The Devil's Gift

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XXVIII

I must inform Sophia, this was it, this was the secret they’d been hiding. I knew all along there was something peculiar but this was not what I expected. I stood up so fast my chair toppled over but I did not care. I flung the door open, nearly ripping it clean from its hinges in my haste to exit, and whisked down the stairs. I took a right hand turn and quickly made my way to the council chamber. The guards outside only just noticed my approach and moved out of the way just in time before I burst through the double doors. Inside was Markus and Reyjak chatting socially with Iandu, Riodean and Dale who each turned their heads to me in look of deepest surprise at my sudden entrance. They surveyed my expression inquisitively.

‘Sophia,’ I said, ‘where is she, it’s of the utmost importance I speak to her.’

‘I believe she said she wished for some time to be alone, you could try your bedroom?’ Suggested Dale. I nodded, turned on my heel and blew out of the council chamber, rushing with haste to my bedroom. Up a flight of stairs I went and whisked down a corridor, stopping at the end where the door to my bedroom was slightly ajar. I burst in. Sophia was sat neatly in a wooden chair, immersed in a novel, she looked up at me and said,

‘Reyjak informed me of your return, he said you spoke of a book, I didn’t want to disturb you, I’ve been worried Roconn. I’ve read the same line about thirty times now, I just can’t seem to stop worrying lately.’ She sighed as she put the book down on the table beside her. The hulking form of the shaggy werewolf, Venator, hung over Sophia like a giant tree, his long arms drooping at his side, his piercing yellow eyes hung on me with a peculiar stare.

I nodded to the giant form of the werewolf who let out a soft rumble.

‘You may go hunt if you wish to do so, but please, be discreet.’ Though he was just an animal, he seemed to understand me on an intellectual level and though he may not have needed to hunt, he understood I was asking to be alone with Sophia and obeyed me. I sat down on the bed and I could contain myself no longer. I quickly burst into a tale recounting everything that had happened since Reyjak and I had left for the Vatican, excluding the part about my nearly being discovered, up until now where I explained in great detail how I had been staring at the blank book when the moonlight revealed a map on the inside cover which was labelled Agartha.

Then it hit me, the reason I felt so familiar with the runes on the cover and the key was because they were the same runes marked on Agartha’s entranceway in the city. Once more, another epiphany hit me, the arrow on the map at the bottom of a large lake, that was the entrance to Agartha!

Sophia seemed completely stunned and at an obvious loss of words when I told her all of this. She sat there with her mouth agape and I waited for her response.

‘Roconn,’ she said slowly in an almost condescending manner, ‘are you definitely sure that the map just wrote itself?’ I could not understand it, she didn’t believe me.

‘Why would I lie about it?’ I said harshly. I found her intolerance to my discovery only made me annoyed.

‘I’m not saying you’re lying, perhaps it was the shadow?’ She said unconvincingly.

’Don’t patronize me, I know what I saw and I’m telling you the map was there. I’ll show you. I said defiantly. She agreed, though I had a strong feeling it was more about proving me wrong than because she thought I was right. We left the bedroom and headed back to the study where the door was still wide open from me bursting out, crossed the room to the desk and there we hovered over the book. It was blank. Sophia fixed me with an evident I-told-you-so look that only invoked my anger that much more.

‘The map was there.’ I said sternly. I looked out the window, the moon was indeed still shining but Sophia was stood between the moonlight and the book, her own shadow casting over the dry pages.

‘Move out the way, you’re blocking the moonlight,’ I said. She glared at me but nevertheless shifted to the left, allowing the moonlight to now fall back onto the pages of the book. As it had done before, the map began to write itself, weaving its way across the page like a giant serpent. The Kingdom of Scientia appeared along with the Forest of Nex, the Lake of Absconsus and the Mountains of Ardua. A long and winding path snaked its way, starting at the lake, then wending its way to the forest, then the mountains and finally the kingdom. There was something else, something I had not noticed at first, there was a small black circle drawn around the very centre of the city, it seemed peculiar but I did not investigate it further.

As the map had drawn itself, Sophia’s mouth had fallen open and was now hanging agape, a look of shock carved into her beautiful face.

‘I told you the map was there.’ I said in an almost smug voice; it was hard to keep the happiness out of my voice. The importance of this discovery was monumental, but still, it was difficult to understand what exactly we had just discovered.

