Friday

"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 10

A vampire novel set in the Italian Renaissance.

Dracula, the exiled prince of Wallachia, arrives in Rome pursued by rumors of his evil past. Hoping to establish a new power base among the warring city-states of Italy, Prince Dracula allies himself with the Borgia family.

In exchange for a secret marriage contract with Lucrezia Borgia, Dracula helps Cardinal Borgia become Pope Alexander VI. But when the new pope forbids the marriage of Lucrezia to the Wallachian prince, Dracula's revenge threatens the Borgia dynasty and the future of the Roman Catholic Church.

The pope's brilliant son, Cesare Borgia, enlists the aid of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli to defeat the growing forces of darkness.

The Vatican Dagger
by David Wisehart


Villa Montevecchio
November 6, 1477

Marsilio Ficino sat in the study of his country villa, beside the radiant hearth, composing a new oration on the appetitus naturalis, the natural desire for the human soul to achieve unlimited truth and goodness, to become God. Tomorrow was the anniversary of Plato's birthday. The academy would soon arrive to celebrate the blessed event. Ficino took a sip of mulled wine, then cradled the warm chalice in his hands. He stared at the bust of Plato pedestaled in the corner and struggled to organize his thoughts. The Heavens fought against him. Ficino was distracted by nature's anxiety, the noisy tempest of the night, the howl of a blustery, bone-chilling mistral. Tree branches clawed the walls outside, driven mad by the wind. Ficino hoped the weather would not deter his friends.

Footsteps approached. Ficino glanced up to see his famulus, Giovanni Cavalcanti, step into the open doorway. Ficino was pleased to see him. He had known Giovanni since the boy was seven, and loved him like a son. In his great love for Giovanni he recognized his love for God.

"You have a visitor," Giovanni said.

"Am I expecting anyone tonight?"

"No. But he comes with letters of introduction."

Giovanni handed him the papers.

Ficino read them with growing interest. The first was a letter from Archbishop Raffaele Riario, a teenage nephew to the pope, praising the qualities of Prince Vlad Dracula of Wallachia, a valiant Christian warrior revered in his own country as "the son of the dragon." Ficino recognized the flowing hand and literary style of the archbishop's secretary, Jacopo Bracciolini, a longtime member of the Plato Academy. The second document was a carnet from the Vatican, signed by the pope himself, which authorized Prince Dracula to travel freely throughout the Papal States and all the realms of Christendom.

"Prince Dracula?" asked Ficino.

"He came alone."

"Alone? At night? On a night like this?" Ficino had never heard of a prince traveling alone.

"He says the matter is urgent."

"Apparently. Where is he now?"

"In the anteroom."

"Please, send him in."

Giovanni left, and returned with the prince. Dracula filled the doorframe. He was tall, with a soldier's bearing, dressed in raiments that deceived the light.

Ficino stood. "Come in, please."

The prince stepped into the room. His skin was pale, nearly white. Ficino had read of albinism, which was known to the ancient Greeks, but he had never before encountered such a case. One reference quoted the Book of Enoch, now lost, which claimed that Noah was an albino, born white as snow. According to the iatric codices, albinos preferred the dark. Their eyes lacked color and were ill-equipped for the harsh light of day. Dracula's irises, however, were not pale but the color of pitch. His hair, too, was black. Not an albino, he thought. Something else. Something new.

"Giovanni, pull up the other chair for our guest."

"I will stand," said Dracula, in a deep, resonant voice.

"You speak Italian," Ficino observed.

"I am learning."

Ficino dismissed Giovanni, then returned the papers to the prince. "You come highly recommended."

As Dracula stepped forward to retrieve the papers, Ficino saw that the man's nose had once been broken, perhaps in childhood, for it had healed almost completely.

"How may I help you?" asked Ficino.

"I am looking for a manuscript."

"The author?"

"Hermes Trismegistus."

"Yes. I see. You came to the right place. Or at least, to the right person. I translated the Hermetica myself."

"I am looking for the originals," said Dracula.

"Those are in the Medici Palace. In Florence. Do you read Greek?"

"The originals are not in Greek."

"Of course not. But the autograph scrolls were lost in the fires of Alexandria. I have yet to see a manuscript in the hand of Hermes. Nor can I read Pharaonic script." From a nearby shelf, Ficino retrieved a bound copy of his own translation. "You may peruse the Latin while you're here."

Dracula accepted the tome, unclasped the cover, and read where he stood, without availing himself of the firelight.

