Roman followed the thrall to the city morgue. He should have come here first. This was where he’d taken Darius’s mortal life. By now, he should’ve been done with Darius and on his way to Father Purgeon. But he’d let the blood lust consume him. And now, the night was a transparent, thinning blanket. The sun hung beneath the horizon and he felt the weight of the oncoming dawn. Threads of smoke streamed from the folds of his overcoat.
Kyle charged through the morgue’s entrance and almost took the doors with him. Behind the reception counter, a male thrall jolted. He wore a white smock. He was a dark skinned man in his fifties, a barrel-chested man, stout, face grizzled with a day’s worth of stubble.
“What the fuck!”
“Open the fucking doors, Craig!” Kyle said, as he ran up to them. “We need Darius!”
Craig buzzed them open and Kyle stumbled into the Autopsy Room with Craig on his heels.
There were six autopsy stations in the room. Every one of them had a body on their metal beds. Two of the bodies were dead. The other four were alive, but unconscious. Transparent tubes injected into their jugulars, upper arms, thighs, feet, and forearms, siphoned blood and fed a steel, cylindrical tank. Gary, a morgue worker, also a thrall, was skinning one of the live specimens. His adroit hands guided the scalpel. Blood-filled pouches fashioned from the flayed flesh, about the size of a wallet, were stacked in a crate. Later, these pouches would be soaked in vampiric blood to keep them from rotting. Underneath the dissection table, situated within its second tier, a bucket caught blood flowing down the tapered steel slope and through a small spherical opening set at the body’s feet.
As Kyle came through the doors, Gary looked up. Kyle never even gave him as much as a glance. He ran past him. Reaching the Freezer room, he opened the door and collided with Darius.
The sclera of Darius’s eyeballs glowed behind swirling and dilating irises, cobalt pupils at their centers. In life, his flesh had been brown, but in death, as with his Caucasian brethren, most of his pigmentation had abandoned him, and what remained was ashen and fawn.
Out of breath, Kyle managed three words “It got Sammy!”
“What got Sammy? What are you talking about?”
And as if answering Darius’s question, a horrendous explosion rocked the building, shook its very foundations, sounding like something bashing through brick, smashing through metal and shattering glass. Steel squealed and masonry moaned. Then what had caused this disturbance demolished the wall above the Autopsy Room doors.
Amidst showering bricks, plumes of dust and debris, great, black wings emerged.
“Winged-One!” Horror and confusion distorted Darius’s face. Why was he chasing his thrall? What was a Winged-One even doing on this plane of existence? His questions would have to wait; the Winged-One was now bearing down on him.
If Darius had reacted a little slower, Roman would’ve separated his head from his body, but Darius threw himself backwards and avoided the decapitating blow, though he didn’t escape unscathed. The tip of Roman’s black talon punctured his cheek and slit it open. Dense blood arched the air.
As Darius’s head slammed into the Freezer Room door, Roman landed. On his back, Darius looked up and gasped, the skin along his cheek hanging in flaps. Streaming blood diminished to a trickle as the flesh attempted to mend. The wound looked like lips trying to meet, trying to seal. But the skin wouldn’t knit.
Roman’s fangs fell as he strode toward his former kill. “Making you was a mistake I mean to rectify.” His voice was thick with need.
Darius stared at him with a look of abject incredibility. That amazement turned to understanding. “You’re the one who killed me! I was already Marked. You’re going to pay for that. Not by my hands, but by those much more powerful.”
His words enraged Roman. The blood in his veins burned. Darius’s scent was so strong, too close, too overpowering, and his need disallowed a clear thought.
Darius called upon his essence. It propelled him as he leapt. Leading with his legs, he kicked Roman in the chest. Roman tried blocking with his wing, but the blow shoved him backwards, into one of the dissection tables shelving a live body. Both the Winged-One and the unconscious human spilled to the floor. Tubes popped free and sprayed blood everywhere. The attached tank fell and rolled across the room.
As Roman hit the floor, Darius released his essence again. Grey-green wisps of mist turned into tentacles and shot towards Roman. Several struck his leg, others coiled around him, lashing back and forth, frenzied. As more strands engulfed him, they entered his flesh, feeling like blades drilling into him. Delving. Digging. Probing. Then he heard Darius begin to mumble under his breath. Like Servanah had done with her Lust spell. Though the words sounded different, they were just as indecipherable, just as guttural sounding.
Blaring chimes rang. His head throbbed as if something was squeezing it. In his mind, the fog of forgetfulness evaporated and despair washed over his face. He tried to scream. But sorrow gripped his throat and choked him from the inside out.
The heavens break before his eyes as he plummets. Looking back, the brilliance above closes. Thunderous skies engulf him; the dark soot of the storm-filled night is vast. Through the inky night, he falls, the gray-dark clouds revealed only with the passage of lightning. Empty and cold, he descends.
