“Requies?” I called as I walked into the main office. Browns and creams overwhelmed my vision. The heavy smell of lemon oil and dust was a strange nostalgia that nagged at the back of my head. Papers were neatly ordered in piles on every flat surface available. A thud and something hitting the floor in the room off to the back behind the counter drew my attention.
“Lunam! Is that you?” The old man’s voice chirped. Lye soap and lemon oil. A wizened man emerges from the back room, holding what appeared to be a plastic jar of grey powder. “Ah, good. It is you, Lunam. I left note for you. Wasn’t sure if you’d come.” He waved me toward one of the two sparsely upholstered chairs behind the counter. I followed him back and sat down at his offer.
“Tell me, Requies. What can I do for you?” I flashed a charming smile. Requies had housed many a Rubrum and Aurantiaco deserter for me in the past. Finding housing for people was not always easy, and he had assisted numerous times in the last six years that we had known each other. He had housed me when I was first dumped in Imperium.
The landing from the ledge wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience for any Ustor from the Purgatoriums. If you survive the fall, you have to be wary of the scavengers that are liable to slit your throat at the bottom. I was only lucky in that I ended up landing on top of Tempestatis. Cortex was less lucky in that I grabbed him and held him hostage for a hot minute while I tried to put together what was happening to me. I was strung out on some sedative the court had forced upon me to keep me compliant. Coming out of it had made me edgy. I think that would happen to anyone, though.
They were the ones who took me to Requies and Maria Mater. I collapsed for two days and woke up fully convinced I had been left to Exteriores Spatium. That first true moment of lucid contact flitted at the edge of my thoughts as Requies filled me in on the Rubrum lackies on the fifth floor.
The room was fuzzy around my periphery. It smelled of alcohol and chlorine. My chest hurt, and my back and my hips. The longer I thought, the more things felt bruised. Sun filtered in through moth hole curtains, leaving the furnishings in a dusty gold halo. A woman slept in a patched armchair.
“One awoken?” Pine and yeast bread. A thick accent for Angelus. Not a first language. I swung my focus to the man sitting on the bed next to me. “Call I Cortex. One no name speak, please,” he hushed my flailings.
“Where am I?” I croaked. Cracked ribs. That was what hurt.
“Third biodome. Name Imperium.” The man answered as he dipped a rag in a bowl and rang it out, placing it on my forehead. Copper. I was salivating instantly.
“Eye black. Pain?” he continued with his broken Angelus as he pointed to his own eyes.
“No pain,” I tried out Imperian. We were taught it in the militia, but it was never a speciality of mine.
“Green past,” he continued pressing with the Angelus. He was referring to my eye colour.
“I am like this when hungry,” I explained as I shifted to sit against the headboard. I needed a better view of my surroundings. The blonde was watching warily from the doorframe to the bathroom.
“What eat?” Cortex asked.
“Speak Imperian, please,” I asked him as I quelled a raging headache. Lilac, petrol, and bread was overwhelming my senses.
“What do you eat? We do not have much here, but we can try to make you comfortable,” he responded graciously.
“Whatever you have is fine. I need…”I glanced to the door. The peephole cast a ring of light around the glass, as tempting as the glow at the end of a tunnel. The roar in the back of my head was making me nauseous. That flavour. I wanted it, and it was stripping my nerves raw.
“You broke your ribs. You shouldn’t move too much.” He saw my desire openly enough. I turned back to study the man trying to be so helpful. Straight hair hewed at the shoulder. A long rectangular face with high cheekbones. Brown eyes under brown brows. His skin was deeper than mine, leaning into an orange-yellow. A slight hook to the bridge of his nose and his other features told me his parentage had probably come from the Taraka or Najima ships.
“You will not want me here.” I moved to slip off the bed. He didn’t budge.
“We shall see to that,” the blonde hissed. He was younger than me by a few years at least. His accent said he was from Nympha.
