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 FIVE

 

THE POISON OF THE SNAKE

 

 

 

 

"Madame... I... I am so sorry to disturb you at this late hour with such bad news..." the police chief began while looking at Helena, who strode with crossed arms through the library, an expression of absolute concentration on her beautiful face.

"...but, I didn't know where else to go," the dark haired man continued, released a sigh and fell onto the small settee next to the big table.

Meanwhile, Skylar sat down on the stuffed chair Helena had occupied a short while ago. The small girl's ears were on the conversation between her mother and Monsieur Dutroit while her curious, green-brown eyes searched the documents in front of her with great interest.

The head of the Leosol clan stopped pacing and looked at the bearded police chief. A tiny smile formed on her face as she tried to lift the man's spirits. "It is not your fault. There is no way that you can be everywhere at once to guard everything."

"That may be the truth but I still have something positive to report," he remarked, returning her smile.

"You do?" Helena arched her brows, questioningly.

"Even though the culprit managed to escape again, this time he wasn't able to finish his horrible deed."

The huntress nodded seriously and sadness was heavy in her voice as she said, "Indeed, it is good to know that this time the victim got to keep their heart to find salvation in heaven..."

"Excuse me Madame, but it seems to me I didn't express myself correctly. This time there is no victim. Mattieu Derriére, one of my best men, prevented the monster's evil plan, which means that the Countess Juliette Marceaux is still alive," Michel interrupted. "It is really amazing."

"What are you talking about?" Helena wanted to know.

"Well, this bastard spread fear among the population of Paris, and for months there was nothing we could do about it. But now, it seems that we are very close to arresting him. Yes, I'm sure it is only a matter of time until we can tie down and lock up this lunatic. They probably are going to behead him right away and then all people are finally able to sleep peacefully again," the excited police chief explained.

"It's better not to do that, Monsieur Dutroit," Helena warned him urgently. "Don't make the mistake of overestimating yourself and your men. But it is more important to not underestimate the killer."

Michel jumped from the settee and went over to Helena. "With all due respect, Madame. We nearly had him! We were very close to arresting him," he announced a bit miffed that Helena didn't trust his and his men's skills.

The huntress sighed. "There is nothing to say against this. But the population of Paris is not safe and will not be for the time to come. He is playing a game with you. Everything that's happening is because he wants it to. He wants you to believe that you are close to him. But in reality you are getting trapped deeper and deeper inside the web he is weaving," she said, rubbing at her temple, which was pounding from the strong headache. "You do not know whom you are facing here. He will be back to finish his deed and nothing, absolutely nothing will prevent that from happening."

The police chief just declined. "Pah! He shall come! My men and I are ready and this time we will get him! And, one thing is for sure, he will not be able to place his dirty paws on the Countess Marceaux a second time," he stated.

Helena shook her blonde locks. "That is not for sure! Like I said, do not underestimate him! You have no idea about the devil you chose to tangle with!"

The dark haired man stroked his beard slightly as his brown eyes narrowed, scrutinizing her. "It looks like you know more about the culprit than you are telling me, Madame Leosol. Are you hiding something from me?" he challenged.

Helena's heart missed a beat but she kept her face motionless. "I don't know what you mean," she replied innocently, her gaze never moving from his glare.

Silence fell as they stared at each other, but then the police chief took one step backward. "Please accept my apology . You are right, Paris is not safe yet."

"I would like to talk with Countess Marceaux. I also wish to investigate the crime scene and I want to speak with Monsieur Derriére. Would that be possible?"

Michel nodded confirmation "Tell me when and I will see what I can do about it."

"Now," the huntress announced casually.

The chief's mouth fell open and he stared at her in surprise. "You mean right now?"

Helena smiled brightly. "I did say that, didn't I? Or maybe there is something wrong with your ears, Monsieur?"

It took a moment for Michel to regain his composure. Whenever she smiled at him he felt his chest warm, a feeling of great happiness spreading through his body. He cleared his throat in embarrassment, hoping that he wasn't blushing, but the glowing of his ear tips was telling otherwise. Rubbing the nape of his neck he answered, "No Madame, my ears are working just fine. There is just one tiny problem. The Countess and her family have already left the country. That is the reason you will not be able to talk to her."

Searching he reached inside an inner pocket of his uniform. "But, fortunately... where is it... ah, I've got it." He took out a small, well-worn notebook and gave it to the huntress. "I have spoken with the Countess shortly after the incident and just before the Marceaux family left for England, and I have written down everything she could tell me about the occurrence. Maybe you have use for it, Madame Leosol."