Feathers torn from wingspans once majestic plague the air. Screams of rage, of anguish, of sorrow, fill him as he falls.
What have I done? his mind screams, what have I done?
Tears raced down Roman’s face. Made a bloodied mask of it. His being hurt with ache. With loss. He felt as though he was anchored to the bottom of a murky sea of misery, whose depths light couldn’t penetrate, where sight was hindered and warped, where breathing was an impossibility, and solace was shelved for despair.
Roman brought a claw to his wrist, pierced the flesh, and sliced it open. The cut was deep. He clawed at himself, severing veins, hoping he’d bleed out.
Darius recalled his essence. His Misery Spell had been more than effective. The tendrils disengaged and reverted to mist and went back inside of him. “Get some wood! Hurry! The spell won’t last.”
His thralls didn’t budge. They were busy licking their lips. A hungry look possessed their faces. Desire distorted and degraded them, turned their visages into something that no longer resembled their former selves. That desperate look lurked in all three pairs of eyes. Made the worms within their urine-tinted auras frolic and swirl.
Roman sat in a pool of his own blood, rocking back and forth, head drawn between his knees, hands wrapped about him, hugging himself so tight that his claws pierced his shoulders.
He could sense the thralls’ collective energy. A distressed and greedy energy. A boiling cauldron of desperation. He understood that need. Understood that want. It was why he was chasing Darius. It was why he chased his guilt. It was why he was chasing answers. He needed to know who he was. He wanted to relieve the weight of his shame, at least the parts he remembered being responsible for. And now, practically addicted to vampire blood, he had no choice.
“His blood’s not yours to drink! Do as you’re told or none of you will ever get my blood again!” Darius said.
Given this ultimatum, his thralls raced to find some wood.
Darius felt his limbs begin to stiffen. Soon rigor mortis would set in, a condition that afflicted all Mortal Born vampires when the sun was rising. He had to hurry. He thought of calling his coven master, Laszlo. But Laszlo wouldn’t be able to do anything until nightfall anyway. Most vampires would be preparing for the dawn, settling down in their shelters. He was on his own.
He ran over to one of the cadaver racks and yanked the wood block propping up the corpse’s head. Then he raced over to the second cadaver and snatched its wooden pillow as well.
Having raided the broom closet, Craig presented him with two broomsticks. Darius snatched them, snapped them in half, then dashed to Roman and pushed him on his back. Lost in the throes of the spell, and weakened by loss of blood, Roman barely hung onto consciousness.
“Hold him down. Cross his arms and feet. Place the woodblocks under his ankles and wrists.”
His thralls did as they were told.
“What about his wings?” Craig asked.
A good question. Darius didn’t know much about the Winged-Ones, save what every other Mortal Born vampire knew: they were demons, former angels, and far more powerful than he, and they weren’t supposed to be roaming the earthly realm.
“Never mind his wings,” Darius said, dropping to his knees by Roman’s feet. He raised his makeshift stake over his shoulder and heard his rotator cuff crackle. He hoped he had the time to complete his task as he aimed the serrated end at Roman’s crossed ankles and brought it down, slammed it through skin, bone, and the wood block. Roman flinched, but he was too weak to do anything else. Smoke rose from the wound and his ankles and feet began to blacken. Underneath his garments, that same blackness consumed his entire leg. He now knew how Servanah had felt. Forced empathy. He tried moving his legs, but it was as if they weren’t receiving his mind’s commands, as if they were no longer attached to his body. They were completely numb.
Every vein along Roman’s exposed skin was visible, blue and thick. Every artery tingled and twitched. Somewhere in his consciousness he understood that he couldn’t allow Darius to stake his wrists, but his strength was sapped, and he couldn’t even budge the thralls holding him down.
Darius repeated the process on Roman’s crossed wrists and the Winged-One slipped into torpor.
Satisfied that the wood would hold the demon, Darius said, “Get him to the freezer room!” His voice cracked. He got up and backed away, gave them enough space to move the Winged-One. A chorus of bone crackling sounds accompanied his movements; rigor mortis had set into much of his body now. He had to seek shelter. His thralls would have to handle it from here.
“Put him in a draw with the stock. Inform everyone that there will be no pickups today. No one is to go into the Freezer Room!” Darius headed toward the Freezer Room, where one of the cadaver draws would serve as his shelter as well.
As they had done when he’d first arrived upon this realm, Roman’s wings came to his aid. As Craig and Gary were about to lift him, Roman’s wings wrapped around them. A wing for each. Within the winged womb, the hairs along them stood erect, resembling small furred needles. Roman’s wings squeezed their prey and fed.
