GFD Battle of Gods: Chapter 8

Aedan and I have been together for so long now. A millennium had passed since he had decided to spend the rest of his life with me… or respectively, the rest of his existence when I had changed him. I didn’t know why fate had played with me in the way it had done. I never could have believed in my most secret dreams to have someone like him. As a human, I had never felt like this, in fact I only had had such a feeling once before in my existence and it still did hurt me for the eternally beating heart to think about the one boy I so much had cared about before. When I had told Aedan about Thabit and what had happened to him, his reaction had been so… caring. There were no other words to describe it. He had taken my head and had made me let it rest on his chest. Stroking my ear-length black hair, he then had said ‘I’m sorry for your loss’. These small words had been so honest.

When I looked at him now, I still felt this deep affection, the same affection that he felt for me. How could I not be happy with him? With Aedan, time was nothing. My existence before him had been a dark one, always walking hand in hand with death. I was death after all, although I had tried not to feed so often. Sometimes it had been really hard and I had to give in to survive. Then, all of a sudden, Aedan was there and the sun seemed a bit brighter for me. I remembered again how we first had met and I bit my bottom lip. There was still a slight feeling of guilt gnawing away at my conscience because of the scare I had caused him. I couldn’t help myself; a small part of me regretted my behavior then, although he had forgiven me many, many… many years ago. On the other hand, what would have happened if I hadn’t talked to him; if I hadn’t bought that piece of bread for him; if I hadn’t chosen him for a snack? And… if I hadn’t changed my mind after I had seen his beauty and had looked into his memories?

Aedan was an orphan. His mother had died from childbed fever after the birth of his youngest sister. His father had been killed in Rome when he had angered a Roman soldier, although the poor fellow had done nothing then, just standing in the way by mistake. There had been other brothers and sisters, too, but all of them had died or had been killed over the years. Especially the memory of his little sister being raped by some barbarians back at his former home in Britannia niggled him. This memory sometimes swept through his mind like a dark and happiness absorbing shadow. It had been hard for me to bear when his first vampiric dream had brought him back to that dreadful moment in his life. To see those tears pouring out of his else-so-bright emerald eyes had broken my heart. He just had stayed in my arms for hours and I had rocked him back and forth to comfort him until his tears had dried.

Aedan looked up at me, raising his silky-soft, golden hair-covered head from my chest. The rest of his still naked body rested on mine. “What are you thinking about, Adrianus?”

I smiled at him because this was his usual question and he would get his answer. “About you, of course.” My smile widened.

“To this day you still think of me? I think I’m getting better at this if I can leave such an imprint,” he answered me, smiling in such a cute and suggestive way. His tongue stroked over his lips coming to a rest in the right corner. This was so seductive. I stroked his tanned back and gave him a kiss on those inviting lips.

“You were always good at this,” I said. His eyes got even brighter and another kiss followed. “So…” I let my right index finger softly glide over his butt. “What are your plans for today?”

“I don’t know. Don’t you need to go to the palace?” His head cuddled again down on its ‘pillow’.

The palace he referred to wasn’t my own. I didn’t regret that though. It belonged to the ruler of this realm. Aedan and I had travelled around some hundred years. I wanted to show the world to him. He liked the places we had been to. We had travelled through theRoman Empirethat soon became the Empire with two emperors. Losing more and more of its power in the west, only the eastern part of theRoman Empiresurvived and we had stayed a while inConstantinople. Later we had travelled through theFrankishKingdomand on to the Britannic Island that was packed with memories, not all of them good. In the southeast we had spent time in theVisigothKingdomthat changed into the Kingdoms of Portugal,León,Castile,NavarreandAragon, as well as the Almohad Empire, in the northeast ofEuropeto theNovgorodRepublic, with the center Great Novgorod and its big markets. All those different places had changed so much since my last visit, as had theRoman Empirewhen we returned. To Aedan’s and my amusement there was a nice city we finally chose for our new home.Adrianoplehad been one of the major cities in the Latin Empire, one of the four successor states to theRoman Empire. When we had arrived there, there had been wars all around us but we hadn’t cared. Even when our home had been conquered by the risingOttoman Empireand its ruler Murat Hüdavendigâr, the God-like One, and then renamedEdirneto become the new capital of the sultanate, we had stayed. Why not? Humans waxed and waned. For us time was nothing.

“No, the boys are to pray today,” I answered Aedan’s question. The boys were the trainees of the Janissary Corps. They came from all quarters of the Empire due to the dev?irme and usually were between fourteen and eighteen years old. I had agreed to train them in their fighting skills. It was an arrangement that I had made with Murat himself the first and only time when he had seen my true being. I wasn’t so happy about this, but it provided us safety… and something to feed on. “We have all day to ourselves,” I said. I lifted myself up a bit and began kissing and nibbling on his neck, on the one spot where I had once given him my ‘immortal kiss’. Aedan moaned.

There was a knock on the door that brought us back to the present. My little angel sighed and I had to grin to myself. ‘I will get rid of him and then we can go on,’ I thought and when he began to smile I knew he liked my proposal. Getting softly rid of my ‘blanket’… His young naked body is so wonderful and it will always stay like this… I stood up from the bed.

One of the guards that were drafted to provide us safety was waiting for my permission to come in. I changed my appearance to look like the young man the soldier on the other side of the door was used to, put on a light robe and then told him to come in, my voice now much deeper than it had been before.

When the man, he was just a bit older then my current appearance, entered the room, he took a quick peek at Aedan on the bed who was still lying naked on his stomach. Although times had changed also in theOttoman Empire, it was still quite common among the high-ranking men to have some young boys for their… diversion. But nobody really spoke about that.

I could read the longing in his mind when his eyes made contact with Aedan’s butt and before the soldier even began to directly speak to me I also had read about the matter at hand and suddenly my mood changed.

“My apologies for my intrusion, aga.” He used my title ‘commander’ when he bowed his head. “There are two strangers at the front gate who seek to speak with you.” I reached out with my senses and could feel them… as they felt me. Aedan really had been a diversion for me, because I hadn’t been aware of them until that moment. I reached out farther with every sense I had, but only the two of them were there. I looked back at Aedan who had felt my irritation by then.

“Did you see others? More than just the two strangers?” I asked looking back at the Janissary.

“No, a?a. There are only those two at the gate. One of them is a woman. She said she was your sister. Shall I invite her in?”

