The Red Sea: 8000 B.C.
The reed ship was at the mercy of the winds and Nosferatu could not help but give a cold smile as the sailors prayed out loud each morning to the Gods of Egypt to help them in their travels. He did not think the Airlia Gods would help, even if it were in their power to do so. However, most days the prayers seemed to work, as a steady wind blew from the north, pushing the forty-foot boat southward, the coast always visible to the right. In two days’ time they made it out of the Red Sea and into the Gulf of Aden. Another three days saw them round the horn of Somalia and sail into the Indian Ocean, still staying close to the coast of Africa.
Nosferatu spent his days inside the black tube that Kajilil had helped him steal from the Roads of Rostau. It was covered by a small thatch hut he had had the sailors construct in the middle of the boat. He had examined the crown but made no use of it. The same with the glowing panel of hexagonals. He had no clue what powered it, but there was writing in the Runic language of the Gods on each hex. When they had gone down into the tunnels, they’d found the three cells empty except for the tubes. Lifting one, they found the metal surprisingly light. Kajilil had given them gray cloaks that he said would hide them from the metal spider, but the creature had not appeared.
As Nosferatu had speculated, no one would have expected them to return to the scene of their imprisonment.
Vampyr and he wordlessly parted near the Watcher’s hut, on the edge of the Nile. Vampyr slipped off into the dark, moving north along the west bank of the Nile, while Nosferatu climbed on board a raft provided by Kajilil and forded the river. Nosferatu knew that the other Undead was full of rage at both the Airlia and their human subjects and he feared for what Vampyr might do. He thought it highly possible that Vampyr would be captured by the Airlia in his quest for vengeance and be killed as horribly as his sister had been.
Once across the Nile Nosferatu had to wrap the tube in heavy cloths and have it dragged behind a pair of camels to cross the desert from the Nile to the Red Sea. The desert people — the Bedu — who had done this for him had asked no questions and made no protest about traveling only at night. They’d taken the gold payment Nosferatu had offered and disappeared into the desert as soon as he reached the coast. When he reached the Red Sea, Nosferatu had hired his boat. The crew worshipped the Egyptian Gods for lack of anything else, but they were from a tribe that lived along the coast of the Red Sea and knew nothing of the Airlia or the high priests along the Nile.
Nosferatu’s thoughts swirled around Nekhbet and his last sight of her as the lid of the tube had closed. She had smiled and shaken her head. The high priest had said she would stay awake and alive forever in her metal prison. He knew that as long as the Gods ruled in Egypt he would not be able to save her. His last vision of the Black Sphinx confirmed that her tube was still resting on top of the large lion head, the bait for the Airlia trap for him. He wondered how long they would keep her there before taking her back underground. He would have to wait. Even the Watcher Kajilil had said change would come. When it did, Nosferatu knew he would return and rescue her. Until then he had to stay alive.
On the third day on board they all saw a golden disk flying low over the sands to the west. The crew threw themselves to the deck and prayed loudly. Nosferatu knew the Airlia were searching for him and Vampyr. He stayed inside the tube, hidden from sight as the disk flew overhead, hovering for a few moments before moving on.
Twice more in the following week they saw the disk in the distance, and each time Nosferatu crawled into the tube.
At night he paced along the deck, stepping over the sleeping forms of the half dozen men he had paid to take him away from Egypt. They tied up to shore every evening and occasionally Nosferatu ventured inland. The hunger grew in him and he knew that he would have to feed in order to maintain his age and strength.
* * *
He took his first kill after almost a month and a half at sea when he could hold the hunger at bay no longer and feared he would lose control and attack one of the crew. As they went south the shoreline had changed from desert to lush jungle. They had tied up to a tree near the mouth of a small river. The crew had refilled the water caskets by traveling up the river just before darkness fell, hurrying back, frightened of the strange noises that roared and bellowed out of the lush greenness. Nosferatu found the sounds intriguing — a siren’s song of violence and death beckoning him to its darkness.
Nosferatu left the boat and waded ashore. He entered the dark jungle, and was immediately swallowed up into its blackness. He could see well in the darkness, having inherited the Airlia predisposition for lower levels of light. Indeed, he had found that the sun greatly hurt his eyes and he also had to protect his skin from the burning rays during the day as his flesh had no tolerance of its touch.
Nosferatu moved through the jungle, at one with the other creatures. In the limited light his eyes perceived the spectrum of colors and he marveled at the lush greenness all around him. Even the arable land next to the Nile had never produced color as vivid as this. And the bounty of life in the jungle — he could hear it everywhere.
