DISCLAIMERS: See Part 1

 

FIUR and VLAMME

 

present

 

CHRONICLES OF DARKNESS

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BOOK ONE

SHADOWS AND DUST

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

AT A CROSSROADS

 

 

It grew noticeably colder in the tranquil valley of Ardeal. The high mountains were

covered with snow, as were the trees at the edge of the mountains.

The weather at this late autumn day wasn't beautiful. The sun shone murkily from a gray, cloudy sky. It was the day of a funeral. The old priest, who had died about a week ago and had been put on the bier in the small church, was to be buried.

 

Andrej jumped off his horse. He rubbed his hands, trying to warm his cold, stiff fingers. Then he patted the stallion's strong back and scanned his surroundings. "Idyllic," he muttered in a bitter tone. "A nice, little village full of busy but simple people."

Andrej guided his horse to a shelter at the inn and tied him to a post. Freezing he wrapped his coat tighter around his shivering body and observed the village's inhabitants making their way to the small church. "You all lead a godfearing life, going to church like good little christians..."

"...but is it the truth or just for pretense?" a husky, but urgent voice interrupted him.

"Granny Ana." Andrej looked at the white haired woman, who barely reached his waist. Time had left immense marks on her. Ana's skin looked like wrinkled, dry parchment and had its pale, tea-yellow colour. Her crooked appearance made her seem more vulnerable than she truly was. Intelligence was shining in her dark, clear eyes.

After a long sigh Andrej finally answered, "I don't know what you mean. Besides, if people will turn their backs so fast on Christianity just because the last priest in this valley died...then you should be happy."

"My young friend, I admit that I was never impressed by the hypocritical Christian doctrine. I still followed the old customs and traditions of our country."

Andrej didn't reply anything. He began to feel uncomfortable but the old woman wasn't finished. "Live and let die, that's my motto, or let live for eternity," she added and winked at him.

The tall man was stunned for a tiny moment.

"You do approve of that, Andrej, don't you?" Ana followed it up when she didn't get an answer.

"Whatever."

But the old woman still wasn't satisfied. "We both know better, don't we?"

Andrej also didn't answer this question, but between them lay the knowledge of a truth nobody dared to say aloud, in order to keep harm at bay.

Ana continued, "Take a look around. All you will find are peasants and cow heardsmen with the intelligence of a woodlouse."

With this image in mind Andrej smirked. He was about to respond, but the arrival of Rouven and his buddies interrupted them. They were laughing, bawling and pushing each other along the way to the church.

"These good-for-nothings!" the old woman exclaimed in disgust. From the corner of one eye she gazed at Andrej and added, "You would like to be one of them... as a friend, I mean."

For awhile the blonde man observed them before he said, "No. That was a long time ago."

"Yes, yes. Time is changing fast and there is nothing we can do."

"Well, come on. Let's go Granny Ana and stop talking about old times," he said and took one of her arms, guiding the old woman to the church.

 

The old building was filled to bursting, each and every inhabitant of the village was present. They had a long discussion, one that went on for too long. The shadows of the tall firs were growing longer and daylight was fading fast, when some people rose, clearly upset.

After a nearly endless speech, the village's mayor Nicolae Dimov fell silent, giving in to the demands of his people for a quick burial.

Rouven placed his shovel over his shoulder and raised his voice, "Forward, to the Death Field."

The group followed him, some helping to carry the wooden casket, others lightening the way with torches. At the beginning it was a long, silent procession that accompanied the dead priest. But soon enough angry and fearful voices made themselves known. The people didn't want to be outside their safe houses in the darkness. Finally they reached the neglected cemetry and hurried to dig the grave. Rouven saw this as a silent competition between him and Andrej, who also had a spade and helped. The hothead kept glancing from the corners of his eyes at Andrej, who wasn't impressed in the slightest and just kept on digging. It was hard work to dig a hole deep enough for the casket, because of the low temperatures the soil was nearly frozen. Nobody said a word. The only thing that could be heard was the dull thudding of the spades and the torches' quiet crackling. After the men were done they carefully lowered the casket in the hole. Rouven's father stepped forward to say the last words. "Earth to earth. Ash to ash. Dust to dust." After this short speech the grave was closed and one of the older people brought out his violin to play a traditional funeral song as last goodbye.

Tension was heavy in the air and in the background one could hear the whimpering of children that were clinging tightly to their mothers. After the soil had been heaped up somebody called from the crowd, "Bury him beneath stones!" Another one added, "Yeah, it's better to do that!"

Restlessly shifting his legs the mayor replied, "Nothing doing! It would mean we return to old customs and beliefs."

Mikahel, the village's smith, chimed in, his face still wet from the hard labour, "So what if we are? You yourself made sure to bury the old Ion Marlin in direction of the rising sun, didn't you, Nicolae?"

