By Heath Harper
At the Doorstep
The sun crested the forest edge, sending purples and reds streaking across the heavens in bright rays of light. The moon was finding its place in the sky, seeking its eternal bed high above the purple-rimmed clouds as evening began to wrap it cool veil over the landscape. As the sun faded, a flock of swallows sang a low mournful tune that carried the weight of a thousand tiny prayers away from the mountains that stood like silent sentinels of the Gods. There, as the echoes of the birds song reverberated into the hearts of every living creature, a sweet wind blew off the peaks and rested its calming hands on the woods below. Nature seemed in perfect harmony, as if the dawn of the world had passed but hours ago and the heavens had displayed their beauty across Toril’s clouds in celebration.
And Evan Laruebius stared serenely into the heavenly bodies, a deep breath in his lungs, his elven soul singing as clearly and as surely as the swallows on high. The breeze ruffled his long blue tabard and scarf, his hair became even more windblown, and a rosy red kissed his cheeks with the merciful chilliness of a coming Faerun autumn.
“Tymora be praised,” he whispered.
All along the forest stood his fellows, almost as riveted. All dressed in the same blue tabard and scarf, the Priests of the Flipping Coin knew true serenity then, knew their faith wholly. Not one dared speak above a breathy praise to their Lady of Luck lest the spell be broken.
As the sun finally gave in, shining a final beacon of lavender radiance into the waning daylight, the priests began to hum. All at once, their cadence of praise rose into the night sky, welcoming the mysteries of the night their Goddess might bring. The song’s melody was as pure as the wolf cries that harmonized in the distance.
Evan led the priests back home with a high heart for their Equinox Celebration.
Within the hour, the courtyard of Tymora’s Hall, their newly-erected home and monastery was full, and among them, a young idealistic priest stood tallest. Evan Laruebius loved his life. His Goddess had been good to him – he had been born elven, strong and thin, and the sharp cut of his eyes and face were a perfect testament to the belief of the Goddess Tymora. As the first barrels of exotic ales were broken open, Evan passed his hand through his hair, releasing his long black ponytail and shaking it in the wind. He could feel the envious stares of the other priests, knew how jealously they regarded his talent as a servant of the Goddess. He grinned from ear to ear as he crossed the courtyard to fill his mug.
So it was with a deep sigh that he felt a hand on his shoulder. He knew immediately who it was.
“Good evening, Brother Evan,” an aged voice said.
Evan smiled. Brother Brevin was an oddity among the priests. He was old – ancient by human standards, but his strength was great, and no one, not even Evan could compare to his standing with the Goddess. For this reason, Evan loved Brevin most of all.
Evan smiled deeply as he gazed into the priest’s chiding, fatherly eyes and over his coarse grey beard.
“It is a wonderful evening that our Goddess has made.” he said.
“Hmm. As it always is.” Brevin huffed, even more preoccupied than usual. He picked at his oak staff thoughtfully and grumbled.
“I looked for you today, brother Evan,” the old priest continued.
Evan cleared his throat. Surely Brevin hadn’t come to interrogate him…Evan had made sure that Brevin, the Hall’s favorite meddler and snoop was sound asleep when he had slipped this afternoon out for a quick dip in his favorite lake. The wood had gotten chopped (eventually), and the elf had had a bit of fun as his reward. Evan could see no harm in it.
However, all he could think to say in his defense was, “Ahem. What do you mean?”
Brevin almost cracked a smile.
“You know, Evan, it isn’t befitting for a young priest to be cavorting about the woodlands with nymphs when there is work to be done.”
“I know,” Evan said, his eyes narrowing and his empty mug bouncing impatiently on his hip. “Funny you should mention the nymphs…they never did figure out where you were that summer when your ‘former flock’ bid you away from your duties in Evereska, did they?”
Nothing could stop the priest from actually chuckling this time. “I cannot believe that you would be so taken by flights of fancy, Evan. Really, the thought of me having inappropriate relations with a wood nymph named Namial in the Moonwood. Really.”
Evan had him. “I never mentioned her name.”
