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A scream tore from my throat. The rapid slap of my sneakers against asphalt echoed through the alley. Wind ripped my hair and coat back as if trying to halt my escape. A chain link fence rose in the distance as I neared the end of the alley. Shit. I could have sworn this one opened to Clark Street. Thud. I froze. My heart pounded in my ears. Tears fell as I closed my eyes. Please, please, God… His heinous laugh drowned out my ragged breath. Caught at a dead end, I had no choice but to turn and face him. He stood in the shadows, the darkness of his attire blended in with the night. Only the glow of his emerald-colored eyes gave him away. Think, I shouted to myself. What does he want? My purse? My money? With a shaky hand, I pulled my wallet from my bag and flung it at him. He shifted his weight, dodging the wallet in one simple move. I stared like an idiot as it landed in the gutter behind him. Why is he chasing me if he doesn’t want my money? What else could he want? He grinned, bearing a set of abnormally sharp, fluorescent-white teeth. Who the hell is this freak? He stepped toward me. My fists clenched as I stepped back. He took another step forward. My back pressed against the cold metal of the fence. Tears blurred my vision and fell as ice melted through the back of my coat. Chills rolled down my spine, sending a quiver to my lip. I swallowed the lump of panic building in my throat. “Leave me alone!” He kept advancing, his eyes locked on my face, his gait slow with one foot in front of the other, like a cat. I shoved a trembling hand in my purse in search of my pepper spray. He snatched my wrist and yanked me to my knees. The contents of my purse spilled and scattered. “What makes you think I want anything from you?” he sneered. My chest heaved as I pushed myself up. From the corner of my eye, I glanced at the mouth of the alley, now behind me. He scoffed. “You think you can run? Go ahead, mouse. Run.” I did. I was almost to the street when a thick shadow dropped from the sky. Two rock-solid fists shoved my chest. I fell backward. My head hit the pavement. Stars danced in the periphery 3
of my vision as I struggled to sit up, but my limbs moved in slow motion. Two hands, each finger adorned by a silver ring, gripped my shoulders and lifted me. My back hit something solid and cold—a brick wall. My feet dangled above the ground. He held me at eye level; his sour breath churned my stomach as his face inched closer to mine. “I know what you’re thinking.” His voice was deep, smooth, as he rolled his R’s. “You’ve done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, once you kill one rat, you have to kill them all. Even a little mouse like yourself.” My blood drained at the utterance of the word kill. I squirmed in his grasp. “Please, don’t hurt me.” He clenched my jaw with one hand as his fingernails dug into my skin. I cried not from the pain, but from fear. “Would you like to know a secret?” His hot breath caused bile to rise in my throat. “Only you disgusting rats can see our eyes glow. I’m sure you knew that already. I’m sure your mother told you the stories. I’ll bet you didn’t listen to her. I bet you thought they were just fairy tales and bad dreams, hmm?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I concentrated on finding a way out of his grip, hoping his guard would slip while he continued his monologue. “You know, when you find one rat, there are a dozen more in the nest.” He tightened his grasp. “Where’s your rathole, eh little mouse?” “Let me go!” Pain manifested in every inch of my face. My jaw throbbed and my head spun. A stiff ache cut through my spine. Fear and cold shook my core. Exhaustion weighed down my struggling limbs. I just wanted it to end. He studied my face for a moment, a frown tugged at his lips. “Very well.” He released my jaw then reached back under his jacket. The sound of sharp metal being unsheathed pierced the night as he drew out a long silver dagger. My eyes widened at the emblems engraved on every inch of the blade and handle. I recognized them as Norse in origin. I also recognized the precise way in which he held the dagger level with my left rib cage. He’s going to stab me in the heart. He pulled his arm back, holding the weapon steady. I squeezed my eyes shut. A light brightened behind my eyelids. His flinch startled me and my eyes opened. His 4
grip held, but he hesitated to strike. The thunk of a window being forced open preceded a woman’s voice. “Everything all right out here?” The man glanced up. His lip rose, showing his fanged teeth as a low growl rumbled from his throat. He released me. I dropped to the damp ground like a dead weight. But I wasn’t dead. “Young lady, are ya all right?” My limbs wobbled, but I managed to stand. I glanced around the alley, but my attacker had disappeared from sight. Whether he was truly gone or hiding in the shadows, I didn’t know. My pulse sped. What if he came back? “Miss?” I glanced in the direction of the voice. An elderly woman leaned out a window several feet above the spot the assailant had thrust me against. Wisps of white hair blew about her frail face and pulled at her black cloak. I opened my mouth, and then closed it. My mind failed to find words. All I could think was to get as far away from here as possible. I staggered onto the sidewalk and ran as fast as the sting in my knees would allow. Wind blew hot tears across my temples. I cupped a hand over my mouth to muffle the sob that threatened to invite the attacker back. By the time I reached the main door to the apartment complex, my chest burned as it heaved in rapid pants of air. My hands fumbled around empty pockets for the keys. Shit, they must’ve been in my purse. I pressed the doorbell button next to my apartment number on the side panel. Please be home. Silence ensued. A whimper carried on my labored breath. I pressed all the doorbell buttons and then slapped my palms against the door. The intercom crackled to life, startling me. “Hello, hello,” echoed a male and female voice. I faced the panel. “I locked myself out. Can you unlock the main door, please?” Silence. Then a buzzer broke through the night, signaling the door’s temporary unlatch. Once inside, I boarded the elevator. My pulse finally slowed as the elevator carried me to the third floor. My breathing returned to normal as I entered the hall and approached my apartment door. Fortunately, I kept a spare key under the welcome mat. Inside, I closed and locked the door before flicking on the light. Then I turned and leaned against the cold wood. The entire interior of my one-room studio could be seen from the hall. 5
The kitchen and handmade breakfast nook took up over half the space. The bed stood pushed in the far right corner. The bathroom and closet were located in the center left wall. The only window sat directly across the way from the door. Everything looked exactly the same as Iâ€™d left it, minus my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Anthony. Of course he wouldnâ€™t be here, on the one night of my life I really did not want to be alone. I lowered to the floor, my back slid against the wood. Tears blurred my vision as the stress of the night weighed on what little sanity I had left. A phone. I need a phone. I managed to push myself up despite the achy protest in my joints. In the kitchen, I grabbed the cordless phone and dialed 911.
A chill ran the length of my spine despite the artificial heat. I squirmed against the leather seat of the taxi and pulled my coat tighter, but nothing helped. Outside the window, the Chicago skylines faded, soon replaced by the quiet suburbia of my childhood. My backpack rested on the floor between my feet. I bent to unzip the front pocket and pulled out a compact mirror. In the reflection, I checked my jaw to make sure the bruises were still covered. With makeup they looked more like acne than fingerprints. Puffy pink bags rimmed my brown eyes. No amount of concealer could cover three hours spent talking to police, canceling credit cards, changing bank accounts, and alerting the apartment association to possible robbery due to misplaced keys. The cops had filed a report and suggested I stay with a friend for a couple of days. The closest “friend” I had was my mother. I ran a hand over my red hair, smoothing the ponytail against my neck, as I thought of the phone conversation with Mom this morning. We hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. I hadn’t told her why I was coming over and she hadn’t asked. A memory from last night flashed in my mind. The man’s voice rang like an alarm. Where’s your rathole, eh little mouse? My back stiffened. He’d threatened to kill my family. He could’ve gone back and picked up my spilled belongings. Any number of items could’ve given away my address. But could he know where my mother lived? I tried to remember if I had anything with her address written on it. Oh, God, my cellphone. I had canceled the service this morning, but what if he went back for it last night? I sucked in a deep breath, and then swallowed my nerves. I’m just being paranoid. Mom’s fine. Yet my hands wrung. The taxi rounded the corner and cruised down a narrow residential area leading to my mother’s neighborhood. My fingers twitched for a new reason as I took in the familiarity of the area. The vehicle pulled into Mom’s driveway. I stared at the house. The chipped, off-white paint had been crying out for a new coat since before I was born. The door hung slightly askew. Mom still hadn’t fixed the top hinge. The back side window still had a hole in the top panel near the lock. Plastic and duct tape covered it. I glanced at the pale scar that ran from the knuckle to the first joint on my right middle finger. 7
“Ahem,” coughed the cab driver. I paid him, swung my pack over my shoulder and slid out of the taxi. My sneakers sank ankle-deep in snow. A curse passed my lips as ice water seeped into my socks. Snow always took longer to melt in the ‘burbs since they didn’t use as much salt. But why hadn’t she shoveled? I trudged up the covered walkway, and then rang the doorbell. Seconds passed before I pushed my finger against the doorbell again, my nerves churning in my gut. Her voice rose through the thin walls. “I’m coming.” Relief washed through me, but its potency was bittersweet. The door opened. My mother’s voice rose in pitch. “Ema? What are you doing here?” My eyebrows furrowed. “I told you I was coming.” A gleam came to her eyes. “Oh, that was today?” “Yes, Mama, I called you this morning. How could you forget?” “Oh, I guess I didn’t believe you. You never visit me anymore.” I rolled my eyes. Mom never apologized. Instead, she had a tricky way of making herself the victim of every situation. “Come inside, you’re letting the warm air out.” She hunched her shoulders as she turned away and reached for the nearest table as if to support her weight. Her sluggish steps caught me off guard, but I held my tongue and followed her in silence. I closed and locked the door while Mom retreated into the leather Lay-Z-Boy recliner. The armchair used to belong to my father. Nothing about the house had changed since my last visit. The plain, brown-painted walls and low ceiling made the place feel as homey as a shoe box. Something didn’t feel right. The air smelled of dust instead of antiseptic. I swiped a digit along the end table and quirked a brow at the black grime coating my fingertip. Upon closer inspection, I realized a fine layer of dust covered all the furniture and baseboards. Mom’s plants had yellowed and wilted. Little spider webs booby-trapped the corners. That wasn’t like Mom. I put my backpack down and went to her side. “Mama, when was the last time you dusted or watered the plants or vacuumed?” She waved a hand. “It’s fine.” I placed my hands on my hips. “It’s filthy.” 8
“Who are you to judge me? I’m an old lady; I’ve earned the right to live how I want.” After years of dealing with her obsessive-compulsive disorder, I doubted this was how she wanted her house. She wasn’t an old lady, yet she had clearly aged since I last saw her. Deep wrinkles creased the corners of her eyes and lips. Gray strands peppered her black hair. I crouched and leaned my elbows against the chair’s armrest. “It hasn’t even been a year, how did your hair get gray so fast?” She scoffed. “It’s been gray for a long time, lányom, I just stopped dying it.” “Why? You looked so young and pretty with long, black hair.” I traced the bun at the nape of her neck. “Why don’t we go to the store and buy some dye. I could do your hair for you in the kitchen. It’ll be fun.” “What for? Old women have no business dying their hair. You should dye your hair. Red’s not a good color for you. And wash your face; you have too much makeup on.” I stood and ran a hand over my ponytail. “My hair’s fine. You can at least dust the place once in a while. Want me to shovel the driveway?” “No,” she spat. “My house is fine.” I held up my hands, palms forward. “Okay, just offering. So when’s dinner?” “Now I have to feed you?” “I only asked because you said you were going to make Paprikás Csirke for dinner.” “When did I say that?” “When I called you this morning.” Was I losing my mind, or was Mom grouchier than usual? “Humph. You’re a big girl, make it yourself.” My jaw hung as she turned her attention back to the soap drama on TV. I grabbed my backpack and shuffled down the hall to my old bedroom. I flicked on the light switch and tossed my pack and jacket on the bed. Nothing had changed in there either. My old bookshelf caught my attention. Overdue library books crammed the sills. Most of them were texts on European history, but I also had half of the local library’s collection of encyclopedias. I pulled out my favorite World War II text and tucked it inside my backpack for later. I flicked the light switch off and closed the door. In the living room, I took a peek at Mom. She had a tray with a glass of water and a prescription bottle in front of her. She popped two white pills in her mouth, and then sipped the water. 9
“Mama, what pills are you taking?” “Painkillers. They’re for my arthritis.” She set the tray aside and leaned against the recliner’s backrest. “Did you get those from a doctor?” “Of course I did. I’ve had arthritis for a long time, I just never told you.” Now I understood why she hadn’t cleaned the house as vigorously as she used to. Guilt thronged my chest. I should have visited more. I should have been around to help her when something as simple as dusting became too difficult. “Mama, I’m so sorry. You should have told me. I would have come and helped you.” “Humph.” “I’m going to be here for a couple of days. How about I help you clean this place up?” “No, damn it. I don’t hear so much as one word from you all year and suddenly you show up at my door and tell me how to do things. I’m the mother; I tell you how to run your life.” I rolled my eyes. “Fine, Mama, how should I run my life?” “You can start by getting rid of that loser boyfriend and marrying a doctor.” My fists clenched. “For your information, Anthony and I are breaking up.” A tense moment of silence passed before my mother spoke. “About time. Now you can marry a good man.” “Anthony was a good man, Mom.” That was a lie, but I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. “He could never take care of you, Ema. He could hardly afford to help you pay the rent.” He didn’t help pay the rent at all, but that was beside the point. “I don’t care about money, Mom. I care about love.” “Yesterday, Laura told me her daughter got engaged to a bioengineer. And Martha’s daughter just had a baby. Why can’t you give me a grandchild?” My jaw dropped. “You want me to get pregnant so you can brag to your friends?” “Yes.” I tossed my hands in the air. “You’re unbelievable.” “I’m old, Ema. I want to see my grandchildren before I die.” “Stop being dramatic. You’re not that old, you’re only forty-nine. And I’m only twentythree. I’m not going out and having a baby for you.” 10
“Can you at least find a nice doctor to take care of you after I’m gone?” “Do you hear yourself? You’re not dying, Mama, you just need to get out of the house once in a while. Get a hobby or something.” “I don’t want a hobby. I want a grandchild to spoil.” “Even if I had a baby, you’d be the last person allowed to see it.” I winced. Mom gasped. Whatever she said next would not be pretty. “You ungrateful bitch. After all I’ve done for you after your father left.” Great, here we go again. I rolled my eyes while she went off on her usual rampage. “You do this to me on purpose. You still blame me for what your father did!” A heavy sigh passed my lips. “Mama, that was thirteen years ago. You know I don’t blame you for it, I never have.” “Yes you do. You’ve been an ungrateful brat since the day he left.” “The only time I ever think of Dad is when you bring him up. You’re the one who needs to get over it, please.” At that, I turned on my heel and headed into my old room. I made a mistake coming here. I yanked on my coat and swung my backpack over my shoulder while heading to the front door. “Where are you going?” she called out. “Away. This is exactly why I don’t visit you.” I jerked open the front door. “Fine, leave me here to rot. You are just like your father.” “At least I’m not like you!” The door slammed shut. Furious, I marched down the sidewalk, retracing steps I’d taken a hundred times in my youth, to the train station downtown. **** The sun had set by the time I stepped off the train at the Union Station. The few dollar bills in my pocket ruled out taking a taxi home. I considered calling Anthony for a ride, but dismissed the idea. I doubted seeing him right now would do any good. My fingers gripped the straps of my backpack and hauled the load onto my stiff back. A disappointed sigh passed through my lips as I exited the station and began my walk home. Piercing wind roared through the streets, whipping my hair and clothes against my face. Looming granite buildings cast deep rectangular shadows in a pattern across the sidewalks. My stomach twisted in knots at all the alleys cloaked in pitch-black darkness. Were there always so many? A shiver rolled through my spine followed by goose bumps raising the hairs 11
along my neck. I swallowed my nerves and reminded myself the cops were looking for him. They might have caught him already, but as I pressed on, my steps became shaky. Something didn’t feel right. I paused under the dim glow of a street lamp and glanced around. A tall, hourglass-figured woman materialized from the dark. She took a long, calculated step to the side, positioning herself in front of me. She cocked her chin and sneered. I swallowed the lump thickening in my throat as my pulse sped. Her pale skin and deep green eyes matched my attacker’s. Her lips curled, flashing a set of pointed teeth. Beads of sweat dampened my brow. Suddenly, I was running. She laughed. Her voice carried like a bell. “You shall not escape this time.” I glanced over my shoulder. She pointed a long fingernail at me, but she didn’t follow. If she hadn’t looked so much like her male counterpart, I might have slowed. Instead, I ran all the way home. I paused in front of the main door and shifted my backpack forward so I could dig for the spare key. Something solid smacked against my side. I fell over, my head hit pavement. The thing landed on my leg. Muscle tore and bone snapped. Agonizing pain shot through my leg. A scream erupted from my lungs as I tried to push the thing off. The black mass unfolded itself and then stood. The woman shimmered into vision, grinning in triumph. I couldn’t believe it. The speed and force it must have required to catch up didn’t connect with her supermodel poise. I tried to stand, but collapsed under the pain. My lower leg lay at an odd angle. Blood soaked through my jeans at a rate that sent bile rising to my throat. The woman trembled. She clenched her hands while gritting her fang-like teeth. I followed the direction of her eyes; she stared at the small pool of bright red blood on the pavement. She took half a step back, and then crouched, like a lioness ready to pounce. I tried to crawl away, but could only pull myself a few inches before the pain became unbearable. Tears dampened my cheeks while I tried to think of what to do. A ferocious growl rolled passed her fanged teeth. She lunged at me; her arms stretched forward, fingers arched like claws. My mind froze. Instinct wrapped my arms over my face for useless protection. She landed on my stomach; her weight knocked the wind out of my lungs. Another sub-human growl came from behind as a second shadow lurched forward. It knocked the woman off me. Growls and hisses filled the night. 12
I couldn’t see any of it as I laid flat on my back in a daze. My lungs worked desperately to suck in air. After a few minutes, I managed to sit up. Several feet in front of me, the woman sat hunched and licked at a wound on her arm. The same man who attacked me last night stood next to her, panting. He faced me, his eyes as bright as ever, and then closed the gap between us in three long strides. My heart leaped into my throat. “No, leave me alone!” He grabbed my shoulders with both hands and dragged me across the parking lot. I screamed as my back scraped against the frozen ground. My right leg dragged like meat on a string. The pain shot through my entire body, burning me from the inside out. My attacker pulled me into an alley. The woman followed, but kept her distance. At the end of the passageway, he uttered something in a foreign language and nodded at the brick wall. Glaring, the woman stepped around so that her back faced the wall. I screamed in horrendous pain as he pulled me to my feet—or foot—and thrust me at the woman. I expected to fall flat on my face, but the woman caught me in her arms. She spun me around and propped me up so that I faced the man. The first time he attacked me, he seemed to enjoy it. Now, he was all business, his face serious as he focused. The disgusting creature showed no emotion as he reached back and unsheathed the silver dagger. “Please,” I begged as he pointed the dagger at my chest. I meant to continue pathetically pleading for my life, but the scene began to swirl. My heartbeat slowed as my breath grew shallow. I tried to speak but no sound came from my lips, only muffled air. My attacker cocked his head to the side and pursed his lips. I tried to focus, to hold on, but I could have floated away at any second. Everything became a blur. For a moment, I was able to lock my gaze on his wicked green eyes. Then darkness engulfed me.
