The Devil's Gift

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We entered the clearing with much regret and trudged our way through the darkness and gloom. We passed trees of odd shapes, and dodged thick protruding roots that threatened to trip us had we not been paying attention to the path. It took us about fifteen minutes to wend our way through the forest, a time longer than normal, but we put it down to procrastination. We finally left the trees behind and were now faced with the long path that would see us into the city and into the bowels of Agartha, a step into the unknown. We proceeded down the path before a familiar, yet unearthly fog rolled in, trapping us in its unyielding form.

‘My children, I appear to you now to aid you in your quest.’ Came the floating disembodied voice of the Devil herself, Lucia, ruler of the underworld and all its creatures. We all fell to one knee and hailed the arrival our dark mistress. She seemed to float through the fog, her feet barely sweeping across the ground. She was truly the embodiment of beauty, her flawless face sparkling as did the rest of her skin, it seemed to shimmer yet there was no light, no moon to cast the silvery pools onto the ground, no stars twinkling in the night sky, it was if all the light had gone from the world.

‘Mistress.’ We chanted as she set herself before us, towering over us as if we were children.

‘Stand.’ She said softly, her voice echoing mysteriously as if she spoke from behind a veil that led to a world beyond this one. We all stood as instructed. ‘I know where you go, I know of your plan and I know it is a futile attempt. You alone cannot destroy the weapon, it is foolish to try.’ She said with a tone of pity. ’But you are not alone, there is but one power on this earth that might be strong enough to destroy it, might.’ She said, emphasising the last word.

‘We will do whatever is required my lady.’ I said quietly, bowing my head.

‘I know you will. Sophia, I know this cannot be easy for you, I never wanted you to suffer because of me, for that, I am truly sorry.’ Lucia spoke sweetly to Sophia.

‘Mistress,’ began Sophia slowly, ‘were it not for you, I would never have known truth or love, or loyalty. It is because of you I am with child, I have what I always dreamt of, if it is my time to go, I go with happiness knowing my life had a purpose beyond slavery and servitude.’ Lucia smiled.

‘Your words do me great kindness. Now, if you wish to destroy the weapon you need someone pure of heart to wield it as you will already know. The weapon must then be taken from Agartha and as soon as you are clear, you must allow me to take you to my realm, this you must do willingly. Once there, we will attempt to destroy it, in Agartha or on this earth, it is closely protected by God’s power, in my realm, it is the farthest it can ever be from its creator and it will be at its weakest, there we will try to be rid of the weapon. You must understand the path before you is dangerous and fraught with peril, be safe. I will wait for your return.’ Lucia said kindly, her words distant yet so close at the same time.

‘Thank you my lady, I only hope we have the time it will take. If we are unsuccessful, I wish to thank you for the chance you have given me to make things right.’ I replied smoothly.

‘You’ve been more than loyal all these years, I will do what I can to ensure your safety, be well.’ She added fondly before departing in a swirl of mist. The eerie fog began creep back exposing the pitted path that would take us to our journey’s beginning. We watched as the stars popped back into the night sky and the moon appeared once more shining brightly onto my face. I did not speak, I merely put one foot in front of the other and resumed our walk as if we were not stopped. It didn’t take us long before the giant walls of the city loomed into view. I took a moment to appreciate the sight I had become so familiar with, the way the moonlight fell onto the walls and the tips of the buildings that poked out over the top. In the distance, I noticed the obelisk centred in the piazza in the Vatican City.

‘I can’t believe where we’re about to go, the legendary Agartha.’ Breathed Oceana.

‘I know, it’s strange, it feels like somehow, I always knew we’d end up there.’ I said. Though the task was fraught with danger, I was indeed eager to see beyond the end of the lake, something I’d been captivated by since I first set foot there.

‘I’ve always dreamt of seeing the Kingdom of Scientia.’ Armaita said keenly.

‘How do you…’ I began but she was too quick to respond.

‘Oh, I heard that Deus had created the place, I saw drawings in Heaven, the beauty was something magical. I never knew, of course, what its true purpose was.’ She added quickly when I began to scowl. Finally, the large towering walls passed behind us as we strode the giant gate and made our way to the entrance of Agartha. I wove left and right, bypassing the town square and made a few left turns, then another right. On and on it went, deeper into the city we ventured. Finally, the familiar seven foot stone wall loomed upon us.