As the blood coursed through him, Roman’s eyes opened. He felt some strength return; his veins stopped twitching, but the blood was only half of what he needed, a diluted potency, thinned by the human half. A more piquant malevolence drew him. A far more savory feast called: Darius.
Until this moment, every one of Roman’s actions had been silent. He unwrapped his wings and shed the thralls. Their bodies rolled to the floor, skin grey and bloodless.
Darius had just reached the Freezer Room door. He turned to the sound.
With Roman’s limbs still staked, they remained paralyzed. He used the talons on his wings and pulled the stake out of his wrists, dropped it into his now free hand, and hurled it at Darius.
It flew across the room and pierced the Mortal Born’s arm. Darius cried out as he felt paralysis freeze the limb.
Roman saw Kyle, still by his feet, and took advantage of Kyle’s hesitation. He sat up and whipped his wing at him. The thrall’s head parted with its body and flew across the room. The carcass fell across Roman’s legs.
Roman reached down and yanked out the second stake.
Darius was trying to remove the wood from his arm, but his free hand kept stiffening. Outside, day had come. Soon, he’d be unable to move at all.
Roman flung the second stake at Darius’s free arm. It struck him in the shoulder and pierced it. Darius’s now useless limbs, fell to his sides. He looked up in time to see the Winged-One soaring straight at him.
Roman crashed into Darius and grasped his neck. He lifted him, shot the tips of his wings into Darius’s abdomen, and held him aloft, dangling in the air.
“What did you do to me?” Roman drove his wings in deeper, twisted the tips in, slowly siphoned sips of blood. His blue veins receded beneath pallid skin and he felt some strength return. “What did you do to me!” Roman roared.
“It’s a simple incantation.”
“Can I do such things? What powers do I posses?”
“What?” Darius was confused. How could a Winged-One not know his own powers? “I don’t know what songs you have. Every demon’s different.”
Though rejuvenated, it took every bit of Roman’s strength just to stand, just to stay conscious. Day had come and he needed shelter. Still, he went on.
“Where can I find Bailien?”
“Never heard of him,” Darius said, mocking Roman’s ignorance.
Roman shoved his embedded appendages in further, balled his wingtips, and drew Darius nearer. Darius winced.
“I was told that I betrayed Bailien and another called Lucien. A guilt I cannot recall but a weight I am well aware of. What crime have I committed?”
Darius recoiled, and immediately regretted it. With Roman’s wings embedded in his stomach, the movement caused more pain and more blood to flow.
“So, you’re him. The one who avoided Hell.” Darius was weak but managed a laugh. “You’ve been very naughty, Gatemaster. You let them in. Led Lucien’s legion right into an ambush. Bailien was his lieutenant. And after, they were banished to earth, to serve Astor. Everyone knows their story. But no one knows why you Fell. I’d say something’s amiss. If you’ve never been to Hell, how could you be a demon?”
Roman’s mind reeled. Too much information and not enough time to process it. He’d have to think it through later. Right now, he had to have as many questions answered as he possibly could. He could feel his blood lust rising and didn’t know how much longer he could contain it. “What is the Covenant? Why are demons not allowed here?”
“Go seek Bailien. I’m sure he’d be very happy to see you. He’s with House Lust, The Coven of the Bridge.”
Roman grew tired of Darius’s taunts. “Tell me what I wish to know or I will kill you.”
“You’re going to kill me anyway,” Darius said.
Roman knew this was true. “Yet I will make the journey to your second death so unbearably painful, you will welcome the Nothing with open arms.” To demonstrate his commitment, Roman slid his wings’ claws around Darius’s insides and began removing one dead organ after another, starting with his stomach. Next came the liver. Though these organs were no longer functional, their removal caused excruciating pain. Darius screamed; his guts-which were depending from the hole in his abdomen and grazing his thighs-undulated with his pitched cries, agony rolling his eyes to the back of his head.
“Once again, what is the Covenant?”
Roman’s entrenched wings and Darius’s stiffening jaw made it difficult for Darius to speak. “It’s the sacred agreement,” he haltingly replied. “Between Heaven and Hell. That Lucifer and God will never directly interfere with the choices mortals make.” Gasping, he continued. “It’s why Hell created vampires among the Mortal Born. It’s their way of breaking the Covenant without actually breaking it. Humans invite this evil through their sins. Easier to sway. The Winged-Ones pass on their powers as well as their weaknesses to those worthy enough. The Argument is whether they would choose the light or the dark.”
Roman mulled this over. “Why is it forbidden to drink the blood?” He asked, even though he thought he knew the answer.
“You feel the difference. Human blood won’t suffice. When the covens find out you’ve been drinking vampire blood, they’ll come for you. All of them.”
