The great city yawns and gasps in its death-throes. Stone cracks, and screams rise to heaven on wings of smoke with feathers of ash.
I fear this is partly my fault.
The world’s caliphs and emperors and gods know of me, most of them. Ascendancy often includes an introduction to higher things, an intimacy with the esoteric truths that prowl beneath the shadows. However, knowing of me gives no assurance I will come.
There are two reasons for this. One is that former rule sometimes fails to survive succession (it isn’t always murder, but often enough), and crucial knowledge of the Night Children, of the Blood King, is forgotten. The other reason, of course, is that I do not care to go.
I grow weary of this world and its heresies, its hypocrisies, its convoluted hierarchies and halidoms. My children still matter to me—yes, even those who have rebelled—but more and more, I find little else does.
I will not simply come when called like some trained dog or ensorcelled demon. However, I admit no one has ever tried by slowly bleeding one hundred and twenty-six virgins in the warm night wind before.
Tonight, my name comes to me on that wind, borne by soft, bloodied whimpers like the dreams of zephyrs that pass over battlefields. I have ignored the calls from the Seven Peoples of this world for many years, but this, tonight of all nights—this, on an evening when I contemplate the end of a life so long as mine, this, on the anniversary of my first and favorite child’s death—this, tonight of all nights, is the way Nero chooses to speak my name.
I am Nox Eterna to him, Eternal Night, the living-dead lord of blood and hidden moons. I am also Father to my children, Blood King to my many enemies and equals, and Thief to her who vexes me most—so many robes to wear, hot and heavy and cumbersome. Yet tonight, for reasons I do not know, I decide to answer his call: I don the persona of Nox Eterna and go to see what the mad human wants.
Nero is mad, of course. Everyone knows this, even those who benefit most from his excesses. Rumors of his opulence and atrocity have reached me even in my isolated home. I’ve heard he relishes the entertainment of hardened warriors torn to shreds and weeping. I’ve heard he likes to swim naked surrounded by little boys whom he taught to “nibble upon his flesh like little fish” (though that rumor, I’ve heard that before, and suspect it belonged to a previous degenerate). I’ve heard he lay with his mother, then poisoned her—that one was easiest to believe—and that he is in the habit of dressing in the skin of wild animals, then attacking the genitals of human beings bound to stakes.
I’ve also heard he is a passable cithara player.
He plays it tonight as I come to his grand residence, drawn by the whispered cries of my name from the young human females tied and bleeding on the roof. Nine solemn priests of some unknown theurgy walk between them, cutting when wounds congeal. A hint of cloves and cardamom make a strange but sweet complement to the drip of blood and hopeless gasps.
This is an odd welcome. I should pity them. In older times, I would have, but I cannot find that softness within me tonight.
Nero plays as if no one else were near, with a distant gaze and a nimble hand that hints at true talent, were he a more diligent player. He plays and he waits, sprawled casually in his curule.
I watch him while the hours creep and the moon sets. Nothing in his pose shows doubt that I would come. Apart from his playing—and from the slashing priests and weeping women whose job it is to bleed and whisper Nox Eterna—nothing moves.
Until I move. Until I swirl behind him to take on flesh, to shimmer from dust into human form, and speak. “You have called to me, but perhaps this was not wise.”
I have chosen colors insultingly parallel to his own: a white toga lined and edged in royal purple, proclaiming my status as Blood King and more than his equal. But Nero does not twist to see me, though his fingers pause upon the strings. “You are late.” He makes a quarter-turn, barely enough to show me his frown and deep-furrowed brow. “I’ve called you to make an exchange.”
My hope that this journey have been worth the effort sputters like a dying candle. I already know what he wants. It is what they all want, humans, the Ever-Dying, the aggressively mortal, who spend their brief existence shearing one other’s lives to extend their own. He wishes to become my child—to drink my blood and mingle it with his, to transform from Ever-Dying human into something far greater than he could otherwise be.
As I do not come when called like a dog, neither do I adopt madmen. “I doubt you have anything to offer me.”
“We shall see. Come.” He rises—a man accustomed to obedience—and leaves his cithara behind. The priests do not look at him; the young women do, pleading with their eyes though they continue to obediently whisper my name.
