Hello good people of the Occult,
Francis here, again! Since this is my takeover…and since Shayne isn’t looking…do you think it would kill her if I shared the entire prologue of Book 3? I didn’t think so… I mean, it does star yours truly. It is in my perspective! So, I think I have every right to share my thoughts with you! Ladies and gentlemen, I hope this sets the scene. There is so much more coming…
I sat in silence, the memory of Valek’s harsh cries still stabbing at my eardrums. Lion’s cries. I had not anticipated what his induction ceremony would entail. My ceremony had been vastly different, for the Elders needed nothing from me.
For Valek’s induction, I was the messenger, sent to usher Valek through the Abelim city gates.
The Parliament never skimped on luxury; the carriage that had brought us into the underbellies of Prague was lush, the inside covered in fine, indigo-colored satin. There were more than enough cushions to throw around, each embellished with a scrawling “P” in the center, done in silver thread. The fabrics were imported, no doubt, from far areas of the globe that even I, in all my worldliness, had never visited. The curtains that did nothing to shield out any sort of light from the windows, hung in layers of pellucid tulle, and even the ornate lines of the handles, which matched Prague’s baroque façade, were sterling. But of course I would notice these superfluous details. Valek could have given a damn and half.
The coach was propelled by six demon beasts like the ones Valek and Sarah had created only weeks ago—horses injected with the same dark curse rampant in our own bodies.
On the way to the underground city of heathens, the conversation between us was one-sided, and misery draped his near-perfect features. I attempted to distract him from the thoughts of the feeble and seemingly defenseless Charlotte he’d left back in the forest clearing with the stranger—with Nikolai, and the other misfit monsters.
As we traveled on through the dim streets, the cartwheels clattering over the cobblestone, I watched Valek’s eyes, lost and distant somewhere between here and hell. I attempted to ignore the images replaying in his mind like a broken record. It was enough to see the bloodied, dying girl once. These visions were only starting to make me salivate, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful, so I attempted to focus on my own thoughts.
Charlotte had made her own decision. She did not want him to stay. Valek needed to remind himself of that. I had hopes he would forget the girl once he was at home with me. At home in the Dark City of Abelim.
Yet however distant Valek strayed from her, the more obsessed he became. His thoughts were relentless as he fantasized over again about Lusian’s heinous acts and the sort of revenge Valek would seek. She would not suffer in vain, he’d decided.
During those weeks Valek had spent in the Dark City without her, his cogs had been turning. For the first time since I’d known him, he frightened me.
The initiation ceremony to induct him into the Parliament was complicated—painful, even to those of us who were spectating. Valek had been merely a ghost of himself that night he arrived with me. The Elders greeted him lavishly with gifts, overflowing bottles of the purest blood, and the best quarters, but he barely took notice.
Cicero, the previous liege, greeted us in a marble and onyx hall that seemed too impossibly large and tall to fit anywhere under the earth. In fact, everything about the way Abelim was erected seemed impossible. The caverns around the capital palace were immense structures of residences and odd, dangerous-looking, little shops carved into the very stalagmites, quartz, and stone.
The dim lights about the under-Earth megalopolis were nothing other than bewitched enchantments; similar to the ones Sarah liked to create—ghostly-white orbs floating about the chilled air. They cast phantasmal reflections in the dark surface of a black river that flowed along the pathways that snaked under highly vaulted caves. Walking through those dismal passages, one could hear a distant plummeting of water from a fall situated somewhere in that shadowed abyss, and the screeching of bats.
There was no warmth. There was neither humanity nor the sounds of throbbing pulses and delicious, rusty, iron smells. That place was a crypt with only the cold scents of wet algae on stone and the musty, cursed creatures forced to an eternity in that darkness.
We followed the one envoy called Milo, robed in dark suede and shimmering silver, as he led Valek and me into the capital. Every member of Parliament behaved as lavishly as they dressed and they indulged in all of the opulent things I loved so well. Fine clothing. Fine furnishings. Pure, hot, blood. Elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. I belonged with them. Valek did not. It was disheartening, but I knew he only belonged in one place, however woebegone it was then.
