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A fiercely imaginative and multilayered contemporary fantasy about a girl caught between two societies, two sides, and two destinies. Charlotte Ruzikova knows no other home than the one nestled deep in the woods of Eastern Europe, where witches draw spells of enchantment, shifters throw tea parties, and elves are the closest in kin. Raised by a vampire in a secret society of legendary beings, Charlotte finds that she is the human freak in her world of magic and wonder. When she stands before an army of impossible obstacles, the likelihood of survival in this modern fairy tale is slim, resulting in a war between light and darkness.As genocide and war threaten her life and her home, Charlotte will not allow her one true love to be destroyed. Fighting for her adopted coven of rogue monsters, she will do whatever it takes to save them, and she'll do it before the sun comes up and light takes over forever!An age-cold conflict: dark against light. But which is good and which is evil?
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used factiously.
THE PARLIAMENT HOUSE
Sold by Pronoun | Macmillan
An imprint of Machovi Productions Inc.
OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS. Copyright ©2011 by Shayne Leighton. All Rights Reserved. Printed in the United States of America.
Cover design by Parliament House Book Designs and Shayne Leighton
Edited by David Rochelero
Created with Vellum
For the ever-patient readers-all you magic folk who’ve lived with me in the occult city all this time.
1. The Occult City
2. Lottie Falls
3. Man Nor Monster
4. No Fear For The Vampire
6. The Spider’s Burrow
7. Next In Line
8. The Price Of Sinning
9. Central European Magic Regime
10. No Rest For The Wicked
12. Bronze Light
13. Blood Libel
14. A Smoking Gun
16. Rat In A Cage
17. Disappearing Act
18. Safe Haven
19. Rogue Coven
20. At A Loss
23. Out Of The Midst
24. Rogues Of The Revolution
25. Death Of The Party
27. Which Witch
28. The Fates
32. Broken Sound
35. House At The End Of The Lane
Sneak Peak at Book Two
About the Author
I, being of sound mind, body, and death, was fully aware journeying beyond the borders of my occult city was a strict offense against The Code of the Central European Magic Regime. But I missed Prague far more than my capacity to stay away—missed it enough even to breach the most important law.
They could not stop me as I flew to my escape.
Splintered glass exploded around me as I hurtled through Gothic windows and plummeted several stories to the dark alley floor. Without difficulty, I landed on my feet and glanced around to make sure I’d remained undetected by mortal passersby.
Blood soaked through my jacket where a nefarious Wizard had stabbed me with his letter opener, though there was no sting. No pain.
Shouting rang out like alarms above me. “Seize him!” they cried. “He is escaping!”
Too fast for any untrained eye, I evaded each of them, dodging around building corners. I dashed through dim arcades and scaled locked gates. A myriad of humans thronged the boulevards of Old Town. Their presence made my throat burn, the thirst throbbing within me, but there was no time to act on any of my instincts.
“Sweetheart, your scarf!” A wife reached as it flew from her husband’s neck when I raced by. To her, I only appeared a gust of wind.
I held my breath and continued to race up toward the castle as the flesh wound in my center mended itself. The biology of my dark gift was a medical wonder.
Law One, arguably the most important law of The Magic Code, meant any occult creature must never expose himself to any mortal. I was already breaking Law One by entering the human city, not to mention the many other laws I’d violated that evening.
The guards’ thoughts grew quieter and quieter, at last a safe distance away. I glanced back in time to see a platoon run off in a different direction on the opposite side of Charles Bridge. The darkness made me too fast—too powerful.
When I ran at my full force, the world froze like time stood still. As I slowed, the city around me broke into a normal speed.
Prague was unseasonably warm for autumn, bustling with travelers and natives teeming in organized chaos about the streets. German refugees and revolution protesters packed shoulder to shoulder, chanting around the embassy walls, making it impossible for me to ignore the aroma of so much warm flesh in one place.
The Golden City of my memory, gleaming under a brilliant sun, now foundered under shadows of oppressive red and yellow communist flags. Parallels between the mortal world and ours were uncanny. The mortal Czechoslovaks’ revolution drew near. People believed in hope once again.
But our revolution would not see the light of day for another two decades. I cursed the Regime palace as its towers dipped back under the sea of spires behind me.
A single bench, forsaken in the middle of Hradčany seemed the perfect perch for me to rest with my solitude. There I sat, listening to a folk band play a native song under the glow of a crooked streetlamp. I recognized the melody—one made famous by Karel Kryl—“Anděl.” One of my favorites.
The castle square bustled around me. More people. More blood. I studied them all. I smelled their warmth. I heard their struggle. They were more entertaining than theatre, as if I was the reality looking in on the make-believe. Of course they’d find me just as fascinating—my reality so different from theirs. Forbidden. Dangerous. There was something alluring about death.
People tossed coins into a tattered hat near the band as they played on. The city held nostalgia for me. I stayed there into the early hours of the morning—fixated—musing over memories of the way I used to be.
A group of drunken Russians stumbled out from a nearby tavern, their hoots and laughter obnoxious and intruding over the peaceful, acoustic music. Young women simpered at me as their companions pulled them along, casting threatening glares. I chuckled. Little did those men know what a threat I really could be. They were lucky, however, for I’d already fed that evening. Shifting the chip on my shoulder, I averted my gaze.
The earlier into the new day it grew, the lonelier the surrounding area became.
Soon the band, too, ended their playing and packed their instruments away in cases. They peered into the hat, now filled with change, and celebrated their night’s earnings before disappearing from the city square. I was alone once more.
The moon retreated to the underbelly of the earth, dawn’s army of light invading over the horizon. I would be dying soon. Once more, it was time for me to return home— to my prison of supernatural things to which I was condemned.
I stood and looked to the stars, the intricate beading that mapped out our fate. Fate. The word used to mean something. Though now, I learned to only appreciate the tangible, the here and now, and things set before my eyes. My world of magic had become so void of possibility and I’d become my only friend over the vast years that turned on a dial like minutes. Expendable. Life was expendable.
