“Yes, everyone here, save for you my friend.” Michael answered, his voice soft and low, its tone inviting, though reserved.
“I knew some existed, but I never dreamed there were so many!” His eyes darting in amazement as he surveyed the numbers littering the room.
“Oh, this is a quiet night. Sometimes the numbers are three and even four times this.” A slight tone of amusement beginning to creep into Michael’s voice as he spoke.
“And the old one that we spoke of, will he be here?” Richard asked.
“No, probably not. He’s not, how shall we say it, very welcome here. We have rules. Rules that have allowed us to live among you for centuries now without drawing the attention that used to send the hunters for us. He chooses not to live by those rules, so he has left us no choice but to caste him out from us.”
“But, you promised me I would have the story of him if I came with you this night!” Richard’s voice raised a bit as he spoke, causing many of the eyes in the room to draw to their direction.
“And so you shall, my friend. But, not from his lips, but from whence he came to be. And the story will be told complete so that it doesn’t recast the veil of fear that once threatened our kind. You will have your story, but you must promise to tell the all of it, not just of him. But, I warn you, none will believe it. In the eyes of your kind, we are but a myth told to children to keep them in their beds at night. Should they ever find “him”, they will think him a lunatic and lock him away. And though immortal blood flows in his veins, he is still young and untaught and there are things that can destroy even us. He will not survive long without protection and help.”
“And you would let that happen?”
“He made his choice. He was told that if he chose that path, he would have no help from us. Without the vow, he is not one of us and has forsaken the privileges that go with belonging to the order.” Michael replied calmly.
Richard looked around the room at the people again. All seemed to be between their late 20s and early 40’s. Some of them were very conservative in their dress, others quite flamboyant. The only thing all had in common was the pale, almost iridescent complexion. He wondered how they could all get along so well, all seeming so very different. He was about to ask when Michael drew his attention to the far end of the room and a group sitting at a table there.
“Ah! There are the ones I wish you to meet. The ones that can tell you of the old one.” Michael scooped his hand under Richard’s arm and guided him across the room to the two men and the woman seated at the table.
Richard looked at the three people as they approached. One of the men looked to be in his early 40’s, wearing a long coat, a bright purple shirt and a top hat with neon coloured plumes adorning it. His hand resting on a beautifully carved cane, though his hand covered the top, but enough peeked out between his fingers hinting of an animal head of some kind. The younger man was much more conservative in his dress, simple dark suit with white shirt and neatly cut sandy brown hair that looked like it could tend to wildness if not tamed with dressings. The woman, now here was one that was hard to describe. It was like she couldn’t quite make up her mind what look she wanted, so she just took bits and pieces of each and put them all together. She wore a black and red corset over a high-necked white Victorian blouse with a fox wrap around her neck, complete with heads biting the tails. Around her waist was a skirt that looked to be fashioned from about a thousand strips of fabric, no rhyme or reason to the choices as there were solid colour pieces, chequered one, striped ones, all hanging in various lengths from a single waistband. And over the waistband dangled on of the wide metal belts full of dangling coins and beads that you would expect to see on a belly dancer. Raven black hair hung in wild curls and flowed down her back with a single strip of blue at one temple. And on her head, she wore a pirate’s hat festooned with a live raven. And lastly, was the necklace, if you could call it that, around her neck. It was like a catch-all for any trinket that seemed to catch her eye. Keys and beads, bells and twisted colour bits of twine, and bones, lot of them and even a few small animal skulls. Oh my!
“This is Richard, the man I told you about.” Michael offered as we reached the table.
He pointed to the 40 something man, “This is Gregoire, 12th degree high sire and custodian of records.”
Gregoire stood and extended his hand to Richard and taking a deep bow at the same time. “Most gracious pleasure, Richard.” he said as he grasped Richard’s hand, a slight brogue to his speech.
“And this,” gesturing to the younger man, “is Raphael, though he prefers Ruffy. He is the mentor of the newly made and responsible to train them in our ways till they are ready to take the vows.”
Raphael/Ruffy rose, twirled about a couple of times, made a wide sweeping bow and swept Richards hand up in his as he rose. “A joy it is to welcome a querying outsider into our little den of blood-letting!” His eyes sparkling mischievously as he spoke.
“And last, but most certainly not least, the most beloved and feared Lady Circe, punisher and bestower, seer and sage to all within the fold.”
