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


Power Struggle

Aiden's back went rigid when he heard the shrill wail of the astronomical clock in Old Town strike midnight. The metallic chime struck his new, nocturnal ears harshly as it bounced around off the baroque fixtures of the ancient buildings. The gears and cogs were even audible from this distance, and he pictured the little mechanical men and women coming to life as they danced around the clock face.

He closed his eyes a moment against the vibration in his ear before continuing on. His steel-toed leather boots splashed in the puddles along the ancient roads of the modern world. He kept his gaze down, and his hands in his pockets, his bangs escaping from his leather poor-boy hat and into his eyes.

The crowded square buzzed with dozens of warm-blooded tourists and a few drunken natives, all seemingly just getting their evening started, as he was. He studied the qualities of the human movements and tried to match them, as he desperately wanted to blend in. Grinding his teeth over the thought that any one of them could be lurking in a nearby alley, he never imagined a time when he would become anything similar to that of his sworn enemy-the very bane of his existence-the one who'd ended his life as he knew it and all of its possibilities. Valek.

However, nothing would stand in his way now. He would use all of this newfound dark power in his favor, becoming the very darkness he'd once hated.

And yet there was an undeniable hole in the center of his chest. It seemed unfixable now. A pain with every step he took. A missing piece. But it wasn't her love that could fill it anymore-the warm affection of the impossibly mortal girl. He no longer wanted it. She had made such a fool of him. She and her leech. They'd caused him to be outcast by those few remaining of the Regime. Humiliated him. Thrown him away and expected him to remain among the dead and forgotten. He was too strong for that. He had a plan-a prophecy that needed to be fulfilled. Vladislov was dead. Aiden was heir to the throne. The only heir. The Regime needed to be reminded of that.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Glancing upward, Aiden could see the dark clouds swarming over the city spires from the west. One silver drop splashed onto the tip of his nose and then another, reminiscent of a tear, just underneath his eye. He didn't cry anymore. He couldn't remember the last time he had.

Turning his face back toward the street, he moved forward. The sky opened up above him. The downpour caused the mortals to scramble to the nearest shelter while others desperately tried to open up their umbrellas against the drenching onslaught. Aiden marched on through the shimmering bullets. The highest spire of the palace, gothic and jagged in all of its might, surfaced over the tops of the city's other roofs and gutters.

The first step in his revenge sat right on the outer limits of Old Town Square. He closed his eyes against the stinging chill of the sheets of rain. When he'd awoken from his death, Aiden found himself outcast, in a patch of dense woods miles outside of Prague in a cold and lonely shack near the Vltava. He tightened his fists, gritted his teeth. Had they meant for it to be a tomb? Had they meant to throw him aside like the refuse he knew he had become? Vladislov was dead. That was true. But there were others left. They had to have escaped successfully, hadn't they? Bedrich, the blowhard. Kazimir, the quiet one. Not to mention his own father who had not even bothered to try and look for him. However, Aiden could barely recall a comforting moment ever shared with his father. Maybe it had even been his father who'd put him in that shack.

Clearly, their desire to maintain power and control over the magic societies, however failing, heavily outweighed their loyalty to him. After all, he was rightfully their lord now. It didn't matter. He was about to reclaim his position at the top very soon, anyway.

Aiden arrived at the bolted doors to the building's facade, which looked like nothing more than a bank or an embassy of some sort. He leaped up the few, shallow stairs to stand just before the palace entrance. Glowering up at the enormity of the double doors, he recalled the night when Valek had escaped with Charlotte through the billowing flames. Aiden shuddered at the memory of the dying Lottie slung over the Vampire's shoulder.

Aiden shook off the hurtful memory and straightened. He no longer cared for her that way, he reminded himself again, so it didn't matter. He didn't care about anything, except fulfilling his quest for revenge and regaining his throne.