Brevin bent close. “Neither did she. But she talked in her sleep.”
The two priests toasted a long draft.
“Have you yet eaten this day, old one?” the elf asked, finally taking stock of the old man’s usually thicker frame. The old priest’s robes were fitting him loosely, and his skin had lost much color.
Brevin shook his black-gray locks. “No, I haven’t.”
Evan paused. “Have you-”
The human’s eyes steeled. Suddenly he had the intensity of a wild bear deep within his small, brown eyes. “Have you ever sat, staring out into the forests at night, Evan?”
Evan paused. He had never seen the old priest shaken like this.
“No-Brother, I haven’t.”
Brevin sighed. “Neither have I, then,” he lied.
Evan closed his eyes again and nodded his head. There had to be a way to push this aside…to worry so could not be good for an old man’s health.
“Are you worried about those woods, brother?” Evan said, pointing out to the lush green forest before them. “I have been told that the wolves have been driven from it and there haven’t been any-”
“And you believed them, Evan?” the old priest replied. “We have been here not but a week and Brother Stephan tells you we have nothing to fear out there?”
Evan hung his head and sighed. It seemed so out of place for such worry. All around the Priests of the Flipping Coin sang and danced, tossed toasts with full mugs and playing lutes and harps. How could one be melancholy, even the old?
“Besides,” Brevin said, waving his hand. “It’s not for wolves that I worry.”
Evan looked up. “Then for what, old one? Are you to tell me that there is something already out there, plotting our doom? We are clerics, man! Why you yourself have enough strength-”
“No, Evan,” the priest said with the finality only a venerable high priest could employ. “Not strength. The Lady gives me spells and faith. Strength is a whole other matter.”
“…Whatever,” Evan replied. “There isn’t anything in those woods that you alone couldn’t handle. Your spells are strong, your mind is sharp.” Evan lay an arm over the older priest’s shoulders and threw his hand out grandly towards the moon. A flock of birds careened along the wind, headed west into the spectrum of twilight.
“…And we have the Lady to guide us, Old Father.”
Brevin shook his head and turned his back on the elf and the sunset.
“I wish I knew, Evan. I wish I knew.”
Evan shrugged away the old priest’s worries and sucked in one last gulp of air. It was cold.
* * * * *
Dinner that night was better than any the priests had supped in weeks. They had stocked their provisions well, with enough sweet meats and breads to last them for many months. There was even discussion of adding on to the existing wine cellar to house all the new draughts the priests had bought, much more than they could drink before winter.
Evan danced and crooned long into the night, and whenever he slipped from his chair, friendly arms would sit him upright and his plate and his mug would be full again.
A song came to his mind as the moon rose to full midnight. He broke into ballad halfway through the third course, and soon the entire hall was aglow, the younger priests lifting their voices and calling out to their Goddess for the gift of song. They were not disappointed, as the music lasted well into the night.
When the morning sun greeted them all the next morning, the priests met Her slowly, but soon the day began anew, and things came into full swing for the Priests of the Flipping Coin. Long into the night, plans were made, and more drink and food was passed around, and Evan was happy – moreso than he had ever been, or would ever be again.
* * * * *
The revelers were not the only ones to enjoy the music that night.
Deep within the fortress of trees was far beyond the monastery was a Darkness, a strangeness set apart from the blissful serenity that cradled the forest glades, apart from the essence of light that surrounded Nature and her children. The Darkness was so pervasive that it entombed a small section of the forest world in never-ending twilight at best, and pitch-blackness at most. As the shrubbery parted its claw-like grip in the centermost part of the forest, the trees grew thickest and threatened to all but block out the sun entirely from grazing the withered forest floor. There, leaning slightly against a long dead oak tree stood a stone and granite sepulcher, its crumbling marble threatening to fall apart on a gust of wind.
Indeed the tomb seemed less than a lump of stone to the eyes of any who were to pass it, as its many small statues of angels and devils had been long neglected and were wearing away. The thick bramble woods had prevented any from looking at it in years, anyway. Within its walls, however, there was more.
