The is Part Two of my serialisation of an online role-playing game. Take a look at Part One if you haven't already. Second Life users who wish to view this location, go here. Everyone else, just read on and enjoy.
The Progeny Castle (click to enlarge)
My clearest memory of First Communion was fear. There are other memories, but they are dusty and muted, like photographs you find years after the fact under the sofa or lost in the bottoms of drawers. I remember, for example, wearing one of my cousin Mikey's hand-me-down suits, and my mother fussing over what seemed like forever over my hair. I remember my grandmother crying without having any clear idea why she was doing it. There are other memories too, my family and all their friends gathered around watching me, the vague sense that in some fundamental way I was about to change, but the fear--the knot tightening my guts with each step closer to the communion rail--is the unforgettable part. It colors my entire perception of the event.
Mikey was to blame. We weren't allowed to watch horror movies, both our mothers forbade it, but Mikey got a steady supply of VHS tapes from a friend at school. We had been watching Night of the Living Dead a few weeks before, and the first time one of the zombies sank his teeth into one of the living, Mikey turned an gave me a serious stare. "That's what it's like, you know. When you take Communion. It's flesh and blood in your mouth and you gotta swallow it all without gagging."
"Nah-ah," I protested. "It's just some stupid cracker and some wine."
Mikey pretended to be shocked. "You better not let Father Frank hear you say that, or you're going straight to Hell."
I tried for weeks to put it out of my head, pretty sure Mikey was just trying to freak me out...but it was too late. The seed was planted. What was I going to be eating that day? They kept telling me in Catechism class it really was going to be flesh and blood...but was it? Really? Or was this like Santa Claus, a lie parents felt the need to tell. Trying to get used to the idea, I put a raw piece of steak in my mouth when my mother wasn't looking and almost threw up. I couldn't imagine being forced to do this every Sunday for the rest of my life. Was this the price for salvation? For being an adult? When the day finally came, and it was time to kneel at the rail, I was so weirded out I was trembling in horror.
But...it was just wine and a cracker after all.
I shared this once with my girlfriend in grad school, an anthropology major with a sharp wit and a dusting of freckles across her nose. We were in bed and she was critiquing Catholicism again--she was an atheist, and my that stage in my life I pretty much was as well--going on about the inherent misogyny of the Church. For some reason that Communion memory came to mind and I shared it with her.
"Well, you know where it really comes from," she said in a matter-of-fact tone that didn't sound like a question at all. "It goes right back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors when food was scarce. Whatever fed you was your God...it gave life to the tribe. People prayed to the animals they killed and ate, thanking them for their sacrifice, for the gift of life. They cooked and ate the flesh together, one tribe joined by sharing the animal's body and blood. Thousands of years later, right through a staring of dead and resurrecting agriculture gods like Osiris and Dionysus, you arrive at Jesus...people eating their God together and forming a community from the act. There's no great mystery to it at all. It's an old story."
No great mystery at all.
Standing there in that darkened chapel, the terror of First Communion gripped me again...far worse than before. This time there was no question of what was being consumed, no chance it was simply bread and wine. Heart pounding, I fought the urge to run, adrenaline singing in my veins. All around me, emerging from the shadows, the assembly stood pale-skinned and dressed to the nines, watching me with hungry and feverish eyes. I took a few steps backwards, towards the black altar, but the dark-haired one called Alexa seized my by the wrist and held me in place. Her fingers might have been made of steel. I wasn't going anywhere.
Like that day in Church twenty-five years before, the congregation was gathered there to welcome me to the community, the Church I was to join through shared flesh and blood.
I am getting ahead of myself, however.
Harot's information had led me across the Atlantic, you see, a journey I ended up taking by ship. I had little money left, and certainly not enough for airfare. My credit cards were all maxed out and my bank account completely depleted; I was fleeing the country with an army of bills behind me. See, I chasing death. Like Ethan Hawke at the end of Gattaca I wasn't saving anything for the swim back. So I found passage on a ship scrubbing toilets. Shortly after that I did manual labor in a fishing village on the coast of...
No. Wait. I can't say that. There are oaths that bind me now. I cannot reveal to you the location of the castle, the name of the desolate village beneath it, the country that it lay in. The Progeny flourish only in their secrecy, in the fact that the Quick neither know nor would believe they exist. The tiger has his stripes. The lion has the tawny color of the savannah. It is the nature of the predator to conceal himself from his prey. For this reason, you, gentle reader, will have to forgive my sins of omission. I will not be telling you any of the names of those I meet in my travels, and none of the locations. I will share with you all that I have seen and experienced but it must by necessity be censored. It wouldn't do at all to completely draw back the veil of night.
All you need know at this stage of my narrative is that it took many months to reach my destination, and the last stretch of the journey was the most difficult of all. Where the castle lay there were no real roads to speak of, and nothing for many kilometers around. None of the locals dared go near the place, and was ringed by long abandoned villages. Unlike Jonathan Harker, I couldn't depend on anyone sending a carriage to collect me. I was no invited guest, but an intruder. So I spent the very last of what I had on a motorbike that had seen its best days back during the Second World War, and what I hoped would be enough petrol to get me where I was going. I had no food left, no money, and no signal for my phone. All I had was some water and a hand drawn map several centuries out of date. For all I knew the castle wasn't even there any longer.
But what choice did I have?
I set out in early morning, the bike jerking and rattling over muddy trails through tangled woods, and stony paths through twisting mountain valleys. I followed for a good length of time what I believed to be the remains of an ancient Roman road. By noon I feared I was hopelessly lost, and a new terror began to grow inside of me. Harot had assured me that within the castle itself I could find a sort of "sanctuary." Centuries of agreement between rival clans (we will get to that presently) ensured a sort of demilitarized zone there...a place of safety even for the Quick. Outside the castle, however, I was fair game. If I did not make it by nightfall, I might end up prey dumped at the side of the road.
