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The candle flames flickered in the icy air of the dark vault, painting bizarre shadows on the wall. Muted mumbling could be heard in the cold room, while Azrael listened motionless to the reports of his messengers. They had just returned from their scouting trips.
With crossed arms, he stood in the fading light of the burning candles, in front of the chair that held the bound Skylar. His dark eyes rested on the pale face of the girl.
She kept her eyelids closed most of the time now, because it took too much of her strength to open them. Besides, there was nothing about her surroundings that the emaciated girl would want to see. She hid what was left of herself from Azrael and Chalice. Deep inside herself, her soul had found solace. It rested there like a tiny spark in the impenetrable darkness that surrounded her.
For hours the vampire had been watching her, but he didn't grow tired of looking at her, while thinking about his plans.
“Silence,” Azrael demanded all of a sudden and his servants stopped talking immediately.
Only a few moments later, Chalice entered the vault.
The dark lord turned towards her and recognized the triumphant expression on her face. “Leave us,” he growled at the others in a deep voice.
The vampires bowed quickly and hurried to get away.
Full of excitement, Chalice walked up to her master, burning to give him the good news, when suddenly she came to a halt. Angered, she became aware of Skylar, who was in the corner. “What's SHE doing here?” she wanted to know, completely forgetting all about her triumph.
“More about her later. Did you accomplish your task?” Azrael asked, his fingertips drumming on the lid of his stone sarcophagus.
Chalice had some problems getting her mind back to the things at hand after the unwanted sight of the small, blonde girl. Her good mood had dissolved into thin air and grumpily, she placed the jute bag on the ground, in front of her master's feet.
“You got it?” Azrael carefully touched the roughly woven fabric. There was a slight movement. “You actually managed to catch it.”
Chalice looked at her beloved master with sparkling eyes.
He picked her up and sat her down on top of the sarcophagus. Then, Azrael held on to the nape of her neck, pulled her closer, kissing her hard and unrestrained.
Chalice was happy because it had been a long time since her master had shown her any attention. This time seemed to be over now. After they were finished, she slid off the stone lid and stood beside him. She had forgotten about Skylar's presence and was now rubbing her hands with glee.
With great care, Azrael loosened the ties of the bag, causing the movement inside to increase. One hand reached inside and his fingers wrapped around something.
Loud screeching rang out, as he pulled the wriggling, black bird from the bag.
Azrael had it in a tight grip and regarded with gleaming eyes the folded letter that was tied to one of the bird's feet.
Quickly he slid the letter off and stuffed the raven back into the bag. Almost reverentially, he unfolded the paper and began to read.
“Wonderful. It is just wonderful,” he said, after having read the message a couple of times.
“What? What is it?” Chalice wanted to know. Shaking with excitement, she stood next to him and tried to catch a glimpse of the written words that were gleaming in black-red ink. “What's the letter saying, Master?”
“The time is perfect. As if made for me.” Azrael looked up and one hand reached out to hold her chin. Looking deeply into her big, expectant eyes, he replied, “My instincts did not betray me. This letter answered a very important question. The clan of the Phoenix has survived and soon there will be the big gathering. The eldest of the big clans will meet at the castle of the Phoenix. That means the solution to the ancient cuneiform on the stone slab is no longer out of reach.” He kissed the young woman with great passion.
Her cheerful laughter echoed through the old vault after he let go of her.
“Soon, all power will lay in my hands. I alone will rule the world.” Azrael went to Skylar and brushed some long strands of hair out of her face. His lips were almost touching her ear as he whispered, “Soon, not only you will be mine, but the mysterious Phoenix will be too.”
Skylar's eyelids twitched, but the vampire didn't see that.
Grinning, he turned back to Chalice. “I will write a new message and send her to my new best friend, Sadden.”
His companion stiffened. “Wh-wha-what?” she stuttered, deeply hurt. “Who, who is that supposed to be?” She croaked the last question through a very dry throat.
“She is the heir of the Phoenix Clan and must be the last one of her family.”
“Oh,” Chalice said, clearly offended by the excitement that she heard in her master's voice. She didn't like it one bit.
Azrael sneered and rubbed his beard. “It was not a problem to extinguish the whole Serpentes Clan. But to take care of one vampire, who has been hiding forever and who presents one of the five old clans... it will be so easy, it is almost ridiculous.” He erupted into loud laughter.
“But, Master, how can you be sure that she is the only one?”
Lost in thought, he answered to himself, “She must be Lisander's life mate.” His eyes gleamed as he continued, “The old Zephriel is talking with her directly, which means they have the same position. Who else but Lisander's chosen one could it be? Therefore, she is the leader, which makes her my aim. Otherwise, he is only mentioning his daughter Lilith, nobody else. Even if there are other vampires at the castle, they are too minor and unimportant to be talked about. That is enough certainty for me.”
Chalice was about to make a reply, but the vampire cut her off. “I have lived long enough among the Serpentes Clan to know about the hierarchy.” Satisfied, he sat down in an armchair and regarded the letter. “Now I won't have to search for each clan. It will save me a lot of time.”
