Seasons Without Sun
I was twenty-three when first I entered this web; the fly has since aged fifty years in fifty minutes and with each tick of the clock I find the aeons piling heavier atop my shoulders.
Don't let them come. O God who long ago forsook me and my brethren, don't let them find me. Don't let them come.
The air here is moist; thickened with blood and sweat. It sticks to my skin like paste and does not let me breathe yet I walk on, each step a hair's breadth, each one leading me that much closer to my end. This path was so short... but then surely I knew the road would be short when first I put that brash booted foot upon it. The moment they broke into our midst, hissing and spitting like affrighted jackals, I understood my destination. They stormed our camp and killed our children, broke their necks and left them, shattered porcelain cherubs, to drown in sorrow, eternity, and in mud-- they came with their barbed limbs, spindled-legs like kindling wood, their greedy eyes in pairs and pairs and pairs that would stare a man into oblivion, entrance him with ideas of the perfect world we all long ago had been denied, slashing him open from navel to neck, drinking from the wound and picking past the organs like unwanted pits or bones or gristle-- laughing, laughing those ephemeral, ethereal laughs as their victims writhed and screamed but laughed as well because still, they were in the throes of that imagined ecstasy of the spiders' eyes-- they made pyres of the slain and licked over raw flesh, licked it from the bones with cat tongues, razing skin away with steel wool, setting themselves a banquet of sweet decay and bundling what was left on their peddler backs to return with them to Hell--
All of it. Until the crying stopped.
Marguerite and I crouched in the churning mud and let Nosgoth's burning rains wash the grime from our skin as the vampire's butchering washed the souls from our bodies. Did God watch too then? Or was he too occupied with shamefully hiding his face from the all-seeing eyes of the creatures he's allowed his Dark Brother to spawn?
They say Kain is God's fallen brother. There were other names for him, centuries ago. But they all have been forgotten. Now it is Kain who collects the souls of the damned; Kain who makes the thunder roll and the lightening stretch its sizzling fingers across the sky; it is Kain who condemns and Kain who tortures; it was Kain's hellions that tore my son in two and then set my little girl's frail body in-between a pair of talons, spinning her a silken shroud, silencing her screams with a wad of web down her throat.
I tried to run to them both, I did, I swear to God I did--
The Elders would not let me; they held me back; they clawed at my arms and threw their hands around my mouth to shut up my deliriums. The intruders knew we watched, knew where it was we huddled from the rain and from their wrath, but they were only interested in the young. The other men, always much stronger than myself, they always had been for I am a small fellow, bird-chested and light-framed, they beat at my head finally to let unconsciousness be my bindings so that my cries would not distract the feasting horde and when I awoke, the two small lights that had always shone for me through the country's decay and dark-- smashed into the mud. Gone. Stolen.
I wailed louder than my wife, Marguerite, did.
Perhaps that was because I knew I too died with those small ones. I mourned myself as well.
O to be alive and mortal in Nosgoth... we are less fortunate than those who are dead and immortal in Hell. Some of the old holy men speculate that this plane is the Hell and to go to the fires of eternity afterwards, that is the reward for which we struggle everyday. I crave the fires with a desire I taste like bile in the back of my throat... I want to scream and burn and dissolve in the fires of purgation so that I do not have to see my little darling's face turn blue and choke as the silk wrapped her neck-- surely eternal agony could be nothing compared to the memory of my son's wide, brimming eyes, staring at the blood-glistening barbs as they descended to cut him apart at the navel.
O my children, my tiny lights... I imagine you cocooned in the friendly fires of hereafter, screaming welcoming dirges for your papa... surely you are met with kinder agony in Hell than the brutal pain you daily endured on this wretched plane. Does Father Kain keep the furnace stoked and blazing? Does he bury the pokers deep, my darlings? Kain, be their guardian and their tormentor for just a bit longer. Then I shall come and cry beside them. I shall beat them as punishment for ever having lived.
Marguerite, I'm afraid, did not share my perspective after the tragedies struck. In fact, few of the survivors were able to stare at our butchered kin and laugh, howl, as loudly and elatedly as I. I hold some small degree of pity for the less... enlightened.
I hear their dry scratchings on the other side of the mud.
They've been pacing this small closet in the warren for a long, long time. I fear I've nearly lost track of the hour. There is no torch to see by, the one I came into this space with long ago shuddered and went dark. I watched the ember dying for a while, the blood-red burning eating at the air like a starving beggar until it gorged itself on black and was still-- I mean, dark; dead. I kick it lamely with my boot. The slight scratching of wood against dirt sets the scratching of the spindled-legs into a fervour of activity for they hear the sound and would gladly kill the source.
These creatures are as painful to the eyes as they are to the flesh. Tall as titans, the largest ones are, scraping against the ceilings of the lightless tunnels the tops of the forms one might term 'heads'. They are spider-like in soul more than body, yet the similarities are not entirely spiritual. They have eight legs, they scutter like insects, and they've many eyes that roll and glisten like river stones inside their skulls. Though I am no expert, their fangs seem disproportionately large and long, the better to reach prey through the shrouds they wrap them in perhaps. The spinners are grotesque formations at the rear of their bodies, situated just past their legs and oozing something not unlike the sticky, yellow fluids and webbing that line this web-like home of theirs. It is an excretion that irritates the skin and a man must beware his eyes when attacking these creatures for they will turn and splash the fluid towards the face. They are intelligent, these monsters; there is wicked cunning in the black of their many eyes. They seem to know much but they will not speak it, not to we mortals. Their tongue is one of keening screeches that waft in and out of the range of a human's meagre hearing. If there is anything coherent to the sound, it is in senses only. I hear torment when they cry to eachother. I hear pain. I hear the devil, Kain, laughing. I hear my daughter's screaming. I hear their legs' leathery scratching back and forth over the dried mud that keeps this space secured.
O, how they want to dig inside towards me. I can already imagine the fabulous feast they'd have upon this filthy, mortal carcass, how they might congregate about me like a communal dish and carve my limbs to be shared and passed.
To be here. . . frightened fly screaming silently in the spider's web. O mine God. . . where were you when they stole my lights? Where are you now that the last flame shudders on the wick?
They gave Marguerite the same herbs they give dying men to make them sleep and forget, before the pain of consumption, plague, or rot undoes them. My Marguerite was a beauty from the first day we met, she a girl of fifteen and myself still light with a burden of but seventeen years. Love comes fast and is appealing to we damned mortals of Nosgoth. We look for opportunity to free ourselves of the eternal yoke of hatred upon anger upon fear upon death at every moment that we aren't concerned and hampered with the yoke itself. The happiest days of my life were when I was drunk on her love; sweet elixir. I wager even the vampire cannot know such sweetness on their tongue as I knew when I put her lips to mine and sealed our marriage vows inside her father's home that heated, humid eve.
I will always love her. Ours became the sort of love that evolves beyond the meaning of the word and mere expression of thought cannot define it. She is a part of me, a limb, one of my lungs. If she had died alongside our children, I would have cut out my heart and joined them both in the fires then. Sheer poetry would have demanded it, wouldn't you say? An entire family gone into Hell to sing their pain for Kain's pleasure.
No, she lingered. She slept and lingered, screaming upon awakening though I suspect she had no clear idea why she screamed, only that someone had put a hole in her chest and it would not quit its bleeding. I wedged my hand over that wound but the blood welled thick and warm past my mortal fingers and I found myself unable to ease her suffering when my own agony still made me tremble and moan. At times I grew impatient and wanted her dead.
