Thud... Thud... Thud
The distant bursts of gunfire faded away. The only sound now was the maddening echo of the Old One's heart-beat, throbbing deep inside my bones. Kathryn's face was a stone mask, her body absolutely rigid with the effort of maintaining control. Nick was looking around, wild-eyed, his fangs half-extended. He was trembling. So, I realised, was I.
"We have..." my voice cracked. I cleared my throat and tried again. "We have to get inside... try to stop them. Maybe there's still time for the monks to bind it again..."
Nick laughed. There was a tinge of hysteria in it. "You don't really believe that. You can feel the power of that thing from here. Nothing's going to stop it now".
"We have to try!". I almost yelled at him, and immediately regretted it. All three of us were fighting back Frenzy, and the aggressive way I spoke was a red rag to the bull that was Nick's Beast. He started towards me, his hands clenching and unclenching, and I retreated several paces even as my own roused Beast urged to me hamstring him, gut him... we grabbed onto control at about the same time and backed away from each other. We were both breathing heavily - or rather, going through the motions of inhaling and exhaling. Old habits die hard.
"Okay, yeah. We have to try. This way?" Nick sounded almost apologetic, and I nodded as he gestured towards the gatehouse. We walked towards it slowly, keeping well apart and eyeing each other warily. As close to the edge as we were, anything even slightly threatening - even a sudden, unexpected movement - could set us at each others' throats. Nick was right. How could we do anything to stop the Old One now? It was taking everything I had just to put one foot in front of the other.
Because the simple act of walking was demanding so much of my attention, it took a while before I realised that I wasn't getting anywhere. It was as though I were trapped in some sort of false-perspective drawing. I could feel myself going forward... but the gatehouse never got any closer. It just sat there, the exact same distance ahead of me no matter how many paces I took towards it.
"Very clever, Father Abbot". Kathryn's voice sounded almost normal compared to Nick's and mine. You had to know her quite well to recognise the impeccable pronunciation, the absolute, clipped perfection of her diction, as a sign of stress. She was refusing to cede a scintilla of control to her Beast, holding on to her sanity with the kind of ferocious, indomitable will-power which fledglings such as Nick and I could never hope to match.
"We may as well stop". Kathryn halted. Nick and I continued walking forwards for a few seconds... but we didn't get any further away from Kathryn. I looked back at her.
"What the hell is this?"
"Think of the regio as an area where the normal fabric of space has been stretched". Kathryn lifted her hands, beginning to trace complicated symbols in the air. "Somehow, the monks have increased the effects of that distortion. They've played about with time and distance so that there's an effectively infinite space between us and the gatehouse. We need to find another route in". She made a further couple of elaborate gestures, then spat out a series of phrases in a language I'd heard her use before. Enochian, she called it.
Nothing happened. I snorted. "I told you, Disciplines don't work here".
"I'm stronger than you". My Beast took that as a challenge, and my hackles rose slightly. "But not strong enough, it seems. Well, then, we'll just have to do it the hard way. We need to go around the whole outside area of the place looking for a weakness"
"What about Irina's group?"
"They may have got inside before the monks got their defences up". Kathryn grimaced. "Or maybe not. So be careful"
Walking parallel to the monastery walls, rather than towards them, seemed to work. As I'd discovered on my last visit, this strange twilight zone consisted of more than just Fetch Priory itself. The great monastic complex sat in an extensive range of farmlands, which stretched out into the darkness surrounding us as we advanced. In the distance, I caught the faint silver glimmer from the luminous wall of mist which marked the boundaries of this tiny world.
Every now and then, we paused and tried to walk forward, towards the walls, but with no more luck than we'd had with the gatehouse. The frustration didn't help our self-control any.
We were about half-way around the perimeter before we spotted the collection of bodies lying sprawled in the mud ahead of us.
"More casualties of the battle?" Nick wondered aloud. "I don't see any arrows sticking out of them".
"It could be a trap". I wasn't sure if that was me talking, or the paranoia of my writhing Beast, but it made a certain amount of sense, regardless. "Without our powers, we're pretty vulnerable".
"They're in our way" Kathryn pointed out. "We'll have to go around them, or past them".
"I'll go and check them out first". I didn't know I was going to volunteer until after I'd actually spoken. Why was I offering to put myself at risk? Guilt about the nameless girl, maybe? A need to do something to redeem myself? Maybe even a buried desire to die in atonement of my sins?
None of the bodies moved as I approached. I crouched down beside the closest, reaching out to touch his neck. Cold flesh, no pulse. Either a vampire or...
I turned the body over. It was lying in thick mud which clung to it, making it harder to move than I'd imagined. There was a sickening squelch as it came free.
Even encrusted with muck, the face was instantly recognisable. One of Marcus' ghouls. I'd met him several times during the few days I'd been under the Vaulderie, but I'd never known his name, never spoken to him. Now, I never would.
Eirik's voice came back at me from the past "But I'll see to it they have a chance. This creature will never have any chances, ever again"
He probably wasn't a shining example of a human being, but if he'd lived, he might have had a chance to become one. Marcus had taken that chance away from him.
I reached out and closed his eyes. It wasn't so much a mark of respect as the fact that his blank stare was making me uneasy. And with the pulsating roar of the Old One's power filling my mind, I couldn't handle any more distractions. The touch of my hand cleared some of the dirt from his face, giving me my first clear look at his features. He looked old and grey; not wrinkled as an old man is wrinkled, but withered like a man who has seen too much, handled too much stress. There were deep grooves in his forehead, and dark rings under his eyes which hadn't been there the last time I'd seen him, only a day before. His expression was one of total exhaustion.
I felt eyes on the back of my neck and twisted awkwardly. It was Owen. Lying amongst all the corpses, just staring at me. I snarled and jerked back, feeling my backside splash down into the mud as I lost my balance.
"No need to concern yourself, Mr. Tyrell. I'm too weak to do you any harm". His formerly magnificent opera voice was barely audible.
Awkwardly, I worked myself free of the wet earth and got to my feet. I took a couple of wary paces away from him. "You don't look injured". It was true; that muscular, bear-like body lay prone on the ground, the head half-propped up against the corpse of a man who'd fallen beneath him, but there were no visible wounds.
He laughed weakly. "In body, no. In spirit...".
