True Immortality: The Second Chapter

Dear Readers:

True Immortality is now available on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.com (which means it will be available on most e-book platforms). I have posted below the second chapter of the novel, hoping to whet your appetite for the whole manuscript. The first chapter is posted below. Enjoy!

 

Chapter Two:

From the Heart

 

 

Three Weeks Ago

 

They had made love that night, and even now she wanted to remember it as something other than what it was. She wanted to remember it as the consummate expression of a final goodbye she never got to say. Gentler and more passionate; more primal and rhythmic. But it was as it had been for months, an obligation that he fulfilled mechanically.

In the beginning, Paul Daniels was an aggressive lover. She mistook his aggression for ardor, responding in kind. Their sex had been an often violent affair, a struggle that resulted in mutual sweat and panting. They weren’t speaking the same language. Their physical exchange became a sequence of gestures repeated without intimacy. She chalked it up to his troubles and dealt with it; but his aggression was never replaced with sincere affection, not in all the nights they spent together.

Only months after she’d married him without knowing his family, Paul had been summoned home by his father. William had come back from Alaska, and there was something he wanted to share with his eldest son. Mary was finally going to meet the infamous William Daniels, the man obsessed with the legacy of his crazy great-grandfather.

After meeting William, Mary had started to wonder whether Paul had been running from his father when she found him; running into the arms of a woman to soothe him. She thought he was stronger than that, but every day spent at the Daniels estate confirmed his unshakeable loyalty to William. Paul would honor his father’s wishes whether he questioned them or not. How else could she explain this sudden trip to upstate New York? One minute, her husband was talking about going back to Boston and getting back to work as a freelance journalist, and in the next moment he was telling her they were going to New York. Why? Because William Daniels had said it was something important.

Meanwhile, Harper had flatly refused, challenging William at every turn. There was a truth he was trying to get at, a truth that Paul knew about but was probably hiding from his wife and brother. Harper had even tried to talk to Paul, but that conversation went the same way it always did, and ended the same way it always ended: black eyes and split lips.

Had Paul read the journal, even when she knew that William had expressly forbidden him to? Did he secretly cultivate a backbone and go behind his father’s interdiction? Did he know more than he was letting on to everyone, even William? His behavior on the trip, at the hotel, all of it pointed to something that he knew—something that his father wouldn’t have told him. William wouldn’t have told him anything that would have given him second thoughts about going to New York.

On that night before they left, he had turned his back on her after their intercourse. He heaved a deep sigh, which she had lately taken to interpret was his way of saying that he didn’t want to talk. But that wasn’t going to work. Not on that night.

“Why are we doing this?” she asked him.

He turned his head in the darkness to look at her. “My father’s trying to find some information on the journal he recovered in Alaska. Apparently Jonah’s research partner, this McEvelin Roberts, kept something from him and sent it away to a colleague of his for safekeeping. Jonah never knew about it.”

“What was it?”

“A piece of a stone tablet recovered by Jonah Daniels in South America. You remember my father going on about how Jonah disappeared after that? Until three years later, when he resurfaces in a few crazy stories across the U.S. before vanishing completely in 1901? Well, this Roberts guy sent a piece of whatever they were working on to Upstate New York. The missing piece was transcribed into a book and passed on from one generation to another, and now it’s somewhere in an antique bookstore owned by the grandson of Roberts’s hidden colleague: one Isaac Peerson.”

This was more than he’d ever told her about what he and William discussed. He was hoping she would take it and leave further questions aside—but that wasn’t her style. Mary tried pressing him for more information; why was this missing piece so important? Why were they treating this journal like some world-shattering relic, and how the hell did William Daniels even find out about it?

“William thinks this is really important,” Paul declared with finality, “and I have no reason to doubt that he’s right. Now Mary, it’s just going to be a short trip. Besides, you’ll get to see New York City.”

She’d listened carefully, and Paul hadn’t really told her anything. For the past year William had been obsessed with this journal. For months afterward he did nothing but lock himself in his study with a bottle of Black Label Walker and that wretched leather-bound book. Night after night, he hoarded over it, bitterly refusing to answer any questions about it.

“Listen, Mary, that’s all I’m going to tell you. Now if you don’t want to go that’s fine; you can just go back to Boston and wait for me there.”

