December 16, 2010

The Nature of the Beast, Part I: The Nahualli

 ((Another Flashback! New story should be back again in the next week or two! Until then, more excerpts from Harper's unlife before Chicago. For reference, the post that comes before this one, chronologically, was  "An Unexpected Outcome" posted on 7/8/10))

I sat across from Giuseppe in a dark, quiet room. He was so still that it was easy to forget he was there at all. I was so engrossed in my meditation that when he spoke I nearly jumped out of my skin.

"What are you, Harper?"
I blinked against the darkness and shifted. I didn't really get sore muscles from sitting in one place too long anymore. Small favor.

I groped for an answer. I could see his silhouette, darker against the blackness of the room. He was watching me.

"A vampire..." I said lamely.
"Is that how you define yourself?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I frowned and thought about the question. It wasn't something I'd ever really considered. These sorts of existential questions where becoming more and more common place. I found it frustrating as hell.

This instance was no different. "I'm a woman.. not human anymore. A monster.."

"You think you are a monster?"

"No.. I.." I made a frustrated noise. "I'm not alive anymore.. I have the Beast..I'm different."
"And the beast makes you a monster?" He asked. He kept his voice neutral, so it was impossible to judge what a right answer might be.
I sighed heavily.These questions never had right answers.. "I don't know. I'm scared that it does."
I hugged myself tightly. This had been a topic I'd been dwelling on a lot lately, the fear that this new 'beast' would turn me into some crazy murdering psycho eventually. "But I've seen humans become monsters too, without the beast along for the what does that mean for us, having the extra push in that direction?"

He regarded me, and I could feel the intensity of his gaze, even without being able to see his eyes. Finally, he stood. "What does it mean to be human?"

"I don't know." I said. I did my best to keep my voice from sounding like a scared child.

"Do not be so quick separate yourself from humanity. You are different, truly, but perhaps not in the manner you are thinking."

He got to his feet. "We leave first thing tomorrow night."

"Where are we going?"
"Mexico City." He opened the door, I blinked against the flood of dim light that spilled in from the hallway.
"Why Mexico?" I fought to keep my voice neutral. I didn't want to think about Mexico, and I really didn't want to go back.
"To find an answer to your question." He said, then disappeared down the hallway.


The next night, I shoved a few things into a small duffel bag. Mostly just a couple changes of clothes and a few weapons. Vampires tend to travel light.

I zipped the bag and opened my bedroom door to an empty apartment. I moved quickly towards the door. There wasn't any rush, but if I slowed down, I was afraid I'd start thinking too hard about where we were going. I'd start remembering the hot jungle, the sounds of the animals, the top of that impossibly tall temple.. the feeling of the knife as it..

I picked up the pace and jogged down the stairs, foregoing the elevator.

I met Giuseppe down at the car and said nothing. I just tossed my bag in the trunk and slide into the backseat. Mona dropped us off at the airport.

I got to fly on my first chartered jet. It made traveling much simpler. Commercial jets hold all sorts of dangers to someone who is highly allergic to sunlight. It's also not the best idea to put a wolf in a compact metal tube with a bunch of sheep, with no way out for either of them.

Safety precautions aside, flying in a private plane is just plain nice, vampire or not. It helped keep me distracted for awhile.

The trip was a good deal shorter than I was expecting. We stepped out into the cool night air, and I found I was significantly less terrified of being here than I thought I would be. That said, I still had no desire to revisit that fucking temple.

Thankfully, I didn't have too. We weren't headed to the temple. We were going to the University of Mexico.

 It was late, so the campus was sparsely populated. Both of us looked young enough to avoid suspicion, regardless. Giuseppe walked quickly towards one of the academic buildings, and despite the fact that I was several inches taller than him, I had to lengthen my stride to keep up.

Apparently we were on a timetable.

We stopped in front of the only building sporting a guard. He sat near the entrance, in a golf cart, pretending to doze, but he noticed us as soon as we stepped out of the shadows, even with the hat pulled down so far over his face. Giuseppe walked towards him, signaling me to wait.

