FIUR and VLAMME

 

present

 

CHRONICLES OF DARKNESS

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BOOK TWO

HEART OF AN ANGEL

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CHAPTER TEN

ASHES TO ASHES

 

The moon disappeared behind the treetops. Elea Sophia returned home, exhausted and disappointed. Quietly, she brought Dawn into the stables and entered the house. Carefully, she checked the living room. Her father wasn't home.

"Once again, he is spending the night at the church," she muttered.

Sighing, she took off the cloak and walked to the fireplace. There was the small pot with cold tea. Every evening, Elea Sophia brewed this tea for her father, mixed with the henbane so he would sleep tightly. Staring in sadness at the fluid, she felt like a bad person.

"The herb to sleep was meant for me, but I give it to my father. Only due to my selfishness."

Deciding to put an end to it, she took the rest of the henbane from the kitchen drawer and grabbed the pot. Behind the small rectory, she emptied the pot and threw away the herb. Tired, Elea Sophia leaned against the wall. A heavy weight was lifted from her heart and she felt better.

Her eyes gazed in direction of the forest and the disappointment from earlier returned with a vengeance. "Did you forget about me, Sadden? Right now, I need you more than ever." She remembered the horrible things that had occurred lately in Ardeal. Her thoughts turned to Ana, who grew more and more frightening, and who had forced her to look at Ljudmilla's dead body. She remembered the crone's weird speeches and strange warnings that she couldn't understand. Elea Sophia thought of the eerie procession, which she had secretly witnessed. At dusk, the villagers had gone to the cemetery to bury the tavern owner's daughter. The whole time, Ana had been mumbling scary incantations. The thought alone sent shivers down her spine and Elea Sophia quickly pushed it from her mind.

The young woman kept leaning against the wall a while longer. After she was so drowsy, she almost fell asleep while standing up, Elea Sophia went inside. She placed more wood into the oven and retreated yawning to her tiny chambers under the roof. Upon opening the door, she was greeted by a gush of cold wind. Looking at the open window in wonderment, she hurried to close it. A thought came to her. Whirling around immediately, she found something on the bed. "A letter!" she exclaimed happily and her heart began to race. The young woman lit a candle and reached for the folded paper with trembling fingers.

 

'My dearest Elea,

I am writing these lines to ask your sincerest forgiveness for my absence. It hurts me deeply that I cannot be with you. An urgent matter, which unfortunately could not be postponed, is the only reason that I could not meet you. With great impatience, I am looking forward to see you again soon.

 

Forever yours,

Sadden.'

 

 

Greatly relieved, Elea Sophia pressed the letter against her chest. "Sadden did not forget me. How could I have doubted her." With a bright smile on her face, she prepared for bed. Cautiously folding the paper, she placed it under her pillow. She lay down, her head resting gently upon it. As soon as her eyes had closed, Elea Sophia fell asleep.

 

*****

 

At the same time, Lilith had returned to the castle. Lost in thought, she walked down the stairs that led to her chambers, deep inside the castle. Her left hand slid along the cool, wet stones of the wall. At the bottom of the stairway, she turned towards the door to her vault. Lilith jumped as Sadden was revealed from the shadows.

"I have been waiting for you."

Her tone told Lilith a great deal about her teacher's mood.

It didn't matter much to the younger vampire. On the contrary, it egged her to irritate Sadden even further. "How was I supposed to know that all of a sudden you desire to meet me ? Maybe you should have written a letter to me?"

Sadden frowned. "Since when have you been observing me?"

"That is not really necessary," Lilith responded scornfully and walked past her.

Sadden followed close behind and entered the vault. "Andrej asked me to talk with you."

Lilith paused and regarded Sadden, surprised. In a strange tone, she said, "He tries to hide his inner self, but I have seen it." She remembered the encounter at the lake, where she had been as close to him like never before. Even though she no longer felt any thirst like she did then, she still could hear the seducing call of his blood.

Sadden looked at Lilith, who seemed so lost and her anger evaporated. Gently, she brushed a hand across her back.

The younger vampire raised her gleaming eyes, watching her uncomprehendingly. In this moment she realized that Sadden didn't seem to sense anything. Nothing mattered to her but Elea Sophia and that fed Lilith's fury anew. Insolent, she answered, "Enraptured as you are, you do not sense what his heart is hiding from you."

"You claim that I do not know my friend's heart?"

Lilith nodded.

"And you think that you know?" Sadden responded, hurt.

Again the younger vampire nodded.

Sadden demanded a clearer answer. "What is it that Andrej is keeping from me?"

