The Devil's Gift

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XIV

I sat in my study, a few hours before the sun rose. The flickering candlelight made my shadow dance on the wall. I had greatly enjoyed the time allowed with Sophia but now, I must focus on my clan.

I knew I must leave it a few days before I even contemplated seeing Sophia once more. I decided now would be a good time to attempt to mingle with my clan for a while, I could not avoid them forever and I needed to show them I was not a poor leader, incapable of ruling any longer. I slowly stood up, extinguished the candle and left my study. I reached the main lounge quickly and opened the doors, stepping inside. The room was vast and cool. Bookcases lined the walls, sofas and armchairs were scattered around and tables were set every few metres along the bare stretches of wall. Oil paintings of scenery, known vampires and inspirational humans, hung above the bookcases on the walls. The room fell silent and a hundred pairs of eyes all turned towards me, expecting a statement of some sort.

I was not known for my sociality amongst my clan, so making a speech was not one of my greatest abilities. I took a deep breath and spoke to the congregation before me.

‘My friends, I know I have not been the greatest leader lately, I have been impatient and short-tempered. For that I apologize. I have been out of my mind since Maria’s death, overcome with mixed emotions and have taken it upon myself to distance myself from you all. It was not a wise move, however, I will make the necessary changes. I will be the leader I once was, the leader you all expect, and the leader you deserve.’ The room remained silent, one hundred pairs of eyes pressing upon me still. I wished one of them would move, or speak.

A muscular male vampire, wearing a smart grey suit, one of the first vampires Reyjak created, wove his way through the crowd. His broad shoulders were prominent as he found the way to the front of the ghostly white figures. His narrow eyes looked on me with understanding. I waited, curiosity immobilized me, for whatever Broman had to say.

‘My friend, my king.’ His booming voice seemed to somehow echo, ‘I think I speak for many when I say this was a surprise, but a welcome one.’ He inclined his head to me, ‘I think, once again, I speak for all of us when I say I understand your pain, I know it cannot have been easy for you, I think many of us here have lost loved ones. I’m sure you must agree, sire that distancing yourself from us has not helped, for I have walked this path too.’ He paused momentarily to let the dramatic silence sink in, then ploughed on with his own speech, all eyes now focused on him. ‘I know how you must be feeling. If we thought you an unworthy leader, I daresay you’d have noticed your clan thin in numbers, but we are all still here, we are all still unwaveringly loyal.’ A couple of people towards the back exchanged furtive looks and shuffled uncomfortably. ‘Please do not let this deter you, we live to serve the most ancient vampire, the firstborn of Satan. My king. Join us.’ He finished. After a moment or two, the room was filled with a lone applause, the culprit being a small wheezy-looking man who seemed to have been thoroughly enjoying the speech. Broman rolled his eyes and looked and fixed me with a look that said ‘There’s always one’ The wheezy-looking man looked around and after realising that he was the only one clapping, ceased the applause, sat down and hitched up his drink, muttering indistinctly. Broman served up his own glass of blood and handed this to me, a smile playing about the corners of his mouth. I slowly walked towards him

‘Thank you, my friend. I know it couldn’t have been easy this past few months.’ I said, accepting the glass. He dismissed my apology with a wave of his hand.

‘Let’s not worry, my lord. Come. Sit. Enjoy the luxuries you so freely allow us all.’ The room then filled once more of noise as Broman led me to a corner where two wooden armchairs had been placed either side of a small round table. I stopped now and then to acknowledge a number of vampires who had felt the need to proclaim themselves also. I was glad my apology had been accepted so easily, and without question.

At the table, Broman gestured me to sit, which I did without hesitation. He took a seat opposite me. I raised the crystal glass to my lips and took a sip, the taste tingled on my tongue.

‘My lord, Noster should be joining us very soon, I was told he had classified information that he would share with none but you.’ he said, his voice straining to sound casual, though I noted the hint of annoyance that had crept in. He eyed a nearby group of women, all of which, seem to be giggling as though someone had just told them a particularly amusing story.

‘Wonderful. I look forward to his visit. I and Noster have important matters to discuss.’ I said, feeling rather pleased but also slightly apprehensive at how the news of Noster’s important visit seemed a little too well known.

‘I am delighted you chose to come see us this evening. Some of us were hoping to learn combat skills. With a sword. Now you’re here, my lord, I wonder whether you would feel up to showing us.’ He asked.

