Imagine a place, a stark, barren, lifeless place, cold and airless, inhospitable and uncaring. Such a place does not sound appealing to any living, breathing being. And yet, when the alternative is Hell, maybe it does. We who face the end of days have few choices available to us. At least with the Shadow Roads, I have prior experience; I cannot say the same of Hell. But, as I said, we who face the end of days have few choices available. At least, as of tonight, we at least have a choice.
I had been hoping that I might find out more the troubles that we face, and in particular, the Sisterhood of the Void. The main library in the castle did not lack books on demons, but some of them were of little use, such as the one I was reading; a rather histrionic treatise “on thee discouverie ov daemons”, which, I suspected after reading a few chapters, was more about the author’s wrestling with his repressed sexual propinquities than any real attempt to understand demonology. It was a relief to be interrupted by the arrival of Maric taking a seat in the other chair. I wondered, aloud, if this sort of thing would be easier with one of these internets that Gwyn and Wren have spoken of, which they told me was like having all the libraries of the world at your fingertips. I told him that I doubted that that world would know much of ours, much less things like mysterious sisterhoods. I wondered if there was more information in the other libraries.
He rose with a smile, looking almost fondly upon me. There is an easy familiarity and informality between us now. Perhaps, with the blood bond, there is no need for formality now. There were other libraries, he told me, pulling out one particular book and revealing another secret chamber behind the book case. A place to relax, judging from the blankets and wine glasses, but also to lie and read. I was somewhat childishly delighted with this revelation and said so. He smiled and then led me downstairs, into the cellar, and beyond, to the vaults. I have been down there only a few times, and it is still somewhat of a maze to me. He knew his way around though and brought us to another door. This, like the one to the vaults, he told me, would only open to his blood, and now, to mine. Beyond, there was a large chamber, sparsely, but luxuriously appointed, his private chambers.
He went off to one corner and came back with two small and old-looking volumes. One was titled in Greek – θεούς και δαίμονες – with a note to the effect that it was a copy of a book from the library at Alexandria. Something to do with Gods and Demons, so far as I could remember from Mr Matterson’s Greek lessons at school. The other appeared to be in Old English, on which language, I was even rustier, having only in the last few years started to read that and Middle English for the poetry. So far as I could judge, it was something about a journey and a demon’s pit – Ondlang þaes sices innon þone þyrs pytt. I started to flick through them, but then I realised that I could see Valene lurking in the shadows in the corner. Foolishly, I mouthed ‘how did you get here’ to her, even as I realised that she could track me through our bond, and that the roads did leave everywhere.
Maric was not fooled by her hiding in the shadows. Given how aware he is of what goes on in the castle, a sense I am begging to gain myself, it was hardly surprising that he noticed her straight away. I could tell that he was annoyed, but he kept it from his face and he greeted her graciously enough. I did pick up something I had noticed before, when he was around Isabella, but now, through our bond, I could sense his hunger for fae blood. A tightly controlled hunger, but it was there.
I greeted her with a hug and kiss, but mock-sternly chastised her for not giving me warning that she was coming. She accepted my hugs, but was intent on Maric. She apologised for disturbing his inner sanctum, telling him that she needed to speak with her Sigil concerning the matter Royce had brought before her. However, since she had us both here, then she could kill two birds with one stone. I described our situation in more detail, telling her of Vedis’ offer and our reluctance about getting sent to Hell, which was why we were seeking alternatives, one of which was enquiring if it was possible to hide the village in the Shadow Roads until the crisis was over.
She got up, clearly agitated by the question, pacing around and exclaiming what a huge thing we were asking of her. She could not do it alone, we would have to negotiate with Nemaine, for only she had the power to do such a thing, and for that, there would be a price, a great price. She told Maric that she did not know him well, but she knew me, and strongly suggested, given my previous experience with Nemaine, that I be the mouthpiece. I got up and hugged her from behind, trying to calm her fears, explaining that I would not have asked except that the situation was dire. While Maric was agreeing that I was best placed to be the diplomat, I could feel her changing in my arms, her minty scent gaining an overtone of decay, her body changing shape, and the feel and scent of feathers under my hands, and I knew that Nemaine was now with us, temporarily taking over Valene’s body. She greeted Maric formally and told him that he could speak with her directly now.
She summarised her terms for this sanctuary – we would be bound by her rules while we were in the Roads, though we could barter for the specifics of food and trade. We could go where we wished, with a guide, she told us, at which point; she picked up Royce and greeted him. Then came the term that I had somehow suspected, and dreaded, knowing that it would be one that Maric could not agree to. All those who died in the village would be hers. Even as she spoke, I could feel Maric’s dismay through our bond, but then, knowing his laws, I would have known that to be a sticking point anyway. Nemaine turned then to me and greeted me almost fondly, which was quite worrying in itself. My master, she told me, had not seen the Roads, so did not know the place where he sought sanctuary. She bade me take him there and show him, and then she would talk terms.
Maric greeted her formally, and accepted her invitation to see the roads and subsequently discuss terms. He added that he alone would bear the price of any deal. This, to me, felt like a formality, such as I had felt when discussing things with the fae, and I am sure, with the demons. I could feel him through the bond, and more and more was coming to realise how alike we were in our virtues. He and I shared that same unswerving loyalty and duty occasioned by friendship. He and I shared that conviction that we would defend our own unto our own deaths. He had barely finished speaking, when, with a shudder, Nemaine left us. I barely managed to catch Valene’s body before it slumped to the ground.
