DISCLAIMERS: See Prologue
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The morning at the house of the priest and his daughter began like every other morning. Everon sat alone in the kitchen, sipping the warm oat soup that Elea Sophia had prepared for him.
At the same time, the young woman was taking care of her mare and swept the tiny yard in front of the rectory. After she was done with her chores, she put the broomstick away and entered the house.
An empty pot stood in the corridor and she picked it up to place it on a shelf in the kitchen. “There is no milk today,” Elea Sophia told her father. “I will go to the tavern later to see if István has any bacon to spare. If he does, then I will make you a wonderful lentil dish with bacon for dinner.”
She went outside to fetch a bucket of water. Elea Sophia filled some of it into a large bowl, which she placed upon the kitchen table. She took a terracotta cup from the shelf and emptied its contents into the bowl. The small, brown lentils sank to the bottom.
Expressionless, the young woman's eyes were fixed to the bowl.
Everon stopped eating and scrutinized his daughter. He reached over and softly patted one of her hands. “My precious child,” he said. “For the past days and weeks I noticed a change in your behavior that I cannot stand. You are so quiet. You do your chores like an empty shell.”
Elea Sophia jerked slightly and looked at him.
Her father continued. “Before, you went about your daily duties with a smile on your face. But lately, it has disappeared. I miss it.”
The young woman swallowed hard and lowered her frame to the bench, opposite Everon.
“It is my fault,” he said.
Elea Sophia wanted to shake her head in denial, but he motioned for her to be silent and to listen.
“I have come to see that you grow more and more serious. You are retreating into yourself. It has been my mistake to neglect you as I did. I know that my health is not as well as it once was. But it also is my god-given duty to put all my energy and responsibilities in this little parish. There are some people that have not been converted yet. There is still a lot of work ahead of me, to make them let go of their old heretical customs.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he grasped his daughter's slightly trembling hands. “I am old. I do not have enough strength to be a good father for you and at the same time a good cleric for the parish.”
Elea Sophia wanted to interrupt him, but he went on, “You know that I promised your mother, my beloved Eleonora, on her death bed that I only want what is best for you.”
She nodded and tenderly squeezed her father's wrinkled hands.
“The winter months are not too far away and so I have decided that soon, during a mass, I will announce the wedding between you and Rouven Dimov in spring. Of course, I will have to talk with Rouven one more time, so that everything is in order and that there won't be a rude awakening later.”
Elea Sophia lowered her head. She couldn't and she didn't want to look into the eyes of her father.
“I know, my precious child, I know,” Everon continued. He thought that she was so subdued due to his health. “It is hard to admit how bad my condition really is. Believe me when I tell you now that I really wish I could make it easier for us. But, we have to face the facts. My asthma attacks are growing in number and strength. The medicine is no longer bringing the relief it should.”
“I know, Father. Despite that, I still pray to God every day that he may give us many more years together on this earth.”
Everon squeezed her hands and gave her a smile. “I do the same. I would love to have the honor of baptizing my own grandson. He will be a nice and handsome lad with Rouven as his father and you as his mother. Of course, I also want to hold your wedding celebration. Nothing could make me happier.”
Elea Sophia's emotions were in an uproar. She felt uncomfortably hot and cold at the same time as she considered her father's words that had just left his mouth. Somehow though, she managed to appear calm on the outside. ‘How can I deny him this last wish? There are still a few months till spring. Maybe until then Rouven will be able to stop his sometimes so childish behavior? And maybe I can force myself to feel something kind of like love for the mayor's son?' She knew it would be a very difficult venture, if not impossible. Could she really develop the same feelings for Rouven like those she held for the mysterious person from her dreams?
“Now please, stop looking so serious,” Everon chimed in. “From now on you will only have reason to smile,” he said, grinning widely. “Children are a wonderful thing and they add so much joy to life. I know that, because I have the best daughter one could wish for.”
Elea Sophia didn't want to think about it any longer. She quickly changed the subject. “There is no need for you to rush. Finish your breakfast, while I go to the church, in order to prepare everything for today's mass.” With that, she got up from the table and left the little rectory.
Different emotions now swept through her with all force. Why did she have to make such a decision? Basically, it wasn't even her decision. To marry Rouven was what her father expected of her. It was what everybody would expect from a good daughter. All her life she had strived to be nothing else but that. And now? She didn't know. Elea Sophia didn't know what she wanted or if anybody was interested in her happiness or wanted to know her feelings. More than ever, she wished that she had a close confidant, a person with whom she could talk about everything and hold back nothing.
The young woman arrived at the small church, still feeling numb inside. She stopped in front of the wooden entrance door, taking deep breaths to calm her heavily pounding heart. Overwhelmed by strong emotions, she felt hot tears gathering in her eyes. Sobbing, she leaned her head against the door.
Suddenly, it was opened from inside and Anatol stepped out into the sunlight.
Elea Sophia meant to hide her face from him, but he had already seen her red-rimmed eyes.
Silently, he rummaged through his pants' pockets and produced a handkerchief that he gave to the young woman. “Here,” he said quietly.
Elea Sophia took it reluctantly.
“It is clean, honestly,” Anatol added.
With a tear-stricken voice she thanked him, before turning away.
“Well, I corrected the door's hinge as Father Everon wanted. Now the door to the backroom opens and closes without any problems,” he said, a bit bashful.
Elea Sophia was unable to answer. She just nodded, hoping that the gesture would be enough to express her gratitude.
Anatol grabbed her hand and pulled her inside the church. “Have a seat and try to calm down. I will take care of your chores.” He saw her surprised look and quickly continued, worried that she wouldn't think him capable of it. “I… I can do it. I've been watching you often enough.”
