The Damned

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 53 (v.1)

Submitted: December 10, 2013

Reads: 71

Comments: 1

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Submitted: December 10, 2013

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53

 

Bero Castle, Bero, Devon, 28th July 1231


 “And so we meet again.” 


The stranger’s siren call sang to Conor as he reclined in his chair. His jewelled goblet clattered on the flagstones as it slipped from his hand. Crimson liquid pooled on the floor around the feet of the golden-haired man, as though he were a butcher standing in the middle of an abattoir. 


"Forgive me," Conor murmured.


"I already have." Henry slipped into the seat beside him. He placed his gloved hands on the arms of the chair, head thrown back, and turned his face to Conor, staring at him for the longest time, before he slowly leaned towards him. His grasping fingers reached for him, taking Conor's chin, so close that he could feel the man's breath on his cheek. The mysterious merchant stared into his eyes, and Conor found that he could not look away. The man's beauty was ethereal. He looked more sinfully delicious than any creature had a right to. Was it possible that such perfection could exist in human form?


In the weeks since Conor had seen him, the man had become his obsession. His eyes searched for him constantly, his tongue inquired after him always, but no one save Eva knew who he was. Conor couldn’t explain his fixation; a strange lust drove him, a desire for comprehension. He could feel his presence everywhere he went, though he couldn’t see his face: he was omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, haunting his thoughts like an invisible spectre. Conor had half-believed that he had been a figment of his imagination, a trick of his wounded mind. But he sat before him now, as lovely as an avenging angel.


"But will you ever forgive me, I wonder?" Henry mused.


"For what wrong?"


He smiled a smile that never reached his cold, blue eyes. "The ones I will commit."


Conor frowned, confused. "I do not understand."


"You will. But for the present, it is I who is curious. Who is she?”


“Who?”


“The woman you cannot get out of your mind.”


“Lady Eva?” Conor stared at her, as beautiful and alluring as a Grecian goddess. She smiled at him, holding his gaze across the room.


“No. There is someone else. I can see the pain and the longing in your eyes.” The man was intrigued, lost in his observations. He did not seem to understand the conventions of conversation, the subtle intricacies of dialogue. His words were unchecked thoughts allowed to run amok. 


“Excuse me, please," Conor said. He stood up to leave, unable to confront the memories of Isabel, the pain he felt whenever she danced before his eyes or whispered to him in his dreams, or when her name came, uninvited, into his mind. 


The man placed a hand on his arm, forcing him back into his seat. Taken aback, Conor fought to free himself from the stranger’s iron grip. But his struggling was in vain; the other man’s strength was unnatural. 


Seeing the fear in Conor's eyes, Henry laughed, quickly removing his hand. “Please, I would like to talk further, for I suspect that there is more to you than the eye beholds. Something about you intrigues me,” he mused, resting his chin on his entwined hands. He looked at Conor as if he were an unsolved puzzle, determined to understand. He stared into his eyes, his gaze hypnotic. “Who is she?”


“You can love two people.” The denial poured forth, preceding Conor’s confession. The guilt clawed at his insides, for he knew that Eva would never be enough: she was charming, beautiful and enchanting - but she wasn’t Isabel. 


“Not equally.” Henry’s statement seemed intended to elicit a response, a gentle probe in the right direction. He was condoning what Conor was doing, making him believe that it was only natural to feel the way that he did, for he wanted to hear it all, every gory detail.


But Conor knew that it was wrong to love another more than his beloved Eva. He would not admit his weakness to this man. He would not say those words aloud, or else his pretence would crumble down around him. He could not acknowledge such a truth. “I love the duchess,” he contested. “We were young together. We understand each other as no one else can.”


A petulant scowled twisted Henry's generous lips, as though he were a spoilt child who had been denied the prize he most desired. “But you don’t love her enough," he stubbornly maintained. 


“You can’t define love. It’s not something you can compare and contrast. What Eva and I have is special.”


Henry's eyes glittered in the candlelight. “But she’ll never be Isabel," he said, with gloating satisfaction. 


The mention of her name stabbed at Conor’s core like a thousand knives. He closed his eyes. Wounded. Vulnerable. The words flowed from the tiny bleeding wounds unimpeded. The dam had burst, the walls had been torn down, and nothing would hold them back. “If I had let her love me she would have lost everything: her family; her position; her life.”


“And you didn’t think to give her a choice in the matter?”


Conor's fists clenched. "How could I? She thought that I was enough. She would never have let me go. I had to be the one to end it. It was sheer madness.”


Henry lifted a gloved hand to Conor's cheek, one long forefinger gently stroking the curve of his jaw. “Unless it’s mad, passionate, extraordinary love, it’s a waste of your time. There are too many mediocre things in life; love shouldn’t be one of them.” The golden-haired merchant looked at him musingly. “Does your heart beat for power and wealth, or does it yearn for love?”


“I care for neither wealth nor power.”


Henry smiled. “Love, then. Do you value this girl above everything material?” 


“Yes, of course.”


“You would do anything, give up everything, for her?”


“Yes.”


“And she felt the same?”


Conor shook his head. “She thought she did.”


“Then you would have been enough,” the merchant said simply. He looked at Conor pityingly, his blue eyes sympathetic. 


Conor swallowed hard, turning his face away from Henry. "No. She was a Devereux. You do not understand what that means."


