Real Vampires

By Phantom Bard



Disclaimers: Violence, dead pets, dead people, blood spillage, threatening situations, and ungenteel language are included. This is a horror story and is recommended for adult readers only, as some content may be disturbing. "Real Vampires" draws on current and historical beliefs about vampires, from the fashionable to the superstitious, as well as modern archeology and the mythologies of several ancient civilizations. It is an atypical vampire story. I doubt much else here will shock this audience.

Contact: Write to Phantom Bard, currently incarcerated at:

Note: This story was written for The Royal Academy of Bards' 2003 Halloween Special.


Somewhere in Cyberspace, 2001

Member Created Chatroom: "Real Vampires 1"

(2 Members Present)

Kate (10:04pm) Hi Valerie, I was wondering if I'd run into you here again.

Vampalerie (10:04pm) I just got in from work and nuked some leftovers <g> Good to see you again, Kate. You left rather abruptly when we were talking last time.

Kate (10:05pm) It was almost 6am…I had things to attend to.

Misc. reacquainting: deleted from log ~ 12 minutes ~ log resumed.

Kate (10:16pm) We'd touched on some interesting topics last time, was there more?

Vampalerie (10:16pm) Well, as I said, all my life I'd been called intense, mysterious, or something like that <sigh>. Back in high school I used to hang out with the Gothic clique…

Kate (10:17pm) Hey! I'm a Goth!!!

Vampalerie (10:17pm) Take it easy, I know you're a Goth chick, but you're 26 not 16.

Kate (10:18pm) Ok, ok, I suppose…

Vampalerie (10:19pm) Anyway, they were really my clique. Disruptive as I was, they'd do anything for me. <vbg> I felt like I was their dark princess, ya know? I confess that it didn't make me uncomfortable at all…I thrived on the attention. They thought I was so cool. <bg> I loved it. I loved being the center of their little world. The thing was, I never felt like I was really a part of them, you know?

Kate (10:20pm) …perhaps you didn't want to join the flock? Then what happened?

Vampalerie (10:20pm) Oh, well, I met this group on the 'net. They were into Satanism and stuff so I started chatting with them. I'd read a little bit about "devil worship" and at least we could have a conversation without them immediately asking, "a/s/l, gotta pic?" After a couple weeks they told me where they were going to have a meeting…they were just a couple towns over. Since it wasn't too far away, I went to meet them. Three of them had been renting this big house. It was pretty dilapidated, and at night it actually looked creepy.

Kate (10:22pm) Nothing like having the right atmosphere, I suppose.

Vampalerie (10:22pm) Exactly! Anyway, the meeting wasn't a ritual or anything. It was more like a cocktail party for the wannabe damned, LMAO. I could feel that they didn't have any real power or anything. It was all just an act. I spent most of the night talking to this girl, Demonique, the "priestess"? She was mostly into being a slut <teehee>. I guess Satanism was just her way of rejecting the church she grew up in, like rejecting the authority figures who'd disapproved of her behavior. Like most of them, she was a lapsed Catholic. They're into the devil and predisposed to rituals.

Kate (10:24pm) She sounds rather childish…and predictable. Hmmm, perhaps she needs a few changes tossed her way, and…nevermind, continue.

Vampalerie (10:25pm) They all were, really. I got the impression that I was just there as a potential fuck! The only thing of real value the whole night was that I talked with this guy who called himself Mephisto online, but his real name was Benny Putterman, ROFLMAO!!! He turned me on to some website he'd seen about "real" vampires.

Kate (10:27pm) Real vampires? As opposed to what, Count Chocula? Hahaha.

Vampalerie (10:28pm) Well no, as opposed to the movie images like Count Dracula, or the posers…the people like themselves, like they were as Satanists. Kinda ironic, huh? So I looked up the site and read their stuff, and in a weird way it all made sense to me.

Kate (10:28pm) You’re speaking of something specific, I suppose?

Vampalerie (10:29pm) Actually a lot of it seemed way more than a little familiar. They claimed that vampirism was based on the ability to draw sustenance from the living energy of others. Some do this by actually drinking blood, others by feeding directly off a victim's prana, their life force. There's a whole complex of other traits too. Anyway, "real" vampires aren't some undead immortals. They're just regular people who have an additional way of finding nourishment. It's more direct, supposedly, since most people just eat food and get all their energy through digestion. Also, "real" vampires are able to walk around in the daylight, they look like normal people, and when they die, they stay dead. A "real" vampire can't make someone else into a vampire…you have to be born that way. The only reason "real" vampires have a bad reputation is that if they absorb too much of one person's prana, that person tends to weaken and feel wiped out. Theoretically I guess they could even die from it. I think that's where all the old legends come from. It must be hell on a marriage <bg>. I have to admit that my own relationships haven't lasted all that long.

Kate (10:31pm) Oh, please! This really sounds like something someone made up to justify their own eccentricities and empower themselves with an exotic identity. I suspect their "weak, wiped out" friends were narcoleptics, dopers, or insomniacs. It's 21st century scientific vampirism; logical and reasonable, and with a psychological bent. I'm okay, you're okay, and we'll get through this together. Ha! You're either an immortal or you're not; you either drink blood or you don't. God, listen to me, LOL!!! The modern world has made its monsters into a marginalized constituency with a simple congenital "difference"…the politically correct vampire!

Vampalerie (10:33pm) And you sound like a superstitious traditionalist, <bg>. Does thinking of vampires as the evil undead resonate more easily for you?

Kate (10:34pm) Actually, I suppose it does. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I'm more comfortable with evil really being evil and good really being good.

Vampalerie (10:35pm) Uhhh Ohhhh! <g>

Kate (10:35pm) You needn't worry. It's simply a philosophical issue. I certainly won't be panicking and calling a priest to do an exorcism or anything.

Vampalerie (10:36pm) Good!!! I never did like vomiting oatmeal, LMAO!!!

Kate (10:37pm) So, you sincerely believe you're a "real" vampire, Val?

Vampalerie (10:38pm) I don't doubt it at all now that I know what to look for. I've had a couple good friends get really sick…one on a road trip across country, the other when we went camping for two weeks. Both times I felt great while they got weaker and weaker, depressed and edgy too. As soon as they were away from me so much, they went right back to normal. The two great relationships of my life ended because my lovers claimed I was "sucking them dry" emotionally. I have to admit it was true. They both did better with their lives after we broke up. Being with people energizes me but sometimes I get manic. I don't mind being alone, but eventually I get lethargic or just feel depressed.

Kate (10:41pm) Valerie, I must confess that I find this morbidly fascinating.

Vampalerie (10:41pm) From what I read, people like me siphon away other peoples' auras. Of course I've never seen anything like that, but it sounds pretty amazing.

Kate (10:42pm) I'm rather attuned to people's auras…their "vibes", if you will. I don’t doubt what you're saying about the people you've been around getting sick. I just have to be skeptical about the "real" vampire bit.

Vampalerie (10:43pm) When I was a kid, this one doctor thought I was bipolar, but the pills I got from him didn't do any good so I stopped taking them. Anyway, they made me feel yucky. I actually did puke up oatmeal once, and it was blue 'cause of the Kool-Aide I'd been drinking, LMAO.

Kate (10:45pm) How disgusting!!!

Vampalerie (10:45pm) Actually, I think it would really be interesting to have you take a look at my aura and tell me what you see. I haven't met anyone who could visually sense auras before. Uhhh, I went for a tarot reading once at this witchcraft store…after laying out the cards, the woman just got up and left and she never told me anything. Then the storeowner refunded my money and told me not to come back. At the time, it really pissed me off.

Kate (10:47pm) Frauds! Look Val, I'd be glad to meet you and look at your aura. I don't always sense something from everyone that's around me or I'd go crazy, but if I'm concentrating on it, or if it's really vivid, then I'll probably see what's there.

Vampalerie (10:48pm) That sounds like fun, Kate. Anyway, I've never tried it and I'm always looking to meet new friends. I'm in Hoboken…you're in Brooklyn, right?

Kate (10:49pm) Right. How about meeting in the city? Say, tomorrow sometime?

Vampalerie (10:51pm) Sounds fair to me…neutral ground and all, LOL. It's got to be at night after work for me though. Is that ok?

Kate (10:53pm) Works for me. Will you be driving or taking the PATH train?

Vampalerie (10:54pm) Driving…because I drive to and from work and I don't want to have to leave my car parked around the PATH station, etc…etc. It's a pain in the ass.

Kate (10:57pm) Well, might I recommend a Goth club called "Nightwings"? It's near the Holland Tunnel exit…if you think you can stand being in a Goth club, that is.

Vampalerie (10:58pm) Actually, I've heard of the place. I was out of the Gothic scene before it opened though, so I've never been there. But it sounds like a good plan, so sure, let's meet there. Is around 9:30 okay with you?

Kate (10:59pm) That's certainly acceptable to me. I'm in there a lot so if you don't see me, just ask the bartender, Stephanie, she's an old friend of mine. Hold on and I'll send you a jpeg so you'll recognize me.

Vampalerie (11:00pm) s2r, LMAO. I'll send you one too, BRB.

Kate (11:01pm) You've got mail.

Vampalerie (11:04pm) Holy shit!!! You weren't kidding you're a Gothic chick. <g> So are those real bodies and blood? BTW, you've got mail.

Kate (11:07pm) I was quite dressed up for that shot. The club uses it for advertising so you might see it on handbills and such. You're really quite lovely…I'd never guess you're a vampire. I'm going to sign off and go out for a late dinner…East Indian, perhaps. It seems I've got cravings.

Vampalerie (11:09pm) Beware the vindaloo, <bg>. I'll be looking forward to seeing you tomorrow night, Kate. G'night.

Kate (11:10pm) Nite!

"Real Vampires 1" is empty

It was already 9:30 and Valerie McCormack was running a little late. Of course the Holland Tunnel could be unpredictable, even after rush hour. Tonight, a family's SUV had broken down near the tunnel entrance. Their dog, a nondescript and painfully unpedigreed black hound, had escaped from the vehicle and was happily stretching its legs, barking and running back and forth across the lanes of traffic. It was a police car responding to the scene that had finally struck it dead and sent its body flying. With macabre precision rivaling a cruise missile, the limp cadaver had decked the mother, who'd been standing beside the SUV in a classy suit, completely preoccupied in calling a tow truck on her cell phone. The father had leapt out of the driver's side door and stood over her unconscious body; a jack jumping out of his box and screaming for help. The children had been watching the unfolding events with bulging eyes starting from faces that they'd pressed flat against the side window glass. Valerie had been sincerely impressed that a single family could have produced three such perfect little copies of Edvard Munch's "The Scream". She found it so irritating when life imitated art.

They'd all still been shrieking when traffic had finally started moving again after their 25 minutes of fame. By then Valerie had been rolling her eyes to the point of vertigo, while chewing on the end of a stray lock from her mane of dirty blond curls. A trickle of sweat had inched down her back, salting the wound her bra's bent fastener had chaffed on her spine. She'd had no patience left and her 36-year-old Rambler American had no air conditioner. Valerie McCormack had eventually been waved forward by a cop and had enjoyed the privilege of entering Clifford Holland's famous tunnel, where she’d made a life-threatening transit into New York City.

"And just how the hell did they ever decide to let them into the tunnel at the same time?" She griped. Driving behind a tanker truck emblazoned with hazard warnings that was dribbling "Flammable Liquid", and being paced by an open bed truck marked "Explosive Gasses", all the while imagining the stupefying weight of the water overhead as she passed 100 feet below the Hudson River, was nerve wracking at best. The tunnel walls showed numerous water stains resulting from "structural settling". Beside her aging American Motors compact, the compressed gas cylinders, (oxygen, acetylene, nitrogen, and argon), were shifting and loudly clanking against each other in their loose cordon of chains. That the driver in the welding gas truck had spent more time staring at her than at the road hadn't helped. The cigarette dangling from his lips and the lurid burn scars on his face had not been reassuring either. It was a situation that she found laughably threatening. Sensing the relief of hysteria impinging on the borders of her composure, Valerie thought, all we need now is for the lights down here to go out, or maybe another runaway dog. The welding gas truck edged into her lane, its driver leering into her car. The fuel oil truck swerved and jabbed its brakes as the driver reached out to adjust his side mirror so that he could stare at her as well.

"How the hell did they decide to let them into the tunnel at all?" She sputtered. They flashed past a coffin-sized glassed in booth attached to the tunnel wall. The traffic observation officer inside was slumped against the glass, probably dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, Val observed…the third one this month. Bracketed by an open bed truck hauling welding cylinders and a leaking tanker truck filled with fuel oil, she finally navigated onto Canal St. in the Borough of Manhattan. Being a mortal vampire had provided her no comfort at all.

The club that Kate had suggested was only a block north of Canal St., but with "No Left Turn" signs to thwart her, it took her another ten minutes to find the only available parking space close to Greenwich and Spring Sts. Valerie parked in front of a peeling tin façade that was painted a vomitous faded puce. It was an ex-commercial space that had devolved into co-ops. The proof of residential occupancy was in the reeking collection of trashcans clumped right next to her passenger's side door. They had congregated in an example of dark urban humor, overflowing with rotting food, loaded Pampers, and the ubiquitous pet walkers' baggies of dog droppings. The cans choked off both pedestrian traffic down the sidewalk and the flow of air through her nostrils. Valerie expected her car to be permeated with the stench when she returned.

"Of course it's garbage night. Fuck! This stench will soak into my car seats and I'll be smelling it for a week!"

Val was seething as she unfolded her slender frame from the driver's seat. She slammed the door, startling a couple of bulging rats that waddled out of the garbage heap. The vampire nearly sprained an ankle crossing the uneven cobblestone-paved street behind them, before backtracking up the block to the corner where Nightwings stood. Her evening, thus far, had been fraught with a remarkable load of ill omens. It was already almost ten.

Nightwings was the premier Goth club in Lower Manhattan. In fact, it was one of the top three Gothic venues in the city. Had she still been into the scene, Valerie probably would have hung out there often, since it was easier for her to get to than anyplace else in SoHo or the East Village. As it was, although she'd heard a lot about Nightwings, she'd never actually seen the place before. Late as she was, still she had to stop for a look.

Once upon a time, the address had belonged to the Munson Diner. The chromed 40s relic had originally been backed against an annex building that had quintupled its interior space. In that previous incarnation, the premises had been a local tavern and unpretentious eatery; an artist's hangout, back when artists could still afford to hang out in the area. Now the neighborhood was mostly a home to yuppies that worked in the financial district a dozen blocks south, and needed only a Starbucks to call the neighborhood home. (Valerie had noticed two of the overpriced caffeine pushers within three blocks, and had absently wondered where the nearest pizzeria or deli was). Proof of the current demographics could be deduced with a savvy glance. Looking into the upper floor windows of the surrounding buildings revealed designer halogen lamps, pricey exercise equipment, and imported track lights, where paintings and plants had once lived. Satellite dishes sat on windowsills now, while new alarm company signs nestled in the doorways beside small consoles with blinking lights.

Eight years before, a corporation of developers had bought out the Munson Diner and several adjacent properties. The popular assumption had been that these would be razed and an upscale yuppie tenement constructed on that prime locale, but, typical of New York City, a more eccentric scheme had materialized. The nondescript annex and the surrounding structures were completely gone. When the plywood contractor's barricades had finally been torn down, the architectural apparition that was revealed gave the impression that a deconsecrated and predatory Gothic church was feasting on the Munson Diner. In contrast to the diner's squat profile, the new building's proportions had been calculated for an imposing verticality. Each story was over twenty feet in height, 120 feet total, topped by a high-pitched roof, and embellished with a multitude of upward lunging struts, compound columns, high arches, and flying buttresses. The poured structural concrete had been rusticated to give the look of time eroded sandstone blocks. The entire five-story edifice, and the attached seven-story bell tower that rose to 175 feet, had then been painted a weathered black. Lead-channeled stained glass windows had been installed in the upper floors, and wrought iron detailed the structure throughout.

To passersby on the sidewalk, the war era diner appeared to have only been cleaned up and its detailing repainted, although a stylistically matching revolving door had been added. Now however, the diner was encased in, or was being digested by, the new Gothic structure. It was a perverted edifice overall; unexpected, unearthly, and unsettling in a visceral way. Even pigeons avoided roosting on it. On Greenwich St., the humanity of a humble and popular eatery had been corrupted with the creepy mysticism of a sanctuary fallen into darkness. The devil had come to town with the carnival, and was flaunting his possession of an icon of innocence. It had made people cringe and editorialize, but it had all been nice and legal-like. A spokeswoman for the architects had upbraided the public for not appreciating the development company's efforts in retaining the familiar diner at street level. "So just don't look up," she'd told the reporters.

Valerie swept her halo of dirty blonde ringlets back from her eyes and spent several minutes looking up. Even though she was running late, she couldn't help it. The place was hypnotically compelling of attention. The pictures she'd seen hadn't done it justice. She could appreciate the quirky sense of humor behind the creation of Nightwings, pretentious as it was. Even more, she could appreciate the subversive sensibilities that had located it in the yuppie neighborhood, probably drawing a Marilyn Manson crowd. She considered a gargoyle downspout. It was a bizarre grotesque, carved with the body of a dog bearing three charicature heads, Britney Spears, Urethra Franklin, and Klaus Nomi. Another featured Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. For a brief moment she wondered how the owners had been able to afforded financing such a club. It must have taken millions of dollars just to secure the land.

Valerie was startled out of her reveries when bells chimed the hour. The clanging came from the belfry that crowned the church-like addition above the diner. Unlike any church bells, Nightwings' chimes were disharmonic, and produced tones that "felt" smeared and amelodic. It wasn't discordant so much as profoundly upsetting, directly unsettling the soul rather than offending the ears. She looked up, (half hoping to catch a glimpse of Quasimodo), just in time to see a flock of small things taking wing from the open rafters under the tower's roof. By the fluttering and darting movements of their flight, she was reasonably sure that they were bats. Bats in the belfry, Val thought, how stereotypical. As the pealing died away, she noted the time.

"Shit, it's already ten o'clock," Valerie scolded herself, realizing, "I'm half and hour late. Kate'll be pissed and I've never even met her before." She hurried to the club's entrance.

As she prepared to push her way into the brass framed revolving door, she happened to glance up again and her eyes scanned the frieze that had been installed above. It was a tableau dominated by a torch bearing female figure, who stood between paired dogs or wolves, amidst the cadaver carts and open grave pits of a medieval plague scene. Stylistically, the figures displayed the blocky elongated rendering of cathedral sculpture. The frieze was flanked by medallions depicting crosses, but the crucified figures were inverted. She leaned against the door to start it moving. Typical Gothic image vocabulary, she thought before the door revolved and forced her into the diner.

"Welcome, my lovely one," Valerie heard a voice whisper as she crossed the threshold. The words had been spoken so low, at the very bottom of her aural acuity, that she suspected she had only heard them in her mind's ear, perhaps as a phantasmal creation derived from the whooshing of the weather-strips that sealed the revolving glass. She shook her head and looked around.

Once inside, there was no trace of the space having ever been a diner. Instead, the door opened onto a relatively low atrium with a ceiling about ten feet high. Opposite the door, the atrium was separated from the interior of the club by what looked like an actual medieval portcullis, which was currently raised about eight feet above the floor. A series of antique looking telephones clung to the wall on her right, beside a closed French door marked "Coats".

"Hello, and welcome to Nightwings," a hostess announced from Valerie's left. She was standing behind an elaborate wrought iron lectern that featured a built-in candelabrum bearing a half-dozen lit candles, a reservation book, and a chalice containing what looked like red wine. It was unexpected enough to slightly startle Valerie. She had never thought to see a hostess greeting the patrons entering a Goth club. A gruffty bouncer would have been more typical. Most of the places she remembered were as gritty and bulletproof as the owner could make them. Here, the atmosphere was upscale and genteel, if a bit dark and eccentric in theme. (Val noted a pedestal supporting a vase of roses that she assumed had been painted black). The hostess was dressed like Morticia Addams, appropriately enough, but she was a platinum blonde whose features screamed Nordic. While her hair color appeared natural, her skin looked as if it had been bleached. She probably hadn't spent a minute in the sun in centuries.

"Thank you," Valerie said, finally finding her voice, "I've never been here before and I'm already very impressed." She still couldn't keep from glancing around, even as she spoke to the hostess.

The hostess gave her a slight smile, revealing blindingly white teeth behind blood red lip-gloss. Her bright blue eyes appraised Valerie, who was still surveying the premises and searching a little nervously for Kate. She couldn't help feeling out of place, having come directly from work and having decided not to try to dress for the setting. Rather than black everything, ghost make-up, and a crucifix on a chain, she was wearing Gap blue jeans, a white short sleeved dress shirt and her usual cowboy boots. A simple pair of diamond studs accented her ears. Val realized that she looked like a tourist.

