Chapter Thirty-Seven: Reading
The print in the book was large, so it wasn't as much reading as the huge tome suggested at first glance. "The Book of the Most Holy Founder," intoned the priest, shutting the door behind them. "You will read it, from beginning to end, and then you may go over any parts that you might not remember clearly, and when you are ready, I will administer your test. The test consists of questions so basic to our faith that you must answer them all correctly to pass. It would be disgraceful for an adult vampire to be ignorant of any of the answers."
"I understand," said Talyn. Leekath had done hers when she was six, but she hadn't mentioned a standard age for it. She was smart, and a hearer who'd probably taken the test while standing right next to the text; he shouldn't assume that average six-year-olds managed. He was going to have to read through the book at least as carefully as he did his University assignments.
He flipped from the middle section it was open to back to the first page. It began with an index, detailing its chapters and subchapaters:
Talyn turned to the first Song of the first Account.
Each Song opened with a verse of tightly rhymed poetry, some with a few stanzas; Talyn presumed that these were the lyrics to the relevant songs. It was actually very pretty. He paused over the lines to make sure he understood it through his just-functional knowledge of temple dialect.
The rest of the text was prose. It was fanciful, but readable, and it even compared pretty favorably to the Contemporary Literature he'd been swallowing recently.
Inconveniently, the book contained no names at all. The people in it were referred to by title or epithet, and not always the same one, and that slowed Talyn down as he moved through the story.
The first Account was a take on vampire life before the religion was founded. As the first Song title suggested, it was a predatory lifestyle: vampires, lone or in small family groups, preyed on other species. They took enough blood to kill, and those they attacked fought back with deadly force. The quarry were outmatched in hand-to-hand combat, but sometimes had advantages in weaponry, knowledge of their home ground, or, during the day, the ability to get out of a vampire's hideout into the sunshine where the vampire's only defense was to become a bat and therefore unable to eat. Let alone fight.
Because every meal was so dangerous, vampires waited for long periods of time between hunts, preferentially attacked the sleeping and the weak, and, frequently, got themselves killed. There was one unclear reference to "farms" that Talyn didn't get - maybe vampires sometimes "farmed" unarmed prey in shadowed locations for easy access to food. It didn't go into detail.
It didn't sound very pleasant, although the whole thing was rendered with a half-nostalgic tone for the freedom or maybe the aesthetic. It afforded little room for flavor-based food selections - and certainly vampires didn't dare assault dragons for their blood. Elves were as good as they could hope for, and elf communities spent commensurate effort on defenses against the menace in the night, more than overbalancing the gains in maximum lifespan.
The second Song detailed the spiritual hunger in predatory vampires. Not just spiritual, but generally they seemed to hunger for - civilization. They couldn't stay put; they were treated like mad, dangerous animals by the neighbors and would have been hunted down. They couldn't band together and found cities for safety in numbers; they would have nothing to eat there. So they moved around, encountering each other in the obvious hideaways and sometimes marrying, sometimes fighting.
They had a little culture. Stories passed to children too young to strike off on their own. Ultrasonic music that they could sing aloud at night without any danger of those with worse ears hearing. But there was no organizing focus to vampire lives; no edifices that were their own; and no purpose to guide their spirits.
The language made it sound miserably bleak; Talyn was sure he would have made a derisive remark if he'd gotten Leekath to summarize this for him, but he was concerned for the unhappy, nameless vampires in the book.
The Song of Night was the first to mention anything about lines, but it was an aside remark: "The children of those who were least deprived in this state, the children of those who thrived best even without God, became the Black Line."
Talyn flipped back and reread the Night poem. It was the longest one so far. Maybe Black Line vampires sang it at their ceremonies.
The second chapter introduced the Most Holy Founder - or so Talyn gathered from the chapter label. Said Founder referred to himself in the first person and never gave himself a name. He was twenty at the time the chapter began. He lived on his own, as his parents had gotten themselves killed by a dragon - they'd kidnapped a baby one, too small to shift, while its parents slept, expecting flavor if not portion size. After they'd drunk its blood the baby's father had come after them and incinerated the pair. The Founder had been out of their current hideout at the time and saw the dragon leaving as he was on his way home.
This set the Founder to wondering if there wasn't some better way to go about things.
He was in the middle of not having any good ideas and traveling to another part of the world when he encountered another vampire. Like him, this other vampire was an adult man - and in vampires that made him of highly indeterminate age. He could be twenty, he could be two hundred. If he were like "the legendary Wife of the Dragon, who enticed her meal into her arms, and gave her body for her long life, sipping from dragon's guises vast enough to sate her and vast enough to yet live on" then he could be a millenium and a half.
