Clear headed, I woke lying on a soft fern mattress on top of a rock outcrop above a beach. The moon looked close to its zenith and I couldn’t help but smile at the beauty of the place. A loon called and its mate answered. Languidly I stretched and got to my feet, then frowned as I realised I had absolutely no idea of why I was there … or even of where ‘there’ was.
* * *
"Your grandmother's dying," my father had said, "and she wants to see you," he'd added, peremptorily. I looked up from the table where I'd just bitten into a slice of toast and marmalade, and in my astounded state, I inhaled.
My grandmother and I had fallen out on my fourteenth birthday and we had managed to avoid each other ever since. In my more mellow and reflective moments I knew I should go and see her and try and mend the bridge, but I'd never got around to it. Now, almost five years to the day later, it seemed like the choice had been taken away from me.
Tears streaming from my eyes, I blew my nose and managed to draw a breath that wasn't full of toast crumbs. "She said that?" I croaked. My father who was, I think, wondering if he should call an ambulance, nodded, his eyes understanding.
"She did," he affirmed, "but she ….” He tailed off looking mildly guilty as he pulled out the chair at the head of the table and sat down.
My father sighed. “She requested you don't take your friend."
I had a lot of friends, but the one in question was undoubtedly Toby, a school friend who had taken to using our house as his own. It had been Toby that had inadvertently caused the rift with my grandmother, though I had to admit he wasn't entirely to blame. On the afternoon of my fourteenth birthday my grandmother had swept into my room, as she often did, and caught us 'in flagrante delicto'. Without question it was the most embarrassing moment of my life, though remarkably Toby had managed to weather it without blushing, or a by your leave, and had somehow persuaded me to behave in the same boorish offhand manner. Consequently the family’s estate in the mountains was made off bounds to me, which I regretted, but more, I regretted the expression of shock and horror I'd seen in my grandmother’s eyes.
"Will you go?" my father asked, opening his paper. I nodded.
"Yes, of course I will."
Toby, wearing my dressing gown and slippers that had vanished three weeks previously, arrived down a few minutes later.
"What's up old boy?" he asked as he sauntered across to the table and helped himself to kedgeree, orange juice and coffee. "Lovely day for a spot of sailing, don't you think?" he grinned as I glared at him, "I was thinking perhaps a day out on the yacht. Cowes is so lovely at this time of year."
"My family’s yacht, you mean?" I snapped. Even great uncle Malcolm, the black sheep of the family, and according to stories the most unbelievable blackguard and sponge, would have got the drift, but not Toby.
"Yes, of course your family’s yacht, old boy," he laughed. "My family hasn't got one, don't you know."
"I do," I said, and took a deep breath. "But today is for other things, Toby old fruit. Today is the day you set off on your own to explore the great unknown."
"The day I do what?" he said, a forkful of kedgeree half way to his mouth. "Sorry, Tommy old bean,” he smiled, “but I thought you said ...?"
"I did," I interjected. “But enough is quite enough, and five years is pretty good going in my book. How about yours?"
"Well, that's rich!" he spluttered, looking around for support and finding only my father, his head obstinately buried in The Times. "I've taken care of you, looked after you for the better part of ...." I slammed my hand down on the table, causing my coffee cup to jump out of its saucer.
"Out," I hissed, pushing back the chair and getting to my feet. "Out, out, OUT! And don't bother my mother, it's really not worth it." Red faced, I stalked from the room and up the stairs to my mother's room. Taking a deep breath, I calmed myself and knocked.
I pushed the door open and entered. The room was cheerily decorated, the four poster immaculately made up, the crimson velvet curtains held back by rich brocade ties. The sun streamed through the mullioned windows, spotlighting my mother at her dressing table, brushing her silvered hair.
"Tomas, darling, how nice of you to drop in," she said. I waited politely, until she had finished and put the brush down.
"Mother, I've ...."
"Sit, sit, sit darling," she said as she pulled out her jewelry box. I sat on the edge of her chaise longue under the window. "Ah, now. Perhaps you can help me decide." She held up a double string of fat pearls, then a pretty turquoise and diamond necklace. "Which do you think?"
"I like them both, mother, but with the dress you've chosen the turquoise one definitely has my vote."
"Thank you, dear, that's super,” she said, putting the pearls back in their case before turning to give me her full attention “So, my dear, what is it? It's not often that you come visiting nowadays. Too busy gallivanting with your friends,” she chuckled, and I took a deep breath.
"Well, that's just it, mother.” I paused and pulled nervously at my earlobe. “You see, I've thrown Toby out. Or rather, I’ve asked him to leave."
Her eyes creased as she smiled. "Have you dear? Well it's high time."
"Mother!" I was shocked. I knew that my father didn't care one way or the other, but I'd been sure my mother had. "I thought you liked him."