"More than you could guess."

"Fear?" the older vampire suggested surprised, locking eyes with Lilith. "Of what?" Sadden wondered.

"Fear of questions - fear of answers," Lilith whispered. "And now, he fears me," she added, faltering after the words had left her lips. "It feels strange and I do not know why that is."

Sadden was deeply shocked. Never had she imagined anything like that. "Just what had happened? What have I missed? What questions and what answers is this all about?"

Lilith gazed into the darkness ahead, once again lost in thought. "What is it that moves the heart of a human? One moment, like the blink of an eye, is enough to change their world forever."

A slight tremor rocked Sadden's frame. "Do not be so presumptuous in judging a human's heart."

The younger vampire turned to her teacher, her eyes strangely clouded. "What are you talking about?" Lilith pushed her away. "I only wish to understand why this is touching me so."

Sadden didn't answer. Instead she asked, "Why is Andrej scared of you? What have you done?"

Lilith didn't listen to her.

Sadden sensed dark thoughts in her protégée. Her friend had been right.

"There is only one way. I have to destroy what lies behind the fear." Lilith's voice was as cold as ice, as she concluded, "He shall feel nothing for me."

"Why?" Sadden screamed in despair and shook her.

Lilith squirmed from her grip, her hands turning to fists. Enraged, she punched the wall.

Sadden didn't understand what was happening. She felt powerless. In a tearful voice, she tried to get through to Lilith. "I am sorry. I am so sorry. I have neglected so many things I should have said and done." She brushed a hand through Lilith's hair, tried to cup her face, but the younger vampire turned away. "I cannot forgive myself. But you are being lead astray."

Belligerent, Lilith's eyes flashed. "I choose whatever path I want to walk. It is my decision alone."

Firmly, Sadden retorted, "You are my responsibility. And one thing I know for sure, I cannot and I will not allow you to hurt Andrej."

Lilith snorted disdainfully. "Did you not already do that?" she asked and added, "Did you not leave me alone? Therefore, I can make my own decisions."

"What are you speaking of?" Sadden shook her again and demanded forcefully, "Tell me about your true feelings!"

"You wish to know about my true feelings?" Lilith raged.

Sadden didn't know what else to do and so she breathed, "Crying helps..."

Thunderstruck, Lilith stared at her in disbelief. "Crying? Like you did so miserably for centuries?"

It took great effort for Sadden to keep from jumping at Lilith's throat for that remark.

"I never cried and I will not begin today!" the younger vampire spat at her teacher. Regarding the other as if she had lost her mind, she added, "Spilling tears means to be vulnerable. Vulnerability means being weak. And weakness... well, that leads to an inevitable doom."

"You are lying," Sadden said calmly and Lilith grew silent. "You talk nonsense. Tears are an expression of feelings, good and bad. The bad things that happen to us make us recognize the value of good things in our life."

Lilith's features didn't betray any emotion and she kept her silence.

Sadden felt helpless, finally realizing how serious the situation was. "Look..."

Snappy, Lilith interrupted her, "No more words are needed for I will not listen. With your heretical talk you only want to justify your relationship with a mortal woman. Your own kind and their rules should be of more value than the fading love of a human!"

As Elea Sophia became the center of attention, Sadden lost control for a second and slapped Lilith. "No! You will listen to me!" Her voice took on a dangerous and threatening timbre. "Do not speak of things you do not understand. As for Andrej - he is my friend, my close confidant. I will not idly watch while you cause him sorrow."

Without comment, Lilith endured the slap and ignored her stinging cheek. "Do not be so hypocritical, Sadden. Do you honestly think I could hurt him worse than you?"

Her teacher retreated a step, shocked. "What... just what do you mean?"

"If you cannot see it yourself, it is in vain to continue this conversation."

In that moment Sadden realized that she didn't know Lilith as well as she had thought, even if she had drunk from her blood. The harsh words of the younger vampire hit her hard, although she could not really fathom their meaning.

"GO!" Lilith yelled at her and turned away. "I do not want to see you."

Sadden was about to respond. But then she left without uttering a single word.

 

*****

In the morning, Elea Sophia was on her way to the church, carrying a small basket. She was well rested and filled with a zest for action. The air was moist and cold. Sparkling hoarfrost covered everything like a silvery white cloth. Rubbing her cold hands, the young woman entered the small house of God. Paying respect, she did the sign of the cross in front of the altar. "Father... dear Father..." she called out happily.

But it was Anatol , who emerged from the sacristy upon her calling.

