As promised in my previous post, I would like to present the first chapter excerpt from my forthcoming horror offering…The Final Converging: An Immortal Heart Asunder. The Chapter is aptly entitled…The End Begins…and will be the first of three preview chapters that I will post ahead of the actual novel release, which if all goes well, is scheduled for December 1st of this year.
Immortal represents my final foray into the horror genre. As mentioned previously, it comes some eighteen years after the release of The Converging: Closures in Blood. I have always felt that the ending of that particular novel is the best ending I have ever penned and it was my sincere intention to never delve back into the Converging world once the last word of Closures had been committed to paper. Time has a way of making a mockery of our best intentions and the creative urge is something that I still find indecipherable…even after all of these years. Despite my desire to resist, the urge to write this final, definitive tale churned away, gaining flesh and bone as the years passed.
In the end, The Final Converging: An Immortal Heart Asunder can be likened to a child that was never planned for…and perhaps unwanted…but for whom I’ve developed an unconditional and unequivocal love. It is far and away the most personal and intimate novel I’ve ever written and the experience of writing it was very often like gouging thumbs into a festering wound, but I have come to think of it as my personal Ophelia. Irrespective of how it may be received by those who have enjoyed its three predecessors, I am immensely pleased with the end result which (I believe) is rife with tragic beauty.
So, without further preamble…The End Begins
Chapter One: The End Begins
What is the nature of the pernicious force that tears the immortal heart asunder?
Does it find its source in the disillusionment that accompanies its ever-receding proximity to the innocence of birth?
Perhaps it is best attributed to the gradual, but steady erosion of its humanity…driven by obduracy, apathy or bitterness…and all other dark emotions that conspire to vitiate the immortal spirit.
Or does it come with the dismaying realization that everything that once defined it…that it has cherished and held sacred…has gone to dust, leaving it displaced and lost, like a drifting ship on an endless ocean…invisible and forgotten?
Whatever the cause, the immortal heart is torn asunder with the terrible discovery that the once-coveted commodity of eternal life is, in fact, an unending curse. What follows is one such soul’s moment of terrible insight.
The first thing that struck her was the palpable thickness in the air as she raced through the darkened corridors…taking random turns as she went. Somewhere in the distance she could hear the sounds of close pursuit…gaining with every passing second. She ran through corridors of marble and alabaster, beneath high vaulted ceilings. As she fled, she would occasionally glance upward and see that night had fallen over the world beyond this mysterious place. Luminous slivers of silver moonlight tumbled through the regularly-spaced skylights, casting the long hallways in shades of deep blue and argent.
Down one dimly lit hall after the next, she fled in the face of her unseen pursuers and though her flight was motivated by an exigent need to escape, she did not flee in blind terror. Eternally composed by nature, she had managed to stave off the grasping claws of open panic even though she found herself in a strange and ominous place…pursued by unseen predators.
‘How did I come to be here…is this a dream?’ she wondered as she nimbly negotiated a tight corner that led to a spiral staircase. She could produce no answer to either question and in the end, both queries were irrelevant. Only staying ahead of those who chased her mattered. ‘At least until I reach the end.’
She began to ascend the staircase, moving effortlessly up the twisting stairs two risers at a time. The marble was cool beneath her bare feet as was the air, which seemed to rush through her long blond hair as if she was fleeing along the length of a wind-swept tunnel.
A howl, primal and rife with an insatiable hunger, tore the silence, echoing up along what now appeared to be a vertical shaft. That hunger spoke of a desperation that bordered on lunacy…a powerful compulsion to rend and tear and ravage.
‘But are you fleeing from this unseen predator…or running towards something…specific?’ The question materialized in her conscious thoughts of its own accord, but again she could produce no meaningful answer. Other sounds resonated up from below…a discordant babble of raw emotions that ranged from exuberant exclamations of joy to piteous wails of sorrow and pain. Intermingled with these strident cries there came the furtive slithering that reminded her of something reptilian moving quickly in the shadows. That unsettling whisper was accompanied by a shambling sound that seemed to pique a long forgotten memory…one that was not necessarily pleasant and which inspired her to quicken her pace.
Finally, she reached the top of the spiral staircase and paused briefly to catch her breath. She chanced a brief glance over the wood capped, wrought iron railing and was shocked to find that the spiral vanished into infinity. Yet as she gazed down…wide-eyed and bemused…a thick red mist began to coalesce somewhere far beneath her present position. It began to rise in a twisting, roiling column that reminded her of pain and malice. There was a dull refulgent quality to this converging cloud that struck the woman as vaguely sinister. ‘You can’t allow yourself to get caught in that thing. You have to reach the end before you’re engulfed. Move!’
With no small exertion of will, she tore herself away from the menacing spectacle and resumed her flight, ascending until she found herself standing at the head of a long hallway that stretched into the distance. A central runner carpet…blood red with gold piping…had been laid in the middle of the wide hallway, while along both walls, open doorways spilled muted yellow light into the purple gloom. Before setting off, she glanced up to find that the world beyond this incredible edifice had changed…shifted to another location…if such a thing was possible. Snow blew across the thick glass of the skylights in sheets, but the howl of the raging wind was a muffled thing that reached her ears like a barely perceptible whisper heard from a great distance.
A maniacal cackle of laughter ripped out of the gloom from somewhere beneath her…fraught with expectant glee. In her moment of distraction, she had unwittingly permitted her pursuer to gain ground. Cursing her foolishness, she began to sprint down the corridor, driven by a renewed sense of exigency.