Although my worries warned me and didn’t want me to do it, I said, “Yes, bring them in.”

“As you wish, aga.” He bowed his head once more and left through the door. In the same moment when he passed the threshold Aedan leaped to his feet and began to look for his clothes. Even to him it would have been a bit awkward if my sister had seen him naked, lying there all stretched out on my bed. He raised his head while he tried to put on his green and red robe and looked in my direction. I could see the worry on his face. I didn’t know what to make of this encounter either. Not yet, that is. Trying to make him feel comfortable I thought, ‘Everything will be fine, don’t worry.’ It didn’t help much, though.

Na’amah… or Isis, as she had last called herself, still looked like the young woman I remembered her to be. Although she wore her hair a bit longer now, her eyes had stayed the same. They were still of that bright emerald color. Almost like Aedan’s, I thought to myself. Our ‘little’ brother Tubal-cain, Horus, had changed his appearance again. He wasn’t the tall young man anymore that he had been inAbydos. He was younger. Looking like an average sixteen year old boy now, I knew that he was still my little brother. I could see it in his eyes; could still see the young twelve year old that had always been so jealous of Jabal and me, always craving to take him with us when we had been on our way out of the community.

I nodded to the guard and he bowed his head and left the room.

“What brings you here… Isis?” I didn’t want to blurt out like that, but ‘Always speak your mind’ had become something like my motto. She didn’t say a word. Her eyes wandered around in the room, somehow ‘feeling’ my very existence… she has increased her powers… and the existence of Aedan. She kept her gaze on him, looking into the beautiful emerald eyes of his and Aedan looked back. Due to us being equal I couldn’t read her thoughts. What was she thinking about him? I began to get nervous. Why didn’t she say something? Just one word. When her stare wandered down Aedan’s body I took a step between them. This is enough!

She began to smile at me. “My name’s Charis now… Adrianus… and don’t worry.” I raised one of my eyebrows because I didn’t know if she had read my concerns in my face or in my head.

“The latter.” Her smile didn’t vanish when my eyes got wide and I opened my mouth in surprise. “But I will promise you to not read your thoughts anymore.” She raised her arms and opened them as if she expected an embrace.

When she cocked my head I knew she had read that, too. I sighed to myself and did what she wanted me to do. Her scent was amazing. She smelt like honey and there was also a faint undertone of jasmine.

“Thank you for the compliment, you look good as well,” she said smilingly when I retreated.

“Didn’t you just promise something?” My brow went up again and I began shaking my head in disapproval.

“Oh, I apologize,” she slightly bowed her head. “And here,” she looked over her shoulder, “is someone who would like to apologize as well.” I followed her example and looked towards Tubal-cain again. He had dropped his gaze and looked at the stony floor.

“Kilian?” she referred to him, so this had to be his new name. “Didn’t you want to say something?” He raised his head. “Come on, you rehearsed it all the way here.” Although her head was turned I could see the encouraging smile in her face. Kilian hesitated, but then plucked up the courage to speak.

“I’m sorry, Jubal.” By the use of my old name he hit a spot in my heart. “I’m sorry for allowing Set to do that to you. The coffin I mean and…,” he took a quick peek at Aedan and looked down again, “the other thing.” It was thoughtful of him to not mention Thabit because he couldn’t know what I had told Aedan. To see him feel so awkward about the past was hard for me to bear. How long had he struggled with himself? I walked over to him and laid my finger under his chin to raise his head. His eyes met mine and there was something in them. Fright?

“You don’t need to be sorry, Tubal.” I used the short form of his name to make him feel comfortable. He bit on his bottom lip and I could still see how hard he had to struggle with his feelings. I smiled at him and then embraced him as tightly as I could. “I’m so happy to have you back, little brother.” At first I could feel how the boy tensed up in my arms but then he raised his hands to my back to return the deep embrace.

“See, you were worried about nothing,” I could hear Charis saying. I released my brother and turned back to her. There was a small tear in the corner of her left eye that made it sparkle even brighter. I was happy because I had worried about nothing, too. I didn’t even know why that made me happy, but I was.

“I want you to meet someone.” I held out my right hand for Aedan to invite him into our round. He bit his bottom lip, but then shyly gave in to it and came over, taking my hand. It was a bit funny how his small hand disappeared in mine; after all I still looked like the young man, the commander of the Janissary Corps, I had changed into before.

“This is Aedan,” I said and he responded with a faint smile to my introduction.

“Nice to meet you, Aedan.” Charis looked at him and then to me. “How long have you two been together?”

“A millennium.”

“A millennium?” She asked with gaping mouth. “That is quite a long time. Even for us.” She leaned forward for another hug and – to my surprise – she also embraced Aedan. “I’m happy for you two.” She retreated, but let her hands rest on Aedan’s shoulders. Then she cocked her head a bit.

“What is it?” Aedan asked concerned.

“Nothing. Just… your eyes.” She narrowed her own.

“What is with my eyes?”

“They are… so emerald,” and with a peek in my direction she released Aedan’s shoulders and folded her arms. “Set was wrong.”

Now it was I who narrowed his eyes. “With what?”

“You are not weak, Adrianus. As far as I’m concerned, you are even stronger than Set.” She sucked on her bottom lip for a moment and I waited, because I knew she wasn’t finished yet. “Because you can love.”

I didn’t know what to make of this. I found it intriguing that my older brother thought of me being weak. As children we had been close. Certainly, there was the sibling rivalry between us, but I always had thought he also had cared for me, as I had done for him. Until that night inAbydos, that is. “Speaking of whom, I take it you are not with him right now.”

“Set? No, we’re not.” Charis sighed. “We left him shortly after the incident inAbydos.” I didn’t know what the meaning of ‘shortly’ was in her understanding.

“Two hundred years.”

“Stop reading my thoughts, Charis!” I gave her a serious look and she nodded an apology to me. “Why can you do that anyway?”

“What? Didn’t you increase your powers over the years?” It wasn’t an answer at all to my question, but I didn’t broach the subject again. “Anyway, there are some issues we have to discuss regarding Set.” She now put on a serious look, too; the smile on her face was gone. “Do you mind if we sit?”

That which she said about our brother was concerning. I nodded my head to her question and led them to a low table on which stood a small ornate bowl with sweet figs. I definitely knew they were sweet because I used to kiss their juice away from Aedan’s lips. I began to grin and looked at the boy who was still holding my hand. When he did that it always soothed me. We sat down on the cushioned chairs next to the table.

