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To my dearest friends and loved ones, to the nocturners, the equinox, the night, the number 22, and to all the things that killed me and made me stronger…

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aÉàx yÜÉÅ _xÉÇtÜwM
Just for the record, I would like to state in defense of all vampires out there that they are, in a word, beasts. They’re wicked, remorseless creatures foreign to no sin or atrocity. Vampires most definitely aren’t, as most people believe these days, gentle, romantic, sentimental fools who write love poetry, dress in lace clothing, marvel at works of art and weep to readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The fact that I am a vampire myself and I coincidentally happen to do all the things listed above is completely irrelevant and proves nothing whatsoever.

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VERA LYNSON

EQUINOX

© 2010

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The morning’s full of shadow lust
The city’s full of leaves And destiny deceives Abuses our trust

I breathe this dirty city
Across the cobblestones And track, so wild and pretty The fragrance of your bones…

I will not stop, I cannot win
I am my own reflection The torment of the beast within It brings me satisfaction…

I’ll corner you when claws meet knees
And hearts are sick of beating The hunt is but a sweet disease Let’s get on with the eating...

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Chapter One

A Kiss From The Devil

I woke up with the spicy taste of rust and sulfur in my mouth, which rekindled
my disappointment from the previous night. I had expected the taste to be different, a little more enchanting, like maybe roses or even liquor – rust and sulfur was just too traditional for someone of that caliber. But hey, I reminded myself, it could have been worse. After all, I was the kind of person who’d choose rust and sulfur over liquor any day. Of course, there was more to it than that. Apart from the specific demonic scent and the warm feel of seemingly human skin, it also felt partly frightening, and partly sickening, like tasting the echo of the flavor of a thousand wounded bodies, a hundred rotting corpses, a million hungry flies. It tasted like a summary of the history of human death and suffering. But then again, that’s what you get when you’re kissing the Devil. I still found it a little hard to think of him as the ultimate evil, especially once I’d seen him resting his golden blond head on my pillow as the sunrise was bursting in through the windows. Hardly anyone would imagine the Devil looking like this. On the other hand, however, I couldn’t imagine him looking any different. I’m not particularly fond of blond men, and if the Devil was my kind of guy, I’d be really terrified. The amulet was choking me, so I got rid of it cautiously. I’d left it on the entire night through, since you definitely want to think about protection when you decide to fool around with the Devil. I was pleased to discover that my soul was intact and was still located within its rightful owner. Apparently Satan was going to have to do better than that to steal it. Smiling to myself, I quickly left the room and went downstairs to brush my teeth. No need to pay my guest any special attention – he didn’t need an ego boost, anyway; if anything, he needed the opposite. This morning I was feeling especially cheerful, with the catchy tune from last night stuck in my head, the October winds howling and roaring outside, and me standing safely out of their reach. I simply couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. I’d never found autumn weather this delightful before – or anything, for that matter. Now that I’m standing here doing nothing, I feel it is the right time to clarify things a little bit. No, I am not a devil-worshiper, and Satan is neither my close friend nor is he my lover. He is in fact a little less than an acquaintance – after all, we’ve only met twice in my lifetime, and yesterday was our second encounter. The first one was nearly four years ago – maybe not on the same date, but during the same season. I was going through something back then, he came to me with a tempting but unconvincing offer, I turned it down… and now I am back where I left off. In my old, cozy, demon-friendly house, struggling with the same choice, trying to make it have a different outcome this time. So, since after the last time I refused to kiss the Devil things went really bad for me (he must have mentioned I was going to regret it at some point), I decided to try the alternative just to see where it would take me. Maybe it was a good luck charm,

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like kissing a chimney sweep. Or maybe I was just sick enough to even think things like that. “Sick” could merely be my middle name; my first name is Wera – the name I gave myself – or Vera, the way some of my vampire and semi-vampire friends pronounce it. I’ve been Wera for a long time; however, many things happened since I became Wera. Matters of the heart, matters of life, matters of innocence (the loss of it) and experience (whatever little hells on earth the Devil may bring), and many more matters tightly bound to bitter memories, fortunately now buried, which I’d rather not dig out at this point. No, this is Wera’s second life, the life of the Wera who is in almost every way different from the Wera as she began – a shy, socially awkward and physically unappealing teenage brunette, slightly resembling a fox or a weasel, the average teenage boy’s nightmare, but otherwise a true embodiment of purity, innocence, self-sacrifice and all those other forms of goodness that she always carried on her like a badge. You’d never imagine her doing anything horrifying, obscene, or just plain bad. But the former Wera’s innocence, lack of experience and desperate trust in some of the more decent representatives of mankind made it possible for her to experience sorrows and disappointments beyond a teenage brunette’s capacity. Personally, I have no problem with that, because I ran out of self-pity exactly eleven months ago. But sooner or later everything leaves its mark on you and hell sticks to you too, becomes a part of you when in sufficient amounts – so it is not that surprising that I ended up kissing the Devil last night. Besides, he is far from the worst kissing option there is. One reason why I did it was partly because I didn’t care, and partly because he was so hopeless in his efforts to seduce me. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for him. The other reason was that he had predicted what I could become long before I even knew it was exactly what I would become. ‘I thought you wouldn’t come back,’ he uttered mildly when I walked back into my room and started rummaging for something to eat. Naturally, he was magnificent, in a white silk shirt that had gone out of fashion at least two centuries ago and velvet indigo-colored trousers. He gave me a piercing – no, a scorching emerald green look, which would have passed for cheeky, were he only human. He was where wicked came from, but had so much style that I couldn’t blame him for any genocide in history while he was still in sight. ‘I thought you weren’t going to be here,’ I gave him a slightly delayed reply. ‘I’m impressed.’ ‘Did you change your mind about us yet?’ he winked, well, devilishly at me. Not that there was any other way for Lucifer to do it. ‘What’s the matter, are you going to leave that moment we had last night without a comment?’ ‘Well, I appreciated your vulnerability performance,’ I shrugged, ‘but it’s not going to work, Lucy, I’m sorry. You’re just too handsome for me,’ I added with an almost sincere apology in my voice. ‘I’ve always taken a very special interest in you.’ ‘You know, I think I kind of felt it,’ I nodded, the grin on my face so sharp that Satan was probably proud of it. ‘I think that the kiss might have moved you, even.’ ‘Didn’t it move you?’ the Devil raised a long thin eyebrow. I shrugged again. ‘It tasted a little weird. World War II is not my favorite flavor.’

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‘If anything, it certainly is one of a kind,’ Satan retorted, as suave and composed as ever, but I squirmed with unjust joy on the inside, because it seemed as if he said it partly to defend himself. I left his statement without a confirmation. If I’ve learned anything from relationships, it’s never to flatter people who flatter themselves on a daily basis and probably kiss their reflections goodnight. It’s only a matter of time before they make you feel inferior to them. And it was very important not to appear inferior in front of the Devil. It was all a part of the game. ‘Well, I’m sure I’ll see you around,’ I breathed out in one go and reached my arm out for a goodbye handshake. After that kiss a handshake with the Devil would mean next to nothing. ‘I had a good time. The music was wonderful. Hope to hear more of that in hell, okay?’ ‘For you – anytime,’ Lucifer grinned with no less than genuine gentlemanly delight. ‘You’ll have your own fireproof stereo when you pay me a longer visit. Very well then, take care. And be careful not to be lured back onto the righteous path!’ ‘Never in a million years,’ I agreed. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll make this a quick farewell, because I’ve got some packing to do.’ When we shook hands, I couldn’t help but glance at his. He had the hands of a pianist. ‘Really? Where are you off to?’ ‘I’m going to pay your undead lookalike a little visit.’ ‘Oh, that sounds exciting! How is he? Still a charming, bloodsucking, murderous bachelor, I take it? Haven’t kept track of him lately…’ ‘He’s a dad now, and he is very happy about it. When it comes to being sinful, I think you’ve lost him.’ ‘Aw, that’s too bad. He had such potential.’ ‘I’ll send him your greetings. I’m sure he’ll be amused.’ ‘Well, see you soon, then,’ the Devil waved a creamy pianist hand in the air. ‘Not too soon, I hope. I like seeing you change over the years.’ ‘I like seeing you stay the same,’ I smiled a crooked smile in return. ‘It gives me a glimpse of immortality.’ Two hours later, I had packed all the stuff I expected to need and headed off to a place where I’d get a hold of many more glimpses of immortality. It was what the new Wera would do. *** ‘Excuse me, but where do you think you’re going?’ Frankie demanded impatiently. He’d be tapping his foot on the floor if he wasn’t hanging upside down from the ceiling. ‘Somewhere they don’t look down on red lipstick.’ ‘And where would that be?’ my own personal fiend displayed some curiosity at first, which switched straight to anger a moment later. ‘Wait, what am I saying? Wera, I’m worried. Honestly. I won’t comment on last night, I mean I get how important rebound is after all that happened, although I’m not sure why it had to be my dad…’ ‘You know, I can expl-’

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‘No need. I get it. He might be an interesting figure. But, what’s with the trip? I hope it’s not somewhere bad.’ Frankie blinked. It didn’t happen very often. ‘And, whatever the answer may be, can I come along?’ I sighed. Out of all the people in my life that weren’t really, well, people, Frankie was the dearest one to my heart. I feel I should say a few words about him, as he has played such an immense role in my life. In fact, nobody deserves a better introduction than he does. Frankie was, according to his own description of himself, tall, dark and loathsome. He liked defining himself as my guardian demon. In fact, he wasn’t the regular kind of demon – he was an independent fiend, which meant he was merely a whim of his creator and he had also been designed to have the free will to rebel against his own nature – or, in Frankie’s case, against everything. Frankie was a rebel by heart, even though he didn’t anatomically have one, and a man you could count on, even though he was not equipped with anything that could determine him as strictly male. Apart from being sexless, which was one of the first things you’d notice about him, he was dead pale – no, not in the popular vampire way, but with the slightly freaking, remotely revolting gray-to-yellowish hue that indicated of recently deceased flesh – he was also impressively tall and about as skinny as one humanoid body could possibly be before passing for a skeleton. He had lustrous black hair which whipped his back each time he turned more abruptly and crawled down all the way to the back of his knees; his eyeballs were completely white all the way through, and he had the habit of spitting ink every now and then, especially when he was upset. True, he wasn’t the prettiest one to begin with, and he could never match his father in beauty, but I couldn’t be happier to be seeing him every day again, in this classic form he’d spent so many years by my side in. We’d been apart… but that was a long story. To tell the truth, Frankie was my best non-human friend. I’d first discovered him lurking in a cassette tape of my favorite rock band with the same name, six years ago, back when I was only fifteen, and we’d been nearly inseparable ever since. Indeed, the fiend was far from all sunshine and daisies, but he’d stuck to me and seen me through all of my sorrows, losses and heartbreaks until now, and I knew he’d see me through all the ones that would follow. If anyone was a constant, it was Frankie. He’d encouraged me to stand my ground, stand up for my beliefs, ideals and morals for so long; he’d taught me right and wrong and what being a human was really all about… in a rock ‘n’ roll way. He was strictly against sin; he worried about my virtue all too much, and he did so even more about my happiness, so, naturally, he wanted to come along on my journey to protect me, as he always had, Indeed, I could have never gotten this far in life if it hadn’t been for Frankie to support and guide me, and help me find my own strength. And if you think I haven’t gotten anywhere in life, then you need to be reminded that I am actually twenty-one, and the life expectancy of the unfortunate old Wera with the self esteem of half of a dying worm was much, much lower than that. It was exactly because I owed Frankie so much that pained me so to inform him that this was something I had to do on my own. I knew it would break his metaphysical heart, but, albeit with grim resignation, he understood and accepted. ‘Hey, don’t worry, Wera, I knew this would happen sooner or later,’ he said as softly as his coarse voice allowed him, with a mixture of pride and melancholy in it,

10

‘you getting along on your own. For too long I forced myself into your life as your crutch, and there’s nothing I could be happier about than seeing you walk proudly on your own. Enough guardians here and there, baby – go get life by the neck and fuck it up the way it tried to fuck up you!’ he finished triumphantly. Oh yeah, I forgot. Frankie never found it necessary to avoid bad language. It came with the music he was inevitably bound to. He wouldn’t be Frankie otherwise. I couldn’t help but smile. It reminded me of the good old days. ‘There, you did it again,’ I muttered. ‘I’m surprised… but flattered.’ ‘What?’ ‘You called me by name… and not by the name of that girl’s name… You know, Winter – the girl in that song of yours.’ ‘Ah, yes.’ Frankie’s expression went dark – or, in his case, darker, as if he had remembered something shameful and unpleasant. ‘I can tell the difference between Wera and Winter now. It took me some time… But now, for once, I know what’s real. And it’s you.’ There was an awkward silence. We both knew where this could go, and that was somewhere it was never meant to go. I still kept that metal heart he’d given me years ago. I never really did give Frankie mine in exchange – I suppose I just loved him way too much and way too purely to love him in the way that humans felt love for each other – but, either way, it wasn’t fair to him. And yet we loved each other too much to let each other go. It was more than friendship that bound us; each one was an enormous part of the other. To have a relationship with Frankie would be – we both knew that – like having a relationship with myself, and maybe I was crazy enough to kiss the Devil, but I’d never want to be insane enough to be kissing myself for the rest of my life. I realized, not without embarrassment, that I’d given the subject way too much thought. I coughed somewhat apologetically, and Frankie blinked at me a lot. ‘Anyway,’ he scattered the guilty gloom condensing around us, ‘aren’t you going to tell me where you’re going, at least? Okay, I know, I’ll know everything you know if anything goes wrong… but would you trust the fiend you’ve invited into your home and into your head with just this piece of information?’ he implored with an innocent half-smile, the kind that only an ink-spitting demon could muster. ‘Well, I’m not going to be doing any traveling in this world, what with all the studying I have to do…’ I began. ‘That I can tell. Just say it, I won’t kill you… I know I’ve tried, but this time I won’t, I promise,’ Frankie grinned widely and wickedly. Then, we both laughed. If anyone had told us we’d be laughing about this back when it had happened, we’d have labeled them mental. Now, this description suited us way better. When I was done laughing, I took a deep breath. ‘I’m planning on visiting Leonard.’ Frankie twitched. ‘I know, I know, he’s got a child to take care of… but I won’t be a bother…’ Frankie frowned. ‘…and I know he used to be – used to be a first class sinner, and a killer, and a rapist, and all those other bad things – ’ Frankie growled a little.

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‘ – but I guarantee that I will be very, very safe with him, because right now he is a very nice and stable – ’ Frankie spat a mouthful of thick black ink onto my carpet. ‘ – vampire.’ ‘You know I think vampires are downright bastards,’ the fiend purred malignantly, and then turned to me with a concerned expression: ‘They’re bad influence, Wera. I can see why you’d want this right now, but you see, bad influence you can always get from me as well…’ ‘I know, I know…’ I mumbled insecurely, much like the old Wera would. ‘Listen to me, please. One, you know I dislike vampires as much as you do. But, two, Leonard, he’s alright. And, three,’ I raised an index for maximum effect, ‘you’re hardly any bad influence on me anymore, Frankie. You’ve been around me for so long you can barely call yourself a spawn of Satan anymore. I’m sorry, but I’ve learned everything you had to teach me.’ Frankie was appalled and embarrassed by my sincerity. He tried to disprove me, but gave it up, and then simply protested: ‘B-but Leonard, that schmuck, that little pansy, he’s hardly a vamp anymore! He’s become so domesticated, you know! I bet he’s taken up knitting pink sweaters as a hobby!’ ‘I thought you said he was dangerous.’ ‘Well, no, but he’s not the worst vampire in their world.’ ‘Precisely my point,’ I beamed. ‘There’ll be lots of bloodthirsty butchers out there I can soak up some bad influence from, while Leonard will protect me. It’s perfect!’ ‘I doubt he will allow such hazard,’ the demon shook his head in disbelief. ‘But, if you want to turn evil so much, do what you like, as long as he takes full responsibility for it.’ ‘I don’t want to turn evil,’ I objected modestly. ‘I just want to burn a few bridges, for a while… I don’t want to go back to… you know.’ Frankie nodded grimly. He knew. We didn’t talk about it. ‘He does know you’re coming, right? Leonard?’ he inquired. ‘Well… kind of.’ ‘Or kind of not,’ my guardian demon corrected me politely. ‘Never mind then, just don’t get lost on the way to his spooky castle.’ ‘I won’t,’ I grinned in response. ‘I’ll just head for the tallest and most tastelessly depressing building I see on my way in. I’ll be fine.’ ‘How long will you be gone?’ ‘We’ll see.’ ‘You’re gonna last as long as “we’ll see” without any sunshine?’ ‘Hey, come on. I’ve been to Norway.’ We parted quickly, as dragging it out would just prolong Frankie’s agony. I could tell he no longer felt needed… but, on the other hand, I was either going to get to the point where I would handle myself on my own or die prematurely, so he sent me off with mixed feelings, much like a proud mother sending her only son away to fight for their country.

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And, soon enough, I was on my way, not daring to believe this was actually happening, on my way to something new that held horrors but also freedom, and independence, and strength that awaited me… strength that I had never had the chance to grasp before. ***

I walked the street in the direction of the hospital two blocks away from my home, and waited for the spot to turn up. It didn’t take any magic powder or occult incantations. If you truly let it take over, your mind can do just about anything it wants to. And I had my mind on a pretty loose leash. My nostrils screamed with delight as the scent of fresh rain, more intoxicating than it could ever be in the world most of us reside in, reached them and bewitched them. Here, darkness had a velvet texture, and the moist cobblestones I was walking on seemed to greet me with every clink of my boots on them. This was a new world: a new beginning. I could believe I was entering a different epoch, too: there were hardly any loud noises made by anything living around, apart from a soft slither of a cloak heard every now and then. The streets bustled with horse carriages and carts, and some lucky horses they were for no one to have made food out of them yet. Still, as soon as I caught the glistening scarlet pupils of the animals, it became clear to me that there was probably a reason for that. There was no annoying car or truck noise, as there simply weren’t any such vehicles here. The moon was cut in half and bright red, and the sky was black velvet. There could be no question as to whether or not a sun would ever show up on the horizon: it never rose, not here – so it was no wonder the population could not get a decent tan. But then again, as far as I knew, they weren’t very fond of sunbathing and other beach-oriented activities either. The most fascinating yet gruesome thing about the atmosphere of this place was the fact that there was a stink of fear and danger present in the air, but not a stink of death. Probably, the cynical and rather spooked out voice of my subconscience cut in, it was because the locals don’t leave out any bits of the corpses. I tried not to remind myself this wasn’t extreme for this world at all; nothing was, in fact. And then it hit me: here, there was no police. Except for, say, the occasional hunter. But even they could never set every wrong right. Besides, how do you make an entire population approaching in number that of China and the U.S. summed up change their views on right and wrong? For them, it was just as normal to drain people as it was for people to drain the contents of juice cartons. I’d be a fool to think they’d make an exception for a lost skinny girl traveling alone in the night, carrying a suitcase that was much too heavy for her, armed with nothing but an umbrella. This was no less than a dinner invitation for the respectable citizens of this area – and I didn’t want to imagine meeting the ill-reputed ones. All of a sudden, the scent of the rain stopped being so magnificent, and it began to feel way too quiet, and I acquired a passionate longing to recognize Leonard’s house as soon as I could.

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But no outrageously depressing castle with an excessive amount of gargoyles on top was anywhere to be seen – and, to add to this delightful situation, the shadows in the windows of long-abandoned shops flickered and trembled, then thickened and I could bet they held their breath and licked their lips. It was very cold and the rain felt steely in order to compensate for the total absence of proper wind. I shuddered in my insufficient set of plain clothes and prayed that some sort of moon deity would answer my desperate call. If only Leonard the vampire had a cellphone… The shadows across the street condensed, enlarged and became three pined cloaked bodies. Soon enough, some cackles could be heard, and I tried to convince myself I’d dealt with this before, but to no avail. I’d never been so helpless in the company of gentlemen with a taste for the redder drinks. Even if they didn’t like my scent, they could still toy with me, and there was not a single thing I could do to stop them… except maybe hit them with my umbrella… I could already see their lily white faces… Right now I’d give almost anything to spot one goddamn gargoyle. ‘Hey there, cutie!’ one member of the little gang rounding me up called. ‘Looking lost, aren’t we?’ ‘Wait a minute, bud, she doesn’t smell quite right…’ his comrade in complexion added doubtfully. ‘Oh, but she doesn’t smell very wrong either… well, well, well, looky here, fellas, we got ourselves a no-turner! Isn’t that nice!’ ‘We can’t eat ya, we can’t kiss ya… hell, then, what can we do with you?’ ‘Oh, I can think of a number of things,’ barked the shortest one. Yet another shadow joined in. The cackle that emerged from it was deeper, smoother, and almost tender. ‘And the funny thing about it, fellas, is I am standing right behind you,’ the voice announced. Six heads followed the direction of the voice, mine included. I tried to pretend I’d never even started to shake. A vampire, taller and better dressed than the rest, loomed politely over them, and he spoke just as politely to the little audience he’d gathered: ‘Leave the girl alone. Now. Or else you’ll probably wish you had, unless you are particularly masochistic.’ A dim street lamp light in the distance flickered out in agreement. Still, nothing but hyena laughter followed from the little fanged crowd. And the newly arrived vampire smiled, just like they did in the movies. Another good piece of advice is never to try to face off with someone kind and well-dressed with a grin like that. Twenty minutes later, after the spectacular fight, throughout which many necks, legs and lamps were broken, the victorious stranger offered to help me find my way. I was still a little uneasy, as he could very well be planning to use me as a midnight snack just for himself. After all, ninety-five per cent of the local populations were killers. The remaining five per cent were goners. ‘Oh, forgive me, I completely forgot my manners,’ my new companion with dubious motives sighed out rather than said, dramatically, as all vampires do. I smiled

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as he held the umbrella and the suitcase for me. It was amusing to witness someone demonstrate impeccable grace and manners when that same someone – with impeccable grace and manners, of course! – had just participated in a neck-breaking competition and, counting solely on reflexes and fury, won. ‘I never even introduced myself properly. Sorry, my hands are occupied… Anyway, I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Huckleberry the vampire. And yourself?’ This kind of statement didn’t exactly leave much room for anything else. I was too drenched and cold to laugh at his name, but I made a mental note to myself to get to it at a better moment. ‘Um, I’m looking for Leonard the vampire’s – well, of course he’s a vampire – mansion. Or castle. Or whatever. He used to be pretty famous around here, but – ’ ‘Oh, Christ!’ Huckleberry the vampire exclaimed. ‘I mean, it is wonderful! Then we can both go and visit him!’ ‘You know him too?’ I was curious, but not shocked. ‘Everybody knew Leonard. Back in his worse days he was a real monster. ‘Everybody knows Leonard,’ Huckleberry confirmed. ‘But Leonard and I, we are like brothers. I’m the better one, in case you’re wondering. Come on, it’s not that far! Jesus in heaven… Good old Leonard… we’ve seen so much together… most of it too disturbing for me to want to remember… What’s your name, girl? And how do you know Leonard? I’m sorry, I am just bursting with questions…’ Huckleberry was indeed quite a chatterbox, but at least I finally got to feel safe in his presence. We made our way into a muddy alley three blocks down and then we turned right, and walked on for a good half an hour, and he didn’t stop talking for a second. I liked him immediately, he seemed like a happy vampire. Finally, we strode across an untended lawn and reached a spiked iron gate covered with iron roses by some insane gate engineer who apparently believed you could never have too many roses and that all of them had to look like chubby swirly lollipops. Huckleberry waited in ecstasy for a moment or two, then solemnly announced: ‘Girl, you’ve seen nothing but garbage until you’ve been here,’ he purred, and his voice grew ever so tender. ‘Welcome to the real vampire world! You’re going to love the gargoyles…’

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Chapter Two

The One Dream Overrated

Outside – Edgar Allan Poe’s dream resort, on the inside Leonard’s residence
looked as if he had not only ordered it to be in a Renaissance style, but he had also tried to collect as much of the entire Renaissance as he could and stuff it into a single building. I gasped in amazement at everything I was faced with as we progressed along the countless corridors and stairs of the mansion. The excess of paintings, sculptures, marble statues, expensive carpets any true collector would kill for, stained glass windows, walls beautifully engraved in Latin words (and gargoyles, of course) and clocks looking more related to art than to mechanics, left me speechless with awe. Huckleberry was taking evident pleasure in observing my astonishment. And I didn’t even remember to ask him where he’d got a key to the mansion from. Where did vampires earn enough money to be able to afford this luxury and class from, it would forever remain a mystery to me. They didn’t bother working regular crappy jobs, like people, for most of whom it would cost a fortune and a lifetime of inhuman toil just to buy off an inch of this place. Huckleberry seemed to notice where my thoughts were going, and hurried to explain: ‘Ah, we have our ways, dear. See,’ he proceeded with a light smile, ‘vampires have a lot more time on their hands to gain their wealth than everybody else. And, in most cases, that wealth has been taken from somewhere else…’ ‘So I thought,’ I murmured in disapproval. ‘…rather than earned with honest work. But we truly do hold our homes dear. Leonard has not always lived in a place like this, you know. He’s had to survive really poor conditions in his bad days…’ ‘Yes, I know,’ I nodded understandingly. ‘I mean, back when he was still a boy, a human being, he was really poor, right? Back when he wasn’t Leonard, just Leslie Baker.’ Huckleberry appeared a little startled by my words, but it seemed he enjoyed this state of mind nonetheless. ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean that far back… but you know that much about him? I mean, he’s told you his real name and background? You must be a really close friend. Most folks around here still believe he is originally French.’ ‘Yeah, and he doesn’t speak anymore French than I do,’ I noted sarcastically. Leonard’s false persona was one of my favorite topics. ‘He was never a nobleman throughout his lifetime, either. Just a peasant…’ ‘But he sure as hell doesn’t dress like one’, a voice flew from the direction of the ceiling, a voice that oozed charm from every syllable. I recognized it instantly. Leonard sprang down to the richly covered with rugs floor like a cat, landing on all fours, and grinned in a cunningly innocent, cat-like manner as well. Then, he stood up and stretched himself before us in all his glory. There was plenty of glory to talk about. Huckleberry, on the one hand, was tall and dark, and elegant, with thick, straight brown hair and a flawless posture, but he seemed rather plain next to Leonard in his stylish blue vest, his eighteenth century
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shirt and matching blue pants. Leonard was a tad shorter than his fellow vampire, but he had the talent to mesmerize everyone who set sights on him, male or female. It wasn’t just about looks: I immediately realized what had made him so popular and wanted among the rest of his kind in the first place. Leonard had a peculiar radiance about him, something boyish, something carefree, something unlikely lively for someone of his kind, age and background. He always smiled as if it was the happiest day of his afterlife, and he’d probably keep doing it until the last day of his afterlife came. He often said he’d never been so cheerful while he’d been alive. And, indeed, I wondered where all the cheerfulness came from, since his past was a long line along which horror and tragedy followed each other in bizarre configurations. That was a man who, apart from style, could teach you a great deal of optimism. Leonard had fed on his own family and killed almost all of his old girlfriends – and they were many. He’d been stabbed in the back – literally – by all of his close friends. He’d been tortured, he had had to flee countries, he’d been voted dead, burnt and dismembered (not necessarily in that order) in more than fifty vampire cities. If anyone deserved to claim they had emotional baggage, it was indeed Leonard. And yet he stood there before us, laughing childishly and waving at us, looking all too much like the Devil himself with those long blond locks of his, giggling, joking and flashing his teeth like he didn’t have a care in the world. Because, frankly, the world was his. ‘Wera!’ he exclaimed when he was me, dazzling me with a blinding smile, and hugged me firmly when I approached. ‘That’s a lovely surprise! And Huck, old friend, what are you doing here with her? This is just fascinating!’ ‘I helped her take care of some, er, trouble,’ Huck muttered shyly, as if to imply that saving someone’s life counted for nothing if you’d taken a thousand prior to that. Leonard took no notice of it. ‘Oh, now, don’t be modest, you’ve made sure my dear guest arrives safe and sound! Come on, aren’t you going to follow me into the central hall? I’ve just made dinner, isn’t that a coincidence!’ ‘You sniffed us as we were coming near,’ Huck objected to the coincidence statement. His old friend displayed his pearl white set of fangs, always within the borders of polite behavior, naturally. ‘Alright, yes, I admit it, but hey, I made the effort to cook and lie for you, didn’t I? This means it is a great pleasure to have you here. Come on, join me. You won’t be disappointed.’ The size and magnificence of the hall he led us into went without saying. We were invited to sit at a table where we’d probably have to shout if we were to talk to each other from each corner. To avoid this, we sat thickly next to each other, Huck and I, and he pulled out a small notebook from the pocket of his crimson vest and started scribbling something in it really fast. As soon as dinner was mentioned, I expected a menu abundant in blood, but Leonard surprised us with serving an excellent steaming pork stew with salad on the side, and discreetly placed a wine glass in front of Huck and himself, in a manner convincingly suggesting that the content of the wine glasses indeed consisted of nothing but wine. Ten more points for style, I had to admit. But the truth was obvious.

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‘I thought you gave up blood,’ I spoke five minutes later, already halfway through the main course, with my mouth full. Huck coughed and took his eyes off his notebook for the first time since we’d sat down. ‘Yes,’ he added not without irritation, ‘as a matter of fact, I thought so too, Leslie. What happened?’ ‘Oh, I gave up killing, is all,’ the other vampire clarified joyfully. ‘Can’t do that with Liz running around now. But you know what they say… wine’s good for you once in a while as long as it doesn’t become a habit… She’s asleep, by the way, Elizabeth. I’ll have you acquainted tomorrow, if that’s alright.’ I responded with a warm smile. I was eager to finally meet Elizabeth, the daughter of my best human female friend and the vampire I loathed so much when I first met but whom I befriended later on in weird circumstances. Looking at him now, I could see him being a wonderful father figure, and anyone who could see him beam as he spoke of Elizabeth would agree with me. That is, provided they didn’t read his curriculum vitae. ‘Oh, Leslie, whatever happened to that book you were going to write?’ I asked out of simple mortal curiosity. ‘You know, about your life, before and after the bite, and the love of your life, and so on? I bet it is going to be a great read, you’re really great with words.’ ‘I don’t know yet,’ Leslie frowned for a moment, ‘I did write the first couple of sentences, but I don’t seem to know what else to say afterwards…’ ‘I know what the problem is’, Huckleberry cut in with a friendly grin. ‘He starts writing, but when he gets to the “I was born in” part, he can never seem to remember what year to fill in afterwards.’ Leonard chuckled in agreement. ‘You know me best of all living and dead things, Huck, there’s no doubt about that. But please leave your endless charts and calculations, and try to join in a bit more often on the conversation, will you?’ On my left, Leonard nudged me with an exquisite elbow. ‘He’s a mathematician, a scientist, and an economist, you know. He keeps trying to invent something that will improve the living standard of human beings. Or the function of teapots,’ he added thoughtfully, and didn’t miss the chance to throw in a charming smile accompanied by a wink. You could never call him boring even if you didn’t listen to what he was saying at all. The dinner was really pleasant and so was the conversation that followed, to such an extent that I had forgotten to freeze. Vampire mansions had no fireplaces. They didn’t need them, and they were just an unnecessary risk. Fire and firewood could be especially dangerous in the wrong hands. It was for the same reason that most people didn’t stack dynamite sticks in their living rooms. Nevertheless, Leonard was a hospitable host. He most definitely hadn’t been born yesterday, either. ‘Alright, everyone, it is getting a little late, so I’ll just go find something to warm you up, Wera, and then I’d like to speak to you in private, if you will, and then you can sleep in the largest bedroom, and you, Huck, can sleep on the floor or on the ceiling, whichever one you prefer.’ A cheery flash of teeth once more. ‘Just kidding. You can have the south wing bedroom all to your self. And in about five hours, when it’s really talking time, maybe we can chat in private too.’

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I could never know exactly what that proposal really meant and I prayed vigorously that I’d never have to find out. Walking into the largest bedroom was like walking into a pot of gold. It was wrapped in dark gold satin from wall to wall and from window to window, and the sheets of the bed were no exception. The bed itself was held together by four diligently carved marble posts, and the space in between them could easily fit a medium orgy. I shuddered at the thought that this might have been the main quality Leonard had been looking for in a bed back when he had picked this one, and tried to think about anything but how many creatures had shared this bed at a time before me, and how many of them Leonard actually knew by name. It was futile, as the horrid thought grew and grew when the vampire invited me onto the bed’s edge and sat gently by me. Soon enough, however, it became clear he actually did want us to talk. ‘Wera’, he beamed, ‘I can’t say how thrilled I am to see you after all these years. You’ve done so much for me, more than most people I know would. Really, really, I’m so charmed… And look at you, you’re beautiful! It’s unbelievable, seeing you here!’ ‘And you’re still a hopeless flatterer,’ I noted. ‘But, on the other hand, when you’re saying it is good to see me, I can feel you actually mean it.’ ‘How is Yana?’ he asked the imminent question. ‘Fine, I guess… What can I say… in love… suffering… hoping…’ ‘I do hope it all works out for her, she deserves the best. The least she deserves is to get her heart broken.’ ‘Well, you ought to know that, you were the first one to break her heart, as you well know.’ ‘She broke mine a little bit in return, so I suppose we’ll call it even’, the vampire sighed softly. ‘But I am forever grateful. I’ve never been happier in my entire life, now that I have Liz. She is a blessing.’ Then, suddenly, his brow puckered, and he looked grim, and worried, and afraid. ‘Now, Wera, I didn’t bring you in here to talk about this. I believe we both know the question I am obliged to ask you: what are you doing here? I doubt you went through all this trouble just to come and see how I was doing… no offense. But you hate this place, and you hate almost every person that lurks here. And even if you don’t, you will, believe me. What are you doing in one of the most morbid places there are?’ His sharp, concerned silver stare made me shiver and look away. ‘I’m not going to judge you,’ Leonard assured me, although he still seemed very tense. ‘But if I am to know what to expect of this, I need you to tell me the truth as it is.’ ‘Very well…’ I replied, nervous and breathless. My mouth was dry. ‘I came here… I came here to get worse… so that I can get better.’ ‘Worse? What? What’s the meaning of this?’ Leonard’s voice had died down to a whisper. ‘Oh, Wera, don’t tell me you came here so that I could teach you to be bad, and cruel, and heartless. I’m through with this, you see, and you know very well I could never make you evil, no matter how much you might need it to get better, or stronger. You either have it in you, or you don’t. You could never be evil, dear, because you just aren’t. You’re a good, kind-hearted, innocent person. You don’t need

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this kind of darkness in your life. You’ve got it all, you’ve got love, you’ve got warmth and happiness. What more is there to ask of life?’ ‘I can object to all of the statements above,’ I replied with bitter hollowness. I finally mustered the courage to look him in the eye. ‘Things… things have changed recently.’ Leonard gasped in horror. He was too good at being dramatic. ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, what happened? Gosh, Wera, do tell me! I’m going to be worried sick for a month if you don’t…’ I smiled joylessly at his compassionate face. And I began my story. *** “And so, dear Leonard, my friend on an enemy basis, if you’d like me to tell you my story the way you would have told it, I will start it from the middle. The first few years after we met you are familiar with, so I will start a little after I turned seventeen, right after that little accident you had at my house with my pet fiend, who did you some irreversible damage, I cannot deny. So, yes, we are definitely talking about that winter. The winter I got reunited with Charlie, my one true love, the very same winter you encouraged me to go for it, to risk it all for love, and I did win him back after all. And, to an extent, I owed this love to you. Since then, Charlie and I began living a dream. True, it wasn’t love deprived of pain and hardship, because no deep love really is. Several months later we were convinced we could never exist without each other, and we swore never to part. I was scared I’d lose him ‘till the very end… I made sure I got out of the way everything that could ever stand between us, even many of the things that I held dear, and, somehow, it worked out, and I believed it was worth it. All that was sacrificed was made up for by a thousand miracles. Every look we caught, every feeling we shared, every kiss we had was a dream come true. You know how we loved each other; you’ve loved this way too. You also know that we were happily married just two years later. And this would have been a great ending to the story, one that could be beaten only by a “And they lived happily together, forever”. But Charlie and I are not together anymore, Leonard, so I have to object to your statement about the love I have. Love I do have, but it is not as it used to be. I will not say it didn’t work out – maybe it could have, but I didn’t want it to. I won’t speak of all the wrongs we did to each other: you have your ways to find out the gruesome details, if you are curious. How things went from perfect to horrifying, I am not sure. But, with regret I must say I suspect that what came between us was, in the end, me. It was just who I was – who I am – that didn’t fit our relationship. I tried changing, but I neither could nor wanted to change beyond a certain degree. I needed to preserve a little part of me that was really me. Not me as they knew me, the insecure and vulnerable girl who kept trying to convince herself she was stronger than she appeared in the mirror, the girl who longed for and depended on love, and who put all of her faith in love and love alone. No, I needed to preserve the things that girl learned and grew to be throughout all these years, the things she made, achieved and understood, for I knew that if I were anything less, when I lost love, I wouldn’t survive. And… I lost it, willingly. You can blame me if you feel it is necessary. But the truth remains

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that if I could give up the one thing I put the most faith and hope in for the sake of my own survival, then I must be innately evil; and, also, if I felt miserable knowing I had it all – love, then, as evil as I may be, there must have been something more than love for me that I craved, and that thirst was powerful enough to overthrow every other natural emotional human urge. And, the final thing I have to say is: since it happened, I’ve been happier than ever. I do not regret making this choice. I regret hurting Charlie in the process – but I am finally out of the blackness, I am breathing, I am free, I’m strong and capable and complete. I am me, my soul is mine again. I’d missed it so very much all this time some other Wera was thinking for me instead, the one who thought she wasn’t even worthy of being loved. I even checked to see if I’d lose it if I did something terrible, but no, it’s still here with me. I wouldn’t sell it, not even for love. It’s not just because of the happiness. I feel there’s something bigger and more important than love, even. And, for all of this, for my selfishness and weakness and betrayal, I am not sorry. How wicked is that? I see you are shaking your head in disbelief. Perhaps you will say that I cannot be evil, that those are just the results of a post-traumatic experience, that you are sure I had my reasons to be unhappy and to flee, and that I am still by far a most innocent creature who would not have a stain on her soul, not ever. This I can also disprove, Leonard. But to do this I need to tell you another story. It happened on the second of August last year. By that time my relationship and its communication were severely going nowhere, there was already word of separation, and seeing it as you know I would have done anything to fix it at the time and I would have died if I’d failed, I made an effort to repair it in the only way that was left since all else had been in vain. And you better than any mortal know what the temporary cure for all pains of the soul is. Lust. Not that I had any left at the time. By then I was but a bundle of fear and despair, with madness oozing from the cracks of a broken heart, if you insist on my being dramatic. Back when I still had passion in me, I never truly got to fulfill my purpose, as we – well, more Charlie than me – were waiting for the absolute perfect moment for us to perform that fearful activity for any hardcore innocence supporter such as myself, an activity that could become the holiest of virtues to the soul if exploited in the right way. And I will call it by its real name this time: sex, because I am sick of using words such as love-making. Love is not something you make, it is not something you build with sweat and tears until you’re finally crushed under its weight – no, love ought to be something lifting you up and giving you strength, instead of something you will have to keep mending after the thousandth breaking. But, our love needed some serious making at the time, and Charlie and I agreed it was the thing to do on that day. Leonard – Leslie – you know me. You know I do not take the subject of innocence lightly. So I was praying for another dream come true that summer night, a rebirth of love itself, a miracle. It would wipe out all the horrid memories of impure nights and eyes stinging with salty tears. Alas, I guess that out of all the dreams come true we’d shared so far, that was the one dream overrated. The routine went on, and I was cold, broken and hollow, inside and outside. All that lingered in my soul was frozen terror. I felt that there was nobody around who

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could hear me if I screamed, even though the skin of the one I loved was brushing harshly against mine. “Tell me something,” I implored Charlie, hoping he would say the words that would make my sacrifice less painful, or more meaningful, or worth it. “I don’t know what to say to you,” he answered. “What would you like to hear?” I explained that I didn’t want to hear something just for the sake of hearing it; that I needed him to say something to me that he’d mean, something unique, something from the heart. “I love you,” he said, and added that I was beautiful. There was nothing more to say, and there never would be. I failed – and there it is, my hunger rising again – to obtain any consolation from these words. I knew that he loved me, with all of his warm, bright and peaceful self – I just needed to know why. I desperately needed to hear the right words before I proceeded with the performance of this special moment, the moment the accomplishment of half of my life’s purposes depended on. And, blame me again, if you like, I sought solace in my favorite song, but the CD player wouldn’t play it. Now that I look back, I realize that it wasn’t meant to play it. And then… then we fought, Charlie and I. I assume you know how furious he gets about Frankie’s music. There was nothing wrong with the song. It was all love. But we fought, and yelled, and I cried until I found it hard to blink and every touch of my hands on my eyes burned like hot water. But, finally, we got tired of it more than we got along. I got tired of resisting anyone’s attempts to change me. I resigned, and we began again. No matter what happened, I’d sworn we’d have to be one that night. We’d reach the dream even if it turned out to be a nightmare. Our love deserved it after all these years. If anything, at least I’d get to bleed for the one I loved. I swallowed the fear, I swallowed the moral doubts, I swallowed the hurt inside my chest and the past, present and future altogether. I was ready. There is no need to fill you in on the details from then on. I will just say that, despite all of this, despite all the pain I had pushed to the back of my mind for the night, despite all the pain my body was prepared to feel that night (and it had seen some serious pains, mind you)… it was not prepared for anything like this. I remember crying with nothing but physical agony for more than two hours straight. They may have been more, adding the breaks. I remember Charlie saying that he wasn’t trying to hurt me. I remember the one word I repeatedly pronounced: “No.” I also remember it was all for nothing. When we finally gave it up, Charlie tried to calm me down with an inappropriate joke. I said nothing in return. From the next day on, I spent many of my days visiting various doctors specializing in various fields who tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Some concluded that I was physically healthy; others considered my disease to be rooted in some inborn defect. The best and most highly paid ones claimed with certainty that it was both and the problem had to be collectively solved immediately. Perhaps Charlie would have forgotten about it if I’d let him. Perhaps I should have called it quits even then. But I wanted to fight for what I saw as holy, until the very end. All other exchanges of love had gotten crude, and violent, and selfish, and excruciatingly fearful, and they were but a drug, something to take our minds off all

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that we’d been building. And that, my dear fanged friend, destroyed me more than any loss, break-up or even death would have. I became a prisoner in my own mind. The year after, many months later, everything was over between me and Charlie, and I was back home where I’d started. Back where it all had happened. But I wasn’t planning on quitting on life. I was determined to learn to love breathing again, if it had to drain me dry first. I didn’t get away just to die, and I didn’t go through this just to suffer the damage forever. I had a plan. On Tuesday, the sixth of July, I signed up for a voluntary operation at the local hospital. I’d passed a thousand allergy and blood condition tests prior to that, a piece of information you might find intriguing. After draining a little more of my blood, the surgeons put my shaking through and through body under complete sedation. The operation room went blurry and while I was sleeping, I dreamed of rainbows and sunny meadows. What the procedure was all about to me was that I had forever removed that one thing that I could never bring myself to give anyone after what had happened: my virginity. In itself it was suffered, annoying, unhelpful and useless, and yet I did not believe there was a man in my world who would ever need or appreciate it in the way he ought to. Still, out of that grim decision, something beautiful grew. I woke up from the best sleep in my life, I spilled the best blood that had ever run through my veins, and the sunlight was blinding and divine as I lay underneath the white sheets, smiling softly to myself and the fading pain. And suddenly, I had everything to win and nothing to lose. Apart from my soul, which was forever to remain mine from then on. And this feeling grew and grew ever since, and fewer and fewer things hindered it as time passed. I’d had my innocence gambled away and I’d got rid of my chastity willingly. I burned everything down in order to build something new. A few months later, I reaped success after success, I recovered fully with only a minimal assistance of music, and I even got to feel my heart intact again. That is just about my story. As for Frankie, whom you already know a little, he is somewhat involved too. So, you see, he also believed he had found his one true love. And they were happy. But, see, Frankie remains a creature of the night, like you, or even moreso. He doesn’t want to be happy. He wants misery, drama, horror, tears, heartache, darkness. And, the moment I felt all of these so intensely on that dreaded August day last year, he woke up in his lover’s bed covered in sweat – he was a human then… it’s a long story – and choking on his own terror, or rather on mine, for due to our unique bond he had felt exactly what I had back on that night. From then on, he was so afraid, afraid as a young girl experiencing the violating power of love, that he couldn’t bring himself to kiss, or do anything with this girl. She thought it was her, and when he set off to help me immediately after his dark vision of me in pain, things completely fell through between them. When he came back to me, my anguish, shame and hatred turned him back into the fiend I’d always known him as. He is at home right now, guarding the place. And the funny side of the story, Leslie, is that I really need no guarding any longer. Because, for the first time in my life, I am fine.”

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I smiled. It was hard to push my soul through the story again, but, at the end, I felt perfectly calm. ‘And that was a really good ending to it, wasn’t it?’ I asked. ‘Or should I say beginning? So, what can I say, Leslie… maybe I didn’t come here to go back to being evil after all. Maybe I just came here to go back to being me… whatever damned thing I may be. It only makes sense that I belong with the damned,’ I added cheerfully, but stopped as I felt his clawed clutch around me. And then I saw the vampire’s face. Two lines quickly becoming redder and redder were streaming down his pale bony cheeks, and where they passed, they left elegant burns. I gasped. Vampires do not shed tears often, but when they do, it does them more damage than regular people due to the fact that their skin, unlike humans’, recovers from anything but the marks crying leaves over the years. And vampires usually have many, many years to cry, and no matter how rarely they do it, it still adds up. That and the lack of vitamin D (obtained from the sunlight, among other things, and delivered to the skin) explains the permanent dark rings around their eyes. In case you ever wondered. It hurt Leonard way too much, I knew, and I wanted to find a way to make him stop, but he kept stubbornly dripping gems of genuine care and compassion onto his shirt, and held me tighter, as though I had survived a world war, or something. He alone could grasp what this had cost me. ‘I’m – I’m sorry…’ I muttered, and felt like crying myself upon seeing him smile tenderly through the scarlet pits his hot tears were digging into his handsome face. ‘Damn you,’ he sniffed and started wiping his eyes with a handkerchief, which got quickly soaked in red, ‘damn you, wolf girl!’ That was a long story too. ‘Damn you to hell and back! Talking to me about dreams overrated! In my time, I’ve tried destroying innocence where there was none, but this… this is too much for my poetic heart to take! We’re talking crimes of the soul, and you’re here now, alive and well, talking to me like life goes on… Damn you thrice, girl, there’s something damned about you alright! ‘Cause you know too goddamn well what can make a vampire cry!’ Leonard waved his hand at me in a “you’re hopeless” kind of way, grinned madly through his fading tear scars again and left the room, humming something to himself.