"Oh, he's entertaining in his way, but what a leech! No, I think you’ve finally come to your senses." I looked at her wide eyed.
"But you could have sent him away ages ago." I said, bewildered. I started picking at the silk edging of the chaise.
"He’s your friend, dear. Who am I to throw your friends out?” She paused and picked up a lipstick. “I certainly wouldn't like it if you threw any of my friends out!" She laughed, a high tinkly sound that invariably made me smile.
"I don't know what to say," I said.
"Then don't,” she said firmly, patting me on the knee. She waved her fist in mock anger and giggled, her bracelets clinking together musically. “Go on dear! Chuck him out!"
So I did, though I gave him some money to get by on. Not that he thanked me. Looking rather ill, though still miserably spiteful, and cursing me to hell and back, Toby showed his true colours. He was wearing my favourite jacket and hat, and I'm pretty sure the suitcase he walked off with was in fact my father's. Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief as he disappeared down the drive, his invective fading as my sense of self-worth grew stronger.
* * *
"I threw him out."
I had almost the same conversation with one of my younger brothers and my sister over the weekend, though my sister, at one point a year previously, apparently had it in her head that Toby might marry her. When I teased her about it she stuck her tongue out and told me primly that we were all allowed to make one mistake.
Winston, sixteen years old and my youngest brother, was a different story altogether. He came back from school full of vim and vigour and news of how he'd been picked for the cricket first eleven. Then he’d asked me where Toby was. I told him and was shocked by his reply. He hit me. Squarely on the chin. Hard.
We were on our own in the greenhouse at the time, which was lucky as it was early evening and the gardener had gone home. I came to, sitting on the bench, Winston next to me.
"You hit me!" I managed, still in shock. Winston was a strong lad, but kindly with it.
"Sorry, Tom," he said, his shoulders slumped. "I'm a beast and it was unforgivable."
"But why?" I said, checking my chin for wounds. My jaw cracked a little, but I'd had worse, boxing.
"I .…" he started, then stopped. Even in the evening light I could see he was blushing. He started again. "Toby and I," he began, then stopped. But I knew. I knew. Thinking back four, nearly five years, I knew. I was livid, and for one moment, one brief heartbeat, jealous too.
"What did he do?" I asked, amazed that I managed to keep my voice calm. Calm was far from the way I was feeling, far from the anger and rage boiling up inside me.
"We’re in love," Winston said, and looked at me with tear filled eyes. "Oh, Tom, I love him so much," he sobbed as his adult demeanour crumbled and he once again became the younger brother I loved unreservedly. I choked back my anger at Toby’s duplicity, and hugged him.
Explaining to Winston that he had been duped was not a pleasant task, especially as I had felt much the same myself at one point. Tears were plentiful and we ended by promising each other that it would be our secret. I lit a cigarette and watched him slouch slowly back to the house in misery, though by the end of his exeat he was his usual bubbly self, thank the heavens. I, on the other hand, wasn't. It was if a rage I didn't think it was possible for me to have was growing inside me. I wanted to hunt down and rip Toby to shreds: for Winston's sake, but, if I was honest, more for my own.
* * *
My grandmother, the family matriarch, lived on a vast gated estate outside the city. Growing up, I'd loved the place, and had spent as much time there as I possibly could. The row with my grandmother and the fact that I was eventually going to inherit the title had caused rather a large amount of consternation amongst those who lived for that sort of thing. Consternation most everywhere, except within the family itself.
As daylight waned I drove through the gates and up to the lake. I stopped at one of my favourite spots and sat for a while, looking out over the water. I smiled at the thought that one day I'd be living there, then frowned as I remembered my grandmother was seriously ill. I'd enquired of one or two of her familiars that I'd come across over the last week, but none had been very forthcoming when I'd asked about her illness.
"Ill, Tomas? I hadn't heard," Guthrie had said when I'd bumped into him outside a store in the west end. "Though I must say we're all glad you're finally coming to your senses." It was an odd thing for him to have said, and odder still that he wouldn’t meet my eye.
I skimmed a few stones, then got back in the car and continued on, up through the woods to where the mansion nestled neatly on a plateau underneath the mountain.
I grinned as I parked the car. It was apropos. It was my birthday on the morrow, I was back at the family seat, and, hopefully, back in my grandmother’s good graces again.
"Welcome, Tomas." Withers, my grandmother’s butler said, as he opened the car door for me. Grey haired, stick thin and straight faced as usual, he looked not a day older than he had the last time I’d seen him, almost five years ago
"Withers, it's been too long," I said, smiling. He nodded, his white gloves and tail coat as immaculate as always as he hefted my suitcase out of the boot and walked with me up the broad steps, under the portico and on into the front hall. He put my suitcase down, leant over and straightened my collar.
