Nikolai clutched the brass door handle and knocked lightly again at the wood, frowning upon not being answered the first time. Maybe she really did jump this time. But then, real panic started to sink in after a few moments of receiving nothing but silence in return. He and the others had left her completely alone after the stunt she’d pulled the night prior, down in the dungeon. After the way she reacted to his scolding her, he’d figured she only wanted some space. No one had come calling for her in the last twenty-four hours.
“Charlotte,” he called, embarrassed by the nervous stammer in his voice. His face heated. He was such a dork. The only girl who ever bothered to pay any attention to him at all, and he was striking out, again. What was wrong with him? “Charlotte?” he called to her again, though this time, he added some weight to the sound of his voice, trying to muster up the macho-ness he knew would never, truly be there. With still no answer from the other side of the door, his heart leapt into his throat. Holy God, what if she really did do something crazy? He reached for the door handle.
“Nikolai?” Her soft voice, like autumn air, wafted from behind him.
He whirled around to find the little redhead standing there in the dankness of the rotting corridor. She hugged her frail arms around herself with her boots planted on the gritty stone of the floor. He exhaled to release the knot in his stomach. Face smudged with dirt, her green eyes peered up at him from under ruddy locks of curls. Her eyelashes were the most prominent feature on her face, and he was embarrassed to admit he wanted to kiss the end of every last one of them. She blinked at him once and it was enough to knock him over.
Realization punched him in the nose. “Were you down in the catacombs by yourself, just now?”
She threw her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at him, pursing her lips. “Were you coming to check on me again?”
“Can you blame me for worrying? Look what happens when I don’t come to check on you.” He gestured to her less-than-perfect appearance, noticing a few tears along the hem of her dress. “I’ll bet you were actually crawling inside a few of those crypts, weren’t you?” He folded his arms over his chest and widened his stance. “You’re crazy enough.”
Charlotte shook her head. “You sound just like your great grandfather.”
Nikolai sighed, forfeiting the argument instantly. “It is so creepy when you say things like that.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Am I making things uncomfortable?” Her sarcasm was like a stab in the gut.
“Charlotte, please. Just be easy for once.”
“What do you want?” She sneered.
It didn’t take very long for things to turn sour between them. It never seemed to. He should have been used to women speaking to him this way, by now. He rolled his eyes, but then the nerves came back like an angry swarm of butterflies to his stomach when he remembered the real reason for him coming to find her. He thought he had the perfect plan when he came knocking at her door, but after yet another war of words, he wasn’t so sure.
“I-I wanted to….”
She only continued to glare at him, and he sighed, giving up his attempt at keeping himself together.
“Have you ever been out on a date? Like a real date?” He stammered so hard, he wanted to punch himself in the face. Why couldn’t he just be smooth? “Did he ever take you out?” The last part came out a little bitter. Nikolai couldn’t help it.
Charlotte’s mouth fell open. She blinked at him, her arms dropping to her sides. Her lips trembled with words that didn’t come out.
“Well?” Nikolai waited. Did he finally render her speechless? A distant voice in his mind asked him if it was a minor victory or a major defeat. Either way, he was so clueless when it came to this sort of thing. Maybe his plans would work if he pretended like he knew what he was doing. He wondered if there was an academy award for “the nerd with the best pretend swagger.”
“Valek never…we didn’t ever…,” she fought to say. “It was always too dangerous,” she huffed. “Besides, people like us.” Was that meant to exclude him? “We don’t really do those sorts of things.”
“Why not?” Nikolai shrugged. “He might not be human, literally speaking, but didn’t he used to be, at one point? Didn’t he take his wife out on dates, or court her, or whatever? He must know what that feels like. He must know you deserve to have some fun once in a while.”
Charlotte shuddered almost unnoticeably. Almost. Maybe Nikolai shouldn’t have played that dirty card, but he knew it would work. “Fine. You win. I need to get out of this place, anyway. I’m tired of looking at it.” She pushed passed him, and into the bedchamber. Snatching up an oversized, male coat, which had been strewn across the bed, she shrugged it on, pulling her curls out from the collar. She whirled to face him, again. When she locked eyes with him this time, almost instantly she dropped her gaze to the floor. Was there something nervous about what lived behind those lashes? She tugged on a strand of her hair, avoiding any further eye contact. His fingers itched to run through her hair. Her heart-shaped mouth released the smallest exhale, and the muscles in his stomach clenched.