The four stone slabs that supported the place had not but one window facing to the north, and the only thing that adorned them was a small shelf upon which a myriad of ancient weapons and armor hung.
And in this world of stone and dust, a monster called Gareth slept.
Despite the bland adornments, the occupant of the Tomb of Gareth was more than happy there, sleeping in his tight coffin and dreaming of earlier days when he had been worshipped by any who came near, the days when he was less the monster and more the connoisseur. Those days, he knew were gone, and with the coming of Man, things were going to be different.
He stirred for a moment then, as he thought of Man, and how troublesome he knew Man would become. They were a fearful and violent creature, prone to destroy beauty. Gian loved beautiful things. So, that very moment, he decided he hated Man.
Then, like a creeping mist-born lover, he heard a sound, one that he hadn’t heard for sometime. It was muffled through his sarcophagus, and had it been any other moment in the long millennia, he would have ignored it, content to sleep, content to dream. His years of private unending slumber might have gone on, might have turned into decades had not something swelled in his tainted, black soul. For the first time in centuries, a twinge of the former life he had known spoke out. Something elven and wholesome and good. He strained to listen.
It was a voice, far beyond the woods, sweet like syrup, a dark, tenor voice, singing praises to the Goddess Tymora. It was an elven voice, as his had once been.
And so, when Gian of Gareth awoke, he was thirsty. With a thought, the lid of his wooden bed slid away, and he gazed at the stone ceiling. The mists that enveloped his tomb that night were thick with the coming night, and he could simply taste the bloodlines thrumming through the fertile forest.
He stood then, hardly a conscious effort, and shook free the dust of nearly two decades from his streaming white hair. Effortlessly he stepped from his coffin, three years of inactivity not slowing him in the least. He went to a portcullis, where hung his evening clothes, and he dressed. He thought of belting one of his long, curving blades to his hip, but thought better of it. He looked at his hands, perfectly alabaster, perfectly thin, yet powerful enough to tear asunder plated armor. “No need for the barbarism of steel,” he said, his voice a tangle of raspy whispers. It had an otherworldly sound to it, as if demons of the planes were echoing and repeating every word he said. A thousand voices in one, all low, all menacing, all from one throat.
Gareth might once have been a beautiful thing; his cheekbones were high, his nose slim and slightly pointed, his eyes almond-shaped and the color of the Void itself. However, his years as an abomination had robbed him of his mortal beauty. His skin was nearly translucent, his body angular and devoid of breath.
He took one last look around his cozy tomb, a tribute to his hundreds of vicious deeds. To his left was a statue of a beautiful woman, her eyes frozen in fear. Gareth could not remember if she was once a living creature, but he fondled her neck lovingly as he walked by. A crude picture drawn on a piece of hide was tacked on the wall. It depicted a huge black cloud with long fangs devouring a child. He had taken it from a young girl (perhaps barely ten years had passed her eyes) who had had the misfortune to catch sight of Gareth on a late walk. He had lost no time in ravaging her flesh, and then eating it. The vampire smirked at the memory and sniffed deeply at the rust colored stains that besmirched the drawing.
Snapping from his reverie, Gian of Gareth could no longer refute the base urges of his vampire soul, could no longer restrain the need to stop the beating of living hearts. He smiled once at the thought, then was gone, a cloud of dust against the shadows and moonlight.
In his corporeal form, Gareth was indistinguishable from night mist or fog. He flitted through the forest, his body carried by the wind, reveling in the beauty he knew to be twilight.
* * * * *
As evening drew to a close, Evan began to sweat. He jumped when his name was said, or when an owl called out. He couldn’t put his finger on it though, and (as most elves are prone to do) gave up on figuring it out after a few hours.
And so flew the last hope that the priests would have had of a warning.
Gian of Gareth did come that night, alone and terrible. He stalked from the forests as the blackness of twilight lay down – stalked like a cat and right up to the priests’ front door.
For a moment Gareth stood there, rubbing his hands against the fine wooden doors. He saw a familiar shape carved there – the symbol of Tymora, the Lady of Luck. He smiled. He had known Tymora when she was young and less than all-powerful, when her personality was an amalgam of good and evil. It seemed so long ago.
