“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”-Ecclesiastes 1:9
IN THE VAULT
Armand walked through the halls of the Chateau du Bois, led by a burly man in a dusty uniform with tools hanging about his waist. The ancient halls were buzzing with a life it had not known in centuries, ringing with the harsh tapping of the hammer and the whining, ear-piercing shrieking of the electric saw. Workmen walked all through the halls, carrying furniture, paints, and other construction implements, causing Armand to dodge around them as he followed the foreman.
“As you can see, we've begun work on both the west wing, though it was in relatively good shape,” said the foreman, gesturing about the airy, well-lit, and intricately-decorated rococco halls built by his father, “and we are nearly done with the old castle, though the work there is considerably more difficult.”
“Very good, monsieur,” replied Armand, “and do take care with the furniture. Some of it is quite old and has been in my family since the days of Charlemagne.”
“Yes; the historians you've hired have ensured we are very careful. Also, when should we begin with the vaults?”
“You may start once I have made a full inspection of them,” he replied, “Which I shall attend to if there are no further questions.”
“No; that should keep us busy for now.”
“Then I shall take my leave; good day.”
The foreman exchanged goodbyes and walked back into towards the work site, leaving Armand alone with his thoughts for the first time in hours. He continued to walk down the corridors of the twisting, dim, gothic castle, hung with moldering tapestries and still sporting sconces long since bereft of torches. He was desperate to get out of earshot of the horrible din of modern construction and affect the tour of the vaults he had been planning to carry out since he first came here months ago following the titanic battle with the Necromancer.
He turned down a downward flight of stairs, flicking on the flashlight he had been carrying for just such a purpose. The pungent yet somewhat pleasing smell of age and must rose up to meet him as he descended the dank, dusty stairs. A feeling of foreboding mixed with curiosity churned within him as he went down into the vaults. He had never been there in all his long sojourn of nearly two hundred years and neither did he brave these shadowed and century-encrusted halls during his boyhood. The place had always frightened yet intrigued him in those days, but he would find solace out-of-doors rather than in these caverns of unspeakable antiquity where once a dragon brooded on a horde of treasure and where his great-grandfather, Guy Baptiste I, Paladin of Charlemagne, had fought and killed it, the grateful Emperor bestowing on him the title of the first Duc du Bois.
The vaults were expansive, barrel-vaulted expanse beneath the wine cellars which were filled with innumerable relics of the old castle. As he entered, he saw a doorway to his right, gaping wide into the natural cave system which once was the dragon's home. As he walked down the seemingly infinite vault, the light fell upon an enormous skull, its baleful sockets blankly regarding the intruder. It was long and reptilian in nature, with fine spines projecting from near the hole where the spine had attached. He walked closer, inspecting the dusty old dragon's skull. A small smile came to his lips as he thought of the new connotation these creatures of myth and chilling reality brought.
His mind turned to Darci as it often did. He imagined her excitement at the possibility of dragon bones. He could picture the look on her face, the sparkle in her green, bright eyes as she would undoubtedly be thinking of a myriad of alchemical recipes, and the affection she would lavish on him for his gift of such a rare item. He could see it all in his mind's eye, could practically feel her lips on hers, the warmth of her body against his, her soft, brilliant white hair between his fingers. He could not help the smile that had lodged itself on his face as his stomach began to flutter. He wrenched a tooth free from the skull. Perhaps he would make her a necklace.
He continued his inspection of the vault, poring over old relics of his family's past. At length, his flashlight fell upon an exceedingly ancient book with crumbling pages barely held together between two aged boards he would not be surprised to find had petrified. He took it up in his hands, careful not to damage it. He opened it, the smell of aged parchment wafting towards his nose. The pages were handwritten in a neat, orderly script. Closer inspection revealed the language to be Latin. Intrigued, he walked over to the stairs and sat down, shining his light on the pages. He scanned them, straining to remember his classical training from his days at the University of Paris. After some remembrance, he began to read.
Flavian Marius Silva, head of the Silva, last Roman sanguinum bibere of Gaul. Armand re-read this phrase, noticing to his astonishment the writing of a distant ancestor, further back than he had ever traced his family line. Before Guy I, the Baptistes' line was largely unknown, the clan having been landless wanderers previously, knights-errant in the turbulent, fragmented Europe of the Middle Ages, under the thumb of the demons which his grandfather Pierre had finally banished. Enthralled, he read on.
I do not know if I shall be remembered. The old world has perished in fire and blood, the damned barbarians have laid waste to civilization herself and the light of Rome has been quenched. I only escaped with my life, though I was not so fortunate that the Fury had perished in the barbarian raid. I am landless, my armies are utterly put to the sword, and my thirst for blood and hunger for flesh threaten to drive me to madness. Atop it all, I am still enslaved to the demons of the Alternum Mundum.
