CHAPTER 218

New York, 2012

Hephaistion fell silent. The atmosphere at his house was like the one reigning inside millenary cathedrals, a silence as disturbing as it was majestic, where you even held your breath fearing to break the ominous peace and quietly, surrounded by walls that had survived through centuries of madness and chaos– But here there are no ancient walls, here is just one man who had lived long enough to become a God –and Zophiel could do nothing more than to stare at him, words failed her in that moment.

She felt pity and sadness, something the Toreador would have never thought possible. Pity a man like Hephaistion? Fear, admiration, lust…those she could understand and still, that was what Zophiel experienced in her dead heart. She understood how he felt, she understood because she had been in his place. The day of one's death…that was the worst memory of a vampire, something that could scare even the old ones, like the Macedonian in front of her.

— You must think mine was the most stupid way to die –the Tzimisce smiled without humor. He looked so vulnerable that was heartbreaking.

— I think…no way of dying is stupid, they all find the same end –said Zophiel, twisting her hands nervously.

— Such wise words…Yes, you are right. At my time we used to think death on the battlefield, or death by sword, was a good way to die –said Hephaistion, not looking at her, his eyes on a distant place many, many years ago, on a time no one else remember— But when the reward is 3 days of nothingness it really doesn't matter how you got there –he leaned back against his sofa— 3 days of nothingness…do you remember them? –the Toreador nodded slowly.

— I would never be able to forget them –she shuddered.

— And after 3 days of absolutely nothing you wake up feeling the most terrible hunger and pain, hearing this voice inside you claiming to be feed with blood –the Tzimisce's words sent shivers down Zophiel's spine because he had described it perfectly— You already know what happened to me after that, you know how was that my Sire Bendis stole my body but…It took me years to have the whole story of what I am about to tell you, to know every single detail…

XXX

I told you about that cold morning of January when I was born, and now, I told you about the hot afternoon at Ecbatana when I died. I should end my story here after all, I have covered my entire mortal life, but I see in your eyes the desire to know what happened to my dear ones, my lover, my son, my family and my friends. Very well, but I have to warn you, this will not be a happy story. The time for great adventures, dreams of glory and nights of passion is over and now we only have left the end, full with treachery, war, tears and blood.

While I was dying in my room, alone with my fears and demons, Alexander and Achilles were enjoying the boy's athletics. I don't grudge them for this, for having a good time while life escaped from my body, on the contrary, it makes me happy to know they were fine. Kyros arrived at the stadium with the news that I was ill again. How was that Kyros knew I was ill? I have no idea, maybe he saw me fighting for my breath, I really have no idea. I wasn't conscious of my own surroundings and I can't tell if my loyal Kyros was at my side. But there he was, running to call the King while my servants tried to help me, to help a corpse…

— You should have participated –said Demetrius, sitting at Achilles' side in the royal box. Since the boys talked the relationship between them had become stronger, now that there was no secrets between them, now that the Prince was able to accept his own feelings, he felt truly comfortable with his best friend.

— I am not in the mood for this, after what happened with daddy and everything –the page gave him a fondly nudge.

— Your father will be fine, he is very strong –said Demetrius full with confidence—. My father says he watched Chiliarch Hephaistion fight against Dardanos, he said it was impressive and let me tell you, my father is not easily impressed.

— You have a good relationship with you father –Achilles observed.

— Yes, and one day he will be very proud of me, you'll see –the page assured him, when he saw Seleucus not far from them, laughing and joking with Lysimachus. Demetrius frowned— I don't know what you see in him –he said without thinking, his voice full with bitterness and Achilles didn't understand his words until he turned and saw his friend was looking directly at the archihypaspistes— He is old, old enough to be your father.

— And that's what I like the most about Seleucus –answered the Prince confusing him— I like the fact he is older than me because he knows many things and, I think he is good looking.

— With those eyes? Everybody agrees he has disturbing eyes –said Demetrius, even for a retarded it was clear he hated the archihypaspistes. Achilles shrugged.

— Then I suppose I am weird because I like him, even with those eyes –he smiled and pinched the page playfully, successfully making him smile.