I proceeded to count the correct stones until I was knelt beside the one I knew to be right,

‘I wish to enter.’ I spoke clearly but quietly. As I knew it would, I stood up and watched as the stone wall began to melt away revealing the doorway to Agartha. I looked upon the frame, engraved with strange runes, familiar yet I had no idea what they said. Almost instinctively, I delved my hand into my pocket and grasped the strange key that warped and misshapen.

‘Well, in we go.’ I said disregarding the stunned faces of Armaita and Oceana who had never witnessed this before. We proceeded inside, the archway melting back into stone once we were inside. We were greeted by the familiar blue haze that hung on the air, encompassing everything in it from the moss covered, stone walls, to the vampires and angels all congregated at the entrance. The floor too was covered in thick green moss that had begun to flower an odd array of weeds, that which I’d never seen before. They were yellow, like a combination of a rose and daisy, with pink flecks of colour along its red stem. We kept close to each other as we wended our way down the path. It began to slope and widen as we entered the ginormous cavern. We approached the ledge that overlooked the cavern.

As we gazed out upon it, Oceana gasped and I fixed my eye on the end of the lake, unable to see past it. Going on the map which Armaita had just pulled out, we were underneath a giant mountain and the lake seemed to begin here. I looked up, over a hundred feet high where the rocks had begun to sprout large blue crystals that emitted a hazy gas-like smoke that explained the blue mist we were all trapped in. We could not feel the mist catching in our throat, nor did it have a smell or taste, it was simply there. I decided not to ponder too long and insisted we make for the lift. We all clambered upon the large wooden plank that allowed us to descend slowly using a large rope that hung like a giant serpent from a mechanism somewhere near the ceiling.

We began to descend and a few moments later, thudded onto the floor. We all clambered off stepped onto the stone that was neither warm nor cold and moulded itself to the contours of our feet yet held supreme stability. I made my way over the lake and stared into the mirror-like reflection. The surface of the water was deathly still. I knelt down to it and plunged my hands into the water. It was unlike any other water that had washed over my hands before. It really was as Sophia had described, it was softer than usual, and seemed to cress the skin rather than just exist, it was like it had a mind and was thinking. It was all rather difficult to comprehend and explain to Oceana who seemed fascinated by the cavernous underbelly of the mountain.

‘Come, put your hands in, you’ll see what I mean.’ I invited to Oceana. She came over quickly but surveyed the water nervously though I could see the eagerness in her eyes. ‘It’s safe, don’t worry.’ I said to her. She knelt down and she too plunged her hands into the water, evidently feeling the same curious sensation as I had.

‘Come over here!’ She said excitedly to Armaita who did so willingly. For an angel and a vampire, Oceana and Armaita seemed rather close. Armaita did not hesitate in submerging her hands beneath the water and she and Oceana began an excited discussion over the magical feel of Agartha.

I scooped up a handful of water and washed my face, Sophia joining me but also filling a large leather drinking bag with water. We took a minute to prepare our things that had been brought, mainly the foot for Armaita and Sophia. I and Oceana had no way of sustaining our thirst and we instead took a vow to control our needs. Instead, we had filled a few bottles with blood taken from the fountains and made sure to keep them hidden from the sight of the angels.

‘So where’s our next move?’ Asked Oceana.

‘Well,’ began Armaita, pulling out the map that had been traced onto another sheet of parchment, ‘our best bet would be to follow the Lake of Absconsus all the way down towards the Forest of Nex, then cross through the forest and into the Mountains of Ardua, from there, we have a long final stretch before we reach the Kingdom of Scientia. It’s going to take a while, but we have no other options.’

‘That’ll have to do.’ Sophia piped up.

‘Well, there’s no point in waiting, if you’re all ready, we begin our long and important journey.’ I said. Armaita stowed the map away into a pocket in her white silken dress, and we all set off at a steady pace following the lake.

I began to stare blankly at the rock, the blue haze slowly disappearing until the air became clear and free from mist. The rocks seemed to swirl slightly, I don’t know how, but it’s as if they were not really rock at all, but a liquid of some sort, it was quite difficult to try and understand but I gave into temptation, breaking away from the group that had been walking for about an hour, and made my way over to the rock. I stood an inch from it, my nose almost brushing its furry coating.

‘What are you doing?’ Asked Sophia curiously, watching me with a strange expression.

‘This wall, it seems different somehow, like it’s not really here.’ I spoke more to myself.

‘Roconn I wouldn’t touch it, we don’t know what this place can do, please just come back over here and let’s keep going.’ She spoke, a tone of plea creeping into her voice.

‘Hold on.’ I said, a little harsher than I had intended. The wall seemed to swirl before me, I wonder what it felt like I though. I began to reach out slowly, my fingertips almost touching the rock, unable to control myself. Quicker than lightening, Oceana had sped over to me and wrenched hard on my arm, pulling me back from the wall. Just as I fell backwards, I watched as the swirling wall began to shimmer and vibrate then it parted in two, revealing a pupil that was as tall as I was, a black slit in a yellow sea of iris. At once, the room began vibrate and move beneath our feet, the lake began to rush downwards as the floor began to slope.

It seemed the colossal cavern in which we had been walking the body of a giant beast that seemed to dwell in the entrance to Agartha. It was hundreds of feet wide and terrifying to look upon.

‘RUN!’ I shouted, as if they needed telling. We all began to speed off but it seemed that here in Agartha, our strength was weakened substantially and so our speed was decreased dramatically. I gave little thought to the diminishing of our strength and was instead focused on keeping Sophia safe. We ran toward the light at the end of the lake, still upon the now roiling body of the beast that had its eye fixated on us, like a giant feline stalking its prey. Though we were still running on the back of the beast, we soon managed to reach the light and dove as far as we could out from the cave and into the giant body of water that was sloshing about outside the cave. An ear-splitting roar echoed around the cave and I watched with great fear as the mountain that was miles tall shook and rumbled.

I looked around for Sophia who was clinging onto a rock that was protruding from the lake who had also been watching, panic-stricken, at the shaking mountain.

‘What on earth was that?’ She half-shouted half-gasped.

‘I don’t know.’ I choked, the water clogging my throat. I cast my eyes around for Oceana and Armaita who had made it safely to the lake’s edge and was too, in shock over the beast that lurked in the mountain’s cave. I helped Sophia to the edge of the lake.

‘Roconn,’ she gasped, ‘the light, you’re not… I mean, you’re alive, how?’ She asked. It was strange, I hadn’t even given it another thought, I looked up and gazed at what appeared to be the sun, it dazzled my brilliant eyes.

‘Just think, we’re miles underground, it must be some sort of simulated sun.’ Armaita proposed.

‘I guess you’re right.’ I said simply, I had no clue as to what the hovering orb in the sky was, nor did I understand how I could look up, supposedly forever and could not see the roof, for there must be a roof if we were underground. It seemed to mentally tire me out trying to comprehend it all. I began to take in the scenery around me, for as far as I could see beside the mountain, there was fields bursting with colours of all sorts, even some I could not name, it was an ocean of flowers and trees all swaying gently in the breeze that seemed to be swirling around us causing the waves of the lake to slap up onto the stones, its rippling surface sparkling in the light of the sun above us. In the distance, along the route of the lake I could just make out the tips of the trees of a dense forest that seemed to span miles across.

I looked beyond the mountain, as far as I could see, the beautiful sunlight touched everything as if darkness did not exist. I looked closer into the lake from which we had just emerged, there were fish swimming, small ones, though I’d never seen a fish like that, they were long and spindly but with large fins and oddly-shaped tails that billowed out behind them as they swam.

‘This place, it’s so unlike the world we’re used to.’ Breathed Armaita.

‘It’s unreal, it’s so… Magical.’ Oceana whispered back. I listened to the sounds that had had only just become apparent. There were tweets of the birds somewhere in the sky, the sound of the lake as it rippled in the wind and followed the current. I also noticed sounds I was not used to hearing, there were noises like whispers on the wind, voices almost, they were muttering indistinctly and I could not make out the words they uttered. I turned my ear toward the forest that lay far in the distance and I picked up the voices more.

‘Turn back.’ It whispered, barely audible.

‘Save yourselves.’ Another voice muttered.

