S. J. Blevins
Meredith smoothed the skirt of her silk dress as she hurried anxiously down the stone hall. Of a deep, rose hue that accentuated her dark skin, the rich material clung tightly to her slender shoulders and firm, ample bosom. Tugging fiercely at the feathery ends of a thick auburn braid that tickled the exposed flesh of the cleft between her breasts, she waited with uncharacteristic impatience for the day to give way to night.
Seneschal of House Hyren, First House of the Seldrain, her emerald eyes carefully scrutinized the passage, even in her haste, to assure its cleanliness was up to the High Lady Vandene's exacting standards. As head of the household servants, Mareith ran the manor with the skill and ease of a woman thrice her years. With her fair and just management, she had gained both the trust and loyalty of those beneath her. Having just passed her twenty-second winter, only the Seneschal of the Regent had higher status amongst the humans of Asherah.
A pair of doors hewn from cedar stood at the end of the windowless hallway. Their golden-grained surface glowed from the soft, subtle light that emanated from the many lamps that lined the smooth stone. Wrought of brass and cunningly sculpted into the majestic shape of an eagle in flight, each lamp burned with expensive oil. The aroma of evergreen permeated the air, giving the impression of an unseen, coniferous forest. The smell was so strong that Mareith could almost feel the needle-laden limbs scratching harshly across her skin.
A sigil of power was engraved into the wooden surface, the bold lines edged in precious diamond dust. Its magic was designed to prevent anyone from entering except those who spoke the proper words or were vastly powerful in the Art. Since there were few who could defeat the ward's magic and even fewer who would dare defy the First House, the High Lady was quite safe from any unwanted visitors.
Two guards stood vigil over the only entrance to High Lady Vandene's chambers, their hands resting casually on the leather-wrapped hilts of the long swords belted at their sides. At birth, each had undergone the Rite of Tel'shin binding them to the High Lady in both body and soul. If she felt pain, they felt pain; if she died, they too would die. Either one of them would not hesitate to sacrifice his life for the High Lady's safety and Mareith knew that if she were to approach the doors and try to gain entry without giving the sign of recognition, she would be killed without a second thought.
As Mareith neared the guards, she waved her hands in an intricate display that ended with a sharp, slashing motion. The two guards bowed and moved aside. No words were exchanged between them for none were needed, the simple fact that both still lived proof that the High Lady Vandene had made it safely through another day. Laying her hands upon the smooth wood, Mareith recited the complex phrases that would nullify the sigil and allow the twin doors to be open.
Few humans could recite the words of magic that flowed easily from Mareith's lips, the strange inflections and complicated words weeding out anyone incapable of controlling the vast energy and responsibility that came with any skill in the Art. Magical aptitude was a must for any Seneschal and Mareith was more proficient than most, her mastery of the simpler spells and summonings a testament to her intelligence and determination.
Opening the doors, Mareith stepped into the darkened room. Closing them securely behind her, she spoke the words that would reactivate the sigil. Usually, she would not have bothered to reset the ward, confident in the Tel'shins' abilities. Tonight, however, was special and she was not about to take any unnecessary chances.
Turning her back to the doorway and staring intently into the blackness, she turned her senses inward. Seeking the part of her being tuned to the magic around her, she spoke a simple word of command and a scattering of candles flared to life. Blinking her eyes against the sudden brightness, Mareith weaved her hands in a complicated flow as she once again called upon the power of her gift. This time, the spell she wove was not so easy and it took longer to summon the magical energy necessary to complete it. Finally, she threw her hands toward the ceiling, palms raised toward the heavens and brought them down harshly. Since nothing glowed in the room, there were no invisible assassins, shape changed killers, or beings in a state of physical or temporal phase. Though no one could have gotten past both the guards and the ward, Mareith would not risk the hope she had for this night on a mere certainty.
For a rich and powerful noble, the furnishings and decorations within the spacious room were spartan. In one corner sat a small desk, its polished surface littered with half-finished letters and other papers of various importance. A plush, high-backed chair rested behind it, the deep piles of soft lambskin rugs that lay strewn on the floor muffling Mareith's light footsteps. An immense fireplace that consumed not logs, but whole trees, dominated an entire wall, a huge span of oak waiting to be burned within its depths. Above the mantled recess was a large oil painting of the High Lady Vandene, the painter's bold strokes and artistic genius having captured the High Lady's grace and nobility. Sitting upon the cherry mantle was a water clock that meticulously kept the time, each drop another second gone, another moment lost to the past. The last thing in the room was a four-poster bed canopied in elegant red velvet trimmed in an airy, white lace. The drapes were drawn shut to keep out the light though there was little need since the room, like the corridor, lacked a single window.