“Have you seen him?” I began to ask Charis.

“No, we haven’t.” I didn’t expect Kilian to answer and I was surprised when he spoke. I looked at him so he could go on with his explanation. “There was talk and we met some children. They told us about him gathering something like an army. However we don’t know for sure. Not yet.”

Now Charis rose to speak. “There will be war, Adrianus. We think it’s inevitable.”

“War? What kind of war? What could he actually fight for? Or against whom?” My right eyebrow wandered up all on its own. “I can’t think of something or someone.”

“Not?” Charis looked me in the eyes. “What about his own land? Or maybe his own kingdom? There are so many possibilities.”

“Come on, Charis. He wouldn’t do that, would he?”

“I’m no longer sure what our brother would or would not do. You see, when we left him he was obsessed with creating others like us. It never did work properly as he wanted it to be. His own children were strong enough, but those who descended from them were not. You know there are many of them out there by now.” I knew what she was talking about. Those creatures were nothing in comparison to us. They couldn’t walk in the sunlight instead they had to creep in the night. What kind of existence was that? Fortunately, there were not too many out there so that our whole existence would be endangered. But they had to feed more often and if there were more of them, they would need a higher amount of blood to nourish themselves and that definitely wouldn’t be undetected by the humans. They might be weak, but humans were not foolish. They wouldn’t allow something like that for long. My arrangement with Murat was for Aedan and me only and both sides abided by it, but what if there was an enormous group of iluminirae? What would he do then? I slowly nodded my head to give my answer to Charis’ last words. Then another thought crossed my mind.

“You said there was talk? Where exactly is he?” I looked at Charis, then to Kilian and back to Charis.

“He’s said to be in the vicinity of a city inBulgaria.”Bulgaria? That really gave me a shock, because I didn’t imagine him to be so close to Aedan’s and my residence. I hadn’t cared about my brother for a long time now. Aedan had been there with me and that had been all that mattered. But now my brother was in our immediate vicinity, becauseBulgariawas so close by. That annoyed me, not only because of him being so close, but in fact that I hadn’t known about it.

“He could have stayed in Egypt. He had his own country there.” I almost hissed the word ‘his’, because it had actually been my country.

“He got ‘bored’ there,” Kilian answered and my stare at him made him look down again. I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable anew, because it hadn’t been his fault. I apologized. Of course Jabal, or Set, didn’t want that country in general, since he only had taken it away from me to put me in my place – under him. For him it had only been a distraction, but for me, Abydoshad been my home. And now when I finally had found another home together with Aedan, my brother was in the act of destroying my home… our home, again.

I felt how my hand was squeezed and I turned my head to look at the boy next to me. Aedan’s eyes shone back at my own. He had felt my anger and reminded me of staying calm. ‘Thank you my love,’ I thought to him and got a faint smile in response. Aedan cared so much about me. When I looked back at Charis, I could see her eyes wandering from Aedan to me and back to Aedan. She knew it. She must have sensed it, too. Or she just had read our thoughts again, although she had promised not to. Being caught, her eyes flipped back at me. I cocked my head and gave her a disapproving expression; her cheeks blushed. I sighed and then said, “So there will be war.”

“Definitely, yes.”

“And you think he’s creating more children to be his soldiers?” The mere thought made me shiver. He loved to be in charge and this seemed so like him. “What do you suggest we do?”

“We have to see him first and then decide what we do.” Charis’ facial expression was rock-hard. When did she become so stern? She ignored my thought; although I so knew she had read it. “Will you come with us, Adrianus?”

I looked at her, not knowing what to answer. Would I come with them? Leave my Aedan alone? But my own thoughts were interrupted.

“We’re coming,” someone said and when I turned my head I looked at Aedan in disbelief. Did I hear him right? We?

“We?” My mouth was gaping.

He gave me an irritated look and then said, “Of course ‘we’. What did you think? That I will stay all alone by myself here, while you go out there and fight some childish war against your brother?”

“Not in the slightest!” I didn’t even try to argue with him about this, because I was the one who would lose.

“Good for you.” He gave me a smirk and then stood up. “I will prepare our things for the journey. Do we need horses?” He looked at Charis.

“We could travel there by foot, but horses would be fine, thank you.” He nodded to her answer and walked away. I thought about my duties here inEdirne, but then when I snapped out of this thought, I reminded myself that I was accountable to none. When I wanted to leave they couldn’t hinder me.

 

It took us several days on the roads to reach our destination. Even with the horses that the stables of the sultan had provided us with – with a little persuasiveness from Aedan – it had been an emaciating journey. There were so many areas that had been depopulated, their former inhabitants either dead or fled. Others had surely joined the Ottoman military, because there was always enough food for the soldiers. I should know that. The last year had been difficult for so many people. The crop being bad and the winter being hard, now there wasn’t much left that could be used for a new sowing and men, women and children were starving. Along the road close to a town, a dirty-faced boy who was about Aedan’s age when I had met him, begged for something to eat. I looked at him for some time, but there was nothing that I could have given him, except release from his suffering. I felt the familiar feeling inside me, but I knew I had several weeks until it got more severe and I wasn’t willing to use the young boy for my nourishment. Not at this time, that is. Maybe I would have thought differently if the feeling had been more urging, so we just passed by, leaving the boy on his own. Fate would surely make its decisions for him.

When we rode into the city we had been looking for – well, it wasn’t a proper city, more like a town – emptiness welcomed us. Emptiness in the darkness of the night. The streets were not paved with stones; there was only the earth that had been tramped in rock-hard. But those who had done this for years and years were gone now. All the wooden houses with their roofs made of straw were empty. I looked around with my eyes and reached out with my senses at the same time. There was not only the dirt that covered the streets. I could feel a slight undertone that vibrated through the alleys. It was the imprint of what had happened here. I ‘saw’ several fights in the narrow alleys… and there was the smell of blood. A lot of blood. I could see that Aedan smelt it, too, because his nostrils flared. So did the horses.

“I think it already has begun,” Charis said softly. I looked at her and her eyes met mine. She didn’t need to say anything else, because I knew what was on her mind. There were no bodies, although there must have been plenty. I dismounted my horse and led it by the reins. The others followed my example.

