Fetch Priory, Chapter Three

Abbot Ranulf just stood there, waiting placidly, as I examined the stone sculpture.

It was me, all right. It had worn with time, and I could see a few signs of careful repair, but I have a pretty distinctive kind of face. Squint at in one way, and it looks European; squint another way, and it seems Asian. No medieval European sculptor would have imagined the Asian elements, but they were there, unmistakable. The sculpture showed me staring ahead, frowning slightly. Even the expression was right; I look that way when I'm thinking very deeply about something.

To the left of my face was an image of a leering, hunchbacked demon, goat-legged and horned, with a heavy, brutal face and cruel fangs. To the right was a saint or angel, serene and kind. Both figures had their hands outstretched, as though appealing to me or pleading with me for something.

I tore my gaze away and turned to the Abbot, who continued to stand there, calm and unmoving. "How long ago was this carved?"

"It was begun on the day after my brothers and I left the world."

My first reaction was: that's impossible. But I knew better than that, now.

"You foresaw that I'd come here, hundreds of years before I was born?"

"Ah, so you are indeed as young as you appear? I suspected as much." Ranulf sounded pleased with himself, even a little smug. I found it oddly reassuring to learn that human foibles existed under that Zen tranquillity. "But to answer your question, yes, the Lord granted us a vision which foretold your arrival. Our mortal comprehension proved too poor to interpret the nuances, but we were able to glimpse a choice which you must soon make. A choice between Heaven, and the evil which we have kept locked away from the world for so long. And in making that choice, you will release us from our burden."

Very cryptic. I struggled to rein in my irritation, but apparently it showed in my face. No surprise there. For good or ill, everything I think or feel shows on my face. I've often cursed the fact that I'm so easy to read. Particularly nowadays. Excessive honesty isn't a good survival trait in a vampire.

The Abbot didn't take offense, though. In fact, he actually grinned at me, mischievously. "Since you're too courteous to say it, I'll spare you the trouble: what are you babbling about, you senile old fool?"

"Father! I never for one moment considered you senile!" I didn't deny the rest of it, though. The Abbot evidently picked up on my little riposte. He threw back his head and laughed allowed, like a small boy pleased at the success of a prank. For all the authority he exuded, there was no pomposity about him.

My liking for him rose a notch or two, but the fear was still there.

"Sweet Jesu, but it's good to be mocked again," Abbot Ranulf chuckled. "When I commanded troops, I always took care to pick seconds who weren't afraid to mock me. Delusions of infallibility are dangerous to a soldier. Perhaps I've ruled this community unquestioned for too long."

"You were a soldier? That's where you got the scar?" I realized belatedly that I could have asked more tactfully, but Ranulf didn't take offense.

"Yes, and yes. I was a baron, then a Crusader. I fought in Outremer after Saladin's triumph at Hattin, and then I went east, to the land of the Livs, where I fought under Bishop Berthold's banner. My faith was weak, in those days. I fought more for the love of battle, than the love of God. But in the land of the Livs, I found the true light of Heaven. And the true face of hell, too." Ranulf's face darkened. "A face which we have caged here for eight hundred long years. Come."

My irritation was starting to build at this slow, grudging drip-feed of information. A sudden revelation here, a comment there, and then off to gawk at the next spectacle. But the Abbot was striding off down the path leading to the church, not bothering to check if I was following, leaving me with little real option save to scurry after him. In any other circumstances, the Beast would have been pawing at the bars of its cage, seeking to exploit my annoyance, but it was still in hiding after the beating it had received from that holy aura in the church. Or whatever the hell it was.

The Abbot turned right by the entrance to the garden, taking me slightly by surprise. The cloister leading back to the church lay slightly to the left, but apparently we weren't taking that route. The path which Ranulf was leading me down ran through the graveyard behind the church and towards a low stone building abutting the church itself.

"It was the year of our Lord, 1198, when I fought a Crusade in Livonia," Ranulf told me as I caught up with him. "We were able to defeat the pagans handily enough, and most of our forces sailed away, believing that the task was done. They left behind ample troops and fortifications to preserve the peace - or so they thought. They never realized that the pagans, in their blind and twisted madness, hated us enough to surrender their souls and call upon Hell itself to defeat us."

We'd reached the low building now. From somewhere inside his robes, Ranulf produced a large iron key. He opened the door to the building without pausing in his narrative, evidently well accustomed to this route. But I was not, and I was taken aback to see quite how thick and heavy the door was, reinforced with bands of iron. Whatever this building contained, someone was very anxious that it shouldn't get out.