“You know why I am here?” I asked Cortex.
“Angelus task force dropped you in here. You are an Ustor.” He shrugged.
“And you take in any stray?” I shifted as a pin of pain jabbed into my side. I tried to breathe through it, but every breath sent a pick through my chest. I held my breath and waited, studying cracked paint, until the muscle in my back relaxed.
“Not often. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Cortex shrugged.
The woman in the chair shifted restlessly until she gave up on sleep. “Good morning,” she greeted pleasantly enough for resembling the walking dead. She pushed her mop of curly hair out of her eyes and regarded me with apathetic interest. She yawned and blinked until the fog cleared. Her appraisal sharpened as her eyebrow quarked. I held fast as she gave me a blatant once over.
“Good morning,” I replied back after a tense moment.
She nodded approvingly and rose. “You’ve got him, Cortex, Tempestatis? I need to get back.” She stretched and retrieved her keys from the table. She was leaving. That was a blessing. I could not stomach the idea of her seeing me do what my body was demanding I do.
“Sure thing, Maria Mater. We’ll figure out what to do with him. Probably have him lodge with Requies for a while longer yet. He seems pretty out of it.” Cortex waved as the woman opened the door to let in blinding light. My head threatened to split open. I was grateful when the door closed behind her.
“So, what is your Catalyst?” Tempestatis turned my attention back to the two men in the room.
“Not my Catalyst that should worry you.” I smiled, my fangs gleaming. Both of the men shift back with a choice curse.
The brunet regained his senses first, approaching me curiously. “What are you?” Cortex asked, openly studying my face.
“An Ustor,” I replied, though the smell of pine and copper was about to put me on cloud nine. Most Ustors had glands, random appendages, and anatomical anomalies that went with their fire. Mutants. Freaks. Often they were vestigial, pointless protrusions, but sometimes they were functional.
One Ustor I had the bad fortune of running into was able to spit flammable acid up to ten feet due to a massive gland that developed under his thyroid. He had suffocated from the overgrowth when he had refused to expel the acid for fear of getting caught in the Purge.
“The fangs?” Cortex pressed, reaching up to my face. Lord Hades, hot pine in summer. Childhood memories of my squadron going through simulations in camps out in the mountains of Angelus were not something I expected.
“My Repercussion.” I swallowed, a bitter flavour coating my mouth. Not good to scare the food.
“May I?” Cortex motioned to my mouth. I shifted, uncomfortable with the idea that someone would willingly want to see my Repercussion after the first warning.
“Cortex, that’s probably not a good idea,” Tempestatis warned. He was the wise one of the two, I determined. He was shorter than Cortex by a couple inches. His blonde hair and pale skin matched the Europa inheritance of the Nympha. If he had not been in Imperium, he could have competed as a marketing model back where he was originally from. Visually pleasing, the smell of petroleum and grease was a disconcerting deviation from his pressed exterior.
I opened my mouth a little wider, letting Cortex get a view of the malignancy. He touched the tip of one of my fangs, immediately drawing blood. Jackhammers tripped across my brain, and saliva swamped my mouth. That bitter taste came back in full force, leaving my tongue tingling. I swallowed back, fighting the onslaught as I found myself inexplicably drawn to the rise and fall of Cortex’s heartbeat in his throat.
“Your eyes. They’re more black, now,” Cortex informed me, pulling his finger back to suck that jewelled drop off his skin.
“They do that when I’m hungry,” I reiterated quietly. I kept my tone neutral, hoping to keep both men from panicking. I needed to eat. The rings throbbing in my eyes and the general gut-punch feeling that swamped my abdomen outside of my broken ribs told me such.
“Hungry?” The man glanced between Tempestatis and me. “You eat regular food?”
“When I haven’t activated my Catalyst.” I nodded.
“You fell in a burning heap from the causeway. You burned a few of the Angelus guards to cinders. Been out for a while, no wonder your Repercussion is hitting in full force,” Tempestatis fiddled with a small bundle of jute rope.