Time was of the essence.
Racing the sun, I found signs that I was on the right trail...a curiously shaped outcropping of rock, a pair of twin hills, a line of brooding cliffs. As the sun arched his way towards the horizon, and the mountains turned bruised purple, I felt a shock of relief at glimpsing the spires and battlements of the fortress rising above the trees. With a mixture of longing and dread I drove the bike forward, right through the open front gate and across the courtyard. The silence, when I killed the engine, was deafening. My eyes ran over the darkening walls, the black and lifeless windows, and I left the motorcycle behind, climbing the wide sweep of crumbling stairs for the door.
The wide entrance hall had the air of a marketplace, with vendor's stalls tucked away in the shadowy corners. As I crossed the stone floor, each step echoing in the vaulted chamber, I wondered what sort of commerce the Un-dead engaged in. Shadowy doorways led away from this great main room, but there was one from which a flickering candlelight spilled. Summoning all of my courage, I forced myself forward, towards it. Like the moth to the flame, I felt I might be flitting towards my own destruction.
It was a library, and an immense one at that. For a bookworm like me it was fairly close to my vision of Paradise. But I couldn't even look at the books...I barely noticed they were there. Instead my attention was fixed on the two figures standing in the room.
She might have been carved from ivory. Wearing the most outlandish costume I had ever seen--a massive white Victorian nightmare of silk and lace that could equally have been a bridal or burial gown--she seemed oblivious to my existence. Though physically larger than she, the man she was with seemed somehow smaller, despite all the sinister black leather he wore. Neither of them acknowledged me, speaking to each other it seemed in humming, buzzing voices. I had the impression they were speaking so quickly I couldn't decipher the words.
I watched them awhile, until I was absolutely certain. The way they moved, the glitter in their eyes, the flat, dead expressions... These were not human beings. They were like marble animated with a bit of life, Pygmalion half-finished with his work. They were human shaped...but there was nothing human about them at all. I was in a tank now with a pair of sharks.
Swallowing, I drew closer, clearing my throat. "Forgive me. I don't mean to intrude."
There was nothing to show they had even heard me, and they continued their conversation in the eerie, whispering voices that seemed to pass over the range of my hearing. I wondered if this "speech" of theirs was like the sonar of bats. I took a few steps closer and tried again.
The buzzing stopped, and my heart seemed to as well. The woman turned her bone white face towards mine, and I immediately felt dizzy looking into her black eyes. Looking into them was like breathing anaesthesia. "What have we here?"
"A...pilgrim, my Lady," I replied carefully. I have come a very long way to find you."
There was no trace of emotion, or comprehension, on that porcelain face. Perhaps the creature wearing it was so old she had forgotten how to move her facial muscles. "Oh? And why is that?"
"I have come..." my throat dried here and I had to clear it "...looking for what you already possess."
"Oh I see," she breathed, and there was a tinkling sound very nearly like laughter. "Another seeker. Well. This is not the way it works. One of us comes seeking you, and if we like what we see, you might be elevated. Never the other way around, I am afraid."
Without a further word she went back to her buzzing conversation, and I stood there on the carpet for long moments wondering what to do next. It was clear I had been dismissed...but there was no going back. It would be better to die there than try to return home empty-handed. Besides, all my bridges had been burned.
I cannot tell you when, or how, the third figure entered the room. She was, it seems, 'just there.' From the way she looked at me, that quizzical, studying expression, it was clear she had heard my request. I wondered if she had been there all along and by some strange power I had been unable to see her.
She was not the kind of woman you would miss walking into a room though. Compared to the other two--who seemed dressed specifically for a Goth convention or Halloween ball--this woman was dressed simply, casually. She could easily have passed by you on the fashion high street of a busy town without a stare. All the same she was striking, with high cheekbones and luxurious blonde hair. There was something fierce, like a lioness, in her face, but without the inhuman coldness I found in the other woman's. As they continued their buzzing inhuman speech, she looked straight at me and spoke, but I wondered if anyone other than I could hear it.
"Tell me why you wish to join us."
I began to speak, fumbling for an answer that didn't include Harot. I told her I had spent my life studying her kind--not entirely a lie--and that I had discovered writings of this place (also technically true). I told her I felt I had accomplished all I could as a mortal, and felt this was the only way for me to go forward. I rambled on about all sorts of things, trying to convince her without giving anything away. And all the while she watched and listened, and I had the distinct feeling the words she heard were not the weak excuses tumbling from my lips but the genuine ones inside my head. She was reading me like a book. I never mentioned my death sentence, the ticking time bomb in my head, and she didn't mention it either. But somehow I sensed she knew.
As I spoke, and she sifted through the contents of my head, the black clad male vanished, leaving the white queen listening to us. After a few moments she said something to the blonde woman in that high, humming voice, and the blonde woman shook her head. "I will place this one under my protection," she told the white queen. "He can come with me back to the hall of my Clan."
The white queen nodded, perhaps a flicker of amusement on her pale features. Then she faded like a ghost.
"I am Athena," the blonde woman told me. "I am the leader of the Clan Tenebrati. If you value your life in this place, stick close." Then, unexpectedly, she smiled. "Not all the Progeny are the same, Damien. Some bloodlines run les human than others. Come. Let me introduce you to some of the Clan."
I nodded, and leaving my old life behind followed.
See Part Three here.
See Part Three here.
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