Helena took it from his hands and placed it on the table. "Thank you very much, Monsieur Dutroit. I am sure it will be of great value for us. But now we really shouldn't stand here any longer and waste precious time. I really would like to inspect the crime scene and talk to Monsieur Derriére."

"Alright, if that is your wish."

Helena nodded and turned to her daughter. "Skylar, come. I want you to accompany me."

But the cry of happiness she was expecting from the blonde girl failed to come.

The police chief tried in vain to contain his laughter. "It seems to me that your daughter is very engrossed in her reading. Or maybe she is sleeping with her eyes open. Well, it is kind of late and I think someone so young belongs to bed at this time. But, maybe your son could come with us?"

Helena was far too concerned to understand one word of what Michel was saying.

Skylar seemed to be hypnotized and her eyes were staring unmoving at the old piece of paper with the ancient symbols of the vampire clans. The huntress took hold of a small shoulder and shook her gently. "Skylar? Sweetie?"

The blonde girl jerked back from her thoughts. "Mama? What... what's wrong?"

Relieved, Helena released a deep breath. Then she looked at her daughter, grinning widely. "We have to go."

Skylar wrinkled her forehead. "Go? But, where to?"

Helena's grin got even bigger. "You will see soon."

 

*****

 

"Answer my question, Chalice! Where have you been?" the dark lord screamed outraged, roughly grabbing the trembling woman kneeling at his feet and pulled her upward. "I demand an explanation! This night I didn't get what I was craving and that is entirely your fault!" One of his gloved hands closed around her throat and pressed her into the wall, choking her.

Chalice gasped, tiny, black dots started to dance before her eyes as both her hands clawed at the one of her master, trying desperately to break the tight grip. "Ma-ster... pl-plea-se... l-let... m-me... ex-pl-plain," she finally croaked out hoarsely.

Azrael's black-brown eyes blazed furiously, but the grip around her throat loosened somewhat. "Explain? Yes! I recommend you do that right away!" the vampire growled threateningly.

Chalice took a deep breath and swallowed a few times before she began in a slightly trembling voice, "Master, do you remember the clan of hunters, whose members bear the tattoo of a lion's head as a symbol on the nape of their necks?"

"The family Leosol?" he enquired, slowly letting his hand drop.

Chalice nodded and hesitatingly rubbed her sore throat.

Azrael took off his black cape and slipped out of his black leather gloves. With great care he placed the cape across the backrest of a stuffed chair and threw the gloves on the table before he turned back to the blonde woman. "What about the Leosols?"

With utmost caution Chalice drew closer to him, and suddenly she blurted with a tiny smile on her full lips, "They are here."

"What did you say?" the dark lord asked again, thinking he had heard wrong.

"I have seen them, even talked with them. There is no doubt, master! The hunter clan is here. That is the reason I returned just now. I wanted all the information I could get about the hunters, before revealing their presence to you," she continued, excitingly.

The vampire stroked his dark beard, while the corners of his mouth slowly lifted. His outburst of rage was banished and in its place a devilish smile appeared on Azrael's pale face. "What a nice surprise. I finally will get to know the mighty hunters of the Sunlions," he declared maliciously and sat down on a chair.

"And that is not the only thing. You will also destroy them, will you not, master? You are going to kill them all, right?" Chalice's face was bright with glee at the thought of another blood bath. Insane giggling erupted from her throat as she sat down on the floor, at the feet of her master. She wrapped her arms around his legs and gently rubbed her cheek against his knees, while one thought was ruling her mind. "Now I have proved my worthiness to the master. And as a reward he will finally make me his lifemate."

One of Azrael's hands slid into her long, light blonde hair. "Of course I will kill them all. But before I can do that you must tell me all you found out, so I can come up with a suitable solution for this tiny problem," he said matter-of-factly. "Begin then, tell me about the clan of hunters."

 

*****

 

Relaxed and naked from the waist up the vampire laid on his stomach on top of the bed, his arms wrapped around a silky pillow, on which his bearded chin rested. Chalice was sitting on his butt, a small flask containing scented oil in her hand. Carefully she tilted the flask, dribbling the oil all over Azrael's back. The pleasant fragrance of sandalwood filled the room as Chalice started to massage the viscous fluid into the vampire's skin.

"Oh, that feels great," the dark lord moaned satisfied and closed his eyes while Chalice's slender fingers danced gracefully across his back.

