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


Degrees of Separation

Valek found Charlotte in the library with Edwin and Mr. Třinozka. Charlotte, dazed and absentminded, sat beside a chessboard in play as the two went at it in an intense round of the game. The Spider ruffled his giant, knobbed mustache as he moved his pawn forward. Valek could see how red and puffy her eyes still were from crying.

"Wrong m-move," Edwin sputtered, grinning as his shaky hand pushed one of his knights forward.

Their game was silhouetted against the dying glow of the fire. Charlotte's curls were messy around her lovely, alabaster face with freckles as faded as the stars at sunrise. Her gaze remained distant, as she was lost inside her own mind, replaying the horrific scene of Valek Kills the Poor Human over and over again in her mind. He must have entered too quietly, for she didn't look up at him at all. How fortunate he was, to be able to watch her so candidly-to get to witness every emotion, reaction, and thought play within her giant, emerald eyes, without her having any sort of knowledge he was watching her at all. It was for this ability he was able to know her better even than she sometimes knew herself.

Valek deliberately approached her at a steady, human speed, so she would notice him before he got to her. His little doll finally glanced up, a sad and tired smile turning up the corners of her pale lips. He was more than surprised to see that smile. Apparently, she'd already forgiven him for his horrific stunt.

"Where did you and Sarah go?" Her gaze flickered toward something just behind him. Valek sensed it was the aforementioned Witch, who had also just appeared in the library doorway. He heard her shoes on the wood as she flitted off down the hall into some other part of the house.

Valek extended a hand toward Charlotte. "May I steal you for a moment?"

She blinked at him once before taking his hand, allowing him to pull her gently to her feet. Edwin and the Spider stopped their game, both turning to Valek with curiosity.

"You cannot steal her. Who will be here to witness my win?" Mr. Třinozka grumped.

"I will have her back shortly, gentlemen."

Mr. Třinozka grumbled something incoherent and moved his queen to the F7 space on the marble board. "Checkmate," he said to Edwin, his mustache bristling over a massive grin. Edwin sputtered.

Valek led Charlotte out of the library by the hand, noticing that as soon as they walked out of the room, Sarah slipped back into the library behind them. Her thoughts told him she was taking a few of her spell books for their journey and did not want Charlotte to see her doing so. She was successful, in that Charlotte failed to notice her.

Valek stopped just before the staircase, thinking for a moment, though not letting go of Charlotte's warm hand. He hated this plan of simply leaving her. He looked down into her wide, confused eyes as she searched his face. His initial goal was to just be alone with her one last night before he and Sarah began their journey, but he decided being in that house, with all of them listening in on their conversation, was not exactly being alone. Not knowing when they would return, he needed to find a way to tell her of his plan without actually telling her.

His eyes began to swell with blood tears and he turned his face, hiding from Lottie, as he always did. It was his best and only defense. He feverishly blinked them away as he thought of a place he'd rather go. His memory traveled over the previous weeks and months until he locked on a favorite memory in particular. It was the night he'd first learned Charlotte's true feelings for him. The night she'd found him with Evangeline, the night of their conversation by the fountain outside of the Elven cathedral. In spite of his deception that night, the memory truly was a happy one.

"Grab your sweater," Valek said grimly, though he did not wait for Charlotte to respond as he reached up to tear her purple knit sweater from the carved coat rack by the door.

"Where are we going?" she asked, her voice small as she shrugged it on, quickly fastening the buttons.

He pulled the door open and ushered her out into the night. "I need to get out of this house."

"But you were just out of the house."

"Again!" he snapped. Hearing her pulse pick up, he realized he sounded rather manic. He pulled her down the crooked porch steps and back into the wet snow, where only her footfalls made wet, hurried sloshing sounds while his movements remained unnaturally silent next to her.

"You're acting strange," Charlotte accused, wrapping her free arm tightly around herself. Her teeth had already begun to chatter. "What did Sarah say? Where did you two go?"

Valek found it increasingly difficult to make eye contact with her. "The tavern."

Charlotte cocked an eyebrow at him. "Why would you go to the tavern?"

"Sarah wanted to go, and she wanted company."

She frowned up at him. "Why didn't you invite me?"