There was an evening I stood for hours over her face, tracing invisible pictures over her bared neck and breasts with a dagger I stole from my grandfather. I thought then that she'd want the flames, that I could help her from the world and then help myself.
For so long after the massacre I felt my helplessness consume me. Beheading and burning what was left of my children, I felt the helplessness like a sack of wet sand in my chest. I walked towards the pyre, breathing freely of the thick, fragrant smoke, and again the Elders stilled my progress on the path and would not let me reach the inevitable destination, holding me from it with tears, pleas, words, and at last, the strong arms and the blows to my skull, so that I could be lost again in the blackness. Marguerite only watched, stared with trembling, jellied eyes until the fragile corpses were only bones and ash. We had laid their heads side by side, brother and sister who in life paired so well that in death we thought it sacrilegious to separate. We let the fires lick them in unison and swallow together. We kept the fire burning until the rains fell. The Kindred are fond of finding corpses to use as spawn. They would not use children but a mortal must not take risks in Nosgoth so we burnt even the skeletons down to cinders.
The ashes we spread to the warm southern winds.
There are lands past this country. I have heard the faerie tales. Every mortal man and woman has. It is not only tales of damnation and Hell and Kain and the blessed Release to Pain that every immortal soul is one day granted, that are spun by mothers to their tired, starving children. Oh no. My son and daughter were fond of the tales of the southern provinces, where they say, thousand of years ago, our kind fled to escape the hunger of the vampire. It is warm there and the rains are pleasant; they smell of roses and honey. The soil will grow crops with the same willingness of a young man to bed a woman. The legend says the skies there do not know of this eternal blackness. There is a -SUN- and it burns as brightly as a thousand candles, thousands of thousands of candles. O my babies would laugh at the idea of a candle in the sky until Marguerite would remind them that it was only a story, that the idea of a sun was as ludicrous as that of the two-headed dragon from the darker of the tall tales.
I have dreams, sometimes, of the southern province. I see my grandfather there, and his father, and that father's grandfather; a line of men claiming lineage and families of their own; all prospering beneath the burning gold in the sky, tilling fields of clover as soft as kitten down, knowing what it is to laugh freely. I have never laughed freely. We laugh here to hide pain and fear, or to ease the gall of pierced hearts. Sometimes I would fancy that my childrens' laughs were free. They could play that illusion so well that my soul ached near to dying. It wasn't until I swallowed my hope and glanced into those dark eyes that I saw the hurt inside and knew they laughed only for me.
Can one laugh who burns in Kain's fires? Perhaps. I laughed when they lay bleeding in the rain. I imagine the laugh of the insane is the nearest to free laughter we may have.
Every second here stretches like an ever-tightening rope. The pressure scrapes and burns my palms and the hour-old grimace pains my face. I have not worn a placid expression in so long. Some emotion is always twisting my features and the muscles there are frayed and worn from use. Fear, sudden and icy, sucks the breath from my lung and I hold it- frozen like a mouse in a barn full of owls. The fluttering of what seems like wings assaults me through the walls of this dried mud tomb and I fear they'll break through the walls as they did before.
I am too frightened to move.
There- there is a small roach crawling across the way from me. I barely see it, just the shine of reflected light from the black carapace. There is a torch on the other side of the barred door offering just enough light to make shadows to frighten me with. I must breathe, my chest is burning; I do so with trepidation, hissing air so slowly through my clenched teeth that it is a little like torture to my starved lungs.
Th-they hear even that sound. Their legs a-tapping at the walls, sounding them for loose spots, hidden fissures in the stone and mud. The sound is soft but insistent for they are hungry. I saw silhouettes through the bars earlier. A dozen of them, I think. They know I am here and even if they didn't when first I found this refuge, they've discovered it since for I fear I screamed when I came across Conrad's right shoulder and head here at the back of his cave. He smiled in greeting and hasn't quit smiling since. At least he no longer watches me; I shut his eyes and murmured a blessing. He burns now. I shall burn with him soon enough.
Their limbs are as sharp as my razor at home; I hear their report and in my mind I see them slicing through the walls at my back. I've no idea how thick this mud may be piled and dried but if it is thin enough that I may hear them this clearly, fear and common sense say now I walk again. My steps are measured and small once I do. I'm weighted with leather armour and a pouch of water at my hip; I've a silver dagger in my right hand and a rosary in my left. The former was my father's and the latter is Marguerite's.
There are no seasons here in Nosgoth and we take our changes in environment from the changes in ourselves. My wife was always a lovely spring; from the stories of the old ones, she is what spring is described to have been. O my Marguerite. You were life. You gave me two thriving, rambunctious, beautiful, laughing lives. You blessed me with five years of love. Your voice was the birdsong; your skin was my sky; your hair was my grasses. Woman, you were my spring and my countryside. Strange, how when you laid upon that silken pyre, as the wailing women stacked the kindling about you and your severed head lay respectfully placed between your breasts, how strange I found it that you had shifted so suddenly to become my autumn. Your face was peaceful without the soul to make it dance, as the sea is serene and dead after the summer winds have gone. Even when I slid my thumb against your flaccid cheek there was no quickening; no flicker of muscle or lip-- your vibrant growth was gone, my love. The cycle would not be renewed.
Perhaps that is why I could not cry when they touched the torch to the dripping wood and the sharp flames curled over you, pale precursors to the mightier flames of Kain that awaited you in Hell. I knew that you already sat in the Dark One's lap. You were no longer held a prisoner of the flesh.
They think you died of grief. Grief does not kill.
Grief does not kill.
But a mouthful of mistletoe, ground into a potion as sweet as the reaper's kiss, administered by a husband who cared more than the healers, put to your pallet and swallowed with relief-- that will kill. Surely enough it will.
I find the rosary is cutting into my palm when my tiny tunnel at last blossoms into a high ceilinged cave. There are webs on the walls here and I realise the vampire could be nearby; they might be half a dozen paces from my side but in this impossible light, I cannot tell. I see the black mouth of the closet I left Conrad's remains in still open at my back. It's too small for the titan spiders and I understand now why they wanted so badly to scratch their ways through the bulwarks and inside to me.
I touch my fingers to the dried mud walls; hard and unyielding as stone, almost, they do not crumble. Ages ago the lot of them must have hauled muck in from the outside and shaped this nest with it, like wasps. There are strands of the thick yellow webbing, a network the mud was slapped upon and shaped with, the cords nearly as strong as steel, I think I remember hearing that somewhere before. Ingenious spawns, they are, they deserve the worship of the few mortals too frightened to live in defiance or acceptance so they come, willingly, to serve and then to die.
There is no more scratching of spindle-limbs, only a muffled bellowing of pipes and steam. It comes from beyond the mud walls and the floor trembles just slightly with the power of it. The entire place is a huge pulsing organ of repressed sound and strength, a holy place from centuries ago when men still had time to have faith. We were amazed to see it at first, the other men who came here to die with me. To imagine that once mortals had the ability to build something of this majesty and scale. A cathedral; refuge from the monsters, a nearly functional weapon against them. There were huge glass hallways and chambers that were inexplicable to us, an empty airshaft that we scaled and marvelled at. O to see such sights in our final hours, it is nearly worth the dying, I told them that. They laughed, of course, and Conrad shook his head, saying there was nothing in this world worth the dying to see. Of course, I thought that the sight of my Marguerite's turn to autumn, as I stood at her bedside and watched the magic work, draining her colour and stealing her spring, I found that to be worth the dying. I find the curl of the fingers of my hands to be worth the dying. The glisten of the spiderwebs in the firelight was worth the dying. My two babies' screams were not worth the world.