He breathed heavily into the oppressive silence of the bedroom. She fumed in rage for a moment, leafing through remotely appropriate answers to that. Wait for him? The hell she would. “Don’t take me for a fool, Paul Daniels,” she said. “Now you listen: I’m coming along because I need to know what’s going on, and what your father’s got you all wrapped up in. I have a right to know, whether you plan on telling me or not. I intend to get it out of you any way I can.”

Paul huffed angrily. She knew that he was either going to get frustrated, angry, and unpleasantly aggressive—or he was going to shut down like a threatened child and pout his way through the night. He was going with option number two.

“Alright,” Mary acceded bitterly. “Why isn’t Harper going?”

“Dad hasn’t told him anything about all this. As far as our father’s concerned, Harper doesn’t need to know anything—not after what he did in Richmond.”

Mary was glad Paul couldn’t see her rolling her eyes. “That wasn’t his fault, Paul.”

“How was it not his fault? He should be grateful it ended better than it could have. If those two men hadn’t gotten up and ran away, Harper would likely have killed them!”

“Didn’t you say they attacked your dad in the street?”

“They were common muggers, Mary—two sick, homeless people who probably wanted spare change. My father tends to exaggerate things. I have no doubt they gave him a good scare when they came out of that alley. William told me they were pale and diseased-looking. I’m sure it was terrifying.

“Now Harper’s with him, interprets their actions as violently hostile, and explodes into a frenzy. He beats them into the ground, pushes one of them into a street, and throws the other one down a stairwell. Somehow they get up and flee the scene, leaving my father badly shaken and Harper salivating for more blood. I mean hell, Mary, my father’s no weak-hearted man, but even he told me that Harper’s reaction was extreme. I don’t know what my brother’s problem is, but I’m sure William is doing the right thing by keeping him out of all this.”

Mary didn’t say anything.

“He’s a loose cannon, Mary. If he knew more about that journal, there’s no telling what he’d do. Trust me on this; it’s better that Harper knows as little as possible. If he wants to throw a fit, curse our father, and refuse his wishes, then that’s his business.”

“And what about me, Paul?” she challenged. “Am I a loose cannon, that you’re keeping all this from me? You say, ‘we’re going to New York,’ and I say, ‘ok.’ I don’t usually ask why, but I’m asking you this time. What’s going on?”

Paul hadn’t told her.

They had left the next day. They reached New York City in the late afternoon after driving for over seven hours. They checked into a hotel in Manhattan, driving through the car-clogged arteries of the city while the sky darkened threateningly overhead. A storm had followed them up from the south.

Paul had become increasingly paranoid during the trip, going from his usual irritability to a heavy unease that was palpably choking the atmosphere. They had driven with little talking, and this was unlike them. After checking in, Mary had suggested they go out, but he tried to insist that they stay at the hotel.

Mary had reached her breaking point with him; damned if she was going to stay trapped in a hotel room while he panicked and brooded in stubborn secrecy. Either he was going to offer her some well-deserved answers in exchange for her obedience, or he was going to have to stomach it and take her on a walk across the Big Apple.

She had never been to New York, but she had created a version of it in her mind, composed haphazardly from books and television shows, rumors and second-hand stories of rude pedestrians and lunatic taxis. The reality of it was immediate and abstract, a perpetually sudden chaos of lights and noises, towering buildings and unexpected architecture. Gothic churches and cathedrals towered menacingly over boutiques and souvenir shops selling gaudy trinkets. A swelling tide of people and cars, trucks and buses crashed against the cavernous and echoing chasms between skyscrapers.

She loved and hated it at the same time. It was powerful and uncaring, unpredictable and base. That night it started to rain by the time she dragged her husband into Times Square, one of the most recognized urban landscapes in the world. It was as a extravagant as she expected it to be, as unapologetically commercial, and she wanted desperately to enjoy it.

Then Paul muttered something peculiar. “We shouldn’t be out in the storm,” he said. She turned to him, narrowing her eyes and peering at him. She wanted to know whether he was just changing tactics on her, trying to pity her into relenting and going back to the hotel, but he had been sincere; his eyes told the story of it. He was genuinely afraid.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded, brushing a wet strand of red hair out of her eyes, the better to glare at him.