"Then explain it to me," he coaxed. 


"How can I? How can I explain her to someone who has never met her? Isabel was fire and beauty and brilliance. She wanted the world to bow down before her and her family. She wanted to have everything that she desired, but her hunger for power and her hunger for me were mutually exclusive. One had to starve to fill the other; she could not sate both. I was her poison, Henry. I made a part of her wither and die. Don't you see? I would have destroyed her in the end."


The merchant sighed, pursing his red lips. The colour of them was startlingly rich and dark, as though they had been kissed until they were bruised and swollen, so overripe that they were like to split. He gently brushed Conor's hair behind his ear. "The choice should have been hers to make, should it not? Why did you choose for her?"


"Because I could never have given her all of the things she wanted. My love for her was all that I had to offer her, but her husband could give her the world. She will be brilliant, and in time he will love her. She is too wonderful for him not to."


"Would she have made the same decision, if you had let her?"


"I cannot say, but it was the right decision to make. If her marriage is to be successful, then it is better that I am away from her. Isabel grows wilder in my presence, less obedient to her family and their wishes. The longer we spent together, the less the FitzAlan-Devereux match pleased her. She would have found fault with her husband had I remained, and Tristan FitzAlan was not a man who would accept a woman's criticism. If he had harmed a hair on her beautiful head, I would have killed him, Henry, and she would have been ruined. She is safer apart from me. This way she will play the obedient wife and her husband will be well pleased. In time, they will be happy together, I know it. If I had stayed, I would have been war and woe for her. If she is to be content, then she needs me out of her bed, out of her heart and out of her."


“How crudely put." Henry looked at Conor for a long time, his chin resting in his hand as he mused. "You made the wrong decision, you know," he said softly. 


How simple the words were, but they wounded Conor as no others had the capacity to. He looked at the man angrily, fists clenched, as though he would defend himself in the only way he had ever known how to. He felt the red mist descending, erasing everything except his anger: there was no pain, now; no grief; no loss. Just rage. Glorious rage. "How can you know that?" he snarled. 


The merchant looked at him calmly, entirely unperturbed by his wrath. "Any decision made by you would have been wrong. The choice was hers. It was not yours to make. You beautiful, naïve little fool. The girl will never forgive you now," he said simply. 


His statement was a declaration of the truth. Conor knew it to be so. His shoulders slumped. His body felt at though it were collapsing in on itself. The anger seeped from his fists. His hands fell open. Useless. Harmless. The band around his chest tightened, constricted. His bleeding heart seemed to slow, still, the last drop of his life's blood draining from him. He felt cold. Terribly, terribly cold. "Why did I leave her, Henry?"


"Because we accept the love we think we deserve.” 


"And what do I do now?"


"You go back." Henry placed his fingers over Conor's. "I do so enjoy our little exchanges," he said softly. With that, the merchant stood, stretched, and silently walked away, as though he were  entirely oblivious to his pain. 


It was only as he watched him leave that Conor questioned how he had come to know Isabel's name. 


...


Conor understood what he had to do. There was nothing else to do. It was not a choice between two paths, as he had so foolishly believed. There was only one destination. All roads led to her. He had to leave the sanctuary of Bero and return to Isabel. Their lives were too tightly entwined for one thread not to loop back to the other. 


Conor had done an unforgivable thing, he understood that now. He had taken all choice from his brilliant, capable beloved, just as her family had. He had underestimated Isabel, and there were no words or acts which could remedy his folly. But he must try to make amends, for his sake and for hers. Mostly for his. Not knowing would drive him insane. What had he done? What life had he condemned Isabel to lead? If he never saw the damage he had wrought, it would destroy what little sanity remained to him.


So now he would give her the choice he had denied her before. Two outcomes lay before him. Whatever she chose, the decision would be hers and hers alone. 


Isabel might send him away, send him back, if Eva would have him back. If his love dismissed him, Conor promised himself that he would leave. If she sent him away, there would be some comfort in that. He would still have seen her again. He would have seen with his own eyes that she was content. For the sake of his selfish heart, such a dismissal would be sweet to him, for he would know that he had done what she had needed him to. That he had made the right decision.


And if not? If not, she might welcome him with open arms. Beg him to take her away, as he had always promised that he would. Would he like that? A cruel, uncharitable part of him hungered to claim her for his own. But mostly, the thought of rescue sickened him. She should not need rescuing. It hurt too much to think that his sacrifice might have been in vain. Yet if it had been, if he had chosen wrongly, he would make amends, Conor vowed. He would save Isabel. He would make things right between them. If his sweetheart was broken, he would fix her. If his darling hated him, he would take her away as an apology and protect her until she was strong enough to survive by herself. The decision would be hers. 


But Isabel would forever be Tristan's wife. That would mean something to her. Those shackles would bind her. She would never disgrace her family by leaving. Yet if his love desired her freedom, Conor would break her chains, whatever it took. However she wanted him to.... There was nothing he would not do. Widowhood would suit her, would it not? She would be as free as Eva then. Would that not please her?