"I thought you might have been too tired to go. At any rate, I thought you were furious with me." Lying to her was as uncomfortable as holding his breath-doable, but painstakingly distressing. "Speaking of which, how do you feel now? Is your scar bothering you?"

"It throbs just a bit," she explained. "But it isn't hurting me right now."

Valek pulled her along a bit faster. "Good."

They walked past the center of the square that had once been so busy, you could barely move through it. Ogres, Elves, Phasers, Witches, and any other imaginable creature of the night would crowd there, peddling items from their fruit and deli carts. The smell of smoked meats used to hang on the air, among the bustling sounds of inhabitants bartering with one another. Those sounds and smells were now only ghosts in his memory as he and Charlotte began to approach the Elven church packed between Broucka General Store and another shoppe.

"What are we doing here?" Her glassy stare focused on the gothic façade. Her gaze darted from one screeching gargoyle to the next, until it rested back on Valek.

He could hear the fear build in her mind. She was thinking that Aiden could perhaps be hiding in the bowels of this cathedral. While that made sense, Valek knew he wasn't. If Aiden were anywhere within the Occult radius, Valek would surely know. He imagined the Elf's thoughts would be so loud because of his passionate rage he'd be able to hear him coming from a kilometer away.

Valek thought back to that day, both dreadful and brilliant. Charlotte clad in stark white, the most glorious vision against the light of the coming day. That had been Valek's first sunrise in more than three hundred years. That memory was branded into his mind for eternity-the enamoring vision of Charlotte's scarlet curls and emerald eyes against the pale, yellow light. Her beauty had been set aglow by it. Each and every time Valek looked at the sun now, that was what he saw.

They did not enter the church. Instead, Valek led her by the arm around the side of the cathedral, down the cobblestone pathway, and into the garden where Charlotte had first professed how she truly felt about him. He would never forget that night, either. All of the confusing impulses. Her exhaustion. His embarrassment.

This garden was the only thing that remained consistent about their Occult city now. It looked just like it had when he'd originally found her there, crying by the fountain, face buried in her delicate little hands. Probably under some spell, he'd suspected. The jasmine continued to bloom against emerald green leaves and grass. In spite of the winter snow falling all around them, the season had no effect on this small paradise, as though it was safely under the shelter of a glass globe. Safe and unchanging.

"Valek, why did you bring me here?" she asked, as he listened to the many happenings inside of her mind.

She was confused-afraid of him, even. She had every right to be. But the beauty of the spring that lived in this oasis, paired with the white winter coming down all around them, was enough to ease her, if only slightly. Her gaze finally left his face as it trailed around where they were. For a moment, Valek's peace returned as he watched her appreciate it.

"Because I do not know where else to truly be alone with you." He released her hand. That felt like the first honest truth he'd spoken to her all day.

Charlotte looked at him expectantly as he circled to the front of her, taking both of her hands in his. "Valek-"

"I need you back. I need the real you to return to me."

Charlotte looked at him, mouth falling open. "But I am the real me."

"You aren't. So much has changed, and I feel like it's all my doing. Lottie, I am so sorry for what I've done to you. I created this."

"You didn't! I'll be fine-"

Suddenly, she groaned, gritted her teeth together. It was coming back. The pain she was experiencing was so palpable, it almost became physical for him as well. It seemed to be returning more frequently than ever. His experiment was proving itself accurate. He could sense the burn begin at her throat and spread all the way across her chest and shoulders. Her thoughts screamed it at him to the point where it actually became physical for himself. Panicking, he grabbed up her hot hands in his cool ones again, willing the incineration to stop. This was it. He refused to experience another night of putting her through this. Sarah was right. This needed to end.

"You are sick," he argued. "You are dying, it's true."

"Is that what you and Sarah were talking about-what happened to that girl?"

Valek didn't want to answer anything further. Instead, he shut his eyes as tightly as he could and continued to tune in to her immolation, wanting to be punished by it as well. Wanting to experience the pain along with her. He hoped it would distract from his overwhelming guilt.

"Valek, did Sarah tell you to bring me here?" Her fingers knotted up in the lapel of his overcoat. "What is going to happen to me?"

He didn't answer.

"Valek!" Charlotte shook him a little. Silvery tears slipped, glimmering down her face.