“Vio vittui!” I cursed in Finnish as the female’s body went limp in Leena’s arms. Leena addressed me in her native Greek. “Τι είναι αυτό? Get on with it, Jalmari. Her smell is sickening me.” I directed my thoughts to her. “I can’t. She is turning.” “What do you mean?” She glanced at the girl and wrinkled her nose. “What kind of sick bastard would bite a gypsy?” I cocked an eyebrow. She shrank back and hissed. “It wasn’t me. You pushed me away before I could do a thing.” “You still tried, did you not?” “Only because she was already bleeding. Now kill her quick, the smell is driving me crazy.” “I am going to have to decapitate her now.” “Fine.” Leena adjusted the girl’s weight, clearly bothered by the idea of more fresh blood spilled. I smirked and opened my mouth to comment, but our heads perked at the rumble of a car engine. The faint sound was blocks away, but slowly grew louder as it neared. The vehicle had a familiar vibration and scent to it. I glanced at Leena. “Police.” “Shit,” she muttered. “Come.” I took the girl in my arms and inclined my head, gesturing for Leena to follow. We levitated, Leena as nothing more than black smoke. Normally I would transform myself into an invisible mist as well, but carrying the girl in that form would be extremely risky. I muttered curses to myself for allowing this, but what choice did I have? The rat was turning. A stabbed heart would mean little more than a scratch. The wind had little effect as I weaved through the shadows, avoiding witnesses. Most humans wouldn’t believe their eyes, especially in late hours, but years of memories past kept me wary. As if it were not enough to discover the Romani living in Chicago, I now had the unfortunate knowledge that they were being fed upon. The fact that the vampire hadn’t killed her could have been an accident, but they shouldn’t have been feeding from them in the first place. Didn’t they know the law? If the rules needed reinforcing, that could be arranged. 14
In an empty alley far away from human law, I descended, landing soundlessly on my feet. Leena followed suit behind me, her body solidified. “Do you really believe the Americans are out of line?” “Someone is responsible for this. Hold her.” I pushed the girl’s body in Leena’s direction. She sneered as she caught the girl. “So bossy tonight.” I winced knowing how she hated when I gave her orders, but now wasn’t time for apologies. I pushed the girl’s darkening hair aside and unsheathed my dagger, then pressed the edge of the blade to her neck. Such a shame to kill this beauty who was now my kin, but the Romani had no place in this world, neither human nor vampire. I pressed down against her flesh. A thin trickle of bright red seeped forth. “Stop!” I froze. My eyes widened in disbelief at the voice in my head. Leena glowered. “What do you mean ‘stop’?” “I didn’t say anything.” “You thought it. You thought ‘stop.’” I rubbed a palm against my temple. “I need to think. I need you to get out of my head… please.” Leena dropped her arms. The girl fell in a heap on the ground. “Fine.” She crossed her arms over her chest and turned away. I waited a moment to be sure she was truly no longer reading my thoughts. Then, finally, “What do you want?” I asked the voice. “Take the gypsy back to the castle. Let her heal.” “Are you mad?” Of course he’s mad. When had he ever been sane? I restated my accusation. “It’s against the law. Your law.” “No matter. I have other plans for this one.” I rolled my eyes. “Some sick experiment, I am sure.” The voice growled. Nevertheless, he receded back into the depths of my mind. I wished I could keep him locked inside. The damage done, I had no choice but to obey. I sheathed my dagger and knelt beside the girl. Gently, I cracked her broken bone in place so it would heal. “What the hell are you doing,” Leena snapped as I cradled and lifted the girl. “Do not read my thoughts right now,” I growled. Her face shattered for the briefest moment before she straightened her back and hid 15
behind her composure. Her fierce eyes narrowed to slits. â€œThen tell me why we are bringing her with us?â€? I sighed. If only I could.
A salty-metallic flavor slicked the back of my tongue. A warm sensation manifested in my right hand and spread through my arm and then continued over my entire body. My eyelids fluttered opened. Red silk hung over my head, draped in elaborate bunches tied with gold threads to a canopy made of dark wood pieces. My vision fixated on the fabric. Each individual thread became apparent, the pattern of the weave coming to life; over two, under one. I pulled my arm out from under a thick, red comforter embroidered with gold stitching—two stitches in a loop followed by one long stitch—and rubbed my forehead. What on earth happened last night? Where am I now? I pushed myself to a sitting position. The silk curtains of the canopy obscured my view of the room. I stretched my arm toward the lustrous fabric, but gasped at the intravenous needle and plastic medical tubes taped to my hand. Blood ebbed from the thin tubes into my flesh. That explained the metallic flavor in the back of my throat. But instead of feeling repulsed, my mouth watered and my stomach grumbled in hunger. A high-pitched beep jerked me from my thoughts. I yanked the curtain away, revealing an IV stand from which hung a medical bag full of blood. Next to the rod stood a box-like machine that beeped and whirred as it read and printed my vital signs. Am I in a hospital? A single glance around the room suggested not. The walls rose twenty feet high, as well as the lone window in the center of the left wall, and ended in a domed ceiling. Red velvet curtains cascaded over the window, drawn back with gold rope tied to iron hooks. The ropes ended in tassels. The threads that hung from the tassels were so thick, I could count them. Sixtytwo on the right, sixty-three on the left. Cream and coral wallpaper covered the perimeter with a Victorian flower pattern. The pattern broke three-quarters after the fifth flower. An antique vanity and mirror set stood against the wall, topped off with a bowl of water and the strongest smelling powder-scented bar of soap I’d ever encountered. In the center of the room sat a white wicker table and two matching chairs. To the right was a large armoire painted teal. The wall opposite the bed housed a fireplace. The glow of the flames stung my eyes despite the distance. I blinked rapidly, but still the sensation was like 17
staring at a light bulb. I glanced away from the fire, dispelling the odd feeling. Looking around the room, I realized there weren’t any lamps. The sole source of illumination came from the fire. But that didn’t make sense. The room wasn’t dark. Surely there was a light fixture somewhere. I glanced at the door. No light switch. But there was a life-size statue of a man standing just in the shadows, made of a bluish stone. The statue blinked. I screamed. He jumped, eyes wide. Then he held up his hands, palms forward. “Shh.” I slapped a hand over my mouth to muffle the gasp as I noticed his eyes. Green, very green. But this man wasn’t the same one who attacked me. His hair, though black, flowed down passed his shoulders. His skin, though pale, held a hint of blue undertones, like he’d gone swimming in very cold water. His eyes, though green, didn’t glow. I let my hand fall away from my mouth. “Who are you?” He smoothed pale-blue hands down the black cotton of his shirt. The top few buttons were undone and the tail hung over his black jeans. “Do not worry, you are safe.” I nearly melted at his voice. His accent flowed like silk as he rolled the soft R’s. I glanced at my lap, hoping he wouldn’t notice the heat coloring my cheeks. “Could you please tell me where I am?” From under my eyelashes, I watched him lick his lips and furrow his brow. His concern stirred my nerves. “I think we should begin with what happened.” I glanced up. “Is it bad?” He hesitated. “You have been unconscious for the past two days.” “I what?” Two days? Holy cow. That meant it was already Monday. I pressed a hand to my temples. “How could this have happened?” “You do not remember?” I glanced at him. He had taken a step closer. I shook my head while trying to think. I remembered Mom, our argument, the train ride home. “I was walking home from the train station. I…I didn’t make it home, did I?” His gaze flickered to the side. “Do you remember your name?” I nodded. “Yeah. My name’s Ema Marx.” Something snapped in my mind. The utterance of my name unlocked a floodgate of vivid memories haunted by the man who tried to kill me. “Oh my God. I was attacked.” 18
“You lost a lot of blood.” “My leg!” I flung the covers off. A white cotton nightgown dressed my body. My legs were bare. No cast, no bandage, no stitches, not even a bruise blemished either one. I wiggled my toes in disbelief. My skin looked pale, but other than that, they were perfectly fine. “I…I could have sworn my leg was broken.” The bluish man cleared his throat. “It was.” “Excuse me?” “It was broken, but it healed.” I gave him a sidelong glance. “It healed in two days?” A grin teased the left corner of his lips. “Not exactly. It healed within the first day.” I narrowed my eyes. Was that supposed to be a joke? I noticed how closely he resembled the felon. Anger heated my blood. My jaw clenched as I spoke through my teeth. “This isn’t a hospital, is it?” He glanced at the floor and then licked his lips. He inhaled and parted his mouth as if to speak, but then he faced the door. I was about to demand an answer when the air in the room thickened. A scent like nitrogen after a lightning storm assaulted my nasal cavity. The door began to smoke as though it were on fire. The smoke gathered into a thick mass and then a woman in a knit tunic top and floor-length gathered skirt materialized before my eyes. I snatched the blanket and pulled it over me like a child hiding from a nightmare. “What the fuck just happened?” At the same time, my instinct flared. A tiny voice in the back of my head told me to stop cowering and stand ready for battle. I’ve clearly lost my mind. The man spoke hushed foreign words to the woman in a tone that sounded like a sigh. She dismissed him with a wave of her pale hand. Thin creases wrinkled the corners of her eyes and lips as she smiled. “Forgive me if I’ve frightened you, darling, I did not think you’d wake just yet. How are you feeling?” Unlike the man’s soothing voice, a Greek accent thickened the woman’s speech. Pointed teeth showed when she grinned. I hesitated, afraid to answer someone who looked like they could’ve been my attacker’s mother. The only difference was her black eyes. They lured like dark pits. I shook my head in answer. I didn’t feel pain. I didn’t feel much of anything, physically. Maybe they gave me a sedative. Morphine would explain some of this. “You look well,” she beamed. “Why don’t you stand up?” She held out a pale hand to 19
help steady me. Slowly, I took it and slid off the edge of the bed, being careful not to snag any of the medical tubes attached to the IV. My bare feet stood firm against the wooden floor boards, just as I’d expected, but the sensation felt off. I couldn’t feel the coolness my head expected. I couldn’t tell if the floor was smooth or rough and textured. All I felt was the slight pressure of my weight anchoring my feet. She released my hand and gently prodded my arms, shoulders, and neck. “Do you feel anything at all, darling? Weak, lightheaded, dizzy?” I shook my head. “Actually, I feel numb. Was I given painkillers?” “No painkillers. You’ll get used to the numb feeling in time.” She smiled. What does that mean? “You had a broken tibia and three fractured ribs when you came in, but you’ve healed beautifully. We can take those tubes out of you now.” She reached for my hand, but I twisted away. “Are you a doctor?” “Not quite.” “Are you a nurse, then?” “I have the skill but not the title, now do you want me to remove the needle or would you like to do so yourself?” After a moment’s hesitation, I extended my arm. She gripped my hand and gently peeled the medical tape away. I winced in anticipation as she reached for the needle’s base, but felt nothing as it slid out of the flesh. My fingers flexed as I puzzled over the pallid tone of my skin. What happened to my tan? Then again, I suppose it was normal to be a little pale in my situation. “What are your names?” I asked. The woman’s smile broadened, exposing all her sharp teeth. She bent her knees in a slight dip. “Maria, at your service.” I tilted my chin in the direction of the pale-blue man. “And yours?” He licked his lips before returning my gaze. “I am called Jesu.” He pronounced the soft J as a Y-sound; Yes-oo. “Nice to meet you.” “It is nicer to meet you,” he whispered. “I will send for Master Jalmari,” Maria said. “I’m sure you are wondering what happened. He is better fit to explain than either of us.” 20
My brow quirked. Who referred to anyone as “master” in this day and age? Suspicion burned in my chest. I was now positive this wasn’t a hospital and, though I didn’t want to admit it, I had a strong feeling I wouldn’t like whoever Master Jalmari was. But I did want to know what the hell happened to me. “Yes, thank you.” She smiled sweetly, and then toted the medical equipment out of the room, opening and closing the door behind her like a normal person. I had the urge to ask her to leave the bag of blood behind. Definitely lost your mind, Ema. I glanced at Jesu, whose emerald eyes traced the contours of my torso. I glanced down, and then quickly snatched the blanket and wrapped it around me. With nothing but a white linen nightgown, I was sure he’d seen a great deal more than he should have. I narrowed my eyes. “And you?” His gaze rose to my face, but he showed no remorse. “I think I will stay.” “Can you at least keep your eyes to yourself?” A sideways smile dimpled his left cheek. He bowed his head, and then fixed his gaze on the scenery outside the window. An awkward silence followed. Only it wasn’t really silent. His breath and heartbeat filled the room with an even tempo. I knew I shouldn’t have been able to hear the mechanisms of his body as clearly as I could, but my ears argued against logic. And his scent, the sweet fragrance of grass after a light rain, filled my mind with memories of spring. The fire snapped, reminding me of the odd darkness. How could my eyes discern such vivid detail without a lamp or daylight? I rubbed my palms against my temples. I needed a distraction before the contradiction on my senses drove me insane. “What time is it?” “Midnight.” “Oh.” Back to crazy non-silence. “So,” I traced the bed frame with a finger. “Who is this Jalmari guy?” Jesu winced. “My brother.” “Was he the one who…rescued me?” “You can say that.” “Brought me here, I mean.” “Yes.” I couldn’t think of anything else to ask. At least, not anything I thought Jesu would be 21
able to answer. The thump of footsteps alerted me to the door. The sound grew terrifyingly loud as the steps came closer. I cupped my hands over my ears. A musky scent leaked into the room causing my skin to tingle with nerves. Jesu must have heard it too because his attention turned to the door and he moved to the other side of the fireplace. The footsteps stopped briefly for the owner to enter. The vast wooden door creaked open. A polished black shoe stepped into the room, followed by the rest of the man who attacked me.
