Veritas lumbered forward, breathing dry, heavy breaths, his eyes fixed on the figure draped in black.
The figure in black smiled kindly. “It has been a long time.”
Veritas’ mouth contorted to what someone may have perceived to be a smile, had their been light enough in the grand, open chamber of the Earth to see. When he spoke, his voice was ragged and tired, as though he’d just been dragged across sharp stones and it took all of his effort to speak. “Lucian, my friend. I have waited many long years for this day.”
Lucian smiled, the youth in his face a sharp contrast to the decrepid wrinkles of Veritas’ sagging skin. He raised a hand to touch the face of the vampire tenderly, as though admiring a work of art. “And look what time has done to you. He is an enemy of mortals, time.”
Vertias kept his eyes fixed upon Lucian, the slight smile still spread across his aged skin. Though his body and his face seemed to be sagging relics barely glued together by the aged veins and muscles, his eyes were bright and sharp, even through the cloudy haze that covered them. “You know that I am not mortal.”
“You should be,” Lucian said in an almost pained voice. “I look upon you and feel shame at my work.” He stepped back and looked Veritas up and down. “This was once a young, able human body, transformed into a graceful creature of darkness. Pitiful, but beauteous. And look now.”
Vertias seemed to straighten slightly, though he could not reach his full height, and he certainly didn’t compare to the towering figure draped in the black cloak.
Lucian continued, pacing around Veritas, circling him as he spoke, “These supple sinews have aged and degraded, but the curse of immortality keeps them from dying. These cells have grown weak and long to be transformed, to return to the earth, but not a hair nor the tiniest grain of skin can move on. They are bound eternally to this weak skeleton, made into a monster by the hands of a dark god.”
Veritas remained silent, and Lucian continued.
“Those eyes are the same that gazed with wonder upon my world eleven hundred years ago. Those lips are the very same that pleaded with me to unleash a hellish power upon the world. Tell me, in that slowly, still-beating, tortured heart, does there exist remorse? Remorse for what has happened both to this world, now filled with magic wars, or for the torture placed upon your frail human body, which could only survive so long as a dark instrument of godly power? Remorse, anywhere?”
Veritas spoke slowly, each word drawn out to it’s full length, each word a representation of the heart within that beated and felt and longed. “I have not sorrow nor remorse for what has become of this world which I presume to call my own. I have given it life.”
“Indeed you have, my friend,” Lucian replied, standing before Veritas again, and towering over the pitiful figure. “Eleven hundred years ago you gave me your life, and I spun it into a wellspring of magic, and bestowed that gift upon the world. A reckless and dangerous bargain the two of us struck, and the gods were furious with me for it. But I saw what became of your world.”
“It was…” Veritas choked the words out, as though his dry throat could no longer allow him to speak, “Too late. My sacrifice was for nothing.”
Lucian stretched out his arms wide. “Nothing?” He smiled as he asked. “But my friend, up on the surface the people do wonders with your magic, with your very spirit! They heal the sick, they move the mountains from one place to another, your spirit was strong enough to give them hope to achieve any destiny they choose, so long as the strength of their hearts is great enough! The very essence of the magic the world now holds is a reflection of your spirit! You are an integral part of the Earth!”
“Then, my friend, let me return to it.” Veritas’ voice sounded pleading. “Let me leave behind this empty, broken vessel, that it may rest at last and return to the warm bosom of the Earth in which we now stand. Take back into your realm at the heart of the planet this body that so long ago brought me here to ask of you that ghastly favor that would render me a slave to my own existence for a hundred and a thousand years!”
Lucian closed his eyes. There was a long silence, and a sound as though the crackling of a fire in a hearth could be heard somewhere in the distance, echoing along the corridors through the damp Earth. “I do confess, my human friend-”
“Vampire!” spit Vertias, teeth clenched, the word hissing through his teeth.
Lucian smiled, his eyes still closed. “Yes, then. Vampire. The creature which I made you. I confess that if you feel no remorse for unleashing this power upon the world, I do. For I see now the terrible price you have paid to see your beautiful green world furnished with the power of magic. I see now the flesh that longs to release it’s grasp upon those tired old bones, but cannot, and must stay forever bound together, aging and aging and aging. Tomorrow,” he whispered, “And tomorrow… and… tomorrow…”
Silence, but for the distant sound of what must have been the fire.
“Seeing you in this state,” Lucian continued, his eyes still closed, “It pains me. And to strike pain into the heart of a god, the god of the underworld no less, where all pain meets with the love of the great mother Earth, is an achievement.”
“I care not,” Veritas mumbled, “for achievement anymore.” And he stared defeatedly at the ground.
“The price has been paid, my friend.” Lucian opened his eyes and walked over to Veritas, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Look now.” And with a sweep of his arm, he opened for them in the dense earth a chasm, in which swirled the colorful soul of the planet, the magic that had once been released. “The spirit of the Earth that I weaved into magic with the spirit of Levi Stanley.”
Vertias’ crumpled mouth turned up again into his deformed smile. “I had forgotten my old name,” he sputtered, “Lost, it’s been, for at least a few hundred years.”
“Old friend,” Lucian sighed, “Your debt is paid. I will now release you from the mortal body your spirit has been eternally bound to. I alter the terms of our bargain. I see now that there is hope in this world for the magic of your spirit to be weilded by humanity with the fruitfullness and righteousness of the gods, with the love and the compassion of the Earth and of the underworld. What you have done for the world was good, and your payment has been made in full.”
Vertias closed his eyes, and as the skin on his face became moist and began to loosen, almost as though it were about to slide off, a watery tear fell from the eye that had not shed water for eleven hundred years.
“Return now to Her bosom, for she welcomes you, and I, Lucian Incarnum, who stand guard by her very soul, keeper of the underworld and shepherd of the dead whose position it is to lead all life from one existence to another, grant you permission to die to this body and to this existence, and to be reborn in another, as dictated by the great cycle of the Earth Mother.”
In the great, vast cavern where the king of the underworld dwelt, all light vanished, and even the colorful spirit of the Earth Mother that swirled in the chasm at his feet was covered by a darkness too dense to perceive. In the darkness could be heard the sound of one flesh slamming against another with great force, and the anguish and relief blended together in the cry of a man who had lived eleven hundred and twenty-two years, and for a moment a light shone in the darkness, the small, twinkling light of a heart that had not stopped beating for all of that time, clenched tightly in the hand of the shepherd of the dead. And then the light was extinguished, and within the dense pool in the Earth the colorful spirit of the Earth could be seen glowing with new life, welcoming home the spirit of the man who had exchanged his life for hope.
“Because I could not stop for death,” the king of the underworld whispered, “He kindly stopped for me.”