Ch. 23: Shape of My Heart

Prologue

He deals the cards as a meditation
And those he plays never suspect
He doesn’t play for the money he wins
He doesn’t play for respect

He deals the cards to find the answer
The sacred geometry of chance
The hidden laws of a probable outcome
The numbers lead a dance

I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that’s not the shape of my heart

He may play the Jack of diamonds
He may lay the Queen of spades
He may conceal a King in his hand
While the memory of it fades

-Sting, Ten Summoner’s Tales

Lillian collapsed down onto her knees, her body wracked with sobs.

“Scandinavians always were a little overly dramatic,” Godric said to the void where Eric had been just seconds before.

He looked down at the frail little human woman and scooped her up in his arms. He didn’t want to do this here. He needed to be in his own space at the Treehouse. Without another word he took the same path out into the night sky as his child had, mindful to move more slowly lest he distress his lover any more.

The summer breeze whipping over her skin was a soothing balm. The revolting, creeping, hateful feelings coming from the bond were dissipating somewhat. More than anything she was left with a sickened, hollow pit in her stomach, mingled with disgust and a tinge of guilt. Godric landed soundlessly on the eve of the roof before dropping down onto the front doorstep. The house was dark inside and the woods creaked and swayed around them as if in greeting.

Godric set her gingerly on the couch. He looked in hesitation at the fireplace but quickly decided to light a few candles for lighting instead. It was August now in Louisiana and he wasn’t sure the air conditioning could keep it cool enough for Lillian’s comfort if he built a fire. She was slumped there, an unmoving sack of flour, not daring to speak a word after Eric’s threat. It should be comforting to be back in this home, but her mind was busy with other thoughts.

“I’m going to fix you a cup of tea, okay? Earl Grey or Jasmine?”

Fat tears of shame rolled down her cheek. The last thing on the face of the planet that she’d wanted to do was upset either of her bonded lovers or ruffle their own connection to each other. She’d lasted what? Three days? Pathetic.

“Hmm, Lily? What will it be?”

No response.

Answer me, he commanded firmly.

“Jasmine,” she whispered in a voice inaudible to anyone but a supernatural.

He clinked and banged around in the kitchen for a few minutes, then returned with a nice steaming mug for her.

“I assume you can tell the difference between Eric and I on your end of the bond?”

Of course she could.

“Then you know that a lot more of what you just felt was coming from him rather than me. He is vampire, Lily. We are extremely possessive and Eric…he is loyal to me beyond measure and protective of me beyond the pale of reason. If I asked him, he would kill his own child for me. He would kill himself before harming me. You must understand this.”

She cast her eyes down, unwilling to look at him.

“You share in our bond now and you sense more than you probably even realize you do. You know when we’re being evasive or cagey. There is no point in keeping this from you, but I fear what it will do to your opinion of me.”

Please. NO, she begged him silently.

“Speak to me out loud.”

Don’t share. Lie.

He laughed bitterly. “I promised never to lie to you. You would make a liar of me now?”

“I don’t care. I don’t need to know. I am so sorry!” she croaked.

“What’s done is done. We are formed by our journeys, good and bad.”

“Surely you could have just told me flat out that there are certain topics we don’t speak about in this family? I would have respected that. But instead you let me stumble around anxious that I’ll accidentally say the wrong thing! Now I have and you feel obligated to relive whatever awful traumas you’ve experienced because of my stupid curiosity and big god damned mouth?! No. Just. No, Godric! I don’t even care.”

He looked at her curiously. This family. Our family. He liked how that sounded. She could be so much like Eric at times – angry that she couldn’t protect him from life; resentful that she was helpless to change a past that wasn’t hers.

“My darling. It is simple. You do care and you want to know. I’ve never felt someone blood bond the way you did.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” she snuffled.

“When we were in the exchange, it felt like you were pushing at me, surrendering everything of yourself over to me. That was incredibly erotic and wonderful. But at the same time, you were gently sifting through all my thoughts and memories and trying to gather them up like a million grains of sand.”

“Yeah? I only noticed the unending ecstasy…”

He laughed softly. “It was certainly that. A mind as old as mine can process the full spectrum of the experience. Multi-task, if you will. It took an effort to dam off the things I didn’t want you to sense – all the nasty stuff. Your soul instinctively wanted to dig at it though, gather all of me up and hold me, as though you wanted to bear all of my burdens and cherish everything in between.”

“I would if I could.”

“I know. You are very special.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I know better than you.”

She huffed in aggravation.

“Now, listen. What I am about to tell you only a handful of beings know. I want to tell you and I shall, but I also want to protect you because this sort of information carries a certain…risk…for all of us.”

He wanted something from her. “What’s the catch?”

“When I am done, will you give me permission to put a slight compulsion on you? Just enough so that someone couldn’t forcibly extract it from you to harm us.”

“You want to glamour me.”

“No, far more subtle than that. I want you to remember, to be able to think about it when and as you want. But lock up the information so that you can’t think of it under duress or ever speak of it without a safe word of sorts. You’re a human that needs to keep a vampire secret like a vampire. Our lives depend on it.”

“It’s that bad?”

“It’s worse.”

She considered this. He was offering her 2700 years of survival in his trust.

“Ragnarok,” she said in a low whisper.

“The end of the world?”

“Our password.”

He nodded solemnly, then ran a hand over his mouth as if trying to find the beginning of a thread without ends.

For several minutes Godric paced about the spacious living room of the Treehouse, pausing here and there to stare out the large glass walls of the compound toward the eerie quiet of the forest. A loathsome anxiety settled across the bond between he and Lillian. It was laced with ice-cold hate and loss and determination from his end. She could feel Godric ramping himself up, then balking, only to steady himself once more. Eric must have gone far from Shreveport. She could only feel the fine mist of his anger hanging in the background.