Crossing quickly to the fireplace, Mareith knelt before it and using the flint and steel she carried in a pouch about her waist, sparked them together until the smaller tender caught flame and spread to consume the mighty oak. Though her Mistress was little affected by either the warmth or the cold, Mareith knew she loved a cheery blaze and longed to please her. Rising smoothly to her feet, Mareith walked over and opened the drapes with a firm tug on the knotted rope that rested at the head of the bed.
Sprawled out upon the down-filled mattress and nestled comfortably in its plushness was the sleeping figure of the High Lady Vandene, the black, diaphanous shift she wore barely concealing the luscious curves of her feminine form. The contrast between her wealth of raven-hued hair and creamy skin gave her an appeal that most men could not ignore. While Mareith was considered quite beautiful, the High Lady Vandene had an enchanting presence that defied the normal concepts of beauty. Most women could only dream of the physical perfection that was the High Lady Vandene.
Opening her liquid gray eyes, the High Lady Vandene stretched lazily like an awakening cat, a nocturnal beast eager to embrace the night. Smiling at the sight of her most trusted servant, her pale, bloodless lips parted to reveal her razor-sharp canines.
"Good evening Mareith, I hope everything is well with you on this most glorious of nights," the High Lady Vandene said in a quiet, melodic voice.
"Everything is well Great Mistress," she replied dropping into a ground sweeping curtsey. She held the subservient position until the High Lady motioned for her to rise.
"Excellent. Are you ready for tonight's festivities? You are very valuable to me, both in your duties and your companionship, so if you feel unready, speak up before it's too late. It's no dishonor to turn away while you still can, there will always be other nights," the High Lady Vandene said in a serious tone.
"No Great Mistress, I am ready. I have worked very hard to come as far as I have and it would be an insult to the great honor shown to me if I were to back down now," Mareith replied confidently.
"It is a great honor to be chosen for Ascension and you are definitely worthy of such a honor. You will gain the power you seek, but a high price will be exacted. Never again will you see the light of day or feel the impassioned caress of a lover's embrace. The biggest price of all, however, is that you will be required to partake of the blood of the living, be it human or beast," the High Lady Vandene intoned solemnly, her grave words trying to impress upon the young woman the importance of her decision. The High Lady Vandene would not trade her vampyric existence for anything, but sometimes even she longed for the feel of the sun warming her dead flesh, flesh that had been cold for so long.
"It is a small price to pay for immortality," Mareith responded quickly, eagerly.
The High Lady Vandene nodded and roused herself out of her magnificent bed and into the thick folds of a snowy robe that Mareith slipped around her thin shoulders. Taking a seat behind the mahogany desk, the High Lady Vandene pulled out a fresh piece of parchment and prepared to write. Dipping the tip of a ragged quill into a half-empty inkpot, she scribbled a few lines before stopping to inspect her work. Sprinkling the wet page with the drying powder she kept in a clay jar, the High Lady Vandene waited a few seconds before blowing the concoction off the letter. Reaching into one of the many drawers, she pulled out a small stick of sealing wax. Passing one end of it carefully over the flame of a tallow candle, she pressed the melted wax onto the parchment. Sealing the missive with the platinum signet she wore on her left hand, the High Lady Vandene branded her House's symbol, a large eagle commonly called a hyren, into the cooling wax. The seal made the document legal and binding.
Rising, she walked over to where Mareith waited in reflective silence. Placing the document into the Seneschal's hands, the High Lady Vandene smiled and hugged the woman warmly. "This releases you from my service and acknowledges that I agree with the Council's decision that you are worthy of Ascension. Take this and the required objects to the Temple of the Moon and Stars and meet me there one hour before midnight. Now leave me, I must prepare for the ritual and so must you."
Mareith curtsied again and swept from the room, pausing only long enough to lower the ward before continuing on her way. The beginning of butterflies formed in her stomach as the culmination of her life's work neared the appointed hour. Soon, she would no longer have to be nervous, that particular human weakness banished into the void.
The city of Asherah had been ruled by vampyres for nearly a thousand years, the Regent sharing power with the Council of the Seldrain, which consisted of the twelve Great houses. The humans of the city, while reduced to secondary citizenship, were not as bad off as one might expect. Vampyres did not roam the night stalking and killing indiscriminately for that was against the law. Any vampyre who broke that law was sentenced to the Hall of the Sun, an open-aired amphitheater, and chained to await the agonizing fate that came with the next dawn. Instead, each human citizen was required to "tithe" a pint of blood every month that was magically preserved and distributed to the vampyre population at need. Since the humans outnumbered the vampyres by a margin of twenty-five to one, the system worked remarkably well. The vampyres received the nourishment they needed and the humans could live their lives without the fear of being attacked by some blood-crazed vampyre.