The doorways along each wall were offset and as she passed each, her gaze was involuntarily drawn to the carnival house scenes being played out within the starkly lit rooms. Discordant, flickering images accosted her frazzled senses then; snatches and broken fragments of conversation which impacted upon her memories with the force of psychic artillery shells.
“This is the hall of memory…where the defining moments of your life are laid out in chronological order. You have been brought here to traverse the arc of your life and discover the final destination that you must reach…should you wish for your life to be granted lasting meaning,” a ubiquitous voice declared suddenly, drawing a startled cry from the running woman.
In the first room on her left, she caught a flashing glimpse of a young man sitting on a bench beside a beautiful teenage girl, who appeared distraught and on the verge of tears.
“Until I can make something of myself, I’ll never feel worthy of you. This is my one chance,” the solemn-faced boy told the girl, who abruptly covered her eyes. Then she was past the doorway, though the brief sliver of memory had roused an acute pain in her heart.
The first doorway on her right showed a slightly older version of the same girl…a young woman now…folding clothes into a litter of cardboard boxes. Her lovely face was wooden and her eyes were red-rimmed and as she folded the final article of clothing into the last box, a single horrible thought repeated incessantly in her grief-stricken mind, ‘I’m completely alone.’
Again, this alien thought descended upon her with an inexplicable intensity…a poignant intimacy that she could not fathom. ‘This is the hall of memories,’ the disembodied voice had declared gravely and perhaps that was true, but despite the emotions they stirred within her…they were not her memories.
Yet, as she raced along the impossibly long corridor, she experienced a constant stream of intensely emotional vignettes that struck her as eerily familiar, though she was absolutely certain that the angelic blond woman, who dominated each, was a total stranger.
Further along, she came to a door through which wafted a disturbing red mist, very much like the cloud that had risen in the stairwell. She shook her head in negation, even as she drew parallel with the opening. In a voice made tremulous with terror, she moaned, “I don’t want to see this…don’t want to remember this, please!”
Despite this vehement entreaty, she found that she was unable to glance away because this was a place of recollection that simply would not be denied by acute terror or prevailing delusion. She was here by design and had been brought to this fantastical place for a very specific purpose and she would not be afforded the luxury of avoidance.
A woman stood at the center of this particular room, surrounded by a corona of vermillion light. Hers was a beauty of stunning proportions, though there was an imperious slant to both her cheekbones and her eyes that lent the statuesque woman a sinister and cruel aspect. Of all the memories, this was the most intense…the most visceral…because this terrifying creature had played a pivotal role in her life.
“Ah, now you begin to see,” the ubiquitous voice boomed again, drawing a confused frown from the fleeing woman.
Moving beyond this door, she heard the raven-haired beauty laugh and call out, “You and I are one…bound by the dagger and emotional bonds that can never be torn asunder.”
Through the doorway on her right, she caught a fleeting glimpse of the flash of a dagger, followed by an incisive flare of argent agony in her chest. That pain relented to a state that could only be described as transcendent. Every sensation seemed infinitely sharper and every sense augmented to a preternatural acuity that no normal human could ever hope to experience. Along this next segment of the hallway, the rooms flew by at a frenetic blur, yet despite this dizzying burst of speed, each room’s revelation flashed through her thoughts with astounding clarity. While she experienced this disconcerting rush of memories…often shockingly graphic and disturbingly violent…both she and the woman whose memories she was sharing felt an odd sense of disassociation.
‘It’s almost as if she had lived this segment of her life vicariously,’ the fleeing woman marveled. There followed another flash of the blade and that sense of being once-removed abruptly vanished…like the fall of an invisible hammer.
With this enhanced perception she sped by a progression of rooms, suffused by a new sense of exigency as if this mysterious woman was desperately seeking something…cherished…and in grave and imminent danger. Many of these images were disjointed fragments that nonetheless left her feeling as if a calamity of apocalyptic proportion had been averted…by the scantest of margins. Against impossible odds this woman…with whom she shared an intense, but undefined affinity…had persevered and emerged into a period of pure contentment for the first time in her troubled and often tragic existence.
Through the next series of doorways there came the languid flow of sepia-colored remembrances…very much like those that filled most normal lives. The beautiful blond felt the sharp sting of death and the pervasive gnaw of loneliness and through it all she endured with an admirable dignity and grace that spoke of a rare and genuine nobility of spirit.
A piercing howl tore her from the reverie into which she had fallen and as she glanced back over her shoulder, the fleeing woman was horrified to discover that her pursuers had closed the distance. Her nostrils flared in response to the acrid, cloying stench of sulfur that now belched from the cloud in noxious waves. Several creatures exploded out of the roiling mass, scrabbling along the carpeted corridor at astonishing speeds despite their hunched and distorted postures. Their elongated limbs reminded the woman of wooden spindles and were covered by black and red leathery flesh teeming with repulsive masses of suppurating boils that constantly erupted, spewing clouds of thick yellow pus. They ran hunched over like sick twisted things that had been stricken by some form of wasting disease and yet they moved with an uncanny ease and agility that spoke of a dark and terrible vitality. Most disturbing of all were their bulging yellow eyes that were bisected by jagged red slashes and the curving incisors that were clearly conceived for the rending of flesh and the pulverizing of bone. They emitted a high, mewling sound as they came on…so piercing and loud that it forced the woman to cover her ears as she ran.