He was torn away from his contemplation by something behind him.
There stood Evan, a clumsy ax slung across his shoulder and a pile of wood at his feet.
Evan looked at the creature, his eyes wide.
The vampire smiled.
Later on in life, Evan Laruebius would remember that moment with no twinge of affection. He would think of it as the beginning of the end, and like a dream, and remember how it poured away in a pool of blood.
Evan was alone then with Gian of Gareth. All alone, and terrified.
“Hello,” Gareth purred. “You are the singer aren’t you?”
Evan’s lip quivered, but he held tight to his ax. Never before had he seen such a person! Gareth’s very presence intruded his mind with subtle suggestions and thoughts. For a moment, Evan was terrified, and then, for a moment he could not recall any other time in his life when this creature had not been there. So beautiful was he that even proud, handsome Evan Laruebius took note. He was then again horrified beyond anything he had ever known, and saw his own death floating about him, simply slipping around Gareth’s hands like a lover.
The vampire grinned. “Can I ask you something? I heard you singing. Do you think you could sing like that forever – for all eternity if you had to?”
The priest regained a measure of his composure then, and straightened himself.
“Tell me your name, sir,” Evan said.
“What are you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
Evan paused then. He knew that the monster standing before him was a vampire when the creature smiled. Gareth was terrible – beyond anything the fair elf had ever seen. He was a monstrosity – a sick perversion of nature and all that Evan had held true to his heart. And yet, for a moment, Evan thought those long fangs sickly beautiful.
“They are, aren’t they?” Gareth said.
“My fangs. You said they were beautiful.”
“Yes. Yes you did. At least you thought that…ah….Evan. Evan Laruebius. You see, Evan, soon you discover that there is really little difference between what someone says and what they think. Their mouths usually manage to ruin the beauty of thought, is all.” He smiled. “My name is Gian of Gareth, The Hated, The Desired, and the Conqueror of Virgin Blood.”
Evan sneered. He knew Gareth for what he was.
“Yes,” Gareth said. “Very astute. Tell me something.”
Evan could feel his knees quiver. He thought for a moment to call out to his brethren, to warn them of the evil at the doorstep and maybe save a few lives. But a glint went off in Gareth’s eye, and he felt as if those limpid orbs were casting moonbeams all over Evan’s body. The fear flew then, and Evan knew peace that had he never known.
Gareth ripped the weapon from Evan’s hands. The next few moments passed by like lightning as the vampire proceeded to rip and tear at the young priest’s flesh, flaying it from him in a tornado of blood. Evan was somehow spun to the ground, his stomach and intestines in tatters in the grass, his hands mangled beyond recognition.
“Tell me, Evan, do you know what it is like to love a woman?”
Evan shook his head, gasping.
Gareth took a few steps toward the priest, picked him up and embraced him in his iron-tight arms.
“Well, neither do I.”
Evan did not see it coming, but the pleasure he felt as Gian of Gareth dove his fangs into his flesh was exquisite.
Evan blacked out as his lifeblood left him.
For a moment, Gareth thought of moving on, and letting Tymora’s priests be. He saw the symbol of their goddess carved so very intricately upon the doors, looked with no small admiration on how careful they had been to create so perfect a symbol upon the entrance to their temple. He knew immediately that these priests were well on in the favor of Tymora, that she smiled upon them and guided them every moment of their lives.
And then he looked to Evan, lying lifelessly in a pool of blood on the ground.
“Perhaps Tymora is not as good to them as one might think,” Gareth said as he tore the oaken doors down and strode through them into the still-waxing moonlight that shone upon the courtyard.
* * * * *
The dawn came to Evan as a piercing white light through his tightly clenched eyes. He swooned for a moment, and shivered. He rolled over onto his belly, but the movement came too quickly, and he felt his stomach wrench. He took a deep breath, and choked on a stream of bile as it crept up his throat. His nostrils stung as he inhaled, and the scent of fresh blood wafted into his lungs. He coughed and sputtered, and then he remembered Gareth. His eyes shot open, and he sat up.