"I had stayed behind in Livonia when most of my comrades had left. I didn't know why at the time; I wasn't aware enough of the Divine in those days, to recognize that I was being guided. I took command of one of the small fortresses which we'd constructed after our victory.

"One night, a messenger reached us. The poor fellow was wounded and half-dead from fever, hunger and exhaustion, but he was able to warn us that several other fortifications, only a few days ride from us, had been overrun by the forces of the Adversary.

"At first, I attributed the unfortunate man's wilder tales to his wound and his fever. The more fool I, for when I took a small party to investigate we found..."

Ranulf paused for an instant, then continued steadily. "Our sister fortresses had been destroyed, as the messenger said. But to our horror, it seemed as though much of the damage had been wrought from within. Time and again, we found our fellow crusaders with each others' blood on their hands. They had put each other to the sword, or strangled and gouged each other to death. They seemed to have flown into an insane, bestial madness."

I pricked my ears up... metaphorically, although I felt a ghost-sensation from the memory of my wolf shape. I knew that some of the eldest Gangrel could arouse even the weak Beast which dwells within mortals, but to affect so many people at once, and so completely? It was a feat beyond anything I'd heard of.

As we passed through the door, I felt the same oppressive presence that I'd experienced in the church pressing down on me, but it didn't feel so bad this time. I couldn't say how or why, but I got the feeling that it wasn't as interested in me as it had been before. In the church, I'd been at the center of its attention. Here, I was only on the periphery of its awareness.

The stone anteroom which we entered was a low-ceilinged affair whose roof was supported by a series of gothic arches. Torches, set in sconces at intervals along the walls, revealed carvings of more brutal-featured demons like the one I'd seen next to my portrait. They seemed somehow familiar. I felt sure I'd seen their like somewhere before, but they weren't anything like the conventional portrayal of demons in medieval archit...

Thud

The throbbing pulse of pure, raw power smashed into me with the force of a runaway express train. Unlike the aura of the church, though, this feeling didn't drive the Beast into cowering submission. Instead, it whipped it up into a frenzy of panic, demanding that I run run run run run...I felt myself being dragged closer and closer to frenzy. Then I felt a second presence, dragging me back from the brink, anchoring me in something close to sanity. Incredulous, I realized in some distant corner of my psyche that the aura of holiness pervading the building was actually helping me, throwing me a lifeline.

It felt as though my mind were a wishbone, being torn apart between two titanic opposing forces. I stood in the doorway, trembling slightly, but otherwise utterly paralyzed.

Gradually, the echoes of that mighty pulse of power died away. Faced with the combination of my will and the power of the sanctified ground, the Beast reluctantly subsided.

The Abbot was looking at me with what seemed like genuine concern. It took me three attempts before I was finally able to get control of my voice and croak a monosyllabic query. "What..."

The Abbot evidently understood, although he seemed unaffected himself. "That was a heart-beat."

My tremors had almost stopped now. My voice was more or less under control too, though it sounded a bit shriller as I demanded, "What do you mean? A heart-beat?"

"The heart-beat of the creature we hold captive. The holiness of this place forces it to sleep, but the Adversary has invested it with great power. Even upon hallowed ground, the effects can be felt. Are you able to continue?"

I was tempted to agree with the Beast, scream a denial, and run like hell. Instead, I nodded. Without enthusiasm.

"Come, then." The Abbot led the way through the anteroom to another of the heavy, reinforced doors on the far wall. A second key opened it onto a descending set of spiral stone stairs. The Abbot took up a torch from a wall sconce and led the way downward into darkness. I followed a few paces behind, instinctively wary of coming too close to the burning torch.

"The creature we guard," Ranulf's voice floated back at me, "was responsible for the destruction we found in Livonia. We'd thought the slaughter of the garrisons was bad enough, but worse was to come. As we searched through the burning ruins, we found inescapable evidence that many of the people of the fortress, particularly the younger ones, had been... eaten. Not content with merely murdering them, the vile abomination had led its followers to become cannibals.

"I sent messengers to my fellow commanders, and to the Church. I organized scouting parties to hunt down those responsible. At the time, I thought I was dealing merely with an unusually well organized and degenerate group of pagans. I had no way of knowing otherwise, but the guilt still weighs upon me, even now. When I sent out those scouts, I sent a lot of good men to their deaths.

"The tales which came back to me were horrific. Villages had been abandoned, their buildings torn asunder and their fields left untilled. Churches had been desecrated and burned. And everywhere, we saw evidence of human remains which had been left over from grisly cannibalistic feasts.

