Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Ebony Lord Returns - Part 1

“There are few things in this life that worry me.” the vampire said, his lavender eyes staring out over the vast ocean, only just changing hue with the rising of the sun.  His pale hands rested on the hilts of Dawn and Dusk, the twin blades given to him by the sister deities of light and dark.  Their true names were Diluculo and Crepesculum, and they were powerful weapons indeed.  His grip on the Dawnblade, even slight as it was, kept him shielded from the dawn’s burning rays even as they began to fill the sky with their brilliance. 

                “What worries you, my love?” the woman beside him asked.  He turned to meet her gaze, her bright blue eyes glistening in the morning light.  She was Delilah, a priestess of the Songsisters of Seelia, a group of priestesses granted the divine vocal prowess of their god, Achelous.  Through him, they channel his voice and project such raw power as to calm dragons and crush mountains.  For the vampire, though, she reserved her calmest, most quiet tones best spoken in the hush of night.

                 “Morganna is dead.” he replied, turning his gaze back out over the rolling sea.  “The Coven Syn is likely still reeling from the shock of losing their leader and the blow of losing so many of their number.  But it will not last long.  Her death has created an opening for some cunning and crafty creature to assume power, and vampires are nothing if not cunning.”

                “The Coven Syn?” she asked, her eyes widening in alarm.  “The coven that…turned…you?”

                “The same.” he answered with a nod.  “I killed their leader. Without her, they’re dangerous,      more chaotic.”

                “Morganna was not one known to keep the peace.” Delilah replied, scoffing as she, too, turned her gaze once more upon the sea.  “I can recall the many times she threatened retaliation on my sisters for meddling in the affairs of her kind.  I am glad she is no more.  The murderous witch killed far too many good people for me to ever have tolerated her like you did.”

                Euliclese could hear the anger simmering in her words, and he laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.  He squeezed her delicately, and smiled, trying to calm her.

                “We had a pact.” he said.  “Granted, it was not one that kept everyone safe.  But in return for leaving her alone, she would keep the coven out of Gothis and its countryside.  I knew she would turn her attention elsewhere, but I had no idea it would threaten you and your people, my love.”

                “You should destroy them all,” she said coldly, her blue eyes narrowing dangerously, as though focusing her hatred on some distant shore.  “That they may never harm another innocent again.  Why you have not already is a mystery to me, Euliclese.  They are evil and should be dealt with.  Would that I could convince the Ivory Council to a call for war so that I could lead my sisters against them and let them taste of our voices.”

                “Delilah.” Euliclese said, squeezing her shoulder and turning her to face him.  “The Ivory Aerie is a peaceful place, and I would have thought their priestesses were just as peaceful.”

                “Have you ever buried friends?” she retorted, her anger now focused on him.  “Have you ever watched those you love died because you failed to act?”

                “Yes.” he replied, his expression calm and restrained, though she could see the pain in his eyes.

                “I am sorry,” she said, lowering her gaze.  “Of course you have.  You would have to, I suppose, being the only vampire that does not hunt innocents.  Forgive me.  Having such a strong connection to Achelous brings with it a sense of divine purpose, and the power to enact his judgment on the evil in this world.  It can be difficult to maintain the focus needed not to let it overwhelm me.”

                Euliclese nodded, and lifted his arms, pulling her close to him.  She nestled her cheek against his armored chest, feeling the cool metal on her skin and the warmth of the rising sun growing on her back.  She sighed softly, reveling in the security and comfort the vampire offered, before pulling back and looking up into his lavender eyes.

                “So what will you do?” she asked, her bright blue eyes meeting his.  He held her gaze for a long moment, unsure of just how to answer her question.  He knew the most obvious answer, but the thought of it made him cringe, and violated everything he believed in.  When they had murdered his family and turned him into a vampire, they had kept him locked away without sustenance, until the bloodlust was so powerful and overwhelming that he didn’t even realize the victim they had given him was his wife until after he had already drained her dry.  The Coven represented everything that he had spent five hundred years fighting against, and now, leaderless and lost, the only way to keep their remaining members from spreading like a plague across the countryside was to give them something more to fear than their former leader.

