I’m not sure how well the formatting will translate over, so if it’s a bit messy, I apologize:
A cave in the southern slope of Mt. Vesuvius, 79 AD.
The heat rose from the floor in rippling waves as he wound his way through the stone passageway, reminding Theron of the importance of tonight’s test. Not that he could forget. Too much depended on the outcome. He’d been working on this experiment for the better part of a decade. Hopefully, this time it would work.
No, this time it would work. It had to. He’d gone over the psalms and the blood too many times for it to fail again. By the end of the night he would be even more powerful; yet another step above his Bachiyr brethren. And where would the Council of Thirteen be when he waltzed unhindered into their precious Halls? Hiding, probably. Or running. Helpless against his might.
In his mind, he pictured the great Herris on his knees, begging Theron to spare him. Theron would let him beg for a while, just for fun, and then he would kill him, along with the rest of the damned Council. Especially Ramah. He clenched his blackened fist at the memory of Ramah coming to Jerusalem to corral him. That black-hearted bastard would be the last to die. Theron would make sure of it. But not before he, and the rest of the Bachiyr, realized what true power was. Only after they realized their folly; the stupidity of their blind servitude, only then would he allow them to die.
The Father, he thought, will not protect you. Not from me.
Of course, for that to happen, his experiment would have to work…
He stopped at a thick wooden door. Its surface was covered with words of magic. Theron had written them in the occupant’s blood, which he kept in a small glass vial. Before he opened the door, he checked to make sure he had the vial with him. It wouldn’t do for him to enter without his sole means of control. It was there, tied to the thin leather thong around his neck, just like always. Satisfied, he tucked the vial back under his shirt, grasped the handle, and pulled. The door opened easily—he never bothered to lock it—and he stepped into the small, stone room, eager to grab the woman and go.
She lay in a heap on the floor, glaring up at him through tangles of matted, filthy hair. Her sparse frame—thin even before they met—showed the underlying structure of her bones. Her pale skin almost gleamed in the light of the room’s only torch, her pallor enhanced by the dried, crusted blood on her chin. A short distance away, the body of the small child Theron had brought her the previous evening lay cold and empty on the stone floor. A girl this time, no more than six or seven years of age, with the dark hair and brown eyes of her people.
The girl’s eyes were closed, and her dress had been manipulated to cover the mortal wounds in her young, otherwise smooth throat. Theron could not see the punctures through the fabric, but he knew from experience they would be minimal. As small a wound as his prisoner could manage while in throes of her hunger. The girl’s hands were folded peacefully atop her tiny chest. Apart from her unnatural pallor, she could have been sleeping. He couldn’t suppress a chuckle.
“Why do you arrange them like that, Galle?” he asked. “Does it ease your guilt to imagine they are only napping? Does it make you feel better about killing them?”
She spat at him, a thick, red wad of blood and saliva that fell far short of its mark.
Theron could not help but smile at the irony of it. She hated him for bringing her children, but her stubborn and rebellious nature meant he could not bring her anything else. “If I could trust you,” he said, “I would bring you stronger blood. Adults. Perhaps even criminals. People who deserve your wrath. Your own intransigence forces me to do this.”
“I would need none of them if not for you,” she replied, her voice hoarse. “Why don’t you kill me and be done with it?”
“You know I can’t. I need you.”
“You don’t need me. There are others. Take someone else.”
“So you would wish your life on another?”
“A criminal, perhaps?” she pleaded. “You could find someone who deserves this fate.”
“Indeed I could,” he admitted. “But I will not.”
“I did nothing wrong!” she screeched, the points of her fangs extending beyond her lip. In her ire they had grown, probably unbidden. “Nothing! My only mistake was to trust you.”
“True enough,” he said. “You should have walked away.”
She scrambled forward, her bare knees scraped against the rough stone and left twin trails of blood on the floor. Once she reached him, she knelt at his feet, grasping his leg with thin, clawing fingers.
“Please, I beg you,” she said. “Release me.”
He reached down and plucked her fingers from his clothes. Easy. Like pulling a child’s hand from a broken toy. “No.”
She stared at him for a moment, her own self-loathing and fear etched deep into her face, then her shoulders slumped. She sat back on her legs and looked at the floor. Probably wishing she could cry. A stupid thing to wish for, in Theron’s mind, and a complete waste of time. Tears would never come for her again.