A gasp caught in my chest as I dashed to the opposite end of the room, the blanket still wrapped around my torso. “Stay away from me!” A low growl rumbled in my throat. I blinked in surprise, unaware I could make such a noise. His emerald eyes no longer glowed as they narrowed to bemused slits. With my new, enhanced vision, his features stood forth in a way I hadn’t noticed under the shadows in the alley. He was dressed in black Givenchy designer slacks and a crisp, button-down shirt; his ebony hair gelled back except for a single strand falling over his left eye. The darkness of his attire brought out his fair complexion and cast deep shadows and brilliant highlights over sharply defined cheekbones, the bridge of his nose, and strong-set jaw. In complement to his features, his face erred on the rounder side and looked more soft than ridged. My pulse sped as I wondered what hid under his clothes. My knees buckled. “Oh.” He snickered while closing the door. He tried to kill me, remember? I sucked in a deep breath and thought about the times he had pointed his dagger at my heart. I held onto those images and fueled my hatred with them. “What do you want from me?” He scanned my body, moving only his gaze. “I want to know who did this to you.” My brows furrowed. “Excuse me?” “Do you know what you are?” “Is this a joke?” “Brother,” Jesu whispered. “She just woke.” The man glanced at the floor for a moment, and then returned his gaze to me. “Do you remember your name?” I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. “Yes. And I know your name, Jalmari. Isn’t that right?” Jalmari narrowed his gaze as he gave his brother a sidelong glance. Jesu shrugged. “Yes,” Jalmari faced me and dipped his head in an informal bow. “I am Prince Jalmari ta Korento.” I scoffed. “Sure you are. Do me a favor and ring the butler, tell him to arrange a carriage. I think I’d like to ride to the courthouse and get a restraining order for His Majesty.” Jesu snickered but stopped cold as a snarl ensued from Jalmari. 23
“Come.” Jalmari lifted a pallid hand decked in thick silver rings. He began to cross the room, coming toward me. “Don’t you touch me.” I backed into the corner between the canopy bed and the vanity. Jalmari dropped his hand to his side. “Look in the mirror.” Jesu stepped forward, eyes wide. Jalmari shot a glare at him. He hesitated, and then stepped back and fixed his gaze on the floor while he chewed his lip. Pfft. What harm can a mirror do, beside remind me of the bruises on my face? I stole a quick glance in the ancient vanity mirror. I did a double take and gasped. The girl in the reflection was far too pale, her hair too dark, her teeth too pointed. It wasn’t my reflection and, yet, it was. My eyes frightened me most. Flecks of dark red colored the black irises. A sheen reflected off the large pupils like cat’s eyes in the dark. They were not my eyes. My eyes were brown. These eyes belonged to a monster. My lip quivered as I ran my fingers over my face and hair. “What did you do to me?” Jalmari sighed and stretched out a hand. “Don’t touch me!” He withdrew his hand and held it up, palm forward. “I did not do this to you. On the contrary, I hoped you could tell me what happened.” “Liar.” He winced. “I beg you, calm down. I rather we not make a big commotion of this.” “Like I care?” I kept running my hands over my body. This couldn’t be real. “Where are my clothes?” “In the wardrobe.” I scrambled over the bed and flung open the doors of the wall-sized bureau. My clothes and backpack were in the middle drawer along with something else I hadn’t seen in a while. “My purse. You went back for it?” I snatched the handbag and opened it, but all it contained were a few bills and my chapstick. Then I noticed my cellphone. I yanked it out and pressed the on button only to sigh at the dead battery. I silently vowed to carry a cellphone charger on me at all times after this. “What did you do with my credit cards and checkbook?” “Destroyed them, along with your driver’s license.” I closed the purse and faced the men. “I want to go home.” “I’m afraid I cannot allow you to leave.” The tone of Jalmari’s voice made me wonder 24
why he hadn’t killed me. Am I a hostage? “What are you going to do to me?” He studied me for a moment. “I suppose I have not figured that out yet. Until I do, you will be treated like a guest, as long as you behave.” I didn’t understand. Was I considered a guest until he thought of a pleasing enough method of torture? Jalmari smoothed a hand down the length of his pressed shirt. “I understand you are upset with me—” “Upset doesn’t quite cover it,” I blurted out. “Yes, well, I suppose I understand—” “You suppose?” His face quickly turned into a scowl. I shrugged. I didn’t owe him courtesy after what he’d done to me. He cleared his throat. “For your protection, I must know who bit you.” “So now you’re concerned about my protection? Just the other day you attacked me and threatened to kill me, you sociopath.” A fierce growl reverberated from his lungs. I cupped my ringing ears and ducked as he lunged forward. Jesu jumped between us before Jalmari’s feet touched down. He shoved his brother. The floor shook as Jalmari landed on his back. He leaped to his feet, his fists clenched. “Siirtää!” Jalmari spat as he marched over and shoved his shoulder into Jesu’s chest. Jesu struggled against the weight of his brother. He spoke to Jalmari in a foreign tongue. I remained crouched and studied the men, ready to move quickly. I didn’t know where these tactics came from, but I wish I’d had them before. Jalmari finally relaxed his shoulders and backed away from Jesu. He growled in the same language Jesu used, he then turned and vanished from the room like a ghost, leaving the scent of nitrogen in his wake. “What the hell was that?” Jesu ran a hand through his long hair and sighed. “I apologize. My bother has a short temper.” “Not that. I meant the way he disappeared.” A light bulb brightened in my mind. My eyes widened. “You’re all dead. Jalmari killed me and now we’re all ghosts haunting this house.” Jesu chuckled. 25
“Do you think this is funny?” “Kylla…I mean, yes.” I crossed my arms and glared. “You are not dead. None of us are.” “Then how do you explain what happened to me? The way I look, the way you look for that matter?” Jesu frowned at his hands as though noticing the blue undertones for the first time. He shoved them in his pants pockets and shrugged. “Simple. We’re vampires.” I scoffed. “Vampires, huh? So we’re undead?” He smiled and shook his head. “No. We are as alive as any other being.” I rolled my eyes. “Right. If I’m not dead, then I’d like to go home and get back to my life.” His smile faded. “I do not think you understand. You cannot go back to America.” My brow rose. “Back to America? Jesu, where are we, exactly?” “I think you should sit.” He pulled out one of the wicker chairs. “I’ll stand.” He shrugged and sat in the other seat then placed his palms on the table. “Ema.” My name rolled smoothly from his tongue. “We are in Lapland, Finland.” My stomach sank. “That’s impossible.” I rushed to the tall window and peered out. Nothing but pine forest stretched all the way to the horizon beneath a night sky. Glimmering snow frosted the treetops. Rainbows of pearly, grayish blues and greens reflected in the moonlight. I definitely wasn’t in Chicago, but that didn’t mean I was out of the country, or even out of the state. Jesu could have lied. “I don’t believe you.” He bit his lip. “Ema, my brother will not allow you leave the island.” “Island?” I focused on the horizon. I thought I would have to strain my eyes, but didn’t. My vision contracted and zoomed in like a camera lens. Beyond the dense forest lay a thin strip of brown followed by a thicker strip of pale blue; a cliff and a body of water. So it was an island. I sighed. Lake Michigan didn’t have islands. I took a seat in the wicker chair across from Jesu and crossed my arms. “Go on.” He sucked in a deep breath. “My brother and I are princes of the Neo-Draugrian Clan. We’re Scandinavian vampires.” 26
My brow quirked. “Neo?” “Yes,” he nodded. “The true Draugrian Clan no longer exists, except for me and my brother, but he is only half-Draugrian.” I bit the inside of my cheek and leaned forward. “Jesu, is this Neo-Draugrian thing some sort of cult?” He snickered. “No.” “Then what does your brother want with me?” He glanced at his hands. “At first he wanted to kill you.” Duh. “But why?” “Because of your Romani heritage.” My chest deflated as I sagged against the backrest. “He wanted to kill me because he’s a racist?” Jesu winced. “It is more of a job.” “How could he even know I’m Romani? What if I was Hispanic or Hindu? I mean, I’m only half-Romani anyway.” He shook his head. “They have a distinct scent.” I frowned and then leaned my head to the side and sniffed. Jesu smiled. “You are a vampire now. You no longer smell of gypsy.” “If I’m a vampire, then why did I need an infusion?” “I told you, you lost a lot of blood.” My lips pursed as I thought of what I knew about vampires. Most of it stemmed from a couple of Anne Rice novels and a slasher flick. “You said you’re not undead?” He nodded. “That is a stereotype.” “Like a smelly gypsy.” I rolled my eyes. “Are you immortal?” “No, but we live much longer than humans.” I studied his face and figured him to be about my age. “What year were you born?” “According to the modern calendar, the year was 406 B.C.” “Yeah right. Nothing lives that long.” “We heal very quickly. When ailments are not a threat, age slows.” He inclined his head. “If you were still human, you might have died of blood loss. Your leg would certainly be in a cast.” 27
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “You realize this all sounds like bullshit, don’t you?” “I will prove how fast we heal.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled forth an army knife. I jumped at the sight of the blade, but relaxed a little as he unbuttoned his sleeve cuff and rolled the fabric up his arm, exposing more pale blue skin. He pressed the tip of the blade into the soft flesh of his wrist then dragged it along his forearm. I gasped. “Why are you doing that?” “Watch.” Blood quickly seeped from the cut, filling the air with a salty-metallic aroma. My stomach groaned. Suddenly, the blood stopped and his flesh sewed itself together. A pale scar ran the length of his arm. “Wow.” I ran my fingertips along his skin, but the scar had already gone. Jesu rolled down his sleeve and pocketed the knife. “Your injuries healed the same way. Your bone had already knit by the time you arrived.” “How did he bring me here?” “He flew.” I shook my head. “They wouldn’t let an unconscious body on an airplane.” Jesu laughed. “Jalmari doesn’t need an airplane. He can literally fly.” I leaned my elbows on the table and cupped my hands over my face. This conversation was childish and tiring. People couldn’t fly. They also couldn’t walk through walls or vanish into thin air, but Maria and Jalmari both had. Still, vampires didn’t exist. “Ema.” I peeked at Jesu from behind my fingers. His eyes sparkled as his lips pursed in concern. “Ema, I promised my brother an answer.” My hands fell to my lap as I shook my head. “An answer to what?” “Who did this? Who bit you?” “I don’t understand. Jalmari did this, you know that. You said so yourself he wanted to kill me. I don’t know what made him change his mind—” “Jalmari brought you here because you were already changing. If not, he would have finished the job. There must have been someone else.” I opened my mouth to argue, but paused. I remembered the woman—her agile shadow breaking my leg, the way her jaw clenched as she stared at the pool of blood afterward. “There was someone else.” 28
Jesu perked up and leaned across the table, his face inches from mine. “Who?” “A woman. She was with Jalmari.” He sighed and slumped against the chair’s backrest. “Leena did not bite you.” So the bitch had a name. “She’s the one that broke my leg. She saw the blood and pounced on me like I was something to eat.” “Trust me; it was not Leena or Jalmari.” “How do you know? You weren’t there.” “Because your eyes would be green if it was either of them.” “What?” He sighed. “Vampires take the features of their sire. If Jalmari or Leena had bitten you, your eyes would be green. But your eyes are black.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. With his other hand, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Those are bad for you,” I grumbled as he lit up. A plume of smoke leaked from his lips. “Not for vampires.” “Well isn’t that nice.” He sucked in a long drag and breathed out another cloud of smoke. “Did you see anyone else, anyone who looked like my brother, but with black eyes?” I lived in a major city; there were hundreds of people with black eyes. None of them were pale with fangs, though. None of them tried to attack me. I shook my head. “There was no one else.” “If you are trying to protect some—” “Protect a vampire?” He shrugged. “Some people do.” “Well I wouldn’t. Look, Jesu, even if I had seen someone, I wouldn’t know their name or anything about them. I didn’t even know your brother’s name until today, and as far as I’m concerned, he did it. All of it.” I stood and paced the room. What kind of game were they playing? How could Jesu admit Jalmari wanted to kill me but then believe he was innocent? “I believe you.” I rolled my eyes. Somehow I didn’t think his opinion was the one I needed and I doubted Jalmari would be as easy to convince. “What about your parents?” 29
I paused at the window and faced him. “What about them?” “You said you are only half-Romani. What is the rest of your heritage?” “How do I know you won’t try to hurt my family?” He closed his eyes and massaged his forehead. “Never mind. We are done.” “Can I go home now?” He stood and went to the door. “That is not for me to decide.” “But—” He exited the room, closing the door behind him like a normal person. I waited until his footsteps faded. Then I flung myself face down on the bed and screamed my frustrations into the pillows. How did I get in this mess?
I lay in bed for a long while with my hands over my face. I wanted to cry, but was too angry. The crackle of fire and howl of wind beat against my eardrums. Yet, somehow, I knew the sounds were much softer than they seemed. Add to that the sensation of darkness my brain insisted was present. I was extremely tired of my senses telling me one thing, and my mind telling me something different. A soft pitter-patter pricked my ears, followed by the stench of wet fur. The name instantly came to my thoughts. Cat. As though confirming my guess, the animal scratched its claws against the wood of the door and meowed in demand. My shoulders recoiled at the noise. No wonder this family was insane. I went to the door and opened it. The solid wood swung with ease, though my brain said it should have been heavy. A slender black feline trotted past my ankles and leaped onto the bed. It sat and stared with bright green eyes. “Happy now, cat?” I closed the door and paced around the room, trying to think of a plan. I had nothing. My cellphone didn’t even work. Great. I plopped against the plush mattress. The cat stretched its limbs and yawned before slumping over on its side. It rubbed its head against my palm. My breath hitched as I realized I couldn’t feel the texture of its fur, or the warmth that must have radiated from its breath. All I felt was the light pressure of its skull against my skin. My heart sank over the loss of my sense of touch. However, the cat purred with contentment. My lips stretched in a smile at the simple sound. The silly thing flopped on its back. I gave its belly a good scratching. “So, you’re a boy.” He immediately rolled onto his belly and narrowed his eyes. I chuckled. “Sorry. So, little guy, do you have a name?” I searched his neck, but he didn’t have a collar. “I guess not. You’re a cute one, though. You know, I think you’re the first black cat I’ve seen without a single white hair.” The cat purred, closing his eyes in satisfaction. I sighed. “You wouldn’t happen to know a way out of here, would you?” Of course, he ignored me. I crossed over to the wardrobe, opened the drawers, and tossed my clothes on the bed. My fingers gripped the hem of the nightgown and began lifting the flimsy 31
material. A yelp tore from the cat’s lungs. I gasped as the creature leaped into the air, and then landed with his back facing me. I cocked a brow and shook my head. Crazy animal. I tossed the nightgown in the wardrobe, and pulled on my jeans and sweater. While tugging on socks and shoes, I realized I could just go. There had to be a dock and a boat somewhere on the island. Even if I got lost and froze to death in the forest, it was better than sitting here, waiting for Jalmari to kill me. My mind made up, I swung my purse and backpack over my shoulder. I hesitated before the large, wooden door, unsure of what lay on the other side. My fingers wrapped around the brass handle and I opened the door a crack. Something tugged at the cuff of my pant leg. Claws snagged my jeans. I bent and unhooked the cat’s paw, and then nudged it away with my foot. He meowed, looking at me with wide, sparkling eyes. “Quiet! I’m not staying here to pet you.” The cat huffed and ran past my legs, out the door. I took a deep breath, and then peeked past the threshold, where I spied a vast, empty corridor. I closed my eyes in concentration until I heard it. Voices. Soft, bickering voices. If the sound seemed quiet to my ears, then they must really be far away. I carefully stepped into the hall, being as silent as possible. The door to my room sat smack-dab in the center. The same Victorian wallpaper lined the wide corridor. Four identical doors stood on both sides, eight rooms total. The moon’s silver radiance filtered through a rectangular skylight, the sole source of illumination. A plush crimson rug ran the length of the hall, which opened on both ends. I held my breath for a moment, and then decided to go right. I stepped slowly, toes testing the floor for creaks. If the rest of them could hear as well as I could, the rug wouldn’t be much help in muffling my footsteps. I kept track of them. Their voices continued to argue, yet remained faded. They mentioned my name. I bit my lip to keep from scoffing. Focus, Ema. The hallway ended before a grand double staircase which curved down and around to the foyer. Relief lightened my chest as I descended, gliding my hand along the wooden rail. In the foyer, I had to slow my pace and step quietly. The polished marble flooring shone like new without the protection of a rug. 32
At the door, I held my breath while trying the knob. The deadlock kept me bolted inside. I turned the brass piece as slowly as possible and nearly fainted when it clicked. I froze and listened. The house grew quiet. The voices stopped. Not good. I yanked the door open and ran. My breath hitched in shock as my feet flew faster than ever across mud and snow. The wind tugged at my hair and clothes, but failed to slow me down. I didn’t even break a sweat as adrenaline carried me over the field toward the woods. A tall brick fence loomed in the distance. I stopped short, overcome with disappointment at the wrought iron gate separating me from the forest. Four figures waited just before the gate. Jalmari, Jesu, Maria, and Leena stood with their arms crossed and their faces scolding. I bit my lip. “How…” Jesu spoke up. “We can hear just as well as you can.” “And we are better at it than you,” Leena sneered. I gawked at them in disbelief. They outnumbered me, making running useless. My jaw clenched as I held out my wrists like a prisoner waiting for the cops to slap on the handcuffs. Maria opened her arms and closed the gap between us. “Oh darling, you are not a prisoner, you are our guest. Come, I’ll make you something to drink.” She gripped my shoulders and gently led me back to the mansion, which, I now clearly saw, was in fact a castle. My chin lifted to the sky to take it in. It stood complete with four watchtowers and gargoyles. Large gothic windows lined the walls, each one encased by wrought iron frames and spiral-shaped bars ending in pointy spears. A blanket of leafless ivy covered a few walls. Too early in the season for it to bud, it appeared dead. The brown veins blended in with the stone walls, making the side of the castle come to life like a slab of gray flesh. The others followed behind Maria and me, six eyes burning lasers into my back. I hated them. I missed Anthony. I missed my cluttered apartment. In the foyer, I paused, resisting Maria’s pull. “I’d like to go to my room please.” Her black eyes studied me. “All right. I’ll bring you something.” “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” “A drink, perhaps?” I shook my head. “I’d like to go to bed, I’m not feeling well.” A lie. Other than anger and frustration, I felt fine. She smiled politely, nodded once, and was on her way. The others came in and Jesu closed the door. I marched upstairs before they could bother 33
me, though I realized any of them could magically appear in my room and harass me all they wanted. I had to stop calling it “my room.” It wasn’t mine. In addition, it was more of a jail cell than a room. Inside my prison, I slammed the door shut. I tried the other door to the left of the fireplace, and discovered a bathroom complete with an oversized porcelain claw-foot tub, and a bidet. I went back to the room, unsure of what to do. The black cat sat in the center of the bed, watching me. “Come to say I told you so.” I laughed out loud and threw my hands in the air. “Great, now I’m talking to a stupid cat.” The scent of nitrogen thickened the air. I clenched my teeth and faced the door in anticipation. I listened as they approached from the left. Two pairs of footsteps accompanied by two different scents; a musky wood and the hint of citrus. Both carried the thick stench of predator. My brain put a name to them, Jalmari and Leena. Wonderful. The cat leaped off the bed, scampering underneath to hide as the two bodies floated into my room like phantoms, becoming whole near the wicker table and chair set. Jalmari didn’t beat around the bush. “Who bit you?” I crossed my arms. “Nice to see you again, too.” “Answer me,” he bellowed. I cupped my ears and waited for the echo to stop. “I don’t know.” Jalmari turned to Leena. She looked unaffected by the noise, her hands on her hips. “She speaks the truth. She has no idea,” Leena confirmed. I wondered if she was covering her own butt before Jalmari suspected her. Leena snickered. “She thinks one of us did it.” I scoffed. Well, at least one of them has brains. Leena scowled. “She thinks we lied and made everything up.” That wasn’t what I was thinking. “Are you calling me a liar?” What the…she can read my thoughts? “That’s right, you disgusting rat, and I have half a mind to finish what Jalmari started.” Holy shit! “Leena,” Jalmari cut in. “That’s enough.” Her jaw and fists clenched, but she took a step back. Her muscles tensed, the veins lifted 34
beneath her flesh. Her lethal stance reminded me of a Doberman pinscher. “How dare you!” Oops. “I’ll rip your head off.” We both crouched. My lip rose to show teeth as I taunted her. “You’d be doing me a favor.” What the hell am I saying? A growl sounded in Jalmari’s throat. “Leena, that’s enough. Go send for Maria.” Leena snarled as she craned her neck in his direction. For a second, I thought she might rip Jalmari’s head off. Clenching her fists, she half-marched, half-floated out of the room. Maria floated in. “You called, My Lord?” He leaned toward her and lowered his voice. “Are you sure you checked her entire body?” “Yes, My Lord. She doesn’t have a single scratch on her.” They glanced at me. I crossed my arms over my chest and scowled. “Maybe I should double check,” Jalamri whispered. I gasped. “Excuse me?” Maria placed a hand on Jalmari’s arm. “That isn’t necessary, My Lord. If she didn’t have any marks then, she certainly won’t have any now.” She paused to lick her lips. “Her eyes narrow it down to four clans.” Jalmari nodded. “Come.” He opened the door. The cat ran out from under the bed, escaping into the hall just before Maria closed the ingress. I listened as they spoke amongst each other in the corridor, but it was pointless. They spoke in a foreign language. I groaned and massaged my temples. Why couldn’t Hungarian vampires have kidnapped me? I knew a little Hungarian.