He sighed deeply and began his tale.

“In two great crimes I was born…and by two great crimes I was freed. Of these four trespasses, no deeds are considered worse among our kind. To most, they are so heinous that they are simply unimaginable. To the ones of us that remember…” He faltered slightly, searching for the right words.

“Those who remember such cruelties fear those capable of such treachery more than the true death itself. To say they have become infamous legends would be to glorify the depraved. It is heretical, what I am about to say. I am that heresy.

♦ I

Few memories stand out from my human days. I do not know precisely when I was born, though in retrospect it must have probably been sometime in the 7th century or perhaps the 6th century BC. I know that I was raised in the thick forests of Britain among what we today would call proto-Celtish peoples. It was a small clan and I was destined in their eyes to become the priest of their sacred grove, the most respected and influential role in such communities. I could not have been much more than twenty when I was preparing to take the cloak of the Druid priesthood. My body had grown hard and muscled but still had that sinewy quality men of more advanced years fill out. You will also remember I was betrothed, but the marriage would not be carried out until I was ordained and fit to lead our people. There were many preparations to be made in order to be granted the title and though it was mine by blood right, I could still fail the trials. Ultimately I would fail, but not for reasons I could ever have supposed.

My elders had spoken of several sacred trees and rocks where I should make offerings to our old gods and spirits. They had to be timed according to auspicious astrological aspects. I no longer recall the first two precisely, as it was the last and final sacrifice that I would never forget. I had given magic gifts of water and earth. All that remained was the offering of blood and fire. For this I had chosen the most ancient tree in the wood. It was brisk out – the fall equinox. But then again it was always colder in Britain in those days. I brought no torch as the moon was out in full and I carried only a shallow bowl, a flint and knife, and a jackrabbit strung over my shoulder. I should have been frightened to be alone in the woods, but I loved them. They towered over me and rustled and creaked secret things to me. I was Goðrìk, the ruler of these gods. Or so I thought.

I made my way to the great old oak. Such trees, Lillian, they no longer grace this world. It was as thick as a sequoia but gnarled and twisted with low hanging-branches. I’ve often wondered its age, but alas, such things are lost to us now. I quickly went through the paces of my task, fluffing a bit of tinder and catching a spark to it. There were incantations to be recited and then the blood magic to be done. As I prayed I became distracted by the owls calling ominously overhead and the groaning whispers of the forest. They grew louder and I became frantic to finish my mission, lest I leave it incomplete. There was a cracking, crunching noise within the great tree and I blundered as I went to slice the rabbit’s neck into the fire of the offering bowl. Instead of cutting the hare’s throat I accidentally slit my own wrist. The earth exploded around me and before I knew what was happening, there were hard, claw-like hands around me and I was dragged underground.

A demon god slumbered within the tree and my nearness and blood had awakened its thirst. Deep in the pitch black of the hollow, he drained me until the point of death. I remember the damp, earthy scent and the stifling, acrid air; the piercing burn of his fangs into me over and over again. I begged him incoherently until I could no longer speak. After a time he fed me something cool and sweet and I healed, only for him to drain me again. And again. Then at the edge of life and death, he dug me out and tossed my limp body onto the forest floor. I never saw his face. He spoke not a single word to me. I did not know his name. It was near dawn and though I did not understand it, I was a newborn vampire.

I soon felt the extreme panic the rising sun ignites in the bones of the undead. I did the only thing I knew. I ran home. Instinct wholly took over and I buried myself into the packed earth under the bed I shared with my siblings. When the sun’s rays finally released me from their clutches, I rose. You do not need me to explain what happened next, only tell you that it did. My kin, my neighbors, the priests…the entire village…everyone was dead by the night’s end.”

Godric paused, seeing the fear flicker in Lillian’s eyes. He sucked in a ragged breathe, knowing there was no stopping now.

“I became my own sacrifice that final night as a human and the only blood magic made then was that of the blood tie between maker and child. Except I had no maker and I was no one’s child. I was born in the treachery of abandonment and I would roam as a thing known as Death. I knew only the pleasures of my instincts and I indulged in every horrific whim an unrestrained, feral vampire might. Bards, heralds, skalds and scops alike recounted the terrifying deeds of such creatures of the night. Only they didn’t feature beasts like me – many of these grim tales were actually stories about me.”

Godric closed his eyes and shuddered.

“I was an animal, only worse. Animals die and fall sick. I could not. But animals also fall prey to other animals and this, my bonded, is exactly what happened.”

II

He could feel her question burning silently.

“Of course I tried to find my maker. I could not know, but our blood bond was not right. It was damaged and closed off. Some of my wandering in those first decades was in pursuit of him, moments when I thought I sensed a glimmer of his presence. But alas, it was not I that would find him in the end, but another on my behalf.

Little did I know that I was being hunted by my own kind in the first century or so that I roamed. I was lost so deeply in a permanent bloodlust that I was barely conscious of myself, let alone the trackers that tried to keep up with my erratic, bizarre movements. There were laws in our world. My maker had broken them and I was a freakish testament to that fact.

Finally, somewhere in the foothills of the Italian Alps I broke my leg in an avalanche and was pinned in a crevasse. It wasn’t serious, truly, but it detained me long enough that I was captured at long last. I had never known the burn of a silver net until then, but the memory of that first touch will never leave me. The two vampires who caught me spoke in a strange tongue as they carried me, bound in that scorching metal, to their master’s capital. It was Rome.

