One With The Darkness
The City-State of Firenze, Tuscany, 1821
It was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Wasn't that what they said? Whoever they were, they obviously didn't know what regret could do to one. After eighteen hundred years, the thorn of regret had festered until it was like to poison her.
Contessa Donnatella Margherita Luchella di Poliziano drifted onto the balcony of the Palazzo Vecchio. The scent of star jasmine hung in the air as twilight deepened into indigo. Summer in Firenze gave precious little darkness, an inconvenience to her kind. Below her in the Piazza del Signoria the usual throng of women crowded around Buonarrati's statue of David. It had been modeled after her son, Gian in 1504.
Gian was the bright spot in her life. It was so rare for her kind to be blessed with a child. He was like his father, Jergan — as handsome as Jergan had been, as much of a leader. But Gian was vampire, like Donnatella, born in 41 A.D in Rome, and Jergan had been human.
Her eyes filled. She could have changed that. She hadn't had the courage to make Jergan vampire because the Rules forbade it and the vampire Elders always enforced the Rules. So she had watched the only man she ever loved grow old and die. Such a short a time she'd had with him! Half a century? No more.
She shook herself and turned inside. The library smelled of the lemon oil used to polish the heavy, dark furniture. Her gaze fell on her favorite painting. Botticelli had rendered Jergan as Triton rising from the waves based only on Donnatella's description. The likeness was remarkable in view of the fact that the artist had never seen him. Green eyes. Long, dark hair. Body sculpted by a warrior's training. The painting and her son were all she had left of him.
If only she had known the regret that waited for her, she would have found the courage. She could have infected him with her Companion, the parasite in her blood stream. Then he would have shared her more-than-human strength and senses, the healing, the power to compel men's minds, the ability to translocate. There had been one moment-he'd been wounded-she'd almost done it then, used that as an excuse. The Companion would have healed him. Of course the Companion also demanded its host drink human blood. How could she have asked him to take on such a burden? To be thought a monster…. Still, if he'd survived the infection, they would have had forever together.
Of course, if he'd died then she'd have had no time with him at all.
And it was against the Elders' Rules. If one made a vampire every time one fell in love…
She straightened her back and daubed at her eyes. The Elders were wrong. She would have been stronger for having Jergan by her side, a man who understood her, loved her.
The clock chimed ten. Already she had missed the first act of the opera. This was fruitless longing. There was no going back. It would do her good to get out of the house. She rang for Maria. The rust silk, perhaps. It made her complexion glow. And her garnets. She opened the secret compartment in the wall and removed the large puzzle box containing her jewels. The bas relief on the box was carved by Buonarrati, showing Adam and Eve in the garden. Adam's likeness was amazing. Buonarrati always had a better feel for the nude male figure than the female, for obvious reasons.
She sat at her dressing table and pressed open the box as she had a thousand, thousand times before, twisting just the right way. The box popped open as it always had.
But this time a tiny drawer in the edge popped open too.
Donnatella blinked. What was this?
She pulled open the tiny drawer. A folded piece of paper lay inside. A note? But who could have put it here? Had one of her maids learned to open the box? But even Donnatella didn't know how she had sprung open this special little drawer…
She set the box down and unfolded the paper. Holding it to the light, she recognized Buonorroti's cramped hand. Really, how could such a brilliant artist write so badly?
"Go to the catacombs under Il Duomo. Take the main corridor from the north end directly south. Behind the end wall is something Leonardo says will make you happy, Donnatella." It was signed "Michelangelo" in just the scribble one could still see on the base of the Pieta.
Whatever could he mean?
And why leave a note for… for more than three hundred years inside a puzzle box? Why, she might never have opened the little secret drawer. He'd never showed her how when he demonstrated the box back in 1501.
Maria knocked discretely and let herself in. She bustled about opening the wardrobe. "Which dress would you like tonight, your ladyship?"
"The rust silk," Donnatella murmured, still staring at the note. Behind the wall is something that will make you happy…. Not likely. Only one thing would make her happy and it was nearly eighteen hundred years too late to get it. She hadn't even admitted what it was to herself until tonight. Buonarrati could not have known. Whatever was behind that wall would long ago have crumbled to dust. Finding a pile of dust was definitely not worth missing that new castrato at the opera.
No, she was not going to go chasing off after some daft dream that Buonarrati could never fulfill. No one could fulfill it, and to think otherwise for a single second only indicated just how close to madness she was drifting.
But what else was left for her?
She rose so suddenly the chair toppled over. "Never mind the rust silk, Maria. Get the dress I wore when we re-organized the wine cellar."
The maid's eyes widened. "Your ladyship is never going to wear that dress to the Opera!"
"No I am not. And find my sturdiest half-boots." She rang the bell again. It sounded as though she'd need a tool for demolition. A blacksmith's sledgehammer perhaps. Bucarro, her faithful major domo, would know where to procure one. A footman peeped into the room.