Wrinkling her forehead, Chalice sat down on a chair beside her master and asked, “Is there a special reason why they are having a big gathering? I mean, it is an extra-ordinary event, isn't it?”
A malicious grin appeared on his features. “I woke them up from their deep slumber and now they will try everything to stop me.”
Chalice swallowed hard and fear flashed in her eyes for a brief moment. For the first time, she became aware of all the consequences their deeds had caused over the past five years and how dangerous it was. Then she felt a tingling sensation racing throughout her body. The young woman was torn by her feelings. Unsure, she looked at her master.
Azrael sneered. “Yes, I am the source, but they do not know that... yet.” His grin widened.
A soft, warm breezed tenderly stroked Elea Sophia's golden hair and gently caressed her heated cheeks. She blinked against the bright light of a high sun, which announced the impending hot season. In front of her spread wild meadows with many flowers in bloom that reached until the edge of the forest.
Elea Sophia liked the sight of the red-colored poppies and the dark blue of the cornflowers among the white of thousands chamomile blossoms. Bees were humming and flying nearby and the wind carried the cheerful chirping of birds from the forest to her ear.
Suddenly, Elea Sophia heard a different melody. Curious, she followed the happy tones. She walked along a dusty, stony way and eventually she came upon the source of the music.
Anatol was sitting cross-legged on a boulder and was playing a tiny flute, which had been carved from wood. He had rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, revealing his tanned arms. Anatol seemed to be lost in his music, because he sat there with his eyes closed and slowly rocked his body to the rhythm. He didn't notice that Elea Sophia came closer.
The young woman suppressed a giggle. To her the whole sight was very amusing. It seemed as if Anatol was enchanting the butterflies with his light music. There was a swarm of them dancing around him and he didn't even notice.
All of a sudden, he stopped playing and the music faded. Anatol opened his eyes and looked unsure at Elea Sophia.
“Your play is very wonderful,” she told him, smiling.
Clearly embarrassed, he scratched the back of his head and answered, “I carved the flute myself... it's made of hazelnut wood.”
“That demands lots of talent and even more to lure such beautiful sounds from a piece of wood,” Elea Sophia praised.
Not being used to any kind of praise, Anatol blushed in a bright red. “I... I...,” he stuttered. “Thank you,” he finally mumbled quietly.
“You don't have to thank me. It's the truth,” the priest's daughter replied and smiled at him encouragingly. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
“Oh, I just came back from Granny Ana,” Anatol explained. He was slowly beginning to trust her because he really liked her nice and open attitude. “I had a horrible tooth ache. I couldn't stand it any longer.”
“Did she heal your pain?”
“She pulled out the tooth!” With that, he opened his mouth wide and pointed at the hole where a tooth was missing. “I can show it to you if you would like,” he announced proudly and began to rummage through the big, bulging pockets of his pants.
Elea Sophia just declined. That was more than she wanted to know. “Is there no doctor coming by here?” she asked, a bit concerned.
“No, not anymore. When I was very little there was a doctor in Ardeal. But, he died and since then there has been no other.”
Her concern grew as Elea Sophia thought about her father and the medicine he needed.
Anatol noticed her worried expression and said, “Don't be scared. Just go to Granny. She knows a cure for everything.”
Lost in thought, the priest's daughter stared off into space, thinking about the crone. ‘If Anatol knew that I am on my way to her anyway... but for a different reason...'
At the same time a heavy wind blew through the tree tops, scaring a flock of birds that hurriedly flew away, screeching loudly.
Anatol jerked and jumped off the boulder. Again and again, he scanned his surroundings, his eyes following the quickly changing shadows between the trees. Their leaves rustled in the strong wind. Almost mechanically, Anatol rolled down his sleeves, covering up his arms.
Sighing, the priest's daughter turned back to the young man and caught a glimpse of two small, red marks on the inside of his left arm. She frowned briefly, but then remembered what she had wanted to say. “Thanks for the advice. But, I don't think my father would allow me to go to her...because of him,” she announced in a small voice.
Anatol wrinkled his forehead and asked harshly, “Does he think she is a witch or what?” All the time, his eyes darted in direction of the forest.
Elea Sophia raised her hands in a defending motion. “No, please don't say that.”
He didn't listen to her.
Silence fell and for the first time she noticed the nervousness that came in waves off his body. “Are you scared of something?” she wondered.
“What?” he inquired. Then, Anatol added quickly, “No, no. During the day I don't need to be afraid.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and fisted them so she wouldn't see their slight shaking.
Elea Sophia was quite confused about Anatol's behavior. “What do you mean, you don't need to be afraid during the day?” Carefully, she continued, “Do you need to be afraid during the night?”
He took a deep breath and sighed. “You've been very kind to me, but I must not tell you. She told me it's a secret... only between her and me,” Anatol admitted without thinking.
“She?” Elea Sophia blurted immediately.
Shocked, Anatol took his hands out of his pockets and covered his mouth.
“Are you talking about the old Ana?” she wanted to know and tenderly patted his arms to calm him, also hoping that he would take his hands off his mouth again.
