Chapter 1

Summer 1520- somewhere in the Wallachian mountains


‘Sebastian, you are the great-grandson of Vlad Dracula.’
My great-grandmother’s words kept playing over and over in my head and I knew that my life was about to change; I felt petrified and very alone.
I was only fifteen and I lived in a small village in the Wallachian mountains, on the upper slope of the River Slӑnic, with my great-grandmother, Ana, whom I fondly called Gran. I was a shepherd and a farmer, the same as my father had been and his father before him. A normal boy with an ordinary life.
My dad died when I was five, my mother left us when I was three, I never knew my grandmother, and my grandfather died a few years back. At one time, there was also Uncle Aaron, my dad’s younger brother, but he too left soon after my dad died, and we rarely heard from him anymore. Gran said he went to London to make his fortune.
I hardly remembered Aaron, only his dark blue eyes – my eyes, my family’s eyes. He used to read me stories, stories of warriors and princes and a land far away with castles and
rivers where everyone lived happily ever after – a utopian land.
As hard as I tried not to, I often wondered what became of my mother and where she might have been. Sometimes at night, I thought I could still smell the scent of rosewater and
lilies on her long, blonde hair that brushed my cheek as she kissed me goodnight. I used to think she was a fairy princess. Gran said mum was happy and in a better place.
All I had left in this world was Gran and my life in this village. I loved this place, our creaky old house, the tall, majestic mountains, the plum orchard, the endless forests I could get
lost in, and the green pastures. But nothing made me happier than the smell and the sounds of the woods, where I would read books. Gran always laughed that a bear or a wolf might
show up one day, and I wouldn’t notice.
The day started like any other. I woke up at dawn to the sound of Gran cooking breakfast in the kitchen. The aromas drifted into my room, and I had to go check it out. I was fifteen;
I was always hungry.
As I expected, Gran was in the kitchen, but she was no longer cooking. She was sitting on a stool at the kitchen table, looking at something in her hands that I couldn’t see. She
turned around and softly uttered the nine words that would
forever change my life:
‘Sebastian, you are the great-grandson of Vlad Dracula.’
For a few moments, I stood frozen to the spot, looking at Gran’s lovely, weathered face. I heard the words, but I couldn’t comprehend the meaning. I laughed, convinced that she was
‘Indeed. I am a rich prince, and I must check on my many castles now,’ I said, still laughing, but a feeling of impending doom was slowly creeping up my spine.
She shook her head without a word, confirming the dread that I felt; it was not a joke.
It wasn’t possible! I found myself shouting, ‘Nu! Nu e adevӑrat!’ My voice suddenly broke. ‘My great-grandfather was a hero. He died in the war, fighting the Turks,’ I protested. Gran appeared to have suddenly aged and shrunk. ‘In a way, that is true,’ she replied quietly, ‘but there is a lot more to it, and it is time for you to know the truth.’
The extent of this revelation suddenly hit me. Was I related to the man thought to be the Devil himself? If so, what did that make me?
She opened her mouth to speak, but I stopped her. ‘No, I don’t want to hear it! It is not true; it cannot be. You are making all this up. Why are you doing this to me? Why now?’
‘Because you are in danger, and you need to leave now. You must go to London and find your uncle,’ she said.
Without realising, I continued to shout, ‘I won’t hear it, and I am not going anywhere! I’m fifteen now, and there is nothing you can say or do to convince me otherwise.’
‘But Sebastian—’ she started to say.
I ran from the house in a daze. It couldn’t be true. I was just a simple farmer; my whole family were farmers. How could this be? I walked without thinking. I needed to get away from Gran,
from everything, and gather my thoughts. I loved her so much; how could she say such things to me?
It was the middle of the summer, and the sun felt unbearably hot on my skin. I unexpectedly felt sick and stopped. I hadn’t even realised that I was crying. Tears streamed down my face, and I couldn’t stop the flow. For the first time in a long time, probably since my mother had left us, I felt very alone. Gran had always been my rock, the only person in the world I could trust… until now.
I wiped the tears with the back of my hand and turned to look at the old house that Gran said had been in our family for generations. Or had it? Maybe it was all a lie, a figment of her
Dazed and still crying, I continued to walk without looking, past the plush, green fields where the cows were now sleeping under the trees, and past the river where I used to paddle every summer after finishing my chores. I kept going and going until I reached a place called Focul Viu, where fire came out of the ground, and no wind or snow or rain could stop it—it was the reason it was called The Living Flames.
