The Vampire's Reflection (Of Light and Darkness #2) - Chapter Eighteen


Impasse

The delicate color of dawn transformed into a bright and garish morning as the Demon animals continued to trample the crystal snow beneath them. It sparkled like diamonds in the harsh light. Soft and silver, it melted down from the trees to the forest floor as they continued to ride on in silence. Valek winced against the bright glare as he counted that it had been close to a week since their departure from the Bohemian Occult and their home. Something in Sarah's mind told him she did not wish to speak to him. She had no words because she had no certainty. One thing Valek knew for sure about Sarah was that she hated being uncertain about anything.

Though Valek continued to stare straight in front of him at their path, he really watched Sarah intently in his perfect, peripheral vision. Her gaze was forced and squinted, as if she was so buried deep within her thoughts that even if he started to speak, she wouldn't have become distracted from them. It reminded him of the night in Francis' house when she had received the vision of Aiden and Charlotte getting married. Valek wondered if Sarah was receiving another vision now. She was so still. He wondered if the fates were speaking to her.

"You know what I find odd?" She barely flicked her glance in his direction, but something in her mind told him he'd gotten her attention. "Tyn nad Vltavou is a mortal city. Why would the Parliament be leading us to a place that isn't part of our Occult circuit? Do you think it is a trap?"

Sarah sighed, "No. I don't."

"I do not trust it. What did this messenger look like?"

"He was one of you. Tall. Intimidating. He was surrounded by some unnatural darkness, though, so I couldn't get a good look at his face. Funny." She frowned. "The room wasn't that dark. It was as if it emanated directly from his body. I've never seen that before."

"I've been seeing a lot of things I've never seen before. Our society surprises me every day," Valek grumbled.

"Speaking of surprises, did Francis ever say anything about that in all of his stories to you? What of his creator? Did he ever talk about that? I know he was an elder." Valek narrowed his eyes at the memory. "I recall him telling me he never truly knew his creator very well. They did not share the best relationship. In the past, though, Abelim was not so coveted. There was no need to be, for the Regime hadn't lost itself with power and greed yet. I'm fairly certain that dark quality you're describing sounds like a new trait the elders picked up, as a way to guard themselves from being sought out. But it is only my guess."

"Makes sense," she mused. "I didn't think Vampires possessed so many unique powers."

"Like I said, I am surprised every day."

They decided to continue on at a normal, human pace after Sarah injected the animals with the light Fae blood to keep them active during the daylight hours. Valek was uncomfortable about testing the limits with such newly changed creatures. At any moment they could rebel and take off, much like any other freshly cursed blood-drinker. And he didn't want there to be a couple of demon beasts prancing around a world of mortals. He needed to assure himself they were obedient to him first. With Aiden still at large, he was sure it was only a matter of time before something would begin to snowball and steer off course. He didn't want to be responsible for anything that might become the catalyst for that.

Valek glanced over at Sarah once again, noting Charlotte's satchel hanging from the Witch's pointed shoulder. Even from this distance, his acute nose picked up the scent that the bag still carried. It smelled just like her and an overwhelming feeling of regret spread through his chest again. Any time he pictured her sad eyes in his mind, that same feeling was resurrected. The feeling of regret.

She was probably waking up now from another night of slumber without him there. Probably bitter, wondering where he was and how he could have gone without her. He imagined her to be absolutely furious.

The morning surrounding them reminded him of one morning just about a week before. It was the morning he had taken Charlotte hunting in the daylight with him, when he'd pinned her against a tree and kissed the side of her neck-

A noise forced Valek out of his reverie. Charlotte's face rippled away as though it were a mere reflection in a pond and someone had tossed a stone.

"Valek!"

"Yes! Wha-what is it?" he replied finally, though he didn't look at her. He continued to fixate on the forested path before him.

"Jeez, what is wrong with you? I've been trying to get your attention for ten minutes! I resorted to throwing sugar cubes!"

"I apologize," he said and turned to look at her. "What is it?"

"I've steered us off course."

"What?" He hadn't noticed they'd somehow managed to turn off the main path and were now traveling through a part of the forest that was completely unfamiliar. "Why would you do that? We have a very limited amount of time to find this city, Sarah! The animals will need harboring, and even I can feel my body running low-"

"Don't you think I know that? I trusted you before. I let you do things your way. Now, I want you to trust me."