Surprised, Elea Sophia looked at him.

An awkward silence fell. Nobody wanted to talk about the recent occurrences.

The young woman finally said, "Good morning, Anatol. Where is my father?"

"Good morning. He is not here," he replied politely.

A bit restless, Elea Sophia wanted to know, "When was the last time you saw him?"

Anatol thought for a while. "Yesterday evening," the young man finally responded.

"Did he say anything to you? What of his condition? Speak!"

"No. He was like always," Anatol stuttered nervously.

"But, if my father isn't here and also not at home... where is he?"

Helplessly, the young man shrugged his shoulders.

"We have to go look for him," Elea Sophia urged. "You go to the secluded farms, while I..." she trailed off and swallowed hard. "I will go to the village."

Anatol nodded, silent, not daring to disagree. A feeling of uneasiness rose at the thought of the priest's sudden disappearance.

 

 

 

Elea Sophia had not been to the village since Ljudmilla's burial. At the moment though, she had no time to reconsider. Once she had reached Ardeal, she asked everybody if they knew of Everon's whereabouts. Her fear grew, since nobody seemed to have seen him.

Rouven left the tavern and frightened, the young woman confided in him, telling him of her worries.

Rouven thought a moment, before he responded, "Well, lately he was very..." He stopped, not knowing how to describe it politely. "Well, he seemed beside himself."

Elea Sophia regarded him, aghast. "What do you mean with that?" Her expression turned hard.

The young man cleared his throat under Elea Sophia's sharp glare. "Uh... you have to admit... uh... you must have noticed that he was absent-minded and soliloquizing is quite strange..."

Meanwhile a few of his friends had joined them and nodded in confirmation, even if it was a bit hesitantly.

Elea Sophia was at a loss for words. She had not known how the others thought of her father.

"Oh, don't worry, my love," Rouven bragged, confidently hugging his fiancée. "I will organize a search troop. We will find your father before nightfall, I promise."

"You would do that for me?"

"Of course!" Rouven declared, loudly. "I would do anything for my bride."

"I will come with you!" Elea Sophia demanded instantly.

"No, this is man's work. You stay here - in case he comes back."

The young woman contemplated his words. "Maybe you are right. I will go to the church to pray for his safe return."

"Yes, do that," he answered, placing a consoling kiss on her forehead. He watched her leave.

Once she was out of sight, he turned to his friends. "Argh, I would have rather spent all day at the cozy tavern. So, get the people together and let's search for the old fool."

 

*****

 

It didn't take long for the village's men to gather at the market place. Andrej, who had heard about the search, was also among them. He had come to the market to run some errands and wanted to partake. His uneasiness grew as he caught snippets of rumors concerning Ljudmilla's death.

Anatol appeared next to him. He looked a bit unsure at the tall man and whispered, "Do you... do think Ljud... uh..." Anatol had a hard time finding the right words, almost choking on fear. "Do you think that both occurrences are connected in some way?"

Stubborn, Andrej stared ahead. "Why do you ask me of all people?" he growled unfriendly.

Frightened, Anatol crept away with hanging shoulders.

The tall man scowled and turned determined to Nicolae. "I will help searching for the priest."

The mayor was about to thank him, only to be roughly interrupted by his son.

Rouven pushed a few of his friends out of the way. "NO! Not you!" he declared, pointing an accusing finger at Andrej. "You are not wanted here!"

His father attempted to change his mind, but Rouven didn't stop. "Nobody needs your help."

Andrej showed no intension to leave, so the mayor's son shoved him hard, yelling, "Get lost!"

"I think you could use the aid of every man," Andrej replied calmly.

"No, nobody needs you!" Rouven turned to the crowd of men. "This hermit is after my future bride. That is his only reason he wants to partake in this search. He wants to be the hero!" Rouven said, staring hard at Andrej.

"You know that is not true," the other man responded.

The mayor's son stepped so close to his opposite that their noses almost touched, even if Rouven had to stretch quite a bit to reach that high. "Is it not? And who says that you don't have anything to do with Ljudmilla's death?"

The crowd began to murmur.

"Enough. You are going too far!" Andrej answered, his hands curling to fists.

"Indeed? You think so? I think I didn't go far enough yet!" Again Rouven shoved him.

Embarrassed, Nicolae cleared his throat and stepped in between to keep the antagonists apart. "So... maybe it will be better... for peace's sake... Andrej, thank you for your offer to help, but it will be better if you don't partake in the search."

Andrej relented, even if it was very reluctantly. Upon turning around to leave, Mikahel patted his shoulder with an expression of honest regret. The tall man nodded at him briefly and disappeared.