What of Eva? His darling Eva. It wasn’t fair on her for him to stay. Nor to return. There could be no future for them, for Conor would never love her enough. It was an intolerable cruelty to expect her to compete with an invisible angel. She deserved to be loved again, truly and unreservedly. Maybe, if he had never met Isabel, he would have been able to devote his life to her, but he couldn’t fall in love when his heart was not his to give. Eva was his best friend, but she was not his other half. She was his passion and his sweetness, but she would never be Isabel. She would never burn more brightly than his lady of fire. 


Conor had to go back. He had to find some resolution. They all did. Isabel had to have her choice restored to her. Eva had to learn to be in love again. To be loved, too.


The great hall was dark as he slipped inside, a single flame flickering in the cavernous gloom. Eva was waiting for him, her wan face half-obscured by shadows. She still wore the evening gown she had danced in. The beautiful costume donned for another night in an endless string of nights spent at feasts and masquerades. Except this evening had been different. Conor was different. For this night had been real. He had been stripped of his mask and made to recognise his true face again.


Eva knew before the words formed on his tongue. The hall was strewn with forms, innocent in their sleep. They surrounded him, a comforting human barrier, as she confronted him. She sat half-way up the stone staircase, her face sad. She looked young and vulnerable, her position distancing her from the crowd which surrounded her. “You’re leaving me, aren’t you?” She spoke as if he had no choice in the matter, as if the conclusion were inevitable. 


Conor couldn’t lie to her - he respected her too much. He nodded, unable to meet her gaze.


“Come to bed, my love.” Her voice was resigned, her posture defeatist. 


Stepping over the sleeping forms, he followed her slight figure up the stairs, head inclined guiltily like a naughty child. Eva turned the knob and light spilled out of the arched portal, illuminating them both. They blinked at the glare, as if they had stood in the darkness for an eternity and could only now see again. 


She pushed the door closed behind them, shutting out the rest of the world, and exhaled, her shoulders slumping. Her gaze lifted to meet his, and she nodded. "Tell me," she commanded, the pearls in her ears trembling. 


Conor turned from her, tearing his cloak from his shoulders and tossing it aside. "How do I begin?"


Eva shrugged. "You just say the words, Con." She sat on the edge of the bed, hands in her lap, a picture of composure. Her face was gentle, no trace of anger reflected in her stunning eyes. “Tell me about her, beloved. Do not think to lie to me. It is beneath us, is it not?"


“Please, don’t do this. I don’t want to hurt you.”


"Lay with me, love," Eva whispered. She raised her jewelled hand in invitation, pulling him down beside her as he took her fingers. Conor rested his head on the great over-stuffed bolster, and she curled up beside him, cheek pressed to his chest. She stroked his face, her caress tender, and gently lifted his chin, forcing him to meet her gaze. “You are and always will be my beloved boy; it is forever. Nothing you do could change that.”


His hands stroked up and down the length of her back, hungry for the reassurance of her body against his. He felt safe with her, always. Just as he had the first time they had clung together. “I needed you.”


She smiled. “And I you. But I never expected you to love me. What we have is hard to define. You are my soul mate and my best friend. It is love, but not in that sense. I always knew that.”


Conor brushed back a dark curl that fell across her cheek, cupping her delicate ear in his hand. “You know me in a way that no one else ever will. You saw me at my lowest ebb and you didn’t turn away from me. I will always be indebted to you.”


His beautiful Eva placed a hand on his chest. Could she feel his heart beating beneath her palm, he wondered. Could she feel what he felt for her? “You have repaid me ten-fold, darling. You held me in the night, when I felt as if your embrace was the only thing keeping me together. But it’s time for me to move on now. I cannot ask you to stay any longer. I will always treasure the time we have spent together, but we must go our separate ways now. If there is someone you love, I will not keep you from her.”


“Eva…” She understood exactly, as only she could. Conor’s heart swelled with inexpressible gratitude. Could she feel that, too?


She raised her head, fixing him with a questioning gaze. "What's her name, Con?"


"Isabel Devereux," he murmured.


Her silver eyes - Isabel's eyes - widened. "Lady Isabel Devereux? Lady FitzAlan, Countess of Glencaer?"


He nodded.


Eva shook her head, slowly brushing the backs of her fingers across his cheekbone. "A Devereux girl. You fool, Con."


"I am not so great a fool. I know that it was wrong: wrong to love her; worse to leave her. What if she won't see me, Eva?"


“Did she love you?"


"As much as she could."


"Then she must be a brave girl - and defiant. As brave and defiant as you, perhaps. What a match. What a glorious match," she said softly. She lifted a goblet from beside the bed, rolling the wine before she sipped it. She drank lightly and then passed the cup to him. Her fingers were gentle on his neck. "If two points are destined to touch, the universe will always find a way to make the connection, even when all hope seems lost. Certain ties cannot be broken. They define who we are, and who we can become. Across space, across time, among paths we cannot predict – fate always finds a way.”


He clung to her then, his cheek against the top of her head. "What have I done to her, Eva? She said that it was better to live apart than die together, but every day I believe it less and less. I thought that I could save her, yet now I return to damn her as she has damned me. Am I really such a monster?" 


Eva kissed the skin of his chest, her lips exploring the flesh bared by his parted shirt, her touch feather-light. “You are a man in love, nothing more and nothing less," she murmured. "There is no creature more selfish, and none so selfless. I do not condemn you for that. You can’t help who you fall in love with."