A network of pipes; bulbous, yellow slugs, runs for miles above my head, vibrating with captured steam. A torch beckons from the wall and I wrench it from the sconce, holding it as high as I can as though that might let me see the ceiling. I see only more webs, swaying lazily and shining with the pipes beyond catching the orange and gleaming as though with pig fat. I've only gone a few paces past the exit of my little refuge and I advance further now, swiping my firelight back and forth so that I can see the walls shaping this cave on my either side.
My footsteps are as soft as I can make them but still this place catches their sound and echoes it back to my ears; to the ears of any others that might be near. I quicken pace. A few strands of silk caress my cheeks and the pipes overhead are dripping condensed steam into the mud.
I think that I hear the scratching again. Surely the spiders cannot be far, they were but on the other side of the wall minutes ago and yet I saw no exit into this cave other than the one I entered through. Must they go around by some other means to find their way into this echoing space? My tunnel must have been there for ventilation. Or perhaps some old, disused shaft meant for storing prisoners, or corpses.
I am not sure of my path now, though this torch lights my way so well, but I do know my destination. I see it by the firelight as I saw it by the sky's dull light that day of the storm. It is on the horizon and it never wavers, though I may. So I walk rather easily through the wet air, knowing that I may stumble, or become lost, but I will reach my end. Perhaps it is hunting me, instead of me seeking it out. The path with bend to my steps, conform to my tread.
I watch the burning brand in my fist, waving it like a pennant through the blackness. No, I do not hear the scratching; the organ's wheezing, a distant cry, that is all.
All of the horde are greedy and those that attacked our camp were the same as the rest; they left us very little after carting off what they wanted. We had been a strong tribe once, a group of mortals travelling from region to region, protected by stalwart hunters, counselled by Elders, living and loving and laughing our surface laughs within our sanctified realm. Marguerite was from another tribe, one we visited briefly and mingled with, exchanging our women like cattle. My sister went with a man from this clan, I've neither seen nor heard from her since. There is little communication among we mortal bands; there cannot be. But I like to believe she is well. I briefly considered going to find her after my wife's will dissolved, but I stayed with the tribe instead, rebuilding the collapsible huts we use and restringing the tents torn apart by the vampires. Easily mended. If only flesh were so simple to repair. They left us plenty of fodder, the monsters did, body upon tiny body stacked and broken in the mud but the children they slaughtered stayed dead and the Elders said we must move on from the region.
I don't understand why they wanted our children. A few adults were slain, yes, but it was the small ones they cornered and killed. Conrad said it was because they were foolish, brash fledglings who craved the sweet innocence of young blood no matter the consequence but I suspect they wanted our mortal tribe exterminated and the murders of children were intentional. Conrad said the vampires are not stupid; they will not wipe out their food source any more than we might decide to only eat the youngest hares or target the fawns and not the bucks; more blood may be drained from a grown adult just as more meat may be stripped from a grown deer. Practicality, Conrad insisted. The vampires are practical.
Marguerite did not agree.
She speaks to me still, my autumn love, my spring-turned-fall, my maddening elixir.
It is you wandering few that spread the breed and swell the mortal numbers, she says, And so you must be purged. It is practical to keep the population stable and fixed and so your tribe must die.
I was obsessed-- I am obsessed-- with finding my winter. I've known spring, I've known autumn, I began to hunt out winter in those about me. The old men said it was the time when all things natural died and the bitter wind blew snow across the land. I do not know snow, but I know cold. Nosgoth burns with it often, but the smoke-choked skies will not snow. The rainstorms are more violent during certain months and the winds will howl like madmen, as I howled in my loneliness after my lights were stolen and Marguerite died, but that is all. Would winter come when the men and women about me were slain by another horde? I could imagine them laying bare-boned and flayed, as the trees are bare-boned and flayed against the dull marble skies. That would be winter, and the winds would blow bitter over the corpses and I would at last know that fleeting season through the sight of my mortal brethren. Winter then, was along my path.
It haunted me, that snow, that death, that destination. It had already came to be, inside my skull. I went to the hunters and found they were haunted by it as well. They were not Conrad. They knew. They were willing to know. When the rest of the tribe at last were healed enough to set out again, to search for better lands and healthy kin, I knew I would not be the only man from among them to keep behind and put his eyes on the horizon. The hunters stayed with me, a dozen strong men, and I wept when Conrad stayed too. A friend he had been since I was a boy and I think he wept as well, when Marguerite followed our children to Kain. We camped in the foothills, building our fires sheltered from the dismal rain and speaking little for there was no need; it was an unspoken understanding that we would wait until the storms might clear, then seek out the silenced cathedral.
Why they decided to die... I wish I could comprehend. I already was dead, a walking corpse too numb to wipe the gritty rain from his brow. How many dozen times Conrad had to pull me back into shelter from the threat of the lightening, I could not tell you. I miss him already and he is but twenty minutes dead. My fingers lingered a touch too long on his thin eyelids when I pushed them over his eyes-- his eyes... I wish now that I'd scooped them from his head and carried them away with me; to look into a friend's eyes is to taste the spring past. Even Conrad in his winter, still clutched the soul of spring.
My fists tighten as though to feel the reassurance of his wet mortal eyes there but it is only Marguerite's sharp-edged rosary that cuts my fingers.
The walls have gone.
The firelight no longer touches either wall and I am lost in blackness. The room has grown too large for the feeble torch, though I wave it now from right to left, my dry tongue so far back in my mouth I'm nearly choked with it. The fat yellow pipes are still humming and shining overhead but all around me stretches a void and I freeze, suddenly, holding inside my chest a quickly hissed breath--
There IS sound beyond the thumping of blood and fear through my temples. It's a scratching of sorts but there is a mewling human sound behind it and the scrapes are not of leathery spindle-limbs. It's in the dark before me. My joints seem stiffened like rubber left to dry and crack in the heat, but I force movement into them and advance towards the noise. Strong in my fist, the torch cackles and spits an ember. If it is rebuke or encouragement...
A few hours before dawn today, the rains had quit. I was not asleep when the heavens finally cried themselves dry, but I had been sitting wrapped in tarred canvas, shivering before the hunters' fire, contemplating the seasons and remembering my death. I roused Conrad and he smiled gratefully, standing and growling like a hound before the hunt, running for his sword. "This day!" he cried, and I remember now how the rain beaded in his black hair and seemed like small pearls amidst kelp, "This day showers blood." O how well he knew my mind.
How well his prediction rang true with the progression of the morn.
Scaling the towers and silos was a simple task for men suited to the mountains of Nosgoth. Even I know how to rig lines and pulleys and it was nearly a comforting sight to behold those ropes unravelling against the skies, flashing with dew and slapping wetly against the rooves. We were within the cathedral proper in little under minutes of first breaking into the complex. We had heard whisperings all the while of this silent structure's inhabitants; their cries are stabbing and hidden in the winds that buffet the tall towers. Our band knew they were there and held few illusions that the vampire might not have the same knowledge.