“Then I am hungry.” I shrugged.
“Your Catalyst gives you fangs and hunger as your Repercussion?” Cortex asked, still sucking on his finger. I couldn’t help but watch it greedily. I licked parched lips. “How much news do you get in here from the Purgatoriums?” I asked.
“Some, not often. More so recently than in the past now that we have someone who knows how to work the crystals,” Tempestatis explained as he sat down.
“Do you know of Lamia?” My voice was raspy and harsh, strained in need and self-loathing.
Cortex shrugged, shaking his head. Tempestatis thought for a second before finding the word eluding him. “Vampire?” he asked. I wrinkled my nose at the name.
“The hot-headed blood-drinking Ustor that ended the Hades Purge? Only in clips. My Angelus is not very good, as you’ve noticed.” Cortex smiled sheepishly.
“I am Vampire,” I levelled my gaze. I watched colour drop out of his cheeks at that comment. He swallowed, and I couldn’t help but watch his throat work. The rise and fall of skin over his pulse as it quickened. Adrenaline permeated pine and petrol.
“You are hungry,” Cortex reiterated quietly under his breath as he started to stitch facts together. Tempestatis backed up a step. Cortex moved closer. I watched him, wary.
“What are you doing?” I asked, though his smell was taking me to the edge. My stomach growled unceremoniously in the tiny room.
“How much do you need?” he asked, his voice soft like watercress.
“Cortex, no,” protested Tempestatis.
“You do not wish to offer me this,” I cautioned, gripping the blanket beneath me, using it to tether and restrain my desires. “Let me out of here, and I will find my fill elsewhere.”
“On some unsuspecting innocent?” He shook his head again. “I am here and now.” He pulled back his shaggy brown hair and wrapped it in an elastic band.
“Infernus, what are you doing, man?” Tempestatis snatched his hand.
“Helping.” Cortex jerked his hand free.
“He’s enthralling you,” Tempestatis hissed.
“Enthralling?” Cortex asked.
“It’s what Lamia do,” Tempestatis explained.
“This a Nympha legend of some kind?” Cortex asked, still lost on the significant danger I posed to his life.
“Nympha and Angelus. I guess you don’t have the same legends in Imperium.” Tempestatis shrugged, turning back to pin me with an angry glare, daring me to deny it.
“I cannot enthral. That is not part of my Repercussion,” I supplied as I shifted further up the headboard, away from the two. I couldn’t possibly. My memory of my captain was only a single flash and a single taste of saltpetre and calcium chloride. I had not actually eaten from another being willingly.
“How can you be so sure? You are only recently discovered, Vampire,” Tempestatis pressed.
“I would think I would sense it, and you’d be a lot more docile by now,” I snapped back, my words slurring against my teeth.
“If you don’t kill me, I will give you some of mine,” Cortex ignored our interchange.
“No,” Tempestatis bit.
“Get out if you’re going to be a pain in the ass, Tempest,” Cortex pointed to the door.
“Fine. Whatever. Get yourself murderlated. Watch. He’s some kind of serial killer. See if I care. I’m not cleaning up after you!” Tempestatis made for the door, slamming it behind him.
“You are amazingly okay with this?” I raised an eyebrow at Cortex.
“It’s a Repercussion. What’s there to cringe over? I mop floors when I burn. I make walls of flames, impenetrable by low calibre bullets.” He shrugged as if I wasn’t some monster.
“My fire explodes from me with such force that I have been compared to a nuclear bomb.” I bowed my head as I mumbled my curse.
“You weren’t doing that when you got dropped in,” Cortex pointed out.
“I think I have varying levels. I’ve heard that’s a thing for Ustors. Like you can do small and big things, and your Repercussion is related to the amount of energy used.” I looked up at him. He was starting to go fuzzy around the edges.
He nodded. “Not around many Ustors?” he asked.