"There's no performance tonight, so there's no cover charge," the hostess informed her, "and it's actually pretty quiet. There are bars on the left side on each level, but the crypt and the upper mezzanines are closed. There's table seating on the ground floor and the first mezzanine. We also maintain a limited kitchen that's open until 1am."

The hostess noticed Valerie's eyes repeatedly straying towards the club. During one of those periods she appeared next to Val, having come from behind the lectern to join her at the threshold of the portcullis. She gestured once to the interior, and offered some general information.

"Nightwings is built on an open atrium design encircled by five levels of mezzanines. Each level has a full bar and restrooms, as does the crypt area below us, which also contains the dance floor and DJ booth. Performances are given on the stage to the right side of the main floor opposite the bar."

Valerie followed the description with her eyes, noting the bank of four steel cage elevators against the far wall, which serviced the broad mezzanines that encircled the chamber at intervals of roughly twenty vertical feet. The far right-hand elevator continued upwards, into a shaft that must have served the bell tower. The far left-hand elevator was accompanied on its ascent by a twisting wrought iron staircase that encased it. Between the central pair of elevators was a wide stairwell leading down, presumably to the "crypt" area. On her left and right, in the nearer corners of the room, single elevators with encircling staircases ascended to the mezzanines. The main room was lit with wall sconces that held real gas lights. She looked up and saw the exterior glow of the city lights sifting through the colorful stained glass windows on the levels above her. The space culminated in a high peaked roof with exposed beams, but around that was an area of struts that supported a wide loft whose access could only have come from the elevator that served the bell tower. The undersides of the loft and mezzanines displayed a network of steel struts, braces, and columns. The overall impression was reminiscent of the Bradbury Building's lobby, that she'd seen in the movie "Bladerunner" and a Heart video for the song "Nothin' At All", but with only mezzanines instead of offices surrounding the atrium, the open space in Nightwings was much vaster.

"This building has been cited in numerous architectural reviews. Are you just stopping in to have a look around," the hostess asked, gently pegging her as a tourist. Somehow, she'd returned to her lectern unnoticed while Valerie had been preoccupied searching the club's interior. Valerie realized that throughout the conversation, except for the small movements of her lips and eyes and one gesture, the woman had been completely still. It was almost like talking with a statue.

"Actually no," Valerie told her in a distracted voice, "I'm supposed to be meeting someone, but I'm running a half-hour late and I'm hoping she's still here and isn't mad at me."

"Ahhh, meeting a friend then. She should be easy to find with the lack of crowds tonight. Good luck."

"Thanks," Valerie paused. Her scan of the space hadn't revealed Kate, "by the way, is Stephanie working at the main bar?"

The hostess looked at her in surprise for a moment before asking, "you're here looking for Stephanie?"

"Uh, no, not really," Val answered. She thought the hostess had sounded…possessive. "I'm actually here to meet a woman named Kate, but she said that if I couldn't find her, Stephanie would know where she was."

The hostess did a strange sort of double take that she suppressed with effort, combining expressions of surprise, relief, and curiosity in rapid succession. She actually seemed to loom forward to examine Valerie more closely, displaying an intensity that made the vampire nervous. Their eyes were level, Val had noticed, both about 5'6" from the floor. Finally the hostess blinked and said, "Heh…uh, 'Kate' is on the first mezzanine, near the bar. I'm sure that she's already seen you…when you entered."

"Oh. Okay, thanks," Val said, now more uneasy than ever. She briefly wondered if the hostess knew the location of everyone in the building. "I guess I'll go and find her then."

The hostess gave her a slight nod of dismissal as she started walking away, but behind her back, Valerie could feel the woman's eyes boring into her. As she moved under the portcullis and into the main room, she glanced up towards the mezzanine bar. Kate was leaning against the wrought iron guard railing looking down at her, and gave her a small wave of recognition. She certainly hadn't been there a moment earlier. With a return smile, Valerie walked more quickly towards the nearest stairs.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Valerie offered apologetically as she approached.

Kate had stood when she reached the table, and Val had noticed that the woman was over half a head taller than she was. Kate also projected a purely Gothic appearance, supported by an air of confidence and self-possession. She was dressed in black leather pants and pointed-toed, stiletto-heeled ankle boots, detailed with embossed leather wolf-head medallions on the insteps. Her top could best be described as a fitted black lace tunic dress which fell to mid-thigh, and included a molded overlayer of black leather that was formed almost like a breastplate. A belt of many small silver coins was clasped at her waist by a silver buckle. On the buckle, outward facing crescent moons flanked a central disc that depicted the same torch bearing female figure that Valerie had seen on the frieze above the door. Along the upper margin of the overlayer, the bodice of the tunic was cut low, but it was filled to the neckline with a black lace panel that was boned to form a high collar. Short sleeves of matching lace revealed well toned arms ending in somewhat long tapered hands. Valerie noticed that low relief appliques of silver crescent moons adorned each of Kate's black painted nails as she made a small gesture offering a seat. She and Valerie settled themselves on uncushioned but surprisingly comfortable wrought iron chairs. For several moments, the two women assessed each other across the table in the flickering light of a single black wax seven-day candle.

Kate had the long black hair of a stereotype Goth, and Valerie noted that it showed none of the bluish highlights or mismatched roots of a cheap dye job. It grew with a slight wave and came to a well-defined widow's peak at the center of her forehead. She wore it parted in the center, but otherwise unstyled, falling in subdued waves most of the way down her back. In contrast to her ebony tresses, Kate's skin was marble white, featuring a translucence that negated the presence of the theatrical pancake makeup typical of Goths. In fact, she wore no apparent makeup of any kind. Valerie felt that the flawlessness of the surface seemed unnatural, but the impression was subtle; there were no wrinkles, no blemishes, nor even the appearance of any pores. Val couldn't help feeling a twinge of jealousy. It was the skin of a teenager untroubled by acne, but as Valerie had observed in their net chat, Kate was 26, not 16. At the same time, her obvious poise was far beyond anything the maturest teen could command. She seemed at once both older and younger than the age she'd claimed.

In return, Kate regarded Valerie directly, making her feel as if she were being pierced, almost dissected rather than surveyed, by her glance. Val had been mistaken more than once for the actress who had played the role of an Amazon Queen Regent on a popular TV series, recently completed. She got the distinct impression that Kate wasn't interested in her physical appearance though. She seemed to be looking deeper, peeling her like an onion.

The "real" vampire noticed that Kate's eyes were the color of backlit amber, exquisitely detailed with darker flecks and striations that danced in the subdued glow of the tall glass enclosed candle. Though the pupils were round, they were the eyes of a large cat. Above them tapered brows arched, presently slightly compressed towards the center, in focused concentration on her guest. Kate's nose was straight and her cheekbones well defined without making her face appear gaunt. Her lips were somewhat thin, not at all pouty, and described a straight line, being neither wide nor narrow, but giving her mouth a breadth perfectly proportioned to her face. Valerie realized that Kate's face was, as far as she could tell, absolutely symmetrical. She couldn't help wondering what Kate looked like without the ghostly foundation makeup, then quickly decided that she'd be a remarkably beautiful woman, though in a generic way, for she lacked the presence of the facial idiosyncrasies of bone structure that individualized top models. It was a face that would bewitch others and command attention while present, yet be difficult to recall precisely when absent.

"It's no trouble at all," Kate said, startling Valerie while acknowledging her earlier apology for her tardiness.

Kate's voice caressed her ears like a thick liqueur smoothing its way down the side of an everyday glass; its seductive richness seemingly wasted on such mundane content. That voice alone could cast a spell, and the recipient wouldn't remember a single word. Though she had no certainty of how long they'd spent appraising each other, Valerie couldn't escape the notion that a long time had gone by since she'd spoken, and that it was time that had simply disappeared. She blinked and shook herself back to the present.

"Travel has always been uncertain, but we have time," Kate declared with assurance.

She'd accompanied her words with a dismissive gesture of her graceful right hand, and Valerie noted a beaten silver band adorning her ring finger. It appeared almost crudely made. Kate noticed the direction of Val's glance and held the ring up for her appraisal.

"It was made from an Athenian obol and matches the one I wear here," she explained, drawing a hand up to reveal an ornament that hung, cameo-like, from a black silk ribbon choker that had been hidden beneath the lace of her collar. What Valerie saw was an irregular blob of metal that had been stamped with the stylized design of an owl. "I once had an interest in collecting Attic coinage," Kate explained with a wry quirk of her lips that could have been a grin. "It was a short-lived fascination."

"How old are they?" Valerie asked, mostly to be polite. She really had little interest in ancient Greece, but she felt the need of some time to recover from the somewhat overwhelming impression Kate had made. In person, the Goth was far more impressive than the jpeg that she'd sent had suggested.

"About 3,250 years, give or take a decade," Kate explained with certainty, "they're from the time of King Theseus of Athens. Not so very old, really." In the next heartbeat she completely changed the subject by offering, "Perhaps you'd like a drink? They have non-alcoholic as well as alcoholic beverages of course, though blood is strictly BYOB," she added with utterly deadpan delivery, "Health Dept. regulations, I suppose."

"I think I'd like a cranberry juice with ginger ale," Val requested, and then jumped as a waitress in a black dress acknowledged her order from over her shoulder.

"I'll have it for you in just a moment," replied the woman who had "snuck up" on them in complete silence. She left without making a sound, returning to the nearby bar.

Valerie shivered unconsciously as she turned back to face Kate. The woman had the merest trace of a grin on her lips. She spoke.

"Valerie, it's sometimes difficult to hear soft sounds in here. I've noticed that there's a constant low hum…the electricity perhaps? Also, almost everyone at Nightwings wears black, which blends into the décor and the shadows. I'm sorry if you were startled. I suppose it's been a while since you've been in a Goth club, hasn't it?"

"It seems like forever," Val answered honestly, after taking a deep breath, "but it's probably been about nine years. I got out of the Goth scene when I was eighteen, shortly after starting college, and I haven't been in a club like this since…" she trailed off and looked around, "and actually, the clubs I went to were nothing like this. They were gritty, dirty, and chaotic. Back then, any space painted black got called a Goth club if Goths hung out there, you know? This place is really outstanding." Kate smiled at the compliment.

"I think perhaps Nightwings caters to a different aspect of Gothic culture. For one thing, no one under twenty-one is allowed in, and Medea at the door has a sixth sense about that. It's a more 'evolved' clientele. You might be pleasantly surprised." Valerie was digesting this, while still finding herself mesmerized by Kate's voice. Not only did the club seem to have had major financial backing to start with, but now they could actually afford to turn away the youth crowd that made up a significant proportion of Gothic culture.

"Ah, your drink has arrived," Kate announced, shifting her eyes to alert Valerie to the waitress who was soundlessly approaching from the bar on the left.

Valerie looked in the direction Kate had indicated and saw nothing. The drink, on a thick coaster, slid into her peripheral field of view on the tabletop. She couldn't suppress a gasp. The waitress had passed soundlessly behind her as she'd looked towards the bar, and had presented her drink from her right side. She started to fumble for some money, but Kate made an unobtrusive gesture and the waitress withdrew.

"So, what about your vampirism?" Kate asked, causing Valerie to choke on her first sip of her drink. The bubbles from the ginger ale tickled the back of her throat as she spat out the straw and coughed.

"My apologies," Kate offered sympathetically. Still as a statue, only her lips moved.

"I, I , um…" Val felt like a dolt. After clearing her throat, she resumed, "I've become convinced that I was born with the ability to directly absorb the life energy of those around me and that I require this energy for sustenance. At the same time, I require a normal diet for my physical body, since I am mortal after all."

"I see," Kate observed noncommittally. The Gothic woman seemed to be carved from marble, sitting absolutely still in the wavering candlelight. Her subsequent silence prompted Valerie to continue.

"From what I've read, traditional vampire myths are based on superstitions and the previously inexplicable results of people interacting with "real" vampires like myself. From time to time, such a vampire drew too much life energy from a single person, which is unfortunately easy to do, and that person slowly died of a wasting condition that wasn't caused by any known disease. In the past, no one understood how this could have happened, so they created a structure of legends about the undead. Of course later the church got involved, and then popular novels were written. Later still, a lot of movies were made about vampires, and over time the old beliefs became accepted as nothing more than fanciful horror stories. Advances in medicine explained away many of the deaths previously attributed to vampirism, voodoo, demonic possession, etc, etc. It's only been more recently, with the spread of eastern philosophy and alternative esoteric beliefs, that a true understanding of vampirism has developed."

Valerie felt that she'd been giving a pedantic explanation to a skeptical audience, though Kate's expression had remained neutral throughout. She chanced another sip of her drink, finding that it was actually very good. Across the table from her, Kate exhaled slowly. She was looking at Valerie with the same intense gaze she'd used earlier, and again, Valerie felt like she was being examined like a specimen. God, she thought, you may as well pull out a speculum and have me hop up on the table. Kate's concentration seemed to break. She allowed herself a brief chuckle before smoothly suppressing the reaction.

"We'd mentioned having you appraise my aura," Valerie began, "and I was wondering; can you see anything?"

"When did you start drawing the life force from those around you?" Kate asked, leaning forward in her chair and cupping her chin in her palm as she rested her elbows on the tabletop. The Goth's eyes had never strayed from Valerie's. She'd ignored Valerie's question about reading her aura, but the woman seemed so genuinely interested and attentive that Valerie didn't feel offended. Val thought back to her early years and began to explain her experiences as a vampire. It wasn't a topic she'd ever revealed to anyone face to face, especially in a first meeting. Only with the anonymity of the web had she shared any autobiographical details. Uncharacteristically, Valerie found herself trusting Kate enough to be willing to speak about her sordid past.

"I always had bad luck with pets as a child," Val confessed, "goldfish, hamsters, and later, a couple of cats and a dog. They all died, but never from an accident or any treatable disease. They'd just get weaker and weaker until they'd finally die.

I was heartbroken when Maxine, my black Labrador died. She was only a year old. She'd been a healthy puppy when we got her, but she never did well at our house. The vet couldn't find anything wrong with her. Once, we left her with the vet when we went away for a week and she looked so much better after we returned. When she came back home with us and she barely let me out of her sight. Unfortunately, Maxie started getting weaker again and I thought I could cure her just by loving her more. I was responsible for her and I felt horrible. I even got my father to let her sleep on my bed for the last two weeks. Finally she'd gotten so weak that she couldn't even get up. I stayed home from school and held her all day. I concentrated and I focused and I don’t think I thought about anything but her. Then she just died overnight. When I got up the next morning she was already cold and stiff. I blamed myself completely. My father said I could have another puppy, but I felt so guilty I just couldn't. I've never had another pet since."

Valerie sighed, revisited by the nagging sadness of her childhood. She had always loved animals. Their presence soothed her. Typically they trusted and loved her in return, at least until they expired with mocking predictability. Around the two women, the club was silent, perhaps holding its breath and awaiting the next revelation with an almost palpable atmosphere of vulturine anticipation.

"So you believe that you sapped your pets of their life force?"

"I know I must have…I mean, I didn't know it then, but I felt guilty about them dying in my care. I loved Maxie, and I loved Bells and Squeaky, my cats, but they all died, and they all died the same way. I started at the State College in the fall semester after high school. My first roommate had a cat, Blackie Paws, and he died too…the same way, about two months after we moved in together."

"What about people?" Kate asked, her lips moving while she remained otherwise immobile. Valerie was too mesmerized by her voice to notice that in some respects she projected the creepy air of a badly animated ventriloquist's dummy.

Valerie continued, wholly caught up in recounting her history as if she were reliving it.

"My roommate got sick. At first her doctor thought she was anemic, but there was nothing wrong with her blood tests. By midterm she was missing classes. I moved into my own place after the first semester. She immediately recovered.

Since then, I've had two girlfriends run away from me, and both of them accused me of 'sucking them dry'. They didn't say I was clingy or domineering. They complained that I was like a 'black hole' and I ate their lives. I didn't think I asked too much. Even though I always liked for us to spend a lot of time together, we didn't have to be alone. Hanging out together with friends or going places was fine with me. I don't think that I was extremely possessive either. I never made demands about keeping them from spending time with their friends or having their own activities or following their private dreams. I did feel a special connection to each of them though, and I wanted to know them inside and out…understand everything about them, how they felt things, what made them tick. It was more than just knowing what they liked and why. I wanted to know how they worked as individuals, and what had made them who they were. I needed to experience them on every level I could…" she trailed off.

Powered by her memories of those old hurts, the words had spilled out of Valerie in a stream as she'd revisited her failed relationships. It wasn't until she stopped to take a breath that Valerie realized that she'd declared her romantic preference for women. Across the table, Kate was still expressionless, neither supportive nor condemning.

"How long did it take for your girlfriends to realize what was happening to them?"

"About three months in each case, though it was almost a year before the first one fled. She'd dropped out of college and become depressed. She started sleeping a lot and got reclusive and antisocial. I was heartbroken, watching her go downhill. I loved her so much by then. I tried everything I could think of to make her feel better. I wanted her to enjoy life and enjoy her life with me. I felt like I was watching Maxie die all over again. One afternoon I came home after classes and she was gone. All her stuff was gone and she'd already left town. Her parents wouldn't let me talk to her when I called. I sat in that apartment and cried for two days. That was six years ago. The last time I heard about her, she'd gone back to school and finished her law degree. It's what she'd always wanted. She's working in tenant advocacy here in the city now.

The second woman left me after about nine months. She'd started drinking heavily. I felt like I was watching the same thing happening all over again and there was nothing I could do. I think I knew she was going to leave even before she did. Now she's been sober for three years and is in a stable relationship. She and her partner are raising her partner's son and daughter. She seemed very happy the last time I ran into her."

Valerie was feeling more and more raw the longer she dwelt on how love had bitten her in the ass. She'd tried as hard as she knew how, to be a good friend as well as a loving partner, but her efforts had always been doomed to failure because of something she didn't understand and had no control over. She'd felt that she'd been born to fail, but worse, she'd been cursed to be alone until the day she died. Eventually, she'd given up.

"What about sex?" Kate had asked this with the same lack of expression she'd maintained throughout her questioning. She seemed entirely clinical and detached.

"It was great," Valerie replied without hesitation, "though afterwards, they'd feel drained and tired while I'd feel energized and ready for more. We'd usually end up cuddling for a while, and if they didn't doze off, then we'd continue later."

"You mentioned two friends who'd gotten sick from being around you continually during a short span of time. These were different people I suppose?"

"Yes. It was pretty much like what happened with my roommate, but it happened a lot faster. In one case, I went on a road trip to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras with my friend Jamie. After Mardi Gras, we drove to San Francisco. We were in the car together for hours every day. Jamie got so sick she had to fly home. I drove her car back by myself. When I returned she was fine, but I could tell she was really uncomfortable around me. After a while we just stopped seeing each other. The other time, I went with my friend Danielle to hike and camp on the Appalachian Trail. We were gone for two weeks, but after the first week we had to stay in one campground because Danielle had gotten too weak to backpack. Like Jamie, she was getting worse until we finally got home. Then she recovered…after a few days away from me."

Valerie looked down at the tabletop. She found that recounting her failures with relationships and the harm she'd brought to her friends had conspired to make her feel guilty and depressed. It was the outstanding blight, the singular cause of bitterness in what should have been a relatively happy life. Dredging it all up had left Valerie feeling lonely, which was fairly rare for her, and she didn't like it at all. She knew she'd tried to be a good friend, a caring and giving lover, but because of what she was, because of something she'd been born with, it had always been and would always be impossible.

Fatalism and the proximity of real heartbreak and mortality had driven her from the adolescent morbidity of her old Goth clique. She'd realized that it wasn't something to be celebrated. Her roommate and her friends had sickened and she'd left a sad trail of dead animals haunting the years of her childhood. Reality was different from pretend, and being a real angel of death held no glamour. It was a lonely job.

Three years ago she'd discovered the websites catering to "real" vampires. She'd read everything she could find. Eventually she'd chatted with others who'd had similar experiences, and though most of them were as confused about it as herself, she did meet a long-distance mentor. Valerie learned many lessons and had struggled hard to apply them. Discipline had come slowly, but knowing that eventually she wouldn't hurt anyone anymore had made the effort worthwhile. In the last year she'd finally learned how to control her intake of prana, and she no longer endangered those around her. She'd found an on/off switch of sorts, which her mentor had called the "gates". When she was alone, Valerie could safely open her "gates" a crack and feed. Most of her intake came from the ambient levels of life force inherent in being surrounded by millions of people in a large metropolitan area. Now she took only a small nibble from the masses around her, never a whole bite from a specific individual.

Even so, she couldn't undo her past or explain it to those she'd affected, and despite her enlightened approach, she still didn't really trust herself. No, she couldn't ask her old lovers or the friends she'd hurt for forgiveness, and she couldn't grant it to herself. Since discovering what she really was, Valerie had resolved to keep humanity safely at a distance. An accident was always possible. Perhaps the gates were less closely guarded while she slept. Perhaps her control over them would slip at the moment of ecstasy with a lover. She'd convinced herself that she just couldn't take a chance of failing.