All the same, the grounds were still. We would catch glimpses of the spiders, a deluge of red shadow from the corners, or perhaps the crescent gleam of wet black eyes, a flash of fang or talon, the crazy whirling of eight legs trying to move in unison--
Remembering this is torture now for again I find myself hearing the vampire yet not seeing them-- I am catching the same fleeting sights and knowing not whether it is paranoia or perception that makes me see them. The torch is foe here and the shadows it makes are terrifying. The lines of the webs look sharp and ready to cut me, orange and hard by the fire. I'm walking on and no longer certain what is powering my treads.
There were seventeen of us this morning. There were still seventeen when we stood in a soggy bundle before the great entrance to the cathedral, silver and steel blades prickling from our ranks like pins from Marguerite's sewing box. The hunters plied their trade and positioned us as best they knew how for the way quickly grew confined and narrow, the masonry of the great structure which in its time had rivalled anything ever before built by man, even in those distant, fabled days before Kain when mortals had possessed the opportunity to flourish and to advance, quickly giving away to crumbled, moulded stone and formed, dried mud and sediment, laced between with bones and web. The tunnel walls were ridged; we could see the markings of the legs that had shaped them, the criss-crossing slashes of the claws. They were wet with the steam from the organs for the air was humid there and hard to breathe, hot as Hell. I watched it condensing on the walls and running through the ridges down to thin the mud upon the ground which we brazenly left our trail through.
The sound is tremulous upon the still air. Murmurs of soft voice accompany it and I think I hear singing. It is a woman's voice and I pause, the torch wavering, waiting, in my hand. Still I cannot see the walls but I can feel my solitude without seeing the emptiness. Through it comes this sound and I shut my eyes, I still my breaths, not in fear now but so I may savour this subdued melody; through my eyelids I can see it. It is the up-and-down motion of a scrap of butterfly wing in the wind. Firelight burns through the blackness but the sound flies on and I see it well enough to follow, smiling, weeping. I don't know the song but I don't need to.
Our plans were rough and simple. We had sketched them in the dawn as the ash-grey sky had been playing through its ritual in the east. The tales of the existence of a sun behind the smoke and decay are most believable during those hours, when you can all but smell the aroma of the sweet, wet orange, obscured. They say such a thing had fed the green and made this country a bountiful place. That was aeons ago, a forgotten dream world. All that mattered as we seventeen sat in the waning drizzle, was how we could best use our lives.
Zephon, I've heard tell, is the name of the vampire lord that rules this nest. They say he is a titan's titan, a scabrous monster who exists in defilement, buried in his mud and hiding from the sun. He has burrowed his way into the back of this cathedral and lies there, blanketed in his own filth, forever spawning more kindred to bring him his sustenance. Our plan was to battle our way to him-- how easy and vague a term is "battle"-- and burn the beast out as one might a rabbit from the warren. There were old chronicles from the days before the lords all had sealed themselves, as though in tombs, as though to die-- and one of the hunters recited a few of them, well-schooled, this man, in the ancient tales. He assured us though that time had been cruel and the vampire were not nearly as strong as they had before been. Nosgoth was falling to ruin and though the monsters were the cause of it, they couldn't forever escape the consequences. I've always believed we mortals more adaptable than those creatures. We've survived for aeons in the wasteland they left us. They hide now from the decay of the world. They've no taste for apocalypse. Perhaps they find the forever winter to be an indelicate flavour.
I near the singer.
The song passes through me now, wretched in its beauty. It's not quite human, I fancy it is perhaps an errant melody of the whistling yellow organ pipes pulsing along the walls like arteries through muscle. Perhaps it is a warning.
We didn't heed the warning hours ago. Gaining entrance into the nest had proved so laughably easy. The hunters warned Conrad and I not to become weighted and stupid with confidence but it was so hard not latching onto something better than the fear that gnawed us both. We wanted the confidence. We marched proudly through the mud, waving our torches and imagining ourselves the most fearsome of creatures ever to grace those caverns--
Which were so quiet. Even in our reverie, we dared not disturb the deathly stillness of the cathedral. We scaled the pipes and threw ourselves into Hell; a steaming, putrid nest of webbing and mud. O there were points we couldn't breathe for the stink and the damp. I could have no thoughts of Marguerite amidst such a place with the fear so heavy upon me and whatever anger, lust for vengeance had brought me down here, evaporated out of my flesh and joined the steam. The quiet--
I pause. The torch asks a question of me, dancing upon the brand. The song still is sounding and that's how I can recall an hour ago and not scream anew now. It isn't silent here. I've this song.
The silence of before was maddening. Our boot treads through the mud, sometimes wet, sometimes dried and cracking. Our breathing, laboured and shallow. The soft clink of damp iron against leather. Such a walking orchestra of music were we that the scratching, the screeching, was nearly drowned by it when it came. We were in a low-ceilinged passage just past the generators and there was the barest vibration coming up through the ground, shaking our spines and numbing the soles of our feet. Conrad and I kept up the rear of the party and there wasn't a word exchanged between us. We'd begun to see more frequently the telltale signs of spiders; errant legs around corners, clawmarks where there had been no clawmarks before--
We emptied from the tunnel into a larger chamber of spiralling pipes and began to ascend. The going was tedious and the narrow way forced us to travel in a single line. I had a sword in my hand, the hilt so covered in sweat I could barely hold it; half-way from the ledge above, it slipped straight from my fist and clattered loudly back down to the cave floor, ringing out against pipes for what seemed an eternity before dully striking the dirt. One of the hunters lost his footing then, I suppose my clumsiness startled him, and he would have followed the sword if his friend hadn't caught his wrist. We watched the two hanging there and dashed forward to help them both back up onto the walkway.
There was a scream then, from dead above our heads. Before a man of us could glance up, there was the quick scrabbling of legs and I saw the hunter dangling from his friend's grasp-- an eight-legged revenant dove and struck, digging into his back like a great claw. It tried climbing over him, to get a footing on the pipe, but the hunter let go his hold and both monster and man fell to the floor. It was dark below us but I could see their landing. The man broke his back, I think. He lay there silently as the spider took a bite from his stomach and then rose again, shreds of flesh gleaming from his jaws, to glare at us.
Conrad and I took it as an order to begin climbing, to flee the monster on the ground before it finished breaking its fast and came after us. Hollering something, we tried squeezing past the other hunters on the narrow pipe, slipping back two steps for every single step forward; the metal was slick and wet beneath our boots. There was a noise like at the shore, with the waves breaking and hissing against the surf and shells. A dozen of the creatures must have been there waiting at the ledge above. I glanced their way and saw them silhouetted against bright orange torchlight, their high-pitched cries bouncing through the tunnel-shaft. Before we could make another move, though I don't know where we might have gone, there was yet a monster noisily feeding below and twelve of his brothers standing in wait above, a pair from the latter group shrieked and threw themselves through the air, landing on the pipe and nearly shaking it from its moorings.
They were no less hideous than when they'd killed the children.
I couldn't see into their eyes, they stood taller than I. I wanted to hunt out the memories there. They were older than we were, these immortal sons of bitches, had they known a better land? I wanted to be told of exactly what they'd robbed us of.