Anatol was trembling all over and he whispered to himself. “No, she did not hear me. She cannot have heard me.” He looked at the priest's daughter with wide eyes and explained, “Because she is sleeping now.”
Elea Sophia thought the whole situation was very strange. “Are you talking about a friend of yours? One from the village?”
Anatol hesitated before he confessed, “No, I don't have a friend.” He added bitterly, “I don't have any friends at all.”
“So, does she come from somewhere else to visit you?”
All the questions were beginning to become too much for the young man. “You are very curious, daughter of the Priest.”
“I'm sorry,” she apologized quickly. “I would like to be your friend... I mean, if I may?”
Anatol looked at her with big eyes. “You want to be my friend? Are you serious?” he asked, doubtful and drew his brows together.
“Of course,” she confirmed. “I'm not lying.”
“Yeah, that's right, or else your God would punish you, correct?” he asked.
“Well, he is the God of us all and takes care of us all.”
Impressed, Anatol looked up at the cloudless sky.
It caused Elea Sophia to smile.
“He takes care of us all?” he asked in wonderment. “Can he see everything too?” The last question was asked with a clearly audible trace of suspicion in his voice.
“Of course, since he is the one, who created all life on earth.”
“What kind of a God is that, who allows us to be haunted... who creates such nasty creatures...” Anatol whispered and try as she might Elea Sophia was unable to understand it because his words were drowned out by the rustling of the forest.
Before she could ask him to repeat what he said, he bade her a hasty goodbye. “I have to go now. I promised the miller's wife that I would bring her geese to the meadows.” With that, he turned around and ran along the dusty path that led back to the village.
The young woman massaged her temples because a strong headache was making itself known. “I have to talk with Anatol again later and ask him why he is acting so strange. Now I have to go to Ana.”
Sometime later, Elea Sophia stood in front of the old hut of Granny Ana. Her heart was pounding wildly and she was doubting if it had been the right decision to visit the crone. But then, she remembered the past nights. In many of them she had woken suddenly, feeling restless.
At the same time she had decided to knock, she heard somebody call for her.
Elea Sophia recognized the scratchy, piercing voice of Ana. The wind carried her cries from the forest and the young woman followed them.
At first it seemed as if there was no way through the under wood, but then, she saw the small pathway.
The ancient trees rose highly and mightily in front of her. The bushes seemed to swallow all the light and Elea Sophia was overcome by a strange feeling, as if some force didn't want her to enter the forest.
“It's just a couple of trees,” she reprimanded herself. She was reminded of Anatol's frightful face whenever he looked at the forest. Hesitatingly, she put one foot in front of the other and suspiciously, she scanned her surroundings. Was it only in her mind or were there voices whispering into her ear?
After a while, Elea Sophia came upon a bright spot of light that grew wider the closer she got to it. She quickened her steps. Soon, her eyes had become accustomed to the bright light and she saw a clearing, which was surrounded by blooming chestnut trees.
Astonished, she entered it. For the time being, she had forgotten all about her worries. She looked up and her eyes widened in disbelief, because it had began to snow. But it was only the chestnut seed, which floated through the air like snowflakes and covered the grass on the ground. Elea Sophia had never experienced anything like that before. Fascinated by this play of nature, she walked on.
On the other side of the clearing, she discovered the bent figure of Ana, who was covered by the seed.
“Hello,” the young woman greeted the crone.
“I was already thinking you wouldn't come,” Ana nagged loudly.
“Now, help an old woman up, would you?” Finally, she scrutinized Elea Sophia from top to bottom and mumbled, “How unreasonable.”
Ana cut her off with a sharp hand motion and replied, “Bah, not knowing does not protect you from certain death.”
Elea Sophia was rendered speechless. To her the old woman was talking in riddles. She followed a few steps behind Ana, who led the way, supporting herself with a gnarled cane.
Soon after that, the priest's daughter found herself once more in Ana's hut. Again, she noticed the revolting stench of garlic but this time it wasn't as penetrating as it had been during her first visit.
She held a cup in her hands with a clear, brown fluid. Carefully sniffing at the steaming fluid, which smelled slightly of horseradish, Elea Sophia inquired, “What is in there?”
“It is freshly brewed valerian tea. It will help to calm you down,” Ana answered, while putting several roots in a small linen bag. “I will pack you a couple of valerian roots. With them you can brew a tea. Drink a cup of it before you go to bed and hopefully your restlessness and sleepless nights will disappear...unless...” Shaking her head, the crone stopped in the middle of the sentence. Instead she emptied the pockets of her long skirt and lay the goods on the table.
Taking small sips of the tea, Elea Sophia watched her.
Ana noticed her questioning look and answered, “These are beech nuts. I collected them to make a wonderful oil out of them. It will help when you are coughing or if you have a tooth ache. Anatol was here this morning because he had a very bad tooth ache so I used all of my supply. And, of course, the unreasonable guy only comes to me when he can't bear the pain anymore.”
Elea Sophia nodded. “I met him.”