"Oh, foolish Mikahel. That is pure coincidence," the mayor defended himself.

The smith crossed his arms, "Yes, but didn't you demand that everybody of our beautiful valley had to be present at the funeral? Didn't you want us all to have a look and make sure that the old Marlin is truly in his casket? Do you want to deny that?"

Fiery mumbling and muttering could be heard. "Mikahel is right...let's listen to him..."

Nicolae Dimov had to think for a moment before he grinding his teeth and yielding,"Alright, get stones and pile them on top of the grave."

Instantly the people formed a line, passing on hand-sized stones they found at the cemetry grounds. In the end Mikahel and his son Dimitri put up a tombstone. Written on it was, 'Father Ion Marlin 1531-1598 Rest In Peace'. This was to be the last tombstone to ever be put up at Ardeal's cemetry.

 

After a while the crowd had scattered, leaving the men to go to István's tavern while the women and older people took care of the children.

At last, Andrej left the cemetry. Ana appeared beside him.

"Granny Ana, is there something else you need?" the tall man asked politely, even though he wasn't in the mood to talk to her.

"No, no. I was just thinking...tomorrow I'll go to dig up a wild rose and plant it on top of the grave."

"You are aware that wild roses only grow at the forbidden lake?"

"Of course. But only these bushes of wild roses can be used to protect the grave. Why would I care about this ridiculous rule by the village's council? This small lake is magical. It is pure. The one, who is allowed to drink from its water will be protected forever. When I was a young girl, I've been sitting on the lake's shores in warm summer nights and quenched my thirst there." A dreamy expression formed on her wrinkled face.

"You really believe in that hocus-pocus?" Andrej wanted to know.

"You don't?"

Andrej sighed and shrugged his shoulders.

"Ah, but you keep to the prohibition of the lake? We both know what ancient powers lay hidden here," the old woman replied before asking with great interest, "What are you going to do now, my young friend?"

"I'm off for a cup of wine at István's to honor the dead Father before returning to the castle."

"Yes, once in a while you really should mix with the people here. Good idea," Ana croaked, nodding in understanding.

Andrej shrugged his shoulders. "I don't care much about them. Wouldn't I give them money for supplies and services they probably would chase me to the devil and burn down the castle."

"No, the fools wouldn't dare to do that. Not now when everything is about to change."

Faced with Ana's mysterious answer Andrej wanted to ask some more but then decided against it. Instead he said goodbye and went to István's tavern.

 

*****

 

Up at the castle it seemed to be a night like any other. Silently Sadden had left her chambers and now strode through the lonely corridors of her castle. An inner restlessness was her constant companion since she had that dream and nothing could divert her thoughts from it.

After some time of aimlessly walking around, she came to the decision to look for the two others. Sadden found the silence rather unusual.

The vampire left the wall's inner circle and stepped onto a narrow, smoothly polished granite bridge that arched high over the inner courtyard. When Sadden had reached the middle of the black bridge she stopped and looked up to the night sky. All clouds had disappeared due to the icy wind that blew strongly from the mountains all day long. To Sadden the sky seemed like a dark blue carpet of velvet and the stars were sparkling like thousands of diamonds. The dark haired vampire smiled at the beauty of the night. For a moment she closed her eyes, letting the image settle in her mind. "I can smell snow..." Sadden's eyes flew open and indeed, it had began to snow. "The first snow of this year..."

Enchanting, the snowflakes were softly dancing through the air, becoming caught in Sadden's raven hair where they sparkled like tiny splinters of a crystal. During this peaceful moment new hope grew inside the vampire and the belief that dreams could come true.

 

*****

 

Melancholy ruled in another part of the castle. Lilith didn't even notice that it had started to snow. The young vampire sat on the lowest step of the staircase in the big entrance hall. She hugged her legs to her chest and stared at her suitcases. Hraban was perched on a demon-like statue of black marmor and cleaned her feathers.

Sadden appeared and looked at her protegée, who hadn't heard her arrival. Puzzled blue eyes glanced at the suitcases on the floor of the hall.

Lilith jumped in surprise as she suddenly became aware of her teacher behind her on the stairs, who asked right away, "You wish to leave us?"

"I can not stay," Lilith mumbled and looked away.

"You can not stay, or you do not want to stay?"

"Being apart from my family hurts too much. I do not wish to stay here any longer and being kept in the dark about the reasons why I was sent away drives me crazy. I can feel there is something wrong." Her voice trembled slightly.

Sadden nodded and sat down beside her student. "I understand."

Lilith could hear the sympathy in her tone and embarrassed she turned away from the master vampire.

Gently Sadden stroked her back and said, "You really think it would be right to go against your father's wishes?"

Lilith jerked and shook off the caressing hand. "What does it matter? I am a member of the clan and I can feel how our community is torn apart." She gazed deeply into Sadden's sapphire blue eyes and wondered about her expression. "Do you not feel it? The disaster that is spreading among us like an epidemie? Slow but steady."

