Twenty-nine –The trek along the cavern wall
There was something wrong with Vlad. His whole demeanour had smacked of ill ease in the chamber, a lethargy that belied his usurping of power and conquering of many fronts during his recorded mortal life. Not to mention his lack of interest in taking human life, given the personal tally of souls he’d sent to the other side, to date.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, even though he’d dragged me in to glimpse his very soul, a thriving version of Hell if not Hades itself; he seemed preoccupied.
As we followed him deeper into the seldom-visited pits of Subterranea, the impression that he was not all there intensified. Once past the tunnel entrance, the pathway almost immediately opened up into a wide ridge cut into the wall of a gigantic cavern. The sheer granite wall rose hundreds of feet above us and descended to our right, plummeting into pitch night.
However, this underground void was well lit, at least at the level we trekked, as if we were taking a pleasant stroll along a mountain path in The Highlands just before twilight on a mid-summer’s eve.
The rim along which we followed Vlad was easily wide enough for Perveen and I to walk two abreast holding hands, although I would rather have had the inside track had I have had the choice. Dust kicked up beneath our footfall as if the pathway was seldom used. Vlad, I noticed, left no such trace at his passing over the shale-laden walkway; I did not mention it to Perveen.
We were descending, but only at a light gradient. The path hugged the wall, forever bearing left; it was impossible to see our destination even though the Master was advancing further and further ahead as we followed. With no fork in the path and no sign of being able to either ascend or descend the sheer grotto walls, keeping pace did not seem important. We were not going to lose him per se, but there were times when I could have sworn he was not wholly there. As if he were a hologram but the power sustaining the light-beam image was fluctuating at the whim of an aging generator.
The chanting grew louder the further into the pit we traversed, yet it was impossible to tell whether it came from above, below or resonated from the very granite itself. It was nowhere, yet everywhere. I could see how it would become irritating after a time. I could not stand the melancholy melody much longer and, feeling certain that any conversation would be drowned out or, if Vlad heard us he would not be in the slightest interested in what we had to say, I began to probe Perveen again.
“Why did you show me that image of us making love like that?” I asked, now suspecting that the act in which we were involved in her telekinetic transmission may not be entirely possible in our truly metamorphosed state. I had no doubt, now, that I was a fully fledged, union card-holding brethren of blood after receiving the infusion, the memories and the gene of outside-of-time from Țepeș, himself.
“I did not know whether you would come of your own volition”, she said, hardly apologetic, more in genuine doubt whether I would have followed her into this life without the dangling of an imaginative carrot. “I cannot confirm whether our love-making is not possible, only that, from what I’ve learnt, we will be expected to perform some erotic ritual before the elders. It is all a part of the vampire wedding tradition.”
Of all my readings from the light side of the grave I had come across nothing that had told me of vampires joined in wedlock. Seducing, slaughtering and entrancing virgins to do their bidding, yes. But of these ceremonies and what rites to be adhered and vows to be honoured that Perveen insisted were part of vampire lore I was completely ignorant. That we would be expected to perform the consummation of our marriage before an undead audience filled me with more dread than I had felt at any moment since we had exited The Well of All Time and brought to the level. A level that looked to be eating further into the Earth than any man-made mine had ever burrowed.
“Who are the elders?” I asked, not wishing to question Perveen’s judgement; her argument hardly filled me with confidence. Given Billy’s power to impart deceitful information, I had good grounds for my lingering doubt.
“They are those whom Vlad brought here at the end of his mortal reign over Wallachia, I think,” she said, adding “A select few Knights who were to die before a French king outside Notre Dame inherited some special power at the stake…”
“Yes, I know the tale,” I cut in. “Jacques de Molay, the Grandmaster, was said to have brought both Pope Clement and Philip the Fair before the court of God to be judged for their sins against humanity and the Catholic Church shortly after the king had him and other Masters of The Order burnt before the ancient Parisian church for revoking his confession and proclaiming the purity of The Knights Templar. But surely that was before Vlad’s time…unless they had the secret and simply waited for destiny to deliver them the right man to face the Muslim threat from Ottoman, a war they had waged themselves in the name of The Church and Christendom in The Crusades.” I pondered this, exploring my earlier thought which had grasped the equation, but had got the factors in the incorrect sequence.
“Is it possible he kept these Knights in Wallachia, that they were the secret of his army’s success in unlikely circumstances? Were they offered safe refuge by Vlad, hence anyone who came near to his castle, especially the Turkish envoys, found themselves impaled or beheaded if they had discovered the secret and then left to die in the baking sun as a deterrent?
“Did these Masters of The Order, supposedly dead, steal into the enemy camps under cover of the night, these Knights who had found a way to cheat death, and bring the towns to their knees so that all Vlad had to do was complete the rout to further his reputation and win favour with Pope Pius? Suppose then, as Vlad felt age approaching, encroaching, he took them up on their offer and accepted the gene that rebuffs time and they all sought safe haven below ground, here?” I pondered, quizzing myself as much as Perveen, getting excited about the sense and logic in my argument now that I knew that preternatural existence could be taken to such extremes.
“You know more than I, then,” Perveen said. “This is just what I think I know – I understand that you have your doubts. Even if I could not read it in your mind, it is etched all over your face. You put this chain of thoughts together as if by magic, but do you really believe them, all of the pieces of the jigsaw?” The question had the desired effect and I was momentarily set off my stride.
“It’s okay,” Perveen added, “I, too, am beginning to doubt a lot of the things I learnt from Billy…I understand if you cannot take my word as Gospel, knowing the source of much of my learning of this life, its capabilities, its history and its truths. Billy was not all…”
Her sentence trailed off into the abyss and seemed to catch on the ascension of a crescendo from the cacophonous choir. It sailed upwards, like down on the breeze, floating towards the ceiling before disappearing into the vast nothingness of the yawning yonder above – there was no way of knowing whether the ebony blackness above was below the earth or whether it was indeed the night sky. For the first time I saw genuine uncertainty in her eyes; I wished I could have offered succour, but I was as lost as she, following Vlad blindly to who knew where…