She had never seen him look so helpless. “This is going to sound crazy, I know, but I really think we should stay out of the storm. It was something my father said…” She knew he was lying.

“You won’t get me to listen by quoting your father,” she snapped, “so don’t lie to me about it. William just told you to run up to Albany and buy him a book—that’s all. And he told you not to read the journal. But you did, didn’t you? What was it? What has you both so riled-up, so frightened?”

That should have stung his pride. Mary had never known her husband to accept that he could be afraid. Her words didn’t even faze him. “I can’t tell you, Mary!” he yelled, startling a few passerbies and embarrassing her in the process. “You just have to trust me, and come back with me to the hotel…”

“Paul,” Mary said, shaking her head in angry astonishment, “you keep telling me about this mysterious journal. What do you think about all this, about what you’re doing? If you told me that someone was following us, or that we were racing against time to find this book before someone else did, I would be more prepared to understand that! But you’re telling me that we should stay out of the rain, for God’s sake!”

She would have continued arguing, but Paul had stopped paying attention to her. They had wandered into the Diamond District, a narrow street closed to traffic and lined with jewelry stores. The rain had intensified and was coming down in torrents and curtains. People were huddled in alcoves and doorways, clustered against one another. Others peered out of store windows, leaning over glass counters alight with the glow of gold and diamonds on display. The buildings towering darkly above the street made it seem narrower, tighter, shadows in the hidden spaces vying with the artificial glitter of flashing signs and backlit advertisements.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. The two of them were standing in the middle of the street. People were looking at them, their eyes twinkling in the shadows, but they were just figures painted into a gray background. She was focused on her husband, whose eyes were scanning their surroundings the way a man expecting an ambush would.

“Paul…?”

A shock of thunder and burst of lightning shook the street, so mighty that nearly everyone flinched and started back. Mary didn’t avert her eyes. She saw it clearly:

It came out of a curtain of rain in the instant of the lightning flash, darting towards Paul in the boom of thunder. She had time only to widen her eyes when its hand erupted out of her husband’s sternum, holding his bloody heart cupped in its hand. His face was a mask of horror, his eyes staring at the ruddy, red-veined hand holding his dying heart, a pulpy thing ticking in weak beats.

Mary had time only to open her mouth before the monster seized Paul with its other arm and tossed him over its cloaked shoulder. It darted away just as quickly as it had come, vanishing into an alley. She turned to follow, the people around her starting to recover from the suddenness of the blinding lightning and echoing thunder. She ran towards the narrow crevice between buildings, but she already knew that it was too late. The alley was empty.

The vampire had taken her husband away.

A few people had been looking curiously at her, but no one had noticed anything. The rain lessened and they began to venture out of the doorways and alcoves, flooding the street, moving uncaringly around her. She hadn’t even been able to cry out, or scream, or call for help. She could only stand there in numbed bewilderment, pacing the alley for desperate hours afterward as if Paul would pop out from behind a car, alive and well.

She had seen what she had seen. It wasn’t a hallucination; that much was confirmed by William and Harper when they arrived in New York less than a day later to join in the search. Harper was relentless, but she had hated William for doing close to nothing to find his son. He just gave up, reviling and pitying himself, slinking back to his estate with fatalistic despondency.

 

* * * *

 

Now

 

A portion of the woman’s shoulder erupted in a gory splash of blood and splintered bone. She screamed and fell backward against the mantelpiece. In falling her right arm passed through the grate and into the fire. She wailed piteously as her skin blackened sickeningly. She pulled her arm away while the other hung by a shred of skin and muscle from the pulped shoulder.

“What have I done?” Henry moaned, the hunting rifle tumbling from his hands.

Susan lay crumpled against the wall next to the mantelpiece, panting in semi-conscious agony. I finally reached Henry. I picked up the rifle, took a step away, and turned to aim the barrel point-blank between his eyes.

I didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t move.

His head was nearly cleaved in two by the blast. Henry collapsed backward, his head a ghastly mess above his jaw. His body writhed on the floor, his hands blindly trying to push the pieces of his face back together.

I watched in horrified fascination as he succeeded; the white skin began to mend itself.

Where was the vampire?

I turned to see it stooping over Susan. It fastened itself over the wound in her shoulder and began to heave inward, chugging the blood out of her thin body. I cried out in hateful protest, but it was already done. The vampire let her go and looked at me. I averted my eyes.

