The Devil's Gift

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XV

The morning sun had broken through a gap in the thick, cream curtains. I had been watching it since the moment Sophia’s breathing had turned heavy on my chest as she slipped into a deep slumber. She fidgeted slightly in my arms that had cradled her all night. She awoke a few minutes later and gave a huge yawn. She gazed up at me with sleepy eyes.

‘Good morning,’ she smiled, ‘Did you sleep ok?’

‘Very.’ I lied, but returned the smile nonetheless. She put a soft hand on my face and kissed me gently.

I started to wonder what excuse I could give to ensure I did not leave her house during daylight hours, but as if she had read my mind, my question was answered,

‘Would you mind staying until tonight? I have some things we could do?’

I had felt very relieved to hear her say this and agreed quickly, earning me another soft kiss.

The day flew past relatively quickly, especially considering I was used to days flying past without delay. Sophia had me help her with a number of chores around the house, which I was only too happy to assist with. I helped her polish her silverware and reach the higher places around the house to clean, in truth, I’d never really been one for dusting, but seeing the smile on her face, I thoroughly enjoyed it, whilst being given a tour of her house (‘I think you know which room the bedroom is’ she giggled.) I enjoyed Sophia’s company very much and was more than happy lending a hand around the house. At midday, with the curtains still drawn, Sophia and I took a seat in the lounge, Sophia cradling a warm cup of tea in her hands.

‘I’ve been wondering...’ She said.

‘Mm?’ I replied absentmindedly.

‘Are you a religious man?’

‘No, not really.’ I replied, careful to calm the surge of anger that had built up.

‘I didn’t think so, you don’t seem the type’ she added quickly when she caught sight of my facial expression.’ I hastened to compose my face. I waited a moment for her to ask more questions, though she seemed to not need any more answers, so I put it out of my mind.

Soon, night was upon us and I gave Sophia a kiss goodbye and strode out in the cold night. It had been a while since I was feeling truly happy and so to have someone like Sophia in my life, was truly a remarkable gift. But soon, the darkness inside me started to surface and I felt the sudden urge for blood. I strolled carefully and deliberately, watching the sky around me darken as thick rain clouds closed in and hovered above me like some heavy haze that mirrored the darkness inside me that demanded payment. It felt strange, the burden I had carried came at a heavy cost, I must watch as the people I care about pass on, watching the world change as I stayed the same, destined to exist as a monster forever, though I could still feel human at times that was my greatest weakness. Now Sophia is in my life, I cannot abandon her as I know I should, I must watch her age, each year taking its toll on her mortal life, I would, eventually have to witness once more, the loss of someone I cared about. Though this was a steep price, immortality also had its perks. I would never again fear death as I used to when I was human, though the earlier memories, my childhood seemed distant and distorted. My feet seemed to take the lead and I found myself on a wide and cobbled path. There were not many people about now save a lone straggler stumbling past, the hint of liquor following him as brushed past me seemingly unaware of my obvious presence. My throat began to flare, the heat rising slightly, becoming uncomfortable but not yet unbearable as it would be soon. Nevertheless, I chose to ignore the steadily rising burning in my throat, now was not the place to satisfy my hunger, not this close to Sophia’s home.

I carefully and inconspicuously followed the path of a balding man with a stubbly face. Our eyes met for a fraction of a second but I turned away from him, peering into the window of a closed shop. I had no desire to purchase any of the portraits, but I stared into the eyes of one the painting’s occupants until I saw the round belly disappear around a corner, evidently unwilling to linger. After a moment, I turned around and followed the man around the corner. I was met by another cobbled path, this one slightly narrower but packed with shops. It was easy to feign browsing, I had followed many people to their death over the centuries, I had become a natural at blending in with the local townsfolk, I had studied their behaviour, mimicked them until I perfected my technique. Of course, not all vampires chose the stealthy approach, Broman, for example prefers to almost frighten them to death before making good on his promise to end their miserable life. We all had our own hunting method. Oceana, like me, enjoyed the stealthy kills, silent, or else, trick the victims. We vampires always had a knack for charming people. I spotted the man halfway up the street looking anxious, sneaking quick glances behind him every minute or so. I had a feeling he would be now heading to a more crowded place, less dangerous in his eyes, surrounded by people. Of course, he was going to the tavern. I had these hunches quite often, after studying the townspeople, it became clear quite soon how much the men enjoyed their alcohol. I turned off, noticing just before I did, the man slowed his pace. It was surprising to think people could be fooled so easily to that they were safe.

I found myself this time, in a narrow back-street that were home to the rear entrances of the shops, when an idea struck me. I sped up and tried the handles of a few of the doors to the shops, they were locked. On the fourth however, the owner had apparently forgotten to secure his shop, so I entered. The shop had a dark-polished wooden floor and cladded walls that gave the impression I had entered a more up-kept barn. Around me were tables, chairs and scuffed desks. A small pot of wax lay open next to a dirty cloth that sat on top of a highly-polished wooden table. I strode over to the large window and took a glance down the street. Excellent, I thought. The squat man had decided to take a slow stroll to the tavern, evidently at peace that he was not in fact being followed by a black-robed man. I tried the handle on the front of the shop and swore quietly as the door remained shut. I rattled it slightly though I knew it wouldn’t open, if I now burst out of the shop, a shattered door in hand, it would undoubtedly alert the man, and my meal would escape, he was too close to the tavern that if he shouted, the people inside would more than likely hear, and come to investigate. The last thing I wanted was a man-hunt underway and a price on my head that would probably cause Sophia’s interest to see me, greatly decreased. I hadn’t troubled to keep my noise down and I heard shuffling from upstairs, of course, the owner was waking and would come down to investigate the source of the disruption in his store.