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Chapter Three

The Hunt

The next morning there was no sunrise to wake me. It was what I usually
counted on to stir me from my sleep in the mornings, but the day in the world that was specifically fit for vampires to populate was at best characterized by an equivalent of a foggy dusk of a rainy day. The thing that truly succeeded in waking me up on the second day of my visit was the inviting scent of fruit tea and biscuits. It entered the room, soundlessly followed by Leonard with a tray loaded with breakfast material. The presence of the freshly prepared warm meal in the room was more audible than his. If he’d planned to sneak up and kill me without waking me, he wouldn’t have any trouble with it. ‘I thought I needed to make up for my reaction last night,’ the vampire smiled softly and made an explanatory gesture towards the biscuits. ‘It was positive, actually, even if it didn’t sound like it. And no, I still am not a supporter of the theory of your evilness. I’m just proud that you went through all that without it destroying, or corrupting you. Subject closed.’ ‘Oh, I am corrupted alright, you just don’t know it yet,’ I grinned in return, and took the tray from his hands with gratitude. ‘Thank you,’ I added shyly. ‘You shouldn’t have, but it is very kind of you.’ ‘Well, I assumed your corrupted self needed some corrupted biscuits,’ Leonard gave me a reassuring wink and watched my reaction as I wolfed up the contents of the plates on the tray with unconcealed satisfaction. ‘Don’t worry, real breakfast is waiting for you in the second dining hall to the left. I know you do not consider food anything without meat in it.’ ‘Hey, I’m not that much of a predator,’ I smirked. ‘But thanks for considering my carnivorous nature.’ The post-breakfast meal consisted of a juicy steak and some chips. My mood seemed to be just as good as it had been the previous morning, with the same pleasant catchy tune stuck in my head as I attacked plate after plate waiting in vain for the sun to rise. I was beginning to worry; I had been this way for almost a month, nothing capable of upsetting me. I might as well have been replaced with someone else while I’d been sleeping. Leonard’s uplifting disposition was also at its best. Huckleberry, on the other hand, had barely touched his meal, or his notebook, for that matter. He had sunken into a private gloom of his own and didn’t seem like the happy vampire I saw when I first met him. ‘What’s the matter, Huck, old friend?’ Leonard cast a cheer-up smile at his end of the table. ‘Should I have put something extra in your biscuits?’ Huckleberry frowned, but reached out and took a biscuit anyway because nothing came before good manners. It is a known fact that vampires use blood as their main source of nutrition, and it was – in most cases – compulsory for their survival, but true vampires with style did not restrain themselves from culinary luxury as well as any other. It is a myth that

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regular food no longer has the same taste for them once they’ve been bitten. A vampire who would refuse a meal prepared to a good French recipe was not a ferocious vampire, just a stupid one. ‘They’re fine,’ Huck muttered under his nose, throwing a quick icy glance back at Leonard, as if he was trying to stab him with it, then turned to me. ‘I’m sorry, Wera, for being so moody this morning. The fault is in the one sitting over there, smiling now like he’s as happy as a bird, but your friend Leonard gave me quite the headache last night as he cried for two hours on my shoulder. You must have had a very disturbing conversation,’ he added. I felt guilty about it. ‘I’m sorry,’ I prompted in shame. ‘I really didn’t intend to affect him this way. I had no idea he’d get so upset over something like this.’ ‘I value beauty, that’s all, and that is nearly all that can make me cry,’ Leonard presented his excuse. ‘Everyone has something beautiful within them, and in your case, it is the spark of innocence… Hearing the story of all the risks it was put through was naturally something that would sadden me immensely.’ Huckleberry let out a stifled sarcastic grunt. All eyes turned towards him. ‘You didn’t seem to be so upset about risking my innocence,’ he remarked jealously, and thus succeeded in making his friend acquire a faint blush, which is indeed something for a vampire. Leonard coughed politely. ‘Well,’ he began, ‘that is an entirely different matter, Huck, you know that, and things were different back then as well. I’m a changed man now. Besides, even if we assume that your innocence was your greatest gift, there is no hard evidence that I threatened it in any way.’ ‘True,’ Huck nodded with respect, ‘you did no such thing to my innocence. You just showed it the door the moment we met, and when it wouldn’t walk out voluntarily, applied multiple shot wounds to its head.’ ‘And you’re enjoying it to this day, are you not?’ Leonard retorted. Then, he resumed his imminent dazzling grin. ‘But let us drop this somber subject for a while. All is well that ends well. You two finish up here, and I will go kiss Liz good morning. Once she’s down here, I want no talk of gunshots through the head and what not.’ He stood up gracefully, went over to me and whispered cheekily in my ear: ‘Listen, don’t mind my friend Huckleberry. He’s a bit touchy when it comes to my being nice and sensitive to others while he’s the one I’ve probably been the most insensitive with through the centuries. Personally, I think he’s grown up to be so grumpy because of the funny name his mother gave him, don’t you?’ I realized the moment had come to take a rain check on the bulk of innocent jokes that had been piling up in my mind ever since Huck had introduced himself to me. ‘Yeah, it’s weird, isn’t it?’ I agreed, lowering my voice nearly to the mute. ‘Why is he called Huckleberry the vampire? I get “vampire”, but why “Huckleberry”? What were his parents thinking?’ ‘I can hear you, you know,’ Huck reminded irritably, and I could tell by his weary voice that irritation was an emotion Leonard’s jestful nature had inspired in him on more than several occasions. ‘Perfectly clear, too.’ ‘Oh, but we were merely discussing your noble origin, dear Huck,’ Leonard explained, his face as pure as the dawn itself. ‘His family must have been great fans of

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the novels of Huckleberry Finn and his friend Tom, I find it adorable, actually,’ he hissed shamelessly in my ear a moment later. ‘You got a problem with Mark Twain?’ snarled Huck all of a sudden. Two heads shook in an instant. ‘Nope.’ ‘Not at all.’ ‘He’s brilliant, actually.’ ‘I’m quite a fan of him myself.’ ‘Good,’ the vampire’s face brightened, and from that moment on, nobody spoke, letting him finish his breakfast with underlined triumphant satisfaction. It was then that I realized what had turned Huckleberry from a sullen vampire into a happy one. It had undoubtedly been Leonard. Whatever he’d done with Huck’s innocence, he’d done a good job. I made a mental note to myself to avoid at all costs making Huck an unhappy vampire. After breakfast Leonard disappeared for a few minutes, and then returned into the hall with his little daughter Elizabeth. She was a lovely two-year-old with a cloud of dark blond hair around her pretty little head, and was dressed like a princess. Nobody could help but like her. Visually, she’d inherited many of the features of her father, but her charisma, lively, playful spirit and her large chocolate eyes were undoubtedly taken after her mother, Yana, who also happened to be my best friend. We’d studied together in high school, and even back then the company of our classmates was a little too ordinary for our taste. It was through Yana that I’d gotten acquainted with Leonard, who was doing some serious stalking and lusting after her at the time (those were still his bad vampire days), and after many years of his persistent courting she finally gave in to his wicked charms. They were no longer a couple, of course, because, let’s face it, such relationships never work out in the real world, to which unfortunately Yana was bound, while Leonard – born Leslie Benjamin Baker – was only bound to the world of infinite darkness and that of the works of Shakespeare and Mozart. And neither Shakespeare nor Mozart – as Yana would have cleverly pointed out – could pay the other half of her apartment’s rent at the end of each month. Elizabeth had a lot to play with even in Leonard’s creepy mansion, and Leonard saw it as a wise thing to let her do things on her own every now and then, mostly because of Yana’s fears that were Liz’s father around her at all times, he would teach her to paint like Da Vinci and play every possible musical instrument before she’d turned five. This was why Leonard and Huckleberry vanished into a basement room for about ten minutes and returned with a number of bags and briefcases, encouraging me to follow them out the main gate. I put on half of the clothes I owned to protect myself from the chilly weather outside and we went out into the thick steely mist. It must have been noon, and yet the overall grayness of the conglomerated fog and clouds only served the kind purpose of concealing the midday sky, which was pitch-black as ever, with an eerie crimson sun bleeding in its middle. We walked south, as I was informed, deeper into the darkness, until we reached a forest probably designed in accordance with a Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, and the souther we went, the colder it got. We were so carried away in our conversation that I didn’t for a moment wonder where we were going (yes, I was informed that we had gone out for a refreshing walk,

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but where exactly we were walking towards, it was a mystery to me). It was not until we were marching deep into the tangled web of withering coal black trees – black was apparently this season’s color in the vampire world – that I found our walk a little suspicious. ‘Hey, you’re not trying to find a decent spot to murder me discreetly, are you?’ I joked in a feeble voice, and eyed Leonard and then Huckleberry. I wasn’t sure if anyone would find it hilarious; I knew I wouldn’t. If I was going to die, it would certainly not be in these clothes. The vampires on both of my sides laughed. ‘No, of course not,’ Huck assured me in a mild, soothing voice. ‘That would be ridiculous.’ ‘Yeah, ridiculous. You’re vampires, after all.’ ‘What Huck meant to say is,’ Leonard finished his friend’s thought against his friend’s will, ‘even if we weren’t good, noble, trustworthy guys and we weren’t your friends either, we still wouldn’t try to feed off you, Wera. You’re a no-turner, and even though it has never been proven that drinking from a no-turner is completely lethal, we still wouldn’t dare try it. You never know what damage we might end up with afterwards. The scent warns us, you see. No vampire in his right mind would ever dare attack you, not for food anyway. You’re not like any other human being to us. If you were, someone would have already tried to drink you, sleep with you, or both.’ ‘Okay,’ I nodded slowly, with a virtually non-existing degree of understanding of what had just been said to me, ‘those vamps that surrounded me last night in the street, they used the same term in relation to me as well. A no-turner. Doesn’t sound very inventive, I must say. I have some suspicions as to what it may mean, but please, do explain it to me further, if you will.’ You could tell that Huck was the bookworm of the two, because he fiercely interrupted Leonard the moment he opened his mouth. ‘A no-turner,’ the brunette vampire spoke loudly, ‘is a very peculiar breed of creature. It is not as bound to certain genetics as regular humanoid species, well, not that we know of, so we never tried exploring or determining it further… for our own safety. I assume you are aware of the major humanoid species: angels, some breeds of demons, vampires, werewolves, elves, you get the idea. Werewolves and vampires, as you well know, can’t stand each other, it’s in their blood as well as their mentality. They’ve fought for nearly as long as humans have fought each other. I’m sure you also know that werewolf and vampire don’t mix. Under any circumstances. Vampire blood cells mixed with werewolf ones coagulate and become useless, vampire and werewolf genes destroy each other, werewolf blood into a vampire’s system results in the vampire’s death. Forget about kids; no werewolf can so much as kiss a vampire without killing said vampire, for even a werewolf’s recently secreted saliva, along with any other bodily fluid, full moon or not, is lethal even to the mightiest vampire’s system. Chemically speaking, the wolves are a little luckier in this aspect. Can’t say they haven’t used this to their advantage throughout our wars with them… although, there have also been accidents. But I can tell you already have an idea. Now, as you also well know, this is the world where most of us belong. In your world, vampires and werewolves don’t have the same reality status as you humans do; otherwise we would have killed most of you by now, and your world would be in big trouble.

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You’re just as real to us here as Leonard and I are to everyone else in our dimension, but most people in your world can’t see us or be affected by us in the way they could if they were here. There are ways… but I won’t speak of this now.’ He stifled a cough and shuddered even though he could feel no cold, but went on nevertheless. ‘Anyway, there are exceptions, sometimes, like you, like your friend, and so on. They can see us even if we are just visiting. But there’s the other kind of exceptions, too. They’re what we call no-turners. You know how werewolves – more often than vampires – vary? They are sometimes wolf to a greater or lesser extent. Some of them, once they’ve turned wolf, can’t go back to being human. All of these anomalies are locked within the borders of this world, but sometimes… there are the rare cases where one of us, them, or other humanoid kind, is born into the wrong dimension. They’re simply regular people who have a little something of a vampire, werewolf, or else within them. But they don’t get fangs, or the blood thirst, they don’t burn in the sun, or avoid silver, or turn into wolves during the nights of full moon… hence their nickname noturners. No, I’m not talking about people who are fond of werewolves, or vampires.’ Huck gave me a stern look. ‘I am talking about people who are like them. Those who bear a resemblance of the soul rather than the taste of apparel and such. People whose minds, inclinations, manners, instincts, and needs of the heart are more like those of vampires or werewolves rather than regular humans. They may have never even listened to vampire metal once in their lives. They just bear a connection.’ ‘And that would be you, wolf-girl,’ Leonard winked gleefully at me again. ‘You’d be a werewolf no-turner. And when you are here, we all feel it. It’s not just the inexplicable repugnance you feel for everything vampire-related, without being able to explain it, it’s not just your inborn inability to ever be a vegetarian, it’s the way you think, the way you feel, the way you sense things, the instincts you count on, the qualities you are drawn to, the emotional hunger – ‘ ‘Yeah, I get it,’ I interrupted him quickly. ‘But my repugnance for most vampires – no offense – is not inexplicable at all, just for the record.’ ‘It’s understandable,’ Huck shrugged impassively. ‘I often hate vampires too for being bloodthirsty monsters who kill for a living and have no mercy for any other soul.’ I shook my head determinately. ‘No, that’s not why I hate vampires,’ I corrected him vigorously. ‘I hate vampires because they’re posh, vain, self-centered snobs who’d marry their mirrors if they only had a reflection, who only have interest for women in dresses with a cleavage and never sit down to eat with less than five different forks on the side.’ ‘See?’ Leonard beamed. ‘She sounds like a true werewolf! Doesn’t she impress you, Huck?’ Huck could only blink in amazement. ‘Well, yes, I suppose that proves it…’ ‘Oh, that is nothing. Wait ‘till you’ve heard her speech on blue roses. She’s a werewolf at heart, there is no doubt about that.’ ‘But’, Huck ventured to continue with a voice so serious it bordered on foreboding, ‘nobody can know for sure if this begins and ends with the resemblances at heart. No-turners can very well carry an underdeveloped gene that can evolve in an environment like this. Here, everything is possible. So, your blood, your bite, or even

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your kiss might very well be lethal to us, just as if you were a turning werewolf. If I am correct, you might have noticed – if you’ve ever quarreled or anything – that Leonard will wince if you growl or display anger towards him. We try to keep werewolf no-turners at a safe distance, avoid getting close to them or making them furious, and we never, ever, drink from them. Like I said, anything can happen here. Even the vampire with the poorest sense of smell in the world will know that you are not something he’d like to swallow.’ ‘Then again, we do feel somewhat drawn to the other no-turners, though,’ Leonard added with yet another devilish wink, ‘or, as we often jokingly call them, nocturners, haha. It is a very popular joke in vampire circles,’ he stated proudly. I snorted. ‘Yeah, I could tell it was a vampire joke, since it isn’t funny at all.’ I was pleased to have Huck genuinely laugh at my joke, at least. His pale companion eyed him sharply. ‘Whose side are you on? Anyway, the nocturners are people who are, in some ways, like vampires. Werewolf bites will probably kill them, but that’s just because they work very well on people too. A werewolf bite is a pretty massive one. As for the werewolf kiss, probably not. They’re related to vampires mentally more than anything. They haven’t got the thirst, not the blood thirst at least, they haven’t got that welldeveloped fangs, and none of them can shape-shift, that’s for sure. We don’t take them very seriously, because there are far too many posers among them. You know, growing boys and girls who have watched too many movies about vampires, ones that want to be like us, dark creatures, but what they really enjoy more than anything is a day in front of the television. Trivial things. The real nocturners are hard to find and harder to distinguish from the false ones. But, usually, the ones who can tell them apart the easiest are werewolves and no-turners like you. Because you will feel irritated by them to some degree beyond what is logical, and they will make your blood boil with instincts you never imagined you had. You know us vampires, we fancy almost everyone who isn’t an idiot. It’s not quite the same for us. But you should be able to tell the difference.’ ‘I believe I am,’ I confirmed gladly. ‘I am pretty sure I can think of several nocturners I know quite well even now.’ Then something came over me. ‘Hey, I got quite distracted. What I meant to ask from the start is where we’re going. Just curious, that’s all.’ ‘Oh God, didn’t we tell you?’ Leonard exclaimed in false surprise. Huck rolled his eyes towards the morbid sky. ‘No, you didn’t, you twit.’ ‘Oh, but we are going hunting, of course! We brought everything necessary for it. It’s going to be fun, Wera. I felt obliged to help you unwind since last night, and you are definitely going to enjoy this, I promise you!’ I gasped in horror and revulsion. ‘I hate the very idea of hunting!’ I shrieked before I could help myself, and the grim forest shrieked with me. ‘What are we hunting, anyway? Don’t you know I hate animals – and all life forms – getting killed? How do you determine this as fun, Leonard?’

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‘Oh, you will see,’ he grinned at me in a maniacal way, and that was a way of grinning I thought he’d given up years ago under Yana’s rehabilitating influence. ‘You will love it. I guarantee it. I’ll sooner drop dead before the possibility of you not having the best kind of fun today. Just don’t tell Yana, okay?’ I didn’t say anything in response. I just waited patiently for Leonard to drop dead any minute. Alas, he kept standing. ‘Follow me,’ he urged with an aristocratic wave and a frantic smile lighting his face, and then he plunged forth into the darkness. Huckleberry shook his head in gloomy disappointment and wearily suggested that we’d better go after his temporarily deranged friend. ‘Huck… what on earth is he up to?’ I uttered hesitantly as we sped our pace up once Leonard had vanished out of sight. ‘And where is he going?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘Okay, then please tell me, what is it we are going to hunt?’ ‘I have no idea,’ Huck answered monotonously. I tried hard not to panic. But I did. ‘What? Then how come you agreed that he took us hunting in this god-forsaken forest in the first place?’ ‘I have no idea.’ I growled. Indeed, this world did something to your instincts. Huck shrugged helplessly. ‘I’m sorry, Wera. He’s just got charm. Or something. We’d better walk a bit faster, I’m confident he’s running.’ ‘Running from or running towards? Don’t tell me: you have no idea.’ I grunted angrily again, then muttered to myself: ‘Vampires… they are so naïve…’ After running like crazy for about twenty minutes, I leaned my back against a rotting tree, breathless, sweating and therefore freezing. It was only the fury that was keeping me from going numb. ‘I don’t understand,’ I moaned when Huckleberry locked my arm in a steely clutch and forced me to resume the mad running only a minute later, ‘I really don’t get it! Has he gone insane? I thought he didn’t do spontaneous deranged things anymore! I thought he was a changed man!’ ‘He is,’ Huckleberry sighed hopelessly, and dragged me relentlessly onward. ‘Unfortunately, he’s not a changed monster.’ And we sped on until the midday blackness engulfed us. *** ‘We lost him,’ Huck announced some time later, when we were already tripping over a web of moist twigs and branches, scratched and mud-stained from head to toe. The amount of running we’d done had far exceeded my physical exhaustion capacity. I desperately cursed myself for not having listened to the advice of my father when it came to the importance of physical exercise. Even in my own world, unfortunately, I counted as a weakling. ’Oh no,’ I whimpered, partly with the pain and the cold, and partly out of habit in such situations. ‘Now what?’

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‘Don’t worry, that’s probably a good thing. We should work on getting lost as soon as we can, too.’ ‘What do you mean?’ my voice sounded more accusing than I’d intended it to. ‘He’s probably lured the prey right to us. I can smell them already. They should be six, maybe seven.’ ‘Are you telling me that we’ve gone out to hunt things that will now be hunting us? I suppose they won’t be bunnies, now, will they?’ ‘Not even close. Listen, they’ll get to us sooner or later. When they spot us, you shouldn’t let them fool you into being merciful. That’s the thing about them, see.’ ‘What thing? Can you at least give me a tip on what they look like?’ Huckleberry smiled a small sharp smile that could only have been evoked by sheer terror. ‘You’ll smell them before you see them. I already can, it makes me sick. Soon you will too.’ I tried my best, but was paralyzed with the realization that I had a cold and my nose was completely stuffed. ‘But I have a cold and my nose is completely stuffed!’ I shared my deep reflections with the now shaking vampire. He wasn’t exactly helping me not to shake, I thought with annoyance. Huckleberry cackled evilly. Then, he threw me against a birch tree. It was as simple as that. To him, at least. From my point of view the world was swirly, spotted, painful and much more threatening. I wondered if there was any reason for Huck’s outburst, or if it was merely a result of the common pressure. High-pitched howls filled the air, and if my head wasn’t about to explode at that moment, it would have commanded my body to stand up and hit the road. ‘Forget it,’ my vampire acquaintance muttered under his breath, ‘we’re too late. We’ll just be running for the sport now. Oh, and I am truly very, very sorry about that, Wera, but it seems you need a little… encouragement. Wait for it…’ The shrieks were closer and closer, yet they seemed to emerge from the thinned icy air rather than anywhere near us. ‘Wait for what?’ I yelled, putting my sore throat through a thousand hells. Huckleberry didn’t answer, but his gut-wrenching smirk, which had gotten nearly to the level of Leonard’s maniacal grin, was the last thing I saw before the entire landscape before me turned red. And then, I smelled them. The scent of these creatures, whatever they were, filled each and every one of my senses, and a moment later four of them were completely useless as they were, so they were forced into serving the sole purpose of perceiving, reflecting and swallowing the smell better, for the nose alone was incapable of doing it. Huckleberry and the trees vanished, and in a moment all that spread before me was a scarlet hell filled with scarlet shadows, diving, speeding and dashing in the air around me and through me, letting out screams diluted with tender moans and sweet whispers, but I was blind for their beauty and deaf for their tragedy – the scent, the scent that was clogging around me, suffocating me, trying to burst me open, that was the only thing in the world that existed to me right now… It could only be compared to the fresh, pleasant fragrance of ripe strawberries, but it was so thick, so dense, so

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sickeningly intoxicating, that you could not tell whether you wanted to get rid of it or be killed by it, drunk and drugged and breathless and surrendered… But something in my nature kicked and clawed against this rush, it made me quiver with sickness as I tried to shake it, like a cancer, off my mind and skin and soul… And from the moment that part of my nature was triggered and decided to kick off, all I could remember as myself was the red curtain before my eyes, the dim light that spread above them, the screams that had suddenly gotten shriller and shriller, and the taste of the most powerful substance I knew running down my sore throat… Occasionally, I’d see Leonard’s toothed grin stretched to the point of lunacy through the crimson mist, his face smeared from end to end with a scarlet stain in the shape of a bloom… and then the wind stabbing at my ribs would take him away… I ran, and I ran, and I ran yet further; and at the same time that which was running was not me. It was as if I was watching the world through someone else’s eyes, someone who could see smells clearer than images and whose blood boiled so hot it had set their brain on fire… I felt like a dog caught in the rush of trying to fetch a flying stick… and all those beautiful, strawberry-scented sticks flew by violently, like arrows, their shrieks were driving me crazy… And I was sitting and looking at myself jump, and Huckleberry was leaping like a tiger to and fro, and Leonard was laughing frantically beside a fallen tree, his vest gone, his shirt torn… … nothing was as clear as the red fog until I caught one of these sticks, and the sticks all turned into shrieking women, beautiful women, trying to fly away or claw my eyes out, but the eyes were so bloody they didn’t care, and the women’s throats stood so white against their scarlet medieval dresses that they were just begging for something to come along and paint them red like everything else… …This afternoon, I was an artist. The figures slowly began to disperse with low, fragrant whimpers, and melted into the trembling autumn air, taking the red mist with them, soaking it up into the cracks of nothingness that slowly opened up here and there to reveal the real world. The thing that was yet wasn’t me was holding an attractive, voluptuous woman in a laced red dress, which quickly remained the only red thing around, apart from the woman’s neck, which wildly poured fountains of strawberry aroma and blood directly at my face, and the more blood it poured, the more the flow of the poisonous strawberry opium weakened and drained… and, as soon as I was out of its smothering clutch, I saw myself, and then I became myself, a pale, dark-haired, plainly-dressed girl leaning over a dying body in red, my blood burning at the sight of it, my teeth sunken deep into the jugular of the victim, and her blood covering my lips, and cheeks, and chin… I loosened my bite, stared at the woman’s once beautiful, but now disfigured face in sincere amazement, and just a moment or two before I withdrew terrified, gasped, or cried in horror and revulsion, someone’s skinny arm hit me hard on the neck. *** I opened my eyes and blinked gently, and stretched peacefully in the large golden bed. I felt warm, safe and satisfied. My arms were holding onto something smooth and fluffy, and I didn’t want to let go of it for any reason. It was probably the best morning

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yet and it would have been if the most recent vague memories hadn’t become clear, sharp and vivid in my mind. I shrieked, sprang up in a twitch, and ran into the faces of Huck and Leonard. Huck looked morbid and worried. Leonard looked like it was his birthday. Huckleberry was dressed in a black suit, and Leonard – in emerald velvet. In the corner of the room stood a large iron tank filled with steaming water. A set of claret and blue clothes drenched in blood were sinking miserably into it. My body was in captivity of unpleasant thrills. I didn’t want to say anything until someone told me that none of what I remembered had happened for real. Leonard waved cheerfully at me. ‘Hey, Wera! Good to see you come аround, you’re up just in time for dinner! How are you feeling? Better than ever, I assume?’ ‘You idiot!’ Huckleberry hissed ferociously at him. He was clutching his fists so tight it felt as if he was ready to tear his comrade apart – and he probably was. ‘How dare you do something like this? Do you have any idea what the word “consequences” means? You’ve damaged this girl forever!’ ‘No, Huck, dear friend,’ Leonard disagreed gallantly, ‘you’re the one who’s damaged her. If you hadn’t knocked her out at the very end, she wouldn’t have missed out on half the fun!’ ‘Fun? Fun?! You call this fun? What you did was monstrous!’ Huck was now losing his precious temper and manners. ‘What were you thinking? Now she’s going to believe she’s really committed murder!’ A small, pathetic whimper could be heard. It came from me. ‘I did… didn’t I? I killed that woman… I bit nearly half of her neck clean off… I slaughtered an innocent human being without even knowing what made me do it…’ ‘Well,’ Leonard began with eyes as bright as the sun and a grin as wicked as the Devil, ‘about the biting and slaughtering bit, you’ve nailed that one quite right. But that wasn’t a human being. Night nymphs, is what we call them. They haunt only the particularly dark forests. And I happen to be the owner of one of those. So, it is all completely legal, don’t worry.’ ‘Completely legal?’ Huckleberry shrieked. ‘That was immoral! Look at what you’ve done, she’s shaking! You’re immoral all the way through!’ ‘Immoral and immortal are two very similar words, Huck, you’re forgetting. But I’m thinking you’ll get along with Wera just fine, as she too uses that word very much. Why don’t you go over to her and soothe her, and tell her what a bad guy I am, and then we’ll ask her what she thought of the experience, okay?’ He modestly retreated to a corner. The expression on his face clearly said he’d already won whatever the game he was playing was. Huckleberry went over to me and sighed heavily. ‘Listen, Wera… night nymphs are really, really nasty creatures. They usually lurk in forests, preying on lost travelers, taking advantage of men – and sometimes women – who happen to be passing in the vicinity of their lairs. They enchant their victims, seduce them, and you know what I mean by seducing – and then, they kill them, and with every murder, they get to absorb a fraction of the victims’ soul. This might sound a little hard to believe, but it is true, and it’s also very serious theft. Night nymphs resemble women, they drug the passengers on their lecherous scent, and then

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kill them in horrifying, slow ways at which even a vampire would shudder… and, their kind should have been extinguished by now, but… let’s just say our race is keeping them around for twisted fun, games, potential military purposes… and, sometimes, just out of sheer fascination with anything that is more evil than them. You have not committed a sin. Please, do not worry about this. You shouldn’t. And, really, I swear, I had no idea what Leonard was getting us into… He led them right to us, and then…’ He sighed heavily again. ‘He deserves no forgiveness for what he did to you.’ I would have cried, but I couldn’t. My eyes were dry, my insides felt dry, my skin was dry with terror, and my lips were cracking. I did not know what to say. I felt as if this was just some sort of theatre play, that it was all a joke, it wasn’t for real. My mouth tasted as if something had died in it. I shuddered, and damned myself for not being able to cry once more – something had died in it. Or by it, in any case. And as evil as it was, I felt ten times as evil at that moment. I still remembered the feeling… ‘B-but why… why didn’t you try to stop me?’ I moaned in disbelief. ‘When I started… chasing them… k-killing them… You just… watched me go berserk or…’ ‘We’d all have been dead by now if we’d stopped you,’ Leonard remarked from his unrighteous corner, calm as the gentle breeze outside. ‘We needed you as a force.’ ‘I don’t care!’ I cried, and the echo ricocheted from the wide golden walls around me. ‘Why did I do it? Did you know this was going to happen? Am I a monster?’ Huck determinately said “No” at the same moment Leonard determinately – and happily – said “Yes”. I burst in tears, and was thankful for it. ‘Listen to me,’ Huckleberry spoke quietly to me, and allowed himself to embrace me numbly in a fit of compassion. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. See, night nymphs do not affect humans and other creatures in the same way. We can tell there’s something wrong with the feel of them, we can sense them as they approach. Humans can’t. We’re partly influenced by their alluring aroma, but we can keep ourselves sober enough to it to resist it. And some vampires – like that moron over there – enjoy putting themselves to the test this way. There is always a risk, of course. Now, other creatures… such as, as you well know we’ll get there, werewolves… they react to them differently. Unexpectedly. They are, too, partially influenced by the lust trip these women give you – ’ ‘ – but that’s not the lust you got, girl,’ Leonard chirped cheerfully from the corner. ‘That was lust?’ I interrupted in astonishment. ‘That sticky, concentrated feminine scent… that was supposed to be lust? Then why did I suddenly feel like killing?’ ‘For a no-turner, you know surprisingly little about werewolves, dear,’ the blond vampire raised an eyebrow cunningly. ‘In a word: it’s how they work, in most cases. And, this world, darling, it enhances whatever bits of beast you might have in you. You should have thought about it when you came here. I was worried at first, but then I decided we could turn this glitch in the system around and have some fun instead. Good thing it wasn’t the full moon, though, otherwise we could have had a massacre on our hands, and probably nothing left to hunt…’ ‘You’re insane!’ I spat out the furious statement before it could pass through my brain. The brain was busy with different things. ‘Why did you do it? Why do you even

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keep such creatures in your lands? What’s the point in that? Do you enjoy… what, satisfying the leftovers of your murderous lust, or… or…’ I couldn’t help but notice the gravely silence that had conquered every molecule of the air in the golden bedroom. Before I could say anything to apologize upon realizing I must have opened a bad topic for discussion, I could see two pairs of vampire eyes lower down to the floor in embarrassment and shame. ‘Don’t tell Yana, please,’ Leonard uttered very quietly. ‘And Liz must never, ever know. It’s… I’m sorry… it is hard to be stuck in this horrible dark place for ages, all alone, I mean, with no one but Liz to hold and talk to, and this horrible world out there passing me by… I need to let it out somehow. It is so hard to follow this diet, to keep the number of recent murders zero, to keep feeding on cookies and to raise a child with the best and brightest of impressions… I can’t do it, not like this.’ The silence that reigned in the room could devour us all. ‘But you have this too, Wera,’ the vampire continued apologetically. ‘The lust, the hunger… it is a matter of time before you realize it. I thought a lot about what you told me last night… and all the other things that happened to you before that… It’s all terrible, and I do feel for you, but I slowly realized that most of the misfortunes that befell you were merely a result of your attempts to ignore, and even worse, fight, your own nature. You can’t escape who you are, that’s what I tell everyone. And since you’re here, since you told me you came here to be you… I thought you were through with the prejudice. Yes, of course, you can blame me if you like,’ he added with a polite shrug, ‘and you’d be right… And I assume it’s best if Huck and I left you to your thoughts now, but before we go, I’ll just tell you this one thing…’ I waited with clenched teeth. My insides had gone from empty to stone cold and loaded with shards of ice. ‘…did you like it? Be honest to yourself. Do not say this to me, answer it for yourself. Try to sincerely tell yourself that you didn’t enjoy the hunt. The hunger is within you, dear. But if you will, please try convincing yourself it wasn’t the best thing you felt in a while – and there’s nothing quite like it. Not just some silly, shallow guilty pleasure. Tell yourself it wasn’t a wholly fulfilling experience for you. And if you believe it when you do, you are free to leave and never see me again, if you wish. Huck and I will walk you back to where you came from, not to worry. But, if you fail to believe yourself when you tell yourself there is not one bit in you that ever wanted to be a monster,’ Leonard let a shy, but undefeatable smile crawl across his pale remorseful face, ‘then, you will be so kind to join us for dinner, and for an elegant dinner too, after which we will go to a party. I really wanted your stay here to be colorful and eventful, Wera. I’ve made sure it is so. But I’ll leave it to you to decide. Take your time and come back to us when you’ve made your choice. Huck and I will be in the kitchen, it’s just down the dining hall, to the right.’ They left me to the mercy of my mind, which was really just waiting for my hosts to leave me so that it could tear me apart like I’d torn apart that woman in the forest. The few tears I had shed for her had dried on my cheeks and were probably looking for a way back in. My heart was numb, and there was no explanation for that. I plunged into the abyss of the thoughts that I’d been hoping to escape, but I knew I deserved them. There was no time left to be a coward anymore. It was time to face the truth. About why I’d came, and what I had hoped to find here.

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For hours I stared blankly at my pale reflection in the gilded window covered with thin frost on the outside. I stared at it, desperately trying to find Wera, or a version of her. I still saw a girl with the same features that appeared on each of my photographs throughout my lifetime, and yet I could not find anything about them similar to what I remembered seeing in my reflection in the past. What I was looking at now was a girl with hair as dark as that damp, rotting forest I’d just come back from, skin as pale as the moon showing confidently out the window, growing in strength and size night after night, lips as cold as the autumn air, expression as firm and stalwart as that of a wild animal preparing for a fight… jaws clenched, nostrils flaring, eyes composed, focused and stalking – stalking no other but myself from the other side of the glass… and I felt like prey and a hunter at the same time, afraid and proud, thrilled and doomed, and then I looked away, thinking of Leonard’s words… I knew what awaited me if I went back. Not just home, but back to the old Wera. If I did so prematurely, she might be able to still find me and be me… And, from then, what would follow? University, work, possibly a pointless relationship driven by dependence and dirt… It was a world too horrifying for me. Things had changed a lot over the past few years. Blood and misery could not scare me as easily as they did back then. I’d seen so much of the latter that it had become a part of me that I could never sell out in exchange for oblivious bliss. It was too late for all of that. The old Wera still had some power left, of course, and it lay with all the people back home who thought they knew her but didn’t. But I was different now, after what had happened. I would not let her hunt me down this time. I would not turn back – not before I was ready to bite back, anyway. I looked down at my cold feet, and my cold hands, and my coat and socks and worn-out jeans. I liked my attire as it was, it was simple and comfortable and modest. Leonard knew me all too well – he knew I’d come to dinner after all, and he knew I’d probably show up in my oldest and plainest clothes just to defy him. He was perfectly aware I didn’t give a damn if the items I was wearing were suitable for an exquisite dinner in the company of vampires followed by an exquisite vampire party. That was irrelevant to me. And still, the clothes I was wearing didn’t fit a hunter; they fitted only someone who was nothing but prey. And that I did give a damn about.

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Chapter Four

Fever

Leonard had probably practiced his gasp when he saw me enter the kitchen after
a little bit of wandering about the mansion trying to find it, but I forgave him anyway, because he performed it all too well. ‘Mon Dieu!’ he exclaimed excitedly as I walked in, slowly, in order not to trip and fall on my face. ‘Do let us creatures of the night feast on your glamour and radiance!’ ‘You overdid it, seriously,’ I replied with a modest smile. ‘You put so much sugar and vanilla in this sentence I know there won’t be anything for dessert.’ ‘Wait for it,’ said Huckleberry, who seemed to be in a slightly better mood than he was before, ‘just a moment now and he’ll tell you “Au contraire, ma chérie.” ‘That may be true,’ Leonard ventured to display some unusual decency, ‘but how else am I going to get you to wear a dress again, ma chérie?’ he emphasized obstinately on the last words, staring fiercely at his old friend. Then, he restored his calm and lavished me with charm. Huck led me into the dining hall and pulled up a chair for me, apparently determined to compete with Leonard in grace and gentlemanly behavior, and I sat down in between them, in order not to offend anyone. I had to give it to them, I was being treated like a lady. Years ago, Leonard would never have believed that anything similar to a lady would ever become of me. Years ago, I’d sooner spit in the collar of Leonard’s favorite leather jacket than sit next to him at a table. But now, somehow, we were getting along, and that was amazing enough in itself. It had to be the dress. It was somewhat old-fashioned, black and knee-long; I’d borrowed it from my mother’s wardrobe. It was nothing much, but of course, someone like Leonard would probably say that it was not just about the dress you were wearing, it was the way you wore yourself while you were in it. He’d probably spent a lot of time in dresses, I thought with a certain amount of ridicule towards him. Still, fair was fair, they must have belonged to women he’d undressed, and undressing was a tough job back in the centuries of his youth. The dinner was splendid, a work of art nothing was left of merely half an hour later. The cooks had outdone themselves, and I had to commend Leonard for not owning any maids or other servants in addition to all of his other possessions. He did everything by himself, but in this particular meal Huckleberry’s precise mathematical touch could be felt. ‘This was delicious!’ I flattered them both when I was done with the dessert (I was wrong about it, there was dessert after all, and it was mind-blowingly exquisite). ‘I mean, I honestly don’t compliment food very often… but I am really impressed and honored, guys. I don’t know how I’ll be able to eat anything else at that party tonight, though. This was enough for five Weras, really.’ ‘That was the point,’ Huckleberry explained. ‘There won’t be any little treats on sticks where we’re going – or at least none that will be to your liking. Our hosts tonight are a little more… traditional than we are.’
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‘Meaning the menu will consist mostly of bloody blood with blood in it and blood on the side… you get the idea,’ Leonard winked as he always did. Nobody winked quite as stylishly as Leonard. ‘Ah, I get it. Well, it is a good thing I ate then.’ ‘Don’t worry, though, there might be alcohol, in case you’re wondering.’ ‘Great,’ I muttered sarcastically. ‘I think I’d rather stick to blood, then.’ ‘Suit yourself. Very well, then,’ Leonard happily clapped his hands together, and jumped up in exaltation. ‘We’ll probably get going soon, if you feel ready to leave. I’d put on a little more make-up if I were you, though. Don’t get me wrong,’ he corrected himself immediately, ‘you look fabulous. It’s just that you don’t look… err, dark enough, you know. It’s a vampire party, and you know what this usually means…’ ‘I don’t need make-up,’ I retorted with irony, ‘I’m dark enough on the inside.’ It wasn’t my idea; I’d seen the phrase in a quiz somewhere on the Internet, but I thought it worked to mock the entire vampire culture, the understandings of which weren’t all too far from the gothic culture. Unfortunately, it seemed Huck was the only vampire who gladly laughed at my jokes. Leonard, on the other hand, took it way too seriously. ‘Nonsense, dear,’ he shook his head morbidly. ‘Look at you, you’ll look like Little Red Riding Hood entering the wolf pack. I’d rather not see that. Please. For your own safety. Lipstick. Now. And lots of black around the eyes. Someone might think you’ve slept every night for the past ten years of your life.’ ‘It seems the standards are quite different here,’ I concluded, evidently pleased. Where I came from I’d always been seen as tired, moody, strange, detached, sometimes even creepy. Here, I could probably even pass for a normal person. Leonard saw the confident glint in my eyes, and beamed an encouraging smile at me. ‘I’m very sure we’ll have a great time,’ he said. ‘Come, I’ll help you pull your hair up. I miss the old days when we’d go to such parties all the time. We could take it up again, how about it, Huck? In fact, I have a feeling this will be happening a lot from now on. I sincerely hope you have brought more dresses like this one, Wera, because you sure will be needing them.’ My unprepared silence said it all. ‘Never mind,’ Leonard prompted as soon as he realized what the situation was, restrained himself from rolling his eyes at the fact that my nature would never quite yield into the customs of high society, and waved his hand around in impatience: ‘I’ll take care of it all. Now, just make sure you look rather wicked for the party tonight. You too, Huck, don’t try to slide out of the conversation like this. I still have a reputation to uphold, after all, and would they ever invite me to another party if they saw me hanging out with a couple of saints.’ Huck’s eyes and mine met in a silent ocular smile. He extended an elegant white hand towards me. ‘Lady Wera, shall we?’ ‘Why, thank you, Mr, um,’ I refrained from using the name Huckleberry, as if I did he could perceive it as irony, and that was exactly what it would be. ‘Sorry, what’s your last name?’ I asked.

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It was at that time that Leonard, who was already busy combing his own hair, burst out in uncontrollable and completely disrespectful laughter. ‘Go on, buddy,’ he urged Huck. ‘That’ll be a treat.’ Huckleberry blushed almost as deeply as a mortal would. ‘Cleanwood,’ he bellowed stoically. ‘That would be my name.’ Leonard’s mad giggling was the apogee of immaturity, since it came from a fivehundred-year old person. I took no notice of it. I was beginning to feel sorry for Huck. After all, I didn’t have the best name in the world either. That was why I’d given myself a name of my own. Perhaps he ought to do the same. ‘Mr Cleanwood, if you please,’ I smiled encouragingly at him, and took his ice cold hand in mine. I was pale, but next to him, I looked rather tanned, and together it seemed as if we were prepared to go to an obscene funeral. He stood by me, serious as a soldier. He was a good-hearted, reliable fellow, I realized, and being a vampire had hardly influenced his moral values. If he had been born in my world, I would have loved to have him as my older brother. Finally, Leonard joined us, dashing, sharp and self-sufficient, and marched us to the main gate triumphantly. ‘What about Liz?’ I wondered, as we were walking out into the perpetual darkness that now probably counted for evening. ‘Is she going to be okay on her own?’ ‘I’ve had friends of mine take care of that,’ the blond vampire reassured me. ‘Don’t worry about a thing, wolf girl. It’s forbidden. Tonight, we are going to have a ball.’ *** The spooky castle we walked into about half an hour later was in no way like Leonard’s spooky castle. Naturally, it had the obligatory gargoyles on top of all its towers, but one could tell that the architecture was much more advanced, historically speaking. All of the windows were brightly lit and flared against the iron blackness of the night. Music could be heard in the distance, and there was no doubt it did not emerge from an organ or a piano. Leonard would criticize it if he wasn’t so elated as we approached the quarters of the party. He held genuine music very dear. He himself owned a piano, and a couple of violins, and a guitar, and I was certain I’d probably even find a triangle if I searched his mansion thoroughly enough. A butler who astonishingly resembled the gargoyles sculpted on the towers opened the thick wooden gates for us, which were, most likely, covered in engravings of scenes from the satanic bible. He looked our names up a list, and then sniffed me as suspiciously as I would have sniffed him if someone had forced me to. He would have raised an eyebrow if he had one. ‘And you are?’ he snarled at me. ‘Mistress Cleanwood,’ Huckleberry stepped up and introduced me before I could come up with any ridiculous version of myself. ‘She’s with me, and we are accompanying Mr Leonard, as you well know.’ ‘Hmm,’ the gargoyle descendant grunted. ‘I see. So, you remarried, then?’ ‘That is none of your business.’

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‘I bet your relationship is very passionate, then, between you and this… hm… creature.’ ‘More passionate than any of yours, I’m sure. Now if you’ll let us through, please, you might even retain your ability to have children.’ Leonard hissed from the back. I’d never have imagined anyone reacting like this to childish, wayward Leonard. He simply didn’t scare me, only disturbed me, made me laugh, and occasionally made me cover my eyes in shame when he spoke dirty to my best friend. I knew I could call him Blondielocks any day and get away with it. I was therefore stunned to see the monstrous butler’s complexion wane even more, if this was possible, and he began stammering nervously and gave way to us immediately, bowing energetically and pouring out a litany of apologies. It seemed Leonard’s reputation preceded his appearance, and far exceeded his current disposition. Yet, when we were led into a corridor brightly lit with torches and richly decorated with statues of naked women, the sweet, sentimental Leonard I knew became the vicious predator he had been before I’d known him. The crowd parted in two as if commanded from above – or below – upon seeing him walk majestically towards them, as though they were the Red Sea and he was Moses. He inspired a mixture of awe and fear, I could tell. A crooked steel smile danced on his face, and made the other guests tremble. Huckleberry was murmuring something in disapproval under his breath. As we were walked into a larger corridor and then to the hall the party was evidently held in, I felt all eyes on us and got cold chills all over my body. I could not believe that I, along with two vampires with an obscure past, in my mother’s dress and my mediocre make-up, was walking among the most notable representatives of the nocturnal high society, most of which would probably tear me apart the instant they saw me pestering their world with my presence, but due to the quality of my company, the most they could afford to do to harm me was to wiggle their noses in disgust as I passed. I didn’t care; I’d received treatment far worse in the human society. Condescending glances, offenses murmured by strangers, spiteful cackles behind the back, open mockery – it was where I came from. I couldn’t give a good goddamn if those creatures liked me or not. I needed no reminder that the mortal standard for having a good time among vampires was getting invited to dinner and not subsequently becoming dinner. As long as that went as I hoped it would, there was no reason for me to complain. In fact, I hardly saw any reason to complain of anything anymore, which was highly unlikely of me. As a matter of fact, I was still having a genuinely good time an hour later, and that wasn’t just because I hadn’t been murdered yet. Leonard was off to pretend he was seducing a few vampire fans of his who were still a tad too young to know it was best to avoid him at all costs. He was struggling to preserve his fearsome reputation, which had been the one thing that had ensured his survival for the past five centuries. Meanwhile, I was standing in a corner having a pleasant chat with Huck over a glass of white wine. ‘You know, if they put enough olives into this, it might actually get to taste better,’ I contemplated out loud as I shuddered and twitched in disgust after every painful sip. Whatever the taste, however, the drink was definitely having an effect on my mood. That, and the vibrant light was beyond dazzling.

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‘Are you kidding? This is great stuff!’ Huckleberry shouted passionately, and I decided I’d best not object any further. ‘It’s my favorite. We used to get a bottle of this for our every anniversary, Sarah and I.’ He sighed dreamily, and his eyes got redder. Whatever was left of my functioning brain at that moment informed me that it was most likely that he was talking about his ex wife, the one that the gargoyle-like butler had mentioned. ‘What happened between you two?’ I ventured to ask, hoping I wouldn’t regret it. ‘Take a wild guess,’ Huck sighed again and drained his glass. ‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt as much anymore.’ ‘She… she passed away… I am so sorry, Huckleberry…’ ‘No,’ the vampire shook his head grimly. When he continued, his voice was dry and hollow. ‘She didn’t pass away. She didn’t die, either. She was brutally butchered, as if she were an animal. When I found her, she lay in pieces on the bed we’d shared for five years in a puddle of her own blood. I was devastated.’ ‘Oh, God… I am so, so terribly sorry… You… You’re very strong, to still keep going after all that has happened…’ ‘I have no choice,’ Huck shrugged coldly and looked away. ‘I thought of killing myself when she was murdered, you know, going to watch the sunrise for a little while, or something like that, but it would have been cowardly. I couldn’t just get away with death, you see, I had to live on and suffer until the end of time, because I was the one who killed her, after all.’ My jaw dropped, my hands started shaking and I stared unseeingly at Huckleberry, hoping my eyes would somehow convey compassion, but they must have expressed nothing but horror and denial. Huck nodded with a trembling, wretched smile. I no longer felt safe in his company. ‘Yes, that’s true. Leonard the monster’s sweet, respectable, righteous friend. Together in murder. Who would have thought?’ I still blinked blankly against him. Yes, that was exactly what I was thinking. It couldn’t be. Huck was not the person who would do anything like that. Leonard I could picture being associated with all kinds of atrocities and vile acts of cruelty, as he had a sort of Jekyll and Hyde things about him – but Huck, prudent, peaceful Huck who killed his own wife in a most abominable way… If he had a Hyde version of himself, I’d truly be worried if I could envision it. Apparently, it was true that it was the pious and virtuous ones that turned into the most horrific beasts in the appropriate circumstances. And it wasn’t just Huck that was a good example of this pattern. I was one as well… Huck caught my thought, and I was grateful that we’d get to redirect the conversation towards a different kind of murder discussion. I didn’t want to know how he’d killed his wife, and why. ‘You’re still thinking about the hunt, aren’t you?’ he cast an insightful glance at me, and I was relieved that he did so. ‘You shouldn’t. This doesn’t make you evil. Believe me when I say this: there is a monster in us all. Here more than anywhere in the universe.’ Hearing it from Huckleberry, it wasn’t hard for me to believe it at all.