"But only a few of my men even survived to bring me these stories. Most were never seen again. Two, poor wretches, came back drooling and making animal noises, their minds broken.

"After I saw the second of those who'd been driven mad - a young man of four-and-twenty summers, pious and brave - my anger got the better of me. I rode out alone, determined to hunt down the source of this evil myself, without condemning any more of my men to suffer as that poor lad had suffered. It was a foolish thing to do, but my anger ruled my wits.

"And after three days, stopping only occasionally to rest my mount and myself, I came across a man in the ruins of one of the destroyed villages. Yet somehow, I knew that this was no good Christian man. I dismounted and drew my sword, even though he appeared to be no more than an unarmed peasant. And then he changed before my eyes. Fur sprouted from his skin, talons sprung from his hands, his face distorted horribly into a snout, and he grew to half again the his former height.

"I don't clearly recall the next few moments. My next clear memory is of a blinding white radiance, brighter than the sun. And from the light, I saw the Archangel Michael step forth.

"The demon howled and slashed its claws at me, seemingly intent on separating my head from my shoulders. But the archangel was too quick for it. He swung his flaming sword in a single mighty blow which separated the creature's neck from its shoulders. Those terrible talons only grazed me." The Abbot's fingers went to stroke the scar on his neck. It looked - and sounded, from the huskiness of his voice - to be a lot more than a "graze" to me, but evidently he'd survived it.

"The angel touched the tip of his sword to my throat, and I felt the jagged edges of my wound knit together".

Ah. That explained how he'd survived. Magical healing of some kind.

"I fell to my knees and gave my thanks, but he bade me rise. I had been chosen, he told me, for a great task; to be a guardian, warding the world from the great evil which had arisen here in the land of the Livs. Sorcerers and fools had awakened a vile demon, a monster from the most ancient time. This Old One hated humanity for taking the place if it's kind in the Creator's affections, after the Fall of the Adversary. It would destroy the world, if it could."

The stairs curved around and around as we descended. Our destination was far deeper underground than I'd imagined. How deep were we now? Three stories? Four? More?

"The experience changed me greatly, as you can well imagine. I'd always believed in Christ, in a desultory, unthinking kind of way, but a face-to-face encounter with one of His greatest servants is another matter. I knew that I wasn't the best or most pious of men. I'd done my share - perhaps more than my share! - of gambling, drinking and whoring. But like the Prodigal Son, I was a sinner who now truly repented. Perhaps that was the point. In this life I'll never know.

"At first, my garrison thought I'd gone mad when they heard my tale." Ranulf chuckled. "Not that I blame them, I'd have thought the same myself. But the Archangel had changed me in more ways than I'd imagined at first. I discovered that I'd been granted some of the power of our Saviour. When I prayed for the healing of wounds, or the curing of fever, those prayers were answered." He sighed.

"But my prayer for the wits of those two poor wretches I'd sent to scout bore less fruit. No doubt God had His reasons. I came to realize that I'd been chosen as a warrior, not a healer, and I would be granted only such boons as would help towards that purpose. To heal the wounds of battle, and strike fear into the hearts of monsters, that was my calling.

"I began to assemble a force to root out and destroy the corruption. Emissaries came from the new Pope, in Rome, to bless my enterprise." The Abbot gave a soft, cynical laugh. "At least, that was what they said. I think they were just making sure that I wouldn't use my status to dabble in Church politics. I'm afraid that the Holy Church is greater than the men who serve her. They were delighted when they discovered I had no interest in power!

"Even with support from the other local garrisons, it was a long, hard fight. Our enemy was able to drive the best disciplined of troops into howling madness, and its followers were fanatics. They were a horrifying sight to behold. It had forced them to dress in the crudest of animal skins, and smear patterns painted in blood across their bodies. They fought with nothing but clubs made of tree-branches and their own hands and teeth. A group of armored knights and well-equipped foot soldiers should have been able to dispatch them effortlessly. But they were utterly without fear, and seemed to feel no pain. I saw them club men to death while their own vital fluids sprayed from half-a-dozen mortal wounds.

"And here and there, we encountered man-beasts of the kind which the Archangel had saved me from. They, too, had the power to cause madness in my troops, although their black magic seemed to create fear rather than the murderous fury inspired by their master.

