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


Unseen

Valek, who had been absently watching the fantastic, new bewitchment twinkle above the bed for the last several minutes, rolled over to find that Charlotte was still sleeping soundly next to him. She appeared a bit healthier than a few hours ago. The dark circles under her eyes had disappeared only slightly, but any amount of progress would do, and the color had returned slightly back to the apples of her cheeks. It must have been the power Sarah added to those chocolate beads. One of her arms was tucked underneath her head, as the other gripped the comforter, pulling it up around her shoulders. She was cold, he heard in her mind.

Valek smiled and began to stroke her hair. "I am going to miss you so much, my Lottie." He leaned down, his lips lightly brushing against her cheek. "I promise I will make everything right again."

Her eyes fluttered slightly and a soft moan trailed from her lips. Valek immediately pulled away, afraid he might have awoken her prematurely.

"Valek..." she murmured quietly, though her eyes did not open. "Don't leave me, Valek."

"It's okay, Lottie." He eased away. "Sleep now." Gently, carefully, he grabbed on to her wrist, pulling it up to his mouth. He bit down gently, and she let out a soft little half-asleep moan. The red seeped up in a small, delicate pool over his lips. He could hear her fairly normal heartbeat begin to mellow once more and he released her arm. "That's it," he whispered, kissing the wound closed.

Gingerly, he pulled out the other chocolate bead from his pocket, made her swallow it, and got up from the bed. He laced up his shoes and adjusted his overcoat. He bent to retrieve a thick, woven comforter he kept under the bed, unfolded it, and draped it over the sleeping girl. Walking to one of the large windows, he pulled back the drapes to reveal a brilliant winter dusk. Snow had fallen during the day, and it twinkled like finely sanded crystals across the lawn, covering the cobblestone footpath completely. A full moon hung low in the sky, casting the Occult town in hues of light pinks and lavenders. He looked at Charlotte asleep in the bed one last time before he exited the room.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sarah standing by the open door, one leg outside. She looked up at him, small bags and suitcases around her feet.

"Ready?" she asked.

"What's all that?"

"Trust me. We'll need it," she insisted. She waved her sewing needle through the air before her. Valek watched as the various articles of luggage shrank down to an impossibly tiny size and the Witch gathered them within the pocket of her skirt. "See? Not a problem."

"At least you travel light." Valek looked toward the chamber that held Lusian and the twins. He heard him just on the other side of their door, waiting for him to leave. He balled his hands into fists at his sides and looked back to Sarah.

"I change my mind. We cannot leave just her alone here. I know the others will take advantage of her."

Mr. Třinozka emerged from the library and began scaling the staircase with his eight enormous legs.

"Not on my watch! Not no way, not no how," he grumbled, bypassing Valek on the top stair and standing readily in front of the master bedroom door. "You see now, Valek, I'd never let anything happen to our girl! You can count on me!" His massive, knobbed mustache ruffled.

"Us," Edwin said valiantly as he also began to ascend the staircase from the foyer.

Valek looked down to Sarah once more. Sarah nodded at him. We have to go without her, the Witch thought at him. You have two choices. If she comes with us, she will die quicker than if she is left here without you. It's up to you. How much time do you think she'll last in your presence?

Valek narrowed his eyes at her, but made a fast decision. "Spider, you must do me an additional favor as well." Valek stepped once toward him.

"Anything."

"You mustn't let Charlotte follow us. Please. No matter how much she begs you, which she will. No matter how much she...cries." Valek fought his own sadness and reservation, his fists clenching at his sides. "You cannot."

Mr. Třinozka lifted his two front, right hands. "Not a problem, Valek. She's under my watch now."

Valek heard Charlotte begin to stir again, toss in the bed, behind the closed doors. She was already waking up.

"You'd better go." The Spider's words came out somberly this time. "I'll take care of her. I swear it."

Valek only looked at him, unknowing of what to say next.

"You will return shortly," he continued, his voice low and warm. "And when you do, she'll be here. Waiting for you in better condition than what you've left her in."