“Where are we going?”
Uh oh. He hadn’t thought this through completely. He hadn’t actually believed he would get her to say yes, let alone think about where he was going to take her once she did. “Well, um, I’m not sure, yet. I thought we could figure it out as we go. You know…improvise.”
“Great start. You’ve never really done this before, either, have you?”
“Hey, lose the attitude! I’m trying to do something nice!” he barked, but regretted it the instant the words left his lips.
She recoiled. She was used to being yelled at, he realized. Used to the harshness. That was it. He blew his chance. “Geez, your temper seems a bit familiar, too,” she said.
Nikolai exhaled slowly through his nose. He couldn’t decide if he was angry for her constant comparisons, or worried because she might have been right.
Charlotte’s cheeks turned a deeper shade of pink, and her gaze dropped to the floor again. “I’m sorry.”
Clumsily, like he’d somehow broken her, he approached her with his arms stretched out in an effort to put her back together again. “Look. You’ve really been through it. I can tell. I probably don’t even know the half of it. And I know I’m not him, and I’m not trying to be. But he’s not here. And it seems like things with him were a little too complicated anyway. All I’m saying is, maybe I’m someone who would be…less complicated.”
Charlotte looked at him square in the face, a little snarl playing around her lips. He struggled not to smile. She was cute when she was angry. “So you want me to settle for you, because you would be the less complicated decision?”
Nikolai thought about it and shrugged, despite her biting choice of words. “Kind of. Yeah.”
Charlotte giggled, and this time, Nikolai could not keep his smile hidden under the surface. It was such an amazing sound. “That really isn’t how it works. At least, it’s not how I work. ”
“Okay.” He nodded. “That’s fair. How do you work? Because, as you can probably tell, I don’t have a clue.”
Charlotte smiled so big, he noticed something twinkle in the darkest corner of those soft eyes. Nikolai had never seen that before. Out of all of these myths and monsters, it was the most magical thing he’d seen yet. “You’ll just have to figure it out. And at any rate, you must try to think more highly of yourself. As it turns out, you do have somewhat of a clue.”
He released a pent-up breath of air. “Thanks. That’s good to know.” Nikolai grinned wider and offered his arm. Shyly, she laced hers through his, and they walked down the stony corridor. He wasn’t anything special, yet. Wasn’t a Vampire—but walked the line. He couldn’t completely hear her thoughts or count how many times her heart beat in her chest. And maybe his lack of supernatural ability wouldn’t be such a problem. Maybe the mystery of what went on behind those large, watery eyes was part of the fun.
But there was something that did speak to him from deep within his gut. Something he knew inherently and could not deny. He loved her. In such a short time, and even though he barely knew anything about this strange girl—a child among impossible things—he knew he loved every, damaged part of her.
He started to count the beats of his own pulse, then, suddenly finding remembering how to breathe wasn’t coming so easily with her standing so close to him. Holy crap, did he just admit it to himself? He loved her. Silently, he thanked whatever divine force working against him for causing him to be there, with her. Despite all of the awful things he was made to endure, at least he was able to get to this point.
“So, did you find anything down there?” He changed the subject before they descended the main staircase, the one that spiraled down floor after floor and leveled out into the grand hall of the rubble palace.
“No.” She shook her head, frustration painting lines on her face. “I have no idea where the mirror could be. I’m scared.” She looked at him. “For Sarah. She is my best friend. What will happen to her if we never find it?”
Nikolai blinked down at her. If they never found the mirror, Charlotte was the one who was in the most trouble, not Sarah. “We’ll find it.” He smiled. “No worries.”
Charlotte made an odd, uncomfortable sound. He looked to find her frowning, again. “What?” He quirked an eyebrow at her.
“It’s nothing. It’s just…the way you talk. You sound like the rest of them.”
“People. Humans. The ones I used to bring back to Valek at dusk for him to feed on. The ones I hunted.” Her eyes went distant and cloudy as she seemed to recall the images she was describing. “I always used to pretend to cry—used to explain to them I had gotten lost and couldn’t find my way. They always used to say something similar. No worries,” she mocked in an over-exaggerated voice that still sounded a little annoyed.