"Master?" she asked slowly, because she really didn't want to disturb the vampire's peaceful mood, but there was one question she just needed an answer to.

"Mmhhh?"

"What are we going to do, now? I mean concerning the hunters? They may only be three and two of them are still children, but..."

"What are you worried about, Chalice? There is nothing to fear. This mother and her two children are not going to be a threat. If I think about it, the whole situation is completely ridiculous." He shook his head slightly and laughed, amused at the thought of being eye to eye with the hunters.

"What do you mean, master?" the blonde woman enquired.

"It is written in the Chronicles that the Leosol's are the most powerful hunters ever," he explained, "and now I find out that the clan consists only of a weak woman and her two children. I think that is quite funny, don't you?"

"Of course I do, master," Chalice admitted. "But still, do not forget to every legend is a bit of truth. Whoever said that there are not more of them?"

"Well, to find out about that is going to be very easy," Azrael replied calmly.

"How?" Chalice asked with great interest.

The vampire just grinned and announced confidently, "Some of my followers are in town, and I am sure they would be willing to support us when we play a little game. We are going to turn the hunters to prey!"

 

*****

 

Surprised, Jean looked up from his dinner as a dripping wet person entered the kitchen.

"Young master!" Monique exclaimed in shock and hurried over to the young man. "What happened to you?"

Before Kyrian could answer the cook grabbed one of the roughly woven towels and began to dry his long, black hair. "You have to get out of these wet clothes right away and get into something warm and dry before you catch your death," she said firmly, letting go of the towel and dragging him after her. "Besides, you are dripping all over my freshly cleaned floor and I can not let you do that."

Jean chuckled and his blue eyes danced with amusement as Kyrian's imploring gaze met his. "Do not try to resist her, my boy!" He shook his head, and still grinning the tall man turned back to his meal. "Monique's maternal instincts are strongly developed. I wonder what it will be like when we have children of our own."

 

*****

 

Azrael relished the massage, which had turned into a tender caress. Chalice's fingers slid over his bare, muscled back down to the waistband of his pants. With the tips of her fingers she traced the contours of his clan tattoo, which had been etched into his lower back. The picture of a black cobra in an attacking position clearly stood out from the pale skin. Fascinated the young woman regarded the tattoo in the flickering light of candles that had been placed all around the room. The play of shadows and light made it appear as if the symbol came to life and Chalice thought she could hear quiet hissing noises. Completely lost in thought she paused. Not loosing eye contact with the snake's tattoo she asked quietly, "In the near future, will this be mine, too?"

Azrael's black-brown eyes opened and he rolled over, so now Chalice was sitting on his stomach. "What are you talking about," he enquired cautiously.

Her soft, warm hands began to stroke his muscled chest. "When you take me for your lifemate, will I bear your symbol on my body, too?"

Azrael sighed and rolled his eyes. For weeks, even months, Chalice has been getting on his nerves with wanting to become his lifemate through a blood sacrifice. "Yes, sure," he responded dismissively. "When the time comes."

"When will that be, master?" she wanted to know with emphasis in her voice, a pout forming on her lips.

He sat up and pushed her roughly off his lap. "The exact time has to be chosen wisely."

"But to me the time is right. Actually, it is perfect!" Chalice whined, looking at him with big, brown, innocent eyes. "Why wait any longer, master?"

Chalice pressed herself against his back, embracing his body fiercely from behind. "I so desire to finally become one with you. Please, master, please! Release me from my dreary human existence and let me become a part of your world! Do it, master! Bite me, I beg you! Bite me!" she whispered hoarsely into his ear, not willing to be put off any longer.

The vampire's body shuddered. The temptation was great, because he hadn't had anything to drink this night. He could feel her heartbeat thudding against his back, could hear the blood coursing through her veins, and still he withstood the longing, pulled out of her embrace and rose from the bed, bringing some distance between their bodies.

"Firstly, it needs an ancient, complicated ritual and secondly, we don't have any time to spare. There are more important things that need our attention," Azrael answered, delaying her.

"But master..."

"ENOUGH!" he thundered furiously. "I'm warning you, Chalice. Don't try my patience! You don't know what else I am capable of!" In his dark eyes blood thirst was flashing wildly and the scared young woman retreated, shaking with fear she stumbled backward onto the bed as the vampire drew closer.

Their gazes locked, Azrael straddled her trembling body, grabbed her wrists and held them in a viselike grip.