The city was far from being a utopia, however. The normal problems of any large city, crime and poverty being the most prevalent, caused no end of trouble to government officials both vampyric and human. The Council of the Seldrain and the Seneschal Council, which represented human interests in Asherah, were always at odds over several key political issues. The most common was the ownership, or lack thereof, of land by the human citizens of the city.
Balancing out the warring sides was the Regent, a very old and very powerful vampyre. While harsh with the application of the city's laws, he was fair and tried to ensure the prosperity for both vampyres and humans alike. While the governmental structure within the city of Ashera was unique, it nevertheless worked as the city had only grown and prospered under vampyric rule.
Mareith made her way along the nearly empty streets that led from the noble district to the Temple of the Moon and Stars that lay at the center of the great city. Wrapped in a shimmering robe of pale jade that complimented her eyes, Mareith relished the sounds and smells that drifted upon the cool, night wind. Sheathed at her waist was a curved dagger, its sturdy hilt adorned with a dazzling array of precious stones.
Floating behind her were thirteen urns of superior craftsmanship. Carried along by unseen currents of magic, the vessels had been cast from the purest of gold, their sealed lids marked with the majestic hyren. Had anyone been close enough, they would have been able to hear the muffled sloshing that issued from each of the suspended pots. Most humans, however, were not allowed within the section reserved for the Great Houses and no vampyre would dare risk the wrath of the High Lady Vandene by interfering with a scion of House Hyren.
Overhead, the moon neared its apex, the full, silver luminescence tinged with red. Tonight was the last night of the Festival of the Bloodmoon, a seven-day period that was sacred to the vampyres of the city and their strange, remote gods. On this holiest of nights, with the bloodmoon at its fullest, the magical veil between the realms of the living and the dead was at its weakest. Able to draw power directly from the realm of the dead, the most powerful of magiks were attempted on this night and with the vampyre gods smiling down, the Ritual of Transcendence would be performed for the first time in over a century.
Mareith entered the flagstoned courtyard that marked the entrance to the sacred temple. Ringed with the flickering light of dozens of half-burned torches, the mysterious temple was masked in shadow, the basalt stone absorbing the smoky radiance. Waiting in silence, a lone figure stood by the occluded doorway completely enshrouded in darkness.
Approaching with slow, measured steps, Mareith knew she must be careful lest she incur the anger of the vampyre gods. After all, she was still human.
"The chosen one approaches," the figure said emotionlessly.
"Is she worthy," a chorus of voices echoed from the darkened interior.
"She is worthy," the figure answered solemnly.
"Do you vouch for this human woman," they asked mockingly.
"I do," the figure said defiantly as she threw back the concealing hood to reveal the breathtaking beauty beneath. "I am the High Lady Vandene, respected member of the Seldrain and I vouch for this woman. She is worthy of Ascension."
The voices paused if considering the reply. For several long moments, Mareith wondered if all he efforts had been in vain. She did not have to wait very long for her answer.
"Very well, we accept your sponsorship. Has the supplicant brought the offering?"
"I have Great Ones," Mareith replied in a steady voice.
"Has the knife at your side ever drank of blood, be it animal, human, or vampyre?"
"It has never tasted the pureness that is life," she said giving the ritualistic response
"If you enter this holy sanctuary, there is no turning back. Know this, and enter with the knowledge that you are at the beginning of a great journey."
The High Lady Vandene took Mareith's hands in her own and squeezed them gently, "You can stop now, there will always be another time if you are not ready. If you cross through that door, there is no coming back. You will either succeed or you will die. Consider this as you make your choice."
In way of answer, Mareith drew the dagger and handed it to her former mistress. Unbelting the scintillating robe, she threw it open to reveal her nakedness beneath. Shrugging out of the constricting fabric, she stepped up to the doorway and took a deep, steadying breath. Leaving her humanity along with her clothing, she crossed over the threshold into the darkness exactly as she had once entered the light. The thirteen urns followed obediently after.
Immediately upon entering the darkened temple, she was assaulted by a plethora of alien smells and sounds. All around her voices whispered in barely audible, incomprehensible words as dark, twisted shapes flitted in and out of her vision. Occasionally, they would brush up against her and she could feel what seemed to be cold, scaly flesh caress her naked body. Shivering fearfully at the reptilian touch, she wanted nothing more than to run, to leave this accursed place and reclaim the humanity she had so easily discarded. A tiny part of her shrank from the darkness she pursued, but the greater part rejected her human frailty.
"Enough," the voices shouted as the frightening sensations ceased. "You have controlled your fear and thus passed the first test. We commend you, but two tests still remain."