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‘Are you mad at Leonard about what he did?’ he inquired peacefully. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I don’t think there would be any use of it. If anything, I ought to be mad at myself. And I know you’re already mad at him for me.’ ‘Correct. But you shouldn’t blame yourself. It is only natural. These things can even happen to you in your world. What you did is not a crime, it’s… nature. For you and me, and the nocturnal elite around us, it’s something we cannot escape.’ ‘Do you really believe that?’ ‘Look at me. I’ve tried to prove my nature wrong and to defeat it all my life. For nearly two centuries now, I’ve been successful. I might never steer from the right path again, even though “never” is a much longer period of time than you might think, much, much longer than “forever”. But the price for my restraint was high – Sarah.’ I’d do anything to make him stop talking about Sarah. ‘Look at them,’ I waved at the dancing, drinking and chattering black-clad crowd that surrounded us. ‘They look so… careless. They probably killed loved ones and drained innocent little girls as well, and yet they don’t give a damn. They’re not like you and me. I myself have only seen Leonard repent for his sins once. He is not tormented by the lives he’s taken and ruined.’ ‘To him, conscience is a nuisance,’ Huck shrugged. ‘To me, it is the only excuse I have to call myself anything more than a plague to mankind. It helps me by hurting me… after all, isn’t pain how you still know you’re human? Figuratively speaking, of course.’ ‘To me, it is a little bit of both,’ I took another strong sip at the olive-lacking glass of white wine. ‘To be honest… I envy them,’ I waved my arm at the sea of pale faces the hall was packed with. ‘There’s nothing they’ll ever regret. And, in their own heartless madness, they’re as happy as being undead allows them to be. Look at that,’ I remarked, ‘that delirious community of people deserving prison until they rot, dressed all in black and red, not knowing how much worse the afterlife can be…’ ‘Hey, how are you guys doing?’ Leonard popped out of nowhere, slapping Huck on the back and seizing the opportunity to flash his perfect teeth once again. He was tipsy, and that took a lot of effort and liquid for a vampire. ‘Yep, I completely agree. Speaking of black and red, you should have brought more black and red for yourself, Wera. That’s all we wear here, you see. Well, maybe velvet blue, or deep purple, or claret, you know? But black and red… what can I say? It never gets old. Get the pun on immortality?’ he finished ecstatically. ‘I still don’t find vampire jokes funny,’ I replied with murderous honesty. Leonard did not seem one bit discouraged. ‘Oh, you just haven’t heard the tea joke yet,’ he explained all-knowingly, and wobbled on one foot a little. ‘You’ll drop dead with laughter when you hear it – ’ ‘No,’ Huck objected in a rush of panic. ‘You’ve corrupted the kid enough. There will be no tea jokes tonight.’ ‘It’s okay, I’ve heard it…’ I muttered quietly, but the two vampires, one drunk and one sober, were too busy arguing to hear me. I had to admit it to myself, with a fair share of embarrassment, that the tea joke was kind of funny. Nevertheless, it was obscene, shameless, offensive and distasteful. Just the way vampires liked it. The dizzy friendly fight that ensued between them sobered me up a little and all of a sudden I was deafened by the booming of wailing vampire metal music which

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made the walls throb and which I’d somehow miraculously managed to ignore up to that moment. The gravely, dragged out tune with lyrics with a lot of words like “cold” and flesh” in them seemed to inject adrenaline straight into the brains of the fighters, and soon several other slightly intoxicated bloodsuckers joined in, and it was at that time that I realized that the party had a good chance of ending in tears if we didn’t politely go home straight away. Some of the older participants cast hostile glances at me filled with promises that I’d rather they didn’t get to keep. I shyly approached the bundle of limbs and expensive laced fabrics that was now the core of the struggle between Huck and Leonard on the floor, and humbly asked them to act like grown men, but to no avail. I was beginning to worry about my own cold flesh, and what was to be left of it in several minutes when my two brawling patrons would have knocked each other out – in a friendly manner, of course. They scratched and clawed, hair was pulled, ribbons were torn; the mayhem was at its peak. Something needed to be done, and yet there was nothing to be done. We were drawing too much attention to ourselves. ‘Hey, guys,’ I began with growing uncertainty, ‘don’t you think that you can maybe finish this up at home, because I really don’t like this particular song, and the DJ looks like he might get mad at me if I ask for some Guns ‘n’ Roses…’ The next thing I recall was falling over the pile of kicking and screaming vampires accumulated on the floor, and as I became one with the throng gone wild, I felt the wine glass break in my neck… *** Usually, all of the days of my life’s story began with the appropriate “I woke up”, but this didn’t normally apply to my afternoons, and none of my days until this visit had been preceded by unpredictable blackouts. I wasn’t used to this. I was in the bedroom of gold satin, again, and thick irritating fabric was brushing against my neck, clutching it tightly. I was aching all over and felt colder than I’d ever been since I’d got here. Leonard’s face swam in sight out of the dark yellow blur. ‘I hope you enjoyed the party,’ he began with fraudulent innocence. ‘I know I did. It was wild! You passed out just before the best part, unfortunately. I wonder if you’re doing it on purpose.’ ‘You’re a… troublemaker,’ I grunted weakly. ‘Now I know what Yana saw in you. What… what happened…’ ‘Uh-uh-uh. You tell me you enjoyed the party first, and then I’ll tell you about the party. It’s the thirteenth of October, by the way. You were out three days. No, please, don’t jump up. You’ll damage yourself.’ I growled at him, but I lacked the strength to put too much menace into it. I sighed. ‘It was wonderful. Bright. I liked the change of atmosphere. This mansion is way too dark and dreary… It was all great… up to the point you decided to play third grade games with Huckleberry… Now, why did I pass out? I wasn’t that scared…’ ‘Ah,’ Leonard nervously slid a finger across his collar. ‘That is a rather serious matter which I am about to discuss with you now.’

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‘Where’s Huck? You didn’t put him in hospital, did you?’ ‘There are no hospitals here. And no, Huck’s fine. He’s looking after Liz now, keeping her busy. He came up with a number of arguments as to why this was all my fault, and therefore I felt it was my duty to be the one taking responsibility for what happened.’ ‘Well, of course it was your fault. Everything has been your fault so far.’ ‘Yes… yes. Now, let me tell you what happened.’ The vampire’s smile melted away, and was replaced by a shade of concern on his face, which was paler than usual, and – of course – had no sign of cuts or bruises. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘I’m prepared for anything.’ ‘Well, here’s the deal,’ Leonard began. ‘One, when you passed out, a glass broke in your neck. So I’d be a bit more careful with your neck if I were you right now. Huck helped me take out the shards after we’d finished drooling – what, blood is blood, after all, - and bound it, so it’s going to be okay soon. But it will leave a scar, unfortunately. I’m very sorry, Wera. At least you will have something on you to remember me by.’ ‘You’re still not funny, Leonard. Go on.’ I sighed disappointedly. ‘I can sense the bad news is yet to come.’ ‘So it is… the bad news is… well, I wouldn’t really call it bad… It regards the reason why you passed out. Or, rather, blacked the evening out. But, to explain it properly, I’m going to have to tell you something about the lunar cycles around here…’ Thankfully, I was in no state to do any deep thinking. Otherwise, I would have had way too many suspicions creeping into my weary mind. ‘It’s a different world; no, a different universe. So, here we’ve got two moons, see, and they’ve got a much bigger influence on the… the… on those whose… moods are dependent on them. Due to this we’ve got the phenomenon of a full moon twice a month, as each time the moon stays full for about a week. It’s how our world works. So, according to the lunar calendar, the first day of the first full moon for this month happened to be the day we went to that party… only I didn’t know it ‘cause there’s no moon during the day, obviously, and… and they had the curtains down in the hall, and… It influenced you, the moon. It triggered something in you, something that, unfortunately, wouldn’t have been there to trigger – not to this extent, at least – if it hadn’t been for me taking you to that hunt. “The hunt is but a sweet disease”, as you know,’ he recited, ‘but it is also a dangerous thing. While I aspired to free you by helping you become the thing you were meant to be, I awoke something in you that felt the brief taste of freedom was a bit insufficient for it… and now it seems to want more… which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course… you’ll just have to sweat it through…’ I tried to lift myself up, but the satin pillows were way too slippery, and my head finally surrendered. ‘What do you mean?’ I snapped as fiercely as I could. ‘No, don’t tell me, I’m not stupid. All those times, with you calling me wolf girl… then, the whole no-turner business… Then, the hunt and the murder lust or whatever… the taste of the hunt, the lunar cycles, this world enhancing whatever monster you might have in you… Are you about to tell me I’m going to be a werewolf from now on?’

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‘Certainly not,’ Leonard denied vigorously. ‘I mean, why would I, since you figured it out for yourself?’ ‘You’re insane!!!’ ‘Okay, okay, calm down,’ the vampire spoke softly, taking a cautious step back. ‘It’s not exactly like that. That’s not something you’ll be. Not exactly. Hopefully. You might experience some…. changes, though. But, hey, isn’t that what you wanted?’ ‘I suppose nobody is going to repair my neck, either!’ I was furious. ‘I think it’s fine the way it is. That wound is rather spectacular. It thrills me every time I look at it.’ ‘I’ll thrill you a great deal just as soon as I get out of this bed! Get out! Get out!’ I slipped back into the blurry abyss I’d emerged from. I tried to get hold of Leonard’s concerned face, but the blood in my veins seemed to pass through my body like fire. I was burning and writhing, and I lost my grip of consciousness again, about which I hoped to remember to be very pissed off in the morning. I had a dream that night, in between the flames, caught in the trap that was my own skin. It involved the Devil – or was it Leonard? – and fire, and blood, and garters, and white wine… … and I spent God knew how many more days in the clutch of the blind, restless fever, dreaming of black-clad people dancing around me, and red women being murdered, and a grim black silhouette with a strange gold necklace, who was all skin and bones, examining the tattoo on my ankle, and that same silhouette trying to seduce me and pressing his head against mine as we watched the sunset together from a regular couch… and the dark silhouette whispering, into my ear on the side of my neck where the wound was, the words that stuck inside my head throughout the fire and the sweat and the distant screams of night nymphs with wine glasses: “Enough with the hunt… let’s get on with the eating…”

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Chapter Five

Leave It At Home

Huckleberry and Leonard had probably spent a good deal of time watching me
sleep, sweat, scream, moan and cry while they waited for the fever to pass. Judging by the relieved expressions on their faces, it must have been quite a rough struggle. Later on, I’d feel the relief of all the unconscious crying I’d done myself and somewhat subconsciously acquire the inexplicable certainty that I’d never get to cry over anything again for as long as my stay there lasted. When I recovered, I was not back to normal. I was new. A week later the only reminder of the recent events was the scar on the right side of my neck. The blood had clotted and the wound’s crust had peeled off surprisingly quickly. I was certainly not the regenerating type. The scar comprised of a dozen small shapeless cuts, crossed and tangled in a web of damaged skin. I was slightly stunned to come to the conclusion that I could not relate the memory it had imprinted on my neck to anything bad. I didn’t feel anything negative for either Leonard or Huck, either. In fact, I almost felt as if the sun was shining in through my window – figuratively speaking. ‘So, what is to become of me?’ I asked cheerfully the day I was able to get out of bed for more than a few hours, with which I scared the jeepers out of Huck, and made Leonard laugh his head off. There was certainly something wrong with him after five centuries of walking, hunting, and seducing the earth. ‘If anything, we’ll find out tonight,’ said Huckleberry, surreptitiously casting murderous glances at his fellow vampire when he wasn’t looking. ‘Let’s hope our dear idiot friend isn’t right about it, otherwise it’ll be much, much harder for him to continue being your host… because I’ll kill him immediately if he is.’ ‘Come on, Huck,’ I addressed him mildly; I had no idea where the calm so atypical for me had come from, ‘go easy on Leonard. This was going to happen sooner or later anyway.’ ‘Yeah, go easy on me!’ Leonard raised his voice in his own defense. I paid no attention and posed the second one of my many questions: ‘And how exactly did you come to the conclusion about my disease? I mean, what happened the night of the party anyway? After I passed out?’ Huck hesitated before he opened his mouth, but Leonard was the one to have the first word. He didn’t know the meaning or purpose of hesitation. ‘You started the whole twitchy-tossy thing once you fell to the floor, we thought you might be having an epileptic seizure or something,’ he recounted carelessly. ‘But then again, they normally aren’t accompanied by snarls or whimpers. You clawed in the air for a while until you managed to destroy one of the curtains, and everybody sniffed you and withdrew, and that gave us a chance to snatch your shaking body and leave as soon as we could, and Lady Arabella, the host of the party, told me she never wanted me to come near her, because she knew enough lunatics already and I was undoubtedly the most prominent of them all,’ the vampire finished with a jovial shrug.

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‘Aw well, this means we’ll have to crash most parties we attend from now on. But what matters is that you’re alive and well, and you look as good as new.’ ‘She’s been permanently physically damaged because of you,’ Huckleberry reminded him grimly. I watched them argue for a little longer just out of curiosity. ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Huck, no wound or scar acquired in this world will ever show on her in her own… and we don’t mind, do we? Don’t listen to him, Wera, he’s got issues. You’re beautiful.’ ‘I think… I think my neck looks like a toothless vampire tried to drink from me and tried to help himself get the job done with a set of kid’s scissors,’ I estimated thoughtfully. ‘It’s kind of fun, actually.’ ‘See? Everything is fine, and everything will be!’ Leonard exclaimed, as if nothing could ever bring him down. ‘Personally, if you ask me, I seriously doubt you’ll turn into a furry beast tonight and kill us all,’ he nudged me friendlily in the ribs. ‘It’s really not your style, if you ask me.’ ‘Well, even if it does happen, I’ll be peaceful,’ I promised. ‘I’ll curl up and fall asleep with my snout in my tail without disturbing anyone. I’ve always imagined it would be very relaxing to be a wolf, actually. Wolves aren’t aggressive creatures, no matter what some may think. They would only kill for food or self-defense.’ ‘That is indeed true, but you are forgetting it isn’t wolves we’re talking about,’ Huckleberry sternly disagreed. ‘In such cases, it is the human side of you given an animal form that creates the most trouble. Werewolves are most dangerous and uncontrollable because they’re men – or women – in the shape of wolves, not the other way around. Your darkest urges and greatest pains will find themselves in a body that is far less restricted by the laws of nature, and imagine what happens then. Wolves aren’t violent creatures, you got that right – but people, my dear, are.’ ‘And let’s not even talk about women…’ murmured Leonard, and Huck and I simultaneously accused him of being sexist. I gave the possibility of my life as I knew it ending a little more thought than it deserved. ‘Honestly, did you really think you could control a wild occult force within you? That you know what to expect of yourself in such a situation?’ Huckleberry’s just wrath was relentless. ‘I’m going to go find some chains, just in case.’ He rushed out of the room, making sure nobody attempted to speak to him, since he was so enraged. At the door, the vampire turned swiftly, and looked back at me over his shoulder. ‘Oh, um, in case you’re wondering,’ he said distractedly a moment before vanishing, ‘whatever happens tonight, the only person I am going to blame for it is Leonard. Unless of course something good happens,’ Huck added, ‘then, I’ll thank God.’ Then, in an instant, he was gone. ‘Hey, that’s discrimination!’ Leonard yelled after him, but it was way too late. ‘Oh, forget about him, he was just born sour, I think. Wera… my guest… I am not going to leave you here in the ubiquitous gloom contemplating over the possible consequences of tonight. We are going to have another nice day, you and I, even if Huck won’t join us. Or maybe precisely because he won’t join us. Don’t bother worrying about this. Let’s have a nice day, shall we?’

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‘But I can’t help worrying about it!’ I protested, as Huck’s words were slowly reaching my brain and relieving me from the delirium of the morning. ‘What about Liz? Who is going to protect her if something happens to me when it gets dark… well, darker?’ Leonard thought about it for a brief moment. ‘You’re right,’ he concluded all of a sudden, as if he had had an incredible revelation, even though this was the single most obvious conclusion he could come to. ‘Then, we shall go out today. For a walk, what do you say? A nice walk before dark, so to speak?’ I eyed him suspiciously. ‘You don’t mean that kind of a walk, do you? Like the one you took me on the second day of my stay?’ Leonard laughed. Whatever the answer was, he would have laughed anyway. ‘No, of course not,’ he assured me earnestly, although I didn’t trust the sincerity in his eyes one bit. ‘We’ll go out in town to show you around, do some sightseeing, maybe some shopping, too – I’m convinced you need it… Come on, don’t waste your time objecting, please. My place is far from the most interesting place you’ll ever see around here. Come on, Wera,’ he urged, switching his boyish charm on, and I gave in. ‘Don’t disappoint me. I wouldn’t want you to leave with the impression that my world is a boring place to be in, would I now?’ ‘Oh, trust me, Leonard,’ I replied seriously, ‘that is the last thing that I would ever, ever think of this place.’ *** ‘What you are standing in is Claret Square,’ Leonard was explaining to me half an hour later, when he’d finally been convinced that his hair was impeccable enough for him to go out. Today, he was in gold-brimmed purple, and his hair was delicately drawn back into a ponytail (at least I saw it that way) and tied with a small purple ribbon. He looked as though he had set off to join in on a parade, and next to him I looked like a beggar. ‘That large building over there – yes, the one with the sculpture of a head on a stick in the front, that’s the one – that’s the headquarters of the City Council. I assume you don’t really know which City the Council belongs to, so I’ll tell you straight away. That’s the south side of Laurington, where I happen to live, and let me tell you not everyone can afford a place around here… Anyway, the party we went to was Lady Arabella’s, who practically owns almost all of North Laurington, but regardless she is no lady, no matter what they call her. Trust me, I know,’ he winked at me, and for the first time I found it unpleasant. The walk on the other hand, was indeed very nice. Today, it was much warmer, God knew why, and it almost felt like regular human autumn. I couldn’t help but smile. ‘Okay, I think I get it… so, how many vampire cities are there?’ I asked, out of politeness more than curiosity. I’d never liked geography as a discipline. ‘Oh, there are about a hundred that I know of,’ Leonard replied, ‘but you wouldn’t want me to list them all, I’m sure. Our world is smaller, you see, but it’s still pretty developed, not that I mean to brag, so I’ll just give you the basics. Our world is divided into seven main areas: Butchery, Lechery, Agoria, Cleaveland, Scarhaven and

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Culpa.’ I raised an astonished eyebrow; hell, I might have even raised two. ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ Leonard pointed an accusative finger at me, ‘I didn’t name them, you see. They’ve been renamed many times by many city councils. In most cases, I am afraid we counted largely on irony…’ ‘No kidding,’ I muttered. I could sniff vampire irony a mile away. ‘Cleaveland?’ ‘Well, yeah, because it ought to suggest they cleave newcomers into bits, you see. Plus it’s a play on Cleveland, which I am sure you are familiar with in your world. I dunno… most vampires seem to find it funny anyway.’ ‘I’m very sure they do,’ I rolled my eyes towards the sky. ‘Laurington is located in Cleaveland, beaten in the aspect of prestige solely by Aurius, which holds the largest blood reserve in our world. The neighboring states of Cleaveland are Butchery and Lechery, who are always at war. Most werewolves around here have migrated from Butchery, and yet the majority of them have decided to stay there. Few want anything to do with the royal elite in either Aurius or Laurington. Werewolves are most useful for their strength rather than anything else – no offense – and Butchery is a good place for them, since the locals have a great interest in warfare. Now, if you want to be somewhere relatively peaceful, that is Agoria, but you can barely find folks there that are under seven hundred, and they are a bit of a bore… very conservative, you see. Me, I like Laurington best, because it is a dynamic accumulation of youth, culture, the high society, and yet the royals wouldn’t step here and involve me in all kinds of serious conspiracies…’ I had mentally skipped the information he was flooding me with until then, but now I began to display a fraction of genuine interest. ‘What conspiracies?’ I asked. ‘Do you mean those are the big-shot vampires, the ones that pretty much decide the fate of your, well, country, or whatever it is, and the ones that always try to come up with a plan to rule the human world and what not?’ ‘That’s the ones, exactly,’ my vampire companion responded with a flattering nod. ‘The entire royal clan is located there, always trying to do something that will destroy whatever dimensional and social balance we’ve managed to obtain throughout the centuries. Personally, I think they’re stupid. You know that until about ten years ago I tried very hard to get into their circle, and I can’t tell you about a royal figure that I haven’t drank from, double-crossed or slept with just to get a bit of useless power. But they make things very complicated; they require too many lives sacrificed in the name of their pointless causes and quests for omnipotence and domination. As far as I know, we are currently under the rule of Lady Salacia – not a lady at all, once again – and she’s very interested in snatching the title “queen”, but you see, vamps these days, they don’t want to have a king or a queen, because… well, I am very sure you know why,’ he added with a small ambiguous smile. I nodded. ‘Yes, I remember,’ I returned the same smile back to him. ‘It was a great fiasco, as far as I remember you telling me.’ ‘Indeed it was. So, I’m through with this, admiring the architecture and night life of Laurington, and spending the last days of my youth without anybody giving a damn whether I am here or not. I no longer look for publicity.’ ‘Well, your life is very interesting, Leonard, there’s no doubt, but how about telling me something about this town that I might need to know in the future?’

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‘Ah yes. This is Crosshatch Street. You should remember this, because it leads to Cinder Street, just across which I happen to live. Now, from Crosshatch Street, you can get straight to the best shopping street in town, Massacre Lane…’ ‘Wait a minute,’ I interrupted, ‘Cinder Street?’ More eyebrow wriggling followed. ‘They used to execute vampires on it back in the days, that’s why it used to be called Ash Road, but the locals found it a little too disturbing, so they renamed it to Cinder Street, because it sounds a little cuter.’ I reflected on the subject for a while. Vampires who didn’t mind walking streets called “Massacre Lane” or giving their states names such as “Butchery” had actually turned out sensitive enough to complain of the disturbing sound of “Ash Road”. I could never quite figure them out. Still, the piece of information Leonard had just given me intrigued me beyond limits. ‘Hey, I thought you had no police, no court, no law whatsoever here!’ I exclaimed in amazement. I could potentially think well of that type of civilization… one day. ‘We don’t,’ Leonard shrugged. ‘It just wouldn’t work out seeing it as everyone is a criminal. ‘But there is one prison, specialized for those who performed acts truly deserving punishment, and before it was built, those twisted individuals were burnt in public… but then we decided it simply wasn’t enough for them, and the younger citizen were getting too stressed out about it, so…’ ‘But what kind of crimes could those vampires have committed if here rape and murder aren’t considered anything out of the ordinary?’ Leonard trembled at the question I’d directed towards him. I’d never seen Leonard tremble at a question before. ‘Is it, like, attempting genocide of your own kind, or something?’ I suggested hesitantly when he didn’t reply right away. ‘Well, let me put it that way,’ the vampire tried to hint at the answer instead of spitting it right out. ‘To be this serious it has to be a religious or spiritual matter. Think about this: what do we vampires believe in?’ I shrugged impassively. ‘I don’t know,’ I confessed with infuriating sincerity. ‘Nothing? Themselves? Blood? I can’t really be sure.’ ‘No, no. Think harder. What’s the one thing they wouldn’t have anyone spit on? Their most valuable possession?’ ‘Their ego? Their pride? Their ancestry?’ I was hopeless. ‘Freedom.’ The answer took me entirely by surprise and my feet forced my body to a halt in the middle of the street.’ ‘What?’ I uttered. It just seemed impossible to me that creatures as innately impure as vampires could hold something like freedom so dear, as freedom was something holy, something sacred, indeed, something to die for even if you had an eternity to give up. ‘Are you serious?’ ‘Completely. Look, Wera, we may be anything, but we know what’s important, even to delinquents like us. We have served many rulers, and we have done the bidding of many tyrants in our history, but we have never actually been tyrannized.

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We would never allow such a thing to happen. We’ve always let someone be on top in the hierarchy of our world, because this is how things ought to be, but only because we found the chosen ones to be fitting, or saw some profit for us in their reign, or we felt like being noble enough to stand them for a year or two before we ate them. But never have we let anyone, anyone at all, force their desires upon us against our will, turn us into pets, or slaves, or puppets. We’ve always been free people, and we have always chosen the life we led for ourselves, be it miserable and perverse or not. We’ve always done what we wanted, and we always will. And despite the way we treat each other, kill each other and betray each other, you’d be surprised if you saw how united we could be at a time of crisis… which, thank goodness, you will not get to see while you are here. We haven’t been at war with any race for centuries now. We’re free creatures, we make our own destiny, and we are to this day, believe it or not, possibly the most democratic society the universe has ever seen…’ He didn’t say this without pride. I had no idea he had such a size to him. I watched Leonard with my jaw dropped in pure fascination. He smiled gently at me. ‘What?’ he asked innocently. ‘Didn’t expect that? Oh, don’t worry, Wera, dear, you’ll find we are not so bad, once you get to know us… or to be us…’ Another devilish wink. ‘But enough with the history lesson for today. I promised you shopping as well as sight-seeing. Come on, I’ll take you to the best clothing store in town, and then how about we give that head on a stick a closer look? No? Okay, okay… on we go then, with the shopping!’ *** I had always hated shopping, ever since I’d been a little girl. I only had to walk in and out of three different stores subsequently to get a headache. Still, Leonard’s manners and restless flattery made shopping a little less painful to me, and I couldn’t deny that I fancied the clothing sold in the stores here way better than the tasteless products of fashion disasters my world usually had to offer. It was true that the designers didn’t use that much of their imagination when it came to colors. Black and red never got old, as the motto of every vampire fashion line probably went. On the other hand, whoever the designers were, they truly knew how to make a piece of clothing look… attractive. Actually, that was probably the understatement of the century. Judging by their look, the clothes were probably imported from the state of Lechery. Left on the racks, they posed no threat to the mediocre person, but worn on someone’s body – if they could fit it – they were capable of inspiring even the most pious of priests to steer from the righteous path and be led into temptation. They weren’t made by the Devil, but he would most certainly envy their maker. A lot of fabric was used in the making of these clothes, and yet they somehow managed to display the most delicately suggestive parts of a woman’s body in a way that wouldn’t allow you to look at anything else. The store specialized mostly in selling evening gowns, formal dresses and underwear, but the men’s department of the store didn’t disappoint the ladies either, if they had a thing for the elegant type and didn’t mind seeing their loved ones in black lace shirts every now and then. Besides, there were

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clothes there from every epoch in history since the Dark Ages. I stared in amazement and disapproval at pretty much everything, then, under Leonard’s poisonous influence, I consented to picking something modest and trying it on. Luckily, there was no mirror in the dressing room (why would vampires need one anyway?), and it was a good thing that there wasn’t, for it would probably blush at the sight of me in that thing that I was wearing. ‘We’re buying it,’ Leonard announced as soon as he saw me walking out clumsily out of the dressing room, struggling with the curtain. ‘I’ll compliment you on the way back. Words won’t do just now. You need to see yourself first. This is you, and I’ll take no objections.’ ‘B-but… but… okay, sure, but… What? Are you kidding me? We’re buying that? What for? What with? Who for?’ ‘Well, since you seem to be so terribly uninterested in it, I was thinking I’d get it for myself, but if it doesn’t fit me, I might let your wear it on weekends,’ the vampire winked at me again, successfully embarrassing me even further. ‘The dress is gorgeous, wolf girl, and it fits you like a glove. Be reasonable, please.’ I was blushing and sweating with humiliation, panic and fury in the gorgeous dress. ‘It only fits me like a glove because it would fit a five-year-old, too!’ I squealed in desperation. There was no way out, and probably no way out of the dress either, judging by its tightness. ‘I mean… it’s perverse! And horribly, horribly wrong! And I can’t breathe in it!’ I complained, hoping that would make Leonard change his mind. But he was merely shaking his head implacably, an incarnation of evil all the way through. If Satan was good at corrupting people, Leonard was better. ‘You’ll have the opportunity to breathe as much as you like once someone has taken that terrible dress off.’ His comment destroyed me. ‘Oh, please. I’m your host, so you will abide by my rules. Don’t you dare think we’ll be staying in tonight, either. I’ll get Huck to come along, too, if you feel you need someone besides you to scowl at the dress. It’s the vampire world, woman, face it – you won’t find innocent dress codes or forms of entertainment here. Not unless it is Halloween, and we still have some time until then, don’t we?’ He commanded me out of the dress, which I handed to the shop owner, who handed it obediently to Leonard in exchange for a few furtive words and a certain amount of a strange currency. As we were walking out of the store, I tried the imploring innocent look technique on Leonard, as a last resort: ‘Can’t we just go hunting instead?’ I pleaded. ‘This high society stuff, it’s just not for me…’ ‘Oh, but we are going hunting, sweetie,’ the vampire beamed guiltlessly at me, and I recognized a debauched fiery glint in his otherwise clear eyes. ‘It’s just a different kind of hunting.’ *** ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this,’ I muttered on the way through a gate with a complicated pattern, and a dozen badly tended rose bushes which we squeezed through prior to that. ‘Whose party is it this time?’

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‘Lady Victoria,’ Huckleberry said in a displeased voice. ‘One of the many. There are thousands of Lady Victorias in this world.’ ‘Don’t you ever get tired of partying?’ I moaned wearily. ‘I still have this habit, you know, it’s called sleeping… Gosh, I feel like I’m back in the ninth grade with my friends…’ ‘I’m not that fond of them either,’ Huck agreed as grumpily as ever. ‘Parties, I mean, not your friends in the ninth grade…’ ‘Oh, right, but you’re still wearing your best suit, right?’ Leonard remarked as we walked into a cold, smoky hallway. ‘By the way, don’t you think Wera looks ravishing tonight?’ he mentioned seemingly accidentally, just to see the other vampire’s nervous reaction. ‘Undoubtedly your doing, I believe,’ Huckleberry retorted, unimpressed. ‘Tonight you are particularly evil, Leonard.’ ‘Why of course I am. I must take care of my reputation, I keep telling you.’ I was lucky not to pass out on my way in. The dress was so tight and suggestive I could barely take a breath without looking as though I was flaunting endowments I didn’t possess. It was a simple knee-long black dress with some precious or semiprecious stone near the collar. Moonstone, I figured out later on. Oh, the irony. Leonard loved watching me squirm in this dress that I neither deserved nor could handle. Huck was casting compassionate glances at me more rarely than usual, and then he’d look away all too quickly. I felt abandoned and unsafe. A hiss in the vicinity of my ear made me jump, startled. ‘Just wear it like you’re worth more than it, darling,’ Leonard advised me gently while we were making our way through the mob that pushed to advance further along the hallway as if they were queuing for heaven. ‘Look at this horrible dress, designed for cheap women. Wear it like you are not a cheap woman. Wear it like you are not for sale at all. Those are the kind of things people desire to obtain the most.’ ‘In your world, maybe,’ I whimpered helplessly, trying not to trip. ‘Anyway, I don’t care. I should go back, I can’t do this. I’m sorry if the remains of my decency and innocence are stopping me from acting natural in this goddamned piece of fabric.’ ‘Oh, I am sorry, I forgot to tell you something before we came here,’ Leonard sighed bitterly, and acquired an expression fit for a self-loathing martyr. ‘You brought something along that’s not allowed in here, dear.’ ‘What? Are they going to frisk us now?’ ‘No, wolf girl, but it shows.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘There are several names for it. Innocence, virtue, morality, prejudice, principles, shyness, social insecurity… pick whichever one you want. What I meant to apologize for is that I should have told you to just leave it at home.’ ‘What?’ I barely managed to stifle a shriek. ‘Leave my innocence at home?’ ‘It’s as simple as that.’ ‘Are you insane?’ Huck groaned audibly. ‘Are you trying to make this wonderful girl a copy of yourself? I won’t let you!’ ‘Now, now, Huck, I’m not drunk enough to start another fight with you. And yes, Wera, I believe I am a little crazy, for my own good.’

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‘It was a rhetorical question.’ ‘You can’t just tell her to abandon her virtue and dignity! You can’t do this to the few people that aren’t completely corrupted!’ Leonard seemed to solve all disagreements with charismatic grins. ‘No. No. Not her dignity, Huck. What kind of a monster do you think I am? Never her dignity. But, her innocence… that is simply not required here.’ ‘She can’t just give it up whenever she wishes to and then put it back on again!’ ‘Wera,’ Leonard turned to me with a dead serious expression, ‘can I have a word with you in private?’ I had no choice. We stepped away from Huck, who’d have waited sulking in a corner, if queues had corners. ‘I’m not asking you to be something you’re not,’ the vampire whispered to me softly, and his eyes were filled with tense, imploring honesty when he said that. ‘I’m not asking you to be cheap. Didn’t I just ask the exact opposite of you? Think about it, wolf girl: you’ve always – always – done the right thing in your life. And tell me – did it, in the end, lead you to something pure, something beautiful, something innocent? What good were all your self-restrictions and self-sacrifices when they went away in vain for people who couldn’t appreciate the delicate white flower that is called innocence, which you humbly put in their vases? Did it grow and bloom there, or did it wither, for there was no one to care for it?’ When he saw the tears advancing to my eyes, he quickly switched to a different tone, and I was grateful, for I had promised myself not to cry again until the end of this holiday. He approached me and held my chin up until our eyes were on the very same level and only inches away. ‘Now listen to me carefully, Wera: there is not a single person where we are about to go that is worthy of this flower you’ve got – and I know you’ve still got it. Not a single petal, even. There is no need to waste it on sinners when it wasn’t even worth it wasting it on saints. You are free – no, you are obliged to be cruel to these people because they’ve been waiting for someone to teach them a lesson for ages, and their hearts are so dried out they will not shudder, let alone break if you play with them. This is called justice. And, you might just have a good time in addition – who knows? So, I am telling you: try it just this once. When we walk through that door over there, please don’t bring your innocence along. Someone just might steal it. Besides, a shy lady in a beautiful dress is much more of a threat than a confident, heartless woman in a beautiful dress. Leave your innocence at home, Wera. Leave it at home. And I guarantee you: nothing will ever be the same again.’ His speech frightened and thrilled me. I realized Leonard could mould me into whatever he wanted to. But, on the other hand, he was right – my innocence wasn’t worth any of the clients of the dimly lit cafeteria we entered, and nor did it seem to be able to be of any use to these guys. There was a lot of smoking, drinking, card-playing and cursing going on. It turned out that this was a tea party, and I was shocked to find out that this was the most outrageous party I’d ever attended. ‘You’re lucky he didn’t take us to one of the razorblade clubs,’ Huckleberry told me later in the evening, when we were already relaxing at a narrow round table, swallowing our doubts and grudges and dissolving them into several glasses of beer, and I was slowly forgetting the need to breathe. ‘They provide customers with the kind of entertainment you’d never enjoy.’

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‘I believe someone owes me an apology,’ Leonard’s voice came from the other end of the small table. ‘You’re both having a good time, aren’t you?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ promptly responded Huckleberry with a cruel grin, ‘that I have continuous doubts, after all these years throughout which I’ve known you, that you have any good left in you whatsoever. I hereby state that these are nothing but fowl insinuations. You’re rotten to the core, my friend.’ Leonard purposefully spilled his beer over Huck’s pristine suit. ‘And you’re soaked with beer to the bone, my fellow in pointless wandering around bars,’ he retorted remorselessly. ‘I may be wicked, but you needn’t worry, I promise everyone this night will not end in tears. Someone might even get lucky. And looky here,’ he added with indecent excitement in his tone, ‘it seems that someone would be the astonishingly attractive heartless lady whose presence we have the honor of enjoying… Check this out, Wera, that strapping gentleman two tables away hasn’t taken his eyes off you ever since we got here.’ I blushed, because things like that never happened to me and I was never prepared for them, but then recomposed myself and went straight on to denial, which always saved me in uncomfortable situations. ‘Oh, really?’ I mumbled. ‘I thought this went for the whole room, they must have assumed they’re getting free strippers here now.’ ‘No,’ Leonard shook his head with certainty. ‘that particular one is very persistent in examining you. He looks quite young, too. I mean, they all do, but this one seems inexperienced. Maybe it’s something to start a conversation about?’ Huckleberry looked uneasy. I turned around carefully to see if it was all just another trick. Still, there was indeed a person – a vampire, judging by his complexion – who was staring intently at me, in a threateningly stalking way rather than anything else, and he didn’t lower his stare when my eyes accidentally met his. When I saw he wasn’t ashamed or disturbed in any way, I examined him as well. He had shoulderlong black hair, he was dressed (of course!) in black silk, and he seemed to be, visually, at least, no more than my age. He looked peaked and hungry. That made him dangerous in my eyes, and I lost interest. ‘Thanks, guys, but I am fine where I am.’ Now, however, the piercing stare of the stranger scratched at the back of my neck and annoyed me, and I wondered how much trouble I’d get in if I asked him to stop. My companions quickly noticed the change in my mood. ‘What’s the matter?’ Leonard asked. ‘Don’t you like the guy?’ ‘He creeps me out… I know that wouldn’t stop me in the real world, but he is really creepy... I want nothing to do with him, I’d just like to get out of here, or things might go wrong.’ Huck seemed to agree with me completely, but Leonard made the effort to object once more. ‘What is it about him that creeps you out? He seems pretty decent to me.’ ‘Well, just look at him… he looks like…’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Well, like… I dunno, like a serial killer, I guess.’ ‘Honey, I hate to disappoint you, but everyone you see in here is a serial killer. I’m a serial killer, Huck is a serial killer, and trust me, that poor boy over that couldn’t

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possibly be more of a serial killer than either of us two. The way I see it, he seems to be pulling this look out just to appear hardcore. He’s been a vampire for two weeks. I wouldn’t give him a day over that.’ ‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ Huckleberry expressed his doubts. ‘Look at the pendant he is wearing on his neck. He might be a tool of some secret order dealing with some really dark stuff…’ Had Huck not said these words, my whole holiday could have developed in an entirely different direction. But I had to look twice, and to my horror and joy rather than surprise I noticed that that sulky vampire was wearing the very same gold necklace I had seen on the peculiar dark silhouette from the disturbing dream I’d had when I was still burning with fever. I could never forget it, it had started a fire in my subconscience, and now that I was on the trail that could lead to its meaning, I was not going to let it go for anything. Leonard had noticed my sudden interest, even if he had misinterpreted it. ‘See,’ he whispered dirtily, ‘he ain’t so bad, is he? He looks a little gloomy and lost, too. Why don’t you walk that handsome boy home, how about that? Your innocence will be safe back at my place when you come back, I guarantee you. After all, how far can you get?’ I didn’t quite receive what he was trying to say to me, because all I could think about is the necklace on the stranger’s neck; the stranger alone didn’t matter. A part of me that was a newborn hunter awoke and sniffed the air cautiously. ‘You know,’ I replied slowly, ‘I believe that is exactly what I am going to do.’ Huckleberry waved an angry index in Leonard’s face. ‘I am going to have a long and painful talk with you when we get home, Mister Baker,’ he warned. Leonard sent me off with an intrigued spark in his eyes as he watched me leave the table and head towards the serial killer in the dark. Anyway, what difference did it make when they all were bad, more or less? I was a little stunned to notice that halfway to the table the stranger stood up and strode aggressively over to me. On the other hand, it could have been a good thing as well – I had no idea how to begin the conversation. The unknown vampire marched to a halt before me and sank his hungry blue stare into my neck. ‘Where did you get that?’ he growled. Not the best pick-up line, I thought, but it was monsters I had to work with, after all. ‘I cut myself on a wine glass while I was at a party.’ ‘Do you go to many parties around here?’ ‘Um, no, not really. The fewer people I am with, the more comfortable I feel, actually,’ I decided to be honest. I wouldn’t die of rejection, in any case, but I was determined to reveal his secret. ‘Why is that?’ the frightening stranger inquired. ‘Well, it’s really only when you are alone with someone, face to face, that you can truly get to know them. You can’t do that at parties, I mean.’ ‘I couldn’t agree more. In this case, would you like to go somewhere, like maybe for a walk outside, just the two of us, and talk face to face? I can’t stand the smoke here.’

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‘Sure, why not,’ I shrugged innocently. ‘I’m not a smoker either. I find it pointless.’ Lenard was observing the happening intently from our table. ‘That’s my girl,’ he nodded to himself, thoroughly satisfied. ‘What are you talking about? She’s going to get into so much trouble!’ I could hear Huck protesting in a half-hiss that was much too infuriated to be quiet. ‘No, Huck, my friend; he will.’ ‘Look at him! Are you kidding? He might be young, but he is still dangerous, and a murderer! Imagine what he could do to her!’ Leonard took no notice of his panic. ‘That’s my girl,’ he repeated gladly under his breath. ‘That’s right. Hunt him down. You’re already getting a grasp of the best way to do it. Making him believe you are the prey…’ *** We walked out into the moist evening, me and Aelius – that’s what he said his name was – and had a casual chat about life, the world, people, vampires, and pretty much everything else. I could not explain why I didn’t feel nervous at all, but it was most likely because, under closer examination, he turned out to be a rather pleasant guy to talk to. He confessed to me that he’d become a vampire because he couldn’t stand the loneliness the human world inflicted on him day after day, and I thought that it was sweet, making the effort to come up with a lie like this just to impress me. I knew it wasn’t true, of course, since handsome, well-built guys like him never suffered from loneliness in the human world, but I let him say what he liked. Finally, we reached a small shed in a narrow but tidy alley which he led me into gallantly, and invited me into a bedroom of his own. It was awful compared to the trashiest of Leonard’s bedrooms, but I wasn’t very enthusiastic about luxury. Aelius and I exchanged several brief glances and watched the dark blue starry sky together for a minute or two, standing close to each other by his window. I wondered how to maneuver to the question about his necklace for about a minute or two. He didn’t say anything as they passed. It was starting to rain lightly. I sighed in a moment of peace, turned my back against him and gazed at the stars pinned on the magical sky. My soul melted in ecstasy as silence took over. And just when I was beginning to think that Aelius was a nice guy – boring, but nice, – he had to lean over me and plant a violent kiss on my wounded neck. It hurt, but I yielded, and said nothing. He was handsome, and passionate, and thoroughly disgusting. It was the way in which he kissed, the way in which he touched me, the way in which he snarled sweet gothic nothings into my ear that was revolting on a scale beyond description to me. It wasn’t that he advanced upon me as if he was trying to attack me; it was the self-centered confidence of ownership which radiated from his every arrogant movement. It felt as though he thought I already belonged to him, as if he believed he was irresistible simply because he was a handsome vampire, and as if he expected me to shiver with passion and vulnerability at the touch of his lips, which was rude and lazy, and was supposed to pass for alluring. He spoke to me of immortality without being able to grasp the concept of death; he spoke to me of

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sorrow and torment knowing nothing of either. I felt nauseated and annoyed to have thought that someone this shallow and pathetic was wearing an item from a dream that had made my heart stir… I was beginning to see red once more… Well, maybe not red, but slightly pinkish. And I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to stand his rude, effortless kisses before I vomited. ‘You taste like roses in the rain,’ Aelius whispered greasily in my ear. And that tipped the scales in favor of blind rage. Before I could analyze why, I had turned against him, grabbed his throat, and now I was squeezing it with all my strength, or maybe a little more than that. I would have been shocked to see the horror in his eyes if I weren’t so furious I could probably kill him. ‘What do you know about roses?’ I yelled in his face in all my fury, and all of a sudden what I was seeing before me was not Aelius the womanizer, but just a frightened, whimpering young man who didn’t know what to do with his life, and was not probably deeply regretting becoming a vampire out of boredom. ‘What do you know about rain? How dare you talk to me about suffering, you, whose thick little brain will know the suffering I’ve known in fifty years’ time! But I don’t know if I can wait that long, you know?’ The shadows by the bed were growing thicker and thicker, and they seemed to all be looming over Aelius, with his stupid poser nickname and his stupid black silk shirt… ‘What’s your name?’ I shrieked madly above him, tightening my grasp, which the horrified vampire had not even remembered to resist. Otherwise, he could have finished me off in the blink of an eye. ‘You real name, you clown!’ ‘Th-thomas,’ the young man sobbed, twisting and turning, trying to pretend this wasn’t happening to him. ‘Th-that’s my real –’ ‘Thomas WHO?’ ‘Downey! Thomas Downey!’ he screamed helplessly. ‘Please let me go!’ ‘And who gave you this lovely pendant, Thomas Downey? Answer me! Now!’ ‘A-a man… a vampire… I don’t really know him… He paid me to keep it for him, he… he said he’d-he’d come to g-get it back…’ ‘You know what I am, don’t you, Downey?’ I growled icily at him, and it wasn’t a metaphorical growl, not at all. ‘Or are you too thick to even realize that? Don’t you know that your kind and mine don’t mix? Don’t you know what would happen to you if I kissed you? You wanted me to kiss you before, do you still want it? Can you see the full moon rising, Downey?!’ The vampire was already choking on his own tears and terror. Now he ought to talk to me about rain and roses, I thought briefly, before my thoughts became a tangled scarlet blur. Thomas started crying. I couldn’t bring myself to kiss him, and for a second, just for a second, I loosened my grip on his throat. Then, he jumped through the window and ran. From then on, the night became truly amusing. I was no longer thinking, fearing, doubting. All I could taste was the bitter scent of that gold necklace that was going to be the answer to all of my questions, and the repugnant stench of the unfortunate

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vampire Thomas Downey. I sprinted after the bright blue trail of his smell, through streets, squares and gardens. The moon was full and magnetic and scarlet, the air was fresh and moist and ringing, the night was more beautiful than ever, and Downey’s smell was the only thing that ruined the lovely scent of rain and roses in the air…

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Chapter Six

Carpe Noctem

The situation was tragic.
It undoubtedly was. I knew very few people – and less than two of them were mortal – who wouldn’t think the same if they woke up in a cute, tidy, fragrant garden, roses on the left of them, daisies on the right, and a mangled body just beside their head. That was indisputably tragic. The disfigured body covered in blood, mud, grass, scratches, wounds and bruises, was that of Thomas Downey, a man recently gone vampire. I felt sorry for him, but the disgust from the previous night still lingered on. I sincerely hoped he’d come round. I explored the contents of my mouth with my tongue. Thankfully, I hadn’t bitten him; or at least so it seemed. I had obviously toyed with him quite a bit until he’d passed out, possibly out of fear. His wounds would heal if he was still alive, but he was in a state too terrifying for me to check. I couldn’t look at his face; it was anything but handsome now. Poor Thomas probably didn’t deserve this; his only sin known to me was stupidity. And yet I had completely lost it the previous night, for little or no reason. I had sincerely not intended to harm him in any way when the whole thing had begun. All I’d wanted was to talk to him so that I could find out more about the necklace. He still had it around his torn up neck. Wounds carved by claws as big as my fingers gaped and gushed various liquids all over his still young body. I stared hypnotized at my latest morbid canvas, the distasteful, horrific painting that was really just a portrait of my own madness. Was this really me, I thought, more in wonder rather than in paralyzing horror, which I knew I ought to be feeling. Was Leonard right about me, that I was nothing but a beast? Why was it that all I’d ever been so far was a nice, kind, compassionate girl who just had the habit of crying once too often… and since that girl had grown tired of crying and decided to cut down on it, I’d discovered a creature that lived in me, a creature that had waited for twenty-one years for its moment to finally come. And why did I feel more alive than ever, despite my firm morals, despite my sensitive heart, despite everything that I’d believed I was for so many years? I had to go to Leonard. He had all the answers. Huck was angry with him, but it was simply because he couldn’t see the plan behind what he was doing… Leonard had taken us out to a midnight tea party and urged me to follow a stranger into the night so that he could keep Liz and Huck safe. Would I have attacked them too, if they’d happened to stand in my way the moment the red moon came swinging towards me and the red curtain covered my eyes? Was I even able to tell between good and bad people in these states of mind? So much for the myths that the no-turner could never quite be a werewolf, and the werewolf was not quite a monster, but, at least to an extent, a creature that could be influenced or reasoned with… and so much for the myth that monsters were not quite evil. Leonard was not evil for letting this happen – he had saved at least three lives that night at the price of risking only one – but I was. There was no doubt about that. Dimly, I remembered it all; and it no longer felt like

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someone else’s doing. I didn’t know for sure what I looked like then, or what I could do, but I knew with terminal certainty that when those moments came and something pissed me off, I was being taken over by all of my unpleasant memories, fears, sorrows, regrets, heartaches and heartbreaks and emotional scabs, and all of them flowed back into my tired heart in a crimson river of rage and hatred, which made me crave wreaking a horrid vengeance upon the whole world… And the worst thing about it was – I remembered the burning sensation in my brain so clearly – that then, and now, I truly, deeply felt that the world deserved it… Long ago it had started doing damage to a girl who hadn’t done anything wrong. I remembered this girl so clearly, even though I was incapable of giving too much of a damn about her right now. An offense here, a mock there, a punch, slap or kick every now and then, a heartbreak or two for a change, a little bit of abuse, some lies, a few hundred forced kisses, a couple of thousand wasted tears, a death threat here, a dirty insult there, theft of innocent to wrap it up with, the breaking of a vulnerable soul in the end, celebrated and drowned in alcohol and sperm… Those were just a few of the sins of the world. And that girl would never, ever defend herself. She simply couldn’t. And although I was no longer going to let her reign over me, although I was never going to hand over the throne to her, she still had a small place reserved for her in my recently recovered heart. And I felt the need to avenge her in this world that wasn’t mine, the world that I could avenge her in, because Thomas Downey was just like my world’s other common criminals and he was a man who would have abused the innocence and virtue of that girl as well as any other. Perhaps that was why he’d disgusted me so much with his kisses; they had reminded me of someone else… Good thing I’d followed Leonard’s advice and left my innocence at home. It probably wasn’t there anymore, after what I’d done. But at least it hadn’t been given away to someone who didn’t know what to do with it. If I were to redeem myself, I thought grimly, I needed to rediscover it: that very same innocence, that white flower Leonard had been talking about – and I had to give it to somebody who could make something beautiful sprout out of it before it had wilted and rotten irreversibly. I also had to stop wasting time thinking about things I couldn’t change at this point and stop ruining someone’s carefully arranged garden with bodies of dying vampires. At least, it wouldn’t be any good if the owner of the garden became aware that I was responsible for the dying vampire’s presence there. I coldly decided to leave Downey there: who knew what mood he’d be in when he woke up? Vampires were not that easy to kill. My heart did not skip a beat at the thought of the vampire world losing Thomas Downey. It apparently proved I’d find no innocence of mine back home, or at Leonard’s. I sighed, collected the pathetic remains of my dress from the ground, covered myself up with them as much as I could, and hesitated for a moment before taking the necklace off the vampire’s mutilated neck. At the end, I took it. I felt it would help me find what I’d come to look for here. I made no mental attempt to excuse myself before my conscience. Yes, I was definitely evil. After all these years of trying to be good, something in me had finally cracked. Now, there was no turning back. Now, it was eat or be eaten.