"Your grandmother has been looking forward to this day for a long time, Tomas," he said. I nodded and sniffed, suddenly saddened at the years of each other’s company I'd robbed us of.
"Yes, it was unfortunate, Withers."
"Unfortunate?" he raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure of what you speak, Tomas."
"The umm … the problem, Withers. The disavowal.” He looked at me blankly. “The reason I haven't been here in five years."
“Ah, yes,” he replied, though I wasn’t sure he understood at all. The sun was setting fast, a fabulous scarlet backdrop to the landscape outside. As the last rays filtered through the windows, they bathed Withers' face, turning his pallid complexion blood red. Involuntarily I shivered as he walked over and shut the front doors and switched the lights on. Now the hall and staircase were cheerily lit from wall sconces and a large crystal chandelier that hung suspended from the vaulted ceiling. My mood lifted and I shook myself free of the odd foreboding I'd felt as he’d closed the doors.
"My usual room, Withers?" I asked lightly, determined to have a shower before I met my grandmother. All through my life she'd been a night person and I smiled as I remembered how peeved my father used to become with her. Her day started, she'd once told me as we sat talking during the intermission of the Rocky Horror Show, with a cocktail called a ‘sundowner’. "And do you know why it's called that, Tomas?" she'd asked, her tone serious. I'd shaken my twelve-year-old head. "Because you drink them when the sun's gone down!" She'd laughed and her coterie of friends that had accompanied us to the theatre had laughed along with her.
"No, Tomas,” Withers shook his head, “your old room is presently being redecorated. You are to be in the master's suite."
"But I thought that ...."
"Withers, has he arrived?"
Instantly feelings of my familial bond came back. I hadn't heard my grandmother's voice in almost five years, and though I didn't think I had much to worry about I still hoped our reunion would be good.
"Yes, grandmother, it's me," I called, and walked across the hall through the doors into the drawing room. Dressed in fine silks and immaculate as always with her hair in its usual topknot, she was standing in front of a lively log fire, smiling, her arms open wide to greet me. I blinked away tears and deep seated feelings of guilt as I walked over to her. After all, she was my grandmother and I loved her.
"Grandmother," I said as she offered me her cheek. I kissed her, then knelt. "I am so sorry."
"Never mind, Tomas," she waved me to my feet. "It was a long time ago, and water under the bridge, all under the bridge." Her eyes were twinkling as she linked her arm with mine and walked us over to the settee. We sat down as Withers came in.
"Your suitcase is upstairs, Tomas."
"Thank you, Withers," I said. He nodded, a brief smile playing across his face.
“Cocktails, Madam?" he asked, and my grandmother nodded.
"Yes, though as Tomas is soon to be head of the family I think it only right he should choose. Tomas?"
I smiled at her, then looked at Withers. "Two Sundowners, please, Withers." He nodded.
"Certainly, Sir," he said, and I was so shocked I forgot to tell him off as he left the room.
"He's never called me sir before," I said, flustered.
“That's because you were just Tomas then. Now that you are close to majority it is your duty to take control of the family."
"But, grandmother, majority is twenty one, and anyway you're the ...."
"Hush, child. In our family majority has always been nineteen, and it is your nineteenth birthday tomorrow." She paused, smiling. "Or midnight if you stay awake as I do.” She patted me on the arm. “Midnight, Tomas, then you will be legal."
"I didn't know,” I said, frowning. “Is that why father said you were dying? To get me here to take over?"
"Duty is as duty must," she said enigmatically, her expression one I hadn't seen before, and wasn’t sure I liked.
* * *
I was close to drunk as I made my way upstairs to bed. Grandmother knew I wasn't used to alcohol and yet she’d ensured I'd had plenty as we ate, having Withers refill my glass if it looked even close to empty. I'd tried to say no, but she'd said I would be grateful for it in the morning, which I didn't pretend to understand, though at that point my head had been spinning merrily. It was as if I'd come back to the wrong house, or the right house with the wrong people living in it.
Dinner had been magnificent until it came to the pudding and coffee. Then we'd talked about how upset she'd been when she'd caught Toby and me together. She said it wasn’t because of me, but that she'd been upset with Toby, which was strange, as she'd never met him before that day. I was still trying to work out what she had meant as the grandfather clock struck midnight.
With a wave of her hand and a kiss on the cheek, grandmother bade me welcome as the head of the family. Then, and almost in the same breath, she wished me goodnight and went to bed. There hadn’t been any sort of ceremony, and I didn't feel any different, but as I made my way upstairs, I found myself grinning. I was nineteen, the family patriarch, and I couldn’t deny that it felt good. As I reached the top of the stairs the lights in the hall below began to go out as the servants closed up the house for the night.