I apologised for not having warned Maric of Nemaine’s predilections, but then, I had not expected her to turn up so soon. I told him of her function, of her being a carrion crow, and told him that she was part of what he might have known as the Morrigan. From what he had told me the first time he took me into the vaults, I knew he had strong principles when it came to the recently dead, and he had already told me of his offer to all those who had died. Before we got into that, I suggested that perhaps we should pay the Shadow Roads a visit, so that he could see what we were letting ourselves in for.
Royce obliged with the opening of the way into the roads, albeit with a slightly sarcastic “as my lady wishes” to emphasise that he was doing Valene’s bidding, not mine. Maric did not react, although I could tell he was intrigued, having never seen the way opened before. He did react, however, once we stepped through, amazed by the stark, barren nature of the roads, and asking how anybody could live here. I still had the sleeping form of Valene in my arms, so I carried her over to the multi-way signpost and made her comfortable, at least, as comfortable as I could in the circumstances.
“Here is the realm of the Shadowroads,” I told him.” They lead everywhere, and everywhen.” I chuckled as I remembered some of the places they could go. “Some day, I will tell you about a strange thing called a bacon- double-cheeseburger, but that is a story for another time. As you can see, it is very barren, very cold, and the air is very thin. That is fine for us, but could be an issue for the villagers. Travelling the roads is very dangerous, and should not be attempted without a guide, such as my good pal Royce here. The unwary, well, the unwary, if they are lucky, wander lost for ever, until Nemaine finds them and eats them.” I could see he was looking around, so pointed at the distant tree I knew to be the graveyard for the Cait. “There is the burying place of the Cait. Many were lost in a war, many years ago. They lie by yonder tree and are revered by those that live. As you can see, it is not the nicest of places. But, as I said, compared to hell…” He looked in that direction and I remembered when Valene had first shown me the place, and what I had said there. I felt moved to say it again.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can go no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
As I turned back to Maric, I realised he had asked me what became of those that Nemaine consumed. That, I could not answer, I told him. Were she a mortal being, I supposed they would be digested and passed. I also recalled vaguely that the Cait had some role in guiding the souls of the dead. Perhaps, then, I suggested, that purpose would be fulfilled before anybody got eaten. He appeared moved by my recitation, saying that a poet speaks the language of the soul. He hoped I was right about the souls of the departed. There was more he had to tell me, he said, but perhaps sensing that we were not alone, suggested that we should do so elsewhere, since he assumed that we would be listened to here. I nodded my agreement and pointed until I knew he could see the eyes that were watching us from all around. I told him that the poem was not mine, since that was a talent that I lacked; for all that I loved poetry. I told him that it was by Christina Rosetti and that I had recited it at my mother’s funeral. I suggested then that we should return to his dwelling.
Royce, with slightly more grace this time, opened the way once again, and we stepped through, back to Maric’s private rooms. Once there, I felt that we both relaxed somewhat, and both took breath, though neither of us fully needs to. I felt a note of sympathy from Maric for my mother’s loss and he reassured me that I had many talents, and, I had the gift of time to develop them. We went to the table to take wine and then he spoke of his laws, explaining how and why he had that law that all the dead belonged to him. Each and every one who died in his charge, he told me, would get the offer of a chance to return as one of his childer. Not all chose that, he said, preferring death, in which case he respected their wishes and prayed that their souls would find rest. He felt obligated, he said, to offer each one that choice. As he spoke, I got the fleeting impression, from his thoughts, of many deaths, on the battlefield, from sickness and accident. He was worried by Nemaine’s claim on the dead, as that might disturb the balance he kept for the village, and take away from the villagers’ free will. Even as he spoke, I could feel his mind working, assessing the situation, working out what could be done with the various alternatives, planning, scheming…
His experience was perhaps different from mine, but I offered my thoughts anyway. So far as I knew, I told him, the dark gift could only be given at the very point of death, at the last possible moment before life departed. Therefore, and I could feel the old legal muscles from my accountancy training stirring, it could be said that they had not died, and therefore, could not be claimed by Nemaine. If, as I inferred from his thoughts, the gift could be given post-mortem, then that was a different matter. Perhaps a compromise could be reached, that Nemaine could only have the dead after they had been given that choice, provided she agreed to do whatever she did away from the sight of those living.
He nodded, maybe pleased at how alike we both thought. He was worried, though, that her appetite might be too great, that she would not be satisfied with those few deaths, if any, that might occur, given her apparent gluttony for the dead of the battlefield. He became more serious, trying to explain the secrets of what could be done with the power of the blood. He could not bring back a days-old corpse, but could attempt to revive one who had just passed away. There was much he needed to teach me about the power of the blood, but he knew I had the power of will and heart to use the powers he could teach me without becoming a monster.
I left him then, as he clearly had things to think about and I had my duties to attend to in the main part of the castle and the village.
It was only afterwards, as I started writing, that I realised that perhaps he was telling me that he would teach me how to bring back the dead. A chilling thought. I have always known that as a vampire, I had the power to bring people over, to make them like me, but what he was saying seemed something other. A power that came with great responsibility and the thought chilled me to the bone, especially when I remembered how much I would have given for that power in my mother’s last hours, when even the agnostic that I was had prayed so hard for her not to die. What would I have done then, had I known that power? That was a question I could not answer, and I still can not. And I do not know who I could ask for advice.