“I thought as much,” Ana responded. “The poor guy doesn't have anybody. His parents died from fever when he was little.”
Elea Sophia felt a sting in her heart. The painful memories of her own childhood rose. It had been a long time and she thought of her beloved mother, whom she had lost to a fever too. The memories she had were blurry, but she remembered her mother's love, her gentleness, her soft voice that would put her to sleep with a lullaby. Most of all, it was the scent of lavender that kept her mother alive in Elea Sophia's memories.
“You have experienced something like that too, haven't you?” The voice of the crone brought her back to the present.
She nodded. It also was hard for her to visualize how Anatol had survived on his own, so she was about to ask Ana. “But how...”
“When he was a child he lived with me, then with the Dimovs and now with Mikahel. I took care of him as much as I could, but as he grew older, he wanted to be away from such an old hag as myself.” She chuckled. “The youth, you know? Anyway, he always was a bit peculiar, but don't let anybody talk bad about him. Anatol is a very nice boy, even if he is a bit of a nincompoop sometimes. I think, he understands more than people give him credit for. For the moment he sleeps and lives wherever he is working, depending who needs his skills.”
“The poor guy,” Elea Sophia exclaimed.
Ana smirked. “You feel sorry for him?”
“Of course,” the young woman answered, dismayed. “I cannot imagine having to live like that. All alone and never knowing what the next day will bring or if I will have a place to sleep at night.” She had never been as frank as she was speaking with the old crone right now.
“Life never chooses certain paths. Nobody can foresee what's going to happen,” Ana told her before she sat down on a broad chair that was covered in soft furs. She groaned a bit, as she lowered her tired, old body to the seat, close to the fire.
“I cannot believe that,” the young woman said quietly, moving restlessly on the wooden bench she was sitting on. She grabbed the silver cross that hung around her neck and added firmly, “God determines every of our ways.”
“You didn't come here to talk with me about God, did you?” Ana inquired, her voice warm and friendly.
This came as a relief to the priest's daughter and a brief smile flickered over her features. She knew that she could talk with the old woman about anything, even though she didn't understand why she trusted her so much.
Putting down the now empty cup, she unburdened her heart to the crone. “There is a pressure... as if a goblin is sitting on my chest.” While she was talking, her face turned pale and her trembling fingers stroked over her chest. “I think that I do not sleep at all during the night. When I wake up in the mornings, I am completely exhausted.”
Tiredly, Elea Sophia closed her eyes for a moment, before she continued, “And then there is this familiar feeling... but when I think I grasped it and finally know what is going on... it disappears.”
“What are you feeling?” Granny Ana asked calmly.
For a brief moment, Elea Sophia stared deeply into the clear, piercing eyes of the old woman and answered without hesitation, “I feel longing.”
After the crone had not said anything, the young woman looked at her with a helpless, imploring gaze, begging in a frightened voice, “Ohhh, Granny Ana. Is it bad that I feel like that? I cannot describe it better. Just what is wrong with me?”
Ana thought about it for a while before she found an answer. “Try the tea and come back to me by the end of the week. I will know more by then. It can be that we will have to try something different.”
The words were only a small consolation to the distraught, young woman, but none the less, she rose to head home.
At the door step, Granny Ana's wrinkled hands reached for hers and the old woman told her, “The humans are at their most vulnerable when they sleep. Always remember that, my child.”
There was something about what Ana said that made Elea Sophia frown, but for the life of her she couldn't figure out what was so unusual about the crone's choice of words.
Finally, Elea Sophia said goodbye to Ana, feeling as if the weight around her heart had grown a bit lighter. “Thank you a lot for listening to me and for your help.”
Ana just nodded. With sad eyes, she watched the daughter of the priest leave and walk down the path that led to Ardeal. “The poor child. I think I will have to go to the village tonight to see what's going on.”
With a relieved sigh, Elea Sophia closed the door behind her and leaned her head against the wood. She had made her way through the village, always being careful that nobody would notice that she came from Granny Ana. The linen bag with the valerian roots was tightly clasped in her hand.
She had a look around. “Good, Father is not home. That gives me enough time to brew the tea.”
The words had barely left her lips as there was an insistent knocking at the door.
Quickly, Elea Sophia hid the small linen bag under her bodice and opened the door only a small gap. She peered through it and was greeted by the broadly grinning face of Rouven. “May I come in?” he asked sweetly.
The priest's daughter opened the door wider and he walked over the door step.
Once inside, he proudly placed a huge pheasant on the table. “I shot this for you. Of course, I would be very happy if you would invite me to have dinner with your father and you.” The mayor's son looked at her expectantly, waiting for her reaction.
Overwhelmed, Elea Sophia's fingers touched the beautiful feathers of the dead bird. “It will be my pleasure to prepare the pheasant for dinner and of course, you are invited to be our guest.”
That was exactly what Rouven had wanted to hear and so he sat down on the bench beside the oven. “Well, I have to admit that pheasants are very easy to catch this season. It's mating season and they are so busy from dawn till dusk trying to find a mate that they do not notice anything else. It makes them easy prey, no big deal for a hunter like me,” he bragged.
