My son, hear the instruction of thy father,
and forsake not the law of thy mother.
Nick found himself staring down at his own body, lying on the floor with a stake through the chest. Next to Natalie who was frighteningly still. He turned and saw LaCroix, frozen above his body and face contorted in pain.
He stared more keenly. No one was moving.
Everything was still. Time had stopped.
* * *
In the space between two heartbeats, he was no longer in the loft. Sand now squelched between his toes, the roar of the surf pounding the nearby shore echoed in his eardrums and the sun smiled kindly on him rather than burning.
He slowly looked around, getting his bearings. He was at some seaside resort, a stretch of beach fairly deserted for the time of day (early afternoon, was it?). There was a young woman with dark hair clothed in a white shift. She was seated on an equally white bench (although its paint was beginning to peel) with a grass-laden sand dune behind her, and a boardwalk further beyond.
Under the pounding of the waves, he could hear the calliope of an amusement park and the squeals of children at play.
The woman turned her head and smiled at him, raising a hand to beckon him forward. From her relaxed pose, she'd clearly been expecting his company. He approached cautiously, at once paradoxically fearful and ecstatic; as he got closer to her, he could feel a quiet thrum of power undulating from her form. Not a vampire's power, nor that of the Guide he'd met during his conversion to one of the undead. No, she was something far greater than he'd ever known before.
“Don't be afraid.” Though her voice came in barely more than a whisper, it cut through all the sounds he'd heard. Her very voice commanded the tableau around her into a soft murmur. And yet, there was no threat, but a perfect peace that... that oddly reminded him of the comforting tones his mother bestowed upon him as a small, frightened boy. Yes, that was it, she was a “mother” of a sort.
He felt like that scared little boy now. But, reassured by her calm presence, he slowly sat down beside her. “Tell me, Nick,” she asked conversationally. “Do you remember this place?”
“It was... where I met the Guide,” he surprised himself by saying. “But it was a desert then.” He cleared his throat. “Are you... a Guide?”
“That is one way to think on it,” she replied, her feminine alto laced with a gentle amusement. “As I've tried to be that for all my children. And for you, Nick. But I'm much more than that.”
Nick tilted his head like a perplexed cocker spaniel. “Who are you?”
Her gentle smile never faltered. “Humanity has given me many names. I am the Alpha and the Omega. The Great Mother. The Great Spirit. Brahman. Ahura Mazda. Adonai. Allah. The Almighty. The Lord of the Dance.” She then chuckled. “Although, I'd really just prefer Mom.”
Nick felt all the breath leave his chest with that casual admission. God, who was actually a woman and not a male deity, was seated next to him and calmly chatting with him.
“I'm neither... and both,” She replied to his unspoken assertion. Of course the Creator of the Universe could read minds, given She created them. “Man and woman were both created in My image. Neither is superior to the other, as they are both a reflection of Me.” She shrugged. “I simply prefer taking a form that My children will understand, relative to their position in life. It's rather necessary, as My true Face and Voice would make your brain boil in its juices and your heart explode within your chest.”
Nick was nonplussed. After a long quiet moment, he remarked, “Why did You make us to be so fragile and flawed, then?”
“Oh, Nick,” She sighed. “You're an artist. Surely, you can appreciate how delicate things can bring joy with their fragile beauty, how the act of creation is the art. How a light touch makes the most brilliant strokes. There are flaws because My work is still in progress, child. But the unfinished sketch holds the promise of what's to come.”
He swallowed hard. “But...” He stopped, unsure how to phrase what was most deeply vexing him about this unwarned meeting with his Maker.
He thought he'd been prepared for it. But that was foolishness. No one was ever prepared to see God. To talk to the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
“Why am I here talking to you now when I've got a Universe to run?” She finished for him.
He nodded dumbly.
“Nick, everything My children do interests me.” She fixed him with a stern glance, though Her gentle tone did not change. “Including you. Especially you.”
“Me? Why me?” He hardly recognized the childlike squeak that his normally even baritone suddenly shifted into. But the pain of eight hundred years of isolation, of the belief that he'd been damned, boomeranged and hit him with the force of a hurricane. “I... I thought You'd abandoned me.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder, lightly gripping it to steady him. “I never abandoned you, Nick. You turned your back on Me.” Her eyes were sad, and glistening with unshed tears. She knew his pain, felt his suffering as no one else ever could. She knew him. “Didn't you hear Me calling you, whispering to you? In the times of your greatest suffering, of your deepest doubt, I was there.”