Pointless. I should leave.
But I could follow.
Many of my children live and love and sup in the cities he controls, and when I refuse him, he may seek them out. To know his demands could arm me on their behalf. For them, I follow, forsaking this strange divination to descend into his home.
From two stories below, sunken gardens richen the air with warmth and wetness. The marble stairs take us down the northwest side into the nymphaeum, where fountains weep from somewhere above in a lovely waste of water. I am assaulted: everywhere, polychrome marble and jewels and gold. Everywhere, mosaics and statues of astonishing detail and vibrant color. Everywhere, flowers and fabrics finer than the commoners of Rome will ever know.
I have been so long without excess that it overwhelms, nauseates, clashes and crawls together like a garish swirl of paint after the rain. I yearn for my contemplation room with its simple cushions and agate bagua, my incense and the steady sound of the watermill outside my door. Why have I followed this far? Will I truly learn anything of value?
As a final insult, he has stationed men all around this place—stiff behind statues, peering between leaves, crouching beside fountains. What has this fool planned? “I grow impatient, mortal.”
My words touch some hidden latch, and the truth in him springs open. He my meets my gaze—a feat few humans can manage without losing themselves—with a hard and hungry gleam that threatens to consume the world. “There can be no new thing without the death of the old. Do you agree?”
He is not asking for my agreeance.
“My Rome is the pinnacle of the world.” His words quicken. “We define beauty. We define art. I am her heart and life’s blood! None compare to my sacred city!”
He says this to one who makes his home in a kingdom thousands of years older than his own. “Some might call it barbarian.”
His mouth twists as though to give birth to some dread gorgon, and he makes one violent gesture.
Of course, his men attack.
A net falls from the ceiling, weighted with heavy stones. Hurled javelins reach me scarcely faster than the shouts of the men who wield them, followed by swords, fists, knives –
Nonsense. I have not meditated so long that I’ve lost my reflexes. I cast off my physical form; their points and fists swirl through my barely visible presence as if practicing on dust caught in a moonlight beam, but this is not all Nero has planned. Above us, the women scream as magic—true magic, which no human can wield—slides like oil through this place.
The walls crack. Darklight leaks through as an old spell of summoning rends the air.
This was no spur-of-the-moment conjuring. The walls fracture more and darkness pours from the fissures, accompanied by the reek of melted silver. The pressure in this room tightens, twists, until the nymph statues distort like melting wax and blood leaks from human eyes and noses. Above—yes, I know the ancient words now—chants and blood sacrifice join the chaos as Nero’s half-human priests call down aid in his pointless attack on my person.
I did not know he would go this far.
Surprise keeps me present, entranced by the mayhem and the beautiful swing of weaponry, and when the world of Umbra meets Earth like colliding stars, I recognize the quick and confident step of the one who walks between.
The People of the Darkness do not come in the day, not anymore, but night is their territory, and one of them appreciates the way he’s been called. With a crack like thunder, he steps through. Umbra leaks power, and the human world can barely hold his: magic stretches the edges of this statue-littered garden like an overfilled wineskin. His form is small—barely larger than my sweaty assailants—yet men and objects catapult away with his every step as though struck by invisible hands.
Yes, I know his step. I know his smile, bright against dark and feather-like skin. I know his eyes, dancing with a wicked mischief that once made no small mess of both our reputations. What an evening this has become! “Cadmin!” I step into the space between our worlds and reform to meet him with open arms. And he—Prince of Ravens, son of the Raven King, heir-in-training to the ancient and powerful ruler of the People of Darkness—embraces me with a laugh.
“Take him!” the human emperor commands, but we have greater things to discuss.
“You seem fine! This purple suits you well.”
“Only in the absence of Kemet’s perfect blue.”
“You have always been vain.” Cadmin laughs again and produces a small ivory stick with the head of a jackal. “I’ve meant to return this… had you not hidden yourself under a rock.”
Soldiers shout and thrust weapons between us, but cannot make contact; neither Cadmin nor I stand fully in this world. We might as well be ghosts. “I have hidden more thoroughly than that, friend.”
“I noticed.” Cadmin tucks the jackal piece into my toga. “There. My weighty debt is paid.”
