01 1.0 The Light Who Shines3Bluebell Kildare

May 26, 2022, Red Ages

I slip as quietly as I can through the bell tower door. The stone stairwell would be completely dark if not for the tall, narrow windows decorating each landing. I start the six-floor ascent to my familiar childhood hideout. The absent railing makes the winding stairway treacherous in the dim light. I trail my finger along the stone walls, enjoying the rough bumps and grooves as I move steadily upward. On the last landing, I climb a set of slim, wooden ladder rungs until my head bumps against a solid object. Shoving the hatch upward, I boost myself onto the wooden floor and stand to look around. The bell room has a stone half wall topped with four arches in keystone construction, letting in the cool air and the beautiful night sky. The roof is made of heavy oak timbers reaching up further to steeple heights. An elaborate brass bell works hangs from the timbers with the grand bell hanging in the center and extending down so passersby can see it through the arches.

I set my pack down by the south wall and plop on the floor next to it. The area is in deep shadow, so my fingers work blindly, counting the stones in the wall from the corner. One, two up from the floor and one, two, three to the right. I wedge my fingers around the stone and gently shimmy it out. It’s more difficult than I remember now that I’ve grown and my fingers are larger. I deposit the amulet in an empty crevice behind the stone to the right of the one I removed and replace the block carefully. Even if someone were to remove the loose stone, they would not immediately see the evidence bag.

I stand to heft my pack to my shoulder, then take a moment to enjoy the peace of the evening. The stars are out tonight, though somewhat faded by the light pollution of the city. The city lights are sprinkled all around, concentrating in downtown Crimson Hollow. The lights spread out and up the mountains on all sides and dip down, disappearing between Black Mountain and Thunderhead Mountain in Shroud Valley. I can see the parapet surrounding the tar and pebble roof of the building I live in next door. Lights shine from my friend Alexis’ apartment, but my windows are dark. Large, winged gargoyles decorate each corner of the roof as though standing guard against unseen enemies. I take a couple deep breaths of cool evening air, letting the stress of the day flow out, before heading back downstairs.

When I reach the bottom landing, I gingerly open the door leading back into the church. No matter, though, because Father O’Brennen catches me anyway.

“There you are, Bluebell. I thought I heard a mouse in my bell tower.”

“You could hear me?”

Father O’Brennen chuckles. “No, I saw you slip through the door on your way up.”

“Oh.” I smile. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”

I’ve known Father O’Brennen since my orphanage days. We used to come here on Sundays for church. I’ve never been very religious, so I would sneak away from the housemothers before the sermon and spend the hour in the bell tower, pretending it was my very own home.

“You’re not disturbing me at all,” Father O’Brennen says. “Why don’t you join me? I was just getting a snack in the kitchen. You can tell me how your apartment is doing.”

The building next door is a defunct school belonging to the church. It’s mostly used for storage space now, except for the top floor where the nuns’ living quarters used to be. Some renovations have been done to make it suitable for a few modern apartments. When I was of age and ready to move out of the orphanage, Father O’Brennen offered one of the apartments to me rent-free until I found my first job.

Well, I suppose, there is no polite way to get out of a conversation with Father O’Brennen, so I decide to make the most of it. I need some answers anyway. “Do you happen to have any cookies left over from the church ladies?”

Father O’Brennen chuckles again. “That’s exactly what I was after myself.”

We walk down the hall to the roomy kitchen. It has beige tile counters, dark oak cabinets, and a slate floor. It’s lit by electricity as this is holy ground, so no magic works here. Father O’Brennen pulls two glasses out of the cabinet filling them with milk from a pretty glass decanter. Then he loads two plates with fresh gingersnaps, bringing the container of cookies with him. I arrange the plates and milk on the counter island. It feels as though we’re sneaking a forbidden midnight snack.