Alexander, not far from them, was drinking and talking to Perdikkas about the competition, making bets with Leonnatos and mocking Ptolemy, who had just lost a fortune against Eumenes. His mood had improved tremendously and all were happy for him. A worried, sick or angry Alexander was something truly preoccupying.

— It's an exaggeration –muttered Eumenes to Ptolemy—. Hephaistion wasn't really that sick and the King was acting as if it were the end of the world.

— You didn't see Hephaistion –answered Ptolemy, he wasn't a friend of the Chiliarch but he liked him and, more importantly, he had been there to witness with his own eyes how bad had been Hephaistion— He was very sick, I too thought he was dying.

— An act! –exclaimed Eumenes— We all know how melodramatic he is, besides...

But Eumenes couldn't continue, he was interrupted when Kyros arrived, terrible pale and without breath, shaking uncontrollably and stopping at the King's side. Alexander scared the living hell out of him but this was a serious situation, so serious that he gathered all his courage, swallowed his fears and took a deep breath. Hephaistion needed him.

— Sire, is Chiliarch Hephaistion…he is really bad… he can't breath –the King didn't lose time asking more, he stood up and ran to the exit, followed by his friends and a very scared Achilles who had heard everything.

Phai please, don't do this to me –thought Alexander, hurrying back to the palace. The celebrations, the competition, everything was forgotten as he stormed out as if they were under attack. But, in those moments, nothing was more important than his beloved.

XXX

Screams welcomed the King when he reached the corridor leading to his beloved's chambers, terrible screams that chilled their blood and echoed against the walls. They had entered in Hades' domains and these were tormented souls, crying their own suffering and sending shivers down their spines. A woman was crying with an anguish coming directly from the bottom of her soul, with unbearable sadness and breathtaking pain.

— What the hell…? –asked Ptolemy stunned but, when he turned, he saw Leonnatos extremely pale, as if the ghost of his dead grandfather had appeared in front of him. It was Berenike.

— MY BROTHER IS NOT DEAD! –screamed and cried Berenike, falling on her knees in the middle of the corridor, wailing and pulling her hair while Sophia embraced her, trying to comfort her mother— HE IS NOT! Why do you lie to me?…Why?… PHAI IS NOT DEAD!…

— Mommy, please, mommy –the 13 years old girl wanted to help her, to say something, anything! But she was lost, feeling a knot in her throat and tears trapped in the corner of her eyelashes.

Her screams chilled Alexander's blood. A feeling difficult to explain gripped his heart; he felt dizzy and stunned, lost and confounded and he couldn't make sense of those words. How could he when they announced such dreadful news…?

— My Lady, I'm no doctor, but he has no pulse –said a very dismay servant, kneeling in front of her, his hands trembling while trying to calm down such an important woman.

— YOU ARE A LIAR!…you don't know what…you are…saying –she shouted and sobbed, and Leonnatos ran to hold his wife: it broke his heart to see her like this.

— What is this nonsense? –the powerful voice of the King resounded against the walls—. Where is the Chiliarch? –the servant fell on his knees in front of his King, trembling from head to toe. Everybody knew all too well the fate awaiting for those who gave bad news to powerful Kings, and Alexander was famous for his bad temper.

— Your Magnificence, as I-I said to Lady Berenike, I am no doctor, b-but the Chiliarch has no pulse and…

— Where is Glaucias? –the King barked, suppressing that feeling of doom that threaten to consume him and devour his heart. This was a confusion, it had to be! Nothing more that the mad rambling of a servant who had no idea of what he was talking about. He would have the man whipped for scaring Berenike like this.

— I-I have no idea, your majesty…

Alexander left the man, Berenike, Achilles, his friends, everyone!, and rushed inside his beloved's room, slamming the doors against the walls and leaving them opened behind him. He found Hephaistion on his bed, where he had left him that morning, covered with his blankets, the soft breeze carrying the sweet perfume of flowers making the silky locks of his hair dance in front of his closed eyes. Relief washed over the King, his beloved was sleeping and the servant was an utter fool— I should have his head for this –. He walked slowly, not wanting to wake Hephaistion up, and bent over to kiss his forehead.

