The Priest loomed over Vitalis d’Engayne and thrust the crucifix towards his pale face.
‘Ha! I have you now!’ he said with a note of triumphant righteousness.
Celia cowered in the corner where she had been flung. All her strength had drained from her and she stared in horror as the Priest lifted the stake, preparing to drive it through the heart of the once-noble d’Engayne. This was what she had been striving for for so long – the destruction of the most powerful and ancient vampire – but now the moment had come, she dreaded it.
Clem stared at the computer screen, as she had been doing for most of the day. She just wasn’t sure how to finally finish off her creation. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to. He had been the source of her income for four years now, and her agent thought that vampire novels had a couple more years to run before the reading public finally got fed up of all that pale, brooding menace and barely-concealed eroticism: all the biting and the blood. But Clem had dried up; she could think of no more twists to the old story. Vitalis had nowhere left to hide. She had to finish him off.
But she really didn’t want to leave it to the Priest to make that final thrust. She was horrified at what he had become – he had started off benign but, somehow, his quest for the destruction of the most powerful and ancient vampire had infected him. His piety had turned to arrogant self-righteousness and the desire to destroy had overcome his duty to preserve life. Unlike Vitalis himself, he was mean-spirited and vicious.
Clem had wanted to create an evil vampire – on the model of Dracula himself – and against the current trend to make vampires sympathetic as the victims of their state. Their victimhood, combined with their brooding silence and dark, penetrating gaze had made them irresistibly attractive: they represented all the pent-up desires of a modern society that valued safety and conformity above all. Maybe she shouldn’t have made him so good-looking, with his long, aquiline nose and high, chiselled cheekbones? Clearly Celia had fallen for him, which hadn’t been the plan at all. Though, remembering Bram Stoker’s novel, maybe she had been wrong to make her blonde, like Lucy? Why was it always the blonde who was so pretty, so attractive to men, so vulnerable in Victorian novels? She thought of Celia in Middlemarch and Laura in The Woman in White: her world was populated with fictional characters. Had the name of her vampire slayer been determined by her reading – had she wanted to turn the amiable and innocent-looking Celia into a strong, sexy hero?
Clem pushed her own dark hair back and continued to stare at her computer. She really didn’t want the Priest to have the satisfaction of destroying d’Engayne. The low, late-afternoon sun shone through her window onto the screen, temporarily blanking out her writing. She saw the bright red and gold colours of the setting sun reflected off her screen – she had never known the light so bright before. It must be something odd about the angle the sun shone through her window as it passed down low between the houses on the other side of the street at this time of year. Maybe she should just let a beam of sunlight into the room to strike Vitalis, to wither and destroy him in an instant?
The light in her room was becoming brighter: a white-gold reflecting off her computer screen. She turned to the window to draw the curtains, but the light was not beyond the window but inside the room. It was a bright, glowing shape. Tall and slim. As she stared, unable to move her eyes, it gradually, eventually, resolved itself into a human – or human-like – form. Vaguely masculine, with broad shoulders. She couldn’t tell whether or not it was dressed, or whether the shoulders and chest simply dissolved into a flowing gown that streamed down towards, but not quite touching, the ground. Everything was shimmering and light-filled, apart from the eyes which were dark blue. They gazed steadily at her.
The figure crossed his arms and cocked his head slightly to one side.
‘What you need is an angel.’
Clem might have expected a deep and resonant voice, but this sounded more like a character from a US sitcom. The brightness was dulling and she could make out the features of his face. It was a handsome face, with a long, aquiline nose and high, chiselled cheekbones, but an expression of sardonic exasperation.
‘Well, really! You can’t have the Priest finishing him off can you? Now he really is evil, and I should know. The things I could tell you about evil.’
Clem didn’t know how to respond to this thing – this person – this phenomenon – in her room. But even so she thought it curious that she wasn’t scared. It was almost as though she knew him, had always known him. Was he the thing she almost saw out of the corner of her eye sometimes? The sensation of a movement? The feeling that someone was present in an empty room?
‘What – what do you mean?’ was all she could think to say.