The Founder asked the stranger (Talyn began to strongly suspect that the latter was God) how old he was, and was told that he had drunk of the blood of the world.
The Founder asked - surprisingly enough - for God's name, and was told that none had the strength to hear it and live; that it had to be uttered loudly and piercingly enough to shatter skulls like glass.
And the Founder took that as a joke, and asked if he could travel with the stranger for a while, and God acquiesced.
They went around together for months. God demonstrated the power to walk in the sun unharmed, and bade the Founder follow. The Founder had never stepped into the sunlight before, but when he did, he found that he was protected from it by a miracle. They traveled by day as well as night, encountering no one, vampire or otherwise, and yet the Founder felt no hunger, no urge to hunt as he had in the past.
The chapter was broken up within the first few Songs into dialogues between the Founder and God on ways of life on all subjects, ranging from proper conduct between married persons to the spiritual importance of dance (in both forms). Some of it seemed to be out of sequence, and none of it had a lot of context - it seemed like the pair of them had just wandered all around Anaist (the weather and flora only made sense for that continent) for months in constant discourse, pausing only to sleep.
The Song of God included the unsurprising reveal that the Founder's friend was in fact God, in a mortal form adopted to save his chosen people from a terrible destruction.
It extolled the virtues of God, who was mighty and compassionate, who was knowledgable and subtle, who was great and wise. It enumerated the secrets of God: no mortal knew where he dwelt, what he did there, where he took the spirits of his dead, what his true face looked like, or what the blood of the world on which he subsisted might taste like.
And the Song of Glass remarked on mortal fragility - it was surprisingly morbid, actually. A mortal would shatter like glass if they tried to apprehend the full splendor of God.
And it was not appropriate for things of glass to fight for their lives with other things of glass. Things of glass clinked together with that much force would break.
God's final words to the Founder were on that subject: "Fight no bleeding creature which has a mind. Kill no bleeding creature which has a mind. What is theirs they have by nature's rights; what is yours is innocence, if you will take it. Bleeding creatures must kill to live. My children need not; your children must not."
And the Founder asked, "If we starve, among those who fear pain, or who are full of rash hate and terror? If we are murdered, for imagined crimes, or for being what we are?"
"Yours is innocence," said God. "If you give up your innocence, now that I have restored it to you, to draw transient breath, the consequences are beyond your comprehension. If you hold it fast and precious, never to be relinquished against any hardship, then you will reap immeasurable rewards, concealed until it is time that you learn of them."
"What of those who falter, who stray?" asked the Founder.
"Innocence is glass. Glass shatters. But it can melt and heal, if I will it - under terrible heat."
Well, that was ominous.
This Song mentioned a line too: "The children of those who first broke and melted, the children of those who lost innocence and won it back, became the White Line."
Also kind of ominous.
Come to think of it, the Black Line wasn't that great either. It would be really weird if a religion celebrated people doing well without its help. Were all the lines founded on weaknesses?
It had taken a while to get through the first two Accounts. The print was big, but the book was bigger, and the pages were thin. "Ieeht, what if I need to sleep?" Talyn asked. Midnight meetings weren't that convenient for a diurnal schedule.
The priest gestured at the ceiling; it was crossed with perches like the other ceilings in the temple. "Sleep. But you will remain in this room until you have passed your test."
Talyn would have swallowed, if he'd been in a shape that allowed it. "Yes, Ieeht," he said, and he changed into a bat and flew up to hang and close his eyes.
Talyn had no idea what time it was when he woke up. There was still a priest in the room, but this one - or the same one - it didn't matter - was wearing a different suncloak. He was getting more used to the idea that priests were just interchangeable, that the occupant of the role didn't matter. "Hello," Talyn said awkwardly, shifting to hang from his knees and then swinging down to the floor so he could go on reading.
The next chapter was about the early years of the religion. It started very small. The Founder walked into a village of elves who worshipped a sun god, in broad daylight. They beheld that he was not burned and did not attack; and he in turn did not attack them. He offered to live among them, fighting off any who would prey on them, if they would let him take small amounts of blood from volunteers.
The elves warily agreed, and the Founder took a small, largely symbolic sip from a willing member of their ruling council while everyone else had weapons trained on him in case he overdid it. He didn't, of course, and the elf he bit announced that it was a miracle, that he'd felt no pain when the Founder's fangs pierced his skin. After that the reception the Founder got was much less chilly. He built himself a house in the center of town and bathed in the nearby waterfall and went among them peaceably.
Ultimately, other vampires - a couple and their teenage daughter - did turn up with less benign motives, but they were stunned to find a defender of their own kind in the town. The Founder fought the father of that family to a standstill while the women looked on. The intruder was forced to yield, and then the Founder explained the comfortable setup he was enjoying and suggested that they join him.
