Too late to save her sister's life, Stephanie Anders must now try to save her soul from the vampire who has possessed her.
Janis has become one of my favourite writers. This book is great. I couldn't put it down. I love the characters and the world she has created.
A Creative Mind
A fast-paced, exciting and entertaining story for all fans of paranormal/fantasy books.
Reading 2011 (and Beyond)
A total laugh out loud journey, ridiculous and refreshing.
... good and fun, and entertaining
4 stars by the SanFransisco Book Revew
Even readers who do not generally enjoy paranormal fiction will probably enjoy Janis Hill's Isis, Vampires, and Ghosts - Oh My! This story is fun and fast-paced, and reluctant hero Stephanie provides an entertaining point of view.
"Stephanie is a fantastic character, likeable and feisty. " Claire loves to read!
It looked like one of those old Christian churches that had run out of funds and been sold off to the highest bidder. I'd seen it happen before. Some became high-class antique shops, others turned into seedy nightclubs. The unluckiest of all, as with this one, became 'new' places of belief and worship for those who needed to believe in something, but who felt the top religions were all too mainstream.
And so I had found the Temple of Isis, lucky me. Even in my depressed state of mind, my sarcastic sense of humour scanned its front bulletin board for another reason to pick on it. I half expected it to have a timetable at the bottom stating it was only the Temple of Isis on certain days, and some other half-arsed, made-up faith at other times ... But there was nothing. Ah well, sarcasm can only comfort you so far.
Wrapping my mind in its full sceptical cloak, I braced myself for what lay ahead and stepped over the threshold into the darkened entrance of the Temple of Isis, preparing myself for my sister's funeral.
Yes, I'd had better days, but when it came to my sister, not many. We had been estranged for several years, and before that she had only been a sporadic visitor in my life since the time she'd been old enough to flee the family home without being brought back by the authorities, kicking and screaming all the way. It's not as if we'd had a terrible childhood. Our parents had loved us, fed us, provided us with an education, and given us the freedom to determine our own beliefs and activities within legal boundaries. You really couldn't have asked for more. Sadly Estella - said sister - had been wired oddly and saw our upbringing as overly restrictive, and held a great need to rebel against it at every turn. I had always felt that if she had been raised as a wild child, free to do as she liked in a Hippy commune, she would still believe it too restrictive and have found an excuse to rebel against its carefree nature. The really deep-down dark part of me had actually been relieved to hear she'd died. Finally Estella had stopped being a problem for me, or for anyone else.
"Welcome dear daughter and sister of Isis, to our Mother-sister's holy house of order!" The sunny greeting and enormous smile on the bright faced woman in white approaching me was enough to make me want to scurry away. However, I do have some pride, and rarely scurry. Well, not once eye contact has been made.
"Uh, Hi?" My stammered reply was the best I could manage in my 'playing nice with others' tone and expression. I was raised to believe everyone should have their own personal beliefs; I just really hated it when they tried to thrust those beliefs onto me personally.
"You must be Stephanie Anders? Beloved and devoted sister to our newly departed Estella, sister and Priestess of the fifth order."
I smiled - slightly manically - and dumbly nodded back, hoping I appeared overcome with sadness, and that she couldn't tell I was gritting my teeth and madly biting back what I really wanted to say about the 'dearly departed' Estella. But I didn't have any choice; I was the executor of her will and had to preside over her funeral. It had all been pre-arranged and paid for - which was unusual for Estella. All I had to do was show up and play nice with her weirdo new-age friends for a few hours.
So here I was. It wasn't going to be an afternoon of my life I'd ever get back, but she had been my only sibling and I had sort of loved her - despite her annoying, frustratingly 'intolerant of other people's feelings' way - at one point in my life. This was probably the least I could do for her. The dark bit of my mind piped up it was also a good way to make sure she really was now dead and buried, and out of my life for good.
The woman in front of me seemed to fit into what I'd expected at such a place. She was medium to short in height, dumpy, and a little older than myself, with long, dark hair hanging loosely down her back. She appeared to be wearing someone's white bed sheets and lace curtains that she'd cut a hole into for her head to fit through. Or that could have just been me being a teensy bit sceptical.
"Greetings daughter-sister. I am Jasmine, Priestess of the fourth order to this glorious Temple of Isis." The woman went on to say, so I smiled, nodded some more and kept silent. "High Priestess Roxanna is awaiting you within the central chamber, with your sister."
I went a little cross-eyed by trying to change my desired look of horror into intense interest at this news. I had no problems meeting this High Priestess chick, but I'd been rather hoping to avoid looking upon Estella so soon after lunch. I mean, although I'd had to identify her from a post-autopsy picture - head and shoulders only - I was still a little unsure on the details of her death. So wasn't too sure how gruesome or, erm ... bloated and decayed, the rest of her looked. And we just won't go into how bad she could smell.
"My poor daughter-sister, you appear overcome with the sad emotions we all share right now," Jasmine went on to say, rushing forward to drape a bed sheet and curtain-clad arm around my shoulders. I didn't flinch, much. "Let me take you to the High Priestess right away. There is much to do before we can assist you to release your sadness and move into the purified Light of our beloved Mother-sister Isis."
I let her lead me away down the aisle towards the inner chambers of the church, hoping she was as blissfully unaware of my tension as she appeared to be about my complete and utter dislike of pretty much everything she'd said so far. Then again, I was fairly certain I could set fire to her robes and she'd have been blissfully unaware of that too, if it didn't have something to do with Isis. She had that kind of vacant, happy, sunny-side-of-life look to her. Poor thing, no wonder Estella had ended up here, if Jasmine was anything to go by. It was obviously a place that attracted the strays and dregs of life that had no self-worth and needed someone to tell them what to do and how to think. Catty, me?
At the end of the aisle was the typical raised dais found in all churches of this architectural type. Above the dais, where a crucifix would have usually hung, there was a huge tapestry depicting a woman in white watching light and smoke swirl around a pool of water within a cave. Isis, I presumed? Despite my sceptical nature being in overdrive, I had to admire the beauty of the tapestry and the artistic dedication that had been put into it. I was no expert, but the roughly five by three metre cloth appeared to have been done by hand. Upon the dais itself was an altar. But the typical golden eagle or plain wooden stand usually found within old churches was gone. In their place was another astounding work of art of hand-carved wood, depicting entwined branches of ivy. It seemed to organically have sprouted from the dais, winding around and over itself until it was of the right height for a person to stand behind. There it opened into a flat, smooth table, holding a large candle inlaid with dried flowers and herbs. There were spaces for other items upon the top of this altar that were obviously kept elsewhere, when not in use during a ceremony. The candle, though unlit, seemed to shimmer in the darkness of the converted church. A lot of time, effort, and money had gone into this place. Despite the wittering Jasmine next to me, some of my initial distrust and scepticism started to thaw.