Sadden's gaze wandered and her mind was trying to find a connection to the outside. She was shocked, because only now after Lilith had told her was she able to hear the outcries of the epidemie's victims.

Clearly irritated she leapt from the stairs and went to a window. Sadden opened it and looked into the snowy night. It seemed as if the dark chaos had just been waiting to get welcomed into the castle. The chaos spread out, taking possession of Sadden. Inside her mind she could hear the screams louder than before. Lilith rose and grabbed her teacher's shoulders, spinnig her around. The dark chaos disappeared and Sadden's eyes cleared as she looked at her protegée.

"What is going on inside you?" Lilith asked, suspiciously. "How could you..." She didn't know what else to throw at the other vampire.

Sadden felt helpless now that she knew how serious the whole situation truly was. In this moment she finally understood what Zephriel had meant with, "There is a conspiracy led by one of our own, a traitor among the vampires."

To her it seemed as if an invisible veil had been ripped off her soul. For too long she had tried to hide behind it. 'Like a woman possessed I clung first to my fate and then to that one dream. And all the while I did not see how evil rose among our community.'

Sadden's ears picked up Lilith's voice that sounded so serious and grown-up like she had never heard her before. "The old power of the order is fading. You too belong to this order, if you want or not. It also is your responsibility to protect it."

Today Sadden realized that there was another side to Lilith, who knew exactly what was going on. The vampire contemplated her words only to push them as far away as possible. "No. I am not interested in those struggles for control and power."

Outraged Lilith screamed, "YOU ARE NOT INTERESTED? You also are a member of our community that is in danger. It is not a struggle for power and you know that. Soon the world will be close to an abyss if we do not do something!"

Sadden tried to defend her point of view and thought back. "The order did not protect my clan from destruction."

Lilith resigned and added quietly, "You wish to take revenge like that? You want to oppose us? What happened was a long time ago. I really do not want to hear your excuses. You are weak. I will fight when the time has come and beat the enemies of our order."

Sadden could feel the fire of the dragon, which was coming in waves off her student. She herself had enough power left to feel how bad the situation really was. Torn by her feelings she paced the hall.

Lilith noticed the inner battle her teacher was fighting. There was a spark in her eyes and matter-of-factly she mentioned, "Not only the vampires will be victims. Your oh so precious humans are in great danger too. Even more so than we are."

The words were meant to provoke, but Sadden had already thought about that. She was sure the humans wouldn't be able to defend themselves, when push came to shove. The master vampire came to a grave decision. "I promised your father to take care of you. I will do anything to keep you here."

Suspiciously, Lilith asked, "What are you planning?" She didn't miss the firm tone.

"I will take care of it," Sadden declared.

"What do you mean..." Lilith was completely confused. "...you...alone..." It was meant to sound derisive but it didn't.

"Maybe with this fight I can efface some of my guilt."

"I still do not understand you." Lilith was growing impatient.

Sadden turned to her and placed her hands upon her shoulders. "There is no need to fear." A sharp glance from stormy blue eyes cut off Lilith's protest. "Our enemy is still not as strong as you think he is. Zephriel's powers are far greater than yours and he can feel the smallest changes long before they occur." Sadden finished with a wink that was supposed to cheer the young vampire up. "The downfall is not upon us yet, okay? We have enough time to prepare in order to save the humans and ourselves. Maybe it will not come to be such a great danger for the world, now that we know of it."

"But..."

"Please, go now. I need some peace and quiet to think about what to do."

"But..."

"If you promise to not cause any trouble you can go and take a look around Ardeal."

"But... you let me go to the village? Are you sure?" Lilith asked suspiciously.

"Go, before I change my mind. You can unpack your suitcases later."

Shaking her head Lilith left the hall. "I will never understand what is going on inside her." A smile formed on her features. "But now I know she has the 'Second Face'. A myth I thought disappeared with the past, but now it is quite interesting to see that it exists."

 

*****

 

After the funeral nearly the whole village had gathered in István's tavern. They were sittting together in small groups, nursing their beer or wine stretched with water, and talked.

"But what if the boy is right and this place is cursed?"

Rouven heard the question and couldn't suppress a mocking comment. "Another believer of Anatol's foolish sayings. Are there only superstitious idiots in this village?"

Abruptly all discussions stopped and everybody looked to the door as it opened and Anatol stepped in, his eyes darting nervously around.

"Well, if you speak of the devil, there he is!" Rouven exclaimed loudly and grinned spitefully.

"Say, how is it going, Anatol? Had another encounter with a demon?" another of Rouven's men gibed, but Anatol didn't react. Scowling he passed them by to get himself a beer.

"Hey!" Rouven grabbed his arm and held him back. "We asked you a question. It would be nice to get an answer?"