‘He’s coming.’ The third spoke, almost drowned out by the wind that carried it to me. I knew this was dangerous, voices on the wind would not make me head back, even if I could enter the cave without being killed. We picked up our things which had seemed to fall into the water after our quick escape. My feet began to sink slightly in the wet pebbles as we trudged our way up the shore until we found solid footing. We came to a long path, green on either side, more vibrant and colourful than on the earth’s surface. The path was straight, very straight and it lead toward the forest. We began a slow approach to the forest but it seemed that with each step, the distance remained the same, like we were never getting closer. We must have been walking for hours when I looked back toward the river. There, on the shore line was a brooch, glistening in the setting sun that pored an orange glow over the lake making the surface of the water shimmer beautifully.

I strayed from the path and picked up the brooch that had caught my eye. It was silver, with a blue gem set in the middle. I returned to the path and showed it to Sophia.

‘What’s this?’ She said, turning it over in her fingers.’

‘I don’t know, it looks like a piece of jewellery.’ I said.

‘That’s mine!’ Oceana piped up, taking the brooch from Sophia.

‘What do you mean it’s yours? We’ve been walking for hours, you’ve been here.’ I said. Nobody spoke, we were all thinking the same thing. Just as Armaita opened her mouth, a giant creature the size of two lions, one stood on the back of the other, strode out from a bush. The creature was golden and scaly like a crocodile and walked on six legs, much like a dog would. It had a long sweeping tail that ended in a tuft of fur. Its heads, both of them, were huge, about the size of a horse’s. Not only was the creature muscular, sporting three long talons from each of its paws, the thing that really drew the most attention were that both of the head seemed to own a long beak, not unlike an eagle’s.

We all backed off, if it were anything as dangerous as the last beast we came face to face with, we didn’t stand much hope. It walked out with long strides and sat itself in the idle of the path, blocking any progress forwards. We waited in silence, hardly daring to breathe as it looked upon us with a curious gaze as if it were studying us, daring us to move first. We were playing a long and possibly deadly waiting game, one of us had to move first. The minutes passed like they were hours, all spent in a stony silence, deathly still. The air was thick with fear. The giant beast slowly began to open its right beak and clicked it twice, the other head clicking back twice. The clicking went on for about a minute when it began to stand once more.

‘I am Sophos, guardian of the path to Scientia. Who are you?’ The beast spoke with a deep voice, hissing on the ‘S’ slightly with a rumbling tone that reminded me vaguely of a wise old man.

‘I am Roconn Romano, this is Oceana, Sophia and Armaita.’ I spoke, trying to sound more confident than I felt and pointing at each of my group as I spoke their name.

‘I see, you have come to Agartha at a troubling time. What is your business here?’ It spoke slowly. I thought carefully, telling the truth might invoke its anger so I settled with only telling it half of the truth.

‘My people are in danger, the hope we seek lies in the kingdom.’ I said, not looking it directly in the golden eyes that pierced me.

‘I sense there is more to your presence here than you are speaking. Wise.’ The guardian spoke.

‘May we cross the path?’ I asked it nervously.

‘That remains to be seen. I have for each of you a test, should you each pass your given test, I will permit you to pass.’ The creature said.

I thought on this and turned to Sophia.

‘We don’t have a choice, our best chance is to see what the creature asks.’ She said. Well, a better plan we did not have and so I turned back to the creature.

‘Alright, but after we hear what the test is, can we chose whether or not to accept it?’

‘You can.’ It replied.

‘Very well, what is this test you have for us?’ I waited patiently yet nervously, not really wanting to know what it could have in store for us.

‘You will each have to pass a separate test, for you, Roconn, you must past the test of faith.’ I cringed as I heard the word ‘faith’. ‘I would ask the others to step back a few paces.’ They did as they were bidden, leaving me standing alone in the centre of the path. We locked eyes as I waited for Sophos to begin the test, I stood patiently but on edge. I watched as the beast began to cough and splutter, sparks flying from its beaks. I watched with nervous anticipation. The sparks quickly became short bursts of flame until the creature was blowing flame from his beaks like it were air. Its heads writhed and thrashed on its huge body and it began to turn toward me, the flames just out of reach of my skin. I remained rooted to the spot, I knew this was a test, surely he wasn’t actually going to kill me. A few second later when it began to back and begin to charge at me, I was starting to question my trust in this creature.