Beyond the dais was a wooden screen created with the same theme of entwined branches and ivy, obviously made by the same hand as the one who had carved the beautiful altar. The screen had been designed to hide the doors to the back chambers, from the front of the church. As we approached a row of three doors hidden behind the screen, the one to the left opened and I was surprised by the vision that walked out. She was an elegant, mature aged woman in a neat sleeveless, short, spotless white dress, over which a tailored near-transparent white chiffon robe sat almost regally. Her silver to white hair was cut short, but was of a well-maintained cut in an expensive-looking, elegant style. She wore no jewellery apart from a torque of gold around her neck and a thin circlet of gold around her head. Everything about this woman clashed with Jasmine; from the clothes to the hair, to the way she held herself. Her expression was one of someone who appeared to know her place in the world and, in a not too demeaning manner, knew it was on a few pegs higher than the rest of us. As our eyes met, my pent up hostility and final shreds of scepticism drained away as if she'd pulled the plug. There was just something about her that made everything in this place seem justified and right. There was also a glint in her eyes that seemed to dare me to prove her wrong.
"Stephanie Anders?" she said in a calm, level voice. I felt her eyeing me over, but not in the critical, assessing way others with money and higher life status usually seemed to. I mean, I had worn my best conventional black dress for Estella's funeral. It was almost as if she knew I'd made my best effort and that was good enough for her.
"High Priestess, I've brought our beloved dearly departed Estella's sister for your blessing." Jasmine wittered on happily, in obvious awe of the powerful matriarchal figure before us.
"And that was very kind of you, Jasmine." The High Priestess said, in the patient tone often used by a mother to a child. "And I thank you. Please leave us now and get back to your normal duties." As Jasmine did a poorly executed genuflect to the older woman, I actually caught the expression of mild annoyance and embarrassment in the High Priestess' eyes as she glanced at me. We stood there in silence, sharing neutral glances, while watching Jasmine wander off back into the main area of the church.
"Sadly, yes, we do get all sorts here." The High Priestess remarked, shocking me into an almost hysterical giggle. "But if their hearts are pure and their efforts can be turned towards good, the Temple of Isis welcomes all such creatures." She glanced over my shoulder to ensure Jasmine had truly left us alone. "I mean, they all need love, a place to feel they belong, regular meals, and a warm home. How could we not provide what we can? I do hope to have her out of that mother, daughter, sister rubbish soon though." Wow! I had never heard anyone sound so catty, while still seeming to be the nicest person in the world. I simply had to learn how to do that.
"I am Roxanna De Vries, fourteenth High Priestess of this beloved Temple of Isis," she went on. "I am aware that there are many different Temples to our beloved Goddess around the world and I really can't say which one She smiles upon the most. But we've been here over one hundred years and seem to be doing okay. Still standing, and the drains haven't caused us any issues in oh, twenty years now."
I was stunned to silence by her matter of fact calm tones as she spoke and barely noticed that as she was speaking, she had been ushering me through the door she'd just emerged from.
The room I was guided into appeared to be her office come High Priestess inner sanctum. There was a large wooden desk obviously created by the same magician of a carpenter who had made the altar and screen. Behind it was a throne like chair for the High Priestess to sit on. Smaller, simpler works of intricate woodcarving in the shape of chairs occupied the other side of the desk. While one wall of the room was taken up with filing cabinets and other office and managerial looking items, the other was hidden by another gorgeous hand sewn tapestry of Isis. This tapestry showed the Goddess appearing to hold the moon in her upraised hands on a starry, deep indigo night. A smaller altar was set up in front of this wall hanging, its candle lit and filling the room with the scent of peppermint, lavender and rosemary.
The High Priestess gently urged me into a seat, before settling upon her throne on the other side of the desk.
"You're not exactly what I expected Estella's sister to be like," she said pleasantly enough, though her eyes continued to assess me thoroughly.
"If it helps, you're not exactly what I was expecting for the High Priestess," I replied, noticing I'd lost my 'playing nice with others' tone. Hey, she started it.
"We are not all peace, love, mung beans, flowing hair and curtain-like robes." She smirked at me, her head tilting to one side slightly as she said it. Almost uncannily describing not only Jasmine, but my original belief of what they'd all be like.
"Yes, well, my parents only produced one child whose wiring was so cross-circuited she never knew how to appreciate what she had, or realised we weren't all just there for her entertainment, bail money or hotel service." I hadn't meant to sound so narky about Estella, but after being in this room under Roxanna's cool gaze, it just happened. The High Priestess studied me for a silent moment longer, then gave me a small smile.
"If it helps, once Estella felt the Light of Isis fall upon her she did become repentant for most of her actions and choices in life." Roxanna was starting to remind me of a cat, the way she'd say something then pause, waiting for my reaction, to see how she would toy with me next.
"And yet she couldn't even scribble that on a postcard and send it to me." There was scorn and anger in my voice. It was mostly due to Estella, but also Roxanna. As her initial glamour wore off I had started to see beneath her pleasantly neutral manner. Yes, she still did seem a nice person, but she held some sort of power that I could feel as a slightly threatening undertone. It almost made me feel that if I fell off the wrong side of the fine line she had me walking upon I might not survive the consequences.
Roxanna stared at me in passive silence a moment longer, then gave me another smile.
"It seems Estella knew her burden upon you better than you think, and I can say she was truly thankful. Within our faith, being the person in charge of our dispatching to the next life is one of the greatest honours to be given. I can understand your animosity towards your sister, being treated as a safety net and doormat by your own flesh and blood can be one of the worst relationships to have." She paused as her face clouded a moment, and I wondered if she was deliberately showing me she knew exactly how that felt, or if it was an unconscious grimace at people who acted that way.
"And I am very thankful you lived up to your sister's expectations and have come here today." Roxanna then smiled again, her face once more hiding her emotions.