Thus, I wander, never resting, the splendor of the old world lying in ruins, abused and beaten into dust by the ignorant barbarian hordes, those great agents of ruin and chaos. Reason has been smothered in his bed and order murdered in the night. Yet, I write this account of things that were. I look back now on those happier times, and upon all I had labored so hard to build, the glory of old Rome who once had the world as her footstool, who created splendor from wild wastes, brought light and order and peace to the simple tribes of this earth, in no small part due to my kind, we sanguinum bibere. I remember when the end began, that glorious, blood-soaked day on the Catalaunian Plain twenty years ago...
GAUL, AD 451
The sun rose on the battlefield, illuminating the green plain. The armies of Rome stood arrayed, awaiting the coming battle with baited breath. These were not the shining legionaries of Julius Caesar who had conquered these lands centuries before, with their shining plate armor and crimson plumage, whom later generations would call to their mind's eye as the soldiers of Rome.
No, these were mail-clad, somber men, their shields dull and round, their helmets plain and undecorated, their their ranks staggered and weary, the mere shell of what was once the force which had tramped across the untold wilds of Europe and Asia, subduing all in their path and erecting great, marble cities where once there were none. At their sides, bolstering their thinning ranks were the towering, blond sons of Germania, the Goths, Saxons, Franks, with long, braided hair, scraggly beards like the manes of lions; the heirs of this continent falling apart at its seams.
Surveying it all sat Flavius Aetius, the commander of this motley host, last bulwark of Roman civilization on the ever-shrinking frontier of an unrecognizable Rome. He sat grimly in his saddle, close, cropped, dark hair hanging over steely eyes, squinting across the field to the great horde gathered to face him this day.
At the head of this great army, which had burned and raped and pillaged its way across blighted Gaul, the most infamous of barbarians, mighty Attila, scourge of God, the terror of the East, who held Constantinople to ransom while the Balkans burned, who laid waste to the lands of the West, Conqueror of Conquerors.
A sudden thunder of hooves distracted Aetuis, commanding his attention to his flank. A column of horsemen sped toward him. Aetius, his stoic Roman gravitas breaking for the slightest of moments, frowned as he saw the man riding at the cavalry's head.
The man who rode towards the general was tall and pale, with the fine complexion and neatly-cropped black hair of a Roman patrician. Though he was handsome and fair, he was solidly-built and hardy. He wore shining mail, his helmet under his left arm, and a flowing red cape blew behind him. Flavian Marius Silva, cruel master of the Villa Silvius, a tyrant and apostate who levied heavy taxes on his peasants whom dark rumors surrounded like a noxious odor took the field.
Flavian surveyed the army with a look of utter disdain and arrogance with his heavily-lidded eyes. He felt tense yet eager for the coming battle, his nostrils flaring with the scent of blood yet to be spilled, his body trembling with anticipation and bloodlust. He turned up his nose at the chi rho adorning his allies' shields and banners, the sigil of an upstart, weakling god, who only served to suppress the mighty, the worthy, the superior, to chain them to undeserved restraint and mediocrity while elevating the poor, the weak, the profligate, the unworthy.
It is little wonder, he thought, that his country was falling to the barbarian hordes. Mars was his god, that blood-drenched god of the red spear, the rolling engine, the tramping legion, the shrieking Furies. Let the weaklings call him heretic, heathen, pagan. He remembered what it was to be truly Roman! He lived by the sword, a warrior at heart, a wolf among a nation of sheep. He pulled his horse up beside his general, signaling his men to join the other cavalry.
“Ave, Aetuis,” he said, in a sonorous, sensual voice, “I have come as you requested with the knights of my household. You shall find they are worth at least fifty of your legionaries.”
“We will see,” answered Aetuis, barely masking his contempt for the loose canon before him. “Attila makes ready. Prepare to charge.”
“It will be a pleasure, sir,” said Flavian with a smirk.
Aetius suppressed a shudder. Was it his imagination, or did the heathen's smile reveal sharpened, white teeth behind his curving, full lips and was there a sudden red glint in his sardonic, haughty eyes? Flavian spurred his horse and galloped over to his men.
“Men, now is the time,” he cried, standing in his saddle, and raising his lance high, “Now we shall feast on the blood of the Hun, a worthy adversary! May their strength and ferocity pass into us, strengthening our resolve, our hatred, our rage! Feast, my brethren! Eat, drink! Fulfill your desires! Think not of our masters, those demons in the far off Alternum Mundum, our jailer, Alecto. We are our own in the heat of battle! Vivat Silva! Ave Mars!”
His fellow bloodwritten took up his battlecry, waving their spears and rearing their horses. The trumpets blared, signaling the charge. With a savage cry, Flavian held his spear aloft and spurred his mount forward, bounding across the plain like a crimson flame, glorious in the light of the day. His men followed suit, joining the battle.
* * *
The sun set on a field of corpses. It was said that the nearby river ran red with blood that day and that the dead were innumerable, their remains left moldering and unburied, that bones are turned up beneath the soil to this day. The Huns had fled, repulsed by the tenacity of the Romans and their barbarian allies. The field was littered with the mangled bodies of men and horses alike, the green grass red with the blood of Hun and Roman and German alike. So few were standing, it was seemed senseless to declare this a victory though the Huns were driven off.