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I stood up, clutching the necklace in hand, hungrily breathed in the scent of rain and roses still hanging thickly in the morning air, and dragged my muddy, bloody, evil self on the way to Leonard’s mansion. *** ‘That’s right, Elizabeth, you’re doing great, honey,’ Leonard was sitting in a chair and praising his daughter who was rocking back and forth on his knees and was trying to learn to play the violin, whether she realized it at this age or not. ‘Only the bow goes here, to the wooden thing with the strings and… no, you’re not supposed to chew it… Ah!’ he paused abruptly and beamed as he saw me squeeze in through the crack of the hallway door. ‘Wera! How did your walk go?’ ‘It went fairly alright, thank you,’ I replied politely. I was beginning to feel human and cold again and was shaking. ‘What did you do?’ ‘Oh, we had a wonderful time! We sang songs together with Liz, and then Uncle Huckleberry read her a fairytale, and we all had cake,’ Leonard announced happily. ‘And he is no longer sad, because he knows everything is okay, and we all had a good time, right, Liz?’ He kissed her on her soft cheek, then stood up, lowered her gently down to the floor, and said to me: ‘We’d better get you something warm to wear. Follow me, please. I’ll be right back, honey!’ I walked obediently after Leonard through familiar corridors; I didn’t feel I deserved to speak out. He, on the other hand, seemed extraordinarily cheerful, even more than usual, and led me into a small dressing room where my old jeans, T-shirt and blue cotton shirt were waiting faithfully for me, folded on a chair. I put them on with relief while Leonard wasn’t looking. In them, I felt a little less wicked. Then, the vampire turned to me with a gleam of pride in his eyes, sat on the vacant chair, crossed his legs royally, and wasted not a second longer: ‘Okay, spill it. Tell me everything. I don’t want to miss a single detail.’ I smiled briefly and blinked. Then, I sank to my knees. ‘I wish I was as good as you,’ I let out a hollow whisper and damned my eyes for being so dry while my heart was tearing itself to pieces. Leonard sprang up to his feet again. ‘Why would you say this, child? I hope you’ll never be as good as me, for then you’d be a truly terrible person!’ ‘I did something terrible already… I attacked a vampire who hadn’t done me any wrong… You should have seen him… no, you shouldn’t have… he might be dead…’ ‘He’s not,’ Leonard tried to soothe me. ‘I can recognize a number of smells, among which that of a dead vampire, and you don’t have that on you. Your conscience should be clear, wolf girl. This is something you can’t help doing…’ ‘No!’ I yelled desperately in the vampire’s face, practically begging for the tears to start dripping, but they wouldn’t come near my eyes anymore, no matter what. ‘I lured him, I tricked him! And then I got so furious at him for what he would have done to me if I had not been… a monster… It drove me crazy, you’ve no idea – or maybe you do… I did it, though, it was all my fault! I hunted him down, Leslie!’ I waved my hands and shouted imploringly, trying to convince him to damn me, to tell me I had committed an unforgivable sin.

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Leonard sighed and knelt beside me. ‘I’m really evil, I know it now,’ I continued, completely resigned before the realization of my nature. ‘See? The tears, the guilt, everything that should follow that monstrous deed, they just ain’t coming… That proves everything… And the worst thing about it is that I’ve never... I’ve never felt like this… so free… and I am so afraid of going back…’ All of this was said in a completely hollow voice. I had hoped to hear a note, a shade of remorse, sadness, weakness, or even self-pity in its echo ringing in my ears. Alas, I’d hoped in vain. ‘I know what you mean,’ Leonard said to me soothingly. ‘It can get really scary out there in these days… especially when the darkest of our times have been into the light… But you will return to it, dear, I assure you. You just need a break from this perpetual struggle for moral flawlessness of yours, that’s all. We’ve all been there. It’s good for you.’ ‘But… but didn’t you just hear what I said?’ I was stunned and horrified by Leonard’s indifference to the nearly tragic fate of an unknown vampire. I had completely forgotten that he only cared for specific individuals, but had often been prepared to send his entire race to hell without a blink of remorse. ‘I nearly killed a man! This isn’t something that’s good for his health!’ ‘Well, I’d rather say it wasn’t good for his health that you left him alive,’ the vampire responded thoughtfully. ‘Judging by that pretty little accessory you’re carrying, he was a carrier of something more valuable than himself, and when his superiors find him without the precious object, they’ll do unimaginably gruesome things to him that they would have probably done anyway, just for the fun of it. He would have died a merciful death if you hadn’t been merciful towards him.’ He shook his head, and then became perfectly carefree again. ‘Listen, Wera, this is a predator’s world. You can’t waste time worrying about the life of a vampire like you’d worry about the life of a human being. Okay?’ ‘Yes, but not all vampires necessarily deserve to die…’ I mumbled rather pathetically. ‘They do. Trust me, they do. Just for the record,’ he explained patiently to me, as if I was his daughter’s age, ‘I would like to state in defense of all vampires out there that they are, in a word, beasts. They’re wicked, remorseless creatures foreign to no sin or atrocity. Vampires most definitely aren’t, as most people believe these days, gentle, romantic, sentimental fools who write love poetry, dress in lace clothing, marvel at works of art and weep to readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The fact that I am a vampire myself and I coincidentally happen to do all the things listed above is completely irrelevant and proves nothing whatsoever.’ ‘That was probably your first good vampire joke,’ I granted him with a feeble. He saw me cheering up a bit, and was determined to finish the job he’d started. ‘Listen to me, Wera,’ he spoke in a voice yet milder and more caring. ‘I understand you’re having conflicts about yourself. You’re feeling like you’ll never feel guilty about anything ever again, and that makes you believe you are losing your sense of morality. Understandable. So you don’t feel guilt right now the way you used to. Well, enjoy it while it lasts! Your life is short, unlike mine, and that of most vampires, for that matter. You’ll get old and miserable before you’ve had a good taste of being

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young, free and beautiful. Like it or not, this is probably the best time you will ever have, being what you truly were meant to be. You don’t like what you are – you can always leave and pretend it’s something you never were, or live in self-hatred for the rest of your life. But I say that you’ll have the time for it when you are fifty. What you’re getting now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you, and you only live once, for a very short while. Think about it. Think about the lives you might have saved by attacking this poor idiot last night. Think about the things you can do. I’m betting a part of you wants to live the little life it has left to the fullest, and that part would very much rather mangle than get mangled on a daily basis…’ ‘And a part of me just wants to snuggle up in someone’s arms, cry and share everything it feels…’ I uttered hoarsely, no emotion whatsoever attached to my words. ‘But I know that once I fall back in there, there’s no going back out. I don’t want to be heard out. I want to swallow it up on my own.’ Leonard embraced me lightly. ‘One hug won’t kill you, believe me,’ he said to me sweetly. ‘But I won’t be the one to push you back into the coffin you rose from, metaphorically speaking,’ he added reassuringly. I looked at him, baffled by his inexplicable nature. ‘This is your time. Seize it. Carpe Noctem, my darling. Seize the night. Even if you think you’ll regret it, you’ll regret not seizing it even more.’ He helped me stand up while rewarding me with a mischievous grin. I could never be this young, I thought distractedly to myself. ‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ I remembered to ask, surfacing from my own private sea of gloom. ‘How’s Huck?’ ‘Oh, he’s fine. He finally understood what I was trying to do, and now he is about to proclaim me a fallen angel. He’s a strange one. You should go to him, in the north wing bedroom, he will be so happy to see you’re okay.’ ‘I’ll be happy to see he’s okay, too.’ ‘You should hurry before he’s worried himself to death. He cares for you, you know. Oh, and by the way, if you expected me to scold you for what you’ve done’, Leonard added matter-of-factly on his way out of the dressing room, ‘I will.’ I looked up hopefully, waiting to be punished. ‘Really?’ I grinned. ‘Yes, really.’ Leonard raised a pointy eyebrow at me. ‘I never stop people from having fun, you know. All I ask of them is that they act responsibly. And just look what you’ve done with the lovely dress! You should have taken it off first, and then gone hunting strangers. I’ll forgive you this time, but another accident like that and I’ll stop buying those for you. Are we clear?’ I couldn’t help smiling in wonder at him as I left to assure sensitive Huck that no harm had been done to me. Leonard was a piece of work. A child of the night like no other. The night, I thought on my way through the damp hallways, undoubtedly preferred him to all of her other children. *** The next night I didn’t have any similar accidents. Apparently it depended on my disposition more than anything else. Soon enough, I forgot about the unfortunate

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happening as I spent day after day in the pleasant company of Leonard, Liz and Huck, who had become his happy self again. Leonard often joked that Huck’s moods were more unstable than a woman’s. Huck often joked that Leonard had been involved with too many of the wrong type of women. Each day and night we had a ball, and I didn’t miss my guilt one bit. I was indeed truly happy. I was seizing the night. I had shown the pendant on Downey’s necklace to Huckleberry, seeing it as Leonard was probably too much of a party vampire to be interested in investigating ancient symbols. Huck, on the other hand, found it to be infinitely intriguing. The symbol depicted on the golden pendant consisted of two sharp, crooked moon crescents tangled in each other in the shape of a twisted “O”, abundant in angles. Huck immediately concluded that it was a simple astronomical sign most likely to be related to the phases of the moons in the vampire world. It was not the symbol of an order or a group of aristocrats, though, he concluded with certainty. They were too famous to be associated with a symbol so obvious in its meaning that nobody would even bother remember. ‘But there has to be something more to it,’ Huckleberry noted as he reflected on the origin and history of the symbol. ‘I will try to find what I can about it in my personal library at home, and bring you all the books that happen to mention it. You saw this in a dream, you say?’ ‘Then it must be important,’ Leonard giggled lightly from the corner by the window of the main hall, lacking the slightest bit of interest and showing it to the fullest. ‘Don’t waste your time with things like this, Wera, they’ll only gain you problems with the authority around here. You’ll find yourself searching for dusty books filled with old forgotten legends, which will finally lead you to a few hidden details about a treachery in the fifth war between vampires and werewolves, or something like that; then, you’ll look up the family tree of the latest known descendant of this or that clan, we’ll all get in trouble with some young hot-shot with blue blood in his veins, and in the end we will have to spill it to save ourselves and it will all be for nothing. Like in most vampire movies, you know. Let it go, no, I say,’ he advised. Huck rolled his eyes in indignation. ‘Don’t pay him any attention. I’ll look it up still, Wera, I’ll translate every old manuscript worth translating, and I’ll tell you what I’ve found, okay?’ ‘Whatever you do, don’t tell me,’ Leonard pleaded with theatrical gesturing. ‘I’m going to go seize the night, and a glass of red wine meanwhile. This whole bookbrowsing business is making me bored. Does anyone want me to seize anything for them as well?’ *** In a land, far, far away, a land brighter, warmer and still duller, Frankie the fiend, my old friend and former mentor, was feeling miserable, even though I didn’t know it. In fact, I had given him little thought since I’d left for Leonard’s place. And that was exactly what was bothering Frankie. It wasn’t that the fiend was worried about me. He knew I was alright if he hadn’t felt me being in severe emotional pains – but it was the fact that I was perfectly alright without him that didn’t give him any peace. For the first time in his existence, Frankie

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realized he had been forgotten. The one person he had tried to make a strong creature out of had finally become that strong creature he’d wanted them to be. Now, he was completely useless. And alone. He had spent over two weeks all alone now. He kept wondering when the girl he was desperately waiting for would come back, hoping to receive some sort of a sign from her, or a message to inform him about the date of her arrival. Eventually, he realized there was simply no point in waiting. When or if she’d come back was immaterial. Things would never be the same. Now, he would only make her weaker; he would only get in the way. So Frankie decided to leave the home he’d haunted for years quietly, without unnecessary drama or offended goodbyes. He had always known he would never be more than a phase, a fleeting moment in someone’s growth, but recently he had started hoping for more. A foolish thing to do, he thought. He’d gone soft, he really had. He spread his brown lathery wings into the warm white afternoon and headed towards the only other person on earth he had ever cared for. This person’s name was Jeremy Fisherman. Jeremy Fisherman’s current occupation was a rockstar, the lead singer of a band called, of course, “Frankie”. He had met Frankie the fiend back when he was only a boy, age sixteen, and had made a deal with him, a bond for life. Together, they had started something big through music; music that together they wrote, Jeremy Fisherman performed, and Frankie attempted to change the world through, and possibly find his soulmate, his missing half. He’d found her, and she had slowly slipped away. Now that he belonged to nobody again, the fiend had only one person to go back to. If he’d take him back, of course. Jeremy Fisherman was a really complicated person. He had spent most of his life being miserable, no matter what he did to change it. Emotionally, he survived solely on a charge of inexhaustible aggression towards the world. He feared he would remain miserable forever, but this didn’t bother him all that much, for he had hardly ever been truly happy. But what Jeremy Fisherman knew was that whenever Frankie was around, he tended to be more miserable than ever – even though Frankie was the only one who could completely understand his misery. Frankie had these effects on people in most cases. Frankie sighed, trying to shake off the thought of the possibility that Jeremy did not want to have anything to do with him anymore. Maybe it was different; maybe he had finally managed to be happy and wouldn’t mind seeing an old friend. After all, the last time they had met, Jeremy had been in love – maybe it had worked out for him this time… Frankie sighed again, and swallowed, and spat out some ink into the air that grated at his sides, and rushed forth with renewed courage, and then with increasing doubt, to the quarters of the person he had made a rockstar, and the person who had made him who he was. He thought about him all the time on the way, Jeremy still a boy in his mind, just as he was when he’d first met him… On the inside, he would always be the same to Frankie, and the fiend trembled slightly at the thought of seeing the man of his past open the door for him once again, even if he needed no door to enter… The only thing left to hope for was that somebody was home…

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Chapter Seven

The Boy Who Believed In Angels

Once upon a time there was a man who could sell pain and anger as easily as
though they were candy. He was a musician. A rather successful one, as a matter of fact. Not the most successful one, obviously, because we have to be realistic, but he was renowned all around the civilized parts of the globe and his unconventional videos spun on MTV every now and then, and that certainly counts for something. It counted for a lot, especially when it was achieved by someone like him. It wasn't that the guy lacked talent. It was just that he was a strange man with ideas and ways of expression so strange and unlike anything supported by the media that one would often wonder how his songs had made it into MTV's charts in the first place. How does a person without a chance of being accepted by most audiences manage to suddenly become improperly rich and famous? The standard answer to this question is easy: one simply has to have connections. Like knowing somebody who knows somebody who's someone in the big business. Or being related to the cousin of an influential member of the high society. Or just being friends with really, really rich people. Or, in that particular musician's case, with demons. The man's name was Jeremy Fisherman, and his personal demonic assistant that had guided him to his success called himself Frankie. Frankie was a peculiar breed of a fiend with a bizarre morbid fondness for outcast souls, souls that differed significantly from those of the masses and could never find peace on Earth or in the afterlife until they saw the world becoming a better place. Frail, lonesome, sensitive souls with a specific touch of restlessness – the one precious, rare, unforgeable ingredient that made them so attractive to the previously mentioned demon. This was what had attracted Frankie to Jeremy Fisherman in the first place, and later on, through the music of his mortal partner, the fiend sought out other such souls with a passion, although without much success. Until the day he came across the soul of a girl who had named herself Wera, and from then on, everything had changed for him. But his very first experiment, his very first host, his unique albeit a little inconsistent companion in misery, melancholy and music would forever have a special place in the fiend’s metaphorical heart. That place would forever be reserved for Jeremy Fisherman alone. Jeremy was the beginning of Frankie’s story, and that was why Frankie would forever hold him dear. Frankie, however, was not the beginning of Jeremy’s story. As wonderfully ironic as it would have been for a rockstar to have the path of his life begin with a demon, that wasn’t the only thing that had made Jeremy Fisherman the person he was at present. In fact, it was probably even more ironic to think that the particular factor that had marked the beginning of Jeremy’s conscious life was as far from demonic as one could imagine. Jeremy Fisherman’s story had begun with angels.

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*** There was an inexplicable excess of freshness about the air that night, and it caused the world to smell innocent and young. The evening that had preceded it had been peaceful, just like all the evenings the townsfolk remembered. The yard in front of the house on the left was filled with the gentle relaxing scent of fresh-cut grass, and scabbed-kneed children could be heard laughing in the distance. The sky was moonless but abundant in cozily sparkling stars densely scattered across the rich velvet blueness. These were the times when everything had been better. If one took a mental picture of the neighborhood that night, it would have undoubtedly been black and white and soaked with tears of sweet nostalgia over old recollected memories. Into the neatly glowing yellow light that came from the front window of the house on the left, a girl could be seen curiously peeking out and heard breathing the wonderful air in, letting out soft, dreamy sighs every now and then. After taking a closer look, it became clear to the eye that the girl was actually a boy. In fact, he didn't look like a girl in any way, but the length of the boy's bright ginger hair confused – it fell almost to the child's shoulders, and that's pretty long for a seven-year-old. The midnight wind was blowing gently against his lightly smiling face, and the boy's eyes were focused on the countless glittering stars above. His young, peaceful mind was inescapably captivated by the sight of the glamorous summer night sky. Had he known he would grow up one day, and what that meant, without a doubt, he'd wish this moment stretched ahead in time forever... A sound of porcelain clinking against copper awoke him from his sweet late daydream. His mother, he vaguely interpreted what his ears were receiving, was just finishing the dish-washing. Soon enough, velvet noises produced by slipper-wrapped steps flew in from the kitchen. It all felt so real back in those days... 'Come on now, sweetheart', the child heard his mother say as she was taking him, carefully but determinately, away from the window, and attempting to pull a baby blue pajama top over his head. To him, the woman's voice seemed miles away, even though he normally absorbed even the slightest sound around him, which tended to amaze most of the adults that knew him. But tonight, he was all eyes. 'Got to get you ready for bed. It's way past your bedtime, you know. And tomorrow is a big, big day...' As it was getting dressed, the boy's body was not uncooperative towards the process – instead, it was unusually still for the body of a seven-year-old, and his own mother shuddered at the utterly distant feel the body of her son had to it that night. Hesitantly, she attempted summoning the child's wildly fantasizing mind back into the real world. 'Sweetheart?' the woman's voice trembled. 'You've got school tomorrow, remember? Your first day at school. Exciting, isn't it? And – a-and it's – it's already midnight. So...' There was something about the kid's consumed, unchanging, craving stare that made her feel incredibly uneasy. 'So... you’ve got to go to sleep', she muttered unconvincingly at last. 'I don't want to go to sleep yet', her son spoke softly, in a suggestive manner, and the mother felt a shower of relief pour over her as she was once again able to breathe

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freely now that her child had finally established sensible communication with her. At last, with great reluctance and difficulty, the boy detached his hypnotized gaze from the open window and the starry sky outside. He said a silent goodbye to them with a longing glance, and sighed, not like a seven-year old boy, but like a man in love. Soon the window was closed and he was back in that room he remembered so well, the room with the scary orange light, the room that made him feel nervous and cozy at the same time. His bedroom. Home. Reality. This made it even harder to resist the temptation to take one last peek out the window and into the night, but his mother drew the curtains – orange as the light in the room – and hurried to neatly tuck Jeremy in bed. 'Good night, sweetheart', she whispered, and kissed him on the forehead. 'I don't want to go to sleep yet', little Jeremy insisted stubbornly, and sprang sitting in his little bed beside the forbidden window. 'I can't. I was looking -' '- at the stars, like always', the woman smiled sweetly and then slid her fingers through his ginger hair. 'I know, Jeremy. You do that every night. They're beautiful, I know, it seems they're brightest on this side of town, but... but you have to rest tonight, sweetheart. You must be fresh for your first day at school. The stars, they will be here tomorrow night as well, okay?' she tried to soothe him desperately. 'I'm not looking at the stars', Jeremy uttered in a small, distant voice. 'You're not? Then what are you looking at, Jeremy?' his mother asked softly. Jeremy's face lit up and acquired a bright, moony smile as he spoke with infinite certainty and hope: 'I've been trying to spot an angel.' The woman blinked nervously. 'Jeremy -' she began with difficulty. 'I know what you're thinking, momma', the boy interrupted her cheerfully. 'I know you think I'm strange, and I believe in strange things.' A wrinkle of concern lined his mother's face. 'But don't worry', the child continued as hopefully as ever. His determination was an inexhaustible resource. 'I know what you're thinking: you think, well, we live in this small town, and we don't have much money or a big house, so they won't notice us here. They won't come down all the way from heaven just to see us. But I think they will, momma', Jeremy nodded encouragingly and lovingly patted his mother's shoulder, 'because they care for the rich and the poor, and the big and the small all the same... And I'll stay up tonight 'till I see one. Jeremy's mother let out a weary sigh. She was worried about him, even though she wasn't sure if she was supposed to. Jeremy was a good boy, bright and sweet and neat, and very, very clever and imaginative. He was an only child, but he loved his parents as much as three kids altogether. He didn't have any friends, but this never seemed to bother him. He was often alone, but never lonely, and never, ever sad, because it seemed as if a part of him was living in a world much better. He was not like the other kids. And Jeremy's mother feared she was the one to blame for that. The truth was any average mother would have been brimming with pride to have raised such a son. He was... perfect. He was the nicest kid imaginable. Perhaps it was the toys his parents had bought him over the years. They were the kind one would define as unisex toys – mostly teddy bears and other fluffy or plastic animals. There

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was not one fire truck, not one tiny Ferrari, not one soldier with a gun, not one robot with a laser, not one Rambo or Superman action figure. Jeremy's parents didn't approve of anything with the slightest focus on technology, machinery or violence, and were glad to see their son turning out to be completely uninterested in any of those things, even on the occasions when close relatives to the family had brought him masculine toys for his birthdays. In fact, Jeremy didn't care for toys all that much. Apart from the stars, the only thing that fascinated him in the real world were stories. Fairytales his parents would read to him in bed. He adored them. The problem was, his mother reflected silently as the remorse and concern were piling up painfully in her chest, that there were no fairies in the fairytales he had been raised with. Most boys grew up with television, computer games and comic books. Most boys grew up with dreams to be firemen, policemen or astronauts. Most boys grew up with stories about pirates, cowboys and superheroes. Jeremy Fisherman grew up with stories of angels. When a parent first reads to their child excerpts from the Bible, they don't expect the kid to be particularly interested from the start. But Jeremy hungrily devoured every word of the Holy Book and it remained engraved inside his young and hopeful mind forever. The angels were his favorite; he spoke about them almost every day, and every night, he sat at the open window, hoping to get so much as a glimpse of these serene, glorious, majestic creatures descending upon his insignificant little town. The little boy yearned to see a real angel with his own eyes day after day, while his wild imagination painted more and more detailed and delicate pictures of these dazzling, other-worldly entities. They were his idols, they were his role models. They were the most beautiful creatures Jeremy could imagine, even though he was so much better informed on the subject of angels than any other kid his age and knew too well their beauty and divinity could not even be imagined. And looking straight into the eyes of an angel... people could not even come up with words to describe it... He believed, with all his heart, night after night, day after day, and he never got tired of it. The constant hopeful, ardent glisten in his eyes did not leave them even for a second. “But this is good”, his mother hopelessly tried to convince herself yet another night, “it is so good that our boy is Christian, and such a nice, sweet boy he is... but he is going a bit too far with his angel obsession, and one day, one day he'll bump into a different world out there, and that world will crush our sensitive boy's faith and spirit if we do not stop this while we can... and that day... that day is tomorrow...” 'Tell me again, momma', Jeremy's voice came ringing and scattered the woman's grim thoughts as though they were unpleasant rainclouds without a chance against the rising sun. 'What do they look like? I mean, you've seen them, right?' His face brightened up again. 'More than once, even. Please tell me, momma, tell me about what angels are like when you meet them...' Mrs Fisherman sighed, then indulged Jeremy with a forced smile. None of this was, of course, true. The closest thing to an angel she'd ever encountered in her lifetime was her own son. Perhaps it was high time she finally told him the truth. But how could she extinguish the soft, exquisite light in those dreamy hazel eyes...

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She braced herself, wrapped her arms around Jeremy's narrow shoulders, and prepared to say what she'd been telling him almost every night for almost seven years now: 'They're extremely diverse', the woman recounted, in the enchanting silky voice fairytales and legends were told, 'not just the kind you see in books. They can be big or small, young or older, boys or girls. Their wings can be sparkling and pure white, or silvery or golden, or blazing, or woven out of the very stars above... But', the boy's mother emphasized dramatically, 'they're always beautiful.' 'Always', Jeremy repeated with a faraway sigh. 'Yes. Because their beauty lies on the inside, and it shines out from their souls unto the world outside so powerfully. And the best part is, sweetheart, that you can find them in the most peculiar places.' Mrs Fisherman was already sinking into the intoxicating dream she was creating daily for her son. A smile ventured to creep up her tired face. 'In fact, there are true angels here, on Earth, sent from heaven with a specific holy purpose, destined to do things noble and good, prepared to help somebody in trouble, someone who has lost their way. Someone whose soul needs saving -' 'So they only show up to such people, momma?' Jeremy interrupted his mother the moment she'd spoken out these words, and there was a tone in his small, tender voice that gave away a hint of disappointment. 'Does that mean not everybody gets to meet them?' He looked up at her imploringly. 'No, Jeremy', the woman's voice grew more and more soothing and reassuring. Mrs Fisherman held her only child close in her arms. 'Everybody has a chance to meet them. In fact, being the wonderful, kind-hearted boy you are, I don't think you could possibly miss them.' Jeremy beamed. 'There's an angel for everyone. Everyone, Jeremy. And, my dearest little sweetheart, I'm sure that out there in this world there is a very special angel – pure, divine, and beautiful – an angel just for you,' she finished tenderly. That night, nobody was as happy, as filled with genuine innocent joy, as Jeremy Fisherman. He was so exhilarated that he was gulping the fresh small town air rather than breathing it. When he could finally contain it within his lungs, he almost yelped with elation: 'Really?' It was indeed hypnotizing, even if a little bit concerning, to watch the infinite joy of that little man blossom into a wide, sunny smile. It was a rather strange smile, in fact. It was unusually soulful, sensitive and tender. It would probably fit better on the face of a girl. 'Oh momma... an angel just for me... it sounds so wonderful... you really think I could... that I... that I'll see one one day... Wow, a real angel, just for me!' 'Yes, sweetheart', the boy's mother nodded with a smile, this time a warm and sincere one. Once again, she was failing to resist the magic Jeremy was spreading all around himself. 'Just for you. An angel who lives solely to guide you, protect you, watch over you; to care for you and look after you, and show you the way whenever you are lost...' 'And you are absolutely sure that - '

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'Yes, I am. I believe in angels, Jeremy', Mrs Fisherman assured him, 'because there is no other explanation for you being the way you are. You are my angel. You are the nicest, sweetest kid in the whole wide world. Any angel up there would love to be your guardian and guide.' She listened to the crickets outside for a minute or two; then, suddenly, as the inexplicable intoxicating magic in the air began to disperse, Mrs Fisherman snapped out of it and stood up briskly. 'Come on now. Story time's over. It's very late, Jeremy. And you must get up early tomorrow, we must get your hair cut for school.' Jeremy wasn't too fond of that thought, but there was nothing in the world that could upset him at the moment. The latest thought that had been planted and bloomed in his head had given him wings, and he felt as if he could actually rise from the ground and fly, all the way to the ink-blue sky, and just reach out and touch them... The angels. Those indescribable, unimaginable creatures. Oh, he imagined them alright. And, to think, one day he would actually meet an angel... And not just any angel: an angel just for him... He listened to the rhythmic lullaby of the crickets for hours and hours on after his mother had turned out the irritating light in his room, but he didn't sleep. He couldn't. In the morning, he was exhausted yet unbelievably glad he hadn't missed out on a single moment of that night. Because, Jeremy knew that even then, that night was probably the happiest night of his life. *** It is a well-known superstition in some countries that when one person is thinking about another, the unconscious corresponding reaction of the latter is hiccupping. That is, of course, just a superstition. Someone was indeed hiccupping, though, miles and miles away from Frankie, at the exact moment when his thoughts were focused on that very same person. This fact, however, had an explanation far more reasonable than the aforementioned superstition. The person who was coincidentally thought about was hiccupping because he'd had way too much to drink. In fact, that night, he'd had not only had too much to drink, but also to smoke, snort and forcefully absorb in his bloodstream. The reasons for him having done all of this he was not in the state or mood to list; he was barely in the state or mood to live. But number one on his hypothetical list of reasons was burning before his eyes like a steaming scarlet wound. For hours the man had been trying to forget about it, but it was just too hard to achieve that, no matter what he did, because his main reminder stood on his desk, just a few inches away, ever so still and grinning cunningly at him. It was so not nice of her to keep doing that. Jeremy Fisherman sighed and whimpered, then reached for yet another miscellaneous bottle. Or at least he thought it was him that did that. Technically, he was still called Jeremy Fisherman according to what his passport stated, but there was not a trace of the boy who had once stared out of his window in a relentless attempt to spot angels in the late evening skies. More than thirty years had passed since he had

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been that boy. Now, Jeremy Fisherman, or whatever was left of him, no longer believed in angels. He couldn't even bring himself to believe in people. Not that he was a coward. He'd tried it a couple of times in his lifetime (the last record in that aspect was very recent, actually), and it had never worked. No one ever dared ask him why, but if anyone ever had, Jeremy's passionately bitter answer, hissed through tightly gritted teeth, would have been: “Why? Why?! You wanna know why?? Because the moment you put a little faith in someone, they suddenly decide to go and do something that's gonna leave you feeling like this for the next decade.” Take a look at middle-aged Jeremy Fisherman as he desperately sucks in the content of the next beautifully wrapped bottle. He was tall, although he seemed strangely small in his misery. His body was a grotesque portrait of the severe constant battle the drugs and alcohol fought within him and could never make up their mind about whether they wanted to make him overweight or anorexic. Still, most of the damage they’d done was hidden underneath the clothes he wore, which no other person in the universe owned and no other person in the universe would agree to put on. He had to; he was a rockstar, after all – a word as worn-out as his very soul. In the world of music, Jeremy went by the name of Frankie, the persona they’d once created together with his former fiend. But Jeremy felt he had no name at all these days, there was nothing good left in him that could be clearly defined, and the single reminder of what he had been many years ago that slightly resembled a self were the now graying ginger roots of his hair, which he regularly dyed black in the name of business. But the pathetic ginger inch in his receding hair was far from enough to define Jeremy today; the only thing that he felt defined him as a person at the moment was the pain caused to him by the beautiful lady in the photo frame on his desk. Like most people in Jeremy’s life, she had failed to believe in him and had left him, and the saddest thing about that was, he thought bitterly, that for a moment he had let himself be defined by his love for her. After she’d walked out of his life, Mr Fisherman was once again feeling like he was nothing, which was not a rare emotion for him and yet, the more he felt it, the more dreadful it got for him to feel it. Jeremy held the picture of his most recent beloved in his hand. She was so beautiful that he couldn’t even take the edge off the heartache by calling her insulting names in his mind. His grasp around it tightened, an instinctive twitch caused by the blurry mixed longing to crush the image of his lost love and at the same time make sure it would never escape him. A loud crack followed, and Jeremy started laughing desperately. A few months ago, he’d swear he’d finally known something like happiness. And now he was left with the shards of the glass frame sticking into his palm and the shards of his shattered heart sticking against his ribcage. How ironic. The good news was that his helpful friends, the drugs and the alcohol, were finally starting to kick in, and soon Jeremy slipped into a semi-dream state. It helped him to stop feeling sorry for himself for at least a minute to later visualize a dark, damp meadow, along which a wolf-like creature sprinted lightly. If it was a wolf after all, it had to be the skinniest wolf Jeremy had ever seen. Its ribs outlined its nearly transparent silhouette, and its eyes glowed dimly red. It felt more real than it looked, though. The ghost wolf hallucination had an air of familiar eeriness about it that, oddly enough, reminded Jeremy of an old friend…

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Ah. The fiend. Suddenly, it was all painfully clear in Jeremy’s intoxicated mind. It was all his fault. Wasn’t it Frankie, that god-forsaken demon he had once welcomed, that had been the one to tell Jeremy, when he had last seen him, to believe in love, to put all his faith into it and gamble with his heart foolishly? Wasn’t it the fiend that, an hour from the end of the world, had given him the most valuable and also the dumbest piece of advice in his life? If it hadn’t been for him, none of this would have ever happened. If it hadn’t been for Frankie, Jeremy would have at least been able to preserve some little bits of what he had once been or had wanted to be. But it was too late for any of that now. Through the clogs of colorful fog in his mind, Jeremy Fisherman watched the ghost wolf turn into a spider and crawl up the opposite wall. The fiend was mocking him, he knew that. Drunk on his own inner agony, and on many other things, Jeremy felt about his desk with a shaking hand and grabbed a knife that was pretty rather than functional. Regardless of that, the desperate man flung it across the room. The knife bounced off the wall, shattering the spider-shaped ghost of the fiend once and for all. All the bundles of images and emotions were growing too dense for Jeremy to handle. His head did what it was used to doing every time the drugs and alcohol kicked in a bit harder than the body could handle, and fell heavily onto the desk, missing the pieces of broken glass scattered around it by mere chance. It wouldn’t have made a difference to Jeremy if it hadn’t, of course, but it sure as hell made a difference to the head. His brain function thankfully dissolved into unconsciousness. When Jeremy awoke at last, he was determined to bury the ghosts of the past deep down inside the graveyard that his heart had become, and never to look back again.

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Chapter Eight

Cocaine

Frankie was feeling completely crushed. He had been rejected, again, and from
the whole world, it seemed. But that was not his main concern right now. His main concern was that Jeremy Fisherman, the boy he had grown attached to years ago, had become a broken, devastated man – and there was nobody in the world he was willing to let in any longer, nobody to dampen the stab of his agony, his perpetual personal hell. Then, feeling damned and useless and helpless, Frankie decided to die. He was going to, anyway, whether he liked it or not. He’d just vanish without anyone believing in him, without anyone to take him in, until he became no more than an echo of a memory in the recordings of his own songs. But he couldn’t do it just like that. He was too tired for drama, and too matured to feel like taking the whole world with him on his way out, but he still felt there was something to be done before he called it a day once and for all. He had already accomplished his purpose when it came to Wera: he had changed her world, if even to a minimal extent. Changing the whole world was impossible even for a demon, he bitterly realized, and this realization reminded him he was too old to keep on living, for a demon like himself was not supposed to think like this, ever. Yet, all he wanted to do now, before it all ended for him, was to make Jeremy Fisherman happy, or make sure he would be happy, at least, even if he wasn’t going to be around to see it. There was no self-pity in Frankie’s thoughts; he was not designed like that. And, even now, there was no sign of insecurity or doubt in them, either. So Frankie was determined to do whatever it would take to ensure Jeremy’s future happiness in this world even if it would be the last thing he’d do. And it most probably would. He had to come up with something good enough, though. Apparently, Jeremy was a person completely incapable of sustaining his own happiness for more than two minutes. He’d lose it as soon as he’d obtain it, and it would flee from him like quicksand through his fingers. Jeremy needed someone to watch over him, even if it wasn’t going to be Frankie, and Frankie swore he’d find someone for the job, no matter what. He thought of Jeremy Fisherman’s wretched life for a little longer, and while his mind lingered on the more insignificant details of the man’s biography, an idea suddenly hit him. A moment later, Frankie knew exactly what he was going to do. And there was no one in the world that was going to be able to be able to stop him. After all, he was a demon, he reminded himself, and his notorious demonic confidence grew in size and density. He had connections. *** In an entirely different dimension, it was raining, lightning was tearing the sky apart, the wind was howling like mad, and I was having, like Leonard had promised,

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the time of my life. Laughter constantly echoed in the mansion since the full moon had passed. I wouldn’t have to worry about it until the beginning of the next month, and there were still a few days until then. Right now, they seemed like an eternity away. Huckleberry was barely joining in on the fun as he had practically buried himself in books over the past few days. Recently, he’d relocated his private library into Leonard’s living room, and Leonard was not enjoying it. I didn’t mind, though, and every now and then I’d spend an hour or two searching the nocturnal literature for signs similar to the one we were looking for. I felt a little guilty for not helping out more. Most of these books were written in strange angular runes. I often reminded Huck that he didn’t have to do all that just for me, but he obviously seemed to be doing it out of personal interest as well as the kindness of his heart. ‘It’s going to be Halloween soon,’ I recalled several days prior to the holiday. ‘I’ll probably celebrate it with Yana, but I’d very much like to be able to join in on the party you’ll be holding here – and you will be, won’t you, Leonard? What trick do you have up your sleeve? Oh, you might find my Halloween costume this year rather amusing: I’m going be a deranged murderer this Halloween,’ I smiled wickedly. ‘What about you, guys?’ ‘So will we, darling,’ Leonard replied with an exquisite, measured smile. ‘So will we.’ Huck failed to stifle a grin and hid it behind his pile of books. ‘Really?’ he commented sarcastically. ‘Again? Why don’t you try to impersonate a respectable gentleman for once?’ ‘Because that’s what I do every regular day of my life, Huck,’ the other vampire retorted with impeccable grace. ‘Honestly, sometimes I think you’ll never learn. You can’t be pleasant and well-behaved day after day without breaking the habit every now and then. It gets boring.’ *** The roaring storm was condensing around Frankie the fiend, and the closer he got to where he was headed, the more threatening and uncontrollable it became. On the other hand, this was not illogical at all, because Frankie was obstinately flying towards the storm’s very eye. He gritted his teeth angrily as he dashed through black clouds and blacker skies and dodges every web of light and fire the lightnings crossing the chilly air were forming before him. It wasn’t the next most pleasant experience in his life, but he was prepared for anything. At last, after nearly three days of restless flying, soaked, exhausted, burnt and enraged, Frankie arrived at a gate floating unsupported in the middle of the atmosphere. It was a place no space shuttles could reach. The gate, which he had once remembered to be golden, seemed to have recently begun to rust. The lightnings were carefully avoiding it, but the storm growled and splashed around them, mighty, cruel and unforgiving. These were dark times for Heaven. Frankie smirked joylessly and banged his fist against the rusty gates until the bars shook and jangled. For nearly twenty minutes, nobody answered his demanding

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knocking. No wonder; no angel was so dedicated to his duties that he’d come out to see what’s going on at the Gates in this ghastly weather. Well, no angel, except for one. A cloaked figure approached shyly and quietly, removed its hood and whispered guiltily to Frankie: ‘Oh my God, it’s you.’ ‘Not the kind of reaction I expected of you, Possey,’ the fiend mocked the evidently nervous angel. ‘Aren’t you glad to see me?’ ‘Shh!’ Possey the angel lowered his own voice even more, since he couldn’t forcefully lower Frankie’s. ‘Yes, of course I am, I’m so sorry. What happened to you? Long time, no see… How’s Wera and the others? I heard you were human, so how come –’ ‘It was a phase,’ Frankie jerked his head impatiently, and his drenched hair slapped noisily across his winged back. ‘Possey became even more nervous. ‘Listen, I didn’t come here for a friendly chit-chat. I need a favor. I need you to let me in.’ Possey shook uncertainly, and it wasn’t because of the cold. ‘Now, Frankie, you know I’m not authorized to – ’ ‘Oh, don’t give me that. I heard you got promoted and have been teaching the other angels to play rock ‘n’ roll songs for the past year or so. Open up; it’s important.’ ‘Oh dear. You didn’t come to end the world again, did you? If things go to hell like they did the last time, I’ll be in deep trouble…’ ‘Don’t worry. It’s a small favor, really. I just need to speak to a certain angel, that’s all.’ ‘Which one?’ Frankie explained. ‘Um… alright then,’ Possey murmured hesitantly in agreement, ‘but keep it down, will you? My feathers are at stake… I’ll bring her to you in a minute…’ As a rule, angels were sexless, and they acquired the form of really feminine winged men – with small differences, of course. This was why Frankie was a little shocked to face the first strictly female angel he’d seen on the other side of the bars. She had large white feathery wings, spotted with black here and there, long brown hair, and an unyielding expression. She distantly reminded of a Greek goddess. She would have looked attractive if a long white robe didn’t cover her clearly feminine body from head to toe. A deep, wide scar made the left side of her beautiful face appear frightening and grotesque. Frankie whistled in amazement, as he’d never expected an angel to have a scar, and then he remembered: sometimes – very rarely, of course, but it was still possible – human beings were allowed to become angels posthumously as well. The fiend was impressed. ‘Wow,’ he remarked casually, ‘you must have been one damn good lady.’ ‘Shut up,’ the female angel said sternly. ‘What do you want?’ Possey stepped back. ‘I have a task for you, a request, actually,’ the demon began. ‘I won’t be around for much longer, so consider it my last wish before I die… You wouldn’t want to pass on that offer, because it’s nothing selfish… I want you to become someone’s guardian angel. On earth,’ he clarified. ‘To help him get on the right path.’ The woman smirked, and the scar became even uglier.

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‘Would you look at that? Haven’t heard this one from a demon. Sure, then, how could I say “no”, anyway? I’m an angel, I’ve done this before, sometimes out of the kindness of my heart. Well, stop wasting my time, then, demon. I’ll do it, starting tomorrow. Who’s the guy?’ Frankie realized he should have paused before answering, but he didn’t bother to. ‘Jeremy Fisherman.’ The moment this was said, the storm seemed to grow even wilder, but it was nothing compared to the storm in the eye of the female angel. Her pupils acquired a mad scarlet flare, and had someone been sucked into these eyes, they would have been condemned to an eternity of fire and brimstone. When she spoke again, however, her voice was capable of making all hell freeze over. ‘Walk away now, while you still have the chance.’ ‘I’m sorry?’ Frankie was so stunned he forgot to be rude and impudent. ‘But you just said you’d do it, what’s the matter?’ ‘You said Jeremy Fisherman, right?’ the angel inquired icily. ‘The rockstar?’ ‘Yes, that’s the one. He’s not as bad as he seems, really.’ ‘I would have done this for anyone else on the planet. Any crook or murderer. Anyone, except for him.’ Frankie groaned with endless irritation. ‘God dammit, does this guy owe everybody drugs?’ he shouted to the heavens in general. ‘What does everyone hate him so much for? I helped write his songs, you know, and they’re brilliant, for the record!’ ‘Shh!’ Possey hissed from his spot in the distance. The other angel had restored her firm indifference. ‘I said “no”. You cannot make me do this. Not even God Himself can make me do this. That’s my final answer.’ Frankie realized he wasn’t going to win this way. ‘I’m sorry, Frankie,’ Possey apologized mildly. ‘It’s a noble purpose that you’re after. But maybe you should have asked someone else.’ ‘No one else would be any good,’ the fiend replied blankly. ‘Aw well,’ he said with a sigh of resignation, and raised his voice significantly when he continued, ‘it’s a shame, then. It seems the world will never see Jeremy Fisherman be led onto the path of good. Too bad, I bet that would have been a great achievement for God – making the one celebrity that has defied him the most admit his faults, repent and join the side of the light. I bet God would have been really proud of you if you’d done this for Him, right?’ He was practically yelling now. Possey had given up trying to compel him to be quiet. He stifled a guilty grin and vanished. About a minute later, in which he reappeared, he patted the other angel on the shoulder and announced, blushing: ‘They’re... they’re calling for you. It’s urgent.’ ‘So I thought,’ the angel woman murmured, and aimed a demolishing fiery stare at Frankie. ‘You’re going to fry for this, demon.’ Frankie grinned triumphantly in her face. ‘Too bad God is all-hearing, baby,’ he rolled his blank eyeballs innocently to the rumbling sky. ‘But hey, I thought even God couldn’t make you go on this mission. We’ll see about that, shall we? Good luck with the negotiations!’