They did, and the Founder then took the teenage daughter for his wife; about half of the Song of Stars was an elaborate ode to her beauty and virtue. The other half was astrology - a lot of records of what stars appeared when various events in the book occurred.
The next Song was about further recruitement efforts. It seemed like the Founder got into fights with about half the would-be converts, but he was beating up people whose options boiled down to "convert" or "murder a bunch of people", so Talyn couldn't well blame him. Others were easier to convince.
Another Line was mentioned: "The children of those who held their innocence as though it was precious silver, who never felt the wrath of the righteous Founder fall upon them, became the Silver Line."
That sounded better than the other two, unless there was some wrinkle Talyn didn't understand. It also sounded almost mutually exhaustive with White. Maybe only the first few lapses counted for White, and others fell into other categories.
In the Song of Law, it was shown that most of the converts had lapses where they got hungry and bit someone without asking, and they had to be punished, usually with more violence. The Founder and his inner circle meted that out personally, to maintain elves' trust for other vampires: they had to be self-policing.
In the Song of Secrets, the first temple was established, and it protected vampires from the sun if they wanted to be awake during the day like their neighbors. (The Founder was the only one with miraculous protection around). And it also gave them a place away from the too-prying eyes of elves. The elves - in the limited handful of communities where faithful vampires were established - were mostly willing to let vampires punish their own for deviations from God's laws, but they seemed too interested in spying on their new friends just in case. The temple gave the vampires a safe staging ground from which to prove that they could remain safe without constant supervision.
The next chapter was less happy.
At its opening, the Founder and his wife had fourteen children, and the faith had grown to include thousands of vampires spread out over a wide area. That wasn't the unhappy part.
The unhappy part was that the entire continent of Anaist was suffering from a blood plague.
This was a problem for the Founder and his followers. They were suddenly very short on people who could helpfully offer them meals.
Not because of a population drop. It wasn't universally fatal, or even frequently fatal. For its "bleeding creature" sufferers, the only significant symptom was a sudden onset of tiredness. Inconvenient and unpleasant, especially when it lasted for a month or two or three, but not particularly dangerous except to the very old and to infants.
But the blood of an infected person was a lethal poison.
The religious vampires resorted to biting livestock - cows and so on - from which permission was not needed, and which were immune to the disease. But they put it off as long as they could, because every bite shortened their lifespans. They were hungry for the entire time they had to wait out the blood plague.
Vampires who were not among the faithful had a much more serious problem.
The only symptom of the disease appeared suddenly. It was easy to fake. Anyone they tried to bite would have to be a fool not to pretend to be sick, even if they were not. Faithless vampires took their chances with ignoring protestations of illness, yawns, unexpected apparent narcolepsy.
And they died. In droves.
Talyn imagined that their protection from this swath of death did wonders for the religion's recruitment efforts.
In the Song of Blood was another line: "The children of those who through luck or self-abnegation survived the plague without guidance, who fed on animals or the healthy despite lacking God's help, became the Red Line."
The plague burned out in due course. Most of the vampires within the Founder's sphere of influence were fine, if with a few years knocked off their maximum lifespans. But the Founder's youngest child, a little girl, had been accustomed to elf blood, and when she'd been denied, she'd gone ahead and bitten a sick friend of hers anyway despite the friend warning her off. The friend had lived. The Founder's daughter had not.
The "apostate daughter" title belied the grief the Founder had written in the pages of his book. He prayed for pages and pages that she was reforged glass, that she'd get her innocence back.
In the final Account, the next generation of the Founder's followers spread out to convert the rest of their own continent, and overseas to find the handful of vampires who'd left Anaist for other shores. "The children of those who left the ancestral lands of our people, who braved sunnier homes across the ocean, became the Blue Line."
The Song of the Conqueror had adventure-type stories about more conversions, mostly forced, of Blue and Red Line vampires. The Song of Building was about scaling up - building temples, writing books, establishing traditions. The Song of the Ordained was about the first priests. It was very, very short. Talyn wondered if there were redacted parts stored somewhere else. The Song of the Witness was a little longer, and it had recountings of some of the first temple weddings, birth ceremonies, more astrology, that sort of thing.
The Song of the Holy Successor was the only Song in the book that referred to the Founder in third person. It was about the succession of the Founder's great-grandson into his position as the highest authority in the faith - the first pontiff after the Founder himself. "The Most Holy Founder whispered all of his secrets into my ear, and God whispers more," concluded the last Song. "This people is now mine to guide under God's power and law."
"Wow," Talyn breathed, closing the book.
"Do you wish to take your test at this time?" the priest in the corner asked. Talyn had quite forgotten that he was there.
"Uh," Talyn said. "Just a couple degrees - I want to go over Stars again, and maybe Glass too."