Slowly, inexorably…these abominations were gaining upon her and she understood that her suffering would be horrible beyond words if they were to catch her before she reached the end of this corridor. Though there was no logical reason to assume that she would find safe haven at the end of the corridor, the woman embraced the notion as an unassailable article of faith.
“Your life is not all that stands to be lost, should you not reach the end of this corridor. In truth, it is the least consequential thing at stake in this black drama in which you have become embroiled!” the bombastic voice informed her urgently.
Gritting her teeth and thrusting the horrors from her mind, she turned her face forward and began to pump her arms and legs like an Olympic sprinter. Ahead of her, still discouragingly distant, two arched doors had materialized at the end of the corridor. They stood twice the height of an average man and were embellished with delicate gold filigree insets. The runner knew instinctively that…whatever it was she had been brought here to see…it was found on the other side of these imposing wooden doors.
A massive tremor shook the entire structure then, reverberating through both the stone and the runner’s viscera with frightening power. She was abruptly pitched to the carpeted floor, but rose on unsteady legs as a series of powerful aftershocks assailed the building with a cannonading rumble. She glanced up anxiously to see that huge cracks had opened in the walls and ceiling of this surreal structure. The concussive force of the upheaval shattered skylights all along the length of the corridor, sending jagged shards of glass raining down, while cold air and sheets of snow followed in their wake.
“What’s happening?” She cried even as she resumed her frantic sprint for the doors.
“The beast that rules over this place has begun to stir. When it comes awake this place will be obliterated and the crucial lesson contained within will be lost…to you. You must reach the end before that happens…in the name of all you love…run!” the keeper of the Byzantine Dreamscape implored and the runner complied without hesitation.
Behind her, the feral, hungry howls of her pursuers had changed to cries of abject terror and negation. Glancing over her shoulders, she discerned the source of their fear. The structure behind her was crumbling like a sand castle before the incoming tide. She experienced a surge of elation as two of the shambling horrors were swallowed up when the floor beneath their feet disintegrated in a cloud of white dust. Beyond the walls, she caught a brief glimpse of rugged black mountains over which argent bolts of lightning flashed through heavy curtain of snow…painting the world in shades of the apocalypse.
Correctly deducing that her time was short, the woman unleashed one final apprehension-fuelled burst for the uncertain sanctuary of the room beyond the beckoning doors. As she raced by the final open doorways, she noticed that all of the rooms were steeped in darkness. As if divining her thoughts, the keeper explained, “Herein are the events that will shape the future…a future that has yet to be determined. In truth, their precise shape is unimportant, as all paths lead to the ending beyond these doors.”
This esoteric rambling meant very little to the fleeing woman, but there was no mistaking the sincere urgency with which it had been given. Still, she found herself suddenly fearful of the abstract intimation of whatever terrible destiny that might be concealed behind these doors. In a flash of crystalline prescience, it occurred to the suddenly hesitant woman that to pass through them would be to commit to something from which there would be no turning away.
As though gleaning her sudden ambivalence, the roiling cloud spoke for the first time, its high, insectile voice grating and desperate. “It lies! Everything you see is a deliberate distortion intended to deceive you…meant to entice you along a false path. You must not open those doors…let yourself go and consign yourself to the void!”
Beneath the grotesque resonance, she could discern a vague familiarity to the voice…as if she had heard if a thousand times before, though she could conjure neither a face nor a name to go with that disconcerting certainty. It suddenly occurred to her that she had missed something critically important in the detail of this macabre scenario in which she now found herself…and with this disconcerting realization came the unnerving certainty that she was being…misled.
As if in response to this unsettling insight, another titanic upheaval rocked the entire structure and suddenly the ground beneath her feet was riddled with cracks and began to crumble away to the void…a ribbon of molten fire far below her. Panic seized her then and she surged forward while the entire world appeared to disintegrate around her.
The ground gave way directly beneath her feet, but she managed to launch herself into the air. Reaching out, she pulled the large pewter handles in one miraculous, fluid motion. There was one horrible instant when it seemed inevitable that she would simply plummet into the void, but then the massive doors swung inward, carrying her over the threshold. She was unceremoniously thrown to the carpet some ten feet from the door sill, landing in a tangled sprawl of limbs. She twisted around and gazed, bleary-eyed and dazed, back through the open doorway, a soundless cry of shock escaping her twisted lips as she was afforded her final glimpse of the maelstrom through which she had made her desperate run. The roiling, malevolent cloud was gone. In its place was a churning mass of bodies, all caught in a wild gyre that turned and twisted them like rag dolls. These unfortunate figures were all quite human and as their eyes found hers…so achingly familiar…every eye seemed to convey the same message of bitter resignation and profound sorrow.
As the doors swung shut with an ear-shattering plaintive whine of rusted hinges, a single word issued from the dying world beyond, fraught with unimaginable despair…Elizabeth!
The massive doors slammed shut with an emphatic bang, effectively cutting off the harrowing sounds of the world beyond struggling through its death throes. She closed her eyes and drew several long, deliberate breaths to regain her equilibrium. When she felt that she was prepared to confront whatever new and macabre situation into which she’d been thrust, she opened her eyes and surveyed her new environment. Gazing about, she was both perplexed and disappointed by what she saw. The room itself was circular and rose in geometrically precise steps to form a dome, the pinnacle of which resembled a fisheye lens as if designed so that a deity might observe the room’s interior from on high.