Maria placed a hand on my arm, halting my advance in the hallway. Her eyes narrowed to slits, her mouth pressed in a firm line. “My Lord, what are you going to tell the Council?” I sighed. I did not want to think about the Neo-Draugrian Council, or even the High Blood Council. But Maria was concerned for good reason. She knew the girl was a Roma. I wondered how much else she figured out on her own. I had not told anyone about the voice coming back. I even forbid Leena from reading my mind, a gesture that shattered her heart. But I saw no other choice. I would not lose the throne a second time. Nevertheless, they would want answers. “I am not going to tell the Council what she is. No one is going to tell the Council what she is, understood?” “What about the R.E.D.?” I glanced to the side. Of course the girl would have family and friends to answer to. Most likely a job and co-workers as well. “I will contact the American R.E.D. and file our usual report.” “Jalmari, we do not know who bit her and—” “She was turned, was she not? It is not my fault she doesn’t know who bit her, is it? Let the Americans deal with their own vampires.” Maria furrowed her brow. “What do we do with her?” I smoothed a hand over my hair and sighed. “We watch her. Closely.” My molecules ripped apart. I vanished into a cloud of black smoke, and then reappeared in my office. Taking a seat behind my desk, I set to work organizing the rather large pile of papers that had gathered. I scanned over the list of obligations Maria had left for me, deciding which to do first. I would worry about the Reclusive Eternal Dragons Society later. The girl wasn’t going anywhere and the American police would never suspect a vampire. She would simply be filed as a missing person. Right now, I needed to call Naamah. I had been away for far too long and things went wrong in ways I never would have predicted. Citrus wafted into my nostrils. Leena glided into my office, her eyes gleaming with mischief. I growled in warning and turned my attention back to my tasks. She knew I hated to be interrupted during my work and I had fallen behind taking her on that idiotic vacation to 36
America. She set two chalices on my desk and filled them with blood from a crystal goblet. She spoke in Greek. “I know who the girl is.” This pricked my curiosity for reasons I could not ignore. I glanced at her, having earned my undivided attention now. “Oh?” She nodded. “I heard it from Jesu’s thoughts.” My fingernails jabbed into my palms as my fists clenched. Why didn’t my brother tell me immediately? “And?” I demanded. “Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “You’ve been a bastard since she showed up.” She pushed the drink closer to me. I took it and sipped the sweet nectar. “You know how important this is, correct?” Her lips stretched into a sinister smile. “More than you even realize. That is why I know you will pay me dearly for the information.” I sighed. “I don’t have time for games. You know I could just command it out of you.” “I do not think you would try. I do not think you want to cross me anymore than you already have.” She sat on the edge of my desk and arched her spine. Her long black hair wafted against my cheek. I breathed in the citrus scent. It wasn’t her perfume that turned me on, but the faint aroma of blood pumping just under her delicious, soft skin. She was right; I did not want to cross her. I needed her on my side more than ever. But I needed whatever information she had as well. I walked through my desk, turning invisible for an instant, and then reappeared in front of her. I placed my hands on her waist and spun her around so her back faced me. I pressed myself hard against her firm buttocks. A pleasant sigh escaped her lips and she tilted her head to the side, exposing her pale, pulsating neck. I leaned into her ear and whispered. “Name your price.” I slid my hand down her abdomen to her crotch and gathered the skirt of her dress, lifting the hemline above her hips. A grin tugged at my lips as her chin lifted and her mouth parted. “I want,” she started, “to be allowed to read your thoughts again.” My grin fell into a frown for a moment, yet I wasn’t surprised by her request. “I cannot allow that at this time.” 37
She straightened and faced me. “Why not?” I smiled. “Because my thoughts are filled with dirty images that might thrill you to death.” She narrowed her eyes. “Be serious.” “I am.” I unzipped her ridiculous dress and slid my hand inside. My palm glided over her breast and massaged the delicate center. I kissed her shoulder blade and savored the flavor of her perfect demon flesh. She arched her back and ran her long fingers through my hair. “You are so cruel. All you do is take from me.” “That’s not true. I give myself to you every day.” She scoffed at my response, but made no attempt to fight me. I dipped a finger between her legs. She spread her thighs just enough for me to enter. She was dripping wet and purred like a kitten. With my other hand, I grabbed her jaw and tilted her head to the side. She moaned in delight. My own desire pressed against the fly of my trousers. “I’ll tell you one last time. Name your price.” She whimpered. “Bite. Me.” My lips curled away from my teeth. “As you wish, my love.” Opening my mouth wide, I sunk my fangs deep into her jugular vein. A trickle of blood flowed down her chest and stained her dress. I pulled my teeth out slowly, making sure she felt every bit of the stinging pleasure. Suctioning my lips tight around the bite, I sucked like a greedy, starved animal. She moaned louder as the ecstasy built with each pull of the vein. After a few minutes, the wound on her neck began to heal and I reached the point when something had to be done about the throbbing in my groin. I let go of her and sat on the edge of my desk. I held the last sip of her blood in my mouth, not swallowing it. She faced me as I let the warm, scarlet juice drip from the corners of my lips. She licked my mouth clean while unbuttoning and removing my pants. I lifted her hips up as she climbed onto my lap and straddled my manhood. The sex landed us in our bedchamber where we took a good romp between the sheets. While I was lying down and she was riding on top, I took the opportunity to get what I really wanted. “So what of the information you promised?” She wrinkled her nose. “Do not make this about her. Not now.” 38
“I gave you what you wanted.” “No.” She stopped what she was doing and dismounted me. “You gave me what you wanted to give me, not what I asked for. I still do not see why you let her live. It’s cruel.” “I thought you loved that about me.” She shrugged while lounging on her side. “Killing a gypsy is one thing. Allowing them to turn is another. Imagine what her life will be like. She will be an outcast for eternity.” “Are you sympathizing with the rat now?” I teased. “No,” she shot back. “But it’s against the law for good reason.” My brow furrowed. The very qualities I loved about Leena were also the ones I hated and I was tired of her questioning. I rolled onto my stomach, and then pushed up and pulled her under me. I pressed my hips to hers and then pushed myself into the space between her legs, going in deep, the way she liked it. I kissed the tip of her nose, forehead, and lips. Then I nuzzled my nose against her neck. “My love,” I whispered. “Close your eyes and relax. Let me take care of you. You are my queen for this moment.” I deepened our kiss with as much passion as I could muster, for it was the truth. There was no other woman on earth I adored as much as my Leena. I rocked my darling goddess gently until she trembled with pleasure. The love-making tipped her body, causing her internal juices to spill. I came seconds later. I drew the sheets up, and then wrapped them, along with my arms, around her precious body. She gazed into my eyes for a time as I held her close and admired the contours of her lovely face. She had a body like a Greek statue, a perfectly toned hour-glass figure that I much enjoyed. Though it had been well over a thousand years, I could never forget what she looked like when she was human. She had chocolate brown hair then that she often wore loose. Freckles blemished her thin nose and olive-colored cheeks. Of course, as her sire, she now looked like me. Soft, pale skin, bright green eyes, and fine black hair she now kept up in a long ponytail. I twisted a strand around my fingers. I could not care what she looked like so long as she was mine. She sighed. “You are not going to like this.” I played with the tips of her fingers, being patient. A skill I could only master after a good play with my queen. 39
Leena took a deep breath. “The girl…she is the one from Jesu’s premonition.”
My reflection haunted me as I stood with my forehead pressed against the mirror in the bathroom. I couldn’t feel the glass. My brain told me it should’ve been cold and hard, but all my skin felt was pressure. I looked like a zombie. My tan had disappeared, replaced by liquid white, my skin a numb rubbery latex. My teeth fanged like an animal’s. My eyes… Two days ago, my eyes were bright brown. Now they were the darkest shade of black, like onyx beads. The irises blended into freakishly wide pupils. Little specks of scarlet glittered in tiny splashes around the irises. Shuddering, I stepped away from the mirror. Vampire. I couldn’t believe it. One thing was for sure; they weren’t human. Humans couldn’t fly or walk through walls. Humans couldn’t hear or smell things from miles away with precise accuracy. They couldn’t see distinct detail or vivid color in the dark of night. Aliens, ghosts, monsters…it didn’t matter what name they chose. The fact remained the same; they were convinced I was one of them now. I have to get out of here. I had to get help, but how? Even if I managed to get out of the castle and actually escape the island, I would have a hell of a time trying to find an airport. I didn’t speak Finnish. I hadn’t the faintest idea which way the nearest town lay. The others knew this place like the back of their hand and already proved they were faster than me. Escaping was not the answer. I had to be rescued, preferably by the U.S. Army, with tanks and machine guns. I sighed and glanced at the magnificent porcelain tub. It beckoned me with promises of comfort. I couldn’t smell myself, but I’d been unconscious for two days. I was sure I reeked and the others could smell me from whichever part of the castle they occupied. How long before one of them barged into the room, demanding answers to more idiotic questions? Maria and Jalmari claimed I was a guest, but neither treated me like one. I wasn’t a guest. I was a prisoner. Still, I wanted a bath. I turned on the hot water only to wince as the stream gushed forth, louder than a waterfall. They would all hear me bathing. I turned the water off. Maybe it was better to stink. With such sensitive noses, I’d have more luck keeping them away. I crept into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. How much could they hear? How 41
much were they keeping track of and calculating? I listened to them too, using my new enhanced hearing. Leena gibbered in a muffled voice. I wished I could understand whatever language she spoke. It sounded different from the Finnish Jalmari and Jesu used. Jalmari didn’t talk back. His shoes shuffled along carpet as he paced. Wooden drawers rolled open, and then slammed shut in what I assumed to be the kitchen. Liquid splashed against crystal as Maria hummed to herself. I closed my eyes and imagined the liquid to be thick red. Blood. Longing burned in my gut. Maybe I am a vampire. The sweet scent of rain filled my nostrils, bringing sensations of spring as heavy footsteps approached the door. My mind instantly told me who my visitor was before he even had a chance to knock. Jesu. I squared my shoulders as I waited for him to enter. According to my ears, he pounded on the wooden door. My brain disagreed, telling me he merely tapped it. I hesitated, wondering what he would do if I denied him entrance. Probably enter anyway. Locks were for show in this house. Nothing more than props or by the looks of the exquisitely crafted brass door handle, a way to flaunt wealth. I sighed. “Come in.” Jesu stepped into the room in one fluid motion. “I wanted to let you know to close the drapes.” I eyed the window. “Why?” “The sun will be rising soon.” I wasn’t sure why this was significant. “Or,” Jesu shrugged. “You can wait to see what happens.” Right. Vampires don’t like the sun. “Do I…have to sleep in a coffin?” He cocked his head. “No.” I tried again. “What does sunlight do to you?” “To us,” he corrected. A sly grin stretched along his left cheek. “Wait and see if you like.” I thought of what little I knew about vampires. “I don’t want to burn to death.” Jesu chuckled. “You might get a little sunburn, but it will not kill you. I will wait with you to prove it.” He flipped one of the wicker chairs around and straddled it so his chest faced the backrest. 42
We waited in silence, facing the lone window. Moon and starlight illuminated the sky. Looking at the moon was like looking at a dim lamp. I shifted my gaze to the forest where snow shimmered on pine branches. Bits of ice crystallized the needles, casting rainbows of light I never could have seen with regular human vision. A birdcall caught my attention, its pitch sharp against my acute hearing. My eyes followed the sound and pried tiny brown and white feathers beneath layers of green. Without meaning to, I zeroed in on the rapid rhythm of its heart. My mouth salivated as a strong urge stirred deep inside my gut. The moon lowered below the trees as I pushed away the strange desire. Soon the dawn brightened as the sun peeked out from beneath the horizon and turned the sky pink, orange, yellow, and then white. I stood and shaded my eyes with my hands. Images quickly faded away as the world was flooded in white light. I turned away from the window, barely able to make out Jesu’s face. He wore a pair of sunglasses and a big cocky grin. The light filled the room, turning everything into a blur until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I felt around for a piece of furniture. My right hand hit something solid. I had no idea what it was because of my numb skin so I grabbed a hold and sniffed the object like a blind dog. Cherry wood, a bedpost! I followed the contours of the bed with my hands until I reached the side farthest away from the window. I ducked behind it. “Okay,” I called out. “I want the curtains closed now.” “Of course,” Jesu snickered. I listened as he made his way to the window. Threads snapped. “It is done.” I opened one eye, and then the other. I had to squint, but at least I could see. Instead of the blinding white, a bright yellow haloed the room and every object in it. I shaded my eyes with one hand and pushed myself up with the other. “God, it was like the sun skyrocketed into the earth. Does it always do that here?” Jesu grinned and nodded. “It will do that no matter where you are, now that you are a vampire. Our irises do not contract from light. Our pupils are always dilated. That is why we can see in the dark. The only drawback is we cannot handle something as bright as the sun.” “So we can’t go outside in the daytime?” “I never said that. We have these.” He tapped the glasses on his face. “They block out the 43
UV-rays, ever heard of them?” I rolled my eyes. Grinning, he pulled another pair of sunglasses out of a pocket and tossed them at me. I put them on. They were a bit too big and drooped down my nose a little, but they made a difference and softened the bright light to become tolerable. “As for your skin, we are prone to sunburns. Not much pigment in us. We have sun-block lotion, but it is easiest to keep yourself covered.” I looked at my hands. A rosy pink kissed the tops of my joints. “That will heal in a few seconds.” Jesu referred to my hands. Oddly, my skin didn’t feel hot. When I looked at them a second time, the pink shade was gone, replaced by my new snowwhite hue. “Thanks for the sunglasses,” I murmured. “No problem.” He glanced around, rubbed the back of his neck, and then absently nudged the table leg with the toe of his boot. “Ah, I wanted to ask you something else, too.” He stared at the floor as he spoke. “You might be more comfortable if you had your own room. I mean, you may not want to spend eternity in a guest room.” Eternity? I didn’t want any of them getting used to the idea of me being here for long. “No thanks.” He cleared his throat. “You would be farther away from Jalmari and Leena.” Isolation could increase my chance of escape. Maybe I could find a backdoor or a secret passageway leading to the forest. Secret pathways were a standard castle feature. “This room you speak of, will Jalmari be able to hear me from there?” He shook his head. “It is soundproof.” “Why didn’t you say so? Let’s go.” Jesu smiled and opened to the door. “Ladies first. I will give you a tour of the castle along the way.” My heart sank as I stepped into the hallway. A soundproof room away from Jalmari and a tour of the castle? Jesu didn’t strike me as dumb. None of them did. Psychotic, bi-polar, and schizophrenic, yes. But dumb? No. They were confident. Cocky. Jesu could give me a tour of the island and no one would care if I tried to run away because any of them could catch me in two seconds. 44
So why not give me my own soundproof room and a tour of the castle? It didn’t matter. I wasn’t a threat to them. “… And that is how Linna ‘Ita Korento came about.” I blinked. “I’m sorry, what?” He looked me over. “Are you all right?” “Yeah, just…never mind, I’m fine. What were you talking about?” Jesu smiled and rested a hand on my shoulder. Before I could stop myself, I shrugged it off. A glint of sorrow flashed in his green eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to.” But I had meant to, so why was I apologizing? The left corner of Jesu’s lips inched up in a forced smile. “No need to explain, I understand.” He shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “This way,” he whispered. We went left, down the hall. Jesu walked a couple of steps ahead. The corridor gave way to a balcony on the second level of a staircase more grandeur than anything I have ever seen before. Black marble with white and silver lightning streaks flowed down the stairs and spilled into the floor of a ballroom. Hundreds of finely wielded wooden vines complete with realistic rose buds and sharp thorns, held up a sleek walnut-wood handrail along the edge of the staircase. I didn’t dare stain it with my fingerprints. “This is the first wing. Over there,” Jesu pointed to the back right corner of the third level. “The corridor continues into the second wing, where Jalmari’s and Leena’s room is.” I spoke while still admiring the architectural beauty. “They share a room?” “They are a couple.” I scoffed. “Talk about being made for each other.” “I know, we all think they were predestined,” Jesu chuckled. “How long have they been together?” “Since Classical Greece.” “Wow, she stuck with him through the Dark Ages and the Great Depression. I’m impressed.” And just a little bit envious. Jesu chuckled and nodded. “Through there,” he pointed to the back left corner of the third level, continuing the tour. “Is the third wing, where the help stay.” I cringed. “Are they human?” 45
“Of course not, they are all vampires.” I wasn’t sure if I should feel relief or worry. Jesu cocked his head, gesturing for me to follow. We went down the steps, to the ground level of the ballroom. Echoes bounced off the walls as we crossed the marble floor. I cupped my hands over my ears while gaping at the sights. Six white marble pillars held up the open hall of the third level on the right and left sides. Directly in front of us there was no third floor in the way and I could see straight up to the ceiling, where a wrought iron candelabra chandelier the size of a monster truck tire hung in all its glory. The wicks were not lit, as the day cast a yellow haze over everything. Directly beneath the chandelier, white marble created a six-foot wide pattern of a seven-pointed star. Panels of red velvet encased in white marble covered the walls. Half-naked statues of men and women made from the same granite stood in seductive poses in the corners. Some had angelic wings, others were demonic. Glancing up, I noticed a few of the statues held the ceiling in their hands. Jesu chuckled. “There is much more to see. We have not covered a quarter of the castle yet.” “This room is so unnecessary. I can’t imagine how much it must have cost.” He glanced around the room. “It is nothing compared to our old castle in Sweden.” “Do you have celebrations here?” “Not in many years. It draws too much attention. As far as the good people of Finland know, this island is uninhabited. Shall we?” He led me through an arched opening in the center of the back wall, giving way to a formal dining room. Oak wood floors shone in the light leaking in from the ballroom. A polished mahogany table stood in the center encompassed by fourteen chairs upholstered in scarlet, with room to spare. Baroque art covered three of the surrounding stone walls. I gasped at the authenticity of their pre-Columbus origins. A striking triple-box fireplace spanned the entire length of the fourth wall to the right. I didn’t know a hearth could be so big. Bleached white brick made up the mantle, stretching up to the ceiling. A bearskin rug hugged the floorboards at the foot of the fireplace. It might have been inviting if it wasn’t staring at me with dead eyes. A white flag with a blue Nordic Cross hung over the mantle. More flags hung on brass poles on both sides of the fireplace. They were similar, except the crosses were each a different 46
color. “This place is like a museum.” I glanced at Jesu who was patiently waiting by another passageway. “Whose Coat of Arms is that?” I pointed to the crest mounted on the mantle below the white flag. Jesu came to my side. “That is the Neo-Draugrian Coat of Arms.” I studied it. A black winged serpent looking rather like a medieval dragon coiled around a sword from the same era, on a background of red. The serpent stared with omniscient eyes, as if it didn’t approve of me staring back. Jesu inclined his head, gesturing for me to follow. We went down another corridor and emerged in a kitchen. The smallest and simplest room so far, and it was still bigger than my apartment in Chicago. Raw lumber made up the cupboards and countertops. A stainless steel kitchen island sat in the center. Scars and red stains blemished the top. An aroma of raw meat and sawdust blanketed the air, awakening a lustful thirst deep within, as well as knots of nausea. I salivated and choked at the same time. “Jesu,” my voice was a faint whisper as I gripped the countertop. My chest heaved as the rusty salt and metallic smell of dried blood scraped against my throat. The stench was too overpowering. Jesu grinned. “Thirsty?” Is that what this is, thirst? I nodded. He crossed over to the stainless steel refrigerator and, opening it, revealed a mountain of IV bags full of red liquid. He took one out. My eyes fixated on the medical bag in his hand. My pulse sped as hot adrenaline coursed through my veins. I crouched low, fingers arched, lips raised to show my fangs, one foot back, ready to lurch myself forward. I was prepared to kill Jesu for the bag in his hand even though there were a hundred more in the fridge. Jesu was reaching for a glass when he noticed me. He barked out a one-syllable laugh, and then closed the cupboard without taking out a cup. Instead, he tossed the bag at me. I caught it in my mouth. As I backed into a corner, a low warning growl emanated from my throat. Mine! Not taking my eyes off him, lest he tried to steal my meal; I clutched my prize in my hands and tore the plastic open with my teeth. The crimson liquid spilled out in a rush and I suckled at the hole, drinking the bag dry. Casting the plastic aside, I lapped up the small pool that 47
had collected on the floor. I licked my fingers even though the salty syrup flavor wasn’t very pleasing. A euphoric rush shot through my core. The blissful energy tingled through every fiber of my body ending in orgasmic tremors and I groaned in delight, wanting more, wanting to glut myself with it. I tackled the bag again, shredded it, and licked the insides. Jesu whistled. My head jerked up and I glared at him as I hunched over the frayed bits of plastic. He waved a fresh bag of blood in the air. My eyes narrowed. I wanted it now. He tossed it at me and I caught it in my mouth again. I wanted to shred it open, but something made me hesitate. The way he whistled at me, a fast, sharp, three-toned whistle used to call a dog, sobered me out of my stupor. I dropped the bag from my jaws. What am I doing? I was disgusting, licking blood off the floor. Choking back vomit I picked up the bag with my hand. Scarlet stains colored my fingers and clothes. Forcing myself to walk calmly, I approached the kitchen island and placed the bag on the counter and pushed it as far away as possible. Jesu cocked an eyebrow and flashed his sideways smile. “Done?” I kept my voice calm despite the tremble of left-over adrenaline. “That was a dirty trick.” “It was not a trick,” he whispered. “You are what you are.” “I am not an animal.” I slammed my fists on the counter, the steel cracked. A tiny fleck broke off and lodged into the flesh of my palm without as much as a prickle of feeling. Maria startled me as she morphed into the kitchen. “You’re right, darling, you are not an animal. But you are a predator.” “I’ve had enough.” I wanted to cry. My chest heaved, but no tears surfaced. Maria took a step toward me but Jesu stopped her, placing both hands on her shoulders. He whispered to her in Finnish. She hesitated, and then nodded and went about her way, disappearing in the direction of the dining room. I looked Jesu in the eyes. “No more touring, I’ve seen enough. I want to go straight to my room.” He nodded once. Gently, he took my small hand into his larger blue ones and pulled the fleck out with one careful pinch. He dropped the fleck on the counter, and then cupped my hand in his and allowed his thumbs to glide over the top of my palm. The blue and white color scheme of our skin mixing together was unreal. 48
“Thanks,” I mumbled and slipped my hand out of his. “This way,” he whispered.