I heard a whimper and turned to see Henry start to convulse, his teeth gritted and his skin darkening to an ugly gray. He glared up at me as he withered, his body crusting over like a piece of wood burnt out from the inside. The husk spat and coughed in collapsing protest until it crumbled inward, sighing into a mound of dust. The dust swirled in place and snaked across the foyer and through the open door, scattering into the rain and night.

Both of them were dead. I was alone with the monster.

The vampire moved closer.

You will give me what I want, Harper Daniels. You will give me bits and pieces of yourself until there is nothing left but that which you are withholding from me. I will sift this out from among the ashes of your spirit and continue my journey, passing over the place of your death with no more concern than a cloud casting a moving shadow over the ruin of a fire-pit.

I was a fool to think I could handle this. The vampire did not speak aloud. I don’t know why I expected that it would. It bore only the semblance of human form, its language a strange mimicry of ours. Its words swirled like a vortex in the hollow of my chest, a chaotic pulling that made me gasp, trying to gulp mouthfuls of air as if they could relieve the intense pressure of its words. It was as if the vampire spoke directly into my heart.

The windows burst into the living room, shards of glass catching the firelight as they sprinkled through the air. The curtains tore away around the bulk of three black forms that leapt into the room.

Black dogs.

They crouched next to Susan’s body, sable hair bristling with hackled rage, fangs bared in slavering hunger. They made no sound as the fur around their nostrils rose in seething aggression. Their eyes were intelligent, keen, and calculating. They belonged completely to the vampire. They prowled around it, bowing their heads in deference to their master.

I backed away toward the foyer. I needed to reload the rifle, and the box of ammunition was still there.

The dogs started gnawing at Susan’s body, gnashing their teeth into her skin and digging with grotesque abandon into the broken cavity of her corpse. They locked their jaws on her and snapped their heads back and forth with a violence and speed that blurred the movement. One tore at her limbs, tugging and pulling until the ligaments and muscles, empty of blood, gave way and broke into tattered ribbons. Another busied itself with her organs, and the third pawed at her bones, its red tongue darting to get at the marrow.

I loaded the rifle, cocked it, aimed, and fired at one of the dogs. The bullet struck it in the shoulder, but the beast took it without pausing or expressing any sign of pain. I fired the second shot and got it through the eye. The frenzied orb ruptured in the socket, but the dog didn’t so much as flinch.

When I recovered from my shock and revulsion I realized that all this gruesome scene took place without a single noise except for the cracks of the two shots in the uncanny quiet. There was no sound otherwise, neither the crunching of bone nor the wet grating of torn muscle. It was as if the beasts were cloaked in an impenetrable vacuum of silence; not even the scratching of their claws over the carpet could be heard.

I watched in amazement and terror as they finished their grizzly work, devouring the body so quickly and so thoroughly that, in short time that I stood there, all evidence of the old woman’s slaughter was entirely obliterated. The dogs walked casually past me, casting me a glance of such inscrutable and impossible intelligence that I shuddered.

When this was done, the dogs turned in unison to their master. Something must have passed between them, for the dogs rushed through the broken windows in a flurry of black fur and disappeared into the night. I looked over to where the old woman had been, and I could detect no trace of what happened. Not a single drop of blood.

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded.

It must know that I didn’t have the journal. It must know that I would never tell it where the journal was. I didn’t care how much I suffered. I would hold onto that promise. I was no stranger to pain. I looked forward to the death that would seal my lips forever. It would spare Mary from having to face this horror.

The vampire looked at me.

Your family has caused me a good deal of trouble, Harper Daniels. Your ancestor gave his blood to quiet my appetite for a time, and I awoke from my silence to find his descendents troubling me still.

“I am the only one left,” I said, closing my eyes.

By design. I have bitten at the tree of your family’s life, waiting for you to ripen. I have fattened you with sorrow and righteous anger, preparing you for the slaughter. When you are ready, your blood will be like nectar to me. You will see that this world is ruled by desire, and desire is strongest in darkness and shadow. And there is no desire in the heart of man greater than the desire for immortality.

When you are ready, you will give me what I need.

Something in the air shifted, a palpable and charged heaviness that amplified every sound. The clouds overhead were latticed with branching lightning. The undulating shadows enveloping the vampire became agitated, writhing serpent-like.