While the young woman sat down on a bench in the back of the church, Anatol stormed off to carry out the necessary tasks. “Just what am I supposed to do?” the priest's daughter whispered to herself. “What is right and what is wrong? I know what is expected of me. But, can I be happy with that?”
Carefully, she wiped the rest of her tears away and watched Anatol, who was sweeping the floor in front of the tiny altar. ‘Anatol also is such a poor fellow, who always only does what he is asked to do. He always gives his best to satisfy everyone. Is he truly happy with what he has accomplished in his life so far? Can I be happy as Rouven Dimov's wife? Can I lead a god-fearing life with him, here, where so many are still holding on to old belief and barbaric rituals?'
Anatol chose that moment to look up, sending a small smile her way. Even though he didn't know about the battle that was raging inside her, he still wanted to cheer her up. “Everything will be fine,” he told her. “You'll see.”
‘If only it would be so easy.' Elea Sophia sighed heavily, burying her face at her hands. ‘I need to talk with someone. The only question is who shall it be?'
Kyrian and Amara were scouting the route that the gypsy family wanted to take the next day. Dusk was about to fall. The two riders raced along the path, which was snaking beside the river.
The hunter stopped Nightshade and jumped from the saddle.
The young woman steered her horse over to him, before she too slid off the animal's back.
“The path is covered in mud,” Kyrian announced concerned. “We might have some problems with the heavy wagons tomorrow.”
Amara was more optimistic. “We will take the risk. The way here, along the Danube, is the only one wide enough to bring the wagons across without trouble.”
Doubting, Kyrian rocked his head back and forth. “I don't know...”
“We have been in these parts before,” Amara responded, trying to convince him. “Yes, there is another passage a bit further south of the river that will lead toward east, but the territory is too rocky. There is no way we can do that with heavily loaded wagons.”
Kyrian was still unconvinced and Amara's chestnut-brown eyes began to flash. Her mind set, she stepped in front of him, putting her hands on her hips.
For the young man it was the sure sign that she was getting angry.
“Now, you listen to me ,” she growled. “ I'm responsible for the safe arrival of our family. And I'm telling you that the southern route so close to the Alps is too dangerous!”
Kyrian's lips twitched as he bowed mockingly and winked at her. “As you wish, Milady.”
“Argh…you,” she snapped irritated and mounted her horse. “If we cover a lot of ground in the following days, we will make it to the big ‘Linz Market Day' in time. And if we are fortunate, we can be at the ‘Year Market' in Vienna right afterward.” Before Kyrian could voice a question, she continued, “The Viennese love us showmen. The people there are more tolerant. Maybe it's because the size of the city and that there are so many inhabitants… kind of like Paris, for example.”
At the mentioning of Paris, Kyrian jumped noticeably. He climbed on Nightshade. Switching the subject, he advised, “We should return to the others. Darkness is falling quicker than anticipated and I'd like to be back before we're unable to see where we're going.”
“You are right,” Amara confirmed. “The others will have already prepared the camp for the night.”
Together, but in total silence, they rode back the way, which they had come.
In the valley, in the middle of the mighty Carpathians, the sun was going down as Elea Sophia walked along the path from the rectory to the center of Ardeal. Carefully, she put one foot in front of the other, chastising herself. “Why didn't I ask the tavern owner this morning for bacon? If I had remembered then, I wouldn't have to go now, in the darkness.”
The young woman stepped through a small gate and walked along the narrow alley to the market place. Her steps slowed as she looked over to ‘The Howling Wolf'.
The place was dark. Only the light that fell through the windows illuminated the scenery. It appeared that half of the village was off to visit the tavern.
Her curiosity peeked, she walked over. First, she looked through one of the small windows. Her breath caught in her throat by the view she gained. Frightened, she retreated from the window and pressed her back against the house's wall. It was the only thing that kept her from just sliding to the ground in horror. “T-T-That… that can't be true,” the priest's daughter stammered, panting for breath.
After a while, Elea Sophia slowly turned back to the window, because she had to make sure that what she had seen had been real. “Maybe my eyes just played a trick on me,” she muttered hopefully. Encouraging herself, she looked through the thick glass, which restricted her view quite a bit. Unfortunately, nothing had changed. What she saw was still the same scenery.
People sat on benches and chairs in front of a long table, which was made out of smaller tables that had been put together. Its surface was heavily loaded with food and drink and the villagers were having a happy celebration.
What made it so unbearable for Elea Sophia's eyes was the fact that it was a ‘Death Celebration'. In the center of it all, a corpse was laid out. The young woman recognized it as the older brother of the miller's wife. Elea Sophia jerked away from the horrible sight as she became aware of a bent figure beside her.
Seemingly out of nowhere, old Ana had appeared and was pulling on her cloak.
“Granny,” Elea Sophia greeted in a thin voice.
The crone's black eyes blazed evilly at the priest's daughter, who was reminded of their first meeting at the shepherds'. She shivered and wrapped the cloak tighter around her frame.
“Didn't I specially warn you?” Ana rasped, angered.
Elea Sophia looked at her surprised and for a moment she forgot about the horrors that she had witnessed.
“Such a foolish child,” Ana continued, sounding highly sympathetic. A hoarse sigh escaped her throat and she croaked, “Now, you have her attention. Everything that happens is inevitable.” Then the old woman turned away and opened the door to the tavern.
After Ana had disappeared into ‘The Howling Wolf', the young woman just wanted to hurry home and hide in her bed.
She ran across the market place and passed by the well. In the alley she slowed her steps and tried to calm her racing heart, feeling tears burn in her eyes.
“You shouldn't be here at all,” a reproachful voice sounded next to her.