Kathryn and Nick walked towards us, careful to stay well within my field of vision, careful to avoid any movement that might appear threatening and offer my Beast an opportunity. Owen looked up at Kathryn with an expression of resignation. "Mrs. Malcolm. Once again you find me at a disadvantage. But I doubt you came here to rescue me, this time".
I blinked and looked between them. More cryptic hints from their shared past.
"What happened, Owen?"
"We used a small private aircraft to get here ahead of you. We reasoned that you'd want to return here with Marcus as quickly as possible. We planned to ambush the van as soon as you arrived... but when we arose tonight, we found Marcus free and already taking charge of our ghouls. He claimed that he'd Dominated the girl you took, and planted a standing order to release him if he were ever captured. We didn't question it, then. Marcus was able to open the way for us to get into the Priory - we assumed it had something to do with your proximity". That last was addressed to me. I just nodded.
"We were attacked as soon as we entered the Priory's domain... a trio of very deadly archers. We returned fire, of course, but I'm sure by now you've experienced the defences preventing any attacker from reaching the gates. Our bullets were affected in the same way. We pulled back from the main gate and split into two groups. Irina and Wilhelm went left, Marcus and I went right"
"And then", Kathryn said with gallows humour, "Marcus went wrong"
"He did something to leech all the power, the energy, out of us. When the ghouls started to die, I ordered those still standing to fire on him. I tried to use my own powers against him".
The gunfire we'd heard when we arrived. Kathryn was nodding. "But you didn't stand a chance. Marcus has become a vessel for whatever's left of Bowen, and Bowen isn't about to let anyone stop him now. The life-force from your soldiers probably provided him with a nice little pick-me-up".
Owen struggled to rise for a moment. His limbs scarcely budged an inch. "It seems, Mrs. Malcolm, that you will be called upon to save the day once again. Marcus could not - quite - rob me of my life, but he has stolen my strength most effectively".
Kathryn grimaced. "So it seems. I'll have to leave you here, Owen. We need to get after Marcus. We haven't time to carry you"
"The fortunes of war, Mrs. Malcolm"
Nick grabbed some kind of machine gun from a fallen ghoul. The sight of him picking up a weapon sent a wave of Beast-inspired paranoia through me, and I closed my eyes briefly as a fought it back.
"That didn't do the ghouls much good"
"They didn't have the advantage of surprise. Hopefully, we will. Anyhow, got any better ideas?"
I shook my head. Kathryn was already heading forward. "Come on, you two. Marcus is getting further ahead of us with every moment...".
A calm voice came out of the darkness ahead of us. "Wrong, actually"
Marcus stepped out of the night and swept one arm up. Something large, powerful, and invisible smashed into Kathryn, sending her flying backwards about twenty feet. When she got up, her rigid self-control had snapped. She let out a low, undulating scream and charged towards Marcus.
Unfortunately Nick was in her way. And the sight of her charging towards him, frenzied, maddened, was enough to snap his own tenuous hold on self-control.
My own Beast surged towards the surface as they fell together, biting and clawing at each other like cats, screaming and howling. This was it. Game over. Kathryn, the most powerful of us, was lost. Nick was lost. I was...
... not lost.
Incredulous, I felt an outside influence working on my Beast, soothing it into quiescence. The Song of Serenity, Eirik called it on the few occasions when he'd had to use it on me. But Eirik hadn't been anything like this good at it.
It had to be Marcus. I tried to take a step towards him, and found I couldn't move a muscle. I couldn't even shift my eyes away from Marcus.
He holds him with his glittering eye --
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years child:
The Mariner hath his will.
Marcus lifted his eyebrows. "Very poetic, Daim. I never knew Coleridge was your thing. Come on".
My legs started moving of their own accord. I struggled desperately to get loose, to go to Kathryn and Nick, who I could hear tearing into each other behind me.
"It won't work Daim. I'm... we're not letting you go until we get what we need from you".
I tried to reply, but not even my lips would move.
"Can't have you yelling for help to Irina, Daim. She's close enough to hear you."
The only good thing about this, I reflected glumly, was that at least Marcus seemed to be shielding me from the worst of the Old One's influence. I could still sense that terrifying heart-beat, but it was distant now, muffled.
"It'd be harder to control you if you frenzied"
All right, you bastard. You're reading my thoughts. Marcus, or Arthur Bowen, whichever you are, you have to stop this. You're not creating a utopia, you're unleashing a mass slaughter
"Both of us are here, Daim. Marcus, and Arthur". Marcus voice was different from how I'd imagined. Not gloating or triumphant. It was bone-weary, and stricken with grief and pain. "And I'm not unleashing the slaughter. Mankind did that. First came the machine-guns, the gas. Now we have nuclear weapons, chemical and, biological toxins. Before long, even worse things. Terrorism and torture, murder and mutilation. Our so-called civilisation is doomed to collapse, slowly, agonizingly. All I'm doing is getting the pain and death over in one single shock... limiting the damage"
For a moment, I felt a surge of rage... clean, human rage, not the blood-soaked urgings of the Beast. How dare he stand there like a third-rate Bond villain, dismissing mass slaughter with prattled clichés?
Marcus swung around, and for the first time he looked truly angry. But he didn't reply in words. His mind and memories forced their way into mine, not smoothly and gently as Eirik's sometimes did, but with all the painful brutality of a rape. Bowen has fought in World War One. He'd experienced first-hand the trenches, the gas attacks, the slaughter in the mud. Now he allowed me to experience it too.
For just a moment
Then, as I stood there trembling, with the blood-sweat breaking out on my skin, he turned around and started walking again.
He was wrong, I knew that. Hopelessly, insanely wrong. But I couldn't think of any words that would persuade him in the face of the personal hell he'd just shared with me.
"No, you can't. I wish". Marcus added with what sounded like total sincerity, "that you could". He stopped. "Here"
We were standing under the wall beneath the Abbot's lodging, where I'd jumped down to go after Reinhardt about a million years ago
Marcus grabbed my arm just above the elbow. I felt my own fingers gripping his arm in the same way.
"We were able to penetrate the abbey's outer defences, but we need you to get through the inner barrier, the zone of infinite distance. Your attunement to the Priory aura should allow us both to pass". Marcus' accent was slipping, sometimes street patois, sometimes Bowen's cultured tones. I'd initially assumed that Bowen had taken him over, but it seemed more like they'd merged together somehow.