Elea Sophia turned her back toward him and stuffed the small linen bag into a drawer. “I guess it's the same for the animals as it is for the humans,” she said quietly.
“Did you say something, my love?” Rouven asked.
The young woman jerked and whirled around. “You cannot talk like that Rouven. If my father would hear...”
He waggled his eyebrows. “But he is not here,” the mayor's son replied, boldly grinning.
“That doesn't change anything,” Elea Sophia responded heatedly.
Reluctantly, Rouven gave in. “What were we talking about... oh yes... I would like to do something nice for you. How about a pretty fur coat? Of course, not some common fur. I'm talking about squirrel fur.” He didn't let her say anything, because he was so excited about his newest idea. “I know, it's getting close to summer, but only then one can get the little rodents. The beasts are hard to find and even harder to catch. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. The difficulty is to catch them alive, and then you have to find a big flat stone, and then you take a club, and then...”
“STOP IT!” the priest's daughter yelled. “It is disgusting and revolting! Do not dare to treat a poor squirrel like that!”
Rouven was astonished. “What is wrong, Elea Sophia. For some time now you are flaring up quickly.”
She sighed. “I am sorry, but I... Excuse me, please, you have to go now,” she pleaded tiredly.
His pride and honor deeply hurt, he said goodbye at the door, clearly offended. “I won't be over for dinner. We will see each other another time.”
Elea Sophia felt sorry. Even though she liked him, she just couldn't bear his presence at the moment or listen to his hunting tales.
Grumpily, Rouven walked away from the small house. He had shoved his hands deeply into the pockets of his pants and was kicking small stones along the path. “I only wanted to be nice and she acts stupid,” he growled. “Poor squirrels, she says. So what? They are just dumb, little animals. I don't understand why girls always act like that. It's really getting on my nerves.”
A bit away from the mill, he stopped at the small stream and had a few sips of the clear water. After that, Rouven sat down and lay back in the grass, crossed his arms behind his head and closed his eyes, thinking about the unfair treatment he had received from his chosen one.
His brooding was interrupted by the loud cackling of geese. Opening his eyes, Rouven recognized Anatol, who came down a small hill with a group of geese.
The boy held a long, thin stick in his hand to steer the walking birds in the right direction.
“Great,” Rouven mumbled sarcastically. “The geese-guarding idiot. What else can go wrong today?”
While the white birds were quenching their thirst at the stream, Anatol sat down next to Rouven. Silently, his gaze went over the small fields to the mountain tops in the distance, where the warm rays of the sun would soon disappear. “It is a pity how fast a day goes by,” he sighed.
Rouven glared at him. “Don't you dare become sentimental or anything,” he grumbled. The mayor's son sat up and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Anatol slowly turned towards him and bestowed a piercing look upon him.
His breath caught, because there was a dark seriousness in Anatol's eyes, which he had never seen before. Rouven began to freeze a bit, a fact that had nothing to do with the fading sun. He grew more and more uncomfortable in the other guy's presence.
“Are you trying to make fun of me?” Anatol asked and rose. “You can't humiliate me anymore.” Not waiting for an answer, he steered the geese away from the stream and disappeared in direction of the mill.
Blinking in disbelief, Rouven regained his composure. “How dare he speak to me like that?” To say he was outraged was putting it mildly. “I'll go to the tavern and have a talk with the guys. He's going to pay for that.” Having made up his mind, the mayor's son stomped off to the tavern.
Chalice's piercing stare was fixed on Skylar.
Because Azrael was busy forging the message of Zephriel in another part of the huge vault, the blonde fury was alone with the girl.
The young woman was sitting on the sarcophagus of her master. Her jealous mind was circling around one thought. Sadden. That name had been burnt into her brain and now Chalice couldn't think about anything else. “I wonder, what could she look like? And how might a true vampire be?” Again, she became painfully aware of the fact that her master still had not made her his life mate.
In her hands, she juggled the small, silver dagger. Then, she flung it with a practiced swing in direction of the girl.
The blade's tip impaled the backrest of the chair.
“My little friend didn't forget about you. It still likes you a lot.” A loud sigh erupted from the blonde woman's throat as she saw that the dagger had scratched a line along Skylar's ear. Blood welled up from the thin cut. “Defend yourself. Defend yourself just once!” Chalice begged.
Disgruntled, she walked over to the girl, who still sat there motionless. “You are boring me to tears,” Chalice muttered and pulled the dagger from the wooden chair. She regarded the thin line of blood that dribbled down Skylar's ear. “The master will get angry when he sees this.” Untouched by the sight, she quickly bent forward and collected the blood with the tip of her tongue. Then, she draped a few strands of the girl's hair over the ear. “There, that's better.”
Another sigh escaped her. Feeling sorry for herself, she mumbled, “I can hear my master already... Chalice, you have to treat her better and take better care of her... Chalice, you have to make sure that she drinks and eats more... the quality of her blood decreases... blah, blah, blah...”