“I’m never going to help you,” I said.

You already have.

“What are you talking about?”

You and the journal are bound to one another. It will find its way to you again, and all those who touch it will fall to me, as your father and brother have fallen. They will serve me, as your father and brother have served me.

My brother Paul always said I was thoughtless.

The rifle was useless against the vampire, but there was a butcher knife on the table. I grabbed it, lunging toward the vampire and plunging the blade into the center of the murky distortion that was its body. I don’t know what I expected to feel; the soft, pliant resistance of flesh, the wet yielding of torn muscle, the hard crunch of metal against bone.

I felt nothing of the kind. It was like stabbing a paper doll: a brief sensation of the knife’s tip passing through something, and then a hollowness, a cold absence that arced up my forearm like a magnified shiver. I dropped the knife and it clattered uselessly to the ground. I pulled my arm close to my chest, gasping in agony through clenched teeth.

I looked at my arm. It was shriveled and blue, the skin hanging in creased and mangled folds around the bone. I wanted to scream, but panic and shock had seized my throat. I gasped like a fish out of water, realizing in a distortedly logical way that I was going into shock.

The vampire turned, calmly, and reached out.

I was so startled by the sight of its arm, sliding lithely toward me, that I forgot my trauma and fastened my eyes on it. It had the same blurred quality as the vampire’s uncertain features, and seemed made of fired clay, a ruddy brown that reminded me of ancient pottery. Veins of crimson visibly palpitated with stolen blood, snaking over the ligaments of its hand.

I wanted to back away, but I stood transfixed, cradling my ruined arm against my chest. The vampire clamped its hand over my desiccated wrist. There was a sensation of unpleasant warmth, and I watched in repulsed fascination as my arm changed beneath its grasp.

When the vampire took its hand away, my strength and challenge went with it. My vision swam as I looked at my arm. It was horribly altered. Pallid and strange, it looked like the arm of an antique porcelain doll, white and cracked.

“My God, what have you done to me?” I whispered.

I can take life and I can give life. The life I give is immortal life.

“I don’t want your life!” I screamed. I dropped to the floor, clutching at the knife. I gripped it in my left hand, closed my eyes, and stabbed it into my right arm. The knife crunched into the flesh, passing sickeningly through the skin, glancing against the bone and chipping the tiled floor underneath. I opened my eyes to see the knife lodged there. There was no blood. There was no pain.

“God no,” I breathed. I didn’t want this. I drew out the knife, watching the skin fold back into place. I looked up at the vampire, rage in my eyes.

You will become my instrument, Harper Daniels.

It raised its arms and there was a sudden rush of wind through the open door. I stared in awe as the vampire seemed to dissolve, unraveling into tendrils of thick smoke. It coiled into the stormy night. The house shook with thunder; the vampire was gone.

I ran to the threshold of the doorway. I stood braced against the frame, my body shaking violently, my vision wavering in fevered disorientation. I wanted to believe that none of this had happened, but my arm was testament to the cruel reality of it. I couldn’t bear to look at it. I wanted to take the knife and try again, but I knew it was useless. The house was empty. Those damned dogs had even managed to lick the blood off the walls.

It only took a moment, replaying it in my mind. A moment, and I was irrevocably altered. I almost wished for pain, something to mark the transition from what I was before—I flexed my strange, inhuman fingers—to what I was now. Something tainted.

I tried to piece together the chain of events that had led to this, a chain stretching back for generations to one man: Jonah Daniels.

My mind flashed back to Mary, running for her life to a place where I hoped she would be safe. She might find a way to end this. I didn’t want to be responsible for undoing all that Jonah had martyred himself to accomplish.

I needed to get out of here.

The vampire had taken the storm with it; the night outside was clear. The predawn stars paled in the softening sky. I turned to walk towards the center of town, dragging my feet and keeping my corrupted hand deep in my pocket. I didn’t want to see it. It was wretchedly cold; my breath blew past my face in vapors. I was staggering drunkenly. God, I was so weak.

I didn’t get very far.

A figure stepped out of the shadows in front of me, coming to stand just beyond the ring of sickly yellow light thrown over the sidewalk by a streetlamp. I halted, wavering on my feet, peering at the silhouette.

