The Longest Battle – Ch 45 – Something Old

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Alin was a seasoned cleric. He was adept at prowling the dark ruins where monsters hid and exposing them to the light of justice. With the care and preparation he put into arranging his hunts, he’d managed to clear the land of hundred of fiends in the few years since his ordination.

“And yet here I am going to die because a blasted roof decided to collapse on me!” He bit back a stream of profanities and struggled to lift the massive wooden beam that pinned his chest to the floor.

In a sense, he was exceedingly lucky. The grace of Yal, the Sun God, had protected Alin. When the roof collapsed as he stalked through the ruined temple, the ceiling beams dropped on either side of him in a configuration where the heavy central beam was supported several inches off the ground by smaller, secondary beams. If the gap was an inch larger Alin would have been able to struggle out from under the massive weight but his store of grace had been insufficient to cover a miracle that large.

“Oh Yal, I am ever faithful,” Alin said. “But I am sorely tempted to pray for a wolf or dire bear to wander by and finish me off.”

“And why would you pray for such a horrific thing?”

The man who asked the question had entered the fallen temple silently and was carefully searching for a path through the debris of the collapsed ceiling. Alin’s view of the new figure was constrained but he could see that the man was tall and wore the same hooded cloak of Yal’s order that Alin did.

The presence of another member should have bouyed Alin’s spirit but he hadn’t survived his many encounters with the beasts that prowled the night hours by taking appearances at face value.

“Because this temple is rumored to have been desecrated by a vampire, and I would rather die a clean death to a wolf’s fangs or a bear’s claws than rise as the thrall of a demon,” Alin said.

“That’s an interesting rumor,” the man said. The air of amusement in his voice confirmed Alin’s suspicion.

“You’ll want to stay back,” Alin said. “I am pinned at present but I do have a flask of holy fire in my hand. I’m not of a mind to burn to death, but all things being equal I’ll be happy to pay that price if I can take another night walker with me.”

The man paused, and looked at Alin, perhaps looking for some sign of duplicity on the cleric’s part. Alin wasn’t above lying to the undead, but in this rare instance he was telling the truth. The flask was a standard part of his arsenal, and he could trigger it even restrained as he was. If he poured out the whole of it, Alin knew Yal’s Fire would consume not only himself and the vampire but everything in the fallen temple as well.

“The history of this temple is quite unusual,” the man said and took a seat on the one of the flat pieces of ceiling without advancing any closer. “Did you know it has been consecrated three times?”

“The light always returns,” Alin said. Professions of faith wouldn’t win him much grace, or at least not enough to miracle up an escape from the vampire’s clutches, but for Alin faith was about more than the rewards one could reap from devotion and sacrifice.

“And shines the brightest in the deepest of darks,” the man said, completing the quote from Yal’s scripture.

Devil’s seemed to enjoy quoting from holy texts. Easily half of the short and deadly conversations Alin had with intelligent unholy beasts involved them trying to twist the meaning of this passage or that parable to foul ends. On that scale, the vampire was doing a poor job with his end of the debate, but Alin suspected that would change.

“Not that it’s so dark a night this evening,” the man said. “Quite the pleasant full moon out and we have a lovely view of it.”

“There are many kinds of darkness,” Alin said.

“As many as there are hearts and minds,” the man said. “For instance, there are more than a few dark suspicions in you and I believe I can alleviate at least one of them.”

“You are the vampire who desecrated this temple,” Alin said. In part he hoped to deny the vampire a chance to build up to a terrifying revelation and in part he was tired of playing games with evil things. If this was his end, then better that it be over and done with. His spirit would find rest in Yal’s embrace even if his body continued to plague the living as a monster.

“No,” the man said. “I am the vampire who lived and worshipped in this temple until tonight. The last time the temple was desecrated it was by the hand of a man who obsessed over the high priestess who led the services here.”

Alin knew of no such event, but he did know that the temple had fallen into ruins decades ago and no one in the local communities knew (or would say) why.

“And you are that man?” Alin guessed.

“Heaven’s no,” the vampire said. “My name is Lallas. The man in question was the old baron and he’s been dead for almost ten years.”

This wasn’t adding up at all in Alin’s head. He gripped the flask tighter. All the vampire needed was a moment when Alin’s guard was down in order to strike.

“And what dark powers do you worship here vampire?” Alin asked.

“I offer my devotion only to Yal, the same as you, unless your garb deceives my eye,” Lallas said.

Alin couldn’t hold back the laugh that burst out.

“A vampire? Worshipping the Sun God?” Alin said. “At least my death will be marked by absurdity I suppose.”

“There’s nothing absurd about it, I assure you,” Lallas said.

“You’re a vampire! A creature of the night! What could you possibly see in the sun!” Alin said. “And why, in all of Yal’s bright blue heaven would you think I might ever believe so ridiculous a lie!”

“Why should it be a lie? Isn’t Yal’s grace meant for all? Noble and common, great and small?” Lallas asked.

“But not for monsters,” Alin said.

“Vampire or human, I am but a man,” Lallas said.

“You feast on the blood of the living!” Alin said.

“I believe I smell some wonderful cured beef in your pack,” Lallas said. “Tell me, how is the cow from whom is was taken doing?”

“You equate people with animals?” Alin said.

“Of course not,” Lallas said. “But what makes you think I would take blood from a person?”

“It’s what your kind does,” Alin said. “It’s what you are.”

“You’ve spent much time in the company of vampires?” Lallas asked.

He waited for Alin to respond but as the silence stretched beyond a trio of heartbeats he continued.

“No. Of course not,” Lallas said. “You’ve merely killed several.”

“I’ve ended their tyranny over the living,” Alin said. “Or would you deny the victim’s blood that I’ve seen pouring into gutters and soaked into bed cloths?”

It was Lallas’ turn to be silent for a moment.

“Never,” Lallas said. “And I make no accusation against you, but I would ask you this one thing; if you were to judge humans by the actions of the most terrible among them, what would you find?”

“Humans can chose,” Alin said. “They can be redeemed.”

“Yes, and thus it’s a tragedy when they fall.” Lallas said. “The same is true for vampires.”

“Is it?” Alin said. “You bear a curse, one that inflicts inhuman desires on you. Even if you struggle against it, the hunger is always there, waiting for a moment of weakness.”

“Rubbish,” Lallas said. “Who ever told you that?”

“So many of your kind,” Alin said. “When they are cornered at last. It’s always the same. All the pleas and excuses that drone into the same monotonous phrases.”

Lallas chuckled.

“I’m sure they do,” he said. “Consider though, you’re speaking to people who have, by definition, the least impulse control and the weakest of moral compasses.”

Lallas hopped up from his seat and began to pace in a circle whose nearest edge came no closer to Alin than he’d been before.

“I grew up the son of a sailor,” Lallas said. “There are some fine men who ride the waves, my father among them, but in every crew there is inevitably the laziest, sorest lot of bellyachers you can possible imagine. Their whines and complaints are much like what you describe. ‘Nothing is ever their fault’, ‘they just can’t help themselves’, ‘it’s their nature’ and on and on.”

“So you mean to tell me that you don’t hunger for my blood?” Alin said.

“I had a very nice supper, so, no, the idea of more food is rather distasteful at the moment,” Lallas said. “And before you ask, even if I’d skipped a few meals, your blood would look no more appetizing to me than my bicep would look to you. Eating people is…bleh.”

“An amusing claim, but even if I accept it there’s the point that vampires are repelled by holy symbols,” Alin said. “Do you think the gods are overlooking all of the ‘good vampires’ out there when they send their holy power forth?”

“Holy symbols?” Lallas asked. “Like this one?”

From his robe he pulled a Sun Disk of Yal in every detail the same as the one Alin wore.

“It’s not the symbol which repels us,” Lallas said. “But the one who wields it.”

“How?” Alin asked.

“You know the vampiric power of mesmerism correct?” Lallas asked. “How we can impose our will on the weak minded? We can do that because our minds are open, psychically speaking. That can work against us though, like when someone who hates us tremendously focuses their will on something or someone they believe in utterly.”

“You deny that it’s Yal’s holy light that holds you back?” Alin asked.

“If it was Yal’s will, then the innocent would be more protected than clerics who have plenty of other powers to defend themselves with don’t you think?” Lallas asked.

Alin felt the ground crumbling under him in everything except for a literal fashion.

“But you can’t stand the light! It burns you!” he said.

The vampire was confusing him. That was dangerous. Mesmerism only worked on the weak minded, but anyone’s mind could be weakened by injuries and clever lies.

“Yes,” Lallas said. “A side-effect of our condition. We are fragile creatures in some senses, perhaps to make up for our other strengths. I should point out though that the sun will burn you too. None of us are meant to be under Yal’s light forever.”

“Why are you doing this?” Alin asked. “Why all these lies?”

“Well, you’ve placed me in a difficult position,” Lallas said. “If I leave you here, you’ll be dead by morning. Even without your prayers, the wolves and bears will find you soon enough. If I try to rescue you though, I believe you will use that flask to do us both grievous harm.”

“You could just leave me to Yal’s keeping,” Alin said.