"The Parliament gave us explicit directions," Valek grumbled, yanking out the note from his breast pocket. He opened it and turned it to the map on the other side. Just like he anticipated, the inked path had changed. It no longer showed Tyn nad Vltavou. Now there was an odd sort of drawing that looked to be a home. He hated not having a course of action-a simple direction. It unnerved him that absolutely nothing was planned out. "What is this? Where are we going?"

"Valek, you need to calm down for us to find what I'm looking for. The fates do not answer to our selfish demands. They answer questions. They steer us where we need to be. I'm telling you to trust me. Now look." She stretched her index toward a tree trunk. Valek noticed a strange image etched deep into the bark of the tree as it passed. "And look over there." She indicated a different tree with the same rune. It looked like...an eye.

All of a sudden, Valek noticed that every surrounding tree had individual eyes carved deep and intricately into their trunks. And there was something more. Were they...moving?

"What is all of this?"

"They are Witches' runes for protection and staying hidden. They keep the mortals away and the likes of you out as well. But she knows we're coming." She smiled in utter excitement.

"Where are we going?"

"We're going to see my Elder. My leader. Perhaps an elder of my kind can lead us to an elder of yours."

"But we have clear directions, Sarah!"

"I know that. But I also think we can use some extra help to find this place faster, don't you?" She lifted an eyebrow, and Valek got quiet.

As they pressed on, thousands of wooden eyes blinked back at him from the trunks of the forest before him. They shifted and blinked, just as his own eyes did. Valek began to recognize this not from his time knowing the magic world, but from about a hundred years back, when he'd still been human. When he was a little boy and his mother read him the haunting bedtime stories of Baba Yaga.

"So, has your brilliant mind deducted where we are going yet?" Sarah grinned and pressed Jiri to move a bit faster over the glistening snow.

"I believe so. But I do not want to give away my guess yet in the event that I'm wrong." He frowned, continuing to study the forest before him.

"Judging by the odd mix of confidence and wonder I see on your face, I don't think you're wrong. But just in case, I'll give you a few moments more to figure it out."

They continued to ride forward through the blinking forest. A few of the trees eyed him as they passed. He studied them with a question in his mind about what enchanted them.

"Those are her many eyes," Sarah murmured softly to him. "She's watching us."

And then, as if on cue, there was a small parting among the dense forest where a cobblestone footpath began to lead them up a shallow hill. Sarah went first, Valek and his horse filing after. The path was so narrow and lined with dozens of lanterns carved from birch, stuck so deep into the forest floor, they seemed to grow out of the soil. Candles flickered behind the cobalt-stained glass of each one, in spite of the daylight.

The path seemed to go on for about thirty minutes, until finally, a smoking chimney emerged from treetops that seemed to be growing ever shorter. The snow also ceased to fall, and Valek could finally see the forest floor as though it were autumn again. Pine cones littered the ground between the various colored mushrooms that popped up from the dead pine needles.

They continued forward, until before him, a modest, wooden cabin appeared through a thicket of trees. It was lifted from the ground by pairs of massive chicken legs under each corner of the foundation. The windows were rickety, nearly falling off their hinges, and the shingles on the roof were layered in uneven, dirty rows. This was most certainly the house of the ancient, child-eating hag. Valek shivered with the human memory of his mother's stories. It was just as he imagined.

"Was it what you thought?" Sarah smiled crookedly, her eyebrow raised.

Valek merely nodded as the hell-stallions trotted up the slope to the abandoned-looking home that sat unfriendly at the far end of the clearing. There was only the sound of the phantom hooves beating down on mulch, sand, and pebbles, a warning to the hag that they were nearly at her doorstep. Valek could hear the screeching of some fantastical predator in the distance. Although the brightness of the morning made the small house glow, there still remained a heavy eeriness and a bitter taste of death about the forest around them. They must have somehow wound up on the outer banks of some Occult city.

He leaned over and whispered to Sarah, "Are you sure about this?"

She only shot him a look, suggesting she knew exactly what she was doing, and continued to proceed forward.

Valek had heard little about the mysterious hag who'd lived in these woods for what he guessed was before his time and probably much longer. What was her beginning? Would she truly be the one to unravel the mystery and answer the questions they had about the unseen city? If she failed to provide the answers Sarah sought, Valek believed there was little hope left. They'd already strayed from the Parliament's orders. He could only guess they wouldn't be too happy about that. He worried that in Baba Yaga's company, there would only be trickery. Valek would keep the gates of his mind open in order to pick up on whatever the hag would present, but he would tread carefully.