She spat at the floor, next to the chair. “I can't stand your sight, you are a failure of your clan. Day by day, your face reminds me of your damn family... it reminds me of him. As long as you are here, I'm unable to forget him, but I want to forget! Do you hear me, you lifeless nothing of a Leosol?”
Her anger flared and grew, but she managed to get her composure back as she heard the familiar footsteps of her master drawing close.
Azrael was in a very happy mood when he entered the room and said to his trusty companion, “Chalice, it is time to prepare for a journey. Already tomorrow, after dusk, we will leave here in direction of Vienna, because it is a long journey.”
“Is she there?” Chalice snapped. One glare of Azrael was enough to silence her and make her regret her harsh comment. Submissively, she lowered her eyes to the ground. “I will take care of everything necessary, Master.”
“Good. I am very satisfied with my writings and would like nothing more than to be present when Sadden reads the lines.” A devilish grin spread over his face. “Also, I sent out a troop of scouts on fast horses to follow the raven in order to find out where its destination is. I hope for them that they will not disappoint me.”
Satisfied, he sat down in his armchair. He took a small wooden chest from the low table next to him and opened it. “Come here, Chalice. I have a gift for you.”
Reverently, the young woman knelt down in front of her master.
He pulled a golden bracelet from the chest. It had a scale pattern and one end was shaped into the head of a snake. Tiny emeralds made up the eyes.
Silently, Chalice stared at the piece of jewelry, until her master grabbed her left hand.
Slowly, Azrael slid the bracelet along her pale arm.
She felt a bit of pain as he shoved it over her elbow and further up until it fit tightly around her upper arm. Happily, her fingers traced the golden metal and she breathed, “Thank you, Master.”
Coldly, he responded. “Chalice, you will take most of our luggage and a couple of my men to ride ahead and prepare a new quarter for us.”
“You want me to leave you, my beloved Master? Please, don't do that to me,” she pleaded with imploring eyes. The blonde wasn't too happy about it, but Azrael had made up his mind.
“What about her?” Chalice asked in the most disparaging tone she could muster and pointed at Skylar. “She will be a burden during my newly announced task.”
“Since it seems to be too much for you to handle, you no longer will have to concern yourself with Skylar.”
Dismayed and hurt by Azrael's choice of words, Chalice`s bit down on her lower lip.
Matter-of-factly, he explained, “I have chosen a nurse that will take care of Skylar from now on. She will make sure that she is dressed adequately, that she has enough to eat and drink and that Skylar has all she needs for her well-being.”
Chalice face flushed as she heard him stressing the last words. “As you wish, Master.”
“You may go now.”
The young woman nodded. Before she left the room, she glared at Skylar a final time, expressing all her hate and disgust. To herself, she thought, ‘When we see each other again, you are going to feel my wrath, little one.'
If day and night are the same
If the blood of the golden lion dries up
The heir and epitome of Utus will appear
“The Order Of The Five is weak and belongs to the past. I will show them what real strength and power is. My life in the shadows will come to an end,” Azrael decided in a dark voice. ”I ran out of patience and I do not want to wait any longer.”
With that, he closed the chest and turned back to Skylar. “It has to happen soon, before my enemies can rise. I gathered from Zephriel's words that he knows more than enough.”
Carefully, he rolled up the girl's right sleeve, revealing her arm. The vampire turned it over so that he could have a look at the inner side. Chalice had wrapped a bandage around the girl's wrist. It was soaked through with blood. Scowling, he muttered to Skylar, “You will die when I say so and not sooner.”
Azrael clapped his hands.
On cue, a young woman entered the room. Naked fear was visible in her eyes and she kept her back tightly pressed against the wall. Her whole body was trembling and her eyes were swollen and red from the tears that trailed unstoppable down her cheeks.
“There is only one rule for you,” the vampire announced and pointed at Skylar. “If the girl dies, you will die too. Understood?”
The nurse was so scared that she was unable to utter a syllable. Instead, she pressed herself tighter against the cold stone wall behind her.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!” he thundered.
“Yes... yes...” she whimpered and sobbed.
Slowly, Azrael calmed. “I did get you out of the hospital for a reason. As long as you follow my orders, nothing is going to happen to you... unless, I want it to.”
Azrael left the room to work some more on the realization of his plans. A smile curled around the corners of his lips. “Well, since the Phoenix is stirring on this earth again it will be time to celebrate another massacre of unknown proportions.”
Warm light spread through the small chamber under the roof as Elea Sophia entered her room, holding a candle. After she had put the candle down, she opened the window to let some cool air inside the room.
Silently, she sat down on the edge of her bed. Her eyes were fixed on the filled cup that stood on the small nightstand. Nervously, her fingers were playing with the thin fabric of her nightgown. “What shall I do? What is the right decision?” Her right hand traveled to her heart where it formed a fist. “Oh God, stand by me in this dark hour,” she begged.
Ever since she had prepared the tea, the young woman was torn if she should drink it before going to bed or not.
Elea Sophia sighed and her eyes fell to the floor, her gaze wandering aimlessly over her own naked feet, along the cracks and lines of the boards.