He reads in shadows?

Dracula flipped through the pages, advancing and retreating, then closed the book with a sigh and returned it to the shelf. "It's not here."

"That is the complete corpus."

"No. You are missing a text. The most important text."

There's more? Ficino sat back down, lost in the revelation, reviewing in his mind what he knew of the Corpus Hermeticum. There had always been rumors of other scrolls. Could there be another Hermetica, a long-lost almagest?

Dracula moved to the fire to warm his hands. "The Arabic title is Al-Kimiya Alaq."

"The Alchemy of...what?"

"Of blood."

Ficino felt a chill run up his spine.

Dracula said, "According to the Quran, God created man from alaq, a clot of blood."

The Alchemy of Blood, thought Ficino. Clearly this was a reference to the alchemy of the soul. The fundamental relationship between blood and spirit was well-documented by the ancients. Aristotle claimed that the proton organon, the instrument of the vital spirit, was located in the human heart. The Stoics called it the hegemonikon. According to Aristotle, messages were sent from the five senses to the heart, which translated these messages into phantasia, the language of the soul. Saint Thomas Aquinas confirmed the truth of this in his Summa theologica. Even Empedocles understood that pneuma, the vital spirit, circulated with the blood. He used this occult knowledge to cure catalepsy, becoming famous throughout antiquity for raising the dead. If The Alchemy of Blood contained such secrets, it would be a treasure beyond price.

Ficino shook his head. "I've never heard of it."

"I'm not surprised," said Dracula, though he was clearly disappointed.
"Cosimo scoured Europe for Hermetic works," said Ficino. "Lorenzo has done the same. If there were a copy or a fragment anywhere in the West, Lorenzo would own it and I would have read it. Even with my lack of Arabic."

"I saw the book in Istanbul."

"Constantinople?"

"Yes."

"You've been there?"

Dracula nodded. "I lived there for four years. Not by choice. When I was twelve, my father gave me to the Sultan as a hostage. They taught me Greek and Arabic. I learned my numbers from the Mohammedans."

"The Turks are very learned."

"Compared to Istanbul," said Dracula, "Florence is a backwater. The Sultan is rebuilding the city as a new Alexandria, with a library to match."

"You saw their Hermetica?"

"Those books were forbidden. But yes, I saw them. Once. Before I had the skills to understand what I was seeing. I could probably read them now, but they are lost to me."

"What is your interest in alchemy and blood?"

Dracula stared into the fire. "It is a private matter."

Ficino drained his chalice, listening to the wind outside. "Something ails you," he said. "That much is clear. I saw it when you entered. I am a physician, with some small skill in the mysteries of medicine. My friends come to me, and I help them when I can. I offer you my services."

Dracula shook his head.

"I ask no payment," said Ficino. "Lorenzo supports me with more than I need."

"I have seen doctors before. This is beyond all medicine."

"Beyond all magic?"

Dracula turned to his host, studying him. "The archbishop said you were a magus."

"A student of the hermetic arts, of hieratic magic, magia naturalis."

"An alchemist."

"My laboratory experiments are only good for burning wine, not making men immortal. Except, perhaps, in spirit. I am, as you know, ordained in Christ." Ficino stood, offering his chair. "Come, sit by the fire. Tell me what troubles you. May I hear your confession?"

"It is not my soul that troubles me."

"When the body hurts, the soul cries out. Tell me the symptoms. Your skin, is it sensitive to the light of day?"

Dracula sat down in the chair. "Yes. Very much."

Ficino nodded. "From childhood?"

"Only recently."

"How long?"

"The past year. Maybe less."

"What happened?"

"I don't know."

"You don't remember when you fell ill?"

"There is much I don't remember. I remember fighting in a dark forest. The battle went bad, and then...I was running."

"From the battlefield?"

"No. This was later. Much later, I think."

"What were you running from?"

"My castle. My people. My own people had turned against me."

"You said 'much later.' Was this days, or weeks?"

Dracula's voice dimmed. "I remember the winter. Blood in the snow. A season in Hell. But when I fled my home, it was already spring. A change of seasons." He paused, as if doubting his own words. "How could I miss a change of seasons?"

"Mnemosyne is a fickle goddess," said Ficino. "But sometimes she protects us, hides what we cannot bear, except in dreams."

"I have lost a part of myself," said the prince.

"It is still inside you. The soul remembers. Shall I help you find it?"

"I have looked."

"It helps to have a guide. There is an ancient magic, an art of anamnesis. It has helped many others. It may summon your memories."