Disgruntled, Anatol freed himself and pressed the mayor's son against the bar. "You will see what you get when the demons come to get you!"

Rouven just grinned. "Is that so? My knees are already shaking with fear." That said he shoved him back roughly. Anatol lost his balance and collided with the table where Nicolae, Mikahel and some others sat, who were making a plan for the wood collection. Winter was close but due to some strange occurrences and Anatol's 'demonic encounter', everyone present thought it best to form small groups in order to collect the necessary wood.

Nicolae's dark glare fell on his son right after Anatol crashed into the table. "Rouven!"

"What? Is it my fault he stumbled?" he replied, innocently.

"We have an important discussion here. Don't you have better things to do than fooling around?"

Rouven rolled his eyes and retreated to his men with his mug. "Alright, father. Calm down."

The mayor dipped the quill in the black ink and finished the last word. "Well, the list for the wood collection is done."

After all the others had taken a look at it, Nicolae rolled up the parchment and put it aside.

"What happens now?" one of the present men asked.

"Yes, what will happen to our village without a priest? What if the demons come? Who is going to protect us?" another man complained.

Mikahel cleared his throat. "Demons don't exist..."

"Then how do you explain all the strange occurrences that happened lately? Cattle that suddenly disappeared..."

"Exactly, or what about Anatol, who turned crazy, and..." one of the village's older people chimed in.

Nicolae's fist hit the table. "Enough! I'll tell you what we are going to do. We will go back to our roots."

Mikahel frowned. "What does that mean?"

"It means we go back to our ancestors' customs. We will return to the old traditions and rituals."

"You think that is wise?" Another old man asked.

"It is for the best. We will control the situation in our valley ourselves, just like in old times. The first step to that was the funeral today."

A heated discussion followed but in the end the whole village community agreed and came to a decision. Nobody was sent to order for a new priest.

Nicolae pushed his chair back and rose. "Let's drink on our agreement that was forged after endless discussions." He waved at the waiting István, who carried a huge mug that had been made from a whole cow's foot. Its rim was made of wood and decorated with tiny carvings; scenes from the village's life.

Nicolae wrapped his hands around it and continued, "It is an old custom to drink from the traditional mug in order to seal a council agreement." He took the first sip before giving the mug to Mikahel. After everyone had a drink and the mug was empty István came to take it away. A bit tipsy from the strong, dark beer they sat back and continued talking.

 

*****

 

The small black carriage that was pulled by a dark horse was practically flying across the snowy paths of the village until it stopped in front of the tavern. Warm light from torches fell through the small windows.

"Wait here," Lilith said and left the carriage.

The coachman, a ghoul, just nodded.

Lilith wrapped a long, thick cape around her shoulders and looked to the sign that swang squeaking above her head. "'The Howling Wolf', hmm, guess here I am right."

Muffled voices and laughter could be heard from inside.

She pulled the hood over her head until only her cold smile was visible. Then she opened the big wooden door and entered the tavern. A flood of perceptions was carried to her, the scent of sweat, fried meat, smoke, bad wine and stale beer. For Lilith it was the usual stench from a crowd of primitive humans. "It smells like a pig sty in here."

For a short moment it was quiet, while suspicious and inquisitive eyes roamed over the newcomer. But their interest in the stranger's arrival faded fast and they turned back to their concerns and business.

Lilith ignored all the glances but one that wasn't even aimed at her directly. With his back to the door the young man sat at a table, his eyes following the rolling dices of the other players. A strange but also familiar feeling overcame Anatol. His hands started to tremble and he had to put down his beer mug. He couldn't see the new guest but deep inside he knew where he had the strange feeling before. Tense, he kept sitting motionless and thought, 'Does nobody realize what's going on here?'

A shiver ran down his back as he felt an ice cold hand stroking his back gently and a lovely voice whispered, "Good evening, Anatol. It is nice to see you again."

That was too much for the young man. A scream escaped him and he leapt up, knocking his chair to the floor. Anatol whirled around but there was nothing. Greatly confused he scanned his surroundings, but the newly arrived guest was still standing beside the door. Anatol began to sweat and nervously ran a hand through his hair. "That can't be... that can't be..."

That drew the attention from the others and also Rouven's, who rose from his table and stumbled toward the scared man. He grabbed his shoulders roughly. "Hey, Ana... Anatol... whassss se madder, huh? Had doo mush beer hmm?" he slurred drunkenly and belched openly right into his face.

Anatol just stared at him horrified, grabbed Rouven's jacket und shook him hard.

 

Meanwhile, the stout host shuffled slowly to the stranger, wiping his fingers on his leather apron. "What can I do for you?"

"I am taking a rest from my long journey and I wish to have some wine."

Suspiciously, István asked, "Will you be able to pay the wine?"

Instead of an answer a coin of gold appeared at the bar.