“Too many.” My lips thinned. He twisted his head in question. I finger the numbers on my cheek. “I was on the military side of the Hades Purge after all. I killed more of your kind than I think was killed in the Pandemic.” I sealed my fate. This man would pull a knife, something and help end my shame.
“My kind. Your kind. You’re an Ustor like the rest of us.” Cortex smiled sadly. The setting sun outside the window left the room in chill shadows as it dipped behind the buildings. A shaft of fear drove through my core. “Do you know what triggered your bloom?” he pressed gently.
“Kid asked, not for himself, but for those clinging to him, not to kill them. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. Captain said shoot, and I just…I had seen too many. Too many kids. Too many moms. Too many innocent people. Too many dead. I couldn’t do it again. That wasn’t why I had been conscripted to the militia. My parents had bargained me to be used for protecting people, not murder. They all looked at us. Every one of them, with eyes shining, their souls burning. Something…something went wrong.” I flicked away from Cortex’s understanding stare.
“It’s like that with all of us. We reach a breaking point. Something snaps and suddenly.” He raised his arms to mime a ball of fire. I drew in a wobbly breath. He let me drift through my self-loathing for a quiet minute.
“I am fourth generation Imperium. My parents both suffered from the Pandemic but lived. When I was born, I had a caul over my face. They thought I would die. Instead, I lived. As a babe learning to toddle, I first generated my wall when I fell near a table. It grew and developed. My parents explained to me that great big trees used to be a thing in the forests of the Exteriores Spatium. They would develop thick skins of bark to keep the inside safe from fire. I took on the name Detractisque Corticibus or Cortex for short for my protective walls,” he explained. He made it sound so simple, so benevolent. “Come. You need to eat,” he offered once more.
“I don’t know how,” I admitted.
“And yet they call you this blood drinker?” he laughed, curious.
“I’m ravenous, and my body is demanding but…I have one single image as a memory, not how I got there or how it ended. I don’t want to accidentally kill you,” I admitted.
Cortex’s face twisted into a frown as he thought. “All right,” he stood and went to the door. “Tempest. Get your butt in here. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“You’re joking! He doesn’t know how to solve his Repercussion, and he’s asking to drink your blood?” Tempestatis came back in.
“Sorry,” I snapped. “It’s not like this whole thing came with a manual. Oh look, see here, on page three, it tells me how to go and drink out of someone’s artery without making them bleed to death,” I grouched.
“Wow, fledgeling Vampire!” he replied sarcastically.
“I hate that name,” I whispered under my breath.
“Don’t want it for your alias?” Cortex asked.
“Alias?” I had not heard this.
“Like I go by Cortex, and he goes by Tempestatis. I have a given name. A birth name if you must. It’s something precious. We don’t share our given name with just anyone. Only those we trust closely. You will have an Alias here in Imperium,” he explained.
“Definitely not Vampire if I can help it.” The space behind my eyes was lobbing daggers into my brain. I rubbed at my temples to ease the pain.
“Why is the black of your eyes getting bigger? It’s really disconcerting,” Cortex asked.
“Got me?” I shrugged. The edges of the room were losing focus.
“Let’s keep him from your neck. Is that acceptable, Cortex?” Tempestatis let out a dissatisfied sigh. Cortex gave him a questioning glance as the man pulled out his length of rope from his back pocket. Cortex furrowed his brows. “What’s the rope for?”
“Tourniquet. Keep you from bleeding out, or turn the faucet off,” he explained as he twisted a loop around the lower part of Cortex’s bicep.
“Ohhh.” We both got the picture.
“Shall we?” Tempestatis motioned to Cortex’s wrist. Cortex lifted it for me and produced a small pocket knife.
“You sure about this?” I asked, but my head was already floating at the smell. Saliva pooled.