Conor's hand lifted, his fingertips catching and caressing a stray curl of hair. "Is that why you still mourn your husband? Is that why you cannot bring yourself to curse his memory?"


He saw the betraying shimmer in her lovely eyes, heard the tightness of grief in her throat. "My husband was a fool, but so are all of us. He was not a cruel man, or a monster. He didn't deserve to die for what he did. We are all fallible. We are only human, after all. How can I hate him for that?" She looked down the foot of the bed, staring pensively into the fire. 


Her melancholy cut Conor. He pulled her closer, pressed his lips to hers, her skin like silk beneath his soft mouth. "The first time I saw you, I believed that I had glimpsed heaven," he breathed. "I thought that you were an angel, Eva. Now I know that you are one. You do not know what you mean to me, my love. I am blessed to have known you."


“I will always be here if you need me,” she whispered, slowly turning her head to break his kiss. She sat up, and pressed her lips to his forehead, cupping his face between her hands, motherly now, almost virginal,  as she released him from her life with a silent, tender blessing. 


Conor couldn’t describe what it was that existed between them. He loved Isabel as the woman that he wanted to build his life with, whereas Eva was sister, best friend and mother combined in a single, exquisite form. He wrapped his hand around hers, and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze, mutely thanking her. Her lips curved in a winsome smile. There was no need for goodbye. Farewells were too final.


...


The rain poured as Conor stepped across the threshold of the great stone keep and into the warm night air. The cool torrent was refreshing, its rich aroma enshrouding him. The thought of seeing Isabel again was exhilarating, charging his limbs with strength and purpose. His hands were quick and nimble as he saddled his horse, unhindered by the darkness which enveloped him in its velvet embrace. 


As Conor pushed his mount into a fast-paced gallop, he half-turned in the saddle. A small, wan face was visible through one of the narrow arrow-slits. “I love you,” he shouted into the night. His words were true, for Eva was nurse, confidante and comforter to him. How did you define love if not by those standards?


The rain lashed at Conor's back and face as he rode, drenching his thin summer clothes, but he was undeterred. He revelled in the strength and speed of the horse which powered beneath him, every stride taking him closer to Isabel. The stallion was restless, his ears swivelling back and forth, back and forth, as though he listened to the frenzied beating of his rider's heart. Conor's adrenaline seemed to charge the muscular frame beneath him, driving the great legs onwards, faster and faster. 


And then it struck. It was hope which infused Conor as the monster so cruelly snatched his life away. One might have expected fear, but there was none of that. He, the great hunter, never sensed his presence. The beast which attacked him was silent and undetectable, his stealth as awe-inspiring as his strength. 


He should have seen it in the movement of the stallion's ears. Twitch, twitch, twitch. Nervous, frightened, as they surged forwards, growing ever faster. But Conor was oblivious to the animal's discomfiture, absorbed by thoughts of her, dreams of their reunion. He would curse himself for that, later. 


The figure slammed into him from behind as he galloped into the night. His mount whinnied in fear, shying to the left as it felt the predator on its back. Unbalanced by the monster's weight and the sudden movement, Conor fell to the side, their limbs entwined as they tumbled through the air. Tangled together as though they were dancing. Or fucking. 


The force of the impact knocked the breath from Conor's body. As he watched his horse charging into the darkness, thunder rumbled overhead, a clarion cry of death. Blood trickled down his face, mingling with the rain. 


A long, elegant hand brushed his cheek. Tightened around his throat. It was clothed in the finest moleskin and sticky with Conor's blood, yet the touch was ice cold. The creature raised his other hand to his mouth, removing the glove with his teeth. He tossed the expensive material aside with a snap of his neck, letting it land in the sodden mud, as if he cared nothing for its value. He dipped a pale finger into the meandering crimson river which flowed down Conor's cheek. As he watched, abjectly horrified, the white hand was raised to the hooded face. The creature’s sable cloak fell back as he greedily licked his fingers, savouring the taste of the scarlet nectar which stained his skin. His familiar face was rapturous. Conor realised with dawning horror that he knew the monster who was about to kill him. A name formed on his lips, unbidden. The name of a golden-haired merchant. The name of an angel. “Henry!” 


The beast's scarlet lips curved. “Only when I have to be. My name is Ari.” 


The monster’s alabaster claw caressed Conor's cheek as he fought the slow slide towards unconsciousness. He knew that if he slept he would never wake up again. 


But his eyes were so very heavy. They flickered. Twitched. Closed. 


"You're a fool," Isabel would have raged. "Did I teach you nothing?" Not such a fool, my darling. I know that I'm going to die because I could not live apart from you. I know that much at least. "All men die," he could almost hear her say, "and women too. But you didn't have to die tonight. Seeing me again wasn't worth dying for. Didn't I tell you that it was better to live apart than die together?" You are the fool now, Isabel, he thought back. It's only not seeing you again that I regret, my darling liar. Don't you know that a life apart from you was not worth living?


Conor's head jerked, his eyes snapping open. So it was that he saw his death delivered unto him. He watched as the beast sank its teeth into his flesh with a terrifying, unnerving glee. There was no pain. No sensation at all. His eyelashes brushed his cheeks as his eyes fluttered shut. He felt that -  that delicate, insubstantial touch - as though all of the feeling had fled from the rest of his body to that one small part. The only part of him that remained. Where had his limbs, his back, his torso, disappeared to?