Valek smiled at him, nodding once, before descending the staircase. His gait to the front door was slow. All he could think about was the grim possibilities he faced by doing this. He pulled a golden ring out from under his shirt, strung there on a pewter chain. He had been carrying it like that for the last few months.

"Watch over us, Andela," he whispered and tucked it back inside his shirt.

"Valek, we have to leave now. Charlotte will wake up any minute," Sarah pleaded.

Valek turned to look behind himself, one last time up the staircase. They would succeed, he assured, mostly to Charlotte, who slumbered a story above. He had no other choice but to find the elders and achieve a cure. "Thank you," he offered up to Mr. Třinozka and Edwin. He stepped over the threshold and out into the night, closing the door behind him.

Walking away from that house felt so wrong, as though he would never see it again. But he saw how Charlotte rolled in pain every night-saw how she suffered. With so much danger awaiting the two of them, Charlotte needed to be at full health, if he didn't want to risk losing her again.

"I'm not happy about leaving her either, Valek. Do you think I want to leave the only family I've ever known? The only one who's ever treated me like a friend and not a slave? It hurts just the same." She threw one end of her scarf over her shoulder. Afraid of actually becoming emotional, Valek couldn't respond to her. He swallowed his pain and continued stoically down the footpath.

Sarah and Valek walked silently next to each other for the last time through the empty Occult Square. He listened to Sarah's laced, leather boots as she trudged through the packed snow. There was a rustling sound down a dark alley, between shops, and the smashing of what sounded like a tin trash can and a hiss. A feline Phaser chasing dinner. The sky since opened up and small flurries once again began to fall over the enchanted city. It was a peaceful wonderland, in contrast to the storm revolving within him. Valek noticed the little Witch walking too silently next to him again. She was only this quiet when something was severely bothering her. She wiped a few sparkling tears away from her high cheekbones.

"So, where exactly are we headed now?" he asked with a jagged, pained smile. It was his effort to distract her. "Are we marching our path to Abelim?"

"Nope! The note gave me some inspiration." She grinned wickedly. "It told us to travel on hoof and spell. Well, you've got spell." She indicated herself. "Now, we need hoof."

The two neared the town stables that sat at the very end of the square, just before where the residential distract began. Valek could hear the horses moving around inside, their hooves crunching in the fodder. Sarah rounded the front of the stable, the large, wooden doors creaking as she opened them.

"What are we doing?" Valek moved through the snow to her side.

The stable smelled like cut hay and something foul. It was encased in darkness until she magically illuminated the candle within the little glass jar that hung from the center of the wooden beams. There were five

different enclosures, with a horse in each. One of them, a mare with a jet-black coat and a long, unruly mane, eyed Valek, whinnying and backing up within her stall. She began to rear and kick, screeching louder.

"She's afraid of you," Sarah mused.

"Rightfully so. What are we doing in here?" Valek asked again.

"You're not going to approve," she warned him, crossing her arms over her chest.

She walked over to the startled horse, reaching deep within her apron pocket, and pulled out a sugar cube. She hushed the animal, holding the treat out to it. "There, there."

Valek stayed as still as he possibly could, and the horse calmed after a few moments. It ate from the palm of Sarah's hand as she reached up with her other hand to stroke her nose.

"That's better." She giggled.

"You want to steal a horse?" Valek snorted. "Fine. Why would I not approve?"

"I want to steal two horses," she explained and spun around to face him. "Two Vampire horses." Her lips formed into the wickedest smile.

Realization smacked him hard across the face. Valek backed away from her. "No. No. No." He shook his head. "Do you know how reckless that is? It's positively the most asinine thing I've ever heard. What if they run? There will be two Demon horses terrorizing Europe! Animals are uncontrollable. Unpredictable."

"Valek," Sarah pleaded. "Just hear me out. We'll get where we are going faster. You'll get back to Charlotte faster. And they'll be indestructible. We can run for days."