He had to leave tomorrow evening. It would be his last and most desperate attempt to save her. There was no other choice. But he wouldn't just abandon her. He needed to say something. He pulled her against him. She resisted slightly, but he pulled until she collapsed into his arms.

"Why are you acting so strange?" She whimpered against his chest.

He placed each of his gray claws on either side of her face and kissed her once on the cheek. "I have to fix you, Lottie." He pressed his lips to her forehead, feeling her small hands wind around his wrists. A light tugging feeling suggested that she was trying to fight him away. "I promised that everything was going to return to normal. I won't break my promise." He couldn't look her in the eye, so he just held her even tighter to him. "I'm leaving tomorrow, but I promise I will return," he confessed.

"What?" Charlotte tried harder to pull away from him, an overwhelming hurt bubbling underneath her words, as though she were about to cry. He couldn't stand it. "I don't need you to fix me. I need you to stay with me! Please!"

"I cannot stay. You are very sick and growing sicker. Soon, you will mentally begin to lose yourself as that woman did. Her fate will be yours, which is why I am leaving tomorrow...with Sarah. I want you to know why I won't be here when you wake up. I cannot lie to you any further. I cannot stand the guilt." He heard an immediate reaction to this within her thoughts, so he answered it. "You cannot follow us. I'm doing this because I love you."

She began backing away slowly

from him. She was afraid, he sensed. Afraid of him. Human intuition was so keen. So quick. Like a rabbit sensing a snake in the grass. He experienced that with every one of his victims. Though Valek's, as a Vampire, was even sharper than that. It was true that his kind made the perfect predators.

He quickly opened his arms to her. "Come to me, Lottie."

"No." Her eyebrows pulled together as more tears rolled down her ruddy face. "You can't leave! I promise I'll be fine." But another addiction-pain waved through her body and she bent in half.

"You won't," he countered, sadness tightening up the muscles in his throat. He knew she wasn't about to let her guard down. Not now. What he wanted to do next would have to be done by force. Her addiction was too heavy. He could see the need for him build again in the look in her eye. She was fighting it.

"Come here to me. I'll make it better." He beckoned again.

"No!" she hollered. She was resisting, tears dripping off the point of her chin.

Her pulse slammed louder in his ears as tiny beads of sweat, almost microscopic, formed along her forehead and at the hollow of her throat. It was absolutely arousing.

"Forgive me, then," he whispered and flew toward her.

Charlotte screamed as she somehow managed to dodge him. She ran around him, racing for the gate. It was only inches before her, her hand outstretched for the wrought iron as he grabbed at her ankle. She screeched as he yanked her back, her face falling to the grass, her chin slamming hard into the dirt. She must have split it open, because the heady scent of iron, copper, salt, and life hit him square in the face. He dragged her toward him as she continued to kick and cry and gripped her tightly underneath the arms. Valek whirled Lottie around to face him.

"Please! Please stop!"

Fresh blood poured from her mouth, as she had also bitten her tongue upon the impact. He could really see it then, the mirror image of him-the beast she would become if he ever gave in to her deepest desire. She looked like a monster. He vowed silently to himself he would never usher her into that-into becoming the very thing he hated. Himself.

Before Valek could see her move, something plunged deep into his chest. He cried out, dropping her to the ground as the pain bubbled up and out of the open wound. He looked down to see a large, crude hunk of wood protruding from his center.

He moaned in pain, the borrowed blood from his veins seeping down his clothes. He wrapped his claw around the makeshift stake. "You are quite the Vampire hunter, Lottie," he murmured darkly before ripping it from himself. Fast, so that he would not draw the pain out any longer. Lurching forward, he dropped to his knees. Bending in half, he tore open his shirt to watch as the wound quickly sewed itself up, the cascade of blood remaining stained along his abdomen and on his clothes.

Valek yanked off his overcoat and shirt, tossing them to the grass, before he looked up and was met with the silence of the empty courtyard. Charlotte had learned a thing or two from so many years of living with him-that was for sure. She had already taken off, her fevered thoughts still audible, however. She was running. He could make out her rapid pulse, her breaths hastily flying from her as her footfalls slammed into the packed snow.