Now the friendships she had were superficial, nothing more than acquaintances really, and Val felt that she could never truly let them know her. She definitely couldn't allow herself to become involved in another intimate relationship. In no way would she allow her presence to endanger the life of someone close to her ever again, especially someone who had given her their heart. She believed that she could only look forward to spending the rest of her life alone. Thinking about it as she'd spoken had made her feel miserable. I don't want to kill anyone, she thought sadly.

"Ever kill anyone?"

"Of course not! Only my pets died when I was little. I don't feel good about it either."

"I know you don't Valerie," Kate said in an understanding tone. The Goth smoothly rotated one forearm out at the elbow, reaching across the table to give Val's hand a reassuring squeeze. "It seems to be quite a difficult burden you bear, but at least you've changed and learned how to have some control over it."

"Yes. Yes I have."

For a while, Kate silently regarded the morose Valerie. She'd withdrawn her hand and placed her palms together, lacing her fingers but steepling her index fingers and resting them between her lips. Finally she broke her pose, laying her hands atop each other with the palms down on the table as she sat back in her chair. Finally she spoke.

"Well, I have to say that your aura appears pretty normal, though I noticed tendrils of yellow and white being drawn towards you as if they were condensing out of the surrounding air. It's not something I've seen very often, but it's not exactly rare. I believe that you draw energy to yourself from others as you claim. Whether or not I'd really describe it as vampirism…well, I don’t' know yet. Also, the undead can't have auras."

Valerie looked at Kate, more than a little startled by her concise report. She'd heard something similar about auras on a message board at one of the "real" vampire support groups on the Internet. She didn't doubt Kate's analysis or appraisal. She could also understand Kate's skepticism about her claims to an unfamiliar form of vampirism. What struck her as odd was Kate's last observation, which had been delivered with the same certainty as her declarations about Valerie's aura.

"What do you mean, undead can't have auras? Have you ever checked an undead vampire for an aura?"

At this outburst, Kate actually laughed. It was a rich inviting sound that seemed to echo in Valerie's ears. It took the Goth a moment to regain her composure and answer.

"I think you misunderstand me, Valerie, though that's natural enough, given the context of our conversation. What I meant, of course, is that mortal or immortal, only the living have auras. The dead project no life force, though some people do see traces from the bacteria surviving in their tissues. Therefore an unnaturally resurrected cadaver can't have an aura. That's purely a deduction about a phenomenon that I've never witnessed. I've heard the claims that some people can see the auras of rocks and such, but New Age Gaia stuff aside, I find their claims to be empty. The projection of an aura is a reflection of the life force in an organism. People, animals, and plants, yes; animate or inanimate cadavers, rocks, and metals, no."

Having never been able to see anyone's aura, Valerie had to take Kate's word on that. She was following the logic through, wondering why Kate kept mentioning mythical undead vampires, when Kate resumed questioning.

"You are also convinced that there are no immortal vampires?"

What were two distinct categories of beings to Kate, were simply the alternative descriptions for a single superstitious fantasy to Valerie. She'd never thought otherwise.

"Despite the centuries of superstitions, yes. I just can't believe that the old stories are anything more than legends. My own experiences have convinced me that "real" vampires, combined with the ignorance of simpler times, are the source of all vampire mythology."

Valerie had become pretty assured of this, but Kate cracked a small smile.

"I suggest that you are disproving cross-cultural beliefs with negative evidence," Kate explained, "and had you ever met an immortal blood-drinker and known it, you would, in all likelihood, not have survived to form an opinion. Further, I suggest that it is therefore functionally impossible to rigorously prove or disprove this hypothesis with any certainty, through the application of logic or investigative scientific techniques." Almost as an afterthought, Kate mused, "and the fictions of Anne Rice aside, we have no unimpeachable experientially based testimonial evidence."

Valerie blinked at Kate. The Goth had presented her with a sizable mouthful of calculated reasoning, more intellectual than emotional, and more scientific than Gothic. Impressed as she was with Kate's rhetoric, she completely missed the woman's distinction between vampires of the immortal and undead persuasions.

"On a more personal note," Kate added, "I find that I rather enjoy the romantic darkness of the old stories…the tales of the mysteries behind the veil of shadows, as it were."

Valerie was chagrined and resorted to taking another sip of her drink. She noticed that all the ice had melted and now it tasted watery. The bells in the tower rang the midnight hour. Oh my god, Valerie thought, what happened to eleven o'clock? Have I really been sitting here for two hours? She checked her watch just to make sure. Kate had cocked her head towards the sound of the bells and then smiled at Valerie.

"Time passes surprisingly fast when one's mind is occupied," she said, "would you care for another drink, perhaps?"

"I had no idea it had gotten so late, and I really have to head home," Valerie said, though she didn't have the slightest desire to leave. "I have a long day tomorrow and I need get up early. I can't tell you how interesting this has been though. I don't think I've ever told anyone some of the things I've told you, especially the first time meeting them. I'd really like to get together again soon, Kate. I also want to thank you for suggesting Nightwings. It's a very impressive place and I find that I like it here." Beyond that, she found Kate thoroughly captivating; intelligent, beautiful, and seductive, if a bit odd.

Kate didn't seem the least bit perturbed by Valerie's quick change of direction. She gave her a small smile at several points and nodded when she'd declared that she liked the club. She seemed to take the words as a compliment.

"Well, perhaps you could join me here again tomorrow night? I suspect things will be different then. Since there's a show, I expect I'll be here most of tomorrow evening. Of course, you're welcome here any time." After a thoughtful pause, Kate continued. "I've found you to be interesting company too, Valerie. You've been through significant changes, and I'm sure there are more to come. Yes, it would be good to see you again."

Kate had risen to her feet as Valerie had gotten up, and she leaned forward to give her a quick hug. Valerie noticed that Kate had rather chilly skin, which she attributed to the abundant air conditioning, and she felt hard as a rock. God, she must work out a lot to get that kind of muscle tone, Val noted absently as she straightened back up.

"Tomorrow I'll be able to hang around later. It's Friday, so no work the next day," Valerie said happily. "I expect it'll be harder to find parking on a Friday night though, so I'll plan to come by around ten." Somehow her sadness of just a few moments before had evaporated, in no small part due to the many surprises of their conversation and the prospect of having someone so interesting to spend time with. She started walking towards a staircase near the front doors, but she stopped after a few paces and turned back to say, "I'll be looking forward to seeing you tomorrow night, Kate."

The Gothic woman was sitting down at her table again, and she acknowledged Val's words with a smile and a restrained gesture that was almost a wave. Valerie continued to the stairs and made her way down toward the front doors. Beyond the portcullis, the entrance area appeared empty. Taking a parting look around the club, she realized how very much the dark surroundings had helped to sooth her bout of depression.

She was passing the hostess' lectern when she heard the blonde woman say, "I see you've enjoyed your visit. Drive safely and we'll see you tomorrow."

"Yes, thanks," Val answered, without marking anything strange about Medea's words, "see you then." She would have sworn that the area had been deserted a moment before.

She was back in the revolving door, and as she crossed the threshold, a voice whispered, "Be safe, my lovely one." This time Valerie didn't think twice about how odd it was. She found that the voice was familiar and comforting.

Her return to the street brought back the realities of the city with all the grace of being slapped in the face with a raw chicken. The ever-present street noise, the stench of the garbage, and the ugliness of the dirty buildings all around her insulted three of her five natural senses. Val could see her weary car half a block down the street, languishing in the shadows between two streetlights, cheek by jowl with the overflowing trash cans. It appeared to be cringing away from them, uncomfortably sitting at a noticeably awkward angle on the irregular cobbles. A rat scuttled out from underneath it and onto the sidewalk.

Beneath all of the dismal physical details that seemed to exist only to assault her senses, there was her now agitated internal condition. She wanted to cringe away from the reality here, just as her car seemed to be shying away from the garbage. After the tranquility inside Nightwings, Valerie felt an uneasy expectation, and a generally edgy, unsettled sensation that made her compulsively swallow. It wasn't anything so immediate as a threat. Perhaps it was just that the city totally lacked the air of glamour and mystery so tangible in the club. Or perhaps it was that the street was the complete antithesis of the beautiful and intriguing Kate. With a mental groan, Valerie walked quickly towards her vehicle, thinking that the faster I get out of here, the faster I get home.

It was as her attention lay fixed on unlocking the door, and the miasma rising from the garbage six feet away was offending her senses, that she was assaulted. Somehow a young thug had managed to silently cross the street and approach her from behind. At the last moment she saw his reflection in the car's window glass, but before she could turn and rake his eyes with her keys, he had his arms around her, pining her own arms to her sides and lifting her off the ground. He didn't hold her in the air long enough for her to get in even one good heel kick to his shins. Instead he dropped her on her butt in the street where the cobblestones jarred her hard enough to rattle her teeth. In the next moment he produced a hunting knife and jammed it against the side of her neck. He held it, not across her throat as in the horror movies, but with the point threatening to bite inwards behind her collarbone, where it would lead the blade to sever her carotid artery and jugular vein. His other hand had immobilized her jaw in a crushing grip.

Valerie wasn't completely lucid. Between the shock of her hard landing and the fear threatening to overwhelm her, she couldn't think straight. She felt the knifepoint pricking her neck. Even shocked and disoriented, she clearly sensed the total disregard her attacker had for her life. He still hadn't spoken and she still didn't know what he wanted.

"Get up slowly," he whispered, "don't struggle, just open the door."

The assurance with which he gave the commands convinced her that he had done this before and had remained free to hunt again. Now her fear was giving way to terror. Valerie had never been victimized by a criminal with such a potential for violence. Like almost everyone, she'd had stuff stolen and she'd been swindled; just the common stuff that makes the modern world go 'round. She'd been subjected to the everyday coarse attitudes and vulgarity, the bullying and posturing, and the catty malice that defined the hog sty of human nature. The indignities were so common these days that they passed for normal, defined it in fact, but much as she despised the human potential for brutality, it had never overflowed onto her so directly. No one had ever threatened her life with such a combination of means, opportunity, and motive, though what the exact motive here was remained a mystery. Valerie had no desire to die during the commission of a violent crime. Back in Nightwings she'd sadly thought, 'I don't want to kill anyone'; now, in abject terror, she thought, 'I don't want to die'.

The fear made her fingers clumsy. She'd had better cooperation from her keys while in an ethanol stupor. Valerie had never seen the keyhole look so small. She couldn't even smell the garbage anymore. Somehow she managed to tremble the key into the lock despite her certainty that she'd drop it and end up getting stabbed for being uncoordinated. She unlocked and opened the door, wondering whether he'd stab her right then if she threw up.

"I get in first with you right behind me. You'll drive where I tell you."

The man got into her car and began sliding over to the passenger's side. He was pulling her into the car after him with a viselike grip on her right wrist, the knife never wavering from her neck. Valerie couldn't help but follow. She dragged the door closed behind her and the sound of it shutting brought the same despair felt by prisoners when a cell slams shut. She was hopelessly trapped. In a daze that suggested disassociation, her eyes strayed to the fluttering stuttering movement of a black something in the darkness outside the windshield. One of the bats from the belfry, she thought with the detachment of shock. Little nightwings, happily hunting bugs over the stinking garbage. The night was its element and it was free. Watching the bat as it cavorted in the shadows helped focus her mind back onto the present. She found herself sitting in the driver's seat, a carjacking hostage who would probably be, (select from the following list), robbed, beaten, raped, maimed, or killed before morning. (With a morbid certainty, Valerie suspected "all of the above").

"Start the engine. We're going for a ride." The blade was still pressed against her neck.

Being held at knifepoint and commanded, her actions dictated to her as though she was less than a dog, made her feel wholly powerless. She loathed it. Even the bat outside the windshield enjoyed more freedom. Being enslaved made her refocused will boil. Her spirit began to rebel against the situation, reacting to the feelings of impotence with its own search for power. She acted on instinct.

Inside her a birthgift flung open an invisible gateway that had never been more than cracked ajar before. The seepage that had come through that gateway in the past was many orders of magnitude below the floodtide of energy that began flowing into her now. All the nibbling and the innocent snacking Valerie had done, (often during sleep), on the auras of pets, past friends, and lovers, had been undirected, unwilled, and little more than the signifier of a vast potential. Now she could feel that potential lunging to kinesis as she detected an incoming floodtide of prana. It felt so good that she even ceased to be concerned about saving herself. The inflowing life force rose like an ocean swell, curling into a cresting breaker so compelling that it had to be ridden until it finally collapsed.

Valerie really had no idea of what a "real" vampire was capable of…of what her real possibilities were. Now, in only a few seconds, as she sat without thought or movement, she sucked her attacker's spirit utterly dry of prana. She engulfed his aura like a ravenous amoeba and absorbed his life force, right down to the last milliwatt, micro-erg…whatever. The wave she rode collapsed in the shallows. Out went the light.

The inrushing of power had never proceed so quickly or to such giddy heights. It was intoxicating. It was rapturous. Snap, crackle, pop! Never had she been so energized, never so invincible. In her mind's eye she saw herself wrenching the knife from the man's hand in so swift a blur of action that he would have no chance to react. She saw herself beating him with such speed that he would be able only to cower in terror, his hands clenched desperately about his head. She saw herself focusing the power within her for her defense and projecting it outwards in a maelstrom. She didn't notice that the knife had already slipped from her neck; she was too busy floating in the euphoria of the pranic glut that had surged from another living body into her own.

If Valerie could have seen it, her own aura would have been blazing with the retina-scorching glare of a 10K arc light, blistering the stinking seats. Next to her sat a cadaver with bulging eyes and a silly rictus. (When you laugh, the world laughs with you). Val soared until all her sensations shut down, as if a knife switch had been slammed open or a circuit breaker tripped, when she passed out cold from the overload. In the shadows around her car, darker shadows cavorted.

Change, beautiful change…now I suppose I'll take that away, my lovely one.

Valerie regained consciousness with a jerk, but she found that the jerk was gone and her car was empty. (Had it been written that way on an enchanted scroll perhaps?) She looked around, assuring herself that she was still actually in her car, parked next to a grubby gaggle of garbage cans on grungy Greenwich St. From up the block she heard the bell in the tower at Nightwings ringing the single stroke of one o'clock in the morning. Valerie realized that she'd been out cold for almost an hour. She sat staring out the windshield, giving herself a few more minutes to reconnect to her "here and now". She vacantly mused that the bat was probably long gone toting a belly full of bugs. With some effort, she recalled the events proceeding the "Big Bang", as a wry voice in her head suggested that she call it. She asked the voice, so where's the body of my attacker? And had anyone noticed her passed out in her car? It certainly hadn't seemed like anyone had noticed her being attacked, she thought spitefully. Where's a conservative, law abiding, Republican yuppie with a cell phone when you need one? Out of nowhere the silly complaint came into her mind, "where's a cop when you need one?"

"Last thing I want around right now is a cop," Valerie muttered with a touch of hysteria, "'cause I just vampirized some guy big time and now I can't even find his body. How would I explain that? So, is this like that Zen riddle, if nobody hears a tree falling in the forest, did it really fall? If there's no body, then was there really a killing? Maybe he just crawled away and that's that." With a cackle that was psychologically edgy and totally out of character, Val declared, "Beware Gotham City and the Curse of the Zen Vampire! I'm outta of here." She drove home way too fast.

Valerie was certifiably hyperactive at work the next day. Some of her coworkers suspected she was coked up, others thought her manic, while the rest believed that she'd gotten really well laid. She was practically spewing energy in all directions. Having never experienced such a glut of life force, Val wasn't very capable of rationing herself. She was like a Lotto winner tossing Jacksons in the air as she danced through the subway. By the time she left work at 9:00pm, all of her fellow employees were feeling strangely energetic too. It was a form of assisted osmosis. Valerie had literally rammed her excess prana up their auras. The number of them who woke up on Saturday morning in strange beds or with monumental hangovers created a statistically significant sociological phenomenon. The vampire danced to her car and went to meet Kate.

It was through the exercise of energetic driving and aggressive parking skills that Valerie reached Nightwings by 9:25pm. The dark edifice had become a welcoming façade to her and she breathed a sigh of relief as she pushed her way through the revolving door. Just being inside the club calmed her manic tendencies. The reduction of her hyperactivity was fortuitous since she'd have had little room to bounce off the walls. Tonight there appeared to be quite a throng of people waiting inside the entrance where Medea was checking off names on a reservation list. Some sixth sense prompted the hostess to glance up from the book on her lectern as Valerie walked through the door. She beckoned the vampire over.

"Good evening, Valerie," the blonde said, "Kate requested that you wait for her at the main bar. She's…temporarily involved, but will join you shortly. As you can see, we're more crowded tonight. Tangerine Dream has arrived from Berlin and is playing a concert. In addition, we have a collection of H.R. Giger's art and sculpture in the crypt."

"Sounds impressive," Val replied with a smile, "thank you. It certainly is a lot more populous tonight," she added, noticing the background hum of many conversations from inside the club. Medea gave her a nod before going back to her duties.

As she moved into the main room of the club, Val noticed that the crowd around her was unsurprisingly composed of Gothic looking men and women. Surprisingly though, most appeared to be in their late twenties to early forties. Glancing around more carefully, she realized that no small contingent were noticeably older. She saw that they were uniformly well dressed, primarily in black. Evening gowns, lace cocktail dresses, and Victorian cut suits predominated, though there were even some men clad in tuxedos. Many members of both sexes wore capes. Additionally, most wore unorthodox and expensive looking jewelry; very personal pieces that tended towards antique in design. Decked out Victorian and Antiquity Goths for sure, the vampire thought, now noticing walking sticks, opera glasses on stems, and top hats. Valerie felt badly underdressed and out of place again, though she'd worn black leather pants and a black silk shirt.

She continued looking around at the crowd as she reached the bar. It was after a slightly longer appraisal that she realized that the crowd, without exception, was composed of people that she'd judge to be physically attractive. There must have been a couple thousand patrons visible in the cavernous space. She glanced upwards at the mezzanines and discerned black on black movement on all five levels. The club was filling fast, and there wasn't an empty table or a vacant space of six feet anywhere. Make that at least three thousand, she thought. And how did they manage to fill a place this size with Goths, she wondered, and somehow end up with every one of them beautiful?

"So far I'd guess there are over thirty-four hundred patrons here tonight," a silky voice that seemed to be right at Valerie's ear casually remarked, causing her to jump and jerk around. It was Kate, standing a comfortable distance away. The woman smiled at her and moved forward to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. Valerie found the touch soothing after having been so startled. Her heartbeat began to return to normal as Kate continued, "and as I mentioned, we cater to a different aspect of Gothic culture."

Kate looked into Valerie's eyes, carefully appraising her condition. Val found their catlike coloring mesmerizing. There seemed to be ghost lights and movements deep inside them; convection currents stirring the molten amber of her irises with constant change and upheaval. She didn't, or couldn't, tear her eyes away from Kate's, and she was totally oblivious to being provided with answers to questions that she'd only asked herself in thought. Kate lifted her hand from Val's shoulder and gently stroked the side of her face with the backs of her fingers, eliciting a shiver and a strong desire to close her eyes and lean into the caress.

"You have blue green eyes, colored like the Aegean shallows under the solstice sun" Kate whispered, "you're really a very lovely woman."

Such words…and that voice, Val thought, so velvety, soothing, and bewitching; that voice surely existed to enchant with such words. Despite the stirring of her arousal, a vertiginous Valerie thought that she'd noticed a fugitive flicker of something deeper in Kate's eyes. It could almost have been sadness, as if the words she'd whispered had rendered a tangible pain to her mind's surface, trolling it up from the depths of memories seldom revisited. The impression was gone almost as soon as it had come, banished by a will as solid as the true faith of witches or saints. As if aware of her lapse, Kate changed the topic and broke the spell by sweeping her eyes away across the club.

"As you have seen, Nightwings is a showplace tonight. Perhaps you'll join me in a more private venue?" With a restrained sweep of a hand she gestured for Valerie to follow her.

Valerie could only nod her head in agreement. She realized that she always felt a little stunned around the taller woman, but when the Goth projected her charisma, Val was a goner. She trailed Kate through the crowd. Despite her resolve to allow herself no close personal relationships, Valerie followed as though spellbound, helplessly enthralled by the object of her desires.

Kate led them across the crowded floor and directly towards the right-hand elevator that stood against the club's rear wall. Valerie noticed that the throng parted for them with an apparently subconscious awareness of their approach. People subtly shifted aside, often without even looking at them or breaking from their conversations. (Val heard snippets of many foreign languages that she knew were not English or Spanish). They weren't forced to weave through the room as one would have at a cocktail party or soiree. Though Kate acknowledged greetings from many people with a word or a nod of her head, they never had to break their stride or deviate from their path. The vampire likened it to a school of fish parting for the passage of a barracuda, or courtiers yielding right of way to royalty. It was her first indication that Kate wasn't just another club regular who hung out at Nightwings.