Valek swiftly leapt from Beta's back first. She slowly turned her massive head to gaze at him with her new, matching glacier-colored eyes. The expression they held painted vivid concern for him, and he knew there was nothing safe about the idea of entering that rickety hut.

"I'm aware of it." He gently patted the end of her slate nose. How fascinating, since they were both of the same ilk and possessed the window into each other's mind. "There's nothing else to do. We will be back in moments. Please behave." He finished knotting her reins to the hag's wooden fence, which surrounded the feet of the strange, gargantuan chicken legs.

Valek approached Sarah's horse, whose eyes instantly shared Beta's same worry. He nodded once at Jiri and proceeded to help the little Witch, his large hands grasped tightly around her waist until her feet touched the ground. They regarded each other awkwardly for a minute, and the instant thought in Sarah's mind suggested Charlotte probably would not have liked that.

Valek shrugged. "My apologies. It is my instinct as a gentleman."

Sarah turned her gaze toward the smoking chimney and splintered threshold and swallowed. Valek tuned into Sarah's mind, curious of what was going through it. She was afraid, as to be expected. But exactly what it was that scared her surprised him. She was afraid of failing. Afraid of looking inadequate in front of her mentor. So that was it, Valek thought. Baba Yaga was Sarah's counselor. And Sarah knew, after all of these years of being Francis' house Witch and being so out of practice with her true talents, that Baba Yaga's mastery would easily put hers to shame.

"She's the most ancient Witch on record. She is feared by many of us...and solicited by none," Sarah whispered hastily to Valek. "I was very, very lucky to be gifted with her counsel. We must proceed with caution. I have no idea what the consequences are going to be for us coming here."

"Coming here was your idea, Sarah." Valek frowned.

"I know. I know. And it is for good reason. I just hope she sees it that way as well."

Valek and Sarah climbed the dozen porch steps without any more words and stood at the door that separated the peculiar abode from the outside world. The many cobwebs that lined the corners suggested that it hadn't been opened in a long while. Sarah reached forward and grabbed hold of the massive doorknocker-a rusted, iron lion head. It was interesting to Valek how this symbol resurfaced to them over the course of their journey and throughout the Parliament's list of cryptic hints. He recalled the double-tailed lion that had manifested in the fire to Sarah and Charlotte in the parlor of Francis' home many months ago. She thudded three, quick knocks and quickly stepped back. The sound of the little Witch's breathing ceased completely in his ears. Valek glanced at her face, now wide-eyed and frozen.

Slowly, the wooden-planked door creaked open on its ancient iron hinges. It exposed a thick darkness with only a faint cast of golden light from nearest room. The inside appeared much more massive than the hut's modest façade initially let on. Baba Yaga appeared to them from behind the door, shrouded in a hooded robe of muslin with a frayed wine-colored trim. Her knobbed fingers clutched the top of a gnarled cane Valek guessed was made of rosewood, for its cherry color. Her twisted nails were wrapped around the shape of a soaring phoenix. He squinted at the thing. Curious. He wondered if it was merely used to steady her gait, or if it held a much more significant power.

There was also a peculiar odor seeping from the inside that caused his nose to wrinkle up in disgust. It might have seemed impolite, but he could not help himself, for his senses were too agonizingly acute for him not to react in some way. It was anything but welcoming.

Remaining completely silent, she beckoned the two inside her home with a wide wave of her free arm. Her one good eye remained fixed thoughtfully on Valek. He slipped past her quickly without turning his back, not trusting the situation in the slightest.

The door whined in protest as the old hag shut and locked it. She was exactly as all of the old childhood bedtime stories depicted her, except she was not at all portly like the stories stated, but rather bony and crooked. It was rare that human fantasies told it accurately. Or rather, maybe she just hadn't had the chance to gobble up any children recently. Valek chuckled very quietly to himself.

"Do you find my appearance amusing, Pane Ruzik?" Her voice sounded as rickety and as gnarled as she looked. It conveyed an odd sort of aged and hollow wisdom, like wind. Though her words were bitter, there was also a strange level humor that played in her tone.

Valek answered quickly. "Not at all, madam. I thank you very sincerely for welcoming us into your home." He managed to glance sideways at Sarah, who was still frozen with her hands folded respectfully in front of her.

"I doubt the winter has any effect on the likes of you," she grumbled. The end of the hag's cane thumped rhythmically on the warped, wooded floorboards as she hobbled past the two into the parlor of her home. "What is the reason for your visit?"