The host's eyes instandly began to gleam like the gold piece. Respectfully bowing again and again he announced cheerfully, "For that you can always have meal and drinks at my place for as long as you live."

"Do not take on more than you can handle," Lilith scoffed. Searching she looked around.

István called to his daughter, "Ljudmilla, make sure that the dice players leave, I need that table. For what it's worth they are still nursing their first and only beer of the evening anyway!"

Outraged voices sounded from said table, but the stranger raised her hand, silencing the host. "I will sit there."

István's eyes followed her out stretched finger. "What? The table in the corner?" Desperately he tried to change the stranger's mind. "It's so dark there, not worth your presence." But the guest stood firm and so István called, "You, Andrej, take a seat somewhere else, I need the table." Pleading was heavy in his voice because he didn't dare to throw the tall man out.

"Stop. I will sit with him."

István was stunned but obeyed. "As you wish. My daughter will bring you some wine. Don't you want to take off your cape?"

"No. Get me your best wine and two glasses. And I mean wine not the usual watered down brew..."

On her way to the table a drunk staggered into Lilith's path. Shortly before reaching her he stumbled. Searching for something to hold on he reached for her cape. The vampire took a step to the side and the man fell to the floor, where he started to snore loudly. She stepped over him and sat down on the wooden bench, her back resting against the wall and she lay her legs on a nearby chair.

After István was out of ear shot Andrej hissed, "What for heaven's sake are you doing here, Lilith?"

"Are you not even the slightest bit happy to see me?"

Andrej just scowled. "And what have you done to the poor Anatol?"

"Who, me?" came Lilith's innocent reply. "I was nowhere near him."

"I know you have other ways."

Lilith snorted in disgust, as they were interrupted.

Unsure, Ljudmilla tried to act and speak like a fine woman. "We do not have any glasses, but my father is hoping that our most expensive tin mugs will meet your approval."

Lilith nodded and István's daughter used a big jug to fill their mugs. After a rather clumsy curtsey Ljudmilla hurried to get away.

Andrej lifted his mug and announced, mockingly, "To my great patroness." He took a sip and asked again, "What are you doing here?"

Lilith didn't answer and she didn't touch the wine. Instead her eyes roamed over the interior of the tavern. The whole room was stifling and warm, and thick patches of smoke drifted through the air. Her gaze stopped on Rouven and Anatol that were still having a hot discussion.

Suddenly Anatol screamed at the top of his lungs, "We all are in grave danger!" Everybody present glared at him. István came from behind his bar, pushing his belly through the rows until he reached the two young men. Impatiently he turned Anatol around and glowered at him. "I won't allow any rebels in my tavern. Go home and don't come back until you're clear in the head again!"

Rouven grinned stupidly and slurred, "Shat'ss sho great..."

The sympathetic glances from the others forced him to leave, even though Anatol felt like he was treated wrongly. With a crack the door fell close behind him.

"The boy is a bit too hysterical for my tastes, " Lilith mentioned, amused by the scene.

"What have you done to him?" Andrej was furious.

"You are acting as if I am some kind of monster!" she shot back.

Andrej rolled his eyes. "Doesn't matter. There is no way to have a normal conversation with you."

"Ooh, the fine mister. Always so serious. Can not have any fun, huh?"

He grumbled something and stared into his mug as if hoping to find something interesting in his wine.

Slowly the other people went home because of the late hour.

With a big sigh Lilith rose. "I did not think it would be so very boring among humans." Glancing at Andrej she added, "Here I thought it was only you, but now I know they all are."

The young man refrained to answer and he swallowed a snide remark.

Realizing she wouldn't get anything more out of him, Lilith left the place as fast as she had arrived.

 

*****

 

Sadden was relishing the unbelieveable silence in the castle. She sat in the great splendor hall at a long table, going through hundreds of yellowed scrolls and parchments. "All these informations are unimportant and useless. If only I knew what I am searching for...whatever I am searching for..."

Sadden leaned back, exhausted, and rubbed her temples. "I have forgotten so much... I wanted to forget it all and now I am forced to remember." Tired and listless she rose and jumped.

Lilith's eyes were fixed on her while she leaned against the wall with crossed arms.

"I do not have to ask how long you have been standing there already?"

Lilith shrugged her shoulders and walked to her teacher. She glanced at the documents before taking a seat at the table, putting one leg over the other.

"Do you intend to keep sitting there?" Sadden asked patiently.

Again the young vampire shrugged her shoulders.

"Did you loose your voice? A while ago you had more to say. Has it something to do with your little trip to the village?"

Lilith exhaled sharply.

"Uh huh..." Sadden couldn't suppress the smirk that formed on her face and asked, "What is keeping Andrej?"

Indifferent, Lilith shrugged her shoulders once more as said tall man entered the hall. "I wish you a good night, Sadden. I'm frozen stiff and so glad to finally be somewhere warm." He quickly walked to the blazing fireplace, shook the snow off his coat and warmed his hands at the bright flames.