We didn't have to count before we jumped. Since Marcus / Bowen was controlling both our bodies, we leapt together in perfect synchronisation. I'd guess Bowen must have been enhancing our muscles somehow, because we sailed a good fifteen feet straight into the air before we started to curve downwards again.
And passed through something which threatened to tear loose my already-fragile grip on sanity. My body and mind seemed to compress, expand, and stretch in a dozen different directions simultaneously. My vision distorted like a funhouse mirror. Up and down ceased to have any meaning. There was a long, horrific moment where we seemed to hover suspended, then everything snapped back into focus and my boots thudded down on the tiles of the Abbot's roof. Bowen, still in control of my body, kept my balance perfectly - better than I would have managed myself, I suspected. My head moved at his mental prompting, and I found myself looking down across the Abbey lawns, towards the Church and the entrance to the Old One's crypt set into its side.
"At last". Marcus' voice was pure Bowen now. He ran a few steps to the edge of the roof and dropped nimbly into the Abbot's garden. After a second or so, I followed.
We walked through the Abbot's gate and out onto the great lawn, just as the moon broke out of the clouds and flooded the entire scene with silver light. Standing in a line in front of us, barring the way to the crypt, stood Abbot Ranulf, Prior Alcuin and four of the other monks. Their dark robes - or perhaps their power - had concealed them from us, up until now.
"You may not pass", Ranulf told Marcus, calmly.
Marcus brought up an arm in the same sweeping gesture he'd used to hurl Kathryn aside, but the monks simply stood there, unharmed, unaffected.
Marcus tried to take a step forward. Ranulf lifted a plain wooden crucifix, and I saw Marcus start to stumble backwards, his hair flying in a phantom wind, and frost beginning to form on his clothes. My hopes started to rise. Bowen, for all his power, was no match for the Abbot or his followers. Perhaps they could subdue him, put the Old One back to sleep.
Then Marcus drew a huge, ugly gun from inside his coat, and fired a shot. Prior Alcuin's head exploded.
It was so simple, so horrific. When that sort of thing happens in movies, there's always a big build-up, a crescendo of music, a few witty quips from the hero... this was nothing like that. Just a single instant of death.
The phantom wind died as Ranulf saw his second-in-command fall. Marcus was moving even before the body had hit the ground. His body, a blur of supernatural speed, hurtled over the heads of the remaining monks in a jump of truly Olympian proportions, and streaked across the lawn towards the crypt. The heavy door made the most god-awful bang as he threw it open... I think he half-ripped it off its hinges.
I ran across to the Abbot, only subliminally registering that Marcus had released me. "Father! The other vampires outside, their mortal servants - can you let them in? We need their help now to stop Marcus. And stop suppressing our powers", I added hastily. "We'll need them"
Ranulf looked up at me from beside the body of his lieutenant. His face was wet with tears, but his expression was calm. He nodded.
"Go, Damian. I will guide your friends to you. My brothers will retire to the Church and pray. If our faith is strong enough, we may be able to bind the creature again... but it will be up to you to stop the other night-feeder. Holding the Ancient Beast will take all our strength, now our brother Alcuin has been called to God. And be prepared. The choice we foresaw you making may well be upon us."
He stood, looming over me, and planted a rough kiss on my forehead. His warm, dry lips left a burning feeling, almost like a brand, but the sensation was oddly soothing. As I sprinted across the Abbey grounds towards the crypt, the burning pulsed in time with the Old One's heart-beat, holding the threat to my self-control in check now that Marcus was no longer shielding me. Ranulf must have anticipated that I'd need protection after seeing the effect the Old One had had on me last time. Clever.
I encountered no resistance as I plunged through the antechamber or down the steps, either from Marcus or from the pervading aura of holiness. As I drew closer to the Old One, however, the intensity of its presence started to beat against me like the heat from a furnace. Even with the whatever Ranulf had done to help me, even with the power of the sacred ground, it was growing almost impossible to fight back frenzy. I didn't know how much longer I could keep on...
I heard Marcus as I rounded the last few steps and struggled down the corridor towards the Old One's chamber. There he was, exactly as I'd seen him in my vision, standing over the Neanderthal's bier, chanting the spell that would rouse it from torpor. There was one detail that was different, though. Somehow, Marcus had severed his own left hand. It was already starting to wither as he held it aloft, but Marcus was still a young vampire. The decay wasn't complete yet.
The thumb was smoking from an extinguished flame. The four other fingers were still alight. A vortex of power was swirling around the bier, the air shimmering like a heat haze.
Marcus glared at me. For a second, I felt paralysis grip my limbs again. Then a stab of pain spiked from my forehead, from the place where the Abbot had administered his medieval kiss of peace and kinship, and whatever chains Marcus was trying to bind me with snapped. I took another step forward.
His startled expression only lasted a moment. Then the churning vortex of air around the bier coalesced, congealing into one of the hideous, half-rotted, bayonet-wielding corpses we'd faced at Kirkdale Grange. I took a wary step back, remembering how tough these they were to kill.
But I noticed something interesting. For just a moment as his creature materialised, Marcus' chanting had faltered. A brief spark appeared around the thumb of the upraised hand, as though it were about to re-ignite.
And all the fingers must be extinguished for the awakening to succeed...
Creating that thing bled off power he needs for the ritual! The realization filled me with a sudden surge of hope. I flexed my fingers, and felt the lethal claws surge into being. Good, the Abbot had released whatever block he'd put on my using my powers.
Unto thee, Oh Lord, I thought, not without irony, I commend my spirit.
Then I lunged at the faux-zombie. If I could destroy it, distract Marcus with the need to make more, maybe I could delay the resurrection long enough for Kathryn and the others to get here and help.
The bayonet hissed downwards in an arc, and I felt a terrible pain cut across my ribs. That was it. My control, already tenuous, finally gave way. Howling with rage, howling with triumph, the Beast surged out of the back of my mind and drove out all capacity for conscious thought. My vision went red.
