GIVETHEREADERSWHATTHEYWANT!
One writer's experiment to tackle any subject his friends come up with.
5/24/11-MARK MARTIN

Beyond the Pale

This may have already been mentioned here – and in fact it may (probably?) already exist. If it exists, I have not seen it.

Write a story about a vampire who gets AIDS from HIV+ blood. He (or she) withers and suffers in great agony, – but cannot die

 

Nicolae woke to darkness. His reborn body pulsed with vitality, a familiar sensation he had grown to despise. He considered remaining in the sarcophagus to wait out the night in silent repose, welcoming the ordeal that would come. But his affliction would only be greater for it, and would never reach a climax of death. Resigned, he pushed the stone lid aside and lifted himself from the cool earth within. His bare feet touched the stone floor, disturbing its light mist into whorls and eddies. In the dim moonlight that fell through the high cellar windows, he looked down and regarded his naked body with disdain. Lithe and sinewed, the perfection of his youth improved and preserved for millennia. But this virility had become a mockery. He knew what was to come throughout the night, as it had every night for the last fifteen years. Over the next twelve hours, his strength would leave him, his body betray him, and he would die.

He retrieved the stained linen pants and shirt from the floor and dressed himself. His existence had become one of endless ennui. After millennia of experience, all pleasures had been tasted, all talents mastered, all wickedness explored and tossed aside. He had studied the sciences, then philosophy, using his countless years to observe and learn from men and the natural world. He had tutored under masters of painting, sculpture, and music, dropping into and out of their lives to gather what new visions remained. Bloodlust had run strong for centuries and suddenly plateaued. Passions had run deep, then dry.

He had found others like himself, and found them detestable. Their habits either sickened or bored him. Their personalities changed so drastically over the aeons that – although it was a process they all played in – they could not recognize facets they themselves had already explored. The natural result was to make them solitary creatures, even among their own kind.

Nicolae entered the larder. As if in a daze, he picked up the cleaver and cut a leg from the chamois. He saw himself as separate from the cattle of humanity. But humans, with their finite lives, were the true heirs to this world. Although he had been a king, had mastered armies, had held everything in his grasp, he knew that immortals had no place here. And so he fell to waiting, but knew not for what.

He contemplated the cleaver’s long, bright edge. There were few events which would claim his life. He could chain himself to a tree and wait for the sunrise. He could impale himself onto a wooden stake, or place his head in a guillotine. And each of these, lovingly, passionately, he had dwelt on for decades, even before the blood had poisoned him. But a vampire cannot will itself to die. Self-preservation and immortality are bound inextricably, one to the other, and fate had always stayed his hand. It had driven him mad for a time: the physical impossibility of setting that silver lock or pulling the guillotine’s lever. But in the end, it was a fact only, absent of truth. The mystery was as deep as the origins of their power. It was part and parcel with their curse. Nicolae set the cleaver aside, hefted the goat leg by its hoof, and climbed the cellar stairs.

He entered the dining hall and sat at one of the few clean places along the twenty-foot-long table, taking his meat and wine in unbroken silence. He was unmindful of the flesh that his teeth tore at and the blood it released to sate his endless thirst. He was unaware of the opulence and grandeur surrounding him. Below him, intricately veined alabaster tiles chilled his bare feet. Around him, ornate and opulent furnishings stood unused, moldering under a thick layer of dust. Above him, chandeliers heavy with gold and sapphires, yet delicate in their thin, curling branches, hung unlit. Outside, the small snow-and-rust-streaked owls dusted from the eaves and turrets, called through the twilight to dine on vole or hare. All the details that enlivened the world around him had become a sickening draught, one drunk too fully too often, holding nothing new. The timeline of his life had been stretched to an infinitely thin thread, a single piercing note perpetually suspended to form a background keening he’d learned to ignore.

*****

Gregor sat hidden among the boulders and craggy shrubs of the narrow valley’s steep face. Gripping the cold binoculars to his eyes, he surveyed the modest Romanesque castle which was sunk into the narrow cleft at the treeline below. Mountain pines and the occasional ash feathered out from its base while rocky walls climbed above. The harsh Alpine wind swept through the small vale and braced him in a constant gust.