I was afraid of this place; there were dark forces here, and Gran never let me come near it. She once told me a story that had been passed down for generations. It said the village people once built a well with water so cold and tasty that it would heal any ailment. But a dragon made his nest there and prevented people from reaching the well. No one had the
strength to fight him. Hundreds of red eyes swallowed the breath of any mortal, and through his nostrils, the dragon cast burning flames.
One day a boy from the village decided to fight the dragon and he did so for two days and two nights until he took the dragon out with a final blow. When the dragon gave his last breath and his spirit left his body, flames came out from his nostrils, shooting up to the sky. The trees lit up, and the sky blackened. The spirit of the dragon had remained in the place ever since, and the fires still burned night and day.
It was starting to get dark. I had been gone all day! At that moment, I realised that I had to know! I had to know the whole truth and find out who I really was. My entire life might have been a lie, but not anymore.
I could see the pale moon through the trees and hear the frightening sounds of wild, nocturnal animals. Gran would be worried about me, but I didn’t care. For an instant, I imagined never going back, just going and going, maybe all the way to the Black Sea. Perhaps I could get a job on a ship and never have to come back here, I thought to myself. But I had to know the truth.
With a heavy heart, I headed back home.
When I got back, I found Gran in a panic. ‘Sebastian, where have you been? I looked for you everywhere!’ She must have read something on my face and nodded, ‘You are ready to hear
the whole story now, aren’t you?’
She knew me so well, and despite the fact that she must have been at least eighty years old – not that she would ever admit it – her eyesight was sharper than mine.
‘Yes, Gran, I am ready to hear it all,’ I said. ‘But first, you must promise me something.’
She seemed almost afraid, but didn’t hesitate in asking, ‘What is it?’
‘You must promise me that you’ll tell me the whole truth, no matter what. I am a man now,’ I replied.
Despite the situation, Gran almost smiled. ‘Indeed you are. Do not think I have forgotten it is your birthday in a few short weeks. Yes, you are almost sixteen, a man, as you say, and it’s
time for you to know who you are and the great power within you.’ She tried to look me in the eyes, ‘Sebastian, you must promise me something as well. Promise me you will only use your powers for good. There has been enough evil and tragedy in this family.’
She sat down and grabbed my hands. I instinctively took the stool next to her, but I couldn’t look at her. It was perhaps childish of me but her apparent betrayal hurt me.
‘I am sorry I never told you the truth, but you were not old enough to understand. Frankly, I would have waited a few more years, as you might still not understand. Sometimes, I don’t think I even understand it all myself.’
Gran took a deep breath and continued, ‘I was barely older than you are right now when I met Vlad. He was handsome and the most intriguing man I had ever met – not that I met many, mind you. And he cared so much about the people and doing right by them. He was consumed with a need to fight the Turks and free his country of its oppressors. I was so taken with him that I didn’t even hesitate when barely a week later he asked me to marry him. He was the man of my dreams, he was my prince, and he promised we would be together for all eternity.
‘I should have known there was a darkness within him, a darkness so deep that it was consuming him. Not many people know this, but he had been taken prisoner as a child by the
Turks. What made it even worse was that his father had traded him and his brother in exchange for support from the Sultan. I couldn’t imagine what he must have felt, what it must be like to be betrayed by your own father. Over the years, I often thought of the young Vlad being handed over to the Turks like a human bargaining chip, and the things he must have endured. I’ve heard many stories throughout the years, but I never knew the truth.’ Gran started crying, all the years of pain surfacing as she spoke.
‘Forgive me, Sebastian, talking about the past is very hard for me. And honestly, Vlad never told me what happened to him; I asked him several times, but he refused to dredge up the past. He used to say, “No matter how much we want to, we can never change our past, and we just have to accept it.” But sometimes, there was such sadness in his eyes and such hatred for
the Turks. One time, he told me that to defeat the Turks, he’d do anything, even sell his soul to the Devil himself. I thought he was joking, and I never listened to the gossip. People called him
unnatural, evil, the Devil, Nosferatu. I thought, What do they know? They didn’t know him as I did. But now I know that my love for him had blinded me.’
I couldn’t hear the sadness in her voice anymore, but I could almost feel her pain and sorrow; the regret of losing the man she must have loved so deeply. I got up and took her into my arms. ‘I am sorry, Gran. You don’t have to tell me any more if you don’t want to. It doesn’t
matter to me.’