"Terrific plan. Except you're forgetting one thing." He lifted his finger to her. "How are we going to run for days, when you're dealing with one Vampire and two of his damned horses?"

Sarah's grin grew twice its size. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out two syringes and two vials filled with a bluish, blackish liquid.

Valek recognized what it was instantly. "Fae blood?"

"Yep!" Sarah said triumphantly and pulled out another jug full of the stuff.

"How did you acquire so much of it?"

"Went hunting...just like you do." She smiled and tucked it back away. "I trust you still have enough in your bloodstream for now. I'll just save this for a sunny day. Now, change them."

Valek looked toward the large animals in disgust and loosened his ascot. His stomach bubbled. He had never taken blood from a horse before. There had been the occasional rat, but that was only when he had been particularly desperate. As he watched the animal buck and rear in the stall in reaction to him being there, he imagined it wouldn't be the easiest thing in the world to do. Animals had a keen intuition. They knew when they were going to die. They knew what was going to do it, and how. The horse watched his movements with fevered eyes as it bucked and whinnied again.

"Quickly! Someone's going to hear all of this commotion. We have to move fast," Sarah whispered, peering over her shoulder.

Valek swallowed and moved slowly toward the horse with his hands up in an effort to make peace with her. He hushed her. Nothing worked. The animal continued to rear, whinnying as it tried desperately to kick out the back wall of the stable.

"Now, Valek! Attack it!"

Valek lunged for the animal, wrapping his arms around its massive neck to try and get a lock on it. The other horse in the next stall screeched and thrashed harder. Valek sank his teeth into the first horse, the unappealing ichor seeping down his gullet. He winced, noting the thicker, drier texture of it. The nutty aftertaste. Gamy. It was revolting, but he continued to drink as the animal's massive heart slowed and slowed. It finally stopped bucking, and he released it, gently helping the beast lower itself into the hay.

It tucked its hooves underneath its body, making slight noises as its round, shiny eyes blinked heavily. Valek helped to keep its head up, patting it on the nose.

"It will be all right." He hushed it. "It's going to be okay." He patted the side of its jaw.

Sarah grunted and crossed her arms over her chest. "Take your time. Great idea! You know, I've honestly never met a humanitarian Vampire before."

"Sarah, if I do not keep the animal awake, it might die, and you'll have to come up with an alternate plan. Let me do this my way," Valek argued before he bit down on his wrist, and watched the blood slide from the puncture wounds down his arm. He held his wrist up to the horse, but it only turned its massive face away.

"Well, you can lead a horse to blood...." Sarah chided.

"Funny."

Valek was well aware they were running out of time. The longer he remained away, the longer Charlotte was in grave danger. So many obstacles. So many enemies. Valek gripped the horse's jaw and forcefully propped it open as it struggled against him. Such a keen intuition, he thought again. He bit down on his free wrist one more time, as the wound had already closed, and quickly ran it across the horse's tongue. It ripped itself out of Valek's grip, whinnying again, as it rolled onto its side, shoving its hooves against the stable wall.

"What's happening now?" Sarah approached slowly, her eyes fixated on the suffering animal. Valek heard how bad she felt for it, but this had been her decision.

"It is dying. This is what happens. They suffer. They die. And then they are reborn." He recalled quietly his own agonizing transformation. The feeling of going under. Drowning. The eternal burning, as though he had walked straight through hell and come out on the other side, a new being. It had seemed to last for lifetimes before he'd opened his newborn eyes to a completely different reality than the one he used to know as a human. But that was decades ago.

"Quickly, while she is changing-do the other one." Sarah pointed to the second horse.

Valek walked into the other stable while Sarah lay in the hay with the first dying animal. She stroked her massive nose and hushed her tenderly.

"Careful," Valek warned her. "When they are new, they won't know the difference between magic and mortal. Living is living. Blood is blood."

Sarah slowly and cautiously moved away.