Walking out of the town square, a sudden wailing jolted me. Muffled and hidden, like no sound I’d ever heard before, it was slight enough so that any distracted human ears would have missed it. However, to my own sensitive hearing, it was a harrowing banshee scream!
Thoughts also accompanied the strange cries. They were small, simple pictures that seemed human and coming from just behind a potted shrub nearby.
Inching around the corner of the boxy greenery, I expected to find some malignant, little monster waiting for me on the other side. My hands hardened into claws. My cat-like eyes shifted around in the dark for the creature. I was ready to attack, to kill, if I had to.
But I found nothing like what I’d expected. I returned back from the beast the moment I saw her, a tiny body wriggling in a pile of rags that were a pathetic attempt at keeping her warm.
A mortal infant.
Curious, I knelt over her and saw tear droplets quivering on her downy cheeks. Little auburn wisps from the top of her head shuddered in the breeze. The child stared back at me, her own curiosity painted in her large glassy eyes.
I looked around to see if there was anyone to claim her, perhaps from some horrible mistake they made by leaving her there. Alas, the street was now empty and no one seemed to have remembered the little thing.
I sighed. My gums throbbed with a familiar pain. I gazed down at her and could almost feel my pupils spread, engulfing my entire eye in black. She smelled so pure—clean and uncontaminated, like breathing fresh air. Her blood would taste sweet, but I shook those demons from my mind.
I slid my long, cold hands underneath her and lifted her out of the crude nest of covers. The child cooed at me, gazing wondrously at the world. Little noises continued to slip from her mouth. I watched, rather surprised at myself. It was impossible—out of everything that existed in my horrible world of nightmarish beasts, this simple, tiny being was the first thing in over a hundred years to scare me. Me, the monster. I chuckled, despite my fear.
She peered up at my grave-marker face and continued to make slight, happy noises at me, naïve to our deadly differences. She even stretched out her tiny hand and grazed my cheek. How amazing that she was unaffected by me. This innocent little mortal was so weak, vulnerable, and terrifying.
“I am not going to kill you,” I convinced myself, recognizing how stiff the words sounded as they slid out. Glancing around the square again, a sign caught my eye. It pointed the way to Charles Bridge—the first road to home. “Char. . . lotte. Charlotte.” The name fit her so well. “I won’t let the monsters get you, Charlotte.”
My decision had been made.
Walking at a steady, human pace, all the while transfixed by her, I carried the baby away from the city gutters, not taking my eyes off her for a second.
I—we—made our way home into the deep woods of Bohemia, unaware of the consequences and the adventures awaiting us.
That night, I’d found meaning. I’d found her. I was to be alone no more.
A twig cracked behind her. She stopped to see where the sound came from.
Her pulse leapt into her throat as her eyes sifted around in the dark for a pursuer. Her grip tightened around the limp wrist of another mortal woman at her side, one Charlotte drugged using a borrowed Witch’s brew.
Perspiration dotted across her forehead. She remained still, listening for another sign of movement. She had been so careful, waiting until the Lycanthrope guarding the city’s entrance became distracted by his supper, some passing animal.
Now, it felt like she could feel his shiny eyes tracking her from within his hiding spot in the dense forest. Her hand quivered as she slipped it up her chest, feeling for the little silver pendant.
Damn. She’d forgotten her whistle at home. Now, there was no way to call for Valek if she needed him.
The woman groaned next to Charlotte, her head lolling to one side. “Hush,” Charlotte hissed at her, but knew demanding anything of her was pointless. The woman was delirious.
Without the crunch of any more twigs or any footfalls over the brush, Charlotte took the opportunity to get out of there. Perhaps it had been a rabbit or a deer, she told herself as she started again a bit faster. Sucking in a huge breath, she strained to quiet her frenzied heartbeat and continued to drag along Valek’s stupefied dinner.
The shadowed tree-tunnel was the only passage to her hidden Bohemian Occult City. Silvery haze off the Vltava River streamed down the dirt path, kicking up with every step. The sticky, late-August air made her clothes cling. Sweat beaded along the back of her neck as she huffed over her fast pace, every so often glancing behind her . . . just to be sure.
It was a struggle to keep the magically intoxicated woman close at her side as she strode through the darkness. Her boots crushed over leaves and a dirt path that quickly dissipated under gravel and cobblestone. Tree clusters gave way to modest cottage homes of stone and wood. Charlotte pressed on, beyond the residences, until she reached the main part of town.
The occult city square was vibrant, busy with enchanted fiddles and flutes playing themselves on street corners. Paper lanterns hung mysteriously string-less in the dead of the night. Shifters chattered with each other in alleyways between taverns and shops, while a gathering of caroling Imps sung in harmony near the center’s fountain.
Fairies stalked in the shadows, praying on unfortunate cats and mice. Hearty Elves with round bellies and rosy smiles worked late, pushing their painted kiosks filled with baked goods and cured meats.
“Roasted toad! Get your roasted toad, here!”
A large, winged silhouette eclipsed the moonlight, throwing the town into a momentary shadow as a dragon soared by.
Most creatures waved their greetings to Charlotte as she passed. She’d become a part of this town, guarded by witchcraft and governed by magic, a safe haven of things that haunted the shadows of mortal nightmares. She was the only human to live among the monsters—Charlotte, the Vampire’s foundling.
“Evening, Charlotte! Saved an extra-warm cup of cider for ya, right here!” A Forest Sprite with a leafy face and twiggy hair called, leaning out from beyond his stand of bracers and beers. He handed her the usual mug.
“Thanks, Ludo,” she grinned, taking it. “I’ll have this back to you tomorrow evening.”
“Keep it! I’ll just fill ’er up again, of course!” He laughed. “It’s a new recipe. Let me know what you think!”
“I will,” she giggled and pressed on.
The evening was a little warm for cider, but it was her favorite. Steam filtered up from the russet liquid. She sipped at the swirling tastes of cinnamon and apple and sighed. Running into Ludo always made hunting errands more pleasant.