“It’s time,” he said. “You must earn your keep once again.”
Galle raised a thin arm and waved him away. Her many scars and burns stood out against the pale skin of her forearm, a mute testament of her time with him. Theron noted them and absent-mindedly rubbed the skin of his right hand, running his fingers over the burned and blackened flesh. The wound had never fully healed, the result of his brush with the Nazarene over forty years ago.
“Go without me, then,” she said as she rose to her feet. “I will help you no longer.” She turned her back on him and walked to the other side of the room.
Theron laughed, long and loud, as he reached under his tunic and produced the vial of her blood. “My dear Galle,” he said. “You are wrong about that.”
He brushed his fingertips along the outside edge of the vial and whispered, “Ba’ar.”
The effect was immediate. Galle screamed and fell to her knees, her body curling into a tight ball as she rolled over and flopped across the floor, frantically slapping her skin with her own hands. Thin tendrils of steam rose from her eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. Even though her crotch was covered by her thin clothes, Theron knew steam would be flowing from those places, as well. Any opening in the body, he thought. If he cut her, steam would billow forth from the wound. He recalled her scraped knees and checked. Sure enough, small clouds of vapor rose from them, as well.
“What…what are you doing to me?” Galle screamed, the words barely decipherable.
“I call it Ba’ar,” Theron said. “A little psalm I created about five years ago. The heat you feel inside your body is your blood burning away. Is it painful?”
Galle whimpered, still slapping her skin.
“Then we have an understanding,” Theron said. He allowed the burning to continue for another thirty seconds, just to make his point, then he whispered a second word over the lip of the vial. “Mayim.”
Galle’s frantic rolling ceased, but her whimpering continued even as the flow of steam from her eyes and mouth abated. She lay on the stone, panting. Theron couldn’t understand that. The woman had no need of air. The panting must be instinctive; a holdover from her previous life. Curious. He would have to do some tests on that, too.
But first, the fire.
“Come Galle,” he said, tucking the vial back under his tunic. “We have work to do.”
Obediently, Galle rose on shaky legs. She turned to face him and he almost swore. Her face had thinned, even wrinkled. She looked like a grape that had spent too much time in the sun.
I burned too much, he thought. She will need to feed again sooner than I expected. No matter. The city below was full of urchins. They wandered the streets of Pompeii like rats in a grain warehouse. He could pluck one as readily as the last, and with little fuss.
The fact that many of them were Roman children only sweetened things.
“Shall we?” he asked, tucking the vial back inside his tunic.
Galle stepped forward, stumbled, and then righted herself. She spared a glance for the dead girl in the middle of her cell, then turned toward the door. She raised her head and, without further incident, walked past Theron out into the passageway.
As she passed him, she paused. “You will make a mistake one of these nights, Theron. When you do, I will be ready.”
“I know,” Theron replied, grinning. “You and the Council.”
“If they are as powerful as you say, they will find us eventually.”
“I certainly hope so,” he replied. “Now go. We have only a few hours of night left.”
She looked like she wanted to say more, but Theron tucked his hand inside the folds of his tunic, and she took the hint. She turned away and walked down the passage as steadily as her legs would allow. Theron watched her go, admiring the results of his psalm. He’d never had the opportunity to test the Ba’ar before. To his delight, it had worked better than he had predicted. It would prove useful in the future, especially against the Council of Thirteen and their minions. Of course, he would first have to acquire some of their blood. It was the only flaw in his scheme.
But then, once he figured out the secrets of Vesuvius, even the Council would be at his mercy. Not that he would show them any.
He chuckled to himself as he followed along behind Galle. She was right, of course. The Council of Thirteen would find him eventually. They always found their prey. He would be no exception. The thought didn’t scare him as much as he would have thought. Ever since Londinium, he had been experimenting with blood manipulations that had never been taught to ordinary Bachiyr. He supposed he had Taras to thank for that. The tall Roman had inadvertently shown him there was so much more to the world of blood and psalms than the Council of Thirteen had ever mentioned. Ever since that moment, his world had opened up to a myriad of new and deadly possibilities.
When the Council did finally locate him, he doubted they would be ready.
Well, I hope you guys enjoyed that little taste. I am still working on 79 A.D., but the plan is still to have it out to you by the end of August.