Chapter 31: The End
Author's Note: It's been such a fun ride. Thank you all so much for your support. I'm always trying to improve my writing and storytelling. Please leave me your feedback…I like Nosgoth too much to leave it! :-)
Zephon cursed as he walked the blown gelding, the horse trembling between his legs. Decades of riding Gevurah made him thoughtless of common mounts. At this rate he would reach the Silenced Cathedral in time for the next human revolt. Hindsight-wizened advice chided him that he should have brought a second mount, but that would have required finding a lead rope of some kind, and that would give him more time to reconsider his course.
He also scanned the horizon for a fleeting white wolf. Languishing in exile had given Zephon time to think. "Where is Kain?" Castiel asked after they'd routed the human army, as if Kain would appear and present him with flowers and cake. "What is Kain?" might be the better question. Does he feel like two feet or four today? But if Zephon were to guess, the Emperor had been near Turel and Raziel's causeway. The few Razielim building the structure swore a contingent of pikemen and heavy infantry were a quarter league away, until suddenly they were not.
Something else was near. Halting the weary horse, he reached with his ears and eyes. The dark weaved with chitters and scurrying, a fervor that drove some fledglings to agony. One learned to sift through it. It sounded like hoofbeats. The gelding made a panicked snort and shifted beneath him, too tired to bolt quite yet.
Zephon finally saw the red-tinted eyes and his heart leapt. The stallion's mane was a mess of snarls, his legs covered in grime. But he would always know that walking nightmare. Gevurah stopped, ears flicking. He licked his lips, a sign of listening for a normal horse, but also one of hunger for the vampiric stallion. Zephon dismounted the sweat-slick courser and gestured his assent.
Soundless, the stallion attacked before the gelding could scramble away, his fanged muzzle tearing at its neck and his forelegs battering it to its knees. The Lieutenants trained their destriers not to attack their clans' own mounts, but only without permission.
Zephon watched with heartsick happiness. He feared the stallion dead.
Blood splattered Gevurah's nose as the stallion noisily finished. He turned his large head, one eye glittering with annoyance. Ears pinned, he lunged.
"Stop that!" Zephon snapped, swatting it across the muzzle.
They were stallions, even now, and required a firm hand. Even when they ceased testing their riders, Zephon always felt he was bargaining for the stallion's cooperation.
He reached and ran a knuckle down the small groove between the horse's eyes. Friends again? Gevurah's jaw worked, dripping shreds of horseflesh but showing his better temper. There was no time for further niceties. Zephon vaulted onto the stallion's back and urged him on with his calves.
They made good time.
The wards reeked of magic. Not particularly strong. Rahab could have disabled them. But then, Zephon was trying actively not to stay sour.
He trotted Gevurah up to the sewer entrance, a fair distance from the structure itself. As he thought, it was unwarded. Wrenching the grate aside, he stepped into the darker hole. It seemed quite disused. At least he would not have to wade through filth.
Laying out his thoughts, Zephon pondered how best to avoid his suicide. Fight the weapons you can, take away those you cannot. His sire's advice, from so many decades ago.
The creature could tear people apart with its mind and summon demons when its own abilities were strained. Likely it could fight on its own merits. Calculating those factors, stealth seemed the only real option to injure it. Disable, not dismember, he reminded himself. It had possessed Trennen sometime after Selik died. Likely it possessed Isana the same way.
Perhaps it was locked in a body until the physical form died. His mind toyed with the idea. A dangerous path, to make assumptions. What if it can just float away, like a demon from the Tales of Kripke? Soon he emerged in the undercroft, his churning thoughts not impeding his stride. The stone was cool and silent. He had been here only once. To—
The faint scent caught in his nose. Stronger was the reek of blood. Human and vampire. Vermin and rotting flesh. But just below that he smelled something else. Kin.
Several sarcophagi sat in the undercroft's center while more were embedded in the walls. He looked for just one. The unadorned stone slab moved with effort and screeched like the dead. Zephon cursed, but peered inside.