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And he flew away cheerfully from the better side of the Gates, feeling victorious, brilliant and more Frankie than he’d ever been that year. Exactly twenty-four hours later, on the night of Halloween, a grumpy female angel in the shape of a human being set off reluctantly in the pouring rain to the mansion of the person she was going to guard against her will, cursing a particular demon with a thousand words the use of which was most certainly not permitted in heaven. *** Nobody noticed that the bodyguards and guard dogs of the Fisherman mansion fell asleep in the rain and the alarms didn’t burst into hysterical shrieks when someone who wasn’t supposed to be there approached. The security was really tight, especially tonight, since it was Halloween, after all, the paparazzi never slept, and neither did the fans of Frankie the rockstar, who could always get the crazy idea to go wish him a happy Halloween in the middle of the night just to get an autograph or two. But none of it stopped the unwelcome visitor from entering the yard of the mansion. And the person who noticed it the least was Jeremy Fisherman, who was once again drunk on Halloween and completely on his own. In fact, right now, he was so lonely that if he wasn’t so drunk, he’d get the idea to dismiss the security and turn off the alarms just in case someone came to wish him a happy Halloween. He sat miserably by his desk, tried to write something and gave it up. Then, he remembered her, the woman who had his heart, the same one who had left him dying without it, and wondered if she would bother to wish him a happy Halloween tonight. But nobody was coming to visit, or calling just to hear his voice. His manager, Adam, had phoned briefly to ask him about a record deal they were about to close, but that was it. They’d gone to school together, Jeremy and Adam. One would think Adam would display at least a little personal interest in his ex classmate. So Jeremy sat there, feeling miserable, and nobody was calling to make him feel better, because they knew he was always miserable. And everybody – his manager, his fans, his agent and probably everyone except for his own mother – was interested in his misery. He made the best of his songs when he was depressed beyond his own pain threshold. And his music was what he was loved for. If Jeremy Fisherman was happy, nobody would care for him. Probably, he thought bitterly, not even her. And then a noise was heard from the garden outside, and then in the hallway. It was not the alarms; in fact, it was the doorbell. Jeremy was feeling so down he didn’t even wonder how the security hadn’t registered a foreign presence. He was just glad to hear someone was at the door, even if it was a deranged fan who had come to trick-ortreat. Or, maybe – and a long lost spark of hope was re-lit in the battered soul of Jeremy Fisherman – it was her, coming to say she is sorry, or at least to say “hi”, just to remind him she hadn’t forgotten about his existence… Jeremy ran downstairs, tripping every three steps in his black bunny slippers – it was the him thing to wear – and flew to the main hallway, where he finally slowed down. He was wearing nothing but a bathrobe and a pair of purple satin shorts, and for a brief moment he wondered about what she would be wearing if she was at the door,

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and tried to imagine the brand of lipstick she’d be wearing, and the effect her appearance would have on his shorts… He flung the front door open impatiently, his black-nailed fingers were shaking while they struggled with the lock. He was struck by a powerful wave of disappointment, and perhaps the faint signs of a future hangover. There was a girl at the door, but it wasn’t her. It wasn’t a fan trick-or-treating either. This girl, was, in fact, a lot younger than the girl he had expected to see, and not at all in appearance like any fan of his. Disappointment quickly grew into curiosity in Jeremy’s mind. She was short and brown-haired, no more than eleven, standing all alone in the bucketing rain. She had big brown eyes and a strange pout on her face, the left side of which was heavily scarred all the way from the eyebrow to the lower lip. For a moment, Mr Fisherman experienced something similar to compassion. This girl would not have the chance to enter a beauty contest when she got older, or get a boyfriend in junior high school. That scar was really hideous, but it wasn’t just that. Her complexion was an ill kind of yellow, her expression was rather unfriendly, her hair was greasy and her clothes were worn-out. Yet, she evoked sympathy in him, he was now certain about that. All the little girl was wearing in the cold rainy night was a faded red T-shirt which was much too big for her and had equally faded words printed on it boldly asking: “Does This Color Make Me Look Sexy?” Jeremy smiled lightly, because that was the kind of thing he’d usually laugh at, such as a girl much too young to be wearing such a sign on her. Then, he realized he’d been standing at the door staring at the girl for nearly a minute. ‘Hey there,’ he greeted her softly, ‘what are you doing here, little girl? Do you want some candy?’ To his surprise and amusement, it looked as if the girl rolled her eyes to the sky and murmured: ‘I’m not carrying a bag.’ Jeremy realized the stupidity of his question. ‘The rain was sobering him up pretty quickly. ‘I’m sorry,’ he blathered out, completely baffled. ‘Are you lost? Where are your mommy and daddy?’ ‘They’re gone,’ the strange little girl replied calmly. ‘Could you be my daddy?’ Mr Fisherman laughed at himself, but turned clearly paler at the thought of adoption. ‘Nonono,’ he leaned towards the girl with a nervous grin, ‘I’m sorry, little girl; I cannot be your daddy. I’m sure there are many better daddies for you out there.’ The girl stared in wonder at his ruined make-up and painted nails. ‘Could you be my mommy, then?’ she tried, just in case. Jeremy laughed again, this time simply because he found it funny. ‘No, dear, I can’t be your mommy either. But, tell you what… why don’t… Why don’t you stay the night at my house, and tomorrow we can try to find you a mommy and a daddy, okay? You’ll catch a cold in the rain out here.’ ‘Damn right I will,’ the girl nodded with irritation. The rockstar was stunned, and walked the little stranger in, wondering what else she might have to say that was out of the ordinary.

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He was so happy he was going to spend the evening on Halloween with someone who wasn’t interested in his money – sure, it was possible that it was some sort of a trick, but it wasn’t likely – that he completely forgot his house was not at all the kind of house it was good to welcome a little girl in. ‘What’s your name?’ Jeremy asked, while he was trying to find clothes in his wardrobe small enough for the kid, and the kid itself was busy absorbing every piece of information about the house it could get a hold of. ‘You do have a name, don’t you?’ ‘No,’ the girl replied cheerfully, while she was examining a painting in the hallway by Jeremy himself which depicted a naked woman. It was not the good kind of a naked woman, if there was any good kind of naked women for little girls to look at. The host turned around for a second, then saw her looking at his work of art, and jumped towards the painting to cover it up with his bathrobe, but it was too late. ‘What’s that?’ the nameless child asked him innocently. ‘That,’ Jeremy started to sweat as he began to answer, ‘um, that… Well, that’s a woman, of course. But she looks… she looks strange, because… because she’s been bad. You don’t want to be like her, do you?’ ‘No,’ answered the girl with the same childish calm as before. ‘Do you?’ Another question much too complicated for Jeremy’s inebriated mind. ‘No,’ he responded hesitantly. ‘No, of course not. Um… um… so, as I was saying, how come you don’t have a name?’ and thought to himself: “That’s going to make it a lot harder to find you a mommy and daddy…” ‘Do you have a name?’ Jeremy let out a sigh of relief. Finally, a question he could answer. ‘My name is Jeremy,’ he said almost with pride, ‘but people call me Frankie, and my close friends call me Jay. And you’re my friend, so you can call me Jay. Um… I’m sorry to ask this, but, when you said your parents were gone, you meant…’ ‘Yes,’ the young guest in Jeremy’s house said, ‘dead. Like this,’ she went over to the other side of the wall and pointed at a picture of a bloody skull held by two bloody hands, also a work of Jeremy’s optimistic brush. The rockstar flinched in horror. ‘Why did you draw this? It’s not pretty,’ the girl kept inquiring. Jeremy was sweating and blushing and shaking. He did make a living of corrupting children with depressing music and horrific imagery, but not this young, never this young. He decided there was no point in lying. He couldn’t bring himself to lie to children. He liked children; they weren’t as evil as everyone else. ‘I drew it because I felt something bad and it made me cry.’ The disturbingly curious child thought this idea over, then continued filling in her mental questionnaire: ‘Did that woman over there make you cry as well?’ Jeremy shook again, and swallowed hard, but not because he was trying to avoid an honest answer. It had been years in his career since he’d heard something so insightful about his works. Indeed, he’d never drawn a single naked woman just for the nakedness of it. He always drew them ugly, carnivorous, disfigured, bloody, dead. They always made him cry. There wasn’t a single woman on his canvases that hadn’t made him cry.

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‘Yes,’ he sighed heavily, and decided to put his paintings somewhere safe from view first thing in the morning. ‘But it’s okay, see? I’m smiling now. Listen, girl, if you don’t know what your name is, then you might have to stay here a little longer than I thought, and until then I’ll have to know what to call you, so how about we choose you a nice name, alright?’ ‘I’d like that,’ the girl smiled sweetly, and Jeremy felt slightly elated. He’d forgotten how nice it was making someone smile. Thank goodness, she still had no idea who he was and what he did on a daily basis. Well, it wasn’t like he was a murderer or anything, right? So there was no harm in sheltering the girl for a day or two, or even a week. He needed company that didn’t make him sing or undress or sign things all the time. Besides, he could pull it off, ‘cause he couldn’t be the worst person in the world to take care of a child, for a little while, of course. Was he? He took the girl by the hand and led her further into the hallway, then up the stairs, and attempted to keep the casual conversation going. He deliberately covered whatever painting hung on the walls they passed with his body. ‘So’, Jeremy asked as they entered the kitchen, and started checking shelf after shelf for something to feed the poor lost nameless and parentless girl with. She curiously followed his every movement. ‘I’m going to make you something to eat, how about that, and meanwhile you could maybe try to come up with an idea for a name of yours.’ ‘What do I have to choose from?’ the perpetual questionnaire asked. ‘Oh,’ her host said in a fit of generosity, ‘you can have any name in the world you like. Any name at all, even if it isn’t a name.’ ‘I’d like to be named after something sweet,’ the girl made up her mind immediately. ‘Like a fruit, or candy, or a spice. Can I do that?’ ‘Of course you can! Like I said, any name you want,’ Jeremy nodded approvingly, while he was checking the upper drawers of the kitchen cupboard for the sugar. ‘You could be Cherry. Or even Vanilla. Or something different, something nobody else is named after. How about Cinnamon? Do you like cinnamon?’ ‘No. I don’t like cherries, either,’ the child replied determinately. ‘I want to be named after this one,’ she pointed at a small clay pot on the shelf Jeremy was just checking. At this moment, Jeremy went really, really pale. ‘Oh, you mean this one?’ he hurriedly tried to draw her attention to the pot next to the one the girl had chosen, hoping this would work on a ten-year-old as well as on a five-year-old. ‘That might be pepper, though. It’s a spice, but it really isn’t sweet. Or would you like to be called Pepper?’ ‘No, I said that one,’ Jeremy’s young visitor insisted. ‘I want to see what’s in it. It’s my destiny. I chose it, tell me what it is!’ Jeremy sighed. He didn’t lie to children, ever, and he was proud that lying to kids wasn’t among his many sins. Until tonight, he thought gloomily. This time, he had to lie. ‘Oh, that’s just powdered milk,’ he shrugged, and, to appear more sincere, briefly showed her the contents of the small brown pot. ‘That’s not a very good name, you

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see. Unless you want to be called Powdered Milk, and your friends might laugh at you for this…’ ‘Will you laugh at me?’ ‘No, of course!’ Jeremy exhaled in another rush of relief. Thank goodness, he had directed her attention elsewhere. ‘I wouldn’t laugh at you. So, you want to be Powdered Milk, then?’ ‘No. It’s a stupid name. But I would like some. I’m very thirsty.’ ‘Really?’ the rockstar’s voice grew thinner and thinner. ‘W-wouldn’t you like to have some milk from a carton, or – ’ ‘No, I want powdered milk, and that’s that,’ the girl stomped her foot on the floor. ‘Give me some, please. Please.’ ‘But there isn’t that much left –’ ‘Are you being selfish?’ Jeremy gave up. This girl was impossible to lie to. ‘That’s not powdered milk, dear,’ he sighed helplessly. ‘I’m sorry I lied to you. I’m sorry I can’t give it to you, either. I know that’s what the media would imagine I’d do, but… I don’t want to imagine what would happen to you if you took all of that in. Then, the police will probably think I did it to you on purpose. But I’m not that sick. And I will do everything in my power not to let you touch that pot. I’m sorry.’ He put the pot filled with white powder back on the shelf and closed the door of the cupboard. Then, he looked at the little girl. She looked like she was about to cry. He felt like a criminal. ‘Won’t you tell me what it was, then?’ she mumbled in quiet disappointment, looking up at Jeremy with her large brown eyes. ‘Since you won’t give it to me anyway?’ ‘It’s cocaine,’ Jeremy replied seriously. ‘I don’t know if you know what this is… you might have seen it on the news or something. It’s not for you, trust me. It’s not for me, either, but it’s just something… something to pass the time with. Please… don’t look at me like that. Just remember never to touch it, because then we will both be in real big trouble. Gosh… I’d better try to find a lock for this damn thing…’ ‘Cocaine,’ the girl repeated automatically under her breath, focusing very hard on the word. ‘Cocaine.’ ‘No. No, just… forget I ever said it. You’ll know what this is when you’re old enough.’ ‘I know what it is,’ she finally concluded with a cheerful voice. She seemed to brighten up too, unlike Jeremy. ‘You do? And you know what it’s for? Oh, hell… they keep getting younger and younger…’ ‘Yes. That’s my name,’ the kid explained determinately. ‘That’s what I want my name to be.’ Jeremy Fisherman dropped the pepper pot on the floor and it broke just beside his foot. He didn’t even notice. ‘Are you kidding me?’ he stared at her in sober bewilderment. ‘I told you it was my destiny,’ the girl shrugged innocently. ‘I wanted the name of the thing in the pot. And you said I could have any name I wanted, right? If you’ve lied to me twice, then you’re a liar,’ she added manipulatively.

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Jeremy felt he was going insane. It was enough that he knew a demon in his lifetime, but that was too much. ‘Fine,’ he snarled, raising his arms hopelessly, and gave up looking for the key for the cupboard. ‘Have it that way… Cocaine… Hm… it kind of fits you, you know. You’re a handful for the brain. Come on now, come with me. I’ll take you to the fridge, and you’re allowed to pick anything you like that’s in it as long as it isn’t bottled. Then, we’ll put it in the microwave and eat it. Coming? Cocaine, come on, for goodness’ sake!’ he urged. The newly named girl followed him faithfully as soon as she’d been called by name. “Cocaine”… what am I saying? Have I lost it completely?’ He felt like he had had the chance to play God for one night, and had turned out to be the sickest god there could be. Naming an innocent child after a hard drug… but she’d asked for it! Perhaps it was he who made everything he came close to rotten. Letting her see pictures of skulls and dying naked ladies… was he really that much of a sick and twisted man, or was it just a series of accidents? Jeremy thought about it. And then he answered his own question. After all, he was sick enough to keep the cocaine in a pot along with the spices in the kitchen. He couldn’t expect anything better of himself than to do this to the mind of a little girl he barely knew. And, as he led the skipping Cocaine – who would change the world as he knew it beyond the limits of his morbid imagination – along the corridor to the living room with the fridge, and as he slowly accepted the undeniable sickness that had long since spread in his messed up mind, Jeremy Fisherman shared a secret half-grin with his twisted self, because a part of him found the idea of a little lost girl called Cocaine extremely amusing.

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Chapter Nine

Unrequited

Our Halloween was pretty wild. In both worlds.
‘Alright suckers, bottoms up!’ urged Leonard from under the table, cackling like a madman. He had already warmed up with the contents of a liquor store or two and was feeling at his best, even though his reflexes were far from what they normally were. Luckily, he was too drunk to care. ‘The last one standing while singing “Ve Vill Suck You” is the winner!’ ‘I can’t sing that,’ I shook my head, blushing equally out of shame and liquor. Normally, I hated drinking; but this was something that usually happened to people who hated drinking in the end. ‘It doesn’t sound right, it really doesn’t.’ ‘And you’re not sitting, you’re crawling,’ Huckleberry pointed out in response to Leonard’s challenge. ‘With great difficulty, too.’ ‘Then that gives you both a chance to win,’ the blond vampire reflected at the height of my knees. ‘See, I’m making it easier for you by just sitting down here…’ ‘You’re lucky it’s your own house,’ Huck remarked. ‘We wouldn’t want to carry you home in this state of mind, body and soul.’ ‘Oh, but my soul is flying! I don’t think that anything can stop it now on its way to heaven!’ ‘Except for possibly the table,’ I said, and Huck and I both laughed. He had a smooth, gentle kind of laughter. I wondered why I never realized how pleasant it really was while I was completely sober. ‘You know, we could have had a nice quiet Halloween if it weren’t for him,’ Huck joked innocently. ‘But I’d say it could have gone even worse. By the way, I have to say, you’ve made a brilliant serial killer out of yourself.’ ‘Thank you,’ I nodded gratefully. ‘Except that they’re usually mean and vicious. And you’re positively wonderful. So the outfit would have worked even better if I didn’t know you at all. And that was a compliment, in case you didn’t get it in the hopeless complexity of the sentence,’ he added humbly. ‘Thank you… again.’ Leonard attempted to stand up, hit the table as predicted, hit it again, then somehow managed to drag himself away from it, got to his knees when it was safe to rise, and, wobbling and swaying, headed towards me, tripping in his glass along the way. ‘Okay, Wera,’ he announced solemnly, wrapping his arm heavily around my shoulder, ‘I’m thinking… I’m thinking I should say a few words to you, just in case they slip away from my memory in a few minutes. In private. Come on,’ he stammered gracefully, ‘leave Huck to his… his… reading and drinking… reaking… or dreading… no, they both mean different things… Never mind. Join me in the yard. Garden. Whatever. The thing with lots of grass on it. You know.’

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‘But you can barely walk,’ I reminded the vampire tactfully, seeing him leaning on thin air and grinning stupidly. Leonard raised an index with an air of great importance and red rum. ‘True,’ he admitted proudly, ‘that’s why it would be a bummer if I had to carry you too. So, come on. Come on. To the green thing.’ When we went out in the rain on the lawn in front of the gates of the mansion, he leaned me as gently as a drunk vampire could on the nearest brick wall he could distinguish, hoping that at least one of us wouldn’t fall, looked straight at me with silver eyes wide open in intoxicated astonishment, and spoke to me as if he were a divine messenger speaking to the unenlightened peasants: ‘Wera,’ he said woozily, ‘I can feel the world changing.’ I hesitated for a little while. ‘Um, that’s nice,’ I commented, trying to hide my confusion. I wasn’t very good at talking to people who weren’t sober, especially when my mind wasn’t working quite as it was supposed to either. ‘I suppose. Good for you.’ ‘No, Wera,’ Leonard muttered wisely, or at least so he thought. ‘I can really feel the world changing. Right now. Can you feel it?’ He stared at me hopefully, eyes as big as tennis balls. ‘No, Leonard, I’m very sorry. But I am sure it’s true.’ ‘Me too. But that’s not good. Nonono. Not at all. Something bad is going to happen. But that’s okay, ‘cause good things are happening too. Well, not really, depending on the point of view. In fact, it might all be bad.’ I frowned at his face, beautiful and dreamy even in his drunkenness. This was getting a little irritating. ‘Leonard, tell me, did you go psychic all of a sudden, or just psycho?’ ‘Isn’t the moon really beautiful tonight?’ his coherent response followed. ‘Oh, wait. That’s just a firefly.’ ‘Listen, you’re very drunk, and your place is at home. Well, as long as Liz doesn’t see you in this state. And it’s raining, you know, and I’m getting cold. So, I think I got the idea: the world is changing, the moon is beautiful…’ ‘And the other way around.’ Leonard could start a cult of his own that night. ‘Yeah, okay… Is that what you brought me here for? Is that what you had to say to me?’ The vampire looked as though he was asked to do a mathematical sum the solution to which only Huck was capable of reaching. ‘No,’ he concluded abruptly, and frightened me with his mental behavior. ‘No. There was something else… Something about… books… and that symbol…’ A spark of interest flickered in my chest, and I was suddenly hopeful enough to believe that Leonard would actually say something meaningful, or have a revelation about the mysterious moon symbol I’d pondered over for the past few days, despite his current inebriated state. ‘Really? Yes? I’m all ears. Go on, please…’ ‘Yes,’ Leonard’s head jerked abruptly again, and he nearly sank down to his knees, but the wall of the mansion supported him in his conflict with gravity. ‘Yes, I finally remember.’ His eyes widened to the point of popping out of their sockets. ‘Huck likes you. Yes. That’s what I wanted to say. And I can prove it.’

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I smiled nervously. ‘Well, that’s nice,’ I muttered, trying to appear clueless about what he meant by it, but it was clear to me that any woman trying to appear clueless in such a situation is a liar. In fact, the one possible interpretation of the words “he likes you” that we try to pretend we haven’t thought about is exactly the first possible interpretation that springs to our minds. I was disgusted of women in general, and therefore of myself. We were such romantic creatures. ‘I like him too, very much.’ Leonard knew the female nature possibly better than anyone in the world. ‘You know very well what I mean,’ he continued slowly and sternly. ‘He likes you. He has never said anything good about or to any woman since Sarah. That’s… that’s about a century. He hasn’t had a woman in a century. And considering that, liking you means a lot.’ ‘Um,’ I hesitated, ‘supposing that I can see what you might or might not be talking about…’ I was going to deny realizing what he was trying to convey until the very last moment that I could. ‘I’m not so sure what I have to do with it… or what I have to do about it…’ ‘Look,’ Leonard said, as seriously as anyone who had devoured the content of eighty-seven bottles of liquor could. ‘Huck is my friend. And you are too, so I am not going to threaten anyone or force anyone into anything. I won’t break your legs if you break his heart, because you will, and you don’t deserve to have your legs injured for that. On the other hand… the other hand… how many hands are there?... On the other hand, I can’t really tell you to go marry him. There’s nothing that you have to do. Just… be sensitive about it. Okay? You know, in a sensitive way. I’m not sure if he knows. He sure as hell doesn’t know that I know. He’s a little stupid for someone this smart, isn’t he? I just know… that I know. You’re the only person he says nice things to. And sometimes… sometimes he doesn’t say nice things exactly because he wants to say them, do you get the idea? Anyway… just go about your way. I know that it will be fine. Just… just… follow the little birds.’ ‘I’m not sure if I should believe you. I have no reason to believe anyone likes me until it has been proven that he does. Nothing good ever comes out of it. I’ll start to act weird… besides, I don’t really feel anything for… and for heaven’s sake, what little birds?!’ Leonard looked up at the sky. ‘I’m very drunk.’ ‘That’s the most truthful thing you’ve said tonight,’ I scolded him, grabbed him by the laced sleeve, and attempted to drag him a little closer to the main gate. ‘Come on, you need to sleep. Or rest in your coffin, or whatever it is you do. You most certainly have had enough partying for tonight.’ Finally, the vampire could instinctively tell the direction he was supposed to be walking in. We strode through some occasional dying rose bushes and ivy, while he was swooning towards the ground, singing “Ve Vill Suck You”. Had that been the human world, I would have been terribly ashamed of him. Aw well, I thought, at least we had had a really exciting Halloween night. Things could always get much worse than Leonard getting drunk, especially with him around. For example, Huck could really like me, and that would have been even worse. But such a thing was impossible.

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It was possible for things to get worse, however, and my thoughts about that were confirmed by a shrill, distant scream coming from the living room window on the second floor of the mansion. The blood froze in my veins. I gasped, grabbed Leonard’s sleeve to the point of tearing, and we ran like crazy to the gate of the mansion. This was definitely turning out to be a wild Halloween. *** ‘And this is my room,’ Jeremy announced shyly, waving randomly at the blackpainted chaos that spread beyond the door. ‘It’s not much, but I hope you like it. And here is the bed you will be sleeping on.’ Cocaine looked around, curious as ever. She had been changed into dry clothes, which were again too large for her, but Jeremy had nothing better to offer. Now, she was fashionably outfitted in a Black Sabbath T-shirt and matching black khaki, which held with difficulty to her little narrow waist with the help of a leather belt, encrusted with tiny skulls. It went around her waist twice. She looked like the child of someone ridiculously obsessed with metal music, but Jeremy was in fact extremely proud of himself for dressing her so successfully. ‘But,’ she said after a minute or two of exploring the room of the shock rocker, ‘where are the windows?’ And she was, once again, perfectly right. It was a bedroom without any windows. There were all kinds of objects in it, and all kinds of gothic decorations – everything, except for windows. Old records and cassette tapes were scattered on the floor in between various black bracelets and leather jackets. More clothes – usually either in black, blue or purple – lay in messy piles on the three beds of the huge bedroom. Black satin sheets were hiding beneath them. Black crosses and satanic symbols hung from the walls above thick books on thin tables. The walls were covered in dark, psychotic confessions of previous depression fits, words of damnation and poems of despair, coal-black spots, photographs of mutilated body parts and ancient spells for summoning demons. The entire room seemed to be screaming in anger and agony at anyone who entered, and could only be pacified or survived by its owner, it seemed. And, of course, there was no a single window to be seen, even though curtains were present. This was more of a fortress than a place to call home. If Cocaine had seen “The Omen” movies, it would have reminded him of the room covered in sheets from the Bible in order to keep demons out. Not only did the owner of this room did not want anything to do with the world outside; he also wanted to make sure that nothing unwanted would ever come in. This room was a reflection of Jeremy’s soul, it was his world – and nobody was invited. He had locked himself in a prison of his own, and it was a place where the outside world would never reach him. Jeremy Fisherman was proud of his fortress. ‘The windows,’ he explained coldly, ‘well, there aren’t any. I didn’t think it was necessary. I have windows everywhere else, and the view from here isn’t much.’ ‘But where is the sun going to shine from?’ Cocaine uttered, bewildered and disappointed. ‘The sun is just outside every day, no need to check all the time,’ the rockstar waved his hand impatiently. To him, the issue was immaterial. ‘You won’t be worried

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about that, will you? Come on, you’re a big girl. You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?’ he laughed feebly, and hated himself for it. Cocaine made no notice of his impolite mockery. ‘You’re a big boy,’ she said simply in return. ‘You’re not afraid of the light, are you?’ Something in Jeremy stirred and burned and turned scarlet. ‘There’s plenty of light here,’ he said through gritted teeth, slapping the light switch on, and the chandelier lit the room dark yellow. Jeremy tried to shake off his temporary embarrassment. ‘There, it’s as good as the sun, maybe even better.’ ‘And cocaine is as good as powdered milk, maybe even better,’ the girl shrugged sarcastically, and reached for an ancient grimoire to examine. Jeremy was furious underneath the layer of make-up and his impassive expression. He was normally a very eloquent man. He’d been asked the most uncomfortable questions the media could come up with, and he always answered each of them brilliantly. He was flawless, and now he didn’t know what to say when his lifestyle was being mocked by a little girl. Listen, what do you know of…’ he began uncertainly, but then he decided not to go and make an even bigger fool of himself. ‘You know what, missy? I think it is high time you went to bed. I know, I know, it’s dark and gloomy, but that’s life, you know? Come on now, I’ll be on this one, and you’ll take that one. Just let me get my records… oh, sorry.’ A grim mechanical melody could be heard buzzing through the room. ‘It’s my phone, one second. Yes?’ Cocaine got bored and decided to read some satanic incantations from the grimoire out loud. It was rubbish. ‘Hello? Oh, Adam, thank goodness. Where the hell are you? It’s quite loud, I can’t hear you… What? Tomorrow? No, we can’t record tomorrow, I’m busy. Something came up… no, it’s not anything illegal. No. Don’t worry. A girl? No, no… I still love… yeah, I know. I know I must move on. Yes, this is about a girl, but… no, it’s not what you think, there was a little girl at my doorstep, and her parents are deceased, and… What, no, of course I didn’t! No, she’s fine. Yes, she’s underage. What… no! She’s ten, or eleven, for goodness’ sake? Huh? What? Name? No, I don’t think you could find anything about… She has none. Well, Cocaine. Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I call her. It’s a little girl… No, the police have nothing to do with it. Dammit, Adam, this isn’t about drugs! No… no… yes, I got rid of it. Not to worry. No, this is just a name. No. Yes, Cocaine is in my room right now. Yes, I got rid of it! No, this is the name of a girl.’ Jeremy was rambling on and on in the speaker. ‘No, I am not talking about the cocaine fairy. No, I haven’t been drinking… okay, I have, but just a little… there is a girl in my house, okay? I’m just going to get her to bed… no, she is just a child… No… Adam… wait, Adam… I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? Adam? Adam!’ The rockstar sighed. Cocaine was trying to spot a demon in the room, but there just weren’t any. Those summoning spells were just no good. ‘Great,’ Jeremy Fisherman groaned, ‘now he’ll think I’ve completely lost it. Or, better yet, he’ll bring the police over. No… he wouldn’t… he’s my friend… oh, to hell with him, I don’t give a damn. Listen, we’d better go to bed, because I’ve got a really bad day tomorrow, I am really tired, and you should be too…’

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‘I want a fairytale,’ Cocaine insisted, ignorant of Jeremy’s obligations and legal problems. ‘And a good one, if I am going to sleep in the dark.’ ‘Aren’t you a little old for fairytales?’ ‘Aren’t you a little young to live in a coffin?’ Jeremy gave up. She sure had a lot to say, that Cocaine. And she was hinting at flaws in his ways that he couldn’t or didn’t want to correct, and either way he was frequently judged for. She was a little too young to make him feel uncomfortable on purpose. The plain truth was that most children didn’t like the dark and the horrible. He had to live with that for now. Just until the world changed to his liking. ‘I’m not as young as you think I am, kid,’ he growled like a very grumpy child himself. ‘How old are you, then?’ There she goes again, Jeremy thought. More questions. ‘Forty-two, if you must know,’ he replied irritably. ‘Whoah,’ Cocaine agreed. ‘That’s really old. No wonder you are so sour.’ ‘It’s not that old!’ ‘It is. I’d be sour too if I stayed at home all day.’ ‘I don’t stay at home all day. I have a job, you know. I’m a singer.’ ‘Aren’t you too old to still be working?’ ‘No!’ ‘Then prove it. Sing me a song if you’re not going to read me a fairytale.’ Jeremy blushed. He felt a little like the very first time he sang on stage. He’d received a semi-kiss from a stranger then, and a little more than that from another stranger, but he’d been way too drunk to remember it all. Those were the good days. ‘Alright,’ he plucked up the courage to grant the wish of his small audience, ‘I’ll sing something to you, then. This is from my latest album. It’s called “Flames Engulf Us.” He sang, or gather, he growled sadly at her for about two minutes. It was one of the best songs in the album. The video to it was particularly shocking, and his fans truly loved it. Cocaine passionately disapproved of the song, and it enraged the performer even more. ‘I don’t know,’ she said softly, ‘it sounds like you are lying when you’re singing.’ ‘What?’ Jeremy completely lost his temper. ‘Lying? I always put my deepest, most sincere feelings in my songs!’ ‘I still think you’re lying,’ Cocaine shrugged destructively. ‘It sounds like it. Who was the song written about?’ ‘I beg your pardon, annoying nosy young lady?’ ‘In the song, you say “all of you” a lot of times. Who are they?’ ‘It’s… the people who made me sad.’ ‘Well,’ the girl expressed her expert opinion on song-writing, ‘you speak to the people who made you sad, and you sing that they will pay for what they did to you. But, when I listen to you sing it, it sounds like they won’t really pay for it. It sounds sad, and desperate, and it makes me feel sad about you. It sounds like you are most probably going to stay in your dark room, cry for a long time about what they did to

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you, eat frozen food from your fridge, and then cry some more. Why would anyone want to hear something that will make them feel sorry for you?’ Jeremy’s nervous system was no longer trying to function properly. He wasn’t angry anymore – he had run out of anger for tonight, – but he felt like he was about to cry even now. It was a good thing the room was dark enough, so that the little girl wouldn’t see his face. ‘Well… they don’t listen to these songs for that, my fans. And yes, I do have lots of them. But they don’t listen to such songs to feel sorry for me… usually, they connect the songs to themselves.’ ‘Why? Do they live in rooms covered with horrible words and pictures and no windows in them?’ Cocaine’s irony was merciless. ‘If not, they shouldn’t feel sorry for themselves. They can’t be more miserable than you, living in this horrible room.’ Jeremy Fisherman covered himself thoughtfully with the black satin sheets, coughed lightly, and didn’t speak out for more than a minute. He couldn’t think of a moment in his life in which he’d felt more embarrassed – and he’d done many embarrassing things. But secretly crying in the same room with a ten-year-old took the cake. It was then that a part of Jeremy realized that it could never part with Cocaine, or give her to parents who didn’t know what an obnoxious yet brilliant child they’d be dealing with. Soon enough, when it felt ready, it would share the information with the rest of him. ‘What I think,’ she continued, apparently failing to notice his emotional condition, ‘is that you should change something about the song. Or make it sound like it is true. That’s what I think. I think you haven’t heard a really good song. I’ll sing it to you, if you like.’ ‘Sure,’ Jeremy responded hollowly from underneath the sheet, ‘whatever you want. Which one is it,’ he added in a steely voice, “Barbie Girl”?’ ‘No.’ The little girl covered herself up as well, gave out an adorable little cough, and sang: “Once there was a silly old ram, Thought he’d punch a hole in a dam; No one could make that ram Scram – He kept butting that dam. ‘Cause he had High hopes, He had High hopes, He had High apple pie in the sky…” ‘Enough, enough, I get the idea,’ Jeremy stopped her quickly, laughing at the thought of this simple song comparing to any of his. ‘I know the song. Everybody does. And you sang it very well. You have changed my view on music forever.’

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‘I was hoping to,’ Cocaine replied cheerfully. ‘You are just like the ram in the song.’ ‘Oh, really? And how am I like the ram in the song? I’m stubborn?’ ‘Well, yes. You keep on trying to do something that seems impossible, but you don’t stop even if everyone else can see that it can’t be done. It seems to me that’s why you keep on being a singer even though you are too old for it and you lie in your songs. And you keep on living in this terrible room even though anyone knows you can’t live in it forever. Maybe your work requires it. I don’t know.’ ‘There’s a word for it, it’s called persistence,’ Jeremy corrected her. ‘No, you’re just stubborn. Like the ram. That’s why you do whatever it is you’re doing. I’ve never seen a man as old as you who is as stubborn as you. You’re so stubborn you wouldn’t even admit you’re wrong when you are. You are a liar, too.’ ‘I’m not a liar,’ Jeremy Fisherman defended himself. ‘And I’m not stubborn.’ ‘Yes you are.’ ‘No I’m not.’ ‘Yes you are.’ ‘No, I am not.’ ‘You’re very stubborn.’ ‘No, I am not stubborn at all!’ Jeremy realized he had proven himself wrong. He had, at last, made a complete, outstanding fool of himself in front of a curious little girl. On the other hand, before himself, he could not deny that he was stubborn. Or, at least, he had been stubborn when he was young, more than he was now. He had built his entire career solely on his own stubbornness. He wanted to get back at the world for making him what he was, and he tried, for years, to punch a hole in the system, using nothing but his aggression and his stubborn head of a dreamer filled with high hopes and rebellious ideas, and he punched and punched until he bled, but he finally made a difference. Now, none of that made a difference to him, and he wished he’d had a little bit of the same angry mindless determination that had made him someone in the eyes of the world. If he still had it, perhaps his recent songs wouldn’t sound like lies. Not that he believed the girl, of course. He was still stubborn enough to impose the will not to admit it on himself. “So anytime you’re feeling bad, ‘stead of feeling sad, just remember that ram…” the girl sang on and on, regardless of her – and, most of all, Jeremy’s – need for sleep. ‘Oh, please, shut up and let me sleep. I’ll have higher hopes tomorrow.’ ‘Good night, Jay,’ the girl responded obediently. Jeremy smiled. It had been a long time since anyone had called him by his high school nickname. It was refreshing. He still hadn’t dyed his hair back then. He had been such a fool… On the bed opposite his, the little girl named Cocaine thought heavy, mature thoughts. It had been a good night. Jay was not really as bad as he seemed at first, once you saw through his terrible make-up. For a brief moment, things had begun to feel like in the old days again. But they weren’t supposed to, the girl reminded herself. There could be no distractions. In any case, he would never really understand. Or give a damn. Once this was over, it was straight back home. Any interior was better than the one in this room, anyway.

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Cocaine found it hard to fall asleep at first, so she counted rams head-butting dams. One ram… two rams… three rams… That third one seemed to have really high hopes… *** There was no sign of Leonard’s drunkenness merely a minute after we’d started running. The moment we heard the scream, his face went pale and wicked, and I knew there was only one thought on his mind: Liz. We rushed into the mansion, tripping and falling, and standing up again, Leonard far ahead of me, a beast threatened, terrified and mad. He crashed the door of the living room open, I followed him in as quickly as I could, and I gasped in horror at the first thing that I caught in my sight: Huckleberry, spread lifeless on the floor, gushing blood in thick streams from his chest, Elizabeth crying inconsolably in the corner, and broken chairs, smashed tables and couches turned over scattered all over the room. I ran to the wounded Huckleberry, casting a hopeless look at Elizabeth. Leonard, however, took no notice of either of them, it seemed. The first thing he saw, not with the useless eyes of a witness, but with the bloodshot eyes of a hunter, was not that. It was a cloaked black figure trying to step out of the room through the window, holding a shimmering dagger in a gloved hand. Leonard leapt straight at the attacker. Merely a second later, the two were a fierce tangled mass, trying to pin each other on the floor, tearing at each other’s skin, biting deeply on each other’s necks, not two men, but two monsters, not fighting to survive, to maim or to avenge, but to kill. Whatever furniture had been left intact after the break-in, they destroyed it. They threw each other around like puppets, they bit each other like rabid dogs, and they left Elizabeth and me screaming in panic, and Huckleberry bleeding aloof on the floor. It was pointless to join in; they were too quick, too strong, too dangerous, too maddened and blinded by fury. They fought like they had been doing it since the dawn of time, and as much as Leonard was an old, vicious, merciless creature, it seemed that his black-clad, bat-like opponent was way too good and precise a fighter, and he had the advantage that his mind was clearer because he had no one to mourn, avenge or protect, just a purpose cold as steel in his cold steel mind. As soon as I saw where this was going, I abandoned all attempts to help dying Huckleberry and sprang to Leonard and his enemy, but missed them by an inch and fell hard by the wall. When I managed to rise and turn to see them, the violent stranger had pressed him against the opposite wall, about to slit Leonard’s throat with the same glistening silver dagger that he’d most probably used on Huckleberry. I felt something in me preparing to die as I witnessed it. Breathless, horrified and helpless, I ran towards them, but I knew I’d never get there in time, and even if I did, there wouldn’t be anything that I’d be able to do… ‘No! Please!’ I screamed in a fit of despair, ready to mourn two friends on the night of Halloween, which I would nevermore celebrate… And then something unbelievable happened. The stranger left his job on Leonard’s throat halfway finished, looked at me distractedly from behind his collar, stopped performing his crime immediately, and dropped coughing Leonard on the

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floor, as though he was a rag doll. Then, the tall dark figure took the distance from one end of the room to the window in two long leaps, lightly and gracefully, like a cheetah, and vanished through the window in an instant. Leonard crawled to his knees without further delay. ‘Forget about him!’ he yelled. ‘Forget about me! Help Huck!’ ‘But I don’t know how!’ I cried desperately, shaking all over, trying to get Huck to come to his senses, but it was all in vain. His body was twisting in heavy convulsions on the floor, and the puddle of blood he was lying in grew wider and wider with every second wasted… ‘Drink! Let him drink! Not from you, you idiot! You’ll kill him! Liz, get Liz!’ The next few minutes were a nightmare to me, a nightmare that I didn’t even want to assume had happened for real. I stood in the room watching a dying, bleeding man drink blood off the wrist of a two-year old girl until she passed out, and another man, also bleeding, shaking and crying, watching the blood of his only daughter being drained by his best friend to save his life. It wasn’t just torment; it was hell. Once you had seen this, you could never see vampires in the same way again. They were nothing like people. They were damned creatures, and in their damnation they found the strength for sacrifice no man could ever conceive. Until that night, I had thought with great certainty that I wouldn’t cry again until the end of my visit. I had thought wrong.

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Chapter Ten

Maneatman

It was a new dawn, figuratively speaking. It was a hard dawn for us all.
‘I’m going to fuck up that son of a bitch,’ Leonard was muttering to himself, walking the demolished living room back and forth. ‘I will be forced to kill him, eventually, but prior to that I will definitely fuck him up.’ His neck was scarlet where the dagger had penetrated it. The vampire didn’t care. It would be gone in a day. His rage wouldn’t. ‘I’m so very, very sorry,’ Huck blamed himself, which was perfectly typical of him. Likewise, I did the same. ‘About everything… about Liz… About letting that vampire take me by surprise… I could have fought him, I would have, but he stabbed me as soon as I saw him… I’m so sorry, Leslie…’ ‘Don’t call me Leslie,’ Leonard growled morbidly, and continued to pace in a murderous circle. ‘That pathetic excuse for a killer is going to be calling me Leslie, he’s going to be calling me whatever I ask him to, actually, when I am done feeding him his own liver.’ His eyes seemed nearly white with fury, and his face was frozen in a heartless expression, every muscle on it clenched, alert and eager to kill. ‘He breaks into my house. He makes a mess of the entire living room. He destroys priceless relics and works of art. He tries to kill my best friend, and nearly succeeds. He traumatizes my daughter for life. He tries to kill me. He gets away with it. He forces me to traumatize my daughter even further by getting my best dying friend to drink from her to survive. Now that’s what I call rude. How are you, Huck, by the way? Breathing getting any better? I’m fine, in case anyone was wondering. Just peachy.’ Huck was lying on a bed made of rags and old clothes, his chest bound in bloody bandages, breathing heavily and coughing up blood every hour or so. Still, he was stable, and he didn’t seem concerned about his health. Vampires recovered a lot faster than most people could imagine. ‘I’m better, Leonard, thank you for asking,’ he assured him weakly. ‘Give it three days at the most. I’ll owe you one forever. Oh God, I’m so, so very sorry about what happened…’ ‘Shut up. I’m not in the mood to hear your moping now. Stop blaming yourself. Let it go, it’s over.’ Leonard gave his friend a brief, passionless stare. ‘It’s the vendetta we’ll have to think about, remember?’ ‘No,’ Huckleberry disagreed in a hoarse voice. ‘What we need to consider first is who this vampire was, what he was here for, and why he did what he did. Otherwise we will have no idea about what needs to be done about him.’ Leonard snorted. ‘I have a very clear idea about what I’m going to do to him…’ ‘Still,’ Huck interrupted, always the analyzing and rational one, ‘we ought to know what we are dealing with here. He might come back before we’ve recovered. Right now, we are still not capable of protecting everyone here. Be reasonable, Leonard. Think about Liz. Think about us all. You’ll send us to slaughter if we set off to kill him straight away, and we will all be doomed if you leave this house now,
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looking for him. Don’t be stupid,’ the weakened vampire implored him, ‘that’s not who you are. Otherwise saving our lives last night would have been in vain.’ Leonard breathed exquisite fury through his flaring nostrils for a minute or two, before he finally appeared compelled. ‘Fine,’ he snarled in agreement at last. ‘Tell us, then, genius. What do we know?’ ‘First,’ Huck began as if he was reading his words from a textbook, ‘we know for sure that he wasn’t after you. He broke into the living room when you and Wera were out talking, therefore he didn’t plan on killing either of you. If he wanted something from you, he could have taken Liz hostage,’ when he said that, Leonard’s face squirmed in agony, ‘but he didn’t even notice her. As for me, you know me; I don’t have many enemies… anymore. Personally, I think he tried to finish me off simply because I got in his way. I think he was looking for something in the house. I mean, he’s thrashed the entire place. He was looking for something.’ ‘But nothing is missing,’ Leonard stated in wonder, when his rabid aggression faded a little. ‘Then he didn’t find what he was looking for. It was obviously not a regular material possession, or else he would have been satisfied with robbing us…’ ‘All the same,’ the other vampire shrugged. ‘Things of such value were destroyed. Most of all, my daughter’s happy childhood. I tried so hard! You won’t believe the fairytales I’ve tried telling her last night! It won’t cover up for this, ever. Blood. Guts. Death. Killing. I wanted to protect her from all of this…’ ‘We understand your pain. But she will be fine. She might not even remember this when she grows up,’ Huckleberry spoke soothingly to his friend. ‘What matters the most now is to keep her safe. Better slightly traumatized that dead, after all… sorry… Anyway, what I meant to say is, this vampire was searching for something. Something very valuable to him…’ ‘I’ll give him something valuable… I don’t have anything worth killing for here, dammit,’ Leonard complained. ‘Nothing dark, powerful, or magical, or evil. I’m out of the game, Huck, you know me. I’ve been out for years.’ ‘…and that’s what makes me come to the conclusion that whatever he was trying to obtain or retrieve was not something of yours,’ Huckleberry reflected. Then, he sighed heavily and turned to me. I gasped, because I knew what he was about to say. ‘I’m very sorry to say this, Wera, but I’m thinking he was after that necklace you took from Mr Downey, or whatever his name was, that night you went out with him, when things got a little –’ I felt I deserved to die for bringing that wretched medallion to Leonard’s mansion. ‘Oh, no… dammit, no… I’m so sorry… I don’t know what… this is all my fault…’ ‘Will you shut up already?’ bellowed Leonard over my pathetic apologies. ‘Stop blaming yourselves, it’s pointless, annoying, and it makes us waste more time to crucify that bastard! Go on, Huck – what do you know about the necklace?’ ‘Nothing, I’m afraid,’ the vampire shrugged as much as he could in the tight bandages. ‘I know it has something to do with the lunar cycles, judging by the symbol on it. It doesn’t seem to have any occult power to me, but then again, I could be

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wrong. All I am sure of is that our hostile visitor last night had temporarily left it with Downey for safe keeping and when he came back to collect it, he no longer had it…’ ‘…meaning poor little Downey no longer has his head on, either,’ Leonard derived the obvious conclusion. ‘Don’t feel bad about him, Wera, his head will have company soon… and for God’s sake, please stop giving me that gloomy face! It’s all going to be alright once I get on with settling my scores with this mother –’ ‘Not necessarily,’ Huck disagreed gently. ‘Who knows who else might be behind this? He found the approximate location of the pendant pretty easily, didn’t he? This might mean the object does have some occult significance about it, or maybe is somehow spiritually connected with its owner...’ ‘Not necessarily,’ Leonard mimicked his friend, and quickly explained: ‘He could have just asked Downey who took it. He seems like the talkative kind of guy. Especially under a little bit of influence. He could have sniffed Wera out like nothing, then. There aren’t that many werewolves or no-turners around here. Besides, she might be very much of a yes-turner in certain circumstances…’ ‘No, you don’t get it,’ Huckleberry persisted. ‘If he was following Wera’s scent, he would have gone straight for her. Obviously, he felt the presence of the pendant in the house.’ ‘But I was wearing it last night,’ I pointed out insecurely. ‘Why he was looking for it in the house, then?’ ‘It might have had some sort of specific energy it emanates only when it lingers at a certain location…’ ‘Damn,’ cursed Leonard. He was doing it a lot today. He would hardly curse for anything. ‘This means he saw it on you. Now he knows all he needs. Damn.’ ‘True, but then why didn’t he go straight for me when he saw it?’ I ventured to express my doubts. ‘And why didn’t he kill you when I shouted at him? I don’t mean he should have done it, of course… but he seemed very prepared to do it until I told him not to…’ ‘It might be the pendant,’ Huck suggested. ‘It might give the wearer a special power over vampires, or…’ ‘Not very likely. She was wearing it when she told me to get back inside because I was too drunk and it was raining, and I didn’t listen to her anyway.’ ‘You should have,’ Huck sighed. ‘Hmm… maybe it only has influence on the owner…’ ‘That doesn’t make any sense. He’s the one who should have control over it, since he is the owner.’ Leonard rolled his eyes impatiently. ‘It’s all very simple, really: you said “please”, Wera, the magic word, and he suddenly decided I wasn’t worth breaking the code for.’ ‘Now you’re being ridiculous,’ Huck said hollowly. ‘One thing’s for sure,’ I interfered in a gravely voice, ‘we have to get rid of the pendant.’ Leonard jumped as though he had been stung by a bee, and then he stared at me as though I had completely lost it. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ he yelled. ‘You’re going to get rid of our only clue, the only thing that might lead us to this mysterious bastard which I would very much like to hunt down and kill? This is ridiculous. We’ll relocate, if we must, all of us.