He had been given a month to complete his task, but had quickly grown weary of this severe sheet of rock and his meager shelter. The priests of his Ancient Order had supplied him with ample rations to sustain himself, and a small grey tent which hid itself among the rocks. He drank daily from the frigid mountain stream nearby. But the threat of discovery prevented him from building a fire. He longed for an end to the ordeal. He was ready to prove himself in this battle and join his hardened warrior brothers on their larger campaigns with their modern supplies. He closed his eyes and stilled his mind. Failure at this test would mean death. If he should strike prematurely, before learning all that he could of his enemy, he might lose a precious advantage. The priests had drilled Gregor and Angus on this fact: the battle was fought as much during the study beforehand as when their swords were drawn. Gregor swore to learn from Angus’s mistakes, and do honor to the O’Carroll name.

He said a silent prayer at the recollection of his brother and fellow warrior. Angus had been unmatched for power, but his bull-headed nature had cost him his life. They had been taught by the priests that – despite the tales – it was folly to surprise the vampire in its sleep. The beasts would not be caught unaware, and to assume otherwise was to position oneself at a disadvantage. Angus had resisted this wisdom, and had been gutted as he pried loose a coffin’s lid.

It had been a pointless error, and had cost a life which was owed to the Order. The noble O’Carroll clan had nearly been ended three decades ago by a savage vampire attack. It was only the intervention of the Order which had saved the infant brothers. Gregor respected the priests’ word as law. He would live by it and, God willing, stay alive by it. As he sat, rubbing frost-bitten fingers beneath his heavy parka, he meditated on their other basic tenets.

As the demons fought, so should they be met. This was a direct decree from the Holy Church. The blessings on their Order came from the valour of personal combat. The great mechanisms of death generated over the last centuries might prove more effective than a single blade, but it would be at the cost of the Church’s sanctifying oversight. Their Order had been founded centuries ago to protect the priests from attack, and the Pope’s blessing was a steady bulwark against the evil they faced daily.

Wooden stakes were effective at destroying the vampire, provided the wielder had the strength to pierce its chest. Beheading was more practical, and most members of Gregor’s Order wore the leaf-bladed Hallstatt which provided a strong, sharp slice. Silver, the metal of purity and the vampire’s bane, was laced throughout the blade’s surface and would prevent any wounds from healing. And daylight was, as ever, lethal in sufficient doses.

*****

Nicolae looked up from his finished meal and found himself seated across from the Vermeer. As much as thought and feeling had become anathema to him, his eyes found themselves drawing up to regard the painting which hung before him. He lit the candelabra that stood in front of the work. It was the only belonging he had brought with him when he’d moved to the castle after contracting the sickness fifteen years ago. It occasionally brought him out of his morbid reverie. These were occasions of pain as much as insight, and for that reason he both cherished and loathed the painting.

He had stolen it from the master himself, in 1670. Nicolae had come to the Delft to learn from Vermeer, but the master only painted during the light of day. Nicolae came to resent Joannis’s talent and passion. He had stolen the masterpiece upon its completion, but spared Vermeer’s life. Since then, he had spent countless hours with the painting, and had slowly given himself over to its wonders. Time in its presence became Nicolae’s surrogate for sunlight. He found a forgotten love in the dappling of shadow as it graced the plaster wall, limned the edge of the glazed clay pitcher, glinted and played across the hobnail urn, and caressed and warmed the ruddy cheek of the common maid. Each object began to contain its own holiness, gifting the work with reflections and shadow. The maid in the picture became beautiful in her simpleness. Bulky and strong, comfortable and plain, content in her mundane task. She radiated peace and unexpected beauty, as the painting radiated light.

But the power of his light would be mute without its interplay with darkness. When the term “chiaroscuro” had been coined, it had brought a definition to the subtle concept of Vermeer’s talents. The relationship of the two defined each for the other. Clarity was clarified through its partnership with obscurity.

*****

Gregor cursed at his clumsy field glasses, all but useless in this moonlight. His ire was stoked by the primitive aspect of his equipment and surroundings. He understood the logic of his camp’s placement, far and upwind from the castle. The vampire’s senses were the pinnacle of nature’s gifts. The nose of a wolf, eyes of a hawk, and ears of the bat, his cousin in darkness.

The vampire had chosen to live in solitude and would know his attacker well in advance. Gregor had asked his chieftain whether a disguise would provide any advantage, and had received a flat “no” in reply. The beast would likely kill anyone who approached, regardless of intention. Again he heard the lesson: a straightforward attack was the only option. No matter. It suited Gregor’s vision of a holy warrior.

His observations of the Nosferatu had not taught him much. Over the past two weeks, the demon had only left the castle on two occasions, both of which had proven to be brief hunting raids for the nimble, lean game that abounded in these hills. The prey’s speed was no match for the predator’s, who stole through the woods like a zephyr, returning home within minutes.