Sophia gasped and clapped her hands to her mouth as the creature bared down upon me and bombarded me with fire. I forced myself to remain in the same spot and endure the flame, I held my breath and waited for the burning sensation that never came. Though the fire spilled over my body, it did not burn, it merely licked over my skin like air. The creature backed off and ceased the attack.

‘Well done, you have passed the test of faith, you are permitted to cross this path. Next, Oceana I do believe it is. Step forward.’ I switched places with Oceana and stood by Sophia’s side, my arm around her shoulder. She looked positively terrified knowing that she was due to endure a test.

’Oceana, you must pass the test of logic to cross this pass, and so I give you this riddle, solve it, and you may pass. I have four wings, but cannot fly, I never laugh and never cry; on the same spot I’m always found, toiling away with little sound. What am I?

Oceana paced back and forth, you could almost see her brain working and clicking like some advanced machine. After a few minutes she turned and looked at the creature, her face bright.

‘The answer is a windmill.’ She said confidently. Sophos stood and glowered at her.

‘Correct, you too, may pass this way. Sophia step forward for your test.’ The beast said with deep rumbling tone. Sophia took Oceana’s place in the path and it was now her turn to be terrified on the spot. ‘Sophia, you may either chose to sacrifice yourself and let the others pass, or sacrifice them and you may pass.’ The creature spoke with an emotionless voice. Armaita gasped and Sophia looked as though she might collapse but she remained in her place and thought it over.

‘Kill me, let them pass unscathed.’ She said, her eyes beginning to brim with tears as she looked at us.’

‘No!’ Armaita shouted as she strode forward and placed herself in front of Sophia. ‘You will not take her, if you want a sacrifice you will take me.’ She said, her voice swimming with authority.

‘You both have passed your tests. Armaita, your test was one of courage, only the courageous would sacrifice themselves for their friends. Sophia, your test was one of love, only those whose heart is full of love wold surrender their life to save their lover’s. You have all passed your tests and the path is now open to you.’ The great guardian bowed its heads and slinked back into the forest from where it came leaving us all alone in the path. I sped over to Sophia and hugged her tight.

‘Never do that again.’ I said, my voice catching. ‘Armaita, thank you. Never would I have expected an angel to be so noble and selfless.’ I said fondly.

‘The child is the most important right now, if that meant sacrificing myself, then so be it.’ She said. There was a few moments of emotional exchanges before we set off again, my eyes still fixed on the spot where the guardian had appeared. We spent half an hour walking, during which time the sun had completely set and a strange moon, bigger than the one I was used to seeing had filled the space in the sky and cast down bright moonlight onto the path before us. It soon became apparent the forest was edging closer and we were glad to finally be making progress. There was a tense silence hanging over the group and I feared we were all thinking the same, that soon, the time would come to attempt to destroy the weapon of God which I felt confident in thinking we had very little chance of success.

‘We need to stop, I’m so tired, we have to find shelter at least for a few hours.’ Sophia groaned, her hand on her growing stomach, the baby was now kicking and causing Sophia great discomfort as she slowly lowered herself to the floor and sat down with my help. She kept a hand on her stomach and massaged it slowly.

‘Are you alright?’ I asked cautiously.

‘Yes, I’m fine, our little baby has a strong kick’ She chuckled which quickly turned into another groan. We had stopped just of the path that ran parallel with the lake, on a large piece of open grass where I looked around me, scouring for some way of providing overhead shelter. Above me, the tall trees had sprouted large branches that had a number of leaves, not unlike those from a palm tree, sagging from it.

‘I’ll be right back,’ I said to Sophia, ‘Oceana, would you look after her please?’ I added as I stood up.

‘Of course my lord.’ She responded and darted over to Sophia’s side.

I darted over to the nearest tree that was sporting large quantities of the large leaves. I began to climb, digging my fingertips in as I did. I reached the tips of the trees and crept along the branch. As I reached the end, I plucked five leaves and leapt down, landing softly, beside Sophia. I put the leaves on the floor and scaled the same tree once more but this time, instead of creeping along the branch, I grasped it firmly and ripped it from the tree, the sound echoing through the open area. I dropped the branch to Oceana who caught it with precision. We did this another few times until the tip of the tree was bare and we’d recovered a good amount of leaves and branches.