‘You need an angel – you know, a bright, shining figure, gorgeously handsome if I may say so – to appear and drag that Priest straight off where he belongs.’
‘You can’t have an angel just appearing like that.’ As soon as she said it, Clem realised what a ridiculous thing it was to say to a bright, shining figure that had just appeared in her room. But she persisted anyway, ‘Angels don’t exist. They’re not real.’
‘They’re as real as vampires, darling. Probably realler.’ He sounded petulant. Clem was afraid she’d hurt his feelings.
‘Are you an angel?’
‘Not just an angel.’ He seemed to perk up. He’d begun to lean back, perching on the window sill; now he straightened himself and stretched out the wings that had until then been folded at his back. They were iridescent like mother-of-pearl. ‘I’m your angel.’
‘My angel? My guardian angel?’
‘What else? And don’t say you don’t believe in angels. Loads of people do.’
Clem wasn’t sure of the logic of his argument.
‘They’re mostly in America,’ she pointed out.
‘So are the vampires,’ he countered.
‘But we’re in England.’
‘You’re the one writing about vampires.’
‘But that’s all made up. And anyway, believing in something – or writing about it – doesn’t make it real.’
‘So why are you so worried about what’s going to happen to d’Engayne? And why can’t you control the Priest?’
Clem sometimes felt as though someone was reading what she was writing over her shoulder. It must be this creature, this phenomenon, this angel.
‘Yes it is me. Always has been, all along.’ He sounded very pleased with himself, smug even. ‘And yes I can read your thoughts. Phenomenon – yes, I’m a phenomenon. That’s almost better than “angel”. That’s the problem with your language, of course – any language – it can never quite capture the reality. Never really express what you’re feeling. That’s why you have to make up stories.’
‘?’ Clem didn’t bother speaking, she wasn’t even sure how to word her question.
‘You write about vampires and priests because you’re struggling with the age-old question of good and evil.’ The angel sounded as though he were teaching a rather dull child. ‘But then you realise that the good guy – the priest – is really bad and the evil guy – the vampire – has what we like to call “redeeming qualities”.’
‘So what am I supposed to do?’
‘Weelllll.’ For a moment the angel seemed stumped, as though he didn’t actually have all the answers. ‘We’ve got to write the ending of you book haven’t we?’ Suddenly it seemed obvious – if you don’t know what to do with your vampire, engage the services of your guardian angel.
‘Yes – it will be fun! Clemency Davis and the Phenomenon!’
‘It sounds like a new-age rock band.’
‘We can do that next. Pity other people can’t see me – I could be a sensation. The phenomenon is a sensation!’
‘Other people can’t see you?’
‘Of course not – I’m your angel.’
‘OK. So if the Priest is really bad, do we need a really good guy to defeat him?’
‘That’s where the angel comes in.’
‘Are you good? I mean really Good, with a capital G?’
The angel seemed to squirm a bit. ‘Nobody – and even no-one without a body!’ – he couldn’t resist his own wit – ‘is completely good. Only the Power is good.’
‘The Power? is that God?’
‘Not quite. God is what you humans have made in your image to, kind of, take his place. You can’t cope with the Power. You haven’t the language – the mental capacity you might say. That’s why we call him the Power when we talk to you. If we really expressed his power, articulated it, it would blow your mind.’ The angel was talking quite seriously, but then added, ‘Quite literally. You would explode with the impossibility of it all.’ He giggled.
‘There are those,’ he admitted, ‘who think I’m a bit light-weight – flippant even. And they say I’m vain. But can I help it if, even among the most beautiful creatures in the imagination of the Power, I am particularly beautiful?’
There was no answer to that, and Clem didn’t try to think of one.
‘So what happens to the Priest?’ she asked. The angel thought for a moment.
‘A door opens. There’s light and fire beyond, and a deep, rumbling, roaring sound. The gates of Hell!’ he giggled, excited by his own imagination. Or maybe he had seen it all? ‘A bright, shining figure appears next to the Priest – I’m sure you’ll be able to describe him. But make sure he’s not quite as beautiful as me. His nose isn’t quite as elegant, his cheek-bones not quite so sharply-chiselled. And he’s a little clumsy maybe – but powerful. Oh yes, he’s got to be very powerful. He’ll have to be one of the higher orders of angels. He drags the Priest, screaming and kicking, through the door.’