 

*****

 

Gray clouds covered the sky above the small valley.

"It looks like it's going to snow any moment," Rouven groused, upset.

"We have to hurry. Otherwise we won't be able to see any tracks," Mikahel warned.

The villagers entered the forest behind the rectory to begin the search for the lost priest. The ground was frozen solid, making it hard for the men to find anything that would reveal Everon's presumed whereabouts. Mikahel was the best reader of tracks, so he lead the group. Highly concentrated, his gaze flitted over the forest ground, finding a broken twig here and there.

The men split up and made their way through the forest, brushing through the under wood in pairs, looking and searching in silence. Only Rouven complained from time to time with a nerve-wrecked sigh.

The more time went by, the more they felt the icy cold creeping into their bones.

"Dusk is falling. We don't have much time," Mikahel mentioned. He stopped, squinting.

Rouven was the only one close to him. Grumbling, he stepped next to the blacksmith. Snuffling loudly, he mumbled, "This horrible cold... freezes everything..."

Mikahel didn't pay attention to his whining.

"Maybe the old fool noticed something and left?" Rouven asked.

The blacksmith searched the ground, looking for the right material to make a torch. "You think he would go and leave his beloved daughter with us?"

Rouven shrugged his shoulders, not inclined to pull his hands from his pockets to make a torch for himself. He marched on. Between the trees, he found a wide clearing and went straight at it. He was just about to set his foot upon the clearing, as somebody grabbed him from behind.

Rouven turned around, his initial fury fading to astonishment as he recognized Mikahel behind him. "What are you doing?" he snapped at the blacksmith

"Don't you know what lies in front of you?"

Confused, the mayor's son looked at the peaceful clearing. "A meadow?"

"This is a swamp area," Mikahel explained, patiently.

"What?" Rouven could hardly believe it. He looked around once more, shivering at the thought of entering and not being able to return from the bog. Suddenly, he called out, "Mikahel, look! To the right, next to the fallen branch."

The blacksmith looked into the direction Rouven pointed and then he saw it. In the middle of a bush hung the wooden cross, which the priest had always worn around his neck. Mikahel swallowed hard while Rouven was already on the way to reach the cross. "Be careful!" he admonished the young man.

With cautious steps, Rouven walked along the swamp's rim, keeping in mind that one wrong step could mean his end. He slowly climbed the small hill and took the cross. Looking towards the bog, his breathing hitched. There were obvious traces that somebody had fallen down. "Do you think..." He didn't finish the sentence.

Regarding the swamp, Mikahel shook his head. "What did he want here?" Supporting his arms at his hips, he exhaled sharply. "We should tell the others."

'He was a crazy old guy.' Rouven thought. Out loud, he said, "This will hit Elea Sophia hard. As her fiancé, I will tell her the sad news."

Mikahel looked at him.

"It is my duty," the mayor's son confirmed, pressing the wooden cross against his chest. "Now, let us go before all my limbs will freeze off."

Sighing and rolling his eyes, the blacksmith followed him.

 

*****

 

It was late evening as Rouven entered the church, chasing the other blabbing women from Elea Sopia's side.

The young woman rose, looking at him with red-rimmed, pleading eyes.

Rouven motioned for her to sit down next to him.

She did, tears trickling silently down her cheeks, while she waited for the inevitable news.

Not knowing what to say, the mayor's son pulled out her father's wooden cross and placed it on her lap.

Her body shook from the forceful sobs. Her delicate hands closed tightly around the cross, so hard that her knuckles turned white. "What... what... ha-happend?" she finally managed to ask.

"It seems he... he wound up in the bog."

Elea Sophia whimpered.

Rouven attempted to place a consoling arm around her, but the blonde pushed him away. "I want to be alone to mourn my father," she said between sobs.

"What? Hey, I am your future husband and will stay with you," he replied.

"Please go and leave me alone. Please," she demanded, tears still flowing and avoiding his glance and touches.

Rouven clenched his teeth, clearly offended. He rose, saying in a cold voice, "You will find me at "The Howling Wolf" in case you change your mind."

 

*****

 

Hours later, the candles had burnt down and Elea Sophia left the church to go home. Still holding on tightly to her father's cross, she reached the dark house. Her feet led her directly to the stables. Complete silence ruled. She lit a small lamp and saddled Dawn, preparing to ride out to meet Sadden.

Elea Sophia paused at the side of her horse. The oil lamp, which she had placed on a barrel, was the only light source, illuminating the stables only partly. The flickering flame made blurry shadows dance along the wall.