Nikolai shook his head. “You are the prettiest, little murderer I have ever met. No one would ever suspect you.”
“That makes me the most dangerous kind,” she said with the kind of age-old wisdom that told Nikolai not to ask any questions. It was true. Charlotte wasn’t human. Not in the least. They were two of the same. Walking the Earth in mortal bodies, but not human in spirit, at all. There was something about her, in the way she spoke, and in the way she moved. It was like she’d lived, before.
“I’m sorry, you know. For what I said, last night. You are like us. I just didn’t realize it. You are more powerful than you know, Charlie,” he offered with a smile.
He noticed the muscles in her jaw clench. “Why do you insist on calling me that?”
Nikolai shrugged. “I’m not sure. He calls you ‘Lottie.’ No one else is allowed to call you Lottie, I’ve noticed. You snap at them if they try.”
“So, I figured, I needed my own nickname for you. Charlotte is just lacking…affection. You know?” He elbowed her in the ribs, and she recoiled.
Crossing her arms, she continued to walk in silence next to him a few moments, looking like she was considering this in her mind. He held his breath, until finally, a smile cracked the hardness in her face. It made her previously dull and sad complexion seem to glow. And so did he.
“Alright. Charlie.” She nodded, testing it out for herself.
The marble floors of the grand hall were singed and scarred, a goliath chandelier crashed down in the center, its metalworking dented. The crystals adorning the outer edges of it were scattered about in thousands of glittering shards. It lay slain on its axis. Chunks were missing from the walls, debris piled on the floor. Weapons neither of them knew how to use were littered about over the many guard corpses. Abruptly, Charlotte stopped walking. Her eyes had grown extremely wide, her face marble-white.
“What is it?” He placed an affirming hand on her shoulder.
Her gaze darted about details of the room, as though she were watching ghosts. Absolute terror lived in her eyes. She didn’t answer.
“Charlotte! What is it? What’s wrong?” Nikolai grasped her shoulders and shook her a little harder this time.
Charlotte blinked, coming out of it, slightly. “There was fire.” Her voice reduced to a whisper as she looked around, specifically at the crashed chandelier. “And then that.” She pointed at it. “It flew through the air. And there was screaming. He was standing there.” She pointed at an empty spot in the hall.
“No.” She shook her head. “No. Nothing,” she said. “Sorry, it was nothing. It was just an old memory.” She looked damaged and weathered, the memories continuing to haunt her, the delicate features of her face strained. Try as he might to tune into her mind, he could only come up with fragments of what she was talking about. Shouting. Guards. Fire. A pointed ear protruding from locks of auburn hair. Aiden?
Something flashed in the corner of Nikolai’s vision and a chill washed across his skin. It was something dark. His gaze flicked to the far wall of the room, though he found nothing there. He shuddered again. “Come on.” He pulled her forward by the hand, electricity zapping him when their palms met. “Let’s get out of here.”
They made their way out of the massive, baroque palace entrance, and into the early dusk of Prague. The city street in front of the unassuming building, snaked around into a shadowed alleyway near Old Town—the most tourist-populated spot and home to much of what made the city so surreal; ancient and mysterious architecture standard for a place that eclipsed the old world with the new.
Nikolai held onto Charlotte, keeping her close. Her gaze remained fixed on the various gargoyles and dark visages of the towering building windows and doors. The neo-classic art. The Gothic spires. There was magic about the place despite its welcoming nature to human society. This was Nikolai’s city. And he was aware of such magic well before it came to claim him. He could smell it on the air as he walked the streets. Hear it whistling through the alleys. It was an impossible energy even disbelieving humans could not ignore. Things he was sure held some sort of magical, symbolic meaning lined the bustling square just around the corner. The Astronomical Clock chimed seven times, seemingly to illustrate his feelings about the city. It must have been exactly on the hour.
He and Charlotte lingered silently in the shadows of a side alley as a single car sputtered along, past them Nikolai squeezed Charlotte’s hand, tightly. He felt inclined to remain in the darkness with her, forever. To protect her from the spotlight of whatever might have been watching. When the car rounded a corner, he looked down at her and smiled, stringing her forward and along a couple of stony steps onto the street.
“So, where shall we go on our date?” She giggled, clearly mocking him, swinging their collected hands freely between them. Was she making a joke of this?