"Estella will be relieved to know you made the effort. I feel it will help the completion of her passing from Isis' Light and into the New World so much smoother." Alarm bells started going off in my mind as I watched her watch me run through the strange choice of words she'd just used. Knowing she was waiting for me to take the bait, I jumped in, boots and all.
"Look, no offence here towards all your faith and Goddess Hoo-hah, but my sister is dead. I'd appreciate it if all statements on how she might feel could be done using the past tense, so as not to muddy our already cloudy conversation. 'Kay?"
Roxanna had the gall to look triumphant and amused at the same time. Still, I guess it was better than being angered at my total disrespect for her belief system.
"And how do you know that talking in the past tense about her is what she would want?"
Cue the eye roll and scoffing sound I'd been ever so good at holding at bay til then.
"Because she looked pretty dead in the pictures I was given to identify her by, if you must know." I was terse, but still in the realm of polite tone and volume. "And I'm yet to know of anyone proven dead by autopsy to sit up and request everyone speak of them in the present tense, until we set a match to their pyre." Why the hell were we even having this conversation? Was she trying to strip away my sympathetic padding, and have me give Estella a send-off in the best bitchy sister mood I could muster?
"I can assure you it's not always the case. And this is from experience in my circles of 'Goddess hoo-hah'." Roxanna smiled at me before continuing. "Were you ever informed by police how it was she died? Or just that she was dead?"
I sighed, letting it shudder through me with the suppressed sob and sudden rush of sadness. "My parents may have been told, as they were the ones who drew the short straw to personally identify her. I was just the lucky family member to be asked if I recognised the picture of her laid out on a slab." As I watched, I noticed all amusement and challenge leaving Roxanna's expression, as she moved back into her more passive to neutral state. "And I can assure you here and now my parents would have told me if they felt it noteworthy. I had honestly assumed it was a death by misadventure, with some stranger she picked up in a bar. I'd rather not delve into it if it's anything worse."
"Stephanie, I truly am sorry your family has been affected by a loss in such a way. Especially when it appears Estella was more estranged from you than I was aware. However, I do feel you should be advised how she died, because it does affect whether she should be spoken about in the past or present tense."
Dear Lord, I had just about had enough of all this hokum! I must have shown as much in my expression, as Roxanna rose elegantly and moved to the door, beckoning for me to follow.
"Come, I think it's now time for you to see your sister," was all she said, before moving back through the doorway. It was the last thing I honestly wanted to do. Really, all I wanted to do was get the damn ceremony and other necessities over, and disappear before they brought out the cheap sherry and stale sandwiches at the wake - assuming they did wakes like that in the presence of their precious Isis. Somehow, I found myself rising and following her out. We moved to the far right door, and she opened it to reveal a darkened stone stairway leading down. There were lights below and the sound of quiet chanting. I took one last look at the church, feeling it was a pretty sane and safe view compared to what I might be about to see, then started down the steps with Roxanna behind me. The things I did for my damned sister. Surely this'd be the last one, right?
THE first flight of stairs kept with the architecture I'd seen so far. So, the church had a crypt or at least a basement, nothing unusual. However, when it didn't stop there and the second flight past rough-hewn rock walls, rather than the neatly crafted grey stone blocks and mortar of the first, I started to wonder how old this place really was. By the fourth flight down, I was wondering how much of the city actually knew this church ran so deep. What sort of crypt needed to be hidden this far down? I guessed we were almost at the bottom, when the shadowy lighting of the stairs started to change to a soft, light blue glow that emanated from below. I will freely admit to stumbling down the last few steps, as the stairwell opened to reveal the chamber that was at the end of it all. A chamber that was the spitting image of the one depicted in the tapestry in the main area of the church, sans Isis of course. There was the cave, stalagmites, stalactites and all. There to the right of the chamber's centre was the pool of water among the rocks, shrouded in mist, and the source of the light blue light - my mind of course already trying to figure out how it was all wired to give off those effects. Scattered about the chamber were women of various ages, shapes and sizes draped in white robes that were almost as varied as they were. The source of the quiet chanting I'd heard as I'd descended also came from them. And there, on a raised stone slab in the middle of the chamber, bathed in a crisp, white light shooting down from the rocky ceiling, was Estella, my sister.
I felt I was holding it all together really well, seeing the chamber with all its put on mysticism, devotees, and the peacefully reposed corpse of my sister. I really did feel I was handling the whole situation quite well. However, when Estella sat up, autopsy scars showing above her death shroud, and said, "Hey sis, 'bout time you showed up." I was out of there. The High Priestess herself could not bar my exit, although I swear she'd been preparing to do just that. Roxanna was almost thrown down the stairs in my retreat. I will say, however, that I didn't run screaming from the building, no matter how much I had really wanted to.
I cursed my knees when they gave out beneath me, as I stumbled down the stairs two at a time outside the church. At least I managed to turn the fall into a deliberate looking and slightly more graceful sitting down on the bottom step. I just wished I could have made it at least a few blocks away before it had happened. That way, Roxanna - High Priestess of some pretty freaky stuff - wouldn't have found me so easily. I knew it was her that I felt sit down beside me, even though my head was neatly buried in my arms, crossed over my knees. It smelt like her office, it had to be her.
"If you so much as try a smug 'I told you she wanted to be spoken of in present tense', I'm taking your torque and cramming it as far down your throat as I can." What can I say; my tone had been stable, even if said through very clenched teeth.
"Peace, Stephanie," Roxanna said. "I was actually going to say you handled that better than most would have."
I laughed; admittedly it started more as a barking cough until hysteria lightened it and gave it wings. Thankfully those wings had been clipped and it didn't fly away. Instead it flapped about a bit then died in my throat shortly afterwards, as I fought off tears.
"And you see this happen a lot, do you?" I asked, finally looking up at her. She sat stiffly reposed in the midday sun, looking out of place while still seeming part of her surroundings.
"Only some of our more interesting deceased, such as Estella, are cared for in the Light of Isis. I have seen worse reactions than yours from a simple open casket on the central dais, however." she smiled sympathetically at me. "It is a lot to take in, I know. I am the keeper of some rather old secrets and am relieved you're handling this one so well."
Was she serious, I mean about how I was handling it? Because, despite my card carrying scepticism of all the mystical mumbo jumbo, after what I'd just seen in the crypt of her church, there was no doubt she had a lot of secrets. I looked at her and saw the serious expression on her face, saw the deep truth within her eyes. All thoughts of her and her church being some scam were gone. Just seeing Estella had convinced me of that - she had been dead. I felt it in my bones she had been dead. So why the hell had she sat up and spoken to me?