Once at the lift they awaited the elevator car in silence and when it arrived, disgorging a dozen more beautiful well-dressed patrons, they boarded and the steel gates scissored closed behind them. A safety lock snicked softly as it engaged and the lift began to rise. Valerie was not at all surprised that they were alone in the car. Somehow it seemed appropriate after their unimpeded passage across the room. Nor did she find it strange that the other patrons who'd been waiting at the landing hadn't even tried to join them.

The elevator car rose smoothly and the growing height revealed a panorama of the cavernous space. They passed the five mezzanines one by one, but the elevator never stopped. Valerie looked out on landings populated by more formally dressed patrons. Never had she imagined a Goth crowd so well behaved, or appearing so sober. Nowhere was there any evidence of the anti-establishment posturing or morbid declaiming she'd become accustomed to in her high school days. Passing the fifth mezzanine, over a hundred feet above the main floor, Valerie finally began to wonder where they were going. Above them stood only the bell tower and the loft that she suspected rested below it. A glance upward through the latticework of the elevator cage revealed the velvety black of shadows before the walls of the belfry closed in and around them.

Here in the quiet dimness, shrouded by the walls of the bell tower, Val could see shelf-like beams bracing the structure horizontally, and among them, niches holding candelabras that illuminated, of all things, painted portraits accompanying what looked like funerary urns. None of this was visible from the floor, since the small pools of light were blocked by the width of the beams. Valerie was framing a question about them for Kate when the elevator ground to a halt, leaving them suspended in a shadowed gloom.

For a terrifying moment Val imagined that the gates would swing open on a sickening drop into empty space. Instead, when the gate scissored back, Kate unlocked a door and slid it open, revealing a space that Valerie would have described as a Victorian library. There were dark thick carpets cushioning the floor, built in barrister cases holding rows of books, sconces mounting gas lamps on the walls, tables, desks, and both desk and armchairs. She followed Kate off the elevator, which immediately closed its gates and began to descend. Its absence left a gaping hole in the library's wall at first. Kate slid the wide pocket door closed and latched it shut.

"Safety first, of course," the Goth told her with a faint smile, "can't have anyone fall and injure someone down below." Valerie nodded in agreement, feeling a bit stunned by her surroundings. Kate offered, "perhaps I could provide you with some refreshment?"

Having glanced around and noticed what appeared to be an antique sterling coffee service resting on an oval tray on a side table. Valerie gestured to it and requested, "I'd like a coffee if you have it."

"But of course," her hostess replied, moving toward the coffee service and retrieving a delicate porcelain cup and saucer. She handed these to Valerie, along with a slender silver spoon, and then poured a rich, dark, wonderful smelling brew from the elaborately molded pot. Valerie's eyes were drawn to the decorations. She noted a sequence of panels bearing scenes in high relief, in which a pair of wolves ran down and disemboweled a fettered man. How charming, she thought. Kate gestured to the creamer and sugar bowl, similarly embellished, and also revealed a matching flagon of Irish Whiskey and a covered tray of pirouettes.

"Please help yourself to any of this," she encouraged, "that smells like a vanilla hazelnut blend. Perhaps Bavarian."

Kate moved to seat herself nearby on a large comfortable sofa with a low table in front of it, and beckoned Valerie over to join her. Val slipped a bit of thick heavy cream into her cup, added a dash of Irish Whiskey, and set a couple pirouettes on her saucer before joining her hostess on the couch. She found the coffee absolutely delicious. In fact, she thought, she had never tasted a more flavorful and less bitter blend. The whiskey actually improved the richness without a noticeable burn from the alcohol content. She found it wholly satisfying, and exhaled a soft moan of contentment as she sank into the seat cushions. With a glance to her right, she saw that Kate was regarding her with that intense gaze again.

"You seem to be exuding a lot of energy this evening, Valerie," Kate remarked, as calmly as a person might while discussing the weather, "your aura is much…vaster than it was last night. I must say it would appear that you've acquired a whole body's worth of prana since our last meeting. Personally, I'm surprised that you can sit still at all."

Valerie sent a silent thank you to Kate for not opening the conversation until after she'd swallowed; she'd surely have spewed coffee all over them both, reacting to that comment.

"You're welcome," the Goth replied politely.

"I, um…you're right," Val confirmed. "I absorbed a lot of life force from a man who attacked me last night after I left here. He disappeared afterwards. I guess he must have crawled away somehow. I passed out in my car for almost an hour. It was the strangest thing…so fast, and utterly exhilarating…and it's never happened like that before."

"I see," Kate commented non-committally, before speculating, "I should expect that he expired during the experience, wouldn't you agree? In fact, I'm quite certain he's dead."

Kate sounded almost proud of her towards the end of her comments. Valerie choked.

"Yes, I must say that now I thoroughly agree with your earlier hypothesis about your style of vampirism, Valerie." Kate regarded her again with that intense gaze. This time, Valerie squirmed. Kate made a small gesture to Val's cup, "you really should finish that before it gets cold…it tends to acidify badly and become most unpalatable."

With her eyes bugging out, Valerie absentmindedly raised the cup to her lips and drank. The coffee was still delicious. She savored it while her mind reeled. Had she actually killed a person last night with her ability? She realized that she'd latched onto the absence of the body as proof of her innocence. In her euphoric state, she'd exonerated herself with negative evidence and she'd been in denial ever since.

"But there was no body," she mumbled plaintively, more to herself than to Kate.

"Well, you could thank a god for that," Kate said seriously, "I suspect it would have been unnecessarily upsetting to have awakened beside a cadaver, don't you think?"

"Of course I'm grateful not to have been confronted with a dead man in my car. I was actually feeling really good when I awoke. I was so charged up and giddy, and being attacked was just about the worst thing that's ever happened to me." She shivered at the memory of the knife against her neck and then felt the revisited fear shifting to anger.

"He would have killed you, you know," Kate said with certainty, "in fact, his portrait is hanging in the post office. He was wanted for several murders…always with the same modus operandi. He'd abducted and killed a number of women just to get a ride. It's believed that he had a pathological aversion to cabbies."

She looked carefully at Valerie, who had set down her cup and was wrestling with the backlit rim of guilt that was lurking somewhere below the threshold of her consciousness. It was still being largely blanketed by her righteous indignation at his treatment of her, but it was nibbling at her now that it had been stirred up. She sat chewing on her lower lip. Pitying her, Kate helpfully provided more details.

"There was even a reward for his apprehension, but unfortunately you can't collect on it," Kate said, as she rested her eyes from the glare of Val's aura by looking elsewhere. Almost as an afterthought she added, "the body was discovered by a policeman on E. 59th St., near the Roosevelt Tramway station, at about 12:15am. Apparently, the malefactor fell from a fire escape and nearly struck the officer. It would seem that the rhetorical question, where's a cop when you need one, has found an answer."

"What?!?" Valerie squeaked, jerking upright on the couch. If she hadn't already set the cup down on the table, she'd have dropped it for sure. "How could you know that?"

"It was in all the papers this morning," Kate serenely replied without moving at all, "it seems he fell from at least fifteen stories up. I suppose you didn't have time to read the news today?"

"But, but…" Val didn't doubt that her victim's death had been reported in the media. What she couldn't understand was how Kate could know whom she'd killed last night. Except for a bat she'd been alone with her assailant. Even more inexplicable was how the body had gotten from her car on Greenwich St. to E. 59th St., all the way across town and over sixty blocks north, in only a few minutes. Why, it's just not possible, she thought vacantly, how could this be?

"Fate has shown you a mundane kindness, Valerie. Consider it a divine maid service, of sorts. You see, there are mysteries and realms of shadows concealed behind the veil of this world," Kate explained calmly, while absently making her now familiar dismissive gesture in reference to her guest's concerns. "What's more important is, what will you do about this new change in you? You command the power of death with a thought."

Valerie could only sit in silence and stare at her hostess, as her mouth made motions vaguely derived from chewing. Her head was reeling, and without her recent influx of prana, she'd surely have passed out from shock. Val had been a Goth once. She was a "real" vampire. She'd met Goths, wannabe vampires, Satanic posers, New England Wiccans, and even a Golden Dawn Adeptus Minor from the Bronx, but never had she run across anyone with the off the wall sensibilities of Kate.

The "real" vampire had already realized that Kate wasn't just some Goth chick. That had become obvious as they'd crossed the club floor. The other patrons considered her special and she acted as if their deference were normal. The strange woman was certainly refined and intelligent. In fact, she exhibited the gracious manners of an old family socialite or noblewoman. Valerie was also beginning to understand that she commanded significant economic means; wealth and resources that she really hadn't perceived at first. I mean, here I am, sitting in the most exclusively private part of a very upscale club, she thought, while thousands of wealthy patrons mill around downstairs in the public areas. The room they were sitting in was only a small part of the area that Val suspected comprised the "loft" above Nightwings. As far as she could tell they were alone here, and Kate had the key. She momentarily wondered who had made the fresh coffee. Valerie's eyes were growing larger and larger as she belatedly appreciated the particulars of the situation.

She'd noticed that Kate controlled her actions and voice so tightly that they appeared almost choreographed, yet she was unpredictable and her words were often shockingly unexpected. The combination gave her a distinctly otherworldly air. Valerie realized that Kate's physical appearance and mannerisms convincingly derived from the mythical and archetypal undead vampiric immortal. To the naked eye she lacked only the fangs. Val actually took a quick glance at Kate's mouth to check her canines, then felt foolish for even considering the possibility. Kate smiled at her, revealing perfect, though normal, teeth. The notion of Kate seriously being a blood-drinker was absolutely ridiculous…impossible. There were no such creatures and there never had been except in penny-dreadful tales and Halloween fright stories. Surely there was a more rational explanation. Yet on several occasions Kate had seemed to know what she was thinking. In desperation, Valerie's mind scrabbled for an explanation of Kate, and sadly, all she could come up with was a Gothic female version of Hannibal Lecter; cultured, refined, possessed of more marbles than any six normal individuals, and absolutely, positively insane. She was staring at Kate in abject horror and shivering uncontrollably.

Across the couch from her, Kate's smile had graduated into a full guffaw. Her laughter was unrestrained and unabashed, and when she could finally muster a modicum of self-control, she wiped normal looking tears from her eyes. Her outburst had caused not a trace of disturbance in her makeup. She lifted a hand and indicated a hallway to the right of a bookcase across the room.

"Val…Valerie, you look as if you could have soiled your panties!" Kate paused to grapple with her composure again before continuing. "Per…perhaps you'd care to freshen up? There's a powder room just down that hallway."

Kate's expression was marginal at best. She was struggling hard to maintain a straight face, and it was the most human thing that Valerie had seen her do yet. With minimal prompting she'd end up doubled over again in hysterics.

Valerie knew the expression on her own face must have been comical; shock, false epiphany, and paranoia, all smeared together and reflected from a mind that had been scrambling like a cat sliding sideways at high speed around a corner on a wet linoleum floor. She'd been all frantic limbs and scraping claws, finding no traction, yet proceeding blindly on inertia and panic, forequarters digging in, hindquarters slewing prone, her eyes wide and her mouth agape. She was hardly any more comfortable now.

Not knowing what else to do, Valerie got up and followed the direction of Kate's finger, across the library and into the hallway. She tried the first door, and sure enough it opened onto a richly appointed powder room. As the door slipped shut behind her, she heard Kate on the sofa cackling softly to herself, "boogey men under the davenport and Hannibal the Cannibal at your side. Boo!"

The remark was all the confirmation necessary to make it painfully obvious that Kate had known just what she'd been thinking. The vampire was mortified as well as scared.

Valerie took the opportunity to pee, (thankful earlier that she'd done Kegel exercises), then went to the sink and splashed her face and hands with cold water. The longer she stayed away from Kate, the less she looked forward to going back and facing her again. What on earth could she possibly say to her? The woman knew way too many things that she had no logical means of knowing, and then she acted as if there was no reason she shouldn't know them. Kate answered questions that Valerie had never asked out loud. She even reacted to things Valerie had only thought. It was profoundly disturbing. The vampires in the old legends could read minds, but that was nonsense. Those legends were nothing but superstitious hogwash. Valerie chastised herself for even entertaining the thought. Let's be real here, huh? Could Kate possibly be so perceptive that she could second-guess her so easily? Or could Kate read her mind? Was she clairvoyant?

That was a possibility that Valerie had to seriously consider. She stood in front of an ornately carved, gilt-framed mirror and stared into her own eyes. (Yes, "real" vampires cast a reflection). She looked normal enough, but in the last twenty-four hours she'd done stranger things herself. She'd vampirized an attacker to death, sucked out his life force, and barely felt a twinge of guilt about it. In fact, she'd been too busy feeling wonderful afterwards to even seriously consider that she'd committed a killing, even if it was in self-defense. No one looking at her would think to label her a vampire, a killer. But Kate's Gothic appearance had triggered all manners of fantasies in reaction to her inexplicable behavior. To her credit, Val recognized the mechanism of prejudice in herself and it shamed her. She felt that a bit of introspection was called for. She continued to stare at her own reflection.

"You're a vampire, a killer," she whispered, "and it's been your primary focus for years."

Eventually Valerie realized that she'd been so preoccupied for so long with the one unusual aspect of her own life, her vampirism, that she'd never seriously wondered about what else was possible for others. She understood that being a "real" vampire had defined her, and she'd obsessed over it to the point of blindness. Val decided that she'd have to change the way she looked at the world and the people around her. Perhaps Kate was just as different from the average person as she was, only in a totally different way.

Valerie forced herself to ignore Kate's appearance and consider her actions only. The vampire tried to be logical about it. She found that with only a little effort she could accept the idea that Kate could read minds. So then, Val asked herself, what would be possible for a person who could read minds? Well, certainly the acquisition of wealth, power, and status was a given, especially if it had begun when she was young. But Valerie knew that such an ability would come with a price. Kate had probably begun her life as a confused child, blessed with a power that allowed her to hear other people's thoughts. It would have been worst in those early years before Kate learned to speak and could communicate with words. No one could have explained her gift to her or taught her how to control it. She probably would have had early experiences that scared or hurt those around her, and that discomfort would have been reflected back on her as distrust, self-doubt, or ostracism.

Suddenly Kate didn't seem so very alien or scary to Valerie anymore…just different from herself. Together, they were probably different from almost everyone else; they enjoyed the grim kinship of misfits. Valerie could readily understand how a gift like Kate's could make a person end up seeming stoic and distant. It was a self-preserving tactic that she could easily relate to. Valerie did the same thing in a slightly different way. Though superficially friendly, she allowed herself only casual acquaintances and feared to let anyone actually get close. Valerie even found herself feeling sorry for Kate, realizing that she must be constantly bombarded with the ill will, petty malice, and senseless hatred, the conscious and subconscious mental excrement that the multitudes around her projected. It would be enough to make anyone forcefully insulate herself just to remain sane. Yet Kate must have reached out to her, read her mind and found a kindred outcast, and now she wanted them to be friends. She understood what Val was and she had no fear of her. It was the only offer of a real friendship that Valerie had ever had. She found it deeply touching and it made her feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Valerie had successfully rationalized away her hysteria and the threat she'd felt while sitting in Kate's presence just a few minutes before. She'd succeeded in calming herself with a habituated psychiatric mechanism and she felt way better already. Now all she had to do was go back out there, talk to Kate, and show her that she could be an open-minded and accepting friend.

"Right!" She decided, and with a newly found confidence she pulled open the door.

"Feeling better, I suppose?" Kate asked. She was the composed and attentive hostess again, calmly seated on the couch and meeting Valerie's eyes with a straightforward gaze. "Could I interest you in another cup of coffee?"

"Yes, please," Valerie answered, "it was delicious."

As Kate rose and led Valerie back over to the side table, Valerie offered an apology.

"I'm sorry for my suspicions earlier, Kate. I honestly didn't know what to think and I was startled by a lot of what you'd said. Your words were based on knowing things that I couldn't understand how you could have known. Having thought about it though, I've noticed that you seem to be able to read my mind. I want you to know that I don't feel so threatened or uncomfortable about your ability anymore. I really value the fact that you've been so understanding with me. I want you to be able to believe that I intend to treat you with the same consideration and friendship that you've shown me." She'd spoken with all the sincerity in her heart.

Kate had turned from the coffee service and had listened, the cup and saucer held forgotten in one elegant hand. She'd focused the full intensity of her attention on Valerie and had absorbed every word. More importantly, she'd absorbed the emotions behind those words. Gently, she set the cup and saucer down on the tabletop. Her eyes captured Val's with a mesmerizing depth that the "real" vampire felt she could fall into.

"Valerie, my lovely one," Kate said in an emotion choked whisper, "that's the most profoundly loving thing that any mortal has said to me in many thousands of years."

Valerie smiled at Kate's choice of words. Her first impression was that they were just an idiomatic expression driven by her evident emotions; a personal figure of speech derived from her Gothic identity. In no way did she take the words literally. Sure enough, Val thought, Kate's defenses are very deeply ingrained and reverting to the insulating trappings of her assumed identity is second nature for her. If anything, understanding the reaction made Valerie become even more sympathetic.

"Kate, I can only imagine what it must have been like for you, growing up with the ability to read minds. You must have felt self-doubt and confusion, much like I did as a child when my pets were dying. I'll bet no one believed what you could do, much less understood it or could provided an explanation."

Kate was listening to Valerie's continuation with an intense interest that was slowly graduating to incredulity. This was just too rich.

"I'm sure it must have been very difficult for you," Valerie continued, "and yet you grew up to become a sensitive and caring woman, a woman who could show kindness to a person as different as myself. You're really very extraordinary, and yes, also very beautiful. I hope that eventually you'll feel comfortable enough with our friendship to let me see beneath the persona that you show the world. I hope that someday you'll let me come to know the Kate who lives inside the Goth."

By this point, Kate was staring at Val, completely amazed by the conclusions that she was expressing. The details were so inaccurate as to be laughable, but the sentiments driving them were as sincere and precious as any offering that had ever been laid on a god's altar in ancient times.

Valerie had petitioned her for nothing material, and over the years, Kate had heard it all. The vampire sought neither wealth, nor powers, nor the outcome of future events, but rather had asked only for her trust, an intangible treasure of the heart. She had made both guileless declarations and unselfish requests. It was a combination so rare that it had always been impossible to resist. For the first time in Valerie's presence, Kate evoked. She cast the power of her eyes fully on her mortal guest, completely binding her attention, and she made an offer.

"If you would know the truth, you must be willing to accept change," Kate whispered, "for change is the only constant that has been since the universe began. The alchemy of time has transformed all things save myself alone. To know me is to know change. You stand at a crossroads, Valerie, for you yourself are in flux. Would you truly know me?"

Immobilized under Kate's gaze, Valerie could only nod yes. The Goth clasped Valerie's hand and made a gesture of sweeping away across the space between them.

It was night. No sights came to her eyes in those first moments, as she stood ensnared in her blindness, sweating and cringing. Only very slowly did her vision adjust to an enveloping darkness that was lit only by starlight through a loose canopy of scrubby trees. There was no moon. This night felt possessed of a sinister living spirit. It triggered Valerie's racial memory, afflicting her with a primal nyctophobia reminiscent of childhood. Even after her pupils had dilated completely and her retinas shifted solely to their rod shaped receptors, even then it was only with difficulty that she could make out her hand before her face. Her other hand was clasped around Kate's palm in a death grip.

Valerie felt a summer's heated humidity blanketing her skin. The sounds of nearby water constantly lapping at some unseen "Plutonian shore", provided an undercurrent for the buzzing of insects and a flittering of leathery wings. Several species of frogs belched mating calls from grotesquely ballooning throats while crickets mindlessly sawed songs from their own wings. (Their chirping prompted a childhood memory in Valerie; that of seeing a cricket whose body had been severed at mid-thorax. The bug had instinctively turned and begun feeding on tasty wet viscera, self-cannibalizing its own spilled entrails. Incredibly, the uncoordinated abdomen had tried to flee on its two attached hind legs, but the voracious forequarters had relentlessly pursued it with busy mouthparts, while gaily chirping.)

Valerie took a quick breath, thick with moisture and ripe with scents. She could almost taste the exhalation of the rich loam she stood on, seasoned with growth and decay, and stirred by the movements of her feet. Puffs of sullen breeze grudgingly rustling among nearby leaves wafted traces of a detergent fragrance from her perspiration-dampened clothing. Beneath the laboratory flask floral bouquet, Val could smell her own fear.