It didn’t matter if it was a joke to her. Nikolai couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. He wasn’t used to seeing her so cheery. It was refreshing like the evening wind that blew her curls around her face. She looked so bright in the moonlight. He had to admit, the night agreed with her. “Let me take you to Hradčany.”
“The gates will be closed, at this hour.” She kicked at a small pebble near her shoe.
“I know a secret way in through Golden Lane. It’ll be fun. I used to sneak in all the time. I’ll show you.” They walked along a bit farther, until he reached an iron-gated doorway with a rusted padlock.
Ducking down to peer under the arch, Golden Lane wound past them and farther up the hill, heading straight for the castle square. Turning back to Charlotte, he grinned. “Come.” Rattling the gate a bit, he saw it was still just as flimsy as it had ever been, back when he was just a semi-normal, college student. With one kick of his Converse sneaker, the door flew in on itself, keeping at the lock, but breaking at the hinge. He pulled himself and Charlotte in past the graphitized walls, and around the golden pools of lantern light that seemed to give the road its name. On either side of them, artisan inns and homes were fused tightly next to each other, each of the curtains drawn. The street was essentially like one, long museum. One, at this hour, was closed.
“Stay quiet,” he whispered over his shoulder. She continued to eye him. He could feel her curious stare burning into the back of his head. In many ways, she reminded him of a little girl. So mistrusting, but with a sort of innocence, you’d never blame her for being that way.
“What will happen if we’re caught?” she whispered back, after a bit of walking.
“The castle guards will probably take us to prison for trespassing,” Nikolai admitted, a snarky sort of chuckle coloring his words. She made a small squeak from behind him, and he knew he had scared her into complete silence. As long as she listened, and remained quiet, he was confident they’d be fine. No one would notice them. Not with his sort of unique powers, anyway. If he needed to make them both disappear, well thankfully, he could.
They climbed up the shallow hill, reaching the end of the Golden Lane. There was a larger door with signs pointing the way to Hradčany and other parts of Prague. Again, it was barred and locked, though with much stronger holdings, this time.
Nikolai released Charlotte’s hand, wrapping his around the iron bars. He didn’t rattle it, afraid of catching the attention of some hiding guard. Instead, he remained in the deepest shadow he could find, and eyed the space before him to see if he could find anyone lurking just on the other side. He barely dared to breathe, though it seemed the space was empty, enough. He glanced upwards, toward the top of the gate.
“You know,” he began again, “I bet we could scale this thing.” But before he could finish, he saw Charlotte begin up the bars as though they were nothing but the most simple of tasks.
“My thoughts exactly,” she whispered through her grit. She clambered, nearly silent, up the length of the bars, catching what she could with the toe of her boot, but mostly pulling herself up by her arms. Nikolai continued to stare wildly disbelieving at the pretty, little girl in the pink dress, doing something he’d only seen badass criminals do when they were trying to escape jail on television. Clearly, he was not dealing with any sort of amateur.
“Charlotte! Be careful.” His heart was in his throat. If anything happened to her—any scratch at all—the Witch would have his head, before the Spider and the scarecrow-thing could get their hands on him. They were all so protective over her. It made him want to be doubly so.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said, straddling the top before plummeting to the ground and landing on her feet. “I’ve learned a thing or two from my odd life. It’s you I’m worried about.”
Nikolai sighed and started his own ascent up the gate. Though, he had to admit, he took a little longer.
Charlotte stood on the other side, tapping her foot against the stone beneath her, her arms folded over her chest.
“I’m coming. Keep your panties on.”
She grimaced at him. “Oh, I plan on it.”
Finally, Nikolai dropped down next to her, though he did not land as stealthily as she did, stumbling backward on his heels a bit.
“Better get used to a life of grace, now. You will be a Vampire soon, after all,” she said.
“How do you know?” Playfully, he approached her, a twisted smile curling the corners of his mouth as he angled his face down, and glared at her. “Maybe I’ll never taste my first drop of human blood.”
She stared up at him as he took a strand of her hair in between his fingers, and slowly inhaled the scent of it. “Maybe…I’ll refuse.”
“And remain the ever-clumsy you?” she chided, and shoved him away. Chuckling, he fell back from her, but held out his hand, fingers splayed for hers.
“Come on. We’re on an adventure.”