Standing on legs that trembled unsteadily, the woman was disconcerted to discover that she was now completely naked, her golden skin glowing beneath the harsh glare of intense white light that had no discernible source. Now her honey-blond hair hung in a thick cable between her full breasts and she could feel the whisper of a gentle breeze caress every recess of her exposed flesh. Feeling both abashed and vulnerable, she pressed herself against the wall and surveyed the room.
“What is this place and why have I been brought here?” She cried in a voice made shrill with exasperation. “And where are my clothes?”
“This is the Chamber of Augury. Its purpose is to reveal your one possible future or more precisely…the ideal culmination of the possible futures which now lie open to you.” The mysterious speaker’s tone became sly. “As for why you are naked…as you entered this world, so too shall you leave. Open your eyes to what stands before you!”
And so she did…actually looking closely at the room’s Spartan contents for the first time. She shook her head again…that sense of puzzlement and disappointment returning. After her harrowing flight and the apocalyptic disintegration of the dreamscape over which she had fled, it was only natural to assume that this chamber would hold some wondrous epiphany or perhaps some great and terrible adversary to be overcome in one final epic battle for the ages. Instead, she found herself faced with something that…while intriguing…was nonetheless decidedly anticlimactic. If there was some arcane meaning to be had in this odd display, it simply eluded her.
“Open your eyes, woman!” The ubiquitous voice insisted, displaying impatience for the first time. “See what stands before you and consider its meaning within the context of all you witnessed on the path that carried you here…to this frozen moment of culmination.”
She muttered in frustration, but complied, considering the enigmatic display as the final piece of a complex puzzle. The center portion of the circular chamber had been cordoned off by a series red velvet intertwined ropes, which were affixed to a series of brass stanchions, very much like the antiquated barriers that one would expect to see in an old fashion bank…or museum. The latter was a more appropriate reference, considering what was held within the cordoned off enclosure.
‘I’ve seen this particular piece before…or one very much like it,’ she mused as her intense gaze swept over the sculpture of two beautiful women which dominated the center of the chamber. Abruptly, a celestial spotlight blazed into life, its harsh white glare bringing every subtle detail of the piece into vivid focus.
The enhanced clarity seemed to jar her memory and the image of Auguste Rodin’s Eternal Idol resolved in her mind’s eye.
The piece of art before her exuded a powerful sense of eroticism and had captured the two women in a pose that made the observer feel like a voyeur intruding upon the most intimate of moments. The two kneeling women faced each other, their exquisite bodies captured in breathtaking postures of feminine splendor. The woman facing her leaned back on her haunches, with her one slender arm hanging limply at her side, while the other slumped forward with her face nestled in the crook of the other woman’s long neck and her left hand laid along the facing woman’s curving hip.
Beyond the compelling sensuality of the sculpture, the woman could sense an intense intimacy born of a nuanced passion that these two women must certainly have shared. She began to circle the sculpture, attempting to examine it from every angle…every perspective…for some clue as to what it was intended to represent. On the opposite side from her original perspective, she saw that each woman’s other hand clutched the other’s hip with white-knuckled intensity and the piece of art suddenly assumed as element of epic tragedy. She was not witnessing two lovers basking in the after-glow of wild passion as she had first imagined. Instead, she was gazing upon two women who had been eternally captured in the shared intimacy of death…the entrancing art of mutual immolation.
She could feel tears pooling at the corners of her eyes as she made her way back to her original position and studied the face of the first beauty, mesmerized by the eyes that seemed to stare into infinity and beyond. The corners of her full mouth were turned up in what might have been a smile of contentment as if she had found the peace she had sought in this desperate act.
“Everything beautiful must eventually perish, crumble to dust and be scoured from the world by the remorseless winds of time. For all of our beauty, you and I will be no different.” These words, delivered with such serenity and acceptance, washed over her like a warm breeze, but after a brief moment, she recognized the voice and uttered a gasp of dawning horror, even as a single drop of blood blossomed on the sculptures left breast and another on the back of the sculpted figure facing away from her.
“She’s me…that woman is me…the woman in the rooms, whose life I watched flash by…it was me, wasn’t it?” She demanded on the verge of hysteria now. To her consternation, the narrator of this nightmare had gone stubbornly silent, but her affirmation came as rivulets of crimson began to run down the two figures in steady streams and collect on the floor in shockingly vivid pools.
She screamed as an acute pain lanced her heart and she gazed down to find a silver dagger protruding from her full left breast. As her knees folded slowly and she collapsed onto her side, one final question followed her into the darkness…who was the other woman with whom she had shared her dramatic final moment?
Elizabeth came awake with a start and a small gasp as she pressed her right palm to her left breast in an involuntary reaction to the last moments of her nightmare. ‘But was it a nightmare…or something else…something more sinister?’
She drew a ragged breath and sat up, her full breasts rising and falling as the midnight blue satin sheets pooled in her lap. Immortals did not dream…at least, not in the sense that humans did with their random and often nonsensical spattering of cobbled images plucked from the subconscious mind with no apparent rhyme or reason. On the rare occasions an immortal did dream, it was always in a very specific, though sometimes abstract context…fraught with purpose.