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We’ll read every book if we must. We’ll go to Huck’s place and ravish his library. I don’t care. We’ll get that worthless sucker. He’s dead meat. I will not deprive myself of this pleasure.’

*** The next morning Jeremy Fisherman left for the “Freakbreak Records” studio in a remarkably good mood. He felt fresher than he had in a long time, and he could barely feel the years knocking on his door. Prior to leaving he took a shower, dressed himself in his most tasteless black leather jacket and put on the most revolting makeup he could muster. He started seeing his old self in the mirror again. Jeremy examined the graying ginger roots of his thinning black hair in front of the bathroom mirror, eyeing them with criticism at first, but later on with acceptance. He decided not to re-dye them today, even though it was a big day. Jeremy had always tried to be something other than himself; nearly all his life he had been anything but himself, and the farther away he got from his true self, the better he liked himself. Today, for the first time in years, Jeremy saw, in the bathroom mirror, how far his own self-loathing had taken him from himself. But, starting today, he thought to himself, it wouldn’t be the same anymore. Something about Cocaine’s words from the previous night had made him think about the things he’d been running from for the past few years and had inspired him to stop running away. He would be what he had once aspired to be, before he had gotten too old to be it again. He had found it to be a good idea to bring Cocaine along just so he could show her what he could really do with a microphone in hand. Adam Fowler, his manager and former schoolmate, was waiting for Jeremy at the entrance of the studio, and was more than a little stunned to see the rockstar at his best, hand in hand with a, what, ten, eleven-year-old. ‘They keep getting younger and younger,’ Adam made a tasteless sarcastic comment when he spotted Jeremy and his young companion from across the street. ‘So, it was true, what you said on the phone last night.’ ‘Cocaine, this is Adam, we went to school together,’ Jeremy introduced them politely, beaming inexplicably. ‘Adam, this is Cocaine. She’s searching for a mommy and daddy.’ ‘Cocaine,’ Adam’s face reluctantly allowed a disturbed, crooked grin to slide across it. ‘Charming. Come on, let’s get inside. You’ll tell me all about her before we start.’ Adam Fowler was the typical rich handsome man in a suit. Ever since they’d been best friends in school with Jeremy, Adam was forecast with success. Out of the two, he’d always been the more popular one, the more studious one, the more responsible one, the more talented one, the better built one – while Jeremy was not much more than skin and bones in high school and his anatomy didn’t change much throughout the next twenty-five years, either. Jeremy then discovered a talent of his in which vigor had a say much more than music, and Adam left the position of a best friend and occupied that of a band manager instead. He had an understanding of success Jeremy would never possess; Jeremy only became involved with rock ‘n’ roll

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because he believed in its idea. Jeremy was a dreamer and a rebel, and Adam always cleaned up his every mess and tried not to let Jeremy’s existential depressions ruin his social life. His job hadn’t changed much over the years. But they were no longer friends, because all Jeremy cared about was still the idea, and all Adam cared about was the money and the opinions of the important people. Adam feared that Jeremy would gamble away his image in the music industry, and Jeremy was disgusted by Adam’s materialism. That’s why Adam never called Jeremy “Jay” anymore and never cared about his private life unless it threatened to become public. All he cared about was that Jeremy made music that sold and got them invited to parties, and that was all he was here to check on. But this time he was taken by surprise. Adam complimented Jeremy’s hair – ironically, of course – and asked to have a word with him in private. ‘So,’ the manager began when Cocaine was far enough not to hear them, ‘are you ready to record today?’ Jeremy nodded. ‘Absolutely. I haven’t felt this much in the mood for music in ages.’ ‘That’s great to hear. So, Jeremy, I don’t mean to pry, but what’s the deal with this girl?’ ‘Well, it all happened really suddenly, Adam. She arrived at my doorstep last night. Just rang the doorbell, all alone in the rain, lost and soaked.’ ‘What? She just went to your house and rang the bell? That’s impossible!’ ‘I know, isn’t it weird? So, I take pity on her, what with her scar and everything, see, I take her in for the night – she’s just a kid, after all, and the next thing you know, she says her parents are dead, she’s got no name and she wants me to be her mommy and daddy. Then, she asks me to name her after the cocaine on my shelf…’ ‘Dammit, Jeremy, I told you to get rid of that stuff!’ the rockstar’s manager burst out in anger. ‘Don’t you ever listen to me? What if the media finds out – or, better yet, the police? You won’t be invincible forever, you know!’ ‘Alright, I will, but you’re missing the point… So, I take her in, you see, I give her clothes to sleep in and everything, I make her dinner – ’ ‘– in the microwave…’ ‘…yes, and then that little lady gives me the best damn psychological analysis on my personality I’ve heard from anyone her age! You should hear her speak. She always wants to figure you out, always asks the toughest questions to answer… She’s amazing…’ Jeremy looked genuinely excited. Adam responded with a sour grin. Then, the rockstar leaned towards his ex best friend and muttered quietly in his ear: ‘To tell you the truth, Adam, I really like her. I mean, really, she makes me mad, but in a good way. You should have been there, we sang to each other and everything, and I thought… I thought, well, why don’t I be her mommy and daddy? I mean, for real. It’s perfect, she’s got no past, no name, no parents, nothing… and I’ll be better, I really will, and I was thinking, hey, I’m old and rich enough for this, and I’m tired of someone living with me temporarily, and I’m tired of marrying women… So why don’t I spend the next ten years of my life taking care of a girl I won’t have to sleep with? How about it, Adam, isn’t it brilliant?’ As happy as Jeremy seemed to be with himself, Adam looked outraged.

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‘Jeremy,’ he began sternly, and then he switched straight onto snapping. ‘Are you insane? Look at yourself! Look at your personality, look at your make-up, look at your life! First of all, the media would destroy us for this, second, you’re not morally capable of raising a child, and third, you just can’t! Did you forget who you are?! You’re Frankie! You make music for children who are a product of bad parenting! You’ve made teens betray their families! You’re a terrible influence on the kids! You make them start having unsafe sex, take drugs, think about society and all kinds of other bad things!’ ‘Yes, I know,’ Jeremy lowered his head in embarrassment, ‘but it’s not going to be the same with her… I swear I’ll make sure she becomes a good girl, with a good life. I won’t raise her like I’ve raised half of my fans…’ ‘But you’ll be expected to!’ Adam stifled a shrill shriek only by the power of his manners in society. ‘You do this, Jeremy, and your career is over. You can’t sweep up a girl named Cocaine from the street and show up on TV as the reformed good daddy. No drugs, no sex, no evil – no money! And I won’t let you drag me down with you!’ There was a minute of hostile silence, in which Adam was trying to think up more arguments in favor of the prohibition of Cocaine’s adoption. During that minute, however, Jeremy was thinking of lost kids and outcast children, black sheep and black rams, the things Cocaine had said to him and the promise he’d made himself to be what he wanted to be… Jeremy stood up slowly, cast a friendly glance at Adam, followed by a friendly smile, and spoke to him softly: ‘Watch me.’ Then, he headed for the other side of the studio, picking up Cocaine, who had waited for him patiently there. ‘Okay, fellas,’ he shouted energetically, ‘are we ready to record? I know I am.’ The men in the studio were trying to agree on something, but stopped arguing when he spoke, and redirected their attention towards the setting – but not quite set yet – star. ‘Um… okay, Mr Frankie, how about we warm up with something recent… something touching, something heartbreaking… something like “Flames Engulf Us”?’ ‘I’d rather not,’ Jeremy objected cheerfully. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll suggest something old to start with. Let it be “Break You”. It’s an old favorite of mine. Kids back in the day used to love it. Today, I’ll dedicate my performance of it to my devoted manager Adam Fowler.’ Jeremy Fisherman grabbed the microphone confidently, threw his hair back, grinned a vicious grin, and as he recalled the familiar tune in his head, he felt young and rebellious again, and when he sang, he sang about the greedy, heartless bastards in the world like Adam Fowler and how they were going to pay, and this time, before Cocaine and before himself, he knew that he wasn’t lying… For the first time in years everyone in the studio was really impressed and clapped – except for Adam Fowler – solely to the thrill of the performance. The voice that had come out of Jeremy’s throat was so fiery, so passionate, so victorious, so disobedient, so self-assured, hair-raising and rebellious that it could make the guitar with the best rock ‘n’ roll sound in the world curl up and start whimpering miserably in a corner, and develop serious confidence issues as a result. Jeremy was brilliant

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throughout the whole day, Cocaine approved of his vigor and sincerity, and even Adam was glad to see his former friend was back in the business, recording an album re-issuing the old year 2000 hit “Break You” as a bonus track. When they called it a day and Adam came to congratulate Jeremy on the job well done, Jeremy smiled kindly, gave Adam one of his favorite fingers and told him to go do indecent things with himself. ‘That went well,’ Cocaine praised him on their way back to Jeremy’s place. ‘He doesn’t look like a good man, that Adam guy.’ ‘I know, Cocaine. I should have figured it out years ago.’ ‘Why are we going back to your horrible room again, Jay? Aren’t we going to look for a mommy and a daddy? I could use a parent, you know.’ Jeremy smiled. ‘Don’t worry, Cocaine,’ he reassured her mildly. ‘I believe we will find you one very soon.’ From that day on, the parent question was put on hold, and Jeremy found an excuse after an excuse to let Cocaine stay with him another day for the next few weeks, which felt like months to him, maybe even years. He began, unconsciously, caring for her like she was his own. And, to his own surprise, they got along. She had the best of times mocking his morbid habits, and he had the best of times being ridiculed by her. Soon enough, he couldn’t live without it, and Cocaine the girl quickly replaced regular cocaine as a drug in his life. Misery was draining away from Jeremy’s memory at an incredible speed with every moment spent with the bright little girl. She inspired him to go out more often and mourn his old relationships less, he taught her to paint with watercolors, and she taught him to sing without lying once again. Jeremy’s life improved in every way, including morally, and Cocaine confessed she’d never been happier in her life. She felt loved, and loved she was indeed. Every night, Jeremy read her fairytales he wound compose himself based on the texts in his demonsummoning books, and vicious horned servants of the Devil came to life in his twisted imagination next to fluffy bunnies and cartoon characters, and together they build houses of candy or placed curses upon Jeremy himself which would hopefully turn his horrible room pink. Jeremy couldn’t imagine raising a child any better in his own way, and couldn’t deny she was raising him as well, and he felt like a child beside her once too often. For both of them, it was heaven. Towards the end of their second week together she was already sleeping in his bed, cuddled next to him, and he was reading her the children’s adaptation of “The Seven Trials Of Satan” as a fairytale goodnight. Cocaine showed signs that she was going to fall asleep somewhere between trial six and seven; she was that comfortable beside Jeremy, and his grating melancholic voice was putting her to sleep. She was already in the state between dream and reality, where everything felt real and unreal at the same time. ‘You never told me,’ Jeremy said softly, closing the book between chapter six and seven, as he’d predicted, ‘where you got that scar. I know your favorite color is red, I know your birthday is on the seventh of July, but I know nothing about how you got that scar. Was it something scary? It looks like it was pretty painful.’ ‘No,’ Cocaine replied dreamily. ‘No, not really. Don’t worry, I’m fine.’

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‘Then why won’t you tell me? Are you ashamed of it? You know, I could pay for you to have it removed, and then you won’t have a scar anymore, how about that? Although,’ the man added with a sentimental smile on his face, ‘I’d miss it, to be honest. It’s where your charm lies. It’s what makes you different.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ Cocaine repeated soothingly, sinking into the peaceful blur of dreams, ‘I wouldn’t want it removed, anyway. I’d like to keep it there, to remind me of you.’ Jeremy Fisherman was more flattered than he was puzzled. ‘Of me?’ he asked with increasing interest. ‘How come? You had it before we met, didn’t you?’ Cocaine smiled an adorable affectionate smile. When she spoke again, she was nearly asleep. ‘I remember it all too well,’ the little girl said slowly. ‘It was back in primary school, seventh grade, I think… I was a mess and you still had short hair… hadn’t even thought of dying it black… You were out in the school yard, I think, you and Adam, and I was on the other side trying to climb over the fence, because Murdock and his gang had come to pick on you again… You know how they bullied you, you more than Adam, of course… and… I wanted to stand up for you… someone had to do it… so I tried to climb over the fence, and I fell… And there was this glass they kept just next to it, to repair the windows of the chemistry cabinet… I jammed my face right into it… And still… I wouldn’t want to get rid of the scar… it is the only thing I have on me that… is somewhat… connected to you.’ Then, Jeremy lost the strange girl to the realm of dreams. When he finally reduced his shaking to the point where he could go to bed himself, Jeremy’s head was brimming with questions. What the hell had just happened? Had he heard everything right? Who was Cocaine, really, where did she come from and how did she know his childhood in details when she hadn’t even been born at the time? Sure, he could have spoken about Murdock’s gang in interviews years ago, but he’d never mentioned names… and even if he had, how did she know who they’d bullied more, Adam or him, or about the repair work on the windows of the chemistry cabinet, which he himself had broken in a fit of rage, and then Adam had to excuse him in front of the teachers, as usual? What was Cocaine’s secret? And when Jeremy sank into an unsteady dream at last, he dreamed of a school yard, and a bench on which he was sitting, all grown-up, in the middle of the night, in a faded red T-shirt saying “Does This Color Make Me Look Sexy?”, and out of nowhere a tall, thin, dark-haired woman approached him. She was wearing a white Tshirt with a picture of a tree on it that seemed somewhat familiar, and a Christian crucifix around her neck, and had a scar on the cheek as wide as his finger… and when she reached him, she took off the crucifix and started kissing him vigorously on the lips, and he yielded gladly, intoxicated by the taste of her pale lips and the feel of her firm skin, and he couldn’t get enough, he felt hungry, thirsty, and vulnerable… and then he recognized the woman’s brown eyes and everything went to hell… Jeremy woke up, sweating, disheveled and horrified. He was a professional hater, but Cocaine was the one thing in the world he could never grow to hate. Still, he was pretty good at hating himself, and that what exactly what he practiced doing for a few hours against the mirror, after taking a cold shower at two a.m. He growled, spat, cried

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and swore at the mirror for hours and hours, before realizing that this had only been a dream and had nothing to do with the way things were in reality. After two more hours, Jeremy looked at his tired, terrified reflection with relief. He knew himself and he knew his worst sides. He was many kinds of monsters, but not this one. It was just his subconscience playing the role of Adam, trying to trick him out of his plan to adopt the girl he loved the most. After all, it wasn’t like Cocaine was possessed by the Devil. There could be nothing wrong with keeping her close to him. In fact, Jeremy sometimes felt as if destiny had chosen him – for reasons beyond his understanding – to be her very own guardian angel. *** ‘Two weeks, and still nobody has tried to kill us,’ Huckleberry rejoiced one beautiful dark November morning. ‘Two weeks, and we still haven’t killed anybody,’ Leonard complained, just to add some spite to everyone’s cheerful spirit. ‘Come on, am I the only one who thinks straight here? Don’t you think he deserves it?’ ‘Yes, but there’s nothing we can do,’ I attempted to appease him. It was pointless. It was like trying to appease a starving lion. Currently, we were staying at Huck’s place, just in case. His apartment was modest and tidy, and was filled mainly with two things: charts and books. Leonard was infuriated by the mere look of it. It didn’t even have gargoyles. ‘It seems Liz is the only one who likes it here, and she likes everything,’ the blond vampire protested indignantly. ‘This place is so boring! We have to just sit here and wait and hide all day, without an ounce of style! I mean, what are we? Are we men, or are we mice?’ ‘We’re vampires in danger,’ Huckleberry reminded him. ‘Plus two ladies.’ ‘Oh, why don’t you just say it already!’ Leonard snapped at Huck for no apparent reason, and strode with deliberate sourness out of the room we were sharing. Huck blinked at the slamming door in sincere bewilderment. ‘Say what?’ he asked, puzzled and offended. ‘What am I supposed to say?’ I shrugged. ‘Beats me,’ I replied evenly. ‘He’s just mad because he gets to wait until he wreaks vengeance upon his new mortal enemy. Don’t feel guilty about it.’ ‘Yeah,’ Huckleberry agreed. ‘It’ll pass. Probably. Hopefully, it’ll be soon. I don’t think I can afford to buy a new door.’ *** That day, Jeremy Fisherman received a very important phone call, and he was happy, nervous and impatient all day. There was a skip in his step. He was definitely enjoying everything going his way since he’d stepped onto the right path. ‘I want you to wait here for me to return and be good,’ he asked Cocaine around seven in the evening, while he was getting dressed. ‘You can have anything you want from the fridge, nothing from the shelves, got it? I’ll be an hour, and then we’ll go to a restaurant for dinner. I have a surprise for you today. You’ll love it.’

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He kissed her gently on the forehead. She beamed. When Jeremy walked out, Cocaine sat on the couch in his room, turned on the radio, switching to the rock channel, hoping to hear one of his most recent hits, and thought about her life, and how fortunate she was, and what she would have done if she’d known, years ago, that things would turn out like this in the end. Sometimes, even scarred little girls got a second chance. *** The truth behind Cocaine was very simple. She wasn’t the little girl she pretended to be. She wasn’t the cocaine fairy either, but this version was closer to the truth, which Jeremy Fisherman didn’t have the slightest idea about. Cocaine was in fact appointed to be Jeremy’s guardian angel, someone to give him a second chance at being who he was intended to be. Frankie was behind all of that, of course. And Cocaine’s mission had been accomplished. Jeremy Fisherman was finally happy. There was nothing complicated about that. The story about how Cocaine became an angel in the first place was the slightly more complicated one. Cocaine started her his life as Magnolia Wilder, which was a name too attractive for a girl so plain. Her plain brown hair, neither long nor short, wasn’t much, her body wasn’t much, her face wasn’t much, and her eyes nobody bothered to look at. She was quiet, shy and uncommunicative; she went unnoticed through school and high school, and that was why she never got an opportunity to get into the circles that practiced most of the sins students usually began their lives of sinners with. Magnolia was never proud, vain, or selfish: in fact, she made sure she helped anyone she could, even strangers in the streets, with a heart wide open. She was pious, selfless, studious, moral, virtuous, an environmentalist, and her family never ate meat. She believed in God firmly and never dared defy him or be angry with him for the unbearable misery her hollow life of a nameless, unremembered helper. This was how, incidentally, at age twenty-one, Magnolia Wilder had not yet committed any significant sin and was good, untainted and wretched through and through. There was only one bit about Magnolia’s life that she liked, one side of her empty, gloomy, pointless existence that made her feel something and meant something to her, and that was Jeremy Fisherman. They’d studied at the same schools from the fourth grade to graduation, although he had never really noticed her due to her astonishing plainness. He, on the other hand, was a skinny, ginger, bespectacled boy, not very popular either, but at least he had a few friends. Jeremy didn’t study as hard as Magnolia did, but he was very smart, and although she didn’t talk to him, but just observed him from afar, she could tell that there was something about him beyond his sweet disposition and impressive intellect. He was dreamy, strange, rebellious, tortured. Magnolia had been desperately in love with him ever since she remembered seeing him. Jeremy, on the other hand, seemed to be focused on goals greater than love – especially since high school. There, he let his hair grow long, developed a new attitude towards the kids who picked on him, gave up wearing glasses and starting hooking up with some older teens who were into metal music and the culture it went hand in hand with, and who probably did drugs. Still, some said Jeremy – then known

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as simply Jay – had done it mostly for the music. Magnolia could not understand metal music because she was not entirely familiar with it. Her family didn’t approve of anything like that, anything that came from the Devil. Of course, Magnolia suspected that not all metal music came from the Devil. But soon enough Jay started sowing up at school covered in satanic pentagrams and other undoubtedly wicked occult symbols. It was a phase, they all said. But right after high school Jay started a rock band of his own, became famous, changed his name, dyed his hair black and became a rockstar, not necessarily in that order. Magnolia didn’t understand any of this. Still, she didn’t stop loving him for a second. And, as soon as she graduated and no longer had the chance to see him and watch him painfully from a distance, her life lost all meaning. Until one memorable summer day when Jay and his band had their first serious gig in town. Going to this gig without informing her parents was probably Magnolia’s only sin, but it was really not a sin to her, for she knew she hadn’t gone to it for the evil music. She had only gone to see Jay again. She heavily contrasted the roaring black-clad crowd in the local club as she squeezed forth through it in her white environmentalist T-shirt with a green tree on it. She was still plain, although that was now mainly due to the scar she’d acquired during an accident somewhat connected with Jeremy. But she didn’t care. All Magnolia wanted was to see the one she loved before he left for another town on tour, possibly never to return again. And then the lights went on, the music started, and she saw him – shirtless, skinny and wild on the stage, his hair now long and black, his face – in Magnolia’s eyes – more handsome than ever. And yet, when she approached, she realized he was severely inebriated – and possibly drugged, too. Magnolia was disgusted; this was not the Jeremy she knew. Nevertheless, his performance was passionate and flawless. Just as she was about to turn her back on the first row and leave disappointed, someone grabbed her by the arm and pulled stunned Magnolia onto the stage. She nearly fainted when she saw that the person smiling at her only a foot away from her was Jeremy, tall, rocking and handsome. He announced the next song – it would be a special love song – and wrapped his hand around Magnolia’s waist. She blushed. ‘Look at her,’ he yelled thrilled into the microphone, and the crowd went wild, ‘just look at this girl! She hasn’t done anything to fit in here. Not the clothes, not the make-up – nothing. She’s real. Unlike half of you bastards.’ The mob in front of the stage roared frantically again. People, for some reason, love it when their idols insult them this way. ‘That’s the kind of girl I’d like to dedicate the next love song to. That’s my dream girl. Someone who isn’t faking it. And look at her – she’s been through a lot, I see,’ the rocker commented loudly and pressed Magnolia tighter to himself. ‘She’s a real rock ‘n’ roll girl!’ And then, in a fit of intoxicated idealistic romanticism, Jeremy Fisherman kissed Magnolia Wilder on the lips, in the very best way a man could kiss a woman. The crowd exploded in a storm of applause, and Jeremy started singing. It was then and there that, for five minutes of her life, Magnolia Wilder felt like she was truly living. She stayed for the next song as well, which was preceded by a rebellious speech criticizing the way society forced people to swallow every idea it tossed them, good or

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bad, and people devoured them impatiently even when they were trash, and they therefore became what they ate, since they never could think and choose for themselves. Magnolia was fascinated, feeling the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll flow through her blood, setting it on fire. She screamed “You are what you eat” along with the rest of the crowd for twenty minutes after the concert had ended, and stayed for a few more minutes after the show was over. It was in those minutes that Jeremy Fisherman was attacked by a girl in purple with short blond hair and they engaged in noisy personal activities backstage. Magnolia was crushed. She left the club as fast as she could. Her inexperienced mind simply could neither grasp nor understand the happening. But there was nothing to understand; it was just the way of Jeremy Fisherman, which was also the way of most people. They thought right, they felt right, they dreamed right, they were filled with good intentions, but when they had to make a decision, they usually made the wrong one. After graduation, Magnolia didn’t go to college or university. Instead, she started working at a supermarket, remembering each time she sold a product the angry, passionate slogan of Jeremy’s concert “You are what you eat”. Finally, six months later, she couldn’t bear the agony of her existence any longer, and she headed home with the intention of committing suicide. She would have instantly gone to hell afterwards, but destiny had a strange kind of mercy on her and made it so that Magnolia was hit by a car mere minutes before she’d reached her home, killed herself, and spat on all of the efforts of her soul throughout her terrible lifetime. So Magnolia became an angel in heaven, because morally she’d been absolutely flawless in her lifetime, only to find out life in heaven was as tedious as the one on Earth, but the pain felt duller, so it was not completely awful. Besides, as time passed, you got used to it. She still checked on Jeremy Fisherman every now and then, just to see how he was doing, only to find him fornicating with one woman or another (or, sometimes, two at a time) until she decided he was best left forgotten. Until the day she was forced to become his guardian angel, given a new existence on Earth and the chance to be loved – not just kissed – by Jeremy Fisherman, as a person dear to him he would never forget. At this point, Magnolia was willing to spend her second life in the role of his child, because it was better than nothing, and better than heaven, and she had never been so happy for such a long time before. So she waited for Jeremy patiently, until eight-thirty, having the pleasant feeling in her gut that tonight he would offer her to be her official father, and they would be together forever, and even though that was a little too dishonest for her taste, Magnolia – now known as Cocaine – could tell a second chance when she saw one. Tonight, it was raining, like on the night Jeremy had taken her in. The lock clinked and the door creaked open. Cocaine did not dare ruin everything by going downstairs. She preferred to wait in Jeremy’s room instead. Her waiting would be rewarded. ‘Cocaine?’ she soon heard Jeremy call out for her. ‘Come over here, dear, downstairs! I have some great news for you.’

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When Cocaine followed the voice to his owner and saw him, Jeremy was beaming, possibly like never before in his life. He grinned widely at the girl and kissed her. But there was something wrong; he was not alone. A woman with honey red hair and face as sweet as candy approached Cocaine and greeted her too. She was wearing a small, formal black dress. Cocaine restored her initial grumpy expression from before her happy days and didn’t respond. ‘Oh, poor girl,’ the woman sighed compassionately. She was young, no more than twenty-five. ‘What’s happened to her cheek? She does talk, doesn’t she?’ Cocaine’s look at that moment couldn’t kill or fry a person alive, but if it could, it would. ‘Of course she does,’ Jeremy replied. ‘Usually, I can’t get her to shut up. She’s wonderful, you’ll see. Cocaine, this is Paula. Paula, this is Cocaine. Cocaine, Paula is a very good friend of mine,’ the rockstar explained kindly, and gave Paula a lusty tongue kiss to confirm the statement. Cocaine was dumbstruck. ‘We were inseparable for quite some time, and I love her very much. I’m sure you will too. We had some problems, but she is back now, and we will be getting engaged. And here’s the surprise for you, Cocaine: you will get to have both a mommy and a daddy after all! We will be your mommy and daddy, Paula and I!’ Cocaine was wishing she could shatter Paula’s perfect grin to pieces. She and Jeremy shared another juicy kiss. The hallway got significantly hotter, and so did the skin of the little girl. At last, hot, relentless tears, tears held back for nearly twenty years, rushed from Cocaine’s eyes, making the scar redden and grow hideous and frightening. Jeremy trembled. ‘Cocaine?’ he asked. ‘Darling? What’s the matter? Don’t you like Paula?’ There was a tense, fiery silence. And after the silence, when Cocaine spoke, it was only her voice that was that of a little girl, but her tone cut like steel, and the words she spoke out stabbed like jagged knives: ‘No,’ she yelled madly, wavering helplessly between fury and desperation. ‘Paula is fine! Paula is beautiful! It’s you I don’t like! Look at you! You piece of trash! Treating me like you’re a changed man, but you are the same as you’ll always be! You horrible, stupid, cheap, sick, slutty, depressed junkie! You’re pathetic, you know! Your soul does not deserve salvation! There will be Paula, and there will be another, and another, and another! And I am not going to spend my life watching this freakshow! I want no mommy and no daddy, and I certainly don’t want you! “You are what you eat”, you kept saying once! You devour human hearts on a daily basis without any remorse, Jeremy Fisherman! You know what that makes you? A monster! And the same goes for all of you,’ Cocaine pointed a shaking accusative finger at Jeremy, Paula and the world in general, ‘all of you people, you’re monsters! Always eating the hearts of the innocent… always devouring us like prey! Cannibals! Go to hell, all of you!’ And Cocaine sprang wildly and rushed out of the front door with a loud slam, thus ruining Jeremy’s plans for dinner. Paula was concerned, afraid and doubtful about the sweetness of the sweet little girl she’d just met, and Jeremy, shaking, hurt, scared and desperate, ran outside in the ice-cold rain to call for Cocaine to come back, because right now all he wanted was to see her come back, and the rest didn’t matter…

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he’d change, he’d do anything, maybe – maybe he’d even ditch Paula… after all, she’d been the inspiration for the mutilated woman in the painting, the one that had made him cry, and Cocaine had never, ever made him cry, not in that mean way, never… But as soon as he opened the door the crying, infuriated little girl had only just slammed closed, she had vanished without a trace. The rain was pouring ceaselessly all over Cocaine, drenching her from head to toe, but she did not feel it, for she was burning, inside and outside, the way every angel scorned did, and she ran mindlessly through the dimensions until there was not a single living soul to be seen around. Lava surfaced underneath her every step. The heavens themselves were ablaze, and the rain was turning into a storm. When she was all alone, Cocaine sat miserably on the cold, wet ground, and wept without being able to stop. The sky roared and cried along with her moans and screams. Through gritted teeth, she cursed Jeremy and Paula, and mankind, and the world. ‘People… people… you are a plague… and love… love is poison…’ She snarled and cried, cried and snarled, whichever overpowered the other at the next moment. ‘You hunt… to kill… you pick on those who love you… You play with their hearts… your prey... and then you devour them… You eat them whole… And every remorseless heartbreaker eats his fellow man, and every innocent victim of love dies, leaving nothing but bones to be buried. That’s how it is, that’s how it always will be, until the world destroys itself!’ Cocaine’s eyes cast steely sparks and lit fires, and glistened in red-hot, flaming orange. Tonight, the whole world would feel her agony. ‘Is this what You wanted?’ she raised her protest to the tearing skies. ‘Is this what You created? Then watch it,’ she cursed, and that was not a curse to pass through the world unheard or to be unspoken, ‘in all its wicked glory! “You are what you eat”, aren’t you, people? All of you, who feed on the tears of the innocent… all of you, who feel no remorse… feed on their flesh as well! You cannibals, you murderers… You are what you ear,’ whispered the angel ominously, caught between the hissing rain and the roaring flames. ‘And you will eat what you are.’

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Chapter Eleven

Valerius

Most days start with an awakening. That’s how it is for most people. Some
days, however, start with a nightmare. My day started with one. Other people’s days, on the other hand, might begin with a shriek. That went for Leonard and Huckleberry’s days, for instance. My screaming had made them both jump to their feet, prepared to fight off a hoard of deranged monsters. They were prepared to thwart deadly assaults at any given moment. ‘It’s okay,’ I assured them quickly, and they both stared at me in anger. ‘I’m sorry, I just had a bad dream…’ ‘You’re not the only one,’ Leonard groaned, heading back to bed annoyed. ‘I had a dream that we were still here, not getting any revenge, packed in a single bedroom, stuck at Huck’s place. Hey, wait a minute! I think I’m still dreaming!’ ‘Leonard, for the last time… oh, forget it,’ Huck moaned, and turned to me with an air of genuine concern. ‘What did you dream about?’ Leonard rolled his eyes. I didn’t mind, though, so I replied. ‘Well, it was very cold… I saw the world… our world, I mean, the human world. But it seemed like some sort of an alternative universe had been imposed on it… I was walking the street that leads to my house, which was frozen from beginning to end, and there were these people following me. I was trying to escape them without showing any signs that I’d noticed them, so that they wouldn’t run after me. And, I mean, they looked like completely normal people, chatting and laughing, but still I knew that they were out to… well, to eat me.’ ‘Eat you?’ Leonard’s spark of interest was rekindled, and he turned lazily in the bed towards me. ‘In the literal sense? Whoah. Psychologically speaking, this indicates that you are a very disturbed person. But you already know that. It’s not unusual when you communicate with guys who drink other people.’ ‘No, these people were nothing like you,’ I explained tensely. ‘They weren’t vampires, they were just… people. Not people in the sense of flesh-eating zombies. Just normal people, like… well, not like me. But, in a word, regular folks who had deliberately decided to track someone down and strip them of their flesh to the bone.’ ‘Bothersome,’ commented Huck. ‘Interesting,’ grinned Leonard. ‘And it wasn’t just them,’ I continued. ‘I walked towards the hospital, for some reason, you know, where the entrance to the dimension usually is, and there… you know, there is that hill going downwards… But instead of this hill there was just an enormous pit, you know… bigger than the entire street. And it was filled with frozen cars, and bodies, and… and all of them were just sort of tangled in… in…’ ‘In?’ Leonard the vampire urged me impatiently. He knew he was going to have fun with the mental image I was drawing in his head. ‘In, well, guts,’ I frowned, and felt a little nauseous. ‘In something like a monster’s saliva, and slime, and blood, and strings of flesh… It was really disgusting.

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And it was all the people’s work. They’d just… been eating everything. And everyone. And they’d made a buffet of their own, you know.’ ‘Cool,’ Leonard exclaimed. I ignored him. ‘And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it turns out that this is something that has affected the whole world. Not like an infection, but more like a curse… Suddenly, there are man-eating people walking around everywhere, and they are pulling the strings in the governments, and basically everywhere… developing a system, a world military strategy to hunt down all the people who are to be eaten, an operation led by the ones who eat the rest. And the thing is, there is absolutely no way to tell between the ones who intend to eat people and the ones who don’t… But… in the dream… somebody told me that, well, those who had broken hearts remorselessly without having had their own hearts broken… or without ever feeling as bad as their former loved ones… or without feeling bad about it now, I’m not sure – became hungry for human flesh, while still retaining their human intellectual functions and behavior. Something like…’ ‘…global cannibalism spreading depending on the people’s romantic experiences,’ Leonard reflected, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. ‘That’s a very interesting fantasy, Wera. And, I assume, the innocent ones, the non-heartbreakers, the heartbroken, and the inexperienced ones, like little girls and boys, babies and so on… they’d be food. Creepy. They might make a horror movie out of it. If something like that did indeed happen to the human world, seeing it as we know all too well the ratio between the innocent ones and the ruthless bastards, then humanity itself would be doomed. They’d finish the innocent ones in weeks, and then they’d eat each other, and finally on themselves, when nothing else is left to feed on. Congratulations, Wera,’ the vampire clapped ecstatically, ‘your nightmare is the perfect Apocalypse! Of course, applied to the real world, this is completely ridiculous. There are rules. Such a thing couldn’t possibly happen, even if a parallel universe like that gets imposed as a curse on the planet.’ I shrugged. ‘It’s a good idea for a movie, though,’ I admitted, ‘for those who like seeing such horrible things. I had a hard time just seeing it in a dream. Thank goodness, that’s all it was.’ Huckleberry was not so sure about that. ‘I agree, but that is still a pretty strong image for a young girl’s dream… provided she doesn’t watch too many horror movies…’ ‘I don’t watch them at all,’ I confirmed proudly. ‘Well, what if it is a warning, then? For some kind of an upcoming danger? It might be a prophetic dream…to an extent, of course, because I can’t think of anyone who could plant a curse so vile and powerful –’ I laughed. ‘I’m sorry,’ I explained a moment later, ‘but it’s just that I don’t have prophetic dreams. I have never been right about the future. If you’ve heard my dream about the bee and the guitarist, you will see that I am anything but a prophet. Really, guys, I am sorry. I doubt this dream can ever be an omen. Nothing coming from my mind can. But Leonard can store the idea in his mind and save it for some of his exceptionally lonely nights,’ I joked.

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‘Forget about my lonely nights,’ the vampire tossed his head indignantly and started fumbling for something appropriate to wear for the day. ‘My main problem is still the guy who thrashed my house.’ ‘Well, all we know about him is the symbol on the necklace,’ Huck reminded for the thousandth time, ‘and all we know about the symbol is virtually nothing.’ ‘That is because you vampires haven’t been blessed with the gift of the Internet,’ I remarked with a small smile. ‘If you weren’t too proud to use it, you’d probably find the symbol – and the vampire who attacked you – a lot more easily.’ The common giggle that followed my reaction made me feel silly and embarrassed. ‘You foolish girl,’ Leonard turned to me softly, ‘we don’t need any of that stuff. It’s full of rubbish. Besides, don’t you think I could sniff the intruder out of I wanted to, even if he was miles away? The only problem is, he left no scent,’ he shook his head in regret, ‘and that makes it rather annoying…’ ‘He doesn’t have a scent?’ I raised an eyebrow. This sounded a little extreme. ‘No, of course he does,’ Huckleberry the eternal textbook on everything clarified, ‘only he’s got what we call a chameleon scent. Vampires with this gift are extremely rare. They can adjust their scent and make it resemble that of almost anyone else, or anything else they’ve been in contact with… That’s what makes it so hard to trace him. If it hadn’t been for that, Leonard would have been on him mere hours later.’ ‘In other words,’ Leonard gave me a serious look, ‘the buddy we’re after was certainly not born last month. That is, of course, irrelevant, since he is sure to be dead until the next one.’ We didn’t raise the subject during breakfast, which was as modest as the rest of the apartment, because we didn’t want to upset Liz. An hour later, we were nested in an old moth-eaten couch, and she was drawing happily on the floor in one of Huck’s sketch pads. Leonard’s mood had improved slightly since he spent some time watching her draw and be as joyous as ever. Perhaps, I hoped, he would let the whole thing go. Like his nemesis had probably wisely decided by now. But then, another problem was presented to our attention, and Leonard’s briefly restored optimism went to hell and beyond, when his watchful eyes could finally distinguish what it really was that Liz was drawing. It was a large black hole full of wrecked cars and crooked screaming people. She hadn’t overheard our conversation. ‘What did I tell you about the prophetic dreams?’ Huckleberry uttered, looking up at his comrade in shock, pale as the candlelight in his apartment. ‘Oh, no,’ the other vampire moaned with a note of self-pity, ‘And it’s like we didn’t have another world of problems on our hands.’ ***

The curse was real, and it spread like a forest fire in the summer across every bit on the planet inhabited by people. It didn’t spare the smallest living human soul. That morning, people awoke in a dream within a dream. It was happening, and it wasn’t, but they were not worried about it enough to include it in the daily news, because they

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were hoping that they would wake up. The disappearances began to grow only an hour later. Again, not posted or announced anywhere. People did want to hear horrible things, always and in large amounts – but most of the people who awoke in the world on that day wanted to, that more than anything, eat. Jeremy Fisherman didn’t want to eat. He was trying to cut carrots in his kitchen simply because he knew he had to keep himself occupied with something in order not to go and slit his veins upon remembering what had just happened. He was on so many drugs his hands were shaking heavily, and every movement of his with the kitchen knife threatened to deprive him of a finger, or two, or three, but he was indeed so numb with narcotics that not only would he barely notice, but the fingers would probably grow wings and start flying around them. As usual, he had messed everything up. He had lost the one wonderful thing in his life, without a trace, forever. And, he was back to being terminally devastated, trying to think about carrots and nothing else. Any other thought would kill him. Adam Fowler, his manager, was helping him cut the carrots and spoke compassionately to him, but he had really come to see him only because he was satisfied to hear about Cocaine no longer being a potential threat to his and Jeremy’s reputation. ‘That’s the way it should have happened,’ he rattled on optimistically about the happening. ‘It wasn’t meant to be, man. Let it go.’ Jeremy said nothing. He was thinking about life, suicide and carrots. He dimly realized he must have spent at least an hour not listening to Adam’s words at all. He was heartbroken, enough to last him a lifetime, and the revelation that this time he would never recover from it was unbearably painful. At this point, it was the carrots that stood between Jeremy and death, and nothing else. Jeremy would forever remain heartbroken and miserable. With him, it would always be the same. Adam Fowler, on the other hand, was going through some severe mental changes which Jeremy had no way of noticing. In a few words, what happened within the next few minutes was the following: at one specific moment in time, Adam Fowler was a regular businessman, concerned about his investments, who had finally seen the future brightening up – briefly – and now had to deal with another monumental depression of his former classmate; at another, he was a confused, hungry person whose hand itched, while the other hand was clenching tightly around the knife, and felt strong and important; and, at a third moment, he was a deranged businessman about to destroy all of his investments with one simple, rash movement. His conscience – to the extent that he had one, and that meant the extent of his financial success – kicked in just about in time to make his hand miss. It was a good thing for many reasons. Jeremy needed sobering up again, for one thing. And, for another, he didn’t need dying yet, even thought he wanted it terribly. Jeremy gasped and stared in disbelief at Adam, holding the knife. Jeremy held his bleeding cheek. ‘Dude, what’s going on?’ he asked in a thin, broken voice. ‘What’d you do that for?’

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Adam Fowler was coming to terms with his brand new purpose in life and resorted to a different business strategy. ‘What? Did what? Oh, did I accidentally cut you? Jesus, Jay, I’m so sorry.’ ‘What do you mean “Jay”?’ Jeremy was more than freaked out. ‘I’m no “Jay” to you. You’re the one who’s sober, watch it!’ ‘I’m sorry. My hand must have slipped.’ ‘Slipped? You were going for my neck! Dammit, just say it if we have issues to resolve!’ Adam Fowler approached Jeremy, his smile a brilliant fake mask, his face completely straight and perfectly shaven. ‘Jeremy,’ he spoke gently, patting him on the back, but Jeremy’s eyes still followed the knife, troubled and alert. ‘Jeremy. Jay. My dear old friend. We haven’t been getting along as we used to.’ ‘Of course we haven’t, Fowler! You turned into a money-craving dirtbag!’ ‘Oh, but Jay, I don’t crave money right now. It is you I crave.’ Jeremy was a little taken aback. In fact, more than a little. ‘What? You can’t be serious. Can you?’ ‘Jeremy. I know that you are not like everyone else. You’re willing to accept things in your life that some may say are… untraditional. You’re not narrow-minded. I like that about you.’ ‘Okay… I would practice lots of untraditional things, Adam, but not with you.’ Fowler was now just an inch away from him, gently caressing the knife which awaited a firmer grip. ‘Jeremy,’ he whispered in his ear. Jeremy felt uncomfortable. ‘Jeremy. If only you’d let me approach you…’ ‘You have approached me, Adam, and that is quite enough. I’m sorry – it’s not your gender, and it’s not your looks. You just disgust me on the inside.’ The knife finally received the clutch it had longed for. ‘Oh Jeremy,’ Adam purred, ‘you have no idea how interested I am in seeing what you’re like on the inside…’ A second later, Adam Fowler was leaping towards Jeremy, trying to stab the knife into his thigh, probably regretting he didn’t have a fork, too. His misleading act of false courting was over. So was Jeremy’s communication with Adam, he decided as he ran to the opposite end of the room, and then to the one with a door in it, but Jeremy still decided to say to the screaming and foaming face of Adam a couple of last words goodbye, and none of them were suitable to be heard by young children. Jeremy threw a frying pan at his former – very, very former – friend, a deranged gay cannibal at present, and flew out into the street, without even bothering to lock the door. He stole Adam’s car in a rush – borrowed it, he corrected himself, borrowed it – and drove as far away from the place as he could. He wasn’t a good driver, but he drove until he reached a set of peaceful yards and alleys, and pulled over next to a supermarket to buy himself some alcohol. This day was going way too badly for him to risk being sober anytime soon. ‘Good day, sir,’ the girl at the counter greeted him sweetly. ‘What would you like?’

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‘A bottle of Jack, some really bad red wine, and something that doesn’t go with either of them, please. Or, better yet, these five bottles here.’ ‘How would you like to pay for them?’ ‘Cash. Here you are. Sorry, I’ve only got five hundreds right now.’ ‘Thank you sir.’ ‘Can I have my change?’ ‘How would you like your change, sir?’ ‘I don’t care. It’s really all the same to me.’ ‘Then how about a terminal change, sir?’ the upbeat girl asked politely. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘I mean, would you like to be dead, sir, or would you rather be left dying, with small chances of survival, but still at least two limbs left?’ This was certainly a bad day for Jeremy. He was angry; no, he was scared; no, he was furious and freaked out. He’d been driving for an hour now, trying to find a decent place to buy alcohol from, but everywhere all people seemed to want to do is to kill him and eat every bit of flesh that was on his body. And they pretended, they pretended that that’s not what they were after at all! Had the world gone insane? Had the world become even worse than it had been this morning? Was that even possible? What the hell was going on? Desperate, panicking and predictable, Jeremy drove to the only place a person who had seen more than five zombie movies could come up with going to in a similar situation: the church. It was a rather small church, and Jeremy never went there. Mostly because his occupation and messages had made sure that every person who did go to church hated him beyond description. But when he pulled over in a hurry by the small iron gates, Jeremy felt grateful, saved and almost a believer, and as he banged wildly on the wooden door at the entrance, he was ready to renounce the ideas of half of his songs. Only as long as somebody opened up. It didn’t matter who. Come to think of it, he didn’t even know what religion that particular church professed. The wooden door creaked and left a narrow crack open in it. An eye appeared in it thoroughly examining the visitor. ‘Who’s there?’ Jeremy began jumping impatiently in one place. ‘It’s me! I mean, Jeremy Fisherman! I mean Frankie! I need shelter! Please! Everyone’s gone mad, people are trying to eat each other in the streets, and I mean steak-wise, and I don’t want to die! I need your help…’ ‘Who did you say you were?’ the eye rolled suspiciously. ‘Please, you’ve got to let me in! I have to find some kind of military group, or a holy group, or just some help, because a little girl might be out there and she might be getting torn to pieces as we speak…’ ‘Did you say you were Frankie? The rockstar? You look like him, that’s for sure.’ ‘Yes. Yes I am. Please, please let me in…’ ‘The person who sang: “God ain’t moving anymore, but let’s put another bullet in His head just in case?”