He seemed barely present during that first night in the Dark City. The only time Valek’s consciousness found him was when a few of the highest Elders splayed and strapped him over a marble slab in the center of some other large room; this one with stone floors that were separated and uneven. Small rivers and pools of glistening water circulated around where we stepped, lapping over the smooth boulder faces. I cringed at the notion of my boots getting wet.
Curious markings were etched deep into the walls, too, all conjoined, but somehow forming individual symbols, until they met at the far wall and disappeared behind a grand, four-story effigy of Lilith. Lodged within her stony heart was an ancient hourglass, cradled by more sterling fixtures that swirled around the ballooned glass and stone carvings. It seemed less an hourglass, and more of a work of art, for within the elaborate, silver designs that covered mechanical gears, precious stones were embedded, glimmering in the dim light.
Of course, time had encased the structure with dust and cobwebs, but even so, I considered it hauntingly lovely. Red grains of sand from behind the glass plummeted to a mountainous pile in the bottom half with each passing moment. I understood that the sand symbolically represented blood, and the passing of life. Lilith’s marble eyes stared coldly over Valek writhing on the pedestal, as he was surrounded by some whirling, blue streams of magic that I’d never seen before. Dark sorcery, for sure.
Ophelia, Cicero’s sister, moved forward up the crude steps and tore Valek’s shirt from his body. With a wicked glint in her eye, she watched as a few of the others continued with the part of the induction that was a surprise, even to me. I would have never agreed to fetch him if I’d known, for his pain from that night is so branded into my memory.
Cold! I gasped as the mental wave of ice struck me from behind. I should not have tuned in so intently to his mind. Valek’s thoughts revealed to me that he hadn’t felt as cold in decades. The sensation knocked the wind from even my own chest and I shook my head, attempting to calm myself so that I might continue to study what they were doing to him.
Valek’s eyes darted about the room, looking to each unfamiliar face as they all peered at him. He was looking for me. Looking for me to save him as I’d done so many times before. I could hear the desperation in his mind. But this time, I was barred. This had to happen. It was something he needed to endure if he wanted to avenge Charlotte in the way he imagined. And, if he wanted to win the war against the Regime once and for all, he needed to obtain the sort of power the Parliament planned to give him.
Cicero smiled and said, “It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Parliament coven, dear friend,” then injected something deep into Valek’s left forearm.
Valek wailed with the pain, his back arching as his head smashed against the impossible strength of the granite slab beneath him. The stone crunched with the ferocity of the impact from the back of his skull. I grit my teeth as his pain swelled through my own mind. It was all I could do not to collapse with it. As his eyes swelled with blood, I too felt the violent sting begin at the bridge of my nose, traveling up to my throbbing temples. My heart hammered in time with his as violent, temporary life sprung forth in my chest.
Horrible burning sweltered from his arm, quickly to the center of his body, and through the rest of his limbs. And I was connected to every terrible moment of it. I could hear every thought over his garbling cries. Feel every ounce of terror, grinding my jaw as I looked on.
“This is for your betterment, Valek,” I heard Cicero say from somewhere in the space around him, his voice solid and satisfied. “And ours, too. You’ll be linked with us forever. An Elder with the same powers as we all possess. And with something more. Great responsibility.” His slanted gaze cast up to Lilith then, his grin spreading as he eyed the hourglass.
It had been one of the worst experiences Valek had ever endured, and in turn, myself as well. And I could not help but think, that it was somehow entirely my fault.
But there we were. It had been several evenings since Valek had been made the liege of the Parliament, and for the first time, my superior. It was not quite so lonely down there in Abelim with him, however miserable he was. Barred together again at last, because the fates had commanded it of us. Though I was forced to continue to admire him once again, from a distance. I was left with only my mere fantasies about how less lonely this eternal existence could be if he ever reciprocated what I felt for him. And the worst of it all, he heard these reveries play out in my mind because we all possessed the same, irritating access to each other’s thoughts. Like a scratched record, it repeated over and over and he was forced to listen to my pain nightly.