Downing another swill, she grimaced as she passed tall, scandalous-looking Witches gossiping amongst themselves in the doorway of the smoky Howler’s Tavern. A different kind of music pulsated from within, enchanted beams of light flashing purple and green. It made one entire side of the square’s perimeter throb. The charmed women clutched their colorful drinks like an accessory as they lingered too close to each other in the shadows. Their voices were low and their cackles earsplitting.
One Witch in particular stopped talking when she saw Charlotte. The corners of her wine-stained lips curled upward and she flung herself from her clique and down the stone steps, her heels clacking over the flagstone.
“Hello! Sweet Charlotte!” She batted her hand through the air.
All her friends looked to snicker, no doubt appraising Charlotte’s frumpy skirt and baggy sweater. She sneered at Evangeline’s leather-clad figure as she darted up to meet her in the center of the square.
“I see my potion worked.” Evangeline ogled the drugged mortal’s glassy stare. “It took ages to get it right, but it was the least I could do for Valek after my little accident this summer.” She tossed her luxurious chestnut hair behind one shoulder, revealing a circular scar embossed in her flesh.
Charlotte blinked at her, stomach twisting in an envious fit. She remembered when Evangeline had received that scar another warm night only a few weeks earlier.
“Yes,” she also glanced at the catatonic woman next to her. “It saved me a lot of time. Thank you,” she muttered with half-hearted gratitude.
Charlotte could never understand why the Witch got under her skin so badly. Evangeline had always been kind enough, never made fun of her—not to her face. But as she flashed another dazzling smile, her eyelashes batting as she leaned her tall slender frame over one curvy hip, Charlotte felt her stomach turn.
“Where in Lilith’s creation did you find this . . . woman?” Evangeline pulled at the mortal’s “Prague” sweatshirt, her gaze dashing down to her torn jeans and back up again. “She must be a tourist.”
Charlotte shrugged, sipping at her cider again. Its warmth did something to quell her agitation. “She was alone. I found her outside a discotheque arguing with someone on her mobile. American, I think. It was easy. I approached her, pretended I was lost . . .” she trailed off. “But I should be getting home. Valek will be waiting.”
Yanking at the affected woman to follow, Charlotte started walking again until Evangeline stepped in front of her, blocking her way.
Her grin turned fake and even threatening. “Let’s say I go with you. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Valek. If he’s got time this evening, I’d love to catch up.”
Charlotte clenched her jaw and with a tight smile, she offered, “He’s been very busy with patients, you know? I’ll be sure to tell him you said hello.”
She tried to move past the Witch again, but Evangeline clasped Charlotte at the top of her shoulder, pulling her back. It nearly spilled the liquid from her mug. Her eyes narrowed, but her smile grew larger. “I’m so glad you got home safely. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you outside of these city gates. The Regime is keeping such a close eye on things, these days.”
A chill skittered through Charlotte’s body. Evangeline and Valek had known each other for decades before he found Charlotte and knowing so made jealousy wind like a tapeworm in her bowels, but Evangeline’s hold on her was constricting by the second and she needed to get home.
“What I mean is . . . maybe you can come by tomorrow.” She searched her severe face. “Maybe?”
Evangeline’s eyes brightened. “Perfect! I get off work at midnight.”
“Fine. I should be out hunting, but Valek will be home.” Charlotte forced a smile as she and the other mortal began walking again. Evangeline rejoined her friends while Charlotte dug her nails deep into the intoxicated woman’s forearm, grumbling.
The truth was, Valek had not arranged any appointments in a long while, not since Evangeline was attacked by the Lycan guard. Occult newspapers and radio had been spreading some rather strange reports, recently. Stories of Vampires wreaking havoc on their cities, chewing out jugulars of Elves and Witches, started to cast Valek in a dim light, even for those citizens who’d known him for years.
Imps with regular health conditions stopped calling. Pregnant Elven women stopped scheduling check-ups. Charlotte knew it bothered him, but he never let on. She’d caught him reading the newspapers only once.
“Don’t pay attention to such rubbish,” she’d said to him before stealing it away and tossing its crumpled bits into the fire.
She thought of the night Evangeline had been attacked. She’d rushed into Valek’s office to find the Witch screaming and retching on the gurney as Valek sewed up the deep gash in her shoulder. It was the first night Charlotte realized the severity of the Regime’s measures to keep things in order.
She pulled the drugged woman along the narrow footpath that branched out from behind one of the square’s many arcades and led in the direction of home. Partially tucked away behind tall evergreens, the house used to be an abandoned church Valek converted into his residence when the occult city had first been settled, nearly a century ago. Its baroque façade made the place look like a small castle sitting against the dreamy backdrop of lush Bohemian hillsides.
It was the only home Charlotte had ever known, and he was the only family she’d ever loved. She did whatever he asked of her, even if that meant luring her own kind to their fate so Valek could survive. It was the only way for him to feed due to the Regime’s disordered, tyrannical laws—laws forcing all beings of Magic to stay within the confines of the small occult towns so no mortal could become privy to their existence. But the paranoia seemed to be getting out of control.
The borders hadn’t always been so guarded, but now Valek could only feed if a mortal happened to stumble across the gates, or if Charlotte lured one in.
All the lights were on inside, creating a cozy glow from the windows as she trudged up the porch steps, dragging Valek’s meal through the door.
Parking the bewitched woman on a stair that led down into the dropped foyer, she set the mug on a small side table under a wall mirror and shrugged out of her pea coat. She slung it over the stand—a wooden one with dozens of whimsical faces carved with great detail into its trunk.
The doorframe matched around the main entry and she’d spent brief moments marveling at the craftsmanship.
“Valek? Valek, I’m home!”
He poked his handsome face from beyond the library doors and smiled. “Lottie!” He bounded up to her with a large, toothy grin and lifted her high in his arms, swirling her around in a circle before setting her down again. “I was beginning to worry, my doll. You forgot your whistle.” He pulled the ornate, silver whistle from out of his breast pocket. It dangled on the end of a long chain before her nose.
Her whistle was their only means of communication when they were apart. Valek’s acute hearing could catch its enchanted sound from kilometers away. He had it constructed of pure silver to protect from Were-beings and other sinister creatures if she ever found herself in serious trouble without him.