This all sounded rather ridiculous to Clem, but then she thought of the whole history of Gothic literature, back to the horrors of The Monk.
‘Yes,’ the angel said, reading her mind. ‘Lewis did have help with that. Mind you I think he may have been on something dodgy as well. Or have had a seriously disturbed childhood. Have you read the ending?’ The angel shuddered, sending out coruscating slivers of light.
‘So what would God – or the Power – think of a priest being dragged down to hell?’
The angel shrugged his shoulders. ‘There are good priests and bad priests.’
‘You don’t have anything against the church as such?’
‘Take your pick!’
‘That’s the problem isn’t it? They’re all busy worshipping the God they’ve created and lose sight of what’s really going on.’ The angel obviously was reluctant to discuss theological matters. He changed tack abruptly, ‘Let’s get on with this novel of yours.’
Clem turned back to her screen which now had a screen saver playing, though not one she had ever seen before. It seemed to be an image of the universe, like one of the pictures sent back to earth by Hubble, but this was moving and three dimensional: vast swirling clouds of coloured gas, turquoise and blood red, like an apocalyptic sunset, and bright stars, flashing and flaring. Gazing at it, Clem felt giddy, as though she was being swept into the intergalactic spaces. She didn’t know which way was up and was short of oxygen.
‘Oops sorry!’ the angel giggled. ‘All that infinity can blow you away a bit if you’re not used to it. Just tap a key – any key! – and normal service will be resumed.’
Clem tapped the keyboard and the text she’d been working on returned to the screen.
This was what she had been striving for for so long – the destruction of the most powerful and ancient vampire – but now the moment had come, she dreaded it.
‘So what now?’
‘Just start typing – I’ll inspire you!’
She looked at Vitalis, her old enemy. He was staring straight at the Priest, daring him. He looked noble – much more so than the Priest whose face was distorted with a vicious anger. Celia realised how afraid she had become of the Priest. He accused d’Engayne of being non-human, but now all his own humanity seemed to have deserted him. There was nothing left but hatred. He snarled like a wild beast and lifted the stake above his head. She turned her head away, unwilling to see the proud and handsome vampire shrivel to dust.
But then she heard, or, rather, felt a deep, rumbling noise. It was coming from beneath her, deep beneath the earth. It rose to a crescendo, and there was a sound as of heavy doors, unused for centuries, creaking open and then a rush of hot, fetid air. Celia lifted her head to see a huge doorway and, beyond, a scene like a nineteenth-century iron foundry with great cauldrons of molten metal giving off white-hot sparks and infernal creatures stoking the flames silhouetted against the bright fires.
‘Oh come on!’ Clem protested. ‘I can’t describe Hell like that. It’s too medieval, too literal.’
‘It isn’t supposed to be a description of Hell,’ the angel said sulkily. ‘It’s supposed to be a description of a nineteenth-century iron foundry. It’s the nearest thing – the closest analogy – Celia can think of. How do you expect her to think of something that is, of its very nature, ineffable? She has to see it in three dimensions, in real physical terms.’
‘Alright. But we’d better make that clearer. Let’s say . . .
Celia lifted her head and was aware of something like a huge doorway, that seemed to be opening into another world. She couldn’t see anything clearly but was aware of intense suffering and a confusion of the senses. It seemed, if anything, to be like a nineteenth-century iron foundry . . .
‘OK. You’re right. It’s bloody impossible. Can’t I just say it was like a scene from a painting by Bosch?’
The angel shrugged. ‘Well, I suppose he did get pretty close.’
‘You mean there really is a hell, full of devils with pitchforks and tormented creatures?’
‘Oh, you’re so literal!’ the angel said petulantly.
Clem was getting cross and confused. Having a conversation with an angel about the after life was not easy, and not how she’d planned to spend her day. She just needed to get her novel finished.