We wandered around through the streets, but still there was neither life nor that which would be remaining. I looked at a small house with a low hanging roof and saw its open door. I didn’t need to duck because my once again younger appearance was small enough to pass the lintel. When I passed the threshold, a smell of mold came to my nose. Everyday objects were lying on the floor of the small room, as if nobody cared about them anymore. Cobwebs and dust were their new companions. It was obvious no one had lived in here for quite some time and when I turned around to leave the house I saw why. The doorframes bore black markings. Somebody had painted those in a hurry and then definitely walked away quickly. The domicile was a pest house. Its inhabitants must have been dead for a long time now, because there had been no new cases of the Black Death for more than two years.

“Anything?” Aedan asked and I shook my head.

I looked at Charis. “He was said to be in this region?”

“Yes.”

“You think we should move on to search the proximity? Some miles down the road perha…?” Suddenly I sensed something and every fiber of my body tensed up. The others felt it, too. Our heads turned in unison into the direction where we felt someone approaching. In fact it was two. And they were of our kind, that is to say, they were children.

I walked over to my siblings and to Aedan. Although the two children were no match for us, we readied ourselves for an attack. Who could know if they wouldn’t make a charge on us? After all, my older brother had once tried before to get rid of me. He hadn’t tried to kill me himself, but he had left me to suffer in that coffin. Since then I was on my guard. Well, actually I hoped I had been, because those two were already too close, like my brother had been in my proximity without me knowing it.

The two figures came walking along the street. My sensitive eyes could make them out where the human eye would only have seen two shadows. They were a boy about the age of fifteen and a girl aged between thirteen or fourteen years, from their physical appearance. They slowly came closer and one of the horses snorted. I looked back and saw how Aedan laid his hand becalmingly on the horse’s neck. He whispered something into the erect ears, but my attention already was drawn back to the arrivals and I didn’t hear what he said. They were only some feet away now and despite the darkness all around us, the light of the moon was enough to get a full picture of them. The boy had dark, almost black hair that hung down to his cheeks. His brown eyes were emitting their own glow like the ones of his sister did. Her skin was a bit pale, but her warm green eyes were redeeming the cold skin color. She must be special, I thought to myself. I let my senses wander to read them. There was no fear at all. They were very self-confident; both knew who we were… and then… I knew who they were and who had sent them.

“My name is Grigor.” The boy spoke. Watcher – it shot through my head. That was the meaning of his name. “And this is my sister Mariya.”

“What brings you here?” Charis asked, although I knew that she also knew already.

“We had scouts that brought word of your arrival.” His stare was cold. Grigor was definitely a ‘watcher’, because he had been among those he referred to as ‘scouts’. “We shall bring you to Kirwen.”

“Kirwen?” I raised one of my brows in surprise. Could it be?

The girl named Mariya rose to speak. “You might know him by the name Jabal… or Set.” I bandied looks with Charis, both of us not allowing any emotion to be read in our faces. Not concealed from ourselves, but from them… Kirwen’s people.

“If you would follow us please.” It was hard to make out if the tone of Mariya’s voice was a command or a proposal. Maybe it was something in between, or both of these possibilities. Or maybe even something totally different. Anyway I looked once more to Charis and then to Kilian and Aedan, who were holding the reins of our horses. I walked over to them and took the reins of my white horse from Aedan’s hand. Following my example Charis took the ones of her blacks, leaving the pale horse to Kilian again. We turned around to face the two young iluminirae once more. They were waiting for us, not making the slightest movement.

“Take the lead,” I said. “We will follow you.”

Both of them turned around and began to walk in the same slow, steady pace they had used before. Aedan, Charis and Kilian mounted their horses but I didn’t want to and just began walking, leading my white one in behind.

We left through another gate of the town and walked down the small road. I could feel Aedan’s stare in my back. He was a bit nervous. ‘You think we can trust them?’ I read his thoughts. ‘Not at all,’ was my thought response. ‘But they will bring us to my brother, and that is what we came for.’

Riding next to me, Charis turned her head. As much as I didn’t appreciate when she read my mind this silent conversation was our advantage now. I slightly nodded my head in her direction.

We went on for several minutes, the area around us became more and more forested, but the two in front of us didn’t lead us into the forest, but instead around. More time passed by and I began to wonder why they would need scouts for a deserted town so far away from their actual residence. When the forest dwindled on its edges and proceeded into open land, I could see why. Ahead of us was a small stronghold. From afar it looked like it had been abandoned for quite some time from its state, but I could see fires all around. When we came closer I could also make out several figures that were working on the stony walls. They were of our kind, I could feel them… but to my astonishment not all of them were. I narrowed my eyes when my senses made out several human workers. Seriously? Humans? I let my eyes wander over the scenery in front of us. They somehow looked like slaves to me. If not slaves from physical restraints then certainly bounded in their minds. The latter had to be the case, because when my eyes met those of a boy a bit older than my actual physical age, I saw nothing. Nothing at all. There was no shine in them. Even mortal eyes had some kind of perpetual shine in them. It differed from their state of mind and from their experience in life, but it was always there. Here in those eyes there was no life… no hope. They were not dead, not their bodies that is, but their minds were empty. Leaving only the shell behind. My heart began to increase its beating when I finally realized this fact. I looked up to Charis on my left and she was biting her bottom lip from the view that presented itself to us.

We passed the gate to the stronghold and reached the inner yard. I looked around and met several shimmering eyes that were staring back at us. Mostly iluminirae. But there was something different, too. My senses pinpointed what I felt and I saw a metallic big cage in the distant corner of the yard.

I let go of my horse’s reins and it neighed in approval. The others dismounted and came to stand next to me.

“So, you finally have arrived,” came a voice from in front of us. No, not directly in front of us. I raised my head a bit. My eyes followed a staircase that lead up to the main building of the stronghold. I would have recognized him in every appearance he might have chosen for himself, but it wasn’t necessary at all. There he was! My older brother, just as I remembered him from all those millennia ago.

 

Kirwen descended the stony stairs and came down to the yard. He cocked his head when he walked over to our position. He wore a black robe with dark red stripes that reminded me of blood. Walking in a slow but steady pace towards us I felt his eyes wander over our little group. I somehow felt… inspected?

“Kirwen.” I nodded my head at him and got a smirk in return.

“It is nice to finally see you again after all those millennia, little brother.” He planted himself in front of me. His voice was calm. Yet. “And what are you calling yourself now? Osiris is kinda outdated nowadays, isn’t it?”

“Adrianus.”