Nosferatu also began to discover that he had other abilities beyond that of his superb night vision, thanks to his Airlia genes and blood. He could run swiftly, as fast as a deer — something he discovered while crossing a small clearing where he came across several of the creatures. He ran one down, startling himself as much as his prey.
Realizing he didn’t know the extent of his capabilities, he spent a little time testing his body.
He discovered he could jump almost twenty feet straight up and land upright on a branch. With his bare hands he could break an eight-inch-thick piece of wood. When the feat left a scratch in his palm, he watched with amazement as it healed within the hour.
He became so caught up in exploring his newfound abilities, he almost forgot his hunger — almost, but not quite. After an hour following the bank of the stream inland, he came upon a clearing in which there were a dozen huts surrounded by a thorn thicket through which there was but a single opening blocked by a crude wooden gate. Nosferatu stood still, waiting and watching, until he saw movement. A young boy with skin as dark as the night and a spear in his hand was slowly walking in a circle just inside the wall of thorns, peering out at the surrounding jungle with wide eyes at the sudden silence that had descended at Nosferatu’s approach. Nosferatu felt the blood fever come over him, remembering what it had felt like to taste of the priest at the base of the Black Sphinx. The blood he’d been fed by the high priests had always been cold and thick, an hour or two removed from the draining. Fresh blood, pumping straight out of the vein, that was a very different thing.
Nosferatu waited until the boy was on the far side, then he moved forward. He lightly jumped over the thorn fence. He crouched down, hidden in the shadows as the boy came round once more. Nosferatu leapt up, jumping straight for the boy, clamping one hand over his mouth and shoving the spear away with the other while his mouth fastened on the thin neck, teeth tearing into the flesh. He was rewarded with a spray of blood, which strengthened him. The boy’s struggles were futile as Nosferatu drained him.
Distantly Nosferatu could hear a dog barking in alarm but he kept his mouth tight to the torn vein, allowing the blood to pulse in, the boy’s wildly beating heart aiding in the feeding. When he heard voices crying out, only then did Nosferatu look up from his victim. A half dozen warriors, spears in their hands surrounded him. They stepped back in shock as he lifted his blood-soaked, pale white face from the body. His glittering eyes and alien white skin made him appear a demon. Nosferatu laughed, lifting the body over his head and throwing it at the men. They jumped out of the way and he leapt back over the thorn barricade and sprinted off into the jungle before they could attack him.
Before dawn Nosferatu had cleaned up and was back on the boat. The kill lasted him well over a month before he felt the urge again. By that time they had made their way farther down the coast of Africa than any of the crew had ever been. They had passed a place where two tall white-capped mountains beckoned in the distance and the land changed from jungle to open plains reaching the shoreline. Nosferatu heard the men muttering about turning around, about going back; but he pressed them to continue on, giving them more gold, a fortune that would mean none would ever have to work again.
Unable to find anything on land as they passed an arid stretch of coastline, three weeks later, Nosferatu’s second kill was one of the sailors. He took the poor man in the night, silencing him, pulling him off the ship and onto land, where he drained the man’s blood and hid the body. In the morning there was panic and consternation among the survivors about the sudden and silent disappearance of their comrade. Nosferatu said nothing, only pointing to the south before retiring with his gold to the tube, making sure he locked it from the inside as he knew they were considering killing him and taking the gold. The man had been the one who had been the most insistent that they turn back, so the consensus among the others was that he had jumped ship and was trying to make his way back by land.
After two more weeks they rounded a storm-lashed cape and began moving north. Nosferatu realized they must be on the other side of the continent in which Egypt rested. Was he far enough away from the Airlia to be safe for a while?
He killed a second crewmember not long after they began moving north. The remaining four were panic-stricken and superstitious. They spent that entire day in the rear, muttering among themselves as the boat made its way north. The shoreline had also turned forbidding.
The land was edged with cliffs, rocky and barren. The men were running low on food and water but they pressed forward for another week. Nosferatu knew he had gone as far as he could without feeding again. He took a third that night, draining him, then sliding the body overboard, where sharks immediately took it into the depths.
Sated with blood, he climbed into his tube just before dawn, and sealed the lid against intrusion. As always he fell into an uneasy slumber, dreams of Nekhbet mixed with nightmares of darkness and confinement.
He woke when his forehead slammed against the top of the lid. Disoriented for a moment, he pressed against the metal sides of the tube to steady himself. The tube rolled one way, paused, then the other. The action didn’t stop.