But she pushed me away with more strength than you might have guessed a woman of her age would have. And she was strong. I was starting to understand what she must have
gone through and the strength it took.
She continued determinedly, ‘Sebastian, you must know it all. Only once you know the truth will you be able to comprehend who you are and what you must do.’
Pacing the room, deep in thought, she started speaking as if she was talking to herself. ‘A couple of years after we wed, I became aware of the extent of Vlad’s cruelty. He barely let me out of the castle. I was always surrounded by people. But one time in 1460, I travelled with him to Brasov, which Vlad had conquered a few days earlier. I saw with my own eyes the thousands of men, women, and children whom he impaled. He killed them all and continued to impale anyone who stood in his way! Nobody was spared. I became terrified of him. I didn’t know what happened to the man I married, the man that promised peace.’
She took a deep breath and continued, ‘I started to believe he was enjoying himself; he didn’t only kill his enemies, he slaughtered everyone, guilty or not. I felt helpless, and I feared for my unborn child. After I had my son, Mihnea, I thought perhaps Vlad would change. He had an heir. Blood and murder could not be the legacy for his son, my son!
‘If anything, he became more vicious and started saying he was invincible and that the Devil himself would protect him. He claimed that he made a pact with the Devil for himself and his sons and the sons after those. I thought that he had lost his wits and was speaking gibberish, but I was wrong: he had made a deal with the Devil to win against the Turks.’
I saw the strain on her face; she seemed to be getting older and smaller right before my eyes. I tried stopping her again, but she pointed to the stool. ‘Sit down, Sebastian. I am fine.’ Then she continued, ‘When I found out I was with child again, I decided to flee. But nobody left Vlad. He said he would find me and take me to Hell with him. And I believe he truly meant it. Then, one day, we were fighting again, and I ran to the tower. Vlad came after me. I was so afraid of him that I leapt into the river below.
‘I don’t know how I survived, but I did. I woke up a few miles downstream. Some villagers found me and took me in. As if by a miracle, my unborn son, your grandfather, had also survived. When I was able to travel, I made my way to this village where some of my ancestors had lived for generations. I told everyone my husband was a soldier that had died in the war. Nobody asked me any questions; so many men had died in those pointless wars.’
She looked at me as if relieved she had finally told me the truth, ‘I raised my son alone as best I could. I never saw my firstborn again. I found out some years later that he had died. I would have given anything to see him one last time. I never forgave myself for abandoning him, but I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t risk Vlad finding out I was still alive. I couldn’t risk
him taking my other son too.’
She finally sat down, ‘I am sorry, Sebastian.’ She took a deep breath, ‘But this is the whole story. And now you must leave.’
I was stunned and felt a cold shiver running down my spine. The story was too ludicrous to be authentic. ‘Did my father know?’ I found myself asking.
She nodded slowly, ‘He did, and so does your Uncle Aaron.’
I didn’t understand why I had to leave. Vlad had been dead for many years. What harm could he do me?
‘Why must I leave, Gran? He is dead, and he has been dead for a very long time.’
Gran looked at me angrily then. ‘Have you heard nothing, boy? He is not dead! He cannot die! He is still alive, and he is now fulfilling his promise to take me to Hell with him. And God
only knows what he must be planning for you. You have much power within you, and I know he must hate you for it! He has a deep need to be the most powerful person on Earth. He is evil
and I am scared for you…’ Her last words seemed to reverberate across the room and hung in the air.
This was madness. Surely Gran was getting so old that she believed in irrational things. She must have been delirious, and I needed to take her to a healer and have her checked.
Suddenly she smiled as if she could read my thoughts, ‘Sebastian, I know you must think I have gone mad. But I am telling you the truth; he is back! I found a ring on the porch this
morning. He gave me this ring when we wed, and I left it behind when I fled.’
She dug something out of her pocket and slowly put the object on the table. It was the most beautiful ring I had ever seen, a big ruby surrounded by diamonds and set in gold. The room appeared brighter, as the dazzling stones caught every single
ray of light from the candles.
‘But, Gran,’ I said impatiently, trying hard not to stare at the ring, ‘Anybody could have left that ring there. Someone must be trying to frighten you.’
‘Nu, Sebastian. Nu inţelegi. There was also a note. It said, “I have returned to keep my promise.” It’s him.