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


Retribution

It was an impossible sight for Sarah to behold: Charlotte cradled in Valek's arms, weak and pale and dying. Edwin and Mr. Třinozka joined them in the center of the clearing, Edwin hopping down off the Spider's back to wrap his burlap arms around Sarah's shoulders. Terrified to lose the only one she'd called a friend in a long while, she couldn't contain her trembling. She'd been resigned to living out the rest of her days as Francis' housemaid, until Charlotte quite literally dropped in and changed everything.

Valek and Charlotte were having some odd, half-unspoken conversation. Charlotte was a horrifying sight, seeming nearly dead. Her face was blank. Her eyes held very little light at all. The only indication she was still there with them were the tears that continued to drip silently down her cheeks and the fact that Valek was seemingly answering every last one of her thoughts.

"Valek, please," Sarah implored again.

"Sarah, stop it!"

Valek was absolutely ruined. She'd never seen the Vampire like this, so wrung out. His eyes were completely eclipsed in black and stained red with his tears. She was unsure if it was Charlotte's scent that had gotten to him, or if it was the effect of his desperation.

"I will not make the same mistakes twice!" His voice wavered, sounding so completely...human. "What happened to my wife was a careless exercise on my part. I will never do that again. Everyone should be given the choice."

Sarah's heart leaped into her throat at these words. He was going to give Charlotte the choice! There was still hope! Her gaze dashed instantly to Charlotte's deathly face.

"Lottie, listen to me, now. You have to make a very careful decision. Do you want me to save you? You have time. You can think about this for a few moments. Weigh it carefully." Valek spoke low and deliberately, coaxing her. Sarah felt Edwin's arms squeeze tighter around her.

"She'll make it," Mr. Třinozka murmured tearfully. "She's a fighter. A spitfire, that one is. She truly is."

"Don't do what you think we all want you to do. You must decide what you believe is right."

Sarah watched as more tears rolled silently from Charlotte's eyes, her brow furrowing only very slightly. She knew Charlotte was talking to Valek in her mind now, silently explaining something. It seemed like an eternity as the rest of them looked in on this intimate scene between the two. It almost felt like they were intruding-the final moments of fate between Charlotte and Valek. Sarah stifled a sob with her hands cupped to her lips.

"Yes, my love. I think that is a wise decision."

Sarah's heart leapt back up into her throat. What was it? What was the decision?

"We all love you very much, but I most of all. Always remember that. And I will see you soon. Wait for me, little Lottie." Valek's tone was carefully weighed and even.

Sarah felt like her heart dropped ten stories. Charlotte had chosen to die. Never in a million years would Sarah ever make that wager. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled. She didn't want to believe it. She heard a sob catch in Edwin's throat, his burlap lips pressed tightly behind her ear. Sarah didn't cry. She was numb, angry even. How could Charlotte be so selfish? They all needed her so much. And then a new revelation dawned. Charlotte didn't want to be the burden any longer. She was the only mortal among all of these magic things, and in the wake of destroying the Regime once and for all, she didn't want to slow them down. Even as a newly created Vampire, she would do just that. They'd constantly have to watch her-have to be aware that her new bloodlust might get the better of her. Charlotte probably realized, after seeing it so many times for herself, she never wanted to become that-never wanted to live that way.

"Everyone just wait!" A familiar voice called out from the corner of the clearing. Everyone froze as they turned to see its owner walking toward the group. The bright vision of his face in the darkness of the night was like breathing the first breath of fresh air.

"Francis!" she cried, finally standing up on her quaking knees. He didn't look the same as when she'd last seen him. He was right again-he looked how he was supposed to look. She recalled how Vladislov had reduced him to a strange and cursed creature. Francis bounded to her and wrapped her in a tight embrace, which was even more surprising. In all of her years working for him, he'd never regarded her in such a kindly way. What had happened to him in all this time?

"Where were you? Why didn't you come sooner? Charlotte," she choked over her falling tears, "Charlotte, she's dead."

Francis hushed her, smoothing the hair out of her face. "I don't think she's quite dead, darling. I still hear the faint heartbeat from that direction." He indicated Charlotte and Valek huddled in the snow.

