We were enemies before the concept had evolved in humans. It was a unique relationship. A play of opposites. Light cannot exist in darkness. But that is too perfect to describe the red chaos of our competition. I cannot reference blood either since it is both everything and nothing. A symbol, if you will. So imagine instead the red that appears behind closed eyes when heat overwhelms your human lids, burning through the flesh to the socket, where it boils away until all that is left is red ashes. Ha, but you've never felt such a pain! Yet it is a metaphor that I will stand behind since neither can you hope to fully comprehend our struggle. And it too is needless, agonizing, and inevitably fatal.
Yes, socket boiling.
Perhaps I can tell this story after all. It's hard, you know, to put what was never meant to manifest in paper and ink. It's the only way though. To make sense of it.
I must beg your compliance once more. Wait a while before you judge. Not until you've put this book down, but until you meet a stranger. Look at them, I mean really examine their every casual phrase, laugh, gesture. You may ponder then what it is that motivates them. And, if you see the littlest piece of us at work, then you may judge me. And her. But wait until then, when you know our story, see our presence in every little gesture, and look into the mirror, wondering how much our power has shaped you, like raw clay.
We are innumerable and rare. Easier to find then they are, but also less prominent. They are the sort of things that are so humbly extant, they draw people to them. We are so beautiful that we draw an equal number. Only, we like the shadows. Not because of some light-and-dark battle, or whatever irrelevant moral allegory you want to try and bring into it, but simple, Machiavellian logic. He was one of ours, by the way, or at least the real author was. Machiavelli, the obscure little man, was a front. Like I said, shadows.
Remember what I wrote about the allegories? We are also not demons, or devils, or evil spirits that go bump in the night. They are not angels, or saints, or the heavenly departed who knock on tables and move Ouija boards. We are the Malvacci. They are the Bonpecci. Named by the "true" Machiavelli, a renowned Malvacci courtesan. I missed her by a couple of centuries, but I heard she was quite a woman. Could argue theory with humans and make them believe her without glamour. Though in many ways a Malvacci woman is glamour in and of herself. In any case, I have a hard time imagining Machiavelli arguing too hard.
A little known fact is that we were all once humans. Not many know what it takes to make a Malvacci or Bonpecci. That's understandably a closely guarded secret, even within our ranks. When I learned the answer, the irony was beautiful. I couldn't even begin to explain why it delighted me, like a delicious plot twist. It was either laugh or go find a priest with a stake and holy water.
Ah, that strikes a chord I see. Yes, we are in many ways similar to your "vampires." We are also your Banshees, succubae, and ghouls, but for some reason, humans always get stuck on the vampire comparison. It's probably the blood, which yes, we do drink. It keeps our bodies strong and regenerating. It is your spirit, however, which forms our real sustenance. The same is true for the Bonpecci, only they borrow and regift. We take until there is nothing left to give. Some would call it torture. Only, there are your irrelevant morals again.
The truth is, we think of ourselves as the paragon of evolution. After all, find me a creature in nature that is more thorough in its hunt, more dedicated. There are natural urges in all of us, human and otherwise, but everything we Malvacci are made of is built first for self-preservation, and second for the hunt. We may live for an indefinable time, unless we meet a violent end. So our thought is only to remove the possibility of that end. So far, we've been doing a damn fine job.
We have domesticated humans. Giving them metals like iron and steel helped quite a bit. They immediately began to design weapons that had little to no effect upon us, but were excellent for use upon themselves. We have even taken away their fire, replaced it with useless house-hold lightning. Like lambs to the slaughter.
Our ongoing war with the Bonpecci reduced both our numbers. For every staked Malvacci, two more Bonpecci burned at the stake. For all the violence, we never laid a direct hand on one another. Humans were the pawns, preferably in large mobs. The only thing better, more efficient than an angry mob was a righteous, official mob. As far as that little development goes, the Malvacci caught on quicker. The French Revolution was a master stroke, and the Bonpecci numbers dwindled into the hundreds.