His powerful charisma bound the young woman as much as his strength did. Chalice was not able to free herself and her pulse raced as the dark lord sat down on her and bent down to whisper into her ear, "Do you want to know how I became head of the Serpentes? Do you really want to know?"

The fine scent of sandalwood filled her nostrils and Chalice couldn't think of anything else but her master and how much she longed to be his one and only. Her lips slowly parted and quietly she breathed, "Yes, I want."

A contemptuous smile graced Azrael's features as he left the bed, turned his back on Chalice and began to talk, lost in the memories of his past. "I admit I was young and inexperienced back then, but still I relished living among the Spanish nobles. At this time Apophis, my soon-to-be-master was already observing my life. The time of my youth ran by and I became tired of this life, day in, day out, it was always the same. I became bored. Nothing made me happy anymore, not money, not women, nor spending time with my friends. And just at the height of my great boredom he appeared. Master Apophis, head of the Serpentes clan and member of the great 'Order of Five'.

Azrael hesitated, silently thinking about their first encounter, while Chalice's eyes were glued to his lips, begging him to continue the story.

As the vampire finally went on, he couldn't suppress a trace of awe in his voice, "When I was visiting the theatre he came to me without me realizing at first that he had entered. Quietly he sat there, watching the play with me. But my concentration on the play disappeared, I felt him watching me, even as I noticed from the corner of my eyes that he was not actually looking at me. Furtively I sized him up. He seemed to be very wise and experienced in matters of life and I asked myself how old that man could be. His skin showed no signs of age, his smooth, gray hair had been braided and the fine fabric of his clothes was of exotic elegance."

Again Azrael paused, this time to pour himself a glass of red wine. Then he continued, "Before the play was over, he left the theatre and I followed him into the night. His closeness burnt the gray boredom out of my heart and with every second in his presence I felt the feeling grow inside me to be unable to live without him... an unexplainable magnetism."

For a moment he hesitated, and lost in thought he gazed into his glass. "Today I know that it was a vampire, who seduced my heart."

Excited, Chalice interrupted him, "And then... then he turned you into one of his own kind, didn't he?"

"Yes, this night was the last I looked at the world with the eyes of a mortal. Apophis chose me that night... and he liked me so much that he gave me a choice of my own. Of course I chose life. I didn't wanted to die. Not after just having met him."

Chalice's eyes sparkled and beaming with joy she said, "Oh, I'm sure that was a very happy moment for you. It was a complicated ritual, yes?"

He didn't answer her hidden hint, just snorted in annoyance, "Now I had become a vampire while at the same time I was not."

His assistant grumbled a bit, before admitting candidly, "I don't understand, master."

"I didn't expect you to." Arrogantly the vampire looked down at Chalice. "It means I didn't have the same powers and skills like those that are born as vampires. They didn't let me into the deepest secrets of the dark folk and also the Chronicles of Darkness, which contain the secret knowledge of the world were not for my eyes to see. They were fiercely guarded and locked away from me. I was only allowed to read certain parts... damn it! Nothing had changed! Year upon year went by, always the same. The vampires by birth were striding around with dignity and our kind was only tolerated at court. My disgust with the clan grew and grew, but still I learned a lot through observing them. For a long time I thought I was only one of many but then I discovered my great talent... manipulation. But after awhile that wasn't enough anymore and so I realized that I could gain more power and influence if I were to drink the blood of immortal souls. I knew it was the greatest sin of the vampires' world, but still I did it. I did it and I liked it... a lot!"

To cut off another of Chalice's questions, he added, "Only a vampire by birth can develop powers and skills, independently."

Disbelieving Chalice wrinkled her forehead, shock lacing her voice as she asked, "Is that the truth?"

Angry impatience rose inside the dark lord, "Are you saying I lie?"

"No! No, of course not!" whimpered the blonde, "It is just that... I thought..."

"You and thinking?" Azrael burst into laughter.

Hurt, Chalice climbed off the bed and retreated to a dark corner, now silent.

Smiling, the dark lord regarded her until he returned to his tale. "Every wretched day I hated this injustice more. So I used the only opportunity I had. I took his naive favorites and put my plan into action."

He emptied his glass in one swallow. Now in a mild mood he walked over to Chalice. Azrael bent down to her crouched figure, cupped her neck and pulled the beautiful face, framed with long, light-blonde hair, toward him. "Oh, it was so easy. So ridiculously easy. I killed them all with great pleasure and left no one that could stand in my way to the top. If others of the Order had been warned, my first followers and I would have never made it out of there."