“Adrianus?” Kirwen raised one of his brows. “So you’ve been to Italy. Hadria is such a nice city. Never been there myself, but it must be lovely. The inhabitants are good looking, too.” He looked at Aedan. He’s not from Hadria, he’s from Britannia, I thought and could feel the look from Charis on me.

Loud I said, “Leave him alone!” and took Aedan’s hand in mine.

“My dear, we’re in a mood today, aren’t we. Still upset for leaving you in the coffin?” He grinned at me. No, but I totally remember what you did to the last boy I cared about.

Charis surely felt my anger – even Aedan couldn’t calm me completely this time – and rose to speak. “It’s nice to see you again, brother.”

Kirwen turned his head and gave her a smirk. “You, too, little sister.” He paused. Due to Charis still looking like the young woman, seemingly an appearance she had found for herself to be useful, Kirwen’s comment was somewhat unsuitable. “I so was looking forward to see you and…,” he looked at Kilian, “my other brother again.” Although the smirk on his face never disappeared I could see his eyes increasing its glow to a darker color. “Anyway,” his eyes returned to their normal glow, “I’m happy that you found me in my little residence.”

“Nice fortress you have here,” I said with a slight sarcastic undertone in my voice.

“Thank you, brother.” His eyes met mine. “Yes, it answers my purposes.” He ignored my tone completely. Interesting, did we switch roles now? He turned to our ‘companions’ that were still standing next to us, but didn’t make the slightest move. “Thank you Grigor and Mariya. You can go now. Get something to drink, you must be hungry after all these days.” The two spoken to nodded and walked away to climb the stairs to the main building. Days?

Kirwen’s eyes followed them and then he looked back at me. “I must admit I begin to get used to them. Can you believe that?” It was a question that was needless to answer.

“How did you meet them?” I asked.

He cocked his head and thought about his response for some seconds. “Let’s say we share the same opinions.” He raised his hand to signal he wasn’t finished. “And I know that I didn’t answer your question, little brother. Don’t worry, I met them in the same town you first met them, although our encounter was a bit different.” He snickered. Seriously? My brother never had snickered in his whole life, according to that which I recalled.

From the corners of my eyes I saw a young man coming to us. Then his scent hit me and I turned my head in an instant. He looked to be about twenty years old and was wearing a robe almost identical to Kirwen’s but the stripes on his were green. But this smell! He wasn’t one of our kind and he wasn’t human either. I looked at Charis and Kilian to see that they were wondering about the new arrival as well. Maybe Aedan did too, but he never had smelt something like that. Me however, I had once before smelt a creature like him and I could still remember it. I couldn’t believe that there was one of them. Then, I remembered the cage and turned my attention towards the corner. There it was, too. I hadn’t realized it before. Over there it was even stronger, that smell of… dogs.

The young man walked next to Kirwen and whispered something in his ear. I was transfixed with amazement and didn’t listen to their conversation. How can he? He can’t be serious!

“Ah I see…, right. Adrianus?” I was pulled back from my state of shock and was brought back to the present. “As I was informed you came just in time for a little demonstration.”

A demonstration of what? I narrowed my eyes because I didn’t know what he meant.

“Varick, would your brothers and sisters appreciate some late night meal?” Suddenly there was an evil grin on his face when he said that and Varick, the young man next to him, grinned, too, before he turned around to walk back towards an entry in the other corner next to the main building. I saw how he disappeared in an entrance that let downstairs to an underground level.

In my disbelief I said, “You found yourself some lycanthropes?”

There was pride in Kirwen’s eyes when he looked at me and then nodded. Until this moment I wasn’t completely sure about Charis’ and Kilian’s opinion regarding an eventual war. But seeing Kirwen’s facial expression made it all clear. He was preparing himself for a war, otherwise he wouldn’t have needed those creatures. They were certain death. It wasn’t the hunt and the feeding they lived for; their whole existence was about brutality and killing without any reason at all. It had been in ancientGreecethat I had met this kind. I didn’t know where their origin was but like our own it sure wasn’t good. The lycanthrope – or vrykolaka how the Greeks had called it – had wiped out an entire village. All men, women and especially children had been killed. The corpses couldn’t be recognized as humans anymore. Hearts had been ripped out from the chest, faces mangled, limbs tore off. And everywhere that disgusting smell. Not the blood, but the wet-dog-smell. I again observed the cage. I wasn’t too curious to see them at last. I never had seen the one back then inGreece, but I had heard descriptions and later other stories. I knew they normally lived in packs with one leader, the alpha, like any ordinary wolf pack had one. But those packs of lycanthropes were everything but ordinary and likewise was their leader. I had felt it when the man Kirwen had referred to as Varick had been close. I had felt his strength, but nothing else. Somehow he had been shielded from my ability to read the minds of lower creatures. Then another thought came to me. Were they lower creatures at all?

I hissed at him, “derente preacidae. paruzereum ce solu osereum sorettiere…, but you can’t. Your alpha is a strong one. He will eventually rise against you.”

“Varick? No, he won’t. He’s my ‘leader who defends’.” Kirwen grinned at me. “You maybe remember Lilith doing it to the sheep. It’s the gift of commanding the animals. I have full control!” His eyes widened for a moment before they returned to normal.

“They’re no animals, Kirwen. And you know the difference between the mind of an animal and the mind of a human. Humans are more complex. And with the dark in it these wolves are unpredictable. We can’t read them.” With the last words I gave pretty much away about my own abilities. I didn’t know if Kirwen had those difficulties, too, so it was somehow a stab in the dark, but I had to try to convince him. From the corners of my eyes I could see that Varick had returned from the underground level. He was retaining another man, a human that seemed to be quite old according to the color of his hair.

“supplicatus! soló cezomereo…”

“You demand?” he interrupted me. “I tell you something, little brother,” the stress on the word ‘little’ could clearly be heard, “you don’t demand anything from me. I’m the older one and you follow my orders.” His eyes took on a light tone of crimson, but he didn’t say anything else. Instead he span around and shouted, “Bring the prisoner!” and waved them nearer. Now we were at that point again. He wanted to show me his superiority, like he had done many times before.

Varick pushed the poor fellow forward and when they came closer I could see the agony in the eyes of the prisoner. Well at least in one eye, because the other one was badly swollen and closed; a big violet bruise indicated that this happened recently.