Dawn grew restless. The mare didn't understand what her mistress was waiting for.

The young woman just stood there, overwhelmed by grief, wishing nothing more than to be consoled by her friend, whom she needed more than anything. But something inside her kept her from just riding off. It was easier for her to just halt and do nothing. A deep sigh escaped her. Elea Sophia was unable to tell what was right and what was wrong to do in that moment.

A loud bang startled her, interrupting her thoughts immediately.

Rouven had forcefully opened the door, causing it to smash into the wall.

A gust of icy wind entered the stables and the lamp's flame flickered wildly.

"What are you doing here?" she asked him, her voice emotionless.

"Well... what do you think..." the drunk man chuckled. His words were slurred. "...wanna make my beloved bride all happy again." Rouven laughed and staggered into the stables. He wrapped one arm around the closest wooden pillar for support.

Elea Sophia was disgusted by his appearance.

Rouven noticed the saddled horse. "Where... where do you wanna go? Leave me?"

The young woman didn't answer. She was so tired of his tantrums.

"Hey... hey... I'm talking with you..." Rouven voice rose. He was angry that she ignored him. "So... you have somebody else... don't you?" he accused.

Elea Sophia whirled around, regarding him pitifully. "No!" she said louder than intended.

"You do... it's written all over your forehead... but you're mine! You belong to me!"

"I don't belong to anybody!" she shouted back.

"Don't you dare yell at me!" It took some effort in his drunken state, but he managed to open the beer carafe he had brought along and emptied it to the bottom. "Always acting so virtuously, while really you..."

"Don't you dare continue!" she interrupted his babbling forcefully.

He threw the empty carafe to the floor, where it burst into pieces in front of her feet.

Dawn jerked and snorted nervously.

Elea Sophia went to Rouven and tried to push him towards the door. "Go home and sleep off your drunkenness. Maybe tomorrow we can talk like normal people."

"Maybe?!" Rouven yelled at her. "I waited long enough... I want what's mine..." that said, he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her towards him.

"Let me go!" she screamed, writhing in his grip. Desperate, she pounded her fists against his chest, but she was no match for his brute strength.

He forced a sloppy kiss on her and tried to shove his tongue into her mouth.

She smelled his foul breath and pressed her lips tightly together, tears burning in her eyes.

Angry that he was not succeeding, Rouven stopped and let her go. His eyes sparkled with greed and his grin radiated pure evil.

Frightened, Elea Sophia retreated a few steps.

"So, you won't let me in there... then maybe I can find another entrance..." he laughed and began to open his pants and follow her to the back of the stables.

Elea Sophia's heart raced, her fearful eyes were wide open. Raising her hands in a gesture of defense, she shook her head, knowing what he intended. "No... no..." she begged, her voice breaking.

Rouven only grinned, pulling his shirt over his head. "Come here... my little birdie..."

Elea Sophia's retreating steps ended abruptly as her back hit the back wall of the stables. "Don't come any closer!" she cried in despair.

Dawn picked up on her mistress' distress. She pranced slightly on the spot, scraping her hooves across the floor.

Rouven staggered closer to the young woman. "Now I will show you what a real man is about..."

Elea Sophia turned her head to the side, squeezing her eyes shut. Tears ran down her face and one thought circled in her mind. 'Why does nobody help me?'

Rouven grabbed her and pulled her close against him. "You won't forget this..."

 

*****

 

Restlessly, Sadden paced at their usual spot. Midnight was long past and there was still no sign of the small blonde. Sighing, the vampire turned her eyes to the sky. That Elea Sophia was late wasn't her only concern. Also the problems in her relationship with Lilith and Andrej conquered her thoughts. Even though that was the last she wished to think about at the moment, there was nothing she could do to keep them at bay. Once again, her restless mind turned to Elea Sophia. Her worry grew intense. "Perhaps it is..." She stopped abruptly. "Winter is coming. Of course, it is far too cold for a human to be on the streets at night..." Again, Sadden began to pace only to pause after a few steps. "It is of no use. I will just go to her house and see if she is well."

 

*****

 

Rouven buried his face at her hair while his greedy hands pulled down her dress until she was standing before him, only wearing her white gown. Ashamed, she folded her arms over her chest.

He roughly grabbed her chin, turning her face towards him.

Her eyes were still squeezed shut and she pressed her lips together.

That didn't matter much to Rouven, who continued to force sloppy kisses all over her face, wandering down her throat to stop at her cleavage. "Ah, your boobs are heaving in excitement... can't wait, can you?" he chuckled.