Charlotte’s hand laced with his, and they made their way farther through the desolate square. A large smile painted itself across her pink lips, her face suddenly bright. It sort of caught him off guard, and he relinquished an awkward exhale.
“Have you ever been here? To the castle?”
A quick look shot across her face he didn’t quite understand, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. She dropped her gaze to her feet and they continued to walk together. “Yes. A long time ago.”
“How long?” he continued to pry. She had piqued his curiosity again. She often did. “Was it on a hunting errand for great granddad?”
Charlotte stopped short again, tugging his arm back so he would stop and look at her. “So you finally believe me?”
“No.” He sighed. “That was a joke. Ever heard of one of those?”
She mashed her lips into a tight line and finally looked away from him, her face fallen. “No. It wasn’t a hunting errand.” Her focus dashed around the various corners of the square and to where it branched out to other side streets and alleys—where it let out to the main entrance for tourists. It seemed like she was looking for something. “Valek told me, a long time ago, this was where he’d found me. It might have been a spot outside the gates, but it was around here, somewhere—the place my mortal parents left me.” She frowned, hugging her arms around herself in an effort to stifle some chill Nikolai did not feel.
He took her face in his hands. “Hey, listen to me. He hurt you. You don’t want to go back to that part of your life, right now. Just forget about those problems. You can deal with them later.” He released her, and she backed away blinking misty-eyed up at him. Had he finally gotten through to her? “Besides, we are on our date. Your first date, I should point out. Have fun. Live a little. Stop worrying so much about the past.”
He offered her his hand again, and she took it, but not without glancing once over her shoulder up at the St. Vitus cathedral. She narrowed her eyes at the structure, and he didn’t like the way her gaze lingered. Like it spoke to her. When she didn’t move on her own after a moment, he tugged her lightly forward.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here. I think coming to this place was a bad idea.”
“You’re probably right.” Her voice was distant and dreamlike as she neglected to rip her stare from the ancient, Gothic spires. “Let’s go.”
Without another word, Nikolai tugged her through the main area of the square, and up to the bolted castle gates. He released her hand long enough to rattle them in order to seek some attention from the guards standing vigilant outside. “Excuse me!” Nikolai called to them.
“What are you doing? Are you crazy?” Charlotte screeched and grabbed hold of his arm, pulling him back.
“Relax,” he whispered back to her. “Excuse me! Is anyone there?”
Finally, two guards poked their heads out from their posts on either side of the entrance, both sharing an equally surprised expression on either of their faces. “What are you kids doing there?” One guard rushed to the front of the gate, struggling to unlock it with his massive ring of keys. “You must get out of there! It’s after hours!”
Nikolai quickly eyed the other one whose gaze darted around behind Charlotte. What was he looking for? “Sorry. We are tourists. From Moravia. We didn’t notice the castle grounds had closed until just a few minutes ago,” Nikolai explained. The guard succeeded in prying the gate open.
Hastily, and as though he were actually afraid of something, he yanked the two of them out onto the main street. “It is not good to be in this area after dark! No one is to be inside,” he said with a voice so grave, it sent a slight shiver up Nikolai’s spine.
“Sure. No worries. Won’t happen again.” Nikolai feigned a grin, and wrapped his hand around Charlotte’s again. He noticed she was still staring back at the castle, behind her. But more importantly, at the cathedral. “My girlfriend and I were just exploring, like I said.” He shrugged.
His using the term girlfriend was enough to snap Charlotte back from whatever she was searching for. She glared up at Nikolai, incredulously, which made him so tickled, his grin grew three times its size.
“Very well,” the guard concluded, his eyes still darting about the shadows. “Be on your way, then. Quickly.”
Nikolai nodded his thanks and pulled Charlotte fast down the streets. He had gotten away with sneaking around the castle what seemed like a million times before, but his interaction with the guards was never anything so ominous. This time had felt just plain creepy, and he had the urge to run, rather than walk. He couldn’t shake the nerves crawling under his skin.
“Why are you pulling me so fast?” Charlotte protested, her shoes clomping on the stony street behind him.
“Because, those guards totally creeped me out and I want to get out of here,” he explained. “Fast.”
A rusted, old Škoda sat parked near the curb, submerged in a deep shadow. It looked at least a few decades old. It sparked an idea, and, oddly, a question.
“Charlie.” He quirked an eyebrow, the realization hitting him. “Have you ever even been in a car?”