But Gregor knew the creature’s weakness, even if he had not seen evidence of it. These rapid excursions occurred in the early evenings, when the creature’s strength was at its apex. Gregor’s masters in the Ancient Order had told him that this beast was one of the Infected. According to the methods of the blood which the Church had cursed, through spirit as well as science, the vampire would whither as the night grew longer. It was only the beast’s inevitable sleep which renewed his strength.

The mountain was cold, his enemy was obscure, and Gregor’s patience was thin. He had seen enough of the vampire in his habitat, enough to know that he lived alone and that the only refuge he had was his home. According to the priests, his weakness would render him less than human by night’s end. Dawn would bring fruition to Gregor’s task. He would return home with the vampire’s head.

*****

Nicolae looked up from the painting, breaking the reverie. The aching of his heart had begun to echo throughout his frame. Unbidden, the night was passing, and his infected shell was carrying out its routine failures. He cursed his ever-dying form and the perverse illness that besieged it. If only that rest would be granted forever, to continue on into natural decay. But his plight was to always be reborn from that earth, resurrected against his will, to repeat the endless farce of living for another night.

He coughed, and was racked with pain. Black blood spattered across his hand. Was it something to welcome, this reminder of mortality? Not for one always dying, ever undead. There was no humanity to be found in these clues to corporeality. He would suffer endlessly, at the whim of a haphazard deity. For a time he had considered the suffering as punishment, but had passed quickly beyond penitence, and into farce. There was no reason behind life, his or any others. Only finality held meaning.

He rose from his chair, already feeling the atrophy overtaking his muscles. He shambled to the open window and sniffed. The night air was unseasonably cold, and heavy with damp. He leaned heavily on the stone sill and waited as a spasm of pain passed through him. It was always the same feeling, with an acuteness that never waned. His strong body, passing through years of illness each night, welcoming anew the old tortures, opening up fresh wounds. As the paroxysm eased, he looked to the entry hall. Perhaps he would try again this morning. Perhaps this time he would be able to will his body far enough from the castle to make a return impossible before daybreak. The thought of this effort of will alone was exhausting. But he would try.

Nicolae exited the main door of the castle and took in the night air. He would need to muster strength whenever it was available, and use it to distance himself from the castle. He began walking down the hillside. The sores which had begun to open on his weakened skin plagued his feet. He had forgotten the sheer effort required to even consider putting himself in danger of exposure.

*****

Gregor started as he noticed the small figure leaving the castle. He noted the obvious effort the beast endured. Luck had surely favored him this day. He strapped his sword to his back and began to steal down the rocky face.

*****

Nicolae’s exhaustion was mounting. He wondered whether it would be enough to sit down at the foot of the nearest pine and wait. Already he noticed the faintest hint of changing light to the East, ahead of him. He began to dread the unconscious efforts his body would put him through as it dragged itself back to the castle.

A distant scrabbling caused Nicolae to turn his head. There, on the cliff, loose gravel was still sliding. Nicolae’s heart began to pulse, his nerves quickening. Did he dare to hope? Had a savior finally come? Yes, there, a glint of metal, and clumsy movement behind a rock. He silently prayed for a worthy foe. And despite himself, despite his ailments, he grinned.

*****

“I’m afraid my manners have waned through disuse,” the vampire called out to the cliff’s face. “Would you care to introduce yourself? Apparently you know me already.”

The Irish warrior stepped from his hiding place and drew his sword. “There’s no need for formalities, serpent-tongue.”

“Ah, Hibernian. I see the Romans are letting their attack dogs range on longer leashes.”

Gregor approached, his nostrils flaring. The vampire’s composure and taunts set his nerves on edge. “I do come from the Noble Island. And you, from Moldavia. When it was known as Dacia, our Emperor Constantine brought the true faith to your savages. The wise among them gave up worship of your barbaric horseman god.”

Nicolae maintained indifference. “I remember it well. Your Christians were only too happy to take Sabazios for themselves, and call him Saint George.”

The warrior’s face turned livid. Behind him the sky was lightening through shades of gray and blue. “Deceiver! Strengthened by the cross, Saint George slew the plague-ridden dragon!” His eyes turned to steel, and he leaned toward the vampire and whispered, “What plague are you host to, filth?”

Nicolae’s composure left him in an instant. His eyes grew large as realization dawned.

Gregor continued. “Were you surprised, foul one, when the blood betrayed you? Found yourself a devil sick of sin? The world calls it an immune deficiency. Strong enough, and cursed enough, to affect even your kind. Made for you, we named it “Sangue Debolezza”.