The master’s suite had always been out of bounds to me. It had been locked every time I'd ever visited and forbidden as a topic of conversation. It was my grandfather’s old room and I'd always supposed it was because my grandmother had wanted to keep it the way he'd left it. Not that I known my grandfather, as he had died long before I was born. Now the suite was mine and I couldn’t help but think that all in all, life, and particularly mine, was peachy … if rather strange.
As I opened the door to the suite I felt a distinct presence in the room and something skittered across my vision.
"Hello?" I called, mildly surprised that my voice was steady. Then with a crash, the windows banged open and partially closed again as a gust of cold mountain air blew in, the curtains drifting in the chilly breeze. I walked over and shut the windows, drew the curtains, and then added another log to the fire before stripping off to boxers and socks, leaving my clothes untidily on a chair. A moan behind me caused me to spin around, and the vision skittering thing happened again. Standing stock still with clenched fists I listened ... and heard nothing except my heart manically pounding blood through my body.
It was ludicrous. I was terrified, yet what of? My grandfather's ghost? A gust of wind had blown open the windows, and wind was perfectly natural. I blinked and forced a chuckle at the rather obvious double entendre, then tried to calm down, wishing I'd refused at least a couple of the glasses of the wine I'd been given at diner. Ghosts! I was patently being stupid.
My mouth and lips felt desert dry, so I licked them, then weaved to the bathroom to brush my teeth. The suite had been modernised, and the bathroom had a large tub with water jets, dual basins, and a small wet room shower.
I’d put toothpaste on my toothbrush and it was almost in my mouth when my head was yanked backwards. Before I could react a searing pain erupted in my neck.
* * *
Warmth, pleasant warmth, and an arm slung around my waist.
I blinked open my eyes which were encrusted with sleep and knew immediately that my life had changed. The room was in darkness but I had no trouble seeing ... everything. I glanced over at a fly struggling to free itself from a spider’s web strung between the architrave and the pelmet over the window. I could see it, and I don't mean as a little black dot -- which is what the fly should have been, considering the web was at least twenty feet away. I could see the fly as if I were looking at it through a magnifying glass. Its eyes were faceted, individual cells, making up the whole. Its wings were paper thin and twitching slowly as it gave up hope. I didn't understand it, I just didn't understand it. And why was I in bed? And whose was the arm?
My nostrils flared of their own volition as I smelt something I'd never smelt before. I didn't know what it was, but it felt ... what did it feel? Right? Or was it wrong? I couldn't tell, but there was one thing that was abundantly clear. I was different ... somehow, I was different. And my neck ached abominably.
The arm around my waist pulled me closer and I felt a hardness pressing against my buttocks. I was about to roll over and speak, when a newly awakened sense -- a sense I couldn't describe -- warned me not to, warned me to be still if I valued my life. A second or two later there was an incredibly loud knock from behind me, and the person holding me spoke.
"Come." I almost jumped because the voice was so loud. It sounded as if he -- obviously a he -- had shouted, though somehow I knew he hadn’t: he'd whispered. I knew the voice, too, I knew it well, but for the life of me I couldn't put a name or a face to it. I frowned and without moving my head I looked over at the large mirror hanging on the wall behind the dressing table. The door was partially visible and I saw Withers enter, followed by two strangers in red and black uniforms. They were carrying long black poles with flared ends, and snapped to attention on either side of the open door. I watched as Withers walked across the thick pile carpet towards the bed, his footfall as loud as if he were trampling over amplified bubble wrap.
"Has he woken yet, Sire?" Withers seemed to scream, and again I almost jumped, though my new sense calmed me, told me to wait and all would become clear. I managed to quash the panic that was close to overwhelming me and then thought about my hearing, imagined how good it would be to be able to turn down the volume ... and as I had the thought, my hearing snapped back to normal. After a moment or two I willed the volume back up and could hear the ker-thump - ker-thump of individual heart beats. The two guards by the door sounded very different. It was almost as though they weren't real hearts I was listening to, though where that thought took me I really didn’t want to go.
"No," the voice of the person whose arm was around my waist said, "and according to law he should have by now."
"Most strange, Sire," Withers said, walking out of my view in the mirror and around the bed to look at me. I closed my eyes before he saw they were open. "Obviously he is changing, and yet he remains away.” His fingers lighted on the pulse in my neck and I nearly screamed. “Hmm, I suppose each in his own time," he added.
"He will come back, though?" ‘Arm-voice’ sounded worried, though I still couldn't remember whose he was, or even imagine who he could possibly be. It was the most peculiar situation. Here I was, in my grandmother's house -- my grandmother having disowned me for exactly this thing -- in bed with another man who was discussing me with the family’s bulter. It was getting close to farcical and if my neck hadn't hurt so much I might have wondered if it was all a bad dream.
