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Andrej had to gather all his mind's strength to grab Lilith's shoulders in order to shove her off him with all his might. He barely managed to push the vampire half a meter from his body, feeling completely exhausted. Breathing heavily, he placed his hands on his upper thighs. His heart raced. Weak, Andrej tried to fill his lungs with much needed air. He lifted his head and looked at the vampire, who had not moved. Cupping Lilith's face with both hands, he demanded, "Lilith! Take a hold of yourself!"
Her eyes were still fixed on his throat. "I am so thirsty," she whispered, searching urgently for more body contact.
"Look at me," Andrej gasped, desperately trying to lock eyes with her. "It's me. Andrej."
She saw his light-blue eyes and after a few moments Lilith dimly remembered the certain sparkle they contained. This memory let the vampire forget about her thirst. She regained her composure. Regarding him, she discovered that the gleam in his eyes had been replaced by a reflection of fear.
"Is everything alright?" he wanted to know.
The vampire brushed him off with a horrified expression.
Before the tall man could say more, Lilith had fled into the forest.
Andrej rubbed his face with his hands, feeling as if he had just awoken from a nightmare. Trembling slightly, he picked up the extinguished torch. Without turning and looking into the direction Lilith had left, he walked back to the castle. He didn't want to think about anything.
It was an especially dark night. No stars nor moon could be seen from behind impending clouds. The coldness of approaching winter crawled unstoppable from the mountains to settle upon the secluded valley.
Silently, a shadow appeared from the blackness of the woods, cautiously moving towards the village's church. Only little light fell through the small windows. With careful steps, the vampire left the protection of the trees, walking straight to the small house of God. Using both hands, she forcefully pushed open the doors, which banged against the walls. Her unexpected entry had quite the effect.
Everon, who had been kneeling in front of the altar, whirled around, shocked to the core.
"A visit," Lilith said smiling, taking the first steps on holy ground. "It is time that we get introduced."
The priest used the altar to get back on his feet and quickly made the sign of the cross. "Who are you?" he asked, at the same time noticing the fresh blood that covered her face and clothes.
"I am your worst nightmare come to life, priest," she hissed in an unfriendly tone of voice and glared. "Look at me!" she screamed so loud that Everon jumped. Exaggerating, she held out her arms. Dried blood was also stuck to her hands. "I have never looked like this after a meal. But you, old man, you left me no choice." Her words turned to a dark growl. "You- let- me- starve!"
"A... a meal? What... what are you saying? I don't understand," the priest replied and staggered backward.
"I want Anatol back. He belongs to me and not to you. Where is he?"
"You... you are the demon of the night?!"
"If you wish to call me that, please, go ahead. But quit telling the boy this nonsense about heaven and hell!" It was a clear threat.
"There is only one life. Do not waste it by telling the humans they had a chance to end up in paradise. It does not exist."
"You dare to speak of life, demon? What about Anatol's life? And what of the poor soul you did... whatever you did to them," he stuttered, bewildered.
Lilith took turns pointing a finger at the two of them. "I am sure you mean what we both did to them." The question about Anatol's life though haunted her and she couldn't stop thinking about it. 'His life... his life... it means something to me... and not only his...' Hurriedly she tried to chase the thought from her mind. She had almost forgotten all about Everon, who chose that moment to speak.
"Don't act as if you have a conscience, demon!" the priest snarled. "Anatol told me everything. You suck the life out of him."
Lilith had regained her composure. "I am not killing him," she said softly. "Your visions are at fault that he is frightened to death. That is how you kill him. Slow and cruel."
Everon tore at his gray hair, yelling, "You have to be destroyed!"
Threatening, Lilith lifted an index finger. "Oh, I think we have exchanged enough pleasantries. Nothing more needs to be said." She slowly walked towards him.
"Don't come any closer!" Everon screamed, holding up the big wooden cross, which he always wore around his neck. His hands shook and sweat appeared on his forehead.
The vampire stopped, placing her arms protectively in front of herself. "Oh no! A cross! Help!" The priest thought he was safe.
Lilith began to laugh. "Only a human could think up such superstition!" She stepped directly in front of him, one hand closing around his thin throat. "I can see the fear in your eyes."
Everon was unable to defend himself, slumping in her grip.
Lilith moved her other hand over his eyes and whispered, "Obey me. Obey my voice." Her eyes sparkled. "You will not continue to spread your delusions. Either you will leave Anatol alone or you will be doomed. Do you understand?" Slowly, she let his body slide from her grasp.
The priest brushed a hand across his forehead as if to wipe away her words. Then he looked deeply into her eyes. "Your dark magic has no hold on me, demon. I am a believer." Quick for his age, he turned around, reaching for a bowl that stood on a pedestal next to the altar. With the words, "God will save me," he emptied it directly into Lilith's face.
Dumbfounded, the vampire just stood there. The water trickled from her hair, nose and chin onto the floor. A small pool formed under her boots. "And what was that supposed to accomplish?" she asked, calmly wiping the wetness from her face with her hands.
"This is holy water... you should... you.... you..." Everon stammered.
"You... you... what?!" Anger rose fiercely inside her and she turned around to leave, otherwise she would have throttled the priest right then and there. "I will tell you one last time. Should you not leave him alone, you are going to regret it. Bitterly regret it."
Now it was Everon's turn to laugh out loud. "I'm not afraid of death."
"The better," Lilith squeezed out between clenched teeth. "After your death, we will see just who will take care of your daughter. Oh, I forgot. Of course, you will never know."
Frightened, the old man retreated. All color drained from his face. "Leave Elea Sophia out of your little games, demon."
Smiling, Lilith turned to him one last time. The tip of her tongue licked over the blood that had dried at the corners of her lips. With an outstretched arm, she pointed at him. "You know the price." Then she vanished as quickly as she had appeared.
A gust of wind whipped through the open doors, extinguishing all candles. Cold darkness crawled from every nook and cranny of the old building.
Everon suddenly shivered. Torn, he fell to the floor in front of the altar. "God, what am I supposed to do?" Harsh sobs shook his frame. "I cannot leave Anatol to her... but my daughter..." A blood-curling scream erupted from his throat. He stood up and ran outside. His gaze darted around, searching the black night. The wind picked up, pulling at his robes, as he lifted his arms to the sky. "I will get you and God will punish you!" His lunatic guffaws were carried away by the wind and darkness swallowed him.
The wind howled through the roof beams of the house, but that wasn't causing the interruption to Nicolae's sleep. It was the return of his drunk son. While inharmoniously singing and blustering, Rouven finally found his bed.
Half awake, Nicole looked around the bedroom, his gaze stopping at the window. The night was almost over. Then he regarded Hortensia.
His wife was sleeping peacefully, deeply buried under the warm featherbed. Only her night cap was visible and she snored softly.
Nicolae was a bit envious. Every little sound could wake him because he had such a light sleep. Sighing, he turned on his back. There was no way he could go back to sleep now. His thoughts turned to how he should reason with his son. In any case, he would have to reprimand him due to his inappropriate behavior. The idea wasn't very pleasant since Rouven opposed him every chance he could. Nicolae scowled at the very thought.
In the gray light before dawn, he stared at the low ceiling, like he always did whenever he couldn't sleep. Strangely flickering shadows drew his attention. They danced across the uneven, slightly cracked plaster ceiling. Nicolae wrinkled his forehead and sat up. He had to lean far out of bed to look out of the window. Greatly surprised, he discovered people walking along, carrying torches. Their muffled voices reached his ears. Soon after, there was a hesitant knocking at the door.
Hortensia grumbled and pulled the cover over her head. She didn't wake up, not even as her husband struggled under his body's weight to leave the bed.
He hurried to the door, eager to know the reason for the commotion. After he had opened, he saw the drawn face of a servant. The young man was as white as a sheet. His disheveled appearance told Nicolae that he had woken not that long ago either. He probably also had hurried to get dressed, so he wouldn't have to face his master in his nightgown.
"Master, please excuse the early disturbance..." he started, his voice still husky from sleep.
Nicolae shut him up with an impatient gesture. "What happened," he demanded roughly.
The man was searching for the right words, wringing his hands nervously the whole time. His eyes darted around.
Nicolae regarded him briefly before curiosity got the better of him. "Speak finally!"
"It would be best if you have a look at it yourself, master," the servant replied, frightened. "They are waiting for you."
With a sense of foreboding, Nicolae remembered the voices and the torches. Whatever was going on, he wasn't the first to gain knowledge of it. "I hope not the whole village is in an uproar," he grumbled, letting his servant help him dress.
A new day was just dawning in Ardeal. Despite the freezing cold, dozens of inhabitants had already gathered in front of the tavern stables. Frightened and shocked voices filled the cold morning air. A few of the men carried torches, others were holding oil lamps. Plain horror was visible on all faces. Women sobbed and supported each other. Scared children whimpered, clasping their mothers, looking for help. Many of them were too young to even understand what was going on.
As a precaution the doors had been closed to prevent all too curious glances. Mikahel took great care to keep anybody from entering the stables. With crossed arms and his legs apart, he stood in front of it. The blacksmith seemed like a dutiful watchdog, ready to jump and tackle anybody, who came too close. His formidable and combative pose radiated enough authority that nobody would dare to move past him.
Then the blacksmith discovered Nicolae, who tried to squeeze through the crowd.
"Make way for the mayor, people. Make way! Step aside!" he called out, shoving roughly a couple of men, who didn't move fast enough.
Immediately, all eyes were glued to Nicolae, following his every step. With a short nod in Mikahel's direction, the mayor disappeared into the stables.
The blacksmith closed the doors right behind him, retaking his post with crossed arms and a fierce scowl.
Inside the stables the mayor saw himself confronted with the whole horrid extent of the tragedy. Before him, a body lay in the straw. It had been hastily covered with a rough-woven blanket. The slender arm of a young woman peeked from underneath it.
Nicolae swallowed hard.
Next to that seemingly absurd scenery, the completely devastated tavern owner sat on a barrel. His trembling hands were tightly wrapped around a mug. The sharp scent of self-made schnapps was heavy in the air.
Old Ana, who stood right beside him, patted the shoulder of the distraught man.
"Why? Why? Why my sweet little Ljudmilla?" István continued sobbing. "She was such a good girl. Always friendly and nice to everyone. She couldn't even hurt a fly. Why her?" István asked constantly, only interrupted by his sobs. From time to time, he took a huge swallow of the schnapps, only to cough strongly as the strong liquor burnt its way down his throat. Finally, the mourner became aware of Nicolae. His eyes, red and swollen from crying, looked at him, seeking help. "What can do something like this? What monster is able to commit such a deed?"
The mayor knelt next to the lifeless body. He had an idea of what to expect. Still, he had to ensure himself. Nicolae reached out one hand and took hold of the brown fabric.
As István saw this, he let go of the mug and covered his face with his hands. "What a misfortune! My child! My poor, poor child!" he cried, surrendering once more to sorrow.
Nicolae pulled back the blanket. His breath caught. There was no doubt. In front of him lay the corpse of Ljudmilla. Quickly, he pulled a handkerchief from his jacket to dab at his sweaty forehead. He had a closer look at her. A peaceful smile was on her pretty face. Her eyes were closed. Even in death she had not lost any of her beauty. Only her skin was strangely pale. The mayor frowned.
"Utterly devoid of blood," a voice croaked next to him.
Nicolae jerked at the unexpected sound. Hesitantly, he looked up.
Ana walked towards him. The straw on the floor rustled softly under her shuffling steps.
"What do you mean, Granny?" he asked.
Under a lot of moaning and groaning, Ana went down on her bony knees. Her wrinkled hands carefully turned the dead girl's head to the side, brushing away some stray strands of hair to reveal the victim's throat.
Upon seeing the wound, which clearly stood out from the pale skin, Nicolae inhaled sharply. Disgusted, he pressed the handkerchief on his nose. Something had brutally and completely ripped open the side of Ljudmilla's throat.
"There are more bite marks," she said matter-of-factly, turning the arm around. Another wound gaped open on the wrist. She lifted the blanket a bit and the mayor saw further wounds on her belly. "The one on her throat though is the biggest."
Nicolae could hardly comprehend what he was seeing. Beads of sweat ran down his temples, while he tried to find a believable explanation. "What animal would..." his voice faltered.
Ana only shook her head and pulled up the blanket until only Ljudmilla's face was visible. The crone lowered her voice so István wouldn't hear her. Despite him being completely enclosed by the pain of loss, Ana didn't wish to further increase his sorrow. "No, no... not an animal..."
"But..." Nicolae meant to interrupt her, but the old woman fixed her dark, intelligent eyes on him. "At least not one in the common sense."
"You think..." He didn't dare finish the thought. It was too horrible and too absurd what Ana suggested.
The crone wasn't disconcerted and continued. "You must agree, if one is attacked by an animal and frightened to death, one will not die with a happy smile on the face." To add emphasis to her words, she encased Nicolae's wrist with one hand. "Her body is covered in bite marks. Take a look at the straw. There is no drop of blood to find anywhere. No hints of a fight. Trust me, she must have surrendered to the dark embrace."
'She is right,' Nicolae had to admit. A lot of people thought of her as a crazy old woman, he among them, but in the face of the horrible situation and her explanations, she was definitely right.
"Even if the truth is very painful, you know as much as I do what caused these wounds."
The mayor still didn't want to accept the cruel reality, but the bloodless body of the girl practically screamed the truth right into his face. Expressionless, he stared at Ljudmilla, his hands turning to fists. "For so long we had peace in Ardeal," he whispered.
Ana slowly rose, using Nicolae as support. In an unusual commanding tone, she declared, "She has to be buried as soon as possible. We have to make sure that she won't return !"
The last two words had been hissed by the crone, causing uncomfortable shivers to race down Nicolae's back. Grimly, the mayor pressed his lips together and rose. With a final glance at the sobbing István, he opened the stable doors and waved Mikahel over.
Curious, a few of the villagers craned their necks, but Nicolae's body obscured the view of Ljudmilla. He bent towards the blacksmith, whispering, "Take care that the people go back home. I want everybody gathering at my house in an hour. The most important thing is that the darned priest won't catch a notion of this." At Mikahel's questioning gaze, he added, "There will be a funeral according to our customs. I don't want the holy father to interrupt us."
The blacksmith nodded briefly and turned to carry out the mayor's order.
The sun rose as the somewhat unwilling crowd slowly dissolved. Nobody paid any attention to Anatol, who stood at the side. Meanwhile his tears had dried. With a stoic expression, he stared at the locked stables. He was too deeply shocked to move away. The young man had truly been in love with Ljudmilla, though he had never dared to reveal it to her. Now those words would never pass his lips.
"Come on, lad. Let's go home," Mikahel said.
Anatol stood there, still unmoving.
In the end, the blacksmith wrapped one of his muscled arms around small shoulders and guided the mourning Anatol away.
Without knocking, Lilith tore open the doors, which led to Sadden's chambers. As happened so often lately, the rooms were empty. "No, no, no," she muttered distraught, pacing the room. "Of course, she is not here." Her hands curled to fists. "She is with her. Every night she is with her." The vampire grew dizzy, her heart tortured her. The anger towards Sadden and Elea Sophia become stronger with each passing moment. The memory of their happy togetherness had been etched into her heart. With an outcry of fury she ran to the painting of Elea Sophia and shoved it off the scaffold. Paralyzed by her own sudden loss of control, she regarded the portrait that had clattered to the floor. Hatred blazed in her eyes.
Still filled with anger, Lilith stormed into Andrej's workshop.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, surprised. He had not been prepared to see her. They had not spoken nor seen each other since the incident at the lake.
Lilith stared at him, motionless. Her anger had faded somewhat. She ignored his question. Instead, she asked, reproachfully, "How could this have happened to me?" Her voice cracked. "I no longer know what to think... what to feel..." She hid her face in her hands. "My family..." All of a sudden, she looked up, serious. "Anatol's life - why should it be of meaning to me? The answer was so clear in front of me and not only..." Abruptly, she stopped, once more looking at Andrej. "Sadden is at fault for all of this! And the crazy priest! Argh, the whole confounded village is to blame... you as well!" Accusing, the vampire pointed an index finger at him. "All of you have tainted me."
"You've been to the church?" the tall man asked, acting as if he had not heard her speech.
Disbelieving, she looked at Andrej.
He had to think about the dead Ljudmilla.
Lilith sank down on the window bench, staring out into the darkness. "It is horrible."
Andrej didn't know what else to say, but, "Yes." The memory of their last meeting paralyzed him.
Lilith noticed that he kept his distance. "What do you know?" she snarled.
Immediately, Andrej retreated a few more steps.
She almost felt sorry for her tone of voice, not liking his change of behavior towards her. "All of this is wrong," she complained, looking at the black lake. Her voice trembled slightly.
Andrej began to respond, only to have the words die in his mouth. The awkward silence caused him to cast his eyes to the floor.
The vampire didn't look at him.
Helpless, the tall man stood there. He had seen the fear in her eyes. He himself was not without either.
Absentminded, she whispered, "His fear... his fear is greater than the power I have over him."
Andrej didn't know exactly what she was talking about, but he could guess. He had had a brief insight in what Anatol actually lived through. His concern grew. "In that night, you..." he faltered. "In that night, you were unable to find Anatol?" With great caution, he began to approach the subject.
By then, Lilith looked at him, but was seeing right through him. A tiny smile appeared on her lips, as she remembered. "No, not him."
"The tavern owner found his daughter dead in the stables. Devoid of all blood."
Lilith briefly closed her eyes. "Is that meant to be an reproach? Should I have quenched my thirst on somebody else instead?" Her angry gaze hit him.
Andrej lowered his eyes. "I don't have an answer for that. Why Ljudmilla out of everybody? Why did she have to die? You said yourself that Anatol is in love with her. Was your choice some kind of punishment for him?"
"Do you really think that I am that vindictive?" Not waiting for his reply, she continued. "Unfortunately, it was impossible to choose. My thirst forced me to Ardeal. I smelled the blood... it was so intense... a burning need like I never felt before in this seclusion. Two people filled with passion... feeling deep arousal for each other.
"Spare me the details," Andrej interrupted her forcefully.
"In the moment of my arrival at the market place, this sweaty fool left the stables and strolled in direction of the tavern."
Andrej was shocked.
"He closed his pants with a self-satisfied grin on his face." Disgust was audible in her voice. "After that, I think everything happened quickly. The woman was still lying in the straw and my thirst overwhelmed me. I only remember vaguely.
Andrej swallowed hard, thinking about the young woman behind the bar. She shivered at the thought of her cruel end.
"Do not be concerned. It will not become a habit," she replied, mocking.
"I hope so, for all our sakes. We don't need an angry mob, intending to storm the castle."
"Quit looking at me so disapproving! I will not apologize for being a vampire. And I will never drink animal blood. Keep that in mind."
"Still, Ljudmilla's death will raise a lot of questions. When I think about the priest... or Ana, the girl's parents and all the other villagers... it frightens me."
"Next time I will find Anatol... and change his mind." In her mind, she added, 'I hope so, for I do not want to force him.' She stared outside once more, before tiredly closing her eyes.
Andrej returned to his sketches, because the vampire didn't show any inclination to leave.
At the consistent scratching of quill on rough paper and Andrej's even breathing, Lilith slowly calmed down.
"Still up at this late hour?"
Elea Sophia, who just returned from a meeting with Sadden, jumped slightly as the croaking voice sounded out from the shadows. She was still tense as she recognized the bent figure of Granny Ana. Apparently, the crone had been collecting herbs in the moonlight. She couldn't know that Ana had been waiting just for her.
"Wouldn't it be better for you to be in bed right now as well?" The priest's daughter wanted to end the conversation friendly, but as soon as possible. Ana's presence frightened her.
"Sure, sure, my dear," the old woman confirmed. "But I have one more task to fulfill. I want you to accompany me."
Elea Sophia touched her wrist, the last encounter with Ana's chagrin still fresh on her mind.
Once again the old woman grabbed her hand and held on. "Don't hesitate. I want to show you something. Afterward you can make your decision and I will never bother you again."
Reluctantly, Elea Sophia relented, hoping to finally be rid of the insistent crone.
Not one word of the occurrence had found Everon's ear. The mayor had made sure that the whole village was committed to that. Since most still viewed the priest as an intruder, it had been easy to keep things from him. Nobody cared about his preachings . Everon was hardly seen in the village. Lately, he kind of barricaded himself in his little church, which was quite fine with Ardeal's inhabitants.
The crone led Elea Sophia down wooden steps. They entered a vault under the light of a torch. Another wave of fear crashed over the young woman. She took only hesitant steps.
István had lain out his dead daughter in the tavern's cellar. Granny Ana had stitched the wounds, washed the body and treated it with special herbs to preserve it, before nature would demand it back. The inhabitants alternated for the deathwatch. Soon, Ljudmilla's body would be given to the earth. Her grave was to be weighed down with heavy stones, so she wouldn't be able to 'return'.
Between wine barrels, flour bags and other supplies, which were stored there, Ljudmilla rested in her finest dress on the table. The young woman's body was surrounded by countless candles, their wax dripping down like tears. Old Costin sat not far away. He had been entrusted with the deathwatch for the moment. It was late at night. Due to his high age and also a little bit too much wine, exhaustion had overpowered him. On the actual uncomfortable wooden chair, he had fallen asleep, slumped over. His chin rested on his chest, salvia trickling from the right corner of his mouth, and he snored. His cane had slid from his hands. It lay in front of him on the tamped ground.
Her eyes wide with fear, Elea Sophia regarded the creepy scenery. "What abomination is this that you are showing me?" Instantly she was reminded of a earlier, similar event. Regarding Ljudmilla, she whispered breathlessly, "Her father told me that she is sick. That's why she couldn't work at the tavern for the moment."
Ana wasn't interested in what Elea Sophia had to say. Displeased, she dragged her closer to Ljudmilla's body. "I tried to break it to you gently. It was in vain. Do you still not want to understand, you foolish girl?"
Shaking her head, he priest's daughter stared at the stitched wound on the corpse's throat. Tears gleamed at the corners of her eyes. She didn't want to be there. She didn't want to see this. She didn't want to live among these people with their horrible customs. "Let me go," she sobbed.
Annoyed, the crone waved her hand. Pointing at Ljudmilla, she hissed, "This is what awaits you! She surrendered to the dark embrace! If you continue to keep your eyes shut from reality, you are going to end exactly like the poor soul lying in front of you. Your God cannot protect you. Do you comprehend?!"
'She is crazy,' Elea Sophia thought. 'All of them have lost their minds!'
In her anger, Ana's voice grew in louder, causing Costin to move on the chair.
Elea Sophia used the moment of the crone's distraction to flee the cellar.
The old woman let her go. "Hopefully, she will finally heed my warnings."
Roused, Costin opened his eyes. Blinking, he scanned his surroundings, catching a shadow that disappeared up the stairs. Discovering Ana, he grumbled, "What are you clamoring about, old hag? You are going to wake the dead."
Ana gave him a toothless smile. "I think I only woke you. I hope you rested well, my dear," she scoffed. "I will relieve you."
Embarrassed, Costin sat up, trying to smooth his disheveled hair and brushing the spittle from his chin. "I saw a shadow. Who was with you?"
"Elea Sophia?" Costin almost choked on the name. Startled, the chronicler jumped off the chair. Immediately, he rubbed his aching back, which wasn't forgiving the sudden movement so easily. His joints cracked loudly. His face contorted from pain, he said, "It's all over now. We were supposed to prevent the priest from gaining any knowledge of this matter. Why did you bring her along?"
"So what," Ana groused. "Quit nagging, old man. She won't tell her father anything."
"How can you be so sure?" he wanted to know.
"Because she is keeping a dark secret. There is no way she would reveal that. Most of all not to her father. If she would, the consequences would be too terrible."
Costin scratched his head. Once more the crone spoke in riddles. He didn't want to be concerned with that. 'The less I know, the better for me,' he thought to himself. While picking up his cane from the floor, he muttered something about 'silly women' under his breath. Then he left the cellar, bent over and supported on his cane.
Ana sat down on the chair, regarding Ljudmilla's body in the flickering light of burning down candles. "Now we will see what your decision is going to be, Elea Sophia."
The traveling folk had set up camp in front of Vienna's city gates. In a wagon, they were on the way to the big year market in the middle of the town. Zarefah sat, holding the reins in her hands. Ruslan stood behind her on the wagon, loudly announcing their impending show. The other Roma walked, jumped or danced on the street, next to the wagon. Leonid juggled some apples while his sister sat on Vitali's shoulders, playing a rhythm on her tambourine. His twin brother showed off his muscles, from time to time lifting happily squealing kids high above his head.
Only Kyrian was quietly marching behind them. He was unable to become excited about the performances. The encounter with Zynora was stuck in his mind and he couldn't think about anything else. He would have liked to stay at camp in the hopes of once more talking with the old Molfar. Since the night he had met the vampires, the Roma didn't let him out of their sight. Ruslan had insisted that he would accompany them to the city. The young man didn't like being observed that way. Often in the past nights, he had crept out of his tent and saddled Nightshade, intending to leave the gypsy clan for good. But Zynora's words were haunting him. Quietly he muttered to himself, "Vienna, why is Vienna so important? Could it really be true... " He trailed off as Amara joined him.
"Skylar is alive. What she predicts has been decided."
Kyrian was shocked. "What? How do you know?
"Maybe I caught a word here and there."
The young man rolled his eyes. "Caught a word?" The distance between them and the rest of the group grew.
Finally, the beautiful gypsy gathered her courage and blurted, "I will help you to find your sister."
"No!" Kyrian interrupted harshly. "There is no way that you will interfere with my search."
"What do you mean 'interfere'," she responded. "You were the one, who came to us."
"It's not like you were much of a help," he spat.
"Don't be so embittered. Everything will turn out well."
With a contemptuous glance, Kyrian ended the conversation.
They reached the place in front of the St. Steven's Cathedral. The gothic church towered them with all its grandeur. Even if usually the building caused every beholder to catch their breath in awe, the young hunter had no eye for the cathedral.
"I have to take care of the audience. I will see you later," Amara said and left.
Kyrian was avoiding the erection of the tents and took a seat on a barrel a bit away. Silently, he watched the colorful hustle and bustle on the place.
At the same time, Chalice stared out of the window of a black coach, bored. She looked at the crowd that had gathered in front of St. Steven's Cathedral. Once and again, she briefly glanced at the other people, who sat opposite her in the carriage. Skylar and her nurse. The girl looked much better since their last encounter, a fact that annoyed Chalice greatly. She hated Skylar's sight. The scarred tissue of the thin girl's underarms showed Chalice's treatment. At least that made her smile. The coach jolted. Immediately, the driver stopped the carriage and some barefooted, rag-covered children jumped on them. "Get lost!" Chalice shouted, impatiently.
Squealing, the young beggars raced off.
Kyrian felt thunderstruck. 'This voice...' his head jerked up and he scanned the place. He saw the people. In the middle of the crowd was a black coach, which appeared stuck. Nothing out of the ordinary. Were his senses playing tricks on him? The place was alive with a cacophony of voices, but this one clearly stood out. He would have recognized it anywhere. His heart began beating faster.
The blonde leaned out of the window, yelling at the coachman, "Let's be on our way!"
"I beg your forgiveness. The streets are very crowded. It is the biggest market of the year and..."
"I don't care about your lame excuses. Do something! We are in a hurry!" Chalice sat back, irritated, drumming with her fingers. 'If we don't make it to the hideout before nightfall, Azrael will punish me.'
The hunter leapt off the barrel, his heart racing. He knew her. Never would he be able to forget her face. It was Chalice. He stretched his body to see better, but he was very sure that it was her.
Still, the carriage had not moved. The blonde made a decision. Roughly, she grabbed Skylar's shoulders and pulled her closer. "Now you will listen to me. I will take your hand and you will follow me without fussing. Is that clear?"
Skylar nodded, mute.
Chalice pulled the hood of the girl's cloak deeply into her face. Turning to the nurse, she said, "We will use alleys to travel to the hideout." She rose, opened the door and her eyes flitted over the heads of the gathered people. Instantly, Chalice froze in fear. Her heart skipped a beat as she found Kyrian on the other side of the crowd. Their eyes met and time seemed to stop for a moment.
An outcry of fury erupted from the hunter's throat.
Dizzy, Chalice staggered back inside the carriage. With a glance at Skylar, she collected her thoughts and decided to flee. Panicked, she opened the door on the other side and dragged the girl along. Recklessly, she pressed on, forcing her way through the crowd.
On the other side, Kyrian fought to do the same. Angry tears burnt in his eyes, because he moved so slow.
His outcry had gained Amara's attention. She sat on Vitali's shoulders and saw his ordeal. The young Roma had no clue to what was causing his strange behavior. Then she turned back to the audience.
After what felt like an eternity, Kyrian finally reached the carriage and jumped inside. He was surprised to find a strange woman there, who looked at him, eyes wide with fear.
In his desperation, he grabbed her shoulders. "Where did Chalice go? What is your relation to her? Where is Azrael?" he demanded harshly.
The woman whimpered, but didn't say a word.
Shaking her roughly, the hunter yelled, "SPEAK!"
Tears trickled down her cheeks as she slowly opened her mouth. Her lips trembled and Kyrian was taken aback. The woman didn't have a tongue.
He let go of her.
Apathetic, she slumped back into the seat.
The hunter stormed from the coach and saw a blonde, who disappeared in the next alley. Thinking it was Chalice, he hurried after her, but lost sight of her in the crowd. A few alleys later, he was unable to detect any trace of her. Hectic, he turned around, searching. It was in vain. Chalice had once more vanished. Lifting his arms high, he screamed out all his despair.
Night and silence fell across the gypsy camp.
Amara was still up, strolling around under the starlit sky. The young woman relished the quiet night, which relieved the day's noisy hustle and bustle. She was about to go to her wagon and get some sleep. Muffled voices from Zynora's wagon drifted to her ear. The tone sounded rough. Carefully, she crept closer and peeked through the open window. She recognized the old woman, sitting on her divan and her father, illuminated by an oil lamp. He knelt with his back to her. A small chest sat on the low table between them.
Amara wrinkled her forehead. 'I wonder what they are fighting about?'
Zynora snorted disdainfully as Ruslan opened the lid.
The young gypsy's eyes widened. The chest was filled to the rim with golden coins. Never in her life had she seen such an amount of money.
Ruslan crossed his arms. "Take a close look. We will get the same amount after we finished our work for him."
Zynora stared at her cards. "The lurking danger is too high."
"The coming winter is a danger to us," Ruslan replied, coldly.
"To which clan does the vampire belong?" Zynora asked.
Amara's breath caught in her throat.
"I don't ask any questions. Our discretion keeps the peace with them."
"This one is different," Zynora responded, reluctantly.
"What do you mean?" Ruslan asked, impatiently squirming on his knees.
"The cards don't reveal much today." The old woman slipped the deck of cards into one of her sleeves. Then she looked up and changed the subject. "What about Kyrian?"
"We can't take him along," Ruslan decided firmly.
Zynora nodded. "You know who he is?"
Ruslan confirmed with a short nod.
Several moments passed. Zynora stared unseeingly ahead, before locking her eyes on Ruslan once more. "You said the invitation is for the D'Azoon castle?"
Ruslan nodded again. "Set in the mountains of Transylvania."
After another long pause, the gypsy leader was about to lose his patience, fearing that Zynora was searching for reasons against the deal. Defending his point of view, he stated, "The bargain between gypsies and vampires has existed for centuries." Self-satisfied, he crossed his arms over his huge belly.
"Pah!" Zynora erupted powerfully. "You don't know what you are talking about!"
Ruslan jerked slightly.
Even Amara, who was still listening, retreated a bit.
"I myself was just a silly young thing during the last time we performed for the High Vampires' pleasure. You only know from tales about such. No side longs for the bond to continue."
Ruslan hit the table with his fist.
Amara knew that her father was about to lose his composure. Often, she had been subjected to his sudden anger. The young gypsy tensed, biting her lip.
Meanwhile Ruslan's face had turned bright red. Then he yelled, "It is enough! I know that I have the responsibility for us all. The year has not been good. Our family needs the money. Otherwise we won't make it to the Black Sea. I won't allow further discussions! The subject is closed. In three days, when the market is over, we will go to Ardeal in the Carpathians!" Still seething with anger, he left the wagon. Ruslan didn't notice his daughter, who had retreated and was hiding underneath.
After her father had disappeared, she crawled from her hideout. Slowly her heart was calming down. Looking at Kyrian's tent, she remembered the strange occurrence, which she had witnessed at the market. Amara knew that the young man had not returned from his search in Vienna. "What am I supposed to do?" Inwardly, she had already come to a decision. Quietly, she slipped into his tent to wait for the hunter.
Dawn approached and Kyrian returned to the gypsies' camp. After he had taken care of Nightshade, he shuffled exhausted to his tent. He was more than surprised by the presence of a sleeping Amara inside. It made him feel uncomfortable. Any time the other Roma would rise to prepare for the day. On the other hand, Kyrian was far too tired to concern himself with Amara's purposes.
Carefully he sat down and quietly pulled off his boots. Supported on one arm, he turned to the sleeping woman and looked at her. The feelings, which he had confined to the darkest corner of his heart, tried to use this peaceful moment of carelessness to surface. Hurriedly, he locked them away once more. A drawn out sigh escaped him. The hunter couldn't take his eyes off Amara. His hand moved on its own volition. Gently, Kyrian brushed the back of his hand across her soft bronze skin.
Amara's eyes fluttered open.
"I didn't mean to wake you," he whispered, weakly.
"I've been waiting for you." She sat up and swallowed. It was difficult to find the right words.
Kyrian looked at her, questioningly.
Amara's heart overflowed with sympathy as she gazed into his dark eyes, which contained so much pain. She didn't have to ask if he had found out something about the vampires' whereabouts. She saw the failure on his features. The young woman began speaking in a low voice. "If I tell you how to find the ones you seek..."
Kyrian pricked up his ears, his eyes piercing hers. "What if? What do you know? Where did you get the information?"
Undeterred, Amara looked at him. "You must promise to take me with you."
The young man was taken aback, but he could see how serious she was.
Amara told him everything she had heard that night. After she had finished, she regarded him expectantly.
Kyrian's face didn't betray any emotion. Instead he reached for her hands and pulled the young gypsy toward him. "You truly are serious to come along?"
Amara's heart pounded wildly, but she nodded firmly. "I don't want anything more than that."
He cupped her head with both hands.
She gazed into his dark eyes, the windows to his innermost, and let it happen.
Kyrian pressed his lips to hers, gently, but at the same time full of passion.
After a while, they broke the kiss.
The young hunter stroked her hair, memorizing her smiling face. "I'm tired. I will not go to the market. Instead, I will rest. Be prepared for the night. Before the sun dawns tomorrow, we will ride off."
Amara nodded and left the tent, without being seen by others.
Kyrian lay down on his makeshift bed, crossing his arms under his head. He glared upward. "Azrael," he hissed. "Finally, I know your destination. I will wait for you and bring you down!"
A small rivulet made its way through the spongy limestone blocks. The water collected on the tip of a rusty nail, formed a large drop and fell down.
There was a little pool of it on Skylar's palm. Her dull eyes followed the way each drop made into her hand. She didn't know how many hours she had lain like that on the straw, curled up and staring at the cold wall. Ever since Chalice had returned to her side, the abuse at the hands of the blonde fury had started again. Skylar didn't know what had happened to her nurse after their flight from the carriage. She guessed that one of Azrael's servants had killed the woman. At the thought of that, she felt - nothing. She just felt empty, too weak to feel anything at all. The repeating drip drop of water on her palm was the only way for Skylar to realize that she was still alive.
Suddenly, the girl heard heavy footsteps from the room above her. She recognized them as Azrael's. The door to the cellar vault, where she was kept, was unlocked. The vampire followed somebody, who had light, almost inaudible footsteps. It was probably one of his scouts. Lately, many of them had been with Azrael to report. They had reached the end of the stairs.
"The lamps are almost out," the vampire's deep voice declared.
"Of course, of course..." the other quietly hissed and hurried to add more oil to the lamps. Before the light managed to completely spread out in the vault, Skylar had closed her eyes. Her hand had gone limp and the cold water trickled across her wrist. Like so often, she pretended to be asleep. This also helped to avoid some of Chalice's torturing. The girl felt Azrael's gaze on her back, but she didn't move.
He turned away from her and sat down at a table, which stood against the opposite wall.
Even though the men whispered to each other, Skylar was able to understand each word.
She heard the laughing scout say, "We have found them, honored Master. It is as you presumed. They live among them, undetected."
Azrael didn't say anything, but a satisfied smile appeared on his lips. He leaned forward, placed his elbows on the tabletop and supported his chin on his hands. "Speak."
"As you wish, Master. We could confirm the presumed whereabouts of the Griffons." He paused.
At Azrael's impatient glare, he hurriedly continued. "The clan resides in a palace, directly at the Canalazzo ."
"Wonderful," the dark lord purred. Then the vampire rose. "You may leave now and wait for me upstairs. Send me Chalice down here."
Skylar jumped slightly, her heart cramping at the last sentence.
The scout bowed deeply and crept up the stairs.
A short time later, Chalice happily entered the wet vault. There was a distinct spring to her step. The blade of her beloved knife flashed in her hand. With a broad smile, she asked, slyly, "Shall I prepare the little one for drinking?"
"That's not the reason I called for you."
An honest, disappointed sigh escaped her throat, while her longing gaze rested upon Skylar.
"New aspects have been revealed."
Lurking, Chalice watched him.
"It is necessary that you and the girl go ahead to Transylvania, without me."
"No but, Chalice," his dark voice threatened. "I am faster without you and the girl." He attached his cape and put on his gloves. "I will only take a few trusted followers with me."
The blonde was rendered speechless.
"Don't be concerned. Before you reach the castle, I will have returned to you." Slowly he walked to Skylar's makeshift bed. "I need to gain strength with the special blood for the task lying ahead."
"I will cut her for you, Master. Just let me get the goblet."
"That's not necessary. I will drink directly from her." Azrael knelt and turned the right arm. Regarding the scars on the inside, he said, "You did bad work, Chalice."
The blonde froze in shock.
Azrael bit into the white skin, forcefully sucking the blood from the girl.
Skylar's body cramped as her life's fluid was drained. With each leaving drop, she grew dizzier.
As Azrael was finished, she weakly sank into the straw. The dark lord moaned, a satisfied smile on the blood-covered lips. Using a handkerchief, he wiped it away.
Chalice pulled out a small piece of cloth and bandaged the wound on Skylar's wrist.
Azrael regarded her. "What happened to her nurse?" he asked all of a sudden.
The blonde hesitated briefly. Then she replied, as innocently as she could muster, "She intended to flee as the carriage was stopped. I had to kill her."
"Indeed?" The dark lord inquired again, but Chalice stuck to this version. Busily, she fumbled at Skylar's bandage.
"Well, then you had to, of course," Azrael finished, turned and left. It was time to pay a visit to the Griffons.
Kyrian couldn't sleep. He just lay there and stared at the tent roof. With increasing impatience he waited for the gypsies to leave the camp. It felt like an eternity until the last voices had finally faded. Silence fell as the Roma had gone in direction of the market. More relaxed now, Kyrian collected his meager belongings and left the tent. Taking his time, the hunter gathered supplies and strolled to the paddock.
Nightshade greeted him, snorting and prancing.
A smile flickered across Kyrian's features as he gave his trusted friend an apple. "You can feel that it's starting once again, hmm?" He stroked the stallion's neck and saddled him. "We will head out on our own. Come on. We still need to find a map merchant." Without glancing back, he left the gypsy camp, riding east.
Total silence ruled in Sadden's chambers, the kind she liked. Calmly, she sat at the commode and brushed her long, black hair, in order to prepare for a nightly meeting with Elea Sophia. She smiled and happily hummed a song.
Andrej leaned at the door, observing her quietly.
"You seem so changed," Sadden remarked after a while. Questioningly, she looked at him through the mirror.
"Something happened," her friend admitted reluctantly, his eyes meeting hers.
Immediately, Sadden thought about Elea Sophia's tumbled portrait.
Andrej's thoughts turned to the night with Lilith at the lake. He couldn't exactly explain, but something hindered to tell his friend about it. The unconditional trust, which they used to have, was no longer present. It seemed far away.
Sadden turned toward him, easily detecting his doubts. "Lately, I have been absent a lot and I apologize for that. I am truly sorry that we do not spend as much time together, as we used to."
"Sadden, the past months, you were gone every night."
"Really? That often? For so long? I did not realize." She smiled und softly said to herself, "I guess it is true. Happiness makes time fly by. I had forgotten about that."
Her friend calmly listened to her.
Glancing at Andrej once more, she inquired, "Please, tell me. What is bothering you?"
He just looked at her.
Sadden placed the brush down and rose, walking towards him. "We were always able to talk with each other."
Andrej felt a piercing ache in his heart.
Wishing to cheer him up, Sadden embraced him and held her friend. "I feel so much sadness." Confused, she released him from her arms and regarded him, "And there is something else..."
"It isn't my sadness you feel," he responded, a slight reproach audible in his tone. "Well, at least, not only that."
"Lilith," Sadden realized astonished, remembering something long forgotten.
Andrej nodded. "Think about your responsibilities as her teacher," he begged Sadden. "Lilith needs you. I..." He had to swallow hard before he could continue. "You have to talk to her. I have a bad feeling... She is slipping away."
"I do not have the leisure. She is no child. She is responsible for herself." Sadden turned to leave, but her friend held her back. "Sadden... I beg you. You didn't see her eyes. I know something bad is about to happen... again."
The vampire looked at him in disbelief. Smiling slightly, she relented. "Fine, Andrej, if you really think the matter with Lilith is so serious, I promise you to talk with her right away." Sighing, she added, "Heavy-heartedly, I will have to cancel my assignation with Elea."
"Thank you. That would really settle my nerves." He kissed Sadden's cold cheek and left her chambers.
Later, Sadden strolled through the castle, searching for Lilith. "Hopefully Elea received my message on time. I do not wish for her to have gone in vain to our venue." The vampire was barely unable to form a clear thought, since her mind was circling around the priest's daughter. She reached Lilith's rooms deep inside the castle, but nobody was present. Restlessness took hold of Sadden.
The priest lay on his belly, on the floor in front of the altar, praying fervently. A perceived noise made him jump. "Is someone there?"
No answer came.
Abruptly, he sat up, his eyes darting through the empty room. He felt pursued, like a hunted animal.
Shadows with demonic faces danced across the walls.
"Leave me be, demon!" he shouted at the bare stones, trying to protect his face with his hands. All the while, he recited Bible verses in a quick row. Everon made the sign of the cross several times.
The laughter of the shadow faces though didn't stop.
Tortured, the priest pulled at his hair, his heart racing. He stumbled through the church. "I have to protect her innocence . I have to protect her innocence," Everon repeated. Then he paused, as a thought came to him. "She is all alone at home," he whispered. "How could I have been so reckless?" He hurried from the building and ran to the small rectory. All the time he looked behind him, frightened. Nothing was to be seen in the darkness. "She follows me... the demon... she wants me to revoke my belief... but that... no, she won't be successful in that... No! Never!" His steps quickened and he staggered on the stony path. Darkness enclosed him further and fear almost throttled him. His old body trembled and he had a hard time breathing.
Finally, the priest reached the house. It was encased in utter darkness. No light shone at all. Suspicious, he scanned his surroundings, eyes wide open. Desperation clawed at his insides. Panic was clearly visible on his face as he stumbled into the rectory. "Elea Sophia!" he screamed. Uncoordinated, he climbed the stairs to his daughter's small room under the roof. He almost pulled the door from its hinges and was about to fall into the tiny quarters. Everon froze.
Shocked, he realized that the bed of his daughter was empty. A letter rested on the pillow. The priest expected the worst. With trembling hands, he tore open the letter, quickly going over the lines. His eyes darted around while he tried to make sense of the parchment's content. His concern increased unfathomably.
The window was open and he staggered towards it. Leaning out, he screamed again, "ELEA SOPHIA!!!" The old man wheezed and stumbled at the sudden pain he felt back downstairs.
He checked the stables. There was no trace of Dawn either.
Everon raced to the kitchen. In the oven, he discovered the rest of a fire. Shaking, he took a long piece of wood and used some oil to turn it into a torch. He lit it and went outside, into the cold night.
The howling of wolves was carried to his ear. "Elea Sophia!" he shouted into the woods, his delusions growing stronger. "The wild beasts... I have to find her... before they rip my child limb from limb..." Throwing caution to the winds, he stumbled into the woods. The trees grew close next to each other. This protected him from the sharp wind. Deeper and deeper, the priest went inside the forest. Soon, he came upon rough terrain. Everon could hardly move on. Fog descended from the treetops. His sight dwindled further and further. The torch was no longer of much use, growing dimmer and not radiating warmth. The wet cold of the night embraced him firmly.
Everon had completely lost his way and the track of time. Fear for his daughter was the only thing that kept him going. He called out frequently, but his cries were unheard. Only the wolves answered from time to time, a horrible choir erupting from many howling throats.
Everon swallowed hard. He couldn't catch his breath, it seemed. For a short break, he leaned against a tree trunk. His torch was about to go out. The priest fell into a semi-conscious state. Moaning, his head whipped from side to side.
Laughing grimaces flew at him from the fog.
"Leave me be, you demons!" His breath rattled in his chest and he spat blood. He swung the burnt off torch in front of him like a sword.
The shadow faces were not impressed by this act.
A crash could be heard from the undergrowth behind him.
Everon was startled. The torch slid from his fingers. Caught up in panic, he ran as fast as he legs could carry him. Bushes tore and ripped his clothes to shreds. His skin was covered by multiple bleeding cuts. With a drawn out yell, he fell over a fallen branch. He landed on his front and tumbled down a small slope. Stones and roots painfully pierced his skin.
Groaning, he came to a halt. "My daughter," Everon whimpered. Crawling, he tried to move on. His fingers dug into the mossy, wet ground and he dragged himself further. "Elea Sophia..." he croaked into the darkness.
Suddenly, the old man felt the ground beneath him give way. Unthinking, he tried to rise, his movements turning frantic. His legs sank in to his knees. Everon was stuck in a swamp. He paused in the eerie silence. The priest reached for his chest, but the cross was long gone. Everon closed his eyes and began to pray with all his might. Slowly but unstoppable, he sank in deeper. Soon his desperate whispers to God faded.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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