Friday, October 18, 2013

All Hallow's Grim: In Death's Shadow, Finale.

Luis Royo

I had never really practiced magick before. I had seen the others playing at it during some of the Gatherings, but never joined in. It had been enough to spectate, and vampire magick was certainly worth ogling. Most of their circles started with blood and ended in sex, and were as much fun for those watching as they were for the ones participating. I never really knew if their workings actually did anything, but they were certainly entertaining to watch. So I knew little of magick in any form. There was a vague understanding somewhere in my mind that it did exist, and it could be used, manipulated, and shaped to good effect - my existence, and that of my patriarch, and the others, was proof of that - but it had never touched my life otherwise and I was less than an infant in its ways.
But I now had in my hand a scrap of knowledge that could change everything. Most of the instructions I did not understand... what in Hell was a "shard of profayne ice" and where in the world was I to find half of these other ingredients...? "Draw a circle," I understood from the rituals the others liked to play at, or at least I thought I did... offering a sacrifice of a soul was also understandable. It was Death, after all. I wondered idly if my own soul would count, and if it would actually kill me in the process. But the rest, about moons and planetary alignments and stars was beyond me. I tried to ignore phrases like "necromantyk dysjunction" and "summonyng locus" and the like. Biology and botany I understood, but it bothered me on a deep and fundamental level that even spells seemed to have technical terminology to make a computer programmer proud. My head was spinning enough with the idea that this might be possible; I didn't need magick-nerd-speak rattling around in my skull to make it worse.
I needed a teacher. I needed to learn secrets and gain enough knowledge to know if this scrap I held was more than just some ancient scholar's fantasy. And I had a sinking feeling that the others' Gatherings were the best place to start looking for such a teacher.
So for the first time since my turning, I returned to my patriarch of my own free will. He showed no surprise; instead, he expressed a smug satisfaction that I was finally coming to my senses. I let him think what he would, and kept my thoughts to myself. I had left the spell hidden, though not where I found it; I was not the only one in the world that still hunted for ancient knowledge. Instead, I left it where few would think to find such a thing... in a once-sealed crypt, in the graveyard of a Methodist church near my patriarch's home, and I giggled to myself thinking of how they would react if they ever found it. I was an irreverent soul.
My patriarch did not miss my sudden interest in the ritual circles. But he merely raised an eyebrow indulgently, as though he was amused that I had finally found something to interest me beyond him. The others... those who indulged in these forms of magick, anyway... were both welcoming and suspicious. You see, my kind were an irredeemably political lot; there were power plays and plots and schemes and plans within plans. For some, the rituals were mere instruments to further these politics. For others, it was an idle pastime, something to occupy the centuries. And for those whose studies were serious, the rituals were both an end and a means to power. What sort of power, I was never clear on; as I said, I never saw whether they actually accomplished anything besides entertaining the rest of us and making a mess of bodily fluids, candle wax, and shredded clothing. The ones who were serious about their craft were the most rare, but every ritual had at least one like that. It took time to find them, and even more time to discover whose knowledge was true, and who were simply playing with things they understood no more than I. Eventually, I found one who could mentor me in what she called the Arte. And she made me spell it like that too, every time. I gritted my teeth and kept them shut on the smart-ass commentary that begged to spill forth from my lips, and tried to learn enough to understand the content of my secret spell. She had to send me away, after a time, to the one who taught her, and so on until finally one of the elders took me under his wing. My patriarch was less than thrilled with that, but he continued to indulge me.
My new teacher taught me all the darkest secrets of the Arte; blood, pain, and sex... but I was convinced the last was merely to sate his own lecherous appetites. I had not yet met a single one of my kind who was not obsessed with fleshly pleasures. The Nosferatu were not attractive; they were mostly withered versions of us younger ones. My patriarch, for instance, was muscular and well-formed, but his face belonged in a nursing home. Despite this failing, his touch on me could make my blood sing...
This mage, however, was different. He had not kept a young man's form, but neither did he fit with the rest of the ranks. He made his demands of me and I yielded, and I am not unwilling to admit that I enjoyed the act. Centuries upon centuries of existence did confer a certain expertise, as well as stamina. He demanded and I gave; he taught and I soaked up his knowledge like a sponge. He asked me why I wanted to learn and I told him the truth, gasping as his hands inflicted pain and pleasure all at once on my flesh: power to take my revenge. It amused and delighted him, I think. He sent me to participate and eventually lead the circles at every Gathering; the pretender mages were resentful, but my teacher told me it was good practice, and none but himself could do better. I suspected he wanted to make me prideful, to see if I would slip up, but I merely did as he commanded. The circles at the gathering were mild compared to many of the rituals I had enacted with my teacher, but they were also just as tantalizing from within the circle as they had been from without. Flesh, and blood, and the inflicting of pain upon some poor mortal with the misfortune to catch the eye of one of us that night.
Now, I tasted the power. Now, I understood why they persisted. And, I began to see results from their rituals.
 My teacher named me Witch of the Kindred and claimed he could teach me no more, and sent me away to cause whatever chaos he expected. I had finally learned enough to retrieve my hidden treasure and put it to use.
I read the spell again and shook my head at my earlier ignorance; at its core, this ritual for summoning Death was simple in theory. Practice, however, was going to be complicated. My teacher had had some favorite subjects; historical arcane studies was one. Ways to inflict pain without causing lasting damage was another, but I did not think I'd need that particular collection of knowledge for this endeavor. It was painstaking to gather the materials; in some cases, I had to go back to my teacher and ask him what one might substitute when a spell called for something that no longer existed in the world. In some cases, he pointed me to sources that still traded in rare, esoteric goods, but the rest... he gave me some suggestions and wished me luck in the experimenting.