As always when the frenzy takes me, I have no very clear memory of the next few minutes. I took cuts to the hands, the face, the ribs and the legs. My clothes were sliced into ribbons. For each zombie I took out, two more materialized to join the fray. My claws decapitated the things, ribbed away limbs, gutted and dismembered them. Gradually, I was forced away from the crypt, back down the corridor, up the steps. I was about two thirds of the way back up to the surface when my sanity began to return. The first thing I consciously registered was one of the creatures lunging towards me and bursting into flame. Another, coming up the steps behind it, seemed to dissolve, melting into a puddle of gore.
"Daim! Snap out of it!". Nick's voice. I took a step back aware of an odd sensation in my feet. Paw-pads, at a guess, newly grown during my frenzy to match the ones in my hands.
Nick was standing on the steps next to me. A couple of paces in front, chanting and gesturing in a weird sort of synchronisation, were Kathryn and Irina. Beyond them, Reinhardt stood poised, his own extended claws flickering with unbelievable speed and precision. More waves of zombies were coming at us, but between them, the three older ones were holding them off very effectively.
Only Irina and Reinhardt looked in fairly good shape. Kathryn and Nick looked like shit. They were covered in bites and scratches, and their clothes were torn up almost as badly as mine.
"Marcus..." My voice was oddly croaky. I lifted a hand to my throat and it came away dripping blood. Pain from my various injuries was starting to seep into my awareness. I tried again. "Marcus is using up power to create those things. If we can destroy enough of them..."
"Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Daim". Kathryn plucked a broach from her ruined blouse, an Egyptian scarab beetle, and threw it to the ground. The moment it hit the stone, it animated and scuttled away down the stairs. Prudently, Reinhardt drew back up the steps a pace or two. After a second, there was an intense flare of light, too bright and painful to look at, and the smell of ozone. A zombie staggered into view, half on fire, and fell to its knees in front of us, dissolving into nothingness as we watched.
I indicated Nick's gun. "Can't you help?"
He rolled his eyes. "Small confined area made of stone, Daim. We're not at home to Mr. Rick O'Shea, remember?"
"Oh". I watched as Kathryn and Irina threw fizzing sticks that looked like fireworks down the steps. Incendiaries of some sort, presumably. The guess was confirmed a few moments later as inhuman howls and the sizzling smell of cooked meat wafted up at us. A couple of burning zombies made it as far as Reinhardt, only to be decapitated for their pains. "The Abbot let you in?"
"We both snapped out of Frenzy at the same moment. Probably your Abbot, yeah. We came around knowing what was happening here. Neat trick, he must have put the knowledge right into our heads. We met Irina and Mr. Aryan at the gatehouse with their remaining ghouls, and headed in here together to save your butt. The Abbot got to them, too. Irina sent a couple of them to pick up Owen, but he's in no shape to help
A zombie ran around the curve of the stairs, knocking Wilhelm Reinhardt aside in its rush. Kathryn and Irina each grabbed one of its arms. Lightning spat around its body and its flesh turned black and burnt away. It fell, and vanished.
Then there was an eerie silence.
"Was that the last?" Nick asked.
Gingerly, Kathryn edged down the steps and peered around the corner. Reinhardt picked himself up, looking a little embarrassed, and joined her.
"No more visible this far down".
With Kathryn taking point, we edged down the stairs. Irina and Reinhardt were shaking, but in control. My own coterie were all on a hair trigger, and the relentless pounding of the Old One's heart-beat would probably have sent us over the edge if we hadn't all emerged from Frenzy so recently, but no attackers leapt upon us from ambush. Finally, we emerged into the corridor.
Marcus lay there, as totally still as only the dead can be. There was no sign of his severed hand. Irina knelt to check him over.
"He expended too much power, then". Kathryn sounded relieved. "Does that mean we succeeded?"
At the end of the corridor, the massive door to the Old One's chamber began to open.
Thud Thud Thud
"Run!" I screamed. Nobody needed to be told twice. In the time it took the heavy door to swing wide, we were all sprinting down the corridor, towards the stairs. By pure chance, I was the last to reach the stairwell, and risked a quick glance back.
The Old One stood there, swaying slightly on his thick legs. His eyes, so dark as to be almost black, stared around with an almost dazed expression. He took a step forward, staggered slightly, and reached out to steady himself against the wall.
He was still shaking off the torpor. Marcus had revived him, but with the three of us bleeding off Marcus' power, the process of awakening hadn't been perfect. Small mercies.
I lunged up the steps after the others, hearing a heavy tread from behind me as the Old One started to come after us. Without the ability to become out-of-breath, vampires can put on an impressive burst of speed when we have to, although my wounds were slowing me slightly. At one point, I stumbled, but Nick turned back and yanked me savagely to my feet again.
There's human decency even in vampires, after all.
The starlight was a welcome sight, but even as Irina's ghouls moved to close and bolt the door, I knew we still weren't safe. I almost tripped over something on the ground in front of me, and swore viciously as fresh pain jabbed from my injuries
Owen was there waiting for us. He was still in poor shape, supported between two of Irinia's troops, but at least he was conscious, for the moment. And he seemed to be in the middle of giving orders. Kathryn and Irina rushed over to him and snapped "Report" in chorus. Then they froze and glared at each other. In another time and place, it might have been funny. In the next moment, I saw Abbot Ranulf standing next to Owen, which made me blink in surprise. What was he doing here?
"What now?" Nick was looking back at the door, preoccupied with more immediate questions that the Abbot's presence.
The echoing slam of the Old One's mighty heart brought a fresh sheen of blood-sweat to my skin. The Beast tried to take me again, and almost won through. Then Ranulf lifted his crucifix, and the pressure started to abate. It didn't vanish, but at least it became bearable.
That answered one question. He was here to keep us sane.
"Now we deploy for attack, Mr. Baron". Owen's voice was decidedly stronger. He pointed to me, and added dryly. "Mr. Tyrell, I know you lack military training, so let me explain an important basic principle. Never stand next to a cache of explosives primed for imminent detonation".
The thing I'd tripped over. Shit. I backed off as hastily as my weakened body could manage. One of the ghouls guided me, and we withdrew about thirty feet, forming ourselves up into a rough semicircle surrounding the entrance to the crypt.
"I trust your weapons will prove as effective as you boast", Ranulf told Owen mildly. "Which is a somewhat ironic hope, considering that your original intention was to use them to murder our entire community".
"Irony is the font of all good humour", Owen responded, equally conversational. They were speaking Latin, of course. I wasn't really surprised that Owen knew it.