We walked in silence as he led me down a passageway made of stone. It wound and turned left, right, and then left again. As we progressed, the castle aged before my eyes. The color went from pale gray to an almost navy blue-black and the width shrank until Jesu and I were forced to walk in single file. I removed the sunglasses he gave me so I could see. The walls gleamed and smelled of mildew. Water dripped from the ceiling and caused a deafening echo as it hit the ground. The air thickened and stood still. No light could make its way in, and we stood surrounded by pitchblack. Actual darkness, not just the kind my brain told me was supposed to be present. I stopped in my tracks, wondering if we’d gone into a basement or cave. Maybe Jesu changed his mind and was leading me out of the castle via the secret underground passageway. “Everything all right?” he whispered. “I can’t see,” I whispered back so my voice wouldn’t echo. “Then do not use your eyes.” Is this another trick? Jesu continued walking. Hesitantly, I followed him, but it wasn’t easy. His scent blended in with the mold in the air and the sound of his footsteps bounced off the walls, coming from all directions at once. When he turned, I had to feel around with numb hands for the space where the walls gave way to a new direction. My face hit rock. “It would be nice if you held my hand or something.” “I did not think you liked being touched,” he snickered. “I like running into walls even less.” A hand found mine and I was glad I couldn’t feel more than light pressure as his thick masculine fingers caressed mine. “I will go easy on you for now, but soon you will have to learn to take care of yourself.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Jalmari is not the worst thing out there. You should learn how to defend yourself. Our type can be rather hostile.” “You don’t say.” Why Jesu cared about my defensive abilities was a mystery. He grumbled to himself in Finnish. 50
“That’s rather rude, are you cussing at me?” He chuckled. “No, I was just complaining.” “About?” “You. You are so…” “So what?” I demanded when he trailed off. “So difficult.” “Difficult?” He chuckled. “Yes. I like it though. It is cute.” Cute? A yellow haze at the end of the tunnel brightened the thin corridor. Fresh air leaked in with the light. Jesu let go of my hand. The hall gave way to what could only be the fourth wing of the castle. Small and in ruins compared to the rest of the castle, the fourth wing was about the size of a little house made of black stone. To my left, four small gothic arched windows lined the top of a two-story wall. Stained glass kept most of sunlight out and I could almost see comfortably. To my right were a small living room and a kitchen. Faded furniture sat in a square around a stone-aged television set. The kitchen contained the bare essentials; a mini-fridge, a bar, and two frayed barstools. In between the kitchen and the living room, a spiral staircase led up to a loft. Jesu shoved his hands into his pockets and glanced around. “Here we are. Upstairs is the recreation room and your room is over here.” He motioned for me to follow as he turned the corner to the left of the kitchen. Down a normal-sized hallway stood three doors, one on each side, and one in the middle. “This is my room.” Jesu pointed to the middle door. “And this is yours.” He opened the door to the right and cleared his throat. “I mean it when I say your room. You can do anything you like to it. Punch holes in the wall, anything. The rooms are soundproof. The rest of the wing is not, but we are pretty far out. It is usually difficult to hear the others from here and vice versa.” “Thanks.” I forced a smile while stepping into the room. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay so close to Jesu. I wondered if I made a mistake agreeing to switch rooms. I had to laugh as I glanced around. A plain twin bed, a nightstand, and a wardrobe with three feet crouched in the corner below a window the size of my head. 51
“What is so funny?” Jesu grinned and crossed his arms while leaning against the door frame. “When you said something more comfortable I was thinking something a little more, um…” “Fancy?” His smile stretched wide. “No, that is Jalmari’s idea of comfort. Me, I think a space where you can relax and not be afraid to dirty the floor is more suitable.” I chuckled. Jesu and Anthony could’ve been best friends. I couldn’t stop the frown that followed. Anthony. I miss him. Jesu bit his lip and ran a hand through his black tresses. “You can go back to the first wing, if you prefer. I know my part of the castle is not really fit for a lady.” “No,” I shook my head. “This is perfect. Thank you.” He nodded. “I will give you some space.” He turned to leave. “Wait.” He paused and faced me. “Yes?” I tried to find the right words, to make him understand. “You’ve been kind to me, but I’d like a few answers. Please.” He nodded and closed the bedroom door. We sat on the tiny mattress and he folded his hands in his lap. “What would you like to know?” Everything, but where to start? I sucked in a deep breath. “Vampires.” That seemed like the best place to attempt to make sense of the situation. “Vampires,” Jesu repeated. “How, just, how?” Jesu scanned the room for minute, and then he faced me. “How much do you know about evolution?” I shrugged. “The basics, I guess. I’m a historian, not a scientist.” Jesu cocked a brow. “So you are familiar with ancient history?” A small grin tugged at the corners of my lips. I nodded. “Ancient, European, American. I majored in world history. The Baroque art in the dining hall was fascinating to see without the protection of fiber glass. Thank you for that.” He grinned. “So you know the stories of the nephilim?” “The giant sons of Cain?” I shook my head. “I’ve heard of them, but I’m not Jewish and I 52
don’t study religion or mythology. Historians follow dates, events, and facts.” “What if I told you the nephilim were real at one point?” I narrowed my eyes. “But they weren’t.” Jesu scoffed. “The Hebrew texts called them giants, fallen angels, warriors, demons. But scientists have a very different view of the nephilim. They say that when humans evolved, a related species evolved alongside them. The nephilim had a strict flesh-only diet. Their hunting capabilities surpassed nature’s most ferocious predators. Before they died out, the nephilim stood at the top of the food chain, higher than even their human cousins did.” “You’re telling me there was a species of super humans?” Jesu pursed his lips. “Mm, no. More like a bunch of animal-humans.” “What happened to them?” “They became extinct.” “Why?” “Many reasons. Humankind feared and hunted them, but mostly they were too aggressive to develop any form of coexistence and were contributors to their own doomed fate.” “Why would such a hostile creature evolve?” Jesu shrugged. “Why not? Primates are a very hostile group. Nephilim were just the most belligerent of the family.” “Like a hawk among birds,” I offered. “Right,” Jesu grinned. “But how exactly do vampires factor in?” “I’m getting to that.” His smile stretched wide. Sliding back, I crossed my legs and shifted my weight until I found a comfortable enough position. Jesu waited for me to settle in before he continued. “Remember I said nephilim and humans were related? The two could mate with each other. It was very rare. The woman was always raped and usually killed and eaten after the mating.” I scrunched my face. “That’s terrible.” Jesu nodded. “Even more terrible were the lives of the women who lived to tell the tales. Some of them bore offspring.” “Nephlim babies?” 53
Jesu shook his head. “A mix. Um, how do you say it English?” I raised an eyebrow. “A hybrid?” “Yes. Nephilim-human hybrids,” he nodded. “These hybrid babies were called vampyres.” He pronounced the term as vamp-years instead of vampires. “As the vampyres grew older and increased in number, they figured out they could create more of each other through bite. Those who were born human and became a vampyre through bite were called vampires.” My back straightened as I squared my shoulders. “How does that work? How can a simple bite transform someone?” Jesu pointed to my mouth. “It is the venom in our fangs. It works backward. Instead of killing the victim, our venom numbs them, heals them up, and turns them into one of us. That is, if we do not kill the person completely first.” I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes. “Really?” “Yes.” “Jesu?” I leaned in. “Yes?” “That is the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard.” “It is true.” He crossed his arms over his chest. I stood. “First of all, besides the Neanderthals, humans have been alone on this planet as the only Hominid since the Stone Age.” “So you thought, yet here we are.” Jesu also stood and faced me. “Second, two different species can’t reproduce together.” “What about a mule? That is a horse and a donkey.” “Third, venom can’t transform someone into something else. It can only poison and kill.” Jesu tried to speak, but closed his mouth. “Fourth, none of that explains how you guys are able to fly or walk through walls. And fifth, what does any of that have to do with me being here?” Jesu opened his mouth, but no words came out. After a few minutes of silence, he closed his lips and paced around the room. He finally spoke. “You know what; I have not the faintest idea.” “About which part,” I grumbled. 54
“All of it, really. It has been a time since I read my own history. But I can assure you it is all true.” He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. Shaking his head, he walked out of the room and disappeared around the corner. I listened. When I couldn’t hear any part of him, I stepped out of my room and glanced around. The fourth wing was empty. I was alone, the perfect time to find an escape route. I decided to explore the wing, starting with the door across from my room. The wooden frame gave way to a bathroom similar to the one in the first wing, harboring a little grime and loose hair. I ventured into the kitchen and living room and used my enhanced vision to study every crack and dent in the black stone, looking for anything that might be a secret door or hidden passageway. I patted every inch of the wall with my hands in case a camouflaged button needed to be pushed or a lever needed to be pulled. Nothing. I did it a second time, worried my numb skin might have missed something, but still I found nothing. Standing in the center of the living room with my hands on my hips, I scanned the area one last time. Soft footsteps echoed from the corridor. I crouched, not sure who or what it was. The stench of cat fur eased my nerves and I sighed as thin whiskers peaked from behind the corner, followed by a tiny black face and big green eyes. “Hey little guy,” I cooed at the cat. “How’d you find me way over here?” “Meow?” said the cat as it slithered over and rubbed its fur against my leg. I wished I could feel it. It might have been soothing. I bent to pat the animal on the head. “Do you know where any secret passageways are? Want to help me look?” Straightening, I thought more seriously about the matter. If I built a secret passageway in my own castle, where would I put it? I’d put it in it my bedroom in case I was ever under attack while sleeping. Okay, a bedroom. Jalmari’s bedroom, to be exact. Would Jalmari need an escape route when he can fly through the walls? He would if he ever had to escape in the daytime. Yet I wasn’t about to seek out Jalmari’s room. He couldn’t be the only one with a secret escape. As Jalmari’s brother, Jesu was also a prince and would also have a way out when in danger. My mind made up, I dashed down the hall to the door next to my room. I placed a hand 55
on the knob and hesitated before turning it. Keeping my feet behind the threshold, I leaned into the room and glanced around. I bit my lip to keep from laughing. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see on the other side, just not this. Oil paintings covered everything; the walls, the furniture, the floors, and even each other as several lay stacked on top of one another. The room was a foot longer than mine, but had the same ordinary furniture. Dried paint splattered across the wardrobe. Layers of rainbow-colored fingerprints stained the handle of the drawer in the nightstand. A desk peeked out from under a pile of paper, paintbrushes, charcoal, used paper towels, stained plastic cups, and a mound of other things I couldn’t recognize. Paying close attention to my footing, I stepped around canvases, trash, and clothes until I stood in the center of the room. The cat waited by the door, his back arched, watching me with curious green eyes. I spun in a slow circle, taking in the whole of Jesu’s paintings. Most of them were landscapes and still lifes. Some were portraits of people dressed in Renaissance, Baroque, or Victorian clothing. A few canvases looked abstract and unfinished. Those were all painted using globs of brown tints. An easel with a canvas covered by a dirty cotton sheet sat alone in the far left corner. Tiptoeing around obstacles, I inched closer to the easel while trying to decide if I should unveil it. My fingers gripped the edge of the frayed sheet and lifted the corner. “Ahem!” I jumped. Why hadn’t I heard Jesu approaching? Oh yeah, soundproof rooms. Now his heart pounded, his seething breath deafening against the silence from before. “I’m sorry.” I dropped the sheet and faced him. “I didn’t mean to snoop, I was just curious.” I searched the floor for a clean space to step. Jesu stood in the only spot my legs could reach. He glanced around, looking everywhere except at me. “It is all right. I, ah, just did not have time to clean.” I pushed past him and exited the room. I expected the cat to follow, but I didn’t see him. “Hey,” I whipped around to face Jesu. “Where’d the cat go?” His eyes darted back and forth. “We do not have a cat here.” “But I saw—” 56
“No. We do not have a cat here.” He shut his door. How rude. I pounded on the door. He opened it a crack. “Yes?” “Just what am I supposed to do down here?” “Anything you like, except snoop in my room.” I sighed. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me how to get out of here.” He kept his gaze locked on the floor. “It is not all bad, is it?” “Jesu, I had a life in Chicago. I had friends and family and…” I almost said and a boyfriend, but stopped, not sure if Anthony even knew I was missing. Jesu winced. “I am sorry.” I expected him to close the door again, but he didn’t. His lips pressed together and his eyes became distant as he contemplated. He spoke slowly, as though choosing his words carefully. “Give my brother what he wants. Choose wisely. The right story will earn your freedom.” He nodded to himself as if approving of his own idea. With that, he gently closed the door. I stood in the hall slack-jawed, blinking at the closed door in disbelief. Was he telling me to lie to Jalmari?