She grinned, snatching the thing and strung it back around her neck. “Sorry,” she said, turning it over in her fingers. “I was in a hurry tonight.”
“You’re always hurrying,” he grumbled.
Her giggle melted the worry contorting his otherwise beautiful features. His eyes were always so bright, his smile warm behind full lips. She didn’t find anything monstrous about him in the least.
Valek looked to the other woman standing emotionless by the door and burst into thunderous laughter. “And who might this be, cluttering up my foyer?” Grabbing her by the wrists, he lifted her arms up to examine her better.
Charlotte laughed too. The woman might have been considered appetizing at the start of the night, but now she looked a horrid, muddy sight. It seemed as if she were emerging from a coma.
“I found her in Prague. She’s quite the mess now, I’m afraid.”
Valek’s smile dissolved into a disapproving glare. “You went all the way to the city?” His tone turned scolding. “You are never supposed to travel that far for me. It is very dangerous.”
Charlotte winced. “Yes. I know. But Evangeline gave me a few of the potions she’s been working on. One was for distance transportation and the other for . . .half-life.” The woman made an unintelligible noise as if to demonstrate.
“I see.” Valek’s expression eased back again. “Please send her my sincere thanks, then.” He leaned forward, planting a swift kiss on Charlotte’s forehead. “I am glad she looks after you when I cannot.” He stroked her cheek before proceeding to pull the woman by the hand toward the back of the house.
“Me too,” Charlotte muttered with a bite of sarcasm.
A knot formed in her throat as she watched him recede down the hall and longed to follow. A small, forbidden desire bubbled within her and she fantasized about what it might feel like . . . to be the one providing Valek with life, to feel the depth of a kiss like that. She glared at the woman, jealousy arising again.
There were only two instances when she was not allowed to be in the same room with Valek: when he fed and when it was time for the sunrise. He’d established those rules as soon as she was old enough to understand them.
“V-Valek,” she started nervously, stopping him.
“I saw Evangline on the square tonight. She mentioned wanting to visit.”
“Of course.” Valek nodded. “Is she all right?”
“Yes. She . . .” Charlotte fidgeted with the material of her sweater. “Misses you, I guess.” She smiled, in spite of the sick feeling forming in her gut again. It surprised her when she heard him chuckle and she frowned.
“Are you all right with her visiting? Doesn’t seem you’re very happy with the idea.” He shifted an eyebrow, a new smile brightening his face.
“It’s fine,” she sniffed, hating the fact Valek could hear her thoughts. However, she imagined he didn’t much need his supernatural abilities to read her. The psyche of an adolescent girl was probably not a difficult thing for a shrewd Vampire like him to figure out. In some ways he was like a father, but in the most annoying ways, he was more like an older brother. Charlotte grumbled and disappeared over the library threshold as he laughed, at last closing his door and locking it.
She found sanctuary in their library. It was her favorite part of the house, the room where she spent the most time growing up. It was where she did all her home studies, where she lost herself in fairytales, and where she and Valek put the Christmas tree in the winter. Sometimes, on nights when she finished hunting for Valek early, she went in there to sketch elaborate works into a large, leather journal.
Finding she did not have an ear for music and was too clumsy for dance, drawing had become her most preferred form of self-expression. Often, she’d emerge from the library in the mornings, hands and arms covered in graphite. The town of creatures and those different from her had become one giant muse.
When she did not feel inspired to sketch, she studied, taking it upon herself to learn about the dark facets of Valek’s life and what vampirism meant. This sort of studying, of course, was outside the realm of the nightly curriculum Valek selected—normal things like literature and arithmetic. Charlotte knew Valek hated when she became so engrossed in books about the dark gift, but he fascinated her to no end. She wanted to know everything, and most topics he refused to discuss.
Charlotte flicked a switch, illuminating a small spidery lantern in the center of the ceiling. She was comforted by its faint glow and the way it warmed the forest-colored walls behind large dusty shelves.
Breathing in leftover scents from his pipe smoke, she scanned the shelves for her favorite book: The Anatomy of Vampires; Volume One. The damaged spine with peeling, gray leather poked out at her from the very top ledge, as it always did.
Stretching up on her toes, she grasped the tattered volume. Pages shifted between the covers, loose for how old it was and for the many times she’d read it. She opened to the page she’d last dog-eared—a particular unit discussing feeding habits. This section focused on complications of only feeding on animals, something she often wondered about.
Settling into Valek’s velvet armchair, though, as she began to read, her mind drifted. Thoughts took her to him feeding at the back of the house:
The points of his incisors. The length of his glassy nails. The cool temperature of his skin.
She hadn’t always known she was different from him. When she was a child, around three or four, she would go around pretending to bite Valek’s patients and houseguests, so desiring to be like him. Most of them only laughed at her attempts, for they loved and accepted Charlotte. As far as they were concerned, she was one of them. But there was one night, she recalled, just before her fifth birthday, when she’d made what began as an innocent mistake.
A Fairy stalked into Valek’s office suffering an intolerable headache. But Fairies were not the much-loved stereotypical little girls with wings and pointy ears mortals revered in Charlotte’s childhood fairytale books. In reality, humans would not have expected the bloodthirsty monsters with large insect wings, jagged incisors, and slanted electric eyes. They were androgynous and more bloodthirsty than Valek had ever been, even in his lowest moment.
The young Charlotte, rearing herself, let out a tiny roar and bit the Fairy on its claw. The thing spun sharply on her, its jagged teeth bared. A horrible bellow ripped from the back of its throat, sludge spewing from its gums. Charlotte screamed and cried in fright, scurrying away as it chased her around the office.
The Fairy’s jaws snapped shut and opened again as it thrashed against medical equipment, important documents flying all around the room. Chunks of countertop and wall splintered. Black saliva dripped from its mouth as it finally cornered Charlotte in a space between two thick bookshelves, its snapping jaws only inches from her face.