"Please tell me you have a lot of holy spirits we can imbibe while you tell me what the hell is going on around here," I said plaintively. I may not have believed in a lot of the things religion was blamed for, but my mind wasn't closed off to it entirely. And the bigger the new thing to believe in, the bigger the beer please!
"I am more than happy to share some of our fine Damsel and Thistle wine with you ..."
"Damsel and Thistle?" I broke in, unable to help myself; there is only so far I will go in experimenting with new things.
"It's the winery's name, not the ingredients," Roxanna answered soothingly; apparently relieved I was still taking it all so well. "However, before we breach the bottle, I really do feel you should stay sober a little longer so we can go back down to Estella, and we can explain everything to you."
I whined loudly at this, I really did. It was my best impression of a three year old being asked to eat their broccoli.
"Really? Sober?" Damn. Part of my brain still just wanted to get the damned day over and done with. That part of said brain was ignoring another bit of my brain that was laughing near-hysterically and saying it was going to take more than a day to get over this.
"Fine." I said, shooting to my feet and dusting myself off. "Just because Estella is dead, why the heck should this stop her from screwing me over all the time? Hey, she is the gift that just keeps giving after all."
Roxanna gracefully rose next to me, smiling in a noncommittal way, before leading the way back up the steps and into her church.
"Thank you for seeing this through, Stephanie," she murmured as we slowly made our way back down the aisle to the doors at the back of the main chamber. "I can assure you that the majority of followers of Isis do tend to pass away like everyone else. They die, they stay dead, and their remains are disposed of in the usual dignified way like so many others of varied faiths."
"But Estella had to go cock it up, like she's done with so many other things in her life." I had only meant to think the thought, but somehow it escaped. I gave an apologetic look to the High Priestess and her surprised expression.
"Not exactly." She paused at the doorway, appearing to be considering how to put her next few sentences. "Admittedly, Estella was a bit of a wild child when she first came to us, but upon bathing in the Light of Isis she really did see the error of her ways and had started to reform herself. She has become a better person."
"So what went wrong?" it was an innocent enough question, I simply couldn't help but say it in a tad too bitchy a manner.
"Nothing that was due to her own fault or error." Roxanna assured me as we reached the door that led back down the many stairs to their secret grotto. "She was assisting in the banishment of evil from a house of ill repute."
Perhaps I had the wrong idea as to exactly what a 'house of ill repute' was as mental images of Victorian whorehouses or ghetto crack dens flashed through my mind. I really couldn't see these white lacy curtain-clad ladies taking either place on successfully. And obviously it hadn't been successful, or there wouldn't be a corpse of sorts in their deep basement.
"Again, I cannot speak for all Temples of Isis." Roxanna said, breaking into my rather bizarre thoughts, "But part of our duties under the Goddess' Light is to protect the unsuspecting from the Darkness." I really do feel my blank look said it all. It was better than scoffing and doing the loony sign at the side of my head. Roxanna opened the door, and we slowly started our descent once more. This time she took the lead.
"Stephanie," she was obviously starting again, trying to find the best way to approach the subject. "I know the world is full of a lot of lost people with a thin grasp on reality, who find it hard to differentiate between reality and fiction. We see it all the time from both sides. From those who want to join us, despite feeling our faith in Isis is probably a complete fabrication, and only come because we offer a warm bed and regular meals. Through to the disbelievers who would rather lock us up for desecrating what they see as a Christian church and for corrupting the gullible."
I wondered at which end of that varied spectrum of disbelief I fitted. Instead of deciding, I just made a sound that showed I was still listening. I really couldn't trust myself to do much more. Roxanna glanced over her shoulder at me and sighed. Obviously I wasn't responding in the way she had hoped.
"What people need to understand, is that a lot of what is seen as fiction and fantasy really is based on reality." She had stopped on the first landing and was staring at me as I joined her, studying my expression.
"O-kay." I said with a half shrug. "Look, I was raised to let people believe in what they will, as long as they intentionally harmed none." What did she want me to say? That yes, Santa really was real, and if she was a good little High Priestess this year she was going to get a new shiny red bike?
"I'm really not here to judge you or your belief in Isis." I tried to sound reasonable as I said this, "I just want to know why, when I've come to bury my dead sister, she's sitting up and talking to me." Roxanna was giving me a studying look so I went on. "I am here with as open a mind as I can manage, honest. So just hit me with it. Tell me what the hell happened, what the hell is going on, and how the hell I can get it all sorted out, and back to my boring white-bread-with-no-crusts life." From the expression she was now giving me, I wondered if I'd gone too far. "I can say hell, can't I?" Was it too late to attempt an innocent and doe-eyed expression?
"Doesn't everyone?" she answered, with an air of mild amusement mixed with relief. "And all right, if you want the truth, I'll stop waffling and get to it." She then turned and kept walking, taking a deep breath before continuing:
"The house of ill repute we were banishing was the home of evil in the shape of Branwyre, eighteenth vampire Lord of the Aegean." She stopped, hearing my own step falter as I tripped a little on the stairs, as well as the words, as they sank into my brain.
"Of course it was." I replied, trying to keep face and tone as neutral as possible.
"We had already slain the body of Branwyre just before the last new moon." Roxanna went on determinedly. "But we obviously missed cleansing this world of all of his Dark soul, as the night we shut down his house of evil, they were performing a ceremony to instil his essence into a new body."
"Oh, for sure." I said in neutral 'yes, I am still listening' tones, forcing my body to continue down the stairs, rather than letting it loose to flee back up the way we came, as it so wished to do. Roxanna had seemed so nice, completely unlike the fruitcake-short-of-a-few-nuts she was coming across as now. We reached the next landing and she turned to look at me, frustration clear on her face.
"Stephanie, I really do appreciate your near-silent cynicism, but I hate to break it to you: What I am telling you is all real." I stopped too and met her look with my own.
"I'm sure you really feel that way." I began, caught the look in her eye and snapped. "Look, okay. I'm freely willing to keep an open mind towards your religious belief, but vampires? Puh-lease! So tell me, are they the dinner jacket and slicked-back hair type? Or the pale, youthful and moody ones?"