Chalice lay in his arms, regarding him with great devotion, relishing the dark charm that oozed from him.

"The so called guardians of the Chronicles, who think they have the skills and knowledge to interpret the old prophecies the correct way," he spat disgusted.

Suddenly something occurred to Chalice, "If you have killed them all, then where are the Chronicles?"

"Gone. I searched the castle from the roof to the cellar, looked in every corner, left nothing unturned, but they were gone as if they did never exist. Had I not seen them with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed they had been there. But I know they still exist and these scriptures will be mine eventually." Grimly he clenched his hands to fists. "Sooner or later, of course I'd prefer sooner," he announced with a devilish grin forming on his face.

Excited by Azrael's words the young woman dared to ask another question, "How did it feel to drink THE blood? The blood of an immortal, your master?"

With pleasure the dark lord remembered the moment. "Arousing. My teeth pierced the skin of his throat and I tasted his thousands of years old blood. The flood of his memories and powers impaled me with brutal force to live on in my veins. As his last drop of blood went down my throat, he was no more but a drained and empty shell."

"That truly sounds intoxicating," Chalice responded.

"Oh, that it is. Still, to become anything like a vampire by birth I have to drink a lot of immortal blood. Unfortunately, the blood of common vampires is too weak to reach my aim."

"Well, then let us go to find others of the Order and together we will deliver them to their unavoidable fate."

Azrael gazed sharply at his high-spirited companion. "WE will do nothing!"

"Uh... uh... no?" the blonde woman stuttered surprised.

"No! We will not!" Azrael thundered again. "Do you really think it would be as easy as with the clan of the Serpentes?"

"I... I do not know..." came the unsure reply.

Finally the dark lord lost his self-control and growled, "Of course you don't! Because YOU were not there! After having lived with them for so long I realized their clan's continuing decay. Even before my time they had lost many of their old blood and the rest of the clan lived secluded and unknown in the Spanish wilderness."

Frightened, Chalice looked up at her master and asked carefully, "How strong can the other clans be?"

"At least strong enough that I will not risk an open fight with them. We will resort to a ruse and use some tricks to bring the end upon them." The typical, devilish grin returned to his features.

"Oh, how great!" Chalice exclaimed happily, nearly dancing with joy. "Count me in!"

Azrael kept cold and calm as he mumbled to himself, "Master Apophis, if only you had realized how much I have learned from you. You would never have underestimated me in thinking that I was an irascible and spoiled boy. My betrayal on you and your oh so venerable clan would have never been possible. So, thank you, my creator."

 

 

 

*****

 

Exhausted Skylar fell on her bed and tiredly rubbed her eyes. Clad in a white night gown she slipped underneath the warm covers, snuggling deeply into the pillow.

Helena entered the room and sat down on the bed's edge. Reaching out with a slender hand she brushed some strands of blonde hair of the girl's forehead, pressing her lips for a tender kiss against the smooth skin. "Good night, my precious child. Sweet dreams."

"I wish you the same, Mama," Skylar retorted, yawning widely.

Helena rose, wanting to extinguish the candles, but the girl took her hand, holding her mother back. "Mama?"

"What's wrong, sweetheart?" the huntress enquired softly, once more sitting down next to her daughter.

"You once told us that there are only four big vampire clans, right?"

Helena nodded. "Yes, that's right. The clan of the dragons, the griffons, the mantichoras and the snakes. Why? Did something occur to you when we were at the crime scene that my eagle eyes should have overseen?" the huntress asked and smiled. "It seems to me I made a good choice in taking you with me tonight. Four eyes see better than two."

Skylar giggled and declared charmingly, "Yes, and the police chief only has eyes for you."

"That's nonsense," Helena denied. "Monsieur Dutroit is only thankful that we are helping him. Even though we must not tell him that it is not a usual killer we are searching, but a vampire. Now, let's get back to your actual question so you can go to sleep. I can see that you won't be able to keep your little eyes open much longer."

"Alright. If there are only four clans, how come we have an old document with five heraldic animals? What is it about the fifth clan, Mama? Are they hunters like we are or..."

Their conversation was interrupted as a beaming Kyrian entered the room, his hair still wet from the heavy rain and a bath which Monique had forced him to take. "Finally! There you are! Monique said you have been gone with the police chief. Is there anything new about our vampire?"

Helena rose from the bed's edge and walked toward him. "It is good to see that you found your way home, my son," she said seriously, her face hard and bare of any emotion. "Tell your sister good night, then come down and meet me at the library. I wish to talk with you about something."