“What makes you think, I’m not Yal’s answer to your predicament?” Lallas said.

“Prove it then,” Alin said, “If you’ve been called to Yal’s service, then cast a spell. Even the simplest orison. Just a cantrip to show his blessing is on you.”

“I cannot,” Lallas said. “I felt his calling within my heart and have served him as best as I can for years, but I have never been trained in the rites and investitures of the faithful.”

“How can you call yourself one of the faithful if Yal never speaks to you?” Alin called.

“Because it’s not important what he does for me,” Lallas said. “What matters is what his doctrine teaches me to do for the world.”

“And what do you think he wants you to do for the world?” Alin asked.

“I think he wants me to help people,” Lallas said, “No matter how painful that might sometimes be.”

The vampire tensed. Alin had fought vampires for too long not to see what would happen next. Lallas would charge forward. He would knock the flask from Alin’s hand. Then the gloating would begin. Without his last weapon, Alin would be powerless to prevent what came next. He would die and a new horror would stalk the world wearing his face.

He smashed the flask against the stone beneath him and unleashed the wrath of his god, welcoming the searing heat of the flames that blossomed forth. He writhed for an instant in agony and then merciful darkness claimed him.

Alin expected he would open his eyes to find himself in the Celestial Blue, Yal’s heaven and the resting place for the virtuous souls under his care.

Instead he found himself in Lallas’ embrace.

The vampire’s soft face was lit by the noonday sun and had turned a deep, unpleasant shade of red. As Alin woke, Lallas stirred too.

“Where are we, what have you done to me?” Alin asked, moving away from the vampire.

“Sorry,” Lallas said. “We’re not far from the temple. I just had to get us away from the flames.”

“You rescued me?” Alin asked.

“Mostly,” Lallas said. “I’m afraid we both got a more than a little scorched.”

Alin looked at his hands and felt his face. They were unscathed.

“What did you do,” Alin asked. “Exactly.”

“When I saw you were going to drop the flask, I rushed over and pushed the beam off you,” Lallas said. “I wasn’t quite quick enough though, so then I had to carry you out here before we both sizzled to ash.”

“And that’s it?” Alin asked feeling his neck for any puncture wounds.

“I’m afraid I didn’t have much more left in me,” Lallas said. “I put us against this tree and wrapped you in my cloak so I would know if the wolves came for you.”

“Did they?” Alin asked.

“Once,” Lallas said. “But they’re sensible creatures. I growled at them, they growled back, I growled louder and they left.”

“Why did you stay at the edge of the forest though? The sun is shining here,” Lallas asked.

“Deeper into the forest and the bears would have come for you too,” Lallas said. “And I didn’t think I could growl louder than a bear.”

The vampire got to his feet and sagged against a tree for support.

“What are you going to do now?” Alin asked.

“Well my old home had its roof fall in and then burned to the ground last night, so I think I’m going to find another ruin and chase off the demons in it,” Lallas said. “Maybe after I have a bit of nap somewhere dark though.”

“Hold for a moment,” Alin said and produced a shovel from his pack.

“What are you doing with that?” Lallas asked.

“Digging you a little grave to rest in,” Alin said. “I know of home for you, but you look like you’re seven kinds of sick at the moment, so I’m not going to bring you there until you’ve had a chance to rest up.”

“I don’t understand,” Lallas said. “Where are you thinking to take me?”

“The Grand Basilica,” Alin said.

“But, I can’t…” Lallas began before Alin cut him off.

“Listen, I misjudged you, and I owe you my life despite that,” Alin said. “But that’s not why I’m taking you to the Basilica.”

“Why then?” Lallas asked.

“Look at my skin,” Alin said.

“You look fine,” Lallas said and shrugged. “You healed yourself.”

“No,” Alin said. “I didn’t. You did. Your faith. I can feel it in the magic within me. You are part of Yal’s flock, even if you are the blackest of black sheep that I can imagine, and I am not letting you stray any further. You’re going to get a proper education and anyone who has a problem with that is going to get an education from me.”

***

A lifetime later, as Alin rested in his papal seat going over the small matters of the day, a knock disturbed what he would insist was not a tiny bout of slumber.

“Your Grace, your noon appointment is here,” one of the junior clerks said.

The clerk led two young women into the room. There was a radiant joy to them that gave away their request before they made it.

“You would be the couple who asked for the services of a special priest to perform a blessing on your wedding I believe?” Alin said.

“Yes,” Jin said. “It will involve a little bit of travel.”

“And we’d like it to be someone who’s both kind and accepting of the unusual,” Way said.

“Because this is going to be a bit of an unusual wedding,” Jin said.

“I believe I know just the person,” Alin said.

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