Before Elea Sophia knew what had happened, she found herself on her back in the straw and Rouven above her.

"NO! NO!" Her desperate screams for him to stop seemed only to increase his excitement. She writhed under his weight and tried to get away from him.

With one hand he pinned her arms above her head, while the other tried to push up her gown.

Panic and utter despair gave her inhuman strength. Her legs flailed wildly and she managed to ram one of her knees right into his groin.

Rouven howled in incredible pain and rolled off her.

The young woman used the chance to crawl away to reach the stable's door.

Rouven regained his senses, grabbed her ankle and pulled her back. "Not so fast, little birdie."

Desperately, Elea Sophia clawed at the ground, trying to find something to hold on. Her hands wrapped around a piece of wood. She kicked at him, but it was in vain.

With brute force, Rouven wrestled her to the ground once more.

As she saw his face above her own, she swung the little log and smashed it right on her tormentor's nose.

Rouven stumbled backward, his face contorted by pain. A dull sound erupted from his throat.

Elea Sophia gasped in shock, surprised by her own strength.

Stunned from the hit, Rouven staggered against the barrel. The oil lamp fell to the ground.

Elea Sophia, who had regained her footing, watched wide-eyed how the flame greedily consumed the dry straw. Her hands trembled and she held the piece of wood like a weapon in front of her chest. Her mind raced of how to escape the quickly spreading fire.

Dawn whinnied and pranced, nostrils flaring, eyes rolling, frightened.

The fire was reaching for the roof. Smoke made it hard to breath.

Elea Sophia coughed so hard, it forced her to her knees.

Rouven was back on his feet. He didn't seem to notice anything of the fire. Insanity sparkled in his eyes as he came at the young woman once again. His attack missed her for he stumbled over his own feet, falling against Dawn.

The mare went up on her hind legs and kicked, catching Rouven in the chest.

He was knocked to the ground and Dawn galloped panicked from the burning stables.

On hands and knees, Elea Sophia crawled to the door.

Rouven was close behind her and grabbed her ankle once again to pull her back.

The fire made its destructive way to the living space of the rectory.

Elea Sophia saw Rouven's face and knew it was a matter of life and death.

The whole stables were burning and the first flames reached Rouven. The heat singed his skin and caused his blood-curling screams.

Elea Sophia finally managed to shake him off and stumbled away from the stables, coughing and panting for breath.

Rouven, who was badly burnt, reached out his arms, yelling, "I will get you!"

With tears running down her face, the young woman began to run, leaving it up to her legs to carry her far away from this place of horror.

 

*****

 

The fire didn't go unnoticed in Ardeal. An alarm bell chimed at the market place and the inhabitants gathered and hurried to the priest's burning house.

A piercing scream shocked everybody present to the core.

Hortensia Dimov pointed at the stable entrance, before sinking into her husband's arms in a dead faint.

Her son lay on the threshold, his body almost completely consumed by the flames and hardly recognizable.

"Do something!" the mayor shouted at the others, tears in his eyes.

Mikahel stepped next to him, placing a consoling hand on Nicolae's shoulder. "It is too late. he is dead."

They could feel the heat on their faces. Motionless and helpless, they had to stand and watch, while the flames burnt down the rectory. The women gathered around the grieving mayor and his unconscious wife to assist them in any way.

The only thing the men could do was to ensure that the fire wouldn't spread further.

"It will probably take all night for the fire to burn itself out," Mikahel said. "We have to be careful after that and find any glowing embers and extinguish them."

The men waited, staring at the flames, each lost in his own thoughts.

Anatol knelt down next to the blacksmith. "Do you... do you think..." Hesitantly, he tried to give voice to what everybody present believed.

"Do I think Elea Sophia died in the flames, as well?" Mikahel stoically finished the sentence for him.

Anatol nodded quietly.

"We have to assume the worst since it is the most obvious."

Anatol looked at the ground. " She was kind to me. She didn't deserve such a fate."

"Nobody deserves such a death," Mikahel corrected.

A scratchy, amused voice interrupted them from the darkness. "Now all of them are dead."

"If you don't have anything helpful to say, Ana, then get lost!" Mikahel raged.

The crone stepped into the light, a sly smile on her wrinkled features. "I warned her many times. She didn't want to listen. Now, she has to pay the price."

Even angrier, Mikahel retorted, "Quit mocking the dead! Nobody wants to hear your words!"

Frowning, Ana looked from the blacksmith to Anatol and back.