Kyrian was a bit puzzled about the way his mother spoke to him. But then he shrugged his shoulders. "Alright."

Without losing another word concerning Skylar's question the huntress left the room and took the stairs down on her way to the library. She sat down in one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace, reached beneath her long, blonde locks to rub at her cramped neck. "What a night," she mumbled to herself. "And still we are not one step closer to the blood sucking monster."

"But soon we will restrain him. I'm sure of that," Kyrian threw in as he came into the room. Nearly light-footed he glided to the armchairs and with a big grin he sat down, facing his mother. He was dying to tell her about his rendezvous with Christine. Kyrian had never been happier in his young life than in this moment. But the serious expression of Helena's face made his grin fade. "Mama? Please, tell me. What's wrong?" he asked concern heavy in his voice.

The huntress looked at him and shook her head slightly. "Just what is going on inside you, my son?"

Kyrian wrinkled his forehead. "I don't know what you mean, Mama."

"You were supposed to be inside the castle after dusk," she reminded him firmly.

Apologizing the young man lifted his hands. "Yes, I know. But, I didn't want to run through the woods during the thunderstorm. So, Christine and I went inside a little barn where we waited until the sudden, heavy rain was over."

"And that is the point, exactly! Whenever this girl is in your presence your head is floating above the clouds and nothing else matters to you!"

Kyrian crossed his arms. "You are exaggerating," he grumbled.

"Am I?" Helena exclaimed. "Then how come your sister even noticed it? And how can it be that my son, who knows how to handle a crossbow and never misses his aim hurts a servant with it?"

Indignant, the young hunter jumped from the armchair. "It was just an accident!" he defended himself vehemently. "I already apologized to Jean, and he is fine!"

"Lower your voice and sit back down, Kyrian!" Helena demanded forcefully. "There is a very dangerous vampire on the loose out there! You are a hunter, my son! And you know what that means!"

"Yes, I know that!" he retorted angrily, but wasn't about to sit back down.

"Then act like that!" Helena warned, now rising from her armchair, too.

"And how am I supposed to do that? You never take me with you when you go on the hunt!"

"And I never will as long as you don't have your feelings under control!" his mother decided furiously. "You have a hot temper and you are as stubborn as a mule!"

"And you are still treating me like a little child! I am twenty years old, Mama! But how can I prove to you that I can take responsibility if you don't give me the chance?" he argued fiercely.

Helena's eyes narrowed to tiny slits and her voice was dangerously low, as she stood very close to him, hands at her hips. "You had your chance and proved that you can not take responsibility. If you are not even able to be at the castle before dusk, how am I supposed to take you with me on hunts with a clear conscience?"

Kyrian's angry retort was cut off with a quick hand motion by Helena. "Enough! This useless discussion is finished, before you say something you will regret later. Go to bed, my son. Think about my words and your behaviour." With that she left him standing there and retreated to her chambers.

His face bearing a dark expression, Kyrian's hand curled into a fist and he slammed it against an armchair's backrest. "I will prove it to you!"

 

*****

 

 

"A voice, that once was familiar, now is silent. A daughter, who was always there, is no more here. What remains are memories that no one can take from us until our happy reunion. Now you know, my beloved child, what your parents are feeling. Please, remember these lines whenever you can not feel our presence and do not be concerned about us. Your loving mother."

Ajatarah put the quill aside and folded the letter. Then she took the red seal wax, lit the wick of a candle and dripped the now molten wax over the folded letter. Afterwards the vampire pressed Zephriel's golden seal ring, which bore the sign of her clan, a dragon's head, in the hot, soft wax.

Finally she rose and walked to the window to open it. At the same time a hoarse croak could be heard and a big raven flew nervously into the room. Soon after, the black bird sat down on the chair's backrest, looking around the room watchfully.

A tiny smile ran across Ajatarah's serious face. "Hraban, my dear. Are you missing Lilith as much as I do?" Tenderly, she stroked the raven's shining feathers. "Soon you will see your friend again, because you are going to deliver this letter to Lilith. My words shall give her comfort during the time we are apart. Her heart is upset, I know that. A mother can feel such things."

Ajatarah released a soft sigh and was about to tie the letter to the bird's leg as Zephriel entered the room. Surprised he paused. "What are you doing?"

"I wish to send a message to Lilith," his wife answered in a firm voice.

"Impossible, my beloved," Zephriel replied sadly. "It is not safe. The message could be intercepted."