Valek appeared as fast as he could. Gripping its cranium with his large hands, he didn’t hesitate before snapping the creature’s neck with a crunch.
The Fae fell to the floor, its wings thrashing in its final death throes, becoming drenched in its own blue-black blood, which oozed from its jaws and pooled under the bottoms of Charlotte’s Mary Janes.
She stood there, screaming, watching the monster die. Valek grabbed her in his arms and ran her up to his bedroom, all the while shielding her from the decaying smell now permeating his office.
It had been the only time in her life she’d ever been welcomed into his room.
Valek sat Charlotte on this edge of his bed, her tiny legs dangling over. He knelt in front of her and wiped the tears away from her face. She only stared at him, crying and screaming as loud as her little lungs could. He mopped the stuff away from her nose with the end of his puffy sleeve, hushing her gently.
“There, Lottie. Don’t cry,” he whispered.
She sniffled, but the tears continued to fall. He set her on his lap, facing him. The ruffles of her red dress upped around her pudgy knees. He brushed the hair out of her face and flashed the largest smile he could conjure. However, the sight of his fangs did little to calm her.
“Lottie. Little doll.” He hummed gently.
Charlotte was eased, then, by the musicality of his velvet voice and quieted.
“You see? You are all right now. There was a big bug in my office, and I squashed it for you.” He managed to smile less horrifyingly that time and prodded her on the nose.
“S-squashed it?” She rubbed her eyes. He took her small hands in his and balanced her on his knees.
“Yes! I squashed it,” he said valiantly, his chest puffed.
She let out a tiny giggle.
“That’s it. All is well now.”
Charlotte nodded at him, her ringlets bouncing around her face. He kissed her forehead and began to explain the ways she was different from him and everyone else who lived in the occult city. He went on further to tell her she was special because she was different and that was precisely why he loved her so very much.
That was the first time Charlotte ever understood—the first time she realized she didn’t belong quite as well as she thought she did.
She blinked back the memory and rubbed at her eyes growing heavy with sleep. The cuckoo clock on the wall read four in the morning. The sun would be up in not too long, and she decided to turn in early instead of staying up to see the dawn. Valek seemed preoccupied and it had been a while since she’d been awake during daylight. Tomorrow would be a good day to escape for a few hours in the sun.
She glanced down one last time at the following chapter entitled “The Daily Death of a Vampire”before standing from Valek’s chair.
“Not reading that again, are you?” His melodic voice startled her from the library entry. He sighed and pushed back an unruly lock of dark hair, the rest tied back with a black ribbon. “What about your studies on Oedipus? Have you finished reading yet?”
She offered a tired smile, tucking the book under her arm. “I’m going to sleep, if that’s all right. I’d like to go out tomorrow. While the sun is out, I mean.”
His answering smirk was fast and didn’t reach his eyes. “Right. Of course. Well . . . say hello to it for me.” The request sounded sad and she knew why. Charlotte understood his longing for the sunlight after living a century without it. It was like an unrequited romance. He missed it.
“Sure.” She noticed something then—a small red stain at the corner of Valek’s mouth. He was usually so careful about letting her see that sort of thing. She clenched her jaw tightly over the strange feeling spreading through her belly and before she could stop herself, she asked, “How was she?”
Valek’s face fell. “S-Sorry?” He looked uncomfortable.
“You’ve got . . .” She indicated the leftover blood and he turned away, dashing at it with the back of his hand. “I didn’t hear much of a struggle tonight,” she offered, an attempt to break the tension and shame.
He released a mortified sort of barking laugh. “Do you usually?”
“Sometimes,” she admitted.
Valek’s eyebrows furrowed. He took a few deliberate steps toward her. “Charlotte, you know if there is ever anything troubling you . . . what I mean to say is . . . I don’t want you to ever feel afraid to talk to me. I know it must disturb you on some level to have to hunt on my account.”
With her eyes locked to his, she grazed her fingers along the side of her neck. Valek’s face hardened. “I’m not afraid,” she whispered. She didn’t miss the way he hesitated, gaze lingering over where her fingers trailed.
With a deep breath, he quickly replaced the violent gaze with a nervous smile. She dropped her hand.
“Be careful when you go out.”
“I always am.”
She began out of the library, but he stopped her, wrapping his hand gently around her wrist and tugging her back. “I meant what I said,” he muttered near her ear. “If anything is ever bothering you, or makes you uncomfortable, I expect you to speak with me about it.”
“Of course, Valek.” She searched his face.
He squeezed the bottom of her chin affectionately. They regarded each other for the last time that evening before Charlotte proceeded past him, up the stairs to her room.
She thought about her five-year-old self against the Fairy again as she crawled into her bed, the thick volume still in her arms like a teddy. She pulled the covers around her shoulders and smiled when she thought of Valek’s attempt to cheer her up that night so many years ago—his horrifying grin. The Fairy’s long jagged teeth had been much scarier than Valek’s fangs.
Charlotte gripped the covers tighter around her neck and squeezed her eyes closed. The image of Valek wiping the blood away from his mouth flashed in her mind. Blood, from a human just like her.
It must have been a struggle for him to keep her there, to care for her the way he had her whole life. Valek must have fought with himself every day not to do something most horrible. She tried not to think about it—to detach herself from his victims. She wasn’t like any of them. She didn’t live life like they did. And they weren’t dying in vain. They were dying to sustain him. Her family. The one she loved.
She wondered if he was happy.
Rolling over, she thought of Evangeline, again. The Witch was beautiful with the brightest green eyes that popped against her bronze skin and dark hair. Nothing like Charlotte’s wild red curls and freckles. She flipped back again and blinked up at the ceiling. She could have sworn she noticed Valek’s eyes brighten when she told him about Evangeline’s plans to come and visit.
Charlotte’s face burned as she fought with herself over the confusing feelings she’d always possessed for him. To her surprise, she felt her eyes well up with stinging tears. She squeezed the bottom of her own chin, replaying in her mind Valek’s action from earlier that evening, how platonic it felt. He would never see her as anything other than his ward. A child.