I was imprisoned for a good fortnight before they were able to find a little Celtic slave girl who could communicate with me. Even then, the language had greatly changed. Now that I had been neutralized as a threat to exposing our kind’s existence, I was treated as an amusement. They held court in a grand underground hall and brought me out in chains to snap and snarl at humans with whom they taunted me, always keeping them just out of reach. Everywhere there was opulence I had never seen and certainly had never experienced for myself. I later learned that the Roman court was actually the new seat of power in the vampire world and its leader, Appius Livius Ocella, had taken an interest in his captive from the north.”

Godric swallowed compulsively at the vile name in his mouth. It made his throat feel hot and parched, as though he suffered once again from prolonged thirst. He got a blood bag from the fridge and started drinking it cold. Lillian looked on but said nothing. When he was done, she reached for him in invitation to sit close to her, but he turned away and went back to the window.

“Appius began a program to tame the wild Celt in his basement. He starved me of blood, only feeding me when I behaved as he demanded. With no maker’s command to constrain me, he conditioned me like the animal that I was. I learned to quell my bloodlust by sheer willpower alone. This in itself was remarkable. He taught me to feed like a cultured vampire of the south – biting the necks or wrists of a meal instead of destroying the poor creatures beyond recognition. He forced me to learn Latin and to ask politely for the things I desired. Slowly, over many months, I regained consciousness and control of myself. He was not cruel in those days, but he didn’t allow me my freedom either. My unnaturalness was explained to me; the order that guided our kind had been broken and I could not be freed until it was certain I would not go off the rails again. I trusted his reassuring words when I should have seen them for the insidious lies they were, meant only to lull me into his confidence.

One evening I was summoned from my cell to Appius’ chambers. I was brought in silver cuffs, which he removed once I swore to behave. He bathed me thoroughly and beautified me, then dressed me in the finest raiment and jewels from his own chests. I thought perhaps he had decided I was safe enough to be released, that perhaps I could be part of the vampire court there, and even that we might be friends now that I was re-socialized. He responded only with laughter and stated that we were entertaining a guest.

The guest, I would learn, was also a prisoner, freshly delivered by the same trackers who had located me. The disheveled man had long, filthy black hair and was bound in thick silver chains. He would have been beautiful, save for the catatonic glaze that filmed over his piercing hazel eyes. He seemed simultaneously insane and comatose. Appius read aloud the crimes he was charged with. Much whispering and several cries of outrage broke out amongst the crowd in the receiving hall. As I was still new to Latin, the sophisticated legal jargon was more difficult to follow. But slowly I pieced together the summary of infractions and realized he was guilty of the same transgressions as my own maker. Appius then addressed him as ‘Gaël pater Godricus’ and I suddenly understood. The man before me was the vampire that had turned me.

If I could have passed out, I would have. As it was, Appius clamped a hard hand down on my arm to keep me from leaving his side. I was desperate to run to my maker, to see him, to know him, to at last be near the blood of my blood. As he sent his unfixed gaze around the room, I felt that small glimmer of recognition in the blood bond. His mind was broken and it warped our connection. Appius passed down his judgment. Gaël and I were to receive the true death. The mad vampire swayed on his knees in the center of the court and seemed to take this in. His eyes sharpened and he inhaled, focusing on me and scenting his child. For a split second, he smiled lovingly at me, then his mouth faded into a blank line and he sunk back into his dementia. Seeing this, Appius excused us, content that his gamble had worked.

Away from the prying ears of his subjects, Appius proposed an alternate solution. If Gaël would command me to Appius’ side to obey him as his child and renounce his maker’s dominion over me, then Gaël would be pardoned outright and I would live. Appius Livius Ocella dared to supplant one heinous crime with an even greater one.

You can imagine, perhaps, what happened next. Over the next several nights, Gaël and I were imprisoned and tortured together. We could not see each other, but as the vile business played out, it dawned on me that this was the only experience I had ever shared where I could feel my maker. The pain brought Gaël back into this world. It was the first time I’d felt his emotions through the bond, be they incoherent pain and misery. At last, somewhere in the convoluted fog of his mind, he agreed to Appius’ terms. He spoke those terrible words and…”

Godric gasped, almost as though he were asphyxiating.

“I…I had never known the paralyzing power of a maker’s command before, never felt his will clap down over my own, sheering off any desire to disobey even the most vile of requests. He ordered me to follow Appius in all his commands and to respond and respect him as though he had turned me himself. Then he released me from further fealty to him and fled, never once looking back. Thus I traded one unnatural life for another. In the first I had no maker to guide me, in the second I had a master who was not a maker.”

Tears streamed down Lillian’s face and she couldn’t help hiccuping as she cried for Godric. It was too terrible. Nothing was of his own doing and yet she knew he blamed himself for every horrid thing he’d ever done because of it. It sickened her to know so much of his tale still remained.

“You must understand, Lillian, while we do not have human empathy, there is something akin to it between maker and child. Makers and progeny certainly are not prevented from doing awful things to each other, as I have just demonstrated. But even a vampire gifted with masterful control over their blood bonds cannot avoid experiencing some of the effects they cause in their other half and vice versa. It maintains a kind of hard limit of boundaries between the two. Every time I’ve punished Eric, for example, it has been punishment on me. I must endure his pain, his emotions, his cries for my help going unanswered. He can simultaneously sense how it distresses me and he is reassured that I do not mete out harsh reprimands lightly. Fortunately or unfortunately for him, he has a maker who has learned how to suffer, so he’s been pushed not just to the limits I know he can take, but the ones I myself know can be survived. I always hoped it would make him stronger in the long run and for the most he’s part taken it like a champ.