Suddenly, the priest's daughter jerked as a deformed shadow flitted over the floor. Forcing herself to look up, she became aware of a butterfly that had been attracted by the small light in the darkness and was now flying through her chamber.
Helplessly and steered by its instincts, it was circling around the candle, its wings causing the bizarre shadows on the walls and floor.
“Poor thing,” Elea Sophia said and rose. She took the candle and slowly carried it over to the window.
The butterfly followed the light and disappeared into the darkness as soon as she had extinguished the candle.
Lost in thought, Elea Sophia looked at the bright half moon. “I should drink it like Ana recommended... maybe then everything will just be a bad dream and nothing more.”
Something inside her though was fighting her will to drink the tea and that scared her. The young woman crossed herself and said a prayer. “If you check my heart, if you come to me at night to test me then you will find no evil about me.” But this time, the prayer didn't console Elea Sophia.
Tears welled up in her eyes and she hurried to the nightstand. She took the cup and emptied it quickly, because she didn't want to think about if it was right or wrong any longer. Disgusted by the bitter taste of the tea, she pulled a face.
After that, she lay down, already feeling the effects of the strong fluid. “There is no turning back now. I hope it was the right decision.”
A pleasant warmth spread throughout her body. Her eyelids slid close and Elea Sophia fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
In the dim moonlight between the trees, Anatol saw how the vampire licked her lips after her meal. He didn't dare to look directly into her eyes. Silently, he rolled the sleeve of his shirt down again to cover the bite mark and waited for the numb feeling in his arm. The young man had become accustomed to the weakness that came over him after her feeding procedure.
“You have not said anything at all,” Lilith said, gazing at his tense figure that looked even more pitiful in the moonlight.
“What would you like to hear?” Anatol inquired, tiredly.
“You are very closed up tonight.” The vampire stepped behind the young man and breathed at the nape of his neck.
As always, he grew cold in her presence and Anatol crossed his arms tightly in front of his chest.
“Do you not have anything to tell me?” her lips whispered softly.
Anatol jerked. He hated the fact that she was reading his thoughts, but either he couldn't defend himself against it or he didn't want to. That was something he had been unable to figure out yet.
“You did not tell anybody about us, did you?” Lilith's voice cut through the uncomfortable silence.
Anatol exhaled sharply and snarled, “As is anybody would believe me. Already the first time everybody was laughing about me.” He stared towards the village and stomped down on the feeling of anger that wanted to rise.
“My poor Anatol,” she cooed. “Take comfort in the fact that you know it better.”
He could practically feel that she was grinning behind his back.
“Loneliness has been your companion for your whole life. Even if you try to hide that feeling deep inside yourself,” the vampire added condescendingly.
“I guess I'm not the only one here and I don't have to be like you to feel that,” he answered bitterly.
“How dare you?!” Lilith flared up but reigned in her anger quickly, because she didn't want to endanger her intentions. “I have never seen you like this. Your behavior is making me grumpy too.” There was a sneer on her face. She knew that now was the right time to carry out her plan.
Softly, the vampire stroked his brown hair and brushed it away from his neck.
The coldness of her hand made Anatol shiver.
Lovingly, she whispered into his ear, “Do you want me to fulfill your greatest wish now, Anatol?”
He looked at her and felt his heart pound out of control as green eyes captured him, impaling him with a fierce stare. Swallowing hard, he cast his eyes to the ground and retreated a few steps. “You want to keep your promise?” he asked breathlessly.
“Did you really think I would break it? I am very disappointed about your suspicion. And here I was thinking we had something special.”
“Don't make fun of me,” Anatol replied harshly and thought back to the first night he had seen her, at the abandoned camp of the wolf hunters. Still, he felt his stomach churn as he remembered the horrible sight. He was glad that the vampire chose a different appearance now. “You know what my greatest wish is?”
“Your heart only beats for one, who sadly is not me. It is the daughter of the tavern's owner.”
Anatol stiffened and heat rose inside him as he thought about the pretty girl.
“Yes, I do know how you always try to be close to her, how you observe her through the window and how your hot gaze consumes her.” Lilith laughed loudly.
“That's not true,” Anatol tried to defend himself, but he knew that the vampire was right. It was absurd. “I love Ljudmilla but she doesn't spare me a glance.”
“Poor, poor Anatol. You humans are so easy to see through. Only following one instinct... but, be that as it may. I want you to do something for me. For that, I will make sure you get the girl. I think that is a great deal.”
Doubting, Anatol looked at the ground and asked, unsure, “That's not a good idea. If, then I want to win her heart because of me and not because she is forced against her will. I can't do that... I don't want to do that... it's too dangerous and it wouldn't be right.” He shook his head, having made up his mind.
“Are you trying to deny me?” An unspoken threat was audible in Lilith's voice.
Anatol's heart skipped a beat as he realized the effects of his defiant answer. Quickly, he tried to calm her. “I... I really am sorry... I... I'm not talking back. I'll do anything you want but please, don't help me,” he begged and pleaded heavily, not only with his voice but also with his eyes. He was scared to death.
“Whatever you want. Just remember, there will not be another offer,” Lilith told him firmly.