‘I don’t know what to say, this is remarkable!’ Sophia exclaimed, her voice reaching higher as it shook with disbelief. She stared wide-eyed at the pages, seemingly unable to believe their existence.

‘Agartha…’ She said slowly, tracing her finger over the thick black writing.

‘Yes, I found it rather odd too… I wonder what’s there.’ I mused. ‘Look here,’ I tapped my finger on the drawn circle, ‘It seems clearly marked, someone put this in here, it looked, at first, like a part of the building, but looking closer, someone has drawn it in, their marking something. I don’t know what’s there and I’m not sure if I even want to know. But they knew, the pope and his cardinals, I don’t know how many of the cardinals knew, but I know the pope does.’

Sophia eyes still lingered on the drawn map. She began rifling through the pages, her voice becoming stunned. This confused me. I stared at the pages as she flicked through them and every page, besides the map, was blank, even in the moonlight, I did not understand why she seemed so shocked to see blank pages.

‘Sophia, what’s wrong?’ I asked curiously.

‘Well, just look at these symbols and markings!’ She said, laying her fingertip on a random point in the blank book. I stared puzzlingly at her.

‘I don’t understand, there’s no symbols there.’ I said slowly.

‘Right there, in front of your eyes!’ She said loudly, as if I was feigning blindness for the sole intention of making her annoyed.

‘There’s nothing there…’ I said quietly. She regarded me carefully, her brows furrowed in concentration.

‘You mean you can’t see them?’ She asked.

‘See what? I don’t know what you’re talking about, it’d just blank page after blank page!’ I said started to get annoyed, why is it she could see something I couldn’t? Then all of a sudden, an idea formed. ‘Wait a second, you say you can see symbols, but I see nothing but the bare parchment yes?’ I asked.

‘It appears so.’ Replied Sophia.

‘Maybe it’s some sort of defence mechanism? A way to stop evil from reading the book? You see, the pope had the book on a pedestal, easily in view of the window for the moonlight, but maybe there’s something else that prevents me from reading it.’ I suggested. Sophia pondered this momentarily before suggesting,

‘You know that almost sound about right, it would certainly be an efficient way of keeping the sacred knowledge from the hands of the evil vampires, no offence.’ She added.

‘So how do we test this theory?’ I asked.

‘I have an idea, follow me.’ She said, and with that, she snapped the book shut, scooped it up, and was making her way down the stairs to the living area where Armaita was in deep conversation with a handsome male who seemed deeply interested in what she had to say.

‘Armaita, a word if you please, if you’ll excuse us.’ I added to the male who nodded, agreeing. We made our way outside where the moon cast the grounds in a swamp of silvery light.

‘What’s the problem?’ Asked the angel, looking at Sophia and I with an inquisitive gaze.

‘This book,’ began Sophia, waving it before the angel’s eyes, ‘we acquired it from the Vatican, Roconn claims he cannot read anything beyond the map which is drawn beneath the cover, would you mind having a look and telling us what you see?’ Asked Sophia, getting straight to the point.

‘Of course.’ Armaita replied. She took the book from Sophia’s outstretched hands, opened the cover and was overcome with the same disbelief as Sophia as the blank page before her eyes began filling with blank ink, drawing the map of Agartha. After studying the map for a moment, she too, began rifling through the pages. After a few minutes of silence, I could take it no longer.

‘Well, what do you see?’ I asked eagerly.

‘I don’t know, there’s symbols everywhere, it’s nothing like I’m used to.’ She said.

‘Do you think there is a possible way of deciphering the symbols?’ I asked.

‘I’m not sure, most likely, but for that, I’ll need something to reference it with. Was there anything else? Anything at all that had symbols on?’ She asked, her face composed with a deep look of awe as she continued scouring the pages that were blank in my eyes.

I dug into my pockets and withdrew the ornate key and passed it to her.

‘This was everything, we turned the office upside-down, this was all there was.’ I said, rather disappointingly.

‘This might just do, it’s going to take some time, I’m going to need the moonlight and there is not much to go on to decipher the whole thing, you’ll have to come back some other time, it looks like this is going to take some time.’ She sighed.