***

Charlotte burst through the threshold, slamming the front door back on its hinges. Immediately, Sarah poked her head out from the library, book in hand. Charlotte glanced down to see that she was clutching a newly, bound edition of Anatomy of Vampires: Volume II. The pages looked crisp, like they were hot off the press. Apparently, Sarah had made a recent purchase.

With hot tears streaming down her face, fists balled up at her sides, Charlotte glared at the Witch. "If you were really my friend, you wouldn't be doing this! Why would you try and take him away from me? Why can't I come with you?"

She didn't let Sarah reply before she bolted up the staircase, tearing open the door to the upstairs bathroom, and instantly slamming it closed. It caused all of the surrounding walls to shake.

Charlotte gripped the sides of the marble sink, gazing at her grubby image in the mirror. Along her lips and down her chin and neck ran her own blood. Her tongue swelled inside her mouth, but no pain, not even her scar, matched the pain on the inside. Her breathing was fevered and broken. Streaks of dirt smeared down her skin.

Charlotte pushed through her tear-stained, frustrated sobs to turn the hot water faucet in the modest bathtub that must have been at least eighty years old. It was antique, and old-fashioned, just like the rest of the bathroom. Violently, she yanked off her favorite dress, now grass-stained and packed with dirt and blood, and threw it to the floor. How could he be leaving her like this? And with whom was he leaving her? The likes of Lusian? Did he really think he was keeping her safe by doing that? She continued to sob, but the tears stopped coming, for it was as though she had run out.

Large spouts of steam began to blanket the small room. It eclipsed the mirror in fog so much that she couldn't see her reflection anymore. It didn't matter. She detested the sight of herself anyway.

She didn't get into the bath. Naked, she leaned forward with her hands gripped to the brim of the tub, her head hanging down toward the floor. Defeated. Devastated. Once Valek made up his mind, there was no changing it. She knew that very well. Her scar wasn't the thing that tormented her now. It was the utter deceit from the only one she'd ever trusted. Her face twisted in anguish from the pain living in her chest. Too much to take. She wanted to tear a hole in it and rip out her heart, just so she wouldn't have to feel it anymore.

Finally, she put one leg in and then the other, wading through the hot water. She reached over and closed the curtain around herself, hoping to block out the rest of the world. She flicked the knob that let the water run through the shower head and buried her head in her hands. The rest of the tears she thought were no longer there commenced again. For a few moments, she was away from the world-just alone with herself and the quiet running of the water.

From the other end of the room, she heard the doorknob turn, the door creaking open. She didn't flinch. She didn't even look toward it, already knowing who it was. She was surprised by her own bravery. Slowly, Valek entered, the door closing almost silently behind him. Charlotte could make out his silhouette behind the shower curtain as she peered out from between the fingers covering her face. The edges of his body were fuzzy in the waves of steam.

Her heart crawled into her throat as she watched him move nearer to the bathtub, realizing just how vulnerable she was. So, maybe she wasn't so brave after all. Her face started to grow hot, all words eluding her as she dropped her hands to her sides. Should she reach for a towel? Scream at him to leave once and for all?

Her legs stayed frozen in the hot water, her pulse hammering into her ears as she watched the shadow of his claw reach up and pull back the curtain. She couldn't speak. Couldn't breathe. It was as if he was moving in slow motion before her, and she began to tremble, willing him to leave.

There he stood, his cerulean eyes fixed on hers, but filled with a deep anguish and sorrow. It created a crease in between his eyebrows. He stared at her for a few more silent moments, a thick bed of dark eyelashes cradling the depth of his icy stare.

Before Charlotte could think of something to say, Valek began stepping into the hot shower with her, bare-chested, though with shoes and pants and all. She looked up at him, confusion and slight embarrassment filling her as he refused to remove his gaze from her own. All her rational thought disappeared. She would forever be enraptured by that stare.

The water plummeted over him, causing his strands of black hair to cling to his face and neck. Charlotte's breath caught in her chest and she remained frozen, unsure of what to do next. That eternal sadness didn't leave his face as he grasped the back of her head and pulled her forward, crushing her to him with a kiss she knew he meant as a goodbye.