I either had a great fortune or a great curse upon my head to be born during this time. My second birth was not long after, at some twenty years of age, part of a push to increase the Malvacci ranks. It is a process that makes the eye-ball boiling pale in comparison, but there will be time to revisit these details at a later date. I belonged to my second-mother, as per tradition, but she was weaker than I, and quickly defeated. I was left alone to wander the English islands, simultaneously disgusted and enamored with my transformation, and unconnected to my own world. I knew nothing of the population bulge among the Malvacci, or the factions that had developed as a result. If ever there was proof of some guiding hand in all this, it is the constant tendency for the Malvacci to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The great wars reduced our newly-inflated numbers to far below what they had been before, not to mention decimated much of the human race in the process. That was also what led to the rise of Victor Heller.
I digress. As I had previously mentioned, I was made safe by my ignorance. I traveled where I pleased, and fed where I wanted, though always with caution. The cities were the easiest. There lived the most skeptical, the least likely to cry monster, and the most likely to blame occasional disappearances on the city's lowlife. It was there, in the autumn of 1798 that I met John.
He came and found me in the sewer I'd made my home. I was foolish, ill-educated. I didn't recognize the signs of a warrior who sharpened fingernails on the like of me. I challenged him, the first I'd ever met save my second mother with skin as pale as mine and eyes as deep. He had me writhing on the ground before I could show my teeth. It was a talent he'd honed over the centuries. Our minds are our most valuable tool, he would later instruct me. Never overestimate the pain they can endure, and never underestimate the pain they can inflict. I broke quickly, and when the mental onslaught ceased, I was ready to stake myself should he ask it, rather than endure the pain again. Instead, he held out his arm to help me off the ground, looked me in the eyes and told me "I have work for you."
It would be a mistake to say I'd ever learned the complete truth about John. Though he only looks about forty, I suspect he may be the oldest of the surviving Malvacci. John is the only name he's ever given, but only a complete idiot would think of him as nondescript. While pale, his skin speaks of a sun long set. His eyes are black and he wears his hair scruffy, while stubble defines his chiseled jaw, but instead of looking like a wild man, you can tell by looking that his rumpledness is just another deliberate layer. No one knows what lies at the core.
I trust him all the same, because his blood runs cold. I've never seen him strike without considering every angle, every escape, and every weakness. He likes his food lightly stunned, like deer, rather than the struggling that some Malvacci prefer. Its almost artistic the way he arranges them first, a habit like a finicky chef, opening their eyes just as…
You grimace. There is worse to come, I assure you. What I wish to say is that John, after all these centuries, still adheres to a conception of honor. He gives everything its due dignity, even his prey. This once struck me as sentimental.
I was a fool.
John took me from the gutters, gave me order and discipline, and by all rights, became my second father. There were times when I hated him so much I could taste it, when I lay chained to the floor, biting through my tongue in the pain, a punishment for choosing my prey too rashly. And all the while he would look at me with those hard onyx eyes and tell me it was a kindness. Yet no matter how low I sunk myself before him and accepted my punishment, it was as though the riff had never been.
He saw something in me, just as he had in my other brothers and sisters. I was the only rogue he took into his coven. He mingled in human society, as a general rule, searching for something only he knew. When he found it, we brought the human to him, and we rebirthed them. This happened only two times in the years I traveled with John. Before me there had been a girl named Rosalyn and a man named Pierre. Of the two, Rosalyn was the youngest in appearance. Seventeen if she'd been a day. I'd once assumed John had just taken a liking to her doll-like appearance, but the years had convinced me otherwise. Rosalyn was viciously precise in whatever she did, and had the memory of a snake-charmer.
Where Rosalyn was a scalpel, Pierre was a brick, He didn't speak much, but when he did, it was as though it had come from a mountain top. Even John listened and obeyed. The rest of the time he was an impressive figure of about seven feet tall and five feet wide. When we traveled as humans, Pierre did the labor since his super human strength seemed more plausible. They were quite a pair. I knew that they mated, and like magnets, where one went, the other was never far behind. Rosalyn flirted plenty, and if I'd wanted her private company, I would have had it, but Pierre was a different story. Rosalyn had killed Malvacci before, she would announce proudly, who'd thought to seduce him. Pierre remained silent, and to all appearances, content.
Yet I could never shake the sneaking suspicion that had it come to a fight, I could have beaten them both. From the beginning, I was strong. I'd bested my own creator, staking her and leaving her to die. In many ways, I was built to be a Malvacci, with a tall enough frame to have presence, yet lithe enough to disappear into the crowd. My strength was evenly distributed, not concentrated in my chest like Pierre's.
During the first hunts, I'd easily outstripped the others, breaking my prey like straw. I'd been punished, and John lectured that a Malvacci never used their full strength, lest events take a turn for the worse. I accepted my penance, even though I sensed the hidden message: don't challenge the status quo until I need you to. So the others appeared to forget, and I fell into line, but John knew. He'd accepted and trained a rogue Malvacci, like accepting a feral dog into your home, and it hadn't been because he liked the danger. We were each valuable to him, in our way.
The next to come were Sarah and Nicolas. Where Rosalyn was fiery, Sarah was even-tempered. Where Rosalyn was a beauty, Sarah was plainly disfigured. She'd suffered an injury at some point in her life that had left raking scars on the left side of her face, and it was clear that before the incident, she'd been plain at best. Nicolas was all life, a rank Austrian with a love for bawdy songs and anything he could bed or eat, sometimes in the same day. He and Rosalyn took up soon after his rebirth, in an affair that nearly resulted in one or both of their deaths before Jon intervened.
We had to remain underground, more so than other Malvacci, because we were not followers of Victor Heller. There had been an informal council of Malvacci, formed during the Roman empire. It never had more than the façade of power, especially during the great wars, when it was every Malvacci for his and his own. However, Heller, a cruelly efficient ruler in his own time, had utilized a combination of fear and bargaining to build a small army. They had swept across the world, their numbers gaining as they approached each Malvacci and asked them to "renew" their birthright in a powerful ceremony of oath binding them to Victor Heller. They called their movement the New Night, and lobbied for a final push to completely obliterate the Bonpecci. Though I had not heard him speak, I was told that Heller was silver-tongued, and the vast majority of his press-ganged recruits came to regard him as a sort of messiah.
Something about the winds of change had disturbed John enough that he had shifted from a millennia of hunting alone to carefully gathering a small coven. I didn't understand John's objection to Heller at first. Though I was skeptical of any man calling himself a "messiah", his vision seemed well and good. With the death of the last Bonpecci, the humans would begin their own destruction, with a little help from Malvacci agents. From the ashes of humanity, Heller and his followers would rise once again to reign supreme. We would no longer have to live in fear and hunt in darkness. The Malvacci would live as true lords, demanding tribute from their human workforces.
I had no love for humanity. My kills had become quick and efficient, like John's. I didn't make them fawn over me like Rosalyn or pleasure myself with them like Nicolas. They were herd animals, not to be played with, and if I could shoe them and emerge as a ruler instead of two steps from kindling, I would gladly do so.
The subject, however, was absolutely forbidden. John would have no hint of disobedience, and it was not my place to question his motives. It remained an unsaid truth that our coven was in some way a challenge to Heller's supremacy, so we ingratiated ourselves within human society, the last place in which we would be looked for. John would play the part of a lord, Rosalyn his young wife, while Nicolas was her brother, and I a personal secretary. "It's perfect for you," she would often tease, "since you scowl so much."
We were living in Budapest during the high point of the season in 1889 when the moment John had dreaded came to pass. We knew nothing until he called us to him in the way he has. We all stopped what our tasks and assembled in the parlor. Roslyn looked slightly disgruntled; she'd been in the process of fixing her hair. But we all sat erect, sensing John's tense mood.
"My children," he began significantly. It was the first time he had referred to us as such.
"My sources inform me we are the last of the Malvacci covens to remain independent from Heller's cause. He celebrates tonight, knowing nothing of our existence."
John spat on the floor, a rare gesture of annoyance.