The man came to a stop and fell down to his knees. His thoughts were screaming at me. When I heard a sharp inhale next to me I realized that my sister and the other two boys, one of them my beautiful angel were still there. I somehow had forgotten about them. Maybe my antipathy towards my brother’s plans were the cause for that. Speaking of which, Kirwen walked over to the old man, grabbed his gray hair and yanked his head backwards.

I couldn’t help myself, but I had to do something. I took a step forward and positioned myself next to my older brother. You want to be older? Then act like it! I knew Charis was looking at me when I thought this, I could literally feel her gaze in my back.

“Kirwen, what are you doing?” I asked.

“This one is a spy,” he spit out. I again took a look into the man’s head. His name was Antonius… and he was no spy. He was a priest.

“You think he will tell the Pope where to find you?” I laughed. “Let him go. He has done nothing.”

“This country is occupied by the Ottomans, he knew the risks when he came here.”

“The Ottomans allow Christians to still perform their services. And the priests can still preach.

“I don’t care if they let them preach, I don’t like priests.” Kirwen’s eye color changed into a shadowlike gray, almost black when he looked at me. “This one was wandering in the forest nearby, so he has to be a spy. That is proof enough.

My mouth fell open. He must have known as well that Pater Antonius only wanted to find out what had happened to the citizens of the town he visited from time to time. Not all towns in this region had their own priest anymore according to the Ottoman occupation, but some had stayed and traveled around to preach to the people, to bring them salvation. They were always in danger that was right. Yet, the sultanate tolerated them, but no one knew for sure for how much longer. Pater Antonius had been kept when he came too close to the stronghold… which was two weeks ago. Since then, he was suffering in that little cell in the dungeon below the main building. I pitied him so much and my thoughts were running to come up with something to change Kirwen’s sentence. Death was something that could be redeeming and for Pater Antonius maybe even redemptive, but definitely not that way to die which Kirwen had chosen for Antonius.

I looked down at the man. Could I risk angering my brother when I freed him? Certainly his soldiers would prevent that from happening or maybe they would try. I weighed my odds when I counted the children around in just a blink of an eye. They were not enough to stop me… and then there were Charis and Kilian… and Aedan. The last thought gave me a sting in my stomach. He wasn’t as strong as we were, so he would be in severe danger if we charged at Kirwen.

‘Don’t!’ There was this message in my head and I looked behind me to meet Charis’ gaze. She shook her head, almost unnoticeable. ‘We can’t save him. I know how you feel, but don’t risk everything. There are still things we need to find out.’ In that moment I hated her for this. The emotion was gone in an instant, but it had been there. How could she allow something like this to happen? It was insane. I looked back to Kirwen who was no whispering something in Antonius’ ear. I could see how the intact eye widened even more and fear of death swept through his mind. And then… surrender.

Kirwen unbent and made a single gesture with his right hand. Suddenly everything around us went quiet. I looked around and could see that all workers – humans and non-humans – had halted their work. They were observing. Eager to see ‘justice’. I closed my eyes and shook my head. That is so wrong! I inhaled deeply but only got that disgusting smell in my nose. When I opened my eyes again Varick took the prisoner and trailed him behind.

Some of the others came closer and even Kilian tried to get a better view. He walked some steps forward and then stopped dead in his tracks. Maybe the scent overpowered him. I felt a hand that was searching mine and I grabbed it, allowing Aedan to hold onto me.

I could read many thoughts, most of them were ‘anticipation’ and others were ‘curiosity’, but only one mind of all the hundreds around us stuck out to me and I listened to those last thoughts. Pater Antonius was praying while he was dragged to his inevitable fate. 

‘Pater noster, qui es in caelis’

I raised my head and looked up at the sky. There were dark clouds now that were pacing along the firmament and that hindered the moon from bringing his light to this scene. Or maybe the moon didn’t want to be part of this at all. Like we were.

‘Sanctificetur Nomen Tuum’

I had changed my name several times, always beginning a new life at the same time, because those former names had always been connected with pain. But now I loved my name, because there was one angel who made it feel real to me when he said it.

‘Adveniat Regnum Tuum’

I wondered what kind of realm Kirwen wanted to build for himself. Certainly one where he was the sovereign; where he could do as he pleased.

‘Fiat voluntas Tua’

Should we stop him or just walk away to allow him his little war here? I didn’t know what Charis thought right then in that moment, but I had seen enough. This, this all around us, the stronghold, the children and the humans that were only mindless puppets, all was insane. And I didn’t want my Aedan to be part of this. It had been a bad idea right from the beginning to allow him to come with us.

‘Sicut in caelo, et in terra.’

There was no salvation for us. We would exist for eternity. Exist was the right word, because was there any life left in us? I had thought so before, but now I wasn’t so sure anymore.

‘Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie’

I had taken so many lives to survive. All of us had. Was this a way of living? Or was it just a way to vegetate?

‘Et dimitte nobis debita nostra’

How could we ever undo that which we had done? Our community all those millenia ago, wiped out. Thabit who I had condemned to death right from the beginning. Aedan? My heart increased its beating and I looked at my little angel next to me. His mouth was gaping, maybe he listened to Antonius’ prayer, too or maybe there was something else. I didn’t want to enter his mind.

‘Sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris’

A single tear was emerging in my right eye’s corner. I couldn’t have done that if I were in his place.

‘Et ne nos inducas in tentationem’

Were we their Satan? Because when I looked around and saw all those children I couldn’t believe that all of them had been forced to give up their lives. Most of them surely gave it up willingly. Because life was hard, our existence was so much better in their belief.

‘Sed libera nos a Malo.’

So… were we the evil? I squeezed Aedan’s hand and closed my eyes again. I only listened. Silence.

A…‘ “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH.”

The heart-piercing scream that even increased its loudness when it was thrown back from the stony walls around us made me shiver. It was a scream of so much agony. I could hear snarls from the cage and the ripping of flesh. Additionally to the scent of dogs there was now the smell of blood. My nostrils flared, because those two smells together hurt my sensitive nose. I opened my eyes again and my gaze fell on Kirwen who seemed to be looking for applause. He got it right away. Several of his slaves and his soldiers began to hoot. Their screams relieved those from the cage. It only lasted some moments, though.

Then again… silence.

My brother was walking towards us, his palms against each other as if he was saying a silent prayer. Charis was the first one that rose to speak, “Why?”