I thought it might be a mugger, a petty mortal predator skulking after drunken passerby in the early hours of the morning. Then I saw, when he moved beneath the light, that his face was wrong. He had the same colorless and cracked appearance as Henry, as my arm.

He looked fragile, as if a strike with a hammer in the right place would shatter his face into countless pieces. I knew otherwise. There was a feral quality to the man, the restless pacing of an inhuman, bloodthirsty thing.

“Harper Daniels!” He shouted. How did he know my name?

I stumbled to the side, my shoulder crashing harshly against the brick façade of a storefront.

“You’re not going to make it very far,” the man said.

“What do you want?” I mumbled weakly, feeling myself sag brokenly.

“I want to help you,” he said, coming closer.

“Stay away from me. What are you?” I asked, trying to rally my strength. I succeeded in pushing away from the wall. Damned if I was going to let this thing get a hold of me.

“I am like you,” he said, moving closer. His eyes moved down to my arm. I tried to move away. Running was out of the question. The night had taken its toll, and the vampire had made certain I wouldn’t have the strength to do more than lurch a few paces before dropping into a gutter. It had sent its servant to pick me up, drag me wherever it wanted.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I hissed, digging deep for strength. Let him think I was stronger than I looked. That might be enough to deter him, out in the open. He wouldn’t risk an altercation where anyone passing by might take notice.

It didn’t work.

In a flash, he was on me.

 

Jonah Daniels’s Journal

 

 

10 August, 1900

 

I should have known better than to believe that I could ever see my wife and son again. Roberts tried to tell me, but I would not listen. How could I? The past two years have been one unbroken nightmare, unrelenting and unremitting since my discovery of those wretched tablets in South America. How I wish I had never found them! How I wish that I had never seen that place, hidden in the dark bowels of the earth; and how right my poor guide had been to consider those caverns an extension of hell, born up to the surface of the world the way a man might vomit a poison unsettling his belly.

I credit myself with only one moment of lucidity; for I had thought to bring those tablets home and translate them there, in the comfort of my study. Yet I knew, somehow, what ill-fortune my discovery would bring. At the time, I thought it a scholarly decision; Florence, Rome, and the great libraries of Europe boast resources unmatched even by the ivy-covered universities of New England. Surely I must have known, when I had a few moments of peace to regard those tablets and the language etched into their clay, that there were no resources anywhere in this world that could have availed me—none, truly, but one: McEvelin Roberts.

Despite all that happened in Florence, I was foolish enough to imagine that I could go home to my wife and son. All that I suffered, all that I learned and felt, was so far beyond the ken of normal men that it seemed as if I were adrift on a treacherous sea beneath alien stars, with no compass or sense of direction. I went so far as to book passage to Virginia, gathering my belongings with the blind fervor of an addict clinging to the illusion of choice. Roberts, in one of his rare moments of genuine understanding, did not interrupt my preparations; indeed, if he did, I would have shot him dead. I had to arrive at that conclusion myself, without his interference.

Before we parted ways, Roberts and I discussed whether I should destroy this journal. He was of the opinion that I should burn it. It will remain a lure to the vampire for as long as it survives, and neither I nor anyone who comes in contact with it is safe. Containing the only transcription and translation of the tablets’ contents, I have all but guaranteed that I alone possess what my immortal pursuer wants more than blood: the key to uncovering the location of its birthplace.

I know that my life is over. I will as faithfully as possible here narrate the content of a most remarkable encounter. If not for the man who intercepted me just prior to my quitting Italy, I would have sailed to my home shore and signed my own family’s death warrant. I have known war to follow men home from the battlefield, tormenting them unceasingly and distorting their perceptions more ably and terribly than any opiate—but this—this demon will never let me go.

Leaving Roberts was a breath of fresh air, and with this journal in my satchel I allowed myself to entertain the ludicrous notion that, with our work accomplished, I could put all that behind me. I was giddy with anticipation, and I fully expected that I would see my family in a fortnight. I took a room in a hotel some distance away from the port at Lido di Ostia, allowing myself to marvel at how much the world had changed in less than half a century. The marks of the industrial revolution that had seized England were rapidly encroaching even here, in the birthplace of the Renaissance. The great galleons and sailing vessels that had chartered the seas and braved the edge of the world were replaced by the titanic metal behemoths of a new era.