Roxanne blinked a few times, as if shocked I'd say such a thing, then actually smiled. "Oh thank Isis you've finally gotten over your 'let's be polite to these religious loonies' mood!" She shook her head. "Vampires are real, but I can assure you that they are neither of the sad and silly things you mentioned. They are an evil disease that infects the Darkness of this world. And, our Temple of Isis is there to shed some of Isis' Light onto them. To dispel them to the beyond." Oh to be able to sigh deeply and looked resigned and disappointed in what she'd just told me. What the hell, I did it anyway. I was then shocked to see Roxanna do the same, before turning on her heel and continuing down the stairs.
"As I was saying, they had his essence and were performing the ceremony of instilling it into a new body, when we broke it up. And although we defeated his followers and prevented the ceremony from completing, it wasn't without casualties on our side. We lost two Priestess, besides Estella. They were the lucky ones." I continued to follow her down as she spoke; I have no idea why, but I felt almost compelled to hear the end of her tale.
"So you mean two more of your Priestess died, but they stayed dead?" What can I say, it was one of those situations I felt the need to state the obvious to ensure I wasn't misconstruing any of the story.
"Yes." Roxanna glanced back at me at the third landing, but didn't stop this time. "Estella was a little zealous in her vanquishing and unfortunately got caught between the essence of Branwyre and his new body. In the crudest terms, she copped some splashback." My mind started tingling in the background; there was something in her words I was understanding, but not quite getting. Splashback? Essence? New body?
"Why in the hell would a vampire need a new body? Aren't they just some sort of undead hunky fellow trying to take over the world one virgin at a time?"
Roxanna sighed in what almost seemed like frustration. "The vampires of stories are not real vampires Stephanie." She stated this calmly enough, but there was an edge of frustration to her voice. "As I explained, they are a disease ..." She seemed to be grasping for a better explanation. "They are a virus that lives in the blood and holds the soul, the essence, of the vampire. It turns their carrier into a subhuman creature of superhuman strength. Vampires are the smear of a vanquished demon left behind long ago during a battle. Those who destroyed the demon had their blood tainted with the Darkness of its own soul and, from that stain, the vampire essence arose. They can only exist in human form if the host body is infected with enough of this ageless virus." I freely admit to stumbling on the steps behind her again, as I took this all in. We were just above the cavern now and Roxanna had dropped her voice to a hushed tone that was hopefully drowned out to those below by their own chanting. Unfortunately, what she had just told me scarily held some merit. It seemed I could believe in a viral-based evildoer more than I could in the opera cloak, dinner suit and smouldering eyes.
"And the virgin part of the myth comes from the host bodies having to be virgins?" I asked hopefully, trying to show I had been not only paying attention but was trying to accept her story. She actually snorted in contempt. The High Priestess of Isis spinning me this grand tale snorted at me!
"Hardly!" she quipped, "Host bodies usually come from the followers of the vampire and, due to their following the values of a creature born from Darkness, I can assure you they are far from pure or virginal. But nice try." Oh bite me Roxanna.
"Well, I was basing it on why it didn't seem to effect Estella. She's not exactly vamping out down there." Was what I did end up saying out loud.
"Although we're unsure of exactly what happened with Estella, the reason she isn't 'vamping out' is she was not the intended host. The real power in a ceremony - both for Darkness and for Light - are the words, especially names. They are invoked to hold the magic in place. The essence had been invoked to take host in a body that was not Estella's. Plus, she only received a small smear of the vampire blood as she beheaded the Master of Ceremony." Yes, I freely admit to stumbling again at those words. As much as I remembered Estella as a wild child, I'd not once imagined beheading was one of the things she got up to.
"Ah, the splashback effect. Never a good thing." I muttered, trying to lighten the conversation before I ran screaming again. Roxanna just raised a questioning eyebrow at me, but seemed to sense my flight risk and left it at that. Although the last set of steps had been taken slowly to finish our conversation, we were finally at the bottom again and I was staring out at my deceased sister propped up on her elbows, watching the women in white robes pacing around her chanting. My life was about to get a little more interesting than a funeral and stale ham sandwiches at a wake. Damn it!
"ABOUT time!" my dearly departed sister called out in her usual carefree manner. "So, has our High Priestess had a chance to bring you up to date on my latest pickle?" Only Estella could make such an understatement.
"Not quite." I said, feeling the whirl of emotions building up to fever pitch, as I eyed her over. Hate, sadness, loss, confusion, worry; all the good ones were stewing away. She was indeed paler than usual and not looking all that healthy; dark shadows around her eyes, straggly looking hair. My own eyes were drawn to the V-shaped stitched autopsy scars on her chest above her death robes. She followed my gaze and shrugged.
"Oh that." She pointed to her scars, "I can't remember exactly what happened, but the police busted our raid shortly after I'd done away with the Master of Ceremony. The backlash of his invoked magic cut short apparently dropped me stone dead, and when my sisters had to disperse before the cops got the wrong idea they had to leave me behind."
How could she call these strange women her sisters? And what the hell did that make me? Just the poor schmuck who was born into the role and didn't get a choice?
"You were technically dead, dear child, along with Priestess Fiona and Priestess Meredith." Roxanna spoke up, stepping closer to Estella and trying to encourage me to do the same. Oh, fat chance!
"Your time in the state morgue appears to have given the virus enough time to replenish itself and bring forth your new life after death."
This really was all getting too much for me, especially as they all seemed so confident in it all being true.
"Oh, come on!" I couldn't help it, I'd finally snapped at the ludicrous ideas they were spouting. "If she had been dead, how on earth could a virus have started working its way through her body? They need healthy cells enriched with oxygen from working lungs, and healthy blood being pumped around the body by a beating heart. Neither of which could be happening if she was dead!" How dare they both give me such an exasperated look? At least the other women seemed fine at ignoring me as they continued their pacing and chanting.
Roxanna turned back to me, ready to try and explain, when she was interrupted by Estella. "Lighten up to the real world, Stephanie. Look into the Light of Isis!"
"I did say she was technically dead, Stephanie." Roxanna tried soothingly, but sensing my turmoil didn't push it. "To modern medicine and science, blind to the Other World we walk in, she did indeed appear dead. When she killed the invoker of the spell, it didn't drop her 'stone dead', merely stunned her to her very soul and slowed her life force to the point she appeared dead to those not in the know." I gave Roxanna my best sceptical look, I really couldn't help it. As if the doctors who examined her and dissected her for autopsy hadn't ensured she was well and truly dead. If not before they started, what they'd then done to her would have done the trick. Again, as if sensing my train of thought, Roxanna of course had another answer for me.