Another case of how this informs a maker-child relationship is Eric and Pam’s spectacularly awful attempt at a sex life, which is, I think, one of the more ironic and better things that could have happened to my child in being a maker. Pam needs to be in total control to feel safe and pleasured; Eric usually wants to feel his lover submit to his ministrations. He gets off on being the provider. Even if Eric resorted to commanding her to perform as he wished, she’d still feel violated in being dominated. Interestingly enough, the one thing you cannot command is a child’s emotions. Since Eric is disgusted at the thought of taking anyone against their will, let alone feeling Pam experience him that way, they can’t help but cause each other to feel terrible. Thus they are ideal friends and thick as thieves without all the complications that sex can introduce.

Now, from the perspective of the progeny, it is impossible to defy a maker’s command. You can try, but it is pointless. There is also an ingrained inability to physically harm your maker, since you are blood of their blood. It’s sickening to even ponder it. Everything in a vampire’s being demands that the blood is sacred and must be protected. At the same time, however, the blood of one’s maker is also the most intoxicating, fulfilling blood that you will ever in your eternity taste. That is why children cannot bite their creators, except under the most exceptional circumstances initiated by the maker alone. You’ll recall that Eric has only ever fed from me in your presence when I’ve cut myself for him.”

Lillian nodded, remembering Eric’s reaction to Godric’s blood. To say he’d been in ecstasy would be an insult. It was his nirvana.

“All of this matters, you see, because Appius was granted a maker’s command without the burden of a maker’s bond to restrain him. I do not wish to saddle you with the things he did to me. Vampire nature unleashed is madness, or perhaps it was that my maker’s madness somehow drove the instincts in my blood until Appius captured and broke me. I cannot know. He knew the sorts of things I’d done as a wild child, the kinds of grotesque trespasses any sane maker would have put an end to or prevented from the outset. Appius used me by turns as a toy, a weapon, and plenty else to boot. He buried the secret of his theft of another’s child, telling everyone he’d ended Gaël and he’d chosen to show me mercy; that by my own hand I opted to live with him. In time, he saw to it that few would be left who remembered that I was anyone else’s child but his. What began as a seemingly benevolent project to tame me became the most selfish and reprehensible of experiments. With me at his side, Appius was able to rule over much of the ancient vampire world.

Appius2

Appius Livius Ocella

III

Godric had to stop there. He fetched another blood bag, this time taking the time to heat it through and make another cup of tea for Lillian. He needed a few minutes to collect himself, to focus on the next turn in the story lest he lose himself in the cacophony of destruction and death that threatened to well up and blind him to everything that truly mattered.

Focus. Strength. Love. He felt Eric steady him from afar. He had a suspicion about where Eric had rocketed off to, but he’d confirm it later. Godric returned the favor with a burst of crippling happiness elicited by thinking about a moment the other night when Eric, their bonded, and he came together in an earth-shattering orgasmic crescendo of epic proportions. His cock began to swell just remembering it. He sensed Eric’s surprise and then felt a complicit laughter tinkling through their connection.

Feeling slightly more balanced, he joined Lillian on the couch and she gave a relieved look that he was once again accepting of her proximity.

“So, where were we? Ah, yes. Lily, when you bond with us you sense our emotions, feel impressions of memories, can even understand the gist of our thoughts. It’s all a bit hazy for you, no?

What I am about to tell you is one of the most closely guarded secrets in our family, as it is the source of our unusually strong powers. We regularly do full blood bond exchanges with our progeny, or ‘little makings’ as we’ve come to call them. This is something none of our kind would be willing or capable of doing properly. It requires the extraordinary ability to use the blood bond to manipulate your child into biting and draining you, then taking back the blood and so on. Often gifts and occasionally singularly unique talents will transfer and manifest not long after such events. It has also, we’ve found, generally strengthened the progeny well beyond what one would expect for their age.”

He paused to sip his blood and then he chewed nervously at his cheek.

“My decision to do these little makings with Eric was complex and dependent on his ongoing wish to continue them. Perhaps you will understand my motivations further into the story. Suffice it to say that exploring the powers of the maker’s bond and cultivating its positive aspects became something very important to me. There is really only one drawback to blood exchanges, if you can call it that, and it is why all makers limit the frequency with which they indulge their children with their blood. We are intensely secretive, as you well know, and even small blood exchanges creates a moment of transparency. Among unrelated vampires the connection is more like yours – blurry and convoluted. It’s mostly done to heighten erotic pleasures, but it can also be used to extract information if done skillfully. Between kin, however, it opens the floodgates to the very core of their being. During the exchange there is total sight, complete recognition, and trust beyond measure. Outside of the exchange, the regular bond is intensified and refined, making our communication clearer. So many wondrous things can come of it.

You can perhaps see the conflict emerging here. Over the many occasions in the millennium I’ve renewed my blood bond with Eric, he’s seen virtually everything I’ve known and done. I have tried to protect him from it, to lock it away, but in the end there is not much that he hasn’t experienced through my eyes. Only, his understanding of my experiences is always filtered through his own. In some ways, I think living my past was easier than his experience of it through blood exchanges. I had no choice in the matter. Eric? He cannot comprehend being without a choice. I…I think that is why I had to turn him. I couldn’t bear the idea that death would finally bend his will. The moment I chose him, I also inadvertently chose myself over Death, the creature I had become. But, alas, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now you hopefully understand. This is the source of Eric’s terrifying reaction to your perfectly innocent and astute questions. That is why he threatened you so. I am sorry he did, for none of it is his fault. He cannot control my past and he despises what he cannot control. He only fears what makes him weak and he sees anything that harms the ones he loves as a threat to himself. When he reacted, it was out of pure and simple fear and love, though he’ll never admit it to being so. He is afraid of how my darkness can and has haunted me. He was frightened at how all this would upset you too and, more pragmatically, how it expands your vulnerability as a human. There are a lot of dangerous and powerful secrets to hide. So much of it comes from our knowledge and ability to use our bloodline and harvest its strengths. But of course, I would discover these mysteries entirely by chance.