When evening came I found myself hungrier than I had been in months. I went down to the bar and took a stool near a cluster of foreigners speaking French. I know the language well, and delighted in eavesdropping on their conversation. I did not interrupt, but contented myself with listening to the common talk of people who did not know that monsters were real. I found myself smiling, remembering when my conversations were similarly innocent. So enrapt I was that I did not see the man who sat down beside me.

I noticed his hand first, white and scarred. I glanced surreptitiously at him, only to find him staring fixedly at me. Unnerved, I drew away. He smiled and leaned forward, his eyes glittering beneath a deeply furrowed brow, his pale face grizzled with an unshaven beard that would never grow longer nor succumb to the edge of a blade.

“I know who you are,” he said, “Johan Daniels. Your work has stirred up quite a bit of trouble. You’ve caught the monster’s attention, and it has set its sights on you.” His eyes drifted down to the satchel at my hip. “You’re a liability to everyone around you. If you’re not careful, you will leave a trail of bodies in your wake.”

I reached down, brought the journal into my lap, and tightened my grip on it. “Who are you?”

“Someone who knows about those tablets you recovered from South America. You can’t unearth something like that without anyone noticing, Mr. Daniels. Admittedly, we expected you to return to Virginia with your prize and go about making a show of it.”

Something in his tone made it plain that he—or whomever he represented—would have taken measures to prevent that from happening. “And when I didn’t…?”

The man smiled. “We lost track of you until you reached out to a colleague of yours. This circle is woven tighter than you can imagine. You see—we know McEvelin Roberts. We’ve known him for a long time.”

“You’re American,” I said.

“I am,” he said, “all the way from New York. Now I’ve a story to tell you and I advise you to listen carefully. I already know that you’ve taken passage on a vessel bound for Virginia. That is a mistake—” he raised his hand to interrupt what I had been about to say, “and if you consider the matter, you will see plainly enough that to return home is tantamount to murder. The vampire will slaughter you and everyone around you. It has done this before.”

“What would suggest I do, then? Destroy the journal and surrender myself?”

“Why don’t you?”

His question gave me pause. Why indeed? I was the one who discovered the tablets; I was the one who brought them to Italy and contacted McEvelin Roberts. I was the one who insisted we complete our work, knowing full well that the dark fable recounted by the ancient writer whose etchings we translated spoke not of an imaginary monster, but an evil as old as the world itself. Surely, I should hold myself accountable.

All the while I struggled with these thoughts, this man regarded me as if knowing every thought as it appeared and turned in my mind. He knew also that I would not do it. I would neither destroy the journal nor surrender myself. The only question remained whether he would try and seize the journal himself, and do what I could not.

“If I’ve guessed your thoughts correctly, Mr. Daniels,” he said, “you intend to stay alive. Very good! If you thought me here to convince you otherwise, you are mistaken. No—I am here at the behest of a woman very dear to me…someone whose sight was not limited to the past and present but encompassed the future also.”

“It is not enough that I should believe in monsters,” I said, “you would have me believe in oracles also? What sort of game are you playing? Speak sense, or leave me be—”

He frowned. “I can do neither, if you will not listen! She knew you would not surrender, Jonah Daniels. She knew you could not, and she also knew that you would have a good deal further to go from here—farther even than you can imagine now.”

“Who is this woman?”

“Her name was Helen. Years ago, after McEvelin Roberts abandoned his studies at the University, his path crossed hers. She knew even then that Roberts possessed an uncanny knowledge, more dangerous than he could have realized. She knew about the tablets, and she knew that he alone could translate them…”

“How could she have possibly known that? Those tablets had been buried for centuries! It was only by a bizarre turn of circumstance that those caverns were even opened at all! For heaven’s sake, an earthquake had unsettled a wall of solid rock that had sealed off an entire village buried underneath a mountain!”

The man smiled. “Nonetheless, she knew. Helen also knew what Roberts was hoping to find: there are clues scattered across the world, and it takes a keen eye and a willing mind to recognize the mystery they point to…”

“The vampire.”

“True immortality. That is what Roberts was looking for. All he needed was a push in the right direction. Helen promised to show him something that would point him in that direction—an artifact of incredible age and power. Roberts didn’t hesitate. He agreed to meet with her, and she made good on her promise.”