‘Let’s just say,’ he conceded, ‘that eventually every one comes face to face with all the wrong they’ve done. And that sure does feel like torture. Anyway, what are you complaining about? You’re the one writing about vampires, and the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil.’
‘But it’s just a story!’
The angel gave her one of his more infuriating looks: ‘that’s what you think’ it seemed to say. Clem found herself itching to hit him, which surprised her, since she hadn’t resorted to physical violence since she was six years old and her older brother had teased her. She came off worse then and had realised the futility of trying to settle disputes with brute force.
‘OK. Let’s get on with it.’ She started typing again.
Out of the terrible dark light emerged a great form, composed entirely, it seemed, of light and energy. An arm extended from the form and grabbed the Priest, dragging him towards the opening.
‘You don’t think that a great form composed of light and energy is overdoing it?’
The angel shrugged again. ‘He actually is made of light and energy – you’ve just written that he seemed to be. Anyway, think of Dante, of Milton.’
‘Nothing like a good oxymoron,’ the angel grinned.
‘So are you of the devil’s party without realising it?’
‘I’m with the good guys, whoever they are.’ For once, the angel sounded serious, and is if he truly meant what he said.
‘And the Priest isn’t one of the good guys?’
‘Not the way you’ve described him – maybe without realising it?’
‘So he’s got to get his due deserts?’ The angel gave one of his little shrugs, as though it were up to Clem, that she could decide what happened to the Priest. She suspected that her angel had been controlling the story all along. She started typing again.
Celia saw the Priest’s face as he was being dragged away. On it was an expression she would never be able to forget. It was utter anguish and despair, but there was also a flash of realisation and knowledge. The Priest was at last learning what was good and what was evil, now when it was too late.
The great gaping hole closed over, leaving only a slight, sulphurous smell.
Vitalis d’Engayne was standing, pressed against the wall, staring in horror at where the doorway had been. He passed a thin, long-fingered hand over his dark eyes, then looked down at Celia. He looked older. His black hair was turning grey, white. His pale skin was becoming lined. He was withering.
‘What’s happening to Vitalis?’ Clem asked the angel. She could see that he was struggling to resist retorting that it was her who was writing the story.
‘It’s the angel – the Power of the angel,’ he explained. ‘It’s scorched him. It’s like the light of the sun, but more so. Vampires can’t stand it because they’ve lost the life Power within them. That’s why they have to drink the blood of others.’
‘So what can I do?’
‘You want to save him? I thought you wanted him destroyed? Then you could finish with these popular vampire stories and write something proper. A proper literary novel. The sort of thing that gets short-listed for prizes.’ So he knew even the longings she hadn’t fully admitted to herself. But she realised that first she was going to have to save Vitalis, redeem him.
Celia stared in horror at the disintegration of her old enemy and could feel nothing but sympathy and sorrow. She was aware of someone – or something – behind her, like a shadow but made of light rather than darkness. She had had this feeling before, but the phenomenon had never been as strong as it was now.
Clem was aware that her angel was smiling as she typed the word ‘phenomenon’. So Celia was to meet her own guardian angel, who would help her save the vampire.
She heard a voice emanating from the non-shadow. It was the voice of her own guardian angel. A soft, low, compelling voice was telling her to go to Vitalis. She dragged herself to her feet, feeling the weight of her body and all the aches and pains that flesh is heir to.
Clem grimaced at the purple passages, but continued.
By the time she reached Vitalis, the once proud and powerful vampire, he was a shrivelled old man. Instinctively, she took his face in her hands and pressed her full, soft lips against his thin, dry ones. Through a kiss, she breathed new life in to him. She could feel it throbbing and pulsing through him. Then he removed his mouth from hers and she felt a sharp prick in her neck and her warm blood draining away into his cold body. She gave a deep shudder. After a long moment, in which eternity seemed compressed into a few seconds, she drew away from him and looked into his deep, dark eyes. The lines around them were gone. There was just a trace of blood at the corner of his red-lipped mouth. He was young and handsome again, his hair black and thick. She felt weak and tired; his strong arms supported her. From now on, the support would be mutual – they were bound together by an unbreakable bond.