Sadden strode to him and asked seriously, "How was the funeral?"

"Father Ion Marlin is on his last journey to eternal peace," he answered, rubbing his cold hands. "The people don't want another priest to come here. They wish to keep his death... uh... a secret, if you want to put it that way."

Sadden frowned. "I do not know what to make of that."

"Well, look at it like that. No one will come knocking at your door anymore, trying to find a way into the castle to see what devillish things are going on here or to convert somebody." Mocking, Andrej made a horrified face before dissolving into laughter.

That convinced Sadden, who nodded slightly and returned to the table. She rolled up the scrolls and placed them back into their leather protection cases, while trying to break the uncomfortable silence and tension that had fallen over the room. "Did you have a nice talk at the tavern?"

Andrej pricked up his ears and wrinkled his forehead. "You really gave her permission?" He ignored that Lilith stuck out her tongue at him, but Sadden didn't and shot her a sharp glare. "I thought her mature enough to not cause any trouble and to have control of herself."

Andrej grinned broadly at Lilith. Then he became serious again. "I also heard something else. It seems as if someone lets the cattle out of their stables at night. Probably to feed the wolves. They never were so close to the village's borders like this year."

Lilith scowled at Andrej.

"I want these undertakings to stop immediately. The wild animals can fend for themselves," Sadden responded firmly to that.

Annoyed Lilith gave in and nodded. As if nothing had happend she returned to the former subject. She crossed her arms and sighed dramatically. "He is sooooooo boring. It is getting on my nerves." she pointed at Andrej.

"So, the fine lady is bored stiff with me, yes?" With big steps he went to fetch a long spear from the wall at the opposite side of the hall. He weighed it in his hands, testing the balance and decided it would do nicely.

"What are you intending to do?" Lilith asked puzzled while she leapt up and instinctively took a defending stance.

"Choose your weapon," Andrej replied calmly.

"A duel? You wish to fight with me? How exciting." Lilith didn't have to think long. She grabbed a light sword from above the fireplace. "You really think fighting you will be a challenge for me?"

"You shouldn't judge so fast. As far as I see it, you're nothing more than a spoiled little brat."

"What do you know about me, huh?" Lilith asked disparagingly.

Andrej wanted his words to sound very negative. "You are as pale as a corpse. You have a body that's oozing coldness, and long, pointy eyeteeth. Your whole appearance is dark and evil. And you don't have a reflection when you look into a mirror, which might actually be good for you since you don't have to look at yourself."

"Har har,"Lilith said bitterly and started a direct attack.

Andrej saw it coming and countered, holding the spear protectively in front of his body to deflect her heavy blow.

The young man continued, as if nothing had happened. "And you are drinking far too much blood, which makes you aggressive and insufferable."

Growing more furious every passing second Lilith kicked against the spear the young man was still holding in front of him and forced him back some steps.

"And I don't think you have any special powers. In my eyes you're just behaving weird." Andrej advanced but the young vampire jumped aside and hit him powerfully in the back with her sword's handle. His face contorted with the sharp pain on his spine.

"Really?" Lilith asked, then she laughed loudly and pursed her lips, pouting. "As if it would be of any interest to me what you think."

Without taking their eyes of each other they circled the heavy oak table in the middle of the room where Sadden still stood.

Lilith was smiling.

"You drain other creatures off their blood only to prolong your own existence."

To hear these words from Andrej drew Sadden's attention. Until now she didn't realize how he truly thought about vampires. Her sky blue eyes rested on her friend. She knew the words were spoken in the heat of the fight but still she got the impression that it sounded like a reproach.

The fighters didn't notice when Sadden hesitated a second and in the end left the room.

Lilith waved Andrej to her and said, "Everybody is attaching way too much importance to the drinking of blood. How often did I get to hear that we get a mental or even sexual satisfaction from it." Provokingly she ran her fingers gently from her throat to her candid décolleté.

Andrej ignored this allusion and pointed the metal tip of his spear at the vampire. "Isn't it the truth that always young humans are chosen? For what reason else, huh?" His flat hand hit the table. He was sure he neither would loose the word duel nor the real fight.

Lilith indicated a bored yawn. "You are so wrong there. No, there is a complete different reason why young humans are chosen? Guess again!" At the same time she started an attack, but Andrej dodged the blows, crawled under the table and rolled to the other side, where he jumped to his feet again. Lilith leapt over the table without touching it and came to stand right in front of him. "It is beacuse of the memories. Young humans do not have so much of them, which makes the drinking easier. Their thoughts, memories and fears continue to live on inside us."

Faced with this easy explanation Andrej was stunned.