Disgust and rage overwhelmed Nicolae. He launched himself at the warrior, forgetting his weakness, forgetting his wish for death, seeking only to rip the throat from the monster before him.

But Nicolae’s strength and speed had left him, and the warrior was ready. His thrust caught Nicolae in the chest and drove deep. Nicolae’s talons scraped at the warrior’s face but did no mortal damage. He sunk backward to the ground, still impaled on the burning sword.

Smiling, Gregor bent over the vampire, leaning on the sword to delight in its pain. Drops of sweat and blood fell from his face onto the vampire’s. “You should have dined ere this battle, pale one! I figured on a stronger foe!” He reached for the silver manacles at his waist and clamped one end around the vampire’s right wrist, singing the flesh. The other end he locked onto the exposed root of a pine. He sat back to view his handiwork. “I will enjoy watching you burn, demon. ‘Abyssus abyssum invocat’*. The O’Carroll family will finally be avenged.”

Nicolae lay gasping. Each breath caused the still-jutting sword to shudder. His tongue lolled around his mouth, then stopped. As if lost in thought, he tasted the drops of blood which had come from Gregor’s wounds. Then he began to laugh, each one a painful spasm choked in fluid, but nonetheless hearty and deep. Gregor watched in confusion as he spoke.

“I have not drunk from a human for fifteen years, Hibernian,” Nicolae sputtered. “But I know their taste as completely as a master vintner.” Nicolae paused to smile. “Think yourself an O’Carroll. Is that what your holy men told you? No, when I last tasted your line, it carried a different name.”

Nicolae coughed. His smile remained, but his words came more slowly. “On the rue Saint-Martin, in Paris, eleven sixty-six. A particularly wicked party, attended by several noblemen. One stood out who was happy to share himself with me. An Irish King in exile.” His grin widened as he stared down Gregor’s disbelief and uttered the cursed name. “Mac Murchada.”

The shock caused Gregor’s frame to slacken. “Liar!” he gasped, though his face confessed belief. Dermot MacMurrough, who had betrayed Ireland to Henry II and paved the way for Britain to dominate the Pale, Ireland’s east coast. Dermot MacMurrough, the most hated name among his people.

Nicolae continued, and Gregor had to lean in to hear. “There is so much I could have taught you, Hibernian. I’ve lived through eras forgotten by history. I know your ancestors better than you know your mother. I understand the growth of civilizations. Is a few of your human lives so high a price for such insight?”

Gregor’s shock had yet to subside. His mouth lay open, his face frozen. The sun crested behind him and threw long shadows onto the forest floor.

Nicolae lay his head back and closed his eyes, his flesh already smoldering. “All is wasted. A fitting end.”

 

*”Hell calls to hell”, from the Vulgate translation of the Bible, Psalm 42.

 

Copyright Cole Bennett, all rights reserved.

 

 

23 Comments to “5/24/11-MARK MARTIN”

  1. Cole Bennett says:

    Mark, thanks for your story seed as well! So far I don’t think I have any dealing with real suffering. I was talking with a painter/printmaker yesterday about Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. And heard a fantastic anecdote today from a woman who used to be a nurse in the 70′s: She would bring home a gallon of used blood from the heart and lung machine once a week. And the roses climbing her trellis were the envy of the neighborhood…

  2. Penny says:

    Incredible story! LOVE it!

  3. Cole Bennett says:

    Okay, that one about did me in. :)
    But, as always, I had a blast.

    Just in case anyone cares about all the research that went into it, or is just looking to appreciate a little more depth, here’s a primer.

    The Ancient Order of Hibernians “is an Irish Catholic fraternal organization…goes back as far as 1565, when it was founded by an Irish chieftain, Rory O’Moore, to protect Roman Catholics against the religious persecution by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.”
    Link: wikipedia article on The Ancient Order of Hibernians

    Moldavia was at times included in the lands known as Dacia. Constantine conquered Dacia in 336 A.D. “Thracian horseman is the conventional term for a recurring motif from the iconography of Paleo-Balkanic mythology during the Roman era.” Dacians called theirs “Sabazios” Research traces this iconography to the images of St. George and the dragon.
    Link: “Thracian hero” sculpture pic

    Nicolae’s castle is based loosely on the Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein:
    Link: Castle Neuschwanstein pic

    Although I didn’t want a direct connection to a Vermeer painting (since Nicolae’s is stolen, and thus outside of the known art world), I based the description on The Milkmaid:
    Link: Vermeer’s Milkmaid pic