I did not look forward to guessing, and hoping that some of these substitutions would be just as effective, but I began my work with determination. Sometimes nothing happened; others caused explosions that knocked me off my feet, or a summons of some strange creature that I had to fight off. One attempt apparently did something to Time in a localized area; I went into my ritual space and came out only a few hours later, but apparently several days had passed without my knowing. When I came out, I was ravenous and drained three humans dry before I was sated. My patriarch took advantage of my bloodlust, of course, and we did not leave his bed for an entire day... but at the end I thanked him, though I did not explain why. His seductions only increased my desire to find a solution to the puzzle before me.
I was thankful that the spell did not require more than myself to enact; a ritual requiring a circle of two or more could have had negative consequences once my intent became clear. It did require sacrifice, but humans were easy to come by. I told my victims that their lives were being given to a good cause, that if theirs was the soul that succeeded, then it would give me the power to take vengeance on my own kind, for their sake and mine. Most of them did not believe me, but it did not deter me.
And then there was one young girl who was willing to place her trust in me and my claims. Her sacrifice came willingly, and luck was with me. That night... that night, I cast the spell.
Death came on a cloud of shadow, intertwined with the light of the girl's soul. I saw a clawed hand reach out of the billowing darkness to gently grasp the shimmering form and draw it close, where it faded. The darkness coalesced into a classically stereotypical shape, sans scythe; Death stood before me, cloaked in black and held securely within my circle. I hoped. No - I knew. My will made it so; my will had summoned Death to speak with me, and my will kept him bound until I was ready to release Him.
I stood silently, waiting. Now that the moment was upon me, I was not sure what to say, and I felt like a fool for not preparing a script ahead of time. Death was bound before me and I stood there, mind blank like a teenage girl. Damn it! He shifted and I tensed, but he simply reached up and pushed back his hood with his clawed hands. I stared. Death had a face.
His face was somewhere between an Abercrombie model and a mummy, but it was flesh nonetheless. He had been a handsome man, but aeons had withered and preserved him. He had hair, if somewhat limp and thin, and a slightly sunken nose... and eyes. His eyes pierced me to the marrow. They were dark and gleaming; his gaze was sharper than the fangs that had pierced my skin and taken my life. I never noticed when my will faltered and the light from my circle went out, but Death never moved. He simply studied me, for many long, torturous moments, until he finally stepped forward, out of my circle, and touched my face with one hand. I flinched; I might have yelped, but I was rooted to the spot. I could not have fled. I stammered something; an apology, an explanation, I was not sure what... but he ignored the words until I fell silent again.
"You have a soul," he said softly, and I flinched again. The voice that issued forth from his somewhat dessicated lips was rich and resonant, but it also had a rasping overtone that reminded me of when someone with a deep voice gets a touch of bronchitis. "You are one of the stolen dead, but you have somehow kept your soul." It was not a question, and I did not know how to respond, so I simply nodded. "The rest of your kind... their souls go where I cannot claim them. I am cheated of their deaths! But you... I can use you." he paused and considered me, his angry, paralyzing stare softening for a moment into speculation.
I swallowed my shock, told myself that it was not fear in the pit of my belly, and raised my chin slightly. I opened my mouth but he spoke again before the words would come. "You have a heart black with hate, and blood that itches for vengeance." He brushed the coils of black hair away from my face, touched the white streak at my temple, and smiled. My mouth went dry at that smile. "You wonder why you are different. You wonder, even as you grasp for some power that will give you the means to strike back at your tormentors."
I nodded. "My patriarch..." my voice sounded rusty, and I cleared my throat and tried again. "He killed my parents and turned me on a whim. He has awakened things in me that I never thought could exist in a human..."
Death cut me off with sharp words. "Human hearts contain all that is. Good and evil are mutable, and ultimately irrelevant. Do you want this power, or shall I destroy you and put you out of your misery?"
I shut my teeth with a snap and looked at him. "I want it."
He reached into his cloak and drew out an object that shone dimly in the candlelight. I looked at the thing in his hand without really seeing it, so enthralled by his presence at that point that I don't think I would have noticed if my patriarch had flown through the window on a pegasus to offer me flowers and candy.
Death stepped around me to look over my shoulder and whisper in my ear. "This will slay any of your kind, if it penetrates their flesh, and it will collect their soul for me, but you must leave it in their body for a full night and day afterward. From one moonrise to the next. Do you understand?" He did not wait for my nod. "Each strike will cause you pain as well; it will take your blood to give it power when it kills. My shadow will be upon your shoulders, and you will find no friends, no succor, no safe place. It will be long, arduous work, and you will risk exposure with every kill. It will take you centuries and you will die in my service; you will never be free in life if you agree to this bargain. But you will have your vengeance, and I will see that your soul joins your parents, if you serve well."
The claws of one hand had drawn blood from my waist in his intensity but I barely noticed. I ran my fingers through my hair, thinking furiously. Oh, how I wanted it. What did it matter, the things I would suffer in my mission? Rather than speak, I laid my hand over the artifact in his palm; I felt something cold pierce my skin and a sudden weakness came over me...
And then I was alone, on my knees, with the artifact in my bleeding hand. I clutched it to my chest and felt a curious sense of peace in place of what usually lurked within. The hate, the rage, the grief had all faded, to leave behind... purpose, and conviction. I looked at Death's gift and smiled; it was a cross, with strange skeletal figures wrapped around it. I could just fit my hand between the figures to grasp the haft of the cross. When I did so, a blade slid from the end of it, and my smile turned dangerous. What I had sought for so long was here in my hand; it had tasted my blood and I could feel it wanting more. I would give it all the blood and death it could ask for.