Valek drained the other animal, feeling the massive pulse in its neck throb against his lips. The taste was just as gamy and unpleasant as the first had been, but this feeling against his mouth drove him crazy. He heard Sarah's voice from somewhere behind him, calling for him to stop and he did, quickly feeding the animal from himself and allowing it to make its transformation as the first had done.

From somewhere close outside the stable door, Valek's ears pricked with the sounds of footsteps. Someone was coming. He turned to look at Sarah, who was already staring wide-eyed at him.

"When will they be ready?" She looked to the first horse that had grown completely still in the stall next to her. The second one continued to thrash and cry.

Valek stood, monitoring both of the animals as well, though he continued to tune in to each pursuing footfall. "Every experience is different. Depending on their strength, their vitality. It could be minutes. It could be hours," he explained. "It could be days."

"Days? We don't have days!"

The footsteps stopped, sounding to him like whomever they belonged to stood just outside the barn doors. Valek could hear Sarah's pulse intensify. Quickly, he wrapped her up in one of his arms. "Be silent," he whispered and clawed up one of the barn walls. In an instant, he found a shadowed corner between a thick rafter and the barn ceiling. Valek crouched there among the cobwebs with the Witch still tucked under his arm. Her gaze burned into the side of his face, but his focus remained on the front doors. "Hush," he reminded her.

The doors swung open as one of the

Trolls from the bar fight the night before staggered in, clearly suffering from a recent intake of too much ale. He snorted, and spat the contents into a pile of hay.

"Come on, Beta," he grunted, shuffling forward through the mess. "Time ta eat."

Valek couldn't see the horse as he spoke to it. He wondered if she was still seemingly lifeless on the ground. A whimper answered that question, followed by what sounded like a hoof carelessly brushing through the dry grass. Valek watched the Troll approach the stable door.

"That's it, girl. How are ya today?" he offered soothingly. Another small whinny was followed by a clomp against the wood. Valek cringed, wanting to look away, though he couldn't, as the Troll slowly stretched his hand out to pet the animal.

And then it happened. The Troll cried out in horror as Valek heard Beta thrash and howl. He could make out the dark edge of her nose as she lunged forward, the door crushing into splinters beneath all of her weight. She had the Troll in her jaws as he garbled and screamed, collapsing to his knees and clawing against the floorboards in an effort to escape. But it was no use as the large animal proceeded to drag him backward into the hay. Sarah shuddered against Valek at the tearing sounds of the Troll's nails as he continued to wail. It was followed by the sick sound of unseen bones crunching, another horrified bellow, until nothing but the distinctive gulping and slurping that Valek recognized all too easily.

He was just about to jump from the rafter beam, until another stable wall splintered under the impact of something, followed by a second sound of gulping. He instantly recognized that the other horse had come to as well and was now sharing the Troll for supper.

Valek glanced over at Sarah, whose watery, horrified eyes were fixated on the floor below.

"They are going to kill us," she squeaked.

"Well, this was your plan. At any rate, they shouldn't. I'm their liege. I wonder if they'll recognize that and obey me."

"Valek, they're animals. Just like you said."

"Trust me. I have a feeling this will work." Valek swung down easily from the rafter, Sarah still in his arm, and set her carefully on her feet. She glowered at him.

The horses were finishing up their first hellish meal, sucking from the flesh of the Troll, when the first of them looked up and locked eyes with him. Valek could hear Sarah's mental cringe when her gaze fell upon the mutilated body of the Troll in the hay. She hid her face in her hands as he took one commanding step toward Beta. You are in my command now, he thought toward the horse. You will do as I say and follow my order.

Beta slowly lowered her head, as did the male horse. Valek smiled, satisfied.

Sarah tugged hard on the sleeve of Valek's jacket. "Excuse me. Please inform those of us less equipped what is going on."