‘And very often those dreams are presages to imminent trouble,’ she reminded herself and shivered, despite the sultry warmth of the summer night. The last time she had experienced a dream that intense…so terrifyingly lucid…had been over fifty years ago, when she had been plagued by a series of vivid nightmares in which David had been in danger…his life threatened by flames. The mere recollection of those ominous dreams and the period of horrible darkness it had spawned, threatened to unleash a torrent of painful memories and so she pushed them from her thoughts with considerable effort. Like her beloved son, Nathaniel, she thought about David only rarely…bringing out the memory of the life they had shared sparingly…as if she feared that they would lose their luster if she was to summon them forth too frequently.
Instead, she turned her attention to the perplexing dream she had just experienced, trying to unravel the abstruse message it had been intended to convey. Throwing back the covers, she rose and maneuvered her way through the darkness of her bedroom, aided by her preternatural night vision…just another of the many advantages of being immortal.
‘A demon, Elizabeth…but of course, that’s a label that offends your delicate sensibilities,’ a familiar voice chastised her disdainfully. Like the others, this particular voice belonged to another memory she would rather not entertain, but for entirely different reasons.
“I was never a demon…not in the true sense of the concept!” She whispered in a dulcet tone that was a trifle defensive. Technically, that was true. When she had been turned that long ago night in Semelar, something unforeseen and unprecedented had disrupted the ritual. Hard as it was for Elizabeth to credit, she had been a soul of pure and unassailable virtue and the dark ritual had merely imprisoned Elizabeth in her own transmogrified flesh. She had watched helplessly as the entity that had usurped her body committed unspeakable acts of evil…a vicarious witness to crimes that…somehow…had left her soul unscarred. This pathetic state of existence might have continued indefinitely had Cynara not committed the monumental error of underestimating the power of her love for Nathaniel…her long suffering son.
It was impossible for her to reflect on that dreadful night in Chevru without rousing a snake pit of intensely painful emotions and memories that she had labored so long and hard to repress. To save Nathaniel and reclaim her body and soul, she had been forced to face Cynara in deadly confrontation that she had been wholly unsuited to win. Elizabeth frowned, still perplexed more than a half century later, when she recalled how Cynara had willingly given up her life so that she could live. As a consequence of that incomprehensible act of self-sacrifice, Elizabeth had become history’s first true immortal. Elizabeth was neither a demon nor an angel, but rather an unprecedented entity…occupying the spaces between these eternally adversarial extremes.
That envied state had not proven to be without its intense and troublesome complications. Loathed as an abomination by both heaven and hell, Elizabeth had been hunted by disparate groups of zealots…all intent on seeing her obliterated. Again, only a totally unexpected intervention had spared her from annihilation. During that bleak and frightening period, she had been incessantly plagued by two recurring nightmares that reminded her very much of the one from which she had just emerged. There had been an aspect of augury to both of those dreams…her intervention in the suicide of Karnalla Mansley and the imminent death of her beloved David at the hands of a fire demon. She had badly misconstrued the former…a misinterpretation that had led to the rebirth of Cynara Saravic…but fortunately had been able to prevent the second…if only by the narrowest of margins.
After she had emerged from the apocalyptic nightmare in Seattle, Elizabeth had entered a period of tranquility that had proven to be the happiest of her life. Living with David in the solitude of Cynara’s villa, she had finally found the life of contentment and quiet intimacy that she had always craved. She had endured the forced separation from Nathaniel stoically, deriving a measure of comfort from the knowledge that he would be free to live out the remainder of his life without fear of reprisals from Cynara’s former masters. For three decades, Elizabeth had basked in a life that was as close to perfect as the flawed world would permit.
And then had come the inevitable moments of parting…the uncoupling of the moorings that had tethered her to the mortal life she had once lived. First David had died and some twelve years later, she had watched in isolated grief while her beloved son…the beautiful stranger, whom she had known only fleetingly, had been lowered into the cold embrace of the ground.
The recollection fell upon her with its full and terrible weight then, flailing her with the poignant clarity of the memory and she could feel tears pooling at the corners of her limpid blue eyes. Unlike mortals, whose memories dimmed with the passage of time…like old sepia photographs…an immortal’s memories were preserved in all of their perfect glory. This could be a blessing or a curse. Remembrance of his death would be eternally painful…never fading with the passage of time, but so too, the sweetness of the few moments they had shared would never lose their ability to send her spirit soaring.
After Nathaniel’s death, she had tottered on the edge of the abyss…confronted by a hollow life, devoid of any meaningful purpose. His ghost had appeared to her then and implored her to set out on the path of light…in search of the world’s inherent beauty and her own inner peace. Over the course of the five years immediately following Nath’s death, Elizabeth had traversed the globe, searching for that one special requiem. And oh what wonders she had witnessed…the last vestiges of natural beauty, still clinging tenaciously to life in the face of the inexorable march of technology and the sheer, overwhelming vitality of mankind. After years of living this nomadic existence…a beautiful vagabond who allowed the wind to blow her where it would…she had begun to yearn for permanence and a sense of place.
‘Life leads us in never ending circles,’ she thought wistfully as she threw back the covers and slid out of bed with her customary languid grace…like a great golden cat. ‘When I was a young woman, all that I dreamt of was a stable, comfortable life…a tranquil environment where I could thrive and find genuine contentment. After nearly sixty years of fluctuating between euphoric highs and sinking lows, I’ve come to cherish exactly the same thing.’