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There was silence on the other side of the door. Jeremy damned himself for having been an enemy of the Christian church for such a long time. ‘Our church does not give shelter to the likes of you,’ the person inside concluded after a second or two of deep contemplation. Jeremy groaned. ‘Oh, come on!’ he rolled his eyes to the unfriendly sky, and to the god that he had offended on a daily basis: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ To his own surprise, the wooden door opened before him, with no warning at all. He beamed and blew a kiss at the heavens. Probably God liked him more than he liked God, Jeremy thought. A distrustful face belonging to a fat man in a brown robe met his and muttered disapprovingly: ‘Don’t think too much of yourself. We don’t want to let you in. But there’s a man here waiting for you. He wants to see you.’ ‘Me?’ Jeremy was impressed, curious, and slightly flattered. How did that man, whoever he was, knew where to wait for him? Jeremy himself didn’t know he’d be here ten minutes ago. The man in the brown robe read the question on the rockstar’s lips. ‘He… sees things sometimes. Before they’ve happened. He can also tell whether the card you’re holding when playing poker is an ace, or a queen, and things like that. That’s why nobody plays cards with him.’ Jeremy was led into a secret passage – damn, that was exactly what it was, Jeremy thought stunned, and he assumed for the first time in his life that churches were more interesting than he’d ever thought as a teenager – and there, he was immediately surrounded by more men in robes, shaking their heads disappointedly at him. He instantly desecrated the place with a few carefully chosen words and gestures. The moment he did, abrupt silence was established in the hollow corridor, and Jeremy thought it was his doing, but was wrong. All heads turned in the opposite direction and soon the rockstar spotted a man emerging from the other side of the dark passage. The man was dark-haired, wore a black tie, a white shirt and a black suit, and had a scrutinizing look on his face, which, on the one hand, was quite handsome for a man of Jeremy’s age, and, on the other hand, had certainly seen a lot. The man approached puzzled Jeremy, patted him on the shoulder, coughed a long, deep, painful cough – the cough of a heavy drinker and smoker – and then smirked coldly at him, examining the other man with his focused hawk stare. ‘Ah, Jeremy Fisherman,’ the mysterious suited man greeted, and his steely smirk immediately disappeared. ‘Nice to finally meet you. Before you get freaked out, no, we are not a cult or an order, no, we are not the FBI, and no, we are not here to arrest you for the disappearance of a girl known as Magnolia Wilder, which you happen to call Cocaine. We’re here because you’ve been the cause of a royal hiccup in the history of the universe as we know it. Our only goal is to try to fix it, preferably with your humble assistance, and to keep you from becoming someone’s dinner. Don’t get freaked out. Everything is going to be okay, except that you will probably burn in hell for this. Please follow me to a safer location, and I will explain everything to you on the way. My name is Jake Jonathan, and I will be your personal exorcist for this evening.’

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***

‘This can’t be true,’ I was repeating my futile, pointless mantra over and over while rocking back and forth on one of Huck’s cheap chairs. ‘This can’t be true.’ ‘It is true,’ Jake Jonathan said to me calmly. ‘But don’t worry, worse things have happened to the world. We’ve dealt with them, haven’t we? What’s another Apocalypse, right? Cheer up!’ He seemed perfectly calm. I could tell that he was dying for a smoke, though. Jake had just appeared in Huck’s house out of nowhere – he had such a talent, yes, and that was not admirable having in mind the kind of person he was; the hard part was to get him to disappear and go back home instead of pestering us ‘till the end of time. He was just explaining the situation in the human world to me. It was all real. Jake was a man with a bleak background, and his job description was the following: he hunted down demons. At least those that were making more trouble than they ought to, not the harmless ones like Frankie. Some of the harmless demons he even played cards with, and always won, of course. Jake was a good, clever man always ready to put his life on the line for the well-being of the world and the whole concept of good prevailing over evil, in all ways. He dealt with critical matters such as this one. I had met him when I’d been fifteen, and we had become really good friends; he had even taught me a few tricks to help me protect myself from demonic influences. On a personal note, he was completely obnoxious, vain, and rude. Yana could never grow to stand him. I liked his personality, on the other hand. He had a bitterness about him that could get him through almost any universal disaster. ‘I came as fast as I could,’ he said to me with a permanent frown. ‘It’s true, everyone who has remorselessly broken more hearts than the times their hearts have been broken are out feeding on the innocent now. It’s a disaster. I’ve called a few people who are trying to maintain a certain amount of control over the situation, but soon it will get really bad. The good news is I know what caused it, and how it can be reversed.’ ‘Really? You do?’ I exclaimed, but it was not a question, because I knew he had a solution even for the toughest situation. These kinds of happenings were his specialty. ‘The whole thing started from your beloved Frankie,’ Jake explained matter-offactly. ‘He felt useless, he decided to die, his last wish was that his old host Jeremy Fisherman – yeah, you know the guy – was happy, so he called out a guardian angel for him. The angel turned out to be a girl with issues and feelings for him. They had a fight, it all got dramatic, she got pissed off and put a spell on the human world. The good news is the spell only affects mortal human beings of pure human descent, so you needn’t worry about Charlie, at least, what with him being part angel and so on. The better news is we have Jeremy Fisherman, me and a few people who know what’s going on, and if we search the dimensions for his Cocaine, find her and get him to apologize to her properly before the world has become a place worse than hell, we can put an end to this. But you,’ he pointed a stern, warning finger at me, ‘you will not be getting involved into this. You’re staying here, and I’ll make sure I pull some strings to provide some protection for your family and friends, and their families. That’s all

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we can do at this point. Meanwhile, we’ll have to come up with ways to resist the cannibals. Without killing anyone, of course – they are still people, after all.’ Leonard nearly fell off his chair. ‘Great! Fine,’ he raised his arms in a gesture of fierce hopelessness, when he and gravity had come to some sort of an agreement. ‘No killing – no problem! I’d just like to say one thing: don’t get me involved with this circus act you’re planning. Count me out. I’m tired of fighting bad guys with rainbows.’ ‘No one’s asking for your cooperation, Blondielocks,’ Jake got him to shut up with a narrow-eyed, ignorant stare. He was good at ignoring people. Then, he turned to me: ‘What the hell is his problem?’ he asked, as though Leonard was not even present. ‘He’s going through a really tough period of abstinence,’ I explained briefly, while mine and Huck’s glances of concern towards Leonard crossed in the air for a moment or so. ‘I’ll tell you about it later.’ ‘Please do. Anyway, Wera, like I said, you will not be going out there, understand? I don’t care if you want to help your friends, or Frankie, or anyone: you’ll just make yourself a lot harder for me to protect this way. You are to stay here until further instructions. This is not your war. Believe me, it’s not a child’s game either. Many people might die. Many people will.’ ‘Really?’ Leonard hissed with a shard of destructive irony in his voice. ‘Oh, that’s so sad. I thought there wasn’t going to be any killing.’ ‘I just want to make sure everybody’s fine,’ I pleaded, and held Jake by the arm, instinctively. He was like a rod of safety in the darkest of times, regardless of his unpleasant disposition. ‘How’s Frankie? He isn’t dead, is he? What’s going to happen to everyone?’ ‘Frankie’s fine,’ Jake waved his hand impatiently. ‘Don’t worry about him; he’s helping protect your loved ones. We’re doing the best we can. He’s looking after Dwayna now, just in case, Pan’s responsible for Yana temporarily until I get back – yeah, you know which Pan I am talking about, – I got a very of my angel friends to take care of the protection of your parents and your normal friends, Possey the angel has volunteered to guard Velichka and – ’ ‘Possey!’ I exclaimed all of a sudden. ‘How is he? Is he alright?’ ‘We’re in the middle of an occult disaster, how do you think he is?’ Jake Jonathan snapped. ‘He’s furious. He blames himself, and Frankie, of course. The last words I heard them exchange were the following: Possey yelled at Frankie: “I thought you weren’t gonna end the world!”, and Frankie yelled back at him: “If I had known back then, I would have told you in advance!” I sighed heavily. Huck and Leonard were feeling left out of the entire conversation. Leonard was better off this way. ‘Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do, and no one you can see at this point,’ the exorcist said to me in a voice so firm one could bend metal around. ‘You’re safe here, because the curse can’t reach this world. I’ll contact you if there is any improvement in the situation, or if there is a need for anything, and I’ll have to go soon, or Yana will go crazy. Now, I’ve got your friends covered for now, so – ’ ‘What?’ I shrieked, suddenly remembering something I would later on rather forget, and stood up with a distressed jump. ‘What about Ivo? Who’s watching after him?’

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Jake apparently didn’t understand the message I was trying to convey to him. ‘What?’ ‘You know, Ivo! Ivaylo! My other friend, remember?’ ‘Who?’ ‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ I growled, rolling my eyes in irritation in the direction of Huck’s leaking ceiling. ‘Savrax! Who else could I be talking about?!’ ‘Oh, right. That one. Sorry, I’m having a hard time remember his real name. Well, here, we might have a little bit of a complication…’ ‘A complication?’ I bristled in a fit of panic and fury. ‘You mean you’re not protecting all of them? Three out of four is good enough, right, so what if we lose another? Come on, please tell me you have a back-up plan, an extra angel, or kindhearted demon working for free, anyone to occupy the position!’ Jake’s face put on one of its desperate half-frowns, and that wasn’t a shade of it that I liked the least. ‘Listen,’ he began slowly, ‘it isn’t so much a matter of guardians, while it is a matter of… condition. The case might not be as simple as you think with this particular friend of yours.’ ‘What? Why doesn’t he deserve to be saved?’ ‘Of course he does. But think hard, Wera,’ Jake Jonathan leaned meaningfully towards me, ‘think. We all are aware that most of your friends are sensitive and unfortunate in the matters of love, and they have undoubtedly been heartbroken and screwed over more than their less troubled former mates. We’ve checked this matter, profoundly, believe me. But think just for a second: does your friend Savrax belong with a dead certainty to that same group? Or…’ He paused after the “or”. There was no need to go on any further. ‘Can you guarantee about your friend that the suffering experienced in his life, heart-wise, I mean, is sufficiently more than the suffering consciously or unconsciously inflicted?’ I couldn’t say a word, and froze as a sea of foreboding images drowned the briefly renewed spark of relief in my head. My friend Savrax did tend to spare himself some of the more unpleasant emotional experiences in life. In fact, he was a little like vampires in this way, to the extent that I’d known him. ‘If you can’t prove this,’ Jake proceeded with a strictly business tone, ‘then you should consider the idea that he might not need the same kind of protection the rest of your friends will need. But the people around him will need lots of it, and I do not know if we can take care of all that.’ ‘But this is ridiculous!’ I objected with a feeble, outraged voice. ‘You can’t tell me that this is going to happen! He’s not that kind of a person!’ ‘Nobody is, Wera, except the members of certain tribes.’ ‘But he’s not a bad person!’ ‘Neither is Jeremy Fisherman. But, see, one small mistake, made with the best intentions, and he turns into a heartbreaker. If he didn’t have such a history of postlove depressions he’d be out on the streets snacking on someone’s legs as we speak.’ The exorcist sighed, and when he spoke again, his tone indicated that there was nothing to be done about it. ‘I can see how you see things, Wera. But this is not about being good, or bad. This is a game played by the rules of a furious angel. You didn’t

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suffer enough for love, you didn’t repent enough for the times you chose your happiness over someone else’s, and boom – you’re a cannibal. Who knows, you could have been one, too, if he cursed had reached you. This isn’t about being bad. But we think it’s most likely that the worst will happen, and I had to ask you before I acted upon it. So, what do you suggest we did?’ I froze, although I thought I couldn’t possibly freeze any further. ‘How should I know? I can’t decide for someone else! It’s just… okay, what are the alternatives?’ I consented weakly at last, bending under Jake’s judging, hawk stare. He raised three extended finger to his face. ‘A) we kill him, B) we put him out, C) we tie him up, mutilate him, beat him almost to death, sedate him and delete all of his memories of the happening.’ ‘Are you kidding?! That’s monstrous!’ I shrieked shrilly. Leonard yawned ostentatiously for everyone to see. ‘Well, alright then, D) we let him feed on everyone in his neighborhood. Does that sound any better?’ Leonard groaned wearily, stood up slowly, vainly, gracefully, like a cat stretching after its sleep, leaned over me and the exorcist and said nobly: ‘Alright. You’ve talked me into it. I’ll help. Yes, yes, don’t look at me like that, everything will be taken care of. This is no longer your responsibility. I have my ways. I have connections too, you know. Come on now, Jake, go watch over Yana. I don’t want you leaving her safety in the hands of a second-hand demon. Besides, you’re pissing me off.’ Jake shrugged. ‘As long as you know what you’re doing,’ he conceded with an air of insufferable indifference. ‘Very well then, Wera, I must go. Blondielocks is right, I have to protect Yana. Don’t worry, he’s not as stupid as he looks. Oh, by the way,’ Jake stood up and turned around, as if he had forgotten something, ‘his abstinence thing, does it pose any kind of threat to you?’ ‘No, don’t worry,’ I quickly assured the exorcist. ‘It’s just something he’s developed since this vampire broke into his house a couple of weeks ago, he tried to kill us all and ran. Since then, Leonard’s been craving revenge. It’s nothing serious.’ ‘A vampire broke into your house? He must have destroyed some precious items,’ Jake remarked heartlessly, and eyed Leonard with a look that said “filthy bloodsucker” better than words ever could. ‘I’m surprised he’s not dead yet… oh, but you’re all good and pure now, I forgot.’ ‘He will be dead,’ Leonard promised grumpily, blushing. ‘As soon as I track him down, he will be.’ ‘We haven’t been able to determine the trail of his scent yet, he’s not quite like other vampires,’ Huckleberry explained, happy to finally be of assistance. ‘Really?’ Jake raised an eyebrow. ‘I might be able to help with the search, if you like, ask my friends from above and below for a favor or two they owe me… That vampire, what does he look like?’ ‘We couldn’t see very clearly. He was wearing a long black cloak, you know, like the one Dracula usually wears in the movies… High collar, hood underneath. His face was overshadowed, and we were fighting, I couldn’t see it well…’

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‘What about his height?’ Jake the exorcist detective inquired. ‘Was he tall? Thin, maybe?’ ‘Yeah. Very tall, very thin. I mean, to the point where it’s not pretty anymore.’ ‘Pale, skinny hands with swollen veins? Black nail polish?’ ‘Actually, now that you mention it, yes.’ ‘Face like a sinister bird? Maliciously squinting eyes? Nose as sharp as a pencil?’ ‘Precisely! How do you know?’ Leonard’s eyes glinted, alight with suddenly sparked interest. ‘Wow, I’m impressed, you really are gifted… I thought this psychic mumbo-jumbo was just an act. You wouldn’t happen to know his name too, now, would you?’ ‘Not a bloody idea.’ ‘Oh. Darn.’ ‘But you can always ask him personally. I mean, he’s right outside the front door at the moment.’ Jake Jonathan vanished, in the flaunty, abrupt way that he always did. He was indeed gifted to see things most other people couldn’t see. Sometimes, they came in the form of visions or revelations. Then again, in other cases, it simply sufficed to look out the window. *** I could barely catch up with Huck and Leonard on the way out. They sprang up as though they’d just been electrocuted and dashed maniacally down the stairs, grabbing whatever sharp objects they could get their hands on along the way, tearing off legs of chairs and tables, thrilled, impatient, high on adrenaline, prepared to outstake their opponent as soon as he entered, or chase him down the street with shrieks and threats if he chose to run until they cornered and killed him. There was not the slightest sign of caution in their actions to be seen. Indeed, I thought to myself as I sprinted after them downstairs, vampires were to a greater extent predators in certain situations than they were humans. Also, they were a little overconfident and naïve. Their attack was significantly hampered by the fact that their strange nemesis was not set on attacking, running, or defending himself in any way. When we all rushed out, we simply found him standing peacefully at the door as if he was prepared to sell us some cookies made to a special Halloween recipe. Leonard swayed uncontrollably forward and nearly staked his enemy to death. He managed to regain some of his equilibrium in the last second, though. Finishing his vampire opponent off in an instant would have taken all the fun out of the idea of vengeance. Besides, it was a little unusual to face off with someone who wasn’t intending to fight for vampires – and a little immoral, even for them. ‘Ah, good day,’ the stranger purred with a tiny, wicked grin on his face which bore a pending threat in store, in case it was needed. ‘I would like to introduce myself, if you are not terribly busy. I see you’re about to go out, and I am so lucky to have found you all here, gentle hosts.’ His ironic, malevolent smile became ever tinier and sharper. Leonard and Huck stood dumbstruck before him.

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‘I didn’t come to fight you, or to kill you. I will have no choice but to do it, of course, if you try to do the same to me. No? Very well then. My reasons to be here are simple: I am the person who broke into your mansion’, he pointed an exquisitely thin, bony finger at Leonard, ‘and I’m here to make sure that I do not have to do this again. I have come to recollect an item which was, prior to your interference, my possession. I humbly ask you to willingly return it to me so that I won’t be forced to extinguish your petty lives.’ ‘Wait a minute,’ Leonard had finally restored his ability to speak eloquently, and he was now brimming with flaring rage, ‘first of all, if you actually think we’ll give you what you want, and then sweetly send you off on your way, you’re greatly deluded – but I can already tell you are by your silly nail polish and your stupid cape. Second, you tried to kill us before, so I see nothing stopping you from killing us once you’ve obtained your precious little bling-bling.’ ‘I do not feel it’s necessary to dispose of any soul unless it stands in my way,’ the stranger announced imperturbably. ‘Well, sorry, but I do feel it’s necessary to dispose of you, especially since you’re standing in my way.’ ‘Leonard, be reasonable,’ Huck whispered in the ear of the heated with vindictiveness vampire. ‘If his intentions are truly peaceful –’ ‘Please,’ Leonard’s arch enemy addressed us softly. ‘I sincerely do not wish to harm you. But I will if you fail to understand this object’s importance to me. The medallion I am looking for holds great sentimental value to me, you see.’ ‘Well, my best friend’s life and my daughter’s mental health are of great sentimental value to me as well, Vlad,’ Leonard hissed sharply in response, ‘but you didn’t think of that, did you?’ ‘I am so sorry to correct you, dear sir, ‘the other vampire responded with a small bow and impeccable gallantry, ‘but, with all due respect, my name is not Vlad.’ ‘Well I’d be delighted to learn your real name, then, Non-Vlad,’ Leonard shined an icy fanged smile at the stranger, ‘because I believe it is only fair that I know what to engrave on your tombstone.’ ‘Gladly,’ the vampire nodded, and bowed to us all again. He smiled his miniature smile once again, raised a long, thin, black-nailed finger in the direction of the pendant that I was still, to my deepest current regrets, wearing around my unprotected neck, and introduced himself, with the type of grace in his voice that even Leonard could not help but envy: ‘Please forgive my rudeness. My name is Valerius. And you have something of mine.’

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Chapter Twelve

Rheetah’s Problem

Vampires, I said to myself for the thousandth time, were really, really naïve.
When they marked someone as their mortal enemy – for reasons good enough even for people, – they were truly, deeply determined to make sure the bad guy was nothing but ashes within due time. For a while. Almost as soon as the aforementioned mortal enemy apologized for his terrible, unforgivable wrongdoings, though, they instantly became very forgivable, and any self-respecting vampire would let him get away with an attempt for murder with just a few grumpy faces and discontented murmurs once the evildoer had claimed something like “Sorry, I didn’t mean to, it was nothing personal”. I was amazed by the amount of blind trust that existed among fellow vampires in their sly, vicious, murderous community. But then it dawned on me. Vampires, possibly more rarely yet more sincerely than anyone in the world, resorted to the use of words like “please” and “sorry”. People, on the other hand, used these words all the time, and to them, words meant nothing. To vampires, another vampire’s word was of great importance. That explained why theirs was the only society in which the word “kill” could be easily overpowered by the word “sorry”. Then again, maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Leonard, Huck, Valerius and I were currently sitting at a table in a nameless, poorly decorated cafeteria, which reminded me of some of my town’s rock cafés and – oh, joy – did play Guns ‘n’ Roses after all, chatting occasionally and drinking coffee, well, most of us, anyway. Leonard had brought a chair leg along just for insurance. He had ordered a special herb tea, to help him keep his calm. I was having iced water with lemon, and Huck and Valerius were the ones who had chosen coffee. Huck explained he was trying to cut down on “the redder drinks”, and Valerius guiltlessly admitted he wasn’t, but it was just too early in the day for him to drink anything but coffee. ‘It’s an amazing little place, I’ll give you that,’ Huck praised the cafeteria, completely ignorant of the fact that the person who had nearly killed him just a few weeks ago was sitting right beside him. Today, he was simply a pleasant acquaintance. If he covered the expenses for the repair work of Leonard’s house, they’d be perfectly even. ‘Yes, I enjoy its anonymous spirit,’ Valerius agreed, sipping on his coffee elegantly, maniacally following the pendant with his dark, greenish eyes as he drank. ‘It is a great place to visit when one wishes not to be recognized and left to oneself.’ ‘Why would you want to be anonymous?’ Leonard asked with no more than a shadow of spite in his smooth voice. ‘What happened, they threw you out of the Goth club you used to go to? Let me guess: your cloak didn’t have enough bats on it?’ ‘On the contrary, it has plenty of bats on the inside,’ Valerius responded with a sarcastic grin, to the extent that his tiny smile allowed for being turned into a grin. It looked more like a brief snarl rather than anything else. ‘Please do not think I am the least bit disturbed by your shallow comments on my apparel. After all, do not forget we came here to negotiate, not to mock each other – otherwise I would have had more

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than a lot to say about your transsexual even by the vampire standards shirt, and your Victorian shoes matched with eighteenth century trousers.’ Huck stifled a grin, and hid what was left of it in his cup of coffee. I smiled hesitantly, and Leonard blushed with anger. ‘You’re right,’ he conceded meekly, upon restoring his former complexion. ‘Anyway, I find it pointless to compete with you, physically or verbally. You’re unfortunate enough as it is, seeing it as you stole your grandmother’s curtains to make a cape for yourself since you couldn’t afford to buy that dream Dracula costume you found on eBay.’ ‘You know about eBay?’ I exclaimed in wonder. ‘They sell Dracula costumes on eBay?’ Huck raised an eyebrow, and I never wanted to know why he asked that. Valerius smirked, and as usual didn’t overdo it. ‘Alright, children,’ he said condescendingly, ‘I suggest we got on with the negotiations. It seems to me you are all far too charming to get murdered, by me, at least. But I will need that medallion. I’d suggest you gave it to me in exchange for my sparing your lives.’ ‘I’d suggest we gave it to you in exchange for your repainting and redecorating my mansion,’ Leonard leaned back in his chair with an air of doubtless superiority about him. It was all about superiority with vampires. ‘And we’re giving you nothing until you tell us what it is for.’ ‘It possesses no occult significance or unusual power, at least none that any common vampire would be interested in,’ the tallest, thinnest vampire of the three scarcely explained. ‘It will not help anyone rule the world, in other words. This is simply a personal item to me. It will not kill you to hand it over to me. I don’t think I need to share more about its essence.’ Something – possibly the iced water which was freshening and relaxing my brain – urged me to cut in the conversation. ‘Um, I’m very interested in its meaning, though,’ I ventured to confess. ‘Not the power, whatever power it might have… just the general meaning of the symbol. I’m asking out of simple curiosity. I don’t intend to use it for any evil purposes, I swear,’ I clarified shyly. ‘I just saw it in a dream, and I’d like to interpret my dream properly, that’s all…’ ‘Darling,’ Valerius cast a narrow, fleeting, ridiculing glance at me, ‘I wouldn’t believe you if you told me you could use a flyswatter for evil purposes. A crippled baby rabbit possesses a greater potential for evil deeds than you do. I wouldn’t worry about leaving the medallion with you, but I am far too worried that you might lose it by accident while you’re brushing your hair to the sound of love songs in the morning.’ ‘Oh, that’s where you’re very wrong,’ Leonard interceded to defend me. ‘She’s got a potential to be quite wicked, you just don’t know anything about her yet.’ ‘Nonsense,’ the other vampire responded with a demolishing smile. ‘I know what she is. And if she were forced to kill me, right here and right now, to save your lives, she’d cry for three months straight and start going to church every day for the rest of her life.’ ‘Why do you have to talk back to everyone?’ I scolded him, insulted and embarrassed. I was evil alright. I had discovered it very recently and was still coming

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to terms with it, struggling with my conscience. And now this vampire was mocking my unfortunate state by daring to say it wasn’t even true. Valerius shrugged with unconcealed self-satisfaction. ‘Because I’m evil,’ he replied merrily. ‘Unlike you silly lot. If the famous bloodthirsty, remorseless killer Leonard has not staked me in the stomach with that chair leg he’s hesitantly holding under the table yet, then he is not worthy of his reputation at all.’ ‘Weren’t we going to talk about the medallion?’ Leonard reminded through gritted teeth. ‘So what’s the deal with you caring about it so much? Your girlfriend gave it to you when you two got your “Forever In Darkness” tattoos, and then she dumped you for someone more fashionably aware?’ ‘Not even close,’ still as calmly announced Valerius. ‘It has nothing to do with an old lost love, a tragedy, or a similar pointless melodrama. It is merely something of a… passion of mine.’ I stared at him in puzzlement. He acted like a poser, he looked like a poser, he was anciently witty and gallantly sarcastic with everyone, and people like that I had seen before, but I simply couldn’t figure him out. Valerius was not a vampire like all others. The first piece of evidence in favor of that statement was that, most of all, he wasn’t a handsome vampire, and good looks were pretty much obligatory in the vampire society. People who became vampires developed an instant touch of irresistible charm to their appearance. Valerius had the flair, the manners, the intelligence, the composed flamboyant arrogance – but strictly visual appeal was nowhere to be seen. Since vampirism had failed to turn him into a sexual predator, possibly nothing could. He was tall and thin, but not within the limits of what was attractive to most people. Anatomically, he leaned towards the figure of Jack from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” rather than that of a well-built human being. From the sharp chin up, his malevolent, cunning triangular face somewhat reminded the observer of an eagle. His chestnut hair was cut short, with the exclusion of several longer thin tresses casting shadows on each side of his pale forehead. In his cape with a high black collar and a scarlet lining he resembled what Dracula would have looked like as an anorexic priest. Everything about him seemed to be abundant in edges and angles. His eyes, on the other hand, failed to convey the alert, eagle stare that would have fit the rest of his appearance. On the contrary, they had something laid-back about them, something that indicated they observed the world calmly, imperturbably, as though nothing could trouble or take their owner by surprise, and they lazily rolled in their sockets beneath long eyelashes as they were ceaselessly entertained by the predictability of the people inhabiting the world they watched from a distance. The small, ironic, all-knowing smile was the only thing about Valerius that suited the mood of his eyes. The glint of a hunter only sparked in them when they were set on the necklace I was wearing, obviously the only thing in his world he didn’t see fit to laugh at. However, if there was one thing about Valerius that I found perfectly, exquisitely beautiful according to my own twisted beauty standard, it was his hands. They were haunting, pale, long-fingered, and seemed to sprout knuckles and veins all over their surface. It didn’t matter that these delicately tormented hands had painted fingertips. As soon as I saw Valerius reach out for his coffee cup at the table, I knew I was

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prepared to take his hand in marriage without hesitation – and throw away the rest of him, of course. Leonard didn’t find Valerius at all puzzling. He simply thought the man thought too much of himself. ‘Passion, you say? And that’s all we’re getting, I assume?’ he protested. ‘You are very immature, Leonard,’ Valerius estimated, sipping on his precious coffee once more. ‘Yes, that’s all you’re getting. That, and the knowledge of your childishness.’ ‘Keeps me young,’ Leonard replied obstinately. ‘Anyway, I’m not giving your priceless item away until you reveal its secret to us. Try killing us if you like. So, what’s it gonna be, Dracula? We’re going to hang around mediocre cafeterias with your pompous self until you’ve spent enough time with us to trust us?’ ‘Why not?’ Valerius raised an eyebrow underneath the hair falling tidily over his forehead. ‘It seems like the best idea suggested so far. I agree without any objections. And, to display my delight, fair gentlemen, I’ll pay the check. You’ve earned it.’ He stood up and extended his hand for a handshake of peace. Leonard and Huck subsequently took it, Leonard with reluctance, and Huck – with relief. The truth was that neither of them could afford an extra enemy right now – not in those hard times, anyway. That evening, we all relocated to Leonard’s mansion, and to everyone’s surprise, Valerius actually did a bit of housework for free when we arrived. Leonard allowed himself to boss him around a little, just for the fun of it, and Valerius did not say a word against it. ‘Hey, I was wondering,’ the blond vampire muttered as he was circling the working one just to criticize him whenever he got the opportunity, ‘why didn’t you kill me the night you broke into the house? I’m just curious, you know. Since that item was so important for you, why didn’t you just off me, snatch it and go entertain your sullen self with it in your dusty coffin? What was it that stopped you, your Evilness, from accomplishing your goal?’ Valerius shrugged impassively. ‘She asked me not to,’ he titled his head indicatively at me, whose jaw dropped in astonishment. ‘She said “please”, after all. Most people see it as a sign of weakness these days. But I can’t wrong someone who is being polite to me.’ ‘Thought so,’ Leonard eyed Huck triumphantly. ‘You owe me a beer.’ ‘Um, guys, I know we’re acting like one big happy family now, and that’s just swell,’ I muttered from my spot in the living room – or the living undead room, which it seemed more like at this point – ‘but what are we going to do about Ivo?’ ‘Who?’ asked Leonard. I rolled my eyes towards the ceiling. ‘Gosh! Savrax! Who else? You said you were going to take care of the matters. How?’ ‘Don’t worry, darling,’ Leonard replied reassuringly, and patted me on the shoulder to enhance the effect of his words. ‘I’ve got it all covered. I told you – I’ve got connections.’ ‘But you haven’t even spoken to anyone, or written a letter, or made a phone call…’

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‘Wera. Wera. Calm down. When I say I’ve got connections, I mean it much more literally than you could possibly imagine.’ *** A coated figure in heavy leather boots was advancing through the damp grass and even damper mud. It was raining like hell, and that wasn’t helping it reach its desired destination. The figure was shaking every time the wind decided to start blowing more severely than usual, and its boots chinked with a metallic sound every step forward it took with difficulty. It was cold. It was damn cold in the vampire world, the figure was thinking, enraged. Vampires themselves were the only ones who were cold-blooded enough not to realize it. The silhouette strode through the storm solely out of the stubbornness of its heart, reached a rusted gateway, muttered a few muffled words and passed through. On the other side, it entered a place with a much softer climate. The clinking figure was slightly pleased. Finally, a place where it didn’t have to hide in order not to be seen. It didn’t enjoy the way people looked at it when they saw it. The mysterious figure, its face concealed deeply in the hood of its thick furcollared coat, wandered, seemingly aimlessly, for a while, passing absent-mindedly by alleyways and small shops, schools and bus-stops, until it finally reached the mediocre building it was looking for. If anyone knew that it was really walking with its eyes closed all this time, they’d be even more puzzled to see it. But nobody would notice the silhouette here. It was secure. Up filthy stairs the coated figure went, spreading mud across them thus certainly not making them any cleaner, to a simple, thin door it kicked open with a laughable effort. It entered the apartment, and the moment it did, a thick, oversweet aroma caused the temporarily equivalent of a concussion to its sensitive nose, and yet, again, solely out of stubbornness, it went on and on until it was in the living room, where the struggle with the overpowering scent was nearly impossible to win. The figure took off its coat, threw it carelessly on a couch nearby, took a dirty handkerchief out of the pocket of its trousers, covered its nose with it with one hand, and used the other to take out a small case out of another pockets of its multifunctional trousers. The mysterious visitor opened the case with its teeth, and the case revealed a miniature syringe filled to the top with a vivid blue liquid. Its color was so unnatural that it seemed to be throbbing frighteningly in the light. The figure clasped a strong hand over the syringe, walked over to the middle of the living room to find a person sitting on a chair, reading peacefully. The silhouette laughed cheerlessly. Was that what they had sent it for? It waved a hand energetically in front of the young man’s face. There was no reaction whatsoever. The figure sighed. So much for being here incognito. It was going to be over very soon, and it would be stared at in fear again. It almost thought the job wasn’t worth the money. But money was needed, so it had no choice. The hooded silhouette sighed again, shook its head hopelessly, clutched the blue syringe tighter and stuck it with a little too much rigor in the reading person’s neck. It took a few seconds for the substance to kick in, after the person muttered something of an “Ow” and reached for his neck to see what was wrong with it. And just like that, with the power of chemistry alone (and possibly a little magic included),

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brain centers twitched, perspectives changed, and the person stabbed with a syringe mere seconds ago turned around and saw the world with different eyes. *** Ivaylo Peas (known to most people predominantly as Savrax) was not a child of the night. At least not anymore. Not that he had ever been one, of course. Well, maybe a little bit. But it was a phase for the younger ones. It had been a long time ago, and even if he had retained an aesthetic and idiosyncratic taste leaning towards the morbid, he was now a responsible man going about his business day after day, indulging his mind only in minimal, harmless distractions of the nocturnal type, or at least minimal distractions of the kind that impeded his life as a human being. Again, not that he had ever had any other. The past was left in the past, where it belonged, and the past and present events and choices altogether made every person what they were. It was a strict formula to which there were no exceptions. If there was a thought in the world in which a person could go wrong, it was to think that he or she was, in some way, different, or exceptional, or extraordinary. Sooner or later, everything got down to basic principles, even people. So Ivaylo Peas would state, if ever asked, that he was not at all a child of the night, as there was simply no such thing. People were made who they were by life itself – and often, by themselves, which applied to him more than many others – and the very idea of anyone being marked by the hand of the goddess of darkness, light, love or any such imaginary deity, was one all too ridiculous and served to satisfy the insecure little brains of pathetic teens who craved to believe that they had been chosen for a greater purpose. That sort of thinking only brought difficulty into one’s life. Of course, there were the dark aesthetics that remained. They stuck to you in your choice of music, imagery, clothing, house decorations and pretty much everything that counted as your lifestyle. But one needed to know where to draw the line. Not that crossing lines was a bad thing – Ivaylo would have said, – but this was different. Yes, he had read many a vampire novel in his youth, which he was by the way still in, although he didn’t read them anymore as practically everyone wrote vampire novels these days… and yes, he had bought incense for his house on a number of occasions, and yes, he had indulged, every now and then, in the fantasy of being, for a little while, in a world or time which fit his aesthetics better than his own – but at the moment, he had no time for any of this. Not that he was ever trying to deny it. It was a part of him, like everything else, including his duties. And there was nothing irregular, abnormal or extraordinary about that. And it was exactly because Ivaylo didn’t find it especially proper to use excessively words like “different”, “extraordinary” and “abnormal” that he would have found it extremely hard to describe the figure that appeared in sight after a brief but intense sting in the neck. There were hardly any other words that could possibly describe it. It was the figure of a woman – but the word “woman” could in this case be used only in its broadest sense. Few men got to see women looking like that, and it was usually the last thing they ever got to see. It was a very tall, firmly built woman dressed predominantly in furs and leather, as though she was some sort of an ancient

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barbarian. She carried a sword, an axe, and a couple of knives on her, tied to her body with a web of tangled leather bonds. The maze of scars, burns and deep, vicious cuts, which every inch of the surface of her pale skin was covered with, defined her as a frequent fighter the moment one laid eyes on her. Her waving, ash blond – or was it ash gray? – hair resembled a mane rather than regular hair. Her expression was firm, proud, unyielding, masculine, merciless. This kind of woman did not attract men to herself – she was more likely to cut them in half, or scare the hell out of them, to say the least. She wasn’t deprived of feminine beauty whatsoever, but that wasn’t the first thing about her that caught the eye. Her lips and nose were covered by an evidently dirty handkerchief. The final touch to her unusual looks were the fearsome woman’s eyes, which had a perfectly yellow iris locked between black pupils and more black where the eyes should have been white, and, finally, her eyelids were pitch-black as well, and something about them gave out the definite impression that this was not in the least bit make-up. This was a woman you didn’t see every day. The peculiar, to say the least, woman stared at Ivaylo disapprovingly for a minute or two, then sneezed, snarled a few words under her breath that couldn’t be caught, then walked over to him and grabbed him unceremoniously by the hand. Ivaylo looked up at her in wonder, not because there were many things that could astonish him (except for probably seeing such a woman appear out of nowhere in his living room), but mostly because there weren’t that many women where he lived that he actually had to, literally, look up to. She was really damn tall. ‘Come on now,’ commanded the woman coldly, in a deep, yet feminine voice, one that was very suitable for a certain type of phone calls, but was even better for giving orders to strangers. Her steely, long-nailed grip helped too. ‘Don’t waste my time. Follow me, and don’t you try pulling away or running away, ‘cause you’re gonna get at least one limb broken if you try, and I have to get you there in one piece.’ Ivaylo did not try to run away, scream, or ask stupid questions. He wasn’t that kind of a person. Why did there need to a reaction when your view on the world changed, he often thought. The world goes on as it always was – you went on as a changed man. There was nothing stunning about that. According to that logic, the world had not changed, to Ivaylo. It had not really become more frightening, more extraordinary, or more interesting. It was he that had suddenly become more interested in it. Still, as much as he didn’t enjoy falling into clichés, certain obligatory questions needed to be asked, and he asked them. But only because he really wanted to know their answers. The armed bossy woman dragged him to the living room’s exit, where there had until recently been a door, and even though her hostage didn’t resist, she was still dragging him, just for the fun of it. ‘Here’s how it goes,’ she began impatiently while they were rushing down the stairs, slipping on the mud and tripping over abandoned pieces of weaponry. ‘I’m picking you up, taking you to a safer location. That’s what I do, this is my job. They pay me to go find someone and take them somewhere else – or kill them, which is most often the case. As you can probably tell. Think of me as a paid hunter – ’ ‘Or a hitman,’ Ivaylo suggested. ‘Hitwoman… isn’t that what you are?’ ‘No! Shut up, please. You understand nothing. You think you do, but you don’t.’

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‘I believe I understand more than you think…’ the young man began, but the hitwoman interrupted: ‘No, you don’t. The situation in your world is critical right now, and so is yours. And yes, if you are still too blind to see it, let me tell you that your precious world is not the only one around, that’s for sure.’ ‘Yeah, I kind of figured that out…’ ‘You’ve figured out nothing. You’ll be in real trouble if we don’t hurry, because I’ll probably have to kill you after all then, so dammit, walk… Oh, forget it.’ She raised her reluctant companion by the neck, threw him carelessly on her shoulder like he was lighter than a feather, and proceeded with greater speed and aggression in her step. ‘I’m here to protect you from yourself, and from everyone else. Look around. There is no one here to protect you from me. And trust me, you’d better keep that in mind.’ They strode – well, the hitwoman strode – on and on past parks and train stations, restaurants and clothing stores. The sky seemed to have gotten a little bit darker. ‘Things are real bad – you are not allowed to know anything more. You’ll soon be brought to people you know – and you needn’t know anything more about that, either. And you can scream if you like, but your kidnapping will not be noted, because no one here is capable of seeing me – including you. But thanks to the little concoction I fed your nervous system just a few minutes ago, congratulations, you can see and hear me now, and nobody can hear or see you. We’re not going to be in your world anymore, kid. You’re in for a treat. Okay now, you can start screaming.’ Ivaylo saw no point in screaming since there was no one to hear him. To him, this was a new experience, nothing more, and he treasured all new experiences. Classifying them as good or bad was something only simple, ordinary people did. Not that he was extraordinary, of course. But, on the other hand, how could he, or anyone, help but grow a bigger ego if a hitwoman from another world was sent to kidnap him, and not somebody else? The hitwoman seemed to have read his mind. ‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ she growled, ‘it’s just that someone you know cares about you and wants to keep you safe. It’s got nothing to do with you being special or anything. You’re not going to pass out on me, are you? Why ain’t you screaming?’ Ivaylo shrugged while the landscape suddenly turned from foggy and urban to rainy and rural. ‘I don’t think it will make any difference,’ he confessed peacefully. ‘Well, it’s good for your health, you know. So I’d advise you that you did it before we got there. Where we’re going they don’t like screaming in their ears all that much. They hear things pretty well.’ ‘And they are?’ the hostage inquired. If anything was stirring his soul at the moment, it was curiosity. ‘Oh, you’ll see. They’re people you know, like I said. I’m not supposed to tell you more.’ He sighed disappointedly. ‘Aw well,’ he continued calmly, ‘an easier question: who are you, then?’ The woman grunted. ‘You can call me Rheetah. That’s my name.’ ‘Okay, Rita. Got it.’

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‘No, not Rita, dammit! Rheetah! It’s a long vowel.’ ‘Rheeeetah. Does that sound any better?’ ‘Yes. So here are the rules: I am your bodyguard. You’re not allowed to talk back to me. You’re not allowed to stare at me. You’re not allowed to question my actions. You’re not allowed to do whatever I say you are not allowed to do. You are allowed to scream, be freaked out by me and whatever else you like, and tell me if someone is following us. You are allowed to ask for food and water. You are allowed to move whenever I tell you it is okay.’ ‘Am I allowed to move now?’ ‘No.’ ‘Aren’t you being a little harsh?’ ‘You are not allowed to criticize the way I treat you. You’re not allowed to give me a headache either, and you’re doing that right now.’ ‘Well, I was just saying that you could be a little less – ’ ‘Bitchy? Yeah. I know. Well, I don’t think you have the right to complain. They told me they’d picked me for the job because you liked bitchy girls, and I told them that in that case you were going to just love me. Ain’t that ironic?’ ‘I suppose…’ ‘Shut up, please. We’ll be there in an hour. And I have enough problems already to bear through your pointless interrogation for a whole hour.’ This experience was all too interesting for Ivaylo, and all the more annoying for his personal strange policewoman. ‘What sort of problems do you have?’ he asked. ‘At the moment,’ Rheetah groaned irritably, ‘the number one problem on my list is you.’

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Chapter Thirteen

Savrax The Vampire

‘Have they arrived yet?’ I asked, worried and nervous.
‘Any minute now,’ Leonard announced, even though he didn’t own a watch. The clocks in his mansion were just for decoration, too, and had probably stopped working in the age they’d been constructed in. ‘Hurry up, Dracula,’ he turned condescendingly to Valerius, who was placing his final touch on the newly installed shelves, ‘we’ll be having guests in no time! I can smell them from here!’ ‘They must bathe really rarely for someone like you to be able to smell them,’ Valerius replied mechanically, completely failing to be humiliated by Leonard. ‘There, it’s done,’ he beamed. ‘Did you prepare a pen and a notebook to give autographs yet, Leonard?’ ‘Ha, ha!’ the other vampire snarled. ‘Very funny. Good thing nobody knows you.’ ‘He’s right, though,’ Huckleberry agreed distractedly, perfuming up his scarlet suit for the evening and fumbling around the cupboards for a comb or a brush. ‘We have to look our best. I’ve never done this before. Do you think I need to tie my hair, or is it alright as it is?’ he wondered, anxious and paler than usual. ‘I’ve done this too many times, Huck, and there is nothing scary about it,’ Leonard assured him. ‘It’s all about the flair. And… what was it called… aplomb, yes. You look gorgeous, my friend.’ ‘Who’s coming to visit, the Queen of England?’ Valerius raised a skeptical eyebrow. ‘What’s all this fuss about?’ ‘Um, nothing, really,’ I lied. I was just as troubled and shaking as Huck was. ‘It’s just some, um, friends coming over.’ ‘Are they the Queen of England?’ ‘No, it’s… a different matter. It’s complicated,’ I mumbled, and hurried to look away. Meeting Valerius’ mild, scrutinizing stare, which nothing could escape, was the last thing I needed right now. ‘You’ll figure it out for yourself soon enough.’ Leonard was changing in a white shirt with puffy sleeves, a black vest, and black trousers, his hair tied back with a discreet black ribbon. He had decided to be formal and elegant tonight. ‘It’s going to be so much fun,’ he forecasted eagerly. ‘Wera, aren’t you going to dress up for the occasion? Come on, I’ve bought you this beautiful blue dress… We’re going to celebrate tonight!’ ‘Uhm, no thanks, I’ll just stick with jeans and a blouse,’ I shook my head modestly. ‘I don’t want to stand out too much. After all, it is you and Huck who will be the center of attention tonight, so…’ ‘As you wish,’ the vampire conceded reluctantly, ‘but the next time we have a proper party, you will be in formal wear. I’m still your host, after all. Anyway, people, take your places, and be good to the guests! I want no screw-ups whatsoever!’ ‘What are we supposed to do again?’ asked Valerius.

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‘Just play dead, it won’t be too hard for you. And…’ There was a loud knock on the front door which boomed throughout the mansion. A regular human being wouldn’t have heard or even felt it in the distance, but I had picked up a few things since I’d got here. ‘Here they are! Be nice, everyone… looking good, Huck… Wera, come with me. We’ll greet them first, as I’m the landlord, and you are, well, the visitors’ link to humanity!’ With a wink, he sent me walking in front of him towards the wooden gates. It was as bad as sending me to slaughter. On my way out, I couldn’t conceive how I could possibly do something as disastrous as shaking the basics of the world of someone I had known for years. Of course, deep down inside I knew that that would be the exact thing I’d want done to me, had I been in Ivaylo’s shoes. Anyone like him, or like me, would dare fantasize about such a thing at least once in their lifetime. But there was a difference between fantasy and reality, and that was exactly the thing that made the fantasy, the unachievable dream, seem so terribly attractive. There were rules. There had to be a line between fantasy and reality. And soon, in a single moment equally charged with pride, elation and regret, I would destroy that border for my friend forever… Maybe he’d be mad, I thought, or maybe he’d be frightened. Or, maybe, he’d be insanely happy about it, happy enough for his mind to forget to grasp the danger, which was the reaction I was hoping for, and the reaction I myself had had when everything changed to me and I saw a world before me that was an escape instead of a hell… To my greatest relief, I didn’t see him when I opened the door. I wasn’t ready to feel so guilty. Instead, there was a weary-looking woman in battle wear, and the moment I saw her, before I had seen her scars, or eyes, or anything more specific about her, a stream of information ran through my blood like electricity, without even consulting the brain, and I was completely aware of what her problem was… ‘You are…’ I began, incapable of finishing the sentence. I blushed a little, even though my mind didn’t see a logical reason for me to be embarrassed. Still, I felt like I had discovered a well-kept secret. ‘You’re…’ ‘Yeah,’ the woman nodded curtly, then shrugged in embarrassment almost equal to mine. ‘I’m like you. Only moreso. There’s not much I can do about it. And, it shows all the damn time.’ ‘I think it looks rather good on you,’ I smiled encouragingly at her, lowering my voice. ‘Leonard must have hinted at it, but I didn’t think he was serious about it…’ Unconfidently, like a schoolgirl, the woman smiled back at me. ‘I’m glad to see someone who… understands, to an extent,’ she said in her deep, soothing voice. ‘We should hang out, sometime next week, maybe.’ ‘Um, sure,’ I shrugged, looking anxiously around to spot my guest anywhere nearby. ‘Why next week?’ ‘You’re new to this, aren’t you? You’ll see why. Oh, as for your guest whatshisname,’ the woman continued distractedly, ‘I told him we’d be here in an hour, but he must have thought I was talking about an earthly hour, and not a lunar hour… He fell asleep, and we had to hitchhike, ‘cause it’s always harder when they’re asleep… I’ll go get him, shall I?’ ‘Okay… sure.’