"I told you." He shrugged. "Trust me." Valek walked over to the Demon horses, which had changed considerably in appearance. Beta's coat now seemed infinitely more lustrous, taking on its own sort of midnight glow even in the shadowed barn. Her black hair looked as glossy as the Vltava at dusk. The male horse now matched her, though he used to be an odd sort of slate color. Valek decided to name him Jiri. Both of their large eyes seemed a bit more slanted and were the same as Valek's illuminated, glacier blue.

Valek walked over to Beta. He had more of a connection with her, for some reason. "Saddle up," he said, beginning to lay down a blanket and pad before strapping one of the leather saddles to her back, and fastening the bridle as well.

"Done this before?" Sarah quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Once or twice." Valek pursed his lips and tried not to smile too broadly.

Sarah started the same way on Jiri, who made a threatening grunt when she came near. Hesitating, she glanced nervously at Valek. He simply nodded at her to proceed. She did so, with Charlotte's satchel slung across her shoulder. "Prague is the next and only Occult city to the north," she explained.

"Good. So, it should not be too difficult. With these beasts, we'll be to Prague in hours."

"No. I say we make the indicated stops along the way. I have a strong feeling about it. You never know who's watching and who knows we have this." She indicated the note, holding it up in her fist. "We need to be safe about this. If someone is on our trail, we need to throw them off. The Parliament gave us these implicit instructions for a reason. They're keeping us safe. We need to follow them."

Valek frowned at her. "You're probably right. Although, how do we know if this is from a trusted source? This could be from one of Aiden's minions. Maybe we should take refuge in the Moravian Occult. We can ask someone there if they know anything about Abelim, or about the Parliament."

"Listen, no one from the Moravian Occult will know-"

"How do you know?"

"Because that's where I'm from!" The look in her eyes suggested that Valek should discontinue the argument. Her gaze wavered before dropping to the floor. "I know there are no Vampires left in the Moravian Occult, because I was there the night it happened. There's nothing left in my city except creatures like that." She jabbed her porcelain finger to the Troll's corpse.

Valek could hear a jumble of memories in her mind as it swirled, recollecting her not-so-distant past. A bunch of images mixed together depicted several unfamiliar faces. Vampires, he recognized. She had been friends with a few of them-perhaps...was there a romance with one? He couldn't quite tell, for the images were flying at him so quickly.

Valek cleared his throat and averted his gaze from her. "We're off on the trail, then," he murmured before mounting his chosen horse. Sarah quickly followed suit and they trotted out of the barn. "Tyn Nad Vltavou it is."

The promise of dawn washed over the bruised sky, through the canopy of leaves, as though God had spilled it. Brilliant reds and pinks shimmied across the black underbelly of nighttime foliage and Valek knew this was a sight he would never take for granted. Sunrise. Perhaps nature's most impressive phenomenon. Earth turns. Earth revolves around one shining beacon in the center of its universe. Earth revolves around one, glimmering star. There are millions of stars, Valek thought. Billions and trillions. But out of the whole universe, Earth chose this one to be its source of life-its gravity. Without it, there would be perpetual darkness. And as the Earth was married to its revolution, and night is married to day, Valek could not deny the sensational gravity that was pulling him back in the direction of home.

The hell-horses' new hooves did not make a sound as they moved swiftly through the blanket of fresh snow in the dense forest. It was still dark under the dense trees. Though they didn't have a plan or a path in the vegetation, Valek trusted Sarah's intuition as she led them forward. He listened for a moment to her mind.

Fear. That was the first thing he heard. Fear and uncertainty. She was letting the fates guide them, all the while, following the Parliament's map. Valek could hardly argue with that. After all, the fates were what led them all to victory at the Regime. And there was another piece to her thoughts-perhaps an alternative agenda, though Sarah kept that part carefully guarded. She must have guessed he was listening, so he immediately tuned out.

He recalled Francis going on about this ancient, Dark City. He'd spoken about it one night while they were both drunk on blood, about his own creator-an elder who lived in the city of eternal night. Francis had always referred to it as being somewhere both in the center and at the bottom at the same time. Distantly, Valek tried to imagine exactly what he could have meant.