A single tear rolled down the side of Charlotte’s face. She needed to guard these embarrassing thoughts from him at all costs. He would never understand the way she felt, much less reciprocate.
She turned on her side again, hugging the Anatomy of Vampires book close to her chest and allowing herself to sink behind her miserable, dark secret . . . drifting to sleep.
The day was much cooler than the night before. The air was getting crisper. It wafted through her open bedroom windows, smelling of baking pies and firewood. Autumn was coming. It meant her nineteenth birthday and her most favorite time of year.
She got dressed in a hurry and skipped to her vanity, attempting to comb through her messy tousles. Her antique brush jammed over a knot and she sighed, sneering at her reflection. Why couldn’t she have hair that behaved, like Evangeline’s? Men’s eyes always lingered when Evangeline ran her fingers through it—when she slid a lock of it between her lips.
Charlotte grabbed for her satchel. She swung it over her shoulder and skipped to the second story landing, but Valek’s bolted bedroom caught the corner of her eye and stopped her. Its ornate, Gothic doors made it look like a mausoleum, letting no pinch of light enter between any crevices. It stared back at her from down the forbidding hallway.
She frowned at it, feeling badly, for he had to remain trapped there during such a beautiful morning. She pushed one curl behind her ear.
“Sleep well, Valek,” she murmured before starting again downstairs.
Quickly, she dashed from the staircase and into the kitchen, grabbing a loaf of sourdough and a jar of marmalade from the icebox. Shoving the items into her bag next to her favorite volume, she dashed through the foyer and out the front door.
Once outside, Charlotte sucked in the clean air, turning her face up to the warm sun. Valek warned her about her lack of vitamin D. She was kept so pale by her nocturnal life. He demanded she at least go out weekly during the daytime to stay healthy. She knew it worried him, being out on her own and beyond the reach of his protection, but she was more than capable of fending for herself. Valek taught her well how to defend against sinister things.
A gust of wind rushed by, throwing strands of hair in her eyes, and chasing leaves across the footpath. Something else grazed her ankle, then. She found a partial edition of the Weekly Cackle. Splashed across the front page was more Regime propaganda:
“Vampires in Berlin Consume Entire Village,” it read. It went on to describe a gruesome act about a band of alleged heathens draining an entire occult city before burning it to the ground. Hogwash. Vampires didn’t consume anything other than human blood. By nature, they weren’t as violent as the story suggested. Most of the Undead kept to themselves and cherished their privacy. Someone was trying to strike fear in the hearts of those Magic. Angry, Charlotte tore the newsprint to pieces and tossed it back to the wind, hoping Valek wouldn’t be delivered a copy. She would need to remember to cancel their subscription.
This was getting out of hand. It was preposterous. Vampires can’t consume the blood of anything other than a human being. It would make them ill. The Anatomy of Vampires dedicated an entire chapter to such things, but members of other occult sects were ignorant. Elves believed any amount of gossip they heard, and Witches weren’t much better. And what was worse? They didn’t want to be educated.
Moving past the arcades, wind sent debris skittering over the path behind Charlotte, making her jump. Valek’s worrywart tendencies used to seem ridiculous, but since the start of this hype, she found herself a little more skittish than she used to be. She wouldn’t stay out for too long.
The streets of the Bohemian Occult City were abandoned of all but a few Elves and some non-nocturnal Shifters, creatures who looked human but were able to transform into animals. Charlotte had grown up playing with a lot of the Elven children, as they were closer to being human than any of the others. They ate normal food, though most were vegetarian, and they were mortal, except they aged slower than she did.
Near the end of the square, next to an Elven church, across from Howler’s Tavern, there was Brouka General Store. It was the shop she found most convenient. It sold everything from fresh meats and produce to specialty potions and knick-knacks laced with psychic energy—things she might need for a night of hunting.
“Edwin?” Charlotte called to her favorite clerk, pushing through the rattling curtain of stones that rained from the front doors. Enchanted clay birds twittered around Charlotte’s head in welcome before disappearing to the wooden rafters of the shop’s ceiling.
“H-hello there, Charlotte!” A willowy, odd-looking fellow poked his head out from behind a tall oak shelf that was covered in crystal potion bottles. “I’ll be w-with you in five m-minutes.” He went back with his rag to finish polishing. The purple stained glass of the bottle he dusted distorted his burlap face into a funny jug shape, forcing Charlotte to smile.
Edwin was the strangest creature she’d come across while living in the occult city. There was no one else like him—something like a living scarecrow with potato-sack skin and button eyes.
“Take your time,” She called to him. “I’m going to browse.” Charlotte peered into cases of rotating quartz pyramids and evil eyes that blinked back at her. Baskets overflowed with every type of herb on the shelves nearest her. Rustic cabinets behind the counter held fearsome things in corked bottles labeled with crude handwriting. All sorts of lamps and pendulums hung at various levels from the ceiling, some hovering on their own and she had to be careful not to bump her head.
On top of one counter sat lightning in a bottle, the glass jumping around over the wooden surface. Thick-looking rubber sealed the opening of the bottle, but flashes of light still zapped wildly inside. She wondered if he should have left such a thing unattended.
It leapt again, higher, as if it was getting agitated. “Uh . . . Edwin?” she called, nervous, as she watched it skitter closer to the counter’s edge.
The bottle leapt over and was caught at once by two, stitched hands.
“Got it!” Edwin grinned at Charlotte through thick bottle-cap spectacles. “I d-don’t know why the boss even w-w-wants this on display. I don’t see how anyone would want to b-buy it. H-holds more d-d-danger than purpose, I think.” Edwin had some trouble articulating.
She nodded. “Agreed.” She and Edwin had been acquainted recently when he began working there earlier in the summer, but it didn’t take long for them to become fast friends.
“S-so, what can I do f-for you today?”
Charlotte leaned her elbows on the counter and plucked up one of the dozens of generic crystal balls, turning it over in her hand. “I’m going out for the day. Have anything fresh?” She squinted at it, waiting to see something, but nothing appeared.
Edwin leaned closer to her, whispering, “You’re c-crossing the b-b-borders again, Charlotte? Are you m-mad?”