Charlotte's eyes were still open, their expression hard, as though she was fighting to hold on to every last breath she had inside of her.

Valek remained in his position, though he peered up at Francis. "What are you doing here?"

"Saving your sorry tail, as usual." Francis snorted. "What's with all the weeping? It's terribly depressing." He yanked out a handkerchief that was tucked within his sleeve and handed it to Sarah before sauntering closer to Valek.

Sarah wiped at her face as she appraised Francis. There was something else that was different about him. His face seemed brighter. His hair held more sheen than was even usual. Where had he come from? Her mind locked on Abelim. Of course! The elders must have taken care of whatever spell Vladislov had meant to cast. Sarah couldn't hide her beaming smile. She could always tell when Francis had a plan.

"Give me the girl." He spoke quietly to Valek as though he were a small child clutching his favorite broken toy. Francis held his arms out expectantly.

Valek frowned once before standing with Charlotte in his arms and handing her over to Francis. "She doesn't want to change," he admitted. "She said she doesn't want to become what we are."

"Well, who said I was going to change her?" Francis cocked his head. "Honestly, you don't have much faith in your creator, do you? I do possess a certain amount of knowledge about this stuff. After all, I am older than you! Would you like to explain to me what you're doing in the middle of these woods unprotected, or would you like me to save the

girl first?"

"Age before beauty," Valek responded, though Sarah heard no level of humor in his strained voice.

"That-a-boy. The funny thing is, the child hasn't committed hari kari. She has actually saved her own life. We just have to finish the process for her, because like most things, Charlotte didn't quite think this one through all the way." He gazed down at the limp Lottie in his arms. "Did you, darling?"

Sarah caught the slightest twinkle as it lit and faded in her best friend's eye. She repressed a giggle as she distantly wondered what Charlotte's response had been. In that instant, Francis' glare landed on Nikolai, who stood quaking in the corner, his face green and drawn, most likely from everything he'd just witnessed.

"Good, mortal. I don't know who you are, but I am glad you're here!" he announced for the benefit of the crowd like a circus ringmaster, as had always been his gallant style. It was everything Sarah could do not to crack a smile.

Francis knelt into the snow, Charlotte still cradled in his lap. With one arm, he cradled Charlotte's head, but with the other he moved quickly to undo the buttons at the top of her dress, ripping the material down over the hilt of the letter opener. Sarah, paired with Edwin, moved closer to see what he was doing. Mr. Třinozka edged just behind them, though she noticed Valek remaining painstakingly still and distant. He regarded Charlotte with a horror-laced gaze, as if she were already dead. Sarah could see why. Sickly perspiration was beginning to form along Charlotte's brow line; her breathing was very shallow. Her eyes were sunk deep into her skull as she lay motionless and unblinking. Swiftly, Francis wrapped his slender, white fingers around the silver hilt of the blade, tearing it from Charlotte's chest. Her back arched in response to her own silent pain. Sarah's eyes pricked with tears again as she covered her mouth with both of her hands.

"He's g-got a plan," Edwin whispered into her hair, his squeeze tightening on her shoulder.

More blood ruptured from Charlotte's chest, but Sarah couldn't bear to rip her gaze away from the scene. Bending his face to the wound, they watched fixatedly as he licked it clean, until the flesh beneath his kiss began to repair itself, sealing shut. Sarah glowered for a moment, crossing her arms. She couldn't help but feel as though Valek should have done that. But one glance in Valek's direction, and she was reminded why Francis was the elder. Valek's face looked more like stone than usual, his black gaze frozen on Charlotte's body. There was no way, after almost saying goodbye to her, that he could have been emotionally sane enough to handle this. For the first time in knowing him, Sarah wished she could hear his thoughts. She wondered briefly if she should go comfort him, but the little voice in her mind warned her to stay put.

"Mortal!" Francis growled maniacally. His breathing came in lurches.

Sarah never recalled there ever being a situation like this while living in Francis' house in Prague. The first time he tasted a particular human's blood was always the last. He had never been forced to restrain himself like that. Sarah gasped, feeling new respect for him blossom in her chest.