"The vampire virus, due to its demonic origins, doesn't just infect the body but can also entwine the victim's soul, hence its insidious nature. It appears that by the time they were scooping her organs out for examination, the virus had infected her enough to bring out the undead aspect in its new host."
This caused another eye roll to be added to my sceptical look, followed by a sigh.
"If you can get the undead side of the whole vampire thing, how was the original vamp host killed so that the blood needed a new body?" It was a simple enough question, a pity about the amount of scorn that ended up in it.
"As you do with any vamp," Estella piped up from her spot on the stone slab. "You chop their fricking head off. I mean, duh, Stephanie, haven't you been taking in anything our High Priestess has been saying?"
Yup, she may have been dead and brought back to life, but my sister was still a royal pain in the arse, no matter how you looked at it. We were standing close to the raised slab she lay upon now and I exchanged my usual pained, world-weary expression with Estella. It was the one I always had when having to deal with her and cleaning up her messes.
"And so my sister is an undead vampire who you want me to behead, in this holy-of-holies place of yours?" And if there was mild sarcasm in my voice, could you really blame me?
"I'm not a damned vampire, you silly cow!" Estella exclaimed, about to get up off the slab when Roxanna raised a hand and sternly shook her head at her. "Geez, Steph, I thought you were more loose and easy going than the rigid people who got to be our parents. Haven't you been taking any of this in?"
I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, doing the mental countdown I'd for years hoped would help lower my anger at her glib tongue and total lack of respect for our parents.
"Estella, you may want to lie down and rest a little longer." It was Roxanna, not oblivious to my current state of mind - unlike my sister - and I assumed it was her hand that led me to a quiet corner of the cavern. I opened my eyes as we walked, turning my head to look back at Estella who was settling herself back down into her own death repose. I mean, how messed up was that?
"I am starting to see where your hesitance to assist your sibling comes from." Roxanna soothed as we moved into the shadows away from the chanting. "I must admit, she isn't as glib towards us, and I apologise for her behaviour." I grunted and shook my head, calming myself down from my conversation with Estella. Her being alive and just as blase about the world around her, after the week of mourning I'd been through, was bad enough. Having to take this vampire rubbish into account with it, was just too much for me. I wanted out, and I wanted to go home to my safe, boring, drab apartment and I wanted to have a nice big glass of wine.
"You should never apologise for my sister. It gets you nowhere and makes you look all the more foolish for sticking up for her when she screws you over too." My tone had been bitter, but held more sadness to it than I'd expected. I glanced at Roxanna and watched her studying me, obviously calculating how to proceed. I sighed again and rubbed my temples with the tips of my fingers.
"Okay Roxanna, let's just cut the crap." I then began, knowing I needed to get this whole mess over with. Having 'Big Sister' responsibilities to consider, and all that. "Let's just pretend for a moment that all of what you've told me is true. Vampire blood, beheadings, blah blah blah. What in the hell am I here to do about it? I was meant to preside over her funeral, so what am I doing? Staking her?" I started to lose any real train of serious thought and felt another huge sigh surge through me. "Just tell me what the hell I am meant to do to clean up her latest mess, so I can get back to my version of a normal life, okay?"
Roxanna gently patted my arm; I let her, feeling some small comfort in it.
"Your sister is in a lot of trouble, Stephanie," she begun. My grunt and dark expression pretty much showed my unspoken 'so what else is new'. She smiled but it was tight, and she was starting to look as tired as I felt.
"She is not a vampire, but she has been infected by one. For now, that just means she is a carrier of the virus, with only mild side effects. But soon, if nothing is done to save her, she will be taken over by the virus and become possessed by the vampire." She then stopped speaking to allow what she'd just said seep in. If being able to survive an autopsy and death itself was a 'mild side effect', I was wondering if I really wanted to know how bad it could really get.
"Being undead is a mild side effect?" I couldn't help but voice that concern. Something seemed to change in Roxanna, as she realised at about the same time that I did, that I was starting to really accept what was going on.
"There are others, but yes." She replied. "It is only a small thing for now. We don't try and remove vampires and other such creatures from the world simply because of some sort of Girl Scout complex. They are evil, nasty, and will be the death and destruction of our planet if we don't try and wipe them out. They walk in the Darkness, while we walk in the Light." Roxanna was still watching for my reaction, and no doubt noticed in my expression the fear and concern at where the conversation was going.
"We may look like a bunch of women wearing their grandmother's lace curtains and growing our hair long, but Isis is real. And our faith in her and the other Goddesses and Gods of the Light that watch over the planets, isn't just for show. We respect and honour them; they appoint us as the guardians come warriors to watch over their earth bound flocks." This just caused another sigh from me at this holier-than-thou pep talk. Though it wasn't a sigh of disbelief, simply of not understanding the passion and sincerity in her voice when describing such things.
"Your sister is very sick Stephanie," she went on to say, seeing I was ready to pretty much hear anything she now had to say. "Praying for her soul while she is within the Light of Isis right now is keeping that virus at bay. But she will need to leave it soon, and will need your help and protection, as well as our own."
"Why me? If all this is so important, and you've been given the green light to do it by those up above, why me?" I had to ask, I had to know why the hell I needed to be dragged into all this weirdness; me, with barely a grasp on the basic, better-known religions.
"The vampire virus attacks the blood, and the blood ties to the soul. As her closest blood relative, her sister, you have within you a blood tie just as powerful as the one the vampire forges. One that we hope will give you the ability to destroy the virus and free your sister." I blinked at this; I had to save her, again? Unfortunately, I had a bad feeling where that would leave me at the end of it all.
"Once the virus is removed, unlinked from her soul ..." I began, looking hesitantly back to where Estella lay twiddling her thumbs, then returning my gaze sadly to Roxanna.
"She will cease to be. She will reach her final death and be welcomed fully into the Light by Isis." Roxanna nearly whispered this news sadly, following my gaze before returning to mine. "I am sorry Stephanie, but Estella really is dead already. We just need to rid her soul of the demon's stain that is keeping her here, so she can rest in peace." I closed my eyes, wondering where the sudden tears welling up had come from. Yes, I had cried for my sister on the news of her death. Angry, frustrated tears of how unjust and unfair the world had been, and how stupid she was to have gotten herself killed before we could ... Well, before what had caused the estrangement could be resolved. When I had stopped crying, I had continued to mourn her in my own self-contained way. Things were slowly stuffed deep down inside me where all the 'too painful to deal with' emotions and memories lay. Then I had started to move on. These new tears were an indication I would have to go through all that again, and I really didn't know if I wanted to. This just wasn't fair. Why the hell was I the one to suffer? The one to have to clean up after another Estella stuff-up?