His beloved was cold.

He heard Berenike's screams coming from the corridor, echoing his own suffering; her wails and sobs matching the terrible feeling in his heart, the terrible truth he needed to understand but was unable to do it. Alexander looked for his pulse, denying the evident, defying reality. He knew death, had seen it innumerable times in the past, knew its smell, its touch, the misery it left behind and still, like a fool, he looked for the impossible, hoping for a miracle that was not going to happen.

Hephaistion, his Hephaistion, was dead.

Berenike's screams were nothing compared to the terrible sound leaving the room, a wail of pure pain, sorrow and misery, a sound of doom and devastation, the sound of a soul dying in agonizing torment. Achilles was the first one to run inside the room, his heart beating faster, the boom, boom that appeared to whisper without words that the worst had happen, that cold grip holding his guts, and his hands trembling. He found the King sitting on the bed, at his father's side, his back on him, holding Hephaistion's hand with force as he had done every day for the past week.

— He is not dead –said Alexander and the Prince's heart jumped in joy, everything was a mistake, thank all the Gods! Achilles smiled but when he approached the bed and saw his father clearly, that mortal paleness, that terrible stillness, he knew otherwise, he knew his worst nightmare had become true—. He is not dead –said the King again but, this time, scaring his adopted son—. He just doesn't know how to wake up.

— Dad…—Achilles' voice trembled and fat tears slid through his cheeks—. Dad…please…—he approached the King and embraced him from behind, but Alexander didn't move, he stayed where he was, whispering over and over again, like a praying, like a mad man, like a man who had lost everything but still hold on a false hope.

— He is not dead, he is not dead…

Nikandros arrived with Perdikkas and Ptolemy behind him and his heart stopped when he saw the scene unfolding before his eyes. Achilles couldn't stop crying, embracing an Alexander who was unable of coming out from his shock, unable to accept what had happened, unable to accept the cruel reality that his beloved had been taken from him.

— Phai? –asked the lochagos without voice, hearing his sister's screams, watching Hephaistion's face, deprived of all live, and hearing the sobs and hiccups of his nephew, crying like orphan boy he was now—. Please…you can't be…—since grandfather Demetrios died, Nikandros hadn't cried like this... but this was worst, much worse than losing his father, his grandfather: he had lost a part of him.

Glaucias chose that moment to arrive; he had been enjoying the festivities and competitions at the stadium and only a few moments ago he had heard of his patience's death. He had no idea of what to do. Ptolemy was the first to react in that group reunited by tragedy and held together by tears; he approached the King and, as softly as he could, took his arm, watching how Alexander held his beloved's hand, unable to let him go.

— He is not dead…

— Alexander –said Ptolemy, his voice merely a whisper—. Alexander, listen to me. I know this is difficult but…Hephaistion is dead and…

— HE IS NOT! –he shouted, the fury and sorrow in his voice let them all speechless. Time appeared to stop for them, suspended in an infinite second that stretched to eternity—. How can he? He was fine this morning, he promised to wait for me tonight, HE PROMISED! And he always keeps his word. HOW CAN HE BE DEAD?

— Sire, the Chiliarch's sickness was…

— Where were you? –the King asked Glaucias in a voice that made the hair at the back of their necks stand—. Where were you when this happened? WHERE? –when the terrified doctor failed to answer, Alexander stood up, forcing Achilles to step aside—. You don't answer me? You left my Phai here to die, my soul mate, and YOU LET HIM DIE! Take him out of here! Crucify him!

All color abandoned Glaucias' face, looking already like a corpse.

— B-b-but sire…

— Alexander, you need to calm down…

— EXECUTE HIM! –the King interrupted Perdikkas, and Ptolemy shook his head, not having more option but to call the guards and put the poor man under arrest—. He doesn't deserve to live! How can he live when he killed my Phai? –Alexander cried in a small voice, sounding absolutly defeated for the first time in his life—. The Gods abandoned me… Raze the temple of Asclepius to the ground! Destroy all instruments, I don't want to hear music, I don't want people to laugh… nobody has the right to be happy when my Phai… —his voice died, and then raised with a tinge of madness—: Leave me alone!