"Come to me!" He beckoned Nikolai from the back of the crowd, who was also standing stock-still like Valek. Sarah frowned, wondering if all that Aiden had said was really fact. She began to find the similarities in their faces.

Nikolai staggered forward, blinking, as though he couldn't believe his legs were actually moving after the shock. His eyes were wide and watery, and he looked like nothing more than a frightened child that Sarah wanted to cradle. He stopped just inches before Francis and Charlotte in the snow, staring down at them expectantly and with some reserved terror.

Francis spoke to him very slowly, the gentleness in his voice rather surprising. "I am not going to kill you. Understand? But this might hurt."

Nikolai nodded slowly, breathing in deeply through his nose. Sarah guessed that was the first breath he'd taken in a while. He knelt in front of them in the snow.

"There's one thing I have to do before I need you," he explained, reaching into the pocket of his coat.

Everyone watched curiously as he pulled out a small, indigo pouch made of what looked to be fine velvet, tied with golden silk tassels. The sewn-in description across the front was a calligraphic letter P entrapped in a scrolling, elegant circle. Could it be? The Parliament? Reaching in, Francis pulled out something small between his index finger and his thumb. It glinted in the soft light of the midnight, but Sarah could not quite make out what it was. With his other hand, they watched as he proceeded to make a deep incision with his claw where the knife had been-directly above her heart. Carefully, he pressed the small object inside and kissed the wound closed again. Slowly, Charlotte's eyes shut, but Sarah noticed the slightest amount of color return to her cheeks. Glancing around, she wondered if anyone else had as well.

"Now," he began again to Nikolai, "give me your wrist." He held his hand out expectantly to Nikolai, who apprehensively shifted forward, offering Francis his arm. "Good. Now, carefully...."

He prodded quietly as he carved a shallow cut into Nikolai's wrist. Nikolai winced as his blood began to flow in scarlet ribbons down his arm. Tenderly, Francis pressed Nikolai's cut to Charlotte's parted lips. He held it there for a few moments, grasping the back of Charlotte's head, holding it up so that Nikolai's blood would slide down. Sarah couldn't help her small grimace. This seemed like cannibalism, somehow.

"Good!" Francis announced, quickly sealing Nikolai's wound shut as well. In one swift movement he was standing with the girl in his arms, smiling delightedly at Valek. "I've done it. You can thank me now!"

Valek still looked like a Greek statue in rubble and ruin as he watched Francis prance toward him. "What did you do?" He spoke quietly and eerily.

Francis handed him Charlotte, whom he took apprehensively, with so much pain weighing in his eyes. Sarah dropped her gaze to her knotting fingers.

"I've saved her life, Valek," he shot back sarcastically. "I believe a thank you is in order."

Sarah glanced up again. Was it true? Charlotte was going to live, and not as a Vampire, but as...as her own, warm, smiling, soft, self? Sarah beamed. She heard Mr. Třinozka's sigh of relief next to her.

"Thank you," Valek offered

quietly, something still gravely solemn about his tone, though he seemed to relax a fraction as well. For the first time, he looked to Sarah, who tried her best to offer up a soft, sincere smile. "Her temperature is returning to normal and her pulse has gotten a bit stronger already," he said.

Sarah clapped her hands once, the joy warming under her skin. Edwin hugged her tight. Even for all the magic in Prague, this was a miracle.

Valek turned to Francis. "How did you do it?"

"Well, it seems the little fighter did something good by piercing her heart. Not only has she severely maimed the big-eared bastard, but she also did something to release some of the lethal toxins that were spreading throughout her system. She will live, but the relief from her ailment is only temporary. It will return."

"But how could you possibly know about that?" Valek prodded with his eyebrows raised.

"Oh, we've all been watching, darling." Francis smirked and crossed his arms over his chest.

"We?"

"The Elders and I, of course." Sarah couldn't help her gasp. It was all making sense. "As my reparation to them for restoring me back to my full health, I agreed to come and collect you." He extended a claw to Valek, who frowned his response.

"Me? Why? We were seeking them."

"As it seems, the fates have changed their minds yet again." He waved his hands through the hair vaguely. "Milo!" He called loudly in the direction of the empty forest behind him.