Lady Circe remained in her seat and looked up at Richard, starting from the top of his head and travelling till she gazed up the shoes on his feet. Then she looked him in the face, golden eyes with the longest lashes he thought he had ever seen, the eyes glowing and dimming as her pupils contracted and expanded while she watched him. After what seemed an eternal stretch of time, she slowly extended her gloved hand, bracelets dangling from her elbow to her wrist. “You are welcome.” she toned as he took her hand and softly kissed the back of it.
“Pleasure is mine. And gratitude at allowing me to be here to answer my questions.” Richard replied then took the chair that Michael motioned for him to take.
Gregoire leaned across the table and and fixed a stare on him that made Richard feel as if he were slowly becoming naked before him. Not as in the cloathed sense, but as if the veils to his soul were being shed to flutter away in a breeze. After what seemed an eternity, Gregoire sat back and issued a deep belly laugh, his eyes twinkling brightly as he slapped his hand down hard on the table top sending all the glasses to rattle violently on the surface.
“So . . . how old are you Richard? Not so young as I would have expected to be chasing such a. . . how shall we say it, a demon inquiry.”
“I’ll be 58 this year. Why should curiosity fade with years?” Richard replied.
“Oh, it shouldn’t!” Gregoire answered with another long chuckle. “But alas, it often does. You humans often become more reserved and cautious with age, choosing the known and comfortable rather than seek out the strange. The security of the known just seems to naturally follow with ageing among your kind.”
“I suppose that is true of many, okay, most of us. But, not all of us.” Richard countered. “I pray the day never comes when I fail to seek out the curious and the novel. I believe that should that day ever come, it will be the day I shall start looking for the reaper at my bedside and shall gladly welcome his invite to pass from this journey to the next.”
“Oh! Simply marvellous!” Gregoire exclaimed, clapping his hands like a child that has just witnessed an act of magic.
As they spoke on of his travels and experiences, Richard began to notice Circe out of the corner of his eyes. She seemed to have nothing to add, nothing to question in the exchange, even after Ruffy joined in as well. she just quietly listened to all that was exchanged and shared between them. Her silence presence became a distraction that couldn’t be ignored and he found himself glancing in her direction more and more frequently to look for even the slightest change in her expression as they talked. But, nothing.
Suddenly, Michael appeared off to Richard’s right side and set a wine goblet down in front of him, hand still firmly grasping the rim of it. Richard tried to think on when Michael had vanished as he didn’t remember him leaving the company. Ah well! Michael looked over at Circe and for the first time her expression changed. She nodded just slightly and her lips parted in a partial smile, then she sat back in her chair and crossed her hands over her stomach.
“Well! Richard, this is for you.” Michael said and lifted his hand from the goblet. Its a very special Port reserved for only very special occasions.” With that, he slid the goblet over till it was right in front of Richard. “And now, I think it is time we get to the matter Richard is here for, no?” Then he took a seat at Richard’s left and slapped Richard on the shoulder before continuing. “So, I suppose we should begin at the beginning, no? I find its always a good place to start.”
Richard opened up his notebook then and looked up to see who would begin with the story. Ruffy picked up his glass and motioned to Richard to do the same and all glasses were lifted for his toast. “Dearly beloved . . . No, that’s not right!” Ruffy laughed. “To truths to be told, histories written and prayers that maybe this once they will be written right.” All heads nodded in agreement just before the glasses were raised to their lips.
As the dark liquid passed Richards lips, he felt its thick rich substance caress his entire mouth, deep, heady, spicy and very unusual. He pulled the glass slightly away and took a deep inhalation of it. His eyebrows scrunched together as he tried to make this one out. He had never smelled anything quite like it before. It was like . . . antiquity infused into a viscous liquid of spice and flowers and wrapped in the bonds of the wine. And it was heady! He could tell he would have to keep that in mind as he took another sip and looked up at his hosts, the surprised look on his face quite obvious in the looks he was receiving back.
“Before you ask, no, there is no place you can obtain the wine you are drinking. It is a special blend held secret within these walls and rarely offered. Enjoy though, my friend.” Grgoire answered the unspoken question, a broad grin on his face. “Please, do enjoy!”
“And now, I shall begin if you are ready.” Ruffy stated and sat back in his chair after Richard nodded. “We, our kind, have been here at least as long as your kind. It is told that in ancient times, we lived in harmony with each other, sharing int the bounties. No one is really sure when those times changed. But, as in all things, the world does change. Fear and distrust eventually find their way in when two are so very different. The need to draw lines between the light and the dark, the good and the bad. The desire to find oneself as superior and in the so doing, requires that the other be found as inferior. Who started it so many ages ago, it is hard to tell. But, start, it did. It is said that there was a time when we did not have the taste for human blood. But, the truth of that, as well, is past the time of true knowing. At any rate, the time came when both became the hunter and the hunted. Ours is a creature of the night, and yours of the day. Thousands of both of our kind fell to the other. Many was the time when it was questionable if we both would exterminate the other. Then, one day, it seemed your kind led the war and our kind fled to hide in the shadows. It may be that it was then that we first tasted human blood. Maybe it was before and that is what started the wars. The records conflict of that time.”