We must be somewhere outside the city; at least that much she'd figured out. Val had no certainty of how this could be, so she went with her instincts and conjured up hastily rationalized suspicions formulated for psychic comfort. For example, maybe her coffee had been drugged and she'd been brought her here while she was unconscious. Maybe Kate had hypnotized her and suggested that she forget their trip completely. Maybe she was still on that comfortable couch in the library, dreaming it all up. Maybe she'd willingly come here with Kate and then suffered a lapse of memory due to pranic overload. Maybe it was all a nasty fugue and she'd become a mental type sick girl.

Perhaps they were actually near the Amtrak lines, somewhere in those swamps outside of Metro Park or Newark. Valerie expected that she'd be viciously mosquito bitten and end up with malaria or that viral bird fever the city had been spraying everyone with Malathion for…chickenpox, was that it? She was confused. All she knew for sure was that her consciousness was miles from Nightwings, nearly blind in the dark, and very scared. Beside her, Kate had begun chuckling…probably at her wild suppositions.

"Where are we, Kate?" Valerie asked in a tremulous whisper, unwilling to chance antagonizing the surrounding darkness by raising her voice.

"Here, my lovely vampire, with the true night about us," Kate told her, (answering her own interpretation of the question), "free of the ambient light that will someday diffuse across the world from cities and towns. Not even your great-grandmother knew a night such as this, I suppose." Kate sounded deeply satisfied, their situation restoring some pleasant memory to her. "Walk with me now and I shall show you a great wonder."

Letting Kate guide her by the hand, Valerie plodded blindly forward, quickly noticing that their path led uphill. Behind them the sounds of the water were diminishing in the distance. As before, Kate commented on her unspoken realizations.

"Perhaps you hear the waters of a stream flowing into the River Zab, running down from the Zagros Mountains to the east? One day Nineveh will stand fifty miles to the west…for a while." She sounded wistful now, speaking softly.

Nineveh was definitely not in any part of New Jersey that Valerie knew, and she'd never heard of the Zab-A-Dab-A-Do River or The Gross Mountains either. She was going to ask Kate about that, hoping to stave off a panic attack, but before she could, they came to a halt. The sounds of the water and frogs had grown faint, lying at a distance somewhere below and behind them. A relative silence had loomed up to replace the babbled voice of the stream, adding its menace to the threat of the darkness.

Valerie realized that they were no longer standing among trees and shrubs. They'd entered an open field with intermittently bare soil underfoot. She was standing on a patch of it now. Kate sighed and released her hand, moving away a few paces and turning in a circle. Her arms were partially outstretched and her head was tilted back, her gaze directed to the night sky. The starlight in the open allowed Valerie to finally see a little bit more clearly; at least enough to know that Kate hadn't wandered off and left her by the Zab-A-Dee-Ah River, and the ZAGAT…whatever. She didn't take her eyes off the Gothic woman for an instant. She did, however, blink.

In the instant when her eyes were closed, Kate completed her circle and an explosion of flames blasted Valerie's eyes. At least that's how it seemed to her as she reflexively recoiled, squinted, blinked again, and teared up. When she could finally see, (through eyes opened just barely a slit), she saw Kate standing nonchalantly a few feet away, bearing a pair of smoky sputtering torches, one in each hand. The flames weren't even really all that bright, as though what was burning was maybe tar, inner tube rubber, or greasy French-fries. They produced generous quantities of a heavy black smoke. Still, in contrast to the almost complete pitch black, (or so Valerie had considered it), the wavering orange of partial combustion from the torches seemed blindingly bright. The image of a woman holding paired torches seemed familiar to the vampire.

"Impressive, don't you think?" Kate asked, glancing at the torches, "of course, I never really got credit for this." She sounded momentarily perturbed. "I gave them bitumen and pitch but later people only thanked Prometheus. Ah well. Of course at first they considered these magic, so at least they got that much right. You should take a look around while you can, I suppose. This really is rather epochal."

Valerie obediently gazed at the surrounding patches of turned earth and the scattering of miserable scrawny shoots that the circle of torchlight revealed. The slender green sprouts were growing in random clumps rather than in any kind of tilled rows. It really wasn't very impressive at all. In fact, she was quite willing to dismiss the pathetic field in favor of trying to clarify what Kate's rant over the torches had been about. For that matter, where had she gotten them in the first place? It wasn't as though Valerie was unhappy about their presence either. At least she could finally see. But what the hell was bitumen? She shook her head and looked back at the Goth with a confused expression.

"Not overwhelmed, I see. Perhaps we should have come later in the summer when the shoots have grown taller…" Kate sighed, realizing that Valerie was a city girl and had no way to relate to what she was seeing. She decided to try a more straightforward tact.

"What we have here is one of mankind's first attempts at farming. This is emmer wheat, planted from seeds that were gathered during the yearly migrations these hunter/gatherers have followed for the last, shall we say, 250,000 years. Valerie, what you are seeing here shall truly change the world. From these unimpressive plants, a whole new way of life will grow…sedentary life, village life, and eventually, cities, nations, and empires."

Valerie got the distinct impression that Kate was speaking with a sense of personal pride in the achievement. That was odd, since the vampire couldn't picture the sophisticated Gothic woman as a closet farm girl. Kate continued her explanation.

"You see, the people here are bona fide primitives. They have not yet learned how to write, fire clay, smelt ores, or breed livestock. Their parents lived almost the same basic lifestyle that their ancestors had lived since they came out of Africa only partially human. Change has come only slowly so far…mostly through refinements in flint knapping and survival crafts. The last great advance before this was when they learned how to make and use fire."

In a brilliant insight, Valerie decided that Kate had somehow brought her to the NY State Renaissance Fair and that it was deserted at night. Once again, denial had prompted Val to rationalize a mundane solution to a mystery. With amazement, she realized that she must have been out cold for hours to get so far up the Hudson Valley from the city.

Kate looked at the shock on Valerie's face, and then made a sweeping gesture with the torch in her right hand. "This is Mesolithic Karim Shahir, and it is 10,437 BC, almost 12,500 years before you will be born. You cannot imagine what life here is like. At your age, you would be an esteemed elder, or more likely, you would already be dead. The people of this time have only a few friends, fire, change, and…."

In the near distance the rapid approach of barking dogs could be clearly heard. It was a hunting pack, intent on bringing down the source of the light in the field, which could only signify the presence of strangers. In this time and place, strangers were probably also enemies. Friends did not skulk around in the dark, sharing the night with demons, ghosts, and evil spirits. The semi-domesticated dogs did not sound friendly at all. They sounded mean and hungry. It was hard to believe they were even the same species as the happy dog that had been struck and killed at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

Terrifying visions from news stories, in which people were mauled by pit bulls or rottwielers, played in Valerie's head. She could imagine them both being torn limb from limb in a matter of seconds. Val was confused, but worse, she was scared to death. She felt the gateway inside her beginning to open in defense, searching for prana. That doubled her panic. The only person anywhere nearby was her strange kind friend.

Kate planted the burning torches in the dirt at her feet and moved to take Valerie's hand.

"We should be leaving now, I suppose," she said calmly, "I'm sure you'd rather not stay here to vampirize these dogs." A small smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She seemed totally fearless of their situation, and unconcerned by Valerie's lethal powers.

The dogs could be dimly seen now as rampaging shadows about twenty yards away, closing fast. The red-orange flames glinted on their fangs and shone in their eyes, turning them into demonic hounds with ravening bloody mouths. Kate gently took Valerie's hand and made a gesture of rejection towards the vicious pack just as the beasts leapt into the flickering circle of torchlight. The field of mankind's first farm disappeared.

"I realize that I am causing you some discomfort," Kate offered apologetically, "and for that, I am sorry. The romantic darkness of the old stories is not for everyone, I suppose."

They were standing in bright afternoon sunlight. It was hot again, but this time it was a dry heat. The soil beneath their feet was a rich black. Valerie could smell an undertone of rotting vegetation beneath a topnote of stale water and putrid fish, all carried on a constant arid breeze. A hundred yards away lay the banks of a great river, edged by rows of date palms, while a mile off in the opposite direction, sandstone cliffs rose. Their sheer faces were cast deep in harsh shadows that also fell on the bottomlands at their base. Between those cliffs and where they stood lay greening fields of millet, wheat, and cotton, and a collection of crude reed huts daubed with mud. Kate indicated one of them with the long index finger of her unadorned right hand.

"I am called and will have a duty to perform there shortly. Join me?"

"I am not letting you out of my sight! Would you be willing to tell me where we are this time?" Valerie asked with a rising note of panic. They had just gone from night to day in the blink of an eye. She'd begun entertaining serious doubts about the last locale having been the RenFair, and this place didn't look like anything she'd seen except in museum dioramas. She watched Kate sweep the area with serene eyes that took in a familiar time and place, and reflected memories of sorrow.

"Six thousand years have passed since we stood at Karim Shahir," Kate began. "It is now 4,351 BC, and this is Kemet, the land of the Nile Valley before it became the nation of Egypt. In about 1,200 years, Narmer will unify the country. In about 1,700 years, Pharaoh Khufu will build the great pyramid." For a moment, Kate seemed to falter. "I…made a mistake here. I presented myself piecemeal…and reaped the consequences."

From the hut Kate had pointed out, a series of bloodcurdling screams rent the dry air, each seemingly torn individually from some woman's throat by a rusty fishhook lodged through her tongue and deeply into bone. Valerie could feel the pain squeeze her teeth and bring water to her eyes. She shivered despite the heat, imagining a genital mutilation or limb amputation in progress. Surely they would find something horrifying and primitive going on inside that hovel. Kate took a last look at the indisruptable flow of the river, the gentle swaying of the palms, and then began making her way rapidly towards the hut. Valerie hastened to keep up. Drawing nearer, she noticed that it was ringed with bales of kindling. She was already dreading what she'd be forced to see.

Another series of screams had just begun when they reached the hut. From inside came a stench of excrement and rotting flesh so strong that it made Val gag. No collection of urban garbage cans had ever generated a reek approaching even the square root of this. She swore that she'd never again complain on trash night. Now that they stood by the doorway, Val could see that the hut and its kindling had been splashed with oil…vegetable oil, not petroleum, but flammable nevertheless. They were close enough to hear a constant dirge of muttered prayers sifting through the woven mat hanging across the entrance. Kate ignored the miasma and swept the mat aside. She quickly entered the dark reeking interior with Valerie following hesitantly behind. It took a few merciful moments for Val's eyes to adjust to the gloom.

It had to be the vilest environment the vampire had ever experienced. Even the zoo’s old monkey house paled in comparison. Inside the hut, the day's heat was magnified because the woven, mud-sealed walls and the low conical ceiling admitted no breath of air. With incredulity Val noted that a smoky fire, (fueled with dried ox dung that burned like incense), had been kindled in the ring-like clay hearth at the center of the claustrophobic space. Compounding the heat and smoke was an intense and nauseating biotic malodor. This even dwarfed the suffering of the summer heat aboard the city’s old #7 trains to Flushing, in a car filled with the unwashed homeless. It was the exhalation of triumphant pestilence and creeping necrosis. Another scream jerked Valerie's eyes to the heart-rending source of the stench.

Beside an inclined pallet on which an obviously pregnant woman had been tied, knelt a midwife, rocking and swaying, her eyes tightly shut as she ceaselessly chanted prayers. She was completely ignoring her naked patient, who was lashed down, immobilized at the wrists, shoulders, knees, and ankles. A sweat-soaked blindfold covered the mother's eyes, but she had long since chewed through her gag. Valerie's eyes bulged at the inhumanity of the spectacle. The birthing mother was delirious; feebly struggling against her bonds and screaming in response to the contractions that convulsed her bloated abdomen in clenching spasms. It seemed that these people had no knowledge of hygiene or sanitation either. Below her splayed legs, a trail of excrement, pus laced birth waters, and blood had stained the pallet and the floor. It was evident that she'd been restrained for quite some time. Valerie looked for heating containers of water, towels, medicinal herbs, or any of the expected paraphernalia for the delivery, and she saw nothing.

"And you shall not, because this birth is doomed," Kate whispered. "This woman damaged herself attempting an abortion almost a moon ago and the dead fetus has been decomposing inside her body. Now the mother is feverish with septicemia and gangrene. The blindfold protects others from her evil eye; the gag was intended to foil her curses. She has also been ostracized and is considered possessed, hence the impending immolation of the hut instead of a burial. She is to be damned in the afterlife as well." Kate shook her head sadly as she surveyed the scene again. "The midwife prays only for a merciful end. I answer her with my presence, because here, you see, I am her patron."

Kate's words were punctuated by the flatulent blast of an air so fetid that the midwife broke from her prayer and gagged. There was a wet tearing sound. The mother screamed as her gassy belly deflated and the blackened head of her dead child presented between her legs in a pint of grayish clotted pus. It was too much. The horror drove Valerie to her knees, crying and retching. She lost a cup of coffee, two pirouettes, and a portion of herbed chicken breast. Her regurgitation perturbed the eddies and currents of history and time more profoundly than the fluttering of a butterfly in a rainforest giving rise to a hurricane a continent away. Through her tears, she watched as Kate placed a gentle hand on the mother's brow. With a whispered word from the Goth, the doomed woman instantly calmed, falling limp even as the ghost of a smile graced her cracked lips. The midwife's prayers continued, just a pleading repetition of a single word that lodged in the vampire's ears, "Heqit, Heqit, Heqit". Heck w'it…? There was so much she didn’t understand about what she’d seen, and she was in no condition to figure it out.

Kate moved to Valerie's side and laid a soothing hand on her shoulder as she spat to clear her mouth. The welcome contact calmed the vampire and she briefly closed her eyes to blink away her tears. There was a warmth of spirit in Kate’s touch that Valerie could feel as clearly as the desert’s heat. It was, she realized, just a small fraction of the merciful power that the Goth had extended to the doomed mother. The comfort Kate gifted to Val was in proportion to her distress, and that act reflected a microcosm of the absolution and deliverance visited on the suffering woman. She heard the Goth sigh. Looking up, she saw that Kate’s expression was positively funereal.

"Eighteen millennia of heartbreak," Kate whispered in a voice that embodied endless sadness, "and yet more to come. Perhaps some things do not change so very much."

Valerie sensed that the horrific scene she’d witnessed had been played out in many variations over thousands of years in the land of Kemet, under the scorching sun between the unstoppable river and the immovable cliffs, and Kate looked as if she'd seen it all. The mortal vampire couldn’t help but viscerally perceive the weight on her friend’s soul. It dwarfed the short-lived torment of the dead mother; as would the ceaseless cycling of the seasons eclipse a single life. The Gothic woman gently took Valerie's hand, helping to raise her to her feet, and with a gesture, the hut of the damned was no more.

"Look at the color of the sea, my lovely vampire, for its hue also lives in your eyes," Kate said, turning Valerie to view the shallows below the promontory on which they stood. The blue-green water lay placidly, submerging a bed of limestone just beyond a narrow white sand beach. Overhead, the brilliant Mediterranean sun whitewashed the same limestone that composed the island with an eye-blinding glare. Everything around them was bright; the heavens, the land, and the sea. Valerie blinked while her eyes adjusted, desperately wishing for sunscreen and a good pair of UV filtering sunglasses. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply of the salty sea air. She held her breath for a long moment, thankfully purging the stench of the hut from her nose and throat, and then she exhaled as she opened her eyes. Kate stood beside her, looking out over the water towards something far beyond any horizon they could see, and finally she turned back to the present and captured Val's gaze.

"Of all the places I have seen, these islands confer, perhaps, the closest thing to joy that my soul has known," Kate confessed. "This is the island of Aeaea. Just through the woods behind us stands a stone house," Kate continued, turning to point inland where ancient cedar trees covered the higher ground. The fingers of her right hand bore no ring. "It is the home of a devotee from Corinth. Come, let us go and visit."

A devotee of what, the vampire wondered for a moment, before they began to move.

Valerie followed Kate into the woods, thankful that finally she was in a comfortable and pleasant setting of great beauty. Cedar needles carpeted the path beneath their feet, while the trees lent a balsamic fragrance to the air. The vampire inhaled greedily, feeling the soul deep cleansing and contentment that only unspoiled nature can inspire. She was slowly calming from their horrific visit to Kemet. This time she didn't even attempt to deny where she was or understand how she'd arrived. They walked uphill in shade that was much easier on the eyes, until rather abruptly, they came upon the home that Kate had mentioned.

The place looked like a well-to-do country estate house set in a forest clearing, with its own well, granary, barns, and sheds. It appeared idyllic to Valerie, rustic, peaceful and charmingly picturesque. A number of farm animals, including horses, cows, pigs, and dogs, lounged together in the yards. Near the front door, a cute blonde girl and a striking red headed woman sat on a bench together as the woman instructed the girl in the use of the herbs overflowing from a basket at their feet.

"Ah, young Medea is visiting her aunt," Kate remarked. "Her training began here and she learned her lessons well." There was pride in her voice. "Never before did I meet a mortal so irrepressible or so determined to immerse herself in the waters of her emotions. Medea was nothing if not supremely passionate, I suppose." Valerie realized that the girl had the same name as the hostess she'd met at Nightwings. "Yes, the same," Kate agreed.

The vampire and the Goth stood in front of the two, unnoticed at first, but after a few moments the older woman looked at them, gave Kate a warm smile, and then returned to her conversation with the girl. Kate led Valerie around the side of the house, where they found a shaggy, cream and black dog sitting in the shade, talking with a pig. The animals spoke with human voices, but in a language Valerie couldn't understand.

"How do they do that?" Valerie asked in surprise, her head swinging back and forth following the enchanted conversation. "What are they saying? I can't understand a word, but they seem to understand each other well enough."

"They should," Kate said, "they were neighbors before they came here, searching for their lost friend Picus. It's all certainly witchcraft…intentional manipulation of the mysteries behind the veil of shadows. To mortals, their speech sounds like the grunting of animals, but they can speak to each other in their native tongue, in this case, the dialect of Latium in Italia. We're eavesdropping, though of course, it's all Greek to you. Don't worry, they're just griping…tiresome bores."

Kate smiled and winked, as she looked Valerie in the eyes. She seemed much more lighthearted than she ever had before. Weird as the animals were, the vampire felt happy for the Gothic woman, glad to see a less serious side of her. She was even more beautiful when she relaxed and smiled. Valerie wished that her enigmatic friend could know much more such happiness. The sorrow and resignation that she'd revealed in the hut in Kemet was heartbreaking as well as cryptic, and Val was sure that there had been more to that visitation than she understood. At that moment a metallic green hummingbird flitted past them on its way to a patch of honeysuckle.

"Ha! There goes Picus himself, the very one so many of these others came to find. Unfortunately, those hummingbirds have no call and can't speak in any language. Circe has quite a sense of humor," Kate chuckled to herself before muttering, "I almost feel bad about her nightmares, but it's only the due she's earned for indulging in too much of a good thing. Hehe. You should see what she did to pretty little Scylla."

Kate was still chuckling when she took Valerie's hand, and with a simple gesture, the barnyard disappeared.

It was night again, but instead of a pitch-black swamp, they were inside a torch-lit temple. The warm dry air was redolent of incense, circulating on a gentle breeze from pendant bronze censors hanging on chains. They were standing in the center of a wide stylobate of black granite, between the dipteral colonnades of the pteron. The columns were tall and massive, unadorned limestone shafts, rising from simple pedestals to capitols that supported lintels hidden in the shadows high overhead. At the far end of the space stood an altar of gold, and behind it a monstrous colossus representing a pagan deity. The polychrome idol bore three heads, dog, serpent, and horse, above a tripled female body draped in robes.

"You'll have to excuse the likeness," Kate told Valerie, who was staring at the statue with a disturbed sense of awe, "the ancients had rampant imaginations and a flare for the grandiose. I tell myself it was only for the purpose of overwhelming the worshippers."

At the front of the temple, a young woman in flowing robes walked in swiftly from a side entrance and stood before the altar. As she thrust her arms upward in supplication and the hood fell away from her head, revealing long pale blonde hair. The vampire guessed that she was about sixteen or seventeen and already heartbreakingly beautiful. She began a low chanting, but at their distance, Valerie couldn't make out the words.

"Medea, High Priestess of Colchis," Kate narrated, adding in an aside, "she's certainly come a long way from the little girl that we saw learning herbology on her aunt's farm. Medea seeks the guidance and blessings of her goddess." She resumed the translation, "I, Medea, blah, blah, blah…seek your counsel, O Hekate, of Titans born, patron of witches, guardian of the shadowed crossroads, and author of change, who is powerful in the heavens, on earth, and in the underworld, blah, blah, blah… I am guided by my heart to aid the purpose of the Argonauts, for my love is given to Jason. Yet if I follow my heart, I must act against my father, King Aeetes, and allow Jason to bear away the Golden Fleece to his homeland of Iolcus." Kate was smiling indulgently.

"Typical story of youthful rebellion combined with impulsive love," Kate commented, "and why does she ask for advice…her mind was made up the first time they did it."