The young man swallowed, feeling uncomfortable under her harsh stare.

With a last glance at the diminishing fire, the crone waddled off into the darkness.

Mikahel watched her leave, shaking his head. "What a nasty gossip." Then he thought of all the unfortunate deaths. "So many tragedies..." He trailed off, unable to say more.

Anatol too contemplated everything that had happened lately. He thought of Lilith and immediately was overcome by the picture of Ljudmilla's body, lying in the straw. He shivered at the thought of her cruel death, almost choking on the feeling of guilt that came with it. He didn't know what to do.

"You look pale." Mikahel's deep voice brought him out of his musings. "And you're trembling all over. Go and sleep. We are far enough men here."

Questioningly, Anatol looked at the blacksmith.

"Tell my wife that I am sending you. She shall give you some soup and a place to sleep."

Anatol was grateful.

"Go on," Mikahel said and gently pushed him to leave.

 

*****

 

Even though Elea Sophia was constantly stumbling over protruding roots, she kept running through the woods as fast as her legs could carry her. The scary image of Rouven's lecherous face urged her on. His nasty stench and his mean laughter haunted her still. Her sight was blurry from the never-ending tears. Branches hit her in the face, thorny bushes clawed at her skin, leaving bloody marks behind. She couldn't feel it. She kept running until sheer exhaustion overcame her and her legs gave out. Elea Sophia fell to the stony ground and her tears dried up. Her whole body trembled. Panting for breath, the young woman curled up, covering her face with her arms. For a while, she just lay there on the forest ground. Alone and abandoned. Her body slowly calmed and she opened her swollen, red-rimmed eyes. She felt the darkness closing in, but she was not afraid.

Slowly, snowflakes came floating from the sky, dancing in front of her eyes. With her last strength, she reached out. The ice crystals sparkled on her skin before they melted. Elea Sophia thought it a beautiful sight. Her pain was numbed by the cold. Willingly, the priest's daughter surrendered to exhaustion. Her eyelids grew heavier until her eyes closed on their own volition. Her breathing was even and she relaxed. The falling snow covered the drowsy woman like a blanket. In her semi-conscious state, Elea Sophia heard her velvety voice. A wonderful feeling of warmth grew in her heart, while the snowflakes surrounded her. Peaceful, she fell asleep.

 

*****

 

At the same time, Sadden was on her way to the village. Taken over by a strange feeling of uncertainty, the vampire mumbled to herself, "I will not talk to Elea Sophia if she does not wish it. But, I have to know if she is well." Sadden halted. "What am I speaking of? I can feel that she is not well." Doubts reared their heads. "Why did she not come to me this night?"

Finally, she reached the well-worn path that would lead to the priest's house.

Sadden's steps faltered once more.

Stardancer, who had patiently trotted behind his mistress, pushed his muzzle against her back.

Sadden smiled briefly. "Alright, I am going." Brushing a hand across his nostrils, she said, "You wait here."

The stallion threw his head back in agreement.

Cautiously, the vampire walked along the path. Already after a few paces, she recognized the biting stench of a fire. Alarmed, Sadden hurried along. Between the trees, she saw the high flames, which raged in Elea Sophia's house.

Villagers stood around the burning rectory.

Sadden covered her face with her hands, to keep the outcries of horror inside that clawed at her insides and threatened to erupt. Her blue eyes wide with fear, she overheard Mikahel's conversation with Anatol. Her gaze traveled to the fire. For her it was a roguishly grinning monster that mocked her. It burnt inside her.

Sadden stumbled backward, away from the horrifying sight. Her senses reeled. The world around her was whirling in a wild dance of utter evil.

Staggering, her shoulder hit a tree. Her fingers clawed at the bark. Darkness was closing in. "Elea..." she gasped. Tears welled up, concealing her view. Images of the past mixed with those of this night's fire. Overwhelmed by pain, Sadden broke down. Tortured sobs erupted from her throat and her whole body writhed in incredible pain and cramps. Her skin burned and Sadden dug her nails deeply into the white flesh of her arms, scratching it open until the blood flowed. Whimpering, she lay on the ground. "I want to die... just die... die..." Her heart that had recently been restored, broke anew.

 

*****

 

Lost in heavy thoughts, Andrej walked through the forest. He didn't spare the beauty of the snow one glance. Freezing, he wrapped the fur coat tighter around his tall frame. Unsuccessful, he had went out by himself to search for the priest. Now, he didn't want anything else but to return to the castle and sit in front of the crackling fireplace.