‘Thank you Armaita, I truly appreciate your assistance.’ I said gratefully. She nodded and made her way to the stone bench, dedicated to Maria’s memory, and sat upon it, the thick book open on her lap, her head bent low over the pages and the key.

For days I would watch closely as each night that the moon shone bright over Italy, Armaita would be straight to the book, poring over it, absorbed in the task she was doing. I continuously found myself, not intentionally I might add, hovering over her, perhaps seeing if tonight, the symbols which so clearly vexed the angel, appeared before my eyes. Never did they once show, not even if I tilted my head or bent my knee, it was impossible for me to read the contents of this puzzling book. We still had no clue where it came from, who wrote it or what it was about, all we saw were symbols and a map.

I began to feel a familiar thirst creeping up inside my throat, setting alight almost.

‘I need to go out, my throat…’ I said to Sophia one night when the moon was frustratingly hidden in the night sky. I neglected in saying precisely what I was doing when I left, though Sophia knew, she hated the fact an innocent had to die so I could live and so, in an unspoken agreement, we never spoke of my appetite.

‘Alright, be safe.’ She said and planted a soft kiss on my cheek, I cast my eyes over her pale face.

‘I will my lady, I won’t be long.’ I promised. With that, I swept away into the forest. As I made my way through and out the other side, I kicked up a gear and began to blitz down the uneven pitted path that separated the castle from the city. I sped at incredible speed, constantly keeping an eye on the path ahead. Soon the buildings became visible as I neared the city. I slowed to a more natural pace and entered the maze that was teeming with possible hunting targets. I began to feel the familiar buzz that always sent the fire in my throat raging harshly. The adrenaline began to kick in as I crossed the border into the city, nodding to a guard that stood watch as I did so. Little did anyone know, the guard was a vampire, he’d pick off lonely targets odd times when he was on duty and claimed either they were already dead or perhaps they somehow broke the law and he was forced to kill them, each death seemingly with a single swipe of the sword to the neck.

Due to his reputation with apparent skill with a sword, no one dared challenge his judgement. Of course, the wound to the neck was not sustained by the sword. The guard nodded back at me.

‘I’ve heard there is a race on tonight my lord, runners, cutting along the town square and through the alley to the north east. Well there will be at least one I can guarantee if you so desire my lord.’ Whispered the guard with tight lips.

‘No, I admire your generosity this evening but I will locate my own target.’ I said, equally with tight lips; I did not want anyone who might be watching notice I was speaking to the guard. I could not afford any slight inclination I knew the guard and risk the others finding out I had the guards in my pocket. In truth, there were around twelve vampires that I had infiltrated in the guard. It was always handy to have my own sources inside the guard, especially when clearing away the corpses, it aided the secrecy of the vampires’ existence greatly.

I slowly strolled through the town keeping an eye on a number of runners that were indeed passing through. I did not break pace nor did I respond when one of them hurtled past me ordering me to stand out of the way of the course. I could not be doing with the attention it would undoubtedly draw should I choose to hurl him throw the nearest brick wall.

I took a detour from my usual path and headed down a less familiar alley, cutting through to a paved path way that was home to a number of taverns. I looked toward the end of the road where the buildings were thinner in numbers and distinctly noticed and young woman, around twenty I’d say, leave one of the tall buildings, slam the door shut and hurled insults at the person who was leaning out of the window.

‘I told you I don’t want to! Why don’t you listen to me?’ She yelled.

‘Look I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, please come back inside let’s talk about this!’ He screamed back. Though it was clearly not evident to her, I could see the anger building in the young man’s eyes from across the street.

‘It’s not going to happen, I don’t want to see you again!’ She yelled back at him, her voice cracking with rage. With that, the young woman turned and strode further up the road, rounded the corner and went out of sight. Little was they to know, they never would see each other again. I’d picked my target. I turned around into the alley once more as the young man withdrew from the window. I looked at the wall, my vision pulsating almost with adrenaline and launched myself up it, flinging myself over the top and onto the roof.

I crouched silently, peering over the edge of the building in front. I could make out the woman once more, she was strutting angrily toward the direction of the couple’s park. I guessed she would more than likely go there. A relationship ended in rage, the young woman would undoubtedly want to revel in her memories with the man and where better to do it than the park which every couple visits. Over the many years, I’d come to learn, those who are infuriated with their spouse, usually end up here, tonight was surely another of those obvious nights.