Reservation left her as she reached up, knotting her fingers in the locks of his hair, her lips moving slickly against his. She couldn't breathe. Her whole body started to quake with the utter nerves of what was happening. Valek's other hand moved to the small of her back, pressing her harder to him.

Finally pulling away from her, Valek placed both of his hands to the sides of her face, almost bending so that his gaze would meet hers at the same level.

"I love you more than this existence itself." His words were broken, almost as if they were sobs, though he refused to cry. "This is not a 'goodbye'. It is not even a 'goodbye for now'. It's an 'I'll be back soon'."

Charlotte's heart constricted, new tears beginning down her face. She couldn't understand why he was refusing to take her with them.

"It is far too dangerous. I would feel better knowing that you were safe within these walls." His claws ran down the length of her arm, sending shivers up her back. Valek reached for the brass knob, turning the water off. Charlotte wracked her brain to come up with her next move. A chill suddenly crept in to the room, causing all of the hairs on her body to bristle. She was in utter disbelief and a complete panic. What if something happened to her while he was gone? He would never know. Everything inside told her it was a bad idea.

Sopping, Valek stepped from the bath and grabbed one of the ruby-colored towels. She stood there, holding herself together as he extended one of his hands to help her out of the tub. He draped the oversized towel around her shoulders and wrapped it so it enveloped her completely, before sweeping her from her feet in one fluid motion. Silver streams of water ran like metallic veins down his face, perfect in all its sorrow. He continued to gaze at her as he carried her from the bathroom and into the hallway. Charlotte's heart plunged into her stomach.

"Don't! They'll see," she protested, curling up into a smaller ball in his arms.

"They won't. And I don't care."

He continued down that same corridor she knew so well and through the double doors into his bedroom. Charlotte noticed immediately that the bewitchments over the bed had changed from little stars to streams and streams of glimmering currents of varied light and color. More glorious than the aurora borealis, and she knew exactly who'd put them there. Worse was that each and every candle in the room was lit. Suddenly, her stomach did a back flip. Her nerve endings became electric as her gaze shot to Valek's face. Oxygen didn't come so easily.

Though she had expected to find a smirk there, he was all but light-hearted. His face looked hard and strained, as if he was deliberating something very serious, his eyes distant, fixed on his current thought.

Gently, he placed her on the bed, the towel still hugged around her. Charlotte studied him as he stood before her in the pale stream of the nighttime glow, his placid skin almost illuminated in the milky light. She scanned his sculpted form, bare before her. He had never been that vulnerable in front of her before. His broad chest. His thick arms. There was a blood stain still in the middle of his stomach, cut like a diamond, where she had stabbed him in the cathedral garden. His hair stuck in thick, wet, wavy locks to his jagged marble cheek. He was a holy vision that made her heart absolutely break. It was all she could do to stop herself from reaching for him.

"L-lottie, I, umm...."

She'd never seen her Vampire this way. Normally so even-keeled, she could see he was completely at odds with himself now. He was going to pieces, just as she was. She knew this couldn't be an easy thing for him, either. The only other time they had ever been apart from each other in her life was when she

was very small and he had been called to a neighboring Occult to help with some magical epidemic inflicting their people. She remembered how difficult that had been, and it was so many years ago. That and when Aiden had parted them briefly just a few months ago, of course.

"Lottie," he began again, nearing the bed. She could see his spine go rigid, as if he was forcing himself to remain in one piece. She knew how he hated when his emotions got the best of him. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose. "I want you to trust me. I hope you trust me-"

"I do," Charlotte said impulsively and a little too quickly. She clenched her jaw to suppress another outburst.

"I need to stop going on like this. As if I were human. As if I had no power in this situation. I don't have to play the cards we've been dealt. I know I can change our hand. You need to let me try."

Charlotte bit her lower lip and nodded. Something about that hurt. She was human. Did he feel like she had no power in this-like she was helpless? In all her life, Charlotte had never been helpless. She could fight. She could change.

"More importantly, I want to stop feeling guilty. I don't want to deny what this is anymore." The look on his face suggested he was indicating the complications of their relationship now.