Charlotte bit her lower lip and smiled, shaking her head.
He squeezed her hand tighter and rolled his eyes. She was driving him crazy. There were so many things he wanted to…. “You have never been inside of a car?” he asked, almost laughing now, himself.
“No!” she hollered, smacking him in the arm with her free hand. “I have never been inside of an…automobile.”
Nikolai whistled and stopped walking. He eyed the car and looked back to her. “Let’s hijack it.”
“Let’s take it for a joy ride!” He pointed to the car and watched her eyes lock on it, her jaw dropping.
“You mean, steal it? Do you know how to do that?”
Nikolai shrugged. “I may or may not have done it a few times in my rebellious youth. What are mysterious childhood powers for?” he added, “Only if you want to.”
Charlotte’s cheeks turned a bright red. She looked at the ground, hips swinging from side to side as she deliberated. “Why not? I’ve committed worse crimes.”
“Much.” Nikolai beamed, unable to contain his excitement. He’d never felt so high in his life—finally liberated of all of the things and all of the people who always reduced him to feeling like he was nothing. With the crisp, evening wind, and Charlotte’s hand in his, he was on top of the world. He stopped just short of the cars back bumper, suddenly nervous. He could feel the shaking begin down in his knees. But this felt so right. He had to take the chance.
“Ch-charlotte,” he stammered. “I’d like to….” He began nearing her, the warm, honey glow of the nearby streetlamp washing in a pool around their feet. The color of it shimmering in her large eyes made their normal green color deepen into the shade of a maple leaf in autumn. She neglected to back away from him, like he would have initially expected. Instead, she peered up at him, expectant. It only urged him on more. “What I mean is…I want to….” He cupped the side of her face, his fingers sliding over her ear and into her soft curls. “If it’s okay, I….” He blinked, his lips so close to hers, it sent a shudder down his back. Would she slap him? He’d never gotten this far before, always striking out way before this part.
“Nikolai.” She inhaled and then frowned, a pretty, little crease forming in between her eyebrows—like she was in pain. His pulse sped. Oh no. Here comes the rejection. “I’m not…I’m not like other girls.” Her eyes searched his, so many questions living inside of them. “I am complicated.”
He couldn’t take it anymore. It was now or never. Before another instant passed, and before she could say anything else, he pressed his lips hard to hers. And the resulting spark was like nothing he’d ever experienced. He melted in the wake of her. She was like the embodiment of autumn, so warm and sweet and refreshing. She smelled like pumpkin and tasted like cinnamon and apples. He released her other hand, so both of his could wind in her hair. This was ecstasy, and, distantly, he wondered if he was a good kisser or not. She sighed against his mouth as they swayed somewhere in the universe of Prague, and the Czech Republic, and the rest of the world around them.
Something cool touched along his cheek, then, and a very small sob broke from her, so faint, he wasn’t even sure if he’d heard it at all. He pulled away, looking down to find her grimacing at the ground beneath her. Oh God, what if she really didn’t want that to happen.
“Charlotte, are you okay? I’m sorry.” He held her face in between both of his hands. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“No.” She cut him off. “No, please don’t be sorry. It was…breathtaking,” she admitted. She wiped at her face, some wretched emotion causing her smile to sink, and the light in her eyes to dim.
“Then, what’s the matter?” He straightened, afraid if he looked away from her, she would start crying again. Or worse. Run away.
She shook her head. “It’s nothing. I guess I don’t understand my own guilt. Now, I’m sorry. I have ruined the moment.”
“Charlie, nothing could ruin this for me. This was the single, most brilliant moment in my life. Even more amazing than when I found out all of this magic existed—when I found out I had an actual purpose in life. To me, this is even greater magic. You are magic. It’s like you’ve lit me up from the inside.”
She looked up at him and grinned, most of the traces of sadness and stress leaving her face. “Doesn’t take much to rip me apart, I guess.”
“Come on.” He reached his hand out to her. “We have a Škoda to steal.” He winked and she giggled in response.
“How do we do it?” There was an edge of electric anticipation to Charlotte’s voice. He smiled confidently. Finally, he could use his powers to impress a girl, rather than just freak her out and frighten her away. “You just keep an eye out. We don’t want anyone to see us,” he said, straining to see the lock on the driver’s door. “I think I’ve got it.” He placed his palm flat over the lock and handle, concentrating hard on the mechanics inside. He felt Charlotte’s eyes burning into him as he closed his own, really trying hard to focus.