The torture was both his and mine. My only consolation was that I was made deaf to his vexations, because on the night of his initiation, he had changed. The others sank him even deeper into the darkness than I ever could. He became one of them. An Elder. In charge. More powerful than I could have ever dreamed of him becoming. His mind became a secret to me, just as the rest of theirs were—guarded by curious witchcraft—a bewitched pendant they all wore around their throats. Which was a good thing, because just seeing the pain painted on his face night after night was enough for me to have to endure.
Above all else, Valek was my friend. He had made mistakes. A lot of them. But I knew his heart, however dark and dead, was a good one.
I sat by the fire—the only bit of light and warmth in this slate society that thrived, an ancient, unopened vein hidden beneath the most beautiful city in the world. Hidden beneath Prague. The secret the Golden City concealed just below its surface was but a dismal, forgotten crypt. Not even Occult creatures knew where Abelim was or how to access it. It was a place of eternal shadows, just as Vladislov promised when he condemned me here. And dark it was, though there was something about what Vladislov did that did not seem a true punishment. Not entirely. Not quite. Though my surroundings were as depressing as ever, and the place could seriously have done with some redecorating, I had never felt safer from the impending danger we all knew was coming. Being down here meant security. Safety from the light and from the Regime.
Whatever was left of it.
In all three-hundred-and-a-half years of being what I was, I crossed countless humans as they clumsily hobbled in and out of my existence. For the short time I encountered each of them, I learned more about who they were than they probably even knew about themselves. It’s amazing what one might find in the behavior of another when that person knew they were about to die. I was responsible for each of their ends, watching their lives cut short before my eyes and under my lips. It allowed access to the deepest, darkest parts of each of them.
Pure, unadulterated bloodlust was what I lived for. The very smell of putrid, human fear excited me so. The salty ambrosia that washed down my throat and the sounds of pleading. One, after another, after another. Sometimes multiples in one evening. Men. Women. Children. I broke necks like humans broke bread at supper.
I lacked complete and total moral compassion for them and did not think twice about the nightly hunts. Ah, the wind on my skin as I seduced each of them and drew them in with my unstoppable charm, for I was the perfect predator, fashioned by the Devil himself to drink up mortality. And out of all of these lives I had taken, none of them haunted me thus.
None. Except one.
It is not that I have any conscience to speak of, or possess the capacity to feel guilt or empathy. I like to think that I lost those abilities the same evening I lost my own human life. It was so long ago, and I barely remember anything about my human self now.
Admitting that I listen to any sort of theoretical angel of reason perched on my shoulder would make me soft. Weak. So weak. I haven’t been weak in centuries. Guilt, sympathy, and empathy are all three very complicated women I’d never dance with.
The only reason this one, particular soul infected me so deeply was because he absolutely refused to break. Even against all odds, and as I was literally exhausting the life from him, there was a strength that lived on in his eyes and in the sound of his pulse that I knew would never fade. Even when his body ultimately went cold.
I never intended to make the choice for him, though it was almost as if he commanded it of me. Demanded that he become this way. It was simple fact. He was made to be a Vampire. Destined to be one with the dark gift and the divinely damned.
Born to die.
I will never forget the night I killed him. I will never forget the purity of that snowfall, the chill, numb and un-affecting to me, wrapped in its pure blanket, as I lay in the gutters of Prague. A city steeped in magic and intrigue, coddled with the cold and the darkness where I belonged. I was condemned to it and thrown out of the protective shelter of the Regime Palace walls.
Like Charlotte, I too was once a mortal adored by the magic, though when I chose to give up my mortality for a life among the damned, my lover decided that I had betrayed him in some personal way by joining the darkness.
The light turned its back on me, and I on the light. Without Vladislov, I was lost for nearly a century and a half.
Until that night.
I sat in those inky streets as they snaked through all the winter white. I waited for one of them—any of those mortals to stumble upon me and feel mercy. With that moonless sky, they wouldn’t have figured out what kind of monster I was until they drew nearer. And by that point, it would have been too late for them.