Father O’Brennen stands medium height with deep-set, dark gray eyes. His salt and pepper hair is mostly salt now, and is crowned with a shiny spot, visible when he leans forward. He’s quick to laugh but otherwise has a quiet, wise look about him. I do like Father O’Brennen, and he’s always been particularly kind to me. I’m just not a fan of God since he has never gone out of his way to make my life easy. So I usually avoid the kind of deep conversation with Father O’Brennen I’m about to embark on. However, I’m twenty-three now, and it’s high time I get some answers about my family.

“How’s your apartment doing?” Father O’Brennen asks.

“It’s fine. It kept me warm all winter and I expect it will keep me warm all summer as well,” I say with a grin.

Father O’Brennen leans back and laughs a deep, throaty laugh. “Well, that’s what the terrace is for.”

I pause for a moment and crunch on a gingersnap, thinking of how best to approach the topic of my family with him. Then I ask, “Father, I think you told me once that you knew both my parents, didn’t you?”

“I did, certainly. They were wonderful people.”

“You were also the one who brought me to the orphanage.”

Father O’Brennen nods in confirmation.

“Well, the housemothers told me my parents were killed by Dark Vampires. Several of the children were orphaned in the same manner, so it wasn’t unusual. But none of the other children still had family alive. I know this because the mothers told them. But when I asked about my grandparents, they told me it was a story best left till I was older. Every time I tried, they shut me down. Well, I’m twenty-three now. I’ve been on my own for five years. For the last two years I’ve been capturing murderers for a living. I think I’m old enough to know now, and I’m asking you this time.”

Father O’Brennen, sober-faced now, heaves a great sigh. “I guess you are old enough.”

“Are my grandparents still alive?”

Father O’Brennen nods with a sad look and the strong feeling of empathy flowing from him. “Yes, as far as I know. They used to be parishioners of mine, but they haven’t been for quite some time now. The last I heard they were all still living, but that was many years past.”

Wincing at this news even though it’s what I expected, I look to the side to blink back the tears. It’s not that I was alone in the world; it’s that I was unwanted. The cold reality seep into me. I ask through the thickening of my throat, “Do you know why they didn’t take me in when my parents died?”

Father O’Brennen sighs again. “Your grandparents were very devout people, but . . . they were afraid of the Gifted. When your mother’s gift started to show, her parents, due to the nature of her gift, felt it was unholy, and they disowned her. Your father asked his parents to help, and in the course of doing so, he revealed that he himself was Gifted. His parents threw him out as well. I tried to counsel your grandparents that God doesn’t hate, and he loves all his children. But they saw the gifts as an unholy thing and an affront to God.”

My sadness turns to anger at the cruelty of my grandparents. “So both my parents were made homeless when they were just teenagers?”

He nods before elaborating. “Your parents clung together during this hard time, and a strong love grew between them. I married them myself as soon as they were of age. After your parents died, I approached both sets of your grandparents to ask them if they would take you in. Your grandmother on your mother’s side seemed willing to relent. She did grieve for your mother. But your grandfather, her husband, would not. When I visited your father’s parents, I knew by the way they talked about your parents, who hadn’t even been buried yet, that it would be wrong for me to allow you to stay in that house. I’m afraid you would have come to great harm.

“After that, neither set of your grandparents came to this church anymore. They knew in no uncertain terms I felt their choices were wrong. I’m sorry to say I don’t think any of your grandparents ever came to repent over their deeds, except perhaps your maternal grandmother.”

I feel a rush of rage at those faceless people for rejecting me and my parents over their antiquated beliefs. Then I think about how my parents must have felt to have known their love and then lost it.

I ask, “What were my parents’ gifts?”

Father O’Brennen pours me more milk, obviously needing the time to consider his words. “Well,” he says, “your mother was able to see ghosts, the souls of those who have died but have not yet passed on. She could see them when they were passing or if they lingered. She was a very religious woman, your mother. I was worried she would cast the Church aside because of the behavior of her parents, but even as her gift separated her from them, it strengthened her connection with God. She couldn’t deny what she saw with her own eyes. She saw souls passing to the Plane of Light and occasionally in the other direction.” Father O’Brennen looks down at the floor with that last statement.