Shall I continue?”

Lillian nodded and curled up against his chest. It was the oddest sensation, but she felt comforted. She thought at first it was Godric or Eric’s doing, silently pushing emotions into her, but it was coming from within her own heart. This was it. There was more left, but she could tell just by Godric’s demeanor that the worst had already been brought to light. It was gruesome and excruciating, but it was Godric’s journey and he had travelled so far. Eric was right. He must truly be the most evolved being alive.

“My discovery began some two centuries after living at Appius’ side. He had become increasingly bold in his willingness to send me off on missions. At no moment did I take these incremental freedoms for granted and I was extraordinarily cautious to follow his orders to the letter and demonstrate my trustworthiness. Unrelated vampires can only form very weak temporary bonds, so he couldn’t rely on being able to find me if I tried to run. Without the power of a maker’s call, he had developed more and more elaborate maker’s commands. They were nuanced enough for me to do his bidding and firm enough that I would always come back. There was some genius to it, I’ll admit, and it’s one of the only useful talents I learned from him.

On one such mission, I ended up in southern Italy on a task when I met a fairly young vampire. He was barely fifty years into immortality and he was handsome and very learned. His name was Tarquin and I was more than a bit smitten with him. You could tell he had been turned later in life but his maker had shown some skill and restraint. I was very surprised to learn that his maker had drawn out the turning process and in doing so dramatically counteracted much of his age. Think of it as the best cosmetic surgery and dermatology possible. I filed this information away.

Tarquin became a good friend, the first in my undead life. We bonded over his hatred of Roman authority. He had been exiled as a human and unfortunately the vampire community had not embraced him there either. Appius made it clear in no uncertain terms that he was to keep away from court and maintain a low profile. Over the coming years, we developed a system to meet in secrecy when I was out at my master’s behest. It was in this way that he helped me with a little project I’d been carefully mapping out.

Of course, Appius had long ago commanded me to never reveal the truth of my origins, so I only told Tarquin what I could. That there was a mad vampire named Gaël somewhere out there whom I would very much like to contact. In his stupidity and vanity, Appius never thought to specifically tell me not to go after my true maker, only because he himself found him so wholly repulsive. He fancied himself a very powerful and magnanimous person. Like any great abuser, he explained away cruelties as necessities – he saw them as other people forcing his hand. He couldn’t fathom that I would rather be anywhere but by his side, though his colorful violence toward me was driven by precisely that subconscious fear.

It took great effort, but eventually Tarquin succeeded. I cannot capture with words the joy I experienced at hearing this, nor can I explain the crashing desolation I succumbed to upon learning that his dementia had grown far worse. Gaël was lost within himself in complete hibernation; undead but dead. A nest of Gaulish Spaniards had taken him in and kindly provided him blood every so often, but there was no waking him. There would be no magic words spoken to free me from my unnatural master as I had long dreamed. There would be no miraculous reunion of maker and child where we could come to know ourselves as each other’s father, brother, son.

It unhinged me. I was so distraught that I purposefully defied Appius’ orders, killing the allies and telling secrets to the enemies. Without the blood bond, he would not know until the news travelled to him by word of mouth. Defying his command rendered me very ill, but I persisted. Tarquin aided me and together we traveled to where Gaël was located.

The little alcove in the wine cave where he lay was humid and dusty, yet he’d been cared for. His clothes were relatively neat and his skin was clean. I sent everyone away and sat for a long time with him in the yellow flickering of a few candles, not unlike these. For three hundred years I had walked the nights an immortal at this man’s doing, yet I hardly knew the sound of his voice or the feel of his hands. I found myself combing out his silky black hair and caressing the fine peaks and valleys of his face, his arms, his torso. Every fiber of my being needed to know him and memorize him. In his descent into oblivion our bond had severed completely, yet in touching his velvety skin my blood knew its own. It was a comfort unlike I’d ever known. I studied him intently for hours, pleading in our old language for him to wake. I tore my wrists open, hoping that my blood would stir him as it did the night he made me. But it did not. Nothing I did mattered, no amount of begging or berating or blood could make him rouse. It broke me at last. I felt the last bit of my hope shatter.

Beyond desperate to find a way to escape Appius and set ablaze with an uncontrollable desire to save my maker from his hellish fate, what I did next defies reason, nature, god… It is sacrilege by any name, heresy in any moral code. It could never have happened if I had not been such a fractured, warped creature myself, split unnaturally between a maker and a master. I am certain no child has ever before or since done what I chose to do.”

A solitary tear escaped from the corner of Godric’s eye and streamed a glossy crimson trail down the inner curve of his cheek. Lillian reached up and wiped it off with her middle finger, then fed it back to him. She buried her face in the coolness of his neck and breathed slowly, focusing on the love and companionship they shared and flooding their connection with it, though he had long since muted his own end. After a long silence, Godric inhaled and let the breath out, along with his darkest confession.

“I killed my own maker.”

He stilled completely and fell into downtime as he contemplated the deed. Lillian lay quietly against him, intent on allowing him as much time as he needed. Finally, he took another measured breath and continued.

“I embraced him as he had once embraced me and I sunk my fangs into the tender, sweet flesh of his neck and I drank. I drank and drank until I thought I’d vomit and then I swallowed more. He was a larger man than I, so it took some doing. Surprisingly, his blood counteracted the sickness I suffered from defying my other master’s commands. It would do much more than that, I would later learn.