“That is a b-bad idea. A very b-b-b-bad idea,” he started to sputter. “Bad, bad, bad!” His fists twisted in the material of his vest, a reaction when Edwin sensed danger. But Charlotte didn’t like to let his little episodes bother her. It was rare when his predictions amounted to anything. She rolled her eyes at him. “No . . . n-no. I don’t th-think you should . . . I d-don’t . . .”
The lightning bottle sprung once more off the countertop, but this time, Edwin was too distracted to catch it. The glass shattered on the ground, electricity zapping, breaking the other glass bottles. Chunks of wood exploded from the cabinets. Owls and bats screeched in their cages, and Charlotte and Edwin were both knocked off their feet.
She slowly lifted herself up and dusted off, looking around to see the once spotless store was now in utter chaos. A few of the rats had even escaped and were scurrying for a hiding spot.
Edwin gripped the edge of what was left of the countertop and pulled himself up, as well. Charlotte laughed when he coughed out a puff of smoke, beams of electricity zipping off the ends of his spiky black hair.
“No offense, but leaving seems a lot safer alternative than staying here with you,” she jested and put out a small flame flickering at the point of his bowtie.
“I d-d-doubt it. It’s one thing to l-leave at night when it’s easier to h-h-hide. . . .” Edwin wiped the soot from the material of his face.
“Please don’t worry about me. I know how to sneak past their silly guards. And anyway, it’s because I am human they can’t sense me. Not when they’re sniffing for rogue beasts, like you!”
“You’re n-not only putting yourself in d-d-d-danger, b-but Valek, too. He’s r-risking his throat by even k-k-keeping you here.”
Charlotte ignored him, walking to a large barrel filled with produce and began sifting through the apples for an un-bruised one. “I’ve gotten away with living here my whole life and nothing’s happened, yet. So much commotion over nothing.”
“You saw th-the Cackle t-today, did you?”
Charlotte shrugged. “What a spin! You don’t actually believe that garbage. . . .” She was all the way on her toe, stretching so far to feel around the bottom, she almost fell in.
Edwin hobbled behind her, wringing his hands nervously in his washrag. “N-no. I don’t. But I r-r-really think you should s-stay—”
Charlotte interrupted him with a squeeze of his shoulder and held two perfect apples in front of his nose. “What do I owe you?”
Edwin scooped up a rat from the floor and mumbled something undecipherable. He waved his free hand at her as if to say she owed him nothing.
Charlotte shoved two crowns in his palm, kissed his cheek, and skipped out of his shop.
She made her way into the residential district where groups of Elven children were on their way to school. Bouts of their laughter sparkled over excitable conversation. One kicked an odd-looking leather ball to a member of another clique. She recognized a few of her old friends and waved, missing simpler times when they used to play together. There hadn’t been much free time since she’d gained more responsibility. Her hunting errands kept her preoccupied when her studies didn’t. She sighed.
One of the Elven boys called out from a large group, “Charlotte!”
Her face heated. Aiden Price, a woodland Elf with feathered, auburn hair and bright green eyes smiled at her as he waved on his friends and ran to meet her at the other side of the road. She’d kept her schoolgirl crush between herself and her sketchbook since she was thirteen. The sight of him still made her heart beat a little quicker.
“Morning!” His eyes gleamed as he lifted her a few feet off the ground in an enormous hug. He’d been her very best friend until she stopped coming around as often as she used to.
“Aiden! When did you get back?” He’d been off training at some fancy Elven prep academy in the mountains for the summer. Charlotte found it odd. His family didn’t seem the sort to afford such lavish things.
“Yesterday. Out in broad daylight, huh?”
She giggled nervously. “Yeah. Imagine me acting normal for a change.”
“Nothing about you was ever normal.”
Her heart swelled in her throat. “How’s Mum?” Charlotte asked, changing the subject. Meredith Price, Aiden’s mother, had been her caretaker when she was too little to care for herself and when Valek wasn’t . . . able.
“She’s well, thanks. And Valek?” He adjusted the books slipping in his arms.
“He’s been busy. Patients and things.” She lied, but wasn’t sure why.
“Good to hear.”
An awkward pause settled over them. Their hours of once deep conversation had been reduced to meaningless small talk, now, and she hated it. She chewed her lower lip, rocking back on her heels.
“Hey, hero! We’re already late!” One of the other Elves called for him. Charlotte exhaled, relieved, and also a little sad.
“I should be getting off to studies. You’re so lucky you had Valek growing up,” he laughed. “No professors.”
“Right! Valek is just a strict as any instructor of yours!” She rolled her eyes. When Aiden chuckled and tucked a stray curl behind one of her ears, she gulped.
The others in Aiden’s group began walking again, without him. Noticing, he said, “It was nice seeing you, finally. You waited too long.”
“You too.” Her stomach flipped.
“Let me know the next time you decide to be normal. Maybe we can meet up at Howler’s or something,” he offered as he started to walk backward to catch up with his friends.
“Sure thing!” She held her breath and willed her heartbeat to slow. With one last wave, she made her way in the opposite direction.
The canopied pathway extending past the berg of homes remained dark in spite of the bright day. Charlotte lifted her gaze to the overgrowth of mangled vines and branches blocking out the light. The tunnel seemed such a void, the sound of birds singing wasn’t even present, like it would be in a normal forest.
Traveling this pathway during the dark hours for Valek was much scarier, though. At night it was impossible to see through the blackness between the trees and bushes. If Charlotte really was being followed the night before, she’d never know it until whomever it was caught up with her. By then, it would have been too late. She shivered.
The roads leading beyond the occult city were stark and abandoned. None of the creatures ever dared to cross the borders anymore, which made her feel a little rebellious. The inhabitants were too afraid even to travel to the other secret cities since the Lord Wizard Vladislov had smothered his people with so many new regulations.