The crypt door vibrated and cracked.
"Stand ready" Owen shouted.
A mighty hammer blow shook the door. Then another. The cracks expanded. Two huge, hairy hands burst through and tore that indestructible door apart, ripping the foot-thick wood and bending the iron bars which reinforced it. Massive, unstoppable, the Old One stepped out to confront us. His dark gaze swept across us and a wave of... something, something I can't describe, something that threatened our minds and our wills, pressed against us. Ranulf raised his crucifix again, but even he couldn't stop the dreadful pressure on our minds, merely slow it. The Old one took another pace forward and....
A titanic blast threatened to shatter my eardrums. Unthinking reflex had closed my eyes as I heard Owen's shouted command, but the flash was so great that my eyes will filled with bright red light anyway. The pulse of the Old One's heart-beat faltered... and died.
I sagged at the relief of it. That maddening, terrifying drumbeat had formed a constant background ever since I'd gotten back into the Priory. The sense of freedom now that it was gone was intoxicating.
I opened my eyes and exchanged glances with Nick. "That's it?" He sounded incredulous. "One bang and it's over?"
"Sounds like most of your relationships", I muttered, but my heart wasn't really in it. My attention had been drawn to what was lying in front of the now-cracked entrance to the crypt.
Luckily, it wasn't recognizable as any kind of human being. Just scorched meat, lumps of charred bone. The Old One had caught the full force of the blast. Yet somehow, I couldn't believe it was over so easily. And a few moments later, I was proved right as the air around the remains began to churn and shimmer. The tattered scraps of flesh began to write and squirm, drawing together.
"Holy fucking shit..." Nick shook his head. "It's putting itself back together. It's regenerating!"
"Machine guns, stand by", Owen boomed. "Ready... fire!"
Marcus had trained his soldiers well. Hot lead began to stutter through the air in a constant stream, cutting the pieces apart again even as they rejoined.
"Maintain fire. Travers, Meyer, prepare napalm"
"Comes prepared, doesn't he?" Nick muttered in my ear. I nodded dazedly.
A ghoul standing near us ran out of ammo. Without a word, Nick handed over the gun he still carried, but the sound of gunfire was faltering as more and more of the ghouls hit the same problem. Larger and larger clumps of the dismembered body were drawing together in spite of the bullets tearing them apart.
"Cease fire. Travers, Meyer, proceed"
And proceed they did. Even without the Old One's presence, the burning napalm almost set my Beast loose again. But even the napalm wasn't having a lasting effect. The flesh smoked and bubbled and burned, but then the shimmering haze in the air intensified around the fire, and it hissed and died away
More fire, more shimmer. This time, Irina and Kathryn started to chant, and the blaze roared higher for a moment, turning a sickly green. But whatever they were trying to do didn't last. The flames died again. Relentlessly, the melted flesh began to heal and rejoin.
"Leinigen versus the ants", Nick muttered. I nodded grimly.
"It's weakening", Kathryn called out. After a second, she repeated herself in Latin. Ranulf nodded agreement. "Yes. The night-feeder who revived it sacrificed a portion of the power he meant to feed it, to drive Damian away. Each attempt as resurrection costs it yet more power. The more of its strength we can force it to expend, the easier it will be to rebind it. To grow stronger, it must feed. We shall deny it its chance to do so".
Feeding, in the Old One's case, meant cannibalism, I knew. By all means, I thought, let's deny it its chance.
"Napalm's finished, sir"
"Very well, Meyer. Proceed with incendiary grenades".
How much bloody artillery had they brought with them, for God's sake?
Several dull crumps blew apart a large section of the Old One's torso which had managed to pull itself together. Immediately, Owen ordered, "Remaining machine-guns, fire to keep the pieces dispersed"
The stutter of the guns was a far more subdued and ineffectual affair this time, with so much ammunition already gone. Several soldiers broke ranks and disappeared in the direction of the Abbot's lodgings, only to reappear a minute or so later laden with firewood. As the last of the guns died, they ran forward and laid the wood out in a strategic pattern before setting light to it. Burning walls of flame now cut several concentrations of the Old One's flesh off from each other.
I looked at Ranulf. "Can't you help us?"
He shook his head. "I cannot prevent its regeneration, and merely to hinder it would squander precious strength which I will need later to bind it back into sleep, especially now Alcuin is gone".
I frowned at him. "I thought you were still expecting me to make some sort of choice, to deal with it?"
"I am. But the rest of us still have our parts to play"
The fires were dying down again as they were smothered by the odd distortions in the air. Wilhelm leaped forward, slashing at the moving, mangled flesh with his claws, but the wounds seemed to close as soon as he made them. It were as though he were trying to cut a scar in a pool of water. Owen turned to the Abbot.
"Our resources are exhausted"
"Then let us fall back to the Church. The matter will be decided there". Without waiting for a reply, Ranulf turned and headed off.
Nick and I looked at Kathryn. Owen looked at Irina. Both of them nodded
A barked command from Irina called Wilhelm away from the half-reformed body which he was still vainly trying to dismember. We marched after the Abbot, two ghouls still holding Owen up, my own coterie all stumbling from our various wounds. Ranulf headed in through the great doors, several ghouls following without mishap. It wasn't until my fellow vampires crossed the threshold that I realised the mistake I had made.
"Wait! The aura of the Church..."
Too late. Irina screamed and fell to the ground, convulsing. Wisps of smoke started to emerge from her flesh before, mercifully, fading. Reinhardt gave a hash shout of agony and dropped down next to her, his head clutched in his hands. Owen simply toppled, dragging his supporting ghouls down with him. Kathryn moaned and staggered, catching herself against the wall. Nick stumbled and nearly fell, but held up a lot better than the rest of us... a lot better than I had, my first time. Like I said, human decency.
The monks were in their choir, chanting softly. Standing in the main body of the great church were the common folk of the Priory - the guards on the outer gate, including one carrying a six-foot longbow, and the lay brothers. A couple of dozen people in all. As I left Nick to close the doors, a couple of them came across to help me bar them.
The chanting from the choir ceased. Ranulf took his place at the head of the congregation and called over to us.
"It will be soon. Get ready to make your choice"
Thud. Thud. Thud.