Draining him slowly, so intimately, the blood of my blood…It is the single-most decadent and depraved thing I have ever done. I felt like I was burning in the sun and being possessed by the gods at the same time. I drained him to the point of death. Without warning, our bond flickered alive like a single harsh bulb, buzzing and blinding to senses unused to its light. He stirred suddenly in my arms. I pulled back in horror, realizing I’d defiled my maker in an unspeakable violation. His eyes focused on me momentarily. Then closing them, he pulled me to him, forcing me back into our deadly embrace. He wanted me to do it. He was asking me to end him. As I dragged the final, agonizing mouthfuls of blood from him, he whispered the only words he ever shared with me through our telepathic bond. He said ‘Thank you, my child.’ Then in that instant I felt the light of my maker’s blood and life explode into darkness around me.”

The grey cashmere of Godric’s sweater darkened as it absorbed the salty tears pouring from Lillian. She cried more freely and with greater pathos and abandon than she ever had for anyone. She wailed in mourning, gasping as she let out long, punctuated cries of pure anguish into his shoulder. His experiences were heartbreaking. It was true was he had said – if she could gather it all up and bear his burdens for him, she would do it without a second thought.

Humans often like to pretend that moral choices are clearly defined, that before us lay two paths, one right, the other wrong. The profound truth that concentrated and connected each thread of Godric’s life was that living itself was fraught with an irreducible moral ambiguity. Had Gaël made him in such a careless, unloving manner because he was unwell or did he somehow hope that ultimately Godric might be his salvation? Should the mad maker be punished for his transgressions and betrayals or given reprieve in a crime that would alter his child forever? None of it can be resolved. It was simply an arcane and unknowable geometry of chance. This was the messiness of a life fully lived and Lillian could not begrudge him that one iota.

Godric found himself cradling his bonded to him, amazed that a human would care so deeply, let alone at all, for the monster in her arms. She cried as though her tears could heal him and cleanse his undead heart. Unable to resist, he found himself licking them off her face and stroking her hair, cooing sweet words to calm her as much as himself.

“Shh, my love. It is done.” He pressed soft kisses over her face. “Shhh, now. It was long, long ago.”

Lillian got up to blow her nose and pull herself together. They were almost through it now. The tale was nearly told. She fell back into Godric’s open arms for the final chapter.

Gael

Gaël

IV 

“When I emerged from the wine cave to find Tarquin in the house above, the vampires in his company sensed immediately something had happened. I explained quietly that I had done as my ‘friend’ had asked and put him to rest. It was more than that, they protested. There was some terrifying new aura about me; I radiated some kind of dark power. Plus, I was covered in Gaël’s ash as though he had gone into the sun. It was most inexplicable. They demanded to know what had transpired. When I realized I could not tell them, or more precisely, realized that Gaël’s death had not released Appius’ command over me, I panicked. It was distasteful, but I killed the three vampires that had so generously cared for my maker. No one could know. Tarquin said nothing. He helped me hide the evidence and we washed in a nearby stream.

I begged Tarquin to leave me, knowing that I was a marked man. Was it true about my aura, I asked? He explained that I projected the power of an ancient, though he knew it could not be so. I told him then that I had drained the old madman and his eyes grew wide. We both knew draining another vampire did not turn them into ash, nor did it affect the offending vampire’s powers. Again, Tarquin did not press me with questions about the event, though I noticed he would never again refer to Appius as my maker. He merely asked me what we would do about him. We needed a plan and we needed one fast.

This was in the year 387 B.C. We made our way across the Iberian peninsula, hoping to hit upon some idea as to what we should do. Appius would know by now something had gone awry. I was unsure whether he would send another of his assassins or would prefer to capture me alive, but either way I had no intention of finding out the hard way. Obviously, if killing him was as simple as that, I would have done it long before. Appius still had a maker’s command over me. Despite the lofty Roman name he now used, he was much older than that and had the cunning and craftiness of an elder. He was also the highest authority in Europe; regents sought him out to resolve issues between kingdoms. Feared and obeyed, his death would have repercussions beyond imagination. To move against him was to move against almost every vampire of consequence. Even if he could be caught off guard, his death would never simply be a murder. It would be the death of order in the Old World.

It so happened one night that Tarquin and I stalked a small band of men for dinner. We listened to them argue about battle tactics and we noted that they were well-armed. Being far stronger than my young companion, I was about to incapacitate them first so we could leisurely drink our fill when I heard one of the men say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. They were a scouting party backed by a large standing militia and they were headed for Rome. I think I nearly fell out of the tree from which I observed them. This ragtag crew of Celts and Gauls were disgusted at the ever growing abuses of the Roman Republic and they were planning to attack the great capital with full force. How well I understood the feeling. Grooming ourselves as best as we could, we emerged from the wooded area and asked if we could share their fire.

Alas, that is how it began. Tarquin had intimate knowledge of virtually every square inch of land between the Palatine and Capitaline hills. Though it had been rebuilt and greatly expanded since his human days, he knew the Forum inside out. Hell, he himself had commissioned the great temple of Jupiter there, Capitolium. He helped design the underground sewers beneath the old city. Tarquin knew where every breathing patrician in the city ate, slept, and whored. He had a taste for them, you see, and it heightened the thrill of the hunt to know he was forbidden to enter the city’s walls. I, on the other hand, knew more about the seat of Old World vampire authority than anyone except Appius himself. I understood the politics of its court – who should be taken out first and who should be spared. I could explain the strategic weaknesses of the places where its subjects lived and died each day. If done carefully, I knew I could use the humans’ day walking against them. We would ally ourselves with these humans and they would fight, unbeknownst to them, a two-species war.