Ruffy paused and drew his fingers along the moisture on his glass, his face cast in deep thought, eyebrows pressing deeply to the center and biting gently on his bottom lip. A deep sigh escaped his mouth and he sat back and looked at Richard, then continued.
“We were the more vulnerable. We were hunted while we slept during the day. We are defenceless then. Were. It is not so much any more for many of us. But, then we could be slaughtered like lambs. And we retaliated! We hunted mercilessly, taking far more down than we needed. We took all down that we found in our paths. Women, children, old, young, it didn’t matter. In all places where we both numbered, we both diminished. We became monsters in your stories. You became nothing but blood in ours. One day, your kind found our main safe hold, one that had remained hidden for decades, possibly centuries. As I said, the histories are vague at times. We fled. We found a sanctuary in what we thought was an abandoned monetary and hid in the cellars, dusty and full of cobwebs and night creatures. It was obvious it had not had a human visitor in a very long time.”
“We were not alone as we thought though. One still remained in the halls above. He found our lair. But, unlike the others, he made no attempt to destroy us or inform on us. He began to leave small gifts, offerings if you will. Never were we able to discover where he lay at night. If we had, we would have taken him. If we had, we would not be who we are today. In time, we began to ease about his presence and agreed to leave him be. Then, one night as we were awakening, he was there to greet us. He wanted to see if there was a way to end the bloody war between our kind. He offered a hand of friendship. He taught us and brought order to us. He became the first leader of our order, guided us into initiation, wrote the laws with us. He even offered up his own blood to a few of us on occasion, teaching us to stop short of taking life.”
“Then, one night, one of ours returned wounded. He rushed to minister to her. He didn’t know yet that we heal quickly. That she would have been fine come the next night. Her wounds were not lethal. With us, there is only lethal or temporary. He tried to breath into her, fearing she could not breath on her own. Some of her blood entered him when he did that. And it was that night we learned that your kind can become one of us.”
“He began to slowly change after that. Curious, we fed him more of our blood and the transformation became more pronounced. He became one of us from that. And still, one of you as well. He was not bound to only the night. He was still very sensitive to the harshness of the sunlight, but properly clothed, he could move around at any hour. We also found that those that shared with him, they also became less sensitive. They couldn’t move about with as much freedom as he could, but they could stay out in the early hours and when the sun was not direct.”
“He taught us how to take blood and still leave life. In time, we learned ways of the taking where no memory of the event was left in our victim’s minds. The hunting of our kind slowed, and in time ceased. We became the stuff of legends, fairy tales. We were safe. And we could again live in peace. He made us into an order and the humans believe that was what we were. They left us in our walls and believed our seclusion was part of our vows. Which, in truth it was, though not in the way they thought. We learned that we needed a few that were older to give us validity. Your kind seem to confer knowledge and respect on maturity. That we were often centuries old didn’t change the fact that we looked youthful. We don’t age, as I am sure you know. And those we turned, though they lived far longer than they would have as human, we learned would eventually die as your kind do.”
“So, every so often, we would have to find a new leader, master of the order, if you will. We made some mistakes in the early days. We chose a few old ones that didn’t like our laws. They had been powerful men and when we “made” them, they would have us return to the days of taking at will. Of restarting the war that almost destroyed us. That put is in a bit of a predicament. We had taken vows not to take lives. What to do with these rogues we had created? After much talk and consideration, we simply turned them out. Eventually, they were caught by the human authorities and believed to be insane. Oh, they tried to inform on us, who we really were, but we had been here too long without a blemish of suspicion in all those years. We counselled the authorities that hours in the sun might do their insane minds some good. Help heal them a bit, so to speak. Because they were part human, this was not a death sentence. It simply aged them much faster. And they died very natural deaths, unless one of the other inmates took their lives first. And that did happen a couple of times.”
“We began to research our candidates better. Learning the traits we needed. Intelligence, learned men, men of character, and yes, powerful as well. But, powerful in a different sense. Ones that could command power and yield it so that others would follow, would respect. They were not easy to find. Not easy then, not easy now. Sometimes, we had to travel to find them. But, never again were we without an “old one”. And a mistake such as we had made in the early times has not happened in a few hundred years.”