Charlotte stood to her feet, a different kind of heat rolling through her. In fact, she had completely forgotten about her scar. A new set of tears pricked her eyes, though she swallowed the grief down. "Nothing about what this is should cause you guilt." She pushed out the words that were increasingly difficult to say. "You are mine." She held her palm, the one with the line in it that proved this as fact, up to his face. Her other hand still held the towel intact around her. "If others object, it's because they don't understand, and I don't care. I don't want them to understand."

Charlotte grabbed his face and pulled his mouth to hers, feeling one of his hands move between her shoulder blades to support her to him. Her fingers quickly and clumsily moved to trace the contours of his chest and stomach, but he stopped her, already moving her back toward the bed. Her scar began its angry progression at the base of her throat, the burning starting out faint, though getting worse by the second.

"Listen to me carefully, Lottie." His voice wavered and began to change. It grew deeper and rougher with each word he spoke. "When you wake tomorrow, I will be gone. But know I will be thinking of you each and every moment I am away. I am just as afraid as you are."

He gazed directly into her fearful eyes before biting down, clinging fiercely to her throat. Her garbled screams were drowned out by her rapid pulsations in his ears as her blood gushed over his tongue. Normally, he was very careful when he did this. But this time, he needed to drink enough to knock her out, to give him and Sarah enough time to be a safe distance away. He was certain she was going to try and follow them in spite of his warnings.

Her pulse continued to pound rapidly, like the hum of a thousand angry hornets in his ears, as he held her in his arms. He lurched forward over her, still gripping her tightly. Her protests finally began to quiet as her body grew limp. Her pulse slowed as well. Suddenly the world around him seemed too quiet, and he knew she was almost gone. It proved to be very difficult, as her seeping, savory life provoked him to stay stuck there. But he forced himself free.

He tore away, coming up for air, craning his head as the remaining blood slipped down the back of his throat and he could feel his eyes shift back to normalcy again. That was the one thing he had the most trouble revealing to her. The way he did know how to love her was not the way she, as a human being, so desired. Her needs were not misguided, or wrong in any fashion. They were natural, normal, and beautiful. He recalled distantly how they'd felt when he was human. But the kind of creature he was now caused him to possess a craving that was all too different. He knew, deep down, Charlotte already understood that. In his mind, he had made love to her a hundred times before. For every time she sacrificed a bit of her life unto him, that was what it meant. Connection. Love. His thoughts instantly soured, recalling the despicable agreement he'd made with Francis as he and Charlotte were forced to seek refuge from the Regime.

Charlotte lay there cradled in his arms, her snowy skin aglow as he wrapped her among the pallid sheets, her breathing slight and staggered. The thick bed of eyelashes sealed her pretty eyelids. Her pulse beat faintly, like the wings of a dying butterfly. Valek sat up in the bed, focus not leaving Charlotte's face. Her head rested delicately on the pillow as he tucked the thick, wooly blanket around her. Her scar from his first bite was red and inflamed, and as her eyes twitched, he could sense that the pain was still dying down.

Keeping one arm tucked beneath her sleeping body, Valek reached for one of his coats, hanging carelessly from one of the bedposts. From the pocket, he pulled out two chocolate beads Sarah had provided him for the possibility that someday, he might go too far. She'd handed them to him only a couple of days ago, telling him to keep them safe. It was as if she knew this day was coming. He squeezed his Lottie's jaws open and popped one of them into her mouth, lifting her head so that it would slide down her throat. That would help her blood cells replenish slowly.

Overwhelmed, he inhaled deeply through his nose. Cool blood tears rolled down the sides of his face as he cradled her in the deafening silence. He licked at them as they fell down his cheek. In the past three hundred years, not one night had gone by that had been more solemn than this one. He reveled in it at the same time as he mourned its ending. It took every ounce of strength he had to leave her there. He lowered his mouth, pressing it to her fevered lips in a fierce kiss she could not return. It was his final good bye.

"I will not be gone long, Lottie. You know I love you. I will always return. Find a safe place. Do not trust the others. Do not believe what they say. They only want one thing from you." He knew his words sounded bitter, but he meant them that way. After every disgusting act he'd witnessed committed by his own kind, not even his adopted coven was counted among friends anymore.

The bedroom door creaked slightly, and Valek looked to see Sarah standing there meekly, with one foot inside the room. Immediately, he pulled on his shirt, though left the buttons open. He could hear the tired apathy in Sarah's mind.