"How is it done?"

"By invoking spiritus."

"Theurgy?"

"God's magic. Will you accept my help?"

Dracula considered this for the span of a dozen heartbeats. "Yes. Please. What do I do?"

#

Ficino dismissed Giovanni for the night, then returned to his study where Prince Dracula remained seated by the fire.

The magus pondered how best to begin. Invoking spiritus was a delicate art, and not without its dangers. One might summon an angel and be answered by a demon. Ficino knew many defenses against the diabolicals, but in an impromptu séance such as this, with insufficient time to prepare the ritual, on a day uncharted by careful astrology, anything could happen.

Magia naturalis was a talismanic art, which drew spiritus down from the supernal realms with the aid of sympathetic images, aromatic plants, Chaldaic incantations, Orphic hymns, and garments of a planetary hue. For talismans, Ficino used images of the decans—the thirty-six constellatory gods who each ruled over ten degrees of the zodiac. But which talisman would summon Dracula's memories? Perhaps the first decan, which the Picatrix described as, "A huge dark man with red eyes, holding a sword, and clad in a white garment." Contra this, Dracula was clad in black. Was black significant? Ficino did not know. He knew the prince was a famous warrior. Perhaps an image of Mars was better suited: a man, crowned, holding a raised sword in his right hand. From the archbishop's letter of credence, Ficino understood that Dracula's name meant "son of the dragon"—would a talismanic dragon help restore this dragon to himself? If so, there were several images to choose from. Saturn: a man standing on a dragon, clothed in black and holding in his right hand a sickle and in his left a spear. Luna: a beautiful woman with snakes wrapped around her arms, riding on a dragon, with another dragon above her and a third flying down below, each of these dragons having seven heads. Too many choices, he thought, and too little information. One fact stood out: Dracula was a Roman Catholic. He had arrived tonight with the blessing of the pope. There was one magic talisman that held power over every Christain soul.

The crucifix.

Yes, thought Ficino. It is the only way.

A silver cross hung on the wall above the fireplace. He would use it when the time came. But first the patient must be catechized.

Ficino said, "Tell me the last thing you remember, before the change of seasons. Where were you?"

"A battlefield," answered Dracula.

"Where?"

"In a forest by the Danube River. Near the city of Bucharest, near the monestary of Snagov."

"Good. Describe the battlefield."

The prince shrugged. "Men, horses, bodies on the ground. Young men screaming, cursing."

"Something more specific. Unique."

Dracula thought a moment, then said, "There was a patch of evergrass. Young, green, and untouched. Somehow, after days of heavy fighting, it had not been trampled. It had not been soaked with blood like the field around it, but lightly sprayed with a sanguinary mist. It froze like hoarfrost. Tiny rubies on green blades. Beautiful, how it caught the moonlight. But I could not bear the beauty of it, so I tramped it down myself. I can still remember the crunch of the cold red rime beneath the heel of my solleret."

Ficino nodded. "Yes. Good. One memory inspires another. Now, for the magic to work, we must consecrate the room. Please stay here. Don't touch anything. I'll be back in a moment."

He went to his bedroom to gather a pair of golden garments, a crown of laurels, and a censer. In the sitting room he found his lyre. He hesitated in the hall, perusing the Hermetic images mounted in a row, sketches of the decans by Sandro Botticelli, preliminary images from which metal talismans would one day be cast. But none of the drawings were suited to this occasion. Sandro's current project, the allegory of spring with Mercury and Venus, might be the perfect talisman for tonight's séance, but the painting was incomplete, still collecting colors in Villa Cafaggiolo.

The magus donned his ceremonial gold robe. He lit the charcoal in the brass censer and returned to the study, holding his lyre under one arm, along with a gold mantilla and the laurel crown. From his other hand he swung the censer, fumigating the air with frankincense. He made three passes around the room, then placed the censer on the mantelpiece.

Dracula studied his host with a bemused expression. "Is this part of the mantic rite?"

Ficino placed the crown of laurels on Dracula's head, and draped the man's shoulders in the gold mantilla.

"Gold is a solarian color. The gold robe is in sympathy with Phoebus, as is the laurel crown. The frankincense is sympathetic to Mnemosyne. The lyre is for the Orphic hymns, which will further sanctify the adytum. In this way, we balance the humors and prepare your soul for the miracles of magic. Tonight we invoke the greatest spirit of all, the Paraclete. But first we seek allies in our holy quest. We must placate Apollo and supplicate Mnemosyne—goddess of memory, angel of anamnesis, oracle of the calypsoed past."