Lilith used his carelessness for another heavy blow. Her sword met the spear with such force that Andrej staggered back a few steps. Stumbling over a foot stool his arms flailed wildly while he tried to keep his balance. Unyielding Lilith went after him until he lay on the floor. With great effort Andrej managed to bring up the spear to protect his body from the next blow. Suddenly the astonished young man had two pieces of spear in his hands. Still on his back he grumbled, "You're taking this very serious, aren't you?"

Lilith felt superior, placing her sword against Andrej's throat. "On one side we disgust the humans, on the other side they are drawn to us like moths to the flame...what reason is there for that?" She retreated a bit and added impatiently, "Get up already!"

Andrej tensed his muscles and leapt to his legs. At the same time he brandished the spear's halves to hit her in the back of her knees and make her fall.

But the young vampire saw it coming, jumped high and flipped, until she landed safely on the table. Andrej thrust the metal tip at her without much success because she had no problem dodging his attack. "Is that all you can do?" Lilith sneered.

The next strike was aimed at her feet and so she somersaulted off the table. He followed her movement but wasn't fast enough. Lilith landed behind him and kicked him in the back of his knees. It didn't hurt but was very effective. Andrej's legs gave out and he fell to the floor.

Lilith's sword rested against his throat once more. "You like laying down, huh?" she sneered, a triumphant expression on her pale face.

Andrej was on his back, his chest rising and falling rapidly with each breath.

"The images of your fears are ancient. Scary stories about blood sucking men and women. The living dead spreading fear and horror. I am asking myself how you humans are able to sleep at night with this?"

Andrej's eyes flashed as he retorted, "If one gets to know you, you aren't so scary anymore."

Before the vampire realized what the tall man was intending he grabbed her ankle and pulled her off her legs.

With an angry scream Lilith stumbled and the sword slipped from her hand. She braced her fall, turned and was back on her feet.

Meanwhile Andrej rose, took the spear half with the iron tip and stepped behind Lilith before she was able to retrieve her sword. His free hand grabbed her arms, twisting them on her back. He aimed the metal tip at the vampire's heart and smirked. "Now, where were we, Your Lowness?"

Lilith didn't answer, just hissed angrily. She writhed in his grip, but couldn't get free. In the end she said scornfully, "At least we relish the privilege of immortality, while all you have is the torturing ignorance of your approaching end."

Andrej loosened his grip and Lilith freed herself, bringing some distance between herself and the tall man. "I'd call it lucky ignorance of the own death," he replied calmly. "Looks like I won."

Lilith was already at the door when she turned around and smiled. "Maybe I let you win." With that she disappeared.

A surprised gasp escaped Andrej, "To have the cheek to claim that!" But inside he felt small doubts rising.

 

*****

 

Motionless Sadden sat in her high chair, staring at the yellowed pages of a leather bound book in her lap.The letters began to blur as her mind wandered unintentionally. Her friend's words still echoed in her ears. The door creaked open and Sadden jerked. Andrej entered the room, a dark expression on his face, and he took a seat opposite her.

"So? How did it go? Who won?" Sadden wanted to know, keeping her eyes firmly locked on the book.

Andrej inhaled sharply. "You know, I really am glad that your friend Zephriel has only one child you have to take care of. If I imagine there were two like Lilith making my life hell..." He ran a hand through his hair. "Such a... such a spoiled little brat!" Andrej grumbled.

Sadden didn't say anything.

As he finally looked up he was startled. Sadden's usually sparkling eyes were gazing at him in profound sadness. "What's wrong, Sadden?"

She shook her head.

Concerned he leaned forward. "Did something happen while I was at the village? What's bothering you?"

"Nothing, Andrej."

He wrinkled his forehead. "But..."

Sadden raised a hand to cut him off and turned back to her book. "Please. I do not wish to talk about it."

Andrej was stunned. It didn't happen often that Sadden rebuffed him like that and held back an answer. He was her closest confidant and they talked about everything. Frantically he thought about what could have happened. Uncomfortable silence ruled, until he burst out, "Did I do something wrong? I'm sorry that Lilith and I don't get long well, but as long as she doesn't change her attitude..."

"Perhaps you need to change your attitude, too," she interrupted, shut the book and went to the window.

Now the young man was completely and utterly confused. He looked at her questioningly. "What do you mean by that?"

Her gaze firmly locked on the snowy woods outside she said, "When you look at me... what do you see?"

"Sadden, what kind of question is that?"

"Just answer it," the vampire pleaded.

"I see my best friend and closest confideante. A human being with whom I..." he stopped as he realized what had slipped his tongue.

Sadden turned around, her eyes still sad. "I am not human, Andrej. I am but a vampire, who drains other creatures off their blood to prolong my own existence."

Tortured he closed his eyes as he was reminded of his own words. For a moment Andrej hid his face in his hands and a heavy sigh escaped him. "I'm so sorry. It was stupid to say something like that, please forgive me. It wasn't meant to refer to all vampires. You are different."

