Defend Europe from Turks”, they were screaming, “Expel the Ottomans”.
Sofi said a prayer for the Syrian woman who had sat next to her, but God did not answer her back, instead something else did. It was Him and his voice appeared in her ears.
“The creatures of battle - such music they make. The Crusades between the East and the West are upon us again. I have never felt stronger. The longer I wait, the more you try to run away. Tonight I shall claim you as my bride.”
Zsofiofi was in the underground Atom Bunker, along with a Roma family and some Chinese tourists who were hiding from the commotion above ground. Sofi looked at the weather app on the phone which said she had 20 minutes until sunset.
Fani was right. It was time to take the battle to him. Zsofi had already done her research - the fallback plan if escaping the country doesn’t work - slay the vampire.
Zsofi left them behind and crawled deeper into older parts through a labyrinth of medieval tunnels, which still had remains - old utensils, shoe soles or towels - from noblemen who hid there when the villagers revolted. She refused to use the flashlight on her phone to conserve battery, but felt quite at home with darkness, like a beast herself.
The casket had several latches around it. Zsofi unlatched them one by one and the clicks echoed in the hollow room. She had to bend over to avoid the low ceiling. She finally opened the casket and peered inside.
The lid opened and she stared into a skeleton and the skeleton stared back at her through its hollow eyes. She couldn’t see its jaws as they were covered with a brank-bridle - a metallic device to lock the mouth in place so it cannot open.
On the skull’s forehead in the center above the eyes was etched the sign of the cross and the words - Nyugodjbékében. Tobbe ne Edbredj - “Rest in Peace. Do not rise.”
She noticed the rib cage was broken. There was also a piece of dried flesh with a rusted nail through it - the heart.
She looked up from the casket. Staring at her was her boyfriend - red hair, lining of red beard. Except one thing - there was no face, just flat pale skin, where eyes, nose or mouth should be.
A voice emanated from the mouthless face - “Tell me, do you want the Vampire’s kiss to be pleasantly numb, or do you want it to be painfully memorable for the rest of your life? If you wish the former, invite me in voluntarily.”
“Why? Why are you after me? After women? I don’t love you, never did.”
“We children of this land - human and Strigoi are bonded. You humans lived off my lands and I lived off your daughters. A man owns lands and shares its fruits. A woman shares herself in exchange. Those are the rules of love and they serve us well. But in this era, you change the rules. Does that serve you well?”
No it does not, Zsofi thought, here she was broke, without love, without any friends, and wasted her last savings on a flight that she would never catch. She was a nobody, a no-face, just like the creature before her, hiding from a medieval crusade that was repeating itself above ground.
“You will not find anything within” the Vampire said, “except the crevice of nothingness that we all slip into in our nightmares - the eternal sewer that both man and monster came from and will be discharged into. Give me your heart. Wed me. Become my host and let me crawl inside you. Let me devour you and grind your bones with my teeth. Become the compost from which harvest will abound, and spring shall come upon my lands. Be worthy of something.”
The faceless face of the vampire morphed into the mouth of a giant lamprey, with concentric circles of tiny teeth and suckers. Tormented howls of hundreds of young women came from within it. The mouth of the lamprey lunged towards her bosom, and the buzzer on the phone beeped.
“Sunrise - Budapest - 4:52 am”.