“Everything went along splendidly, but the kingdom’s people had pushed their magic too far. They disrupted the balance between magic and technology. Tech came, interrupting the flow of magic. The waves of technology attacked Roland’s kingdom, pulling it apart the way magic now pulls apart our world. He counted on his son to help him. But Abe saw it as his chance for freedom. In the chaos of tech waves, Abe betrayed his father and fought him for power. The war between them ripped their kingdom to shreds. Abe lost, and took his followers into the wilderness, proclaiming he would make his own nation, greater than his father’s fallen realm.
“Eventually Roland failed his people. The mighty kingdom had fallen and its ruler lost everything. He hid from the world, choosing to live alone on a mountain, spending his days in meditation.
“Meanwhile Abe’s nation of nomads grew larger. They lost most of what they knew. Philosophy and complicated magic were no longer important—survival was. Abe had a son and his son had sons, two boys. We’ll call them Esau and Jacob. Esau was the oldest. He prided himself on being a great warrior and a hunter of men and beasts. Truth is, Esau was a thug, but he was stronger and more powerful than ordinary thugs and he made the best of it.
“The older nomads told stories of the wonders of Roland’s fallen kingdom. Rumor had it that when Roland went to his mountain, he took the treasures of his realm with him. Among these treasures was a set of clothes made from the skin of a mythical beast and permeated with the fragrance of a lost valley. A hunter who wore this garment could hunt and capture any animal he wished. Esau, being an enterprising guy, decided to get his hands on these clothes. After all, how much trouble could one old guy be? So Esau got his supplies together and headed for Roland’s mountain.
“Put yourself into Roland’s shoes. Here he was, a man who’d lost everything, and now his own great-grandson shows up and tries to rob him. And more, his great-grandson, the fruit of his family tree, is an ignorant thug. In Esau, Roland saw the reflection of his people’s fate—all of their knowledge lost, all of their achievements squandered, as they reverted to primitive brutality.
“Roland saw red, and Esau died before he could land a single blow. But that wasn’t enough. Roland had a lot of frustration to vent. He raged at his great-grandson, at his fallen kingdom, at the world. He wanted to kill Esau again, and so he dragged him back from the brink of death and murdered him a second time. Again and again Esau died, until finally Roland stopped to take a breath and realized that Esau was gone. His body remained, but his mind had died. Instead Roland found a mindless creature, neither alive nor dead. An undead with its mind completely blank, like a white page.
“Roland discovered that he could control this empty brain with infinite ease. He could speak through Esau’s mouth and hear what the undead heard. A host of possibilities occurred to Roland and he decided it would be convenient for him if people thought that Esau had murdered him. He dressed the creature that used to be his great-grandson into the magic garment Esau had come for and sent the undead back to its family, controlling its every move and spinning wild tales of his own death. He used Esau to torment Abe’s nomads. He wanted to destroy Abe and all of his descendants.
“Eventually Esau grew fangs and developed a terrible thirst for blood. Years later the once-king put those fangs to a test. He lured Esau’s brother to a meeting under the pretense of reconciliation, and there he unleashed the full fury of the undead on Jacob, letting Esau tear into his brother’s neck. But Jacob had worn an ivory collar and Esau’s fangs failed to sever his jugular.
“With time, Esau’s body changed. He grew claws. His hair fell out. His body turned gaunt and he scuttled about on all fours like an animal. Roland released him into a cave, where the bodies of his ancestors and his children lay interred. Starving, the first vampire haunted the cave until a brave man finally put it out of its misery.
“Such is the true story of the first vampire.” I got up. “It’s not really all that secret. There are echoes of it in the Bible and in the Jewish scholarly writings. Abe is gone, and so are his children. But Roland, he still lives. Outlived them all, the old bastard. He’s made more undead and he’s rebuilding his power, waiting for a time to resurrect his kingdom.”
I pricked my finger with my throwing knife. A single drop of red swelled on my skin. I leaned toward the golem and whispered so quietly, I could barely hear myself. “And his blood lives on as well.”
I touched the blood to the golem’s chest. It rocked back, as if struck. Stone screeched, dust puffed. The golem spun, backed to the door, grasped the stone with its massive hand, and pushed it aside, revealing a dark room beyond it.
I walked past it into the darkness. Behind me the stone door slid shut.
PALE BLUE LIGHTS WINKED INTO EXISTENCE ON the walls. I counted. Twelve. They pulsed, fading and flaring brighter and brighter, until they finally illuminated the floor in front of me: two circles, the first six feet wide, the next a foot wider, carved into the stone. Twelve stone pillars surrounded the circle, each five feet tall. On top of each rested a glass cube. Within the cube lay a sefirot, a scroll.
I approached the circle. Magic pulsed between the scrolls, like a strong invisible current. A ward, and a very powerful one. Wards both protected and contained. For all I knew, stepping into the circle would result in some weirdness manifesting in the middle of it and squeezing me like a juice orange.
I pulled Slayer from its sheath and circled the lines. No mysterious runes on the walls, no instructions, no warnings. Just the weak gauzy blue light of the lantern, the scrolls resting in their transparent cases, and the double circle on the floor.
I’d come this far. No turning back now.
I slid Slayer under my arm, pulled the paper out of the Ziploc bag, and stepped into the circle.
A silver light ignited in the spot I crossed. It dashed along the carved outline of the double circle, igniting it. Magic roiled between the scrolls. A wall of silvery glow surged up, sealing me from the outside world. All I needed now was for some monstrous critter to manifest and try to eat me.
Dear rabbis, I’m so sorry, I nuked your circle dude. Here is his head as a souvenir. Yeah, that would fly.
Magic nipped at my skin in tiny sharp needles, as if testing the waters. I tensed.
Hairline cracks spread through the floor. Pale light stabbed through the gaps. Something was coming. I swung Slayer, warming up my wrist.
Power burst under me. Magic punched through my feet and tore through my body in an agonizing torrent, grating at my insides as if every cell of my body had been stripped bare. It ripped a scream from me and the torrent burst out of my mouth in a stream of light, so bright I went blind. My head spun. Everything hurt. Weak and light-headed, I clenched my sword.