In the distance, a soft glow parted the oppressive darkness, a welcome change to the stifling lightlessness. As she came closer and closer, she realized that the subdued light came from the sky above. The temple's ceiling, open to the night, held the fullness of the bloodmoon and the twinkling of the countless stars.
In the center of the silver and red miasma stood a low, stone altar that radiated divine energy, the smooth surface covered with runes of power that crawled and changed before Mareith's eyes. At the very edge of the circle of light, half concealed by the shadow beyond, twelve unmoving forms stood, cloaked in unfathomable oblivion. Stepping from the outer blackness, the High Lady Vandene slipped into the light, Mareith's dagger bared in one hand and a gem-encrusted goblet in the other. Waving toward the stone table with the glinting dagger, the High Lady Vandene took her place by the head of the altar. Mareith, drawn by the first stirrings of forgotten, primordial urges, approached and lay down upon the cold stone, her nakedness causing goosebumps to rise upon her weak flesh.
"To those who guard the night, we beseech you to hear our cries. One comes before you in supplication, her wish to cast aside her mortal coil and embrace the moon and stars. Aid her in her quest and she will surely aid you with he worship once she attains that which she seeks," the High Lady Vandene implored the night sky. Touching the dagger to her lips, she reverently kissed the blade. Reaching out to take Mareith's wrist, she slashed the dark, tender flesh.
Blood welled up from the cut almost immediately, the warm wetness running down Mareith's arm and dripping to the stone floor beneath. Placing the cup beneath the bright crimson flow, the High Lady Vandene caught a small portion of the red liquid. The circle of twelve began a soft, slow chant that told of ancient longings and ancient needs. One by one, they entered the light and baring their own wrists, allowed the High Lady Vandene to cut them and collect a small sample of each one's blood. When they had finished, the High Lady Vandene slashed her own wrist and added her blood to the mixture. Mareith, lost in the sensual euphoria that filled her soul, felt nothing, her clouded eyes unseeing.
"She has passed the second test, the test of blood," the twelve said in unison. Shuffling forward to ring the altar, they looked down on Mareith with contempt. At this point in the ceremony, she was neither human nor vampyre, neither living nor dead; she, was nothing. Now came the most critical part.
Stirring the solution with the exposed blade, the High Lady Vandene dipped her finger into the blood of the Seldrain and traced a thick, wet line from Mareith's forehead to the base of her chin and down her graceful neck to encircle the swell of her breasts. "Your blood to ours, our blood to yours," she intoned as she continued from the center of Mareith's chest down to her navel," a mingling of destines joined on this sacred night under the watchful presence of those who reside above." Tracing her lithe finger down Mareith's hips, thighs, and legs, the High Lady Vandene ended at the tips of Mareith's toes, leaving only her left arm bare. "With this we consecrate you in our darkness and welcome you into our select fellowship. You are sealed to us forever, as are we, to you."
Placing the dagger in Mareith's left hand, the High Lady Vandene poured the remaining blood into Mareith's open mouth and closed her slack jaws. Pinching her pert nose together, the High Lady Vandene forced Mareith to swallow the life essence of the Seldrain. As the warm, salty liquid passed her lips, Mareith stirred slightly, the sharp metallic tang breaking her joyful reverie. A sweet warmth began to burn at the center of her being, a tingling sensation dancing unchecked across her skin. In a sudden rush, the warmth spread like wildfire to consume her entire body, the very blood in her veins boiling as her humanity was seared away. She screamed, her torso arching upward as every muscle in her body spasmed uncontrollably. If the High Lady Vandene had not been there to hold her down, the force of her convulsions would have snapped her spine like a bundle of dry, dead twigs.
As it was, she writhed in agony as her body underwent the fundamental change from life to unlife and she wanted nothing more than for the pain to end, no matter the cost. The small window in her mind that could still focus through the agonizing haze was surprised to find that she still clutched the bloody knife in her twisted hand. All she had to do was plunge it into her heart and it would be all over, the release of death ending her torment. Raising it slowly, she placed the quivering tip above her heart and started the fatal thrust.
With a snarl of rage at the last of her human weakness, Mareith knocked the dagger from her trembling hand with last ounce of strength she possessed. In a final burst of unbearable anguish, Mareith's body went limp, the torturous transformation draining all of her remaining energy. Slipping into unconsciousness, she did not see the High Lady Vandene's triumphant smile.
"She has passed the third and final test, that of pain. She is now one of us; prepare her for the customary offering to the blood gods. She is now your disciple until such time that you deem her worthy. Teach her our ways and how to use her new found powers," the twelve said as their indistinct forms coalesced into the surrounding darkness.
The High Lady Vandene nodded and waited for Mareith, the vampyre Mareith, to awaken.