The door clicked and swung open at the top of the stairs, flooding the stairway with candlelight allowing the owner’s shadow to dance on the wall as he descended the stairs, stepping heavily on every other step. I made a quick decision and backed up against the wall of the stairs, waiting. The candlelight seeped onto the floor of the shop, illuminating the polished furniture as the squat man stalked past the window. The shopkeeper thumped into the workshop, limping heavily. I crept up slowly behind him and no sooner had I reached up and twisted his neck until it cracked loudly, had he dropped the candle he had been holding and it rolled under the furniture, knocked the table and set the leg ablaze. Evidently, the wax was freshly coated as within seconds, the table was roaring with fire. I panicked slightly and sped out of the rear entrance just as the fire spread to the desk it was near, catching fire instantly. I ran quickly, the stench of smoke still burning in my nose. Of course, the shopkeeper’s death would undoubtedly be put down to the fact he was old and not fully able to walk normally. I decided to accept my loss and head back to the castle, now no longer yearning for blood.

I made a path home and my head quickly filled with buzzing thoughts. Who would have wondered, if any, where I had been this past day. I felt sure Oceana would have an idea, Reyjak too, but what if any others thought I was a traitor, working with Klomano in secret? I pushed the negative thoughts out of my head and had and belted at full speed down the paths and alleys, dodging here and there, avoiding possible collisions with objects with ease as they seemed to rush at me in slow motion, giving me plenty of time to react. Though the negative thoughts were pushed to the back of my mind, I could not push them entirely out of my head but it was easier when I just enjoyed the exhilarating rush that nothing but running gave me. The wind blew hard at my face and passed through my cloak, making it flap and billow behind me in a way that shouldn’t have been possible whilst merely running.

I blew past the tall houses and thick bushes, and soon, it was the leaves of the forest-floor that swirled in a spiral behind me like some out-of-control horizontal tornado, growing in speed and velocity every second. I forced more power into my legs as I stooped a little, then propelled myself off the floor, bursting out of the overhead canopy of leaves. The sight was thrilling, for miles I could see forestation, mountains and fields, acres and acres of grass and trees. No sooner had I taken this incredible sight in, did I begin to descend back through the trees, twigs whipping my face as I fell.

I landed hard but still managing to regain my footing on the uneven ground quickly and resumed my speed. I listened to my footsteps echoing among the trunks of the trees, the crunching of the dried leaves underfoot, it was one of them moments that I truly felt at one with the world. I slowed when I reached the edge of the forest that separated the grounds of the castle from the forest that I had just sped through. Though there was no physical border, it was common knowledge among the clan which belonged to myself and which didn’t. I was soon engulfed by it. I stopped, something felt strange, some sixth sense telling me something was different. I proceeded with caution until a repulsive smell captivated my senses. I stopped dead in my tracks listening hard, taking in the change that had halted me. I reluctantly inhaled the vile scent. It was a smell I was regrettably familiar with, the smell of rotting corpses. I cringed as I proceeded to follow the scent until I located the source. Every direction in which I cast my gaze looked identical to where I had just been standing a few moments ago; I could have still been there had it not been for the increase of the stench that was now slowly traumatizing my lungs.

I cast my eyes around the dense trees teeming with gnats and flies. A few feet away from me, a hole had been dug in the earth, its contents heaped into a large mound next to it. I walked slowly over to it and examined the freshly-dug soil, this was recent. If I’d have had to guess, this happened during the day I had spent with Sophia. At once a surge of regret rose inside my chest, the idea of staying with a human, without informing anyone of my departure or overnight stay seemed not only reckless, but dangerous. With a sharp pang of guilt, my thoughts strayed to my clan, what had happened here? I knew full well the sunlight could not penetrate the density of the leaves above me, therefore, vampires could have left the confines of the castle and into the maze of trees. Apparently, by the look of the corpses inside the hole, some unfortunate souls had decided to take a hike through the forest, their last and worst mistake.

Judging by the bite wounds on their carotid arteries, they had come into contact with a vampire. The only thing was, either the bodies had been subject to an increased rate of decomposition, or the bodies had been put here purposely.

Why would someone put bodies here, so close to the castle? I thought. Then the answer rushed into my mind. This was not an accident, this was a message. As soon as I had the question ready, so to was the answer. Who would want to send such a message? Of course, I’d thought, Klomano.

But why? What meaning would this have, of course, the answer was ready just as fast as the question, and I knew already the answer to this. Fear.