She crossed under the old iron gate, looking around to ensure there were no prying Lycan eyes. The gates disguised the outer edges of the occult city to look like a long-forgotten cemetery. That was the pretense, anyway, with the seemingly ancient, unmarked tombstones plotted over the unkempt field. Even if a normal human being did stumble upon this gate, it was a long way past the tombs and mausoleums, through the forested, canopied path to her village. And the minute another human crossed the borders was the minute they were Valek’s supper, though it was rare.
Charlotte adjusted the satchel strap over her shoulder as she walked down the dirt road, passing fields of wildflowers and crops.
A glorious August sun gleamed down, causing her entire world to explode with brilliant colors, contrasting those of her normal muted night. Her eyes stung for how bright it was, but she reveled in it.
There were a few farmers harvesting in one of the fields and they offered polite nods as she passed. She smiled back, but dared not utter a single word. It was always best to remain as invisible as possible. Draw no attention. That was another one of Valek’s rules.
A little way down the road, a small car puttered past her as the people inside smiled at the day outside. A family outing. Charlotte looked down at the dirt as she walked and thought of Valek again.
She often thought about what it would be like to be normal—to have gone to school with kids her age, to have parents. But every time she pictured the usual mortal life, she saw a life without Valek and instantly realized it wasn’t worth it. He was everything to her, but he could never know.
Warmth soaked through Charlotte’s white cotton dress. It had been more than a week since her last day spent in the sun and it was nice to feel it on her skin. Her world always seemed to be too cool and quiet. She didn’t complain, but a change was nice now and then.
A familiar fork in the road surfaced as she crossed beyond a small hill. It was a spot where the road rambled all the way to Prague, and a rickety wooden sign pointed solemnly toward a clump of trees. It was rather unassuming, but it was the beginning of another dense forest, home to the most peaceful place Charlotte could think of.
She peered around again, making sure there were no followers, and submerged into the thick blades of grass and cornstalks that grew all the way to the top of her head. Swimming through a sea of overwhelming green, she came out on the other side into a clearing, where the grass ended and the woods began.
She’d made this trek periodically since she was around ten or so. The trail remained marked by the pieces of red ribbon she’d used to indicate her way the first time, afraid of getting lost and not finding her way back. The enduring ribbons hung frayed and discolored among the winding twigs. This trail was still hers.
She grabbed onto the low-growing branches to steady herself over the boulders and surprising dips in the earth. It wasn’t so much a clear path as it was a winding maze of forest. Stealth was key. But there was no threat—she knew the place too well and quickly found the familiar break in the overgrowth.
Water surged down a boulder covered in green and brown moss as it hovered, the shape of a bell and the size of a small hut, over a pond that was just the right size to be her secret hideaway. The boulder hadn’t moved from its impossible place in the air, creating a sort of covered shower as the water plummeted in a wide circle at the center of the pond’s surface. On one side of the pond, a small crag rolled up and into deeper parts of the woods. But Charlotte liked her usual place and found it over a flattened rock face that protruded a few meters over the water’s edge.
She settled her satchel first. Removing a knit blanket she’d taken from her room, she spread it wide before she sat and slid off her shoes, slipping her feet into the cool water. Deep from her bag, she found one of the apples and bit into its ruby skin. The juices exploded over her lips and dripped in rivulets down her chin and through her fingers.
The pinewood was a symphony that day. The breeze through the nooks of rocks and branches were the woodwinds; the birdsong high in the canopy, the strings; and the water plummeting into the pond, the percussion. Charlotte listened, content, as she took another bite of her apple and swung her feet around, creating little ripples in the water.
Muggy warmth entrapped under the forest canopy made her eyes heavy. Suddenly tired, she looked at her watch. It was only one o’clock. There was no way she could allow herself to fall asleep. There was too much potential to be caught by some wandering human or rogue monster. An enormous yawn sprung from her in objection and she leaned back against a tree trunk. The heat and the lullaby of the forest made napping seem even more appealing by the minute. She stretched her arms wide. Unable to resist any longer, her eyes began to close.
It seemed like only a few minutes. Sounds of birds and the trickling water ebbed in and out as sleep threatened to invade.
A low, booming thunder jolted her and Charlotte opened her eyes to find her golden sun, gone, replaced by big, ominous storm clouds. So much for her afternoon. She normally went swimming and drew pictures of birds and other daytime animals to take home and show Valek. However, if she were smart, she would begin her journey home now.
As if on cue, one raindrop splattered on the rock face beside her. And then another. Another. The sky opened up before she had the chance to pack her things away. Rain cascaded down on the clearing, pouring new life over the forest. She lifted her face, the cool water sliding down her eyelids. It smelled like earth. It soaked through her dress, straightening the curls in her hair. It kissed her lips, still sticky with the apple juice.
Charlotte decided it didn’t matter if she went home then, or not. She was already drenched to the bone. Looking around once more to keep sure she was still alone, she peeled the dress away from her body and jumped into the cool water, sinking to the pebbles at the bottom. Rising to the surface, she floated for a long while, the cold rain continuing to pour over her. She smiled. For the first time in a long while, she felt completely careless. That was . . . until he showed up.
“Charlotte?” The familiar voice called her name from the rock face. “What are you doing?” He chortled.
Her eyelids snapped open. She screeched and dove under the water, scrambling to cover herself. How did he find her?
Charlotte glared at him with only the top of her head peeking out from the pond surface as he continued to laugh, stopping to leer at her some more.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be in school!”
“It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. You should see your face! What would Valek think if he knew you were out here showing yourself off to the woods?” He bent in half.
She growled and smacked her hand down on the water. He flinched away from the splash.
“Go home!” she yelled, her eyes watering. She must have fallen asleep longer than she thought.
His face fell, his laughter subsiding. “Listen, I’m sorry, all right?” he offered, holding out her wet cotton dress. “I know this is where you usually go when you’re on your own. I had no idea—”
She grabbed at her dress, stopping him. It wouldn’t do much to cover her now that it was drenched. He held his hand to her to help her from the pond, his autumn hair falling into his smug face.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He covered his eyes with his other hand as he pulled her up from the water.
“Turn around!” she demanded.
He held both hands in the air in pseudo-surrender as he turned
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