                “I will have to destroy them.”
*                 *                     *                    *                *

“We should be out feeding!” the vampire cried, his fist crashing into the old stone wall of the crypt behind him.  The mortar and stone crumbled beneath the weight of the blow, dust falling from the ceiling, but the vampire didn’t seem to notice, the thought of a cave-in much more appealing than going without blood for one more moment.  “Morganna is gone, and the foolish deal she had with her bastard childe is no more.  We can do whatever we want!”

“Be not a fool, Nicodemus!” another vampire replied, a tall being with long, white hair and piercing silver eyes.  His fair features and pointed ears spoke of an elven heritage, but whatever his origins, he was only a vampire now, the tips of his fangs showing from beneath his upper lip.  “Morganna is gone, but her former childe remains.  Do you not think that he will be watching, especially now that he knows we are leaderless?  He is no stranger to watching our actions!”

“Do you fear him, Alwynn?” Nicodemus retorted, smirking even as the words left his mouth.  “He is but one vampire.  He cannot possibly stand against a coven united.”

“We are not united, Nicodemus.” a voice called from the darkness, and both vampires turned to see Celeste emerge from the shadows, wearing a long black gown, her pale face framed by her raven locks.  “Far from it.  That is a weakness that Euliclese is cunning enough to exploit.  And do not be na├»ve enough to think that we are a match for the likes of that one.  He is five centuries old, and the last one to have partaken of Morganna’s blood.  She sired no other after him, and none have tasted her blood since.  He is as powerful as she, perhaps even moreso.”

Nicodemus growled and shook his head, slumping against the catacomb wall, his face forming a silent scowl.  Celeste smirked, then turned her gaze to Alwynn.  The silver haired creature met her gaze and smiled, then nodded after she inclined her head back, indicating that he should follow her.  The two slowly left the chamber, leaving their errant kinsman to silently brood.

“He is impetuous and rash.” Celeste said, once they were alone.  Alwynn nodded and stood before the door after shutting it behind him.  “It is surprising that Morganna never disposed of him.”
“You know well the coven’s rule against slaughtering our own kind.” he replied.  “Not even she could so easily break one of the Twelve Tenants.”

“And yet she alone had the Right of Destruction over every one of us.” Celeste answered.  “Perhaps that was her failing, Alwynn, hoarding the power of leadership.  Surely, her advisors had her ear, but not even their counsel was enough to stop her from being turned to ash by her own childe.  And yet, he remains. He is a persistent threat, regardless of how many number our ranks.”

Alwynn remained silent, staring at her.  Celeste smiled, and crossed the room, pressing herself up against him.  Her hands rose, and she cupped his cheeks, pressing her lips to his own in a lingering kiss.  Alwynn eagerly returned the embrace, his lithe body melding against her own, the two having long been lovers as well as sire and childe. 

“He is powerful. But we can be more powerful. We just need to reclaim that power. Morganna is gone, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others like her. Others with the power to stand against him, and keep him at bay. But we must remain wary, and cloaked in shadow. I trust that you will keep Nicodemus under control, at least for the time being. We cannot allow him to risk us all.”

Alwynn nodded, and looked back at the doorway that led to the other end of the crypt. He sighed, knowing that he had his work cut out for him. But Celeste would accept nothing short of absolute devotion, so he merely nodded again.               
*                       *                        *                          *                         *

“Tis a foolish idea, Euliclese.” Adoria said, a few nights later. She stood with her long, cream-colored arms folded over the chest of her crimson gown, her simmering anger hard to ignore.  Her long auburn hair was pleated and artfully woven atop her head, and her fingernails were colored the same red as her gown.  Her role as courtesan to the senator of Albinus, a merchant city at the center of Seelia, had given her power and had increased her already substantial wealth, but it had also apparently given her a sense of entitlement to address her sire so boldly. 