Elizabeth shuddered then and hugged her bare shoulders, despite the sultriness of the Grecian night. It had been her personal experience that a life of quiet solitude was the one dispensation that the world seemed the most reluctant to grant. Despite her unprecedented nature…or perhaps because of it…Elizabeth was no exception.
Eventually, she had sated that wanderlust and had turned her efforts to the search for a home where she could begin what she had come to regard as her life of serene exile. During the course of her travels, Elizabeth had encountered both men and women who had been attracted to her poise and exceptional beauty, but she had gently, but firmly rebuffed their overtures…knowing that entanglements…however attractive…could prove deadly to anyone unfortunate enough to become a fixture in her world. Though she refused to surrender to paranoia, Elizabeth was always watchful for the narrow-eyed gaze of speculative scrutiny or the glance that lingered longer than even her beauty would justify. The miracle in Seattle had granted her a reprieve, but she would be foolish to think that she had been forgotten. Alexandria’s clever ruse had given her a new chance at life and she was determined not to squander that gift by being…conspicuous.
In the second half of the twenty-first century, privacy was a rare and precious commodity and scrutiny was an omnipresent aspect of modern life. It became her obsession to find a place that was as far from the prying eye as could be found and her search eventually led her to Greece and the ancient, tiny fishing village of Petalidi on the Messenian Gulf. From the first instant that Elizabeth had strolled through the ancient streets, she had been mesmerized by the antiquated village, falling in love with the old world charm of the sun-baked buildings and cobbled streets that had existed since the days of Alexander and the glory of Greece’s golden age. She recalled the sense of surrealism that she had experienced as she’d strolled down the streets and made her way to the picturesque harbor. Somehow, Petalidi had held the invasive march of technology at bay and one could still feel the odd, disorienting sensation of having stepped back in time as they wandered through the narrow streets.
She could hear the clamorous din of a thousand generations’ worth of voices as she sat in the shade of the harbor walls and watched the gentle surf break over sands that were the purest white. It required only one visit to this idyllic requiem to decide that it would be in Petalidi that she would write the next chapter of her immortal life…quietly witnessing the slow march of time with only her cherished memories and her shadow for company.
In the hills, just five kilometers north of the village, Elizabeth had discovered a small villa that had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Its relative solitude and breath-taking view of the gulf were simply magnificent and she had fallen in love with the property as quickly as she had come to love the nearby village. She had devoted the next two years of her life to the task of making both the villa and the town her home. The first had been a comparatively simple matter, given the extent of her fortune, while the second had proven somewhat more…delicate. Even more than a half century after the cataclysmic events of Seattle, anonymity remained one of Elizabeth’s primary concerns…and greatest fears, if she was being entirely candid. It became necessary to strike a delicate balance with the villagers, who quickly became aware of the striking blond beauty, who had come to live near their remote coastal paradise. Understanding that she would only pique their curiosity further if she remained aloof, Elizabeth had immersed herself in local life and while the people embraced her, she made it clear that she was a woman who placed an immeasurable value on her privacy…a desire which, to her eternal relief, they had come to respect.
On the few occasions when a tourists might inquire about the mysterious beauty who lived in the secluded villa, their inquiries would be met with a stony silence that made it exceedingly evident that such questions were unwelcome by the villagers.
Over the next decade, Elizabeth Simpson…now Lizbet Asari…lived the quintessential life of contented solitude. Alone with her precious memories and her beloved books, she would fill the empty spaces with long walks along the beach or hikes in the rolling hills that surrounded the village. If she missed intimacy and human interaction, she managed to keep that longing carefully compartmentalized…even from herself.
When the villagers spoke to each other of the woman, whom they had come to call their golden goddess (a moniker that would have evoked a particularly bitter memory for Elizabeth), it was in terms of sadness and quiet pity. That such an exquisite creature would deliberately cloister herself in the old villa was simply incomprehensible and her mysterious life soon assumed the element of a classic romantic tragedy.
Yet, when Elizabeth floated through the narrow streets of Petalidi, she seemed to exude only radiant beauty and inner peace…as if there was nothing lacking in her life of isolation…a life that on the surface at least, seemed so sterile.
‘All of this aspect of noble tragedy is so…unnecessary, not to mention very theatrical, isn’t it, darling Elizabeth?’ the familiar voice snorted with undisguised contempt. Somehow, that bitter-sweet familiar voice had become the voice of her internal critic…her self-conceived vociferous detractor, who was merciless in her castigation of Elizabeth’s every flaw, however small or incidental. ‘You’ve relegated yourself to a state of self-imposed exile from life because of your prized possession…that exquisite face of yours. Is that really what this grand exercise in self-sacrifice all boils down to…an inability to repress your vanity?’
“It’s just not that simple!” Elizabeth grumbled and her voice held an uncharacteristic plaintive edge that only the memory of Cynara Saravic could evoke.
‘Oh but it is!’ The voice persisted, seemingly unrelenting in its desire to foment turmoil in Elizabeth’s otherwise placid mind. ‘From my jaded perspective, it couldn’t be any simpler actually. Change your appearance and begin a new life, free of any realistic concern that your past will come back to haunt you…that is all that’s required. You would rather make this grand sacrifice than make the one accommodation that would give you the opportunity to start living again…to enjoy this gift you’ve been granted. This isn’t an act of nobility, Elizabeth…whatever you might think. It’s just pathetic exercise in vanity.’