“Until now.” Richard commented.
“Yes,” Ruffy replied softly. “Until now.”
“So, tell me about him. How did you make a mistake after all this time?” Richard asked, turning the page in his notebook to ready for the next chapter.
Gregoire inched his chair forward a bit, leaned back in his chair and cleared his throat. “I guess its my turn.” He stated with a hesitant, almost displeased tone in his voice.
“The blood is like a fine wine to us. Each has its own flavour, the spice of experience, hint of laughter, subtle undertones of sorrow and imbued with the essence of the soul. And as such, we each develop a taste for those certain combinations that are to our liking. Much like those of your kind that prefer the reds over the whites, the fruitier wines, the flowery wines, the dark mature wines.” Gregoire paused and glanced over at Circe who for the first time, shifted a bit in her chair, then glared defiantly back at Gregoire before shifting back into her stolid state.
Richard watched the exchange, his curiosity peaked.
“We have rules . . . laws. We are all bound to them. No matter how many centuries we have to us, no matter how high our rank, we are all of us bound by those laws!” the threat and accusation evident in his voice.
“Old blood is better than young blood.” a soft voice issued from Circe’s still figure. “Is. I’m just saying.”
“All of that is fine,” Gregoire continued, his voice quieting to a low vibration “so long as we remember that we can take as our tastes inspire. It is in the sharing that the forbidden is involved.”
His gaze travelled back up to meet Richard’s eyes, the softness returning to his features as he relaxed back into his chair. “Our kind is not so different from yours, Richard. The personalities, the characters, all of them. We also have our creatures of impulse, and as it so often goes with their kind, they are creatures much adored and often with invaluable gifts to the community. And unlike those that don’t care about the rules and think they don’t apply, often they sometimes allow their impulses to get a bit . . . . uhmm . . . . carried away with them. They get caught up in the moment and after it is done, believe that it will all work out in the end. And sometimes it does.” He glanced back at Circe again and she tipped her head low, staring back at him with eyes that were equally glowing with anger, remorse and guilt. “And sometimes it does not.”
He took a deep breath, picked up his goblet and took another deep draught off of it. “Which brings us to now. I am sure it is quite apparent that our dear Circe here is the one responsible for the one that brought you to our company. Our Circe is one of the most revered of our members, she is our seer and the keeper of the secret wisdoms. But, she forgets that the err is made when emotions are allowed in to cloud what is seen. That often, our desires replace the true visions. She additionally made the error of becoming romantically involved with her victim. This is another thing that is expressly forbidden. And one of the hardest things for us to do sometimes. As different as our kind are, they are also very much alike. So, attractions can be quite common. But, the differences between us make such a liaison both dangerous and impossible.
“Though, on that count, I put more of the blame on him than our Circe. He was, is a . . . how do you call them? Oh, drifter. A master manipulator. He thought our Circe a wealthy heiress, though we are not sure where he got such an idea. He wooed her as a lover and she took her sips of his essence on a more and more frequent basis. He gained her trust over time and she eventually confided in him what she was. And then he convinced her that if she made him one of us, they could always be together. Though we already had a recently appointed old one, she saw no harm in bringing in another one as her personal pet.”
“Her personal pet?!” Richard sputtered, sending sprays of the thick wine across the table.
“Yes, her pet!” Gregoire replied, then laughed heartily. “Calm down Richard. Its not so bad as it sounds. When a mortal is fed only from a single of us, they become bound to us and their need for just another taste of our blood becomes overwhelming. Its not something that they need to survive. Its more like those of your kind that develop substance problems. It seems to be a weakness many of you have. That forbidden fruit, that taste, that moment of pure euphoria, it drives all common sense from your minds. And you will do anything, anything, for that one more taste. And before you think too harshly of us, we didn’t create this weakness in your kind. And I can assure you that those that have been taken in though such a way, had already succumbed to this need in their nature in your world in one of its many way. In some ways, we are actually saving them. The blood does not harm them, does not kill them. And they lose their taste for the bottle or the needle or whatever their drug was when first they taste it. They still have their free will. They just choose to set it aside for another taste. And I can assure you that it is not allowed for one to abuse their pet.”
Circe looked up at Richard with a slightly cocked head, mischievous smile on her face, then shrugged her shoulders and giggled softly before turning back to her glass to draw circles and patterns in the liquid with her fingertip.