Shocked, Elea Sophia turned around, facing a dark entrance. She released a relieved breath as she saw Anatol step out of the shadows.
As usual, his hands were deeply buried in the pockets of pants. He was leaning against a wall and looked at the tavern.
Elea Sophia followed his gaze and she felt her skin crawl at the thought of what was going on in there.
“You mustn't tell anybody,” he demanded fiercely.
She knew that he was talking solely about her father. “I have to tell him,” she answered bravely. “It… it is…” She was unable to put in words just how grotesque the whole situation had felt to her. Shaking her head in disbelief, she pointed a shaking hand in direction of the tavern. “It's not normal! It's disgusting and unnatural. It… it's…” She crossed herself over and over again.
Anatol walked over to her. “I can't let you do that,” he said firmly and serious.
Elea Sophia felt fear rise inside her and she retreated. “I don't like your tone. Anatol, you're scaring me!”
The young man drew closer still.
“You… you seem changed.” She looked into his eyes that returned her gaze emptily and rigidly. “Don't you know anymore that we are friends?”
Abruptly, Anatol froze and shook his head as if he was trying to clear his thoughts and get rid of a burden.
Elea Sophia watched him suspiciously. “Are… are you alright?”
“I… I don't know,” he answered reluctantly. “It is just…” Then he noticed her fear. “I'm sorry, but you can't tell your father what you saw,” he pleaded. “He wouldn't understand.”
“I don't understand it myself,” the young woman almost screeched.
Raising his hands in a calming motion, he explained, “It's been our custom for centuries.”
Her feelings were spinning out of control and Elea Sophia started pacing the alley restlessly.
“There's nothing wrong with it,” Anatol said, grabbing her shoulders and forcing her to look at him. “The whole village is gathering to honor the dead and to pay him respect before saying goodbye and sending him off to the Afterlife.”
She heard his words, but shook her head. “No, no. It's horrible!” Elea Sophia felt her friend's grip on her shoulders tighten. “You are hurting me. Please, let go.” Shaking off his hands, she ran her trembling fingers through her hair, tugging at the strands.
“Just because you don't know something, doesn't mean it's not right! There is more out there than you are capable of imagining,” he said, clearly angry.
His words reminded Elea Sophia of the day they had first arrived in Ardeal. Yes, then she had felt something that she still couldn't explain; the mysterious castle. “Then help me understand it,” she begged. “Soon, I will not know what to think anymore. Everything is confusing me, but nobody wants to talk with me.”
The young man took a deep breath and contemplated what she had said. An idea came to him. “You told me that Costin won't let you read the books.”
Elea Sophia nodded.
“Alright, you keep to yourself what you've seen tonight and I'll help you get close to the chronicles.”
Her breath caught in the face of this bold suggestion.
“Costin doesn't trust you,” Anatol pointed out. “He will never allow you to read or even look at the chronicles. You don't have another choice.”
Elea Sophia still hesitated. What he offered seemed very brazen.
“Tomorrow evening will be the meeting of the village's council at the Dimovs' house. You will have enough time then. It'll be late at night when they finish and there will be lots of drinking too.”
“How will I get into the house?” Elea Sophia wanted to know.
“It's very easy,” Anatol answered and chuckled. “Costin hides the key on top of the door, because he is scared that he might lose it underway.”
“Why are you doing this?” she asked. “I don't think that you're only helping me so that I won't tell my father what happened tonight.”
Anatol hesitated until he finally relented. “I don't want to be lonely anymore.” To get away from further questioning, he quickly ran to the tavern, not sparing the priest's daughter another glance.
Elea Sophia left, her heart pounding with excitement. Should she really gain insight of Ardeal's chronicles, it meant that she would finally get to the bottom of the mysterious castle's phenomenon. But the idea to unrightfully enter Costin's sacred archive didn't appeal to her at all. It was a break-in. Once again she would have to make a decision and there was so much she had to think about. There were so many people and their feelings to consider. Almost desperate, she reached under her cloak, fumbling for the silver cross that hung from her neck. Her fingers closed tightly around it. “Day for day, I pray to you, oh, my Lord. Why are you silent? Why did you abandon me? What am I to do? Please, send me a sign!”
She froze on the spot and stared at the sky, searching, waiting, but nothing happened. Sad, she went home.
Deep inside though, Elea Sophia had already made a decision. She would be daring. Tomorrow, when all the villagers would be at the meeting, she would lay eyes on the chronicles, may God be with her.
The big gypsy family had left with the break of dawn.
Now it was noon and Kyrian, lost in thought, rode at the end of the wagon convoy. He fell back more and more, which was fine with him. The hunter needed some peace and quiet to think. The vivacious hustle and bustle of the gypsies' lifestyle tended to become too much for him. Secretly, he also had been contemplating to leave the family.
The young man jumped out of the saddle. Letting go of the reins, he squatted at the shores of a river.
Nightshade began to munch on the green grass, while Kyrian used his hands as a cup, quenching his thirst with the cool water. Still lost in thought, he watched the fishermen, throwing their nets from their flat, little boats.
He remembered his goal, which was to gather information from the ‘Wise Crone'. This thought angered him every time, because until now, he had been unable to get close to her wagon. The family always had an eye on him and vice versa.
Sighing, he closed his eyes and lay down in the soft grass, his arms crossed behind his head. In the warmth of the late summer sun, he dozed off; unaware that somebody lay down right beside him.
Smiling, Amara pulled a long blade of grass from the ground and tickled the man's nose with the panicle. He grimaced at the touch and she began to giggle.
Kyrian reached up and grabbed her wrist. His eyes still closed, he grumbled irritated, “Stop it, Sky…” Opening his lids, he got caught by Amara's questioning gaze.