I sped along roof, closing the distance between myself and the girl and leapt with great agility to the other side of the street, once more landing in a low crouch that rendered me almost invisible to those on the ground. I sped along the roof tiles, my shoes barely making a sound even to me, and dashed along the next row of building tops that was separated by a large alley which took almost no effort to cross. I had since passed the young woman and was now confident I was not in her line of sight. I took a quick glance over the edge of the building on which I was running across, and leapt down after ensuring there was no one that could see me.

I hit the floor equally as silent and made a quick path to the park that was now only a few yards in front of me. I dashed onto the grass, shrouded by the overhanging trees and thick bushes that required pruning. I took a seat beneath a large oak tree that still afforded me an excellent view of the entrance to the park. I looked around me, there were no couples enjoying the night air, no romance blossoming, no birds singing. It was beautifully quiet. I closed my eyes, enjoying the tranquillity until my victim arrived.

A few minutes later, my prediction was once again true and I picked up the faint footsteps of small woman as she approached. I kept still and quiet, keeping my eyes firmly shut as she proceeded onto the grass and her footsteps became muffled. I heard a thump as she slumped onto the grass, presumably beneath a tree so the echoing informed me. I waited for the inevitable tears that were soon to follow and I was once more proved correct. The young woman began to cry and weep into her arms, her knees tucked into her chest. I opened my eyes fully, after allowing myself a small slit from which I could take a peek at my target.

They always seemed to cry, I couldn’t stand watching young women cry, their hearts were so soft. It was time life taught her the final lesson she would learn, never trust a stranger. I made my way over to her, composed my face into something of a pitiful expression and took a seat beside her. She heard me sit down and she raised her head from her red dress with a torn shoulder strap and looked at me with puffy red eyes, tears still dribbling out of the corners of her eyes.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked, feigning interest in a mock sympathetic tone.

‘Nothing, I’m fine.’ She sniffed. I once again was baffled as to why, when someone asks a crying person how they are, they always seemed to say they’re fine. I raised my eyebrows inquisitively.

‘Fine people don’t cry.’ I said plainly. She sniffed again and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

‘Oh who am I kidding? It’s my boyfriend, well, he was my boyfriend and he wanted to get kind of… Physical, I wasn’t ready for that and he began to shout and he tried to touch me but I pushed him away and he grabbed my hair and he tried to…’ She seemed unable to finish her sentence and began to cry once more, burying her head into her arms. For the first time in a while, I began to feel something other than thirst and bloodlust. I felt pity. I began to inquire further.

‘What was this boy’s name?’ I asked.

‘His name is Marco, he lives up that street.’ She wept and pointed her finger down the street from which she came.

‘I’ll go have a word with him.’ I said kind-heartedly, why I was doing this I wasn’t sure, but I felt a kind of pull to help her, perhaps I could change her, offer her a new life. She seemed either unwilling or unable to respond and continued crying into her red dress which was quite quickly becoming soaked. I made my way out of the park and, after checking there was no one around, I sped up, arriving at the building from which Marco had leant out of ten minutes ago. I tried the front door which was unlocked and strode in. I closed the door silently behind me. The first thing that hit me was the smell, I silently begged forgiveness from my nose for putting it through such torture. It was a mixture of stale tobacco, lingering alcohol and body odour, together it was truly disgusting.

I mused for a moment, perhaps we could offer to fight the angels in here, the smell alone would likely do the job of dispatching them. I crept through the dingy, filthy hallway and poked my head round the corner of the wall. It just so happened that at the exact moment I spotted the young man sat down, a bottle of alcohol grasped in his hand, did he spot me. He wasted no time in lunging for me, knocking the chair over as he rushed at me in a drunken manor. His feeble attempts at supposed self-defence were almost comical and I took great pleasure in grasping a handful of his dirty hair and ramming his head through the brick wall that separated the hall from the living room. His furious yells were instantly muted as his face made contact with the stone. I watched the blood trickle out of his ears and down his neck with great satisfaction.

I left the building, someone would soon discover the body, and made my way back to the park where still, the young woman had her head in her arms though she had stopped crying. I crossed the distance quickly but remained standing this time.

‘I have taken care of Marco.’ I said bluntly. Her face raised from her arms and twitched slightly.