The young man hung his shoulders. Exhaustion was beginning to conquer his body. “What do you want me to do for you?” Anatol asked, tense.
“That is much better,” Lilith praised. “Observe the house of the priest, especially the room of his daughter.”
“Elea Sophia's chambers?” he inquired, shocked.
“Oh, so that is her name. Interesting.”
Anatol bit down on his tongue, his thoughts in an uproar. ‘What can she want from the girl?'
“That is none of your business,” she snapped, having listened to his thoughts. “You will observe her until I will tell you otherwise. Understood?”
Sighing, Anatol nodded. “I'll begin early tomorrow morning...”
“Not during the day,” Lilith cut him off abruptly. “Only at night. Only at night and keep her window in your sight. Do you hear? Also, make sure that nobody catches you or else you are in trouble.”
The young man was about to ask another question, but decided against it.
“Go and be on your way,” the vampire said, listening intently to the sounds of the night. “The moment is close... I can feel it.”
Slowly, Anatol walked away, feeling very uncomfortable. His mind was whirling and he wondered what the vampire could want from Elea Sophia.
Lilith stayed behind for another moment, before she returned to the castle. She thought about what Anatol had noticed. Yes, she was lonely. Without her family, she felt lost and she kept waiting every night for a message from Hraban, in vain. Shoving the heavy thoughts aside, she muttered darkly, “Humans, so undecided and fickle. Just unbearable.”
Like a soft breeze, the vampire entered the chambers through the window, as she had done every night in the past. She could barely wait until the sun had finally disappeared. The great longing always pulled her to the tiny room of her beloved.
Carefully, she stepped from behind the floating curtains and made sure that Elea Sophia was deeply asleep. ‘ Now, with the arrival of summer, our time together will be even more valuable since the nights turn far too quickly into sun-bathed days.'
Without a sound, Sadden walked to the foot of the bed and regarded the sleeping girl, whose face shone lovingly in the silvery moonlight. The dark-haired beauty sat down on the edge, close to the face of her adored one. The paleness and sadness had disappeared from Sadden's features. Only love was visible while she looked at her. “Do you not want to love me again?”
She bent down towards Elea Sophia, relishing her warm, regular breath on her own cold skin.
The softly curved lips were slightly open, inviting Sadden to kiss them.
Her cool lips drew closer and closer to the ones of the sleeping girl. Her right hand tenderly slid over Elea Sophia's thin nightgown to pull her into a dream like every night.
But this time, Sadden was unable to awaken her beloved. A painful expression appeared on the slumbering face and the girl's body tensed unusually. It seemed as if she fought the wake up call.
The vampire stopped, frowning, because she had not expected such a reaction. She couldn't explain why this night was different from the ones before. Her watchful eyes traveled to the nightstand where she noticed the empty mug.
Sadden reached out and took it, guiding it to her nose. “Valerian and something else,” she whispered in disbelief. “I do not know what it is, because the scent of valerian covers everything. She drew her brows together and put the mug down, deeply concerned. “Somebody knows something.”
Without much effort, Anatol had climbed up the old tree that was already dead and hollow inside. He had made himself comfortable on a thick gnarled branch and was now waiting to see what would happen.
Now and again, he was dangerously close to nod off and suddenly he became aware of a shadow.
It was darker than the deepest, moonless night and seemed to swallow all light.
Anatol rubbed his eyes in disbelief. He couldn't tell if it was just his imagination running wild or if it was reality. Just one thing was for sure. It was enough for him.
He jumped off the tree. Unfortunately, a curse escaped him as he hurt his foot at the root before he limped off.
Unnoticed to him, Ana, who had been hiding for some time in the hollow tree, stepped out. Frowning, the old woman wondered about Anatol's presence, but she was far more concerned about the priest's daughter.
Her eyes tightened to slits, she looked up to the small, open window. “So that's it... you are still here. I didn't think that I would experience it. This story won't have a happy end.”
The longer Sadden stood there watching the sleeping young woman, the more she could feel the stirring inside herself. The horrible greed that scared her most of all was making itself known strongly.
It was the vampire inside her that began to talk, “While you are resting here so softly, I will suck the fresh purple from your beautiful cheeks.” The feeling intensified due to Elea Sophia's arching body that writhed tortured on the bed.
Frightened, Sadden retreated from the bed, but she was unable to take her eyes off her beloved. They followed the beads of sweat that appeared on a pale forehead and rolled down the woman's temples.
Sadden wet her dry lips with the tip of her tongue. “You will be scared when I kiss you... when I kiss you as a vampire. Then you will shake and sink weakly into my arms like a corpse.” The vampire in Sadden grew stronger and wanted to grab the innocent, young creature, to impale her soft throat with pointy teeth. It wanted to rip through the tender, delicate skin, drink the sweet blood and suck the life from the body. It wanted to make her one of its own kind.The greed was about to overwhelm her and frightened Sadden to the core. She retreated and whispered sorrowfully, “I have to leave you now, my beloved. Before I lose control and hurt you in the most horrible way.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
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