I was unsure, I wasn’t really up for much socialization so fast, but as I looked around the congregation, I did not want to disappoint them. Grudgingly, I agreed, much to Broman’s delight, and proceeded toward a door by one of the bookcases. He opened the door and walked inside, a number of other vampires, following. The candles were already ablaze lighting up a large room. A circular, chalk-drawn ring, indicated the sparring point, in the centre of the room. A number of weapon racks was fixed to the walls. Broman clapped me on the shoulder and walked over toward one of the weapon racks.

He cast his eyes over a number of the swords that hung, choosing carefully as thirty or so vampires filed in, keeping to the walls. After a moment, Broman bent down and unhooked a long sword with a silver handle with a weighted iron pommel on the hilt. He unsheathed it, its blade mirror-polished and reflecting the candle-light. He gave it a few swings, then sheathed it back in the scabbard. After strapping it to his waist and removing his blazer, Broman placed his hand on the pommel of his sword and said,

‘Will you be wanting Excessus my lord?’ Excessus, my personal katana, forged by one of the best smiths that ever lived, yet none knew his name or location. He was known only as The Forger. After creating this sword, I killed him with it, so no one would have a blade that would compare. I nodded to Broman, who bowed deeply and walked to a cabinet at the end of the room. He opened its glass front, unhooked the single weapon that hung inside, and threw it across the room. I caught it with one hand.

It had been a good number of years since I had trained with the Blademaster. It was a time not so long after I had been changed, where I sought out the Blademaster, many thought he was just a legend, but I followed any leads I could to find him. Eventually Maria and I had been lead to a mountain, covered with snow. After scaling up the impossibly-high cliff face, we found a cave. A cave only a vampire could reach; the great gorges were too deep and long for anyone but a vampire to cross. After reaching the cave, I and Maria spent over ten years training with him, learning all he had to show us.

Then, after we had finally learnt all there was to know, I killed him with the sword and threw his body from the cave into the gorge during daylight hours, where he turned to ash before he hit the bottom. No one would possess the skill I and Maria did.

I unsheathed the ancient katana and marvelled at its perfection. Silver and shiny, with a long blood-groove, forged from metal that seemed impossibly indestructible, as if taken from a place outside this world, as sharp as the canines in my very mouth and as flawless and seemingly magical as Agartha. I traced my hand over the dragon headed pommel, its emerald eyes glinting. The hand guard, cast from solid gold, depicted the coat-of-arms of my clan. Even the wooden scabbard, painted a glossy black, made from oak, was beautiful. Painted in gold, the scabbard had a very intricate design, swirls and indistinct figures moulded themselves together. I strapped it to my waist, and entered the circle, to the whoops and cheers of some of the vampires. I walked the perimeter of the circle, addressing the vampires. Broman stood to the side, watching.

‘I have been told, some of you wish to learn the deadly art of the sword.’ I said, pacing. ‘I can teach you but I will require a volunteer.’ A few of the closest vampire backed away a few paces whilst others shuffled uncomfortably, looking anywhere but at me.

‘Come now, I only wish to help you learn.’ When still none of the vampires came forward I added, ‘On my word none of you will be harmed.’ This seemed to soothe some of the tension that had now filled the room like some giant cloud that hung ominously. The crowd shivered slightly as very pretty vampire cut through the throng towards me, eyeing Excessus carefully with her chocolate-brown eyes. She flicked her short, ginger hair in a very Oceana-ish way and strode up to the circle. ‘Sibilla’ I said inclining a short nod of the head. A look of nervousness crossed her slightly gaunt face.

‘Throw me a sword.’ She ordered to Broman, who at her request, threw a wakizashi samurai to her. She unsheathed it carefully, examining the blade and the curve, felt the weight, and after giving it a few practice swings, strapped it to her waist. She gave a flicker of a smile to me before I took a step towards her, then it vanished, replaced by a look of deep concentration.

‘Wonderful. Now I am going to show you a technique that has saved me many times in the past.’ I told her. The crowd watched silently all eyes on me and Sibilla. I slowly unsheathed my sword and held it carefully and deliberately with both hands. Sibilla copied me but I noticed she lacked the perfectly steady hand of a trained swordsman, her sword trembled slightly in her nervous hands.