Frejke's battered form lied within, just where Zephon had left him. The scout was old enough to survive a dire amount of injury, such as falling from the Cathedral as a living fireball. But some injuries healed better in the dark. Lishta had advised feeding him just enough to slowly heal. Too much blood too soon and the vampire would waken. Zephon had known vampires to go half-mad when they awoke to a body that was little more than a prison.
Recalling Ryszard's mention of a blood shortage, Zephon knew Frejke had barely begun to mend.
A crippled outrider, a bastard fledgling, and a ruined saboteur. His family grew by the day, with his horse the strongest of the lot.
He crept up the stairs to main floor of the Cathedral. The stairs opened to a pantry and kitchen. Wrinkling his nose, he grimaced at the skeletons that hung and sprawled in their chains, and the colony of rats that paid court. They screeched when he appeared, all yellow teeth and writhing fur. Starvation or eaten alive by rats—had Zephon not been wrung dry of any pity but his own, he might have cringed.
Continuing to the door that led to the Cathedral's main hall, Zephon nudged it a crack and peered through.
Zephon fought back a howl.
The hall was strewn with bones and limbs, heads and torsos. Scattered remnants of cups and candlesticks covered a massive table that had cracked in the middle, forming two halves, while most of the silver was strewn across the stone floor.
A flicker of hope had made him wonder if the creature kept some of his clan as prisoners. The flicker died. He could make out few individual faces; death made brothers of everyone. Contrary to myth, vampires did not turn to dust. They decayed like any good corpse, albeit slowly. The rats had not come this far.
Morning light pooled in from the broken window, though Zephon knew the jagged frame was warded. His fangs extended in fury when he saw the altar and organ. The altar was gone. Or rather, transformed. The creature had erected a throne, crude and lopsided. A throne made of bones, where the First One held its court of necrolatry.
"My lord Zephon has returned?" Isana's voice fractured the silence. "I would fain see my sire. Do come out."
Her voice, nothing more, Zephon snarled to himself. And there dies my attempt at stealth, and myself like to follow. She lounged on the throne, dressed in rags of black and red. Her delicate face twisted in a smile, exposing teeth and fangs. Though the resemblance was good, her eyes were wrong—instead of dark and ringed, they were bright and gold, reflecting the morning light. The flaw stilled his mind.
Pushing open the thick wooden door, he stepped into the hall and made a short bow. "Hello, fair Isana. But I wanted to talk to Wretch." He forced an embarrassed chuckle. "Ah, my pardon. Rathar."
It was a guess, but his mark struck true. The creature cocked a brow, smile growing crooked. It hurt, somewhere deep inside. He knew that smile, though its rightful owner was two months dead.
"You haven't heard it since you were tupping that historian." He dredged up a wider smile. "Sorry to swallow your sunshine, Rathar, but you really cocked up your plan to stay here."
From the green orb on the island, Zephon remembered the First One's hate and its bitter oath to remain. The Seer said others failed, wedging themselves between worlds. Likely Rathar choked down a cup of vampire blood and expected to walk out of the cave unbanished. Remembering the cave's murals of the ancient vampires, Zephon supposed it was a good place to find an unwilling blood donor.
A bone-cracking sound came from the First One. Laughter or growls of rage, it was hard to tell. Until Zephon saw Isana's hand reaching up and twisting—he dived away, rolling behind the ruined table. The force still hit. Like a watery breath it passed over his back. Nothing more.
Rathar looked surprised. Zephon felt likewise. His blood seemed to hum, and the realization made him stifle a laugh. The Seer said he lacked the aptitude of his sire; sadly Zephon would not be hurling vampires into walls. But it seemed to blunt the wretch's power. Zephon jumped onto the table, ready to hurl himself at the First One.
She slid to her bare feet. Her fingers flicked. Just as the table reared beneath him, struck by a power not restricted to the living. At least Rathar's telekinesis was blunted, one weapon slapped away. That left—
Zephon pitched himself forward, snatching a heavy goblet that rolled by his feet. Racing up the slanting—still rising—length of the table, he heard the expected retort.