Ficino pulled a chair from the corner and sat opposite the prince. Propping the lyre on one knee, he strummed lightly, testing the strings.

"Now close your eyes," said the magus.

Dracula closed his eyes.

Ficino established a lyric melody and progressed through the Orphic seasons, from spring to winter, for it was in winter that Dracula's memories were buried. The magus played first the dorians, the middle strings, evoking springtime, then added the neate, the highest string, for summer. He played the dorians again for autumn, lingered there to hold the melody, building tension, then added the hypate, the lowest string, for winter, ending with a brumal lament of darkness and death. He resolved the melody, and music receded into silence.

He set down his lyre, stood, and took the silver cross from the wall above the fireplace. He held the cross in front of the prince. He wanted Dracula to see firelight blazing in the metal and to look upon his own reflection.

"Now open your eyes."

Dracula opened his eyes.

"Look upon the cross," said Ficino. "Keep your eyes upon the holy cross. Keep your mind upon the holy cross. Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly. Deeply. Like the rhythm of the ocean. Like the rhythm of a prayer. Like the whisper of the wind, calling out to God. Feel the grace of God as you look upon the holy cross, as you breathe in, breathe out, like the whisper of the wind, calling out to God. Do you believe in God?"

"Yes."

"Do you have faith in God?"

"Yes."

"Do you have love for God?"

"Yes."

"Will you invite God into your life?"

"Yes."

"Will you invite Jesus into your life?"

"Yes."

"Will you invite the Holy Spirit into your life?"

"Yes."

"In the name of God the Father, in the name of God the Son, I call on the Holy Spirit, I call the Spirit down from Heaven, down from Heaven and into this house, down from God and into your heart, down from the sphere of the Seraphim, down from the sphere of the Cherubim, down from the sphere of the Thrones, down from the sphere of the Dominions, down from the sphere of the Virtues, down from the sphere of the Powers, down from the sphere of the Principalities, down from the sphere of the Archangels, down from the sphere of the Angels, down from the sphere of the Primum Mobile, down from the sphere of the Caelum Stellatum, down from the sphere of the planet Saturn, down from the sphere of the planet Jupiter, down from the sphere of the planet Mars, down from the sphere of the planet Sol, down from the sphere of the planet Venus, down from the sphere of the planet Mercury, down from the sphere of the planet Luna, down to the sphere of the sublunary world, down to the sphere of Fire, of Air, of Water, of Earth, down from the Empyrean and into the Earth, down from Heaven and into this house, down from God and into your heart. The Holy Spirit is with us now. The Holy Spirit has come into this world. The Holy Spirit has come into this house. The Holy Spirit has come into this room. The Holy Spirit is with us now. The Holy Spirit is in your heart. Can you feel the Spirit in your heart?"

"Yes."

"Can you feel the Spirit of the Lord?"

"Yes."

"With every breath, you feel the Spirit of the Lord. With every breath, you become the Spirit of the Lord. With every breath, you receive the grace of God. With every breath, you feel the love of God. You are the Spirit of the Lord. With every breath, you are the Spirit of the Lord. Who are you now?"

"I am the Spirit of the Lord."

"The Spirit of the Lord is beyond the limits of this room. The Spirit of the Lord is beyond the limits of this house. The Spirit of the Lord is beyond the limits of this world. Who are you now?"

"I am the Spirit of the Lord."

"The Spirit of the Lord is beyond time and place. Are you the Spirit of the Lord?"

"Yes."

"Is the Spirit of the Lord beyond time and place?"

"Yes."

"Would you like to go back in time?"

"Yes."

"Close your eyes."

Dracula closed his eyes.

He was now deep in a theurgic trance.

"Good," said the magus, lowering the silver cross, which had grown heavy in his hand. He felt a bit lightheaded from the frankincense and the taxing of his voice. Ficino took a deep breath and began the next phase. "There is a soul crying out for help. There is a soul crying out for God. Would you like to help the soul that is crying out for God?"

"Yes."

"Good. It is a cold winter day, in the year of our Lord fourteen hundred and seventy-six. There is a battlefield by the Danube River, near the city of Bucharest, near the monestary of Snagov. It is a battlefield with many men. A battlefield with many horses. A battlefield with many bodies lying on the ground. Young men screaming, cursing. Do you see this battlefield?"

"Yes."