They’d thrown him overboard, Nosferatu realized with a rush of panic. He cursed at this unexpected turn of events. He’d counted on their fear to keep them in place and knew now that he had miscalculated. He held steady against the sway of the tube to the waves. He knew if he opened the lid, water would pour in and the tube would be lost, leaving him adrift in the shark-infested water.
It was unlike his previous time in the tube underneath the Giza Plateau. Worse, much worse, as the days and nights went by. Then he had had the monthly feedings and the presence of Nekhbet. Here he suffered in darkness, enclosed, growing weaker as the strength of the feeding from the last sailor faded. And his strength was worn down further as he fought against the external motion of the tube to avoid being injured.
Several times he spent hours fighting severe motion, the tube sometimes rolling over completely. He had to assume that those were periods when he rode out storms. At times he would sleep, more a lapse into exhausted unconsciousness, always broken by a slam to one side or the other of the tube.
Never did he despair. Never was he tempted to unlatch the lid and let the ocean in to finish his agony.
Foremost in his mind was Nekhbet, his last vision of her. He could endure a thousand storms before he would let go of that vision, before he would abandon her to an eternity of empty life in her tube.
Nosferatu woke with a start as he was once more slammed against the right side of the tube. He braced himself, ready for the inevitable roll to the other side, but there was only stillness. He waited, not even daring to breathe. Total, complete stillness. He had almost forgotten what it was like.
Nosferatu took a deep breath, ignoring the overwhelming stench from inside the tube. He reached to the inner latch and pressed on it. The lid cracked open and a surge of water poured in, causing him to panic for a second before the inflow suddenly ceased. Then another splash of water, a wave. He almost slammed the lid shut, but the tube wasn’t moving. Of that he was certain. And it was night outside. Through the slight opening he could see stars on the horizon.
Nosferatu swung the lid wide open and sat up.
The tube was on the surf line along a rocky coast. Cliffs towered over a thin sliver of pebble shore. Gingerly, Nosferatu climbed out of the tube, his feet touching solid ground for the first time in over a month. He pulled the tube inland, making sure it was above the surf line. Then he looked about. There was not a single hint of vegetation, just bare, forbidding rock. And no sign of animal life, not even birds overhead.
Nosferatu glanced up at the cliffs. There was a tinge of light — dawn was coming. He summoned up what little energy he had left. First, he cleaned out the interior of the tube with seawater. Then he pulled the tube across the narrow beach and wedged it in a crack in the cliff face. He piled up smaller rocks in front, hiding it from the sight of anyone passing on the ocean. He placed his hands over the control panel, reading what he could make out and remembering as best he could the sequence the God had set on Nekhbet’s. With shaking hands he tapped out a code. The panel flashed and he crawled inside, putting the bands on his legs and arms before setting the crown on his head.
He had just completed this when he felt darkness overwhelm him.
The Giza Plateau: 8000 B.C.
Vampyr cut the soldier’s throat with one smooth slice of the dagger. He grabbed the stunned man, pulling the open wound to his mouth, and drank as much blood as his engorged body would take. The soldier was the third he had taken in as many nights. He did not need the blood. They were Egyptian, serving the Gods, and this was vengeance, though he was sure none but the dead would know who was wreaking it.
Vampyr had demurred when Nosferatu had said they should travel south, into the unknown lands. He knew the Eldest was going to hide and bide his time. Vampyr did not want to hide. He wanted blood and vengeance and he planned to stay close to Egypt.
The men he took were those who wandered out of the fort in the evening into the local village, seeking wine and women. He slid the body of the most recent victim off the edge of the dock, into the dark water of the Nile. He knew there was already a level of unease in the fort from the two missing men and a third’s disappearing would bring some sort of reaction.
Three soldiers from the army of an empire. Poor vengeance indeed, Vampyr thought bitterly to himself as he strode along the wooden dock toward the small boat that held his tube.
Once on deck, he paused and stood still, feeling the cool breeze blow over his skin. It was as if there were a hole in his chest, and all the blood he took could never be enough to fill it. Lilith had always been there, for over a hundred years. They had been together in the womb. Played together along the banks of the Nile as children, not knowing the fate that awaited them.
Shortly after the twins reached adulthood, the high priests had taken them and dragged them into the Roads, entombing them in adjacent tubes. Even in their imprisonment, they had still had each other. When Lilith died on the cross he had felt the connection with her inside his mind give way. It was as if together they had been one complete person and balanced each other — Lilith the light, and he the darkness.