Elizabeth drew a deep, tremulous breath and strode to the end of her bedroom. Barefoot and dressed only in a jade green satin slip, she threw open the French doors and plunged out onto the balcony that overlooked the Messenian Gulf. She leaned on the ornately scrolled railing and peered out over the shimmering waters of the gulf that resembled a rolling field of black satin beneath the full moon. The white sands of the beach had assumed a beguiling iridescent quality that seemed somehow tailored to grave philosophical musings that always seemed to come only in the depth of a sleepless night such as this one was proving to be.
Sighing, Elizabeth turned that same argent light of introspection on what she regarded as her fundamentally satisfying life.
There was an irrefutable measure of truth in the contention that she could change her life of self-imposed isolation by altering her outward physical appearance…just as Cynara had done by donning the countenance of Karnalla Mansley. This done, she would be free to take up a new life without fear that she would be remembered.
‘And yet you continue to wallow here…why?’ she inquired and as she examined her reasons, she produced two justifications that were, in essence, flip sides of the same sad coin. She held up her right hand with the palm facing her and with a rudimentary exertion of will, her palm transformed into a mirror hat reflected her blue-eyed visage in all of its splendor. It was more than simple vanity that made her reluctant to relinquish the face she had worn when last she was mortal. This face was her only tangible link to her past life and identity…everything that she had ever held precious…and lost. To give up this face was akin to turning her back on her very life…renouncing Elizabeth Simpson and everything that woman had been. She had eschewed her name, her home and every association with what little family was left to her…all to insure that they could remain safe. This face was the last thing that David had gazed upon and the last image that Nathaniel had carried with him through his life after he had thought she was dead. She vowed that she would never willingly surrender, convinced that to do so would constitute an unconscionable betrayal of the two men she had loved so dearly.
‘All right, perhaps not vanity then…but something even worse…cowardice!’ Cynara’s voice intoned pointedly. ‘If you really want to indulge in this soul-searching exercise, then dispense with the facile bullshit and confront the truth. You’re hiding in this beautiful, gilded cage because you’re afraid to live again.’
Elizabeth grimaced, but could conjure no meaningful denial because her internal tormentor had cut directly to the heart of her greatest fear. The very thought of going out into the world with the intention of re-immersing herself in everyday life and all of its trappings…an enduring love, a family and friends to populate her life…filled her with an atavistic dread. Even if she could ignore her every misgiving and commit herself to another living being with all of the passion with which she had loved David…there was no escaping the salient reality that would govern any relationship that she would enter. Two terrible moments of reckoning would inevitably come…like inexorable shadows that would fall across the brightest of lives. She would remain young…immune to the merciless ravages of time…while her newfound love would wither and inevitably, inexorably fade.
Eventually, she would find herself back at that precise and ineffably terrible juncture she’d experienced in that Boston graveyard twelve years ago…with everything she cherished gone to the cold embrace of the earth…leaving her utterly and unbearably alone yet again.
Elizabeth was sufficiently self-aware to realize that she could not survive a reprise of that excruciating moment…much less an unending string of such agonizing junctures. The prospect was simply too cruel to even contemplate and she was far better off passing eternity as an unseen witness on the fringes of life.
‘Such a fragile and delicate bloom you’ve become,’ Cynara remarked mordantly, though Elizabeth thought she could discern a note of keen affection in that sardonic reproof. Much to her relief, her internal tormentor relented and fell silent, leaving her free to ponder the ramifications of her disquieting dream.
Her first impression of the dream was that it had been possessed of an oddly discordant character. Initially, it had seemed as if she had been fleeing from the darkest aspects of her past…desperately racing toward the future. The roiling, ugly cloud appeared to represent the malignancy that Cynara had visited upon her life and the vile ties that had bound her to the dark lady’s master. The rooms had captured the critical junctures of her life in vivid and poignant clarity and as they crumbled away behind her, Elizabeth could not help but think that this had been meant to signify that there could be no returning to the life she had lost after Nathaniel’s death. The prospect of normalcy had vanished like a fleeting specter before a surging gale.
That the future had been concealed behind closed doors was frankly rather cliché, but that sense of banality had been dispelled by the voice’s vehement insistence that the future held within was the one true resolution to her life…the only tenable path forward that could bestow meaning on all that Elizabeth had experienced.
Yet, perplexingly, as the dream world had collapsed around her, the entire ambiance of the moment had reversed courses. When she had been on the verge of opening that final door…thus divulging the supposed best of all futures lying open to her, it suddenly appeared as though the voices of the past were desperately admonishing her against succumbing to the black enticement held within. They had seemed intent on forestalling her entry, thus implying that she had been somehow deceived and that the future contained within was inimical…and lethally so.
What she had discovered within the chamber seemed to validate that impression in disturbingly succinct terms. As Elizabeth conjured the startlingly precise recollection of the statue, her heart began to beat quickly and her breathing came in short, ragged gasps, forcing her to lean upon the railing merely to stay upright. There was nothing obscure in the symbolism of that beautifully rendered statue…the stark image had all of the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Two perfectly rendered women, kneeling naked and face to face. There had been no light in the eyes of her own perfect visage, but there had been something so enticing…so viscerally compelling in the slight smile that played at the corners of her generous mouth.
The message had been explicitly clear…only in death would she find genuine contentment.