“He didn’t tell me any of this…”

“Of course not. Roberts is a secretive man. Does it surprise you that he would have this from you? Besides, telling you outright may have dissuaded you from finishing your work on the tablets.”

“What did she show him? What was this artifact?”

“I’m afraid any description of mine would do it little justice,” he said. “ Suffice it to say that it was enough to commit Roberts to his course. After their meeting, Helen ended her journey in New York. She died in the wilderness of the Adirondacks, among a unique collective of people who undertook the burden of her stewardship.”

“Stewardship? Of this artifact?” The man nodded. I made the connection instantly. “You were among this collective of people,” I said.

He nodded. “I am. If I could have foreseen the strange turnings of fortune that brought me there, only months before Helen’s arrival, I would have remained where I was. But these are idle daydreams. It is no easy burden that Helen left us with, but we didn’t have a choice and neither did she. Her flight had come to an end, and she was with child. She could go no further, and it was there beside the waters of our encampment in the forest that she died in childbirth, leaving us with the responsibility of rearing her daughter and safeguarding the artifact. That was some time ago—over ten years, I expect, though I had little sense of time beyond the passing of seasons.”

He smiled. “This is a story that will require more time than we have at present. Rest assured you will hear it; but for the moment I will tell you only that Helen entrusted me with an additional task. She misjudged Roberts, and in showing him the artifact she expected that his course would lead him to the vampire—a problem that would take care of itself. She didn’t expect that you would find the tablets and contact Roberts. No one can foresee the strange threads that bind us together over time and distance, nor what happens when we tug on a single one of these.”

“Things rarely happen the way we would wish them to,” I said.

“When I learned that Roberts had received your letter and was en route to Italy, I had no choice but to follow…not the simplest proposition, Mr. Daniels, when you have not a penny to your name and no name besides. I arrived in Italy too late, but I am hoping I can salvage some of what I set out to do.”

“What was it, dammit?” I hissed, my anger suddenly stirred by the damnable mystery of it all. “What did Mary show Roberts? What is this artifact, and why is it so important? Why are you here? If you mean to help me, then be plain about it, and do away with all your vagueness!”

The man raised his hands in a gesture of mocking placation. “Come now!” he said. “Not all mysteries are better revealed all at once. Besides, I have good reason for keeping you in the dark: you must agree to accompany me to New York, into the Adirondacks, and I must have your word that you will speak to no one until we arrive at our destination.”

“Are you mad?” I demanded angrily. “I have no intention of going anywhere with you…”

“Are you planning to return to your family, then?” he asked with a cruel scoff. “What do you imagine that you left behind in Florence? Do you suppose Roberts is well? Drinking his Italian wine and smoking his opium? What now—I suppose you reckon that everything can be explained away?” he continued relentlessly, his words turning a knife in my gut. “What else? Will you sit with your wife and son and relate all your brave adventures over supper?”

I glowered at him, refusing to avert my eyes. He did not shy away from my gaze. “Listen, Mr. Daniels, I am here for my own reasons, I’ll grant you that—you are no fool, to think my motives entirely courteous. But let me tell you that my reasons are your reasons. I want to be free of this nightmare.”

“What of Roberts?” I challenged. “What do you know?”

The man sighed. “What do you think? The monster took him, Mr. Daniels, only days after you left.”

Roberts was dead, then. The news should have shaken me, but instead carved a hollow into my soul. With every minute and hour that passed I imagined myself closer to my wife and son; but at that moment, following this man’s words, that hope fell into sudden darkness. I couldn’t see my wife and son. Their faces were smeared over, the canvas of my memory torn by the hand of a predator older than history.

The man must have known that his words had struck a violent chord, because he remained silent for awhile, waiting for me to digest the news of Roberts’s death.

“So,” he said when I looked at him again, “what is your answer? Will you accompany me to New York? Will you agree to see what Mary showed Roberts, all those years ago?”

“What then? If I should agree to your terms, what then?”

“Then, Mr. Daniels, I expect you will have to make a decision. I am offering you the opportunity to make a well-informed decision, at least. Now, you are fleeing blindly, and you haven’t a chance in the world to outrun the storm. Come with me, see what I have to show you, and you may yet find a way out of this…you may yet find some way to set us both free.”

What choice did I have, really?

 

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