He experienced a rapturous ecstasy as his life’s blood drained away. A swooning sensation overwhelmed him. Though he was dying, he felt relaxed and mellow.  It was like floating on a gentle current, peaceful and tranquil, the monster's arms a safe raft atop the ocean of eternity. Death did not frighten him now. Dara was waiting. And his grandfather. Danior. The wolf pack. Isabel would follow soon enough. Perhaps his mother already had. He smiled at that. Found comfort in it. Happiness even. Soon, he promised himself. Soon it will all be over. No one will hurt you again. You won't have to fight anymore. Not ever again. 


Somewhere off in the woods a wolf howled. Understanding dawned on Conor; he knew. What did he know? He knew that he loved Isabel; that he wanted to be with her; that he had to see her again. That he would see her again, for not even death could tear them apart. The fog of uncertainty had lifted, revealing a golden world where everything was clear. As his heart slowed, and the last breath danced on his lips, Conor finally understood what life was all about; simply to love and be loved. 


Like the receding tide, the pull of the creature’s hunger ceased. The vampire raised his head from Conor’s neck, cradling him in his arms. “I could love you," he murmured. "You’re young and fragrant and tender and beautiful. There’s something breath-taking about you, about the way you look and talk and about the way you move through a room.” Desire burned in his electric eyes, a fierce longing. “Do you want to die, boy?” he said softly. 


Conor shook his head feebly, the movement draining what little strength he had left from his body. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to let go. To see all of those he loved again. But he couldn’t die; he had to see Isabel again. He had to tell her how sorry he was. It couldn’t be the end. It wasn’t meant to happen like this.


“Then drink.” The ethereal spectre drew his sharp teeth across his pale wrist, so that crimson beads of blood welled on his ivory skin. How could any being be formed so perfectly from head to toe? It was ironic; as Conor lay dying, he realised just how beautiful the world was. Even in horror there was loveliness, the vivid scarlet in stark contrast to the creature's flawless alabaster skin. Was it as soft as it looked? He wanted to reach out and touch it, but his hands were dead weights beside him. 


“Drink.” The demon’s voice was pleading. 


Conor tried to shake his head, but found that he didn’t have the strength for it. 


“Without her Naoise, your Deidre will wither and die.”


A sudden surge of strength infused Conor’s body. He lifted his hand to grab at the pale wrist, the action making beads of sweat break out on his forehead. But his limbs no longer moved as they should. Still, the beast saw what he wanted. Gave it to him. He placed one strong arm behind Conor's head, pushing him into a sitting position. A rush of vertigo overwhelmed him, making his vision blur and his head spin. 


The creature quickly pressed his cold wrist against Conor’s mouth. The sensation brought to mind memories of lying in the snow with her, letting the snowflakes melt on their upturned faces. But the man didn’t melt as his icy skin pressed against Conor’s warm lips, remaining strong and solid beside him.  A strange perfume clung to the beast: delicious, sweet, rotten. He whispered softly in Conor’s ear as he drank. “Tu fui, ego eris.” What you are, I was. What I am, you will be.


Conor could feel strength flooding through him as the red elixir flowed into him, renewing and reinvigorating his dying flesh. Strange images flickered before his eyes, things he had never seen before. Unfamiliar feelings welled inside of him. He saw him, the stranger; saw into his soul in a blindingly intimate flash of understanding. Everything that had happened to this creature, the experiences that had shaped and defined him, all were familiar to Conor, blood of his blood, heart of his heart. 


The demon’s heartbeat thundered in Conor’s ears, a deafening, booming roar. The warm, viscous liquid tasted divine. Surely it must be the wine of the Gods? He closed his eyes, letting the feeling of euphoria draw him into its heavenly embrace. Everything he had ever wanted paled in comparison to his lust for the creature’s blood. If the experience had gone on forever it would still have been over too quickly. In his oblivion he was impervious to everything but his desire. 


The beating tattoo slowed, its roar fading. The beast pulled his wrist away, forcing Conor backwards. 


He hungered for more. His eyes burned with longing. 


“Aah, but you are magnificent.” The pale-skinned man paced in a slow circle around Conor, studying him as one might inspect a horse. “More lovely than I could ever have imagined.” He crouched before him, turning his head back and forth to inspect him more closely. “Simply exquisite.”


The pain hit Conor suddenly, forcing him to double over. A steel fist seemed to have clenched his insides, turning and twisting them mercilessly. “What’s happening to me?” he gasped.


The golden-haired demon pulled him close, his hand cupping Conor's spine. They stood on a height with one another, their lips so close that they could have kissed. “Do not fear, my love. Death must claim us all." 


“I’m dying?” Conor’s voice was panicked. 


“Of course.” Ari laughed, as if death was an amusing concept. 


Old stories came flooding back to Conor: of evil spirits, the devil, soul-snatchers. Was he being punished for his blasphemy? What if hell was not the fantasy he had always imagined it to be? What if everything he had ever been told was true? Was he a condemned man, fated to burn in the sulphurous inferno? 