I felt a warmth suddenly against my back, turned and saw two more had decided to find a perch on the pipe, slaying a man immediately upon landing. I didn't catch the murder, only turned and saw a limp body hanging impaled upon a twitching pink limb. It glistened over crimson as the blood pooled from the centre of its victim's back. It was coating the walls and pipes, this fellow's blood and had spattered against me, dancing ticklish down my collar and through my hair. I drew father's silver dagger and I cut this thing down by the forelegs while it was busy peeling off the hunter's face to chew like a man does tobacco, for the blood-rich fibres there. Three spindled legs I sliced off and the silver burnt against its opalescent flesh with a rank smell. It screamed and threw the corpse at me, reeling back a few paces before stumbling off of the narrow pipe. I pushed away the body and climbed to my feet, knocking into Conrad. "Horror's afoot..." he hissed in my ear and I'm not sure why he said something so obvious.
Our hunter comrades were being slaughtered with little regard all around us. A few were deftly skilled and their steel and silver flashed in the low light. The spiders were shaking the pipes dreadfully and I could barely keep my footing. A monster appeared suddenly before me and another man speared a sword through its head, distracting the creature enough that we could tip him from the heights and send it falling back below. I turned to thank the swordsman only to see a clawed limb descend towards his chest, cleaving it open from one shoulder down to his navel. He fell to his knees, wrapping an arm around the wound but red life spilled from the pale, severed ribs and I saw a vampire leap upon him, knock him backwards. In blind defence, the hunter shot an arm up but the spider clamped his fanged mouth about the hand and flayed it of skin in a long, jagged strip from palm to elbow. It devoured the meat like a dog, sharply jerking its head back, then bowing to slash the man's stomach and suck out the pith.
I couldn't help but stand there and watch. I think I screamed, but honestly I don't recall. There were so many other screams and shrill cries affronting the air that, that I couldn't have heard my own. Conrad tugged my arm and we scaled bodies and organ pipes, slicker now with blood and bile. He still had his sword and he slashed blindly though there was absolutely nothing to obstruct our path. Many of the monsters had been shoved from their perches and seemed content to remain on the cavern floor, feasting on the fallen hunters. We heard the wet noise of ripping flesh and grinding bone; the sound of them snapping at eachother over the leavings.
"They are not guards, "Conrad panted, "They are hungry."
So it seemed.
We reached the ledge above after moments, and waited for the last few of the hunters to join us there. Five of us left, out of seventeen. And only three, maybe four minutes passed since we had plodded along in silence, whole and unchallenged in our brash intrusion. We audibly dripped in perspiration and blood. There was a thin web of it, a mask over Conrad's features. I made him stand still there in that new tunnel so I could wipe it from his face for him. Then we ran.
The walls have been gone for a while now and so has the fear. With the song to focus on, it's hard to concentrate on much else. It still is winding its gentle way through the air, in and out of the steam, between the pipes, then over or under them. I would swear to you that it is human now and I know I am nearly upon it.
The room is getting larger. It's taking longer and longer for the sound of my footsteps to echo back to me. Though the ceiling is ever growing higher, the thick yellow pipes are beginning to descend and the ground is trembling as it did back at the generator. I think they must connect with the floor not too far ahead. The song grows melancholy. I fancy it is perhaps because the singer hears my approach. What thing here would have cause to fear me? Marguerite used to do something similar. She liked to sit by the lake waters with the children, for she knew it was safe there; the fields around were vast and clear so nothing could surprise them. If something came, they could dash for the water, stay there and be fine. She would sing while they played, though I fear she wasn't very talented. Ah, still I loved the sound of her voice. There was something very charming about her inability to hold a note. It wasn't often I would hear her songs though, for she quit the moment she knew I was listening. Too self-conscious for her own good, that woman. She could have barked like a dog and I've have thought it lovely.
I soften my footsteps. Perhaps it is Marguerite and I'll be allowed to hear her sing this last time.
The way grows rougher. The mud here is less smoothed by the repetition of treads over time. In contrast, the song grows sweeter and I hear the lyrics now, though they seem to be in the northern dialect so I cannot make out the words. So it's not Marguerite. I knew it wasn't, really.
A curving of the wall; either the room tapers again or I've not walked this place in a straight line. Through the song, loud now as though its singer stands just as my elbow, the air thickens like heavy syrup with the smell of decay. Pipes run in the corners tween wall and ground and there are cocoons, arranged in groups and white like maggots clinging, crawling, against them, as though this entire room is carved of flesh and its own decay is what sours my senses. My torch flickers towards the arrangement so I approach and the orange of the firelight shines against silken bindings. Ah... I remember now. When they wrapped my daughter, suffocated her, she looked very much like this; blanketed in this glistening membrane of web, a finer shroud than ever we could have woven her. If they had decided to take her with them, after she'd choked upon the bindings, I suppose I might have found her here.
The singing stops. I am sad for it.
It is the one sound in the world I wanted most to hear but it sends a panic through me and I drop the torch, draw my silver dagger, hold the rosary so tightly in my left hand that I can feel my palm split and blood well up over my fingers. My name isn't John. "Who is there?!" I hiss.
"...it is Bethany, John. I sang until you came."
I could swear it is Marguerite's voice, only with the barest northern accent, but when I at last regain my courage, regain the torch and hold it high, I see a woman's wasted face, haggard, hard, and beautiful, set in sharp black and oranges against the pipes and it is not her. She is trembling so violently I'm surprised she's not shaken herself from the silk she's bound in, but it is strong as steel... I remember hearing that somewhere once. I approach and cut away a bit of the web from about her throat and brow. I catch her head before it can slump bonelessly forward. I whisper, "Marguerite," and I sound her eyes with mine.
"Do I look so like him?"
There's a flicker of comprehension in her gaze and I wonder for a moment how long she's hung here, singing, in darkness. A glance to the other cocoons, the other bound mortals, blood showing through the wrappings and aged near to black, and I imagine I've stumbled into their pantry. These are stores then. For darker days.
"Do I look so like her?" she asks suddenly, her eyes half-lidded and dull.
"Not at all."
Her lips are dry and scabbed over, but I suppose mine are too. It is a chaste kiss and I smooth her dirty hair back from her face. I feel her sobbing under me and she murmurs his name again past my lips. This then, is another woman in autumn, who has seen winter and remembers spring. I put another kiss, sweeter, on her forehead, before I put my dagger in her throat.
I spend a long while inspecting the rest of the cocoons, surprised to find a few more barely alive mortals but there are no more songs to be had among them. I kill them all, imagining it's merciful. I don't know that Conrad would have done such a thing; damned optimist, he'd have likely freed them all and tried to escape, imagining the hero's welcome he'd have received from the tribes upon returning with those thought dead. Ha. Myself and the hunters, we knew from the start that we were entering this cathedral to die. O Conrad... I miss you already.
Entranced, I pause at the last corpse I've made, a boy nearly my son's age before he died. The child whimpered a little before I cut him and he still is struggling now, his throat bleeding like a fount. I've never been very skilled with this, I usually let the others slaughter the pigs when it was my night to make the meal; I couldn't bear to have the poor things squeal when I was too incompetent to kill them quickly. It is the blood that catches my eye now though, not the weeping. I pass a fist through it, halt the flow, let the warmth coat my fingers and pool in my palm, and then I cup what I've caught to my mouth.
I simply let my lips touch it at first, nothing like the maddened feasting of the monsters. It's very much like water, but thicker, and infinitely more fragrant; it has a rusty odour, like drinking from an old iron goblet, and with that image I tilt my head back and let what's in my hand run down my throat. There's nothing magical about it. There is no great symbolic purpose to my doing it. Perhaps I think I can better understand the vampire if I understand their thirst.