That damn heart-beat again. Faltering at first, but gradually drawing closer and closer... nearer and nearer. Nick gestured at the ghouls, and they pulled the still-immobile vampires back against the walls. To my surprise, several of the Abbey folk lent a hand as well
The monks knelt in prayer, chanting softly. Ranulf rose, walked across to me and took my arm.
I allowed him to lead me into the nave, facing the doors. This was it. Bizarrely, my mind filled wither the face of Professor Rutherford's old grandfather clock, both its hands advancing towards the vertical of midnight.
I could only trust and hope that the Abbot's vision would prove true, that somehow, I could stop that ancient monster. But I couldn't see how. I didn't understand what I could possibly do against it.
The thick bar of oak across the doors snapped in two as though it were a matchstick. The doors smashed open to admit the Old One.
He was confident now, fully awake and arrogant in his belief that there were none here to stand against him. He had taken the worst we could throw at him, and survived. His clothing had been burned away by our attacks, but with the thick pelt of hair covering his body, he scarcely needed it anyway. With a slow, measured tread, he advanced into the Church. His near-black eyes locked onto mine and his power poured into me like a flood of molten lava. I felt my Beast leap forward, eager for the taste of freedom.
The Abbot, still standing beside me, raised his hand. If the Old One's power was like lava, the Abbot's was like water, cooling, soothing, cleansing. The Beast howled in fury and frustration, and subsided. Our attacks had weakened it. The Abbot alone was strong enough to hold it at nay, now.
Again, the Old One tried to send me into Frenzy.
Again, the Abbot stopped him.
I'd felt like a wishbone the first time I'd visited the Old One's crypt, when the holy aura fought against its sleeping power. This was a thousand times worse. My mind was being torn in half, and I couldn't pull it back together...
Finally, I understood.
Snarling, the Old One lashed out at my mind again. This time, I didn't fight its power, however ineffectually. I welcomed it into my thoughts. A moment later, as the Abbot's influence flowed into my mind, I welcomed that, too.
We'd all been wrong. The monks, the Tremere, Irina's pack, Nick, me. We'd accepted Ranulf's conclusions unquestioningly - my role was to make a choice between two opposing forces. But it wasn't. My job was to reconcile them.
Why me? I'd asked myself repeatedly. Well, perhaps there were other reasons, but the main one was that I was a vampire with a strong spark of humanity left inside me. I was human enough to be understandable to Ranulf, bestial enough to be understandable to the Old One. With me as a conduit, they might finally understand each other.
It wasn't as easy as I'd thought. It was agony... not physical pain, more like every emotional humiliation, stab of fear and moment of anguish you've ever experienced, amplified and combined. Closer, closer... it took every scrap of will and determination I had, but inch by inch, I was getting there. Closer, closer... I didn't know how long I could keep this up. Please God, not much further. I can't do this, it's too much, I can't make the connection...
The connection formed. Abbot Ranulf's thoughts surged into the Old One's mind. The Old One's thoughts surged into Abbot Ranulf's. My thoughts surged into both.
I was the greatest hunter of my tribe. The winter had been harsh and cruel, and I'd gone further than usual in search of prey, further than was safe. I hadn't noticed the woolly rhino until it was too late. The creature was near-blind, but it caught my scent as I stood down-wind of it - stupid, stupid! - and charged. I ran, but it was too swift. My tough bones protected me from some of the impact, but my ribs were cracked and internal organs ruptured.
Somehow, I made it back to the caves where I made my home. The shamans conferred anxiously over my body - without my hunting skills, the tribe might not survive the winter, but they knew no certain way to save me. Finally, they called on the spirit of the very rhino that had struck the mortal blow. It infused me, merging with my spirit and transforming my body. I survived. A spirit given flesh, no physical injury could slay me now. The ritual had gone awry. Such an effect was beyond what the shaman had intended. He had condemned me to an eternity in which I must outlive all whom I loved, forever alone.
Centuries. Millennia. Eons. The tribe died. All my people died. The great grass plains where the mammoths once fed were drowned by the sea. The fragile thin-skulls took the world by treachery and deceit. I went north, to the ice. I buried myself for all time. I slept.
Awakening. Horror and rage at the corruption of the world. The thin-skulls changing and perverting everything. I tried to stop them, tried to cleanse the earth of their spoor, but they had fought back, captured me, forced the sleep upon me...
I stared up at the Archangel with humility and joy. For the first time in my life, I truly knew the power and love of God within my heart. For eight centuries, I'd carried that vision, that love. Nothing would ever make me change or doubt again.
I cursed. When would this fucking thing compile? Well, it wasn't like I didn't have help at hand. Through the Internet, I could communicate with scholars across the world. More marvels of technology. We could fly through the clouds, speak across thousands of miles, split the atom. Six billion human beings, gradually merging into a global society, learning from each other, teaching each other...
There was total silence in the church. The Old One stared at us for a long, long moment. Then it threw back its head and screamed.
The sound was a horror. Rage and pain and grief and loneliness and fear and despair all mixed into a single harsh bellow that no human throat could hope to match. The Old One fell to the floor, its massive fists beating down, carving great cracks and gouges in the stone.
The worst of it was, I knew exactly how it felt. It... and Ranulf.
The Abbot... I turned around to see him staring bitterly at his plain wooden cross. Then, in a single, violent gesture, he hurled it away from himself to smash against the walls of the church. He sank to his knees, buried his face in his hands, and began to sob, wailing in odd counterpoint to the Old One.
The ground trembled. At the edge of my vision, parts of the church seemed to grow larger or smaller, erratically. Kathryn, still trembling and wild-eyed, got to her feet, looking round with an alarmed expression.
"The regio... it's starting to collapse. We have to get out of here!"
"But them..." Nick gestured to everyone else in the Church.
"Them too. All of you!" Kathryn raised her voice. "This place is about to be destroyed. We have to leave. Now!"
Owen and Wilhelm were on their feet, still wincing in pain. Oddly, Owen seemed stronger - he was standing unaided, however unsteadily. Wilhelm gestured, and a trio of soldiers grabbed Irina's insensate body.
None of the monks had moved. "Come on!" I yelled at them. The tall, thin one I'd seen going to help Ranulf on my first visit to the Priory stepped forward.
"Go in peace. We will face our destiny here"
"No!" I howled. "You'll die! You have to..."