“As I was saying, the bulk of the blame goes on him and how he manipulated our Circe.” Gregoire continued. “She has been judged according to her part in it and fulfilled the terms of her punishment. I doubt she will repeat such an error in judgement again. Not given the knowledge of what was created by her mistake.”
Circe’s head dipped at this and Richard thought he saw her eyes begin to glisten a bit with tears at this last comment.
“As I said, he refused to take the vows, abide by the rules. He saw in his new “blood” a means to achieve power and control that was beyond what his mortal life would allow. And he became drunk with the knowledge of it. We warned him he would be cast out. Even had we not already had an old one, he would not have been acceptable. He laughed at us as he strode out the door and swore we had not seen the last of him. Even we were surprised to learn the extent he would take that threat.”
Gregoire grew silent after that and sat back in his chair, a strained look on his face, weighing on it, adding years in a moment to his features.
Michael leaned forward, crossed his hands on the table before him and cleared his throat. “He did the unspeakable!” Michael said, his voice shaking and broken. “He, whose name is not permitted to be spoken in these walls for what he did. He sought his revenge at being banned from our presence by hunting and taking the life of our old one. Left his remains, throat ripped out and drained on our doorstep. Drained his essence to obtain the knowledge that was in the blood, hoping to drink in the knowledge of power over us. Thought to take from us the face of the master and reducing our standing in the community. Thinking we would have to take him back in or lose our status. When that failed, he tried to accuse one of our members of committing the heinous act. It proved how much he underestimated us. The evidence he planted was turned back to him and it wasn’t long till he was charged with the murder. He has bellowed accusations about what we really are, thinking he would be believed by someone. And as in the past, one of ours was assigned to him as his therapist and sun therapy has been prescribed for him. Additionally, he has been put on a meatless diet. So, he has been denied even the blood of animals to sustain him. He is withering rapidly, the madness growing each day. Not only is he newly made, but he is also single fed, which makes him even more vulnerable. We are certain he will not last too much longer.”
“I didn’t realize he was incarcerated. I had just heard rumours about such a one. Seems my information is a bit outdated” Richard said
“Well, its been in all the papers. I can’t imagine how you could have missed it.” Michael fixed him with an intent stare. “I thought there was little that happens that misses your attention.”
“Oh, wait! Now I know what you are talking about! The crazy psycho that left people ripped up like a wild animal had gotten to them! Yes! I do remember that. And also that he attacked a guard at the hospital who only lived for a couple of days.”
“Yes, unfortunate that was. We found that he had given him some of his blood to create another to bond with. We stepped in on that one and helped him slip mercifully from life.”
“But, I thought that was against your laws!” Richard exclaimed.
“Normally, yes. But, as in all things, one must allow for . . . how shall we say? . . . special circumstances. By this time, he was truly mad, insane. And the insanity would have infected his blood. Which, in turn, would have infected the guard with his insanity. Not to mention the fact that the wounds he inflicted on his victim were so extensive that even if not for the fear of spreading the insanity, might never have healed completely. You must understand that wounds prior to being turned are not the same as those after, which can heal overnight. He would have been scarred to the point of monstrous; and insane. So, in mercy, we helped him simply slip away. And because of that last incident, have moved to see his end come just a bit swifter. Before any others come to harm.”
Michael looked up at Richard’s face, probing for some reading on how this was being taken in. Richard furiously scribbled out the last bits of what he had been told, beads of sweat blurring his vision as he wrote. He chewed on his lower lip as he let all he had heard sink in and begin to process. Then he looked up at his hosts, all of their faces turned to him.
“And this is the story you want me to carry out in the world and set to print?” Richard asked, hesitancy weighing on each word.
“Yes.” Michael replied “Just as it has been told, leave nothing out.”
“Okay then.” Richard said as he snapped his notebook shut. “Exactly as it has been told. Though the world will think I have taken to fantasy writing. You shall have what you ask.” He swallowed down the last bit from his goblet and stood up from the table. “I guess I better get started then. I have a lot of writing to do.”
“Wait!” Michael commanded. “There is still the matter of payment for the story.”
“Ah yes, that.” Richard’s face paled and he took a deep breath. “Will it hurt?”
“Just a the tiniest bit at first and then it will be as a dream.” Michael said, smiling reassuringly.
“Okay, well I guess I’m ready.”
Circe stood up and walked slowly over to face Richard. “You’re the one?” Richard stammered. His only response was her slow, and so very seductive smile as she wrapped her arms about his neck and slid her body up against his. A tiny prick and then he was floating, clouds in an azure sky, his body weightless, like all the muscles relaxed, all the strain lifted. Then slowly, he began to shift back till he felt the hands recede from his neck and he was looking into her eyes. Slowly, she took a step back, wiped the slight drip of blood from her chin and smiled at him.