The only understanding I come away from the sampling with, is that one shouldn't drink a handful of blood on an empty stomach, churned by fear and desolation. The mud catches me when I crumple and I vomit whatever got to my stomach all over it for its troubles. The little boy watches, and it makes him laugh before he finally shudders and is still.
--This plane is the Hell.
This is Hell.
Go to Kain, child, and I shall follow soon.
We ran for days. I swear it was for days.
The three hunters, the strongest mortals probably, in all of this realm, soon left us behind. I don't blame them for an instant.
Conrad and I thundered like hellions through the mud. It was nearly pitch in the tunnels, the only lights were pinpoints at our back and at our front, distant reminders of the slaughter that had been and what was yet to come. There were creatures everywhere; in the darkest parts of the chutes; painted on the walls by shadow and light; in the patterns of eachother's faces; in our minds, still slaughtering mortals in our imagination. Far ahead, or behind, or two leagues to either side, we heard the hunters' cries, scattering everywhere and nowhere and the entire world was blown apart by panic. The two of us forgot where we were and the vague idea that we were actually running to somewhere set in when really, we had secured ourselves a place in the abyss and were only running to Death, running from it, rather, running to prolong whatever it was we were living.
We ran, caring not what cut us, not what stone in the path twisted our bones, not the low passageways that bloodied our brows. We ran in a frenzy, in a fever, ran in body how a madman runs in mind, ran not to think but ran to pass, to exist, ran as the last desperate act of men who knew they only had one more last desperate act open to them, ran to a future that wasn't there, ran to a destination that was, that we were running from but running towards.
Rooms flickered by like this torch here flickers in my hand; some lit, some dark as night, some wet around us, some so narrow we couldn't run abreast, some so huge we nearly lost eachother. We were close to ill with exertion and I couldn't find breath enough to swallow, letting the saliva fly from my lips and wet my collar.
We'd thought the hunter's cries to be declarations of war, that we'd stumble into a room and see them triumphant, surrounded by those monsters shrivelled and on their backs, all eight legs curled close to their bodies in death. That is what I thought, I know, I'm not certain what delusions haunted Conrad. How could anyone kill those fine mortal men, with their silver swords and their pride here, now, to be so gloriously slaughtered? I was dazed and insane from exhaustion and fear, running, running running-running for I know not how long, all the while both imagination and reality snapping at my heels. But I'm not so sure now that they were chasing us, only that we couldn't be certain and so we ran.
It was catching up to the hunters again that cut our flight short.
There was a sudden cavern slicker than the rest and before I could choke a cry, I found my feet pulled from under me and I struck the ground hard, sliding across through the black mud. I heard my companion holler my name, but it was a distant, half-interested summon, as though he knew already in a fragment of time and realisation, that he'd lost me. I was swallowed by blindness, struggling to catch a handhold with fingernails or teeth until the fall stopped and I found myself suffocated in the face by something warm and wet and almost sweet--
A hiss. Too dark-- too dark for me to see what made it. I was as still as I could be with the trembling shaking my core. I remember my fingers fighting to curl into fists and my own desperate effort in keeping the hand limp. I was laying amid scattered limbs, my head resting in the eviscerated cavity of a human stomach, face shoved in the shredded remnants of intestine and bowels. The blood pooling about me threatened to invade my nostrils and mouth, drown me, but I didn't move, I shut my eyes against the blackness, I waited. The hiss came again, almost an experimental noise, then blossomed into a piercing scream that cut as sharply as the monster's barbs. I didn't move. Something hard and thin brushed my right thigh and there was suddenly a darker darkness before my eyes, something descending, carelessly. It grabbed the corpse out from under me and then moved away with it. Frozen like a man carved of the very mud of the floor, I lay there in the blood and shreds of flesh, and I tried to breathe again.
No, the hunters' cries had not been ones of battle. If they had, a losing battle. Likely they were simple screams, the likes of which a mortal of Nosgoth grows too accustomed to hearing.
Slaughter is not a pleasant smell; it is sour and hot. I found myself covered in the stink and disgusted so I could barely move, until I discerned the faraway sound of Conrad shouting my name again. My grand philosophies were nailed to the soles of my boots then, I think, for my mind was blank with terror, as it had been since the attack on the pipes. I ran back through rooms now, turned about and lost and alone, seeing that the slick surface which had caught me before was gore from fresh killings pooled thick and wasted on the ground. O wasteful, vile creatures these vampire be. I splashed through it, bouncing from room to room like a hound jerked from his master's tether, all the while hearing Conrad's cry. Rooms and cells again shifted from light to dark, some illuminated in the cruel fingers of torch flames, others left to rot in blackness--
But then I spotted him. My friend there at the end of a long, fitfully lit passage. He waved both arms until he was certain I'd seen him, then ducked about the corner in a panic.
The ascending fury of a thousand beating wings shook the walls. The hallway was narrow and lit in patches, with long chunks of dark between each torch that forever grew and constricted as the fickle fire burned. I threw myself into the patchwork, such a chaos of sound and vibration around me that I could barely think; they were in the walls. I could swear they were, and behind the muted thunder of their charge, I heard the hisses, the shrieks, the scratching of limb and claw against mud, and there was such blood and sweat running into my eyes that even with the torchlight I could barely see anything besides a dull grey mess punctuated in crimson blooms and white explosions.
Before I could reach the pass where Conrad had turned, the mud wall to my right split open like pale skull beneath a hammer and a pair of the spiders poured out in a rush of eyes and spindle-limbs. I raced past them down the hall, the way too narrow to be easy for the brutes, and I heard another wall crumbling in the distance. Conrad screamed my name. I screamed his in return and I felt the force of two desperate, thirsting monsters at my back. They fell behind after a few paces and I'm still not certain why; perhaps they got caught up eachother's greed, or went for their own throats in a moment of fierce competition.
Rounding the corner, I grazed a calf against the sharp outcropping of rock, skidding along and following the noise of Conrad's screams; the deafening screeches of Kindred from somewhere up ahead. The path forked in several different directions and he kept screaming, thick, watery screams; they were making him scream so I'd come to them and how well the plan nearly worked--
Even now I hear his screams. There was a catch at the tail of each howl, a small sob, and the way he tried to form my name with his broken voice as they dug into him deeper, snapped his fingers off and went into his stomach... but there was something else he was saying, something that made me think beyond reaction and towards consequence instead. "...B-BARS!! TH-THE B-B-BAAARS!!"
I ran on until there were no more screams and it seemed the same moment when they reached their peak, when they stopped, and when I saw the bars.
They were blood-slicked and covering a black maw of a cave, running vertical, space enough between each for a man my size to squeeze through. It was too dark to see more than mere feet about myself in any direction, but I could hear, as though they were right over my shoulder, the mastications of the vampire, and there was little thought on my part about whether I should duck behind those bars or no.
Of course, I found a flung piece of Conrad inside. I shut his eyes for him and shut my own as the spiders finished off the bits outside.
Another skin, this cracking film of blood is like my winding sheet. I don't believe there is an inch of me not touched by the evidence of our failed... campaign. Strange though... I've barely a wound of my own upon me.
I've been staring at the dead boy in the white silk for the longest time now, it seems. The blood from his throat grew into a streak of crimson staining the cocoon nearly down to his feet, and drips into the mud even now. I'm on my hands and knees, leaning heavily against his side and trying to catch the warmth before it is gone completely. My cheek is to his hip, my face upturned to his, my fingers comb through the sediment in careless curls.