Nick was speechless. It didn't make sense to him. If God had been there the whole time, why didn't She do anything? Why didn't She stop him from committing all those needless deaths? And, while he was at it, why didn't She stop all the wars and ugliness in the world to begin with?
And guilt weighed more heavily upon him. He'd caused grief to the Creator of All Things for killing Her children, his brothers and sisters. He'd made God cry. How often had he made God weep over him? It was unfathomable, that the Most High cared that deeply... and yet, still had not intervened.
“Nick, you are My creation. And the greatest gift I could give you was free will, so all your mistakes and all your accomplishments would be yours completely. So that you would become a new being on your own schedule and honor Me by your own choice. I know you don't completely understand yet, but you appreciate it more than you realize you do.”
She turned Her head up to glance at the bright blue sky. “One day, you'll know for yourself what it is to be a parent. And, when that day comes, you will understand that every parent has a choice: to protect and shelter their child forever, or to let them learn and grow up.”
She then stood, offering Her hand. “Come. Walk with Me.”
He took Her hand, and they began to walk down the length of the beach, toward the boardwalk. “I brought you here because there's something that, I think, is right for you to know now.”
Nick glanced at Her. He only just realized how physically small She appeared, the top of Her head barely reaching his shoulder. But then, She'd said Her appearance in this form was quite deliberate on Her part. The most powerful being in the Universe could afford to make concessions, he supposed.
Focus, he chided himself. God has something to say, so you damned well better listen. Then, he swallowed his embarrassment when he realized She'd probably heard that mental chastisement.
“I have plans for you, Nick. Great plans.” She glanced to him, Her smile now entreating and patient. “If you're willing, of course.”
“Plans? For me?” Why was he asking so many idiotic questions? Because he was just so overwhelmed by the whole thing. If God had plans for him, he didn't think he could handle whatever those were. There was no way he was good enough to do the work of the Lord.
“Stop being so hard on yourself, Nick,” She gently scolded. “One of those many books about Me even has it that it took me a week to build the Universe. Which is about right, if you try to think of it according to My concept of time rather than by a human calendar. So, I don't expect you to understand everything you need to know in a single Earthly day.” She patted his arm comfortingly. “You'll get plenty of time to figure it out later. You've got all the brains you need; I have faith in you.”
She snorted. “As for whether you fit the mold as My Prophet? Well. Noah was a drunk who preferred to get soused in the altogether. Muhammad was an ephebophile with anger management issues. Gideon was a neurotic who was petrified of his own shadow. So, you're in good company.
“I'm not going to ask you to build an Ark, though. And the last thing the world needs is another pre-fabricated, constructed religion that spends more time making people afraid of My Divine Wrath than helping them to be better people. No, my dear. Your path is as unique as you are.” She let that proverbial carrot dangle for a moment.
Nick quirked an eyebrow. Okay, this was certainly getting even more interesting. God appeared to have devised a plan that was tailor-made for him. And, crazy as it might have sounded, he was actually looking forward to hearing about it.
She grinned. “That's what I'm saying, silly boy. We'll talk about it over lunch.”
They had reached the boardwalk. There was a small fast-food shop there, at the widest portion of the boardwalk, along with a clutch of picnic tables on the boards. God stepped up to the counter. The young man behind the counter handed Her a large basket of curly fries and a small bowl of ketchup.
She took the fries and ketchup to one of the picnic tables and, setting it down, slid onto a bench. Nick, shaking his head slightly in wonderment at the oddity of the scene, sat on the bench on the opposite side of the picnic table. So, he was now face to face with God.
Wow, how bizarre his life had turned out to be. After eight hundred years of, well, doing what vampires do best, he was now calmly eating junk food with the Almighty. As if he was worthy to be in Her presence. But She had been nothing but kind, motherly, serene and seemed to possess quite a sense of humor.
Then again, this was the same being that created both vampires and the platypus.
She giggled around a curly fry. “I made that one just to mess with people. You've got to admit platypi are cute, though. I like cute animals. It's why I made so many, and why babies are almost always adorable no matter their species. Heck, even you vampires are cute in your own way. And such clever little things you are, too.”