But surely the fiend who stood before him was too beautiful to have been recruited by evil? The exquisite man who had held him so tenderly must be an angel, for his beauty transcended the corporeal realm. Was it naïve that he believed that the face of sin must be bestial? How could it be, when to behold such beauty was a heavenly delight? He was not damned, he reassured himself; it was only that he must endure these tribulations before he could be accepted into heaven. Through his pain, the irony of his conversion amused him. It seemed that the concept of death converted even the most cynical among them; he should know, for he was such a man.


Conor began to pray fervently, and the demon’s laughter grew louder, till it began to sound hysterical. He placed one perfectly sculpted fist in his mouth, trying to stem his mirth. 


Conor's prayers were interjected by screams of agony as the pain grew worse. He drifted in and out of consciousness. In and out of her tender embrace. Every time he fell into the darkness, she was there to hold him. Comfort him. And each time he lost her as he awoke, the shadows swallowing her whole.


Time seemed to stand still, the pain stretching throughout eternity. Fire burned in his gut, so that it felt as his insides were being ripped apart. Finally, his suffering abated, and he lay, spent, on the damp ground, his eyes closed. 


It was like hearing everything anew. The rain beat like a crashing symphony in Conor's ears, the sound amplified. The sickly sweet aroma of the damp earth was overwhelming, mercilessly assuaging him. When he opened his eyes, the world was like nothing he had ever seen before. Though the midnight sky was dark and ominous, everything was sharp and in focus. The colours were more vivid, the lines more defined. The world was so very beautiful.


He rolled onto his back, the speed of the movement shocking him. The stars hung like a million tiny fireflies in the dark sky. He could have stared at them for an eternity and never grown bored of the sight. The wet grass beneath his palms felt soft and silken as he twined it around his fingers. The strength which infused his limbs was indescribable. He was invincible. “What’s happened to me?” he asked in wonderment.


“You have died.”


“This is heaven?” Conor looked around him, marvelling at the gentle purple hue of the night sky; it looked as if it were made of the most exquisite velvet, the soft clouds painting delicate pictures across its dark canvas. It was too big, that close sky, too beautiful, and it filled him with a strange sense of foreboding.


“Maybe,” the creature said, glancing at the silver stars which illuminated God’s finest masterpiece.


“It’s exquisite.” 


“All of this is mine. Now it shall be ours," Ari said, as if he were bestowing a great gift upon Conor. 


That was how it felt, as if he had been blessed. 


Ari placed his arm around Conor’s shoulders, leaning in confidentially. “Let us feast, brother.”


“What do angels eat?”


He smiled. “We feed on life."


"Life?" Conor murmured, gently stroking the demon's alabaster cheek. It was soft, so very soft. He wanted to kiss him. To feel the silk of Henry's skin beneath his lips. 


"Or death." The merchant frowned momentarily, transforming him into a brooding beauty. His golden curls tumbled down about his ears and shoulders. When he looked up a second later, his eyes shone wickedly, his melancholy already forgotten. “But how to distinguish one from the other? What does it matter?" He shrugged. "The end is the same. Whatever coin we use to pay our debt, our prize is to live and thrive." His saviour laughed delightedly. "Now, boy, let’s see what you can do.” 


That was it – his introduction to killing. With that, Ari disappeared, his laughter lingering behind him, as though it was all a delightful game to him. His blasé words rung out a warning of death and destruction, but Conor could not find it in him to hate his beautiful demon. 


Conor’s eagle-eyed gaze tracked the merchant's trajectory across the muddy fields and rain-drenched countryside, his speed so great that to a mortal eye it would appear as if he had vanished into thin air. He had to be beside him. Strength flooded his limbs as he ran after his murderous angel, awestruck by the speed at which he could travel.


“Faster,” the demon commanded, his great black cloak flaring behind him like something half alive. 


Conor pushed his legs, driving against the sodden ground. A feeling of exhilaration stole over him, and he found that he was laughing in delight, thrilled by the sensation of the wind in his hair and the power in his body. He felt invincible.


They made their way to a small village. Lantern light illuminated the hamlet, casting a rosy glow over the houses and the tavern. The place looked cosy and safe. But it wasn’t. 


More deadly than death itself, they took them one by one as they slept, ripping their throats out, glorying in the warm blood which flowed freely from their severed arteries. Men, women and children, none were immune to their deadly assault. With wild abandon they killed, leaving bodies strewn across the dirt floors, creating a macabre tableau at the scene of the massacre.


Every life Conor took became part of him: every feeling, memory, experience, they had ever felt or been through was revealed to him in a flash of clarity. He knew everything there was to know about them. For a brief moment, as their life ebbed and their heart slowed, their souls were connected, body of his body, blood of his blood. He knew each of his victims better than anyone else had ever known them, each intimate corner of their heart.


Life was precious – this he understood. Each victim he took meant something to someone. They were fathers, husbands, brothers, sisters, wives, and mothers. It was a terrible price to pay for immortality. Do you love her enough to kill to be with her? Ari had whispered as they stood on the hill. You must choose between death and life, but if you choose to live you will have to murder. And you will enjoy it. The revulsion will come afterwards. Had he nodded, then? He couldn't seem to remember. 


Couldn't seem to care, either. In that moment, that glorious moment, when their blood was flowing in his mouth, when Conor could see inside the very core of their being, he wanted nothing more than to crush their delicate bones, to witness their beating heart stilled in his hand. But when the bodies fell from his arms, there was a time, a mere second perhaps, when he saw clearly. He was a glorified murderer, and so was the creature. He had been charmed by him when he should have been reviled. If Isabel had only seen what he had done, the lives he had taken, he wondered, would she still love him? And then the hunger came again, and all else was forgotten.