— I don't think that's a good idea –said Perdikkas with caution, he knew in those moments everything he said could be used against him—. Alexander, Phai is…was my friend, but you need to…

— Don't tell me what I need to do! –growled Alexander; he was like a wild beast, he wasn't thinking, just acting, drived by the most excruciating pain a man had ever suffered—. OUT! OUT WITH ALL OF YOU!

Nikandros appeared to react them, embracing Achilles and taking him out of the room, while the rest followed, truly scared and worried. Outside Leonnatos had sent Netikerty for a tea to calm down his wife, and Berenike was sobbing against his chest, her whole body trembling uncontrollably while her daughter caressed her long hair.

Sophia lifted her head when she heard noise and then saw Achilles, looking like a rag doll, letting his uncle to guide him without knowing or caring where he was taken. His father was dead, the rest didn't matter. Sophia left his mother's side and went to the Prince, hearing Lysanias' steps, arriving at last after hearing the terrible news at the stadium.

— Aki, I-I am so sorry –she embraced him, but the Prince appeared not to hear or not to know what was she saying. For a moment, he didn't even recognize his cousin.

Who is he? –asked Achilles. Berenike took him by the hand and kneeled at his side.

He is your father, Aki.

Achilles remembered that day at Hallicarnasus, the day Hephaistion had rescued him, the day he finally met his father. He was 3 years old but remembered everything as if it had happened yesterday. His father…the father that had taken care of him, that had always protected him— And he is dead –he would never hear his voice again, he would never be able to run in the middle of the night looking for him when he was scared…

He moved away from Sophia, pushing her, and ran with all his force. He ran away as if with that feeble attempt the pain would leave him. He wanted to be alone, he wanted…—I no longer have a place to go –he cried still, as if he would never be able to stop, not caring if that was unmanly, not caring about what people would say, and his own tears didn't let him see who caught him in the middle of the corridor, embracing him with force.

— Achilles, I came as soon as I heard –it was Seleucus—. I'm so sorry.

— Daddy…is dead –he said it aloud and cried with a sadness no boy of that age should know against the archihypaspistes' chest. Seleucus reacted quickly and carried him in his arms, the Prince was very shaken and he decided to take him back at his own house to take care of him.

The archihypaspistes passed at the side of Demetrius who looked at him with open hate but didn't say a word; silently they agreed this was not the time or place: Achilles was more important, and the page left.

XXX

— Oh dear Gods! How could this happen? –said Perdikkas, shaking his head. He too was sad, Hephaistion was his friend, one of the best he ever had and this seem so… unreal, so cruel—. This was no way to die. Phai was a great warrior and this…How could he die after eating?

Between he, Ptolemy and Leonnatos had gotten the whole story from Kyros who was scared to death after hearing what had happened to the doctor. But Leonnatos assured him they wouldn't say a thing about his part in this–. This is a tragedy –thought Leonnatos. He turned and it broke his heart to see Hephaistion's siblings outside the Chiliarch's room, the tree of them in the middle of the corridor, embraced and crying.

— This shouldn't have happened –said Leonnatos.

— But it did –said Ptolemy; he was not insensible, he was just extremely worried; what he had seen in Alexander's eyes had left him truly concerned, those were the eyes of someone who had lost his reason to live, a man who had lost everything. A dead man's eyes. It sent shivers down his spine just to think about it—. And we need to think what to do with Alexander.

— He will go mad, we all have seen him every time Phai was far and now…—Perdikkas took a deep breath, he didn't want to cry in front of them—. Alexander doesn't know how to live without him.

And that was precisely what scared Ptolemy—What will happen to our King? Today it was not only Hephaistion who died…

— He ordered to raze Asclepius' temple –said Ptolemy, trying his best to keep a cold head in the middle of that chaos—. This is not like him, he is always so pious…

— Are we going to obey that order? And what about the doctor? –asked Leonnatos.

— I say we wait –Ptolemy spoke again, puffing his cheeks out—. Alexander is… beyond himself right now, maybe tomorrow he will have a cold head again and will change his mind.

