Would you sell your soul for the find of a lifetime? Could you give up your life for love?
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On Santorini, vampires are more than folklore – and the workers on Jack Hunter’s archaeological dig know the body he’s found is meant to stay buried.
But Jack isn’t one for superstition. Despite the warnings, he takes the skeleton to his house for safekeeping. There, he finds a mysterious letter from a man named Belas, offering directions to a site of great importance in return for a small favour: his blood.
Belas is a vrykolakas, the most feared and dangerous of all Greek vampires. Millennia ago, the island’s high priest sacrificed his family to calm the rage of the volcano. Belas committed suicide to ensure that his spirit would remain restless, thereby cursing the high priest to suffer a similar fate. But the priest escaped to Crete, and as a vampire cannot cross salt water, Belas has been waiting four thousand years to exact his vengeance. Now he intends Jack to be the agent of his revenge.
The distant grumbling of the volcano was split by the sound of a pickaxe striking stone. A group of locals gathered to watch, standing a safe distance from the excavation site on one side of the crumbling wall that marked the boundary of Agios Eleutherios. The tiny church squatted behind them, dazzling white but for the solitary bronze bell tinted green by the elements. Against the brightness of the church, the villagers were like a flock of birds. Black-plumed widows and pied old men leaned forward, heads bobbing as conversation passed between them.
The workman redoubled his efforts, using the side of the axe to scrape away the loosened soil before striking down again. This time, the pick chipped out flakes of limestone that ricocheted from the trench and struck the workman. He muffled a yelp of annoyance and turned to call out, “Mr. Hunter!”
Jack was already halfway across the site, still clutching a box of pencils and with a large sketchpad tucked under one arm. His foreman Koubelos trailed after him, dragging a tripod and a camera case, his face lined with anxiety at every jolt that made the plates clash within the bag.
“Come on,” Jack said, taking one stride to every three that Koubelos made. The foreman hefted the camera equipment higher onto his shoulder and tried not to stumble over the mass of twisted strata running through the centre of the dig site.
They had been recording the morning’s find, a Late Hellenistic bothros, when Jack had suddenly sat up, his drawing forgotten. “Did you hear that?” he’d asked, and Koubelos had listened, hearing nothing but the muttering of the volcano, the lazy knocking and banging from the workmen, and the whiffle of wind through the pumice boulders. But Jack was not listening to such mundane things. Koubelos had watched his expression sharpen until he jumped up and began to collect together the equipment in a tearing hurry.
“What is it?” Koubelos had asked.
Jack had not looked back. “They’ve found something. The note changed. It’s not just soil and tephra. That was rock they just hit.”
“You can hear that?” Koubelos had paused and rubbed a finger in one ear, and then listened carefully. He could hear nothing more than before, and so, not for the first time, he wondered at the nature of the Englishman.
On an island where most of the inhabitants were small and dark in their looks, it had hardly been a surprise that, when Jack had first come ashore, the old lady who kept the mules on the jetty had run into town screaming of the tall exotiko come to terrorise them. It took a month before people stopped crossing themselves if they saw him on the street, but still he looked like an otherworldly being, pale and blond with a long mournful face like the icons in the Church of the Virgin. The March sun had done no more than brush light through his hair and had brought colour only reluctantly to touch his cheekbones.
Unlike the other English archaeologists who wore tweed to their digs, or the French, who wore all manner of colours, Jack only ever wore black. Apparently he had told his landlady that it saved him from wasting his time in laundry work. The villagers whispered instead that it was indicative of some terrible tragedy that demanded a prolonged period of mourning, but nobody had yet been able to decide what sort of tragedy it had been.
Jack did not help matters by spending most of his time alone rather than with the other Westerners on the island. More speculation arose when he wandered the streets of Fira at dusk, taking the track towards Oia. That particular stretch of road, everybody knew, was rife with vampires as soon as the sun went down.
Father Gregory of Agios Eleutherios had warned Jack of the danger, but the Englishman would not listen, thus proving to half of Fira that he was an exotiko and to the other half that he was merely foolhardy.
Koubelos had worked on the site for two months now and was mostly convinced that Jack was no more peculiar than any other Western archaeologist who passed through the islands. It was times like these, though, when Mr. Jack announced he had heard things that no normal human being could hear, that Koubelos’s conviction wavered.
As they neared the place where a knot of workmen had formed to scoop out the pale earth from the trench, Jack noticed the villagers lined up behind the church wall. He nodded towards them. “What are they waiting for?”
Koubelos shrugged. “There is always interest when a grave is found.”
“It might not be a burial.”