Green eyes flashed in the mirror’s reflection. My mind would not cease to a tangible speed as I poured more water into the basin. I scrubbed soap on my hands and face for the fifth time before rinsing. I faced my reflection again while pulling on a black shirt and fastening buttons. Since Leena’s revelation of the girl’s identity, since my brother’s vision of the future had been set in motion, I could not quieten the voice in my head. Of course we quarreled. I wanted to kill the girl. End it now while she was weak and ignorant. Yet the voice said no. “Observe only.” Those were my orders, to watch and wait and keep her alive. Struggle as I might, I was as obligated to obey the voice’s command as Leena was to mine. I was weak and pitiful in the face of my demon. “She will kill us,” I argued. “She will kill you and so she will kill me.” “She does not know of me,” he replied. “She will learn.” “She is weak. You need not fear her.” “She will become stronger. Are you so ignorant that you cannot see what is in front of you? Do you not remember who destroyed you the first time? We must strike before she does.” “You will not. You will observe only.” “She is not one of your experiments. She will doom us to hell as soon as she has the chance, do you not see how she loathes me already?” “You are pitiful to fear a bitch.” “And you are a fool to underestimate her. What of the throne? Will you risk that again? After all the years of work and fighting you’ve done—we’ve done—to keep it?” “The throne is but a trophy we can win back.” I growled at the reflection in the mirror. “What is so special about her that puts the throne in second place?” “Ah, but this is what you shall observe. Could be nothing.” “You will risk the crown on the probable chance that she is ordinary?” “No, I will risk the crown on the improbable chance that she is extraordinary. Royalty is 58
but a prize anyone can take, I have never failed you that.” My frustrations sprang forth in a lion’s roar as I punched the mirror. A splintering shatter echoed through the room as large cracks rippled from the center of the glass to the edges, and then froze in a fraction of a second. The mirror did not crumble as I hoped, but stood intact, the broken pieces distorting my face. “I have failed to teach you patience,” came the voice. “Patience is the reason you are locked up in my consciousness.” “Patience is a vampyre’s virtue and the reason I am not dead.” I wished he were dead. The voice growled, but could do nothing more than speak. “You will observe only.” “Yes, My Lord.” I spat into the basin, hating myself. The sun sank below the horizon, signaling the start of my workday. He might not care about the throne, but I certainly did. I had a responsibility and a right to govern my people. I would not yield and risk the well-being of my clansmen at the expense of him and his new plaything. At least the rat was being watched. Jesu took a rather strong interest in her, insisting that she room with him. I could only expect that he would. It was his premonition; it was only natural for him to be curious. He would make good on his last word to our mother, of that I was certain, and I could check on the girl via my brother. The voice did not object to that. Dematerializing my body, I sank into the floorboards and passed the drywall of the ceiling, into the room below. Hovering two meters above the rug in my office, I tightened until I became solid and landed lightly on my feet. I sat on the leather armchair behind my desk as Maria entered with a glass of B-Positive and a black folder. She placed both on my desk. “Thank you, Maria.” I lifted the glass to my lips and took a long sip while opening the folder and reading my agenda for the day. “Any phone calls?” “Yes, sir. The head of the R.E.D. called.” “Which branch?” “America, My Lord.” I took another sip. “Wanting their report on the girl, no doubt.” “Yes, My Lord. They know you are a busy man, but they worry. It is not like you to fall 59
behind in your work. Is everything well?” I glanced to the side and licked my lips. I would have to learn to hide my stress better if I was going to keep the crown. Of course, I was not surprised Maria noticed my unease. My thirdin-command and most trusted colleague, she was like a mother to me. The phone on my desk rang before I had to answer her. I picked up the receiver. “This is the head speaking.” “Your Majesty.” Naamah’s voice crackled into the phone. “Naamah, my friend, what’s the news?” Second-in-command, Naamah always called just after dusk and right before dawn with an update. “Your Grace, there has been more talk of Victor recruiting men to lead in a revolt against us.” I sighed. “There is nothing I can do about talk, Naamah. We need proof.” “We have reason to believe he is planning a revolution, sir.” “What reason is this?” “A new clan has given birth under the name of an old enemy in Madrid, Berlin, and now Helsinki. The Spanish and German R.E.D. officials investigated, reporting Victor as their leader. We have every reason to believe he is leading the clan in Helsinki as well and could very well be tied in with the rebel group.” “Who is this old enemy you speak of, whose name did they take as their own?” “The Akkadians, sir.” My back stiffened. Now I understood why the Council suspected Victor. He was one of the few vampyres left who was old enough to remember who the Akkadians were. “Ah, the Akkadians.” The voice in my head conjured up images of battles fought alongside a much younger version of Victor in ancient Babylonia. “Not now.” I shook my head, trying to clear my mind of memories that were not my own. “He is a good soldier. Loyal. Not like you.” “This man you speak so highly of is trying to overthrow us.” “You should not have stripped him of his title. He was loyal to me for hundreds of years. It was wrong of you to expel him from the Council.” “He committed a crime.” 60
“He is a vampyre.” “Your Majesty? Sir?” “Will you shut up?” My fist pounded against the desktop, cracking the mahogany wood. “Vittu! See what you make me do?” “I beg your pardon?” “Jalmari.” My head snapped in Maria’s direction. I had forgotten she was still in the room. Her eyes bulged from their sockets. “Naamah is still on the phone!” she hissed. I cocked an eyebrow, not understanding. “You just told him to ‘shut up.’” I held the receiver at arm’s length as I cleared my throat. I hadn’t meant to say will you shut up aloud and now I had insulted a member of the Neo-Draugrian Council. I tried to keep my voice even. “Naamah?” “Your Highness.” “My sincere apologies, my friend. I was…distracted.” “Of course.” He didn’t sound convinced. “Um,” I cleared my throat again, unable to remember where the conversation left off before I was distracted. “The Akkadians, sir.” “Right. I can leave for Helsinki tomorrow night. Invite our dear old Victor over for dinner. I’d like to settle this peacefully, if possible.” “You must observe the girl.” “Hang the girl, Jesu can watch her.” “Very well, sir.” “Naamah I apologize, but I must call you back later.” I hung up without a proper goodbye, cupped both hands over my face, and sighed. “Your Majesty, you never answered my question.” Maria’s voice was soft yet stern. Mumbling through my fingers, I answered her. “Tell the R.E.D. they can expect their report in the morning, add that to my list.” I held up the folder. “That is not the question I was referring to.” She took the folder. “Is everything well, My Lord?” “No,” I sighed. “I need a new desk.”
Chapter Eight Night fell over the island. Silver moonlight scattered through the tiny window above the bed, making the colors and details of my room more vibrant. I thought for sure I would feel tired; having been awake for almost twenty-four hours, but my eyelids weren’t the least bit heavy. The deafening silence left me bored within minutes. I owned nothing other than a change of clothes and the toiletries in my backpack. All I had was the riddle Jesu left me. Give my brother what he wants. Choose wisely. The right story will earn your freedom. His words played over and over in my mind until I was almost certain I had deciphered the meaning. Jesu wanted me to educate myself. Make up a lie, but make sure it is a good one. It had to be so believable, even Leena wouldn’t know I’m lying. It also had to make my existence insignificant to Jalmari so he wouldn’t see any reason to keep me around. Only then, when Jalmari had his answer, would I be free to go home. But I couldn’t even imagine a lie that would work. I didn’t know why I was here or why Jalmari didn’t just kill me in the alley like he wanted to. I didn’t know why I had become like them. All I knew was that Jalmari wanted to know how just as much as I did. Claws tapping against glass drew my attention to the window. The black cat sat just outside. “How did you get out there? Ha, I wish I could fit out that window.” I stood on the mattress so I could pull the glass pane up. The black creature glided onto my bed. “Hey little guy.” I smiled as the cat rolled onto his back. I rubbed his tummy. He closed his eyes and purred. I didn’t feel as silly talking to the cat knowing no one could hear me. “You know, I can take you back to Chicago with me when I get out of here. Would you like that, kitty?” He cocked his head and opened one eye. “I bet you would. We have more pigeons than you’d know what to do with. And rats. You can hunt them all day if you want.” He closed his eyes and purred while listening to my baby talk. I sighed. “I wish I knew how to get out of here. This family is insane. You know that though. You hide whenever they come. You don’t like them either, do you?” “Meow?” 62
“That’s because they’re jerks.” I wrinkled my nose. “You know what they did to me? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now. The important thing is finding a way home. I just miss my mom and my boyfriend.” A weight lifted from my chest. Once I started confessing my feelings, I couldn’t stop. “I miss him so much. I didn’t even get to say goodbye or tell him how I felt.” I flopped back on the bed and closed my eyes. My heart ached, remembering Anthony, our last moments together. “He cheated. After four years, he cheated on me. I didn’t have the heart to break up with him. I thought I had plenty of time to talk to him about it later, after we both blew off some steam and everything settled down. And Mom? Who’s going to take care of her now? Who’s going to remind her to take her arthritis pills?” Opening my eyes, I realized the cat was tense and staring at me. I stroked his fur and he licked my fingertips. “That’s sweet, cat, but I can’t feel a thing. Jalmari also stole my ability to feel. He ruined everything. I’ve probably lost my job by now.” My stomach knotted with homesickness. The cat sprang up and meowed. “Leave me alone, I’m tired of petting you.” I turned onto my side. The cat grabbed my sleeve with his teeth and pulled. I swatted at him. “Stop that.” His ears folded back as he hissed. “Okay, I’ve had enough of you. This is why I don’t have pets, now out!” I went to the door and I opened it. “Go on, get lost.” He approached the door slowly, but stopped and sat midway between the bed and the threshold. “Go. Out.” I pointed. He narrowed his bright green eyes, and then tackled the cuff of my pant leg and pulled it toward the doorway with his teeth. I put my hands on my hips. “You trying to kick me out of my room?” The cat let go of my pants and nodded. My jaw dropped. “Did you…did you just nod at me?” He bobbed his head up and down. “You can understand what I’m saying?” The cat nodded. 63
“Stop that!” He cocked his head. “Meow?” I closed the door and faced the cat. “What’s two plus two?” The creature meowed four times. “Holy shit. What are you, like a magic familiar or something?” He blinked. I crouched. “Okay, little guy. I know how hard it is to get help around here so I’ll tell you what; I’ll help you out if you promise not to get me into trouble, deal?” He nodded. I sucked in a deep breath. “This is so weird. Okay, what do you need help with?” The furry thing pulled on the leg of my pants. “You want me to follow you?” He nodded. “All right, lead the way then, little one.” I opened the door. He trotted down the hall and across the fourth wing, every once in a while turning back to see if I was still following. He led me into the pitch-black corridor going to the first wing. “Cat, I can’t see in here,” I complained. “Wait up for me.” I dragged my fingers along the stone wall as I followed the scent of wet fur. I knew how insane this was but, compared to vampires, hanging out with a cat didn’t seem that bad. Together, we raced across the kitchen, down the dining room, and into the ballroom. I slowed to a stop in the middle of the room. Three young women dressed in cotton workers’ uniforms dusted the granite statues and polished the floor. They must have been the help Jesu spoke of. They ignored me while they worked in silence. I knew it was rude to stare, but I couldn’t help it. They smelled of nitrogen and sanitizer and they looked like me, completely white except for their black hair and black eyes. I approached the woman nearest me. “Hey, who bit you?” She stopped dusting the marble man, dropped her chin, and lowered her gaze. “Anoa sinun anteeksianto, arvoisa rouva.” “What?” The cat tugged the heel of my pant leg. “Okay, I’m going.” He leaped across the ballroom and up the staircase. I followed him, taking the stairs two 64
at a time. I expected to be out of breath when we reached the third floor, but wasn’t. Jalmari’s and Leena’s disgruntled voices pricked my ears. My mind told me their voices should have been muffled, but I could clearly hear every foreign word. I wish I knew what they were saying. The cat looked over his shoulder at me. “Meow?” “Shh! We can’t go into the second wing; Jalmari and Leena are in there. He rolled his eyes. I cocked an eyebrow and put my hands on my hips. “This is as far as I go, cat. I’m not looking for trouble.” He shook his head and disappeared around the corner. “No!” I smacked my palm against my forehead and slid my hand down my face. Great. I am not going after him. If that dumb animal wants to get himself in trouble, he’s on his own. I faced the stairs. I have enough problems as it is. No way am I going in there and risking my life. But I couldn’t just leave the little guy alone. Besides, he seemed to know exactly where he was going. Maybe he knew a secret way out. I let out a sigh and faced the second wing. Crap. Okay, cat, I’m coming. Geez, I better not regret this. Tiptoeing down the hall and around the corner, I found the cat standing in front of a large door. As I crept over, the cat reached up and patted the door with his paws. I grasped the handle and glanced at the creature. He nodded. I opened the door. He ran inside and I followed, gently closing the door behind. “Okay,” I whispered. “Now what?” I glanced around the room. Glass shelves crowded with dusty books lined the bleached limestone walls. The white marble floor sparkled as I stepped farther into the room. The smell of old paper and worn leather encircled me as I went all the way to the edge of a balcony and leaned over the wooden handrail. The vast room was open and I could see all the way down to the floor, two levels below. I was in a three-story library. “Wow.” “Meow?” “Right. Go on.” He ran down an aisle and made his way to the back of the room to a set of stairs. We descended to the first floor of the library. Rococo Era paintings of pale men with onyx-colored eyes watched me from behind brass frames. 65
Two red velvet armchairs sat snug around a rectangular coffee table in front of a large, limestone mantle. Lush velvet curtains draped elegantly over a wall-sized window pane. I wanted to pull back the thick curtain and see what the forest looked like from down here. “Meow.” I turned, distracted by the damn cat. “What now?” He stood balancing on top of large, ancient-looking books, high up on a shelf two rows down. With his paw, he tried to push one out. “Careful with those—” I spoke too late. Three large leather-bound novels crashed against the marble floor. “Oh, now you’ve done it. Jalmari would have heard that for sure.” The cat huffed at me, shaking his head. He leaped down and landed on a book with a blue cover. “Meow.” He pranced around and pawed at it. “What? You want me to read you a story?” I snickered. The cat nodded. I rolled my eyes. “I don’t have time for stories right now.” This was becoming ridiculous. I followed the pipsqueak animal all the way to this room thinking it was in trouble when it really just wanted a bedtime story. Bending and lifting the massive novel to re-shelve it, I noticed the title: The Evolution of the Vampyre: A Practical Approach to the Anthropology of Man’s Other Cousin by Dr. Gerald Flückinger. “What in the…?” I flipped through the pages and scanned the tiny script. It wasn’t a novel, it was a science journal. I raised my brow at the cat. “Are you for real?” “Meow?” He leaped onto another shelf and patted the spine of another book. Before he had a chance to dump it on the floor like the first one, I pulled it out. Another journal. This one was called The Biology and Application of the Vampyre Diet by Dr. Stanley Bedford. “Meow.” The cat was on a third pile of books, patting one with his paw. I gawked at him. “You want me to read all of these?” I pulled the third book out. It must have weighed ten pounds, but my arms didn’t even strain as I pressed the books to my chest. The cat nodded. “Why?” He leaped into my arms. “Are we done?” He nodded. I rolled my eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want me to read that four-thousand page book 66
bound in rubber bands over there?” He looked at the thick book he had dropped on the floor earlier, and then smiled and nodded. “Whatever, you read it. I’m going back to my room. I’d like to get as far away from Jalmari and Leena as possible.” He jumped off and followed behind me as we made our way back to the fourth wing. As I stepped into my room, the cat zoomed past my feet and leaped onto the bed. I closed the door while the furball made himself comfortable. Setting the journals on the nightstand, I made myself cozy on the bed, propping a pillow against the wall and leaning into it. My fuzzy friend rolled onto his back and stretched out. I looked down at the adorable yet pain-in-the-butt animal and smiled. “You know, I wish I knew your name.” He looked at me with big bright eyes as I positioned the first book against my legs and opened the cover. “Whatever your name is, you sure have funny taste in reading material.” I scratched his belly as I read, listening to him purr until he fell asleep.