Though, if he were honest with himself, she had always had no fear of speaking to him so boldly.

“The coven is a danger to Gothis and every outlying town between it and Seelia.  If they are not controlled, their numbers will spread, and the death toll will grow with every mortal turned.        They cannot be allowed to threaten everything we have worked so hard to achieve.”

“Everything you worked to achieve, you mean.” she replied, shaking her head.  “I never believed in your foolish quest for repentance.  Surely, your code to drink only from the evildoer is a just one, and I practice it to this very night.  Albinus is overflowing with evil men.  But while my hands are clean of the blood of the innocent, I am still a vampire, Euliclese.  As are you. Yet you would continue a war that has already cost so much?”

“You were not there to see the depths of horror that unchecked vampiric power can achieve.” he answered angrily.  “The original members murdered my entire family, Adoria.  They turned me and waited until I was mad with hunger to feed my own wife to the beast.  That was what they did to those who were powerful enough to threaten them.  What might they do to those too weak to defend themselves?  No, I cannot allow such a threat to come to fruition again.  I will destroy them, with or without you.”

“Your choice is made, then.” she replied.  “I know full well that I cannot sway you from your decision.  I never could.  But consider this…why would you walk a path that you have tread before?  Is this some attempt at absolving your guilt at being unable to save your family from the coven’s attack?  You were only mortal, Euliclese.  You could not have stopped what happened, even with the skills of a vampire hunter at your disposal.  None of the hunters that came for us at the manor were ever a threat unless they were many in number.”

“You could never understand my desire to protect humanity from our kind, could you?” he asked, his lavender eyes staring hard at her.  “It was never about trying to absolve myself the guilt of being a monster.  It was about protecting those who could not protect themselves.  It was about maintaining the nobility that my father showed me as a boy.  It was about being better than what was forced upon me.  I tried to show you that.”

“And yet I became a monster, regardless.” she said, her voice soft but her gaze hard as stone.  “I never wanted this.  But that did not matter to the great and noble Lord Blackthorne, did it?  For all your talk of nobility and being better than those who turned you, you still forced this upon me.  I have never had a child, damn you. I have never had a man to truly love for more than his blood.  You took my life from me, and what have you given me in return?  A cause that was your own and a reason to want to destroy you every time we meet.”

The venom in her words stung him, but he remained still, his face an expressionless mask.  The two immortals stared at one another for a long, quiet moment, before Adoria sighed and reached behind her, pulling her shawl tightly about her shoulders.  Without another word, she turned, and began walking the long path down the hill that led to Albinus’ southern gate.  He watched her go, silent as the grave, his heart heavy with the truth in her words.  He had foolishly believed that he could immortalize everything about her that had been so alluring, only to see it wither and die the longer she remained immortal.  She was right…he had taken everything from her, and what he had to give in return had not been anywhere near enough. 

Sighing, the vampire turned, and walked away.

*                           *                               *                          *                     *
Seelia stood a hundred leagues or more from Gothis’ southern tip, across the Barren Sea and many miles inland across a great desert. It had been a trip that the vampire had not undertaken lightly. But Delilah’s presence had been soothing and comforting, and her counsel was often exactly what he needed to hear. Adoria was aware of the Songsisters, and of his relationship with the woman. She did not approve, but that mattered little to him. It had been a long time since he had loved anyone like he loved Delilah, and being away from his ancestral homeland was a small price to pay to be with his beloved.

And while thoughts of her often elevated his mood, Adoria’s bitter words still lingered in his mind. He had thought that her time in Seelia had helped mend the divide between them, but it was still as great as ever. But perhaps what hurt the most was that her words were entirely true. He had done all those things to her. He had robbed her of so much life yet to live, and had given her damnation instead. Perhaps he was the monster she thought him to be after all. He sighed, turning the corner to move through the town’s southern gate, and back to the Ivory Aerie, where Delilah called home.