Valerie had been listening to Kate, wondering why they were here. Her friend seemed to know Medea's motives, though that would be natural enough since she could read minds. The vampire took her eyes off the priestess and glanced around again, thinking, …and just look at this place! That statue is pretty nightmarish. I recognize the Golden Fleece and the Argonauts from some Greek mythology we studied in world history class. If I'm to believe what I'm seeing, it wasn't all just myth. So, there was an actual kernel of truth behind the story way back then. Who'd have believed it? Certainly not me.

While she'd been ruminating, Kate had walked off and was standing with her back to the altar in front of Medea. She was whispering rapidly to the priestess and the young woman was nodding, her posture revealing that her attention was intensely focused on Kate's words. So now what, Val wondered, is Kate giving her advice on how to become a star and make Euripides a rich man? As Valerie continued watching, Kate leaned forward and gave Medea a gentle kiss. The priestess responded with a desperate hug, then quickly fled back the way she'd originally come in. The scene made Val feel an unpleasant twinge of jealousy. That surprised her at first, but she quickly admitted to herself that she'd been becoming ever more attached to the Gothic woman. Before she could obsess over her feelings, Kate beckoned Valerie forward to join her at the altar.

"Well, I've sent her off on a great tragedy, I suppose," Kate said, seeming a bit pensive, "and I wouldn't have it any other way. Follow your heart and all that." Kate took Valerie's hand and this time she gave it a gentle squeeze. "Let's see how the tawdry affair progresses, shall we?" She made her now familiar gesture and the temple vanished.

"Corinth, 1,262 BC," Kate announced as they appeared inside a richly appointed palace hallway, "Jason and Medea have been exiled from his homeland of Iolcus after Medea arranged for the death of the usurper, King Pelias. In my opinion, he deserved it, but…ah well. Corinth was the home of Medea's father, King Aeetes, and her aunt, Circe, the redhead whom you met on the farm. I must say, sweet little Medea turned out to have a murderous streak; King Pelias, her own brother, Apsyrtus…and she's far from finished."

From somewhere nearby terrified screams broke out, along with yelling, cursing, and a general pandemonium. Kate rolled her eyes at the outburst of noise while several palace guards rushed past. A faint scent of smoke filtered through the air to their noses.

"Medea strikes again," Kate observed.

"What happened?" Valerie asked. She couldn't exactly remember the sequence of events she'd studied in her classes a decade before, but she knew it was going to be bad. The sudden onset of this new setting for half-recalled historic disasters drove her curiosity about the peculiar scene in the temple into the background of her consciousness.

"Well, betrayal and jealousy for starters, I suppose," Kate answered as she began to lead Valerie towards a chamber further down a passage. "You see, Medea really loved Jason, but after ten years together, he decided he wanted a younger woman. Of course, the fact that the younger woman is also a fellow royal Greek rather than a foreign witch encouraged his adultery. Today he was to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. I think that plan just went up in flames, so to speak," Kate chuckled, as several soldiers ran down the passage, leading Jason towards the disturbance.

"If I know Medea, and I think I do, she's used the old incendiary robe trick to immolate the bride." Kate and Valerie reached the chamber where the screaming had come from and gazed through the door at the aftermath. It had been the princess' dressing room, and it smelled like roast pork. The Goth nodded her head approvingly, taking in the scene.

"I should say that Creon suffered much the same fate as his daughter," Kate observed, nodding to a pattern of ashes and grease stains on the floor that outlined a second body and was accompanied by a crown, "probably while trying to extinguish the flames."

The horror of the scene that Kate described so lightly was pretty upsetting to Valerie. Rich interiors in flames and immolated human remains had no place in her comfort zone. She noted that the bodies had been entirely consumed and she had to agree with Kate's opinion that the fire's origin wasn't natural. Accelerants, she thought in a stupefied daze, Medea must have used accelerants. The annoying recollection of a tabloid news story on spontaneous human combustion briefly intruded into her mind as well. The vampire watched the guards ineffectually stamping at the growing fire and trampling the charred remains of a wedding dress, while Jason cursed and moaned in bereavement from the sidelines. Valerie looked at Kate, who had the trace of a smile on her lips.

"Rather a drastic solution, I suppose," she admitted, before adding, "ahhh well, Jason intended bigamy. It's hardly heroic…he really should have known better."

Jason seemed to collect himself into a rage and stormed out the door past them, paying them no notice at all. They followed him at a distance, watching as he practically lunged into the last room opening onto the corridor.

When they got to the door they saw Jason reading from a scroll that had been left on a table beside the bed. Tears were running freely down the ex-hero's cheeks. The bedsheets were drenched in the darkening blood of two children, whose bodies lay with their throats cut. Valerie gasped in shock just as Jason crumpled the note and screamed at the top of his lungs. It was the throat-tearing howl of an animal's pain and anger. He screamed again, but this time the sentiment was more of hatred than of anguish, somehow a more primal human sound. Then he gathered the slain children into his arms and wept bitterly, stroking their stiffening backs and caressing their limp hair. The note lay forgotten on the tabletop and Kate moved to retrieve it, reading over the words hastily before handing it to Valerie. The vampire couldn't understand the letters and she gave Kate a questioning glance. Kate took back the note and explained.

"It's the original 'Dear Jason' breakup note. In so many words, Medea says that after giving the bride her wedding gift, she felt it only appropriate to leave something for the groom as well. At the same time, she thought it fitting that the gift should be symbolic of scorned love and her return to unmarried life, hence the killing of their children. She quotes the belief that the sins of the father are visited upon the sons, along with some other philosophical nonsense. She predicts that Jason will die beneath the wreckage of the Argo, his old ship, which was so instrumental in the genesis of their own love. Parallel symbolisms…how poetic. It's all rather nasty. Talk about burning your bridges behind you." She let the note fall to the floor and looked at the stunned Valerie, whose eyes were glued to the dead children and their grieving father. Kate shrugged and said, "It's Greece. Tragedy's a way of life here…hubris, the clash of wills and the fall of flawed heroes too big for their britches and all that. It provided grist for centuries of muses, I suppose."

Kate's blasé attitude disturbed Valerie almost as much as the killings. The extremes of the Goth's behavior seemed almost inhuman to the vampire. How could she be so caring at one moment and so callous the next? Val had seen both sides of her friend and she was having a hard time reconciling the behavioral disparities she'd witnessed. Could Kate suffer from MPD on top of everything else? Kate seemed to be displaying resignation or detachment in relation to the events they'd witnessed, as though none of it was a surprise and the best and worst events were both long familiar. Did she live with a disassociative complex, figuratively feeling nothing more than skin deep? This time Valerie honestly didn't know where to begin rationalizing away her discomfort. She was sincerely worried for Kate. She'd seen her sadness, her capacity for compassion, her enjoyment of nature, and she'd yet to see her do anything out of hatred or evil. But she had to wonder, could she truly feel anything deeply?

Outside the bedchamber, the sounds of panicky yelling voices, pounding footfalls, and spreading flames were increasing. Guards were running back and forth down the corridor and the smell of smoke was spreading fast.

"Enough of this," Kate declared, taking Valerie's hand, "Medea is long gone and on her way to Athens." With a wave of dismissal, the room disappeared. It was only then that Valerie idly noticed that Kate's familiar ring was absent from her finger.

"1,260 BC, the royal palace of Athens," Kate announced as they arrived in a torchlit banquet hall, "and Medea has been busy again." The words sounded ominous to Val after what she'd witnessed of Medea's handiwork in Corinth. She was already fearing what lay ahead. The scene before them seemed mundane enough at first glance, but it was fraught with an underlying tension that the vampire could almost taste.

The blonde priestess wore a gold circlet and was seated at the head of a large table beside an older man who was robed and crowned as a king. She was obviously pregnant, and was eyeing a younger man, who was dressed as a warrior, with thinly disguised mistrust. Obviously the royal couple was receiving an itinerant would be hero, who bore a ratty breastplate, a week's beardstubble, and a surprisingly well made sword. Along with hobnailed sandals that had seen too many miles of walking, he wore a short undecorated tunic of coarse homespun wool that screamed provincial. Valerie suspected that even a prostitute wouldn't have been caught dead with his hemline, for indeed, a faintly yellowed breechcloth was peeking out below. In contrast, the monarchs wore long robes of blindingly white, finely woven linen, embellished with wide stripes in a coveted purple dye, sensible sandals, and enough gold jewelry to make a ghetto playa jealous. All three of them could have used a bath. On the tablecloth lay a scattering of bright coins, newly minted obols of Athens, bearing the owl of the city's patron goddess, Athena, a symbolic but legal witness to their bargain. The two men were preparing to seal a deal about killing some "cretin bullhead", (or at least that's what Val thought she'd heard), and the king was pouring wine for the toast.

"She's managed to marry the aging King Aegeus, and carries his child, a son who would be heir to the throne," Kate explained to Valerie in a stage whisper. "He would be a royal heir, for Medea is a princess of Colchis and her father is the king. Unfortunately for her, the King Aegeus' elder son, Theseus, has just arrived in Athens. Neither the king nor Theseus knows that they are related. Only Medea knows that secret, and she has provided Aegeus with poison to kill the man she has convinced him will usurp his throne. Oh how I loved the tragic circumstances that seemed such a part of daily life in these times…so much drama. One really had to be on their toes."

Valerie could only look at Kate in amazement. People's lives were at stake here, but the Gothic woman didn't seem worried at all. Perhaps it was because everything they were witnessing had occurred long ago in the distant past, Valerie reasoned, and their presence now could change nothing. Believing that argument made her feel a little better. Still, in the torchlight, the wine filling the golden cup recalled the deep red of two children's blood spilled on bedsheets.

She watched as the aging king offered a toast, handing the warrior the cup of poisoned wine. She watched as Theseus, the rightful firstborn prince, raised it to his mouth. She missed the slight gesture Kate made that caused a nearby torch to momentarily flare up. In the light of the increased flames, a telling glint reflected off the ornamented hilt of Theseus' sword. It lasted only a moment, but Aegeus saw. He saw and recognized the weapon he had left decades ago in a foreign land, for the son he never saw born. With a violent sweep of his hand, unexpectedly quick for one so old, the king dashed the goblet from Theseus' fingers even as he tilted it to his lips. The tainted wine sprayed over the table to the warrior's side in an arc reminiscent of a fountaining neck wound. Valerie breathed a sigh of relief, belatedly realizing that she'd been holding her breath the entire time.

"I'm sorry, my witch, my priestess," Kate whispered. "It will be many years before you understand."

Anger radiated in blistering waves from Medea as she rose and stalked from the room. With a subtle movement Kate closed her hand on two silver obols, momentos that had witnessed the day she betrayed a friend for the Greater Good. Kate turned to Valerie and explained some of what would come to pass.

"With Theseus alive, the Minotaur of Crete will be slain, democracy born, and Athens defended against the Amazon invasion to come. Had Theseus died today, Medea's son would have ascended the throne as a child, and being the queen mother, Medea would have ruled Athens de facto. Perish the thought. Besides, she still has work to do and her son has a kingdom awaiting him at the end of the world. Death, birth, and the changes of life…ever my great transitions."

Well, at least no one had died in front of her for a change, Val thought thankfully. But…my witch, my priestess, she'd said, …ever my great transitions? Kate's words fed a growing uneasiness in Valerie, but before she could think her suspicions through, Kate had taken her hand again and they had left Athens.

"Perhaps you recognize where we are this time," Kate asked, as they stood before the altar, overshadowed by its grotesque statue of the three-headed goddess.

"Colchis," Valerie remembered, "in the Temple of Hekate."

It was late in the night and the temple was deserted. No priestesses or worshippers moved in the shadows. The smoke from the pendant censors hung below the ceiling in torpor. Even the movements of the torch's flames seemed languid and other worldly, slowed by supernatural resistance from the overriding atmosphere of expectation. The ether was thick, and Valerie felt that the very passage of time held its breath. They were waiting at an unseen crossroads. Alone in front of the altar, a woman had prostrated herself in supplication on the floor. She wore a simple robe and the mantle of age lay full upon her, four score years and nine. Her white hair might once have been pale blonde. For a long time she was silent, and then she began to whisper a prayer.

"O Great Hekate, of Titans born, patron of witches, guardian of the shadowed crossroads, and author of change, who is powerful in the heavens, on earth, and in the underworld, accept my love and thanks for your aid throughout my life, which I can feel now comes to its end. With your support I have lived to exercise my will. I have aided heroes, restored rightful kings, visited retribution on the usurpers of their thrones, and borne a son who became king after my father. I have loved desperately and redressed the breaking of my heart. By your power, I have been a law unto myself and I have been my own judge. In return, I commend to you my soul, forgoing Hades' judgement for all eternity, as I agreed in this temple a lifetime ago. I have drunk the sweet wine and the bitter herbs. I am yours."

This time, though she spoke in a whisper brittle with age, Valerie could understand every word Medea said. She watched as Kate walked to the prone figure and laid a hand on her head. She did this with affection and the same gentleness that she had shown the doomed mother in the hut by the Nile. She drew Medea up onto her knees. Leaning close to whisper in the ear of the woman who had been her priestess, she made another offer. With a nod it was accepted, and Kate raised Medea to her feet. As Valerie looked on, her friend embraced the aged woman and gently tilted her head to the side. She captured Valerie's eyes with her own, holding them unblinking with her power, and as she did, she lowered her mouth to Medea's neck.

With a quick movement of her jaw, Kate opened the blood vessels and began to drain away the elixir of mortal life. The old woman gave a slight jerk and then relaxed in Kate's arms. In moments, she hung limp in her grasp. Kate cupped her head with one hand and pressed it against her breast, and with her other hand she scored a cut above her nipple. Medea clamped her mouth over the incision and drew from it the divine essence, which for a mortal conveys everlasting life. As Valerie watched in shocked amazement, she straightened, strengthened, and the years fell away. Soon Medea could stand unassisted, restored to the beauty of her prime, and Kate gave her the attention of her eyes, speaking to her and instructing her priestess. Valerie listened, petrified in awe.

"You are immortal now, Medea, dearest of priestesses, and I have granted you powers on earth and over mortals. Yet like all else, there is a price to be paid. You shall exist with one foot in the world of shadows and the other in the mundane world. Never again shall you see the sun, nor shall your thirst for living blood be quenched until a millennium has passed. Thereafter, no thirst shall afflict your body, but you shall always be subject to the thirsts of the soul, for you are still my dear Medea. Walk down the ages with me, for though change transforms all, still I would have your company."

Medea nodded, understanding what had been said and what had been implied. She gave Kate a kiss and then turned to face Valerie, as Kate shifted her gaze back onto her as well. Valerie saw that Medea was completely transformed, from the crone she had been only minutes before, into the beauty that Val had met as the hostess at Nightwings. The newborn vampire took a step towards Valerie, drawn by the scent of her blood and the beating of her heart, but Kate laid a hand on her shoulder and turned her away.

"Do not feed again this night, Medea. Allow what you have already consumed to work its magic undiluted. Explore the powers you have been granted, and then, before the coming of Helios, seek shelter beneath the earth."

Medea nodded and then moved away. She seemed to sample the night air with a deep breath, and then she stretched out her arms as her shape began to change. Medea shrank and the color of her robes progressed to a dusky brown. Membranes filled in the spaces between her fingers as they elongated, forming leathery wings. The transmutation proceeded rapidly from a tentative start, and upon reaching completion, she gave a high pitched squeak and took flight. She flittered and fluttered, skittering through the air in circles, up into the shadows below the lintels, to dart among the capitols of the columns and the shifting smoke of the incense. Valerie watched the whole thing in rapt amazement.

"No immortal vampires, you said?" Kate asked, jerking Val's attention back to earth. "If you are a "real" vampire, than Medea and those who followed her are "true" vampires. There are no resurrected cadavers with their mortal bodies raised from the dead, but only those whose lives have been transmuted so that they stand with one foot beyond the grave. I think that perhaps now, against all probability, you are equipped to express an informed opinion…about many things."

As Kate approached her, Valerie was so overwhelmed that, although her mouth made movements derived from speech, no sound came forth. What she had seen brought on a vertiginous sense of being party to a whole netherworld behind the reality she had always known. She had been gifted with a direct glimpse at a sphere of forms normally revealed only to those who spent a lifetime studying esoterica. She had seen a part of the truth beyond the veil, not merely its shadows and reflections. Though Kate had changed Medea into a vampire, the Goth was no vampire herself. Of this, Valerie was sure. She was something far more powerful and far more ancient.

The Goddess Hekate, Valerie thought. I have seen her grant immortal life and blessed death. She is the guardian of the symbolic crossroads of change, both in the world and within the soul…her great transitions. She rules the mysteries behind the appearances of things. Those of her actions that I've witnessed are above the sorcery of Circe and Medea, in kind and purpose, as well as in degree. Primal magic, not the derivative conjuring empowered by attained knowledge or granted favors, but determination manifested, and commanded by true divine right. And yet…

Kate took her hand, and with a gesture, Colchis, with its temple and its enchanted bat, faded away. The present passed into history. History shorn of its immediacy became legend, and finally, legend bereft of veracity fell into myth. At its core a kernel of truth remained for Valerie, despite the shadows that the intervening millennia cast around it. In the instant before they disappeared, the "real" vampire noticed that the ring, made from an Athenian obol, was back in its place on Kate's finger.

Member Created Chatroom : "Real Vampires 1"

(2 Members Present)

Kate (2:36am) Hello, my lovely vampire. You found your way home safely, I see.

Vampalerie (2:37am) Hi Kate! Great to hear from you. It's been too long.

Kate (2:37am) You know something of how it goes now…no rest for the weary.

Vampalerie (2:38am) I was just wondering if you'd be at Nightwings tomorrow night?

Kate (2:39am) I can be there if you'd like to meet then. Stopping by after work? Will you be coming in around 9:30-10:00?

Vampalerie (2:40am) Yes, I'll be by sometime after dark as before, traffic willing. Somehow a Goth club wouldn't feel right during the day anyway, don't you think?

Kate (2:41am) Many of our patrons feel the same way, I suppose. Perhaps to them the atmosphere seems more Gothic after dark. Personally though, I enjoy it during the day.

Vampalerie (2:42am) I want to ask about the club. You own Nightwings, don't you?

Kate (2:44am) Yes, I own Nightwings. I also own several buildings in midtown and in the financial district. Also, properties in Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, St. Louis, Tucson, Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston, and Kansas City…places where my football teams play. I didn't want to leave such important things to chance. But perhaps this is a useless line of inquiry you could be persuaded to drop?

Vampalerie (2:47am) I only asked about the club because it might affect something I have in mind. Can we discuss it tomorrow night please?

Kate (2:48am) Perhaps that would be best, Valerie. As you can imagine, I have to attend to something a good distance away tonight…there are some changes to be made.

Vampalerie (2:49am) I can only imagine, Kate. In that case, I'll see you tomorrow.

Kate (2:50am) Nite!

"Real Vampires 1" is empty

It was 9:45pm when Valerie McCormack revolved through the now familiar door into Nightwings. She'd fed with discrimination on the aura of the city as she drove into New York, and she was replete with prana. Medea greeted her with a smile from behind her lectern at the hostess station.

"It's good to see you again after so many millennia, Valerie," the "true" vampire said, "I believe Hekate's been waiting for you."

"It's good to see you too, Medea," the "real" vampire replied, "I'm sure I'll find her."

Kate was waiting for her on the mezzanine, at the same table in front of the bar. She rose in greeting and gestured her guest to a chair. The "real" vampire felt her heart race as she greeted the goddess who masqueraded as a Gothic woman. She'd missed her more than she'd missed anyone before in her life. The woman, the trip she'd taken Valerie on, and the secrets she'd revealed had occupied almost all of her waking moments. The world no longer looked the same. But despite the earthshaking revelations, it was the woman herself who'd captivated her most. Since her return, she hadn't tried to rationalize away a thing. Valerie sat down and locked her eyes on Kate's.

"You seem energetic tonight," the goddess observed, "I trust you're well fed?"

"I had a delicious herbed chicken breast earlier, and I sampled the energy of the city all the way here. I feel wonderful." She beamed a smile at Kate. I’m drinking in the sight of her, she thought.

"Then perhaps you'd care for a drink?"

"I'd like that, Kate," Val replied, knowing a waitress would be standing silently behind her. "A cranberry juice with ginger ale would really hit the spot," she requested, as she turned and smiled at the waitress who was just where she'd suspected she'd be.

"I'll have it for you in just a moment," the waitress told her, before turning away and moving silently to the bar.

Valerie directed her attention back to Kate's eyes and leaned forward, placing her hands on the tabletop. Among other things, she wanted to express her thanks for the eye-opening glimpse of the past that Kate had provided.

"I feel so alive, and now I understand that the living world is not what it seems to be, or maybe, that there's far more to it than I ever suspected. I have you to thank for that, Kate. You've given me the chance to see things beyond the mortal realm, and though some of it was very disturbing, I will always treasure the experience. For so long I didn’t see anything beyond my own difference and how I thought fate had cursed me. Now all of that just seems so small. You've changed my life, and you've changed me for the better."