My unpracticed smile aches, aches, yet stretches so wide. “You are absurd.”
We have not stooped to using Latin, so clumsy beside the language of ancient Kemet. Nero, however, clings to what he knows. “Prince of Ravens! I command you!”
“I did take his offering,” apologizes my one-time hounds-and-jackals partner. “Pardon me a moment.”
“He wishes to be one of my children.”
“I suspect he wishes to be you, and to make your children his. No lack of initiative in this one.” Cadmin tosses his feathery blue-black hair from one shoulder to the other and turns toward the reigning upstart. “I cannot comply.” Latin.
Nero’s sudden calm is betrayed by the mad joy in his eyes. “I see,” he says over the shouts and commands.
“You should have summoned my father,” says Cadmin with a shrug.
“I see,” Nero repeats as though Cadmin has delivered him everything he’d ever dreamed.
Men still try to stab me, hurling insults and weapons in a pointless storm, and I laugh like a fool. I laugh like an infant. I laugh like a man who has not laughed in a hundred lifetimes.
I laugh like one who cannot remember the last time when.
In the midst of my jollity, I hardly notice Nero leave. The soldiers abandon their pointless attempt to subdue me and run after him, falling effortlessly into formation, the exposed linens on their backs already soaked with sweat. Perhaps they have an appointment?
“Such a waste of beauty,” Cadmin says, licking virgin blood from his knuckles.
“Will you owe the Ever-Dying something for this, ah, ‘failure?’”
“No. The old contracts include a clause for power greater than the one summoned. We are bargainers, not slaves.” Cadmin smiles. “He miscalculated poorly—a curious thing. However, I have been paid in virgins and gold, and so I shall return home content.”
I have not spoken this language in a thousand years. My tongue warms; my lips tingle with the memory of elegant rhymes and forgotten spices, of a dark, impassioned people made plump by the Nile’s wealth, and of a life lived richly among them.
Were there truly such colors once? Yes, and I enjoyed them. These broken mosaics are a poor substitute, but not as garish as I first thought. There is beauty here in the excesses of human life, beauty in the brief and desperate flicker of the Ever-Dying mind. How have I forgotten?
Cadmin’s hand is heavy upon my shoulder. “Maybe you should crawl out from beneath your rock. The times are duller without you.”
I close my eyes, flooded with the echoes of a life once lived full. “Perhaps I should.”
“Say hello to the Raven King on my behalf.”
Cadmin laughs. “My father would eat my head like a grape if I mentioned you at all. Soon again, Blood King.”
“Soon again, Prince of Ravens.”
When he is gone, the silence here is only broken by the splash of ruined fountains and the creak of heavy rope. In the distance, shouts.
I have spent enough time here. Aware of the pleasantly warm night and the texture of this toga in a way I was not moments before, I abandon my human form as the door between our worlds closes.
The seven hills are crowded, to my mind, and so I choose a watching place some distance away. Bright and hungry fire devours this city, ruining it, and a startling number of humans choose to burn and die rather than continue without their goods and possessions. That surprises me. Naturally, I have commanded my children to flee. None of my own will die this night, and all shall find warm blood and willing lips in some other part of the world.
Nero has burned the city, or had it burned; I have no reason to believe he’d planned to do anything else. No matter the outcome of his dark dallying, Rome was destined to burn this night.
He was correct, of course: nothing truly new can grow while the old still lives.
Perhaps we were his excuse—or the battle Cadmin and I were intended to have. The little mortal must have known Umbra and I are not on good terms. Still, this is a strange plan, even for one so hungry. Perhaps immortality was a hopeful consolation prize?
My sigh joins the ash on the wind, rising in acceptance. Cadmin was correct, as well: it is past time to close my small hermit’s home and re-enter the world. I have hidden long enough. Have I paid my own debt? No; but I now think there is no self-imposed exile to balance the regrettable in my life. It is time for me to live again, to steep in the weirdness of human behaviors for a time, and to encourage those who dwell in high mortal places to remember my name.
The great city yawns and gasps in its death-throes. Stone cracks, and screams rise to heaven on wings of smoke with feathers of ash.
Over the heat and screams, delicate fingers dance along the cithara, playing with skill that hints at true talent if their owner were a more diligent player.