“I guess that wasn’t so bad.” He said, gathering up his things and tucking them under his arm. “I’d like to say it was a pleasure, but I’m not sure that would be completely accurate, but I do thank you for the evening. And I hope you will understand if I am fine that we don’t do this again.” He stammered.
“Oh, but you will, my friend.” Michael interjected.
“My friend, this is but the beginning. You see? We are in a situation where we are without an old one, as we told you. You have been chosen. This, tonight, is just the beginning.” Michael laughed.
“But, don’t you need me to agree? I mean, you can’t just make such a decision for me! It requires that I also drink your blood, which I can assure you, I have no intention of doing. And I can assure you, you cannot force me to do!” Richard glowered at them.
“Oh, but my friend, you have. You have been all this evening!” Michael replied mirthfully. “What do you think that so very exotic wine has been that you have been sipping on this night? You carry within you a bit of all of us. It takes a little time, but by morning, it will have worked its magic and the transformation will be taking place. So, may I say Welcome to the fold!”
Richard’s heart began to race and he made a rush for the door. About halfway there, his mind started clouding and he felt himself falling. A few of the others caught him before he hit the floor and carried him to a bed in one of the rooms to sleep off the night.
Gregoire looked questioningly at Michael. “Oh, calm down. Once he wakes, the transformation will have begun. He will join! We chose well. He will suit us nicely.” Then he looked over at Circe and smiled. “You did well, dear lady! The last is now forgiven.”
Circe looked at him and smiled in gratitude, then turned and walked slowly away. Soft though her voice was, it was heard by all in the area.
“Old blood is better than young blood! Is all I’m saying. Yes, it most certainly is.”
Lamia walked quickly down the lane, Epona at her side, strutting in that cute way she had, tail fanning in the air and ears perked for every sound. Pulling her cloak tightly about her as a chill wind picked up and etched against her skin. Not very fashionable in this age, but she had never much cared about fashion. It kept her warm, even through the winds, and she felt protected in its heavy folds. She glanced about her as she walked to see if any were marking her journey into this night. She was fairly certain no one would, at this deep hour and on this night of all nights. They would be huddled in their houses summoning prayers and wards against their fears of this night. She watched anyway, for the stray eye peeping from behind a curtain or through a cracked door. As it was, the people thought her wanderings odd and she preferred them to know as little about them as was possible. She saw no need to further stir their superstitions and fears unnecessarily. That, as well as her preference to keep her life as private as possible.
The night was clear save for a few wandering wisps of clouds dancing across the black blanket of the sky. The moon, not yet risen, lay hovering just below the horizon waiting for the proper moment to announce itself. Full, it would be and the closeness of its orbit promised it would light the sky and bathe the earth in silver showers.
She approached the gate just as the first glow illuminated the horizon before her. She paused for a moment to take in the birth shimmer, then reached out and opened the gate. It gave way with a slight moan and she looked again over her shoulder to make sure no one had heard it. Quietly, she entered onto the narrow pebbled path and made her way along its twists and gentle hills, pausing every now and then to touch a headstone here, whisper a greeting to another off to the side, and listen for the soft replies.
Lamia took her time, breathing in the damp smell of decay mixed with the wild growth. She could feel about her the slow churning of the old and discarded into the new. The sleepy whispers of those who rested here were slowly beginning to awaken, and she listened quietly, a light smile on her lips as she took in their soft murmurs.
The veil was thinning already. She must hurry! She approached the large hill at the center and paused for her first look this night at the majestic tree on its crest. The patriarch, they called it, older than any could remember, older than their grandparents could remember. She called it the Spirit Keeper. Faces seemed to loom from the surface of its massive trunk, ghostly, surreal and changing with each shift of light upon it. It was as if all those who made their rest here had passed through it, leaving just a shade of themselves within it before moving on. At least it was so for those that had found the will to move on. Others tarried, out of confusion, fear, or desperation to cling to what was once theirs, but no longer could be, and some simply because they liked it here. And a small few because there was still something they had to shed before they could move on.
She climbed to the top of the hill, up to the base of the giant oak and placed her hands gingerly upon its surface. A gentle tingling sensation spread into her hands and up her arms. She had lost count of how many times she had stood in this same place, begun this ritual; it never seemed to lose its impact on her. She smiled at the deep lulling sound she heard in her head, that she knew to be a welcome. Then she sat her pack down at its base and began.