"It brings me joy to hear that, Valerie," Kate said sincerely. "Too often, my duties have been less rewarding, and after all these years I find that much of it has grown tiresome. Things move ever faster now. Just when I come to accept something, I'm required to change it." With a shift of her attention, Kate announced, "your drink has arrived."

Valerie waited until the beverage slipped into her field of view before turning to thank the waitress. She took the straw and sipped, remarking to herself on how rich it tasted.

"I guess I found the experience amazing and glamorous, seeing time and events through the perspective of thousands of lifetimes instead of just one. I am filled with wonder, just trying to imagine the things that you and Medea have seen. And you've not just seen history unfold. You've made history and affected the growth and fall of civilizations. Then there're all the people you've known…kings, heroes, and all the others who've changed the world. It's so amazing." Valerie realized that she was gushing like a schoolgirl, while across from her, Kate was wearing an increasingly worried expression. Finally the Goth sighed and spoke.

"Valerie, if you are going to ask me to give you the gift of immortality, then the answer must be no." Kate held up a hand to silence Valerie's protests. "I'm sure that right now it seems a great adventure to you, but think. In fifty years all the people you know will be dead and eventually you will accept loneliness as your most constant companion. In a hundred years, the society you grew up in will be so transmuted as to be unrecognizable. You have a mortal life to live, here and now, and it is a greater gift than any that I can confer. Besides, the world changes faster than it used to, and that effect is accelerating. Soon, you would tire of it. You would feel yourself an anachronism, without a place, and besides that, there is the thirst for blood. It is anathema to the morality of this age, as it was not in Medea's time. What was, for her, a blessing, would become, for you, a curse."

"Actually, I wasn't going to ask you to turn me into a "true" vampire. I'm already happy as a "real" vampire whose had a glimpse at eternity. After the things you showed me, well, all the problems I've had seem like nothing. I'm satisfied with my life…mostly."

Mostly, she thought, though as a "real" vampire that can't stand to kill and won't chance hurting another loved one, I believed I would always be alone…or so I'd always thought. Loneliness had already become my companion, Kate, but compared to yours, it's only the loneliness of one lifetime. Sad as that is, what's sadder still is that it doesn't have to continue…like all else, it can change.

Valerie saw Kate's look of relief and the smile that returned to grace her features. It sped the vampire's heartbeat and brought a warmth that expanded throughout her body. So beautiful, the vampire thought, so powerful and yet so trapped. After all that Kate had shown her, Valerie felt that she needed to help Kate if she could. She owed her that much, but it had become more than simply repaying a debt. She'd seen how much sadness accompanied her friend's smiles and how rare it was for her to laugh. Now, she found that it hurt her more than her own loneliness.

"Again, it brings me joy to hear that. Sometimes a little change can make all the difference, and sometimes it's a change in the way things are perceived, rather than an actual change in a thing itself, that makes the difference." And, Kate thought, since returning Valerie to the present, she herself had been restless. Something was different. Something had changed.

"I guess what I wanted to speak to you about wasn't really me," Valerie said, "I mean, I wanted to thank you and all, but what I really wanted to ask you is, are you happy, Kate?"

The goddess immediately clamped down on any expression of her surprise at a question that no mortal had ever asked her before. Hekate marked the significance well; that in eighteen thousand years, this was the first time anyone had sincerely asked if she was happy. She had seen a thousand generations come and go. In all that time, had no one else truly cared? She contemplated the matter in silence.

Happiness itself was a strange topic for her. What she knew of happiness had sometimes come with the execution of her duties, as when a change brought benefits or alleviated suffering. At those times, she felt the warmth of accomplishment or the glow of achievement. More often, what she had been required to do upset the order and lives of those she touched. Had she herself never cared about her own happiness' absence?

Kate knew that she enjoyed certain things; certain sights, sounds, and feelings, but always that enjoyment was bittersweet, with any possible purity being tempered by its links with too many memories. Laughter was fugitive and short-lived, and she admitted, usually seemed somewhat superficial. As for the euphoric or ecstatic happiness that mortals sought and expressed, well no, she couldn't remember even once when such feelings had touched her. At most, she had explored the strongest emotions vicariously while observing mortals like Medea, who had bartered her favor for access to their souls. She could recall no single time in which she'd felt unfettered joy suffuse her soul. Hekate knew from long experience that achieving such happiness, however they defined it, was the obsession of short-lived mortals. Even when its means became twisted, people lived their whole lives compulsively grasping for their joy and contentment, but she had never missed it. Strangely, she realized that until very recently, she'd never even thought to miss it.

In the silence that followed Valerie's question, Kate looked into the vampire's eyes, and through those eyes, reconnected to her with the intensity that she'd projected when she was probing Valerie's soul…but this time there was a difference. This time, rather than seeking, she was speaking, and like King Aegeus, Valerie saw. She saw the weight of one hundred and eighty centuries reflected in the amber windowpanes of Kate's eyes. Eighteen millennia of heartbreak, and yet more to come. Hekate had watched over the human race, in all its hope and despair and triumph, since before civilization began, and somewhere along the way it had become a crushing burden. With her glance she confirmed Valerie's suspicions.

The knowledge brought tears to the vampire's eyes, and finally she wrenched her eyes away from Kate's. A ragged sob escaped her. The pain she'd seen in them was so overwhelming that it would quickly become fatal to a mortal who cared. Knowing what she'd seen compelled Valerie to act, for she did care. She wiped the tears from her eyes and took a deep breath to compose herself. Then she spoke, desperately trying to convince Kate that there could be a change. Both of their hearts hung in the balance.

"Kate, what do you think would happen if you ceased authoring change in the world? Would it stagnate? Would it grind to a halt? Or would it continue on inertia much the same as it has? What if you ceased guarding crossroads? We have traffic lights now, you know, and social experience provides guidelines at those crossroads that can't be seen. What if you ceased answering the prayers of witches? In this age of science, magic has been discredited. Science is the tool by which mankind transmutes the esoteric mysteries into exoteric knowledge. Magic and science both aim to understand and manipulate the world, but through reason, mortals can delve the mysteries on their own. Midwives? Modern medicine performs miracles for which midwives never prayed. Do you really feel that you must endure these burdens any longer?"

"Those are questions I've only begun asking myself recently, it seems. I suppose they never seemed important before. All the things you mentioned are possible, and several more besides. I find that I haven't come to a satisfactory conclusion yet either. "

"And what of the other gods, Kate? Once there were many."

"One by one, they have gone. Mortals turned away, and finding nothing else to sustain them, the old gods faded. Change is the only constant that has been since the universe began. The alchemy of time has transformed all things save myself alone. Only I remain."

"And therein waits the paradox or the lie. Kate, either time has truly transformed all things, among them even the mechanism of change itself, or else, time has changed you as well, and you are different now than you were when it all began. You've said that the rate of change has increased. It is not constant. I think that change will continue as it has, whether you will it or no. Everything else that was once under the dominion of gods has continued without their guidance. I think you have the opportunity to recognize change even in yourself, if you're willing to take it."

Again Kate sat silently pondering Valerie's words. Gods had fallen and gods had faded, while what their powers had once wrought continued on without them. For a long time now she'd noticed that more and more changes had occurred that she'd had nothing to do with. It was an accelerating trend, as she'd said, though in the past she'd always attributed it to secondary influences, cascade effects, and the creep of disorder in an increasingly complex system. If Valerie was right, then change would continue without her, and worse yet, she realized that she had become but a servant of change itself and was no longer its mistress. Had she been the custodian rather than the personification of her powers? If there was a difference in change now, could she match it with a change in her perception of herself? Could she really just walk away? O Great Hekate, of Titans born, patron of witches, guardian of the shadowed crossroads, and author of change; she had preceded and outlasted the Olympians, the deities of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Rome, and during all that time, her duties had defined her. What would she do if she gave them up? What could give her a new purpose and keep her from fading too? For that matter, did she really want to remain? And who would care?

"Don't try to reason it out. Look into your heart, Kate…feel for the answer," Valerie encouraged.

She laid a hand on the Goth's arm, desperate to convince her friend to claim her happiness and leave her sorrow behind. Kate was the only person who had offered Valerie a real friendship while fully aware of what she was. Besides being bewitchingly attractive, Kate was the only person she'd ever be likely to meet who could accept her without fear, danger, or judgement. Valerie had asked Kate for her trust once and the Goth had granted her that treasure as well. There was nothing more important to Valerie at that moment than seeing Hekate allow herself to balance her sorrow with joy and to seek it like any mortal would. The vampire hoped that she could convince the goddess to become more human.

Being able to see what existed behind the shadows of the world, she'd come to believe that this was her purpose. It was no coincidence that she was a vampire or that she and Kate had met. Beyond the considerable attraction that she felt for Kate the woman, she sensed a destiny boldly written, one that encompassed the lives of herself and Hekate the Goddess. Val could see the future as clearly as she had seen the past. Now change demanded change, and Valerie was to be the catalyst. For this, after a thousand generations, she had been born. She was to be the guardian at this crossroads for the mythical guardian of the crossroads. Valerie McCormack was the author of change.

"I don't want immortality," Val reassured the goddess, "I want you to be happy, and if you'll trust me and let me, I can help you find a new purpose that I think will bring you joy. Of course there are no certainties. I can only ask that you try…with me."

Then another inspiration came to Valerie, and it was both simple and brilliant. "Medea recognizes me from Colchis now."

Kate's head jerked up at what those simple words implied, and her decision was made.

"Since bringing you to the past and back, something's changed. I feel I've been waiting for something a very long time, but I know I was never waiting for it before…because it didn't exist before."

The Big Island, Hawaii, 2003

On the sand around them, other couples, groups of friends, and families had spread out and were lounging in the sun. From a shaded lanai nearby, an up-tempo tune was being strummed on a slack key guitar, accompanied by a background of conversation and laughter, birdcalls and breaking waves. The player's falsetto rose in a striking melody of syllables compounded in the native tongue of the islands. It was an ancient Hawaiian chant; a mele set to modern music; a song in praise of Pele Honua Mea and the changes her volcanoes wrought on the islands. Like Pele, the Goddess Hekate was once feared and beseeched for favors.

"I'm sure everything will run itself on inertia," the tall brunette said to the curly haired blond lounging beside her on the black sand beach of Kalapana. It was a running joke.

"And time transforms all things, including change herself," Valerie replied.

The blonde looked over at her companion. The Gothic clothing was gone, and now she knew the person who lived inside. Valerie McCormack thought how awesome the recently christened Hekate Colchis looked with a tan and a bikini. She took a sip of the rum-laced coconut/pineapple slushy in the coconut shell she held and then reached over and offered it to the immortal.

Hekate let her fingers brush down Valerie's forearm to caress the pulse point at her wrist, before smiling and taking the drink from her hand. After a long pull through the straw she moaned softly with contentment, and leaned in for a kiss. She felt sun warmed skin against her own, soft lips opening, and a coconut flavored tongue exploring her mouth. She couldn't ever remember feeling so happy, and after eighteen thousand years, that was saying a lot. They'd found a purpose to keep her from fading.

"I was waiting all that time for you and I never knew it," she whispered, "but when you realized that bringing you to Colchis had changed the past, well, then I realized that the present had changed as well and it was my sign to move on."

"Time for a change in change, right?" Valerie replied, sneaking another quick kiss. "Change created a mechanism by which you could change the nature of change by bringing me to the past to change the future. And I was the sign that you'd been waiting for to show you that your custody of change was over and you were free to change. You didn't know you were waiting for a change because it didn't exist before you changed things so that it could exist and you would know it. Pretty good for a day's work, huh?" Valerie giggled.

"You're drunk," Hekate accused, "that didn't even make sense to me."

"You know what I mean," Valerie slurred, sucking up the rest of the drink and setting the shell down in the sand. She plucked a couple of sweet red ohelo berries from the bottom of the shell and popped them into her mouth.

"Yes, I know what you mean," Hekate agreed. "And I can still dabble."

"You mean like this beach?"

"Exactly. Kalapana was overrun by a pahoehoe lava flow from Kilauea, back in 1990."

Hekate looked at her slightly inebriated companion, pinning her with the intensity of her eyes. The sunlight glinted in their swirling amber depths, flashing off the silver obol on the silk cord around her neck, and off the ring on her finger. It flickered in the dancing water past the breakers on the shore. It shimmered in slightly watery blue-green eyes that recalled the color of the Aegean sparkling in the midday Mediterranean glare, half a world and over three millennia away.

"In all the days since civilization began, you are the only mortal who has delivered this goddess from her labors into happiness," Hekate whispered. "The alchemy of love can transform all things, and you alone have saved me."

Somewhere in Cyberspace, 2056

Member Created Chatroom: "Real Vampires 1"

(2 Members Present)

Vampalerie (2:37pm) So, Nikki, you believe you are a "real" vampire?

NikkiNight (2:37pm) Well yyyeah! I've learned that I absorb life force from those around me. It makes me feel energized and alive when I'm with people, but they get tired and depressed if they stay near me too long. Mostly I go clubbing so I can keep a lot of different people nearby, you know? Then I can take a little energy from all of them and no one gets sick. I never wanted to hurt anyone.

Vampalerie (2:pm) It sounds like you've found a satisfactory solution then.

NikkiNight (2:40pm) In the short run, yes. The thing is…god, this sounds like I'm whining…but in the long run, I feel a kind of hopelessness about my life. It's like, I can never be close to anyone. I can never fall in love or have a relationship because I'll hurt the person I'm with. I know this because I've tried before and I nearly killed someone who was dear to me. Anyway, I feel like I'm doomed. It sucks!

Vampalerie (2:42pm) Nikki, I hate to say it, but unless you learn to control your intake of prana, I have to agree with you. But you can learn to feed off the aura of the multitudes in the city around you and avoid focusing on a single person, even if you're in close proximity to them for extended periods of time.

NikkiNight (2:44pm) Really? How can I do that?

Vampalerie (2:45pm) Have you ever felt as though there were gates inside you?

NikkiNight (2:45pm) That's an interesting way to describe it, but yes, I guess I have. I've always seen it as opening the curtains a crack and letting some light in. That's when I feed. The problem is that sometimes they open on their own, or else maybe they're translucent and light comes through even when they're closed.

Vampalerie (2:47pm) If you think of them as gates it might help. The main thing is to think of them as being under your conscious control. You keep them closed unless you're opening them to focus on the aura of the city. It's best to do this when you're alone, at least when you're first learning how to do it. Eventually, it becomes second nature. That's the great thing about the human nervous system…it's self-training. The habit forming mechanism. Eventually you'll get to the point where feeding is a completely voluntary act, just like when a "true" vampire decides on a victim and drinks their blood.

NikkiNight (2:50pm) "True" vampire? Blood drinkers? Now you're talking myth and legend. If you mean undead immortal vampires, well, there's no such thing. Everyone knows that! Personally, I'm like, sooo surprised you'd even mention this. Those old superstitions have been the bane of people like me, you know? They make it impossibly hard to be accepted and taken as anything but a threat if you've "come out" about it. "Out" vampires are shunned and subjected to all sorts of bizarre prejudices and demeaning behavior. I have an acquaintance whose parents actually hang garlic and crosses all over their house whenever I come over. Granted, they're Romanian, but it's not really funny after a while. It sucks!

Vampalerie (2:53pm) I'm sorry Nikki, but that's the most hysterical thing I've heard in a long time!!! Maybe you could tell them that "true" vampires don't mind crosses at all, and garlic is just an old superstition. It won't stop them either. Anyway, about what I was saying earlier. Think of yourself as having internal gateways and concentrate on keeping them closed when you're around only a few people or with someone that you love. You really don't have to be alone.

NikkiNight (2:55pm) God, Valerie, I really want to believe you. It would be like, so awesome. I haven't let myself get close to anyone in a couple years, and it's the only thing that really depresses me. So anyway, is this how you control your intake?

Vampalerie (2:56pm) Yes. You see, I felt those gates open completely once long ago and I took everything from a man who was attacking me. It was over in seconds.

NikkiNight (2:58pm) OMG!!! Are you saying that you actually killed him?

Vampalerie (2:59pm) That's exactly what happened. I can't say I'm proud of it, but it was either him or me. I expected that I'd die that night, but then the gates opened because of the rage I felt and…. Anyway, the point is, you have the ability to consciously control your intake of life force, from taking nothing to draining a person to death in seconds. You are every bit as deadly as any "true" vampire.

NikkiNight (3:01pm) Valerie, I'm like, shocked and amazed and hopeful. I've never heard of the gates before and I've never heard of a "real" vampire actually killing anyone in seconds. I have to admit that you fascinate me. You have so much more experience than I do. I could learn a lot from you. I already have, I guess. You're in NYC, right?

Vampalerie (3:02pm) Yes, Nikki, I'm in NYC. Why?

NikkiNight (3:02pm) Well, I live in Queens and I was hoping that it might be possible to meet you and talk R/T. I know you're probably busy and all, but if you could spare me some time, well, it would be sooo awesome! It would really mean a lot to me to actually meet someone who knows everything about being a vampire.

Vampalerie (3:04pm) Nikki, that's very flattering, but I don't know everything. I doubt anyone does.

NikkiNight (3:05pm) Valerie, if anyone knows about "real" vampires, it's you. I've like, read your archived articles and I've heard about you from other vampires on the message boards. You've helped a lot of people over the years…please?

Vampalerie (3:06pm) Nikki, if you want to meet I have no qualms about that. I just don't want to mislead you into thinking that I have some magic formula or something. I'm really very much like you and everyone else. So, do you know a club in Manhattan called Nightwings?

NikkiNight (3:08pm) Nightwings, OMG! Everyone knows Nightwings!!! I'd love to go there but I just turned 19 and they don't let anyone in who's not at least 21. I've been wanting to go there since I was 15.

Vampalerie (3:09pm) If tonight would be all right with you, I'll leave a note with the hostess. Just give her your name and she'll send you to me when you arrive, okay?

NikkiNight (3:10pm) Of course it's okay!!! I can't believe this! I'm actually going to Nightwings and I get to meet you too! This'll be the best night of my life!!!

Vampalerie (3:11pm) Would say, 9:30 give you enough time to get here? I'm an old woman and I don't stay up as late as I used to.

NikkiNight (3:12pm) 9:30 is fine…anytime would be fine! I'll be there. Thanks! I still can't believe this! Oh, how will I recognize you?

Vampalerie (3:13pm) Don't worry Nikki, I'll find you. I've got to go. See you then.

NikkiNight (3:13pm) Okay. Thanks again, see you tonight.

"Real Vampires 1" is empty

"Corrupting today's youth I see. I'm sure Medea will be graceful about it though."

The tall dark haired immortal moved with enduring grace, from where she'd scan read the IM chat until she stood beside the bed. She leaned over the aged figure who lay propped against a backing of pillows, and gently removed the headset that interfaced with the VoxRec avatar built into the living crystal prion processor. Before standing again, she brushed a kiss atop the curls that had once been dirty blonde. With a subtle gesture of her hand the computer shut down and crawled away into its ready niche to recharge.

"She reminds you of yourself a long time ago, does she not, my love?"

"Yes, she does," Valerie McCormack replied, her voice muffled by the oxygen mask that covered her mouth and nose. After a pause she continued, "in a way, they all do."

"I know," Hekate agreed. For a moment she stood, regarding her beloved Valerie with amber cat eyes. They shone with a depth of care that hadn't diminished as the decades wrought their changes on her lover. Recently though, they also reflected compassion for her faltering life energy and failing physical health. Valerie's ability to sustain her spirit on prana mirrored her body's ability to regenerate its cells from her intake of food. Both were winding down as they did in any mortal. After a lifetime together, nature was proceeding as it always had, and Valerie was dying. Hekate would love this woman until the day she died and beyond, and from her immortal perspective, it would happen in the blink of an eye. Soon it would be a time of change as it had once been on an enchanted night long ago in Colchis. The concerned goddess asked, "will you be alright meeting this Nikki tonight?"

"I think so, yes," Valerie said weakly, "though I know my time is coming soon. I can feel it drawing near, as if I'm walking down a corridor towards a closed gate inside myself. When I reach it, that gate will open like it once did before, but this time, it will be me that walks through."

The immortal understood as she always had. After over a thousand generations, the irrepressible cycle of birth, life, and death had become as familiar as breathing; seemingly effortless and endless. At least it always had been until now. Those facets of life's mysteries had once been her domains; she had ruled the transitions and aided those who sought their mastery in the darkness and shadows, hidden beyond what lay obvious to all others under the sun. Things had been different since the change.

"Why don't you rest until she arrives," Hekate asked, "and I'll let Medea know that Nikki's coming to see you…the legendary "real" vampire." She offered a smile.