"But he has lost our way. He moves to destroy the last of the Bonpecci bloodlines tonight."
I could feel the blood thrumming in my ears with excitement. Finally, the hated enemy would be vanquished forever. But the news appeared only to deepen the intensity of John's anger. His words were now like claps of thunder.
"He will massacre them, dirtying his hands and mouth with their blood. Tomorrow he will name himself king to his troops, and they will laud him as a savior. We are the Malvacci, who know no rule, and yet we are willing to bend at the knee for the like of Heller, who, once fatted on the Bonpecci blood, will reign tyrant."
I frowned. It was true that spreading the wealth was not exactly a Malvacci specialty.
"It is an insane idea, John" Pierre's deep voice rang out.
"But will it work?" John asked in response.
We all hung on Pierre's every word, curious beyond belief what rash action John could possibly be contemplating.
Pierre appeared lost in thought. Finally, he shook his head.
"That, I cannot say, but we must either try or lay down arms forever"
"Try what?" Rosalyn finally asked, her expression petulant.
"Saving a Bonpecci blood."
The room erupted with noise. I growled, deeply, from my chest, every nerve in my body ringing alarm. Sarah's ruined face was twisted in a grimace, and she looked ready to leave the room. Rosalyn had reached for Pierre's arm, and I though the fingernails probably pierced the skin.
"Silence!" John bellowed, and as a matter of habit, we fell quiet.
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Nicolas thought aloud. "But if they are both our enemy?"
I felt John's mental presence sweeping the room. It was a method of control and intimidation. When the tide reached me, I fought it at first. John turned his face in my direction, and I saw tightly controlled fury. Knowing that the anger wasn't for me, but would be gladly turned loose on me, I submitted and let the presence wash over me. It was just another power ritual, like with dogs. I had rolled over on to my belly and I despised it, but now was not the time for rebellion. I would not, however, aid in John's self-defeating spitefulness. I planned already to leave as soon as this meeting was over, to grab my bag, walk away, and never look back. Perhaps I would join Heller's numbers. I didn't like bowing to any man, but information about John's crazy scheme might bring its own rewards. For now, I would sit quietly.
John's eyes snapped away from me to regard the room as a whole once more.
"We will save a Bonpecci blood," he began, "And thus will Heller be an agent of his own destruction. We will hide the blood away, saving it until the prime opportunity, and then we will awaken it. We will infuse it with hatred for Heller's cause."
"A tame lion," Nicolas murmured, his eyes wide. "How could it possibly get to Heller at that point?"
"It will have the advantage, because Heller will never see it coming," Rosalyn replied. "He will never succeed in pushing humans into apocalypse because it will be a wrench in the gears. He may not see the signs of its influence until the mobs burn his entire coven. He will not wish to see. A live Bonpecci would mean that he had failed, lied. His people would have the right to turn on him. It's brilliant," she concluded, looking up at John with adoring eyes. He absent-mindedly stroked her hair before regarding the room once more.
"We must depart here no late than noon. Go. Pack your things."
I stood to depart with the others when I felt John's hand on my shoulder.
"Stay with me a moment, Isaac" he told me, in a too-calm voice. I realized with a start that Rosalyn had closed the door on her way out. I was enclosed.
I turned slowly, and saw the fury on his face once more. Desperately, I lashed out, but John was two steps ahead. He drove a fist into my ribcage, winding me. I bent in two, and he brought a knee up into my face, cracking my nose. I swung out and my fist connected with his shoulder. Triumphant, I raised my bloodied face to aim another swing, but John began the attack from within. It was like a million needles were being driven into every soft and vulnerably part of my body. I fell to the floor, screaming. My own pain filled my ears, drowning my thoughts. When the onslaught continued, I began to leak little rivulets of blood from my mouth, nose, ears, eyes. It was an intensity of John's power that had never before been turned on me. If it didn't kill me, it would leave me a gibbering, drooling mess of a being.