They like priests.” He grinned at her when he said that. And then the scales fell from my eyes. He had said something like that before. But in that moment I didn’t attach any importance to his words. But now it was different. For him it was some kind of revenge. Although I never had met my brother in all those millennia I had kept my ears open for rumors, for some time that is. How did Kilian express it? ‘He got bored there.’ No, he didn’t. There had been an uprising… by the priests… and they got rid of the Set cult. My breathing increased and my eyes met those of Charis.

Stab in the dark. “You needn’t to do that, Kirwen.”

“No, but it’s fun.” He grinned again. I bit my bottom lip to not grin back at him. Not because I agreed with him, but for being right. It was revenge or maybe another attempt to gain power. This time he was stronger; he had more ‘military power’ if you could say that. Those children he had created in Egypt had not been as perfect as he wanted them to be, like Charis had told me. Maybe with these lycanthropes he wanted to compensate their disadvantages. After all, I couldn’t believe that he had found a way to strengthen them, especially not the ‘grandchildren’.

Kirwen began to speak anew. “It’s a real shame to waste the blood.” He shrugged his shoulders and then looked towards the cage. Then he looked back at us also taking a quick peek at Aedan’s and my hands that were holding each other. It was really short, but it didn’t go unnoticed. Then he said, “Come on, you must be hungry. I ordered my servants to prepare a nice meal.” When did he do that? He must have known that we were coming. I remembered again how he had talked to Grigor and his sister and how he had said ‘days’.

I exchanged a quick look with Charis and then – still holding Aedan’s hand – followed my brother. Kirwen took the lead and led us to the staircases to the main building. This measure of architecture was a precaution in every smaller stronghold so that attackers could still be fought off from the main complex even when there was a breach in the outer defensive ring. And like in any other stronghold these days there was only one big hall for the common folks. Although Kirwen and his followers didn’t need much for the every day life, the hall looked quite comfortable. There were bulrushes on the floor to absorb the moisture, they were not as fresh as they should have been, but they answered their purpose. I could only think of one fluid they were to absorb, but didn’t broach the topic. At the rear wall there was a big fireplace with a crackling fire.

“Cozy.” I said and my eyes wandered to the stony staircase that led to the first floor where normally the burgher had his quarters.

“Yes, isn’t it?” Kirwen traversed the hall and walked over to the long table that reached for the whole length of the hall. There were several of his people present, even some human ‘shells’. I recognized the boy I had seen at the gate. He sat on a stool and was holding a jar in his lap. Two young male iluminirae snapped at him and without any emotion in his face he stood up and used the jar to fill their chalices. I raised one of my brows. Chalices? They looked too expensive to be just of ordinary kind, because they appeared to be made of silver. Like those ones that were used for Christian services.

“Come on, Adrianus.” Aedan squeezed my hand and I turned my head to look at him. He had cocked his head and was observing me with interest. “Or do you prefer to stand here the whole night?” he grinned at me with his white smile. I didn’t know what he meant, but then I realized that Charis, Kilian and Kirwen had sat down at the table near to the fireplace. So I nodded at him and let him lead me to my siblings.

“Boy!” Kirwen shouted when we had taken our seats on the bench. I turned my head and like I had expected the young boy came towards us. He was carrying more silver chalices and there was still the jar in his right hand. How he managed that I didn’t know. His empty eyes made me shiver. It was so hard to bear to see this poor soul being kept like this. I reached out with my senses to touch his mind again. There was so much darkness that I couldn’t make out anything at first. But then there was a faint light deep down in his mind, a small flame of hope, an echo of the former inhabitant of this body. I pushed harder to reach that small droplet of conscience, but when I finally reached it there was only fear and hopelessness. And what was worse – I could hear a whispered babbling – he had gone insane over his fate. I retreated a bit and moved in a small sweep around the light. I didn’t know how long he had been trapped in his own mind, but it surely had been too much for the boy. There was nothing left of him that was worth rescuing. I completely retreated from the boy’s mind and followed his moves when he put the chalices in front of us and filled them with a red liquid. I took the chalice into my hand and sniffed at it. Was I surprised? “This is blood,” I said to Kirwen.

“Of course it is. What did you think? Wine?” He shook his head. “Isn’t that what they were supposed to contain?” He pointed at the silver chalices. “The blood of Christ?” He smirked again and then took a sip and licked his lips. “Ah, this is a splendid vintage, if you know what I mean. Not to young but not too old as well,” he said and then rubbed his bottom lip with his left index finger as if he was thinking about something.

I put the chalice back on the table without drinking from its content. In my opinion it wasn’t right this way. Kilian however took his chalice and followed the example of our older brother. Oh, don’t go there again, Kilian.

“It’s still warm,” he said with a surprised look on his face.

“Yes my dear brother, they keep it warm next to the fire,” Kirwen pointed behind him over his shoulder and I could see two more jars on the floor some several feet away from the fireplace. It must have been the position where the blood maintained the body temperature. “But it doesn’t last long though. It curdles too fast. It’s a shame that nobody can store blood… well after it has left the body that is.” He smirked. I didn’t think it was funny at all, because someone definitely had had to die for this blood. I just could imagine how many prisoners were down there in the dungeon… to ‘supply’ all that blood for all those iluminirae in the stronghold. The empty houses and streets in the town suddenly made sense and I could imagine what bitter fate the former inhabitants suffered and how easy it seemed for Kirwen to decide on it.

“Maybe you should leave it in the body then,” I suggested. Kirwen cocked his head when he looked back at me.

“Still caring about those humans, aren’t you, Adrianus?” The smile that appeared on his lips was icy. “You know we need blood. We are what we are; we can’t fight our nature. And it’s our right to take what’s ours.”

“Ours?” I was stunned. “You actually believe that it’s our right to hold sway over the humans, like you hold sway over those mortal souls that are your servants?” I got angry and from the corner of my eye I could see how Charis on the other side of the table was moving on the bench with unease.

“To be honest, I thought you would appreciate one of those.” Kirwen paused. “But then, I can see that you’re already taken.” His smirk was directed at Aedan and I even more felt my anger rising up from deep inside of my guts, struggling hard to find a way into the opening, but I tried to restrain it and when I felt Aedan’s hand making contact with mine I calmed down.

Did Kirwen see that? He had raised his right eyebrow just a bit, almost not recognizable, but I had seen it. He looked away. “Anyways…” He took another sip from his chalice, “I haven’t invited you to argue. Let’s put our disagreements aside, because there is something we need to discuss.” Now this was another point. I didn’t know what he was up to, but I was sure he hadn’t said those words at random. And I didn’t feel ‘invited’ at all.