The first journal discussed the evolution of man. The author, Dr. FlĂźckinger, seemed most interested in the missing link between man and ape. He argued that the nephilim could be that missing piece, despite the complete lack of evidence. He stated that nephilim skeletal remains could have already been found and mistaken for ape fossils. I skimmed through the rest and slowed down when I got to the fifth chapter. Dr. FlĂźckinger discussed what the nephilim might have looked like and what their traits and living conditions might have been like. He compared these aspects to those of typical vampyres. None of it was far off from what Jesu told me. What I wanted to know was how the author knew vampyres even existed and how the very idea of nephilim started. I placed the book on the nightstand and stretched my arms over my head, being careful not to wake the cat. My fingers drummed on the mattress, craving motion. I was also thirsty. I stretched out my legs and then made my way to the kitchen Jesu and I shared. I opened the minifridge sitting on the counter. Just as I suspected, medical bags of blood filled the inside. My mouth watered from the scarlet sight as the urge to hunt ignited deep inside. Part of me, the sane part, was disgusted by the idea of drinking blood. Another part said not to fight the urge. Closing the refrigerator, I forced myself to listen to the sane part of my brain. I found the glasses and filled one with tap water. I gulped down the water. A bitter ash taste coated my mouth. I coughed the liquid into the sink like vomit. My throat thickened. A scratchy lump swelled in the center. I couldnâ€™t swallow. Panic prickled under my skin like static shock as a dull ache coiled in my gut. My hands trembled as I opened the mini-fridge and grabbed two bags of the slushy liquid. Viciously grinding my teeth together to keep from savagely tearing into the bags, I reached for another glass. I was determined to drink the stuff like a civilized being. I sucked in a deep breath and held it as I tried to steady my hands enough to pour the contents of the first bag into the cup. A drop spilled over the edge of the glass. A groan escaped my lips as I refrained from licking the counter. My chest heaved in gulps of air by the time I had steadied my hands enough to bring the cup to my lips. I chugged the entire glass. My body instantly relaxed. Euphoria expanded my lungs and filled every muscle with a buzzing energy. While pouring the second bag, the urge to hunt 68
thickened in my gut, but it felt different this time. I no longer wanted to hunt to feed. I had all the blood I needed right next to me. No, I craved something else. The thrill of the chase. Hunting for sport. A flash of green in the corner of my eyes alerted me to Jesu’s presence. He watched me from just behind the corner. Again, I wondered how I hadn’t heard his approach, but my nostrils flared, filling with the scent of spring rain, and a switch flipped in my mind. My lips curled as I stepped in his direction, instinctively hooking my fingers around the glass. I sipped it as I slowly circled him. The little remaining sanity I had left fought for control, but the animalistic urges were stronger and crushed any attempt at logic. I slithered next to Jesu’s right side, his left braced against the wall. My heart raced as the scent of his essence drove my inner passions to the edge. My left hand brushed against his fingers. Just the thought of our hands mingling together electrified my body. My pulse sped as I traced the top of his palm with my index finger and thumb. My being screamed out for him, all the while never taking my eyes off his. I had to have him. He would be mine. Jesu hesitated. His lips parted as desire flashed across his face. I was so close to him! So close and yet my skin couldn’t feel him, couldn’t really feel the flesh on his hand, couldn’t feel the heat radiating from his body, couldn’t feel the sweet breath from his lips as it caught in his throat. Damn my numb skin. Why couldn’t I feel anything? Frustrated, I reached up and brushed his jet black hair, letting my fingers tangle in the wispy layers while running my thumb gently along his cheekbone. Nothing. Would I feel it if I pressed myself against him? What if I kissed him, would either of us feel it? His heart raced in tempo with mine as I pressed my chest against his. His breath came in short, quick gasps. I tilted my head and lifted onto my toes, my lips less than an inch from his. I leaned in, eager for the kill, but he turned away. “I think you have had enough blood.” He pushed me a step back and reached for my drink. An unnatural growl emanated from deep in my throat as I bore my fangs. “Mine!” “Fine.” He withdrew his hand and receded into his bedroom. “But leave me out of your bloodlust.” 69
His reaction sobered me. He could have taken advantage of the moment. Did the blood have that effect on everyone? I wanted to ask Jesu, but he had already closed the door behind him. I marched back to the kitchen and poured the rest of the blood down the drain even though the insane part of my brain screamed at me to stop. Sighing, I went to my room and blanketed myself in lonely silence. The cat wasn’t there. I looked under the bed and around, but there was no sign of him. Whatever. I wondered what Anthony was doing, on the other side of the world. Did he know I was missing? Was he worried and looking for me? Or was he preoccupied with his mistress? My fists clenched so hard, my fingernails drew blood from my palms. I grabbed Dr. Flückinger’s journal and hurled it against the opposite wall. It fluttered to the floor—not quite the dramatic effect I wanted. Mustering all the anger and self-pity I could manage, I smashed my fist as hard as I could into the stone wall. A dull ache followed the sound of crunching bones. I yelped, trying to pull my hand back, but it wouldn’t budge. It was stuck in the wall. Oh God, what do I do now? No one could hear me shout for help. Having a soundproof room was such a stupid idea. What was I thinking? The dull ache throbbing in my broken joints burned along my forearm. What a perfect time for my sense of touch to come back. The only thing I could do was try to yank it free. It could be hours before anyone decided to check on me again. If I healed as fast as Jesu claimed, my bones would set crookedly. I sucked in a deep breath. Okay. I can do this. I’ve been through worse, after all. I squeezed my eyes shut and yanked. “Ahhhhhhhh!” Fire shot through my arm as all the bones in my hand cracked apart. I doubled over and pressed my face into the bed while screaming profanities. Funny how that seemed to hurt worse than Jalmari kicking me in the ribs. My hand didn’t even move from the wall. Think! I must be the most pathetic vampire ever. Okay, all right, it’s not so bad. I pep talked myself so I could think calmly. My hand didn’t hurt as long as I didn’t move it. Maybe if I relaxed my muscles it would slide out? I found a somewhat comfortable position sitting with my legs crossed. I closed my eyes and tried deep even breathing the way people did when they practiced yoga. 70
After a couple of minutes, my shoulders softened and my mind calmed. Like a veil softly covering me, peace washed over my entire body, removing all the fear and stress, leaving only a dark void. A tingling sensation started in my toes and worked its way up my calves and stomach, filling me with a buzzing energy. The energy made me weightless, as though I could blow away in a breeze. The dull ache in my hand faded away, replaced by tingly chills. What is going on? I tried to open my eyes, but couldn’t. Nausea knotted my stomach as I started to panic. I couldn’t see. I reached out with my other senses, but there was no smell, no sound, nothing. Instead, the buzzing energy awakened my ability to feel like never before. I could feel…what? Air. That was the name my brain gave to the chill setting in my bones. It felt like a mist surrounding me, only it was thick and it moved in slow, even ripples. Whatever this was, I didn’t like it. Even though my sense of touch felt freer than ever, I’d trade it back in a heartbeat for my other senses. If I could only figure out how. I was trying to relax when I entered this coma-like zone, so logic would dictate that I unrelax to get out of it. Concentrating, I clenched my jaw, tensed my arms, legs, hands, and feet then tightly clenched my stomach and back muscles. My butt landed on the bed where I started, causing the springs to bounce a bit. I saw clear as day in the moonlit room and smelled the strong stench of moldy stone walls and dry wood. My hand was no longer lodged in the wall and didn’t even hurt as the skin returned to its dull numbness. I would have thought the whole thing never happened except for the evidence. One, I was completely naked. My clothes lay in a pile beneath me. Two, there was a hole in the wall the size of my fist and, three, all the fingers on my right hand were bent at odd angles. Not good. I quickly redressed with my left hand and then ran into Jesu’s room, not bothering to knock. He was painting swishing blobs of brown on a small canvas. I couldn’t help but notice the painting in the corner covered by the dirty sheet. Jesu’s brow furrowed at my interruption. “Yes?” Without a word, I stuck my broken hand out. Jesu cocked an eyebrow. He cleared a small corner on his desk and put down his paintbrush and palate of earth tones. Pushing his hair out of his face, his hand smeared a smudge of brown across his cheekbone. “What happened?” He closed the gap between us and gently took my hand into his palms. 71
“Punched a hole in the wall and my fist got stuck.” That sounded crazy even though it was true. For a moment I worried Jesu wouldn’t believe me. He snickered and shook his head. “You didn’t.” I stared at my feet and nodded. Jesu barked out a laugh. “Ema, when I said you could punch holes in the walls, I did not mean it literally.” Of course I knew that. But I gritted my teeth together to keep from snapping at him. My hand needed help first. “Does it hurt?” “No.” “It has probably healed. Maria will have to re-break the bones to set them straight.” I winced. “Isn’t there some other way?” Jesu chuckled. “You will hardly feel it and you will be good as new in an hour or so.” “I sure felt it break the first time.” “That is because you broke all your fingers at once. One at a time will feel like five little pinches.” He motioned for me to follow; the two of us headed down the corridor toward the first wing. “Do you break your bones a lot?” I asked as we entered the pitch-black portion of the hallway. Jesu took my good hand into his and led the way. “Only once. I was twelve and I broke my leg.” “How?” “Jalmari dared me to climb a tree and jump off. I had a small fear of heights then and did not want to, but he teased me, so I did.” He snorted. “We were just stupid boys back then.” “It must be nice to heal so fast when you’re a kid.” We emerged from the darkness into the butchery-like kitchen. Jesu let go of my hand. “I could not heal rapidly when I was a child. I was born human and, well, Jalmari did not know. He thought I was like him.” “Jalmari was born a vampire, I mean a vampyre, and you were born a human?” Jesu nodded while offering me a stool behind the kitchen island. I sat and tried not to drool at the aroma of death blanketing everything in the room. 72
“Are you guys half-brothers?” Jesu shook his head. “Cover your ears.” I did. He shouted Maria’s name. I could hear her muffled response the instant I unclasped my hands from my ears. Seconds later, she magically appeared near the refrigerator, smiling brightly. “Yes?” “There has been an accident.” Jesu pointed at my broken hand. “Oh, my. Lay it on the counter, darling, let me have a good look.” She floated through the table like a ghost, becoming solid again on the other side directly across from me. “How do you do that?” I asked. “What, this?” She passed her left hand through mine, her fingers and palm becoming nothing more than black smoke as she did so. “Yes. Can I do that?” “Perhaps.” She laid my hand on the counter palm down against the wood surface. “Perhaps?” I urged. “Your powers depend on what clan your sire is from.” She grasped my thumb and squeezed it until the bone cracked. “Ouch!” The sting was a bit more than the small pinch Jesu promised. “My apologies.” She pressed down on my index finger like she was performing CPR on my digit. I heard the crunch but only felt a dull ache that time. “What’s a sire?” I cringed as she snapped my middle finger. Jesu answered for her. “The vampyre or vampire who bit you is termed a sire.” “Oh. Ow!” I jumped. “Try to be still, darling. I don’t think you want me to have to start over.” I gnashed my teeth together. Last finger, I told myself as Maria crunched my pinky into place. “How come I can feel pain, but nothing else?” Maria smiled at Jesu before turning her attention back to my hand. “You can feel; it just seems numb compared to sensitive human skin. Our nerve endings don’t come that close to the surface, so we are less sensitive to pain and other physical feelings. What feels like a pinprick to you now would feel like being stabbed with a knife if you were still human.” She placed both her palms on my hand, one on top of the other, and pushed down with all her weight until my hand crackled and snapped. 73
“Ouch! Jesus.” A low growl rumbled in my throat. “All right, all done. No need to get feisty. You must keep your hand perfectly still and flat for a half hour. No getting up from that spot, do you hear?” I nuzzled my hand, wanting to lick it. “What if I have to go to the bathroom?” “You’ll just have to wait, darling.” She smiled. Grumbling, I rested my chin on the counter and looked over my ghost-white hand. “What did you mean when you said my powers depend on my sire?” “Here is not the place to discuss such matters,” Jesu whispered. I nodded. Right. Jalmari could hear us. Yet I had so many questions and not having the answers was beyond frustrating. The sound of the fridge door opening and blood sloshing from side to side awakened my carnal hunting instincts. I nearly jumped out of my seat, but Jesu placed a hand on my shoulder. “Patience,” he whispered. “You will get some.” I glared at him for a moment but obeyed and dropped my chin against the counter. Moments later, Maria placed a tall glass of blood in front of me. My head shot up as I gripped the glass and nearly flung it to my mouth. Jesu placed a hand on the glass, tipped it down, and forced me to sip it. I growled a warning at him. His eyes narrowed. “You need to learn self-control.” “Get your hand off my drink before I give Maria a reason to re-break your fingers.” He hesitated before letting go. I gulped down my drink, licked my lips several times, and then tried to lick the glass clean. My tongue couldn’t reach far enough so I set it upside down on the counter and waited for the last drops to trickle down. Jesu and Maria sipped their drinks in silence. “I have one last question, and then I’ll shut up for a while,” I bargained. “What’s the cat’s name?” Jesu instantly choked on his drink. Slamming the glass down, he sputtered and coughed up blood. I gawked at him. “Are you okay?” Maria eyed Jesu. “The cat? Why, the cat is—” “No,” Jesu coughed, trying to suck in air and clear his throat at the same time. “We…do not…have…a—” he gagged on the last word. Maria’s smile stretched into a sly grin reaching from ear to ear as she watched Jesu. She 74
turned and looked directly into my eyes. “The cat is a stray. He doesn’t have a name.” Stealing a glance at Jesu, she added, “You should name him.” “Me?” “Absolutely. You two would make great company for each other. Besides,” she waved her hand. “The rest of us are not very fond of the creature.” Having a pet made my stay here seem more permanent. However, I already promised the cat I’d bring it back to Chicago with me. I looked at Jesu. “What do you think?” His face turned bright blue. At first I thought he was seriously choking, but the death stare he gave Maria from behind his ebony hair made me realize he was blushing. Jesu spoke to Maria in hushed Finnish. Both of them stole little glances at me when they thought I wasn’t looking. I shrugged and turned my glass right side up. A circle of red gathered on the counter and I licked it off. The tingling urge to hunt ignited in my gut as the blood took its effect. They must have been able to tell I was falling under the bloodlust’s spell because they both excused themselves and walked toward the fourth wing, disappearing into the corridor. Left alone to wait as my hand healed, I struggled to refrain from attacking the refrigerator. I made a mental note of all the things I had learned and all the things I still had questions about. The latter far outweighed the former, filling me with rage. With the blood still fresh in my system, I wanted so badly to beat the answers out of them. Maria returned, startling me when she appeared out of thin air. “How’s your hand doing?” I shrugged. “Hard to tell when you can’t feel a thing.” “Can you wiggle your fingers? Easy now, one at a time. Does it hurt?” She watched as I moved my fingers up and down. A dull ache stiffened my knuckles. “It’s a little uncomfortable, but not painful.” Maria nodded. “All right, you can go if you’d like, but try to keep it still, don’t use it for anything today.” I stood and let my arm drop to my side. Jesu appeared just in front of the corridor, waiting for me with his arms crossed. He walked me back to the fourth wing in silence. I could feel the effects of the drink wearing off as the two of us stood in the hall between my room and his. I grabbed Jesu’s wrist before he could shut himself in his room again. 75
He turned his head only and peered at me. I took a deep breath to calm the little bit of bloodlust left in my system as I gazed into his eyes. “Jesu, I need answers.” “Read the journals.” “How did you know about that?” He shrugged and stepped into his room. “Wait.” I wrapped my hand tighter around his arm. “There was something else that happened to me while my hand was stuck in the wall. I think I was temporarily blind and…I felt like I was floating.” Jesu’s gaze darted around the room before he licked his lips. “Can you show me? Can you do it again?” “I don’t even know what it was.” “What were you doing just before you went blind?” He faced me. We stood less than a foot away from each other as he watched me intensely. I tried to think but shrugged. “Nothing. I was just sitting on the bed with my hand stuck in the wall, yelling for help and trying to pull it out. When that didn’t work I tried relaxing to see if it would slide out. Next thing I know, I’m blind and deaf.” “But you could feel everything around you, feel the air?” “Yes,” I nodded. “What does it mean?” “Do it again. Relax until you go blind.” He narrowed his eyes as if daring me. Butterflies flitted around my stomach. I looked away from his hard staring. “I’d rather not. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.” Gently, Jesu took my chin into his hand and pulled my face in his direction. He stared deep into my eyes. “Do not worry, Ema. I will bring you back. I promise.” Oh the way he says my name! “It’s not just that, it’s, well…” I looked at my feet. “See, I somehow ended up naked last time.” “Oh.” A bright blue tint colored Jesu’s cheeks as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, we can go into your room and I can hold up a blanket.” He avoided looking at me while saying this. I hesitated. “You promise you won’t look?” “Of course. Come.” He motioned at my room and we went in. My stomach twisted in 76
knots at the sight of the hole in the wall as I stood near the bed. Jesu snickered at it as he yanked off the bed’s comforter and held it against me with his arms spread wide. I winced as he watched. “Do you really promise not to look?” “Absolutely. I would not dream of it.” He said this a little too convincingly. I pursed my lips and wondered if he thought I was unattractive. I closed my eyes and took several slow, deep breaths. After a few moments, I opened my eyes. Jesu stared back. I snapped. “Don’t stare like that, it makes me nervous.” “Sorry.” He turned his head away. I sat on the edge of the bed and tried again. Relax. Peaceful. Weightless. Like a feather. My toes and finger tips prickled and then my arms and legs, until my whole body tingled the way it does when a limb falls asleep. A slight chill ran up my spine, buzzing with energy. Testing my vision, I tried to open one eye. I couldn’t. Or did, but couldn’t see. Blackness surrounded me. I tried to sniff the air, but my nose was clogged. I couldn’t breathe. Oh my God, I can’t breathe. I tried to scream, but had no voice. I tried to scramble for help but couldn’t move. I’m going to suffocate! Or thought I was. I thought my lungs would burn and gasp for air, but nothing happened. I just floated, surrounded by a black fog of serenity. I didn’t need to breathe. Something warm wafted through the air. It came to me as nothing more than a quick ripple of heat pulsing through my body. I liked it because I could actually feel it. I could count each ripple as it rolled through me. Thick and strong, the heat softened the chill that wrapped my bones. Sensual and yet somehow masculine, my brain named it automatically. A hand. Jesu’s hand. Whoa. My body grew heavy in a matter of seconds. My muscles pulled themselves together, tensing tight. I dropped two inches, making the springs in the bed bounce as I landed. Whipping my head around, I realized I was back in my room. Jesu still held up the blanket but was facing me; his eyes the size of one dollar coins. His skin was paler than normal, even for a vampire. My clothes lay in a pile by my feet. “Give me that!” I snatched the blanket and quickly wrapped it around myself. “You promised you wouldn’t look.” Jesu stared back. His lips moved but no sound came from them. Suddenly I didn’t think it was my awesome body that stole his breath. 77
“Jesu?” I shook his shoulder. He blinked then paced the room. I watched as he pulled a box of cigarettes and a lighter from his back pocket. “Jesu, what happened?” He looked at me and turned away, pacing again as he lit a cigarette. “Damn it, Jesu, I’m getting extremely impatient with this entire family.” I stood. He faced me and placed both hands on my shoulders. His blue color returned, but he didn’t look any more at ease. “Remember what you asked Maria just a little while ago? About your powers?” “Uh, yeah.” I stared back. He was scaring me now. “You can do it.” “I can do what?” “Ema, you can turn invisible.” “Huh?” “And fly.” “Come again?” Jesu laughed hysterically. “Ema, you can turn invisible and fly.”