"You could imbue him again, Sire," Withers said meditatively. “Mayhap the first attempt was a failure.”
"Unlikely, if as you say he is changing. And if I imbue him again it might kill him … or worse still, I might lose Valloo."
"I doubt it, Sire. You have Valloo locked away ... do you not?"
"Your conjecture is valuable, Withers," ‘Arm-voice’ said, "but I cannot and will not put us all in jeopardy on a guess." A short silence followed, then the arm across my body was slowly, almost tenderly, withdrawn. "We must check the book, Withers. The law is all."
"But you mustn't leave him Sire," Withers sounded anxious and it caused ‘Arm-voice’ to chuckle.
"Ah, I shouldn't doubt you. You make a good point, Withers, and as you say, Valloo is safe." The mattress sank briefly as ‘Arm-voice’ turned away. I heard a glass picked up and the sound of drinking, then the glass was put down again and ‘Arm-voice’ sighed. "So, I will imbue him a little before we go and he will sleep throughout our absence."
"If you are sure," Withers said, sounding happier. "And the guards?"
"Instruct them to wait outside." Another brief silence followed as the guards left, then I heard a growl that turned into a roar. The mattress sank down once more as ‘Arm-voice's’ arm slid around my body and again a raging pain flowered in my neck.
Dazed, I heard them leave. I heard the door being closed quietly and I knew I was alone, but it didn’t matter. I was on fire. My body blazed as whatever it was that ‘Arm-voice’ had injected into my neck flowed throughout my body. I was on fire and could feel everything. Every-little-thing was close and personal: from the individual hairs on my arms down to the smallest corpuscles running through my arteries and veins. I could feel them all. I swung my legs out of bed and sat up, aware that somehow I was so much more than I had been when I arrived at my grandmother’s house earlier that day. Then I saw my fingernails and blinked in shock. They'd grown at least an inch, and my nails took ages to grow. I stood up: no, I can't say that, as it belies the truth of the matter. What happened was: I thought about standing and I was standing. I gasped as I saw myself in the mirror. Gasped in awe.
When I'd arrived I'd been plain old Tomas. Tomas who was close to six foot, but not quite. Tomas who was reasonably muscled, but not very. I'd had ordinary nondescript features and mouse brown hair. Most people I knew described me as average, and a few as good looking, but, I suspect, only because of the family name and my future prospects. Now, I had to admit, I was stunning. Well over six feet, with musculature an erotic dream. Long thick black hair fell past my shoulders, and my face was subtly different, too. My nose was proportionately bigger and more aquiline, my eyes, which had been wishy-washy pond green, were now rich emerald under thick long lashes, and I couldn’t help but smile as I saw other parts of me were also enhanced.
I'd gasped aloud as I’d looked in the mirror and the two guards outside must have heard, because the door crashed open as they came barreling in. Seemingly in slow motion they started to point their sticks at me, and instinctively, without thought, I knew what to do. I waved my hand, almost casually, and as I thought they should be disarmed they both flew back against the bedroom wall with such force they were knocked unconscious.
Hurriedly, I tried to get into my clothes, without much success, though I managed to squeeze into a pair of sweat pants and my baggiest t-shirt was now skin tight.
There was a brief moments respite before I heard the sound of people shouting and running across the hall below. I thought I should be hearing what they were saying and immediately I could.
"What happened, Withers?" ‘Arm-voice’ sounded angry, and his voice was getting louder: they were coming up the stairs.
"I don't know, Sire. I was with the mistress," Withers replied as the sound of running footsteps stopped. I could sense fear. There were a lot of them, all deeply worried and standing at the far end of the corridor that led to the master's suite.
"Where are the guards?" This from a voice I hadn't heard before.
"Shield!" yet another person said, and as all my senses failed I recognized the voice as Guthrie's. I might have been alone for all I could tell, though I knew I wasn't and that they were all waiting.
"What the fuck do I do now?" I muttered to myself, picking up one of the guards sticks. It was obviously some kind of a weapon, but I had no idea how to use it, or even which end was which.
"You could try Invisibility or else the window," a voice spoke inside my head and I screamed.
"Oh dear," the voice said, "that really wasn't a good idea." I was frozen to the spot with fear and could hear the people outside running towards the room. They were almost there when my hands, entirely of their own volition, clapped and I found myself wishing I was invisible and away. Instantaneously my back was pressed against the high ceiling of the room and as I floated there looking down, people came crowding in through the door. Withers switched on the lights.
"He's gone!" Intrigued, I looked at ‘Arm-voice’ and nearly screamed again. It was Toby. Toby who I had had a fling with at fourteen. Toby, who my grandmother had caught me with 'in flagrante delicto.' Toby who had sponged off my family ever since. And impossibly, he was holding hands with my grandmother. I simply couldn't believe it, couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was livid and ready to spring down and rip his head off.