Conor was in thrall to the beast as they killed together, silent and deadly. Towards the end, they started to fight back. Something, some primitive instinct, alerted them to their preternatural presence, and they awoke from their slumber, with fear in their hearts and adrenaline in their veins. The villagers tried to outrun them, but they caught them with ease. Some attempted to fight back, but they crushed their fragile bones. It was all a game to the devil and Conor. They let them think they could escape them, and then they were there before them, blocking their path. Men as large as him fled from him, or stood and died. Their eyes were wide, faces stricken, as they ripped out their throats. The warm flow of their blood across Conor’s tongue was the most divine nectar he had ever tasted. His arms were red to the elbow – beautifully, vividly, wonderfully red. He felt drunk.


There was nothing but the bloodlust. Time seemed to blur, to slow, to stop. The past and the future vanished, and there was nothing but the instant. Horror fled, and thought fled, and even the sense of body. He didn’t feel his wounds as knifes were plunged into his stomach, or the ache in his back as he held the bulk of a grown man in his arms, or the sting of the blood as it sprayed in his eyes. He stopped feeling, stopped thinking, stopped being Conor, stopped being a man at all. There was only the killing, the victim, the hunger for the next man and the next and the next. He knew that somewhere inside of him a man screamed at the horror of what his monstrous self was doing, that the same man cried and wept, but he felt exquisitely alive. Death was all around him – rusted swords and knives and axes – but their weapons moved so very slowly, and he danced through them, tearing and killing and laughing.


The creature was magnificent as he maimed and tore, his strong body lithe and graceful as he destroyed. With every death he came alive. In a moment of epiphany Conor realised what had terrified him about the golden-haired man. He was a dead creature: his pale skin had been drained by death; his blue lips had been kissed by the grim reaper.


The demon’s alabaster skin became rosy and flushed as he drank from the fount of life, his unnaturally smooth visage showing faint lines and creases, the scars of living. His pale lips flushed scarlet, and his dead eyes sparkled, infused by the elixir of life. And when all lay dead, he stood before Conor, beautiful and alive, as proud and strong as a young lion, his golden mane framing his chiselled face more divinely than an angel’s halo. 


“Let it be like this always,” he said, throwing his arm around Conor’s shoulders. Scarlet blood stained his lips as if he were bleeding; the blood of an angel. His face was wholesome and innocent,  no trace of malice reflected in his dancing eyes to belie the evil which lurked beneath the lovely mask. 


Conor wiped the blood away, softly caressing the beast's crimson lips, for the stain of evil marred his beauty. He noted, as his hand rested on the vampire’s cheek, that his own skin was simply a darker shade of ivory. He licked the blood from his fingers, relishing the taste, feeling the sharp prick of his teeth as they grazed his finger. 


He had never felt so alive; he had escaped the gaping maw of death! He would see her again.


The beast’s face grew sad as Conor voiced his wish. “Alas, you cannot. It is part of our curse that we are fated to love humanity from afar. We can enjoy their touching displays of affection, their urgency, their desperate zeal for life, but we will never again walk among them.”


“Curse? We are angels.”


Henry slowly shook his head. “No, my love, we are demons. Death claimed us, and heaven spat us back out.” 


“I cannot believe that.”


“Look around you, see what we have done. Is there anything divine in death? Something holy in murder? What we have done is sacrilege. What god would want us now?” 


Swollen corpses floated like huge pale water lilies. Conor stared at the prone forms which surrounded him, horrified by what he had done. There was a pain in his chest - a pain which made it hard to breathe. He slowly sank to his knees. A little girl lay beside him, her face innocent and care-free. She looked as if she were sleeping, but he knew that she would never wake again. Her father was next to her, his body shielding his daughter’s. He remembered now that the man had tried to fight back, to stop them, but all he had done was hastened his own impending death. Conor had laughed at his bravery. They were embracing, death itself unable to tear them apart. In his dying moments, he had known that she would be next. That was the cruellest thing of all. Tears flowed down Conor’s face as he looked at the carnage they had wrought, staining his pale skin. “Will it always be this way?”


The demon sank to the ground beside him. His silken lips caressed Conor's damp cheeks, kissing away the tears. When he drew back, his lips were stained red. He looked horrifying, demonic, but Conor had never seen anything more beautiful. Not even her. The monster licked his lips, enjoying the taste of the blood, a look of animal hunger in his eyes. “Always.”


Conor smelled blood and death and burnt flesh. The air was full of acrid smoke. Men were groaning and whimpering all around him, and from time to time a scream would pierce the air, thick with pain. Too weak to groan the man beside him shut his eyes, laying as if asleep in his bed of blood and flesh. Nearby someone was cursing God in a heavy, monotonous voice. He listened to the blasphemy and wondered if he had died and gone to hell. Soon there would be naught but silence. 


The smoke in the air made his eyes water. Was he crying still? "I hate that you did this to me,” he whispered.


The merchant's beautiful eyes were empty. “I’m sorry, Conor. If I were human, I would cry too.”