"There's no hurry," the priest said, "unless you're hungry, in which case there is, as you may not leave until you have passed your test. If you need water, there is a pool in the room through that door." He pointed. "It is customary to wear one's cloak into the pool, if one fully immerses oneself. You needn't worry about getting water on the floor."
Talyn did feel a little parched, come to think of it. He went where the priest's gloved finger indicated, and found a shallow pool. There was a little vampire girl and her mother sitting in it, with their suncloaks on. They didn't have anti-mindreading pendants on. It didn't matter, Talyn supposed, with non-priests. Although he wondered if Leekath would make enough for them to be randomly issued to adult male vampires so he didn't run the risk of encountering one off-duty and figuring it out.
He toed off his shoes and hopped into the pool. The woman and child didn't seem inclined to talk to him, so he didn't start a conversation either, just mulled over the book. He liked the book. It was forbidden to take a copy out of the temple, or he'd have wanted a nice high-quality volume of it to take home with him and read from on a regular basis.
After he'd soaked up enough water, he got out of the pool - the others were long gone and he'd been joined by an adult man. He picked up his shoes and went back into the room.
He reread the Song of Stars, and the Song of Glass, and for good measure the Song of the Predator too, and then he turned to the priest and said, "Okay, I'm ready to try."
The test was only twenty questions long, and it was all basic things that it really would be disgraceful not to know after reading that entire book with anything resembling respectful attention ("who was the Founder's companion during the second Account?"). There wasn't even a question on the astrological bits that he'd been worried about having to memorize. Talyn got everything right on his first try.
When the priest told him so, Talyn relaxed, smiled, and said, "What's next? A line?"
"Yes," said the priest. "Now that you know something more about them, do you have a new idea about which might suit you, or would you still choose White?"
Either it was the same priest or they were really thorough about briefing each other. "I think," Talyn said, "that Black might make more sense. I did okay without God - and I wasn't overseas and I didn't survive the plague through luck or self-abnegation. But I'm going to do better with him."
Talyn couldn't tell if the priest was smiling. "In fact," said the priest, "Black Line is the choice that has been made for you."
"What are the auspices of five stars for a Black Line vampire?" Talyn prompted.
"Poor," remarked the priest. "You begin at a rank of one."
"Oh." Oh well. There were ways to add to it.
"And next," said the priest, "is the Test of the Empty Room."
Talyn followed the priest into the main, currently-empty hall of the temple, and through another door into a cube-shaped room of featureless blackness.
The priest remained outside of it, and closed the door, leaving Talyn in the dark.
Just sitting there wasn't Leekath's right answer, but she was a different line, gender, rank, and star array than Talyn was. Maybe it would work for him.
Maybe it wouldn't.
He squeaked and listened. There was really nothing in the room. It was about ten feet to a side. Could the priest see him? Hear him? Talyn couldn't hear anything from the main room, but it'd been quiet when he'd gone in.
There wasn't a perch, or Talyn might have hung to be more comfortable. Sitting was okay, it just wasn't as great as hanging was when he was in vampire form.
Was there something to do other than just sit there? He could lie down or walk around, he supposed, but how would significance accrue to that? And it wasn't just an impassable test to teach him humility, or something. Leekath had said that Iilha passed hers.
Unless that was a lie. He was pretty sure that most of what he was hearing was true, but he'd been told outright that he'd be informed if he had to "falsify his rank". Other secrets might require supporting lies too.
Leekath was allowed to tell him everything she knew, so she probably wasn't harboring anything like that, but Iilha might be. (Ugh.)
Talyn walked to the wall, and touched it, and walked around the room until he'd made a complete circuit. The wall felt like it might be made of onyx. Was it black for everyone, or just for Black Line vampires?
He went back to the middle of the room and closed his eyes; it didn't make a difference, it was pitch black either way. He squeaked again.
Yep. Empty room. Cube-shaped. This was a weird test. He wished he'd asked Leekath how long it lasted.
"Am I supposed to pray?" he wondered aloud.
There was no answer.
He'd been praying, but admittedly not as often as he had been before his admittance, when he had something to beg for. "I liked the book," Talyn said. He wasn't sure whether to address that to God or the Founder. Could the Founder hear prayers too?
"I'm glad there was a line for me. It would have been awkward otherwise, I think." He opened his eyes again. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do here. I still have a lot of questions, about a lot of things, but now I get to learn about at least most of it."
The door opened, and the priest showed him out. He'd been in there for a degree or two, which was, he supposed, better than being stuck in the Empty Room for a whole angle or a day.
He looked at the priest expectantly. This one was again either different or just wearing a different suncloak. "Well?" Talyn asked.
"What do you think?" asked the priest.