And then there was the matter of the woman, with whom she had been immortalized…frozen in an intimate posture of shared self-immolation. There was something undeniably erotic about the way the woman’s slack face had been nestled into the crook of Elizabeth’s neck…or the way that her left hand rested lightly on Elizabeth’s flaring hip. In response, she could feel her heartbeat begin to quicken, though now it was not motivated by apprehension, but rather by a decidedly morbid lust.
Shaking her head in open bemusement, she scolded herself, ‘you really have been cloistered from the world for far too long if this is the kind of image that can get your pulse racing.’
Irrespective of this morbid oddity, there was no denying that she found this depiction of a shared meeting of the willingly-embraced end to be acutely arousing.
‘Who is she…how did our lives become so deeply entwined that she would agree to end them this way…and what would compel us to do so?’ She wondered absently.
‘Have you really grown so inconceivably obtuse…or do you despise me so much that you would rather delude yourself by playing the dullard than conjure my memory?’ The voice of Cynara Saravic demanded irritably. ‘This dream of yours can have but one meaning…fate is not quite done with us yet. You and I will come together again…though perhaps this time there will be a definitive end to our story.’
Elizabeth long fingers floated to her mouth of their own volition, though not in time to stifle the cry of negation that welled up from deep in her throat.
“Never!” she rasped, but in her vehemence, Elizabeth could not mistake the resonating note of uncertainty. That emphatic rejection of the notion issued in sharp counterpoint to the rich, disdainful sounds of Cynara’s sardonic laughter. Still, the particular avenue was a route over which Elizabeth was determined never again to traverse. When they had parted ways in that abandoned factory, in the moments before she had confronted Gregor Ingram’s army of religious zealots, Elizabeth had vowed that it would be their final parting. This oath was not motivated by any festering animosity toward Cynara. On the contrary, Elizabeth had promised herself that she would never stand in the dark lady’s daunting presence because she would do nothing to jeopardize Cynara’s wellbeing. She had helped the dark lady throw off the satanic yoke and her presence would only pose a grave risk to Cynara’s hard won freedom.
‘Ah my lovely ingénue…fate has its way of making a mockery of our best intentions and necessity turns our most solemn oaths into hollow lies,’ Cynara intoned with the slightest hint of sorrow adding a melancholy nuance to her voice. ‘Believe what you will and cling to this illusory life as long as you are able, my fragile dove…but I would strongly recommend that you sharpen your claws and fangs because the remorseless winds of change are about to blow through your life. When they do…you will come back to me…and I will be waiting.’
Elizabeth began to give voice to a strident denial, but the words seemed to die on her lips…as if her subconscious was fully cognizant of their meaninglessness. She shuddered and leaning on the rail, bowed her head and closed her eyes until she could achieve some level of mastery over her roiling emotions.
The soft strains of derisive laughter seemed to reach her ears then, coming from somewhere nearby. Her preternatural gaze swept the length of silver beach and at first she was unable to locate the source of the derisive laughter. ‘Over here woman…look and mark me well because you and I are on a collision course as sure as the sun will soon rise over this empty delusion of yours.’
Elizabeth’s regard was drawn to a spot some two hundred yards along the beach and now a figure did seem to coalesce out of the velvet shadows…a silhouette standing forth from the nuanced layers of darkness. Her immortal’s augmented visual acuity brought the figure into sharp focus and she could clearly see that he was gazing steadily at her as she stood on the balcony. The weight of his gaze upon her scantily-clad flesh was palpable and vaguely repulsive…like the groping hand of a lecher and it required all of her composure not to bolt back inside. As if illuminated by an unseen light, the figure’s face suddenly stood prominently forth and now Elizabeth did utter an audible gasp.
The man watching her had flesh that was pasty white…a sickly pallor that reminded Elizabeth of curdled milk. Yet the shock of vital, black hair and the burning eyes seemed to gainsay this impression of infirmity. In that piercing regard, Elizabeth could discern a profound avarice…an insatiable hunger that would be neither sated nor deterred without drastic measures. There could be little mistaking that she was the focus of that insatiable need, though she had never set eyes upon this abhorrent face before.
‘You have what he needs, Elizabeth,’ Cynara intoned gravely. ‘He will not be deterred by reason or threat of violence…And this is why you will soon need me, as loath as you might be to admit it.’
The prediction came to Elizabeth as a barely perceptible whisper, so intently was she focused on the man on the beach and his aura of vague menace. As she watched him, her eyes began to turn the iridescent orange that always signified the onset of extreme rage.
“What do you want?” She roared and her strident voice rolled over the beach like apocalyptic thunder.
The figure greeted this hostile query with another spate of derisive laughter. “You’ll know soon enough….though there is only one thing that a whore like you would possess that would be of value to anyone else.”
There followed another infuriating outburst of contemptuous laughter and then the figure simply blinked out of view like a malevolent apparition.
Elizabeth’s anger drained away like water through a sewer grate and she reeled back into the false sanctuary of her bedroom, where she sagged onto the edge of the bed. She sat with her head bowed and her hands wrung tightly between her knees, inhaling deeply in an effort to calm her frenzied nerves.
As disconcerting as the sudden appearance of this nemesis was, it was the final image…caught in a brief flash the moment prior to his disappearance…that filled Elizabeth Simpson’s intrepid heart with an atavistic dread. In the instant before he had vanished like a dark promise, the man’s eyes had glowed an unearthly, demonic red!