Every time I move, a flake of blood falls from my joints, or tumbles out of the folds of my tunic, the chinks of my armour.
It is quiet here.
I miss her singing. I miss her lips, though I did not know her.
I miss Marguerite and our children.
I miss Conrad.
I miss knowing what it was like to smile, shallow and deceitful, though that smile may have been.
I miss the spring.
Has the year gone past now? I've known seasons without sun, but have I known them all? Why do I yet live? Everyone is dead and the tribe moved on from here; I am sealed in this nest, another fixture of the silent cathedral. My little doll-baby is growing colder and colder beneath my cheek. I'm crying into this corpse and wondering... wondering who his father was. I wish I could find the man... and tell him I let his child know peace.
...we mortals of Nosgoth are a ravaged lot. We measure peace by the thimblefuls, and savour it, like wine...
...I don't know what to do anymore.
The destination is before me... my feet are on the path. Do those facts mean I must travel it? Can I not sit here until the torch dies and I with it? All of this blood... it covers me and chokes me-- I suppose I'd never have made much of a vampire when the sight of this blood so sickens my senses.
He's cold now and no comfort. I rise and kiss the little boy's eyelids. I cut free an arm of the silk and wrap his chilly fragile fingers around the hilt of my dirty dagger. I put the hand and its weapon close to his chest, so he may see and perhaps be delighted by the gift. I gesture to the singer across the way. "Protect her and the others, "I whisper, and then I leave him a tear for remembrance, I take up my dancing torch and I walk on.
The earth is pressing heavily from behind the mud walls; tons and tons and tons of it; above, below, and to every side. I'm smothered. How far underground could I be? Actual architecture from the cathedral long ago disappeared and yet I still feel this is a holy place of sorts. Perhaps they buried saints and martyrs beneath the church and their divine decay sanctified the grounds. I feel I myself am in a coffin buried far under the sky. Everything is too muted. Any sound I attempt is murdered.
I came across one of the spiders; a lone wanderer, perhaps a sentry. He was standing alone in a room, poised as though in thought. I watched him from behind for a moment, admiring, in a way, the play of torchlight from his dull pink skin. That very fire gave me away though and he turned, slowly and without surprise, to see me framed in the passageway. He cocked his head in curiosity, then scuttered away.
I'm walking towards the dragon now, I know it. Undefended knight who's lost his kingdom and his quest.
The passageway slopes and there are no more pipes. The torches have grown infrequent. It would be black now if not for mine.
There are flutterings in the walls, just as before. Have they been circling me all this while? Ever since I left Conrad in the barred passage?
"Come to die?"
I freeze. I thaw and I tremble, collapsing backwards against the walls. I want to shout out but my voice is stuck.
"Surely that is the case, child."
No. Such a voice is impossible. It comes up through the calves of my legs and winds up my spine, fingers through my brain like a deck of poker cards. It is in the stifled, baking air and in the dirt and in the bulwarks made of mud. It sets the tunnel to shaking and when that dies, against my back, through the walls, I feel the vampire scratching.
No, no no... O no...
Don't let them come. O God who long ago forsook me and my brethren, don't let them find me. Don't let them come!
They've taken everything else from me. It seems wrong suddenly, that I become just another life upon the heap. What had been poetic justice, now becomes poetic filth. I shout out. "I HAVE NOT COME TO DIE, ZEPHON!!" Zephon. Zephon. I know that it is Zephon. The master of this web; King monster of the monsters.
I'm shaking near to dying. I bite my lip until it bleeds so I won't crumple. I can hear hundreds of them all about me, still scratching at the walls.
They crack, three feet down the chute. The walls give birth to a fissure as thick about as my finger and a leg darts through, as though tasting the air on this side like a snake's tongue. I run. I run as I did before with Conrad, the torch at my arm's end searing my face. Things go blacker and the torchlight grows faint. It might go out, I run too fast for it to keep up and that does nothing to slow me.
Blessed fire, you stay lit.
Sudden and cruelly, a wall impedes the way and I fling myself against my end. I'm so god damned afraid of you, Zephon! Of you and every one of your bastard children!!!
"It is astonishing how far you came."
Like huge crawling hands, the spiders come slowly from the darkness and almost dare to enter the circle of my torchlight. Blessed fire, blessed fire, blessed fire, do not quit yet--
Do you suppose they said that of the sun?
When Kain made the smoke that drowned the sky and killed the country, do you suppose my ancestors were on their knees as I am on my knees, praying to the sun not to quit its struggle? I fear such prayers did them no good.
They're towering about me, the spider-shaped Kindred. They're staring, with their too-many eyes and their fanged, dripping maws slack with hunger. Shapes and shards assault me. Too numbed in terror to distinguish anything, there are only planes and planes and colours and edges. . . pink, dusty skin. . . shining orbs, wet with what almost seems to be tears. . . the hard, determined flicker of my steadfast brand.
"It has been many, many years since I have heard the beating of a human heart. . . it is like the most precious caged bird of jewelled feathers and iridescent plumes; I would hold it in my hand and let it sing before I crush it."
The spiders recede suddenly, stepped out of the torchlight and back into the shadowed hall. Yet the caged bird still pounds against the bars and will not be pacified. They withdraw only to strike. They're savouring the last of their foolish mortal guests the same way a child will eat all of his sweets save the survivor at the bottom of the dish, rolling it about in his palm like a toy before putting it between his lips. Through my torch, there is dusk, the sanguine light of the resurrected sun. O how dreadfully I miss a sun I never knew. The corpse of it haunts me with its phantom seasons. Marguerite's spring, her autumn, her winter. Conrad laying there with the grey snow encrusted over his features. My own autumn, for I'm not dead yet. I cannot say that I am when the caged bird is so insistent upon struggling; when I can see my own life in vibrant colours against Nosgoth's landscape. I did move against it like a jewelled bird. I was happy. Watching the fire in my hand, I remembered that I was happy.
When my two little lights were born. When Marguerite said she would stay there with me and let her family, her tribe, everything she'd ever known, cross the mountains and leave her. When Conrad got me drunk on apple wine and I painted his picture on the side of his tent in charcoal and water. Sun after sun was there in my torch, in the dancing days of my life and the seasons as they came in their cycle.
So why am I bitter? If it's a cycle... if it is all as natural as life and death...
"They will not harm you, precious child. Rise up. Come and see me."
I do. Without trepidation and without the barest of notions that he could be lying. If I am full of the sun... if I have a piece of it in my hand, what harm can he do me? "You fear me, "I say aloud, straightening and finding that I still have two feet and a pair of strong legs. I glance down at them to confirm it and marvel for a moment at the streaks of blood. Not my blood, blood of brave men; too brave to have cared to stay here long. They went off to find the sun, to hunt it and bring it home to them. A more relevant task, that. More important than a hunt for meaning, a search for seasons, for peace, for love, for revenge.
There's an opening in the wall a few metres down. The closer I move, the more its edges become clearly defined by the torch and seem sharp as if a great hand had scooped the tunnel on its own. Freshly dug then. It's had no time to be worn away to the soft-ridged roundness of the other corners here. I glance about through the darkness but all signs of the encroaching vampire have vanished; I cannot even discern the scratching of legs or their high-toned whines. "Oh... you fear me."
He must. He must!
