The Devil's Gift

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XXV

The night air was warm and felt pleasant on my face. I looked behind and watched the hidden archway of Agartha melt back into stone and began my journey back to the castle, Sophia bobbing peacefully beside me. We passed the shops, stalls and upturned dust carts littering its contents over the cobbled path beneath our feet. I side-stepped a rotting banana skin that had begun to sprout copious amount of green fungi.

‘Before we head back, there’s some things I need to pick up from my house, it’s just a few sentimental items.’ Sophia said. We made a right turn and headed towards the richer part of the town which was quite clearly a much nicer place to live; there was no rubbish littering the streets, no upturned carts or stalls that were still aplenty with broken and unsold items that were clearly not worth the time it would take to pack them up.

The houses here were unmistakably larger and more sophisticated and were obviously suited for the types of Sophia with her evident authority and high class that seemed to radiate from her. Even the way she walked showed she was much more than a mere peasant; she did not slouch with her back hunched and dragging her feet, she was straight-backed and skimmed the ground as she walked.

Finally, the giant gates of a gigantic manor became visible as we rounded the corner. Its path was gravelled and weed-free with a large porch supported by stone columns, it was very impressive as houses go but you’d expect no less from a woman like Sophia.

We strode to the gate which she pushed open and made our way to the front door. As we entered, her familiar scent caught my nose and I looked upon a familiar sight. The lush cream carpets were soft underfoot and the mirrors and paintings that hung on the walls were coated with a thin layer of dust due to her not living here anymore. I waited in the white hallway as Sophia rushed upstairs to fetch a few items. She was back in under five minutes, arms full of an assortment of odd objects from a strange metal trumpet-looking thing that I was unsure what it even was, to a small book, no bigger than my hand. The other items were either metal or leather. There was a small necklace, some rings, a leather-bound journal, a small leather pouch that jingled slightly when moved and the small book and metal trumpet-looking thing. Sophia dumped these items in my arms and quickly rushed off to gather a few more things from the living room and kitchen.

Again, another five minutes passed and she was carrying a large woven sack with a number of objects that clattered around inside. She held the bag open so I could put the items from upstairs inside. A few moments passed and we left the house and finally made a path for the comfort of the castle, barely talking as we walked back. The sack which I offered to carry felt weightless though there must have been a good weight to the number of metal objects that were rattling around below my left fist. As the houses began to gradually decrease in size and numbers, we finally looked upon the outskirts of the forest that shrouded our castle in secrecy.

There were many that had spoken of a castle, deep in the heart of the woods that was home to a terrible curse. Many had sought to seek out the secrets of the castle but all those who entered the heart of the forest were likely to become a vampires next meal, and with so many vampires home to Castle Blackmoor at this moment, the odds of a human entering the grounds of the castle or even get close without being hunted, was very slim.

We crunched up the gravelled path and made our way inside and upstairs, weaving left and right along the stone corridors that were ablaze with candles and blood fountains. We neared the room with large, oaken, double doors and stepped inside. Sophia allowed herself a few minutes to flit about the room, her hand diving in and out of the bag every few feet as she placed another treasure on the furniture in the bedroom. After she’d propped up the last painting on the table beside the bed, she sat down and just looked at it. Frozen in time, the woman in the painting was beautiful but wore a sombre expression of her face. Sophia’s portrait was a great likeness. I edged closer and studied the artist’s name which was scribbled in the corner, it read Leonardo Da Vinci.

I marvelled for a moment or two at the perfection of the painting, a brilliant artist he must have been. I put my arm around Sophia’s shoulder feeling the silk of her dress in my sensitive fingers. We both, almost automatically, looked down at her stomach, protruding enough so as to dent the fabric, her stomach showed us the growing foetus and she cradled it gently in her arms. I placed a hand on her stomach, the heat of her skin seeping out of the fabric. I felt it ever so slightly, a little push on my hand from the inside, a kick.

‘It’s amazing, there’s a tiny person growing inside,’ She whispered with a smile, I couldn’t help but smile back. I’d been so flustered with trying ensure the baby’s safety and the vampire’s survival, the actual thought of me being a father once more, after all this time, seemed hard to grasp. But now, in this moment that we sat here, it dawned on me, I was a father again and as any father would know, vampire or human, protecting your child is primarily your priority. Everything that you are and own goes to your child. Your legacy passed to them.

I thought for a moment, the extent of what this child would have on his or her shoulders when I am no longer around to lead, the entire coven looking up to them for wisdom and guidance, a leader. Would they accept the child as their leader, someone born half an angel. I’d hoped so. Maybe one day I’ll meet my end to a vampire or angel quicker than myself, perhaps a new breed, but right now in this moment, all that mattered was that this child remain alive no matter what.

The only concern I had about the child’s birth I kept inside, though I felt Sophia was doing the same. What of its powers? How would a half-angel, half-vampire survive in the company of the greatest evil, to watch the world change around them, to watch innocent humans being killed to satisfy the craving that we vampires had. Would the child need blood, if so, what would that mean for Sophia? I was scared, it was easy to admit and undoubtedly easier to see. I had no idea of the danger we could all be in if the child chooses to live in the light. Perhaps God was right to seek to destroy it, all I knew right now was that my unborn child was growing and stirring underneath my hand and I would do anything to protect it.

Meanwhile, Venator, the viscous werewolf the ultimate hunter, was patrolling the castle, ensuring the safety of Sophia and the baby. If any sign of danger were to be detected by him, Venator would alert us and we’d be ready. It seemed the whole castle was on edge, almost waiting expectantly to be attacked at any moment. Every vampire, from the covens of china, Russia, America, England and my own from Italy and Venice were armed, each ordered to have a weapon on them at all times. We lived in a dangerous time, we could not afford to be unprepared, especially in the daytime for the angels were more than likely to attack then, when we are at our weakest.

I’d still not forgotten Sophia’s suggestion that we mount a full-scale attack on the Vatican but now was not a time for war, now was a time for us, our own little family to be together in peace without having to think of death, danger and enemies.

Though we both had concerns, we did not voice them aloud. I stood up and paced the room, unable to concentrate on the idea of a family once more. The thought of possibly having a family was too much to bare right now, if all went wrong, if I was unable to save Sophia and the baby, words could not describe the pain it would put me through. I told Sophia I needed a walk and so I left the bedroom, closing the door softly behind me. I descended to the ground floor where I stood at a door opposite that of the council chamber. I grasped the iron handle and gave it push. The door swung forth to admit me inside and I closed in behind me. I found myself in a large room, at least forty feet wide. The walls were bare stone but many tables and pieces of priceless furniture lay inside. Crammed full of gold and silver jewellery, candelabras, ornaments and figures, the furniture was almost bursting. Atop the many tables, in heaps that had spilt over the edge and onto the floor beneath, lay more gold, silver and jewels.

In the only corner not filled with priceless artefacts, busts, weapons and ornaments, lay a large tower of solid gold bars that had been forged by the maker of Excessus.

The year was twelve hundred and fifty four, I was on a lone quest that had brought me to the outskirts of London, England. I sought out a man named Edward who ran a book store somewhere near here. I peered around a corner, dressed smartly in a fine cotton robe that was wrapped tightly around me. An alleyway met my eyesight. Towered either side of the alley were large buildings that gave off a funny smell. I proceeded carefully down the alleyway that was littered with waste and reeked of something rotten that I was not sure I even wanted to know what it was. My footsteps echoed slightly in the silence of the night that had fallen over London not two hours ago. I looked up, the moon was shrouded behind a thick cluster of dark clouds that threatened to rain and wash away any scent of my target that I’d been tracking for days. I hoped desperately the rain would keep at bay for just a bit longer, I was so close now.

I ventured further in until my nose picked up a familiar scent that hinted at a promising result. I followed the scent, my skill that allowed me to uncover personal traits such as gender and age in a human, was not yet fully developed but I was still remarkably precise at this point. I tracked the scent out of the alley and into another near-deserted road.

The street was cleaner than most I’d walked but still, it was not up to my usual living standard at Castle Blackmoor. I walked quickly and quietly, using the darkness to my advantage and keeping to the shadows of nearby buildings. I watched the man in front of me closely, he was old and frail and ambled slowly, an injury he’d sustained was causing him to limp terribly which only slowed him further. He put a hand down to his right knee and massaged it a bit, he winced slightly as he did so.

As a short breeze passed gently toward me, the man’s scent caught in my nose. It was not my target. The buildings that towered on either side were showing dark windows and closed doors but I distinctly noticed the shrouded face of a middle-aged man peering ominously down at me from an upstairs window halfway down the street. I made no obvious notion I’d seen him but kept my walk brisk and passed the limping old man without turning my head. The last thing I wanted to do right now was give the locals a reason to keep on their guard and possibly keep my target from me or bury him further out of my reach.

I kept a secret watch on the eyes in the window that followed me with every soft step I took. I rounded a corner to my right and found myself in a large open park. I ambled up the dirt path that led straight through the green and out the other side. Trees shrouded me on either side and so I was keen to keep to their shadows. I hugged my coat tighter around me as another person, a young woman this time, walked passed me. I knew I was reaching closer to my target now, his scent growing stronger with each step I took through the park. I kept my speed to human standard albeit rather quick still. I finally exited the park on the other side and found myself in a street with shops on either side. This is where I needed to be.

I walked slowly but with a purpose. Any shop now. I passed a fruit and vegetable store, someone selling furniture, ah, there it is. I walked quickly to the end of the street, on the corner, a black store with faded lettering on the door told me I was there, the book store. I took a quick glance left and right and entered the store, closing the door softly behind me. Inside was dark and gloomy save one candle that was burning slowly on a small table. Most of the wax had melted and pooled around the remaining stub that only had an inch left to burn. I proceeded slowly looking carefully at the stacked shelves on every wall of the small store. There were old books and newer ones, but mainly, the store sold antique books and unpublished manuscripts that were sold for a small fortune.

The room was circular though the shelves gave it a more hexagonal look but I pondered this peculiar layout no more when a sound reached my ears.

‘Your name?’ Asked the disembodied voice, it was deep and seemed to echo mysteriously.

‘Roconn Romano.’ I spoke calmly to the seemingly empty room. I approached the counter cautiously, on guard for any ulterior motives or traps. A man arose from behind the counter.

‘Edward?’ I asked suspiciously. He nodded. I peered at his face through the gloom. I could make out a thick beard and blue eyes, a stubby nose and various age lines that hinted a rough life. He did not say a word but merely reached below the counter, his eyes still fixed on me and withdrew a large leather-bound book that was cracked across the cover. I took it without question and turned on my heel and swept from the shop. Finally, a source of wealth I could claim. Back in that century, I was fixed on gaining wealth.

I proceeded out of the high street and back into the park seating myself on a wooden bench under a large oak tree. I took another glance either side of me and concentrated on the book I’d spent many months searching for. The final clue to its location I extracted from an old man who was once the friend of the man who wrote the book. Using various sources and expertise I’d finally tracked him down and tortured him until he gave the book’s location.

I ran my fingers slowly across the cracked, dry leather and unwound the leather cord that held it shut. The brittle spine cracked slightly as I opened it onto the first page. I sat for about an hour reading intently absorbing the information that was written by an explorer that went by the name of J.A. Wilbur. The journal told of many hidden things he’d seen including the location of Agartha and the whereabouts of buried gold which was discovered twenty feet below ground in a small cave near the coast of Wales in the United Kingdom.

I blinked a few times and I was staring still at the mound of solid gold bars in the corner of my treasury. I cast my eyes around the room once more, wondering blindly how long I’d been stood here. There in the corner, on a small table, just visible beneath another mound of jewels was the leather-bound journal of J.A. Wilbur entitled The Explorer’s Secrets. I remembered the reason why I was here in this room, to be alone with my thoughts.

I turned around and left the treasury until I found myself in the library. I took a seat at the empty table and there I sat until dawn had passed and turned to dusk once more.

As I sat there, I began to feel a familiar burning sensation rising up through my chest and settling like the embers of a fire in the bottom of my throat. I rose slowly from my chair, neither numb nor aching, vampires could sit for a thousand years without even beginning to feel the numbness that a human would feel after a spending a few hours in a seated position. I made my way slowly outside until I was clear of the castle’s colossal shadow and bathed in the moonlight of a crescent moon that shone down upon Italy.

I strolled cautiously through the thick forest, teeming with wildlife, until I reached the other side, thankfully unharmed. I was always on guard these times. I entered the town and walked the familiar path of the shopping district which was still abundant with closed stalls and leftover waste that was strewn across the cobbled path. I made my way to a nearby building that was affording a dark shadow in which I could use to shroud my ascension to the roof. I scaled the brick wall easily, a short jump was all it took to ascend. As I crouched down low enough to keep myself hidden, I peered over the ledge that was blocking my view and began to take in the incredible sight before me. Houses of all colours were visible in the concrete maze that I considered to be my hunting ground. I saw hunting almost as much a recreational activity as it was necessary. I loved to look over the city on a night like this, the way the moonlight fell on the buildings and tress, warping the picturesque image, making it more sinister looking and eerie.

I smiled slightly to myself as I imagined someone watching me and what I must look like to them. I cast my eyes over the scene before me, not admiring this time, but searching for a lone target which would make an easy, discreet kill. For a few minutes, my eyes fell upon nothing but the cobbled path and silvery-green leaves of the trees and bushes, then I caught a glimpse of a figure skulking slowly in the shadow of an overhanging willow tree. I watched it closely for a moment, yes the figure moved slowly, I guesses they were elderly, and by studying the way it took each step, I guesses too that the elderly person was a woman.

I stood up and looked down, I was an easy twenty feet high but was unperturbed by this. I took a small step forward and allowed myself to fall to the ground. I landed precisely on the balls of my feet, silent and still. I took the path to my right and wove in and out of the shadows taking short cuts when they appeared and a after a few minutes, I was stalking the old woman. I saw her in front of me, she crossed in front of the alley in which I was crouched, shrouded in the dark shadow, my black, billowing cloak wrapped tightly around me affording me the perfect cover. I watched her with cold, black eyes, a hungry expression drawing across my face. I waited for the perfect moment to strike. Just as she came close to the shadow in which I crouched, I struck as quick as a snake, leaning forward to grab her and then closing my iron fingers round her arm in a vice-like grip and pulled her in.

I leant in close as she began to scream and sank my sharp teeth deep into her carotid artery. Blood gushed into my mouth, sending me into some internal frenzy. I gripped harder causing her arms to break with a sickening snap that echoed in the empty alley. Her screams faded as the poison from my canines entered her bloodstream causing her organs to shut down rapidly. I drained all the blood I needed from her and then let her fall to the ground, the remaining blood trickled out of two holes in her neck and into her tweed cardigan, dying the blue fabric a deep scarlet. I watched as the lights began to leave her eyes and she drew her final, rattling breath before slumping into an eternal rest. I left the body on the ground and exited the alley. I turned left and made my way back to the castle. I felt an endless rush of pure power and adrenaline flow into my muscles. My legs felt like my muscle fibres were made of steel and my fists felt like clubs on the end of thick steel arms. The power I felt was linked directly to the time scale in which I chose to feed. The immediate after-effects is when a vampire is strongest. The next few stages causes the vampire to become slightly stronger, but his mind will not be functioning quite as well as a post-feed mind would and so he is more dangerous immediately after a feed.

After the effects of the few stronger days have worn off, the vampire then begins to sink into a blood starvation phase in which not only is his mind badly affected, his power will have diminished greatly as would his speed and agility and the ability to quickly recover from an injury. It is in this phase a vampire is most easily killed and was exactly how Maria was killed, in the blood starvation phase. She was not strong enough to heal the wounds nor resist the spikes that crushed her. It was rather difficult to think of still, even after all these months that had passed since her death. It was only when a crunching sound filled my ears did I even begin to notice I was trudging up the gravelled path of Castle Blackmoor.

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