Both Nick's eyebrows went up this time, as he submerged a curly fry into the ketchup and proceeded to munch the dripping greasy mess. Vampires? Clever? Cute?!?
God must be crazy.
“Well, vampires would be cute,” She clarified. “If it weren't for the fact that the entire species has become a bunch of hedonists who kill humans for no apparent reason beyond getting off on it. Killing animals for survival, and nipping each other during sex is one thing. Murdering a species you used to belong to is another.”
Nick swallowed the curly fry, and felt it hit his stomach like a rock. That made a very unpleasant kind of sense.
“But you know what?” She continued, stuffing another curly fry into Her mouth. “That means, out of an entire species, the only one who's kind of got the message... is you. There's a natural order I put into place, and vampires are the expansion pack edition of humans, not a step above them on the food chain.
“But, there's that free will clause I wrote in the plans for humanity. Even I can't violate it, now that I've put it into place. Having free will means you can choose to do truly terrible things... but you also have to deal with the consequences of your choices.”
Nick nodded slowly. That much, he'd already understood.
She was grimly satisfied. “Just making sure we're on the same page. Now, I know consequences for you probably means Hellfire, damnation and all that crap the Papacy knocked into your skull. And, well, if you'd kept going the way you had three hundred years ago...” She let the rest of her pronouncement drop away, then shrugged.
Nick nodded again, and scammed another curly fry from the basket. Dipping it in ketchup, again, of course. They were really very good.
“But, you're different, now. It took quite a few baby steps, didn't it?” She grinned. “I always knew you had it in you. You're doing pretty good, but... Now, I need to see more from you.”
“See more from me?” he repeated. “But... How? I've been trying to become human again for decades, now.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Whether or not you're a normal human is not the point. Technically, you are still human. You've just got more bells and whistles added. What I need from you is to take the Humans Good, Killing Bad policy a few steps further. I need you to do whatever it takes to stop other vampires and supernatural creatures from killing humans.” Her gaze on him was severe. “And I know there are plenty who still are, and that there are even more who no longer kill people themselves, but look the other way when a pal of theirs has gone all homicidal.”
“Whatever it takes,” Nick repeated. He felt himself go numb at the idea. But, being God, She was right. How could he consider himself honestly on the side of humanity if he didn't find a way to put a stop to their slaughter by all manner of dark creatures? If he didn't, he'd be one of the ones condoning the murders despite not participating in it himself. And, from the tone the Almighty had used, it was pretty clear that inaction was just as great an evil in Her eyes.
She nodded. “I need you to be a soldier of a different kind. There is a war going on in My family to win the souls of My children. My eldest sons are divided in their devotion to humanity or to themselves, and many of My children have already been taken down a dark path from which they may never return on their own. If you want to do good for the human race, then help your brothers and sisters out of the darkness.”
Nick's eyes were wide. “But I'm no leader!”
“Yes, you are. You have all the instruction and knowledge you need. You have the charisma to sway and your eyes are open to the truth. I have faith in you, Nick, so have a little faith in Me. This is what being My Prophet really means. Sticking your neck out for Me by saying and doing things a lot of people aren't going to like, and that they might actually kill you for.
“This is why your free will is so important. You can only do this if you want to, if you're willing to give your life over to Me, without any reservation. Don't feel you have to do this to prove yourself to Me. That's not the point of it. This is something you need to choose to do. You can only make others believe if you believe.”
She put up a staying hand when he opened his mouth to speak. “You don't have to answer Me, now. Just think it over.” She gestured to the basket of fries. “Finish up your share. Your flight back to Earth's leaving in a few minutes.”
Nick nodded, grabbing two curly fries at once. He was almost afraid to ask, but... “What about Natalie? I... thought I took too much.”
God smiled. “Oh, yeah. She'll be fine, once she's out of the hospital. The two of you will be together for a long time. That's another one of My gifts. Consider her your... what's the word you kids are using these days? 'Helpmate?'” She shrugged, then added, “The point is even My Prophets need someone to talk to every now and then, and it usually helps when they have a companion in faith who loves them unconditionally. Her love for you is because I love you.”
Unbidden, a Biblical quote popped into Nick's mind. Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.
“She's your spiritual wife and your closest partner. You will speak prophecy and she will receive visions, so you will know I am with you. Truth will be revealed to her, so you may speak it.”