The small blanket was laid down first. Her welcome gift into the world, her mother’s as well, stitched with prayers and spells by her great grandmother. Next, came the candles. Six of them this night. The count was always different, but always just the number it should be. She needn’t know why, she would before it was done. She lit them one by one, offering a prayer with each one. Then she sat down on the blanket and removed the bread and cheese, placed them on a napkin, then her thermos. She opened it and poured herself a cup, brought it to her nose and let the warm vapors fill her head with the deep aroma of herbs and spices. She took a small sip, then picked up the bread and cheese and leaned back against her tree to watch the moon’s ascension.
The air seemed to still as the orb grew in its ascent Vaporous forms rose gently from the ground, like smoky tendrils of a cigarette on a lonely night. They hovered quietly just on the edge of her vision, sharing in her watch. Their quiet revelry carried into her and united her with them. She never felt alone when she was with her spirits, unlike how she felt when she was surrounded by the living world.
Lamia knew her kind were few, those that walked between the worlds, never truly belonging to either. But, it was only the living that feared that in her, thought her a witch, or worse, a necromancer. She did her best to fit in on the fringes, immersed just enough to appear acceptably eccentric. She made the obligatory appearances, though it drained her each time. Their chatter, from their minds as well as their mouths, rattled her. They seemed never content, never at home with the life they had, the place they had.
It was only here and away from the workings of the world that Lamia could feel at peace. The spirits, her spirits, were never in a hurry. Each moment took as long as it needed to. Each passage would happen when its time had arrived. And until then, they just existed in what was. Graveyards weren’t haunted as people often thought. She knew that if the spirit travelled here with its earthly body, it was ready to lay that other life aside. It understood that those things that most thought important in the world of the living became trifles when the flesh had become discarded. But, a few things still remained. Love always carried with them between the worlds. It was the thread that most often held them connected to the world before. And it was also the hardest to convince them that they would still have after they cut that thread to travel beyond.
The moon had fully risen now, its massive globe filling most of the sky just before her. She rose to bathe in its glory, then turned her head at the sound of soft laughter at her side. She joined in the laughter as she watched the child spirit chasing the moonflies in the darkness. She hadn’t seen this one before. How curious! Thought she had few dealings with the people, it was a small town and everyone knew of the birthings and passings of all its members. She knew older spirits to lay quietly for many years before coming forth from their earthy slumbers, but a child rarely tarried for long. Especially one as young as this one was! A tingling spread along her spine and Lamia knew this was the one she was sent for this evening. She motioned the young spirit over to her and sat back down to wait.
The child shade made her way slowly over, pausing every now and then to take a close look at something that caught her attention. Lamia smiled in amusement at the realization of how much like living children child spirits were.
They found her the next morning slumped against the tree, the hood of her cloak blown away from her face and her hair making streamers in the wind. The burnt out candles in a half circle in front of her. And in the center of them, a pile of flowers, all of them different, as if each had been brought from a different place and offered by a different hand. A couple of the women crossed themselves at the scene, but all lent a hand in carrying her body and gathering her remains to take back to town.
They buried her at the base of the great tree. They placed her on the bare side where nothing had ever been known to grow, away from the other graves. Unsure, they had to bury her in hallowed ground, but fear made them keep her away from the others. They placed a small headstone on her grave that read, “Lamia of our town. Born, we know not when. Died on this spot on, her body laid where its spirit left it.”
The next spring in the bare place where they had laid her, a blanket of flowers had sprung up, though all swore they had not planted a single seed. And every year thereafter, the flowers came back.
It is said that if you visit her grave at the right time of day and look up into the great tree and turn your head just right, you can see what looks like the hood of a cloak lifting up between the higher branches and the soft features of a woman’s face peering out from underneath, a taproot cascading down like a wayward tendril of hair. And on a night when the veils grow thin, when there is just the slightest of breezes in the air, if you find a place to sit under that great tree in the center, you might catch a stirring of low voices caught in the wind. And if you listen quietly, you might chance to hear a gentle woman’s voice beckoning to those that can’t find the way.
“You’ll love it there Aunt Joanie!” her young niece pleaded. “Just give it a chance. It’s truly paradise! It’s beautiful all the time and you can go exploring in the jungles and learn about all sorts of new plants and things. There are all kinds of social things where you can meet new friends. We have a small house all set up for you. And we don’t like being this far away from you. Grant and his wife are willing to move in here and take things over and pay you a nice rent. So, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Whispers on the Stairs
Fire Season was approaching!