The clouds above drifted apart and pale moonlight shone through. Snowflakes sparkled where the mighty treetops let the light pass.

Andrej stopped suddenly. Only a few meters from him lay a snow-covered bundle. In some places the tall man could detect skin and hair, looking out of the white blanket. With a feeling of foreboding, he hurried over, recognizing a human body.

Kneeling next to it, Andrej slowly turned it over. Shock widened his eyes and he realized it was Elea Sophia, only wearing a white under gown. He pulled her into his arms, holding her, brushing a hand gently against her cheeks.

Her skin was as cold as ice.

Andrej bent forward, trying to detect any signs that she was still alive.

In that moment, the young woman's eyes flew open and she began to scream. Uncontrolled, she punched and kicked at Andrej. "Away from me! Go away! Go away!" She constantly repeated the words, unshed tears in her eyes.

The tall man was totally perplexed. He tried to deflect her blows. "Elea Sophia, you have to calm down!"

"Don't touch me!" she yelled even louder and attempted to hit him in the face.

Not knowing what else to do, he grabbed her wrists and pressed her to the ground.

This treatment only caused the young woman's upset condition to worsen. Screaming, she arched. "LET GO OF ME!!!"

"I only want to help you," Andrej replied, helpless.

"Get off me, Rouven!"

"What?" Andrej mumbled, and recognition of what must have happened and why the young woman was acting like this dawned on him. He loosened his grip and Elea Sophia crawled away from him. After bringing some distance between them, she lay sobbing in the snow.

"Shhh," Andrej tried to calm her. "It is me, Andrej."

"I'm so tired," she whimpered quietly.

"No, you mustn't go to sleep," he cried out to her, but Elea Sophia was already unconscious. The past events, exhaustion and the cold had taken their toll.

Andrej rose and walked to her. He took the fur coat off his shoulders and wrapped it around her slender frame. Lifting her easily, he carried her in his arms to the castle, cautiously placing one foot in front of the other. He regarded her all too pale face compassionately. She looked so vulnerable. "Just what did that bastard do to you?"

 

*****

 

Sadden didn't know for how long she had been lying next to the tree.

Stardancer suddenly appeared at her side. Impatiently, the stallion snorted into her tear-stained face.

It had grown late.

With her last strength, the vampire pulled herself onto her horse's back. "Why? Let me see how the sun dawns to greet a day for the first and last time."

Tense, Stardancer pranced, but carried his mistress reliably back to the castle.

The first gray light of morning was lurking just behind the mountains.

Sadden stumbled into the entrance hall. Her panic had dimmed to a dull pain of desperation. Inwardly, she cursed her very existence.

The vampire's body was just about to break under all the pain.

Somebody cleared their throat.

Tired, Sadden looked up.

Lilith was waiting for her at the stairs.

It surprised Sadden. What could Lilith want to do to her, after she had just lost the only ray of light, which had guided her from all the darkness? Her pain couldn't be any greater in that moment.

The younger vampire stood motionless, staring at Sadden as if she was waiting for something.

"Are you relishing my sorrow?" Sadden snapped at her.

Lilith kept her distance. "She is here," came the cold reply.

"Elea?" Disbelief was heavy in Sadden's voice. "Elea is here? Where is she? Is she alive?" Still, she didn't completely trust her protégée's words. "I hope this is not some foul trick. Where is Andrej?"

"A ghoul can show you to her room."

"Is Andrej with her?"

"He left. He wanted to pay a visit to that old herb hag."

Her thoughts only circled around Elea Sophia. Therefore, Sadden overlooked Lilith's disdainful tone. She called for a ghoul, letting him lead the way to the young woman.

Forcefully, Sadden opened the door, almost tearing it off its hinges. Stumbling into the room, she froze.

The chambers were illuminated by a merrily crackling fire from the fireplace. The large bed almost filled the whole room.

Elea Sophia rested on soft pillows.

The vampire was shocked about the young woman's miserable condition. Sitting down next to her, she kept vigil over the sleeping woman, her eyes never leaving her face, which was very pale. Although the fever caused a fine sheen of sweat on her forehead, her slender frame trembled.

Once again, Sadden was painfully reminded of how vulnerable a human being was. The frightened vampire sank to her knees in front of the young woman. "The aura of evanescence lies on you mortals." Tenderly, she reached for Elea Sophia's hand and placed it lovingly against her own cold cheek. "Like a fading shimmer it surrounds you, my beloved." Tears fell from her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. "I beg of you, do not surrender to the embrace of death! Do not leave me alone behind!"

 

TO BE CONTINUED...

 

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