Squinting through the haze and shadows and flurries of snow, Sarah could faintly hear the noises of horse hooves trotting through the frosted, winter foliage. Another sound followed quickly behind-the rickety bumps and screeches of wheels. A carriage? The thing clambered into the clearing through the thicket of trees, dark horses like Beta and Jiri leading the way, though there were many more of them-probably six. A militant-looking Vampire adorned in a very official, fine black suit with tails and trimmings in gold and deep indigo gripped the reins out front. His expression was stony and impassive as he made eye contact with no one. Like every other Vampire she knew, he was beautiful, with skin seemingly carved from pearl and impossible glacier eyes that seemed to burn through whomever they made contact with. His hair was more modern than Valek's and Francis' though, cropped short at the nape of his neck and combed over at an angle.

"Valek, I've been sent by the elders themselves. We've come to collect you." Francis' tone turned more businesslike as he clasped his hands in front of him, lacing his fingers.

Valek frowned, glancing in Sarah's direction. "I do not understand. You are going to take me to Abelim?"

"Yes. We are to leave straight away. The Elders have requested counsel with you. Our fight with the light isn't over. Something very large is coming, and it seems the fates have pointed you out as the go-to guy."

Valek's gaze touched Charlotte's face as he cradled her, his hard expression going soft again. "Will they be able to cure Charlotte's ailment? Once and for all?"

Francis sucked in a quick breath of air. "Oh, no, no, no. She cannot come with. Sorry, Valek, but I've helped her the best I could, and the Parliament has given me strict orders to fetch you and you alone. The girl is to stay here for now. At least her fate has been prolonged. She won't falter quite yet to this odd disease you've cast upon her. She'll survive a bit longer. She'll have to do it without you."

"But you said 'for now'. Surely you won't keep me away forever? I can return to her." Valek's voice turned back into adamant desperation.

"Perhaps, but that is not for me to decide. You'll have to see what the others say." Francis' gaze flicked to Mr. Třinozka and Edwin and back to Valek. "I do believe she'll be safe in the care of her...friends. Sarah will stay with her, too."

"Absolutely!" Sarah chimed in. Francis mashed his lips into a thin line. Maybe she should not have responded quite so exuberantly.

Francis sighed, clearly fatigued of the conversation. "Okay, well, let's not have these goodbyes become dramatic. Say them quickly and let's be off."

"She'll wonder what happened to me when she wakes and I am gone," Valek murmured.

"If I remember correctly, Charlotte didn't want to stay with you, anyway." The crowd gasped quietly at Nikolai, who had spoken up for the first time that evening.

Valek's jaw tightened a fraction as he absorbed the blow of the boy's words. He straightened up, his shoulders stiffening slightly as the muscles in his face tensed. "You're right. She did decide that, didn't she? So it seems this is all for the best." Valek turned his attention to Mr. Třinozka who walked gracefully over to him. Sarah watched, Valek's broken heart tangible to her, as he handed Charlotte over to the giant Spider.

"Look after her in my absence. Whatever questions she has, answer them honestly. Most importantly, tell her how much I love her, and how much I am sorry."

Grasping Charlotte in his two front hands, Mr. Třinozka gave one silent nod in response before Valek turned back to Francis.

"It is for her betterment that you are leaving, Valek," Francis said matter-of-factly. "From a loftier position, you will be able to protect her. There is much in store for you in the Dark City. I'm sure, in time, Charlotte will come seeking you again."

Valek inhaled slowly. "I'm ready."

Without so much as a glance over his shoulder, Valek silently followed Francis into the dark carriage, closing the door behind him. Sarah could understand why Valek didn't regard them one last time. Maybe it was just too painful for him. Maybe he just wasn't good at saying goodbye. Tears brimmed in the corners of her eyes as she watched the one called Milo beat the reins, prompting the horses to begin their long journey to the city of Abelim. The wheels left no tracks in the snow as the carriage rounded and retreated back in the direction from which it came, a dark and ghostly fog eclipsing the sight of it from her. She watched, fresh tears rolling down her frosted cheeks, wondering what would become of him, as their fallen hero retreated to where he was needed. She wondered what would become of them, as well.