Reaching into the brown leather satchel slung at his side, he pulled out his pocketknife and unfolded it. Gripping it in his right hand and holding up his left, he carved the familiar rune symbol into his flesh. He ground his teeth as the knife pierced his skin, though it didn't hurt nearly as badly as it used to. The

blade was ice cold as his blood, now closer to a shade of black than red, spilled out over his palm.

Once the symbol, half an arrow pointing upward inside of a circle, was complete, he carefully pressed it to the wooden door. Normally, what would happen next was simple. Nothing flashy. As if not to make a scene, the door would simply slide itself open. Anyone standing behind Aiden would think he'd simply pushed it open. But this time, nothing. Aiden pulled his palm away and looked down to check if he had carved it right. That was the symbol he always remembered. So he tried again. Nothing.

Sighing, he let both of his hands fall to his sides and cocked his head. He inhaled through his nose and closed his eyes. Save your rage for the inside. Don't waste it out here. You'll need it. He looked at the closed door for a few more seconds.

"Screw it."

Lifting his hands, he shot a blast of fire from his palms, incinerating a gaping hole in the wood. Hearing someone gasp from behind him, he turned to see a horrified woman staring in the center of the street, her hands to her mouth, her purse fallen, the contents strewn about the ground.

"You saw nothing," Aiden murmured with a smaller blast from his palm he meant as a threat. He watched her gasp and hurry away from the Regime building. He pushed his way through the burning wood and ash into the desolate great hall.

He looked up to the gold-leaf beams where the chandelier hung to find that only half of the ornament still dangled in its rightful place, thick cobwebs encasing its intricate detail. The other half had collapsed to the center of the hall, cracking the marble floor where it hit. Shards of the broken crystal crunched under his advancing steps. The place was utterly abandoned, with pieces of armor and bent weapons scattered about the floor. Even the tapestries were torn in scraps off the walls. It was astounding to see how something once so glorious had fallen to such shambles.

Aiden snorted. It seemed the others had allowed the place go to decay without him. How dare they let it fall to such chaos? Did they have no pride? No honor, that they couldn't afford the upkeep of their palace?

He continued deeper, the sound of his movements echoing ominously off the hollow chambers. How many weeks has it been? The promise of death reeked somewhere off in the distance of the palace. How many months had these idiots been sitting on this mess without at least having the pages come and commence a thorough cleanup? He snorted in disgust at the sight of a dented piece of armor he recognized from the water platoon.

Something several feet away caught his attention. It was the distinctive sound of claws on marble followed by a few tiny squeaks. Upon looking, he found a rat feasting on the flesh of one of the perished guards.

Stomach turning with revolt against the stench, Aiden lurched away from the sight of the decomposing face of one of the officers he'd once known so well. A warrior even in death, his sallow hand still clutched the hilt of his sword, his face frozen in an eternally fierce bellow. Aiden brought the back of his forearm up to his mouth and nose to shield them from the smell, and saluted the officer with his other hand. What had happened while he'd been dead? He rummaged through the memories of that final day-his wedding day-for an answer. The last thing he remembered was his mother's terrible screams and death, in the form of Valek Ruzik clinging to his throat.

Immediately, he dashed out of the grand hall, and down the north corridor. What of his mother? His siblings? Was everyone dead? He careened up the winding, spiral staircase and rounded the corner to Vladislov's office, bracing himself by gripping the ancient bricks.

The office was completely empty, untouched. All of the Wizard's documents were exactly where he remembered them being. Nothing looked damaged or disrupted. The various globes continued to spin at even paces on their invisible axes. The many theological and historical volumes sat untouched on the now dusty shelves. Spider webs clung in the corners of the arched windows. Aiden's heart slithered up his esophagus. He bent in half, trying to keep from passing out. Though this room seemed at peace, the whole energy of the place tasted of death and silence. The panic of his thoughts was just beginning to set in.

"Hello, son."

Aiden whirled around to see his mother standing in the threshold of the study, her hands folded neatly in front of her. Her colorless face carried years of weight and worry. Her lips were mashed into a thin and lamenting line as she stared back at him. Unfolding her arms, she said tearfully, "Come here to me, Aiden. Let me look at you."