Clenching his eyelids, and with a single exhale, he heard something click, but then, to his surprise the metallic opening of a car door. Nikolai’s eyelids flashed open to see Charlotte shimmying in to the passenger’s seat, her door pulled wide open. She had the mirror down as she adjusted the look of her hair within the reflection. Nikolai, gaped, astonished. “What the….” He yanked the driver’s side open, and quickly slid in next to her. “How did you do that?”
She peered up at him, a confident, satisfied smile playing at her lips. “Chalk it up to my many years of studying my prey. If there’s one thing I know about humans, it’s that they don’t trust themselves at all. After all, to err is human, right? I found this little baby hidden inside the back bumper. It was an easy guess.” She held up a small, glistening key in the dim alley light. As it turned out, she didn’t need any powers at all in order to be powerful.
Nikolai quirked an eyebrow and chided, “So you can quote Shakespeare, but you can’t drive a car?”
“Valek had his priorities when I was growing up. Literature was a big one. Automobiles were not.” She shoved the key into the ignition and Nikolai’s heart leapt into his throat and nearly suffocated him.
“Wait, wait, wait!” he called out, his hands catching hers.
She blinked at him. “What?”
“You can’t just do that! If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll strip the gears.” Nikolai pulled the key out and glared down at her.
“But I do know,” she whined. “I’ve seen people do it before.”
“No. Stalking your victim while you watch what they do through a car window, does not count. You’ve never been inside a vehicle with them, so it’s impossible for you to know!” he scolded, jabbing the point of the key at her.
She rolled her eyes at him. He adjusted the rear view mirror, and slammed his door shut. The inside of the car was cool, the crisp air from the night having filtered in. The sedan was an older model, something from the late eighties. The seats were springy and uncomfortable and it seemed like the radio was beyond repair. Either way, this was exactly where he wanted to be.
“Now,” he began again, “watch me.” He pushed the key into the ignition, his foot pressed against the brake. The car was manual, which was good. Way more fun to drive. He struggled to move the stick shift into the proper place after the engine sputtered to life. “One rule about cars is women suck at driving stick shift.”
“Oh yeah? Says who?” Charlotte very dramatically fastened her seatbelt as if to get the point across she felt her life was severely at risk with Nikolai in the driver’s seat.
“Says all of mankind.” He barked a chuckle. “Which, by the way, you are still a member of. Whether you like it or not.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. The car jolted forward underneath them, and they pulled away from the parking space, moving at a relatively slow and careful speed down the street. As Nikolai rounded the corner, he shoved at the little stick beneath his hand and they lurched forward and back with the new speed, the engine squealing in protest.
“What are you doing?” Charlotte called over the rattling. “You’re going too fast! This thing is going to become scrap metal!”
“No worries!” Nikolai only laughed at her over the rush of his own excitement. “You’ve got to trust me!” He noticed the rusted, old radio again and wondered if, by some miracle, it still might work. He reached for the dial and it buzzed and sputtered to life. He glanced sideways at Charlotte, smirking. Searching through the white noise, he finally found a clear station. One of his most favorite songs was playing, so he turned the volume to blasting. “You like The Beatles?” He shouted over the song, John Lennon starting to blare, I want you. I want you so bad. I want you so bad it’s driving me mad, it’s driving me mad.
“No! Not The Who! The Beatles!” Nikolai replied, laughing at his own joke.
Charlotte only shrugged and shook her head. She was wincing with the volume, so he turned it down just as the chorus hit: She’s so heavy!
“I want to see what this baby can really do!” He shoved at the stick again, and the car reacted with its new lease on life, the engine roaring. “There may be life in this old beast!”
The streets, so late at night, were not entirely empty, though just enough to get away with his reckless amount of speed. People on the sidewalks were nothing but mere blurs. They rushed past several tourist-trap stores still illuminated with the promise of doing business, even in the late hour. Nikolai whirled through the winding streets, snaking their way through the alleys of New Town and then eventually toward the ancient bridges that stretched over the Vltava.