The letter slid from small, pale hands and slowly floated to the ground. "But, our daughter needs her clan. She needs us."

Zephriel shook his head, glancing in direction of the door again and again.

Ajatarah's face expressed great concern. "What happened?"

"The second messenger, whom I sent to our friend Apophis, has returned. He brings disturbing news, but hear him yourself. I asked him to wait."

On cue the big doors opened and the messenger entered, his head lowered.

Respectfully the courier kept his bowed stance until Zephriel ordered him to rise and talk. "You may speak frankly."

With a lame tongue, the messenger began quietly, "Milord, Milady... the clan of the Serpentes... is no more." He paused for what seemed like an eternity.

"What unbelievable news, messenger," escaped Ajatarah, shuddering at the thought that he was telling the truth. Begging for support she looked at her husband.

Zephriel was pacing in front of the big grandfather clock, deep in thought. Then he smashed his fists into the table top so hard that Hraban got scared, her wings fluttering.

Having himself back under control the head of the dragon clan looked at the messenger. "Tell us everything you saw. Don't hesitate to tell us the whole truth."

"As you wish, Milord."

Zephriel reached out a hand to his wife, which she took gratefully. He guided her and together they sat down on an overstuffed bench near the fireplace, to listen to the messenger's horrible report.

Nervously, the man licked his lips and began his tale. "I arrived at the place of the Serpentes after a time of endless, nightly rides. Nobody was alive when I reached the estate, nobody."

Ajatarah's hand clenched tightly around that of her husband, and the messenger continued, "I rode across wide, dry areas, followed the route which runs parallel to the cost because there isn't much population. After I reached Andalusia I guided my horse directly to the castle in the mountains. I really was glad as I finally saw the old palace appear on the horizon. With its last strength, my horse took the stony path toward the castle, until we stopped in front of the portal. I was puzzled when I noticed that it was wide open, but the scene I found at the court shocked me deeply. Everywhere, horribly mutilated corpses lay scattered about."

The messenger hesitated briefly to observe the effect of his words. With a short motion of her hand Ajatarah ordered him to continue.

Shyly, he went on, "Their dead glances were following me as I stepped over them to reach the inside of the ancient building. On the threshold I was shaking as I pulled my sword from its scabbard. I grabbed it tightly with both hands out of fear of what could await me inside, but I heard nothing except the sound of my own foot steps." The messenger's face flushed with shame but the presence of his clan's master pulled the truth from him. The words nearly got stuck in his throat as he hurried to get them out as fast as possible, "Then I saw... I saw... at the great hall... Master Apophis, he was dead, just as the closest members of his family were... dead... all of them."

Breathlessly, the courier paused and looked at the floor, his gaze shying away from Zephriel's. Whispering, he added, "I first thought that humans were responsible for the clan's fate... but all traces I found leave only one conclusion... it was..."

"Vampires!" Zephriel interrupted loudly and so finished the sentence.

The messenger managed to nod in agreement.

Ajatarah was shaken and put a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming out her pain. She got up from the bench and went to the open window to take some deep breaths.

An uncomfortable silence fell, no one dared to speak.

Finally Ajatarah asked, lacking self-control, "Just how unequivocal can your judgment of the situation be?" she turned to the courier to search his eyes. The sharp, but still sad gaze of his mistress pierced his heart.

"Milady, I so wished to spare you the details of his death."

"What happened to Apophis, messenger?" Zephriel asked.

Tortured the courier reported what he had seen, "Master Apophis was in his armchair, his cloak covering him as if he were sleeping, but I had no hope that he really was doing that. So I searched for the reason; a stake or some other tool like that, but, as I drew closer... I pulled the cloak aside, and then I saw... someone had sucked him dry. Devoid of all blood he hung in his armchair. Shock slammed into all my bones. But still, I wanted to be sure of what I had encountered and so I examined his throat... and I found the typical marks."

"No!" Zephriel exclaimed disbelievingly, as his gaze roamed the room.

"This is for proving that I have spoken the truth." The messenger reached beneath his shirt and pulled out a fine pendant of pure silver. It looked like a fragment, a small part that had been violently torn from the rest. Respectfully he held it out to Zephriel. "I took it from Master Apophis' stiff hand."

The head of the dragon clan took the piece of jewelry, regarding it quietly. A cobra had been engraved into the medallion's front; the back of it was covered with wavy lines.

Zephriel closed his hand around the pendant and leaned back. He looked at his messenger and asked, "What did you do then?"