"Mum?" He wavered. It was as if all of the jagged ice and pointed shards inside of him melted instantly. He didn't totally trust the image before him. She could have

been a hex, sent there by Valek's little Witch to destroy him. Or maybe the remaining members of the Regime had seen him coming, and she was a bewitchment to protect them all from his fury. However badly he wanted to, he did not take a step forward.

"Come here, son. What's happened to you, my boy?" She began again with tears streaming down her soft, lined face.

His resolve wavered. He needed to be comforted by her-to be told it would all be okay. He went to her. He didn't care. He was already dead enough as it was. He couldn't imagine how things could get much worse.

She wrapped him up in her warmth, cradling him like she always used to. "I was so worried about you. I'm so glad to see that you are all right," she paused, "mostly."

"Did you not know where I was?"

She pulled him away, holding him by the shoulders to look him in the face. "Of course, I did, dear. I put you there."

"What?" Aiden blanched and yanked himself free from his mother's grasp. "Did you just expect me to figure it out for myself-to find my way back? I was out there for weeks!"

"Yes. You are a warrior, Aiden. There's nothing you can't fight through." Her gaze dropped to his feet before lifting slowly back to his face. "Even this." She gestured clearly to what he had become. "I needed to put you there. To protect you. Or else the others would have found reason to destroy you-burned your body like those sniveling nightwalkers and found a new heir. I was not about to let that happen."

"I am still the same, mother. I'm the same I've always been."

"That monster changed you." Her jolly, little tone sank into a seething growl.

"It's better this way, mother. He has made me stronger."

"No, not him, you twit! Her! That guttersnipe! She is the monster. This is entirely her fault!" Meredith approached Aiden slowly. "I swore upon your dying breath that we were going to make her pay. Once you awoke and returned to me, I swore we were going to seek our revenge on her and her wretched fiend. I warned her, didn't I, Aiden? In the beginning, I told her how dangerous it would be to stay with that beast! Well, the child didn't listen, so vengeance will be ours. Wait and see."

"How?"

Meredith grinned a Cheshire-cat grin and lifted her arms, slowly spinning in a wide circle as she gestured to the room around them. "What we promised you, my Aiden!"

Slowly, the light began to brighten in Vladislov's office, as if life itself were being restored. The cobwebs and dust dissipated into thin air, leaving the surfaces shining again. Just outside, in the hall, Aiden could see the bits of rubble pull themselves up off the ground and fit back into the holes in the walls.

"Vladislov's legacy is yours now! The Regime. All of the magic in the world. It is all yours!"

"What of the others?" he asked, clenching his jaw tightly. His mind automatically started spinning with the actual possibility that this was all his now-that he really did possess the abilities and the resources to take down Valek and his band of sewer rats. And Charlotte.

"Long dead, sweet boy. Those demons killed Bedrich and Kazimir."

"And father?"

Meredith blessed herself silently, her gaze lifting toward the wooden ceiling. "I have not been across his body yet, love. Let us pray to the goddess we don't find it, and that he's off somewhere in hiding."

"The goddess will no longer hear my prayers," Aiden mused as he caught a glimpse of his gruesome reflection in the mirror. "She doesn't listen to those who have fallen to darkness."

"You have not fallen by choice. Of course she still hears you." Meredith stroked affectionately through his hair and kissed his forehead softly. "And she takes pity."

"What was it you said to Charlotte as she was leaving? When I was dead in your arms? You must have exchanged words of some kind."

His mother smiled briefly before mashing her lips into the grim line. "I looked into those abysmal eyes of hers, and I swore I would hunt her down. We will. We will take what is rightfully ours now. The country. The world. We'll carry out your dream of uniting the mortal world and the magic world, so that we may have it all. You'll rule without the likes of her. You will rule both the light and the dark. And you'll take down those who have committed such a crime against the Regime and you as lord. You'll take them down. One. By. One."