Down a stretch of hallway, Valek could see that the glimmering, yellow light had belonged to a roaring fire. With Baba Yaga walking in front of them, he quickly threw a look to Sarah that begged her to take over the conversation. When she still failed to speak, he elbowed her in the ribs, knowing that Sarah, being of the same magic kin, would be much more convincing, able to pry some answers from the ancient hag.

Sarah glared at him, but quickly began. "Madame Yaga, we come to you seeking answers. We are searching for the Dark City, Abelim."

Baba Yaga stopped short in the middle of the hallway, the glow of the fire creating a halo that silhouetted her ancient figure. She remained with her back turned to the pair. Valek saw her fingers wrap tighter around the top of her cane, but when he tuned into her mind, he found that it was silent.

Don't even try it. Sarah's thoughts spoke to him as she glared in his direction. She's much older than you, and she knows well how to keep the likes of you out of her head!

"Who told you to come here to find such information?" The hag spoke, still unmoving.

"N-no one," Sarah began. "No one told us to come here, Madame Yaga. Actually, we were provided a map to Abelim by the Parliament themselves. We only come seeking your advice, as we know the journey is a dangerous one."

Valek wasn't used to this Sarah, so meek and unsure of herself. She spoke to the ancient Witch as though she were begging for her life.

Without so much as a grunt, the Witch continued down the hall and into her study, eclectic with collections of books and potions and things. An enchanted oak sprouted in one corner near the fireplace, its branches reaching across the room against the ceiling. Valek's library back home seemed nothing but a mere bookshelf compared to the stacks and

stacks of spell books, records, recipes, and archives. It was much more organized than Sarah's study had been in Francis' home, however. Valek didn't know why, but he just assumed all Witches were as disorganized. Valek counted each book in a matter of minutes, seeing that they had been shelved alphabetically, and dusted down to the last speck of soot. What was most strange about the room was that it completely lacked furniture. Valek gazed around for a place to perch but came up empty.

Baba Yaga turned to them again and gestured to the floor, her long fingers pressed together. "Have a seat...."

Tree roots began to twist up from between the cracks in the floor, vines protruding and growing with them. Lush, emerald leaves sprouted among the foliage as Valek watched in amazement at the growth bending and transforming into three chairs. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sarah's mouth twist up in a satisfied smile.

Cool, huh?

Valek nodded slightly at Sarah's thought before he took his seat.

Excited now, Sarah crossed her legs and enthusiastically bent closer to Baba Yaga. "Thank you very much for your hospitality, madame. It is an honor for me to be in your presence again-"

"Let's keep the adulation down to a minimum. I do not have the time, and you're so sweet it's giving me stomach pains." Baba Yaga batted her hand at the little Witch before rubbing at the bridge of her pointed nose. She turned gingerly to Valek. "You are very strange, Pane Ruzik. I have been watching you since I first learned you would come and visit me."

A smirk spread instantly across Valek's face. He'd always been thoroughly amused by Witchery. Some he knew were legitimate, though most were full to bursting with their own egos and hot air. So he decided to have a bit of fun. "And who told you of my visit, madame?" He flashed his fangs as he feigned politeness.

The room instantly darkened and sounded with thunder. The fire was washed out with the enchanted rain as Baba Yaga stood and angrily leaned into Valek, her long, silver hair billowing into his face, threatening to encase him.

"How dare you regard me in such a manner as this! I warn you, heathen, to respect the curse of the Wood Witch or else fall into misery yourself!"

In a lightning flash the room went back to normal, the fire rekindling itself in the hearth. Baba Yaga, however, remained angered, with her nails clutching feverishly to the rosewood staff.

Valek sat with his back pressed tightly against his seat. "My apologies."

"I had known of your visit for long, now, Vampire!" She spat every syllable. "I have been waiting for you for nearly two decades since the night when your fates shifted. And I hate to wait, Valek." Her shoulders began to relax.

"Surely, you are speaking of the night I found Charlotte?" When he uttered her name, something painful jabbed at his dead heart. He refused to let her face flash in the forefront of his mind, however, and aggressively shoved it back.

"Yes, the human girl. That was the night your course completely shifted, and your face appeared to me in a vision. I've been watching both of you since. She is in grave danger." Baba Yaga waved her hand, causing a small table to grow next to her chair. A cup of tea on a saucer flew in a blur from out of another part of the home-what Valek guessed to be the kitchen. The dark liquid inside the cup steamed as the hag sipped at it.