"Do you know this battlefield?"

"Yes."

"Do you know this day?"

"Yes."

"There is a man upon the battlefield. A man whose soul is crying out for God. He is a great prince. A great warrior. He stands before a young patch of evergrass, a patch untrampled by the terror of this war. The grass is misted with blood, now frozen into a cold red rime. Tiny rubies on green blades. Do you see this man?"

"Yes."

"Do you know this man?"

"Yes."

"Is his soul crying out for God?"

"Yes."

"Who are you now?"

"I am the Spirit of the Lord."

"Will you help this man?"

"Yes."

"Will you go down to help this man?"

"Yes."

"Will you fill his soul with the Spirit of the Lord?"

"Yes."

"Go down to him. Help this man. Fill his soul with the Spirit of the Lord. Do it now." Ficino snapped his fingers. "Is it done?"

"Yes."

"Who are you now?"

"I am Dracula."

"Who is Dracula?"

"The son of the dragon."

"Are you the son of the dragon?"

"Yes."

"Tell me what you see."

"Death."

"What else do you see?"

"More death."

"What is happening?"

"I am going to die."

"How do you know you are going to die?"

"I am wounded."

"A wound can heal."

"I am wounded many times. I am wounded beyond all hope."

"There is always hope."

"No."

"Why have you lost hope?"

"I have known death all my life. All my life, I have seen men die. I know what a man can take, and what can take a man. I know a thousand ways to kill. I have seen them all. I have done them all. I am going to die."

"There is always a chance at life."

"Too much blood. Too much blood."

"But something happens to you on the battlefield."

"Yes."

"What happens to you on the battlefield?"

"A miracle."

"What kind of miracle?"

"The angel comes."

"Do you see the angel now?"

"Yes."

"Is the angel in front of you?"

"Yes."

"What does the angel look like?"

"Light and life."

"Does the angel have a name?"

"He will not tell me who he is."

"Describe the angel."

"A boy. Young. Beautiful. A beautiful boy with alabaster skin. A young boy, an angel of beauty, but..."

"But what?"

"Those eyes."

"What about the eyes?"

"Those eyes have seen too much."

"What have they seen?"

"Everything."

"Does the angel work a miracle?"

"Yes."

"How does the miracle occur?"

"He has a chalice."

"Is it empty?"

"No."

"What is in the chalice?"

"Blood. The blood of Christ. It is a gift, he says. The gift of eternal life. He brings me the chalice."

"He hands it to you?"

"I cannot move my hands. I cannot move my legs. My body fails me."

"What happens now?"

"He puts the chalice to my lips."

"What happens when he puts the chalice to your lips?"

"I drink."

"What happens when you drink?"

"I die."

"But you are still alive."

"I am dead."

"Are you sure that you are dead?"

"Yes."

"How can you be dead?"

"I am no more."

"What happens when you die?"

"I am changed."

"Changed?"

"I am not the man I was."

"Who are you now?"

"I am a god."

"A god?"

"Yes."

"How do you know you are a god?"

Dracula opened his eyes, staring directly at Ficino. "I drank the blood and was born again."

Ficino felt a chill move through him, through his very soul, like the cold wind of Dante's Hell.

He shuddered.

"Close your eyes," he said.

"My eyes are open."

"Close your eyes."

"Your work is done, Marsilio."

"We must reverse the spell. You must go back the way you came." He raised the crucifix. "Look upon the cross."

"No more spells—"

Ficino shoved the crucifix in front of Dracula's eyes and thundered, "Look upon the cross of God!"

The prince saw his reflection in the silver.

He stared at it.

Transfixed.

"You are on a battlefield," said Ficino.

Dracula's eyes widened. "No."

"With many bodies lying on the ground."

"No." But like Narcissus at the water's edge, Dracula could not look away from his own reflection.

"You are dying on the battlefield."

"No more."

"You are crying out to God."

Dracula's face contorted. "Stop."

"There is blood in the snow."

"Please."

"Too much blood—"

The prince screamed a demon's wail. He cowered from the crucifix. He swept his hand in a defensive arc, knocking the cross from Ficino's hand. The crucifix clanged against the fireplace and fell into the fire.

Dracula stood, toppling the chair. The crown of laurels and gold mantilla fell away. He growled and bared his teeth.

"Your work is done," he said.

Then like a shadow fearing sunlight he fled the room, running out from the magician's house into the dark and howling storm.

PREVIOUS: Chapter 9
NEXT: Chapter 11

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