He is toying with us, showing us how close he can get to us, how defenceless we are against him. My insides boiled with anger and I was forced to pace up and down as I usually did when I became agitated; it eased the frustration. I kept my senses at the ready in case any noise was heard, though I needn’t have bothered, Klomano was not likely to stay and wait for me, he knows he is no match against me. All was silent save the crunching of dried leaves under my feet as I paced a few more times.

I blitzed back through the trees, over the gravelled path, though making no noise, and came to a halt outside the front door. It swung open to admit me inside, whereupon, I was greeted with an uproar that sounded as though it came from the council chamber. I proceeded through at once.

‘- are we going to do? We cannot let him gain control, we must act!’ Oceana’s frustrated voice reached my ears as I listened intently outside the door.

‘There is nothing we can do, we must hide, we save oursel-’ a small voice piped up.

‘Rubbish! We can fight! Quiet!’ She bellowed as the small voice went to interrupt. ‘I have seen many things in my existence but none as dangerous as challenging the clan-king! If he so much as takes one foot towards our leader, I can personally guarantee they will be his last.’ They fell silent as a rush of affection surged up my chest to Oceana. Just as the small-voiced man went to speak once more, I opened the door. All eyes fell upon me at once and the silence became more intense. It became apparent now that the small voice had come from the man who had applauded me just yesterday.

Confused, I spoke,

‘What in Satan’s name is going on?’ My voice was ice cold, demanding. I cast my eyes over the small congregation of people, clan members and spies, as I waited for an answer.

‘Sire, it’s Klomano, we have discovered a plot to kill you. We don’t know how and we don’t know when. But if we double our efforts I’m sure we can gain an insight to his plan.’ Oceana spoke as my eyes rested on her.

My thoughts raced to Sophia. That’s how. Though I did not voice this concern, Oceana seemed to guess and gave me an intriguing look, in which I responded with a small nod, unnoticeable by the number of people surrounding them all intent on looking anywhere but me. I knew, even if she did not approve, I could confide in her my worries, she was loyal and understanding even if a bit hot-headed at times.

‘Oceana, come with me please.’ I asked her, I needed to speak in private.

‘Of course. After you, sire.’ She replied. We strode around the perimeter of the castle, speaking in hushed voices as our silent steps rendered us invisible by the large gathering of wildlife as we soon entered the territory of the forest. The trees were tall and gathered in dense clumps. Flowers of blue, red and yellow burst through the thick vegetation, creating a very picturesque image as the moonlight splintered through the canopy of leaves above, creating little pools of silvery light on the leaf-strewn floor; the heavy rain clouds had dispersed.

I placed my steps carefully, being careful to lead her inconspicuously to the rotting corpses. We walked in a seemingly random direction, Oceana paying little attention to our destination. I fixed her with a curious gaze, wondering how much knowledge she had regarding my new relationship.

‘I’m not sure what’s going on sire, if I may be so bold, you play a dangerous game, involved with her milord.’ I let this remark slide, I needed her on my side, picking an argument would not secure just that. We advanced silently through the crowd of trees not the faintest sound of any wildlife could be heard. I slowed, that was strange, normally the forest was teeming with wildlife. All of a sudden, a surge of caution rose in my chest, almost restricting my movement. The trees we packed tightly together in an almost woven way, like a patchwork-quilt. Out of nowhere, the moonlight was consumed by an impenetrable cloud of fog, eerily creeping in around us, absorbing all light in its path. Almost instinctively, I held out an arm across Oceana’s chest, ceasing movement.

I heard it just as I was too late to prevent it. With incredible speed, a large black shadow hurtled passed me, slicing me across the chest tearing my robes with a large talon that sent me spiralling into a tree. Splinters of wood exploded from the trunk as my spine smashed into it. Leaves from above fell down on me as a deafening sound filled my ears before the tree trunk splintered further, swayed ominously then crashed to the ground, vibrating the floor upon impact.

An ear-splitting howl ripped through the night, a sound I’d never heard before now. Oceana screamed, her voice unplaceable in the fog, its density almost touchable, yet as unyielding as the darkness that engulfed us. The mottled black figure whipped past me once more, this time, fixed on Oceana. I squinted, trying to see through the fog, but my effort was in vain. I had lost my sense of direction, I was a prisoner, trapped in a thick, unrelenting fog. Where she was, I couldn’t tell, but I had to guess. I rushed toward where I thought her last to be. The stench of this enemy was growing stronger and was now potent enough to follow. I was puzzled at the strength of this attacker, but far from making me feel any easier, I felt only more terrified. I was fighting in darkness, engulfed by fog, against an opponent who seemed to be not only as strong as me, but it seemed as fast, too. I reached the source of the stench before I decided, though I had no idea why, to challenge my opponent who seemed to cower in the dark.

‘Why don’t you come out and fight me face-to-face. We’ll soon see who has the upper hand.’ The unfamiliar growl rumbled to in my right ear, I was once again perplexed by how this person could move in an almost identical way as Reyjak did. My heart seemed to rise into my mouth as I turned slowly on the spot to face this person. Oceana stumbled through the fog and found me, standing by my side, now looking upon what I had taken to be a person that now towered over us, considering us carefully.

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