Nick considered this. “And how will I know she's received a vision?”
“Oh, she'll go into a dead faint for a minute or two. Rather unpleasant and somewhat Victorian, but it's neither a serious health problem nor is it a bid for attention. Make sure you always have the necessary treatments on hand, just in case. Depending on how receptive she becomes to revelation, it could happen at anytime.” The Almighty's lips pursed together in a thin, sympathetic line. “She'll probably be very frightened by some of the things she sees. So, you'll need to help her sort out what it was she saw, and reassure her that she's not going crazy.”
“That's why you're not giving me the visions,” he realized. “So, I can keep a clear head.”
“Indeed. I've tried the whole 'give the Prophet the visions and let him talk about them' thing before, but the human mind can only handle just so much at one time. Having visions is part of the reason why so many of My earlier Prophets seemed to go berserk and burn out quickly or meet Death earlier than planned. So, if I divide the work between you and Natalie, I might get to keep you both at your jobs longer.”
Nick gave a humorless chuckle. “She's not going to like her new 'gift.'”
God's eyes twinkled in merriment. “Ok, so the work's tough and the pay sucks. But we've got a great retirement plan.”
Nick barked a laugh. That, based on what he saw and had heard throughout his long life, was certainly the truest words ever spoken.
“You two are best as a package deal. When you're all comfy and cozy back on home turf, find her and talk to her about it.” She squared him with a look. “And the first thing out of your mouth better be some apologies and that you have no intention of leaving her side, until the day she deems otherwise.
“Once you kids have decided what you want to do with your lives, then we'll see what happens next.” She stood and took the now empty basket in Her hands. She crumpled it up like a wad of paper, and it disappeared in Her grip. “All right, Nick. Our hour's up. You've got a flight to catch and I've got another galaxy to build.”
* * *
Nick opened his eyes, the bright dream-memory of the beach and the good-greasy-ketchupy taste of the curly fries and the kind face of God-who-decided-to-be-a-woman-today already beginning to fade into the darkness of... huh, where was he? A bedroom.
He slowly sat up, taking in his surroundings. It was his bedroom in the loft. A surge of panic hit him with sudden force as he recalled what had happened before. Natalie!
He felt a presence there. Not human. Vampire. He shook his head as if to clear the cobwebs and shake out the melodrama. Have to stop thinking in false dichotomies like that...
The door to his bedroom clicked open. He'd recognize that blue-green/citrus-peony aura anywhere. Janette.
“Ah, you're awake,” she nodded to herself, satisfied. She was dressed as impeccably as she'd always been.
“Where's Natalie?” His voice sounded virtually unrecognizable to himself, far quieter and much raspier. Like he'd chain-smoked for a year nonstop, until he barely had any voice left. Or as if he were being strangled. Or Force-choked, for that matter.
Funny how it didn't actually hurt, though. And he couldn't recall suffering any throat injury beforehand.
“She is in the hospital, receiving a blood transfusion,” Janette replied. She sighed, in that same long-suffering manner she'd always had. “Oh Nicolas, what have you done?”
“Look, Janette,” he began, cleared his throat, then continued. The throat-clearing didn't help any with his voice. “I'm sorry about...”
She dismissed it with a waved of a gloved hand. “What's done is done, mon cher. The truth is... I do not believe now that I truly wished to die.”
Nick sighed. “Doesn't mean what I did was right. I took your choice from you.”
Janette tsked the notion. “No, you did not. Mon Dieu! I do not think I would have come back from the dead, even for you, were it not my own choice.”
Nick nodded. “I'm...” Glad wasn't the right word for it, and relieved would be a very insensitive way to put it. He cleared his throat again. No dice. Damn it. “...Well, that makes me feel a little less guilty,” he finished, completely honest with her for the first time in longer than he cared to remember.
She smiled faintly. “Ton voix est terrible, cher Nicolas. This is not another one of those newly engineered diseases, is it?”
Nick shook his head. “No, I'm fine.” At her skeptical glance, he added, “Really!” He cleared his throat again. “Just... let me know how Natalie's doing, if you get any updates. I want to see her as soon as the sun sets.”
Janette nodded and quietly left the room.
Nick sunk back down into the bed. He had a lot of thinking to do, and a lot to ask Natalie. If she was willing.
He hoped she'd be willing.