Sadden forced a small smile to her face, before she turned her gaze back to the window.

"Really, you have to believe me," Andrej persisted and rose also. He went to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "It wasn't my intention to hurt your feelings in any way."

"I know. let us not talk about it anymore," she replied, patting the hand that rested on her shoulder.

"Alright." Andrej went back to his seat and waited that Sadden would sit down, but the vampire didn't move an inch.

"Hey, how about a game of chess?" He asked into the silence.

"It is late. Are you not tired? You must have had a strenuous day..."

"So what," Andrej declined. "Are you scared I'll beat you this time?" The challenge was out and he placed the game board on the table and pulled out a small, wooden chest where the chessmen were stored. Andrej put the handcarved figures on their positions. Then he looked at Sadden, who still stood beside the window. "Now what? Do you want me to beg on my knees? You still owe me a return match from the last game."

The vampire relented and went back to her chair. As her eyes fell on the board she noticed that this time she was to play with the black figures. Questioning, she raised an eyebrow.

"You always play with white and win, which makes me suspect there is something strange going on here," Andrej explained, grinning widely.

Sadden smirked. "And you think if you play with white anything will change?"

Shrugging his shoulders he replied, "Could be. Let's find out, shall we?"

"Well, okay, I take on your challenge. But you do are aware of the saying 'White begins, Black wins', right?"

"This saying never came true for us, did it?" He reached for a figure and made the first move.

Shooting him a sympathetic glance Sadden mocked, "Ooh, Andrej, your first mistake."

"You're just trying to make me lose my composure, but this time you will be unsuccessful in your attempt," he announced and waited for her move. "Yes, victory will be mine this time." Andrej laughed triumphantly and a bit arrogantly.

"Do not be so sure of yourself." Sadden extended a hand to move her figure.

She stared at the chess board and paused as suddenly the black and white fields began to blur in front of her eyes and merged into each other. Her mind went on a journey and this time she wasn't able to prevent it.

Sadden saw herself surrounded by thick, gray fog. From a distance she thought she could hear Andrej's concerned voice but she was unable to understand the words. The fog slid open like a curtain and a bright light blinded her for a moment before it disappeared and her mind was cast in darkness. Eventually the darkness faded and slowly some creatures appeared, at first shadowy and distorted but with each passing second the image grew clearer. Sadden could see a majestic lioness that lay in the grass, basking in the sun, her fur shining as golden as the sun itself. A cub was curled up between her mighty front paws, sleeping peacefully.

The idyllic picture was abruptly disrupted as suddenly the lioness leapt up, took a protective stance over her cub and growled threateningly. Derisive laughter rang out and the lioness whirled around. A hyena had had stepped from the shadows and started to circle the mother and her offspring. Suspiciously eyeing the newcomer the lioness made sure to keep the scavenger far away from her child. At lightening speed something moved in the grass towards her. Something big and black, with glowing red eyes. A huge cobra threw itself at the lioness, drawing her into a fight. Quickly the reptile snaked around her body and wrestled the cat to the ground. The lioness roared and writhed, but the snake tightened its grip, cutting off her air supply, and the resistence of the proud cat became weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile the small lion cub tried to flee, but the hyena stepped into its way and pushed it back again and again until it lay exhausted on the ground.

Sadden wanted to help but she could just watch helplessly at what happened next.

The powerful cobra reared its head back and plunged its pointy fangs deep inside the lioness' chest. The cat arched and roared in pain. With a grate the snake broke through the ribs and ripped out the pounding heart.

The tiny cub sat up and lifted its head to the sky as a cry escaped its throat. The piercing, scared scream of a little girl. "NOOOOOOO! MAMA!"

Sadden felt her pain echoing deep inside her body.

A young lion, his mane not fully grown yet, entered the scenery. Outraged beyond all else he jumped at the snake that hurried to crawl away. The lion followed it.

In the meantime the hyena sniffled at the corpse of the proud lioness. She licked at the blood that was dripping from the chest wound onto the grass before she turned back to the trembling cub.

In this moment a phoenix came plummeting from the sky and spread its wings protectively over the small lion.

"You are safe now," Sadden heard her own voice whisper and gazed into teary, fearful

green-brown eyes... human eyes...

The fog grew thick again, robbing her of her sight and the image disappeared.

 

Greatly concerned, Andrej knelt beside Sadden's chair, patting the pale, clammy skin of her cheeks. "Sadden? Sadden, can you hear me?"

Her eyes flew open and startled he retreated a step before he asked worriedly, "Is everything alright, Sadden?"

The vampire was trying to get her bearings. The sudden vision had taken her by surprise and she needed a moment to collect her thoughts.

Tear-filled eyes met Andrej's as Sadden croaked in a shaky voice, "The Sunlions..." Looking at her friend one lone tear rolled down her cheek. "Something horrible is about to happen..."

To Be Continued...

 

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