"Get Bucarro," she ordered. This was insane. But she was going to the catacombs
Donnatella stood alone in her rooms in front of a full-length mirror, the sledgehammer and a lantern concealed under her cloak. She dared not meet any late-returning revelers in the streets carrying a sledgehammer and dressed for dirty work. So she called on the Companion in her blood. Power surged up her veins, trembling like the threat of sheet lightning in the air around her. A red film dropped over her field of vision. To anyone watching, her eyes would now be glowing red. Companion, more! she thought. And that being that was the other half of her answered with a surge. A whirling blackness rose up around her. Even light could not escape that vortex. She watched her reflection in the mirror disappear. She pictured the Baptistery of the Duomo in her mind. Not many living knew about the catacombs beneath it any more. The field of power grew so intense it collapsed in on itself, popping her out of space. The familiar pain seared through her just as the blackness overwhelmed her. She gasped.
The blackness drained away leaving only the dim interior of the octagonal Baptistery. She did not bother with the lamp. To humans the mosaics of the dome above her would be lost in shadows but she saw well in darkness. The place felt like the crossroads of the world. The building itself was clearly Roman, almost like the Pantheon, but the sarcophagi on display were Egyptian, the frescoes Germanic in flavor. The floor, with its Islamic inlay, stretched ahead to the baptismal font. Her boots clicked across the marble. Behind the font was a staircase. She ran down into the darkness without hesitation. Below, the walls of the vast chamber were of plain stone, the floor above supported with columns and round arches. Marble tombs of cardinals and saints lined the edges. It smelled of damp stone and, ever so faintly, decay.
But this was not her destination. A large rectangular stone carved in an ornate medieval style lay in the middle of the floor. It was perhaps four feet across and six long, six inches thick. Setting down her sledgehammer, she stooped and lifted. Thank the gods for vampire strength.
She dragged the stone aside so that it only partially covered the opening. A black maw revealed rough stone stairs leading down. The smell of human dust assailed her. Rats skittered somewhere. Now she took out her flint and striker and lit the lamp. Stepping into the darkness, she turned and lifted the stone above her once again. It dropped into place with a resounding thud, concealing the stairs. Holding the lamp high in one hand, she started down. Light flickered on the stone walls on either side of the staircase. Catacombs at night were the stuff of nightmares for most of the world. But she was not afraid. She was the stuff of nightmares too.
The stairs finally opened out on a maze of corridors, each lined with niches to hold the bodies of the early Christian dead. Most were filled now only with piles of dust or sometimes a clutter of bones. Occasionally a skeleton hand still clutched a crucifix or some shred of rotted fabric fluttered in the air that circulated from somewhere.
Before she headed into the maze, she got her bearings. She must find the north side and locate a corridor that led south. That would take her back under the nave of the main building of the Duomo. She took a breath and started out. It took her several wrong turnings to make her way to the north edge of the maze, but she was rewarded by finding a long, straight corridor that lead away from the main catacombs.
This was it. She knew it. Whatever Michelangelo Buonarrati thought would make her happy was at the end of this corridor. She was foolish. There was no doubt about that. Buonarrati couldn't know what would make her happy and if he did he couldn't give it to her. Traipsing around in catacombs on a treasure hunt that would no doubt prove disappointing if it wasn't useless altogether was a sign of just how desperate she had become.
But she was desperate. She didn't know how much more she could take of the gnawing regret that had overwhelmed her in the last years. So, foolish as this was, however likely to end in disappointment, she couldn't turn and walk away. She started down the corridor.
It ended abruptly in a solid wall of plaster. She set down her lantern, her stomach fluttering no matter how she tried to tell it there was no cause for excitement. Hefting the sledgehammer, she hauled it back and slammed it into the wall with all her strength. The plaster crumbled, revealing carefully cut stone that fitted exactly together. Dust choked the air. This would take some doing. Again and again she swung at the stones until she could pry at the ruined corners. Her fingertips were bloodied. No matter. They healed even as she glanced at them. But wasn't she going about this the wrong way?
Instead of trying to pry the stone out, she shoved it in. It toppled into the darkness. She pushed a neighboring stone and then another until she confronted a yawning chasm, coughing.
She lifted her lantern and stepped through the cloud of dust into the darkness.
What stood towering above her was a maze of a different kind. Giant gears and levers interlocked in some crazy pattern that was positively beautiful. The metal gleamed golden, still shiny with oil. At points in the mechanism jewels the size of her fist were set, red and green and blue and clear white. Those couldn't be real, could they?
She stood dumb-founded, staring. What was this thing? A machine of some kind. But what was it for?
It was long minutes before she could tear her eyes away from the beautiful intricacy and look around the room. There was no dust except for the puff that had wafted in from her exertions with the wall. The place must have been tightly sealed to keep out even dust. How long had it been sealed? Probably since the note was written. Besides the machine the room contained only a simple metal chair and a table to match, golden like the machine, sitting in a corner, unobtrusive. On the table was a leather-covered book.
