The Devil's Gift

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VIII

I arrived with haste, after being forced to wait the day out in frustration and worry, I was finally there. I followed the tracks of the wheels until I found a scene of destruction. I felt my stomach sink and my heart rise to my throat. There was a familiar carriage, obliterated and strewn across the sloppy, mud-covered road. I felt a gut-wrenching stab of pain as I cast my eyes around the scene before me. I could see the devastation. There was splinters of wood littering the ground, there was bits of carriage, metal and cloth every few feet. I hoped silently everything would be ok and that Maria had escaped. But deep down in my heart, I knew I was wrong. I felt all kinds of emotions, anger, sadness, grief, rage, they all seem to mix together and make me feel as though I couldn’t even function.

I searched frantically around, there was blood and dirt splattered up the side of the carriage, there was chains tied to a tree. I briefly wondered what for, when my eyes dropped to the ground. I felt sick. I was overcome with dizziness and I stumbled toward the chains that lay in a pile of thick, black ash. I knelt down in the mud and tears began to fall from my eyes, briefly clinging on to my lashes, as I rest my eyes upon a ring, a golden band, with an inset diamond. It was Maria’s wedding ring, the one I had given to her so many years ago. I could not believe, after all this time, she would be gone. I was alone, I was angry, I was hurt. I couldn’t piece together anything anymore. My mind refused to work. I remained knelt in the mud, staring solemnly at the ring which I could not bring myself to touch.

‘No,’ I sobbed, ‘Maria. Klomano, I swear you’ll pay for this.’ I half-wept half-shouted. I felt a horrible sense of treachery and disgust. How could an old friend, someone I’d grown to like, betray us like this? Maria was gone, I could never forgive myself for letting her go alone, I knew I should’ve gone, taken her place instead. I couldn’t believe that I’d allowed myself to become so blinded, I never saw this coming. I slowly forced myself to scoop up the ring, which I held gingerly in my hands. I allowed the building tears to fall from my eyes; I did not care. I just wanted everything back to how it was. But now, the job had to be finished, I had to see Maria’s dream fulfilled, I had to turn the pope, he must become one of us, for Maria. I do not know how long I knelt there, I knew only the grief that had filled my cold heart once more. I’d seen so much death, so much pain that I never thought another life gone could ever affect me the way it used to. I was wrong.

I finally dragged myself off the floor, the grief and pain was like a giant weight, dragging me down, making each step painful and difficult. I slowly trudged my way to the carriage, there, inside was a large ceramic pot. I slowly lifted it from the wooden remains and went back to Maria’s ashes. I gently scooped up as much as I could and put them in the jar. I then picked up Maria’s sword-cane from the wreckage and made a low and difficult journey back to the castle. Every footstep was challenging, each passing minute, torturous. It was hard to accept that a woman so strong, powerful and loving could be taken. All this power, yet still unable to save my wife. I thought many things, some of them I hadn’t thought about since that day in the church. The journey seemed to take forever as I cradled the jar in my arms, the cane in my hand. Soon, the looming view of a giant castle appeared before me and then it was gone as I stepped into the treeline of the encircling forest.

I entered through the giant doors with a heavy heart. No one asked any questions, they just stared. A hundred pairs of eyes pressed upon a dirt-covered me, holding a cane and a jar; the ring was pocketed safely. I did not acknowledge the onlookers, I just walked. I found myself face-to-face with a door. I shifted everything into one hand and opened it, crossing slowly into the room beyond. It was my bedroom. There was a bed, for decoration, and for them rare moments, such as now, I wished I were human. I walked half-heartedly to a fireplace. It was never used, but it was there for a purpose that remained secret. Only Reyjak, Maria and I knew of it. I pressed a concealed button, one embedded into the concrete surround, and a false back-panel of stone slid out of view revealing two wooden shelves. They were bare at the moment; I was waiting for something precious to hide there. Now I had that precious thing. Never before did I ever believe it would be the remains of my wife. It caused me great pain to part with the jar but I reluctantly did so, placing it gingerly on the shelf. I took a few steps back and watched the back-panel slide seamlessly back into place.

I heard a soft knocking at the door, it was Reyjak. I was not in the mood for talking. I was not in the mood for anything, in fact, I felt empty inside.

‘My lord. What was that you were carrying, why are you covered in mud?’ He asked softly, sensing something was amiss. I couldn’t open my mouth to talk, my throat was dry, my voice box did not want to work. I just looked at him, tears brimming in my eyes. He knew. I don’t know how he knew, but he did.

‘Maria?’ He asked, his voice cracking slightly. I still couldn’t talk, so I nodded solemnly. He sunk instantly into a chair and remained silent for some time.

‘What of the plan, the pope?’ He finally said, though his voice was hoarse. I had time on my return journey to mull on this, it was going to happen. For Maria.

‘We’ll stick to the plan. Maria was keen to see this through, she’d want us to continue.’ I said. The words seem to seep out of my mouth but I couldn’t remember wanting to speak.

‘The others, the clan, they need to know. Do you want me to tell them?’ He whispered, as if lowering his voice would make things easier to hear.

‘I’ll do it.’ I mumbled. He nodded once and left the room. I felt alone, more alone than I’d ever felt though there were hundreds of people around me. I changed my clothes and slowly removed the excess mud from wherever I could find it, stored Maria’s cane on a sword rack that was bolted to the stone wall and made my way down to the living room. I still could barely breathe, though it had been hours since I’d discovered Maria was gone, the pain was no easier to deal with. I found myself in front of an entire clan in a vast living room that was filled with furniture and bookcases and paintings lined the walls. I braced myself for a speech I was not ready to make, I doubted any amount of preparation would steel me for the words I was about to say. I knew that once I’d said it, I was making it true to myself and know this was a painful burden to bear. I steeled myself against the glaring eyes of over two hundred vampires each dressed smartly and each wearing a confused expression. I took a deep breath and steadied my eyes on Reyjak who nodded slowly to me.

‘My friends, it is difficult for me to speak the words aloud. You all know of the Venetian clan leader, Klomano. He turned traitor against us, against Maria. She was ambushed on her way to meet with him. Though she was strong, the strongest woman I’ve ever known, she fell at their hands.’ I felt my throat beginning to seize and my eyes beginning to well up once more but I ploughed on; if I stopped, I would be unlikely to finish. ‘She was taken from me, from all of us and we must fight to avenge her death. We must steel ourselves against the treachery and see that her vision is seen to the end: we must turn the pope. Only he stands in our way for vengeance. Brothers, sisters, we must stand together and strike down the forces that seek to unsettle the foundations on which we live. We must fight.’ I finished. I felt a strong silence pressing upon the large congregation before me. They had heard my words, understood its meaning. I was not prepared for what they did next. Led by Reyjak who knelt first, muttering Maria’s name, each member proceeded to mimic him. Soon the room filled with resounding noise, her name. The name I’d always remember.

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