A horn call rang out plaintively from the fort. When Vampyr looked landward, he could see a group of soldiers carrying torches issue forth from the gates of the fort into the village. Too many for him to fight.
He heard the slap of oars in the water and Vampyr looked upriver to see a boat floating with the current, about thirty feet away. A man wearing a black robe stood in the prow, staring at him. Eight men with drawn bows stood along the center of the boat, their weapons aimed at Vampyr. Four other men rowed, bringing the boat closer to his.
Vampyr took a step backward as the prow of the other boat touched his and two of the men reached out to secure the two together. The man in the cloak climbed on board Vampyr’s boat. Vampyr drew his dagger. The stranger drew a sword that glittered in the starlight, but he did not immediately attack, nor did the bowmen fire.
“Who are you?” Vampyr demanded.
“I am a Shadow of those you hate. Aspasia’s Shadow.”
Vampyr tightened the grip on his dagger. “What is a Shadow?”
The man drew back his hood, revealing a thin, pale face and dark eyes. With his free hand he pointed at his head. “I carry the memories of Aspasia, Lord of the Gods.” He laughed. “At least one side of the so-called Gods. I am his Shadow. I have received a message from the Guardian that there has been trouble in the Roads of Rostau and I believe I have just found the source of that trouble. I have been looking for you for a while now.”
Aspasia’s Shadow glanced past Nosferatu at the Giza Plateau. “But.” He let that word hang in the air for a few moments. “You killed Isis and Osiris?”
Vampyr stood taller. “Yes.” He expected the other man to attack, but Aspasia’s Shadow seemed to be thinking.
“Interesting,” Aspasia’s Shadow said. “Two of the six who hide in the Roads dead. They were supposed to be caretakers only, not set themselves up once more as Gods. Perhaps they will have learned their lesson.”
“And what is your task?” Vampyr asked.
“A caretaker also, in my own way. To maintain the truce while the Gods sleep. To win for my side if the opportunity presents itself.” Aspasia’s Shadow shrugged. “I’m a backup, an afterthought. I must say, though, that’s better than what you are.”
Aspasia’s Shadow put the point of his sword into the wood and leaned on the pommel as he considered Vampyr. The bowmen, however, did not relax the tension on their strings and the barbed points of their arrows were aimed directly at Vampyr’s chest.
Vampyr could hear the soldiers searching along the riverbank, growing closer; but Aspasia’s Shadow did not seem concerned.
“You’re just another piece on the board,” Aspasia’s Shadow said. He cocked his head, staring at Vampyr. “You burn with hatred. I can feel it. This should be interesting.” He pointed downriver, toward the Middle Sea. “Go. Take your hatred and leave this place. Nurse it. The time of the Gods will be over here someday.” He leaned over and looked under the thin wooden deck and saw the black tube. “As you know, you can sleep without dreaming or thinking for a long time using that. I would recommend you go far away and go into the deep sleep for a long time. Then awaken and see what has changed in the world.”
“How do I do that?” Vampyr asked.
Aspasia’s Shadow climbed down belowdecks and tapped something into the command panel.
Vampyr watched his movements carefully. “How do I know you aren’t setting that to kill me? Or put me to sleep forever?”
“You don’t,” Aspasia’s Shadow said. “But the Airlia move very slowly. If you want to scavenge about this world for millennia, waiting for things to change, be my guest. Things will change over time, but slowly. The deep sleep, which I use myself, is a way to ‘speed’ the process. And it keeps you from aging during the time you sleep.”
“Why should you care about what I do?” Vampyr demanded, still holding the bloodstained dagger tightly in his hand.
“It is a game,” Aspasia’s Shadow said. “As I said, you’re just another piece on the board, making things interesting. I may have Aspasia’s memories, but I have lived a long time since they were imprinted on me. I do not necessarily have the same motivations or goals anymore.”
“What is your goal?”
“That is none of your business.” Aspasia’s Shadow waved his hands wide. “There is an entire world out there. Take your hatred and lust into it. Make the world a more interesting place to watch. We will meet again.”
With that, Aspasia’s Shadow sheathed his sword and walked onto the dock, heading toward the soldiers. Vampyr watched him for a few seconds, then looked at the other boat. The bowmen still had their weapons aimed at him. Vampyr untied the rope holding his boat to the dock. The Nile’s current grabbed hold and took him and the boat with it, heading toward the Middle Sea.