Valerie laughed weakly in response to her partner's kidding, knowing that like many things, there was a kernel of truth at its core. It was a running joke. For decades she had mentored the growing "real" vampire community and had been an indispensable leader in their campaigns. She was a legend, and years ago she'd decided that one day she would pass into myth.

"Thank you," she said, as Hekate moved to the door of the elevator that would take her down into the club.

As she left, the "real" vampire thought back over their fifty-five years together. She was eighty-two now and she regretted nothing. Like Nikki, she had once believed that she was destined for a life alone, ever a danger to those she allowed close. She had come to Nightwings so Kate could examine her aura, and Kate had confirmed that she was a taker of prana after she had killed. Like Nikki, she had never believed that "true" vampires were more than an old myth, but she had found out different. Through Kate's revelations, Valerie had discovered that there was more to the world than she had imagined. She had lived the last fifty-five years in the company of immortal blood drinkers, she had brought happiness to a goddess, and along the way, she had found true love with someone who had felt neither fear nor danger because of what she was. Like Nikki, she had once thought her life cursed. Now, as her life came to its end, she could only believe that it had been blessed. Like Medea, she had lived knowing what lay beyond the shadows and the darkness, and she'd resolved to accept the offer when it was made. A guardian awaited her passing at that eternal crossroads in the shadows; an ancient guardian who waited one last time. With pleasant memories and bright hopes for the future to color her dreams, Valerie allowed the soft hiss of the oxygen and the familiar beeping of her cardiac monitor to lull her into a peaceful sleep.

On the crypt level below the club's main floor, Hekate revolved through a panel behind the bar and slipped down another stairway. Underneath Nightwings lay a catacomb that had been labeled on the original blueprints as a bomb shelter, an archaic architectural detail insisted on by the developers. It was not a throwback to the cold war paranoia that had once prompted reasonable citizens of the fifties and sixties to stockpile food and water and build convoluted cinderblock walls in their basements. Like any lair of "true" vampires, Nightwings housed coffins.

Hekate walked through the catacomb until she came to a diorite sarcophagus. The hard dark igneous rock was carved in the likeness of her old friend, the High Priestess of Colchis. She activated a digital answering machine set in a niche beside Medea's resting place and recorded a memo. Only under the direst of circumstances would she have opened the coffin or awakened the "true" vampire inside. Medea hadn't been a morning person in millennia. She tended to be snappish when disturbed during the daylight hours, and would jerk upright with glazed eyes, reaching out with lightning speed to snap the neck of the offender. Though she couldn't hurt Hekate, it was still unpleasant to deal with her at such times, and so they'd long ago instituted the use of the answering machines. One sat beside each coffin in the catacombs.

Later, shortly after darkness had fallen, Medea and Hekate stood together at the bar on the main floor, wrapped in familiar shadows and awaiting the club's opening. Behind the bar Stephanie poured Medea a goblet of blood, an indulgent ritual left over from earlier days, and then turned away to prepare for her customers. She had been the manager and head bartender since the club had opened, and she had been in the hospitality trade for almost twelve hundred years. It was as she was checking the taps that she saw the telltale red blinking light, and with a nod she alerted Hekate. They had expected this moment for a decade. Now there was no time for the stately antique elevator, and Hekate grabbed Medea's wrist. With a gesture of an elegant hand, the two vanished.

In the bedroom high above the main floor, Hekate rushed to Valerie's side. The vampire was gasping for breath while the bank of monitors beside her desperately flashed lights and beeped plaintively. A glance took in their information and a gesture silenced them.

"I guess I won't be meeting Nikki tonight," Valerie gasped, before drawing in a strangled breath. Cyanosis was evident and her skin had taken on a bluish tinge.

"Not in this lifetime, my beloved vampire," Hekate whispered. She took the dying woman in her arms, supporting her in a sitting position with one hand and smoothing her snowy curls with the other. She looked deeply into Valerie's eyes with the intensity that she knew linked them without the need to speak. Valerie's heart was finally failing. Her BP was dropping, reading barely 65/45 now; too low and with too little differential. There was a topic that needed to be finalized and the time had grown short. They had spoken of it once a long time ago, but much had changed since then. No, the goddess thought, everything has changed since then.

"Now comes the time of choice," she began, speaking quickly, "when I would remake you anew, staving off the hands of death and conferring the wings of immortality. Once you professed satisfaction with your mortal life, but that was almost of a lifetime ago. Once I was happy with your declaration of satisfaction, but that too is a joy of the past. I will tell you that the loneliness and fatigue with which I regarded eternal life was the result, not of everlasting life itself, but of millennia spent bearing the accumulation of its sorrows with a soul that was alone. The love we have shared we can share for all time if you'll accept the nectar of immortality now," she looked for an answer in the fading spirit within Valerie's eyes and she saw the light there dimming as her beloved paced down the corridor inside, drawn towards the gates. "I would give the world to save you."

"I remember Colchis," Valerie replied weakly, "and now Medea stands as witness to me, in symmetry to my witness of her rebirth. Now, like her, I have tasted the sweet wine and the bitter herbs. I have walked a lifetime in the company of your love, and I would walk down the ages with you. Forever." She had articulated her choice.

Valerie's voice trailed off and she closed her eyes. She was so tired. The gates at the corridor's end whispered ajar, revealing a richness of life force irresistibly beckoning. She took another step towards them, feeling a glow of energy flowing into her from the radiance that came blazing in from beyond, and then she felt Hekate's lips on her neck and she knew that those gates would be closed to her forever. As her mortal blood drained away, Valerie felt a spike of pain lance through her chest. Instead of the promised brilliance, the corridor went black.

Hekate made the incision in the skin of her breast and the essence of immortality seeped from the wound. She cradled Valerie's aged head to her bosom, but the vampire's cooling lips drew no sustenance there. She could take no nectar from that divine font. After eighteen thousand years of ruling the transitions of life and death, Hekate had misjudged the moment by a few precious seconds. Val had already been too frail, her blood pressure too low. In drawing away Valerie's mortal blood, Kate had stopped her ailing heart, and being dead, her mortal life could not be transmuted into an immortal life. There had never been any unnaturally resurrected cadavers, no vampires risen from the grave. The souls of the deceased had never been directly subject to Hekate's dominion, and now no gods were left with whom she could trade favors. Ereshkigal, Osiris, and Hades had faded long ago. Valerie McCormack was irretrievably gone.

It took only a moment for Hekate to realize what was wrong. Then eighteen thousand years of sorrow became concentrated and crystallized by a single absent heartbeat. The emotions borne for so long while diffused could not be contained when focused, for the feelings had condensed into pure force and now they demanded expression. A soul-curdling scream rose from the goddess' throat and it shook the foundations of the city with the purity of anguish that Val had once seen in her eyes and deemed fatal to mortals. By the doorway, Medea desperately slammed her hands over her ears in a vain attempt to block out the sound. Hekate's cry was not wholly of the mortal world and no physical barrier could exclude it. It rose from the goddess, up through the layers of shadows and into the spaces behind worlds; a harsh black pillar of woe erupting from the mortal earth beneath the unseeable crossroads. Standing so close to the epicenter, the "true" vampire was forced to her knees, ancient blood seeping between her fingers before she passed out from shock. As she lay prone on the floor at the verge of unconsciousness, her field of vision splintered and sizzling with fleeting black dots, she saw the goddess, still clutching the limp body of her aged lover, make a gesture of sweeping away and vanish. With her disappearance, the scream was abruptly cut off.

As always, such an outpouring of force on Earth sought manifestation in form, for the mortal world is a realm of physical presence. Now aurora borealis and aurora australis swept from the poles, converging at the equator in violently conflicting skytides. Bolts of lightning struck upwards from the ground into the clouds. Phantasmal cold fires burned in midair, consuming nothing. Rivers reversed their flows. Defying gravity and grade, they sought their headwaters. Unfamiliar creatures struggled for birth by spontaneous generation from inanimate matter, while many kinds of animals completely everted and then defied their mortality, living on, barely recognizable. The world shivered in a spasm of change run amok that subsided only slowly as inertia forced events back into compliance with nature's established laws. The expression of Hekate's pain had resulted in an undirected efflorescence of primal magic, a thing so ancient that science had no framework to understand it. Born of concepts anathematic to the contemporary doctrine of reason, the source and mechanisms of the phenomena confounded investigators. It was a parting gift that only a priestess of the ancient world would have understood.

Once the goddess had brought her then new friend on an educational journey through time so that she might understand both the goddess and the hidden mysteries underpinning the mortal world. Past this world of shadows that lay obscured by the realm of mysteries behind the veil of mortal existence, there was a place of solace where nothing changed. It was timeless and it was void. It was the unimaginable antithesis of order, (not disorder, which is a thing itself), but a non-state where order is irrelevant. This was chaos, the primal limbo, which had been before creation and which still persisted in parallel with the manifestations of force and form. It existed as night's darkness does beyond the windowpanes of a lit room. For the goddess of change, it had been the one place where she could rest. Hekate went there now, the scream still issuing from her lips and ringing in her ears, bearing Valerie's corpse into the featureless gray of her haven.

She had failed miserably. The realization dominated her consciousness as completely as the joy she'd once felt when she'd discovered that she didn't have to bear the weight of her existence alone. Before meeting Valerie, she had never even missed the lack of love in her life. She had never sought it and never even considered it. It had been beyond the realm of desire because it hadn't been within the realm of what could be desired. After bringing Valerie back from her short tour of history, something had changed. She'd not only recognized the possibility of love, but she'd desired it and found it. Now she had lost it again through her own failure. Nothing in her eighteen thousand years of existence had brought her such anguish. She found that the loss of love was far worse than never having felt the desire for it. Having loved and lost felt much more bitter than never having loved at all. She could never go back to what she had been before Valerie shared her life. Once instituted, change could not be undone…inertia alone would defeat her.

Hekate was not without options though. With a gesture she could go back to the years she'd spent with Valerie. She could exist in the light of their love forever, but she could only do it by hiding behind the world of shadows. She could only do it by living in a revisited past. There she could savor the good bright years over and over again, unchanging, and Hekate would cut those years short, never again having to reexperience the bitter disaster at their end. But there would be no future, only a constantly recurring loop; an endless reiteration encompassing those years when she and Val had been happiest together. They could live forever in the bliss of her memories, but in doing so, Hekate would have faded from the mortal world like all the other gods of the past. It would be oblivion.

She might as well stay beyond the veil of shadows, in the gray place where she was right now, accompanied for eternity by her lover's corpse and her sorrow. Yet even that would be preferable to returning to the mundane world, which was for her now, as gray as the void of chaos. The world had become an unbearable landscape where eighteen millennia of sorrows lay crowned by a memorial to her greatest torment. Her unending loneliness would be the wage of her irreversible failure. She would be alone forever in a world that no longer needed her. No, she felt there was no future for her there either. The goddess recoiled from the horror and guilt that her failure had caused and she sought the solace of her memories.

The world of memories was a doomed place, nothing but an artifice hidden behind shadows. It was the opiate of the gods. So it had always been. By manifesting the force that her memories possessed, Hekate could create forms; a New World that would become the pleasant home of her oblivion. It would not even be part of the crossroads, but Hekate had been happy once. After eighteen millennia accumulating sorrow she had found joy in a scant half-century. Those years now shown like a beacon in the gray of her heart. She couldn't resist going back. There had been a day, a special day, when her world had been bright and newly changed by love.

On the sand around them, other couples, groups of friends, and families had spread out and were lounging in the sun. From a shaded lanai nearby, an up-tempo tune was being strummed on a slack key guitar, to a background of conversation and laughter, birdcalls and breaking waves. The player's clear falsetto rose in a striking melody of syllables compounded in the native tongue of the islands. It was an ancient Hawaiian chant; a mele set to modern music; a song in praise of Pele Honua Mea and the changes her volcanoes wrought on the islands. Like Pele, the Goddess Hekate was once feared and beseeched for favors.

"I'm sure everything will run itself on inertia," the tall brunette said to the curly haired blond lounging beside her on the black sand beach of Kalapana. It was a running joke.

"And time transforms all things, including change herself," Valerie replied.

The blonde looked over at her companion. The Gothic clothing was gone, and now she knew the person who lived inside. Valerie McCormack thought how awesome the recently christened Hekate Colchis looked with a tan and a bikini. She took a sip of the rum-laced coconut/pineapple slushy in the coconut shell she held and then reached over and offered it to the immortal.

Hekate let her fingers brush down Valerie's forearm to caress the pulse point at her wrist, before smiling and taking the drink from her hand. After a long pull through the straw she moaned softly with contentment, and leaned in for a kiss. She felt sun warmed skin against her own, soft lips opening, and a coconut flavored tongue exploring her mouth. She treasured the memory of feeling so happy, and after her recent failure, there was nothing she wouldn't do to preserve it. She'd found a way to keep Valerie and the love they shared from fading.

"I was waiting all that time for you and I never knew it," she whispered, "but when you realized that bringing you to Colchis had changed the past, well, then I realized that the present had changed as well and it was my sign to move on."

"Time for a change in change, right?" Valerie replied, sneaking another quick kiss. "Change created a mechanism by which you could change the nature of change by bringing me to the past to change the future. And I was the sign that you'd been waiting for to show you that your custody of change was over and you were free to change. You didn't know you were waiting for a change because it didn't exist before you changed things so that it could exist and you would know it. Pretty good for a day's work, huh?" Valerie giggled.

"You're drunk," Hekate accused, "that didn't even make sense to me."

"You know what I mean," Valerie slurred, sucking up the rest of the drink and setting the shell down in the sand. She plucked a couple of sweet red ohelo berries from the bottom of the shell and popped them into her mouth.

"Yes, I know what you mean," Hekate agreed. "And I can still dabble."

"You mean like this beach?"

"Exactly. Kalapana was overrun by a pahoehoe lava flow from Kilauea, back in 1990."

But I changed that, Hekate thought, and Kalapana wasn't overrun until 2007, the same year that Loihi finally surfaced.

Hekate looked at her slightly inebriated companion, pinning her with the intensity of her eyes. The sunlight glinted in their swirling amber depths, flashing off the silver obol on the silk cord around her neck, and off the ring on her finger. It flickered in the dancing water past the breakers on the shore. It shimmered in slightly watery blue-green eyes that recalled the color of the Aegean sparkling in the midday Mediterranean glare, half a world and over three millennia away. Once I found joy in that world, but I would give the world to keep you. Forever.

"In all the days since civilization began, you are the only mortal who has delivered this goddess from her labors into happiness," Hekate whispered, knowing with certainty now that the centuries to come would only increase the depth of her feelings. "The alchemy of love can transform all things, and I alone can save us."

In a blur of movement to quick for the surrounding mortals on the beach to see, Hekate Colchis sank her teeth into Valerie's neck and drew off her mortal blood, being very careful not to kill her while authoring the change. She cradled the young woman's head to her breast, making the deep slice, and she pressed her lover's lips to the font of immortal life as the tropical sun beat down. Young and strong, she drank deeply of the divine essence. Already a "real" vampire, Valerie McCormack became a "true" vampire, and something more.

By making one change at its start, Hekate had found a way. Inertia would do the rest. Change is the only constant that has been since the universe began. The alchemy of Hekate's change had transformed all things. Their world would not be constrained to the closed loop of her memories. It would be a New World with a future all its own.

Nightwings, 2056

Valerie disengaged her ether implant and shut down the VoxRec avatar. With a small gesture of an unnaturally graceful hand, she dismissed the living crystal prion processor. It crawled away into its ready niche to recharge. She was enjoying a rare day off.

In a few hours she'd be meeting with a young "real" vampire named Nikki, who reminded her a bit of herself, before she'd become the lover of a goddess and the only "real true" vampire. Valerie McCormack was a daywalking immortal, combining the powers of both populations of vampires; she was both a legend and a myth. She reminded herself that she needed to leave a memo for Medea, requesting that Nikki be admitted to the club and directed to her table. It was 3:15 in the afternoon on a beautiful October day, and the club wouldn't open until 8:00pm. Medea probably wouldn't awaken before 6:30pm. Valerie had time.

With casual indifference she dressed in a custom tailored black silk suit, imagining the material's contrast with her marble white skin and blue-green eyes. Her curls of dirty blonde hair were more golden now and had grown out to midback length, but they never strayed into her eyes anymore. In fact, her hair never tangled, split, or shed anymore either. She could have garroted a mortal with a single strand, or used that same strand to slice cold cuts and cheese. Valerie had remained the same twenty-nine-year-old beauty that she had been on that miraculous day in Hawaii, and she would remain so forever. It had been fifty-five years already and she was loving every minute of it. She would love it for eternity because Hekate was with her. It gave them both a purpose.

"You have given me the world," she whispered.

When she'd finished dressing, she took the elevator two floors up to the bell tower, and for a moment she sampled the beautiful autumn day in the city. Looking downtown she could see the financial district with its towering palaces of enterprise. Beyond it lay the mirror of the harbor where clouds floated on waves dappled with blue. Turning uptown she could see all the way to the skyscrapers of midtown with all the little people inside the windows. Somewhere among those buildings Hekate Colchis was busy orchestrating change in society by influencing mortal channels in the world she was creating. Turning to the west, Valerie's eyesight allowed her to clearly study the people moving on the sidewalks in New Jersey, far across a wider Hudson. The sight of a little boy riding bareback on a large dog made her chuckle briefly.

Val closed her eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling the aura of the city. She cracked opened her internal gateway and absorbed an invigorating gulp of prana. This NYC had more than enough to spare and it was so much more to her liking than drinking blood would have been.

At last she raised her arms and began to change. In moments a medium sized black bat with blue-green eyes fluttered and danced in the sunlight beneath the roof of the bell tower. She turned and launched herself, diving from the belfry of Nightwings and turning, dipping, and flittering with joyful abandon. It was a good day, a beautiful day, and being a living immortal vampire was the best life she could imagine, here behind the world of shadows.


The End

Phantom Bard, Brooklyn, NY

Outline and research begun, August 19, 2003

Initial draft completed, September 2, 2003

Revision completed, October 10, 2003

Author's notes: The current dating of the sites of Karim Shahir and associated Zawi Chemi Shanidar in northeastern Iraq is actually in the range of 9,000 BC. The earliest evidence suggests that the people were not yet fully sedentary, but created partial year housing and retained some facets of migratory hunter/gatherer lifestyles. Technically, the Karim Shahir Culture is thought of as blending Mesolithic and Neolithic elements, hardly surprising, since like all cultural categories, the criteria are inconsistent in development across time and space. (i.e. Fired clay objects, dating from over 26,000 years ago, are known from Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic). I chose to include Karim Shahir at a time prior to when dated artifacts have been assigned by archeologists, and at a slightly more primitive stage of development.

About "Real" Vampires…if this were art history, I'd show slides. In this situation, I'll suggest weblinks.

About the Goddess Hekate (Hecate)…In almost all that is known about her there is confusion and contradiction. She may have been synonymous with the Egyptian patron of midwives, Heqit, in whose form she would have overseen childbirth, (the first great transition of ancient life). The Greeks appropriated her sometime before the 700 BCE, perhaps from the Thracians or Anatolians. She was never regarded as part of the Olympian pantheon, but was first thought of as a daughter of the Titans who retained her powers after Zeus defeated Chronos in the Titanomachy. Early on she was portrayed as a young woman, robed and bearing torches. Later she was depicted as a triple goddess, and later still as the crone, with Persephone (the maiden) and Demeter, (the matron), though some also say Artemis (for earthly power), and Selene (for heavenly powers). In both cases, her affinities with the underworld and death, (life's last great transition) are stressed. Hekate was Goddess of Magic, the Moon, Judgements (essentially changes, ranging from the success of a fisherman's catch to the outcomes of wars), Births, the Underworld, Crossroads, Intuitive Wisdom (and the delusions of madness), Abundance, Eloquence, and Light Bringer, depending on what sources are being consulted. In any case, many of her domains overlapped those of other gods and goddesses. Over time her representation and roles changed, becoming ever more narrow and unflattering, particularly with the rise of primarily male solar gods. By the time Christianity eclipsed polytheism, Hekate was regarded as the nearly demonic Goddess of Witches, a hag who cavorted with ghosts and vampires while accompanied by the hounds of hell. What becomes apparent is that she was ascribed influence over change; changes in life, (both dramatic ones like birth and death), and more mundane ones, (such as a fisherman's catch or the fecundity of a herd). Such changes are the figurative crossroads of life, and Hekate, wielding power in the heavens, on earth, (the mortal realms of land and sea), and in the underworld, was the guardian of those transitions. Additionally, magic seeks to change the state of things in the world by supernatural means, and so once again, Hekate is the overseer of transitions in another sense. The unifying thread is that Hekate is the Goddess of Change, both pleasant and unpleasant. One last note, Hekate was regarded as the mother of the Empusae, vampiric and cannibalistic shape-shifting succubae.


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