Roxanna's patting of my shoulder became a gentle rub, as she tried to give as much comfort as I would allow.
"Damn her," I muttered, angrily wiping the tears away while looking over my shoulder to check Estella hadn't noticed them.
"Sadly, she already has been." Roxanna whispered softly. "We are hoping you will rescue her from that damnation and set her free." Another sigh shuddered through me, I had known I was going to have a bad day, but damn. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and clear my head, before looking back into Roxanna's soothing gaze.
"So what do I need to do?" I asked. "If you want me to dress up in lace curtains, I have to stop you right there." It was her turn to close her eyes and sigh. This time though it was a sigh of relief.
"You have to find the ceremonial crucible used to extract the blood from a dying host, and use it on Estella before the next new moon." Oh sure, nothing too hard then I see.
"Uh ..." I started, not knowing which of the dozens of new questions in my head I should ask first.
"The new moon is in a week's time." Roxanna answered one of the more important unasked questions.
"And where am I meant to get the crucible from?" I still felt slightly insane, to actually be agreeing to all of this without any real proof. Well okay, maybe Estella counted as proof, but the whole thing still felt pretty messed up.
"From Branwyre's private rooms." Roxanna replied, visibly bracing herself for my next question.
"And how do I find these private rooms?" I asked, nervous fear rising in me as I started to get an inkling of what she was asking of me. "Being private, I'm assuming it's not something I can Google. Or something you'd have in your church address book, right?" I was trying to hide my fear and unease in my use of sarcasm. So what else was new?
"Branwyre will have to take you to it." Roxanna finally said, watching for my response. Which was to close my eyes as I felt myself crumble inside, as realisation of what she was saying actually meant. Damn.
"Branwyre is in my sister already, isn't he?" I may have gotten the original vampire thing all wrong, but I felt I was catching up quickly.
"Branwyre's soul is a part of the virus ..." Roxanna began.
"And is why she is within your protective circle under the Light of Isis. She is being protected from him." I finished, amazed at how it all seemed to come to me. The small hope of Roxanna correcting my misguided thoughts died quickly as she just nodded. Double damn. She'd not just been infected to become a vampire, but would become the vampire she had been trying to kill.
"As I said, Stephanie, she is showing only the mild side effects of him right now. He is not powerful enough to consume her, and completely take her soul." I read between the lines of what she had just told me.
"So my sister can, when out of that Light, be possessed by Branwyre?" All emotion was seeping from my voice - what on earth had I gotten into here?
"Yes and no," Roxanna replied, then winced at my expression before resting a placating hand on my shoulders and turning me to face her. "Part of the cliche vampire is real, the bit where the undead evil can only come out at night." I shot another nervous glance over my shoulder at my sister. Who was still thumb twiddling while atop the stone slab. The enormity of what I was accepting as truth seeped further into my soul.
"The virus is weakest during the daylight," continued Roxana, "which has a similar effect to that of the more concentrated Light of Isis. And so while the virus is weak, daylight makes it near non-existent. Meaning Branwyre can only assert himself during the hours after sundown. In fact, until the virus strengthens, he can probably only assert himself during the darkest hours - from midnight til just before dawn." Oh great, I had never been much of a night owl, and yet was surprised my chaotic mind found that the thing to baulk at. What had I gotten myself into? Damn Estella.
"So," I started this next question slowly as I wasn't too sure where it was heading myself. "You're asking me to take Estella with me, wait until midnight when a really nasty vampire will possess her, and make her help me find the crucible?" Yeah, that sure sounded easy enough, once I said it out loud. I nearly flinched at the 'Yes and no' expression on Roxanna's face.
"I'm sorry, Stephanie," she replied in apologetic tones, "But it isn't going to be quite that simple. Branwyre isn't going to want to help you do anything that would result in his banishment and final rest." Yes, there was my sigh again. She studied me for a moment, obviously trying to find the best way to word her next sentence.
"Branwyre is evil, pure and simple. It comes from his origin in the Darkness and can never be changed. Although a female untrained in his House's rituals and history isn't his preferred host, he is not about to give that body up until his people have a more suitable one already prepared to replace it." I understood, even as the latest sigh - now more a quiet whimper - escaped me. So this wasn't going to be easy, but nothing ever was with Estella. That dear sister of mine who couldn't even die without rewriting my outlook on the world I had known.
"So he won't co-operate. Got it, so then what?" I asked resignedly.
"He won't just not co-operate Stephanie!" Roxanna exclaimed, seeming surprised I'd missed something in what she had said. "He's going to do his very best to stop you. He's going to keep Estella's body as safe as he can until the virus has made his parasitic soul strong enough to take over her body, and then he's going to seek out his House and have them help him get a more suitable host. Destroying anyone who has put him into this situation along the way."
"And presumably that would include ... you?" More dumb questions from me, why not?
She nodded, actually looking a little worried. "We're definitely on his hit list. We've almost destroyed Branwyre twice now, and he's not going to be pleased with us and the tenuous situation we've now put him in. He is a very old and powerful soul who survives simply to inflict pain, death and disease on the world and everyone in it."
"So he's not simply going to come along quietly until I find out how to get his crucible," I replied, trying to show I still had some idea as to what I was meant to be doing.
"He is more likely going to try and kill you." Roxanna said brutally. "That is, unless he feels you have a stronger body than your sister's, then he will try and over-power and possess you." Ah, crap! Why was I helping my sister in this again? Blood ties, sisterly love, and all that rubbish. Got it.
"And this is where you tell me I'm going to be doing this alone, without the support of the church, right?" I had been wondering where Roxanna's sudden harshness had come from, and I had just got a feeling about it in my last question. It was her turn to sigh again as she lost some of her pent-up emotions.
"We're a Temple, not a church. And we will help where we can." Is what her mouth said, while her head gave a subconscious shake of denial. "You will, of course, have Estella with you to help where she can with her vampire lore. Though she is weak, and cannot be trusted to be left alone at any time. As for the other Priestess of Isis, we tend to stick out in 'your' world, and so won't be able to come too."