Tarquin

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus

During the siege, vampires less invested in the area simply left when their hunting grounds were disturbed. Dangerous building fires broke out in key sites; a number of nests were burned in the daylight, killing all in their sleep. This threat weeded out the more cowardly vampires and the population dwindled. With a few lucky hits, some of the higher ranking diplomats and spies were also removed. In the fog of the human war, no one recognized the subtle, stealthy hand of a vampire guiding their movements. Regrettably, while a number of major blows were dealt to Appius’ grip on the throne in that first sacking, it did not dislodge him.

As long as my maker’s blood continued to counteract the sickness of defying my master’s command to return to him, we could proceed. It held out, though as long as Appius lived I knew I would never truly be free. Tarquin and I roamed the continent together, tacking back and forth occasionally when word reached us that this or that group was intent on throwing off the cruel yoke of the Roman Republic. After our first failed attempt, I also realized we would have to make it harder for our vampires to flee. Knowing their attachment to luxury and the power and friends money could buy, I wised up about the workings of commerce and we quietly began bleeding Appius’ court of its wealth. If only I had known the effects this would have. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In the meantime, the eerie energy that hovered about me was one of the most immediate dangers to my safety. Younglings only supposed I was very ancient, which was fine so long as they did not recognize me by name or face. But the elders could tell something was not right. I was developing powerful new gifts unparalleled by any my age; a few would be unique among our kind. There were also plenty of influential vampires roaming about who did know me from my days at court. I was wanted in Rome for the high crime of abandoning my maker, though none could understand how a child could endure the bonding sickness for so long. All that it would take to uncover the truth was an investigation into me, perhaps a forced blood exchange and a good dose of torture under the right hands. You cannot know how I feared what they might do. At one low point, I considered gathering as many of our kind together as I could find and revealing the entire, awful story. I would be killed eventually, of course, after some lengthy, unendurable torments. But it would ensure Appius was a dead man too. Tarquin, ever the strategist, convinced me such a pyrrhic victory would never deliver the hammer of justice that Appius had earned.

Try as I might, I could not cloak my power very effectively and it hampered our ability to operate efficiently, both in our everyday business and in carrying out our long-term vision. It was then that I decided to travel to Greece, where I had gotten it in my head that perhaps the famed Oracle of Delphi could give me some advice as to what to do. Stories of the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great were known far and wide by then. Many of his astonishing feats were attributed to the fact that he had consulted with the powerful prophetess. I needed a miracle and it felt like the oracle known as Pythia might be the last viable option. Tarquin and I argued terribly. He thought exposing my nature to a human would only lead to yet another target on my head. I promised I would be careful and cover my tracks, but he chose to go his separate way. He wanted no part in it.

I have already mentioned something of the Pythia I knew in those times. She was truly a sage and a great beauty as well. Arranging a secret, late night meeting with her had taken patience and more than a few coin satchels. I remember the shuffling sound my leather shoes made as they echoed through the airy halls of the temple. Large brass bowls of fire illuminated the central walkway and burning incense sweetened the still air. It was a remarkable place.

The night I presented myself, a handmaiden led me to a courtyard near the private chambers of the compound. She left me to wait alone for a time and I found, much to my surprise, that I was nervous. I, the vampire Death, was nervous about a human! But then, I’d barely held conversations with them, let alone seek one out for advice.

Before I could contemplate the irony of my discomfort, an arrestingly lovely woman wafted into the courtyard as though carried on a wisp of smoke itself. Her chiton, the gown of the times, was made of an exquisitely fine silk and gold the likes of which I’ve rarely ever seen. She was demurely wrapped in a crimson shawl woven in the softest lamb’s wool. Not acknowledging my presence, she knelt at the little burbling square pond near where I sat and tossed in breadcrumbs, giggling as the gold and brown fish came to swallow up her treats. Between the vision of her wrapped in that red cloth, her scent, and the act of her feeding those damnable, hungry fish, my fangs dropped hard. She looked up with her kohl-lined, liquid brown eyes and laughed at me. She laughed at me!

Without another sound, she sat next to me and caressed the blue water markings on my arm, never once reacting to the coldness of my skin. Pythia smiled, then said, ‘Nothing births a lion, but from the lion comes a lamb.’ Then she touched the runes describing my old titles and said, ‘Only greatness can beget itself.’ I cannot explain how I kept my self-control, but she loosened the strings at the opening of my shirt and ran a palm over my tattooed chest, each spike symbolizing a victory in my human life. I thought I might go mad with hunger and desire. She placed a single kiss in the hollow of my throat and whispered ‘So many great deeds yet so many left undone.’ At that, I knew immediately I had come to the right place. She took my icy hand in hers then beckoned me to follow her. Pythia had been waiting for me, she explained.

I spent several months with her studying great texts, documenting her visions of my fate, and indulging in other pleasures. She was the most delicious human I would ever taste. That is, until I met you.”

Lillian blushed, trying not to feel too jealous. It was stupid that he was talking about someone long dead in the fourth  century B.C. and she still kind of wanted to claw her eyes out given the inevitable similarities.

“I can sense your jealousy, darling. There is no comparison. I was still Death then. Like Pythia said, I was nothing. When I turned Eric, our fearsome lion, would I commit myself to making a great vampire. Eric reawakened my gentler nature and only then was I able to commit myself to leading greatness by example. Everything she ever told me came true, though much of it made little sense at the time. Prophesies are like timed locks; they only open your eyes to the truth when enough of the right circumstances conjoin. Between her visions and her tutelage in the arts of war, my life started to have some semblance of a meaningful future. It gave me a tiny seed of hope and motivated me forward. But it was her parting gift to me that made the biggest difference of all. Before I left her, she gave me a little gold circle that upon closer inspection was an ouroboros, the infinity serpent like the one on my back. She told me to wear the charm on a necklace or as a ring and it would absorb the magic around me like a cloak. As long as I had it on me, no one would suspect I had imbibed the powers of my maker.