I eyed the people from my distance as they ambled aimlessly, and possibly drunken, along the cobblestone streets of Old Town. Mediocre bands played on, their instruments screeching on the wind made me wince, and paired with the clamor of some clumsy conversation happening too close to me, made me curl my claws around my ears. Sewage filtered up from the gutters, and paired with the roasting turkey legs and other greasy kiosk fare, it was enough to make anyone’s stomach turn. I was surrounded.
Loud. Obnoxious. Fat. Greedy. Selfish. To err is human, and that loathsome picture was exactly what was depicted before me. It was curious why it was their blood I craved. Interesting to me why our kind did not crave to consume the life of beings more divine even than us. But nothing like that existed. There were no archangels to attack in the streets, and even the blood of Christ was actually nothing more than cheap bottles of wine shelved in the cabinets of Catholic churches. To consume the power of something greater, so that we might become stronger—now that was an idea! What was it about the clumsy human that beckoned us so? What was it about their blood that called for us more than heroin called to an addict? I lay in the gutters for hours, pondering this during that long winter’s night.
I saw him, then, coming from meters away. Even in his clumsier, human form, he moved more stealthily than the others over the slick pavement that was dampened from the melted winter. Even then, he was still vastly different. Classier, leaner, and withholding a sort of charisma I had only very seldom seen in other mortals. I was enamored in that instant. My gaze locked on his slender form, which was silhouetted by the flickering streetlamps. His broad shoulders, his dark hair that dripped like jet rain down the severe angles of his face, as his leather boots advanced toward me. I recognized that moment to be one of the most detrimental to my usually controlled character. It was a moment when the ice that guarded and enclosed the very core inside of me melted. Frozen for hundreds of years, and then in one mere second of weakness, warmed entirely.
You might say that I fell in lust…because I will never admit it was love. I will never fall in love, because love always ultimately finds a way to fail against more powerful forces, like war and magic and greed. Ultimately, love always fails. And I would never admit to failure.
The doors opened behind me, their booming echo rippling down the marble floors as though they were the surface of a dark body of water. I peered around the back of my chair.
Once again, I studied Valek’s graceful movements as he entered the underground hall. His patent leather boots seemed to make absolutely no sound as he moved toward me. The fire cast jagged shadows across his vaulted cheekbones and his sharp jaw, making him look like something more sinister than I knew he was. The frosted color of his eyes pierced me so thoroughly, I thought I must be impaled by their very glance. They did not leave my face as he continued advancing toward me, and the breath stilled in my lungs.
For those months that I was alone in the Dark City, I longed to see Valek again. Before his mishap with Charlotte, I thought about him endlessly each of my evenings, down in that metropolis of death and secrecy.
Until I was ordered to go and fetch him.
I thought doing so would bring me some amount of happiness once again. I thought seeing his face down there every night would do something to make this place feel more like home. But instead, it only felt like I’d caged a free bird.
Everyone loved Valek. Everyone wanted a piece of him.
I couldn’t bear to look at him any longer. Instead, I turned to face forward in my chair again.
The flames of the fire, large in their marble hearth with its elaborate, gilded carvings flanked by intimidating columns did nothing to warm me, for I still missed my life the way it was before all the mess. I missed my home and the bustling noises of the city. I missed the fun of preying on young, human males in the underground discotheques. I missed the fresh air of midnight and the moonlight glittering over the baroque helmets of the various basilicas and monuments scattered among the modern bastions. The Vltava River. I missed the clamor of people. I missed the starlight. I even missed Sarah, my indentured house Witch.
Valek’s forlorn sigh slid through the staleness of the room and filtered into my chest, causing my stone heart to somehow constrict. He took a seat in one of the silver, throne-like chairs next to me. I could not hear his thoughts, but I felt his misery. Like chilling bands off a windstorm, they blew me over and took me down with this sinking ship.
But alas, I will surface. I am fine. I always have been and I always will be.
To err is human, and there is nothing more human than love. And though I would never admit to loving Valek, I did. So I guess I have erred. So what does that make me?
What am I?
What am I?