Then a feeling of calm flooded through me.
"Better?" The voice inside my head sounded almost amused. I was about to reply when I lost control of my mouth. "Sorry about that, but I promise I'll explain everything soon. Just now though you're in rather a dicey predicament."
"I am?" I thought as sarcastically as I could. The voice snickered.
"Good, well, at least you're learning," it sounded happier. "Now, don't move whilst I have a little ponder." I almost snorted. I was stuck to the ceiling some ten feet above the heads of a room full of people who presumably couldn't see me, and a voice in my head was 'having a little ponder'.
"I have to pee!" I thought, realising that I couldn't do anything about it. Suddenly I was bursting. It was the stress.
"Save me," the voice said, sounding a little annoyed. "Just hold it in for a few minutes while we integrate."
"Integrate?" I silently asked, wishing I was back in my old room and having a pee.
"Now that was impressive," the voice said as I found I actually was back in my old room, though not in the en-suite. I clutched and ran, sighing a few seconds later as I circumnavigated the pan. "Don't flush!" The voice in my head warned, "or they'll know where you are." I looked down at the pan and frowned as I saw that the pee I'd got rid of was a deep purple in colour.
"It's purple," I thought, worried.
"Of course it is, you're getting rid of the packing."
"The packing?" I thought, "what do you ...." I suddenly realised I was having a conversation with myself. I suddenly realised I had no idea what the fuck was going on. In one fell swoop my life had been turned not only inside out, but upside down as well, and I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all.
"I can try and tell you if you want, though I really shouldn't, but first would you mind letting go."
"Letting go?" I thought.
"Yes please. I need control in case you haven't got it yet. Fully, I mean."
"Yes, fully," the voice sighed, which was weirder than it being in my head in the first place. I mean, I'd talked to myself in the past – who hadn't -- but I'd never sighed at myself. The voice chuckled.
"I know just what you mean. It is weird, but you were never meant to find out this way, Tomas." The voice paused for a moment and I felt a sudden sense of well-being. "As I was saying, you were not supposed to find out on your own. This is all so wrong. It's breaking all the protocols and laws that are in place. It's a travesty!” The voice sighed again, “now, look at yourself in the mirror, please."
I looked and wondered what could have changed me like this.
"In a minute I'll tell you, now, open your mouth and keep your tongue well back, please." I did as I was asked and then for the third ... or was it the fourth or fifth or even the hundredth time, I nearly screamed. In front of my eyes my incisors grew in length until they were one or maybe even two inches below my bottom lip. Then smoothly, they retracted. That was bad enough, but what happened next was far worse. My body morphed from the person I was back to the person I had been. Then it snapped back again.
"Good. Good, all is as it should be," the voice said, but I couldn't care less. I stumbled out of the bathroom, slumped down on the bed and started hyper-ventilating. I wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to hear the dawn chorus, wanted to wake up in the master suite, have a shower, get dressed and go and have breakfast with my grandmother. I wanted my life back the way it had been ….
It was then that I realised both my mother and father had been with the crowd that had come running into the master’s suite, and I totally broke down. Or, as Valloo wryly told me later, I was shut down.
He was sitting opposite me when I woke. Sitting on a large and very comfortable looking bean bag. Rather than the bed I'd collapsed on, I found I was sitting on a bean bag, too.
"Comfortable, these are, Tomas," he said smiling. "So, I am Valloo. How do you do?" He winced and I chuckled at his chagrin. "Hmm, perhaps I should have just said 'hi'," he said, "Less amusing, but not as ...." He petered off.
"Poetic?" I mumbled, absent-mindedly, looking around. We seemed to be sitting on a snowfield under a heavily snow laden sky. White, white everywhere except for the beanbags, which were cacao coloured, and us. "Where are we?" I asked, looking at Valloo. He was wiry small and compact with a mop of light brown hair, twinkling eyes, rosy lips and a ready smile.
"Where do you think we are?" he riposted. I glanced around again.
"Well, as it's not cold I'd guess that … we're inside my head?" He clapped his hands together in delight.
"Yes, yes, we are," he said, "and why do you think we're here?" This time I spent a lot longer thinking, though I was aware he was watching me with interest. I examined our surroundings in detail and found no clues, then I looked at my hands which seemed to be the same as they'd always been: the long unkempt nails were gone.
“Umm … I've no idea.” I finally answered, “but I guess you're going to tell me ...” I paused, looking into his eyes, “... the truth.”
Valloo smiled. "Hmm, truth. Truth is an odd one," he said. "Truth to one is not necessarily truth to another. Take your grandfather, for instance."
"My grandfather?" I said, "my grandfather is dead." Valloo shook his head.
"No, Tomas. He isn’t. Your grandfather is Toby."