"I put fire on the palace, Milord. And I waited three days in a near cave to make sure that not even the foundation walls withstood the blazing inferno... nothing is left of the castle," came the clear answer.

Betraying no emotion Zephriel nodded and said, "You may go, now."

The messenger hurried to leave the room.

As the door closed behind him Ajatarah felt her control slip. With one hand she supported herself on the window's sill, the other rested on her heart. Tears ran down the beautiful face, as Zephriel walked over to take her into his strong arms, comforting her.

Crying, Ajatarah buried her face in her husband's shoulder. "Just how could it happen? The Serpentes are gone and we never even knew! Why didn't we get a message, a call for help? Anything?"

"They just didn't have the time," Zephriel admitted.

Lost in thought Ajatarah let go of her soulmate and looked at the big grandfather clock, which stand nearly silent in a corner; only the big pendulum inside reminded them of time's progress. "No time? I thought time is the only good for us vampires in our eternal life. Is it not time that makes us immortal? Or are we destroying ourselves... with time?"

Zephriel didn't answer right away. Instead he nuzzled his face into the silky soft hair of his beloved, breathing in the sweet scent of roses and whispered, "We have a big burden to carry."

Ajatarah looked up, her eyes still glistening from shed tears. "What has me so frightened is that this clan was the closest to us, not only in the ways of friendship, also in the distance between our countries, instead of the other families."

Zephriel gently caressed his soulmate's cheek with the back of his hand, "Don't be scared, my evening star. I will protect you with my life."

"I know. It's just that we could be the next getting attacked."

Confidence returned to Zephriel's voice as he replied, "Yes, but do not forget that now we know more about the dark threat than the Serpentes ever did. We know that it was a desecrate attack of evil and insidious vampires. But still I'm sure that at the end of the line is only one unknown person. They have a leader, who pulls the strings in the background and is responsible for this massacre. Whoever our opponent is, eventually we will get him and then punish him for killing his own kind."

"You are right, as usual. This terrible madness will not befall our clan. But, we must not forget that with each drop of immortal blood he grows more and more powerful. And I am sure that he will not rest until he found us all," Ajatarah warned.

"We find him or he finds us; doesn't matter, because the result will be the same. He likes to kill, so sooner or later his bloody path will cross ours."

"I do not like the thought of vampire against vampire in a world that belongs to the humans. But if fate is forcing us to fight I will be at your side and stand by you." Ajatarah placed her hands flat against her husband's chest, endless love shining from her eyes. "I wish we all could be together in this hard time."

Her longing gaze turned to Hraban and Zephriel's eyes followed it. "I feel the same. There is no one I miss more."

The raven, who had been silently sitting on the chair's backrest, now began to fill the room with loud croaking. Then the big bird rose into the air and flew out of the window.

Ajatarah looked after her and said to herself, "Will you return?"

 

*****

 

Bored, Chalice lay on the big bed, gazing at the ceiling that was covered with dots and specks of water and mildew. Again and again she glanced at Azrael, who seemed rooted to the spot, only staring at the ancient slab from Babylon, which he pulled out of a chest from time to time.

The young woman sighed and turned to the window. On the highest part of the closed shutters, she noticed the new day's first, still gray, ray of light. For awhile she observed small particles of dust, which danced in the beam, until she said quietly, "Master? Dawn has arrived."

Azrael's black-brown eyes turned from the slab to the window. "I will go downstairs to rest in my coffin. You know what you have to do today."

Chalice jumped from the bed and nodded. "Yes, and I will not disappoint you."

"Make sure that you don't. I'm very hungry after you abandoned me last night. Remember one thing rats are not suitable for my needs!"

Disgusted the vampire spat on the floor, and the blonde lowered her head humbly. "It will not happen again, I promise."

Reluctantly the vampire accepted the apology. "Not long ago, during a brief conversation at the opera, an old man told me he is the uncle of wonderful twins, who will visit him this autumn here in Paris. They are in their early twenties, incredibly beautiful and identical. I must have them. I want to play with them. Their names are Valérie and Véronique. You will prepare my way, like always."

"Of course," Chalice managed, trying to suppress the jealousy that clawed on her insides.

"Oh, and please be as careless as you can and leave lots of hints. Because we do want the nice police officers to find our trail, so they can tell the widow Leosol. I'm sure you can do that, right?"

Silently, the young woman endured the humiliation, blind fury growing in her heart.

"I count on you," Azrael sneered after her, before he disappeared to the maison's cellar.

To Be Continued...

 

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