Somehow, Leonnatos and Perdikkas knew this was not going to happen; they knew it deep inside that, without Hephaistion, Alexander would never have a cold head again. Ptolemy was right: that hot day of October their King had died.

XXX

It made my heart bled when I learned Alexander spent the whole night with my body. I'm sure you have heard the stories too, this is one I heard many years later from Chrysaor. I met him again when the pezhetairos was an old man of 81 years old, living in a Macedonia under the reign of Demetrius' son, Antigonus II Gonatas. It was a wonder he didn't die from a heart attack when he saw me but, Chrys was always a very simple man who accepted things without questioning much…Chrysaor told me many things I never knew, making me regret more of my past actions…

— YOU LIE TO ME! –Alexander shouted to the corpse that once had been the most precious person for him.

He had gone from shocked to enraged, feeling a fury that threatened to consume his heart, to burn him alive until only the ashes of what once were a Great King remained. He was angry at the Gods who had forsaken him, HE who was their most loyal subject. He was angry at the doctor who had left Hephaistion's side, angry at his friends who didn't seem to understand his heart had been ripped apart that day, angry at the servant who brought him the news… and angry at Hephaistion, furious at his beloved who had abandoned him.

— You said you would always be at my side! YOU PROMISED ME! –he cried, shouting at the top of his voice, pacing around, kicking and throwing the furniture around him, unleashing his anger against everything that dared to stand in his way—. I told you I would never forgive you if you die before me. Do you hear me? I WON'T FORGIVE YOU!… I can't… I won't forgive you –he cried and sobbed, finally falling exhausted on his knees at the side of the bed—. You said… you… are mine now and… forever… you said… you promised me…

He held the blankets with one hand, his head bent to the front, trembling. All his forces appeared to have abandoned him, his soul sucked from his body...

— Why did you… abandon me…? –cried Alexander, helpless like a little boy, shedding in each tear a piece of his heart. It was so hard, he could not accept this to be true and it was tearing him apart, it seemed pointless to live in a world without his beloved… A world in which he would never hear Hephaistion's voice again…

– Are you freaking mad? You almost killed me! –exclaimed Hephaistion with all the indignation a 13 year old could summon –. What were you thinking going that fast in a place so crowded? Irresponsible! I almost died because of you and your horse. Did you think of your surroundings for a second or were you too busy showing around?

The very first words he heard from that mouth created to be kissed. Alexander felt like drowning, air was not reaching his lungs and a terrible pain made his chest hurt. He would never see Hephaistion's dark gray eyes, the smell of chamomile in his hair would never again fill his nostrils, never would he enjoy his caresses, feel his creamy skin under his fingers…

— You can't… be… dead…—he stood up and sat his beloved's side—. I should have been here, I should have been at your side… if… if I hadn't listened to you… if I had forced to go to the doctor before… if I had taken better care of you…

Alexander embraced the body as he had done so many times before in 19 years. 19 years! He had shared more than half of his life with Hephaistion, how was he supposed to learn to live without him? He buried his face in the angle of his neck—. My Patroclus… why do you have to be like him in this?—instead of the delicious aroma of his skin he was welcomed by the smell of death, strong now thanks to the heat, but it didn't mattered to the King… nothing mattered anymore… and he cried and cried holding him.

—I told you… I wouldn't… risk your life… for the whole… world… and now… I…—he cried, unable to stop. He would never see his own reflection in his beloved's eyes. Never. The future presented tiself to him like a terrifying monster, implacable, merciless—. You made me a better man, how…what am I…going to do…now?

— Sing for me, you know how much I like your voice…

He heard Hephaistion's voice, soft and sweet, carried in the wind, a whisper in his ear and, for a moment he was able to see his smile again. And Alexander sang…his beloved liked when he sang for him, he had always said so, he always asked him to…

Sing me to sleep

And then leave me alone

Don't try to wake me in the morning

'Cause I will be gone

Don't feel bad for me

I want you to know

Deep in the cell of my heart

I will feel so glad to go

There is a better world

Well, there must be

Bye bye

(Emily Browning, Asleep)

XXX

It was a terrible night for them all. A night with no moon, dark and clouded, a night for ghosts, tears and broken hearts, a night to sing about what once was and would never be. It was as good a night as any. The King in his beloved's room; his friends in their houses, and Nikandros, Berenike and Lysanias together at Leonnatos' place, mourning, unable to sleep, to eat or to think… numb and lost, with a hollow in their hearts that only the death of a love one could cause.