‘Now if you were to take a swing at me toward my neck,’ I showed her, slowly bringing my sword an inch from her own neck. ‘I will show you how to parry and disarm them.’ She did not flinch, but remained concentrated.

I withdrew the sword from her neck and held it back in front of me. ‘Now, take your swing slowly so I can show how to parry.’ She looked a little apprehensive, as did the crowd that had taken a sharp gasp of breath as I had taken my swing. Slowly, Sibilla took a swing to the right-hand side of my neck, as though intent on removing my head. As she neared my carotid artery, I brought my own sword up to meet hers, a flash of sparks erupted from the point of impact. The crowd murmured in excitement and Sibilla flinched slightly, but remained ready. I wound my sword quickly round the blade of hers and gave it a little flick. The sword was wrenched from her grasp and clattered noisily to the ground a few metres away. I sheathed my sword and addressed the group. ‘Now, that is how you disarm, but you will not always be given the chance to do so if your enemy is quick so focus on the parry only, if then you feel it is safe to attempt a disarm, you may do so.’ I picked up Sibilla’s sword and handed it to her. ‘Ok, now I want you to practice the technique with someone else,’ I beckoned Broman over to take my place, who looked eager to begin, ‘I don’t want any bloodshed, so take it easy.’ I said before stepping out of the chalk-drawn ring.

So it was that for the next hour, Broman was disarmed over and over again as the technique was demonstrated with each vampire that wished to learn, though he was replaced by another eager man. Sibilla did exceptionally well at mastering it and within a minute or two, Broman’s sword had been flung across the room and embedded in the stone wall. I had to admit, I started to swell with pride as I watched them learn and master techniques I had no idea they could, within such a short time.

‘Excellent!’ I proclaimed after the two hours had passed. The two male vampires sparring in the circle stopped as his partner’s sword fell to the floor. I looked around the room and noticed the door open and close, though the culprit couldn’t be seen until he emerged from a small group of onlookers.

‘My lord, Noster has arrived, bearing news.’ He said, puffing out his chest rather pompously.

‘Wonderful, take over the sparring session, make sure they don’t kill one another.’ I chuckled. Broman nodded as I swept from the room, the noise dimmed slightly as I marched quickly, my hand on the pommel of my sword. A few moments later I was opening the large doors to the council chamber and strode in. In front of me, the long table had been cleared of the fountains and Noster was stood at the other end, presiding over a large map of Italy that trailed onto the floor. He carefully traced a line with his finger, muttering indistinctly under his breath, then after hovering over the place with a pin, pushed it very carefully in a specific spot. For a vampire, he was rather small, with rat-like beady eyes and a small nose. His mouth was surrounded by a large quantity of facial hair which looked matted and unkempt, tinged with a slightly reddish look in places. I strode towards Noster, who looked up at my approach and held out his hand. I grasped it and shook it firmly.

‘Tell me you have good news, my friend.’ I said clapping him on the shoulder and bending over the map too. The map was very detailed, I doubt even many of the geographical explorers had a map this detailed of what appeared to be every inch of Italy. Around some of the edges, the details faltered until many of the blocks just had one path which lead into some mountains.

‘I wish I did, my lord. If only there were good news to give!’ He said in an exasperated tone. I groaned with disappointment, of course, no good news, was there ever?

’What news do you have then?’ I asked, steeling myself.

‘Well,’ Started Noster, his small, beady eyes picking out another route on the map and pushing another pin into it. ‘I had sent out my spies, on your orders, I had them stationed at regular intervals along all the back routes and main travel routes, but unfortunately, Klomano has spies too, more so in fact, than we first anticipated.’ I swore loudly, this was not what I wanted to hear.

‘Alas, this is not the end of unfortunate news, my lord. I have report from one of my spies stationed by the main vessel route to Venice that Klomano himself has been spotted keeping a record on the vessels entering and leaving the port.’ Noster said in outrage. My mind instantly strayed to Sophia and of the danger she could be in now that Klomano has been spotted. It was hard to believe, not ten minutes ago, I was feeling rather happy.

‘Very well, assign my men to lay low, but keep watch on all vessels leaving and entering the port. If Klomano is spotted, on no account should any of you engage him, he is dangerous.’ Though this was true, it was not the main reason I warned not to engage Klomano. The main reason was that I wanted Klomano to die by my own hand. I made a mental note to now keep my sword with me at all times from this point onward.