The gypsy freed her hand from his grip. Again, she giggled, bending closer to the surprised looking man. “Sky- who?” she asked, clearly curious. “Who is she? Your secret lover that you left behind?” Greatly amused, she batted her eyelashes and gave him a swooning glance, teasing him further.
Kyrian sat up and wiped the final traces of sleep from his face. Muttering under his breath, he turned his attention to the river, not bothering to give her an answer. But in his mind, the truth rang out clearly. ‘Skylar, my little sister.'
“Meanwhile, five years have passed.”
“Five years… I understand,” Amara said, no longer playful. “Where is she?” she asked.
It took a moment for Kyrian to realize that he had said that out loud.
“You are searching for her,” the young woman figured. “Did you think you would find her with us?”
Kyrian stared at her, at a loss for words.
To Amara the answer was plainly visible in his eyes. “You think we can help you to find her.” After a small pause, she added, “You think, she can tell you.”
The hunter rose. “We should try to catch up with the others.”
“That's the only reason you stay with our family, isn't it?” Disappointment was heavy in her voice.
Unmoved by her accusations, he walked to Nightshade and patted the horse's neck. He climbed into the saddle, but Amara took hold of the reins.
“What do you really want from us, Hunter?”
“For you to let go of the reins,” he answered calmly.
“You can trust me,” she promised urgently.
Kyrian's face darkened. “A long time ago, somebody told me the same only to betray me. I'll not make the same mistake again. Let go!”
The gypsy's fingers fell off the reins and she took a few steps back.
He forced Nightshade to turn around, but tugged a bit too hard on the reins, making the stallion neigh loudly in protest.
Amara watched him gallop off, feeling a weird prick in her heart.
Elea Sophia had waited for darkness to fall. After her father had called up, telling her that he would go to the meeting at the Dimovs' house, she had waited another half hour in her small chambers under the roof. She was wrestling with herself if she should go ahead with her plan or not. In the end, she had given in to curiosity and the desperate wish to find out more about the castle.
Elea Sophia had found the key exactly where Anatol had told her it would be. After a brief moment of hesitation, she entered the archive. She went straight into the room that was Costin's study and lit a candle.
The chronicler despised candles and any other kind of open fire that came too close to his precious books. Flames could be dangerous to his important records and that was the reason he only worked as long as there was enough daylight.
The priest's daughter was standing in front of the shelves, feeling small and helpless. There were so many books. Where should she begin to look?
In the candlelight, she realized that each book was neatly inscribed. Years had been burnt in the brown leather of their backs. “The best thing will be to start at the very beginning. I don't know how much time I have. The castle seems to be very old anyway. It probably was already here before Ardeal was founded,” she mumbled to herself.
Hour upon hour passed, and Elea Sophia's eyes went with great interest over the handwritten pages.
She already found something in the first book, which dated back to the year 1303. The castle had existed a long time before then and Ardeal only consisted of a bunch of huts. A lot of dark legends had been woven about the castle's walls and pinnacles. Ghost stories and superstitions had made the people believe until today that there were strange occurrences. The village had grown over the centuries, but it didn't seem that any of the inhabitants had ever been working for the castle's owner.
“Strange,” Elea Sophia whispered. “One would think that a landowner would be the area's biggest employer and that the people living in the near village would have to drudge there or provide other contributions. But, nothing is said about that. The family owning the castle didn't seem to demand such things. What was their name again?”
She turned the pages, hoping to find something. “I won't have enough time to read all the books in detail, but maybe during the next meeting I can come back to the archive?”
Elea Sophia stopped as a memory came to her. “Andrej, the young man with the book deliveries… He works and lives at the castle.” She closed the book, which she had been reading and placed it back on the shelf, before pulling out another book and sitting down at the desk with it.
“This one must have been written by Costin. Yes, here is an entry.” Elea Sophia looked at the year. “That was thirty years ago.” Then she began to read, “ “A stranger with a baby arrived in Ardeal. He brought along a big wagon with a large, tightly closed box. Two huge, extraordinarily strong oxen pulled the wagon. They moved into the seemingly abandoned castle, where the man took up work for the D'Azoon family. There are no more descendants to be found nowadays. Seven years later, after the unexpected death of his father, Andrej stayed behind and became the caretaker of the castle and its compounds.” Interesting. I really need to talk with him again. For today though it's enough with the search for truth. I need to go, before somebody notices anything.”
Her heart was still pounding wildly and her hands were slippery from cold sweat that had gathered on her palms as Elea Sophia tiptoed from the archive and carefully locked the door again. She put the tiny, rust-bitten key back to its usual place. Turning her head, she listened for any suspicious sounds.
Muffled music came from István's tavern, where some people had went after the meeting to share a nightcap.
The moon donated pale light, but it was enough to illuminate her way home.
A small, relieved laugh escaped her throat and Elea Sophia shook her head softly, amazed at herself. It really had been much easier than she had anticipated and it had been worth it. She had found some information that would help her to continue. The huge lump, which lay knotted in her stomach from excitement, slowly loosened bit by bit.
Night had wrapped up the camp of the gypsy family and they had just finished dinner.
Kyrian retreated a bit from the fires. He sat down against a tree with a wine skin in his hand, watching the happy bunch from the distance.
The traveling musicians and dancers were rehearsing for their big show in Linz. They tuned their instruments and soon lively music could be heard from bagpipes, fiddles and drums.
His gaze wandered over the crowd, his eyes searching for Amara. He had not seen her since the infamous noon conversation. Kyrian quickly silenced the tiny voice of his bad conscience, even though he felt sorry for his gruff demeanor. “I can't get distracted.”