"I have packed everything we're going to need." Sarah walked deeper into the shadowed room, the darkness swallowing her normally luminescent face. An ominous crease in between her fine eyebrows had replaced her bright smile. She held out a torn piece of paper to him. It was old, falling apart at various corners. "It's another note from the Parliament."

Valek tensed with that announcement. The Parliament. He remembered in detail the legends that Francis spoke about when he referred to the 'Dark City' and the coven that ruled it. The location was a secret. The members were a secret. Most Occult people didn't even know if it actually existed, for they were so good at keeping themselves hidden. Valek, himself had never seen the city or its members personally. "The Parliament? Where did you get that?"

"From the messenger, himself. The dark man you spoke of. He only just delivered it to me a little while ago while I was downstairs in the study. There's a map on the back of it," she offered, turning the page over to show him. "We'll need places to hide out on the way, I'm sure. And friends. Lots of friends."

"I'm not good at making friends," Valek mumbled.

"So I've noticed."

"Well, what does the note say?" Valek asked, reaching for it. Sarah let him have it as he grasped at the seemingly ancient parchment and turned it over.

Take leave at dusk on hoof and spell.

Travel the darkness you know so well.

Come dawn, take heed,

The mortal bleed

Will lead you to us next Noel

~ The Parliament

"They're directions, are they not?" Sarah crossed her arms.

"Yes, they are, but it's more than that. Considering all the things I've heard from Francis about this coven, if we do not follow these explicitly, it could mean life or death." Valek flipped it and carefully studied the map again.

"It tells us that the entrance to Abelim lies in Prague." Sarah indicated with her finger. "Clever, clever they are. Prague is 'The Golden City'. Abelim is 'The Silver City'. They're utilizing a sun-and-moon analogy. If day exists in plain sight, then the night must exist just under the horizon."

"I don't follow."

"The city of Abelim is underground. Underneath the largest Occult in this country. Underneath Prague," Sarah explained in a whisper.

"Something tells me this map only shows you pieces of the journey at a time. They wouldn't just leave a document lying around that shows one exactly how to find them. They must be smarter than that, if even the cleverest Vampires don't know where they reside. The note isn't just directions. It's also a puzzle. Look at the beginning of each sentence. Every letter they've capitalized stands for a city. Probably a safe house. They are giving us an underground railroad of sorts. They must know Aiden is seeking us. The first capital letter in the document is T, which stands for Tyn Nad Vltavou. I'm sure, for it appears as a point on the map. It's only the first stop," he deducted.

Sarah's eyes grew wide at him. "That's incredible."

"I have the feeling the Parliament is the monster-form of the Illuminati. This quest might take longer than I originally anticipated," he mused sourly.

"I'm confident we will find our way. What I'm worried about is remaining unseen. A lot of creatures want your throat, Valek."

"So I've heard. Do you have a plan?" Emotionally exhausted, he shut his eyes and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

Sarah stayed silent for a moment. "I'm working on it," she said finally.

He stared at her expectantly quirking his left eyebrow.

"Plans rarely work, Valek. Whatever is meant to be will be laid before us. You know I am a great believer in the fates." She walked to the door, and turned back toward him one more time. She glanced at Charlotte. "How much time do you need?"

"Please, give me another few hours with her," he pleaded.

"Until dusk, then," she sighed and closed the door behind her.

Valek wheeled around, walked back to the bed, and let out a long exhale he'd been holding. Though he was a member of the Occult, he rarely believed in the unseen and definitely did not trust this secret group nestled somewhere underground. He crawled in again beside Charlotte. The sound of her light breathing mixed with the hushed beating of her heart pacified him temporarily, and he realized he was quickly running out of moments with her. He reached over, twining his claws around in her soft, vermilion hair.

Inching closer to the half-dead girl, he pressed his nose to the side of her head. He reached around, pulling her body close to his and held her there, feeling her warmth against his bare chest. How could he ever depart from her for so long?

"Charlotte, if you can hear me, I am going to make you a new promise. A few months ago, I promised that soon everything would return to normal and you and I would be alone together again. I'm not sure if that is possible anymore. So here it is. You are going to be happy. No matter what, you will be happy."