The Ivory Aerie was a soaring monolith that defied the skies and reached for the heavens.  Made of alabaster and ironwood, the Aerie was a magical construction as well as physical, its wide sweeping arches and immaculate masonry making such a grand structure seem alarmingly delicate.  The Aerie had stood for hundreds of years, though, with hardly a scratch or breach to show for it.  Never in the recorded history of the grand structure had its walls been breached or its defenses bested.  Nestled on the seaside cliffs of southern Seelia, the Aerie was a bastion of hope for sailors and fishermen, the beacon at its highest point always lit, guiding the lost back to land.

Within the Aerie were the Songsisters of Seelia.  To the goodly folk of the land, they were healers and curse-breakers, counselors and peace keepers.  To the bandits and marauders that always plagued the countryside, they were terrors in white, their namesake ability to channel the divine voice of their god through their own vocal chords making them powerful priestesses of good and defenders of justice.  The Songsisters were often nicknamed Lovely Doves, both for their simple beauty and their divine vocal ability. 

It was to the head of their order, Delilah the Pure, that he had sought what would be the greatest aid of his existence.  He was leery at first…how would she and the other Songsisters react to having an undead creature of the night within their midst, let alone the heart of their Holy Order?  He had thought that surely his reputation had grown, passing through the land as tales of the vampire whom only fed from the wicked, of which there were plenty.  He had thought that surely his name had passed along the lips of those that he had saved, but to what extent? He had no way of knowing if his name reached the southern shores, or if the Songsisters would allow him entry.

But they had. And when he was ushered to Delilah, her warm smile and bright, blue eyes were a balm to his fears. She had welcomed him, wanting to know all about him and his vampiric ways. She had put him at ease, and he had welcomed such companionship. It was not much longer before  he began to feel affection toward her, and her toward him, and once again, the vampire had fallen in love with a mortal.

His trek through the outlying desert was long but quiet, and the night wasn’t half gone before he saw the Aerie on the seaside cliff, a large fire lit at its peak as a landmark for any vessels sailing at night. He smiled, and quickened his pace, eager to be with his beloved once more. But as he did, he felt a presence nearby. Someone was watching him. He continued walking, not wanting to alert his observer that he had been sensed, and let his lavender gaze look about carefully.

The desert wasn’t only barren sand, but had many craggy slabs of rock and slate that dotted the landscape. There were many places to set an ambush, though Euliclese didn’t sense more than one person watching him. He was surprised that he had sensed the figure at all. His keen hearing heard no heartbeat, and his sense of smell caught no lingering odor of sweat or life, which could only mean one thing. Whatever was watching him was not human.

Turning to climb a short hill between two jagged bits of rock, he stopped, his gaze falling on a shadowy figure at the top of the hill. The figure seemed a man, with wide shoulders and a bald head that glistened in the moonlight. But as the moon was behind him, his face was buried in shadow, and Euliclese sensed that some magical enhancement kept him shrouded from his own vampiric vision.

The two stared at one another for a long moment, before the figure spoke.

“You are the vampire, Lord Blackthorne.” The figure spoke, a frank statement rather than  a question.

Euliclese nodded. “I am.”

“Why are you here?” the figure asked.

“That is none of your concern.” Euliclese retorted, his hands going to the hilts of his twin blades.

The figure laughed, a deep, sinister laugh that lingered in the darkness for a moment after he fell silent. Euliclese felt a shudder move through him, though he was sure to remain still, lest he show any weakness to this man. He was growing more and more certain that the figure was a vampire, though he showed none of the traits of one. His eyes were dark, not reflective in the darkness, and he had no scent whatsoever, where most immortals either smelled of the grave or of whatever fancy oils or perfumes they preferred to appear more human.

“You trifle with these Songsisters, seeking solace, and of all things, love. You think that such a thing is important, even though you have been dead far longer than most of your kind. But you should know well the deviousness of mortals. Even now, your beloved Delilah lies entwined in the arms of another.”