"Ich fordere Sie—"
With a leap he cleared the table's edge, hurling the goblet, landing in a crouch at the same time he heard the wet crunch of metal on tissue.
A pained wheeze. Isana's form stumbled, a hand clawing at her windpipe.
"Something in your throat, Rathar? Perhaps it is your throat."
"Why in such a hurry? You know how this ends. Your whore did not, though it was merry to see her try so hard. She tried to stab her own heart when she realized." The voice ricocheted in his mind. It was raw, mad, and just slightly sibilant. An eon removed from the warrior in the green orb, but the same nonetheless. Hate aged well, at least.
Her figure wavered. Zephon stood, only for her face to reappear a pace from his. Lashing out, her claws raked across his cheek, and a backhand cracked his jaw and sent him reeling. He heard several pops. One for his jaw, two for a finger. The creature flexed a hand, heedless of the damage.
Even vampires had a barrier to their strength. It saved their tendons from ripping off bone, even if such barriers could crumble in certain moments. As a parasitic puppeteer, Rathar had none. Isana had never struck that hard, even when Ruthven called her a dockside tart.
Zephon's dirk and sword were out, the former stabbing and the latter smashing at her with the pommel. The blade bit into a forearm, slicing down to the bone. Catching on bone. Her uninjured hand grabbed his, yanked at the dirk, and wrenched it around.
White-hot pain tore through his side as it slide between his ribs, faster than he could bring his elbow down. Faster than he could think. But if Rathar wanted the blade back, he would have to pull it out. Zephon hooked an arm around Isana's neck, dragging her into an embrace.
His eyes fixed behind the creature, past the throne, and on the looming pipe organ. Zephon dragged, shoved, staggered. Anything to haul himself to those dull-gleaming pipes. Rathar replied with strangled shrieks, with sawing the blade down the gap in his ribs and shredding anything beyond. Fangs bit into the meat of his neck, chewing, ripping. Zephon could hardly retaliate. His claws found her face, scrabbled at her eyes, but his own never left the organ. When Rathar dug his heels in, Zephon kicked at a kneecap, shattering the bone, and continued to drag the unbalanced creature.
"So quick to destroy me?" it snarled in his mind. "Any wounds you take will not stop me. I'll take you, have you—"
A final heave and he smashed her into the pipes. Zephon was prepared for the agony. He kept his jaw loose, let everything go slack. The First One was too busy tearing a chunk out of his neck.
The explosion of sound felled them both. He saw white, felt the crack in his jaw widen, and wondered if he would ever hear again over the incessant bells. At least the creature was unprepared—Isana had collapsed in a ragged heap, twitching and shaking. Zephon was on his knees, one hand still on his sword, the other on the dirk buried in his side. Blood pooled in his mouth faster than he could spit. Somewhere far away he thought he heard a horse shrieking.
With a shivering groan he pulled out the blade. Perhaps unwise, but he could not imagine rising to his feet otherwise. So weak. Two months of softening on a placid island followed by three days of hard fighting and riding with a single feed and he was expecting not to die? Where the lie even began he had no idea.
Vaguely, he felt the magic of the wards receding. Battered away by cacophony. As if he could make it through the door. Using the sword as a cane, he pushed himself up onto two feet, the world unsteady and still far too loud.
"And then…I will find your bastard brothers. Embrace them as they were loath to ever touch you."
The sound cut through the bells. Isana's form was unwinding like an automaton, arms juddering for balance as Rathar jerked her body to a stand. At least one eye was damaged. His claws had torn through her brow above her other eye, streaking half her face in red. As if he needs eyes. Zephon knew a vampire who was blinded as a fledgling, who hardly suffered. Rathar was older than Kain, even if most of his time was in stasis. Isana's damaged eyes were still focused on him, heedless of blood or pain.
And you thought you could win? His own voice, high and mocking. Had he waved away Rahab out of arrogance, or out of suspicion they might both die? It was hard to remember over the ringing in his ears.
"And kill them like dogs."