They conversed briefly, in Spanish. I didn't catch a word of it, but after only a moment, the guard got out of his golf cart and unlocked the door, motioning us inside.

The interior was dark, the moon shining through the windows cast weird shadows on the floor and walls. Giuseppe led the way down a hallway, making a few turns here and there, until we were standing in front of a door that looked just like every other door in the building, with the exception of the man standing in front of it.

Where the hell was he taking me? The new guy opened the door for us, then followed us inside. What came next were a series of hidden doors, descending staircases, and finally an old elevator that opened up to a small cavern lit by torches.

The cavern looked like a small, round amphitheater. Benches were carved from the stone, 360 degrees around a flat lowered areas that held a stone table.

No, more like an altar. An altar large enough for a grown man to lay on. It was carved with symbols that I guessed were Aztec in origin. Torches adorned each corner.

And it was stained with blood.

What the fuck was going on?

Giuseppe and I sat about half way down the rocky benches. I tried not to look as uncomfortable as I felt. The torchlight danced across the room. There were several others present, about a dozen, already seated. At least three of them were vampires, the rest were either mortal, or something else entirely. There was a quiet tension in the air, but it seemed ritual, like the tension itself was part of whatever event we were about to witness.

We didn't have to wait long before the sound of drums filled the room, though I saw no drummers. The beat was slow at first, almost like a heartbeat. Then, it quickened, like startled bird...

No, I realized it felt more anticipatory than that. More like a wolf giving chase to a deer. It was excited and primal. My own beast started uncurling, and I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. I glanced at Giuseppe, surprised, but he was staring at the altar.

I followed his gaze and saw a man were no one had been standing a moment before. He was dressed in what I could guess was traditional Aztec ritual costume. He wore an ornate headdress of feathers and jewels. His shoulders and chest were bare, and he wore a loincloth that looked like it had been donated by a leopard. His forearms were covered in leather gauntlets studded with more stones and smaller feathers. His feet were bare.

And his face was painted like something from a horror flick. His eyes were circled in black. White and black paint made his lips look like a set of skeletal teeth, and red smears marred his high cheekbones and ran down his chin. Even from a distance, I knew it was blood, and I knew he was Kindred.

He held up his arms, and the drums ceased abruptly. He held out his hands and all eyes turned to watch a young vampire walk slowly down the isle, towards the priest. He was olive skinned and incredibly handsome. His hair was jet black, and oiled till it shone in the torch light. His lack of clothing, save a loincloth, showed his toned and sculpted body. As he passed me, I could tell his skin was soft and utterly flawless.

He stopped beside the priest, who raised his voice to address the crowd. He spoke in a rolling baritone, and completely in Spanish. Giuseppe began translating for me, and I had to lean closer to hear him over the echoing acoustics of the small cavern

"Today, we gather to partake in Tezcatlipoca's Gift! This man was granted the knowledge of the Smoking Mirror one year ago. Since that time, he has been treated to any luxury his heart desired, any comfort that pleased him. Any pleasure, save that of freedom!"

The tension returned. It was like the whole room was holding its breath. I found myself leaning forward in anticipation, despite the fact that I had no idea what was about to happen. A glance at Giuseppe told me he was doing the same.

"Tonight, we grant him that final comfort!"

The young vampire squared his shoulders and held his head high. I watched as his muscles tensed. He inhaled deeply, like he was preparing himself for a heavy physical blow.

Despite these warning signs, I was still caught completely by surprise when the priest laid on hand gently on the man's shoulder...

And slammed an obsidian knife deep into his sculpted chest.

I was too shocked to move. All I could do was watch in stupefied horror as he dragged the blade down, creating a huge gaping maw of a wound. I heard ribs snap, and the rational part of my brain wondered how he managed to break through bone with the famously brittle obsidian.

The young vampire did not flee. He did not cry out. His eyes went wide and his body rigid with pain. He arched his back and balled his fists, but nothing but a quiet, strangled gasp escaped him. The priest dropped the knife, and I prayed that it was over.