“Lies.” Euliclese retorted, drawing the blades of Dusk and Dawn from their hilts. The twin blades flared angrily, the Dawnblade’s light penetrating the magical darkness that hid the figure’s face. As it did, the figure growled, and turned, as if flinching. Instead, he simply vanished, as though he had never been there to begin with. Stunned, the vampire cautiously moved closer, his glowing blades at the ready, but there was no trace of the figure. He let his senses open, his preternatural mind searching for any sign of the man, but there was none.

Sheathing his blades, his lavender gaze lifted to the Aerie, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.

*                            *                             *                             *                              *
The fire was low in the hearth in Delilah’s room when he climbed through the window, having levitated the side of the Aerie so as to remain unseen. It was dark, but there was enough light for him to see the figures in the bed, bodies draped over one another in slumber. He did not recognize the man that was half-covered by the bed’s drapery, but he knew all too well the figure of Delilah, his precious Delilah. The figure’s words were true.

Euliclese stood absolutely still, unable to believe the scene before him. The figure had been right. He had never considered that she would so blatantly betray him. Yes, all mortals were devious in their own way, but she was the head of a goodly order. She was Delilah the Pure! But there was nothing pure about the scene before him, about the way that she stank of this mortal man, the scent of their love making still lingering in the air. The memory of their own flashed through his mind, as did the memory of every gentle touch, of every smile, of every song she had sung while tending to the wounded of Seelia. His mind was overwhelmed with every emotion he had ever felt for the woman, only to have all of it crushed by this heavy, heavy betrayal.

Picking up a thick tome on a nearby table, he flung it across the room and into the hearth, where it landed with a loud crash, scattering hot coals and ashes into the air. The commotion made them both stir, and Delilah sat upright with a start, her blue eyes wide with shock and fear. He briefly thought about how he had stared so lovingly into her eyes, but cast it aside as his rage-filled gaze fell to her lover.

The man stood, wearing only a simple pair of white breeches. He immediately reached for his sword, and as he drew it, Euliclese remained still, his face a mask of fury, showing no fear whatsoever. Delilah stood, covering herself with a blanket from the bed, as though she preferred modesty despite her flagrant disregard for loyalty.

“Please…” she said. “Don’t do anything rash.”

The vampire ignored her, staring hard at her lover. He waved the sword threateningly at him, but still Euliclese didn’t move. Slowly, his gaze fell to her, and he growled, his rage rising, threatening to consume him. He hadn’t felt that rage for quite some time, and it took much to bring it forth. The thought that he had battled that rage for so long in order to remain human almost made him laugh. He wanted nothing more at that moment then to unleash the monster within him, to tear her lover limb from limb while she watched.

“Why?” he managed to ask, his voice a sinister hiss.

“Because you are dead.” She snapped. “You are not alive. Your cold skin was no comfort. Your heart was still and not beating when I laid my head on your chest. I needed life. I needed warmth, and heat, and passion. You could only mimic those things.”

Euliclese stepped forward, ready to unleash his outrage, when her lover decided that he had had enough. He thrust forward, and truly, his speed was enough to catch many a mortal man unaware. It would likely have been the death of any man, but Euliclese was no man. He turned to the side, letting the sword move just inches from his flesh, and with one mighty blow, sent the man careening backwards toward the open window. Stumbling, reeling from the impact, the fool lost his footing and tumbled backwards, over the windowsill and out the window, falling to his death.

“No!” Delilah cried, her face contorting with rage and grief. Her angry gaze turned to the vampire, and with a short intake of breath, she screamed, unleashing a powerful cry that overwhelmed his senses. He collapsed to one knee, his hands falling to the floor to steady himself, the incredible agony of her divinely-enhanced vocal chords making his ears bleed. He cried out, his hands moving to cover his ears, his vampire senses making the assault only more painful. She continued the assault, magically carrying the same pitch to keep him at bay and helpless.