‘Very well, my lord. It will be done. I shall report to you if I have any further news.’ Noster pulled out the pins, rolled up the map and tucked it inside his thick, furry coat that obscured any other garments he was wearing.

It was daylight outside, so I waited in my room until nightfall. The room was large, like every room in Castle Blackmoor. Over a large bed that I used more for decoration, a painting of Maria had been hung, it looked so life-like, it was hard to believe she was not standing there in front of me. I had lately refrained from gazing at this picture too much, it invoked my guilt that I was seeing Sophia whenever I could.

My bedroom consisted of my bed, fire place (and the secret storage in the alcove where I kept Maria’s ashes) and three sets of ornate wardrobes with brass handles. I paced my bedroom for hours, thinking of the danger Sophia would be in if Klomano found out about our, my insides squirmed as I tried to think of a better word, relationship. It was difficult to find a way to stop Klomano when my mind was so often on Sophia, though admittedly, that’s not where it ought to be. I checked my window, though it was bordered up, I had made sure to leave a very slight crack in the wood that allowed the sunlight to shine in and onto a small patch on the floor in the evenings, when this was no longer there, I could tell it was night. This time I decided to leave the castle.

Within moments the surrounding trees had blocked the castle from view, leaves rained upon me as a strong gust of wind flapped my cloak and whipped his hair. Soon, I was in the concrete maze of Italy. I knew where I needed to go. Though I knew this was probably a mistake, in the current situation of spies, perhaps it was the recklessness that drew me to it, but I scaled a nearby wall, and sprinted across roof tops. I tried to justify my actions and told myself it would be easier to spot any spies intent on watching me, from the rooftops. Soon though, I descended to the ground and was soon walking the path I had scrutinized from my first visit in these parts of town, where I stood atop the building scouring over the grounds, memorising each route, all safe in my mind.

I wondered whether Sophia would be happy to see me or not. It was shortly after eight in the evening and the air was cool. I even briefly contemplated whether she would even be home or not. But now was not the time for pessimism. I arrived on her doorstep not a minute after, briefly taking a moment to absorb the vastness of her large home once more. I raised my fist carefully, but decided I’d not come this far to stop now, and rapped three times on the door. After a few moments, I distinctly heard the sound of a woman, shuffling around in the upstairs room. A few seconds later, the sound of scraping bolts and locks echoed in my ears as the door opened, flooding light over my cloak like water, I looked up at the Sophia, wearing a silky-white nightgown.

‘Roconn?’ She muttered, her eyelids batting as she let her eyes adjust to the gloom and cast her eyes over my face.

‘What are you doing here at this hour?’ She asked curiously. Her voice was soft and calm; it was not an aggressive question, and my spirits soared a little.

‘I apologize for the lateness of my call, I had to come see you immediately, I have… bad news.’ I said, careful to not make the swell of passion noticeable in my voice. I also felt it was best not to tarry on the doorstep, therefore I had told her enough to prickle at her curiosity and she stood aside holding the door open and beckoned me inside.

‘Come in, come in.’ she told me as I crossed the doorway. She closed it behind me and made quite a deal of locking the door back up, then she turned and faced me.

‘I must say it’s quite a surprise to see you, though I’m glad you’re here.’ She smiled warmly as she led him through the hall.

The carpeted floor was soft and cream; she was obviously a little wealthier than I had anticipated. I instantly felt conscious of my appearance as I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror that hung on the white walls, why hadn’t I thought to make myself smarter? Though I had a good reason to be here, and as I had told her, it was important, I still felt no need to rush in and tell her everything, I enjoyed her company. I looked around, the walls were lined with extravagant oil paintings and polished silver candelabras that had new, unlit candles inside. The stairway to my right, had a deep red carpet that ran along each step and upstairs, where I could make out more paintings.

She turned into the living room, where she gestured me to take a seat on a fur-covered chair. She took a seat opposite me and surveyed me carefully. The room was quite large and the walls were lined with more paintings and mirrors here too that were squeezed in between bookcases lined with many books so old, the words on the spines were so faded they were indistinguishable. The carpet was the colour of cherry that complimented that of the white walls and fur overthrows perfectly.

‘So,’ she said ‘you said you had bad news?’