For many years I was protected by Pythia’s gifts. I awaited patiently for the right moment to strike Rome again. It came 162 years after the first siege. The Gauls were again rattling their swords in their scabbards, spoiling for a fight with their overlords. Tarquin and I teamed up once more. We carefully formed a small tactical squad of vampires by misleading them to believe we would be rescuing Appius from traitors. Together with our human armies, we came down on the capital with an unforgiving force. After five nights of chaos, we were able to breach the walls of the court. It was a brutal fight and a number of good vampires were killed that night.

My greatest concern was that somehow Appius might have slipped out past our spies and escaped. The worry nagged at me as I sliced and stabbed my way through the compound towards his private lair. When I finally reached the corridor leading to my master’s rooms, it felt like time slowed to a creep. My senses were in overdrive. Every speck of dust floating through the air agitated me. The pulsing shadows in the torch lit halls taunted me. I needed no air to live yet I felt I was suffocating.

I do not know what came over me, but I decided to sheath my sword.”

Lillian’s eyes flickered up to the display rack hanging over the fireplace. It looked funny without Grendl, but the other weapon secured there was equally beautiful. An acidic knot clenched itself in her stomach as she started to recognize what significance the short blade might hold for Godric.

“I stormed through the doors and found Appius armed and at the ready. He was truly shocked to see me and I took advantage of it. Where the lies poured from, I’ll never know. Just as his mouth was about to twist into a hateful sneer, I cried out to him, letting blood tears flow. I thanked the gods that I had found him in time. I embraced him roughly and kissed him with desperation. I explained how I had been captured by the one elder whose whereabouts I knew he had no knowledge of: my true maker. He was of sound mind once more and he was here, intent on his revenge, I explained. He would have his seat of authority. We had to flee together. He hesitated and I could tell he was preparing to charge the non-existent Gaël head on. I told him everyone was dead and that there was no one else to fight alongside him. I begged Appius to protect me as he had for so long. I told him to follow me and we would escape through the city sewers. It was his vanity that would be his undoing. Taking my hand, Appius turned to grab a satchel and run. In that split second error, I drew my blade and took his head clean from his shoulders. It was surreal. His body remained standing for a moment, our hands entwined. Then he exploded into a gelatinous mass. It was done. I was free.

Or so I thought. The effects of Appius’ murder would reverberate around the Old World for centuries like dominoes, toppling over humans and vampires alike. The humans I’d used in my plot would suffer horrendously. Over the following forty years, Rome would brutally subjugate the Celts in Spain and the Gauls in northern Italy in retaliation for the city’s sacking. Unbeknownst to us, in impoverishing the vampire court, vampires had begun siphoning wealth from the human patrician clans. The inter-familial squabbling and civil strife this ignited would weaken the Republic, allowing it to fall into Caesar’s hands. The Roman Empire would subsequently fan out across Europe in search of riches to replace what I and my kind had taken. I assure you no one on the losing end of the ‘Pax Romana’ saw it as a time of peace. But alas, this is just the human half of the story.

The death of Appius Livius Ocella plunged the vampire world into the dark ages half a millennia before the fall of the Roman Empire would do the same to humans. Civil war amongst our kind exploded. The territorial lines were drawn and redrawn through assassinations, battles, intrigues. Our relations with other supernaturals was greatly taxed. It was chaos for a great many years.

At the time, I simply watched the world burn. For centuries I prided myself on how clever I had been. I was solitary but I lived more or less in the open. I stopped wearing Pythia’s charm, boldly telling others that I was god-touched and magical. No one ever suspected that I, Goðrìk, the vampire Death, was the murderer of both my maker and my master, the one who had toppled the high court of vampire authority with a lie and the swipe of my blade. I laughed when I heard what people nicknamed the Roman gladius blade.

Godric's Gladius Sword

Godric’s Gladius Sword

That,” Godric said, pointing to the fireplace, “is quite literally the sword that conquered the world.

When the Roman emperor Theodosius shut down the Temple of Delphi, I started to reconsider my actions. Christianity was declared the Empire’s official religion and the effects of its popularity came full circle back to the supernatural world. The old knowledge was suppressed and much wisdom was destroyed. If there had been some place for our magic in the world then, it was rapidly demonized. It seemed wrong somehow, though I didn’t see the forest for the trees then. I went back to my old ways, helping the Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Ostrogoths sack Rome. But this time it was only to undermine the humans and this new monotheism. It didn’t work. Not really. Eventually I would go far into the north into Scandinavia where Christianity had not yet spread. The rest is history, as they say. Only after finding my child did I start to change, just as Pythia predicted.

I would not see my crime for what it was until long after it was done. I had escaped the bonds of oppression by unwittingly unleashing the same fate upon millions of other creatures. Conquest, domination, terror…I sent the spark that fueled a thousand fires. This was the outrageous cost of my freedom.

Eric tries to convince me such events would have probably transpired one way or another. He tells me I’m an old fool for wanting to bear the brunt of history on my shoulders. But it does not assuage my guilt. I know my part in it.

These are the four crimes that serve as the heavy bookends defining and anchoring my life. These, Lily, are the secrets that shape my undead heart.”

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3 comments

  1. murgatroid98

    Okay, I touched the ‘next’ button and all I got was a picture of the button. That suggests I have reached the end of the published chapters. Please, may I have some more? (Pitiful, big eyes)

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