"Surely the white robes can be ditched for undercover work?" I was surprised at how helpless I sounded. I wasn't liking the idea of this at all. From what she'd been telling me, I had to find the hidden rooms of an ancient, evil bastard. Find in those rooms a crucible that would then be used to remove said evil bastard from - and kill - my sister. Again. And while I was trying to do all that, I'd have my sister - currently mildly possessed by said evil bastard - along with me, sometimes helping, sometimes trying to kill me. Then to top it all off, the women who had caused all this couldn't, or wouldn't, come with me.
"We're fairly certain members of Branwyre's House have been watching for any sign he may have survived our attack by infecting one of our Priestess, which is another reason we need to remain in the temple," Roxanna answered, shaking her head.
Oh great, just to make it more interesting. And all this had to be done in just a week. Right, well that would explain the sudden migraine threatening to crush my brain in. Good-o.
"I don't think I can do this," was actually what I ended up saying in a remorseful tone. There were far worse things on the tip of my tongue at that stage too, I might add. "I know she's my sister, and I know she once more needs my help, but I really don't think I can do any of that." I met Roxanna's eyes briefly, expecting disappointment. It was the sheer terror they actually held, that made me look away quickly.
"But you have to," she whispered intensely. "We cannot allow this disease to continue to live. Stephanie, please ..." I cut her off, pushing my arms up and away from her comforting grasp. I'd come to read a half-true eulogy and assist people with tea and cakes at a wake. Not discover that vampires, although vastly different to the stereotype, were actually real and that one was possessing my dead sister. And I had to get it out of her, alone, while people would be trying to kill me. My sister included. My sister ... Damn, what about her in all this craziness?
"If I say no and walk away now, what will happen to Estella?" I asked, glancing briefly at Roxanna before looking sadly over to where said sister lay. "Will she be okay? I mean, if she stays in your Light long enough, will the virus die and her with it?" I turned back to Roxanna, hope in my eyes. It lasted only a moment before I saw the sadness and fear in her own.
"We cannot hold the virus back with the Light of Isis. Nor can we use it to cure her." Roxanna looked towards Estella amongst the chanting women in flowing white robes. "Soon the virus will be able to resist our prayers and the Goddess' Light, and it will grow strong no matter what we do. By the new moon Branwyre will be in control. He'll force his way out of here and any blood spilt in his escape will desecrate our Temple. Isis will leave us and we will be destitute without her, in a building on non-consecrated ground, open to any and all attacks from the other great evils who dwell in the Darkness out there." She tried to look away, tried to hide the tear that escaped the iron grip she had on her expression. "That is, if any of us survive the wrath of Branwyre. Simply, we are dead and ruined no matter what."
"Can't you behead her? Like you did to the other hosts?" I was grasping at straws now and feeling wretched inside, not only for feeling I couldn't help, but in suggesting they chop off my sister's head.
"That would be blood split." Roxanna murmured, regaining control over her tears and looking back at me. "And even if we moved off our grounds before completing the act, her soul would be lost to the Darkness. Never to return to the Light of Isis or allowed to be reborn in another life."
"Purgatory?" I knew little about religion, I think I'd mentioned that already. But from what she was telling me, some of my enforced public school religious instruction came back to me. My sister would be in purgatory.
"In a sense, yes." Roxanna said sadly. "Different faiths have different words and different interpretations of it all, but pretty much." Double frigging, triple-blasted, and damn it all to hell. She was my little sister. As much as she had always been a pain in my arse. As much as she had never been thankful for what she had, and had to rebel against everything. As much as I could never forgive her for what she had done to me ... I just couldn't be the one responsible for her spending eternity in such a state. Why I suddenly deep down really believed it would actually happen, I don't know. But it wasn't going to be me who put her there. Not when I had the opportunity to save her skinny little butt one more time.
"One last time." I murmured on an exhalation of breath. "I will save her and clean up her mess. One. Last. Time." I looked Roxanna squarely in the eye, matching her sudden happy shock and thanks with one of sheer determination. "I'm probably going to regret this, if I even make it out of it alive myself. But once it's done, so am I. If she doesn't go into Isis' Light and decides to stick around, she'll be someone else's burden to carry. I am done with her." Roxanna appeared taken aback by my sudden cold tone and expression, unaware it was hiding the sheer terror I was feeling by committing myself. She tried to stop me as I moved back over to where Estella lay. My sister shot me a bored look and was about to gripe when she noticed my expression.
"I am done with you and your stupid mistakes, Estella." I nearly growled at her. "And I'm telling you and that virus within you, that we are going to do this once and do it right. This is the last time ever that I will clean up after you." She looked a little sheepish, and turned to Roxanna to make it all okay. Roxanna stood next to me uncertainly, but silently backing me up.
"And if I'm going to be blamed for you ending up in purgatory," I added just as crossly. "I'm going to be the one swinging the sword and chopping off your head. Piss me off just once, sister dear, and it will happen. I promise." A final heart-felt sigh shuddered through me as I looked around the room. The women chanting seemed to waver at my angry words, but were still going. Estella looked afraid and was shooting a pleading look towards Roxanna. The High Priestess, however, was giving me one of her best studied looks, a hard smile on her lips. She then started slowly nodding. Good.
"Fine." I then said harshly to the room in general. "And now, if anyone wants me, I'll be in the High Priestess' chambers breaking out the wine."
Janis grew up in and around Darwin and its rural surrounds. As a child, she spent a lot of time around 'science geeks' at the Darwin University, where her father was a lecturer for many years. It took her a long time to realise that not everyone got to grow up like that or could relate to all the Science Labs scenes in the old Dr Who.
Janis now lives in the Adelaide Hills with her husband and 3 children, lovingly referred to as the 'Demonic Hordes'. She is a semi-retired ICT Support Officer who, when not writing, takes pride in her work as a Haus Frau while dabbling in the art of translating century old cookery books into modern recipes to experiment on her family with.
For more information visit http://janishill.wordpress.com/.
Isis, Vampires and Ghosts - Oh My!
Book 1 in the Other World
Copyright © 2014 by Janis Hill
All rights reserved.
Cover Art: Isis, Vampires and Ghosts - Oh My! by Jade Zivanovic
Enjoyed the sample?
PO Box 451 Bassendean
Western Australia 6934