This shocks me. “She saw souls going to the Plane of Fire?”

“Yes. She said she could, and I believe her. Now, your father was a Gifted Healer. He could direct his energy to heal the flesh. Whenever there was a patient who was particularly sick and your father thought they might not make it, your mother would go with him. She said it was so she could be sure their soul made it safely to the other side.”

The argument breedists always use is that if gifts were from God, magic would be able to exist on holy ground. Since it can’t, they believe it must be evil. “So, what do you think of Gifted people, Father? Do you think the gifts are from God or that they’re evil?”

Father O’Brennen looks at me kindly and asks, “Has anyone ever told you the story about your birth?”

I shake my head, feeling as though something momentous is about to be revealed.

Father O’Brennen takes a deep breath and looks me directly in the eyes as if to give me strength and says, “Bluebell Kildare, you were stillborn, born with the umbilical cord wrapped around your neck. You were as blue as a bluebell, so I’ve been told. The midwife pronounced you dead and handed you to your mother. Your mother cried and said she could see your soul in the room.

“Your father rejected your death. He grabbed you and performed infant CPR. He sent healing energy into you through his hands. Your mother called for you, trying to get you to come back. She said that your soul drifted back into your body just a moment before you opened your lungs on your own and wailed.”

Father O’Brennen pauses a moment, then says, “You know, even Healers are not supposed to be able to breathe life back into the dead. I don’t know if it was your mother calling for you or your father’s healing that brought you back. Perhaps it was a combination of both.”

I did know that Healers weren’t supposed to be able to bring life back to the dead. I’m flabbergasted and can’t seem to speak due to the thoughts racing through my head. I was dead and brought back to life. My parents obviously loved me to reject my death so strongly. That thought is a treasure I will always hold dearly. I fold my hands on the counter, drop my forehead to them, and close my eyes. I let that thought settle. My parents really loved me. My parents truly loved me! After a minute of letting that soak in, I lift my head again waiting for the rest of the story.

Father O’Brennen says, “Now, I wasn’t in that room, and even if I had been, I wouldn’t have seen your soul drifting toward the Plane of Light and then reverse direction. Nor would I have seen healing magic flow through your father’s hands into your body, restoring your life. But you were dead, and now you’re alive. That I would have seen. When your grandparents heard about this, they assumed it was greater evidence of the evil nature of gifts. But I don’t believe a soul would be excused from the Plane of Light without our Father’s permission. I believe all gifts are from God, and I must assume he approved of the use of your parents’ gifts on that day.”

Father O’Brennen pauses for a moment and offers more cookies. I take them, mostly to keep myself busy while my brain processes what he’s told me. It’s more information than I’d ever heard about my parents, and I treasure every word.

Then Father O’Brennen says, “That’s not the only reason why I feel gifts can be used with the blessing of God. What have you been told about the day your parents died?”

I stand up, stretch, and walk to the window. I tell him, and my words seem to echo hollowly in the kitchen as if in accord with the loneliness I feel inside. “I was told that a group of Dark Vampires came upon them in an alley when they were on their way home. I was told they were killed in bloodlust.”

“Yes, that’s true, but it’s not the whole tale.”

I lean against the window and bow my head, unable to watch Father O’Brennen tell this story anymore because the emotions I feel are already too intense. “I’d like to hear what you know.”

Father O’Brennen asks, “Did you know you were with them that day?”

“No,” I murmur. I’m almost beyond surprise at this point. I suppose I might be in shock.