Chapter Ten “Jesu, you’re not making any sense.” He held my shoulders, a frantic look in his eyes. “You can fly, Ema. You can fly and phase just like the others.” “First of all,” I shrugged out of his grip and took several steps away from him. “I don’t know what phasing is.” “That’s what Jalmari and the others call it when they walk through solid objects.” “Second, I was not flying. I was hovering at best.” He nodded. “True, you did not go very far, but this is just the beginning. Wait until you learn to really soar. Oh.” He slumped against the edge of the bed and took a long drag of his cigarette. His brows furrowed as he breathed out puffs of smoke. I didn’t know how he could stand smoking. Cigarette smoke smelled bad enough when I was human, now it was just ridiculous. “Ema,” he narrowed his eyes. “You cannot tell Jalmari about this.” “Why not?” He stood and pointed his index finger at me. “Promise me. Promise you will not tell Jalmari what you can do.” I watched the cigarette bob between his lips as he spoke, worried it would fall and set the floor on fire. Not telling Jalmari was probably in my best interest and I wouldn’t have told him anyway. I wouldn’t speak to Jalmari period if I didn’t have to. However, I was curious as to what this meant to Jesu and I wanted to have the upper hand for once. I bent to gather my clothes and then shuffled across the hall to the bathroom to redress. I thought it over for a few minutes before going back to my room to answer him. “Under one condition,” I said while replacing the cover on the bed. Jesu cocked his head. His black hair fell over one side as his green eyes widened. That look reminded me of someone. I took a deep breath. “I want you to help me.” He blew out another puff as he sat on the edge of the bed. He studied me as he spoke. “What does that entail, exactly?” Good, now I was getting somewhere. But what did that entail? “I want to know what you know. Everything. No more secrets. I want to know why I’m here, why I’m like this, and how I 79
can get home. And if you don’t know the answers to those questions, then you’re going to do what it takes to help me find out.” Jesu sucked in smoke, burning through the last two-thirds of his cigarette. “Is that all?” I hesitated. Was that all? “And no telling anyone what we’re doing.” Jesu grinned and nodded once. “Very well, I will keep quiet if you will.” “And?” I crossed my arms over my chest. “And I will cooperate with you if you cooperate with me.” “Okay. Deal.” “Deal.” He dragged the cigarette butt across the stone wall to put it out. “So,” I glanced around. “What does this mean?” Jesu took a deep breath. “It means your sire could do the same things. It means we are that much closer to solving the puzzle.” “But I wasn’t bitten. I don’t have a sire.” “I know. I have a theory about that, but I need to test it. We cannot tell anyone about this. They will tell Jalmari if they knew. We have to figure it out before he does. This conversation never leaves the room, understood?” I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, duh. Like I want to run to Jalmari with the news.” Jesu pressed his lips into a thin line as he stood. “I have to go to do some research. I will be back when I am done.” He pointed a finger at the journals on my nightstand. “Read those.” He left, closing the door behind him. I immediately opened it a good twelve inches. If I ever got another limb stuck in the wall, I wanted someone to hear me calling for help. Lying on my stomach, I pulled Dr. Bedford’s journal from the nightstand. This one was about the vampyre’s diet and digestive tract. Bedford tried to explain their need for blood. He compared the vampyre diet to other primates. A number of large apes ate meat, but they were mostly omnivores and not very good at hunting. Bedford ended his findings by comparing the vampyre diet to that of their closest living relatives, humans. Bedford noted that a high protein diet was required to maintain the health of our large, intelligent brains. Assuming the nephilim were more intelligent, a blood diet would supply them with highly concentrated amounts of protein. By the time I finished reading Dr. Bedford’s journal, daylight crept into the room from the small window above the bed. I reached for the sunglasses in the little drawer on the 80
nightstand. Putting them on, I sighed. I had no idea how the others passed the time during the day, but one thing was becoming evident. I didn’t think vampires slept. I never felt tired despite being awake for seventy-two hours. Stretching my limbs, yet being careful with my bad hand, I put Bedford’s journal back and took the third book. Mr. Goudy discussed vampyre breeding. Unlike Dr. Flückinger and Dr. Bedford, Goudy seemed a tad repulsed by the fact that vampires existed. Nonetheless, he wrote rather thoroughly about the nature of hybrid reproduction. While it was extremely rare for two different species of animals to mate in nature, it was not unheard of. Goudy reported cases of fertile grizzly-polar bear offspring in the Northwest Territories. More popular were the Candid hybrid offspring of coyotes, wolves, jackals, dingoes and domestic dogs. With nephilim in extinction, first generation vampyres could no longer be bred. However, the fact that vampyres could successfully procreate fertile offspring could only mean that humans and nephilim had the same number of chromosomes. Thus, vampyres had the ability to breed back. The breeding of two vampyres only yielded a fifty percent chance of bearing a fully vampyric offspring. There was also a twenty-five percent chance of bearing a fully human or fully nephilim offspring. But where, Mr. Goudy asked, were those humans? And for that matter, where were the nephilim, thought to be extinct? Goudy suggested they could be among us, perhaps more rare than a grizzly-polar bear cub. I thought about Jesu. He had said he was born human while Jalmari was born a vampyre. Someone must have bitten Jesu, but why? Did his parents do it? That would make sense. Most parents would do what they could to help their child fit in with society. A human child reared in a vampyre society would be challenging. But what of the possibility of the nephilim offspring Mr. Goudy suggested? Did the parents keep such a thing? I flipped the pages, hoping for an answer. Instead, Goudy had poured page after page of scientific calculations. Advanced mathematics spanned the length of three chapters. I flipped to the last chapter which summed up his findings. The last page listed the percentages of possible vampyre-to-human mating, which resulted in an equal fifty-fifty chance of having a vampyre offspring or a human offspring. 81
Baffled, I put Goudy’s journal back. I could tell it was noon from the way every object in my room glowed with a yellow haze. I wanted to talk to Jesu. I wanted to ask if my theory about him was right. I wanted to know how nephilim could be extinct when they could still be reproduced. He walked in just then, a large frayed book bound in worn leather in his hands. He sat on the bed and flipped through the pages. I looked over his shoulder, but couldn’t understand the hand script. “What is that?” “It is a record of every known vampire clan in the world.” “Who wrote it?” Jesu hesitated. “My father started it. Jalmari continued it after he passed away. It’s divided into two parts, the major clans and the minor clans. The minor clans are more like subcultures within the major clans.” He pointed to charts and lists which covered every page. “Jalmari and our father kept lists of every clan’s leader, their birth and death dates, and who inherited the throne after them.” He pointed to another list. “This tells the details about the High Blood Council.” He flipped to another page and then tilted the book so I could see. “Here we have a list of every major clan’s features and powers. We will go down the list and see what you can do.” “Won’t that take forever?” “Nah, a few days at the most. We could probably eliminate most of them by tonight.” “Maria said the color of my eyes narrows it down to four clans. Should we start with those?” Jesu shook his head. “Maria’s wrong. Had you a sire, then she would have been correct. But I think you could be a mix.” “A mix?” “Yes. If you tell me about your heritage it might help speed things up.” “Whoa, slow down. A mix? Like more than one clan?” “Yes. I told you, I have a theory.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “So let’s hear this theory of yours first.” Jesu sighed. “I think you are a vampyre. In fact, I am certain you are.” “That’s impossible. Vampyres are born.” “Are you saying you were not born?” he smirked. 82
“You know what I mean. I certainly was not born a vampyre. I think I would notice if I was.” “Not necessarily. Vampyres are mostly human until they hit puberty. Once the hormone levels rise, the nephilim genes are kicked into high-gear and the vampyre changes. The process takes about three years total. During this time, the vampyre gets their powers, loses the pigment in their skin, and begin to age slower.” “But I’m not an adolescent. And wouldn’t one of my parents have to be a vampyre too?” He shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not. Two vampyres can reproduce a human.” “Yes, I know. I read the journals.” I motioned to the pile of books. Jesu nodded. “So maybe two humans can make a vampyre.” “That’s not possible.” Jesu grunted. “Are you always this closed-minded?” I narrowed my eyes. “No, but surely you know that doesn’t make sense. Vampyres are human-nephilim hybrids. So it’s impossible for two humans to produce a vampyre.” Jesu shook his head. “Think of this way; let’s say a hundred years ago two vampyres had a baby human. The baby survives, grows into a man, and has a family—” “His nephilim genes are passed down,” I whispered. He nodded. “Exactly. Now say that man’s grandson marries a woman who also has nephilim genes present in her DNA. Could they not reproduce a vampyre?” “Oh my God, it’s like a disease.” Jesu scowled. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, but you get the idea.” “Wait.” I stood. “You think I could have vampyre ancestors?” “It is possible.” “But that’s just your theory, right? You could be wrong.” He nodded and glanced at the thick book on his lap. “Yes, I could be wrong. That is why we are going to test it and see. If I am correct, you could have any mixture of vampyre genetics spanning back thousands of years.” “How will we know if your theory is correct?” “If I am right, you will have multiple powers from multiple clans. That is why we are going to go down the list one by one and see what you can do.” Gnawing my lip, I decided to tell Jesu about my family. We made a deal and he honored 83
his end of the bargain so far. “My mother’s side of the family is Romani-Hungarian and my father was Native American.” “Was?” Jesu cocked an eyebrow. I folded my hands in my lap. “I haven’t seen him since I was ten.” “I am sorry.” I shrugged. “I don’t remember much about him. I don’t think we were ever close.” Jesu turned his attention to the dusty, worn book on his lap. He flipped a couple of pages and then pulled a folded sheet of blank paper and a pen from his pocket. “Would you like to start now?” He smoothed out the piece of paper over the page of the book. “Sure, I guess.” He nodded. “Quite a few clans can phase and fly, so that does not tell us much, but I will note it anyway.” He scribbled unintelligible words on the paper. Tapping his index finger on a chart in the book, he continued. “We will begin with the Strigoian Clan, from eastern Europe. They are originally from Romania, but spread out and now occupy Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. They are a heavily female populated clan and many of them are hermaphrodites.” Jesu paused and glanced at me. “What?” My shoulders coiled at his questioning glance. “I am not a hermaphrodite!” His lips curled at the edges. “Are you sure?” I crossed my arms and glared at him. “This is serious, you perv.” He chuckled. “Okay, back to work.” I sat, but narrowed my eyes in warning. He’d better behave. “The Strigoians possess a couple of powers which set them apart from the rest of us,” he continued. “First, they can climb sheer surfaces. Second, they can shape-shift into bats.” “Climb sheer surfaces? Like the way insects walk up walls?” “Yes.” “Ha, yeah right.” I shook my head. Jesu stared back, his expression blank. “Oh God, you’re serious? But that’s—” “Impossible?” He sighed. “How do you keep disbelieving after everything you have already seen? Do you even believe you are a vampire?” I glanced around, not sure how to answer. 84
“No. I did not think so.” I bit my lip as he frowned. His green eyes looked distant, as though he considered giving up and I didn’t want that. I needed his help. I tried to think about climbing walls and shapeshifting seriously, but the notion of it was so unreal. Yet I had to try. Jesu was convinced that this was the way to figure things out and at least he had an idea. I was completely clueless. I decided I would try to do things his way. “Look, Jesu,” I forced myself to put a hand on his shoulder to comfort him. I tried to explain the best way I could without hurting his feelings. “I’m sorry. I’m not used to this. I lived my entire life in a world where vampires were things of myth and movies. I’m trying my best, really. I can’t say that I believe in vampires or that I am one, but, well, I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.” Jesu blinked. “I thought you were from Chicago?” “It’s an expression. Never mind,” I sighed. “The point is, I promised I would cooperate, so we’ll do things your way.” “Try it, then.” “Climbing walls? Now?” “Yes, now.” He stood and motioned to the blank stone wall between the bed and the wardrobe. “Give it a shot.” I gulped and faced the wall. It stood no more than ten feet tall. Not a big deal, except that I wasn’t Spider Man. “But how?” Jesu shrugged. “I am not sure. I am not Strigoian.” He stroked his chin. “Just try it. Either you can or you cannot, right?” “Yeah, sure, why not.” I stepped closer. The light of day obscured most of the stones’ detail even with the sunglasses on. I found two reachable spots extending out less than an inch. I took a deep breath and grasped the barely protruding stones as best I could. With one foot, I searched around for some place to wedge my toes into so I could push myself up. My nails nearly broke as I tried to dig my fingers into the cement filling. I might have been strong enough to punch a hole in stone, but I wasn’t cut out for rock climbing. Jesu burst into laughter. I let go and rolled back on my left foot, which never left the ground. Crossing my arms over my chest, I faced him and huffed loudly. He was bent over, the tips of his ebony locks grazing the floor as he slapped his thigh and gasped for air. 85
“Don’t laugh at me, I’m trying aren’t I?” He sucked in air only to bellow out more laughter as he clutched his waist. I rolled my eyes and sat on the bed with my lips pressed into a tight pout. “I am sorry.” He grasped the edge of the bed to balance himself while trying to regain his composure. “Humph!” “Really, my apologies. You just act so human. You should have seen yourself.” “Well that’s what I was for the first twenty-three years of my life, thank you.” “I’m sorry. Please, continue.” “But I already tried. I can’t climb sheer surfaces…or rocky surfaces, for that matter.” He bit his lip, trying to fight back another chuckle. “You were doing it like a human. You were trying too hard. Do it more like an insect.” “Oh, like an insect? Is that the idea? Oh yeah, sure, no problem. Let me just go change into my grasshopper legs.” I rolled my eyes. He sighed. “Have you no imagination? Do not try to climb the wall; do not think about it logically. Just go do it.” “Uh-huh.” “Go.” He pointed. “Get up there.” “Ugh.” I stood and faced the wall. “Just let the powers come naturally.” God, I have no idea what he means. Climb the wall, but don’t try to climb the wall. I grumbled to myself. Frustrated, I slapped both palms flat against the black stone. Something sticky oozed beneath my hands. “Ew!” I jumped back. A dozen fine strings of a clear gel-like substance stretched like melted cheese connecting my hands to the wall. Walking backward, the gel stretched over a foot before the strings finally snapped. “What is this?” Jesu examined my hands. “It looks like glue.” “Where did it come from?” He turned my hands this way and that way. “I think it came from the pores on your palm.” “Is this normal?” Who am I kidding; nothing within this castle is normal. 86
“I don’t know. Wait.” He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled the huge list of vampyre clans onto his lap. His eyes scanned the page for several moments. “Yes, it is normal. It says here the Strigoians secrete a thick clear liquid on the palms of their hands and feet which allows them to scale any vertical surface with ease.” “You’ve got to be kidding me. You mean you could have warned me about this, but didn’t?” I stood with my arms outstretched, being careful not to get any goop on anything. Jesu chuckled. “Sorry, I did not read that far ahead.” “So this stuff will keep me anchored to any vertical surface, eh?” I kicked off my shoes and then peeled off my socks with my toes. “Here goes nothing.” Holding my breath, I leaped two feet into the air with the palms of my hands and toes facing forward. My body smacked hard against rock, causing little black pebbles to crumble to the floor. Thank goodness I was numb or I might have gone into another coma doing that. Panting, I realized my entire body lay flat against the surface of the wall. I wanted to push back a little so I could see, but I was terror-stricken and worried I would fall if I moved. The left side of my face smashed up against stone. Jesu was silent somewhere behind me. “Am I ‘oing ith?” I tried to ask. “Well, you are not climbing, but you are sticking to the wall. At least both your feet are off the floor.” I looked up, scraping my cheek. The ceiling loomed three feet above my head. I was determined to spider my way up the damn wall even if it was only an inch or two. Grunting, I lifted my right hand. The squishy goop tried to resist. It felt like I had Velcro gloves on and was stuck to a sheet of felt. I pulled my hand above my head and slapped it down, feeling the ooze suction me to the wall as a new layer of glue seeped from my pores and gripped the stones for me. Not having to physically grab anything with my fingers felt odd. I repeated the motion with my left foot, lifting it up and feeling the goop squish out a new layer when I replanted my toes. My knee scraped against the wall as I tried to angle my leg to get my whole foot as flat as possible for better traction. After a minute of getting used to the odd Velcro sensation, I found a good reach-stepreach-step rhythm. The crown of my head bumped against the ceiling in no time. “This is amazing!” “I am glad you are enjoying it. Come down so you can try shape-shifting.” 87
“Hold on, I just got an idea.” Arching my neck back so I faced the ceiling, I reached my left hand up and over, and laid it flat on the ceiling. “Ema,” Jesu hesitated. “I do not think you should overdo it.” “I got to try this,” I whispered while placing my right hand parallel to the left one. My back arched at an uncomfortable angle. I had to think a moment about how to move my legs. If I lifted them too high, my knees hit the ceiling and I got stuck. I resorted to inching my way up little by little. A single bead of sweat dripped from my head, but it didn’t roll down. Instead, it rolled sideways and dripped off my ear. I was on my hands and knees, hanging upside down from the ceiling. And I’ve never been so scared in my life. The goo began to thin and I didn’t know how to make myself secrete more. “Jesu?” “Yes?” “I think I’m freaking out.” My breath rasped as panic bubbled in my stomach. “I don’t know how to get down!” “Just crawl backward.” “I can’t. The glue is thinning and I’m scared.” “Then let go.” “What? No way.” “I will catch you, do not worry.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “I can’t.” My instincts kicked in and aggression replaced fear. Stop blubbering, stupid, and pay attention. Back up. There you go. Here comes the wall, one foot and then the other. But gravity decided to give me a reality check and I slid while trying to reach the wall with my right hand. I screamed and flailed my arms around like propellers. Unfortunately, that’s not how vampires fly. Jesu caught me in his arms, cradling me so that I was parallel to the floor, my feet still suctioned to the wall by the goop. His bright green eyes sparkled as he looked into mine. “See,” his lips stretched into a sideways smile. “I told you I would catch you.” Breathless, I couldn’t do anything but stare back. He pulled me away from the wall until the glue on my feet stretched into thin hairlines and finally snapped. I assumed he would set me 88
down on the bed, but he carried me into the hallway. “Where are we going?” “To the lavatory to wash your hands and feet. I do not know how this stuff works, but I do not want you getting stuck to yourself.” In the bathroom, Jesu sat me on the edge of the porcelain tub with my feet inside the huge bath. He didn’t bother to turn on the light switch. Plenty of overwhelming rays still filled the majority of the wing even though it was late evening. I turned on the faucet with my elbow and then tried to adjust for warm water. I gave up when I realized I couldn’t feel a damn thing anyway. “I miss knowing if things are warm or cold.” I soaked my hands and feet under the water, but the glue didn’t appear to be soluble. Jesu handed me a washcloth, but it got covered in goop and stuck to my hand. “You will get used to it after a while and you won’t feel as numb as you do now.” “Can you feel if something light brushed against you? Not hear it or smell it. Just feel it?” Jesu glanced at the floor. “I am not sure. I can hear and smell just about everything long before it gets close enough to touch me.” I peeled the goop off my palms. The stuff didn’t stick to my fingertips. “Let’s say you have a sheet wrapped around you. Could you feel that?” “I have never really thought about it before. I can feel this, though.” He rested a hand on my forearm. I tried to feel it too, but the sensation was nothing more than faint pressure against my skin. I had no idea if his hand was warm and soft or dry and callused. “How much of that can you feel exactly?” “I can feel a little bit of heat radiating from your body when I touch you.” His angular cheekbones flushed bright blue. I was jealous. That was much more than I could feel. “Is my skin soft?” “Yes.” He turned a darker shade of azure and looked away. I grumbled. “Would you mind? I’d like to take a bath?” “Of course.” Jesu rose and left the bathroom. I closed the door and stripped while waiting for the tub to fill. Lying down inside the claw-foot bath, I tried to stop the knotted web of thoughts and questions buzzing in my brain. I just wanted one moment for myself. One moment of peace. Pushing out the vampires, the wall-climbing, the bloodlust, the coma, the attack, everything, only left room in my mind for Anthony. A vivid image of his round face formed in 89
my mindâ€™s eye. His soft sandy curls fell over his hazel eyes just like they always did. I had the urge to call him, to hear his voice. I almost stood, wanting to get my dead cellphone. Slumping into the bath water, I leaned my head against the wall of the tub and wished more than anything that vampires could cry.
Also Available by J.D. Brown DARK LIAISON An Ema Marx Novel 2 Ema Marx wishes her life would go back to normal. But there’s nothing normal about being a Romani-Vampyre with an ancestor who wants you dead. King Apollyon is back and his main target is Ema. Ema thought she would find a new best friend in her trainer, until Bridget vies for Jesu’s attention. Jesu can date who he wants, right? Ema has more important things to worry about, like honing her powers. When Apollyon’s thugs appear out of the shadows to attack her, Ema knows it’s time to take action. But everyone else has other plans in mind. One thing is for certain, being locked in an R.E.D. operated Blood Mansion was not part of her plan to save the day.
About the Author J.D. Brown knows that vampires exist because she’s dating one and no, he doesn’t sparkle. Unfortunately, he’s not immortal either (or maybe her standards are too low). A magnet for subcultures and weirdness, J.D. was that socially awkward girl with more fictional friends than real ones. As a child battling a hearing loss and a medical condition with no name, J.D. found comfort in books where strong women always saved the day and got the guy. An obsession with Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer lead J.D. to believe that her mutated chromosome made her something more, not something less. Thus her stubborn flare to persevere was born. A lover of fine cuisine, coffee, and shoes. She resides in Wisconsin were she writes urban fantasy—aka vampires for adults—and has political debates with her dogs. J.D.’s books are available in paperback and e-book formats from Muse It Up Publishing Inc. and all major book retailers. She loves to hear from readers. You can reach her via Facebook.com/authorjdbrown or visit her website at http://authorjdbrown.com