He found himself walking through the village where moments ago men and women and children had slept. Their dreams were only dust now. They had died, their selfish souls stealing all of the colour from the world. The moon was a hot white penny, shining down upon the grey river as it rushed around the charred bones of the fallen's homes. There were corpses strewn all over the once peaceful hamlet. Carrion crows rose from their feasts in furious clouds wherever he set his steps, rising on black wings to soar through the grey sky. Soon, white maggots would burrow through black corruptions. The wolves would be grey, and so would the rats; together they would strip the flesh from the fallen. From the pyres of the dead rose black columns of smoke and white-hot ashes. My work, thought the demon who had once been Conor. They died at my hand.


For a time, there was no sound in the world. Their lips were still, their tongues as silent as the grave. But then he began to hear the voices of the dead, soft and terrible. Or rather, he remembered them. They wept and moaned, they begged for an end to pain, they cried for help and wanted their mothers. Conor had barely known his mother. He wanted Isabel, but she was not there. He walked alone amidst grey shadows, trying to remember who he had been before. 


The beautiful monster began to strip the dead of their jewellery. He slipped cuffs and bangles from their arms, rings from their fingers, chains from around their necks. The metal was decorated with pale silver hearts, golden lions, jet flowers, bronze stags. Had those symbols meant something to them? Or had they simply liked the way they looked? Their treasures made a meagre pile. They had been a simple folk, garbed in shades of brown and grey. Their clothes were painted scarlet now, the bright dye already turning hard and flaky. Ari removed those, too. Conor watched their naked bodies lifted by arm and leg, to be carried swinging to the pyre to join their fellows. The glittering metal was tossed into a burlap sack, the rags into a second, and both were thrown over the back of a tall black horse. 


So many dead. So very many. Their corpses hung limply, their faces slack or stiff or swollen with gas, unrecognisable, hardly human. Their bodies were all dented and gashed, their skin riven, broken, slashed. Why had he killed them all? He had known once, but somehow he had forgotten.


Conor began to run. Bero was not far. He would be safe inside the castle, away from all these dead. He did not belong with the dead. He had had the blood drained from his body, but he was still a living man.


The creature caught him easily. He stood in the silence of the great, dark night, his cloak billowing behind him as the wind roared its outrage, outlined nobly against the stars for all to see. As though none would care. As if what they had done was not so very terrible. As though there would be no retribution for their sins. He took Conor's face in his strong hands, and covered his mouth with his, as if he could pull the secrets of his heart from his still lips. "You're safe now, love," he murmured. "I'm here. We're together. Everything will be alright."


Conor clutched the man's forearms with both hands, his body trembling. "What have I done?"


Ari pulled him closer. Held him tightly, his hand cupping the back of Conor's head. "You've adapted. Survival is a matter of successful adaptation. Some of us are better at it than others."


"Adapted to what?"


"To a life of unquenchable thirst. To an existence devoid of morality. To your eternity. You will live forever, child, for what is dead may never die. There will be no Judgement Day for you and I. This is the end. Welcome to The Underworld, Conor. Welcome to Hell. I am judge and jury down here. I am God."


Conor pulled back. Staggered. Stumbled. He stood in stunned silence.


"You're alive," Ari said plainly, firelight flickering on his porcelain skin, "because another man isn't. That must be a terribly familiar feeling by now, surely?"


"I'm a murderer," Conor gasped, hardly able to breathe now. 


Ari looked down at the town which death had silenced. And he laughed. "Why are you crying, still? We are both killers, you and I. It will not change how we live. Who will know it? People will never see you for what you really are. We are members of the devil's party, but we will move amidst the regular people as if we still belong. They will not look for the evil inside of you, love. They do not want to see it. Don't you understand? There will be no consequences. Who will judge you as wicked and curse your name? Who will punish you for your evil deeds? Not I. Who else is there?"


"They're dead, Ari. I killed them."


"What does it matter how and why they died? Their deaths were inevitable. All human life must end; I can hardly spare them all. They had to shuffle off the mortal coil, Conor, but you didn't. I chose to save you, knowing the price, it is true. But you see, I was presented with something of a conundrum. I thought about it carefully, reasoning back and forth with myself, until I came to this conclusion: better to save a single life today than to let you all die tomorrow. You agree, surely? Now, does that make me a monster?"


"This is not salvation; it is damnation. How could you do this to me?” Conor gestured at the scene of their bloody massacre. “How could you turn me into a beast? This isn’t me.”


His betrayer caught Conor's hand and held it over his heart. “Did you enjoy it?” 


He refused to answer, for acknowledging his pleasure would be to recognise his own moral turpitude. It was wrong, wicked, but he had never felt so alive.


The creature tilted his head to the side, his face quizzical, unable to understand the pain Conor felt. “The last vestige of my humanity died a long time ago. I feel nothing when I kill, nothing but the thrill of the hunt, of possessing the power to end it all. Death is nothing to me. I am God. I choose who shall live and who shall die." He pressed his temple to Conor's. "The same beast is inside of us all. Our curse is to release it from its confines, to break the chains which bind it. There is good and evil in everyone. But the evil does not have to define you. You still have choice. I need you to make me want to choose light over darkness, life over death.”


"Why me?"


"Because I am like everybody else. We are all searching for someone whose demons play well with our own."

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 Jordana J Sacks. All rights reserved.

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