    The flora and fauna described are all indigenous to the Alps.
    Link: Alps flora and fauna

    The Halstatt sword comes from the earliest associations with Celtic culture, and was produced from the late Bronze to early Iron Ages. The leaf-blade design provided more mass out at the cutting end, and could give a very deep slice if properly wielded. Essentially I was thinking of how a scimitar might be best for beheading due to its curvature, but didn’t want to give an Irishman an Eastern sword.
    Link: Leaf-bladed Hallstatt swords pic

    Dermot MacMurrough “was the King of Leinster during the twelfth century and is most remembered as the man who invited the English into Ireland.” Modern interpretations of his legacy are more lenient than they used to be, but still place blame on his lust for power.
    Link: Dermot and Strongbow, and the invasion of Ireland

  4. Penny says:

    It was a pleasure to read, truly!

    You have my brain moving now, I’m going to have to dig through these archives now I think :)

  5. Penny says:

    absolutely! Don’t be surprised if you find a seed from here one day… :D

  6. Pat Bennett says:

    Loved this story. I have always been intrigued by vampires. It ended too quickly. I would have relished years of struggle and pursuit! And what a lot of research this required! Amazing.

  7. Sean Gladding says:

    we’ll give you a pass on missing your self-imposed deadline on this one Cole! like Pat, when the end came (even though it was expected) with the unexpected revelation, i wanted a postponement. i wanted more. and so, as with the best storytellers, you invite us to ask ourselves, “what would i have done if i was Gregor? would i have wanted to know more? would i have saved him?” masterful.

  8. Cole Bennett says:

    Thanks to everyone for reading! And for the deep thinking you’ve returned on the work. I really appreciate it.

  9. Joe says:

    Tithonius is the guy who asked for immortality but forgot to ask for eternal youth, so he lived forever but got older and older. Reminds me of your fellow. Or like one of the tree suicides in Dante—-people who cannot die because they denied the essential life within them: you can’t die if you’ve never lived. Your guy again?

    Gregor is someone who’s fallen for the myth of purity, who’s built his life around it only to discover that taint is part of the human condition. Original sin.

    I liked the ending. Surprised me.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Damn but I need me an MFA!

      Your comments have distilled Nicolae and Gregor to their essence, Joe.

      I think Nicolae’s problem is just inherent in immortality, though. That we’re not made to be permanent physical beings, no matter how perfect. The virus in this case only adds injury to insult.

      But you’ve given me new insight on Gregor. I like that a lot.

      Thanks!

  10. Dan O'Neal says:

    Superb story! Definitely worth of publication.

  11. Cole Bennett says:

    Thanks everyone!
    Dan, I can honestly say that respect for your love of historic cultures was the inspiration that kept me researching! I kept picturing you saying “That’s ridiculous, he would use a Claymore,” or the like. :) I was just getting ready to ask you to read it when I saw your comment. Thanks!
    Mark, I hope it suits you!

  12. Dan O'Neal says:

    FYI, I did read a story once by Harry Turtledove about an elf who contracted AIDS and took it back to Faerie, where of course they have no concept of medicine because they’re functionally immortal.

    I loved the St. George reference, by the way. I only recently read an article about that someplace. And I do understand that leaf-bladed swords are definitely the best for slashing off body parts.

  13. Mark Martin says:

    I like the way you treated it very differently than I would have. I assumed it was a CONTEMPORARY setting idea, never would have occurred to me to place it in Ye Olden Tymes. So that made it interesting to me. It was not predicatble or cliched, which is what I look for in a good story!

    I just say Bravo! I really have NO “constructive critcism”! If I try to imagine reading it in a Sci-Fi or Fantasy magazine (or any magazine really) I guess I would be surprised that it went by so quickly. I guess if you ever try to sell it, maybe flesh it out and add more atmosphere (?). I don’t see this as a flaw, I just think it’s something editors and publishers might say.

    Good luck with the writing. I enjoy your writing a hell of a lot more than some so-called “great” writers, that’s for damn sure.

  14. Cole Bennett says:

    Thanks, Mark, and thanks again for a great starter! I may have never written a vampire story without the push, and now I’m really glad I did. It was a lot of fun.

  15. Eric T Morrow says:

    Finally catching up on reading your stories. Interesting factoid: MacMurrough is a precursor to my surname…

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Great to hear from you, Eric! I was particularly happy with this one. Vampires are so well established that a lot of the legwork is already set up for you. :)
      So you’re a MacMurrough descendant, huh? Explains a lot.

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