But deep down, I knew better.

The priest shoved his hand, none too gently, into the hideous wound, up to the wrist. With one quick jerk, the priest tore the vampires heart from his chest. He held it up for all of us too see. Vitae dripped from his fingers. There were cheers from several of those present. My body felt like ice. I was locked in place, unable to do more than watch in horrid fascination as the priest picked up the fallen man and laid him on the altar. He took that same obsidian knife and began to skin the vampire. We were close enough to hear the muffled cries of the victim.. he was being flayed alive.

I nearly vomited all over that stone floor when the priest finished (he skinned with the speed of someone well practiced) and took the flayed skin and draped it over his own shoulders. 

His booming voice rang out again as he took up one torch and turned the altar into a funeral pyre. It wasn't until the vampire went up like dry kindling that I was able to tear my eyes away. I flinched back from the fire and began shaking as the spell of the gruesome ritual fell away like broken glass.

The priest was speaking again, but if Giuseppe was translating, I didn't hear it. I looked up, panicked for a moment, my thinking brain still shocked into silence and my fear looking for the one familiar face it knew would be close.

Giuseppe met my searching eyes with a mirror of my own horror ridden expression. He was just as disgusted and disturbed by the ritual as I had been.

"Who..who are these people?" I managed to whisper.

"The Nahualli." He replied, his voice quiet and hoarse.

We turned together and watched the flames until there was nothing left but ash. We sat there until the cavern emptied, and we were alone. I felt like I was in shock. It took a good 20 minutes before my brain kicked back on, and I was filled with a tidal wave of conflicting emotions. Disgust, horror, rage, fear, excitement, joy, despair.. I hated myself for not trying to stop them, and while the thought of what they would have done to me had I tried was terrifying, more so was the fact that part of me reveled in the entire atrocity. That monstrous part of me screamed for joy when the hunter tore the heart from his prey.

Is that what I had to look forward too? Would that part of me overwhelm the rest, one day?

I closed my eyes against tears I hadn't even realized were falling and took several deep breaths to steady myself. When I finally managed to get it under control, I looked up to find Giuseppe watching me, his expression grim.

"Did you know?" I croaked. It came out more accusatory than I meant it too.
He shook his head, and I thought I caught a glimpse of a haunted expression behind his eyes.

The elevator opened behind us. A Hispanic man stepped out, dressed in gray slacks and a tweed jacket that almost hid the fact that he was in ridiculously good shape. His hair was black with streaks of silver, which made him look older than he was, at first glance. He couldn't have been more than 40. Or at least, that's how old he would have been when he died.

Giuseppe stood, and I followed suit. My legs hardly wobbled at all.

"Please, Come." The man said, in perfect English. It wasn't until he spoke that I realized this man was the priest I had just witnessed slaughter someone and wear his skin like a cape. Rage bubbled up inside me again. I must have done something to give it away, because Giuseppe caught my eye and gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. I stared at him, fine tremors making my clenched fists shake. Giuseppe just looked at me, unflinching, until I finally dropped my eyes. I took a deep breath and tried to relax my hands, forcing as much anger down and away as I could manage.

Then we walked up the aisle and stepped into the elevator with a monster.


A few moments later we sat in two comfortable leather chairs in a well furnished office. The walls were lined with degrees and awards, and the bookcases were overflowing with books and manuscripts. Professor Ramirez, as the placard on the expensive desk labeled him, sat across from us, the picture of scholarly politeness.

The image was slightly marred by the bits of old blood I could see under his fingernails.

"Mr. Santore, it is a pleasure to see you again."
He looked to me. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Reynaldo Ramirez. Professor of Ancient History. Can I get you anything at all?" He asked, his demenour surprisingly pleasant.

"What the fuck is going on?" I demanded, finally finding my voice.

He nodded to himself, unperturbed by my tone. "The Ritual of Tezcatlipoca's Gift. It certainly can be jarring for those who have never witnessed it before. It is for that reason, among others, that we tend not to allow outsiders, as a general rule."