"Luckily, I wasn't alone. Slowly, as the weeks and months passed, I was joined by others who'd been Chosen as I had. All but one, who was a master-archer from the Welsh border, had been priests of one kind or another. All, like me, had been saved from deadly danger by the intercession of the Archangel Michael, and all had felt compelled to travel to Livonia for reasons which none of them could guess at, at the time.

"We found that our prayers could shield out troops from then onset of the madness, and drive away the worst of the hell spawn we faced. As our numbers grew, at least one of us could be present with each major force we sent out.

"The enemy was tenacious, and as cunning as a wild beast, but he had a weakness - he was predictable. As the Archangel had revealed to me, his motive was to destroy all trace of civilization, every town, and every peasant's hovel, even every ploughed field. And he worked to a pattern, gradually expanding the area he had destroyed, isolating the largest and best-defended places with a ring of desolation before moving in to pick them off. In the end, we were able to bring the Old One himself to battle, cut him into pieces, and set the pieces ablaze. Twice".

"Twice?" For all that the question had been invited so obviously, my surprise made it completely genuine.

"Twice," Abbot Ranulf confirmed. "But on each occasion, the fire refused to burn, and the dismembered pieces of the creature writhed together and reformed. Not even our most earnest prayers could prevent its regeneration.

"So I asked for guidance, and received a vision of Solomon the Wise. That great King didn't slay monsters; he bound them. And this my brothers and I decided to do with the Old One."

We'd reached the bottom of the stairwell at last. I saw a long corridor leading down towards an archway with yet another of the reinforced doors. As far as I could tell, the chamber beyond that door lay beneath the church, with at least part of it directly below the high altar. You get a knack for calculating relative positions after you've been on an archaeology dig or three.

A peculiar tension started to build in the air. Hastily, I sat myself down on a stone step, braced for what I suspected was going to be...

Another heartbeat slammed into me. Perhaps because I was braced for it, it wasn't quite so bad this time, although it still left me frozen and helpless.

By chance, my gaze became locked on one of the row of torches illuminating the corridor. The surge of power held me immobile long enough to notice that the flame didn't seem to be consuming anything as it burned. Or, indeed, giving off any smoke. The light and heat seemed to be coming from nothing.

Interesting.

The Abbot had got the door at the end of the corridor open as I hauled myself to my feet, still trembling slightly. He'd stowed his torch in a convenient wall sconce, so I was no longer worried about keeping my distance from him.

"It was harder to put our plan into action than we'd realized. We had to locate the creature, separate it from its attendants, subdue it, and then carry it away with us so its followers could not attempt to revive it." Ranulf grimaced. "The cost in lives was very high. But in the end, we succeeded. As our loyal knights battled the last of its servants, we knelt in a circle around it, and prayed for a slumber to fall upon it. It snarled at us in a rage, great fangs sprouting from its jaws, but our faith prevented it from approaching us or harming us.

"And gradually - far too gradually! - its heart slowed and grew sluggish. It struggled savagely, trying again and again to remain awake, to break out of our circle, but we stood firm. We knelt there for hour after hour, as it fought against us. It was well past dusk before it finally succumbed. It stumbled to its feet one last time, and crashed down like a falling tree-trunk. Made an almighty

"As hard as it was to capture the creature, though, in some ways that was the easy part. We still had no real idea what to do with it. His Holiness had received reports of our work, and concluded that there was a need to guard the faithful against such threats, threats which were beyond the experience or ability of the worldly nobility, or even the militant orders of the Church. He ordered the creation of a new group of the faithful, to be composed of those, like myself and my brethren in Livonia, who had been endowed by God with special gifts. These Guardians were to confront, and if necessary imprison or destroy, such threats."

This was very interesting. It fitted with what I knew of Innocent III, the Pope at the time - he had a talent for organization, plus a ruthless determination to stamp out anything he perceived as a threat to the church. He was the one who'd unleashed the crusades against the Cathars in southern France. It was also worrying. After five hundred years, vampire society is still reeling from the effects of the Inquisition - now I discover that there's another group within the church, set up to deal with threats the Inquisition isn't tough enough to handle?

Scary

"We knew that the creature still had followers in Livonia," Ranulf continued. "To ensure that they could never find it, we bore the monster away with us. I carried it here, to the Abbey which my grandfather had founded, and which my family had always supported. By order of the Pope, we excavated this chamber beneath the foundations of the church, and placed it directly beneath the high altar, where the power of the sanctified ground would restrain it forever more.