Amara chose that moment to appear on bare feet in the center of the musicians. Her lips bearing an enchanting smile, she threw her long dark tresses back and raised her tambourine. The bells tinkled and tinged and she began to dance in her colorful dress, whirling in the glow of the campfires. Under the calls and cheers of the other Roma and the whipping rhythms of the instruments, her dancing grew wilder. Her joy of life was visible in all her movements.
Kyrian peered at her, his eyes fixed on her face. Her smiles chased away his dark thoughts for a moment. The beautiful, dark eyes were blazing from an inner fire and they found his. There was so much joy in their bottomless depths, speaking of a life that Kyrian missed dearly. It was a life that he denied himself.
Taking a bow, Amara finished her dance. Laughing, she walked to the hunter and exhausted she sank into the grass beside him. Her chest was rising and falling quickly. After her heartbeat had calmed, she sat up and reached for his wine skin, taking a big sip.
Kyrian would never admit it, but he did like to revel in Amara's presence.
Roguishly, she looked at him, meaning to say something, but he motioned for her to be quiet.
She listened closely into the night.
Kyrian frowned. Among the noises from the camp, he had noticed other sounds. “Stay here and wait,” he whispered into the young gypsy's ear.
She watched him leave, sliding down the small slope and disappearing behind some bushes. Darkness swallowed his frame immediately.
Carefully, Kyrian made his way through the undergrowth. He was now the Hunter, stalking his prey. Muffled voices drifted to his ears. Slowly, he drew closer. Peeking through the twigs, he discovered them. Hatred flared up strongly in his guts. ‘Vampires! My instincts have been correct.'
His breathing and heartbeat slowed considerably. Silently, he observed the three, who were resting at a small creek, watering their horses.
Their voices rose in volume. Apparently, they were wrapped up in a fight. One of them growled aggravated, “We don't have time for a break! She'll give us hell if we don't move on faster!”
“Oh, please excuse me!” another replied in a snappy tone. “It's not my fault that my horse is lame. The beasts can't see in the dark and stumble over every damn stone!”
The third just laughed. “Don't tell me that you're scared of her .”
“We have an order to carry out,” the first chimed in grumpily. “Get back in the saddles.” He was just about to mount his horse as Kyrian stepped out from the bushes, walking at a slow pace towards them.
The vampires took defensive stances as they became aware of the stranger. “Damn it,” hissed the one with the lame horse. “It must be one of the gypsies from up there.”
“Too late. I think, he's seen us,” the third one responded.
“Hey lad!” the first one called out. “You had better be gone before it gets uncomfortable for you!”
Kyrian wasn't at all impressed by the threat and kept walking.
“What the hell is he doing?” the second one asked surprised.
“Doesn't matter,” groused the first. “He will have to die!”
“Who sent you and what is your mission,” Kyrian demanded firmly.
Taken aback, the first vampire looked at his companions and then back at the young man. “What business of yours is that, lad?”
“You dirty vampires had better give me an answer,” Kyrian replied, reaching into the pockets of his pants and pulling out two stakes.
The vampires' mouths fell open. They were so surprised that they were unable to move.
“What are you pretending to be? A freaking vampire hunter?” the second one asked, after having found his voice. Without warning, he jumped at the young hunter, but the vampire was too self-confident, making it easy for Kyrian. It didn't take much effort to plunge the stake into the bloodsucker's heart.
Provoking, Kyrian raised his arms, wriggling his fingers impatiently. “Where is the next?”
Movement then returned to the limbs of the two others. “He really is a hunter!” the first one screeched.
“My, what a smart head is resting on your shoulders,” Kyrian mocked.
Angrily, the vampire pounced on him.
The bad thing was that Kyrian couldn't see as well in the darkness as the vampires but over the years his senses had become stronger and sharper due to exercising. With graceful moves, he dodged the attacks of the other. “Is that all?”
“I will break your neck!” the vampire roared. “But first, I'll rip out your pert tongue and drink your blood with great pleasure!”
“Dream on!” Kyrian somersaulted and came to stand behind the vampire, piercing his heart through his back with the wooden stake. Then, he turned to the final one. “At least you could be so reasonable and answer my question. Maybe I'll forget about the stake.”
“Never!” At lightning speed, the vampire turned around to flee on his horse.
Unfortunately for him, the young hunter was faster, hurling one of the stakes after him. The wood pierced his back, but not the heart.
The vampires' horses reared up and raced off into the night, never to be seen again.
Writhing in pain, the vampire broke down and Kyrian bent over him. Demonstratively, he waved the second stake in front of his eyes.
“Go ahead and finish me off,” the dark creature gasped.
Kyrian's eyes gleamed furiously as he stared into the man's face. He couldn't detect any human traces, only a bloodsucking beast that had to be wiped off earth. It was hard for him to see anything different in that monster like his mother would have been able to. He roughly grabbed his shirt and pulled him up. “How many have you killed? How many innocent souls have you destroyed?” the hunter asked in a low, dangerous voice.
The answer came promptly. The vampire spit right into his face. “How many of us did you kill?” the vampire inquired mockingly. He laughed loudly. “Well? What is your answer to that, little hunter?”
Kyrian punched him hard.
The blow made the vampire's head fly back and he groaned in pain. Kyrian's grip was the only thing that kept him from just sliding to the ground. “You won't get any information from me!” he hissed.
The sharp stake rested in midair, only an inch away from the vampire's chest.
Kyrian stared at him. “Have you ever asked yourself what comes after death? Where do you think you'll end up?”
The vampire snorted in disdain. “Do I look as if I would concern myself with that?”
“You should. This is your last chance. Tell me for whom you work and what your mission is. Like that, you might be able to purify part of your soul. Who knows, it also might be enough to escape the eternal hellfire.”
Again, the vampire laughed. “Oh no, lad. I know that you're going to kill me, no matter what. I'll take my secrets with me to the Afterlife, despite where I'll end up.”
Kyrian didn't betray any emotion. He grabbed the man at his shoulders, and brutally wrestled him to the ground. Using both his knees, he pressed them into his back and pinned him down with all his weight. He dodged the flailing arms of the vampire without problems. “That's not going to help you,” Kyrian snapped at his writhing victim. With a sharp tug, he pulled down his shirt collar, revealing the tattoo of a snake in the sparse moonlight.
The young man was caught off guard and froze. “The heraldic animal of the Serpentes,” he whispered in disbelief.
The vampire used the sudden opportunity and the hunter's distraction. With his last strength he arched, bucked Kyrian off and so managed to free himself. He didn't get very far, because the hunter flung the stake with all his might and this time it didn't miss its intended target.
“SOL INVICTUS!” Kyrian's war cry echoed through the night.
The fleeing vampire screamed before his body burst into bright flames and fell to the ground. Everything that was left of him was a small pile of gray ash and a few rags of his clothes. A gentle blowing wind picked it all up, carrying it into all directions.
Kyrian inhaled and exhaled sharply, stuffing the stakes back into his pockets.
As he looked up, his eyes met Amara's. “Oh no,” Kyrian breathed. “Didn't I tell you to wait?”
“Would you have waited?” the gypsy shot back.
Rolling his eyes, the young man sighed. “I guess I don't need to ask you how much you've seen.”
Amara waited with her reply. “So, you're a vampire hunter.”
“Yes, now you know,” Kyrian responded, walking up the slope to return to the camp.
The young Roma followed him.
He took the wine skin, which was still lying beside the tree, and emptied it.
Amara sat down next to him.
Soon, the silence became uncomfortable for the hunter. “Say something,” he begged.
“They were scouts,” she began. “We encounter the likes of them from time to time, because they too are moving east.”
Kyrian was astonished. “But how… uh, never mind. I should have known.”
“Why are you mad at me? Because I know about the existence of vampires?” She scrutinized his face. “You think we have anything to do with them, don't you?”
Irritated, Kyrian replied. “So what if I do?”
“It's not true,” Amara promised. “Today was the first time I actually saw vampires.”
She nodded. “Of course, there are stories about them, but until today this world was invisible to me. A few days ago, I heard my father talk with some others about the vampires. That's how I knew about them.” After a pause, she added, “When I saw you at the creek, I almost didn't recognize you… you were so heartless.”
Kyrian spit on the grass. “Do you think I should have had mercy with these monsters? I can't afford to have feelings.”
“I didn't mean it like that,” she responded. “When I saw you, it seemed to me that something was eating you up inside.”
Kyrian waved that idea off. “Nonsense, you just read too much in the fight.” He stared ahead and continued, “Over time, killing makes you numb. Eventually, everything loses its horrors. Everything just repeats and in the end you become used to it.”
“How can you say that?” Amara asked, shocked by his bitter words. “How could one become used to killing?” Shivers trailed over her back at the thought. “Are you not scared of death?”
“There is no room for fear in my heart.”
“What lives in your heart then?” Her breath caught in anticipation of the answer.
“Vengeance,” Kyrian declared calmly, looking straight into her eyes. “Vengeance is what keeps me going.”
Dismayed, Amara mentioned, “Vengeance is what eats you up inside.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I don't care.”
The young woman shoved her hand under his shirt and placed her palm over his heart, which began to pound strongly. “Vengeance is tearing apart your soul. Your soul is living in your heart, but like this, it darkens and one day soon you're going to hate yourself.” Tears welled up in her eyes.
Angrily, he pulled her hand from underneath his shirt. “I already hate myself.” They were silent for a moment, until Kyrian said, “You talk like my mother.” He rose and turned to leave.
“She is a very smart woman,” Amara called after him.
One more time, he turned to face her. “Was… she was a very smart woman.” Then he retreated to his tent, hoping that for once he wouldn't be haunted by nightmares. Deep down though, he knew that it would be in vain.
The snake's tattoo seemed to have been etched into his retinas. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see it as clearly as on the scroll that showed the heraldic animals of the big vampire clans. The vampires he had met today worked for the Serpentes Clan. “Azrael and Chalice,” he growled, “I found your trace after all.” Fury flared up hotly inside him.
Meanwhile, Amara was still sitting beside the tree, trying to get some order into the chaos of emotions that he had left behind with her. She didn't know what to feel. The gypsy wavered between anger, because Kyrian had walked away from a conversation like so often, while on the other side she felt great sympathy for him, because he couldn't or didn't want to open up.
Frustrated, she tugged at her hair and sighed heavily. “He is driving me crazy! Still, I will help him and arrange a meeting for him with our Molfar. I just hope that he will appreciate that I'm risking my head and might get into a fight with my family over this, only because of him!” Amara gathered up her colorful skirts and hurried to the camp.
“Well, well, if that isn't a sight for sore eyes,” a pleased, male voice suddenly sounded behind her.
Elea Sophia jerked and placed a hand on her heart that had almost stopped. “Rouven,” she stammered surprised, turning around to face him.
At a leisurely pace, he strode toward her and pulled her into a hug. “What is my lovely maiden doing all alone, on the dark street, at this late hour?”
“I'm having a walk,” she stammered her lame excuse. “I couldn't sleep.”
Rouven cupped her face with both hands, tenderly stroking his fingertips over her cheeks. “Indeed? Maybe it was the longing that drove you from your house?”
Her heartbeat picked up speed rapidly. “I don't know what you're talking about,” she affirmed, cursing herself at the same time for the frightened tremble that was audible in her voice.
The mayor's son didn't notice. He thought that his massive charm was the reason to make his adored one weak in the knees. “You missed me and the longing made you restless. I can understand that. It is time that we make up and take care of our relationship. We cannot marry when we are acting so cold toward each other.”
A tiny whimper escaped the priest's daughter.
He tightened the embrace, holding her closer. “Don't worry, my Beloved. I'm no longer mad at you. Please, say that you forgive me too. Your father talked with me after the council meeting today. Springtime can come. Everything will be so wonderful, as soon as we are married.” Rouven lifted her chin and kissed her.
Elea Sophia grew rigid in his arms, not responding to the gentle caress of his lips. “Please, I want to go home,” she gasped after he had finally let go of her. “It's cold and I'm so tired.”
“Anything for you, Beloved,” he replied, offering her his arm.
She took it reluctantly, hoping that Rouven would not expect anything further.
Amara stood in front Kyrian's tent, whispering, “It's time.”
Immediately, the young man jumped off his bed and joined her outside.
She grabbed his hand and dragged him along. Cautiously, they scanned their surroundings. Nobody stirred.
On their way through the sleeping camp, Kyrian whispered to the gypsy, “You can't tell anybody about the connection between me and the vampires, okay?”
“Did the thought cross your mind that you might have steered their attention into our direction?” she replied with an undertone of fear.
“Do you want me to leave you?” Kyrian asked.
“Let's talk about this later,” the young woman deflected. “We're there.”
Sparse light fell through the windows of the shabby wagon, which stood a bit apart from the others. Three steps led to the door that was slightly ajar.
Amara let go of his hand and inquired, “Are you ready?”
Kyrian didn't answer. He was too excited to finally meet the ‘Wise Crone'. So much was expected from this highly anticipated conversation.
Already on the steps, he could smell many different fragrances of herbs and exotic oils that drifted from the wagon. Tense, he entered, finding himself among countless, silky pillows, carpets, colorful blankets, curtains and carved statues that covered every bit of space inside. Flames flickered from metal oil lamps.
In the back part of the wagon stood a low divan and on it sat the ‘Wise Crone' of the gypsy family.
Kyrian stared at her. He couldn't see much of her, because she was hiding behind veils and jewelry. ‘This is the keeper of all their knowledge.'
Honorable and strangely graceful, she sat there as if the divan was a throne. In front of her stood a small table with a pitcher of sweet, heavy wine and two golden goblets. She reached for one and took a few sips.
Impatiently, Kyrian cleared his throat since the old woman's attention seemed to be elsewhere.
She looked up then and scrutinized him.
The young hunter didn't move and he also didn't look away.
Finally, she motioned for him to have a seat.
Kyrian lowered his frame to the Persian carpet in front of the table. Now, he could see her wrinkled face and her bony fingers that repeatedly shuffled a deck of well-worn cards.
“I don't have time to play games,” Kyrian snapped, irritated. “I want…”
The old woman's loud coughing interrupted him. Once she had calmed down, she had another sip of wine, before she said, “The arts of fortunetelling don't know time…”
“I don't care,” Kyrian cut her off.
“As impatient as ever,” she remarked, drinking some more of the sweet wine.
“What?” Kyrian asked, stunned.
Suddenly, the penetrating gaze of her dark eyes fixed on his and the cards rested in her hands. “You are looking for your sister. Skylar, is that her name?”
Kyrian froze and a wave of memories clashed over him. All color drained from his face and cold sweat formed on his forehead and palms. His heart raced out of control and his head was spinning. The words reverberated in his ears. He had heard them before, in the same tone, by the same voice. A long time ago, the words had been spoken in the tent of a fortuneteller, during a festival in Paris, where he had lost sight Skylar and had been looking for her. Shocked, he stared with big eyes at the woman opposite him. “You?” It came out as a hoarse, confused croak. “Ma-Madame… Zy-Zynora…”
The old woman chuckled happily, before another coughing spell shook her frame. She held on to the card deck with one hand and used the other to slap against her breastbone until the coughing had eased. “So, you recognized me, my boy.”
Kyrian closed his eyes for a moment, fighting to regain his composure.
Once again, Zynora shuffled the cards.
The scraping noise, which the hard paper made, caused him to look at her, getting lost in the crone's stare.
“Five years have passed,” she began. “A dark shadow burdens your soul. I can see a lot of pain that you had to suffer through. My prediction has come true…”
Kyrian snorted contemptuously, before the old woman was able to finish her sentence. Anger rose inside him and it took all his effort not to yell, but his voice quaked with fury. “Tell me something that I don't know! You read me the cards that doomed my family and brought death to us!”
Unmoved by his outburst, she slowly placed a few cards in a line on the table. “I only told you what the cards showed me,” she responded calmly. “I also warned you about the Queen of Chalices. ‘Beware of the Queen of Chalices.' That were my words exactly, or weren't they?”
His hands started to shake. Curling them to fists, he slammed them on the table top. The furniture's legs creaked, but it didn't break from the force.
Zynora's eyes flashed at him dangerously. “Behave and pull yourself together!” she ordered, adjusting the cards that had gotten out of their line. “Your fate is not my fault. I can only tell and try to interpret what I see, but I can't influence it. What fate deems fit will happen and we all have our crosses to bear. This is not the right place to vent off the anger that you feel for the one that betrayed you and your family, my boy.” Her voice broke with the last word and she had to cough heavily.
“I'm sorry,” the hunter apologized.
Madame Zynora didn't reply. One after the other, she turned the cards, studying their pictures.
Kyrian bent forward, observing the old woman impatiently. “What do you see?
The crone mumbled something, regarding the cards closely. Finally, she looked up, giving him a broad smile. “The Phoenix will deliver salvation,” she announced, turning back to her cards.
“What? What does that mean?” Kyrian inquired, at a loss. “I don't want to deal with riddles!” His feelings in an uproar due to the unsatisfying answer, his voice rose in volume. Leaping to his feet, he shouted, “Five years ago, vampires killed my mother and kidnapped my sister Skylar, because I carelessly trusted a woman, who turned out to be helping the bloodsuckers! And now, all you say is, ‘The Phoenix will deliver salvation'?” His face had turned red and a vein was protruding from his forehead, throbbing angrily.
“Sit back down, my boy.” Even though Zynora had spoken calmly, there was a tone in her voice that made it an order. She filled the second goblet with wine and shoved it over to Kyrian, who did as she had told him. “Have a sip. That will calm you. Another tantrum and I'll have you removed from my wagon.”
The young hunter exhaled sharply. “Are you unwilling or unable to understand me? I'm looking for answers and I have to find her . I swore to my mother that I would always look out for and take care of my little sister. I…” His breath hitched and he felt tears burn in his eyes. He wanted to avert his face, but the old gypsy reached over with a bony hand and patted his, which lay on the table, next to the wine goblet.
Regarding the hunter sympathetically, she responded, “I understand you very well and I know exactly what you're going through. You want vengeance, no matter what price you'll have to pay. The feeling to have failed nags at you constantly. You think that you could have prevented it. Even if you kill the one responsible for your mother's death, she won't return to you. You hate yourself and if you don't stop with that, you're going to destroy yourself, my boy.”
“Then help me!” he begged. “When I met you in Paris, you told me ‘Madame Zynora knows everything.' Please, tell me what I need to know. Where can I find Skylar? What Phoenix and what salvation did you speak of? The damned bloodsucking bastard and his companion are in close range! I just don't know exactly where!”
Zynora coked her head, looking at him questioningly. “How do you know that they are close?”
He waved her off. “Unimportant, I just know!”
The crone sighed. “The cards don't reveal everything, but they don't lie. The little Sunlioness is alive, though she is walking on very dark paths. The Queen of Chalices is still present. The Snake reaches for extraordinary powers and the Phoenix will deliver salvation. I'm very sorry, my boy. There is no more to see.”
Gravely disappointed, Kyrian shook his head. “Empty phrases and riddles are all I get. I was hoping for more.” Silence fell while he stared at his hands.
“Yes, look closely at your hands,” Zynora said gently. “They have accomplished a lot. They have killed so many vampires and therefore saved a lot of innocent souls from certain doom.”
His face turned to a mask of sadness. “They couldn't protect my family.” With that he jumped up and stormed out of the wagon. He had to be alone with the pain that held his heart like a vise, and the dark memories that would haunt his dreams forever.
“Vienna!” the crone croaked after him, before another coughing fit overwhelmed her.
Kyrian's walk was more a stumble, but he managed to find his tent. He didn't notice the person that quickly retreated from the wagon's door, where they had eavesdropped the whole time and now melted into the shadows among the surrounding trees.
Alone with her emotions and thoughts, Elea Sophia sat on her bed, staring into the darkness of her room. Rouven had brought her home safely, had said goodnight at the door and left her with a kiss to the cheek.
“All this heavy thinking is getting me nowhere,” she resigned. “I'll sleep now and by tomorrow the world will look different.” She slid into her nightgown and under the covers. Intending to punch her pillow into the right form, she picked it up and stopped as she made a discovery. “What is this?” she whispered, dumbfounded.
Under her pillow was a piece of brown parchment. It was folded and closed with a blood-red wax seal.
Elea Sophia got out of bed and lit a candle on her nightstand. She regarded the parchment in the flickering, golden light. The seal showed a large bird that rose from a sea of flames. The priest's daughter recognized the image from her dreams, even though she had seen this sign in more colors than just red there. “The phoenix,” she breathed, almost awed.
Carefully, she broke the seal and unfolded the message. There were only a few words, written down in black ink, but they were enough to put a huge smile on Elea Sophia's features. “It wasn't a dream after all. The whole time I thought I had just imagined it,” the young woman whispered happily. “Especially after I awoke in my bed after the encounter in the forest and I couldn't remember how I got home. Here is the proof that I really met her.”
The smile on her face grew and she held Sadden's message tightly to her chest in indescribable joy. Her sad thoughts, concerning her father and a marriage with the son of Ardeal's mayor were gone with the wind. “You promised that we would see each other again and tomorrow night it's going to happen.”
Again, she read the lines that Sadden had so boldly and elegantly banned on parchment. “Sadden D'Azoon… D'Azoon… huh…” Elea Sophia's eyes widened. “Is she related to the D'Azoon family that Andrej works for?”
Amara was deeply shocked by everything she had witnessed. It hadn't been her intension to eavesdrop on the hunter, but when Kyrian had raised his voice it was impossible not to hear what he said. Now she knew the reasons for his behavior. Now she knew why he had killed the vampires in cold blood.
“Skylar isn't his lost love… she is his little sister,” the gypsy whispered to herself, clearly upset. “His mother was killed by vampires and they took his sister with them. I don't know how I would react if something like that happened to me. Oh, Kyrian! I'm so sorry.”
Slowly putting one foot in front of the other, she walked to her own tent, lost in thought. Her feelings were in an uproar and so many questions whirled in her head. Some of them tugged strongly at her soul. How could she help Kyrian? Would the proud man even allow any help? Why had Zynora mentioned the town Vienna?
TO BE CONTINUED...
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