I dropped once more from the tree and, with Oceana’s assistance, we plunged the branches deep into the ground and tied the leaves, using the hanging vines from the trees around us, over the top making a useful shelter that was protected on three sides, the fourth leaf that covered the last empty square of the shelter was detachable and so acted like a door. We pulled two thick blankets from the depths of a bag that was slung over Oceana’s shoulder and handed them to Sophia and Armaita. Sophia laid down, as did Armaita, cocooned in the thick blankets as they allowed sleep to wash over them. Soon, their breathing became heavy and came in deep drawing breaths.

‘Sire.’ Oceana whispered from the entrance of the mock tent.

‘Yes?’ I whispered back from the other side of the entrance. We’d been keeping watch, seeing as vampires never slept, it wasn’t too much trouble.

‘I’ve been thinking.’ She began slowly.

‘That’s never a good sign…’ I whispered sarcastically under my breath. She either could not hear me, or pretended I hadn’t spoken.

‘Are we doing the right thing?’ She asked.

‘What do you mean?’ I responded with a puzzling expression fixed onto my face.

‘Well, this weapon, what if it’s some sort of trap? What if we’re being lured to the weapon, surely Deus wouldn’t have made our journey so easy if he knew what we were planning?’ I thought about this, in truth, I was not sure what to make of this question.

‘Well, I would guess he doesn’t know. Changing the topic, you and Armaita seem rather close?’ I whispered. Oceana looked behind her, Armaita slumbered peacefully.

‘Yes, I suppose you could say we are.’ She said with a hint of defence.

‘Don’t misunderstand, it is not an accusation, I think it’s nice to see you two getting along, there are far too many people judge someone based on their past.’

‘Hear hear.’ Said Oceana in agreement.

‘Do you ever wonder what life might’ve turned out like had I not turned you all those centuries ago?’ I asked her curiously. Oceana’s brows furrowed slightly and her face set itself in an expression somewhere between concentration and the look one has when they are trying to imagine something impossible.

‘I guess so, my lord,’ she began, ‘I used to more than I do now, now I just accept my life and do what I must to survive. Back then, I used to think taking a life was so hard and always filled me with guilt, now I just see it as more of a survival necessity. After a feed, I used to think back to how my life could have been had I not accepted your offer, but now I feel only grateful for the opportunity I have been given, this gift.’ Oceana looked out into the darkness, lost in thought.

‘I am glad you feel that way now, I only ever used to turn those who I felt deserved a new beginning, I’d never have turned a wealthy man with a job and family, it’s too much to take away from someone, it then would become a curse to them, I only ever wished to set people free.’ I looked behind me and watched Sophia sleep, the baby twitching slightly beneath the old of the blanket. She looked peaceful and I was overcome with anticipation and longing for the baby to come but I knew what that would mean, had it not begun already, the war would then take a horrifying turn and it would no longer be me as the main target, but the baby. I looked back to Oceana and put my hand in my pocket, withdrawing the warped key.

‘What’s that?’ She whispered to me pointing at the object in my hand.

‘I’m not one hundred percent sure, I believe it is some sort of key, it’s engraved with the runes of Agartha.’ I informed her in hushed tones.

‘May I?’ She asked, her arm outstretched. I dropped the key into her hand and she ran her fingers over the curled teeth and handle. ‘Are you sure it’s a key? It doesn’t look like it’s going to open many doors, look how warped it is.’ I had to agree with her on that, though it was so strikingly similar to a key, I had already thought about this, there was no way it would fit in any locks. I had thought too, about bending it back into shape but refrained from doing so in case I snapped it, then it would certainly be no good. Instead, I just kept to keeping it in my pocket at all times and if I were to find a lock somewhere in Scientia that might fit this key, then brilliant. That was my plan at least. I had a feeling it was important somehow, there was little chance it would be kept in the papal office if it were of no use.

The hours passed by with little communication with Oceana, only exchanging polite small talk every now again. Finally, as Sophia and Armaita began to stir beneath the blankets, an orange-red haze began to fill across the horizon, brightening up the sky as the sun began to rise once more over Agartha.

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