"Daim, forget them. You warned them. If they don't choose to listen, it's their funeral. Come on!", Kathryn was already heading towards the doors when gravity itself appeared to shift. With no warning, the floor was a wall, the doors were a ceiling, and the stained-glass window above the high altar... was the floor.
We "fell" down the length of the church. Gravity reversed itself several more times, bouncing us off the walls, before several vampires and a dozen or so ghouls hit the beautiful glass with a horrible crash. My last sight before I hurtled out into the night was of the monks and lay folk, surrounding the Abbot and the Old One, still impossibly anchored to the floor as we were expelled. I felt a lingering touch of pain from Ranulf and the Neanderthal, and then both were gone from my mind. Gone forever.
Another gravity shift dumped us onto the church roof and sent us sliding towards the spire, which was now vertical. Irina fell past me and I grabbed her as one of her protectors lost his hold. He braced himself against a nearby strut of stone and grabbed her back.
The hell with this. Awkwardly, I kicked off my boots and extruded my claws, using them to get a firmer purchase. Lifting my head, I got my first appreciation for the state the Priory was in.
Mist swirled everywhere, the unnatural silver mist that had demarcated the Priory's border with the outside world. Chunks of farmland showed through it, over the spire, where the sky should be. In fact... I blinked. The sky was there! A chunk of it was floating alongside a chunk of pasture.
Kathryn crawled up next to me, holding Nick by one arm. "Don't look at it! It'll drive you mad. There's a weak spot in the border region, near the top of the spire. With your claws, can you help us reach it?"
I twisted my head. Presumably by "weak spot", she meant that unusually bright patch of mist near the point of the spire. I nodded grimly. "No choice. Use our belts..."
Nick and I both had strong leather belts, luckily. With them, we were able to lash ourselves together and start crawling. More minor gravity fluxes tugged at us, and icy winds tore at our flesh, but my clawed grip helped stabilise us. I had no choice, really. Once again this whole bloody mess was my fault. I was really starting to hate that.
I'd really liked Abbot Ranulf. His compassion, his humanity, his common sense and tolerant acceptance of even a vampire. That was probably why I hadn't understood, until it was too late, something I suspect Kathryn would have spotted almost at once.
Abbot Ranulf was insane. So were all his followers, probably. An insanity so subtle that some people might not even call it that.
Ranulf was totally incapable of doubt. That was what granted him his power. His belief was so absolute that somehow, he'd gained the ability to reach out and impose it on the world around him. All his followers had power, but Ranulf was the nexus point, the focus. It was his lack of doubt which had granted him the strength to pull Fetch Priory out of the world and hold it here, unchanged, for eight centuries.
And then I'd connected with his mind and destroyed his certainty... and as his certainty disappeared so too, the power which was holding the Priory together.
The altered gravity was starting to shift again. We were beginning to slide down the spire, faster and faster. My claws struck sparks and I tried to slow us. The glowing patch of mist, our target, rushed towards us, but it was slightly to the right of the spire itself. One false step and we'd go past it. Our arms clasped together. Our muscles tensed. We'd succeed or fail together... only one chance to get this right. As I dug in to slow is down, the claw on my left thumb actually tore away, and I yelped in pain. Almost there....
We leaped as one. I felt Kathryn's magic shove against me, speeding and guiding me as we reached the closest point to the mist patch. We spun in midair and I saw the Priory, an impossible, twisted jumble of fragments now, start to fold in on itself. Bodies tumbled through the air after us... Irina's pack, and their troops. Silently, I wished them luck.
Then we were surrounded by white light, and peace, followed by a sudden impact as our bodies hit the ground, and a smell of damp earth and wet grass.
We lay together on the moor. In the distance, the bombed-out ruin of the Priory showed dark against the moonlight.
I lay back on the grass for a moment, and started to cry blood tears.
"So the Sabbat pack may possibly have escaped. And you were unable to locate any trace of this female ghoul to who Mr. Tyrell became... attached. Both unfortunate, but neither a crucial concern. You are, however, sure that the Old One was destroyed when the regio collapsed?"
"I don't see how it could have survived, Doctor. Even its powers of regeneration couldn't help it against what our younger colleagues refer to as a naked singularity"
"Indeed not, indeed not. Excellent work, Adepta, as always. And to your colleagues, or course". The Doctor looked at us over steepled fingers.
We sat in the Tremere's expensive-but-tasteless conference room at the House of Books. I'd spent a couple of weeks in voluntary torpor in Kathryn's haven, recovering from the physical and emotional stresses of the past few weeks. I'd awakened to find Kathryn standing over me with several thick goblets of fresh blood, which I'd grabbed and drained greedily. The invitation to the House of Books, for a "debriefing", came the next night. Kathryn told me that the Tremere had been deferring the occasion until I was back on my feet and the Doctor got back. I'd asked her where he'd been, and got an enigmatic smile and a shake of her head as my only reply.
The Doctor had been a model of patience, calm, unthreatening, gently teasing and prodding our memories so that no detail was overlooked. It was only when I looked at the clock that I realized that I'd been sitting there talking for five and a half hours. It would be dawn in another two.
"Time presses, gentlemen. My thanks for your co-operation". The Doctor caught the direction of my gaze and gestured dismissively at Nick and I, before adding. "Adepta, one further moment of your time, if I may..."
It didn't take long before we found out what the Doctor had wanted to talk to Kathryn about.
"A significant one. Regentia Secundus of the Denver Chantry. I won't be running the whole shebang, but I'll have control of several essentially autonomous areas doing research. The clan's been doing a little internal investigation and political housecleaning since our betrayal and capture at Aldershot gave them a place to start. Several positions have opened up as a result".
"Dead men's shoes", Nick said lightly.
Kathryn shrugged, smoothly and elegantly. "In fact, my predecessor at the Denver Chantry will be wearing those. I'll be stepping into his shoes". She sighed, and looked up at the beautiful painted dome of the ceiling. "I'll miss this haven though, it's been my home for over fifty years". To my astonishment, she favored us with one of her rare, genuine smiles. "Look after if for me, boys. I can't think of anyone I'd rather entrust it to".