"I turned my lands over to my eldest son, and settled into the monastic life here, along with my fellows from Livonia. I was amazed how much I enjoyed it, actually," the Abbot confided with a slight grin. "After a life of travel and action I thought I'd be bored to tears, but I was ready to do what God commanded me with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. But I found that a peaceful afternoon tending a rose-garden can hold all the interest and excitement one requires, if approached in the right frame of mind. I was ordained a priest, and when the old Abbot, good Father Jerome, was laid to rest, I was chosen to take his place. I looked forward to spending my declining years here, in tranquillity and contentment.

"But we had underestimated the Old One's power. Although it was bound here, still it was able to reach out with its vile magic and summon servants who might free it. Man-beasts, night-feeders like yourself, even cults of secret heretics... we were plagued with monsters both human and otherwise. In the space of a year, twelve of our brothers died in attacks before I or my Livonian companions were able to drive the attackers back.

"We prayed for guidance, and the future which was revealed to us was horrifying. The beast would eventually succeed in freeing itself, make others like itself, and attract all manner of monsters to its banner. It would reduce first this island, then the whole world, to the blood-drenched madness it had unleashed in Livonia.

"But we also received a vision of hope. We could frustrate the creature, lock it away from those who would otherwise liberate it, and keep it safe. Until such time as one would come to free us from our burden. We saw one who could stand between Heaven and Hell, and choose Good over Evil. We saw you.

"It was the hardest thing we ever had to do. It took all of our faith and all of our prayer, but we moved our entire Abbey into this place-which-is-no-place, sealed away from the real world. So that no-one could ever seek to undo our work, the Pope ordered that all record of our mission - of our very existence - be stricken from the record, just as he had excised the true record of events in Livonia. Our Cistercian brothers rebuilt the monastery as a house of their own Order, and we were forgotten. And here we have dwelled, ever since.

"But about fifty years ago, the barriers separating us from the real world began to weaken, and we knew that the time was coming when our burden would be lifted. And now, if God is with us, that time has arrived. Come."

Fifty years ago.. the time that the German bombers had finally destroyed Fetch Priory. I wondered if there could be a connection.

The chamber we entered was a near-mirror of the one above, lit by more of the mysteriously everlasting torches. The ceiling was even lower than that of the surface chamber, barely high enough for Ranulf to stand upright, although I had less trouble. The gothic arches with their brutal-faced demon decoration were a familiar site by now, and I was more convinced than ever that I'd seen them somewhere before. And in the center of the floor, resting in a design I recognized as the Seal of Solomon, was a simple stone bier with a single figure resting on it.

This, then, was the source of the heartbeat. This close, I could feel his power beating against my skin like the heat from a raging bonfire, sending the Beast into an hysterical frenzy of panic. It was all I could do to keep control.

Dear God, he lies there out cold, and even with the sacred aura of the church muffling his power, its driving me half-insane just to be near him. No wonder Ranulf's troops had gone mad. This being was more alive - more burning with pure, raw life - than anyone or anything I'd ever met, yet on some primal, instinctual level, I knew that it was something which couldn't possibly be alive. I knew that it was some kind of vampire. It didn't make any sense.

The chamber was freezing. Ranulf's breath frosted in the air as he watched me cross to the bier. The corridor hadn't been this cold... this chill wasn't natural.

I looked down at the figure on the bier.

Now I knew where I'd seen those brutal-faced demons before. They were clearly modeled on the creature before me. Except that he wasn't a demon.

The short, stocky body was massively muscled, clad in stinking animal skins which had partially rotted away despite the chill. The hands were clumsy, possessing an opposable thumb but awkwardly arranged for using tools. Both they and the feet had formidable nails, almost claws. A thin mat of coarse hair covered all the skin that I could see.

The face was recognizable as something human, but large, broad and flat, with out-sized ears and an enormous nose. The jaw was huge and square, the hair long, lank and greasy. No goat-legs, horns or tail, but I guessed that the stonemasons had taken a few liberties. It was natural that they'd consider him a demon. They couldn't have known what I knew.

They couldn't have known that this was a member of homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthal man. They couldn't have known that he was at least thirty thousand years old.

I suspected that the Abbot was probably right. The Old One hated humanity. But not because they'd replaced him in God's affections. The Old One hated humanity because they'd destroyed all the others of his kind and taken over mastery of the world.

This close to the bier, the conflict between the Old One's heartbeat and the counter-tug of the sanctified ground was so intense that I blacked out for a moment. When I came around, the Abbot was keeling beside me, looking slightly worried.

I met his gaze, knowing what my readable face must be telling him.

I was supposed to be the one who could finally help to defeat this ancient monster. But I had not the slightest idea how to do it.