"Why?" Was all I could muster.

"How familiar are you with the culture of the Aztecs?"

I said nothing. He continued, unfazed. "The primary god in the Aztec pantheon was Tezcatlipoca. He was an evil god, lord of famine, deceit, and disease. His name meant 'The Smoking Mirror' because he represented all that was veiled in the world." He went over to the book case and pulled down a large volume. He opened it to a picture of an etching. It depicted a ritual of human sacrifice. Bodies lay everywhere across the top of a temple. I couldn't help but shudder. It felt too familiar.

"However, Tezcatlipoca also had another side. Another identity, if you will. This other side, to the Aztecs, was another being entirely. Tezcatlipoca could also appear as Quetzalcoatl, god of light and knowledge." He replaced the book on the shelf and settled on the edge of his desk. "There is no evidence, in Aztec spirituality, that Tezcatlipoca ever tried to reconcile these two sides of himself. You see, Tezcatlipoca was the dark reflection of life, a smoking mirror of perception. But, like the Kindred, there remained aspects of good within his being. The Nahualli believe that this is reflected in us.We enact these rituals to honor our own Smoking Mirrors. Just as this," He gestured to his comfortable office. "Is one aspect of myself, so the darkness is one as well. I seek to subsume neither. It is balance that we seek, and such balance can only be achieved if we honor every aspect of our beings."

I gaped at him. "But you tore out his fucking heart!"

For the first time, Ramirez's expression darkened. "I am well aware of what occurred tonight."
"But how could you.."
He cut me off, his voice hard, eyes flashing. "Carlos was a willing participant in the Ritual. And more importantly, he was my friend. He knew what would happen to him, and he wanted it. I mourn for the loss.. but I take comfort in the fact that he spent the last year of his existence in luxury."

I tried to speak, but couldn't. I was at a complete loss. I looked to Giuseppe for help, but he sat silently, his expression unreadable.

The angry seemed to drain out of the professor and he gave me a smile that might have been apologetic. "It is a difficult thing to grasp, a foreign philosophy to one such as yourself. I understand that, from the outside, such a thing must seem..barbaric. But I assure you, these rituals serve an important purpose. While so many of our kind hide behind the guise of civility, pretending to be something they are not, we embrace both our humanity, and our monstrosity, in order to be a whole and unified being. " He stood and straighten his jacket. "Is there anything else I can do for you this evening?"

I just shook my head, dumbfounded.
Giuseppe stood and nodded to the professor. "Thank you for your time."

He gave us a gracious smile. "The pleasure was mine. Please, feel free to stop in whenever you like."

He held the door for us as we left the office.


I was quiet as we made our way back to the airport. Giuseppe let me stew for awhile.

I felt like I needed 50 boiling hot showers to scour away the memory of the night. I couldn't wrap my head around how anyone could possibly enact such brutal ceremonies. Balance? That hardly seemed balanced to me. How can polite words and a genteel manner balance out horrific murders? And he had said 'rituals' as we were leaving. Plural. I didn't even want to consider what other despicable acts the Nahualli used to give honor to their Beasts.

We were seated on the plane, awaiting takeoff before I finally spoke.

"I don't think I understand the lesson here." I said, somewhat bitterly. "From what I can tell, I should lock up the Beast and throw away the key."

Giuseppe looked at my over the top of his steepled fingers. "That is because the Nahualli are only one example.. the first half of the lesson. They represent one extreme." I made a disgusted noise in my throat, that he ignored. "They prove the things that the Beast is capable of, if left unchecked."

I sunk low in my seat, pressing the heels of my hands into my eyes, trying to block out the sight of the gaping wound, the smell of charred flesh....

"So what's the second half of the lesson?"

"You will see when we get there."

I sighed heavily and stared down at my hands. Not for the first time, I wondered when the day would come that my Beast would do something awful, and how much longer it would take before I was happy to let it..

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