“Rumour has it that there are graves here. The little stone idols you bought from the demarch came from this area,” said Koubelos. “You said yourself many times, the little idols are grave-goods. It was only a matter of time before the men found a tomb here.”
“I suppose they want to see if I can raise the dead, as Kera Eutimia is fond of saying,” Jack said lightly. “Or if I embrace the corpse as my long-dead brother. It is supposed to be my brother that I’m mourning, isn’t it?”
“I would not know,” Koubelos said, his gaze fixed on the ground.
Jack sounded amused. “Of course not.”
The workmen stood back as Jack and Koubelos approached. They began to point into the trench, talking loudly and making exaggerated claims as to their role in the discovery. The man with the pickaxe leaned upon it and shook his head when Koubelos questioned him, instead gesturing from the damaged capstone to the blunted end of his pick.
It was obvious to Koubelos that Jack was only half-listening to the chatter of the workmen, nodding politely whenever there was a pause for breath. He put down the sketchpad and pencils, his full concentration reserved for what had been revealed in the trench. Lapped by the pale earth was a capstone roughly six inches thick, set flush against the sides of a stone-walled coffin that measured some five feet by three.
“This is a cist burial,” Jack said with authority, silencing the workmen. “It must be prehistoric.”
Koubelos watched, marvelling at the Englishman’s control over his excitement as Jack walked all the way around the grave. He made a show of checking his pocket-compass, even though the church, a perfectly good indicator of direction, was right beside him. He turned his back to the church and held the compass over the grave.
“Perfect north-south alignment,” Jack said. “Open it.”
There was a mutter of protest from the workmen, quickly hushed when Jack glared at them.
Koubelos chewed the ends of his moustache. “Perhaps we should wait for Father Gregory.”
Jack looked genuinely astonished. “Whatever for?”
The foreman lifted his shoulders in a slow shrug and spread his hands wide as if the answer was obvious.
“Oh, come on,” Jack said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Koubelos gave up and gestured to two of the workers to remove the capstone. As the men pushed and heaved at the block, Jack crouched at the foot of the grave, his hands clasped together beneath his chin as he waited. The villagers ventured forward, leaving the safety of the church to join the rest of the workmen. They shoved at each other to get closer until, with a sharp crack, the handle of one of the pickaxes broke. Nervous laughter flittered around the group, and then one of the women gave a shriek, pointing into the grave.
“Bones! I can see them!”
Jack rubbed his forehead and waved at the men to continue with the removal. Koubelos hesitated, glancing at Jack with more words of warning on the tip of his tongue, but then he forgot, distracted, as the capstone was finally levered aside.
“May the saints deliver us,” Koubelos said instead, snatching off his cloth cap and kneading it between both hands. “What in God’s Name happened to it?”
The villagers and workers crossed themselves hastily and backed away. Jack crawled along the side of the trench, seemingly oblivious to Koubelos’s muttered prayer. He appeared to be transfixed by what lay within the coffin. Koubelos ventured closer.
A skeleton, wholly perfect, curled up on its right side, its knees tucked up so tight beneath its chin that it had surely been bound into that position. Its arms were crossed over its thighs as if grasping its ankles, and the skull was turned to face downwards, its jaw gaping into the cold stone beneath it.
“A contracted burial,” Jack said, gesturing to Koubelos to start taking notes. “Just as at Pherendaki. But the skeleton… It’s so well preserved! On Naxos there’s hardly anything—a cluster of grave-goods, a few long bones and ribs. But not a complete skeleton. This is wonderful.”
Koubelos grunted, noncommittal, and then made an involuntary sound of revulsion as Jack reached into the grave and touched the skull.
“Male,” Jack continued, stroking his fingers across the back of the cranium. “Let me just check…” He paused as the skull rolled into his hand as he tried to turn it. With a soft curse, he picked up the detached skull and held it carefully against his chest, lying almost flat on the ground, half in, half out of the grave as he examined the spine.
“Mr. Jack, please,” Koubelos said. “Take care that you do not fall in.”
Jack rolled over, still cradling the skull, and looked up at the foreman. “I want him raised. Fetch the sheets.”
Koubelos made a helpless gesture. “But Father Gregory…”
“Father Gregory is a superstitious old fool!” Jack snapped, startling Koubelos. “And so are the others, who clearly would much rather gossip like old women than do any honest work.” He glared at the workmen who had taken refuge in the churchyard.
Koubelos bowed his head at the first sign of anger he’d ever seen from the Englishman, but his voice was level as he said, “Raising the dead without the say-so of a priest is not honest work.”