He continues with his tale—my tale, really. “You were barely three years old and wrapped in a carrier on your mother’s back. It was very cold that night, so she’d thrown a blanket over your head. Your father had been caring for an elderly woman, and because of her age, your mother accompanied him. So there you all were, walking home late at night through an alley. When the Dark Vampires attacked your parents, they pushed your parents against some buildings. Your mother landed in a corner where two buildings joined, so you were protected from the impact. Your parents were dead in seconds, but the corner you were wedged in kept you out of sight for a moment. A Daylight Vampire was hunting Dark Vampires that night and came upon the alley just as the Dark Vampires were feeding on your parents. You started crying, and one of the Dark Vampires stopped feeding, pulled your mother away from the corner, and uncovered you.

“The Daylight Vampire approached and was about to intercede when the entire alley filled with a bright light. The Dark Vampires shrunk from the light, and their skin sizzled and burned black as though touched by the sun. They tried to run, but the one who had killed your mother was too close to the light and instantly turned to ash. The Daylight Vampire picked you up and brought you to me.”

Father O’Brennen pauses for a moment and then drops the real bomb. “He told me the bright light that drove the Dark Vampires off and killed one of them was emanating from inside of you.”

I am astounded. I peer at him sharply to assess his truthfulness before remembering who he is. The tale is so outrageous I can hardly believe it.

He forges on. “The light coming from you burnt the Dark Vampires like they burn when they touch holy ground or when they’re exposed to the sun. When Daylight Vampires give in to bloodlust and become Dark Vampires, Lilith calls their soul to her, and their bodies are simply unholy shells of who they were. Lilith operates them like puppets filled with the endless need for blood and death. Since all good is gone from them and only evil remains, they cannot stand the touch of that which is pure, good, and holy. Your gift forced them back and even killed one of them. So I believe your gift must be from God.”

“You think my aura holds my gift? And that’s what hurt and killed the Dark Vampires?”

“Yes, but I don’t believe an aura is some miscellaneous light wavering on the outside of your skin, Bluebell. I believe an aura is the part of your soul that extends beyond the boundaries of your skin. I believe the light from your soul hurt and killed them.”

I stand now and pace the kitchen in front of the window. So many thoughts swirl in my mind. “But what of this Daylight Vampire who saved me? He wasn’t burned. So then it follows that Daylight Vampires aren’t evil, right?”

Father O’Brennen answers as though he has pondered this very question for untold hours. “My heart tells me no. I believe Lilith has her mark on Daylight Vampires to entice them to do evil and give in to their bloodlust. I don’t think the Father allows her to truly claim them until they actually do evil. Like all creatures that still have souls, they have the will to choose. It’s more difficult for them, and it takes more willpower, certainly. They can drink blood from people in a humane way by keeping their bloodlust under control and getting consent. I don’t believe it’s a sin when the blood is freely given. After all, they require sustenance as you and I do. It’s when they give in to their bloodlust by killing during the process that they do evil. Then they choose their path, just like you could choose a path of evil.”

I respond heatedly, “Well, it’s clearly unfair that they can’t die without Lilith claiming them. They have no chance to go to the Plane of Light. Their only choices are to live here endlessly, denying their bloodlust, or give in and go to the Plane of Fire. They have to be good for so much longer than we do with so much greater temptation.”

Father O’Brennen affirms my feelings. “I know,” he says. “I don’t have all the answers, Bluebell. I wish I did. Just remember that as long as Daylight Vampires are able to walk in the sun, they’re defying Lilith’s enticement, so in my opinion, all Daylight Vampires are to be respected in that regard.”

Just when I feel good and angry at Father O’Brennen for representing a God who gives inequitable graces, he goes and says something that makes me see him as human, fallible and wise all at the same time. I feel shame for my outburst now, and think about what he said while I help him clean up our plates.

As I bid him goodnight, I swallow back the heavy emotion I feel thickening my voice and glistening in my eyes. “Thank you, Father O’Brennen. Tonight you gave me more knowledge about my parents and my own history than I’ve ever had before.” He smiles at me and grips my forearms in a warm embrace. I turn and walk the short way home.

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