‘What do you mean? He can’t hurt me anymore?’ She asked.

‘He won’t be hurting anyone again.’ I replied softly, my voice silky. I felt it best to be honest here, how she reacted depended on her value to me. She would either be dinner, or be reborn once more to a form that cannot be hurt so easily. She merely sniffed and looked at me blankly, then she looked to the ground.

‘Good, he deserved what he got.’ She said stiffly.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘Isirith.’ She muttered quietly, her eyes still pinned to the floor.

‘I am Roconn Romano.’ I announced rather grandly. I disregarded any further attempts at small talk and began to steer the conversation around to even footing and my plans for her.

‘Tell me Isirith,’ I said as I began to pace in front of her. ‘Who are your parents? Surely they would be worried about you out so late.’ I inquired.

‘I don’t have any parents, I was orphaned growing up.’ She said, confirming my suspicions. I allowed her a moment to explain briefly what it was like growing up with no parents to look up to or ask for advice.

‘Tell me, if you were given a chance to be so much more than you are now, a chance to live in a world without fear, what would you give?’

‘Anything.’ She replied simply. This was it, another vampire to aid my defence.

‘Come, stand.’ I said, offering my hand. She stared momentarily at it before grasping it and pulling herself onto her feet.

‘You’re cold.’ She said confusingly, it was clearly not a cold night.

‘I am something much more than cold. I am the night around you, the darkness inside you, I am the fear that brings you to your knees and I am the power that destroys all who oppose me… I am a vampire.’ I said, watching her reactions closely. At first, her face was a picture of confusion, then it slowly turned to fear. Her words seemed unable to fall from the mouth that trying desperately to say something. I continued on with my demonstration in the empty park.

‘I’m sure you’re wondering how honest am I being with you. More honest than with most that I meet. Allow me to demonstrate.’ I looked toward a tree at the very end of the park, at least quarter of a mile away and ran straight to it and back at full speed. Isirith’s mouth was now hanging open, unable to believe what she’d just witnessed. Less than a full second had passed in between me finishing my sentence, and running to the tree and back. She stared disbelievingly at me.

‘You see, I am telling the truth.’ I said and now waited for an answer.

‘I think I believe you now.’ She said breathlessly.

‘Are you afraid?’ I asked.

‘Terrified beyond comprehension.’ She whispered as I neared closer. She seemed paralysed by fear.

‘You need not fear me, if I wanted you dead we would not be having this conversation. I’m offering you a choice, a chance to be more than this, to live forever, to become join me.’ She contemplated this slowly, her eyes flitting from me to the entrance and back, seemingly judging if she could run away in time. Evidently she decided not and remained rooted to the spot.

‘You want me to be one of you a… A… Vampire?’ She stuttered.

‘Only if you wish it so.’ I corrected her. I knew long before she answered what she was going to say.

‘Yes.’ She whispered. I smiled and stepped closer to her, now towering over her. I went as if to embrace her, lent in slowly to her neck and whispered,

‘This is going to be the single most painful experience of your life.’ I heard a sharp intake of breath as I sunk my canines into her carotid artery, not drinking the blood this time, but letting the poison flow into her blood stream. I pulled myself free from her neck and watched as she silently fell to the floor and began to twitch and jerk, her face contorting into a mask of pure pain, as if she had just been tossed into a fire.

Ironically, that’s what the change felt like, like being tossed into a roaring fire except the fire was inside you like every organ, blood vessel and bone was smouldering beneath the skin. The pain was unbearable but there was not enough poison in her blood stream to kill her, only enough to turn her. She thrashed around on the floor, unable to scream through the burning change. A few minutes later and she was still thrashing and jerking on the grass though the changes were now beginning to take effect. Though she was slim, her stomach shifted back beneath her dress and her exposed legs began to form diamond hard muscle as did the rest of her body. Her hair became soft and sleek, her eyes wide open in terror. It was soon complete, and she lay on the floor breathing hard, her body limp.

It took her a moment for her to recover herself, mentally shocked by the ordeal, though she would no longer feel the pain. Post transformation, it was like all the pain you could endure was suddenly gone, in a split second, you felt no pain, nothing. She stood up, fast as lightening, onto her feet and held her arms out as if to steady herself.

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