"Don't be ludicrous!" I sputtered, getting angry. "Toby is my age."
"Toby can appear to be whatever age he wants to be," Valloo said.
"But I ... but I ... eww, that's incest, isn't it?" I was horrified. Valloo shook his head.
"If you were human it would be," he said, "but you're not human. Or at least, not entirely."
"I'm not human," I said, more to see what it sounded like than because I believed it. Valloo laughed, a deep rich belly laugh that had tears running down his face.
"Deary me, now I know why I love this so much," he said. "No one else wanted the job, but I've always been different." I nodded, not understanding what on earth he was talking about, which set him off again. Finally he calmed down, wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
"Your grandfather was once a great man," he began, then halted, his mouth trying to work but unable. I could see in his eyes that he wanted to tell me, but I could also see that he couldn't ... unless.
"Will you obey me?" I asked. Valloo nodded, his eyes now creasing, smiling. "In all things?" He nodded again. I scratched my cheek and thought. "Is it dangerous?" He shrugged. "Might it be dangerous?" Slowly, he nodded. "And do you think I should continue asking you questions?" This time I got an emphatic nod. I pursed my lips. "Do you wish me harm?" He shook his head and I sighed in relief.
“Valloo, I want you to tell me about you and my grandfather. I want to know everything, do you understand?"
"Yes, Tomas, I do," he said. "I'm sorry, but my kernel requires that I have to be asked, and though we've come a long way beyond mere subservience, there are still some basic root commands that we have to obey."
"Who are ‘we’?"
"We are sentient Nanites, Tomas.” He paused, looking at me expectantly, his eyes glittering.
I took a deep breath, desperate to wake up and find my grandmother laughing at me over her sundowner. “And me?”
Valloo smiled kindly. “You, Tomas, are a hybrid. Part human and part Thracian. Your people came to Earth millennia ago from Thrace, a planet torn apart by internecine fighting.”
I blinked as he re-connected parts of my mind I had no idea I had and showed me the truth and the power I possessed.
“Your ancestors were a small group of evacuees, and Gaia, or Earth as you call it, was in another part of the Galaxy entirely. On the whole, as your people settled on the planet, they kept themselves to themselves. Physically you were very similar to Humans, but physiologically very different. Eventually, over the millennia and with our help, the two races managed to interbreed."
Fed up with a sterile white background, I flexed my new power and changed the location to a sun drenched Pacific Island, swapping the bean bags for rattan chairs and adding a table along with a large glass jug of squash with ice cubes floating and clinking and a film of frost on the outside. "Drink?"
"Please," Valloo said, forever smiling. I poured and handed his over. Sitting back in my chair, I stuck my legs out in front of me and crossed my ankles.
"Why did I change?" I asked next, squinting as the sun came out from behind a bank of clouds.
"Change?" Valloo asked, "I don't understand."
"I wasn't ...." I looked down at myself, my ripping six pack and pecs obvious through the shirt I willed. "I wasn't like this before," I said.
"Ah, well, you see, when your grandfather ...."
"Yes, Toby. When Toby, your grandfather, imbued you he started the change that brought you, and your original features, to the fore. This is the way you looked before you became part and parcel of humanity.
"But we were friends. We grew up together, explored together, made lo ... no wonder grandmother was so cross. How old is he?”
“According to the records he is close to two thousand years old, though he can appear to be whatever age he wishes. Originally, what he wanted was an heir, and that, Tomas, was to be you. It was reasonable, and had been the tradition. Once you took his place he would have obliterated.” Valloo paused, his expression so pained and real I had difficulty remembering he was a Nanite. “But then he went mad.”
“Yes. Something caused him to change. He decided he wanted immortality.””
“Immortality?” I repeated, feeling like a fool. I was beginning to think it would be a good time to wake up. “But isn't two thousand years long enough? And what have I got to do with it?”
“To achieve true immortality he must regenerate his Nanites in another host. It’s to do with temporal inbreeding and bloodline.” Valloo paused, a pained expression crossing his face, “and then for security he must destroy the host.”
“Host?” I raised an eyebrow, guessing where Valloo was going. “Me?”
“Yes Tomas, you.”
"It's where one of the myths of the vampire comes from, Tomas. You always had your injection ports, but it took a genetic change to enable you to use them."
"I see," I said, though it was still as clear as mud, really. I'd posited a second jug of juice and was just about to pour it when the background began to shake. Slowly at first, then more and more wildly, the fabric of the beach and ocean I’d posited flew apart
"I've been found." I said, amazed at how calm I felt. Valloo nodded. “And taken?”
"Yes you have. Unfortunately I could do nothing about it."
"But earlier, earlier you ...."
"You did it,” Valloo cut in, “it's your power, though admittedly I helped manipulate it." He got to his feet. “I have to go, otherwise I’ll be taken.” His avatar shimmered, then vanished with an audible pop as the background was finally ripped away.
I was in the mansion’s library, my grandmother and father standing in the background, looking nervous.
"Crafty young bugger," Toby said standing in front of me, his visage slowly changing as if it were made of soft wax. "Two imbuings you took from me, two! and look at you now! Just a picture of Thracian good looks!” He paused, and a lascivious look I knew well crossed his face. “Well I want them back!” he roared, “Do you hear, I want them all back!" In his rage his voice cracked falsetto, his fangs dropping down, spittle off their points dripping to the carpet. Grandmother grabbed onto his arm, holding him back, stopping him coming closer. He staggered backwards and as his fangs retracted he sank into a leather library chair, the youth I'd known morphing into an ancient skeletal creature. Then, with a shudder, his appearance snapped back to its youthful aspect before the change started all over again. Grandmother and father were standing by his side looking down worriedly at me.
"Valloo said that ...."
"Valloo! Pompous prig of a sentient Nanite!" a middle aged Toby spat. "What does he know, eh? Valloo is mine, Tomas, Mine, do you hear! Mine to do with as I chose.” He was shuddering with anger, his old toothless face red and blotchy. He snapped back, a teenager again. “I had him locked away. It was his brethren I wanted renewed. How he managed to get himself imbued in you is beyond me, it's beyond the pale!” His outburst tapered off, his body shuddering as he went through another metamorphosis. “I had him locked away, locked away … Wither’s said so,” he muttered, then screamed, “but I want him back!" He spasmed again as I watched him change, then stood, young again, and once more full of the power he'd spent millennia perfecting. His voice lost its panicked semi-hysterical tone; it became iron. "No more games, Tomas. I want them back. Now they've been renewed I want them all back. Now!"
"No!" It was my father that spoke. I’d been so caught up with the horror of Toby that I hadn’t been paying attention to anything else. Now I saw that he was holding a smaller hand held version of the stick weapon the guards had had, and pointing it directly at Toby's head.
"No, Giles? No?!” Toby waved his hand and the weapon flew out of my father's grasp, snapping the fingers holding it like saplings in a gale as Toby willed it into his hand. My father screamed in pain as Toby giggled, the sound maniacal and frightening considering the gentility of our surroundings. "Sorry, Giles, but you really shouldn't annoy me so."
He pointed the weapon at me and his fangs slid down. "Now, I'm going to unimbue you, my young friend. And you'd better tell Valloo to come along, or else."
“I'll ask him, but I don't think he'll be very keen,” I said as I let Valloo take control. I saw the fear in Toby's eyes as he realised what I'd done, and as I became a passenger in my own body I watched with fascination as I leapt and caught Toby in my arms, spun him around and savagely bit deep into his neck. I felt the scrunch and rip and tear as my fangs tore through his muscle and ligaments, and felt his screams as I hugged him to me for the last time … before I let his body drop to the hard parquet floor.
Forcing dispassion, I watched as Toby fought against the pre-programmed Nanites Valloo had suffused his body with. But Toby was in no position to fight them off.
'I' herded everyone out of the room and shut the doors behind me.
A shrill scream that finally tapered off into a gurgle was the last anyone heard from Toby. A counterpoint to his body being torn apart from within.
The landing and the hall below were filled with people silently watching as 'I' walked to the head of the staircase. 'I' spoke.
“Enough is enough.” 'I' said. “For those who are not already aware of it Tobias has gone.” A rumble of anger came from several large coteries below but quickly died away.
“Enough!” 'I' shouted. “We are twinned. I have the prime, and the prime has me. As says the book, as says the law: we are twinned and we are satisfied. Should anyone try and damage the status quo we will obliterate them. Am I clear?” A murmur of accent came from the crowd.
“This is too easy,” Valloo said to me. It would be nice to leave them all alive, but .…”
“Wait a minute,” I sputtered, “What do you mean by ….” Darkness took me, but not before I saw ‘me’ raise my hand.
* * *
Clear headed, I woke lying on a soft fern mattress on top of a rock outcrop above a beach. The moon looked close to its zenith and I couldn’t help but smile at the beauty of the place. A loon called and its mate answered. Languidly I stretched and got to my feet, then frowned as I realised I had absolutely no idea of why I was there … or even of where ‘there’ was.
Then it all came back. I spun around, appalled, and looked up the mountain to where the mansion had been. Now, flames rent the sky, jumping and licking at the very cloud base itself, the crackling, snapping, popping sounds faintly reaching me even though I was a good mile and a half away. I tried to turn up my hearing, but nothing happened. I felt hollow.
“Valloo?” I called, “VALLOO?!”
There was no reply.
Many thanks to C.
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