After the flow cutoff, fading into a deep fully-body ache, I rolled my eye in order to see John. He had calmly moved to a nearby chair. With a single resounding crack, he split a leg from the chair and advanced upon me. I lay frozen in agony as he knelt besides me, holding the handmade stake directly above my heart. The point pressed into my flesh, and I saw blood well. When I met John's eyes, I saw no hint of mercy.
"You are strong, Isaac, but you forget that I am stronger," he hissed in a deadly whisper. The stake drove a centimeter further in, a needle's length from my heart. I couldn't look from his onyx eyes, which underlined every word with dark promises.
"Try me again and I will see you dead," he told me slowly, twisting the stake slightly. I nodded, to show the depth of my comprehension.
Finally, a century later, he pulled out the stake. I remained on the ground, not moving until he gave me permission to do so. He walked over to the desk, from which he pulled a small length of cord. From the stake he split a small bloody splinter, which he carefully attached to the cord with a hair of wire. He came back to where I lay, and offered me a hand. I took it, and he roughly pulled me to my feet. I noticed that he appeared be favoring his left arm. It was he only evidence he bore of our short struggle. His nostrils flared as he looked me over, my skin stained with my own blood. He handed me the cord and splinter.
"Put it on."
I did so, wincing as I raised my arms to slip the necklace over my head. The splinter hung like a small red dagger.
"Always remember that you belong to me. You wear your death, and if you cross me, I will finish the job," he told me.
"Now, clean yourself up and get ready to go. We leave at midday."
The manor was a country estate lying two hours distance from Budapest. I sat in the coach, sharing a seat with Rosalyn for the rocky ride. My bruises had already healed, a Malvacci benefit, but I saw Rosalyn test the air when I entered the coach. I slunk to the side, mired in my defeat as she intently watched. There was not enough soap in the air to disguise the scent of fresh blood from sweet little Rosalyn.
While I offered no explanation, I think she would have asked had John not begun to lecture Nicolas.
"I will accept no lapses tonight," he said, knocking a signal for Pierre to start the horses.
"I don't know what you mean," Nicolas replied, his voice light and mischievous.
John still didn't bother to look at him. I gathered that the real lecture had already occurred, probably behind closed door, and this was a gentle reminder.
I saw Rosalyn's face take on a calculating expression.
"It would be so easy to take two…"
"No," John interrupted, his tone final. "It was forbidden before you saw first light."
Rosalyn pouted slightly. We'd all wondered that night what Bonpecci line blood would taste like. When we arrived, hid the coach in the woods, we could smell its flavor on the air, like cinnamon. We each reacted in different ways. I held my nostrils shut, disgusted by the tricks it played on me. Rosalyn's eyes had taken on a dreamy cast, while Nicolas bore his fangs to the moon. I wondered briefly if he would break from us that night, enticed by the slaughter.
On my left, Pierre suddenly stiffened.
"They've come early," he informed John, finishing at the same time that the first wordless scream rang out across the grounds.
"It was from the gardens," Rosalyn pointed out. "They're coming from the back."
I followed her manicured finger to the maze that lay at the bottom of our hilly outlook. We saw a group of about eight dark figures swarm out of the gardens and up the terraced lawn. To the human eye, they would have been moving to fast to define as distinct shapes. Like poison gas. John roared in frustration.
"They've changed the plan."
The figures swept through the glass doors of the house like they were walking through cobwebs. Already, the first howls from within caught our ears.
"Pierre, Nicolas, to me!" called John. They flew out of the trees like knocked arrows. I thought they might already be too late. The fragrance of fresh-spilt blood oozed through the air. Rosalyn's mouth had dropped open as she tried to gleam the taste from the air. Sarah had moved to unload a trunk from the top of the coach. She flipped the lid to reveal a lined interior, like that of a coffin.
"Rosalyn," she murmured a gentle reminder.
"Damn," Rosalyn replied, shaking her head as though to wipe away the distracting violence from below. "What I would give to…"
She left the sentence unsaid as she removed a bottle from her purse. I watched incredulously as she sunk a fang into a sponge at the top. One, two, then three glistening drops of venom began to form, then slowly coalesce at the bottom of the glass.