All around him were the torn remains of the monastery. Blood soaked the ground, and most revolting of all, torn limbs lay strewn about the yard. In place of the central sculpture fountain was a pile of rubble. The stream of clean water that shot out from the top now replaced by a thick, black gel. Now, there was only ooze, and marks where bloody fingers had clawed. Evan looked at his own hands – all bloody and crushed. He began to cry.
The pain in his hands was forgotten when he saw the bodies. Hundreds of them, it seemed, every priest he had ever known, lay in pieces on the ground – faces torn open, necks masses of gore where flesh had been.
Evan stood, dizzy, then spun about, but he knew who it was. Gareth had never left. He was crouched in the shadows.
“I believe your people like to say, ‘good morning’. Isn’t that right?”
Evan tried to speak, but no words came.
“I haven’t said those words in probably a hundred years, Laruebius. Good morning. Good morning. And a good morning it is. In fact, I should think that you would hence refer to this very day as the Good Morning.”
Evan again began to choke, a burning, dry sensation ran into his mouth and began to blaze in his throat. He fell into a fit of coughing, and expelled blood from his tongue.
“Oh, poor thing,” Gareth said, strolling over to Evan and patting him on the back. “Look at you. On all fours, snarling and hacking like that.”
“Yes,” Gareth whispered, “out with it. Out with all of it. Out with the burden of life, child, out with your innocence, out with you. In with Laruebius, child, and out with Evan.”
“You will notice that you are quite whole again, your stomach, your lungs. You will also take care to look at your hands - they are no longer broken, Laruebius.”
He was right. Where bones had poked out at right angles and where blood was caked on his palms there was now flesh – pale, but whole again.
“Anything to say, child, in this, your moment of rebirth?”
Again, Evan nodded.
Gareth laid his ear on the elf’s lips.
“If I weren’t dying, Gareth, I would kill you.”
The vampire laughed until his throat nearly burst.
“I know, Laruebius, I know. But you are dying, and so you won’t try to kill me, and thus, you will not die this day. But dying you are, for you are mortal, Laruebius.” He looked at the vomit on the priest’s frock and shook his head. “So very mortal.”
The elf nodded. He was hungry, and suddenly, he did not wretch anymore. The monster before him was no longer a monster, and so caught up within the spell he wove, Evan saw Gareth no longer as enemy, but a new thing entirely. The word teacher came to mind. The word father came to mind. Although young, Evan knew what was happening. The vampire had him in his clutches, and was sending waves of insinuation to bend his will. Hatred for the vampire flew from him, but so did something else. He could feel his elven pull to the wood slowly fading away like dust on his shoulder. This at first made him ill again, but only for a moment. The revulsion seemed to be swimming in the pool of blood and saliva and gore at his feet, and it was gone from him as quickly as it had come. He had questions now.
“If I am dying, why am I not dead?”
“Because I am your lifeblood, now, Laruebius.”
“Did you kill them all?”
“Did you kill Brother Brevin?”
“Did he put up much?”
“No, child, he did not. He lay down and then died.”
“Anything else, child?”
The elf looked at his feet. They seemed miles below him, and he swooned to look at them. Also, he had no shadow, and he heard music. The music was wonderful, like the low thrum of a panting lover and the swish of her hair. But he could still see his feet.
“If I am dying, how is it that I will stand?”
Gareth grinned wickedly. “You won’t.”
“How will I walk?”
“You won’t, Laruebius. You won’t walk at all.” Gareth gave the elf a push, and the priest found himself moving backward, like a dream. He floated, and his feet barely touched the ground. After a few moments of trial and error, the elf made his way back to Gareth, and smiled.
Then Gareth was gone, in a flash of blue light.
Suddenly there were priests around Evan, and he jumped. Like wraiths they came, out of the morning fog, shadows of the past. There was Brother Alain, and Brother Relas and Brother Trumpet, the last living members of the Flipping Coin. In their hands were stakes of wood, broken from broomsticks. It had been they who had removed the bodies, they who had somehow survived Gareth’s slaughtering. They were covered in blood, and Trumpet bled savagely from his waist, his hand clenched to his ribs defensively.