— This is not happening –sobbed Lysanias, playing with his cup of tea; his elbow on the table and his head cocked against his hand—. How can Phai be dead?

They all were sitting around the table, a single lonely lamp burning at the center. Everything was so quiet that even the cracking of the chairs every time someone moved sounded unnatural.

— It's my fault –said an extremely depressed Kyros who had done nothing more than blame himself since Hephaistion died— He…he asked me for food…I should have refused…

The Theban looked so miserable that Berenike, sitting at his side, embraced him.

— You had no way of knowing –she sobbed, her eyes so red and puffy—. Phai is…was –she cried—. Your master and you couldn't have possibly…—she started crying again, making Lysanias cry.

— Phai didn't deserve to die alone –said Nikandros, who looked so sad and devastated that appeared to have grew 10 years older—. Nobody was with him when…—tears drowned his voice and he was unable to continue, but they all understood, they all though the same.

— Where is Aki? –asked Lysanias, clearing his throat in an effort to talk.

— Oh, dear…I-I haven't seen him since…—Berenike sobbed, cleaning her tears with both hands—. Dear Hera! I forgot about him, how could I?

— I will look for him –said Nikandros, standing up, being there doing nothing was killing him—. It's the least I can do –he cleaned his tears with the back of his hand, took his cloak and left.

XXX

Nikandros wanted to be alone but he wanted to be with his family, he missed his wife and, at the same time, he was grateful of not having her there. He was going crazy, not knowing anymore what he wanted. Hephaistion was dead…his brother, his friend, his lover…He never thought this would happen— I am the older one, I should have die before…this is so unjust –Hephaistion was always the smart one, the beautiful one, he deserved better, he deserved to live many years, to enjoy the riches that years of hard campaign had brought him, not this.

At the end, I couldn't protect him. I am his big brother and I couldn't… –but he was not going to make the same mistake with Achilles—. I will protect your son, Phai. I promise.

It took him a while to find Achilles, the Prince was at Seleucus' place but, since everybody knew by now the archihypaspistes was his lover, Nikandros decided to leave him there—. At least he is not alone.

He didn't want to go back to Leonnatos' house and didn't want to be alone so he decided to stop at a tavern hoping, maybe in vain to drink himself to oblivion, looking to ease the pain killing him. And there he found the last person he would have expected. Chrysaor had had the same idea and was drinking without restriction, crying and looking as if his mother had died.

XXX

Ptolemy, Perdikkas and Leonnatos hoped in vain that the new day would find Alexander feeling better…but it didn't happen. The King was immersed in a spiral of grief and seemed unable to get out; he was the living image of misery, his eyes so full of live and fire were now hollow and empty. Dead in life.

— Are you telling me the King spent all night inside that room with the corpse? –asked Eumenes, unable to believe what he had just heard. Contrary to what someone would have thought, the royal secretary was not glad with the news of the Chiliarch's demise; he was worried and, the same as everyone else, truly feared for the King's mental state—. Someone has to take him out.

— Someone, who? –asked Perdikkas, scratching his head. He too had spent a terrible night with no sleep and unable to think. The mourning of a King was not the same of the one of a common man; when a King mourned all his kingdom should mourn with him.

And if he can't get out of this misery, he will drag us all –thought the hipparch.

— You are saying we should use force to take Alexander out –said Ptolemy, feeling as bad as he looked—. The King.

— I know perfectly well what I am saying –replied Eumenes in a terrible mood—. But this –he pointed at the Chiliarch's door—. Is not healthy.

— Lets do this –Leonnatos proposed—. Lets wait a little: if by noon he is still there…we'll consider using force to take him out.

They all nodded their agreement.