"We know, Madame Yaga. That's why we are seeking the Dark City. We're trying to save her," Sarah interjected.

Baba Yaga's mystical purple glare snapped swiftly in Sarah's direction. "I did not address, you, did I? Remain silent. You have disrespected me by allowing yourself to fall into the servitude of a Vampire. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing for you and me to discuss." She waved her hand once, causing the pearly, pink lips of Sarah's mouth to completely vanish off her face. Sarah's hands flew up to the space, which was now merely skin stretched over her mouth cavity, a terrified scream emitting itself from behind the layer of flesh. Baba Yaga turned her attention back to Valek. "And besides, I do not only speak of the child's strange addiction to you! There are other things racing to claim her fate."

Valek nodded solemnly. "I am aware of those, too."

"You are aware of very few things, Valek, so do not get too arrogant! It will be your downfall. That is what I dislike about you. You know much less than you think you do, yet you believe you know it all. But there is more that will surprise you. Charlotte's life has a bounty, now. There's a price on her head. For some reason, this mortal has become a very valuable prize to all who seek her."

Valek stayed silent, but nodded again.

"The Regime is in shambles, but there are still a few members at large...as I'm sure you know." She meant the last part of that sarcastically.

"I do know." Valek lifted an eyebrow. "Is there anything more you can inform me on that matter?"

"No. There is not. Their magic is much stronger even than mine is. They keep their actions and their future paths heavily guarded. I used to be the oracle for the Regime." She took another swig of her tea, her eyes going distant.

"And then what happened?"

Baba Yaga's good eye glanced back at Valek, and she almost grinned. Almost. "You."

Valek swallowed thickly. Had they fallen into a trap?

Baba Yaga's belly rumbled under a massive chortle that seemed to cause the whole house to shake under it. "Not to worry. You noticed how this forest tends to watch you?" She smiled again and winked. "That is my protection from them finding me. If any of the Regime happens to come seeking me, I simply pick up and leave."

Valek's eyes widened. "The chicken legs? Your whole house moves."

"Precisely."

"And where is Aiden, now?"

"Aiden is no longer Aiden. You've changed him. He's untraceable now, so I have no idea where he is. But Aiden should not be your main concern at the moment. What you fear most is happening at the hands of one of your own. A brother. Someone close to Charlotte now."

Valek straightened in his chair instantly. "Who do you mean? She is not safe?"

"You did not leave her in the finest care. Funny. I always thought you to be more vigilant than that. You seem such a thorough character." The hag shrugged. She tilted her teacup, eyeing the remaining contents of it, before twisting and tossing it into the fire. A tea leaf reading, as Sarah had done.

The flames billowed higher before flashing in a more brilliant yellow. It licked and danced around each other until a definitive image was formed in the fire. Valek watched in horror as the image of a face appeared from the blaze. Its mouth was stretched in a long and anguished scream as parts of the fire colored itself in a deeper red. Blood, he recognized.

Immediately, Valek leapt from his chair. Something sharp lurched in his chest and crawled up to this throat. His eyes pricked with tears. "Lottie...." He'd done it again. Failed her...again. This was becoming a vicious cycle. He wanted to die.

"Yes. You left your love in misery. More than just broken skin, you left her with a broken heart." Baba Yaga's words echoed and swirled about the room until the fire eventually dwindled and fizzled out into ashes. The room darkened. Baba Yaga waved her hand again. The skin on Sarah's face stretched open, forming a newly-created mouth where the other one had vanished.

"I have to go to her. Sarah, we are turning around!"

"No, we can't! If we bring her to the Dark City, she'll absolutely die!"

"She will die anyway if we continue on as we are! I'd rather her be in my care! I've already failed her. What is the point of this journey if I come home to find her already dead? I have been careless and idiotic!"

Sarah's face fell as though someone had pulled a dark veil across it. The fates had once again taken control of her mind, displaying for Valek the hell he had left Charlotte in. The images were far too graphic and disturbing and left Valek with a sick, sloshing feeling winding around in his gut. Far too much time had passed since he'd felt the warm little grasp of her fingers winding around his. Since he'd seen the brightness of her eyes.

"I've made a huge mistake." He began for the door.

"Relax, Vampire!" With a thump of her staff on the floor, leafy tendrils exploded from the branched chairs and wrapped around Valek, pulling his rear back into his seat. "Your kind is far too moody and emotional for my taste. And anyway, I will see that the girl is brought to us."