Euliclese tried to stand, but the sound was just too overpowering. He felt himself begin to collapse, his senses spinning. He grew dizzy, and his vision was a blur. He couldn’t stand, even if he wanted to, much less launch an attack against her. Again, the visions of their time together moved through his thoughts, of every quiet moment, every soft touch, every gentle kiss…how had all of that led to this, he wondered?

Suddenly, the room went silent. His ears ringing, the vampire could only remain on the floor, trying desperately to regain his senses. Though his body was already beginning to repair the damage done to his hearing, he was still at the mercy of vertigo, and he shook his head, trying to clear his vision. One hand weakly moved to one of his swords, only to miss and nearly make him fall over.

“Rise,” a voice said, and through the din, he recognized it as the voice of the figure that had told him of this very betrayal. “Rise and look at what you have wrought.”

Groaning, the vampire stood, his legs shaky but growing stronger as his senses cleared. He looked up, only to see the figure holding Delilah tightly, one hand over her mouth, his other arm wrapped tightly around her naked body. Her eyes were wide with fear, and tears stained her cheeks. She silently begged him for help, knowing that she was entirely helpless. The irony of that moment would have made him laugh if it weren’t for the foolish, lingering affection he had for her that hadn’t yet turned to hate.

“Please…” he said. “Let her go.”

“Why? She has betrayed you. She attacked you after you killed her lover, showing that you        mean nothing to her.”

“She’s only mortal…they make mistakes.” He began, though his words sounded hollow even as they passed his lips. What suitable defense could he give when he knew that she had willingly turned against him?

“You struggle to appeal for her life, and yet you know she deserves to die.” The figure replied. From below, Euliclese could hear commotion, the sound of cries of anger and fear and of booted feet coming to see what had occurred.

“The Songsisters gather to protect her.” Euliclese warned. “They are powerful.”

“They will not arrive in time to save her.”

“Who are you?” Euliclese asked, hands on the hilts of his swords, though he didn’t draw them.

The figure laughed, and it was that same, mocking laughter from earlier.

“I am Magnus. I am the ancestor through blood and death of Morganna the Dread. You killed    her. And while I mourn her loss, what is more important is that the creature that slew her take up her legacy. But you are not worthy. You are a mewling coward that plays at being human              when he is clearly so much more.”

The commotion from below grew louder, and it would only be a matter of time before the other Songsisters forced their way through. They were already chanting to their god Achelous, gathering power to their voices through a prayerful melody that would grant them his divine magic. Euliclese remained still, however, uncertain that even their aid would be enough to save Delilah.

“You cannot save her…” Magnus said, having read his thoughts. “And why would you want to? Her disloyalty is a truth you must accept…you are not alive. You are a vampire. And the more you trifle with these weak and pathetic mortals, the weaker you become. I will not have you weak, Euliclese. I will not accept the bearer of Morganna’s legacy, of my legacy, to be a fool such as this.”

Before he could react, before he could even move, Magnus wrenched his arm back, turning her head with it. A loud, wet snap ushered forth, and she immediately collapsed. Euliclese watched in horror as she fell to the floor, and with a rage that he hadn’t felt in nearly a century, he launched himself at Magnus, drawing his blades, his fangs bared and ready to eviscerate him where he stood.

And then he was flying, crashing through the stone wall of the Aerie and out into the night, his blades tumbling into the sands below. He hadn’t even seen the blow that had hit him; Magnus had moved so fast! He had never felt power like that before, and try as he might, he couldn’t reverse his ascent, struggling to summon the vampiric blood within him to allow him to fly. He crashed into the ocean, the impact breaking his ribs, legs, and arms. The pain was agonizing, and his world went dark. He could feel himself descend into the murky darkness of the sea, and before the darkness claimed him, he felt more than heard Magnus’ words in his mind.

“Become the creature you were meant to be. Summon others to your side. The house of Magnus will rise again, with you as my harbinger.”