I didn’t speak immediately, I stared blankly and a bookcase, contemplating the best way to say what I need to tell her. After a moment, I thought it was best to get straight to the point.

‘Sophia, I have had word from… Sources, you are in great danger.’ I said slowly, still unable to meet her gaze.

‘What do you mean?’ She asked after a moment’s hesitation.

I found it difficult to explain the situation, difficult even to repeat she was in danger, as if not speaking the words would make it less true. I had given her an answer, but to give one answer would require another and then another until it all came down to the darkest secret, that I am a vampire. I waited for a second, deciding I would tell her the truth to the question she asked only, nothing more.

‘There is a man, Klomano, he is trying to get to me and will attempt to do so through you.’ I choked out the last few words, the reality of it hitting me hard. I waited, wondering what she could possibly say to such a statement. She seemed a little at a loss for words but, to my utter surprise, did not ask why Klomano was after her, or who he was, or anything. As if she was expecting this and now the time had come.

‘Well, what’s the plan then?’ She said, unexpectedly calm.

I’d had to admit, I was so taken aback at her sudden eagerness for an effective protection plan that I had barely a chance to form one.

‘I’m not sure at the moment, I need time to figure it out, but I promise you I will protect you, he will not touch you Sophia, you have my word.’ I said, as reassuringly as I could manage, though I was not sure I had managed it, given the fact it was difficult to even reassure myself she would be safe under my protection.

I finally met her gaze and she looked satisfied at my promise. We stared in each other’s eyes for what could have been years, the subtle look of longing etched into her flawless face. I was sure I must look the same, though I had no control over my body, she rendered my strength useless under her unfaltering gaze. She stood up, and I noticed I had stood to, though I did not remember ever standing up. She held out her hand, I felt my face grow hot, though it was impossible for it to do so. She held her hand steady, an invitation. An invitation I accepted without meaning to do so, like she was controlling my thoughts. She was edging closer to me, she was much too close, I could see my reflection in her eyes, could feel the heat of her face on mine, she was not stopping, she closed her eyes, she was an inch from my face. Every part of my body screamed in protest, this must not happen, though I couldn’t will myself to move, I was immobile. She was so pretty.

‘Roconn,’ she whispered, her cool breath blowing sweet over my face.

‘You’re so caring, everything I have been told about you is wrong.’ She seemed to speak more to herself, I wondered briefly what she meant by this, but then I realised it didn’t matter, all that mattered was that I keep hold of her, that if I let go, my world would come crashing down around me. I could hear her heart beating, like an enchanted drum, beating rhythmically in my ears. She bit her bottom lip slowly, as if lost in thought, opened her eyes and walked slowly out of the room, pulling me with her, up the deep red stairs and through the door at the end. I couldn’t pay attention to what was around me, the walls could have caved in and I would have followed Sophia. My head seemed to spin, surely this was not real, admittedly, I had fantasised about this many times before, but when I thought about it, I had never really imagined it possible. The bedroom she led me to seem to swirl around me, I could not be here, I had to leave, I had to go before this went further. But again, I felt myself powerless to her.

She pushed me playfully down onto her large white bed where she climbed on to me, kneeling either side. She smiled at, biting her lip, like she had done in the living room. I felt my face stretch as I smiled back, though I had not intended too, like I was some gross puppet and she was the puppeteer, pulling all my strings. Surely she must have been more than human, her perfect body, her flawless face, her eyes like gems, glittering and shining as they stared into my own. I felt my body shiver violently, not unlike that when I tasted human blood, but there was a difference I could not place. I felt my hands reach out and place my hands on her hips, gently pulling her in. I couldn’t resist any longer.

She smiled seductively as I pulled her face closer.

I was drawn to her, I should have known it from the beginning, this is why I must have been here, it was going to happen, even if I never wanted to. This was the last I could think of, contradicting the will of fate, it seemed. Without another thought, I kissed her.

My heart felt as though it might explode, though it had been many years since it had moved. She kissed me back, passionately and vigorously, as though she was pouring every emotion into the kiss. I placed a hand on her shoulder and in one movement, removed her silken dress without effort and without complaint; she seemed to have the same idea and begun removing my clothes until we were both exposed and undressed.

I felt her warm skin move over my bare torso, leaving a tingling sensation. I caressed her soft body, entwined with my own, the passion and the lust setting the mood for the rest of night.

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