It begins when the blistering sun of summer and the Easterly winds have scorched across the land, draining it of every last drop of moisture and seeming life it had within it. The people draw inside their homes, shut their doors and windows from the air, so hot it scorches your lungs just to take a breath. Then the cold comes to take its hold. Then the clouds begin to crest the horizon, too high for their drops to arrive with little more than a taste to make the land weep for more. They clash in the skies above, charging the air with energy as the thunder shakes even the stoutest of trees in the depths of the ground and the lightening streaks across the sky in an endless play of bolts and balls and rippling energies of light. When finally they touch upon the ground and taste the dried and decayed matter, they erupt in flames, consuming ravenously all they can reach.
We sit and watch this display. We hope our homes made of our special bricks will resist the dancing inferno. Then we breathe in the energy that has charged every atom of the air during the fire storm. It enters us then, and if we let it deep inside to the seed within, it ignites us as well. Its a powerful feeling to have the fire storm ignite your seed. When it does, it releases you in a way that you cannot imagine. You always have the choice to only let as much in as you choose to. It is “your” seed, after all.
We are taught of this from as early as we are able to learn. We are also guarded from it, from its influence, until we are old enough to make that choice ourselves. And when it is time, our guardians will step back and we can look upon the fire storm and choose to either welcome it or turn it away. But, once we let it in, we must set aside our childhood and move into the realm of the adults. Some resist its calling for a few seasons, wishing to remain in the innocence and protection of the uninitiated. Some will embrace it at the first opportunity. A few escape the protection of the elders and enter into it at too young an age and are consumed by it. A small number choose never to allow its full touch. Each have their own reasons and each have their own place here.
I reached the age of choice a couple of seasons ago, but held back. Instead, I waited to watch my friends. I wanted to observe how they were changed so as to better know if it was something I wished for myself. I have always been less impulsive than many of the others. I wasn’t willing to give up who I was till I learned if I didn’t like who I would become. For there is never any truly going back once you have taken that step across that line. Oh, you can choose not to take it again in the seasons that follow. But, you will still be forever changed for having taken it at all. Given that knowledge, I wanted to be sure before I crossed that line.
Last season, as the fires danced across the land, lighting up the skies in their reds and oranges and yellows and blues, and the doors swung open on the homes and the way was parted for those that felt the longing to take those steps. I found myself moving forward and across the threshold into the fiery night.
The fire shot, then swirled about us as we began to dance and sing in the clearing. Walled in by the flames, the thunder crashing in the heavens, the skies split by the bolts, we breathed it in, letting it reach down and touch that seed, protected for all of our lives until now. Feeling it now for what it truly was.
We became the fire when our seed ignited, equally ravenous, equally devouring.
I saw him for the first time that night, or I saw him in a way I had never seen him before. But, when our eyes met, our fires joined together with each other, weaving a fiery cord that pulled us closer together, until we touched. We were wrapped in a pillar of our combined flames at that moment, set aside from all else and at the utter mercy of the desire that pounded in every cell of our being. We devoured each other with our desire, each touch igniting new dancers of flame on the others skin, each taste giving fuel to the fire, each movement raising us to even higher levels than before. Till finally, we merged. The skies seemed to open above us then and we were floating. Floating in a cool air that did nothing to dampen the heat of our desires. In fact, it just raised them to a higher level. Up we went into the sky, a twisting, undulating ball of molten fire till that one last pulse snapped the seed open and the wash of stars floated down to bathe our searing forms.
Some of us mark the days till the next season, forever hungry for the consuming and the being consumed. The seed shooting new and different growth with each merging. There are some that always choose the same other to dance with, time and time again. There are others that will find a new partner to do the fire dance with each time. Each way creates growth in different ways. The children born of the fire dance are the most treasured of our kind. Few stay past maturity, longing to merge back into the fires from which they were birthed. They enter the fires alone and dance a dance that even an artist cannot dream of before they are wrapped in the embrace of the flames and taken back in.
Though a few do remain. They never cross the threshold when the door is thrown open. They just stand and watch, no sadness, no regret. Simply a look of understanding on their faces and never leave their place till the very last dance has been done.
So, you see? For us, the Fire Season is truly a time to celebrate!
“What’s in there?”
The soft rays of the sun caressed the dawn skies, awakening it to the touch of morning and bathing it in a gentle light of flowing colors. The shadows stirred forth from their hiding places and the creatures of the day began to emerge from their own slumbers. A wash passed over the tops of the rows of trees, setting light to the dew mist upon their leaves, a starshine net cast upon their peaks.