He continued, “I know for certain that a vast army is headed for us. The Ottomans are coming.”

“How can they find you here? We couldn’t without help,” I asked.

“Oh, that’s simple, dear brother. I’ve declared war on theOttoman Empire! I’ve sent a herald to that so-called god-like-one along with a note where to find me if he had the guts and with his soldiers from the town’s garrison. It must have taken the herald quite some time to transport all those bodies.” Kirwen shrugged his shoulders.

“You did what?” My mouth fell open in an instant. Was he insane? Declaring war on the Ottoman Empireand being so open to the humans? How could he risk that? I exchanged a look with my sisters. In her face I could see the same worry I was dealing with. This would be a war Kirwen couldn’t win. Although he might be stronger, against the well trained, outnumbering Ottoman Army he and his creatures wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance. And then there were fractions of other iluminirae who wouldn’t allow him to go it alone in that way. Despite our own immortality and superiority in many ways our children as a species had evolved as well. They had created some kind of government that laid down rules for the entire race. I had never felt bound to those rules but could see the importance behind them and accepted them. Kirwen however would never accept rules from lower beings… even less from his own children.

“You heard me right, Adrianus. And this is why I asked Grigor and Mariya to bring you here.” Now. He will reveal it now. “I want you to battle on my side. All of you!” He looked around and while he did I could see a slight shadow of crimson in his eyes. “Imagine… the first ones back together. We will show them their place.” The volume of his voice increased and I could feel the tension in and the stares of the other iluminirae from the other side of the hall. They were listening. “And then we will rule!” There it is! The words we had come for, the evidence. He raised his hands and the crimson faded. “I know, this is not what you wanted to hear… but we have the chance here to create something… something eternal. The humans have tried it so many times. We, however, will make it right.” His gaze was stern now. “However I won’t ask for your decision right now. You had a long journey and might want to get some rest. I let my servants arrange some quarters for you. You find them upstairs.”

Without ever having touched the chalice in front of me I stood up and Aedan followed my example still, holding my hand, as did Charis and Kilian. We walked alongside the table until we could walk around it to reach the staircase.

“Adrianus?” I stopped when I heard Kirwen calling out to me. “May I talk to you in private for a moment?” I smiled at Aedan and encouraged him to go on without me, when he let go of my hand I already missed him. Charis gave me a nod and climbed the staircase behind our younger brother and my dearest angel. I turned and my smile disappeared completely. I hope this is important.

“Leave us,” he said to the others in the hall and they stood up and followed his orders. He really likes that! Commanding. We both remained silent until the last of the iluminirae had left the hall and the big wooden door had closed behind him. I just waited for my brother to speak. He looked into my eyes. “You’ve got to decide, Adrianus. Their race or ours? We can’t coexist.” I didn’t need to read between the lines, because he didn’t even try to hide the obvious threat.

“What is it with you and the humans, Kirwen?” I almost snapped at him. “Why do you think we have the right to reign them?” I clenched my fist, ready to end his plans right now if it meant I could protect others from harm. I should have done that millennia ago.

Suddenly he began to laugh. Why was he doing that? “Haha, you actually have to ask, little brother?” No! “Oh it’s true. And yes, I have read all your thoughts since you and our siblings arrived. Not theirs that is, but yours. Apparently Na’amah and Tubal-cain have evolved as well, but your thinking is kinda loud I should say.” I tried do think about something else, tried to block my thoughts from him in some way. “Don’t try, brother, it won’t work,” he smirked. “Oh and I forgive you that you wanted to attack me.” He took the chalice, the one that had been placed in front of me, and came around the table towards me. “So now to your previous question, I think we have the right to reign them because we can. Is that answer enough? No? Then see it this way… humans have nothing else to do then killing each other. Century after century, millennium after millennium… it’s still the same. All that blood wasted. And for what? Some more acres of land?” I didn’t answer, because his questions were not meant to be answered. “When we reign them, we’ll give them a real purpose.”

I said, “You mean like the purpose to nourish us.” He sighed… he actually sighed as if he was getting my point. But I was sure he wasn’t. “That too, yes. But there are so many more possibilities. Don’t deny it, Adrianus! You’ve been Pharaoh once… you’ve been worshipped like a God.”

“That was something else…” I began to say but he interrupted me. “Is it? I know how you seized power in the first place. You killed others that had been in your way.” Had he been reading that on my mind? If he had, he ignored my thoughts in this respect now completely. “I don’t blame you, Adrianus. You did what you had to do… andAbydosbecame a nice place.”

“Yes, until you arrived.” Was I expecting an apology? If I were, I wouldn’t get one, I was sure about that.

“And when we take over, this realm will be a better place. No more hiding for our species. Right now our children have to hide like some rats. As if we were the lower creatures, but we’re not. We are Gods, Adrianus. It is our given right to take what’s ours.” I could see his fangs. He offered me the chalice. “Drink.”

“No.”

“vebromus!” His eyes began to glow and I could hear him snarling.

I took the chalice from his hand and gulped its content down. The blood was still warm although by now it should have cooled down. My body would absorb it anyway. Normally my fangs would do that but in this case my stomach had to do the work. “Are you happy now?” I used the back of my hand to clean my mouth and put the empty chalice on the table.

“Yes,” he smirked. And then it began…

I must have gulped down the blood too fast, because my stomach complained about it. It was rumbling and I had to hold it. Seeing dancing stars before my eyes I felt a bit dizzy and shook my head to clear my vision. “Is something wrong, Adrianus?” Kirwen smirked at me again. My vision blurred again and I had to hold myself steady searching support on the table next to me. “What… what have you done?” I looked at the chalice next to my hands. “What have you done?” I felt too dizzy to stand right now and when I felt Kirwen’s hands on my shoulders I just let him push me onto the bench again, not giving the slightest objections.

“You know, my dear brother, I always have wondered how Lilith has made us drink the blood of the sheep and then later hers. You remember that, don’t you?” I nodded. I felt like a dark, mind-steeling shadow had enwrapped me. I couldn’t think straight anymore. But not only my mind was blurred, my mouth felt numb as well as did my arms and legs. “There you go.” I could see another smirk in his face, but wa

4 (80%) 1 vote

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *