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An unexpected encounter brings Nika Young to the far North of Europe, where she gets an Inquirer job only a few humans can do and stay alive. She becomes part of a hundred-year-old peacekeeping mission between vampires and their enemy Vocati – or that’s what she’s been told.

 

With challenging tasks, her days are more intense, and she’s falling for a handsome team leader Andrei Belun in this story of love, danger, and bad prophecy.

READ FIRST 5 CHAPTERS

”Oh yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am”

- Virginia Woolf, The death of the moth

 

 

 

“Men died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh”

-  Lord Byron, Darkness

 

 

Chapter 1

Free will

 

 

 Some chase dreams, some nightmares. I’m still not sure which course I have taken.

        It rained the entire road trip, which was not how I pictured my departure. I tried not to long for the Californian sun, because this was supposed to be a temporary absence. Every change is good—at least that’s what the brochures say. But I’m not used to it. I guess that’s why I drove the I-80 and ended up in this remote place, chosen by the blind landing of my index finger on the map.

         Sioux City, Iowa. The town of skywalks.

        I stayed at the Clarion Hotel. There was a conference in town, and I was lucky to find a room. I didn’t mind the crowd; for three days I had purposely avoided every soul on the road, so the sound of chitchat and the sight of a few smiling faces felt good for a change.

     The Fourth Street Historic District was a block from my hotel. I walked in the shadow of brick buildings designed in neo-romantic style, a well-preserved legacy from the nineteenth century. Flower shops, bookstores, and bars filled the spaces behind the store windows. It was cloudy, so the color of stonework and old streetlights stood out in contrast to the rest, and there was a marker on the street—something with a name, but I couldn’t see it clearly through the heavy traffic.

        Regardless of the traditional idea of Iowa's rural scenery, this town had a certain allure. The mixture of history and spirits created a nice atmosphere, even on such a gloomy day. I had read on the net that Children of the Corn was filmed in Iowa fields and that musician Glen Miller was from there too. I pictured the sound of trombones mingling well with the mid-fall weather.

        My dad was a sucker for jazz. In our first apartment, instead of paintings or photographs, framed vinyl covers and flyers featuring significant jazz characters had filled the walls. He played piano. Nothing professional, just for his own pleasure. He never attended music school; he was an accountant and apparently lived in two different worlds: the one where he was, and the other where he would have liked to be. Thinking about my parents, I don’t know if he was right to live as he did, or if he just couldn’t do it—life—differently.

       Nina Simone for rainy days and Billie Holiday was for melancholic moments. No matter what my taste in music was, I’d never lost the memories of that old crackling vinyl sound. That was the sound of home.

        A tourist brochure from my hotel said that, of all the states, Iowa has the most towns named after European capitals: Lisbon, Luxemburg, Madrid, New Vienna, and Rome. However, the populations of these towns were miserably low. Rome only had 113 people! And Swedish immigrants were the founders of Madrid. I found this interesting.

       Hunger gnawed at me, so I stopped in at the first restaurant I saw. Without a second thought, I ordered a double cheeseburger with French fries and a Coke. The menu said I was in Dante’s. I figured it was nice to know the name of my prisoner. The place was half-full. A gray-haired man, whom someone called Bob, nervously watched football on the TV that hung from the wall. A girl with the nametag “Sandy” brought my feast, and, as usual, I hardly ate and shuffled the food around my plate.

        “Do you want a box for that?” Sandy asked.

       “No, thanks,” I said, and then remembered something. “There’s a marker on this street. You know which one I mean?”

        “Sure. It’s for Reverend Haddock, a victim of Prohibition.” Sandy returned to my table and planted her hand on her waist. “This town used to be a roost of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Iowa lonesome… where everybody closed their eyes for the good of profit.”

         “It must’ve been fun.”

        “Sure. You’d be sitting in a saloon watching two men fight over some paramour.” Her statement made a few of the patrons laugh, and I could almost see the wooden edges of the bar slowly transform into images from the past.

        “One man decided to clean the town of sin and force people to obey the law.”

        “What happened to him?” I asked.

        “He was one tough bastard. But he took a bullet in the neck near that street marker.”

      The suicidal mission of one against many. On my way out of Dante’s, I glanced at the booze collection. That Reverend died in vain, which reminded me how there’s not much sense to the passionate urges that make us move rocks. Especially when they’re motivated by the subjective whims of their time. Just like the truth, right?

         On my way back to the hotel, Sandy’s words stayed with me. A slideshow of images passed through my mind: the shot, the bullet hitting bone, that tough bastard Reverend suffocating on his own blood, the bloody sidewalk, bloody street...

        “Oh, sorry!” I said as I entered the hotel and bumped into an old man. I collected my thoughts and realized that I was staring at him—into the deep, dark abyss of his eyes, deeper than I’d ever imagined possible.

       I didn’t know what kind of face I had made, but he seemed equally startled. He wore a brown suit and held a dark coat in his arms. His posture was hunched. I’d never seen a face in such suffering. Even the position of his body followed an arc of sadness. Our gazes were locked in surprise. I could feel his pain stinging my skin. I didn’t know who he was or whom he reminded me of, but I knew the pain he felt was something that no one should experience. Something that no one deserved. Before I realized what I was saying, the words had left my mouth.

         “Here for the convention?” My outburst only intensified the weird vibe between us.

        He was standing under a golden lamp near the reception desk. All at once, the noise of the other people in the lobby broke through to my ears. The convention was over for the day.

         “You seem sad,” I stated awkwardly.

       People were passing by us, noisily discussing dinner and the meeting. I wasn’t sure that he’d heard what I’d said, but his bushy eyebrows lifted and his eyes remained fixed on me.

       Suddenly there was a tall man standing between us, his worried look locked with mine. I could hear the new man asking if I was all right. He repeated it twice. First, I heard a buzzing sound, and then only my pulse beating in my ears. I tried to look for the old man, but I saw only his back. Two other men had appeared and flanked him as they followed him out. They looked like the rest of the businessmen in the hall, but there was something different about their postures. The guy in front of me still gave the impression that if I fainted, he was ready to catch me. Avoiding him, I turned and retreated to my room, suffering the unnervingly slow elevator.

Shocked, I sat on my bed for a while. I had questions, but I couldn’t put my finger on any of them. I fell asleep fully dressed.

 

*

 

        My scream woke me.

        I pushed the damp hair from my forehead. Through the sunlight filling the room, I could still see the face from my dream—the sad lines and deep eyes gazing into me. They didn’t ask for anything; they just existed. My waking mind started to sweep away the dream-life pain. Those probing eyes still lingered in my thoughts, though. Suddenly, my throat soured; images of Selene and Kyle, fake touches and smiles, the silence of the friends who knew the whole truth…. And that was the moment when my real-life pain kicked in.

       Lies. A ton of fears—hell, all my fears! I hated feeling like I couldn’t control my role in my own life! I now saw lies in every relationship. I felt like I was suffocating, I could barely breathe. A sharp cry left my mouth, destroying all my composure. I fell on the pillows, grabbing them tight, and then I sobbed, without a break, for hours. There was a lot of junk left inside me.

       I believe I broke the record of listening to Dan Auerbach’s lines: “Lies, lies… ohh, lies” on repeat mode. When I stopped shaking and finally felt freer of the pain, a feeling of emptiness overtook me.

      Staring at the white walls, I could smell my own tears. My body and my dark hair were stretched over wet pillows. I felt numb, fully exhausted. There were no more tears, only their shadows on the bedsheet.

 

        When I was a child, I heard someone say that light-colored eyes see a brighter side of life, and dark eyes—the darker one. Mine are brown. It frightened me then, and now—I didn’t know what to think of it. I realized then that not only can you not trust others, but you can’t trust yourself, either.

       It wasn’t hard to leave California. The problem would be going back, and that’s a subject I wasn’t willing to think about right then. That goes for some people I didn’t want to remember, either. I clicked the TV remote, hoping to find a good movie to help me forget about things.

        There was a knock on my door.

        It sounded again while I was deciding whether to ignore it.

       In the silence between the knocks, I felt someone’s nervous presence outside. That was unsettling. I opened the door.

       “What?!”

      A boy, younger than me, was standing with his hand poised to knock again. He seemed startled, but I repeated my question in the same impatient tone.

       “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I was told to give you this.” He held out a plate with a white business card. I didn’t take it.

       “Mister is waiting for you in the lobby.”

     Mister? Bushy eyebrows flashed in front of my eyes, so I took the card and closed the door. The card was a shade of pearl and felt nice to the touch, which instantly reminded me of American Psycho.

Oswald Gray

 

Gazini, Inc.

Intelligence Analyst

 

        Interesting. I quickly took a shower and dressed in jeans, a black shirt and a pair of Converse gathered my hair into a ponytail and left the room. I didn’t pass anyone in the lobby. Walking toward the leather sofas, I noticed the over-polite guy from the night before. I immediately looked around for the old man, but no—we were alone. The guy stood up and gestured for me to join him. Unwillingly, I approached.

        “Good day.” A big grin covered his face. “My name is Oswald. I apologize for the interruption.”

        If he knew my room number, he must’ve known my name. I surprised myself with my pleasant tone.

      “Good day.” It was hard to be tough against his polished appearance. Any agitation that I had felt toward him started to fade. Oswald motioned to the sofas and we sat.

        “Where is the old man?”

        Oswald’s eyebrows raised, but he knew whom I meant.

      “As a matter of fact, the reason I called you down here is to discuss our mutually interesting person,” he paused as if searching for the right words. I couldn’t even imagine where this was heading.

     “I work for a multinational corporation, but I’m of no significance in its hierarchy, so I must apologize if my knowledge is limited. The person you mentioned is of great interest to us, but there is a problem arranging communication with him. When the board saw the recordings of your encounter yesterday, they concluded that you might be the key to a dialogue. My job is to convince you to come with me so we may explain what we’d like you to do for us in greater detail, but you can consider it as a job offer of sorts.”

      I didn’t answer right away. After a while, my silence started to be uncomfortable. But really, what could I possibly say to that? Polite-man shot me a supportive smile. I guess he was giving me time to process his request, but there was nothing to think about. I mean, the offer was completely absurd. I was thinking of all the horror movies I could fit into this paradigm. His face was pale and his joyful supportive eyes gave out the impression of trustworthiness and sincerity.

        “Your plane ticket would be taken care of and all expenses paid, of course.”

      “This sounds like a BS,” I told him. “I don’t understand what you want from me. I ran into someone yesterday, and now you want to hire me? Why? And explain why you can’t just get in touch with him directly?!”

       He smiled and leaned toward me. “Persons like the one you mentioned are of, let’s say, an untamed character and are unable to create a quality dialogue with us. Therefore, we need people with the rare talent of empathy that are in tune with his race to help us.”

       This conversation had rapidly turned into a bad Sci-fi channel movie. His race? Really? And Oswald said it with a straight face, still radiating pleasantness and trustworthiness.

       “Race?” There was an edge to my voice.

     “Yes. However, I am not at liberty to reveal anything further before you talk with my superiors. Your flight will leave in a couple of hours, and it is my responsibility to ensure that you are on it.”

       “Is that a threat?” My tone didn’t surprise me, but his polite smile that followed definitely did.

      “No need for that. If your safety worries you, it should not; you are perfectly safe. There are many ways that we can manipulate or coerce, but we would never force you against your will. The decision is up to you, but it’s my job to try to convince you.”

       “That could take a while. Don’t you have a plane to catch?”

“It’s a private jet. Time is flexible.”

“So, what does your corporation do?” I asked.

“It holds many companies in various industries. For example, my job is to hunt for special clients.”

“And the old man is special?”

“Very much so,” his tone was mild. “But you will know more tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“It’s a long flight.”

        I had more questions, but the more we talked, the more I realized that I would eventually succumb to Oswald’s persuasion. Both of us could smell my defeat. The charm of this man was enough to lure virgins into the Centaur’s lair—and they would go with a smile. I went along too, but at least I was wary enough not to smile.

       Boarding the jet, I tried to shrug off a mixture of anger and frustration. After all, it was as he said: I was going of my own free will. Amen to the whole thing, whatever it might be.

     I wasn’t frightened during the flight. Maybe I was going to the meeting or maybe to slaughter, but for some absurd reason, I didn’t feel any fear. Oswald Gray was still looking like a person worthy of my trust, and I thought that the whole arrangement seemed way too ritzy for me to end up in some German brothel. His last name reminded me of my initial thought on my road trip—that I needed to find my own shade of gray. In light of the events that would follow, I would later realize that he was my White Rabbit. Even his time was ticking.

       Against my better judgment, I fell asleep twice during the flight. Confused by the time zones, I lost all sense of time. The little dot on the screen was all I knew, and that was us. We were heading toward northern Europe. The destination was still unknown, but I was calm enough to read National Geographic, mental_floss, and other magazines on the Kindle that Oswald Gray had given me. What exactly was wrong with me?

        My White Rabbit seemed to always be working on his laptop. Without sleeping or slowing his rhythm, he typed, took cell phone calls, but spoke in languages unknown to me. From time to time, he would send me a smile or some polite line. Apart from us, there were two more men in dark suits, younger than Rabbit who looked to be in his early forties. Every time I shot them a sidelong glance, they were sitting there doing nothing, in contrast to Oswald Gray, who seemed allergic to stillness.

      No one had asked for my phone, and since cell phone usage was apparently permitted on this flight, I could freely have used it if I liked. So my role as a kidnapped victim wasn’t entirely convincing. It seemed like I should call or text, at least to let someone know where I was. But then, whom was I supposed to call? Of course, my parents were out of the question because, really, what would I say? Hey Mom, Dad, first I left Berkeley, then I was kidnapped and now I am flying over Europe to an unknown destination.

        Yeah, right.

       The reason I left in the first place was to find my life. Sorta. To stop comparing myself with the expectations of others. To quit being a supporting role in my own existence. I’d never been on my own, but considering my current situation—maybe that wasn’t bad at all. Still, I felt more relaxed than earlier in the flight—I had left the tension in my stomach over the middle of the Atlantic. I felt bizarrely at ease in all of this absurdity!

      Earlier in the hotel, Oswald Gray had asked me if I had a warm coat. It was only after I got off the jet that I realized that my idea of warmth wasn’t warm enough.

      “Where are we?” I asked, puffing hot clouds of breath into the arctic air and looking at the nearby snow-covered mountains.

       “Tromsø. Northern Norway.” White Rabbit smiled at me.

       There were a black SUV and a van waiting for us, both new. We got into the SUV, leaving the van behind. It was a half-hour drive east through the twilight of pastoral Norway toward the blackness of a forest. Perfect. The road curved as we headed up into darkness that deepened the farther we went, and I started to feel anxious. I had been flying with these guys for hours! Why would I start feeling anxious again?! Guess the dark was all I needed for my fears to kick back in. Things are not always the way they look; sometimes they’re the way they feel.

       Oswald was in the back with me and, sensing my anxiety, he started to get chatty with the other two. He even asked them to change the radio station. Thankfully. The Euro-trash music was putting me even more on edge.

       “Are you cold?” he asked.

       “Just a little,” I lied. The car’s heating still couldn’t remove the chill from my bones.

       “We’ll arrive soon. Would you like my coat anyway?”

       “No, thank you.”

       I was freezing. I’d never been this cold in October. Lights appeared up ahead. Soon, we passed through a sturdy gate and drove ten more minutes, arriving at the final destination: a complex of several dim buildings. We stopped in front of a dark gray, four-story house with a couple of gargoyles sticking out from the façade. How dramatic.

       The inside was all dark wood and cardinal red tapestry. Medieval crested shields flanked the walls and swords were displayed in the left corner. Again with the Drama. We were just starting up the main stairs when an entourage appeared.

       “Ah, Miss Young, finally!”

      A tall, slender man stepped out of the group, grinning at me. His hair was dark, tucked behind the ears; his nose was straight and his suit looked pricy. He approached me with open arms.

       “How lovely that you came!”

     I stared at him. My mind was flipping between thank you and you kidnapped me—but since neither of those seemed right, I stuck with silence.

     “Nice of you to bring her here, Oswald.” He made a joyful hand gesture. “Let’s not waste any time, shall we? Please show Miss Young to her accommodations.” Then he looked at me. “Get some rest. We shall talk before dinner.”

       His porcelain-white face crackled into a smile and he turned and left with the others in tow. Only a girl stayed behind, waiting to show me the way.

     “Welcome. I’m Lena,” she said, heading toward the left part of the building. She was petite with narrow shoulders, fair hair, and blue eyes. She looked about my age. She was silent as we climbed more stairs and went down another hallway. When she stopped in front of what I assumed was my door, I noticed a weird sign above it.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Those are runes, but I don’t know much of their meaning. You should ask the others.”

     Others? That was a bit unclear. Was she avoiding the question? I looked through the open doorway into a spacious room.

        “I’ll be outside if you need anything. In an hour, we’ll head to Baldur’s office.” Her smile was hard but polite.

        I took a warm shower—bliss. It peeled away the disturbing thoughts I’d recently collected, giving me a new soft and elastic layer of skin. Reborn, I was nicely surprised to find clean clothes left for me over the chair. Black pants and a rose-tinted designer blouse. I hated the color of the blouse, but it was clean and suited me well. I left my dirty clothes in place of the new ones. When I dried my hair and put it in a ponytail, I thought I might have time to lay down a bit, but there was a knock on the door.  Apparently, I had thought wrong— it was time for the talk.

“Everything okay?” Lena looked at me as I left the room. I nodded insecurely.

       We passed through the same passages and moved along to another part of the building. She stopped in front of a set of big wooden doors and opened them, but stayed outside. Okay, let’s finish this—a spark of a brave thought.

I entered what seemed to be a library with very old editions of books in glass vitrines. A huge, iron ceiling lamp dominated the room. In the right corner was an antique table holding a laptop, and behind it—the man who had greeted me on the stairs. He patiently waited for me to take in my surroundings.

“Come, sit, Miss Young. My name is Baldur. If I am correct, you are a Berkeley freshman, second semester? What department?”

“L&S, Social Sciences.” My voice was thin—strained.

“Interesting. And what do you plan to major in?”

       “Peace and Conflict Studies.” An awkward dread started to crawl up my spine, but for some reason he seemed to find this conversation amusing. He gave a little laugh.

“Ah, the choices are in line with your talent, my dear.”

“What talent?” I couldn’t help but feeling like a scared little girl.

“The one that brought you to us. Now, let’s move on—I am conducting research here.”

        Instantly, I pictured myself strapped to a loony chair, a strong light shining into my eyes, waiting for someone in white to give me a shot. My dread grew.

       “For all this time, since we discovered the use of that talent which you have, I couldn’t find the adequate way to share the truth and avoid the shock, disbelief, boring questions, et cetera. Oh, such a torment. Ergo, Miss Young, do you believe in vampires?”

      His face told me that he was actually waiting for my response. Response? Should I really have a response to such a question?! Suddenly the ball I had been pushing uphill for the last eighteen hours seem to crash down on me. Even Sisyphus himself would have had a good laugh. I mean, there’s only so much stupidity, right? But there he was, still waiting for something to come out of my mouth. Maybe he was some super-rich lunatic and this was his compound, some sect he had founded in the Norwegian wilderness. And here I was, probably soon to be prepared for some ritual that demanded the blood. Why mine?

       “Should I?” I asked carefully.

       “Probably. Since you are surrounded by them. But it’s up to you.”

      It was my turn to laugh, and it came out so awkward. This craziness, this joke, reminded me of Selene’s goth roommate and her stupidity. Violent drawings plastered over her side of the room, white powder and black makeup. Surrounded by them? What did I do wrong in this life to end up in this psycho den?

      My lack of comment didn’t seem so amusing to him anymore. With startling speed, he launched himself over the table and flashed his fangs at me.

       Friggin’ fangs!!!??

       I hit the back of the chair so hard I thought I’d fall through. There were no more thoughts in my head. Only fear.

He returned to his seat with a grin. And no fangs.

      “Ah, no worries my dear, we are harmless. I simply thought I’d speed up our meeting. You’re perfectly safe here.” That mischievous look was back on his porcelain face.

       Since the first time I’d seen that man, it was impossible to guess his age. He looked to be in his early fifties, but I wasn’t sure anymore.

       What had just happened?

       “So, what is your answer now?”

      I nodded quickly. I didn’t wait for him to ask me twice, fearing the fangs would reappear. Vampire! Vampires! Surrounded by them?! My heart was banging maniacally while I tried to understand everything I’d just witnessed. I thought he would hear it—hell, everybody in the building could have.

       “Not to sound redundant, but there really is no reason for you to worry about your safety.”

What about fear, I thought.

      “You are here simply to be offered a job. If you decide against our offer, you will be safely returned to any place you wish. Of course, some of the things that you’ve stumbled upon on your way here,” he said with a wink, “would be removed from your memory.”

Just when I thought nothing more could startle me.

“Removed?” I whispered.

    “To compel you to go on as normal, my dear. You would continue your life as if nothing unusual had happened. You might call it a sort of hypnosis or mind manipulation if you like. No damage at all.”

       For some ridiculous reason, the feeling of fear was starting to lose its edge. And my heart had almost returned to its regular beat.

       “If that’s true, there is no real choice here, is there? You could just compel me to do by your will.”

      “I could but that would be against our laws, my dear. Compelling is forbidden unless it is used to maintain our secrecy. People have to decide by their own free will; otherwise, what’s the use of having it?”

       “So, what kind of talent is worth of all this trouble?”

      “No trouble at all, dear. When Oswald sent me a video recording from the lobby, I was more than eager to meet with you. This talent that you have is a certain empathy that is synced with our enemies’. I don’t know what is behind it, but some people have it. And it’s extremely rare.”

    “Enemies?” A chill went through my spine. I couldn’t even start to imagine what could possibly be more dangerous than those fangs and speed.

       “We vampires have enemies among our own race, sort to speak. You had the luck of meeting one.”

       I blinked confusedly, there’s no way the morose man from the lobby was scarier than this one facing me!

      “They are, let us say, untamed types of vampires and our deadly enemies. For centuries, we fought their attacks and as the generations changed, some of my ideas evolved into projects. Like this one, for example. With time, I collected several talented people capable of quality dialog without Vocati endangering their lives. Invoked Ones, or Vocati, is the name of our enemy. And the story behind this Project is to get to know them better. Different approach to the fight.

     “They are stronger and faster, and bigger in numbers than our Warriors. I believe that the old form of defense and “hit & run,” as well as the lack of strategy, are annihilating my race, especially since we are not created as they are, but are born.”

“What would my job be?” I asked quietly.

       “You already had a taste of it when you made a connection with the one in the lobby.” He grinned and I tensed at the sight of his teeth. “And this particular specimen that Oswald got is a very special one. In fact, I didn’t even know that Vocati of its range would positively react to humans, and yet its reaction to you was very charming. So was yours.

       “All in all, there is no danger. At the moment he is being restrained with pure silver and he cannot even walk, let alone attack. Your job would be to spend several hours with him and engage him in conversation. Four days a week. You should discover something about him, his life—or anything that he gives you. Any information is good information. Of course, you will first go through a three-week training period before meeting him. You’ll be trained to mentally and physically react to various situations.” He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it to me.

A five-digit number.

        “That would be your monthly salary. Since you are a student, online studies of your choice will be provided. Our teams would create a valid cover story for family and friends, to protect you. It’s an annual contract, and you would be an employee of Gazini, Inc.”

“What kind of cover story?”

       “You can stay in contact with whomever you want. Teams would lightly compel them, feed them with some story that leaves you space to do your job with no worries.”

       Listening to him, something clicked inside of me and suddenly things start functioning again. A huge weight fell from my shoulders. And then—thrill overwhelmed me. It was okay after all. Well, more or less. But I wasn’t not gonna end up as someone’s victim, food, prostitute, or ritual animal. I’d stay the way I was in the place of my choice—mythological mansion—earning lots of money in the weirdest way on the planet. White Rabbit really had brought me to Wonderland, because all of this only existed in kids’ nightmares and horror movies.

     “Now, shall we proceed to dinner? You will meet the other Inquirers and the rest of those who work on the Project.”

His suddenly firm demeanor didn’t leave much space for the questions that had begun to surface.

Chapter 2

Dinner

 

 

The dining room was on the ground floor. As we approached, voices grew louder and my legs felt like they weighed a ton. I made a big effort not to lag behind the vampire, who had a graciously slow pace about him. Near the open door, I could hear the buzzing sound in my ears. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was sure there was no “Welcome!” sign. A grotesque image of persons with their fangs out wearing party caps and throwing confetti flashed in front of my eyes. It made me shiver all over again, and the air seemed to turn colder.

      When we entered, the noise softened to a murmur, but there was no uncomfortable silence. Thank God. I had been dreading a grave hush with all eyes aimed in my direction as if I was the main suspect of some indisputable crime. One of my worst nightmares: their fangs slowly dripping from the corners of their mouths while looking straight at me. If I hadn’t already been so stiff I would have been shaking again.

       Not all of them looked at me. And the ones who did seemed either interested or indifferent. It felt slightly better than it did when I had been transferred to another school in the middle of the semester. I hoped that I passed the worst.

       I followed Baldur to the big U-shaped table. He sat at the head and offered me the place next to him. Carefully I obeyed, feeling more gazes on me. Oh, no. My heart sped up and the warmth spread over and reddened my face. I kept my eyes on the table, scared of locking them with someone else’s eyes—or fangs. Baldur made a slight motion with his arm and everybody went silent.

      “You’ve all heard by now that Oswald’s team got one true Vocati. What strikes me the most is that during his transport we found out an interesting fact, something that even I dismissed as impossible a long time ago. Even the Originals can make connections with humans! Thus, the presence of Miss Young.” He smiled at me, and my forehead burned with the gazes.

        A new layer of redness blanketed me, but I tried to hold my eyes up, glancing over the heads in front of me.

      The faces at the table were mostly pale and incredibly calm, as if in a line of porcelain dolls on a big shelf. I expected a more dramatic difference between them and me, but they only looked more pale and serene. It was the lack of pallor and calm that helped me to recognize humans at the table. There were six of them and they were sitting to my right.

       They seemed most intrigued by me and somehow their presence brought me some peace. Does that make me a racist? If I weren’t so frightened I’d probably toss a little smile to my joke.

       Baldur said that I would meet the rest of my team after dinner and then called for the servants with a crystal bell. For some reason, that sound of the bell made me want to laugh hysterically, which I fought hard to keep down. It was tempting and inappropriate, like laughing in the middle of a funeral.

        I expected a plate displaying a human head with an apple in its mouth, a human roast, a goulash of human organs, and goblets filled with blood. Luckily, I was wrong. Tonight’s menu was French cuisine, and of the three offered plates, I chose beef with cherry sauce. It was hard not to choose it, and the instant I tasted it, the subdued famine kicked in. I didn’t mind the red wine they served me. It was tasty. I thought of cows and asked myself if one could make beef out of a person. A totally bizarre thought. However, I enjoyed the dinner so much that I almost forgot the table was full of vampires. Almost. Still too frightened to meet anyone’s eyes, I focused on my plate.

        For dessert, we moved to another hall where a sweet feast filled a round table. There were all sorts of cakes, puddings, muffins, ice creams, fruit salads—it was like being in the Hansel and Gretel fairytale (no question of Baldur’s role in that story). I stuck to him like a three-year-old with her mom, terrified of being alone. Knowing that I was not, in fact, three, Baldur had stopped paying attention to me, probably assuming that I could behave in company. But the problem was that most of them were not exactly people. So I continued to follow the known evil.

When he stopped next to the three men, three male vampires—could I call them men?—he finally turned to me, indicating to one of them.

       “This is Belun, our noble blood, and great strategist and fighter. He will lead your team and you will answer first to him and then to me. Now, we leave you.” With those words, the other two men began to follow him out.

    I stood nailed to the spot. In front of me was Belun, tall and in his mid-twenties. Dark hair fell across his forehead, shadowing his right eye. His deep green eyes were looking right into me with an unpleasant tension. Nervously, I lowered my gaze. In his black dress shirt and dark blue jeans, he stood like a pillar waiting for me to crash into him with my full stamina. The silence between us was too long and discomfort took over. What did I do to deserve him looking at me like I was a friggin’ insect?!

       Then he spoke, his voice short and sharp.

       “Andrei Belun.”

       I swallowed and gathered a little courage to look up at his eyes again.

      “Nika Young.” I offered my hand and a bewildered look crossed his features. He held my hand a bit stronger than necessary, and a sudden jolt echoed through my body. For sure my face reddened again.

      His hand was smooth and firm, a bit colder than mine. His gaze was devoid of positive emotions, and then he let my hand go.

       “The weekly training schedule is in your suite,” he said, turning and leaving.

       Baffled, I stood staring at his back until he was lost among the other people—creatures, whatever! That was so unpleasant. A schedule? I don’t remember accepting the job offer, but then I remembered Baldur’s fangs and swallowed dryly. For a second, the hall started spinning. It was either the wine or terror or something in the food. I took an unsure step in a random direction. I was standing in the center of the hall. The buzzing in my ears started up again and a little voice started screaming inside my head. I didn’t try to calm it; I helplessly watched while the floor design threatened to chew me up.

“You all right?” I felt a hand on my shoulder.

       I froze, expecting the worst punishment. A woman with blond wavy hair in a tight red knee-length dress was smiling at me. She was in her early thirties and holding a half-full glass of champagne that I couldn’t take my eyes off.

“Oh, you want this?” She passed me the glass.

I drank it down, not bothering to stop to taste it. She was still smiling.

“Better?”

My silence didn’t stop her.

“Really dear, there’s no reason for that going-to-the-gallows look.”

“Can you blame me?” I managed to say, and she uttered a charming laugh.

I had noticed that people here had a tendency to laugh. And she wasn’t at all pale.

“Of course not, but no one has seemed as perplexed as you do. How old are you anyway?”

“Eighteen.”

       “Oh, you are the youngest of us,” she stopped to look at me better. “My name is Julia, I’m also an Inquirer and I was told that we are suitemates.”

“Nika.” This time my voice sounded slightly more confident.

      “Nice to meet you, Nika. I believe that after the initial shock you will actually enjoy it here,” she said with an accent I couldn’t identify. She took my hand and led the way.

        “Where are you from?” she asked.

“San Diego. You?”

“Minsk.”

      Of course, I didn’t know where the hell that was, but I was embarrassed to ask. One thing was certain: the woman saved me from fainting in a place full of vampires. Plus, she seemed honest enough. And assuming my geographical ignorance, she explained.

“Minsk is the capital of Belarus. Eastern Europe.”

I forced a tiny smile.

“I know it’s a lot to digest for now but it’s all fun, really. You’ll see as soon as you relax a bit.”

       I thought of the dark green gaze that had been thrown like a rock into my face. Yeah right, I’m gonna really like it here . . . but I didn’t want to burst her enthusiasm with my gloom. She stopped next to some people I had seen at the table.

      “These are your colleagues. This is Lyndon; she’s a year older than you and she’s from London.” Julia grinned again.

       Lyndon shook my hand and I told her my name.

       “This is Max. He’s from Austria. And this is our one and only Blake Mason. He’s your countryman from Boston.”

Max, a chubby guy in his late thirties with a receding hairline, was grinning along with Julia. Blake was only a couple of years older than I was and seemed curious. Lyndon clearly hadn’t developed an opinion of me; nevertheless, a certain arrogance definitely came across.

       “So, from where do you come from?” Max joyfully asked, holding a plate of cake.

I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant.

“Born and bred in California, busted in Iowa.”

“You sound as if they put you in a cage and tortured you for days.” That was Lyndon.

“What were you doing in Iowa for God’s sake?” The corner of Blake’s mouth was tilted up.

“I’m starting to wonder that myself, actually…”

       They all laughed at my response, all but Lyndon. I was not sure what was so funny, as I wasn’t joking. Judging by their expressions, they seemed to already have accepted me.

       “You are the youngest and I know how this must be shocking for you. But trust me, you’ll settle in just fine here,” Max offered.

     “Settle in fine? She’ll be a legend!” Julia grinned at me again. “First Inquirer of the Original!” She gave me a friendly hit with her shoulder, and I fabricated another smile.

       I observed them, listening to their stories, not knowing how to contribute to the casual conversation. I was with my maybe-future fellow co-workers. But as I watched them, one question kept bugging me.

“Why us?”

They stopped talking and looked at me. Even though I had cut in, I couldn’t help myself.

“Why us of all people?”

Blake’s dark eyes spread in surprise.

       “It seems that you’ve found yourself a partner in crime, Blake.” Max beamed. “You know, he’s trying to figure that one out too.”

       “Emphasis on trying. I don’t have much material to begin with. And the vamps are not being very helpful either.” He watched me, intrigued.

“So, no one knows,” I concluded. Blake nodded affirmatively.

       “Oh, there are more colleagues!” Julia pointed out a tall guy with light brown hair talking to a porcelain-esque girl. He looked to be in his late twenties. “That’s Tibor… He and Blake are suitemates, like you and I. But Max, Lyndon, and Gustavo have their own suites. Gustavo’s been here for the longest time.”

“Since when?”

“For a couple of decades, as far as I know,” Max added.

      “The whole of eternity,” Lyndon commented, and I found something reassuring in that. The man had endured that long in this place without being eaten or worse.

      Gustavo appeared to be in his late fifties with almost fully gray hair, olive-skinned, and wrinkles carving his face. Yeah, wrinkles—that’s something you didn’t see much in this place.

        “Where’s he from?” I asked.

     “Argentina,” Lyndon said aloofly. She had an oval face and dark hair that fell nicely to her shoulders. She seemed composed and distant. Blake also had a bit of a composed demeanor, but with his height, it seemed aristocratic. Plus I’d seen him trying to smile, which wasn't the case with her.

She yawned.

“You tired?” Julia asked me.

“A little.”

     “Let’s go then. Tomorrow’s the first day of your fairytale,” she told me, winking. I thought of fanged fairies fluttering around in wait of my death wish.

       “I thought I was already done with the first day.” I waved goodbye to the others and followed her. She was really stunning in that red dress, and I wondered for whom it was meant.

“What do you think of them?”

“They accepted me enough, I think.”

        “That’s for sure. I mean, I understand Blake’s obsession to find the pattern in the talent, as they call it. We’re all different. We hang with each other and with the others.”

“You mean vampires?” She didn’t seem to mind that I appeared taken aback.

“Of course. You’ll get used to it.”

We took the stairs to a lower level. Underground.

“Are we sleeping in coffins?”

“That wouldn’t be so odd, would it?” She laughed.

I didn’t answer.

“There’s a network of underground tunnels connecting the buildings. It’s a faster and warmer way around.”

Right, I forgot about the freezing weather outside.

“This time last year it was snowing,” Julia added.

“I’ve never felt this temperature in October, let alone seen snow.”

“Before coming here, Gustavo had never even seen the snow!”

“I can relate to that.”

     “Only Max has no problem with the cold, but he comes from the Alps. And as for the rest of us . . . we’re managing,” she smiled.

“Too much new info.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll sleep like a baby. Something in this air knocks you out in no time.”

“I hope there’s nothing in the air for real.”

     Julia laughed again. If nothing, I was glad I amused her. We entered a modern building that was light with modern furniture. None of the Dungeons and Dragons feel like the last building.

       “This is our dormitory. It’s the smallest building and there are lots of rooms if you wanna get your own. Lyndon was staying with me at first, and after a couple of months, she opted for her own place. Along with us, there are servants and three guards here.”

Guards, as in vampires, I thought.

“Room service is available day and night. You’ve already have met Lena. A strange, tough girl.”

“What do you mean?”

      “Her family lived on the Scandinavian Peninsula and Vocati massacred them. The worst part is that she was there, a poor creature. She saw everything.”

“How’d she end up here?”

        “Warriors were tailing those Vocati for some time and they got into a fight. After the vamps successfully fought them off, they took Lena under their wing, not knowing what to do with her. She was only six, so they thought they’d let her stay with them and decide her future when she got older.”

       “It’s not like it’s a hard choice. This is the only life she knows, and it sounds like she probably has some horrible memories,” I added.

      I felt a certain sympathy for Lena; so serious and professional. There are terrible war stories, but for me this one beat them all.

“When did you come here?” I asked.

“Four years ago. Gustavo, Tibor, and Max were already here. Then Blake and Lyndon came. And now we got you.”

We stopped in front of a door I hadn’t yet seen.

“I’ve already seen these signs…”

“They’re runes. This one is raido, which means the journey.”

It looked like a broken letter R.

“Runes are the letter and symbolism of Nordic mythology. You’ll get your share of literature, don’t you worry.”

       We entered a spacious light-colored room with two large couches in an L shape, a huge TV, impressive stereo, glass tables, red sofa, zebra skin cushions, and a fluffy white carpet. It seemed pleasant.

       “This is the common room. There is a kitchenette with a microwave and a coffee machine. As you can see, each has her own bedroom; yours is the one on the left.” She wished me goodnight and closed the door to her room, giving me time to get familiar with the place.

       My bedroom was big, bigger than the one I had been in when I arrived. Is it possible that was only a few hours ago? I had always wanted to have a huge bed. This one had pastel yellow covers, and the wallpaper was dark red with vintage thin stripes. To the right of the bed and right next to the windows was an enormous closet. There was a desk with a laptop on it, night tables on each side of the bed, and a green sofa. I wasn’t particularly fond of that green, especially in the light of the night’s events. Again the dark green gaze. I frowned.

     The bookshelf facing the closet was filled with classics, but still had enough free space for me to fill in with personal touches. Byron, Elliot, Frost, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, and many others milled around the shelves. I liked the choice and dragged the sofa next to it.

       The walls were empty. I assumed I could do with them what I wanted. On the bed, I found my clothes that I had left in the other room. They smelled nice and clean, and beside them was a cotton white nightgown. Sweet, my mom would love to see me in that. Mom—I took a deep breath.

        I found my cell phone and a folded piece of paper on one of the night tables. My week’s schedule was written in elegant handwriting, as well as a request for a list of people with whom I would like to stay in contact. Ha, not much to put there. According to the schedule, tomorrow at 10am I had a History class followed by Psychology. Then lunch and training at 4pm. Those were the only classes I’d get. Only their timetable changed. There were no professor names or information on where the classes would take place. I’d have to wake up early and ask Julia.

     The darkness of the forest stared through the windows at me in the cotton nightgown, cuddled under the comforter. It was cozy and I disappeared into the peace behind my eyes like a carefree lamb before the slaughter.

Chapter 3

The First Day

 

 

Following Lena to my first class, I thought about the previous night’s dream. In it, I was standing with my back against a mossy wall, barefoot, feeling the wetness of the dew on the grass. In front of me, an angry peasant crowd yelled in an unknown language while throwing dark green rocks at me! I had felt pain in my sleep, and now its symbolism was even more irritating.

       “This is the biggest building in the compound and most things are done here. Classes and training, and the cells are here too.”

        Lena’s words pulled me from my dream. We were on a vast lower floor. We walked through a steel door and on past glass-walled rooms that seemed to be offices and were, for the most part, empty. When we arrived at a metal staircase, she stopped.

       “Through that door,” she indicated the one on my right, “are your training classes.” We continued up the stairs. I followed nervously, glancing back at the dark door.

       I thought of the horrific images of her parents’ death that were now a part of her. Forever repeating the same terror over and over. At least that’s what I would do, and, from her serious look, I knew that her pillow was probably still tear-stained at night. I’ve always hated that animal-territorial-whatever primal instinct. I’d always thought about it in the context of human wars, but apparently untamed vampires share the same brutality.    Violence is at our core; it’s the essence of our survival. No matter the millennium, it always comes down to that. However, with my whole being, I wished for something different—for people to overcome those primal instincts with their mind, with education. It couldn’t be something found in a utopian fantasy world—it had to be possible!

Lena stopped in front of another door.

“Mr. Matthews is waiting for you.”

       After she had left, I tapped on the door, realizing that I was actually entering a vampire’s den. We would be one-on-one. Oh, no. Panic overwhelmed my body just as a melodic voice bid me to come in.

Gritting my teeth, I entered.

“Sit wherever you wish, Miss Young.”

        He was leaning against the table, and, when I entered, looked up in happy anticipation. He looked to be in his early thirties, and he had a sincere-seeming smile, porcelain skin, and lively brown child-like eyes.

        “I am François Matthews and I’ll be teaching you about vampire history. The relevant parts.” His eyes smiled.

The room seemed like any other professor’s space, with a glass table, whiteboard on the wall, and a built-in bookcase that stretched floor to ceiling. Matthews himself looked like an average college professor in a tweed jacket with elbow patches—though fashionable, not old.

         I sat as far away as possible within the limits of politeness. I didn’t want to deal with another angry fangy vampire.

“Do you have any special request regarding what I should call you?”

“Nika?” I was very careful.

        “Good. Shall we start then, Nika?” He flashed me another toothy grin. No fangs, though, which was comforting. He passed a notebook and pencils to me. Right, school supplies—I forgot about that.

        “Surely you have many questions, so, why don’t we start from there.”

Yeah, a ton! Only, at that moment I felt unprepared, blank. I dug around for the first one.

“So, the daylight—” I started, but he waved me off with a chuckle.

        “We are not of the Bram Stocker mythology lines. We are a living, breathing species, a civilization of its own. We are integrated into human society, we work, pay taxes, eat . . . and fight our own daily battles,” he said, and based on his look, he didn’t seem too excited about explaining the difference between urban fantasy vampires and their own species. He waited for my next question.

“Well, I’ve been told that vampires are born not created.”

        “That is correct. There is a Book of Law, which is not as large as those law books that humans use…” He laughed at his joke. “It strictly forbids the making of a vampire out of a human. This is because of centuries and centuries of problems and wars with humans that all resulted from the existence of those creatures—Rogues, the created vampires. Their tempers were troublesome due to the specific mixture of human blood and our poison. They were extremely wild, frantic, and savage. Brutally violent. In earlier times it was thought that this was part of the makeover, the period of adjustment that happened before they evolved into the way we are. But that idea turned out to be false. Time passed and they became even more untamed and violent—so my race finds no comfort in the existence of such an un-trainable and uncontrollable wild horde.”

“Do they still exist?”

“No, they became extinct a long time ago.”

        I thought of Baldur and his bare teeth being completely untamable. The short hairs sprung up along the nape of my neck.

“Why did they exist in the first place?” I asked.

        “First out of love. Vampires are born from a relationship between a vampire man and a human woman, who may or may not give birth to a vampire child. There is one chance in three that a baby born of this union will be a vampire. So, we all have had one human parent and sometimes even human siblings. We do actually age, but at a much slower rate than humans . . . thus the love dramas. They are a huge part of our history, maybe even more so than in human history. After birth, we continue to age as a human does until we reach eighteen, and then the vampire preservation gene awakens and each of our years equals several human decades until we enter our thirties. After that, one of our years equals one of your centuries.”

I considered that timespan, overwhelmed, and wondered how old he could be.

        “Human mothers are usually happy with their vampire children; but the problem is, of course, that they age and the children stay the same. Our history is not so much based on blood like human history is—but rather, on broken hearts. Maybe you can understand why vampires used to turn their women, create them. They did it out of deep love, or because the women begged them. It was hard for women to be aware of their own decay while their spouses look as they did the first day they had met. Most of them would do anything to stop aging. The vampire would always stay with his beloved no matter her age, until her death. Often, the women themselves would chase their vampire lovers away, not wanting to be seen in their old and wrinkled state. A lot of suffering was, and probably still is, harbored in these relationships. Of course, there were—and are—those cases when the vampire was one who departed, leaving behind the hate and anger. But such betrayal is extremely rare for our race; mostly those were the deeds of Rogues.”

       I was stricken by this story. So much misery and unhappiness in the bonds between women and vampires. The fact that they stayed with the one they love, no matter what was utterly romantic—especially considering all the multiple marriages and lack of love and devotion so prevalent in modern human society. Something inside of me softened.

       “Clearly, not all vampire creations were out of love. Sometimes a young lone vampire will uncontrollably turn his victims, in his search for food. However, the majority of the turned vampires were done so by Rogues whose ethics were never anywhere near as developed as our own.”

“Because their blood was diluted by human blood.” My misanthropic response surprised me.

“Could be. That is one of many theories.”

        Mr. Matthews continued on for some time and then stopped abruptly. “I believe you have a name list for me.”

Oh, right.

        “I’m sorry. I completely forgot about that.” I took a paper from my back pocket. It was the one I had found on my night table the night before. There were only seven names on it, including parents. People that were part of my recent life, ones in my direct surroundings. And, of course, Kyle and Selene were named.

“Can I rewrite it? My schedule is on this paper.”

“Take your time,” he answered politely.

        I took a piece of paper from the notebook and rewrote the list. First I wrote the name, then the address. Afterward, I indicated the person’s role in my life, for example, Kyle Sanders—ex-boyfriend, colleague; Selene Adams—ex-friend, etc.

       Thinking of my pathetic love life, I wondered how long it took a vampire to heal his heart after the death of a wife, and how many loves they knew throughout their eternity.

“How many children do vampires usually have?”

“That depends on their age I guess, but for most the number is two or three.”

“Do you have children?” My forthrightness surprised me, but he didn’t seem to mind it.

“Times have changed.”

        And that was the answer. One that revealed nothing of the matter. That’s what you get when you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.

He stood and walked to the bookcase. After a few seconds, he fished out a hardback and passed it to me.

“The Vampire History 101 edition specially adapted for humans.”

I assumed that was the euphemism for censorship.

       “You can read it to yourself here and discuss your questions with me, or I can teach it directly to you, chapter by chapter. The little experience I have in this matter tells me that human curiosity always wins over patience, so they choose the former.”

       “I agree. Why would you repeat the same thing that I can read from this?” I tapped the cover lightly with my fingers. It was a thin book.

       He sat, looking at me calmly. His look turned into gaze. I didn’t move and suddenly glanced at the clock on the wall. Noon!

“Oh, I’m late for my next class.”

        “Don’t worry.” He scanned my schedule on the table. “Psychology is three rooms down the hall. Same side.”

“All right. Um, thank you.” A little giddy, I collected my stuff.

“See you tomorrow.” His smile followed me to the door.

        I couldn’t lie, that class was actually okay. It reminded me of how much I missed my real classes at Berkeley. It had only been a week since I had left the dorm. And this vampire, François Matthews, was a very nice person, or at least he seemed to be. I forgot to ask him how enraged a vampire could become, in light of their apparently famous peaceful tempers. I frowned at the memory of Baldur in his office.

        I knocked twice at the door. No one answered. I gathered my courage and turned the doorknob. The room was empty. It was similar to Mr. Matthews’ office, except a slim monitor was sitting on the table instead of a person. On its face was printed the message: Welcome, Nika. I took the chair in front of it and clicked enter—more messages telling me that I would be spending that day doing personality tests, an IQ test, etc. Okay, these tests were usually fun, so I started enthusiastically. For an hour and a half I clicked through similar shapes, Fibonacci series, relational forms, this and that with letters and numbers. Then, of course, there were some inkblot images—which I’d always thought were amazingly stupid.

         Lena was outside waiting to show me to the dining room. I thought meals were served in the hall where we had eaten the night before, but she said that was only for special occasions and that everybody took meals in the building where we were, on the third floor.

“I left the catalogs in your room.”

“What catalogs?”

“Of clothes. Unless you’re planning to wear only the jeans you came in.”

I laughed. After all the stuff I’d been through, clothes were the last things on my mind.

        She left me at the entrance. Being alone cut me to the spine. The large dining hall consisted of two adjoined rooms full of four-seat tables, with huge tables of food in the middle of the space. I sort of hid myself behind a table that held the drinking glasses and gathered the courage to join all those vampires. I probably would’ve stayed put if I hadn’t been noticed. A blond porcelain doll caught my wary gaze and smiled politely. I was busted, no point in hiding anymore. I ventured forth to the buffet, filled my plate with pretty much unnecessary stuff, and stared at the food so as not to see the rest of the room. It didn’t help. Panic hit me hard and my hands started to shake. The fork on my plate was beating out the rhythm of my shivers. It was almost impossible to calm my thoughts. I looked to the exit but a group of them was standing and kind of blocking the way out. I couldn’t run. God! I’m in a room full of vampires! How could I possibly calm myself down?

       Then the worst thought hit me—where to sit? I edged toward the end of the room looking for an empty space. A lot of empty space. My eyes were desperate, my body tense. I could see some room far away, next to the windows. Clasping my little bit of relief, I focused on the floor pattern as I hurried toward the gap. I didn’t feel many eyes on me. I’d been noticed and they returned to their talks. Good. Hopefully, I was yesterday’s news.

       Passing the tables, I went through the middle of the room—as far as I could from each side. There was the sound of a spoon hitting the floor, the screeching of a chair, and a soft, “Hey.” Then a bit stronger.

“Hey, Nika.”

I slowly turned and there was Blake waving me over to his table.

“Hey,” I said.

Sitting with Blake were Tibor and Max. I collapsed into the empty chair. I was among people—humans.

“If you behave like a scared lamb, someone will eventually eat you.”

I might just have turned green.

“C’mon man, don’t freak her out any more than she already is.” Blake smiled.

“I’m Tibor, sorry about that.”

“Nika,” I replied quietly, lowering my head.

“So, how was your first day?” Max asked.

        I shrugged moving a bean to the opposite side of my plate. “Could be worse, I guess. If I’d bleated any louder, someone could’ve heard me.”

They all laughed, which wasn’t my intention. But it did ease me a bit.

“I see you didn’t pay much attention to the food,” Blake said looking at the hodgepodge on my plate.

        “Look who’s talking! His first meal here, Blake put stuff on his plate that even I couldn’t digest. And he stared around like a scared little girl. I won’t ever forget those pretty eyes.”

“It’s true. I was so grateful Tibor caught me by the food table.”

They all laughed again.

“Where are the others?” I actually meant Julia.

“Probably at the cells. Lunch lasts for two more hours.”

“Cells?” I remembered Lena mentioning them.

“Our work office, sort to speak. It’s where the Vocati are.”

“Just like that?”

        Tibor grinned. “Not really. They are heavily chained with enough silver to make all the silverware in this place.”

Baldur had mentioned silver.

“Why silver?”

        “It drains their energy. Not like they are full of life force in the first place; but still, it renders them completely powerless. It doesn’t harm them, but keeps them at a level of constant fatigue.” The suffering face from the hotel lobby popped into my mind. My fork hit the table.

“How do the Vocati look? Like they’re suffering maybe?”

They exchanged looks and Max spoke.

“I believe that each Vocati appears differently to each Inquirer.”

“Why? What does that beast that Oswald found look like?” Tibor asked.

“Like he’s in agony, or worse.” I refused to think of him as a beast.

“At what point in your life did you meet him?”

I stared at Blake in shock. I hadn’t even been thinking in that direction, not by a long shot.

“Who’s your trainer?” Tibor was unaware of my little inner drama.

“I don’t know they didn’t put it on the schedule.”

“Well, who’s your team leader? That’s your trainer.”

Something crumpled in my gut.

“So?” Tibor was waiting.

“Andrei Belun.”

They looked at me, startled, which definitely didn’t ease my discomfort.

“Well, you did meet one of the Originals, after all,” Tibor said. “Maybe that’s why he accepted.”

Max shook his head.

        “I’m not so sure, it’s probably because of the Council. Baldur wants him near and not out in the field.”

        “I don’t get that.” Blake shook his head. “I mean most of his projects, like this one, wouldn’t get the vote from Belun. And from what I’d heard, Belun’s father had differences with Baldur as well. Why would he try to keep him close?”

“Who knows? Vampire politics.” Max shrugged.

        I had no idea what they were talking about, but time was passing, making me nervous. Four o’clock: training time. Oh, no.

Tibor and Blake accompanied me down to the training area door.

        “Good luck with Belun. The story is he’s the best Warrior.” Tibor grinned and Blake nodded. They lingered, probably sensing my fear. I didn’t have any choice but to walk through the door.

        From the hallway, I could see several small rooms with glass walls. They all had empty tatami mats on the floor. At the end of the hallway, to the right, were the shower rooms and two more doors. I entered the closest one— an empty gym with a basketball court. Then through the next one—argh, too many doors for my taste—that gym was smaller and it had gymnastics equipment in one corner, as well as mats and a punching bag.

Bam! Something hit the floor.

I jumped.

        One of the mats was on the ground and Belun was standing behind it. Oh, God. My whole being went numb with fear.

“You’re late.” His voice was stern.

        I couldn’t move a muscle when he started to stride towards me. I wanted to burst headlong back through the door. He passed me and reached for a black sports bag. I had become a statue. All numb and cold.

“Change into these clothes.” He gave me the bag and I stared at him like an idiot.

“Change your clothes,” he repeated.

        Baldur’s fangs flashed before me—fangs that showed, as I recalled, as a result of irritation and annoyance. I was instantly sobered by a blinding fear.

“Where?” I could barely speak.

He turned his back.

What, here?!

“Here?”

        He didn’t reply but continued standing with his back to me. I was confused. Do I really have to undress in here? My embarrassment overtook my fear. The bag held navy blue tracksuit pants and a white t-shirt, both two sizes too big, and gym shoes.

“You done?”

“Yes.” I put my clothes on the bench.

“Come. Give me twenty squats, hands in front.” He motioned me onto the mat.

        Argh, I had never liked gym classes. This was going to be a very long two hours. Wait a minute, the schedule didn’t say when the class was supposed to finish. And of course, I didn’t have a tidbit of courage to ask him.

        When I was a child, my parents had me play various sports: gymnastics, swimming, athletics, tennis—but I wasn’t a physical child so I didn’t like them much. Luckily, my body wasn’t as lazy as it used to be.

“Now, bend as far forward as you can. Knees straight.”

At least my body was flexible.

“Five push-ups.”

I managed three with a serious arm tremor.

“Twenty sit-ups.”

I did fifteen.

“Okay. Stand up.”

        He went toward the punching bag, a frown on his face. I didn’t know if should follow him so I took only a couple of steps. He grabbed the boxing gloves and threw them at me. Of course, I dropped one. I put them on quietly.

“Take a stance and hit the bag, first with the right, then the left hand.”

        My hits were really miserable, and he clearly noticed. He demonstrated the stance and showed me how to punch—but I was pathetic.

“C’mon do it again. Again . . .  again . . .  again . . . !”

It just kept getting worse.

“Have you ever hit something?”

        I didn’t know whether the question was rhetorical or not, but I shook my head anyway. I come from a democratic part of the world, why would I want to hit something? However, I saw the irony.

“Hit it harder, and take the stance I showed you.”

It was easy for him to say—I was hitting as hard as I could but the damn bag wouldn’t move!

“Wait. I’ll show you how to kick the bag.”

        Like that was going to be any better. I was punching and kicking until I thought I was going to die. Gasping, I fell down.

“Why did you stop?”

        Unable to breathe let alone speak, I made a man-leave-me-alone-I-can’t-breathe gesture. I was all wet, my hair was plastered to my face. I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. My heart was crashing into my ribs. I was done. My whole body was pulsing, my head from the blood, my legs, and arms from hitting. I lay down.

“Get up.”

“Can’t.”

“Get up. You won’t feel better laying around. Walk.”

I looked at him like he had to be kidding, but he just barked—“Up!”

        I got up, but I could’ve definitely used some help—which, of course, would never come, not from him. He made me walk three times around the gym while he stood next to the punching bag. I felt like a caged animal, which wasn’t far from the truth. When I felt my pulse stabilizing, he spoke.

“Tomorrow you will train in the morning and in the afternoon.” Then he left.

        I stood in the empty gym for a while, helplessly. Gathering my thoughts and my stuff, I left with an undefined feeling. No one was waiting for me outside the gym, but I managed to find the way back to my room.

I caught a glimpse of Julia on the couch as I stormed through the living room to my room, where I threw myself on the bed and started to cry. After some time, I heard knocking but didn’t answer. The door opened and Julia sat on my bed and put her hand on my back, comforting me. She was quiet while I wept. After I had calmed down a bit, she spoke.

“You know you’re not alone in this, Nika. We all went through the same.”

I knew that and it did make me feel better somehow. I propped myself on one elbow. She arranged the pillows so I could lean on them, and she moved next to me. She picked up the catalogs on the bedside table.

“Oh, I think you’ll like Lena’s choice of brands.” She grinned at me but I only looked at her.

“There’s a lot of tight jeans, just like the one you wear.”

I nodded, not thinking about the clothes.

        “And there are some awesome nightlife outfits. Hot and elegant.” I smiled when she said “hot.” She read off a bunch of brands; some I knew, but most not. Julia played around, choosing shirts and jeans and pairing them with the clothes. She kept asking my opinion, trying to lighten my mood. After a while, I felt like she had kind of succeeded.

“Thank you,” I said, looking into her soft blue eyes.

        “It’s going to get easier with each day. And if it doesn’t you can always leave. No one will keep you here against your will, hon. That’s why they give a trial month before you sign the contract.” She brushed back a strand of my hair. “If it helps, I’ve been here for four years and they’ve been nothing but fair to us. Nothing bad has happened to me or anyone else.”

“Did you spend all four years here?”

        “I did, but that’s up to your Vocati and what you have to do to get close to him. Tibor and Gustavo travel a lot. But I guess their M.O. is different. Also, they’ve been working here much longer than the rest of us.”

“So you’re stuck here. Like a voluntary prison.”

“Well, not really. I have four weeks’ vacation.”

My face clearly showed surprise.

“What, you didn’t know?”

Still confused I shook my head.

        “When you accept the contract you become an employee of Gazini, Inc., so the whole legal package comes with it—bank accounts, social security—the whole shebang. Vacation time as well.” My surprise amused her.        “You’ve really been thinking of this place as the gallows or a torture chamber, haven’t you?”

        I shrugged. I hadn’t been thinking anything except that the idea of the vacation was a nice novelty and somehow made things more bearable.

“Julia, can a couple of vampires make a baby?” The thought suddenly struck me.

“No, they are impotent.”

“So romance is always with a human?”

        “It used to be. Nowadays things have changed. They often turn to their own race for emotional support and pay some human girl to bear their children. Our women have changed as well: they’re colder than before and easily accept different arrangements. The number of vampires is drastically declining. Since they can’t reproduce enough, they easily become Vocati targets. They are becoming the victims of their own laws, so to speak.”

“What do you mean?”

        “I don’t know much, but the word around here is that Baldur’s ideas are more progressive than the other Elders.”

Chapter 4

Blow

 

 

I had woken up two hours earlier and didn’t feel much like training. I was standing in front of him holding the sports bag, way too tired and sleepy to feel any of the usual fears.

“Why aren’t you ready?” he asked, firm and sharp. I didn’t understand what he meant.

“Or do you just like undressing in front of me?”

        Yawning, at first, I didn’t catch his words, but a second later my face was drowned in redness. Oh, God! I couldn’t control that much embarrassment, so I lowered my gaze. I felt his eyes staring at me for a couple more long seconds, then he walked away, turning his back on me, leaving me to my immoral dressing room. I’m such an idiot. I mean, really, what was I thinking? Why the hell didn’t I change in my room?! I remembered Tibor’s “lamb” comment and felt about ready to release one huge baaaaaaaa—which would definitely be more appropriate because since I’d arrived, I’d clearly forgotten how to use my brain. So much for my vast intelligence!

       But, could anyone blame me? I mean, using logic in this place? Apparently, an adjustment period was necessary.

This time he was dressed in dark sports pants.

“Warm-up jacket’s on the bench.”

“I don’t need it.”

“Yes, you do. We’re going outside.”

        If I had imagined a pleasant little stroll around the front yard, or the possibility of any pleasantries on Belun’s part, I was soon to be disappointed. . But at least rocks weren’t flying my way like they were in that hideous dream. He was silent as he ran beside me, speaking only to order me to run faster—or not to lag behind. And, yes, that was my morning glory: running through the darkness of woods. To run, run, and run some more. No one can match me in my loathing for running. I am good at sprints, but this—it was cruel. Very soon I was exhausted, but even though I was clearly suffering, he made me run more. And then some more.

        Mister “Best Warrior” babysitting someone who sucked at any and all physical activities. Oh, and based on my reactions and poor word choice, he probably thought I was mentally challenged as well. Great. Maybe that’s why he didn’t look so pissed; because, really, how pissed can you get at a handicapped person?

        Until that morning, I hadn’t realized how little daylight there was in the place. I mean, it’s not like it was dark all the time, but the sun just doesn’t cross the horizon. Mornings started late and there was only a little light that lasted until lunchtime. I quickly got used to the halls, the underground connections, and the artificial light; the same for the darkness that smoked through the windows. I could not get used to cold, however.

       It was pretty dark on the morning run, but the path through the woods was illuminated by some white light that didn’t cast any shadows. It cut through the darkness just enough for me to see the path in front of me. But I couldn’t catch sight of the sky through the trees, or the line where the wood ends and the skyline begins.

“Tell me when you’re actually ready to run.”

I frowned, a huge pain in my gut. I was running!

        Of course, the unbearable ache cut off any efforts to speed up, or at least maintain an acceptable tempo. But even though I was on the verge of both weeping and yelling, the fear hadn’t left my body.

       We came to a clearing that had some wooden training equipment and he made me exercise on each piece. At this point, I could barely breathe or move any of my limbs, let alone manage the coordination necessary for these tasks. However, the torture ended soon enough. I guess. When we finally turned around, I was so drained that I couldn’t even manage the slightest of jogs. But even walking, he made me extend my step. We were silent all the way back to the indoor training arena.

“Here at six.” And he was gone.

        Left alone, I couldn’t do anything more than lay sprawled out on the floor. Everything ached. I didn’t even have the strength to drag the mat back. For something like fifteen minutes, I couldn’t feel my body; I just felt completely hollow. The wall clock said that I had less than an hour until my Psych class, which meant that I had to hurry and shower if I wanted to eat. Yes, breakfast—I needed it after this morning’s torture.

       Julia was by the entrance of the dining room with some blond vampire guy who looked younger than she, and they were laughing. When she caught sight of me, she waved me over.

“Let me introduce you.”

The blond guy was tall and hot and he stared at me with a peculiar interest.

“Nika this is Set, my team leader.”

        Great—she was having fun with hers and I had to scrape my body off the floor with mine! Set offered his hand, and although I wasn’t thrilled to touch him, his skin was surprisingly silky smooth. No jolts slammed through my body like they did when I shook hands with my team leader. So it wasn’t like that when you touched all vampires! This hand was normal, and even pleasant in its softness.

“Nice to meet you, Nika. There’s a lot of expectations of you and your team,” he said with a grin.

“I wasn’t aware of that.”

“How could you not be? You have a big beast to tame.”

They both laughed, but I didn’t follow the joke. There was nothing fun about that.

“I’m going to eat,” I said, heading toward the huge food table.

        It felt like I was starting to be myself again; I had managed to speak with a strange vampire without shattering into pieces or making a complete idiot out of myself. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with the whole thing, but at least I wasn’t feeling like a poor little lamb anymore either. On the other hand, I might have been too exhausted to feel anything at all.

        At least I could actually concentrate on the food this time; I got a couple of waffles and a huge bowl of fruit salad. I wasn’t sure I could eat it all, but I was starving. I glanced at where Julia had been, but I saw only her team leader—staring right back at me. I was curious as to why he was so interested and wondered what kind of interest it actually was. I stared at him for some time, too—completely unselfconsciously.

Oh my God!

Eye-locked with a vampire.

        And the fear was back! I looked away immediately hoping there would be no misunderstanding, but my spine was tingling. Just what I needed: another problem with a vampire. I locked eyes with my salad bowl, and headed away as fast as I could.

        In full flee, I bumped into someone and muttered apologies without looking up. Then I saw Blake and Tibor already eating in what seemed to be their regular spot.

“May I?”

“Hey, Lamb, no need to ask.” Tibor grinned and Blake joined him.

It was nice to be near positive and polite people. Humans, preferably.

“I thought you didn’t breakfast,” Blake said.

“I do after an hour and a half of killing myself running,”

“That explains the appetite.” Tibor nodded at my salad bowl. I smiled a little.

“So, where’s the sun?” I asked

“You won’t see it until mid-January,” Blake said, and I choked.

“Lamb, it’s the Arctic Circle. You’re only a couple of miles from the North Pole.”

That actually sounded cool, if you forgot about the lack of the sun and the cold.

        “Don’t you find your way around!” Julia approached the table. “I’m sorry, I had to finish some things.” She sat next to me with a small bowl of cereal.

        “No problem.” I wondered if she had something with the blond guy. True, he looked younger, but maybe when she arrived four years ago the difference wasn’t visible. He was her team leader, they’d probably spent a lot of time together—maybe some romance had developed. Then I thought of my team leader and shivered.

“How was your training?” she asked.

“Terrible.”

        They all chuckled. I wished I could just go back to bed. Then I remembered that I hadn’t gotten through the book Mr. Matthews had given me and felt a sting of guilt. He would have to go through the chapters with me as if I were an illiterate idiot. Several tables away, I noticed Lyndon, alone. There was room for one more at our table. Had I taken her seat or something?

“Why’s Lyndon sitting alone?”

The rest of them exchanged looks.

“She’s like that sometimes,” Blake answered vaguely.

        I must have had a huge neon question mark plastered across my forehead, but they all chose to ignore it. Which probably only made it brighter. I watched Lyndon for a while. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, just looked through the window or at her food. She wore jeans and a brown button-up shirt, and besides the fact that she was sitting alone, nothing seemed out of ordinary.

       Soon enough I had to leave the small oasis of human laughter and hurry over to Psychology class. My knocking was again futile, so I just entered. There was another “Welcome” note, giving instructions for the black helmet and weird elbow-length gloves with microchips that had been left on the desk. I put them on, as instructed, and waited to respond to images that would be played on a screen inside the helmet. At first, it wasn’t very promising; the helmet fell down to the bridge of my nose and the gloves gave my hands weird tickling sensations. It was more uncomfortable than I’d imagined.

        Then the images started. Honestly, I had expected the worst; but they began with some flowers and pets, leaving me dreading the horrors that could be coming. Each image stayed up for only a couple of milliseconds, so there were like a zillion of them—I tried to relax so the results would be more accurate. After all, that’s probably what they wanted, right? To trick the careful mind by relaxing it with nice, gentle images first. I wondered if it was the same strategy that the slick vamps used because if anyone could wait to get you, it was certainly them.

Lots of images flew by. Different eyes, looks, signs, and symbols, ordinary people in motion and then still. Some faces of porcelain dolls, different colors, weapons, and transportations. The last image thanked me for my patience, and then everything went black. I took off the equipment and took ten minutes to regain the balance between my thoughts and static view. Next came Matthews.

“I’m sorry, but today you’re going to have to review with me.”

“Tough training?” he arched his eyebrow, and I nodded.

“Let’s get started then.”

        Thankfully, he didn’t seem disappointed by my lack of enthusiasm and began to roll out the vampire/human parallel history.

        “Our world revolves around the respect of our laws and our hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid are five Elders who come from ancient times; three of them were the first amongst us. Our governing body is the Council, which is composed of the five Elders and the six noble families who are directly descended from them; at least that is how it used to be. Now that some of the families no longer exist, the Council has an even number of voters, and in the case that the votes are close, some neutral family is chosen by draft. However, the need for this is very rare, almost nonexistent.”

       So, my team leader was one of six families, that’s what Baldur meant by “our noble blood.”

       “In the spirit of history, there are three main divisions amongst us: Priests, Warriors, and the rest. The latter division is self-explanatory and covers all other professions. As time has passed, most vampires have chosen modern careers,” he made a cheerful gesture toward himself, and added,

       “However, even though times have changed, along with vampires, we do not have a deficiency of Warriors or Priests. Warriors are our protection against Vocati; Priests bear our spiritual legacy and take care of ancient books and magic.”

       “Magic?” I couldn’t imagine vampires with their longer canines running around waving magic wands. In fact, it was a grotesque mental image.

       “Yes, it is a kind of alchemy, so to speak. It comes from invoking the natural elements. Magic is not available to everyone, none of us has special powers; it’s in the ancient books. Priests learn it, taking a long time to master it—but, of course, time is on our side.” He laughed. “The basic purpose of magic is its contribution to our protection. Magic itself cannot do much, especially not in a fight, but it improves the power of the dagger or it alerts us when someone crosses a protective wall on our premises. This kind of wall is all around the compound, and a Priest knows as soon as someone undesirable traverses it. And most importantly, he knows whether the intruder is human or Vocati. Of course, there are other high-tech sensors buried in the ground and trees, but magic protection has always been handy.”

        “Are there Priests here?” I asked.

“Every large place has one for protection.”

“You mentioned daggers.”

“They are forged from silver and reinforced with magic. That is the weapon used by Warriors.”

         This surprised me. I mean, if they already had to carry blades, why something small? I’d use a katana or something.

“Any other questions?”

        I hit a brain block. Everything was unfamiliar to me and I had a ton of questions, but since I hadn’t had time to balance the known vs. unknown, it was hard to come up with one. I tumbled his words about in my mind.

“What about the Elders?” I finally asked.

        “You’ve met one of them.” His smile teased me somewhat. “Baldur. He is the youngest amongst them. Besides him, another active Elder is Kyrill.”

Then I remembered something I’d been wondering about during meals.

“I see vampires eating the same food as me; what about human blood, don’t they have to drink it?”

        “Yes, of course. We need blood for its nutritional value. If it wasn’t for that, and our sharper senses and longevity, what would make us different from humans?” he joked.

“So if humans drank blood they’d live longer?”

He found my sarcasm amusing but shook his head.

        “Unfortunately, many throughout your history have drawn that conclusion, which has brought about only more bloodshed. The human capacity for cruelty is unlimited. In the end, victims of such crimes provided no use. Conclusions were wrong. You might even say that such acts are cursed—those acts of bloodshed only produced loathing and anger within, and the perpetrators would rarely go unpunished. As far as vampires are concerned—we do need blood, but the older a vampire is, the longer he can survive without it, which is to say three or four weeks maximum. The average fast here is two weeks. We have volunteers; and we don’t drink from a person, as you might have imagined, but from glasses. One day you will notice that there are no many pale faces in the dining room; then you’ll know what they are doing.”

I didn’t find his sense of humor funny.

“Why not directly from humans?”

        “The blood comes in bags, so glasses are more convenient,” he grinned. “Plus, it is barbaric and messy the other way. Also, it is difficult to stop once you start drinking directly from a person, so a human could get killed or even turned. And of course, both things are highly forbidden.”

       “Why is hard to stop?”

       “When you drink directly from a person, you take some of their soul, their being. You see memories, feel their emotions—and all that is extremely addictive. One must have a very strong will to detach oneself.”

       “Why are your faces paler than humans? I mean it’s not like you can’t walk in the sun, is it?”

       “No, that is not the reason. We are paler for the same reason that we drink blood. You see, after age eighteen, when our preservation gene awakens, our bodies start to lack oxygen due to our longevity. That is why we need blood, and our paleness you could consider a kind of anemia.”

        The class was over.

        I returned to my room to try to rest before training. Absently flipping through the TV channels, I thought of all I’d learned in one day. Five Elders, including Baldur and the one with a strange name; so what about the remaining three? Matthews mentioned that those two were active Elders, what did it mean to be inactive—if there is such a meaning at all? And that thing with the blood, that someone can drink mine from me and see my memories—do they stay mine, or would they be stolen from me? Would they belong to me if I even survived the attack in the first place?

        The couch in my suite was comfy and I’d almost forgotten that my training clothes were all sweaty. I’d already worn them twice so it was definitely time to wash them. But what should I wear in their place? I hauled myself off the couch and forced myself to go in search of Lena on the first floor. The guard sent me in her direction and as soon as she saw me, she knew my problem.

“I thought you’d come sooner,” she said.

Ouch! Did I stink that much?

        Lena showed me the room where Inquirers leave their sports bags with their dirty clothes, and clean ones were ready to go.

        “If you have training clothes of your own, just leave them in the laundry basket in your bathroom. Someone will pick them up.”

         I thanked her and changed into identical clean navy bottoms and a white T-shirt; again, they were bigger than my size. It became clear that I would need my own gear, as she had mentioned. I hurried to the gym to find it empty. I had wandered around for a while, not knowing what to do, when Belun entered.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, without looking at me.

“It’s after six.”

         I must admit that I was surprised by my boldness, but his lack of respect had pushed me. He didn’t react, but picked up the boxing gloves and threw them to me. The message was clear: get to work.

         The sessions of miserable hitting seemed endless. I combined punches and kicks, and still, there was no improvement.

“Stop.” Unnerved, he motioned me to come closer.

        He picked up a red kicking shield, angled it against his body, and told me to kick. He held it higher than my comfortable kicking level, so it was harder to reach and maintain my balance after the kick. I could hardly get any strength behind the kick. It was really difficult. I tried harder, and after some time, just when I thought I saw a bit of improvement, he pushed at my kick and I fell.

I stared up at him.

“Get up,” was all he said.

        I hauled myself up and started again. I kicked it high enough and managed to stay well-balanced. If I hadn’t been concentrating so hard, I would’ve grinned at this little victory. And then he did the same thing and pushed me with the kicking shield. But this time, though it was a close call, I didn’t fall.

“Punches.” He placed the shield in front of him.

That was easier than punching the bag. At least I had the satisfaction of feeling it curve under my strike.

“Faster.”

        I got into it. But when I accelerated and strengthened my punches, he pushed me again—harder—and this time I flew down on my back.

“Hey!” What was his problem?

“Don’t just lie there, get up!”

I glared up at his emotionless dark-green eyes and got up.

“Kick.”

I did, and to me, it seemed much better than the previous day.

“You hit like a girl.”

        Something about his tone. I don’t know what happened, but the anger is hidden by all the fear I’d been feeling exploded. My leg was already in motion, but I just automatically switched targets. Andrei Belun’s head, even higher than the shield, suddenly seemed so much more attractive. It happened before I could stop it. He couldn’t dispute my technique; with more strength than any of my previous kicks, my shoe smacked him on the left side of his face.

Adrenalin shot through me—that was a great feeling!

“I am a girl,” I hissed.

A second later, I realized what I had done.

Fear flooded through me. Fangs. Oh, no, there would be sharp, terrifying fangs.

I took a couple of steps back, horrified. God, what had I done?

        Belun stood watching me. The corner of his lip tilted a bit, almost in a grin. That couldn’t be possible. Why the hell would he be grinning just after I’d booted him in the face?

“Take a mat and do two sets of push-ups and sit-ups or as much as you can.”

He didn’t fly over and sink his long canines inside my neck or rip off my head.

        Grateful to still be alive, I rushed to do as I was told. Halfway through my push-ups, he left. I saw his black sports pants leaving the room and he didn’t come back. Finished, I hurried back to my room not wanting to further test my luck.

“Hey you, I’ve been waiting for you.” Julia grinned when she saw me. She looked like she had a secret.

“There’s something waiting for you in your room.”

I raised my eyebrows and opened my door.

Next to the closet were two clothes racks filled with clothes.

“I…I don’t understand.”

        “Well, I realized that you wouldn’t waste your time leafing through those catalogs so I took the liberty of ordering for you.” She leaned in the doorway, smirking.

        “Of course, I don’t expect you to like everything; but they’re your size and you probably can find something suitable until you order your own. Everything is already clean.”

I was completely in shock.

        “I don’t have words….Thank you so much….” I hugged her. “I really do need clothes, but you’re so right, I wouldn’t have bothered with the catalogs any time soon.”

“I know, honey, but then you wouldn’t have a nice dress for tomorrow night.”

“Tomorrow night?”

“A reception party, I already mentioned it to you.”

I found something in my memory that corresponded, but listened to her again.

“A formal reception to honor the capturing of Original Vocati.”

“The guests will all be vampires, I take it.”

        “Yes,” she smiled. “It’s going to be cool, trust me. Their receptions are always grand, and I’m looking forward to seeing some friends again. There will be lots more of your age group there, which will be good for you.”

        The thought of socializing with vampires of my age didn’t exactly seem like something that would be good for me. But clearly, I was making progress with my fear; just the day before I would have completely freaked out over the prospect.

        Julia left me alone to enjoy my new clothes. My God, I’d never had that many clothes at one time! And she had chosen well—I liked them all. There were six or seven pairs of skinny jeans and some pants of different colors, and some waist jackets and coats that suited me really well. A bunch of t-shirts, button-up shirts, blouses, then sports gear—just what I needed.

        I looked at my new bags, grinning. A black shoulder bag, a clutch bag—which I assumed was for the reception—and the dark purple sports bag. I loved them! They were all designer, and I remembered Julia showing them to me the night before. Oh, she was good! Now I had sports equipment that was actually my size. Along with daily clothes, there were five beautiful dresses. The red one was not exactly my style or color, but the rest I couldn’t have chosen better myself.

        There was footwear, too. Gym shoes, a pair of new black Converse, two pairs of heels, and two pairs of boots—one black with an elegant heel, the other a chestnut Ugg boot. Man, she’d got it all! And just when I thought that was it, in the bathroom I found a cosmetic bag with all the girly necessities: brushes, make-up, lotions, crèmes, perfumes, shower gels, etc. I was shocked.

I went into the common room. She was lying on the couch watching TV.

“You really thought of everything!”

“Am I a girl or am I not?” She flashed that arch of beautiful white teeth.

I sat next to her, eyeing the book on the table.

“What are you reading?”

“The Solitaire Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder. He’s a Norwegian writer. It’s interesting, you’d probably liked it.”

“I stick to the classics,” I said.

        “So did I, but there’s only so many times you can read some books. Why waste it all when there’s some great contemporary literature.”

         I couldn’t argue that but still can’t say I found much greatness in the sea of trash and kitsch.

“Was it less horrible today?” She was surprised by my smile. “What’s with the sly look?”

“After a few days of torture, I kicked Andrei Belun in the face.” My face shone with joy. I didn’t know I was capable of such evil.

“And survived,” I added.

Julia laughed, shaking her head in disbelief. “If that was what you needed….”

        I nodded, maybe a bit too eagerly, but screw it. I did need that. Exactly that. Confronting my torturer. It was the seal on my three-day bout of fear for my life, and the first time after more than a week that I had felt at least a glimmer of happiness. It was over sooner than I had hoped, but hey, it was better than nothing, right?

Later, I returned the clothes I had taken earlier that day to Lena, happy that I had my own stuff now. I heard voices near the hall but didn’t see a soul. It was peaceful and quiet. I wanted to go out and breathe some fresh air, so I got my coat and headed out.

       The view was different from that of the gym. I could see out into the forest, but the outline was wider. All quiet and calm—and cold. I felt different from two days ago, or even two months ago—my life had changed, and so had my thinking. In retrospect, I wondered if Nietzsche would have reevaluated his position on God if he had met a vampire. I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from meeting my own limitations, over and over. What were my fellow students doing now, my parents? What kind of story was being served up to them? I needed to find that out soon.

Someone behind me coughed politely.

I spun around, filled with fear. Set stood a couple of feet away.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I spaced out. What are you doing here?”

“Taking a walk?” He grinned.

        He seemed pleasant enough, but earlier today I had felt something off about him. His eyes, deep and dark, never reflected his grin. I could easily imagine them watching some brutality unflinchingly. And now, they were watching me in the same peculiar way as they had earlier that morning.

“Mind company?”

        I did, actually, but that’s not exactly something you just blurt to a vampire, alone in the woods. So I just shrugged and moved on. Of course, my previous thoughts had been permanently interrupted; in fact, I couldn’t contemplate anything with him walking so close to me.

“So, how’re you holding up?”

“You’re the first one to ask me that.” First vampire, I thought.

He laughed. “That’s not an answer.”

“It’s a day-to-day struggle for survival, I guess.”

“Tomorrow’s a special honor.”

I didn’t answer.

“Hope you’re not going to bail because I chose my best suit.”

        We stopped, and the corner of his mouth was tilted in a crooked smile. I had always found that sexy in boys.

        “What kind of dress are you planning to wear?” he asked, getting closer. “So I’ll be able to find you easily.”

His closeness was alarming. None of the vampires had ever gotten so close!

“Nika.” There was a strong voice behind me.

Set retreated to his previous position, squaring his shoulders a little with a nonchalant bob of his head.

“Belun. I wasn’t aware this path was so busy.”

“Neither was I,” Belun answered, focusing on Set’s eyes.

Then I knew why I hadn’t recognized his voice—he had never said my name before.

“It’s late and you have training early tomorrow,” he said. I gave a tiny apologetic smile to Set and started back.

“Didn’t know that anyone was working tomorrow,” said Set.

“Now you do. Goodnight.” Belun walked directly in my path, so I had to stop and wait until he had passed before I followed.

What just happened? After a while I broke the silence.

“Why is nobody working tomorrow?”

“Free day,” Belun said, and then added. “But not for you. You need to train.”

“Instead of having my head ripped off?”

He looked confused.

“As punishment, I mean. You’ll build me up until you finally break me.”

“Punishment for what?”

I felt his gaze, even through the dim evening light. I was silent, and a little confused.

“Because of the kick, you mean?”

I nodded. “You’ll torture me until I sweat blood.”

“You lack motivation. Your technique is acceptable for a beginner, and as we saw, you have strength when well-motivated.”

This was the longest sentence he had said to me.

“That wasn’t strength. It was anger.”

“Whatever. Tomorrow at nine. Good night.”

He left me at the door of my dorm and left before I could say anything.

Chapter 5

The Reception

 

 

“Where are you going so early?” Julia eyed my morning tea.

“There are those who have to train today,” I said in a sulky voice.

      “He’s no joke, right? You could always complain to a higher authority, you know, ‘cause today, my dear, is a vacation day.”

“Right, and where would that leave me?”

       “If it’s any consolation, he won’t bother you for long. There’s a Council meeting before lunch, and Belun has to be present.”

“Great. When is the reception?” I muttered.

“It starts at six. You decided what to wear yet?”

       That made me think of Set’s question from the night before. But he was her team leader; I couldn’t just spill that in a chat.

“I see myself in black.”

She smiled approvingly.

“Your team leader….”

“Set?”

“Yeah, how’re things between him and Belun?”

        “Not sure, but I’d say they have history. I’ve seen some animosity a couple of times between them, but nothing more than that. They are both on the Council, so my guess is political disagreements.”

       “Maybe.” That was new information. “So, are you meeting someone special tonight?” She gave me a secretive look, and winked but said nothing. I didn’t feel I could pry.

        I put on my new sportswear. Brown yoga pants, with a pale yellow t-shirt and orange hoodie. And new Nikes. I felt better—who said clothes don’t make the man? Okay, that was me, like a zillion times before—but in these clothes, my self-esteem jumped about thirty-five percent, and that seemed like it would be enough to help me survive another day in this place.

Belun was waiting in the gym.

“Good morning.”

When did we start being so polite?

“Good morning,” I replied, hiding my nervousness.

“We’ll be running.”

      And go running we did—ninety minutes of torture on the same forest path that I had taken the night before, which made me think of our strange little meeting. However, I couldn’t decide which part was stranger: encountering Set or Belun. Suddenly I realized that Belun hadn’t had any right to shoo me to bed. It’s not like there was a curfew in the compound, and I could meet whoever I liked after hours. Not that Set and I had planned to meet, but still. Belun had taken me to my dorm as if I was a disobedient child! And it’s not like he was that much older than I, well, at least not in the way of physical appearance—I mean, he looked like a college senior. Oh crap, what had I been thinking! He was much older, like centuries older!

       I stole a glance at him, but he instantly turned his eyes on me. I looked away, feeling like I had been caught doing something wrong.

“C’mon, don’t lag behind.”

“I’m doing my best!”

“Hardly.”

I frowned and tried to speed up.

Of course, we walked back, I couldn’t jog anymore. When would this torment end?

“So, has it started?”

“Has what started?” I asked, surprised.

“Sweat to blood transformation?”

I barked a weird sort of laugh. “Why, you making a new race behind the Elders’ back?”

“Warriors are not a sub-race.”

“I’m not here to be a Warrior. I’m an Inquirer.”

“I’m not making you into a Warrior, just a physically capable person.”

I was silent. Clearly, he thought I was a total idiot.

“Are you coming tonight?” he asked.

      “Do you like the soft aroma of a good A Negative?” He didn’t reply; actually, he didn’t open his mouth again. The training was over.

Great. Half a step forward, five steps back.

       This time for breakfast I ate cereal and fresh orange juice. The dining room was almost empty, so I ate fast and returned to my suite and relaxed on the couch—God, I’d missed that.

        I flipped through the millions of satellite channels and found nothing interesting, as usual. Annoying. The more I flipped, the stupider it got. At some point, I fell asleep. Then I felt something blink, and then a thousand more fast blinks. Suddenly I was in the middle of millions of blinking eyes, all watching me intensely. I tried to yank myself awake, only to find myself in another dream—I was actually captured in one of those many eyes!

Julia’s hand shook me awake.

“Nika? Hon, you okay? Sorry to wake you, but it looked like you needed it.”

I nodded in confusion, looking about me. She brought me a glass of water. After a few minutes I spoke.

“Are you satisfied with your job here? Is it worth the sacrifice?”

“So that’s what this is all about.” Julia smiled and sat next to me.

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“What kind of sacrifice do you have in mind?”

       “You know marriage, kids, dog, and house. That whole thing.” I thought I saw a sharp line cutting through her eyes.

        “We all have our reasons for being here and not somewhere else, honey. Would you choose to live in ignorance after you knew better?”

      I shrugged. I still didn’t feel like this was my real life, so making the decision to reject it wasn’t completely unappealing.

      I would have been lying if I said that, after zoning out for the rest of the day, I didn’t enjoy the party preparations that followed later that evening.  It helped me to remember that I still was a teenager, no matter what my situation, so the party frills, preparations, and whatnot, were still part of my DNA.

      I selected a satin black dress. It was sleeveless, hit just above the knees, and looked like a fancy tunic dress from the 70s. A black string belt cut the dress at the hips, giving it a phenomenal shape that smoothly slid over my body.  With black stockings and black evening pumps, I looked good. I really did. My reflection actually surprised me, because I hadn’t had a chance to pay any attention to my looks since I’d become a college student, what with all the lectures and exams and stuff. Who said that college life was all fun? Plus, I’d never had such beautiful designer clothes before.

      Gray-blue eye shadow, mascara and colorless lip gloss. I skipped the foundation and blush, thinking that I’d look like a clown in that sea of pretty pale faces. I curled my hair a bit, enough to make it wavy, and to fell nicely on my shoulders.

“Wow.” Tibor and Blake said in unison when I entered the common room.

I had heard them come in while I was getting ready. It was satisfying to see their raised eyebrows.

“You look beautiful, Lamb.”

“Very pretty,” Blake offered.

“Hey guys, thanks.”

        They looked dashing, too. Tibor wore a dark gray suit with a blue skinny tie, part of his gray dress shirt escaping the belt—purposely, I assumed. Blake was tie-less in a black suit and dark gray dress shirt. While Tibor’s hair was messy as usual, Blake had carefully arranged his hair into a 50s look. They both were very handsome. And Julia was mesmerizing in a strappy champagne-colored knee-length cocktail dress. Her blonde hair was swept up in a Grace Kelly chignon. Jeez, it felt like we were going to prom.

“You’re not taking a bag?” she asked me.

“Not in the mood, and there’s nothing to fill it with.”

She gave an alluring little laugh. “Darling, a bag is an accessory.”

“I say she doesn’t need one.” Blake winked at me and took my hand, linking it through his arm. Prom.

“Shall we ladies? I’m kind of hungry.” Tibor said, taking Julia’s arm through his own.

 

     The reception was on the top floor of the main building that housed Baldur’s offices. The room was breathtaking—a spacious ballroom in brandy and gold. Rich but elegant, with several marble pillars supporting the high ceiling. I felt like I was in a royal court with all the sophisticated guests attended by suited waiters offering sparkling drinks and fancy little hors d’oeuvres. Beautifully attired porcelain dolls everywhere.

       The room was filled with a melodic murmur. I accepted the offered champagne. There were many eyes on me, but I was prepared for that. I had promised myself that I would not look frightened again. Since I already looked good I might as well enjoy it. It was about time, after all that insecurity that came off the Kyle-Selene drama—I’d almost lost myself to that one. I was determined to enjoy myself, and it was nice to feel the appreciative looks of other people. People? Whatever.

       “Blake, what did you mean when you asked me about the moment that I met my Vocati?” It had been bothering me ever since he had asked me at lunch.

       “So much for chitchat.” He grinned and leaned toward me. “It’s just a theory, but it matches each of the seven Inquirers’ cases. It’s like when each of us met with our Vocati our frequencies connected with him or her. The strongest emotion within us in that exact moment was reflected on their faces. My guess is to create a stronger bond between us.”

       A string quartet played modern songs, including the latest rock and pop and MTV hits. It sounded surprisingly cool.

       “What did you come up with when you compared tests?” I asked, spurred on by our common interest in how we became Inquirers.

“What tests?”

“The ones from Psychology classes.”

       “I couldn’t get access. I’ve been told that they cannot give me the results because it’s an invasion of privacy. But the vamps wholeheartedly assured me that their people were looking into it but that no pattern has been found,” he frowned.

“Have you asked the others to give you their consent? Maybe then the vamps would give in.”

“I must admit I haven’t.” His brows rose at the prospect.

“Or we could steal them.” I flashed a crooked grin.

       “Now, that had crossed my mind, but it’s pretty much unfeasible. Baldur keeps them in his office, and I’m not sure how one could trick him, or any vampire.”

 “Well, it just got a little more feasible with me in the equation, I’d say.” I winked.

 “I’m so glad someone is interested in this stuff. And I’m glad it’s you.”

  I gave his shoulder a friendly shove.

       We’d split up near the dessert table and I searched the room for Julia. When I finally found her, she was speaking to Mr. Matthews, and I noticed that when she laughed, she touched his arm. Tibor was engaged in conversation with Lyndon and two porcelain dolls. Behind them, next to a marble pillar, stood Andrei Belun, all in black. He was talking with a honey-haired doll who seemed fragile and shy, and he was—different. He was drop-dead gorgeous, and serious and relaxed at the same time, like some king, or master, or something. I couldn’t stop staring. Belun looked like a fallen angel who’s seen everything, from the monstrous to the sublime, and that little smile on his face….That was not my team leader! That was some other guy who looked exactly like him!

       “You look like you stepped out of a dream.” I turned and faced a doll who looked to be my age but was a bit taller than I was.

“Luckily, you don’t look anything like my nightmares,” I offered.

       She had dark, asymmetric, hair with straight bangs, and the most joyful brown eyes I’d ever seen. Her thin silver dress stopped just above the knees.

“Doris Lazar.”

“Nika Young.”

“The dream thing wasn’t a pick-up line, your face really does look very familiar,” she told me.

        “My dreams these days are an endless labyrinth of scary stories I can’t escape. Forests of black eyes, stoning . . . .”

“So you’re the new girl?”

I nodded.

        “God, I can only imagine how you must feel. I mean, if I had to live alone among humans I’d freak out. You have my sympathies. I guess one needs huge bravado in the first couple of weeks.”

        “I wouldn’t really know, each of my days seems to last a week.”

       “Spoken like a true pale face.” We laughed. Yes—I actually managed to laugh with this vampire girl. There was something familiar about her, and not in a physical way, just…some strange sense of home, of San Diego.

       “Where are you from?” I asked.

      “I live here in downtown Tromsø, for now. My father has responsibility for the Council, so we had to move. And since he’s a lawyer, he’s used to living among humans, unlike me, which is why he took an apartment downtown and not here in the compound. My guess is he’s teaching me a lesson because I couldn’t get over the fact of mass burnings and lynchings. He figures that total emersion will help me to evolve and get over it.”

      “Like total emersion will help me with your fangs,” I said, and her gaze lingered on me. Then she gave me a wide smile and took my hand.

“I want you to meet someone.”

       Her touch felt pleasant, and, surprisingly, it didn’t scare me. She moved like a butterfly, fluttering through the crowd with a smile on her face. I followed without complaint. Actually, her strides were so long that she practically dragged me, until she stopped in front of a tall boy.

“This is Aidan. I couldn’t bear existence without him.”

Their eyes met and their deep mutual affection was clear. It was utterly captivating.

“This is Nika,” said Doris.

“Oh, you work with Belun.”

       I nodded, stretching my hand into his, hoping my face didn’t show how I actually felt about Belun. Aidan had strikingly dark hair and thick eyebrows and looked the same age as my team leader. I didn’t know what to actually say to him, but Doris broke all the barriers of uneasiness and silence. Just with her facial expressions and smiling eyes, she was already growing on me. She felt completely familiar to me, even though she was a vampire whom I’d just met.

       “I see you are managing well,” said a familiar mealy-mouthed voice. Baldur approached, nodding in Doris’s direction. “Lazar is from some of our best blood.”

Doris gave him a serious look. I gazed at him not knowing what to say.

“How are you feeling?” he asked me.

“Well, I guess.”

       “I thought you would like to know that you can freely communicate now with your friends and family. The story is that you are taking an advanced course abroad. Oh, and your parents are very proud of you.”

The mention of my parents twisted a knot in my stomach.

“All right.” I forced myself to be polite.

“Enjoy, children.” He turned and left.

        That vampire was trouble. No matter how polite he tried to sound, it always came out twisted. Something was very off about him.

“And that’s over,” Aidan announced.

“Right,” I exhaled. “So, you’re of good bloodstock, huh?”

Doris rolled her eyes, catching my grin. “My father and Baldur are not exactly on the same page.”

“Concerning this Project?” I asked.

“Concerning many things.”

        Soon, Doris left to get a drink, and I gave Aidan a polite smile and moved on. Where were the other Inquirers? Scanning the room, I managed to see only Max, and he was hanging out with a vamp guy. I walked through the room and found my way to the balcony. People were smoking cigarettes and the lights were dim. The sound of the string quartet playing a cover of a rock song I’d recently heard on TV caught up with me.

      That night I’d seen younger vampires for the first time. There were even some kids running around behaving like any average child would. I assumed they were vampires since Matthews had told me that vampires are born not created.

       “You look breathtaking.” The whispering voice behind me was Set’s. I startled a bit and grinned, making space between us.

“And your best suit is really good,” I said.

“Ah, you’re just being polite. It is unfathomable that you could notice anyone else’s beauty. Yours is so blinding.”

“Flatterer.” I rolled my eyes with satisfaction and smiled.

He stood looking at me with the same curved grin as the previous day.

“I thought I would not have the pleasure of talking to you, without the watchful eye of your companion.”

“Who, Blake?”

He looked confused. Then he grinned and opened his hand to reveal a red rosebud.

“What poor vase did you wreck?”

“So young, and yet so dead.” He looked at the flower, ignoring my gag.

“It’s not dead until it dries.”

“You think?” Something glinted in his eyes.

        I didn’t know what he meant by that. “I don’t like flowers taken from the garden. By picking it you kill it, and it can retain its beauty only until it dries and dies for good,” I said.

        After a couple of minutes, he broke the silence.

“I am that flower,” Set said, quietly, fixing the rosebud in my hair.

Okay, now I got the whole flower metaphor.

       The intensity of his gaze calmed a little, and even though I was enjoying this little exchange, I didn’t think it was serious. His peculiar interest in me still remained a mystery.

“Apius.” It was Doris.

“Lazar,” he nodded, reverting to nonchalance.

“I didn’t know you guys knew each other.”

“Ditto,” he returned.

        Doris grinned and handed me a glass. “Where did you disappear to? I looked everywhere for you! You’ve got to try this cocktail.”

It was turquoise and purple, and as I was studying it, Set muttered his apologies and walked away.

“Where did you find him?”

“He found me.” That seemed to be a good description of our association.

The cocktail was very tasty.

“I told you.” She winked, seeing my approval.

        She took my hand again, insisting that I should meet some more of her friends. I didn’t mind her dragging me all over the place. I felt nice and safe in her presence. Maybe that first champagne was helping, but overall, I was having a good time.

       Two other dolls, Mia and Bryn, completed Doris’s trio. Mia seemed a little too snobbish for my taste, but Bryn seemed like a tender and quiet person, even a little insecure. They both were very polite to me. Apart from them, there was a guy named Tyler, whose hand Doris also took, though nothing seemed romantic about it. She apparently really liked holding hands.

       That night she made me smile and laugh a lot, which I was thankful for. I really needed it—I had to stop being self-conscious in that place. No fear, no embarrassment—nothing but easy enjoyment. We exchanged cell phone numbers and promised to see each other soon. Saying our final goodbyes, she kissed me on the cheek, and, feeling me freeze a little, offered a big reassuring smile. Filled with positive emotions, I strode the hall back to my suite. Turning right I walked right into something huge and black.

“That’s the second time.”

I stared in shock up at Andrei Belun’s frown-free face.

“What do you mean?” Then the memory of kick came back, and I barely held down a grin.

“You bumped into me yesterday, in the dining room.”

Was that him who I bumped into while avoiding Set’s eyes?

“Sorry,” I said confused.

“Not at all.”

        He stood in front of me, blocking my way. His dark, moss-green eyes were piercing. His gaze was so intense, it felt like he was reading all of my childhood memories and made me shift on my feet. The pressure in my chest grew; he wasn’t moving and I couldn’t take my eyes off of his. And then, suddenly, he broke the gaze. Looking at something in my hair, his eyes stiffened. Belun’s fingers touched the rosebud. He stared at it.

“Symbolism of vampirism, if I got it right.”

      “Fleur du mal.” His voice quiet, still looking at the flower. “I’ve already seen this one.” Then he looked at me again in quite a different way. It was as if he had found something in the rosebud that unnerved him deeply, and I was the messenger. He stepped aside, letting me pass.

“Goodnight,” he said, and left with the flower in his hand.

       Okay, that was about all I wanted to experience from the two of them. It was enough that I was living among vampires; I didn’t want to get between them as well. I had neither a death wish nor the bravado for something like that. Back in my suite, I removed my makeup, and trying to forget about Belun, I cuddled up in bed with a small feeling of satisfaction. Overall, it was a great evening, and Julia was clearly off enjoying it since her bedroom door was still open.

       I closed my eyes, slipped into sleep, and Belun’s mossy gaze drifted before me. It peeled away the layers of my being, until I stood before him, completely naked in the snow. His eyes continued to disentangle my being, leaving me to disintegrate until nothing was left but an ethereal presence balanced upon a slowly cracking ground. I slumped, slipping over the moss, falling from one height of abyss to a lower one . . . eternally falling.