“What are you doing?” Charlotte frowned, white-knuckling the dashboard. Her eyes were wide, and filled with this new, electric terror; though he noticed a tiny smile playing at the corners of her lips. Apparently, a speeding automobile was a kind of magic she had yet to experience.
“I want to show you the lights of Prague over the river at night. I want to show you what real magic looks like. We’ll go up to Petřín Hill. You’ll love it.” With one hand still clutching the steering wheel, he laced his fingers though Charlotte’s. He looked at her and smiled. “I told you. No worries. I said I wanted to take you out on a date, so I am the man with the plan.” He winked.
Charlotte smiled back before turning forward. He didn’t see her face, but he heard her gasp. She threw her arms up over her face and screamed, “Nikolai!”
What happened next was as if the entire world around him stopped in time. Nikolai’s mouth fell open. He saw the familiar, shadowed man before him, his face clouding the entirety of the windshield in murky black. Nikolai felt himself screaming, though he heard nothing, swerving the steering wheel, unable to see a thing past the grim, dark face in front of him. He recognized him as the same man who appeared in his apartment before his family was murdered. The one who came to warn him. The one who told him to find the mortal among the monsters. The angel among the demons. The one who told him to find her before Valek did.
“You are being summoned,” the mysterious man’s voice sounded ominously around them.
Charlotte’s hand was clutched so tightly to Nikolai’s, he thought his fingers might break. The car was spinning, though he was not sure which direction they were facing before it plummeted, nose first, off of what he could have only assumed was a bridge, for the car did not bump and rattle with the promise of grass or dirt underneath it. They were most definitely airborne.
Charlotte’s screams pierced his ears, the front of the car making impact with the water of the river, the thin, cheap glass imploding around them, slivers of it slicing at his face and arms. Not wanting to release her hand, he knew he had to let her go in order to get his bearings to save her. He unfastened his seatbelt and swam up and out through where the windshield used to be. He surfaced up from the black waters, choking back the bit he swallowed, and gulping for air, instead. He whirled around in the river, desperately searching for Charlotte among the small waves and ripples. His heart plunged into his stomach upon not finding her anywhere. She was still in the car. “Charlotte!”
People were already starting to gather along the bridge above, a few of them shouting down to him, though he could not make out their words. Somewhere in the city, the sounds of sirens began to blare.
He dove under the surface, trying his best to peer through the murkiness at the car wreckage. He followed a trail of billowing air bubbles to see it sinking deeper and deeper to the bottom. Violently, he pushed back at the water around him, racing to catch up with the vehicle. Eventually, as he reached the passenger window, he looked to see nothing but an empty seat, the seatbelt frayed where it had been cut. Frantically, he pushed away, looking through the darkness around him for any sign of her. Had she escaped? How?
A faint hint of a noise reverberated through the thickness of the river water, to his ears. A human-like voice called to him. He looked to see the frantic, wavering hands of Charlotte, and then her fiery curls whirling through the water. But he noticed something else, then, that made his stomach turn. Dark arms, no, claws, were wrapped around her frail body—at her chest and middle—as she fought hard to get away. Another clump of hair, dark and highlighted with locks of green, billowed out from behind Charlotte. And what was odder, was there was a tail. Something like a fish’s tail extending from the lower part of whoever this was as they kept Charlotte submerged.
Nikolai was running out of time, and out of air, to come up with any sort of intelligent plan of escape. Instead, he frantically began shimmying up toward the surface again, his lungs burning in his chest with the lack of oxygen. He felt like he might pass out as he reached toward the air.
He was almost there. Almost to the top, when he felt hands grasp around his ankles. He let out some sort of muddled noise, watching the release of what he was sure was his last bit of air float up to the top, where he wanted to be. He kicked and fought and swam as hard as he could, to try and free himself from the grasp that was tearing at his pant leg. But his struggle wasn’t working. The thing yanked him down, its scaly, webbed hands pressing at the sides of his face. Something crushed against his lips, his lungs filling with new oxygen, and a fishy sort of aftertaste. It was disgusting, but as least he didn’t feel like he was going to die. Not just yet.
He opened his eyes to come face to face with one of the utmost haunting images he had ever seen. Two pairs of slanted eyes stared back at him, aglow with an unearthly, silver light that illuminated the details of gill slits on either side of her cheeks. Nikolai gasped, the sound watery and gargled, for he believed he’d come face to face with something he’d never seen before.