Emotions churned through her. Disappointment lurked at the edges of her mind. A machine could not give her back happiness, no matter what it pumped or measured. And yet, there was something almost otherworldly about this most human of creations.
She pulled out the chair, sat, and drew the book toward her. The cover had mold on it. Even a sealed room couldn't keep out mold. Carefully she opened it. The first page startled her. "For Contessa Donnatella Margherita Luchella di Poliziano, from her friend Leonardo DaVinci. I dedicate to you my greatest work."
Shivers ran down her spine. Twice in one night she had received notes from friends dead three hundred years. They must have expected her to open them long ago. They'd never believe she was sill alive three hundred years after they wrote the note. Whatever they wanted her to know or do with this machine, she was very late in accomplishing.
She turned another page.
Leonardo, the dear, always had quite an ego. Still, the man was amazing. He was probably right about the machine.
Gods, do you jest? She looked up at the machine that filled the space. It gleamed in flickering lamplight, towering above her. The jewels sparkled as the light caught them. The possibilities flickered through her in response. What if she could go back? Undo the decision that took Jergan away from her, have at least the hope of happiness she had seen in Gian's eyes? This might be the one thing that could make her happy.
Her eyes darted back to the journal. But he said he had never tested it….
Donnatella sat there, stunned. She couldn't think. A time machine? If so, it was one that confused even the grand intellect of the one who made it. The possibilities thrilled through her. Could going back change what happened? If she changed what happened, couldn't it have some unintended consequences? How could one possibly risk that? She took a sharp breath. What if Gian had never been born? Could she bear that? What if making Jergan vampire made him unable to father Gian? She'd often thought the only reason she conceived was that Jergan was human. She found her throat constricting at the thought.
But no. She'd conceived Gian before Jergan was wounded. If she made Jergan vampire at the moment he was close to dying and not a moment before, she'd still have her son.
She leafed through the pages of the journal. Lord God in heaven. Was this possible? Complicated drawings, long blotted passages containing theoretical explanations of the vortex of time, records of his useless attempts to find enough energy to power the machine, all flipped past her. She stopped and read a few passages. She was doing it only to delay the moment of decision.
And why? She knew what she would do here. Once she had been too timid to break the Rules and grab for the prize. Now she was willing to risk everything, everything but Gian.
Her heart thudded in her chest as she rose from the table and stared up at the great machine. Did her Companion have enough power to run it? She had fed recently, and translocated only once tonight. But who could know? She might just test the theory-pull back if she got some initial result. But she wouldn't. What if timidity ruined everything as it had so long ago? What if she drained herself in an experiment, making the real effort impossible?
It was all or nothing.
She swallowed, her eyes filling for the second time tonight.
The handle of the machine was a brass lever about two feet long and topped by a glowing jewel. She reached out for it. The great diamond fit her palm exactly.
She pulled. There was a creak but nothing else changed.
"Companion." She called on her other half out loud in the wavering lamplight. A surge of power shot up her veins. A red film fell over her field of vision. If anyone could see her, her eyes would be glowing read. Above her, the early morning light would be filtering into the nave of Il Duomo. The priests would be moving quietly about, tending the votive candles or kneeling in prayer. The machine was still.
"Companion! More!" The whirling black vortex of translocation began to swirl around her feet. She couldn't allow that. She pushed it down, but kept the power humming in the air. There was a great grinding sound and the largest of the metal cogs in front of her began to move. Still she called the power from the parasite in her blood that was part of her and more than her. A white glow formed a halo around her. Every detail of the cavern stood out, sharp-edged. The movement of the gears cascaded down from the great, cogged wheel to the hundred smaller ones. The jewels sparkled. Gears whirled ever faster until the eye could not follow them.
"More!" she shrieked into the hum that cycled up the scale, and lifted her arms in supplication. Her Companion was at its limit. Was that enough?
Nothing more was happening. The machine was faint behind the white glow. Her body stretched itself taut with effort. What now? She couldn't hold this level of power forever.
Ahhhh. The destination.
She thought of the moment she had almost decided to make Jergan vampire. Emotion poured through her as she stared at his wounds, not knowing if he would survive them. She could feel the machine move even faster. It was just a blur beyond the corona of her power. And then it slowed. From somewhere outside herself she saw her body standing, glowing, in front of the great machine as it creaked almost to a halt it moved so slowly. Had she failed? The power still poured from her body into the room. A feeling of incredible tristesse came over her. She would not win through. Her only hope of happiness, or of giving Jergan his own forever, faded.
It was only luck that she had met him at all. Her friend Titus had talked her into buying a slave as bodyguard. Poor Titus….
Everything snapped back to motion and she felt herself being flung like a stone in a slingshot into more and more speed. The jewels lit up. They magnified the power into colored beams that crisscrossed, swinging in arcs across the stone ceiling. Pain surged into every fiber of her body.