Roman saw this as a benefit. An asset. He’d have no problem hunting vampires. In fact, for the first time in his remembered unlife, he saw a future replete with rapture, and an opportunity for repentance. If he had to spend his entire existence doing so, he’d make up for whatever misery he had wrought, both earthly and celestial. Addiction was the means for his atonement. He’d become an addict willingly and eradicate an evil he despised as much as himself.
Darius tried pulling free, but only managed to spill more of his own blood onto Roman’s wings, the sight of which broke Roman’s will. He yanked his wings out, wrapped them about Darius, and formed a leathery cocoon around them. Within its darkness, both vampires saw each other quite clearly. Darius cursed his vampiric vision. Roman’s lips peeled back and Darius shrieked. Pushing his screaming face aside, Roman sank his fangs into his neck and drank from the last of his remembered mistakes. He felt the blood soar through his body. He felt his essence churning inside of him as the blood rejuvenated it. All thought left his mind; it became a dark void filled with nothing but the blood.
As with Servanah, a vision came.
Cadaver storage racks line the walls of the freezer room. Two live bodies, wrapped in white tarp, writhe on the cold floor.
“Tell Laszlo, that’s all I could give him on such short notice,” Darius says.
“He’s not going to like that. The Seven pressure him. You don’t know what that feels like. You don’t want to.”
“Boris, I understand. But it’s hard catching the pure. They’re difficult finding. Most of the stock here is tainted.”
“They’re out there, Darius. The Seven wouldn’t have created their monstrosity otherwise. Every coven must keep its quota. Find another pure soul. The Souleater is hungry!”
Immediately after the vision, Roman fell into a trance-like state. In his head, a dark melody rose, filled with malignancy and hate, the familiar fugue he was becoming accustomed to hearing when drinking from the damned.
He saw the red scarlet script flash, as red as the blood he’d ingested. He focused on the letters and they ignited. He felt their power and knew they were his to wield. Had the blood awakened them?
Yet, he couldn’t read them, couldn’t understand them, and without this knowledge, he knew he wouldn’t be able to wield them. The script faded. Roman opened his eyes.
Darius was dissolving in his arms. The flesh fell away, the bone beneath becoming brittle, then crumbling to dust. Death, long held at bay, swiftly claimed the body back, and as with Drake and Servanah, Darius’s essence abandoned the vessel and evaporated.
Roman had to seek shelter. He rose and felt the weight of the day, even though he felt stronger than he’d ever felt in his unlife.
The dust that was Darius drifted to the ground.
Roman had learned some valuable information from Darius. Both Winged-Ones and the Mortal Borns were considered vampires on this realm, for as Heaven shunned the Fallen from its light, so too did the day spurn the Mortal Born from its illumination. Though the Fallen were responsible for creating vampires among mortals, humans were guilty of allowing the damned entry due to the choices they made.
On a more personal note, he learned that he’d betrayed not only Bailien and Lucien by backstabbing them, but that he’d betrayed Heaven as well. Why? He still didn’t know. But he’d find out. He had to.
He beat his wings and sent out his echolocation. Within the next room, he saw a perfect place to spend the day. He hoped he wouldn’t be disturbed.
He entered the Freezer Room. Muffled moans. Stifled screams. Repressed whimpers. A discordant score that emanated from the cadaver racks lining the walls.
He looked at the draws, then through them. Most held cadavers, but he saw that ten of them contained live bodies, wrapped in white tarp. Rope bound limbs. Duct tape gagged mouths. Blind folds covered eyes.
He felt their blind terror, their claustrophobic horror, their frenzied confusion. He heard their soul’s songs. Heavy hymns, a lugubrious symphony, filled with quintessential self-pity. He sensed their lean toward the dark, but they weren’t evil.
Roman was disgusted. He felt fear pouring from the mortals. He wanted to kill every vampire he would come across from this point on, for toying with their victims, for exulting in their pain, for thriving off their terror, though mostly, for reminding him of himself. He’d no right to judge them. Didn’t he toy with his kills? Didn’t he feel pleasure when he took life? Yes, he did. But his kills had deserved it; their evil was pure. Justifying self-righteousness didn’t help. It did nothing to assuage his guilt. It didn’t make him feel any better for killing so many. Deserved or not.
Roman knew what he had to do.
He walked up to the draws. One by one, he opened their hatches, unsheathed their steel beds, and peeled away the canvas cocoons covering the humans. He unbound their limbs, removed their blind folds, and tore away their gags.
As they stumbled off their shelves, Roman shot his essence into them, and spoke to their minds.
Leave this place while you can. Upon exiting, you will forget every hell that happened to you while you were here.
Every one of them made for the back door. Walking. Stumbling. Limping. Running. The stench of their soiled garments was horrendous. Roman didn’t know how long they’d been here, but it had to be at least several days.
Though he didn’t feel safe sleeping here, he had no other choice. If discovered, he hoped he’d pass for a corpse. He pulled open an unoccupied draw and climbed inside.