Zephon stumbled toward the door he had entered. His thoughts were mud-logged and brackish, his only clear picture the sarcophagus below.
He felt rather than heard the footfalls. Rathar bolted after him, slowed by the broken kneecap. The slamming door caught him for but a moment. The moment allowed Zephon to reach the stairs to the undercroft. For Isana's claws to tear apart his chest, and Zephon to drag them both down. He made sure to land on top, feeling her shoulder blades crack between him and the stone stairs.
The room was colder. His blood was leaving him, just when he needed it most.
"I'll take your eldest brother, and kill your cursed sire where the General failed. Rip open the skein and usher back my kind…"
The First One remained in a broken pile. Zephon's knees buckled when he reached the sarcophagus. He heaved himself onto it, thanking anyone who would listen that he did not close it.
Frejke's razed form stared up at him, eyes like burst sores. Too much blood too soon and the vampire wakens…
He clawed open his wrist and held it to the vampire's mouth. The blood dripped. Slow and sluggish.
Rathar was half-blind. Wounded, heedless of his current body. Zephon heard the snaps and cracks as Isana's battered form stood once more, slithering along the stone wall.
Zephon tore the cut wider, shredding the flesh, cupping the wound at his side adding the blood to the flow. More pops and hisses. This time from below him. Jaw muscles rebuilding, fighting to clamp around his wrist. Steadying his free hand, he reached down and gently plucked out the saboteur's ruined eyes. This far-gone, they would not even register as an injury.
Sometimes one had to bleed for his clan. To sit there and bear it as another took away life. Blood was life to his kind. And now it was leaving him.
The tomb was hell frozen over. Rats squirmed on the level above, their claws causing clicks and clacks through the stone. And Rathar was close. Isana's breath rattled through a crushed windpipe. Her uneven steps scraped over the stone and dust.
He barely felt the sting when the fangs slid into his wrist. Pulling, restoring. Taking everything he had left. He gave it willingly, dreading all the same. Zephon sprawled across the rim of the sarcophagus, summoning every last scrap of strength. If all else failed, he would be too ruined to walk, let alone leave this place.
"And I will finally be free of you disgusting wretches!"
Zephon willed himself to his feet, tearing his wrist free. A groan sounded from the coffin. Frejke had more life now than he did, forced down his throat. Forcing him to awaken.
Isana loomed, all bloodstained face, dripping teeth, and a mind gone to smoldering ash. As the world swayed around him, he plunged the blade into her heart. This far-gone, it was fatal.
The howl in his head was triumphant. Of course he had played into the First One's hands. Then the chill passed him. Isana's form collapsed, dragging him to his knees. A hiss and a cry came from the sarcophagus while a gnarled hand spasmed blindly.
Zephon dragged the blade from her chest. Isana eyes were open, black and gold-ringed, and glazed with death. He barely saw what he was stabbing when he slashed down into the sarcophagus. Just enough to ebb some of the life it had taken. He let the knife clatter by his knees. One last push and he could grab the stone slab. It was thrice as heavy as before. One more pull and he dragged it screeching into place.
Perhaps the First One was shrieking at him. His senses were dulling by the moment.
Too much blood. Too much not inside him. His feet were numb as he stumbled into the main hall. Only corpses would applaud. If this was the end of him, it damned well would not be below a sea of rats.
Like as not his spark for the theatric was the only thing that got him to the throne. Zephon collapsed into its grisly seat. His wounds hardly bled anymore. Looking at a hand brindled with dead black veins, he knew there was little left to bleed. To die, to sleep—he could not remember the rest, though it was almost vampiric. The line between death and sleep was broken and blurred for his kind. On which side he would wake…he was much too tired to care.
The sting jarred him from his stolen serenity. Dragging open an annoyed eyelid, he could hardly find it in him to wonder. A hollow-cheeked man stood in front of him, armed with a crossbow. Its bolt dug into his cheek. The human's blue eyes and stubbled jaw were younger, but not unfamiliar. He had gotten a rather good look at Lord Sandulf after all.
Zephon could hardly find it in him to laugh.