Of course, he ends up ignoring his father’s objections and keeps meeting Elizabeth in secret. According to public rumor, Esmeralda is a beautiful and obviously highly affluent girl, but Elizabeth has won his heart and there is no way he is going to just give up on that romance. He starts daydreaming about eloping with Elizabeth, abandoning not just Lübeck but also his forthcoming career as a merchant, and simply starting a new life with her somewhere in the countryside, just the two of them. Deep down, he knows this will be next to impossible for a range of practical reasons, and yet day by day he loses more and more touch with reality, building magnificent castles in the air. One day, when they are alone in Waldron’s cozy bierstube, he finally shares his fantasy with Elizabeth.
“Are you crazy!? What about my little brother and my dad? I can’t just leave them behind?”
“Of course not, Elizabeth. We will bring them with us.”
“How are we going to make a living if I lose my job, and you break all ties with your family? You father will never forgive you.”
“Don’t worry about that. I will take an advance on my inheritance. There’s plenty of gold and silver in my father’s coffer to get us started on our new life.”
“But that’s stealing, Stefan! You can’t do that to your own family, surely. I won’t be an accomplice in crime.”
“My father is using me as a pawn in his merchant empire building games. I want no part in that.”
Despite his best attempts, there is just no convincing Elizabeth to subscribe to his airy-fairy plans, so in the end Stefan gives up and leaves the bar in a crestfallen state. Heartbroken by the shattering of his romantic illusions, Stefan spends the next few weeks brooding over what to do about this conundrum. Giving up on this, the very first powerful romance of his life just seems like an unbearably painful way forward.
Around this time, however, completely unforeseen events change the agenda not just for Stefan but for everyone in Lübeck and indeed the rest of Northern Europe. It starts by messengers bringing reports of strange deaths in the region, and within a few days of these ominous reports, a merchant ship arrives in the harbor, full of sick sailors who are bleeding from the mouth and have blackened skin with large and swollen lumps. Although the disease-ridden sailors are promptly taken to the Heiligen-Geist Hospital in the city and given the best treatments available, they all die within a few says after being hospitalized, and worse yet, the unknown and deadly infection starts spreading beyond the hospital. The nuns tending to the dying sailors are the first to catch the disease but within a matter of days, The Great Pestilence, as it is soon to be named, spreads like a wildfire from neighborhood to neighborhood. The councilmen quickly decide to enforce strict quarantine rules for the infected and recommend that all citizens ventilate their homes, burn incense, and keep a safe distance to people when venturing outdoors. Yet, somehow, the pandemic just keeps spreading despite all the desperate measures taken by the authorities. Every morning, dead corpses are placed out on the streets where they are collected on rough boards and taken to the churchyards. Before long, huge trenches are excavated as the burial grounds are unable to cope with the mass deaths. Seeing corpses being piled up on top of each other while priests give fiery sermons about the Wrath of God, Stefan and his family are as terrified as the rest of the Lübeckers around them, thinking that this is indeed the end of the world. More than anything, it is really Elizabeth’s safety which is on Stefan’s mind, but as fate would have it, the plague strikes in his own household long before striking the cottages outside the city walls.
He distinctly remembers the vicious fever taking hold of him one morning. Suffering a massive headache and being drenched in sweat, he finds himself unable to get out of bed. The incessant funeral tolling of the church bells not far from his bedside window mixed with the fragrant wafts of smoke from the sticks of incense his mother is burning in their living room is surreal and make him feel like he is attending his own funeral.
“Mom, I don’t feel well! Can you bring me a glass of water, please!”
It takes several minutes before the door to his room creaks open, and the familiar face of his mother appears on the threshold. With dark circles under her eyes and blackened skin around her fingers, she looks exhausted and presumably at least as sick as Stefan himself.
“I’m sorry, Stefan, you will have to take care of yourself. Your father and I are not feeling well. I think the pestilence caught up with us.”
“Can’t you call the servants, then?”
“They fled the city during the night. There is an exodus going on now. People think the countryside is safer than the city.”
Despite his fever and chills, Stefan fights his way down the stairs to the living room where he is shocked to see his father lying on a couch in a far more weakened state than himself. His face is swollen and black, and it is a struggle for him to speak the next few words which will stay with Stefan forever.
“Son. This is the end. See you in the afterlife.”
Later that day, his father dies, and his mother only lasts one more day before passing away. Stefan is too weak to move their corpses onto the street outside the house, so he scales the stairs at great effort and locks himself up in his bedroom to meet his maker. In the dead of night, Stefan wakes up feeling more bewildered and weaker than ever before. Oddly, the church bells have stopped tolling, but whether this is because fewer people are dying or because the gravediggers and the clergymen themselves have perished, he cannot tell. His throat is parched, and his entire body is swollen and aching. In his delirium, he is hallucinating and talking to imaginary people around him in the room.
“Just let me die. Someone, end the pain, please.”
As if summoned by his delirious soliloquy, a peculiar shade settles on his windowsill, causing a thin layer of mortar to loosen and drop to the cobbled street below with a soft sound only audible because of the unusual serenity of the nightscape outside. On the edge of his vision, Stefan registers the movement, but it is not until the shade addresses him that he finally comes to his senses, realizing that he is no longer alone in the bedroom.
“Dying is the easy part. Coming back can be a little painful.”
“Who… Who are you?!”
“I go by many names, but you can call me the Ancient One.”
“Get out of my house and let me die alone!”
“Are you really prepared to leave this world for good, Master Stefan?”
“How… How do you know my name?”
“Let’s just say I have been watching you. I know about your little love affair with that fine damsel from the bar.”
The voice from the dark shape by the windowsill is deep, rich, and clearly belonging to a man. There is something timeless and hypnotic about its mellow timbre. Yet, the exaggerated sibilance of his voice is somewhat unsettling.
“Now that your parents have died, you no longer have any obligations towards their estate or legacy. You could just empty the coffers and leave the city with your beloved bar maiden. That is, if you were not about to die from the plague, of course.”
In his feverish mind, Stefan is shocked that this sinister stranger seems to know everything about his secret affairs and innermost desires, but the pain of the lethal infection coursing through his veins is becoming intolerable.
“I really don’t care who you are or what you want from me. Please just end my pain now.”
“Are you inviting me into your home, Stefan?”
What a strange question. Having stealthily scaled the walls to occupy a seat on the first-floor windowsill of a stranger’s house, why would he ask permission to enter now? This is not the standard behavior of a burglar, but of course all burglars have probably fled the plague-ridden city by now.
The dark shape seems to acknowledge his request and disappears from the windowsill in the blink of an eye. Stefan turns his aching head to see where the man went at such an unnatural speed, and his blood freezes when he looks directly into the eerily pale face of what looks like a caped aristocrat with short black hair and piercing brown eyes. The red velvet lining of his long black cape looks almost regal in nature, making Stefan speculate whether he has been visited by royalty or is simply hallucinating.
“Don’t be afraid when you wake up. You will be in excruciating pain and very thirsty but come find me by the city gates around the midnight hour.”
Before he has time to respond, the pale aristocrat bends down and sinks his unnaturally sharp and long incisors into Stefan’s throat, starting to siphon off what little lifeforce is left in his weakened and dying body. Stefan can hardly feel the additional pain, in fact, he is mesmerized by the enigmatic and charismatic man, who has suddenly joined him at his deathbed. His blood supply is drained, slowly at first, and then in big gulps until he loses consciousness, and everything becomes a blur.