Aggravated by my own ignorance, I kicked a stone into a tree, leaving a bullet-size wound, and stomped out of the clearing, away from the house and down the other side of the hill. Was I to be kept as a lapdog, not even worthy to know John's purposes, never mind be of use? I growled, then looked up at the woods stretching before me. I could run now, leaving John to his imbecilic schemes. I could be a hundred miles away before they knew I was gone. Already my stride had begun to lengthen, my muscles tensed to leap forth.
I was startled back into the present by the sound of something's approach. The brushing of leaves and an irregular step. My hunting instincts activated, and I was ready for the human when it broke through the undergrowth and fell neatly at my feet.
I reached down to break its neck, but halted. It seemed to be a day for half-formed intentions. My pause gave it enough time to raise its head, and regard me with small eyes like brown glass. They were empty, wiped clear with shock and fear. The small body shook violently with exertion. Blood caked in its hair, and I could smell that it had been splattered from at least two different humans. It was a young girl.
I knelt down, distracted by my senses, which had suddenly gone blank. Puzzled, I gripped its shoulder, making sure it was real. It had no scent of its own. I'd never run into such a thing, but the closer I came, the more my senses wavered with newfound doubt, hazy and drunken. I could no longer hear anything but its death-marching heart and gasping breaths. As I listened, fascinated, they began to calm. I pulled away. It watched me with cautious eyes. No longer blindly terrified. Just… aware.
As I removed my hand and rose to my feet, the muffling sensation receded. I remained fascinated. At my foot lay something inhuman. Carefully disguised, but stretching its form nonetheless. I wondered how much it knew. If I could make it tell me its secrets…
Yet, as we continued to regard each other, I on my feet, and it on its knees, I felt myself lose ground. The muffling sensation began to spread out to encompass me once more. I heard the beat of its heart pound in my ears as if it was my own. A feeling I hadn't had for more than a century. I found my eyes tracing its small features in a way I'd never looked at human prey. Like I was seeing a mirror image, undiluted by glass.
With an oath, I took a step forward, given hope by the knowledge that my body was strong, that my teeth were sharp. She would die, here, now. I would rip her throat, but toss her bloody body aside, force myself to purge her taste from my mouth. The forest would take my offering and break it apart over the months, dispersing it, and it would be as if nature had never conspired to give her evil earthly form in the first place. She didn't resist as I pulled her up from the ground, forcing myself to relish this insignificant power. I had held her lightly, so as not to taint this ground any more with her scentless blood. Then, before I could curl my dry lips, she was taken from my grasp. It was as though she had been whipped away by an errant wind. My murderously diluted eyes came to focus on Sarah instead, who cradled the girl in arms like stone. I hissed and bore my fangs. Sarah replied in kind, but it was not a challenge.
"You forget yourself," she told me, her eyes significantly darting to the side. The last light had faded, but I could make out approaching silhouettes. John, Nicolas, and Pierre, who carried the trunk on his broad shoulders. They dropped to the sides as Pierre came forth, carefully laying the trunk on the forest floor.
Sarah was humming a small lullaby now, gently swaying from side to side. She bent to carefully lay the girl in the trunks, as if putting her to bed. The coven had begun to draw in, and I had to hurry forward to see what came next. Rosalyn knelt on the other side and gently guided the girl's face towards her. She pressed the small jar to her lips. They parted obediently, and she drank the teaspoon of venom without a sound. Before Rosalyn had even pulled the glass away, the girl slid downwards, her eyes squeezed shut. Sarah moved her so that she lay like the dead, then secured her with straps. I looked at the frail figure, mystified why I'd given it the significance I had.
A hand slapped me on the back. I turned to regard a triumphant looking John.
"Congratulations, Isaac. You've saved the last of the Bonpecci."
Ah, but this wears on me, to retell it in this fashion. With you looking like you'd just seen a car swerve before it hit a small child. You don't understand that I bought my fate that night. We Malvacci finish what we set out to do. If we don't, it is a cancerous weakness. A shallow cut, perhaps, but we swim with sharks in this world of ours.
I am tired.