 Luis Royo

Epilogue
After I had hunted my own kind for years, and had more close calls than I wanted to think about, I was finally ready to admit I was tired. But I was not ready to give up, not yet. Hordes of the "stolen dead" still roamed the earth, and I was one of few who could give my master the souls that had been denied him. I shared the spell with some few others of my kind, when I found those like me, whose hearts burned with hate and regret for what they had become. Death made the same bargain with them, and I sent them on their way. We came together a few times a year, for the comfort of communing with one's own, but aside from that we never saw each other. He had lied to me, in the beginning; I found friends among them, and solace after a fashion. Some of us died, and I recruited more; we mourned and sang songs to their memory and continued on...
Until I decided it was time. We were immortal, but that did not mean we should wait forever. None of the elders, the Nosferatu, had fallen to Death's blades. So, one of those times we came together, I offered up a proposal. Our numbers were greater than they ever had been; there would never be a better time.  My patriarch kept himself in the center of the greatest population of our kind... which was not to say much, for there was no good reason for large numbers of them to gather in one place... but they were few enough. My friends considered it, and most of them agreed. The ones who did not agree went along with us anyway. It was not a battle; it was not war. It was a covert action. I went home, to him, and resumed my life. My friends hid in the city nearby. We hunted, and our prey died, until there were few of them left and those were jumpy as a cat in heat on the full moon. My patriarch was left for last; two groups who enacted the ritual circles were canny enough to have evaded us until we closed on them. They were less than twenty; we numbered twice that. My patriarch was the first of the Nosferatu we killed, and I kissed him as I plunged the blade into his belly, and drank in the sight of the dark gleam fading from his eyes. I shivered for the last time by his doing, and slept that night beside his corpse. I did not worry about my friends; they were capable. For the first time in ages, a city was empty of the life-eaters, the vampires. 
I learned, finally, during those years, what the separation between light and dark really was. As Death had said, good and evil were irrelevant. I had seen evil beings commit acts of great benevolence and even kindness. I had seen those that claimed to goodness commit cruelties beyond imagining. Light and dark were not two sides of the same coin. They were not black and white, forever separated by some ineffable magic line that one could cross at will. They flowed like water and blended like paint, one into the other and without end. You can say there's black and white, that some things will always be evil and some always good... but try living a few centuries and experiencing all the best and worst that sentient beings can dish out, and then tell me that it's so easy to judge. 
Light and dark fade into one another like day into night and back again, and there is no boundary, no definable separation between the two. Good and evil are just words that we use to try to understand something that cannot and will never be defined. It must be lived; it must be experienced with a whole heart, embraced with one's entire being, and only then can you claim any glimmer, any measure of understanding. Without the darkness, there can be no light; without the light, we would never know the darkness. We cannot have one without the other.

6 comments:

  1. A very satisfying ending to the story. I enjoyed this very much!

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    1. Thank you very much! I was very excited to complete this one, so I'm glad it was enjoyed.

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  2. "I wondered idly if my own soul would count, and if it would actually kill me in the process. But the rest, about moons and planetary alignments and stars was beyond me." I absolutely love her nonchalance. It made me grin.

    It was nice to see her go through her experience until she was able to make sense of things and answer her own questions.

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    1. I thought you'd enjoy her attitude. Nonchalance sprinkled liberally with irreverence and snark make for an amusing writing session. Characters like that are so much fun to work with.

      I plan on expanding this tale a bit at some point - flesh the characters out and give them names and such. I think that the Epilogue should have more wordy meat to it... However, this has been one of only a few stories that I've ever actually *completed* so it was a delightfully successful exercise. :D

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  3. Thank you for taking us through to completion. Fascinating and insightful.

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