Nick spoke for us both. "Depend on it"
End of story. At least as far as everyone else was concerned. But I'd learned a lot from my brief contact with the Old One's thoughts. Much of it was fading now, like the memory of a dream... but enough remained for me to know better. Enough that I was back here only a few nights after Kathryn had left, sitting on one of the shattered blocks of stone which used to be Fetch Priory, staring up at the stars and waiting.
I didn't need to wait for long. He was here tonight, as I'd somehow always known he would be. The incessant pulse of power from the Old One's heart-beat washed over me, but it didn't threaten my sanity this time. He must have been shielding me somehow.
The heavy, thickset figure sat down next to me. He was dressed in twentieth-century clothes now, jeans, a denim shirt, sneakers. I hoped that no-one had died when he'd acquired them.
"Too much change"
I flinched at the depths of weariness and raw pain in his guttural monotone. It was an effort to keep my voice steady as I replied.
"Yes. Not even you can change it back"
He turned to look at me. The black eyes seemed to burn in their cavernous sockets.
"I shall die".
I nodded. I'd felt him make that decision, back at the Priory Church.
If I hadn't understood him so well, I might have argued with him, told him that he could adapt to the modern world, that suicide wasn't the answer. But I knew better. He could never adapt. None of his people could ever adapt. That was why the modern race of man had inherited the Earth.
Nowadays, Neanderthals are often portrayed as stupid, but they weren't. Their brains were significantly larger and more complex than ours; they were far smarter than modern humans, far stronger both physically and mentally. They'd had an understanding of magic, of the spirit world, which no modern magus could ever hope to rival.
But they didn't have the one thing which allowed homo sapiens to conquer them. They didn't have the kind of pure, arrogant selfishness which has always driven man to reshape the world in his own image. They'd believed themselves just one more kind of animal; smarter than the others, yes, but still a part of the natural cycle. They didn't use complex tools or set up complex societies, not became they didn't understand such things, but because they'd considered them an abomination against nature and made a conscious choice to reject them. And the contact with my mind, my knowledge, had convinced him that returning the world to that earlier age, as he longed to do, was impossible now.
A single blood tear trickled down my cheek. "I'm sorry". I didn't know what I was apologizing for. For being born into the race that destroyed his people? For allowing him to understand the futility of what he was trying to do?
"All things die".
Neanderthal fatalism again.
"Can you die? Even if you choose?"
A wry smile didn't come easily or naturally to that impassive face, but he tried. "The Russian woman, Irina, was right. I can only be killed by Diablerie. But a vampire cannot do that. Only another of my own kind can".
A chill went through me.
"There are others like you?"
"Not yet. I must create them"
I stared at him in horror. I could feel his grim amusement at my reaction.
"They will not have my own power. Your race is weak. But they will be strong enough to do... what I require of them".
He stood up. "You will not see me again. You may see my children. It is... an irony".
I shook my head. "I don't understand"
"My kind chose not to adapt. Your kind... cannot adapt. It is your curse to remain forever what you are..."
I thought of the Ventrue I'd met, their eighteenth- or sixteenth-century clothing so absurd in the modern era. I thought of my sire, holding fast to his forgotten religion for all those long centuries.
I thought of myself, a hundred, two hundred years from now. What would I be?
Exactly what I was now?
Forever what you are...
"But my childer..." there was a twist of irony in the rumbling voice as he used the vampire term, "They will have eternity without changelessness. They will have no fear of fire or the sun. Perhaps they will be you kind's homo sapiens"
Homo sapiens. He used the Latin term without hesitation. He'd learned well from his brief contact with my mind
"But for me... they will be release. Ranulf still waits for his release ".
I blinked. "He's dead! The Priory..."
"The Priory survived"
"That's impossible. I saw it sucked into some kind of... black hole, or something".
"You saw the start. You did not see the end. You were a fool to imagine that eight centuries of insanity could be cured so easily". Another flash of bitter humour. "Perhaps you should have had more faith. Ranulf overcame the doubts you gave him, in time to avert the collapse. And now, he too is free. All those who follow him are free"
"I wonder if he will treat you so kindly on your next encounter. He does, after all, know you very, very well now"
He was gone before I could respond. I never even saw him move. One moment he was sitting beside me, the next, there was nothing but cold stone, and darkness.
I returned my gaze to the stars. The closest thing to sunlight I can ever experience, now. Their light offered me no comfort.
Abbot Ranulf was free, somewhere in our world, with all the power of a lost age of faith and all of my knowledge of the modern world to call upon. Wilhelm Reinhardt's warnings of a new Inquisition floated up from my memory, mocking me.
The Old One would become the Caine of another race of vampires. Cannibals, true immortals, able to survive fire or sun, stake or decapitation. And there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it.
The only Tremere I trusted was gone. My sire was God-knew-where. I couldn't burden Nick with this knowledge. I was going to have to carry it all by myself...
No. I would tell St. Cloud.
But not tonight. Tonight I just wanted quiet, and peace, and rest.
I closed my eyes and sank into the earth to await the coming of dawn.
The Abbot didn't look up from his weeding at the sound of the footsteps. He already knew who it was.
"I was wondering when you would awaken"
"I'm a little surprised you let me. Awaken, that is"
Ranulf smiled, gently and a little sadly. "This place has seen enough death. And I sensed a reason to hope for your salvation"
"That was Bowen, or what was left of him. In the final moment, he knew he'd lost. He knew he couldn't "save" the world as he'd planned. So he took the one chance of redemption he thought he had left. If he couldn't save a world, he'd save a soul. Mine. He gave me all that was left of the good in him".
A slight pause. "Although for a while there, I didn't think it would make much difference"
"Christ on the cross accused His Father of forsaking Him". Ranulf wasn't embarrassed to admit his failing. "I, too, had my moment of doubt. But like our Savior, I passed through it and emerged the stronger for it. Young Damian thinks I'm insane, you know"
"You seem sane enough to me"
"He thinks that faith is a sort of insanity. Poor child."
The silence stretched out between them, but without awkwardness.
"So what happens now?"
"My brothers and I have our freedom. We must decide how best we can use it. In a way, you face the same choice"
"Both the men I used to be have a lot to atone for. You said you hoped for my salvation. I don't know if that's a hope I can share"
"Perhaps you should find out"
"Perhaps I should"
"Shall we begin, then?"
Marcus Slade nodded, and knelt on the damp earth besides Abbot Ranulf..
"Bless me, Father", he began. "For I have sinned..."