Torch held high but revealing nothing to me but walls and walls and walls and the curved prison of the ceiling, my footsteps carry me 'round the corner. There's a sour smell suddenly, like bile, the smell of carrion laces it barely. I'm in another passage, this one narrower, the top of my head grazes dried mud. Darkness threatens to swallow my light, as wet as worked flesh, slick from the heat of day, and as black as the river's bottom to a drowned man, as Kain takes his soul and the pikes chew eyes he'll no longer need. I fear there is not much left of my torch. Cheaply made, it is. The man of my tribe who crafts our lights would have laughed and chided the monsters who'd so crudely wrapped this bit of kindling in rag and tar.
"How delightful. A moth that carries its own flame. But tell me which is hovering: You about the fire, or the fire about you?"
"O-of what concern is it to a monster?"
O how do I dare it? How do I force words past these waxen and trembling lips? My knees ask the question of me; my legs, my arms, and elbows. This tunnel is too small to hold my fear! I cannot drop the sun! I mustn't let the flame go out!
There is an opening at last in the raw and unmarked halls; a blacker blackness through which could lie damnation or dandelions, I cannot know. Tempered steel doors gird the entrance, yellow with my fire, inscribed with ancient writing that could be from my ancestors or theirs. The words are comfortable with hiding in the dark and will not come out even now, holding the blackness close. The doorway would have me pass through; its anticipation is obvious and terrible. I have to wonder how many mortals have before me tread this way.
With certainty, I know I shall not pass back through them should I continue. Yet still there is the scratching of limb and barb in the distance. Still I hear the scream of the hungry. And Conrad's unending scream as he satisfied such hunger unto sickness. I'm dead from the front and dead from the rear. All that lives now is the small bird and the happiness of sun and light I clutch in my fist. I pass through the door, shoes sinking inches down into new mud, chilled and invasive against my boots.
Am I going to scream? Will I be given the chance to?
With neither a grinding of gears, nor the hiss of steam, the steel doors press abruptly together after I've gone through, the shutting sound piercing and final, shuddering the bones in my flesh as though each were a tuning fork ringing in rhythm. In the wake, I am left paralysed. I must be the most alone man in Nosgoth at this very moment. Yet in my fire I see Marguerite and the two small lights who never truly left my side, even as we were committing them to the flames of their pyres. After the clang has reverted to dead air, it is silent in the new space save for my rasping respirations, the flicker of my brand, and the dull sound of dripping, perhaps from a subterranean well or river. I could swear I hear laughter behind it all. Very faint and sweet, like a child's, like that dead woman's singing from the silk.
"Why did you take our children?" I ask of the black air. I reach out my torch but there's only more mud, wetter here, though by the smell it is not wet with water. There's a pinkish tint to it, and that same sour smell. Even another step forward reveals nothing more but the same. Yet I can feel eyes upon me like a pair of crawling spiders, playing legs about my face and tasting my sweat, looking for a favourable place to cut me open and drink my insides. O I feel the attention upon me. The room could be thrown suddenly into light and I'd be unsurprised to see walls constructed of endless pairs of eyes, stretching all the way to a sky above, pulsing with need, watching my thin breaths, and the blue veins hiding in my white throat. My torch won't reveal what watches. No matter how much I silently beg it to. Perhaps it knows better than I. "Why? Tell me why."
A ponderous shifting of limbs. A thoughtful, though apathetic, sigh. "Children taste better, I would imagine."
Something heavy moves along towards me. I can't make out what it is yet, the dark can't be broken, but I feel a trembling in the mud sucking at my boots, and the air quakes as though with the power of a storm. "Y-you'll feast upon the offspring of your prey? Ineffectual, they must be, in satisfying your needs. It is like myself k-killing fawns when there are bucks roaming of greater size and--"
"We don't eat deer."
Again I feel something drawing closer. Whatever it is, the very air shies from it and rushes back at me, drying my face and stiffening the still damp blood wetting my clothes and joints, unsticking the hair from my forehead and setting it to dancing. "Fortune shines. You come basted already in the bodies of your brethren."
Can't think. I hear sinew stretching. My left hand that has for hours been attempting to sink Marguerite's rosary into the soft flesh of my palm, it spasms open and the silver leaves my hand in a torrent of blood. They say silver harms these creatures. My dagger might have saved me. I hope that boy appreciates the gift then. "What season is it?"
"There is no way to measure them." The voice answers without surprise. Perhaps it is accustomed to how a man panics and babbles nonsense before he dies. "You have been terrified for so long. Allow me to end it for you."
Quicker than I thought I might be able to, I backtrack, finding the shut door again in the half of a moment. The fire lights it orange and hard but I pound my fist against the seam regardless. I cannot die here by this bodiless voice that rings from the dark like God's. I'm nothing more than another meal to it, and not even the best sort. It's slithering closer and the mud is rippling against my ankles with its sour stench like old vomit and carrion. I raise the torch back towards it, to catch a glimpse of what comes and I sense the creature flinch away with a hiss like a desert lizard. "You fear me!" I scream out, drunk suddenly on triumph, "You fear ME!!"
The eyes and the spindled limbs, the barbs and the shrieks are spawning from the mud walls-- but suddenly, my back so tightly pressed against the shut doors that their markings shall forever be branded upon my skin, suddenly, as though the air has parted, and the stone, the decay, the madness, the Cathedral above me, the bodies, the hunters, my best friend, the silver, the woman in the silk-- it all has parted, delicately, and I see the sky in the fire. It's blue, like a new baby's eyes, and clear, like untainted water. Autumn never knew this beauty. Marguerite's stilled face couldn't hope to shine with the light of this heaven, nor my own as I lay crying against her belly. The winter of corpses were too solemn, too sad, too inevitable to be this... this eternal. Even the spring...
Sliding a ring upon her finger and kissing the smiling mouth that followed. Eating stewed apples straight from the pot and then the scoldings for being more incorrigible than the children when it came to patience and food. Kissing my daughter's forehead when she wanted to turn into a frog, then explaining to her, gently so she would not be disappointed, that there is no truth in faerie stories. My little boy's foray into the forest... we thought we'd lost him and I was never happier than I was when we found him asleep beneath a willow, unharmed save for a handful of bee stings and sporting a prize honeycomb. This was all my spring, and I cannot imagine how winter struck so hard and so fast.
It's nearly upon me, a darkening against the sky. Something wet touches my face, warm like afternoon rain and I know it's above. I sink to my knees, still pressing the door with my back, still with torched raised-- "Please tell me the season!" --I cannot discern them any longer; I knew them all, did I not--?
Then the firelight flickers and brushes my knuckles insistently, as Marguerite would when we argued and I was being foolish. Against the sky, it glows. Higher, I push it, until I fancy it leaps into the heavens again, burns past the choking smoke. Perhaps I'll lean forward now and char this vampire's face with the sun in my hand--
There's a distant, unimportant pain. I think I see half of me slide one way, and my face sinks to kiss the wet mud. A glimpse of a monster's face, horrific enough not to matter at all. But there is still the sun raised above my head, blazing bright and happy in my fist. Summer. Nosgoth has never given me a summer.
It doesn't matter.
I weighed the seasons by our lives and our loves. Summer is reserved...
...we mortals of Nosgoth are a ravaged lot. We measure peace by the thimblefuls, and savour it, like wine...
It is better, after all, to spend an eternity in the sun of southern lands. Marguerite has come to take me there; we'll watch our phantom children playing in the grass.