“Trumpet!” Evan said, a smile on his face at the sight of his friend. He longed to go to him, despite the recent events. Although changed, Evan could still feel his gasping elven soul pull at him to go back to the light he had known, towards the brothers, and ask Tymora for help. He took a step forward.
Trumpet lifted his weapon. “Stay where you are, Evan.”
The elf grew confused. “Why, Brother? Let us be together, and repair the-”
“No, Evan,” said Brother Alain sympathetically, a tinge of a tear in his eye. “That’s not why we’re here.”
Evan’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you here, then?” He knew, though. He would remember those last few moments for the rest of his existence. His soul crying out to him to denounce what they were saying, to deny his new self, and return to the woods. He looked longingly at his Brothers, but his feet stayed rooted to the ground. Darkness grew in his chest and welled in his throat. Then, to his stomach, which growled.
The Brothers circled Evan then, menacingly. Relas chanted and prayed, and Alain wept, but Trumpet twirled his cudgel with practiced ease. Evan could see the hatred in his eyes.
“Vampire, Evan,” Trumpet spat. “You are not one of us anymore. Not anymore. Not ever again.”
Evan’s heart sank. He looked at his hands. They seemed normal enough, as if nothing had changed. All along, it had never occurred to him that he might be one of them. He simply wanted to live his life with his Goddess, Tymora. Now, though, he was something else, and as Trumpet said, he knew his new name – vampire, for what it was. Still, Tymora begged him in his heart to give up and let the priests take him, that his soul might be saved.
“You-you mean that you won’t help me, now? You mean that-”
“Do not say the name of the Lady, Evan. You only damn yourself even further.” Alain took up his own cudgel and advanced.
Evan jumped, but Gareth’s voice came within his head, and gave him no quarter, even drowning out the intrusions of the elf’s Goddess.
Kill them, child. Look at them. So very weak.
Evan’s stomach growled again.
And I know you are so very hungry.
It happened like a strike of lightning. Trumpet blasted Evan in the stomach with the cudgel, and he bent over with the blow. The last trails of Evan’s own blood flew from his mouth and onto the ground, soaking into the monastery’s grass. The second strike never fell. As Trumpet brought the weapon down, Evan’s hand shot out and caught it with ease. Trumpet’s considerable strength was crushed by the unholy might in the elf’s arms, and Evan tore the cudgel from the priest’s grasp.
Alain, still behind him, reached out to Evan, but the elf somehow knew that he was there, and with his other hand clenched Alain’s neck with his fingers. He held his feet firmly to the ground and dug his fingernails into the priest’s jugular. As Alain’s blood rushed over Evan, Trumpet noticed his own, being slowly squeezed from the pores in his arms. The priest’s wrist turned to paste under Evan’s grip. Alain stopped moving, and Evan let him go. Then, he reached down onto the terrified Trumpet’s jugular, and tore it free with his teeth. Evan had no fangs then, but needed none.
Relas trembled as Evan let Trumpet go, then advanced toward the terrified priest. As Relas chanted and prayed, the elf tore through his flesh and cut deep gashes in his chest. Relas died with his eyes opened.
Then, Gareth was back, approval spread across his face.
“Am I powerful, Gareth?” Evan asked, dripping in blood.
The vampire nodded. “Yes, Laruebius.”
“Must you call me Laruebius?”
“Yes, for that is your name. And that it will be. The bards who write our stories will never know you by anything else…that is, if they know of you at all.”
Laruebius thought of that for a moment. A long pause came between them, and Evan died. Laruebius flashed a wicked grin, and thus, said goodbye to the forest around him. The sun did not come over the horizon that morning, nor would it come for many days after. Rather, storm clouds began to gather, and the two vampires stood, staring at one another in the torrential rain, their breath coming in cold clouds of frost.
“I want them to, Master. I want the bards to know all about me.”
The content of Villain is the property and copyright of Heath Harper, and is not to be published or redistributed without permission.
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