The evening fog fell over the hellish spectacle, still echoing with the shouts and shrieks of men in pitched battle and the clanging of swords and armor. The place would be forever scarred, accursed, this night the first of many in which the sounds of the battle could still be heard as the damned souls of the Hun, the Roman, the German still strove, unaware of their previous demise.
Out of this tartarus of carnage and ghostly struggle, staggered Flavian. He was horseless, his shield long rent and cast aside, holding his bloodsoaked gladius in one trembling hand. He was splattered with the blood of his enemies, which streaked across his milky cheeks and forehead like gristly warpaint. His hair was disheveled, his cloak tattered, yet his face bore an expression of the most exquisite pleasure, his mouth curled into a smile of exaltation, his teeth and lips crimson with his terrible drink. He laughed like a madman from deep in his chest with a savage delight. No men walked with him, his clan members hewn down by the ferocious, hardy men of the east.
“Sated, my love?” came a breathy, intoxicating female voice, rising musically above the fading carnage.
A woman stood before him in the gathering dusk, dressed in a thin, white, draped dress in the classical style, her dark hair falling down around her shoulders. Her eyes were an illuminating gold, her full, red lips curved in an amused smile, her expression amused as one would be to see a family pet performing a familiar trick.
At the sound of this voice, Flavian paused and dropped to one knee, kneeling before the woman. He chuckled, still in the throes of his blood-haze and drunk from his cannibalistic spree.
“Yes...Lady Alecto,” was all he could manage, his voice husky and thick with pleasure.
Alecto smirked and chuckled, reaching down and taking his head in her hands. She slowly caressed his bloody cheeks as she spoke.
“Yes, you performed better than I would have hoped, and provided a most amusing show for me. You are truly a loyal hound, dear Flavian.” She leaned down and lightly licked some of the blood off his cheek, causing Flavian to shudder. “Yes, you are a wonderful attack dog, but a foul, brainless, idiot!”
She spat out the reprimand, striking him across the cheek. The mighty bloodwritten, who in previous hours had been an unstoppable, raging beast of death and destruction, took the blow without protest or reprisal, continuing to kneel in silence.
“In your bloodlust, you allowed all the men under your command to be killed! You may be slaves, but you are valuable to our work here in this world! Fool of a bloodwritten!”
Flavian took this in silence, but in his mind, he was cursing the angry demoness. One day, he would have his revenge, to visit on her the many abuses he had been subjected to since time out of mind. He would pay her back blow-for-blow, banish her to her accursed other world, and lead his clan to glory, not or their demon masters, but for themselves.
“My apologies, mistress,” he said in a supplicant tone which masked his contempt.
“Come, slave,” Alecto said, pulling him to his feet, “We have much more chaos to seed, and many more lives to ruin.”
THE BROKEN CYCLE
But as I departed that shadowy, battle-haunted field, I knew, this was all her doing, accursed Alecto! I am sure it was she who convinced Attila to ride hence and challenge the legions of Rome. Surely, I had seen her break and twist the lives of others for her own amusement before, but never on the scale of a nation. She always delighted in the torment and of our clan, visiting undeserved abuses upon us on a whim, but this was something else entirely. Now the Huns had fled, but the Empire was irrevocably broken. The sun was setting on the world of my youth, and a mere thirty years later, a Gothic king sat upon the throne of Rome, and the Empire was finished. Woe to those usurpers, those seeders of chaos! They know not the grandeur they throw down, the beauty they destroy!
Armand looked up from the ancient book, transfixed by what he had read. He was quite unsure what to think of it. It seemed his family was always as he had remembered it, bloodthirsty, power-hungry, murderous, and lustful. He saw more than a little of his brutish brother Gaston in Flavian, and yet...thoguh he found his ancestor's words and deeds reprehensible, he could not help but feel the beating heart of a kindred spirit on the page before him.
He felt a pang of loss similar to Flavian's mourning at the loss of glorious Rome. It seemed the barbarians of old were not much different than the revolutionaries who besieged the chateau in the late eighteenth century. This deeply troubled him. Though he was once as bloodthirsty and depraved as Flavian the apostate, though he was deeply repulsed by what he had done and had sought to do better. He sighed and put the book back where he found it, his mind a haze of fatalistic worry.
He walked back up the stairs and into the din of the restoration work, barely heeding it at all. Am I then merely doomed to repeat the sins of my fathers, he thought, 'twould be a most terrible fate indeed. As he walked, he slid his hands into the pockets of his coat. He struck something inside and pulled it out. The dragon's tooth, forgotten in his spellbound reading, lay in his palm. He smiled as it brought Darci to his mind.
No, he thought, with her, I have found peace at last. She shall lend me the strength I need to break this terrible chain of evil which runs through my family. He squeezed the tooth, thinking how he would present it to her. He thought of the restoration and of his plans. Yes, he would marry Darci and hope to revive the Baptistes, that long, terrible clan who began their long reign of terror as Celtic tribesmen, who interbred with the Romans, adopting the name Silva, who would then bring the invading Franks into their fold, adopting the surname Baptiste. Yes, with Darci, he would begin his family anew.
Yes, he thought, our family shall be better by far.