“Just do it,” Cortex braced. I took his hand and his arm gingerly. His skin was warm beneath my lips. If I had done this once before, I could do it again without a knife. I swallowed once, taking his smell deep into my lungs. Every nerve went on edge as I opened up and sliced into skin, muscle, artery. Ambrosia. Euphoria. My primal Ustor brain and stomach finally stopped screaming at me and the pressure in my orbitals lifted. Minutes passed before I heard beyond the sound of blood coursing past my ears. Instinctively I swiped my tongue across the punctures, stopping the flow of blood instantly.
“Better?” Cortex asked, his skin pale.
“You alive?” I returned, sated. He nodded. Tempestatis didn’t need to tourniquet. A simple reminder. A simple command to stop had been all that I needed to pull away.
“Looks like I get a nice coagulant for the fangs.” I tapped my teeth.
“That’s useful,” Tempestatis admitted. “I…” he stuttered, looking away from us for a second, trying to figure out what he wanted to say. His cheeks were burning red when he turned back. “I didn’t think you’d be that… gentle. For the rumours of Lamia…I was expecting a salivating monster. Blood on the walls and all that.”
“That’s probably because that was me when I first bloomed. I saw some of the pictures used in my court trial when they tossed me off the causeway,” I ducked.
“You have a paralysis or anaesthetic. I didn’t feel anything after maybe two seconds,” Cortex admitted as he checked his skin, already healed. He couldn’t find a discernable mark of my presence there.
“How far up does it go?” I asked, curious.
“Eh, maybe up to the elbow? It’s still kinda numb. I’d be floating in a weird way, I bet if you’d gone for my neck.” He poked at the skin on his arm until he found a spot he could feel.
I leaned back against the headboard and enjoyed the sensation of my headache slipping out of my brain. The men shifted around me as I eased my breathing, just relaxed. Tears slipped out of the corners of my eyes. I reached up, rubbing them in curious frustration. I blinked, looking up at the men watching me.
“You alright?” Tempestatis asked. He had sat back down in the chair Maria Mater had vacated.
“Yeah. I…I don’t….” I could not quite explain why I was suddenly crying. It was leaving me sniffly thought, which was embarrassing.
“Don’t know what to make of yourself, do you?” Cortex gave me a soft smile.
“I. No. I don’t know what to make of this. Raised in Angelus military. The propaganda we’re fed says you all don’t have feelings, are consumed by your fire. They’re wrong. I’m wrong.” I unfolded my clashing emotions.
“Have you thought about your Alias? We can’t just keep calling you ‘you’, you know?” Cortex smiled, diverting my attention. I regarded him for a moment, letting my brain click over names as I contemplated the man’s generosity. These were good people.
“I’ve got nothing. Dagger, Knife?” I suggested. It didn’t feel like a necessary thing to worry myself over.
“What about playing off that Lamia name?” Tempestatis asked. “Dagger and knife are so overused. We’ve had to start resorting to numbers with them.”
“Absolutely not. I hate that name,” I protested.
“Not Vampire per say, but something related to it?” he tried a different way.
“Oh…uh,” I paused, thinking. Dagger and Knife were still sounding pretty decent.
“Bear.” Cortex offered
“Giant ass bear of a man with black hair and bronze features, maybe Grizzly.”
“Let’s move away from bears.”
“Black?” Cortex offered. I raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re hair’s already black. Your eyes go black when you’re hungry?”
“Why are we fixated on my features?” Though this did get me thinking of my father.
“Black doesn’t seem like much.” Tempestatis sat forward to study me. What was this? Had I turned into their new puppy?
“That’s quite a blank expression if I’ve ever seen one. Wait! No, I’ve got it. Moon!” Tempestatis smiled.
“More like New Moon,” Cortex laughed.
“Nigrae Lunam,” I threw it all together. They both blinked before all three of us broke into a shared laugh. Mine fell short due to the busted ribs, but it felt good.
“Nigrae Lunam it is then. Nice to finally meet you,” Cortex took my hand in his, shaking it.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
If you would like to tip the author, check out the following buttons: