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Heaven and Earth in ashes, ending

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The moonlight turned the old stone steeple of the medieval church into an imposing guard against the stars. The wasteland around it was pockmarked and pitted with holes dug by falling ammunition, but a few buildings remained huddled in the shadow of the structure. Basilio kept the engine running while Antonio leaned out the window of the hastily stolen ambulance, studying the lay of the land in long, velvety moments of silence. It filled their unlives, so Antonio liked to pretend to be used to it, adjusted to heavy silences, as Basilio was not prone to long speeches like himself.

Basilio, instead, preferred to wait with a great and canny patience.

After a long while, Antonio stopped waiting for Basilio to ask.

“Doesn’t it remind you of home?” he said.

Basilio did not give over to such mortal motions as rolling his eyes, but his fingers did shift on the wheel.

“Not especially. The sound of guns is fairly far off. It might be safe enough to serve as a base of operations,” Basilio replied, refusing to give over to Antonio’s flight of fancy.

“Think about it. Sleeping in the cold stone in the shadow of a church tower,” said Antonio. “If I tune my imagination correctly, I might mistake the thudding of German guns for the footsteps of Guildmasters crossing the square outside our palazzo.”

“It is an affront to Venice that you found a way to compare it to France,” said Basilio.

Antonio did not laugh, for the compulsion required breath, and he had none but the breath he chose to draw in on the occasion he spoke. The required reflex to flutter his diaphragm had been long lost to time.

“I believe that in times like these, she might forgive me,” said Antonio. “Let us park in the remains of the stable.”

It took both of them to pull the hind wheels of the contraption into the shadow of the wooden structure that had fallen down with ill-repair and absent caretakers. Silent as shadows, they struck out around the church to case the grounds and listen for curious rat feet of both animal and human kind. The stones were solid despite the attempt at demolition, and the earth had a powdery, dry smell that promised a sturdy foundation below.

Satisfied, they entered the nave and Antonio approached the side-altar of saints with a candle stub in hand.

“If someone sees the light?” cautioned Basilio. Antonio was aware of him, as he was ever aware of him, standing just to one side of the open doorway. Even here, even alone, Basilio was cautious; he did not allow his silhouette to be picked out so easily by standing in the doorway itself.

Antonio paused before the tall image of an earthly woman dressed in blue, holding in her elbow an abbot’s crozier and in the other a lamp. His unearthly eyes could pick out every detail of the layers of pigment dried to the wooden panel despite the dark shadows.

“They won’t. It would be quite uncouth of me to pass into a lady’s house without announcing myself, no?” Antonio knelt at St. Brigid’s feet and set the candle on a small ledge there-by, and drew out a battered trench lighter he’d lifted from the pocket of a dead man in the abandoned German trenches. It was tube-shaped and made of brass, and on the bottom, someone had engraved a heart and the initials AKS.

He popped the lid and struck the flame with a flick of his thumb, then leaned over the candle murmuring a latin prayer as he lit it in her name.

Basilio, similar to how Antonio did not laugh, also did not sigh. But Antonio heard the soft hush of Basilio’s hair moving and could see in his mind the way his beloved shook his head at Antonio’s eccentricities. Antonio’s memories added the way Basilio’s mouth turned up at the corner, a conceit from when they were alive.

And that, more than anything else he pantomimed, was the reason why he did such things.

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Even at night, Venice was filled with sound. Antonio had been astonished at the way he could distinguish each one if only he tilted his head just so and concentrated, sorting through the layers one by one; first the lapping of the canal water against the stone shore, thick and irregular but always present. Then the chitterings of birds arguing in their sleep, the rats slinking through the edges of the waterways and occasionally swimming across, the many dogs and cats that prowled the edges of trash piles and backdoors. One top of that the ringing of the hours, fine and clear through the venetian evening air, and then, finally, the many layered sounds of the living.

The heart-beat.

But the undead did not make such sounds as these.

Antonio knew the White Lady had availed herself of the parlour of Hieronymous’s estate mostly because Basilio, playing cards across the room with a cluster of fellow fledglings, tilted his head slightly to turn his ear in the direction of the corner. Antonio also turned his eyes that way, and found her studying the card game with her fingertips gently touching her lips. Perhaps Basilio had heard the rustle of her skirts, like layers of dead cicada wings, before Antonio could catch it. He was the more paranoid of the two of them and Antonio disliked relying on him for that personality trait.

He found himself idly caressing the edge of a nearby serving platter to direct the faint sense of urgency her appearance invoked in him. Hieronymous, to whom he’d been speaking, caught the brief slip of inattention immediately.

“Tonino,” said Hieronymous, “have you made the acquaintance of the Lady?”

“I have showed her the finest of my manners,” Antonio assured him. He could not bring himself to draw his eyes away as he watched the lady approach the game. She commented on a poor play by another of the nest, causing a ripple of laughter to pass amongst the assorted undead. It was not a laugh as mortality might find it, but a way the eyes shifted and hair fell across the shoulders of the Venetian nest.

“See that you continue to do so,” said the Master of Venice. Antonio thought, briefly, that perhaps he was amused. He could not understand why.

“Of course. She is quite the fine lady, and you have welcomed her with much grace,” said Antonio. The White Lady turned her attentions to Basilio, finding her way to sit on the arm of the couch with a rustle of skirts. Antonio determinedly did not allow his mouth to move into a thinned line.

“I am sure you know that she comes from more dramatic climes than ours,” said Hieronymous. Antonio snapped his attention back fully to the vampire beside him, and there was definitely a hint of rare amusement in his eyes.

The teasing sunk in.

Antonio forced himself into a slight smile of shared amusement. “Oh yes, I have heard. I am sure she will enjoy our milder atmosphere as a refreshing change of pace.”

Hieronymous touched his shoulder, only lightly, but did not say more. He left Antonio’s side to distract the White Lady, and Antonio found himself relaxing his shoulders as if he were a mortal man.

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Antonio leaned back out of the flicker of the candlelight, allowing his features to slip into the vagaries of shadow. Inside the dim interior of the café, lit only by finely made candles of true beeswax, he was just another dim shape for the young woman across from him to imagine. It made it easier to beguile her mind in the way Hieronymous had taught him, allowed him to nudge her and everyone else’s thoughts to erase the fangs and fill in finer, human features.

“I have heard that Goldoni patronizes this cafe,” his beautiful partner was saying. Ï haven’t seen him myself. Have you had the chance to speak with him?”

She was young, attended by a matron, and blood flushed her cheeks as she leaned into the light. It glittered on the vibrant shine of her eyes, like the faint memory of morning dew. It was faintly scandalous for her to be out so late, but the Caffé Florian was new, fashionable, and served the new import of coffee. Antonio had been excited to visit it while alive, and now dead, had to settle for second-best.

“I’ve not had the pleasure,” said Antonio, “Thought I have heard rumors he shows his face here. Why, are you hoping to catch his eye?” he teased, and she flushed and laughed. The sound filled most of the cafe, and in his periphery, he was vaguely aware of a shape sliding through the dim shadows of the cafe. Dimly aware of how mortal eyes turned away, gently, like a soft hand turning back curtains as it moved through an open window.

Antonio leaned in and focused his thoughts, reminded his heart to beat, and reached out to test touching the lady’s hand and distracting her matron with the conversation the table next to them all at once. It was hard to focus on those two things and the shadow approaching from behind.

“Oh, sir, I would not so pretend,” she said, “He is only a playwright.”

“Perhaps I would make a finer suitor for such a lovely hand, hm?” Antonio said, lifting her hand, when the shadow’s cold fingers brushed his shoulder.

The intimacy of the gesture made his cold, hungry body still. Basilio gripped his shoulder more firmly as he slung a leg over the arm of Antonio’s chair, leaning over him. The chill of his body was a welcome change from the overwrought heat of the café as he displaced the air.

“Please, my lady, excuse the interruption,” Basilio murmured, and Antonio found it hard to frown with Basilio’s voice whispering against the shell of his ear. The reflex of arousal had been stripped from him, but memory supplied the echoes of the correct response. It was a play, but one Antonio found a distinct pleasure in, and Basilio’s possessive lean required no vampiric mind magic to make the young lady stammer and mutter excuses.

Antonio turned his head towards Basilio, his voice hidden by the curve of the other man’s shoulder.

“You have the finest of timing,” he told him dryly.

“I would think your habits would have changed, and yet they haven’t,” said Basilio, just short of cross.

“It takes time to ripen a fine wine,” Antonio replied, but he couldn’t be sharp at the interruption of his potential dinner. After all, he’d still gotten something he wanted.

Basilio’s fingers dug in, then gentled against his death-hardened flesh. As Basilio liked to describe it, it often felt like trying to touch wood left out to season in the sun. It did feel at times like he was wooden, a puppet still moved by his own thoughts, but the gesture pleased him all the same.

“Hieronymus calls, my lord,” said Basilio with no small urgency.

Antonio’s basking was truly wrecked.

Antonio touched Basilio’s knee in discreet acknowledgement of the seriousness of the matter, then turned back to the young lady who watched them out of the corners of her eyes and from behind a flutter of embarrassed fan.

“Perhaps another time,” he offered to her smoothly, falling back into the patterns of a vaguely noble blooded rake with ease. He knew the role quite well. He disengaged from her with a wave of his hand muddling her thoughts, rough but easier than all the long niceties of disentangling oneself from a conversation in Vienna. As he rose, Basilio slipped off his chair, but fell into step at his right hand as Antonio swept up his coat and went out into the street.

It was a comfort to hear the way their footsteps blended together into a single stride.

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As a boy, Antonio had enjoyed going to church for the chance to look up at the stained glass images set high above. Distance figures light from behind by brilliant sun-flash, and leaving broken pieces of color scattered across the floor and the altar. He ran to play in them, his small hands stretched out to catch the light.

His mother grabbed his collar.

“No, Tonino,” she chided him. “That is not for you.”

He stretched his arms towards the light.

“Mama, I want to catch the colors,” he said.

“No, Tonino. It is not for you.”

“Why not?” he begged.

“It is not for you,” she said, and dragged him back into the shadowy eaves.

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Torn asunder.

Burning.

Brilliant flash of heat.

No slow descent into the cold underground of death, this was different. He’d fled into the offered arms of Hieronymus like a bird scared to fall, only to find itself firmly grasped in a hunter’s hands. This was nothing like that. This was the frantic struggle of the human prey in his arms in the moments before they died, before he drank up their thoughts in an ecstasy of momentarily, truly, living. The way they're limbs flopped and struggled, the way they screamed, the way they clawed and thrashed and begged.

He thought he had left all of that behind.

His screaming tore out his voice, until he had no lungs left. Until he had nothing else left. Until he was nothing. Yes, finally, nothing--!

The White Lady snatched him out of the flames.

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What was he?

He heard someone whispering. A lot of someones. In this dark room surrounded by blackness, he opened his eyes as hard as he could and still saw nothing. The voices came from all around him but they sounded more like the small feet of rats running along the Venice canals. Clicking, clacking, and echoing with small scrapes up and down stone. He could feel them there, could feel them searching for him in the darkness of this place. They were coming for him.

The whispers were insidious, maddening.

QUIET.

The voice thundered through the room and made them scatter, but it was an unstable scream. He had no name and made himself small, flattened, groping in the shadows for somewhere to hide.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?

Cold talons grabbed and latched into his flesh, multi-barbed fish hooks that jabbed through the skin. It shook him and rummaged through him, ran ice picks through his insides like he was a book to be searched and then tossed aside. He tried to scream and she laughed, plucking morsels out of his flesh and eating them piece by piece until he was just scraps on the floor.

It was quiet.

Death begat silence.

Antonio.

What was that?

Antonio.

What a strange collection of sounds. He wondered what they meant.

Antonio.

The words latched on to him and he whimpered, no, no please do not make me think, do not make me be, it is so much easier to be nothing than to be like this.

A thought, a lifetime of memories and sensations. A firm hand on his shoulder. The screech of a broken gramophone. The pressure of air against his ear. The possessive lean of a slender body next to his.

He exhaled.

Basilio.

Yes.

Basilio, how.

I do not know.

Even in this, we are not alone.

Not even death.

We must.

Yes, we must.

And they clung together, and somewhere in the middle of memory and scraps of being, they began to plan.

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They whispered to the Others.

Come, come in, they said. Come in, when she isn’t looking.

Delicious thoughts, delicious bodies, come get them.

Come get them.

Come get her.

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Hieronymous froze in the middle of putting down his card.

The game of picquet had gone on for hours. The evening drew long. None of the Venetian nest, and the many others gathered there, would say out-loud that they had drawn together in instinctive reaction to danger out in the bomb-blasted wasteland of the front. It was not the guns that drew them together. Hieronymous, rather privately, believed that the fledglings of Prague and Venice felt an echo of their Master’s urgency, and had drawn together like a flock of bats before the breaking of dawn.

They all looked at him.

He shut his eyes, inhaling to fill his dusty lungs with air, and then letting it seep out between his lips.

He let them go.

He rose without explanation, passing to the north-west-facing windows of the manor. Although the distance was great, his preternatural sight picked out the flash-bomb of explosions on the horizon. The sun trembled on the cusp of rising. The fledglings shivered and rose as one.

“Dies iræ, dies illa; Solvet sæclum in favilla; Teste David cum Sibylla…” he murmured to the frosted glass, the beginning of an ancient poem that even he remembered from his childhood. One spoken in Roman Catholic Churches throughout Venice; a poem that meant little and applied little to the undead.

But sometimes the small memories were all they had left to guide them in the imitations of sorrow.

It was a shame. They had been reliable in their co-dependence, and Hieornymous would have to replace both their steadying influence and the way the White Lady had reminded his fledglings to close ranks together. Perhaps Don Simon would have need of shelter, once the war was over.

He turned back to the vampires attending him. Cold dead bodies stood in pale mockery of the living. Predawn turned their eyes to flat yellow disks. Behind them glittered vicious, brilliant intelligences.

“Let us continue the game,” he told them. And they did.