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She disappeared into the thick moist darkness and returned quickly with my friend Ivaylo – otherwise known as Savrax – in hand. He appeared tired and confused, but brightened up when he saw a familiar face. ‘I must say, I didn’t expect to see you here,’ he said to me after we’d said “hi”. I responded with a guilty smile. ‘All of this seems a little… childish,’ he added. ‘This isn’t a trick anyone is pulling on us, is it?’ I swallowed hard. Here it comes… ‘No. No, it’s not a trick. I’m… quite used to it, actually. Feel free to come in. My hosts are waiting for you.’ ‘Me? Why? There’s a lot of things that need clarification,’ Savrax noted as we proceeded into the main hallway after Rheetah. I cringed. ‘To be honest, I am not entirely sure what’s going on right now either… I just know that something’s not the way it should be where… um… where we live, and this is, at this point, a safer place to be.’ ‘Not to say anything against the credibility of this statement,’ Savrax began doubtfully, ‘but we have just entered a castle that has gargoyles on it.’ I looked at him briefly. He didn’t seem all that frightened. If anything, he seemed amused. There was an awkward silence. ‘So,’ he tried to play along with whatever script was unraveling here, ‘are you also here for, um, your safety?’ ‘No. I came here on holiday.’ ‘On holiday? Isn’t this place a little too rainy to be a tourist resort? Nice architecture, though,’ he added with a note of approval in his voice. ‘Where are we, exactly, by the way?’ ‘As far as I know, it’s a place called Laurington,’ I stated nervously. ‘That sounds good enough. Really impressive buildings, I must admit. And… you’re staying here on holiday all by yourself?’ ‘Oh, no, that’s a friend’s house, actually…’ Savrax raised an eyebrow in a little less than amazement. ‘Wow! I’d certainly like to meet that friend of yours. Judging by the landscape, this could be England, or Scotland, maybe, but of course, this is impossible.’ ‘Quite. No, we’re not in England or Scotland at all. And yes, you will meet that friend of mine very soon. He’s expecting you. Not in a bad way,’ I added quickly, ‘he’s really excited to see you, and, um…he’s a very… nice guy. Kind of…’ ‘You’re staying on holiday at a guy friend of yours all alone?’ I hurriedly shook my head in an attempt to disperse all doubts and wrong assumptions. ‘No, there are a few of his friends here too. They’re sort of visiting him too. You’ll probably like them, they’re… interesting people. He’s got a daughter, too,’ I added, hoping the sharing of this fact would make my mysterious friend appear more mature and trustworthy. ‘We’re almost there, just to the right…’ Ivaylo was exploring the exquisite works of art, torches and candelabras that the walls of the corridors were richly adorned with. I was exploring the floor. ‘How come you never told me about this friend of yours?’ he wondered. ‘You should have. I mean, do you trust him? He looks very rich… so, that’s, like, a resort

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spot, isn’t it? Interesting, medieval on the outside, all Renaissance on the inside… This is his holiday spot, I assume? It looks too genuine to be a tourist attraction…’ ‘That’s the house he lives in.’ ‘No kidding? What else can you tell me about this guy?’ I could no longer stand the questions, so I didn’t reply. I was about to do something horrifying to a person’s soul, something forbidden, something altogether tempting and thrilling. ‘We’re here. Well, you can ask him yourself, although you probably know a bit about him…’ ‘Sorry? What do you mean by that?’ I left the question hanging, and I knocked on a wide black door. The moment it did, it creaked open. It was as if the host had felt us approach. And he had. Dazzling yellow light poured into the dim corridor from within, revealing a living room lit by hundreds of burning candles. The edge of a long dining table, freshly polished, could be seen through the crack of the halfway opened door, and merely a second later a person overshadowed it, slid gracefully out into the corridor, stood with equal grace before us and grinned. He wasn’t exceptionally tall, but he was sharp dressed, in the spirit of an epoch long gone, and he was handsome enough to make nearly any lady swoon over his appearance. He had blond hair and bright eyes alight with joy, and last but not least, his canine teeth were a good deal longer than they were supposed to be. He extended an elegant, pianist hand towards my friend Ivaylo and greeted him, with impeccable gallantry and just a light shade of playfulness, into the world of a forbidden fantasy: ‘Ah, Savrax. Please feel welcome to join us for dinner. It’s such a pleasure to meet you at last. I’m Leonard, by the way – but you can call me Leslie…’ *** ‘May I have a word with you in private?’ ‘Yes, of course you can.’ We walked to a inconspicuous corner. I attempted to appear as innocent as spring dew. It didn’t work. Ivaylo looked at me intently. ‘I’m not stupid, you know,’ he whispered in a strange, tense voice. ‘This is way too expensive to be a joke. That guy over there is way too perfect to be some kind of cosplayer. And his fangs most definitely aren’t fake. I’ll be damned, but this is actually Leonard the vampire!’ His eyes widened, because even someone like him could remain indifferent towards only so much. ‘I mean, the Leonard the vampire! Do you have any idea what this means?’ ‘Yes,’ I whined quietly. ‘That I’m a terrible friend to you.’ ‘Damn right you are!’ ‘I know. I should have never let you see this. It’s not how it should be, but I had little choice…’ ‘Are you kidding me? How could you do this? How long have you known him?’ ‘I dunno… a few years, maybe?’ I hesitated. ‘A few years?! How could you have never told me about him?!’

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I ventured to look up, and my jaw dropped in amazement at the last line I heard. ‘What?’ ‘Well, I mean, you should have told me earlier! Hiding this from me… it’s not just a sin. It’s a downright crime!’ My friend Savrax was standing in front of me with a “it’s-my-birthday” expression on his face, with only a slight hint of “I-wish-my-birthday-had-comeearlier”. I felt an enormous amount of relief pour over me. ‘Well,’ I breathed out rather than spoke, ‘can you really see this happening? How could I have explained something like that to you? It would sound loony, at the least!’ ‘I don’t care, you should have tried… I would have found a way to understand… My Gosh, Leonard the vampire! This is a wild dream come true!’ He hesitated. ‘Um, wait, that would be the same Leonard who did all the things he did, didn’t he?’ ‘Yeah,’ I nodded, and then hurried to make a reassuring comment: ‘But don’t worry, he won’t kill, harm or seduce any of us. But you should be alert about the seducing bit, because I am really not so sure.’ I turned away and headed in the direction of the table in the living room. Savrax stopped me a second later. ‘Wait,’ he exclaimed, ‘what am I supposed to say to him? After all, he’s among the people I’ve wanted to meet even though it was obviously impossible… until now… You know, a person can always go wrong with this…’ ‘I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you,’ I felt calm enough to cast an encouraging smile at him. ‘Just let him do the talking at first, and he’ll make you feel at ease. He’s very hospitable; he knows how you must be feeling, and he will make you the star of the evening.’ ‘Wow… this is truly… interesting. Is he aware of all of that, by the way? That he is an icon? That there are tons of books written about him? Man, I’ll probably have to read them all over again after this…’ ‘I thought you were never going to read another vampire novel,’ I smirked triumphantly. Ivaylo waved his hands in an impatient gesture. ‘Vampire novels?! These are no novels! Do you call a novel something that’s standing right before you? Holy hell, that’s Leonard the vampire!’ ***

‘At long last!’ Leonard exclaimed, his charm and flair turned to the highest level. He placed a gentle hand on the guest’s back and led him to the heftily candlelit dining table. Four figures stood up instantly as he approached. ‘Isn’t this a memorable moment? Please feel at home, dear boy, and help yourself to whatever you want… You’re not offended by me calling you “boy”, are you? I’m sorry, it’s a habit; after all, you’re just about four hundred and eighty years younger than me… And is there a gift more delightful than youth, really? Good God, this is delightful. I’ve heard so much about you!’ ‘I’ve heard a whole lot more about you,’ Savrax replied, while he was surrounded by several graceful, fanged figures, dressed up as though they were going to attend a ball.

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‘If you’ve heard anything good, it’s just rumors,’ a mischievous smile flew briefly through Leonard’s face. ‘Come on, don’t be shy… There are a few people I’d like you to meet…’ Huck marched forth in a series of movements speaking of chivalry and class. ‘This is my good friend Huck Cleanwood,’ the blond vampire introduced them without so much as a shade of irony. ‘Eighty years we terrorized the world together, and I’ve terrorized him about twice as much, haven’t I, Huck?’ ‘It’s a true honor to meet you,’ Huck greeted, and extended a hand nobly. ‘Any friend of Wera’s is a friend of mine. May I have the honor of knowing your name as well, young man?’ Ivaylo decided to introduce himself in a manner that fit the circumstances. ‘Savrax,’ he said briefly, ‘that’s what my friends usually call me. Pardon me, but have you by any chance happened to be known, at some point, as Francois?’ ‘Savrax,’ Leonard smiled, and indignantly slapped Huck in the chest area with the back of his hand. ‘See, Huck? The boy already knows how things work around here. Savrax. I like the sharp, daredevil sound of it. Why couldn’t you come up with a more plausible vampire name than your birth name, Huck?’ Huck frowned, and preferred to ignore the comment. ‘No, I’m sorry, Sir Savrax, I never did go by the name of Francois. But I have the feeling I am still the same person you may be referring to.’ ‘The author must have changed his name in the book,’ Leonard leaned forward to his guest and whispered loudly in his ear, ‘and a wise decision it was. When you add the suffix “the vampire” after a certain vampire’s name, that makes him more than an ordinary vampire. This makes him a noble, yet fearsome creature known throughout the vampire world, spreading equal amounts of awe and fear in the members of his community. But I am sure you already know that very well. This is why it is always very important to bear a name that truly conducts awe and respect. Something with the sound of “Huckleberry the vampire” just won’t do. Now, Savrax the vampire…’ Savrax turned to me with an expression of pride on his face, but I couldn’t react to it as I was stifling grin after grin like crazy. My mind was still stuck at the sound of “Sir Savrax.” ‘And this is Valerius. He’s creepy, a nuisance, and he’s not keeping up with the times, obviously.’ A tall, thin silhouette draped in black velvet loomed over my friend and examined him thoroughly. Savrax responded with a spiteless stare. ‘Lovely to meet your friend, Vera,’ he said with his perpetual mini-smirk. This time it was Savrax’s turn to laugh at me. He had every reason to. I wasn’t called Vera for nothing. ‘And, how positively intriguing,’ Valerius added with a twist of his eyebrow, ‘we’ve got ourselves a genuine little nocturner here, don’t we?’ ‘A what?’ the guest inquired suspiciously. Perhaps he assumed it might be some sort of an offense in vampire slang. ‘What’s a nocturner?’ ‘A nocturner, dear boy,’ Leonard began softly, as he helped his most recent visitor to a rather aristocratic chair in the very center of the small crowd, ‘is what you are. In a word, you have a little something of a vampire about you – now, don’t bother trying to deny it, – something cored deeply in your subconscience, something you’ve probably always blamed on band choice and an affinity for alternative literature. But it’s not a joke at all, and believe me, hardly anyone with your taste for music and literature can call themselves nocturners. There are many unconfirmed theories when it

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comes to this. Some say it happens at random, some say it is destiny, some say it is a rare psychological event that has little or nothing to do with genetics… but can I say, from personal experience, that this place changes you, Savrax. It really does, it’s just purely magical. Stay here for a few days, and you will see what I mean.’ I cast a concerned glance at Leonard. He pretended that he hadn’t seen it. Valerius, in his typical malevolent manner, cackled ominously as he was sitting himself at the table. Huck nudged him in the ribs. ‘That charming little lady in pink you’re looking at,’ Leonard continued, ‘is my lovely daughter Elizabeth. Isn’t she beautiful? And, last but not least, I am confident you already know Rheetah. She’s been so kind to ensure your safety during your trip and stay here,’ he explained. Rheetah nodded morbidly in response. ‘In exchange for payment and condescension,’ she muttered. She was still in her battle clothing, helping herself to a large steak. ‘She’s definitely got character, doesn’t she?’ Leonard grinned. ‘Don’t worry, though, you’ll get to know other sides of her in the next few days. Please, help yourself to anything you like, young man,’ he urged. ‘You didn’t think we vampires had no cooked food to offer, did you? We’re not creatures that lowly, after all! And we will try to make you feel as comfortable as you can with us.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ Savrax began, still staring in wonder at the vampiric scene that was expanding before his incredulous eyes, ‘but can I ask something? You’re Leonard the vampire, right?’ ‘That’s right,’ Leonard nodded gleefully. ‘And you’re… you’re his, um, companion, if that’s the right word for it?’ ‘Partner in crime, yes,’ Huck sighed gloomily. ‘Used to be. Now, I am just a friend. I did most of the things I regret in my afterlife because he talked me into them. He’s out of his mind, beneath his gallant exterior. But what can I say – look at him, and the charmer he is. You can never be mad at him for more than five years. For us, that’s less than an overnight.’ This was all too real to everyone. Only to the vampires it was a game. ‘You have to tell me more. About you, about your life…’ Ivaylo insisted. ‘I need to know how much of what I know of you is true, and how much isn’t. I know you might not see a reason to tell me all of this, as you’re, well, you’re probably tired of people asking you about these things, but I’d be really grateful if you shared a few things with me. And, if you didn’t kill me after telling me,’ he joked. I laughed, but only because I knew them. Valerius didn’t laugh. ‘Why would we kill you, boy?’ Leonard blinked innocently at his guest. ‘You’re a fascinating young man, and you’re practically one of ours! We’ll tell you everything you’d like to know, even the embarrassing details… like, I barely know any French, for instance. And then, I would like to hear about you. I don’t want to go on all night about Huck and myself, now, would I? Now, let’s begin this evening properly: I propose a toast,’ ‘he raised his glass filled with a rich crimson-colored liquid. ‘To Savrax the vampire, our new visitor, friend and roommate. May he spend many a wonderful day in the chambers of this mansion – and many a wonderful night, too! Carpe Noctem!’ ‘Carpe Noctem!’ cheered the rest of the fanged guests at the table. Savrax reached cautiously towards the elegant glass in front of him.

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‘It’s not blood, is it?’ he laughed, and everybody at the table laughed with him. ‘Relax, it’s wine you will be toasting with tonight,’ Leonard assured him, and that glint in his eye reappeared, the one when he was overexcited or out hunting. Something about it bothered me, and I watched the vampire intently, in case he had something in mind. ‘The best and oldest one we have here, mind you. And it is spiced with a secret ingredient,’ he added, and his bright eyes went ablaze. ‘Try it, you will not regret it.’ Savrax brought the glass to his lips, cheered his new-found company likewise, and took a slow test sip. ‘It’s got a little bit of a…’ ‘…sting, yes,’ Leonard agreed. I looked at him accusatively. He reflected my troubled glance and responded to it, his look pure, sincere and only slightly disturbed to see me feeling uneasy. It was not unlike trying to see the back side of a mirror through the glass. Leonard cast a warm, reassuring smile at me, then turned to his guest again in his best and kindest disposition, and explained readily: ‘It does taste a little rusty, but that’s the charm of it. Without it, it would have been too wonderful, wouldn’t it? Drink up, dear boy. Savor every drop. In time, you’ll come to grow fonder and fonder of the taste.’

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Chapter Fourteen

Two Moons

R heetah was standing by the window of the bedroom on the west side of the
mansion, hungrily breathing in the fresh scent of rain outside, staring at the moonless sky and frowning as determinately as though she would never be allowed to do it again. ‘What’s wrong?’ Savrax asked her, puzzled and exhausted. ‘You’ve been sulking over there for hours.’ ‘Oh, nothing, I’m just thinking about Leonard,’ the scarred woman muttered through gritted teeth, ‘and how much of a bastard he is.’ ‘Bastard?’ the recently enlightened nocturner exclaimed. ‘What makes you think that? He’s brilliant in many ways, if you ask me. A brilliant, exquisite monster. But you can’t call him a bastard; he treats you just as well as he does everyone else.’ Rheetah snorted angrily. ‘A downright bastard is what he is, and what he always will be,’ she repeated in an implacable, steely voice. ‘If I wasn’t paying him, I’d shove my fist in his face like nothing.’ ‘What gives you the right to say that? He’s a kind person, and yes, he is a vampire, so it’s in his nature to be an animal every now and then… but we spoke, and he really knows what he’s talking about, and why am I saying this to you anyway? You’re a sour hitwoman. You kill people for money. Who are you to talk about Leonard being a bastard?’ ‘I don’t kill people,’ Rheetah objected. ‘I kill those who deserve to be killed. And don’t get me started on Leonard’s flair and charm, and all that jazz. He corrupts everyone, that’s what I say. He enchants people with words until they can’t think straight. My ears started aching of hearing you two lovebirds talk throughout the entire dinner.’ She imitated their voices, cruelly and shrilly. “Oh, you’re so very right, that’s what I kept telling them – people these days just don’t have the slightest bit of concept of beauty!”… “Oh, yes, right and wrong are little more than two different, equally valid perspectives.”… “The problem with the present is people keep obstinately seeing the world the way it should work, and not the way it really works. It’s all about making the most of every breath while you’re still breathing.”… “Oh, you should have seen the plague – from a distance, of course – it was a blast, we had such good laughs then. Ah, those were the good days.” I know his speeches by heart. Every sentence starts with an “Oh” or an “Ah”. He makes me sick,’ Rheetah concluded. ‘All vampires do.’ ‘I don’t see anything wrong with his views on the world,’ Ivaylo defended his new fanged friend. ‘His ideology is broader and fairer than most ones I’ve heard so far. It leaves no room for prejudice, it presents everything as it is… You, on the other hand, seem to be just a little prejudiced…’ ‘Oh, come on, you sound just like him already!’ hissed Rheetah the minute she was being criticized. ‘He’s going to turn you into a copy of himself in no-time… the way he does everyone else. The weak-minded, that is. Fools. He’ll dress you up in no-

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time and there you have it, we’ll have another bloodsucker who thinks he is God on the loose.’ ‘You sound familiar, you know that,’ Savrax estimated thoughtfully, and yawned. ‘Anyway, would you terribly mind leaving now? I’ve had a strange, rewarding, but still tiring day, and I would just like to make a phone call and go to bed, if you don’t mind.’ ‘Phones don’t work here,’ Rheetah muttered distractedly. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be missed where you live. I mean, they won’t even know you’re gone. And am to ensure that you will return safely where you came from, in one piece, even if completely corrupted by Leonard.’ ‘Well, would you mind leaving anyway, then? Leonard won’t be able to corrupt me until tomorrow.’ ‘I’d love to leave, trust me. But I have to guard you, day and night. Well, most nights, anyway. Tonight, for sure.’ Savrax groaned and retreated to a corner of the bedroom he was given during his stay, one heavily adorned with candelabras, burgundy satin sheets and curtains, and miniature engravings of gargoyles and such other creatures. Some things never went out of fashion in that world. ‘So you’re saying, I can’t be alone, can I?’ Rheetah demonstratively pulled up a chair from the other end of the room and sat on it, facing its back, in a rather masculine way. ‘I have to protect you from potential attacks.’ ‘But nobody knows me here! Who are you going to protect me from, wicked vampire women lurking in the night sky looking for lost mortal travelers to seduce?’ ‘I will especially ardently protect you from them.’ ‘Thanks very much,’ Rheetah’s main problem and responsibility grunted and covered himself with the dark red sheets. She sighed. When she sensed she was the only one awake in the room, she continued sighing and occasionally sobbing, a little more loudly, knowing it was something she could very rarely do, even in private, and she had to cherish every brief moment when she could let out her sorrow. She rarely got the chance to sigh over her own problems. The sky was starless and completely dark. She found that relieving. There was nothing scary in the darkness for Rheetah. Usually, she could out-scare even the scariest things in the dark. The only person she couldn’t out-scare was herself. Because, when it came to the relationship between Rheetah and herself, each side had more than enough to be afraid of. *** ‘Good morning.’ ‘Morning.’ ‘How are you? Are you intact? Everything okay? No strange feeling in your gut or anything?’ Rheetah persisted the very next bleak morning. ‘Yes, I am perfectly alright,’ Savrax assured her. ‘Please, what could have possible happened?’ ‘Anything. Listen, there’s something I need to speak to you about…’

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‘Okay, I’ll talk to you later. I must hurry, though, because Leonard is taking me hunting today, and I really don’t want to be late…’ ‘Nobody is going hunting!’ I overheard their conversation and ran towards them in panic from the other side of the hallway. Ivaylo stared at me, confused and curious. ‘Please,’ I implored, ‘don’t go hunting with him. It’s… it’s not what you think…’ ‘I’m not thinking anything,’ Savrax admitted, brimming with interest now that what he’d intended to do was forbidden. ‘I know I’ll be surprised. That’s why I want to go.’ ‘Yes, but…’ I tried to find the right words. ‘Leonard has a thing about him… he tries to rub his own personality and bad habits off on everyone else, and he is successful. And going hunting with him…’ ‘I can’t see why becoming like him is such a terribly bad thing,’ my friend shrugged. ‘I’m not off to become a bloodthirsty butcher. Leonard said the hunt was perfectly legal and – he specifically clarified – morally harmless. So, if you don’t mind, I would really like to go.’ ‘You’re not going,’ Rheetah said sternly. ‘That’s final. I’m your bodyguard, and I’ve decided it isn’t safe for you to go hunting with Leonard. No questions allowed. Come on. We’re having waffles for breakfast. Waffles are good for you. Hunting with Leonard isn’t.’ I gratefully exhaled when Rheetah left with the protesting Savrax caught in her unyielding grip. I had already caused enough mental damage to my friend. Now, he would never be able to look on our own world the same way – or, in the worst case, keep all of his memories of the event. He could live with that, that was for sure. But I could never let Leonard give him a taste of the beast as well. There was nothing quite like it. I had been poisoned with the taste of the beast even since that hunt I’d gone to, and time was moving fast in this world. Things were changing, and so were people. Nobody would leave here the same, let alone me. The taste of the beast… it had to be forbidden. I had tried not to think about it during the past few weeks, and the storm of disasters that had occurred meanwhile had kept my mind off it for good. But now, it was returning, with a rush of new blood in mine, new winds haunting the same grounds, new thrills passing through the same centers in the brain. And it was all just like last time. Irresistible. That’s why I had waffles for breakfast, chatted with Rheetah and Valerius for about half an hour, as Huck and Leonard were busy being interviewed by Savrax, and then my friend, his bodyguard, Huck and Valerius went out for a cruise around town and the local shops, and I went hunting with Leonard, willingly or not, I didn’t know, because there were some dark, wicked things sticking even to the purest soul that simply couldn’t be defeated. *** The week rolled towards its end quicker than I had expected it to. I was a little amazed to see how well things seemed to be going. My friend seemed to be enjoying

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himself to the fullest and felt completely at home in the company of – well, the fans of the redder drinks. It was not at all surprising; after all, I did too. Leonard was feeling a genuine fascination with his new nocturner friend. He kept taking him to different places, night after night, that he claimed I wouldn’t enjoy seeing, which bore names like “The Razor Club”, “Blue Light”, or “Enoxicated”. I had morbid suspicions about the type of places they were – you probably had to be two hundred or older to enter – and did not risk going there with them. Huck would accompany them in most cases, just to make sure things didn’t get out of control. In the evenings, I spent more time at the mansion with Rheetah and Valerius, who labeled these places as lowly and far beneath his dignity. ‘I really don’t understand why you are all so worried,’ he kept saying to Rheetah and me, calmer than any person I’d ever seen. ‘One doesn’t get corrupted so easily. And if he does, then he has been corrupt to begin with.’ ‘Great,’ I nodded with grim sarcasm the last time he said it. ‘That’s super. You’ve just made me feel a whole lot better.’ ‘I wasn’t intending to, Vera.’ ‘And please, stop calling me that.’ ‘Why? It’s your name, isn’t it?’ ‘That’s not how you pronounce it.’ ‘No, I am very confident that it is you who pronounces it wrong,’ Valerius disagreed confidently. ‘Looks like you’re not the only person who is irritable today, though. Rheetah, what’s the matter this time? Still wailing on the inside over the fact that you are a werewolf?’ There was a gravely silence, a gasp, and an intense hiss following that came from Rheetah: ‘Shh!’ she scolded him, panicking. ‘Are you insane or just plain cruel? Someone might hear you?’ Valerius eyed her with a lazy, jeering stare. ‘There’s nobody here but us. Besides, even if someone overheard you, so what? Everybody knows anyway.’ ‘No they don’t!’ Rheetah shrieked in embarrassment, blushing rapidly all over. ‘And who is it that doesn’t know it yet, if I may ask?’ mocked her Valerius mercilessly. ‘Except for Liz, that is. Anyone else still in the dark about it?’ ‘Well, the person I am supposed to guard, for one thing!’ the hitwoman insisted. ‘Hah! Don’t you think he’s figured it out by now? One can tell what you are from miles away. Just look at yourself!’ ‘I don’t believe that! He’d be freaked out if he knew. He wouldn’t want me guarding him anymore if he knew the full moon was coming soon.’ ‘It is?’ I exclaimed in wonder. If I were ever a proper werewolf, I’d be the most absent-minded one in the world. I’d keep forgetting the dates of my lunar cycles. ‘That explains everything.’ ‘You poor, foolish creatures,’ Valerius purred condescendingly. Sometimes, his habit of looking down on everyone was infuriating. ‘You don’t seem to get a thing, do you? First of all, can’t you see that our dear guest Savrax doesn’t get freaked out easily? Have you ever been to “The Razor Club”? If that doesn’t freak you out, nothing will.’

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‘But… but he hasn’t been scared of me even once,’ astonished, Rheetah mumbled, almost with regret. ‘I don’t get it. It’s not normal. People, vampires, and all living or undead things, are normally either scared of me, or disgusted by me. And he, who is on the border of the two, is merely slightly irritated by my bossiness!’ ‘The kid’s perfectly normal; you’re not,’ Valerius estimated. ‘You should stop being amazed by that and try to see how much your life could improve if you improved your behavior towards others. You expect the worst of everyone, you attack before you’ve been attacked, and that ruins every chance of making a friend for you in advance.’ He was, of course, perfectly right, but Rheetah was not going to agree with something a vampire had said to her anytime in her lifetime. ‘It’s not like you have that many friends, Count Dracula!’ she barked. ‘And, besides, you have no idea what it’s like to be… what I am.’ ‘I have a very clear idea what it’s like being a vampire, and I don’t go on about how awful it is night and day, darling,’ Valerius retorted with that same infuriating peacefulness. ‘You’re not the only one here with a bloodthirst problem. If you think I don’t get it, you can always talk to Vera – she doesn’t seem to be complaining too much, are you, Vera?’ ‘She indulges in it!’ Rheetah stood up abruptly from the table we were sitting at, bristling, breathing heavily, and pointing an accusative clawed finger at me: ‘She doesn’t try to restrain the beast within! Don’t you think I don’t know what she’s doing when she is out hunting with Leonard! I try to restrain myself, and it is driving me insane! She’s not worthy of being what she is!’ In the world of werewolves, this was probably equivalent to a slap across the face, but my heart barely stirred at this accusation. I was evidently spending too much time around vampires – or was just plain wicked, like I had suspected from the beginning of my holiday. ‘I did,’ I responded with a blank, hollow voice when I felt Rheetah was finally prepared to hear out my response. ‘I used to try to keep everything that was bloodthirsty, vicious and filled with rage and hatred within me. Not just… the beast, as you call it. Everything. I held everything back, for more than twenty years. It didn’t lead to anything good, pure or noble. The innocence I had been trying to protect, the image of myself that I had built in my own eyes, was shattered bit by bit by my own compromises and sacrifices, which I had hoped would help preserve my virtue. And I watched it all collapse, slowly but surely, until there was nothing left. And then, suddenly, I stopped. I stopped fighting my darkest urges, because at some point there was nothing left of me but them. I lost faith in everything else… and I just stopped trying to hold myself back. I’ve been a lot happier ever since.’ I sighed, but this sigh contained no emotion worth being called one. I was cold through and through. ‘And if you decide to talk to me about guilt, you should know that I had guilt, lots of it, and it was killing me. But blood washes away the guilt… sooner or later.’ Rheetah was standing there, staring unseeingly at me, petrified and dumbstruck. ‘I admire you, you know,’ I said to her. ‘You’ve managed to preserve your innocence after all these years, unlike me. I’m through with this, for better or worse. I regret it nearly every day, and yet I fear going back to it. To the way I was. It’s something that kills you, day after day, but you love this kind of pain, because it

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makes you feel human – and you can’t live with yourself knowing you are a monster. And I admire you, because you have a fair chance at not losing this blessed pain at all. The flower you’re carrying with you, in your soul, won’t be stomped and crushed by the first person who walks by. I hope it never withers with sorrow, either. Let’s just say you’re good and strong, and I am bad and weak. You’ve chosen one path, and I have chosen another after having walked yours for years. That’s about it. And I guess I’ll always envy you for what you’ve got.’ After this touching little speech Valerius laughed like he had heard the most ridiculous joke known to mankind. Obviously, he was a man full of respect, but whatever respect he had, he directed all of it to himself, leaving nothing for the rest of the world. He started laughing so hard he had to cover his mouth with both of his long, black-nailed palms. ‘You two are creatures exceptionally stupid, that’s all I have to say on the subject,’ he concluded with a small, remorseless smile, stood up and pulled up his collar, which was high enough as it was. ‘No offense meant – that’s not because you’re werewolves or semi-werewolves, it’s because you’re women. I’ll leave you to your rambling; I hope you find comfort and drama in it that will satiate your hunger.’ With these words, he left us with the remains of the dinner and the wish to break his neck. ‘I swear, the next time I see him, I’ll crack him in two like a twig,’ Rheetah threatened as soon as he was gone, her blood boiling. ‘It’ll be almost too easy.’ ‘Don’t,’ I grinned soothingly at her, ‘the world would then lose the single worstdressed vampire in it.’ ‘You’re right, he’s not worth it. He’s just badmouthing everyone. Look, I’m sorry about what I said before…’Rheetah began an awkward apology. ‘I had no idea… I didn’t know…’ ‘That my wicked choice was made for reasons other than a plain lack of a sense of morality?’ I finished cheerfully. ‘No, that’s not the case. If anyone has cared about morality more than anything else, it’s me. It’s just that… being moral beyond the point that was bearable for me led to much, much more immoral things…’ ‘You don’t have to explain… I get it,’ Rheetah’s mood seemed to have improved for the first time since she’d set foot in Leonard’s mansion. ‘Listen, um… we could go for a walk tomorrow night, just the two of us. You know – a moonlit walk, you get the idea. There will be no killing, we’ll just go out to have a little bit of good time… as girls. What do you say? If I can get Valerius to watch over Savrax just this once…’ ‘Sure thing, I’d love that,’ I smiled readily. ‘See? We have a reason now not to kill Valerius after all,’ I winked at her. It had been a long time since I’d felt understood by a girl, and in the end, to me, that was all Rheetah was. She smiled meekly at me, displaying a pleasant side of her that I had never seen before. I knew very well what power the slightest display of kindness had over her. Werewolves were terribly lonely creatures, and they desperately needed to feel they weren’t alone. ‘Why is he here in the first place?’ the werewolf woman inquired, finally getting off the painful subject of her unfortunate fate. ‘He’s not exactly a good friend of Leonard’s, is he?’

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‘No, they can’t stand each other. He’s actually here because of this,’ I pointed at the pendant on the gold necklace I was wearing on a daily basis; I had grown strangely fond of its curves and angles. ‘It’s originally his, but I, um, found it by accident. He broke into Leonard’s house and tried to kill us all just to get it. Later on, they sort of agreed not to kill each other, but, naturally, Leonard is still unwilling to forgive and forget, and we’re not giving him the pendant until he tells us what the symbol really means. And, he’s taking his time,’ I shrugged. Rheetah reached gently for the pendant that hung on a thin golden chain from my neck, examined it thoughtfully in her hand, and smirked. ‘Well, that’s easy.’ ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘What’s easy?’ ‘Oh, nothing,’ she replied, still grinning to herself, and then looked up at me with her brimmed with black yellow eyes. ‘I just can’t believe you are waiting for Valerius to tell you what this is when it is so simple, really.’ I nearly fell off my chair with excitement. ‘You mean this symbol is familiar to you?’ ‘Of course,’ Rheetah nodded confidently. ‘It’s the ABC of being a werewolf. I mean, no offense, you’re kind of new to the whole thing… It’s a very well-known symbol among us, as is pretty much everything that has a moon, or moons, on it. Vampires were never interested enough in our history, so naturally they wouldn’t know much about it, they’d think it has something to do with planets…’ ‘What does it have to do with, then?’ I was dying to know. I probably looked silly, but something in me was telling me that I would never have completed my purpose here until I learned what the symbol of the two moons crossing meant. ‘Well, it started as something related to astronomy, it’s true,’ the werewolf woman explained. ‘See, here’s the waxing crescent, intertwined with the waning one. You do know there are two moons here in our world, don’t you? But their cycles are not identical, so, as one wanes, the other one waxes. The two can, naturally, never be full at the same time. But they revolve in a very irregular way around our world, which is much more influenced by the laws of magic than those of physics… ever wondered how flowers get to grow here when there is no proper sun to rise every day? Anyway, it is a little more than a legend that every once in a while – possibly, in a long while – one moon waxing and one moon waning can meet in the sky, magically, and then you get a lunar eclipse… like the one you have on Earth, only here the case is that one moon overshadows the other completely. And that we call, well, at least our ancestors used to call it that way… an equinox.’ That sounded a little less sensible than I had expected. ‘Equinox?’ I repeated dully. ‘But, how come? Isn’t the equinox, um, the time of the year when the night and the day are equally long?’ ‘In your world it is, yes,’ Rheetah giggled innocently at my cultural illiteracy as a werewolf. ‘But you’re forgetting, there is no day here at all. So, according to the ancient terminology of this world, the equinox is an equality of nights, instead of night and day.’ ‘But that doesn’t make that much sense, does it?’ ‘It did to the previous generations. The length of the night then had spatial rather than temporal interpretations. The nights of two moons – two lunar cycles – meet, and

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when they met at the same place in the sky, that meant that they are equally long, meeting right in the middle. Like two pieces of fabric.’ ‘I see…’ ‘But that’s not the meaning the word “equinox” holds to us today, though,’ Rheetah shook her head to prevent my thought from going in the wrong direction. ‘Otherwise I would have thought Valerius to be quite the astronomer. Anyway, the equinox, the old ones once said, was a magical planetary arrangement having nothing to do with the cycles of the moons but rather with what was happening down there, with the inhabitants in this world. It was believed – and somewhere it still is – that creatures could influence the moons the way moons could influence creatures, just by the way they interacted with each other. Sounds optimistic, doesn’t it? A single person… or two… capable of changing the entire course of the world for one night…’ ‘And how exactly would they achieve that?’ I asked impatiently. ‘What would it take?’ ‘It would take an equinox, in the sense of the word as we werewolves use it today,’ the woman prompted. ‘An equinox – literally meaning “equal night” – is a specific state of mind formed on the basis of a bond between two, or more, creatures of the night. Their “nights”, their inner darkness, or hunger, or nocturnal call, or whatever you call it, would have to be equal and the same in essence. And, in such a moment of perfect understanding between two – or more – such creatures, the moment when they sink into the darkness of each other’s worlds, each other’s souls… then, they say, an equinox takes place in the sky too, regardless of which phase the moons are at this point.’ Rheetah smiled shyly, slightly blushing when she spoke again: ‘To tell you the truth, most of us think the part about more than two people is rubbish, invented by our grandmothers and grandfathers to take their kids’ young minds off the subject of love. But, me, I believe this is a strictly romantic idea. Believe it or not, werewolves are very romantic creatures…’ ‘I believe it,’ I said earnestly. I had long since drawn this conclusion on personal experience. Indeed, werewolves, no-turners, and all the other wolf-oriented humanoids were a little beyond hopeless romantics, and that had bitter consequences for them when they were faced with the real, not the least bit romantic world. ‘Anyway, the old myths and legends have never mentioned quite how, or in what circumstances, this can be achieved, and maybe that is exactly why most of us have never seen, let alone evoked, an astronomical equinox. But, as for the psychological equinox – the more important one – the old ones have described it, to their older kids, of course, as the single deepest, most divine and emotionally rewarding experience a nocturnal creature could possibly be granted. Again, it’s not quite like your human… nirvana,’ Rheetah remarked with a hint of irony, ‘because the equinox, as a state, a personal phenomenon and all that, is based predominantly on darkness. Hence it is called an equinox. You need to possess some kind of inner darkness to begin with to reach an equinox with someone. It isn’t anything that blows your mind… as far as I’ve been told… Like I said, it’s nothing like ecstasy. It’s more like… solace. It is a state in which the nocturnal creature can find peace and relieve itself from its constant inner torment. That’s all, really. Hm,’ she added with an amused smirk, ‘I guess that if Valerius is so obsessed with having his equinox symbol back, it must either mean that it reminds him of an old love, or that he himself is looking to achieve the rare

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legendary phenomenon that only teens these days believe in… In both cases, it speaks of a romantic soul beneath all that spite and sarcasm… I’m going to rip on him for that forever…’ But she was no longer being listened to, because the moment I had been informed of the symbol’s meaning, I sprang up like I had lost my mind, rushed out of the room in a mental frenzy, and sprinted towards Valerius’ chamber, brimming with questions that would finally be answered.

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Chapter Fifteen

Blue Roses And Other Flowers

‘I know about the equinox,’ I announced the moment I burst into his room,
breathless, and from that very moment on I found myself incapable of figuring out what I was to say next. The chamber Valerius was temporarily given had an all too gothic touch to it, and had I know what Savrax’s bedroom looked like, I would have compared Valerius’ room to it. Valerius himself was lying contentedly in a bed draped in black velvet, resembling a chameleon as he was dressed in clothes of the very same fabric, and his sharp little smile was pointed directly at me. ‘So what?’ he sneered when he saw me barge in with a poorly prepared accusation. ‘Are you going to blackmail me with it?’ ‘Well… no,’ I wasn’t really sure what to do with that piece of information once it had reached me. ‘But… all this secrecy for something like that? You left everyone with the impression that it is an object of great power. And, well, now it turns out that it is little more than a… sentimental souvenir?’ Valerius’ smirk trembled and, to the extent that I could notice, expanded. ‘An object of great power? I remember specifying the exact opposite.’ ‘Yes, but it’s not like anybody believed you. Well, then, if not, why are you here wasting our time? Why did you organize this… this theatre play in the first place? What’s it to you anyway?’ Later on, I came to think that it really wasn’t this hard to figure Valerius out, if one just based one’s understanding of him on the idea that he was out of his mind. ‘Dear silly girl,’ the vampire purred and stretched in an equally cat-like manner, ‘look around you. The answer is right before your eyes. Look at the sheets I sleep in here, look at the wine I drink and the luxury I live in. If I was to just tell you everything, retrieve my medallion and go back to my own home right away, I’d be back to sharing a cold, damp wooden floor with a few dozens of rats, drinking bad, old blood and retreating to a dusty, rotten coffin. Thank you very much, but I like it way better here. As for the medallion, since I discovered that it was in the hands of harmless creatures, I’ve decided to take my time obtaining it. I’m in no hurry, as you must have figured out by now. But, since you’ve found out its symbol’s true meaning, feel free to share it with anyone you like, your aunt, even’, he shrugged his bony shoulders and rose slowly, gently from the bed. ‘I don’t mind. I’m way too old to care about what this or that pathetic bloodsucker will think about me. And now, since the pendant’s meaning is no longer a secret to you,’ he added, slipping off from the velvet sheets and crossing the room to the door with me in front of it, ‘hand it over, please. This has always been mine, and you haven’t the slightest right to keep it.’ He extended a thin, angled hand at me with a firm, demanding gesture. As much as I was drawn to the shape and structure of the hand, I resisted and shook my head. ‘No,’ I heard coming out of my lips, as though I was an obstinate child. Valerius raised an eyebrow. He was intrigued, but obviously not surprised.

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‘No?’ he repeated in a tone that suggested that a full stop was fitter to follow the word. ‘Thought so. And why, may I ask, little girl, do you believe you are worthier of this medallion than anybody else?’ I hesitated, then raised a finger in the air, as though I was about to change the world with my next statement. ‘First of all,’ I began, maturely to my estimation, although my voice was trembling slightly, for reasons beyond my understanding, ‘I am really tired of people calling me a little girl. Second, I feel deeply connected to the pendant, and now that I have been told what it means, I am very certain that this is what I should be after… that it was fate, and –’ ‘Fate?’ Valerius was more amused than ever when he heard me pronounce the word. I felt ashamed, naïve and stupid, like a student in the first grade facing a literature professor. I hated it when people made me feel like that. ‘If you’re silly enough to believe in fate, little girl, then you’re silly enough to believe in the equinox, too. Please leave your romantic aspirations aside and get on with your life. You will find nothing if the equinox is what you’re looking for.’ ‘You believe in it too,’ I defended myself stubbornly. ‘Otherwise you wouldn’t want to get the pendant back so much.’ ‘I do not believe in it, child,’ the vampire disagreed in a voice as velvet as his cape and sheets, ‘I have investigated it. That is something entirely different. I do not waste my time believing in things. I’ve said it before – I am not looking for an object to give my old dry heart a kick. I merely… have a peculiar passion of mine. Call me a collector, if you will.’ ‘A collector of what?’ I asked. Perhaps I ought to lose the hostile tone, I thought, if I expected an answer. But it was too late. ‘You are far too curious, my dear undereducated acquaintance,’ Valerius shook his head, turned away, apparently having lost interest in talking to me. ‘I’d rather you left me to my own thoughts, which are undoubtedly far more elaborate than yours. Aren’t you supposed to be sitting in your room sulking over the danger hanging over your friends back in your world right now?’ That comment struck a nerve. I must have stood there for about a minute, petrified and even more embarrassed than I had been a while ago. Indeed, that was what I ought to be worrying about, not the equinox and its stupid symbol. The lives of my friends – that was the priority question right now. And it had slipped my attention as soon as Rheetah had mentioned that blasted equinox. Valerius hesitantly turned back to me, as though there was a mirage detail about me that had escaped him, and he wanted to make sure. He was prepared to raise a thousand eyebrows at me, I could tell. ‘They’re… they’re safe, I know that,’ I mumbled, trying to convince myself that this was an excuse for my emotional numbness. ‘Jake… the exorcist… he’s made sure they are, I know him. I trust him completely. Nothing ever goes wrong when he is in charge.’ ‘Very well, but then what about the people who aren’t close to you?’ the vampire pointed out cleverly. ‘Innocent lives are surely being taken in your world as we speak. Humanity itself is at stake. And yet you are here, gladly embracing your inability to do

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a thing about it, eating waffles day after day, thinking about equinoxes and what not. Now, how is that proper behavior for a nice little girl?’ I had thought I’d already dealt with this issue. Admitting before myself that I was no good was not that difficult… but admitting it after somebody else had clearly stated it made me feel like human trash. ‘It isn’t,’ I confessed in a small voice, but I knew it would never be small enough. ‘It’s not even proper behavior for a monster.’ Valerius grinned at me, and for the first time this was not a half-sized sinister grin; it was a genuine, proper smile that changed his face completely and, for a moment, made it look like the face of someone who wasn’t such a bad person. ‘Now you’re on the way to striking the slightest bit of awe in me,’ he praised me. I was astonished, dumbstruck, and disgusted. It seemed that was typical for vampires to praise a person’s very worst sides. It made me sick of myself to my guts. ‘Now, tell me, Vera, why do you think that is?’ ‘Because I’m wicked to the bone, and whatever I do, I can’t escape it?’ I took a wild guess. Valerius giggled. ‘Wrong,’ he replied, and, oddly enough, he made me feel at ease when, with one playful twist in his expression, he turned the whole subject of my wickedness into a guessing game. ‘Try again.’ I couldn’t say anything in response. ‘Think, Vera, think,’ he urged. He was entertaining himself watching my torment, there was no doubt about that. ‘That you will never be wicked, no matter how much you’d like to, is beyond obvious. See, you are feeling bad over a single statement of mine, the sole purpose of which was to tease you and watch you squirm with guilt. And now, on to a more serious question: why do you think you feel little sympathy for your fellow people?’ ‘I, um, I am not sure,’ I confessed. I felt it was okay to share what I really was thinking with Valerius. It wasn’t like the truth was going to elude him, so I saw no point in trying to conceal it from myself, either. ‘I feel distant. From them, I mean, from other people. I always have, that’s for sure, but now more than ever. It might sound corny, but it seems I feel a lot closer to this world, this race… than my own. Even though I’ve always seen vampires as a plague.’ I laughed, and Valerius shared a thrifty smirk with me. ‘But now… now it seems more likely that I cry over a vampire’s corpse – um, ashes, – than the remains of a human being. Maybe it is because I’ve become just as much of a monster as they are. No offense. Maybe it’s just because… life here is better… makes you feel like you belong…’ ‘Wrong again,’ Valerius announced cheerfully. I was waiting for the raised eyebrow. Ah, there it was. ‘You were recently really miserable, weren’t you?’ The statement took me by surprise. Its correctness – even moreso. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘Miserable, I said. You were recently very miserable, for one reason or the other.’ ‘Are you one of those annoying mind-and-memory-reading vampires?’ ‘Even if I am, I am not doing it right now. It’s only a logical conclusion that I’ve just drawn. It’s obvious. You must have been in a really bad place… figuratively speaking… to be enjoying this subdivision of hell that is the world we live in.’

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There was silence. I didn’t see things this way – but that only proved that he had a point. I then remembered the best kind of defense was an attack. Well, it wasn’t. But I thought I’d try it anyway. ‘Why the sudden interest in my personality?’ I retorted sharply. I wished he’d stop smiling that smile of superiority at me. Probably every vampire had one, but his took the cake. ‘Well,’ he began, ‘it is simply that you are young and stupid,’ he explained, as if he didn’t realize his words insulted people every now and then. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it is perfectly normal to be stupid when you are this young and this emotional. On the other hand, it seems you’ve experienced quite a bit – drawing on the argument that I previously brought forth – and your bitter experience in life fits neither your youth, nor your stupidity. You’re too young to have felt some of the things you’ve felt – and yet, your are way too stupid for someone who has been through the things you’ve been through. And, the deal is, you can be smarter, and I can feel it coming in you, but you still obstinately try to be stupid, as if you believe that this is some kind of virtue.’ He shrugged. ‘I can’t seem to figure you out, and that is rare.’ I was about to say that the feelings were mutual, but I didn’t want to flatter him by admitting that I had actually taken the time to attempt to figure him out. ‘You’re Leonard’s friend,’ he continued before I could reply, ‘and even though he’s absurdly immature for his age, he’s undoubtedly told you to stop wasting your time and potential on abstract mirages like right, wrong, conscience and so on. There is no such thing – there is just life. If you must be either good or evil, due to some specific personal need to define yourself as anything other than simply “you”, then I’ll say to you now, you’re good, even if too much of a perfectionist to believe it and a little insecure to brag with it. I don’t know if you have the potential to be evil, but I do know you can be smart, and – did you know? – you can be good and smart at the same time! Hooray!’ ‘What’s my stupidity expressed in?’ I growled, no longer charmed by his sweet, understanding personality. ‘If you think I’ll understand the explanation, that is?’ ‘Oh you will,’ Valerius nodded with a great deal of certainty, ‘I am sure you will. See, you’re chasing after ghosts. And I imagine you did the same before you came here, too. Justice, virtue, romance, innocence, purity, humanity – I bet they are all on your list. Ah, but they are ghosts and nothing more, designed by man to facilitate his own fleeting human existence and prevent him from making it even shorter in fits of despair over the pointlessness of it all.’ ‘Well, that’s the point, exactly!’ I insisted vigorously. ‘What would the point of a person’s life be if these ghosts didn’t exist? Would we be worth calling ourselves people at all?’ ‘Oh, but they don’t exist, Vera,’ the vampire said, almost compassionately, ‘and why is it so painful for most humans to accept? You have to answer yourself, how much of you are you prepared to determine as strictly human, and how much of yourself is, indeed, a beast like us? In the end, come to think of it, what does it matter? Hell is for everyone – the same for man and beast, for the sinful and the righteous… more often than not more intense for the righteous, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now,’ he added with a wink, however I disliked his ominous winks, they were so much

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more twisted and morbid than Leonard’s. I frowned and turned towards the door. I wasn’t going to win this battle. ‘I refuse to believe you know anything about hell,’ I placed my hand at the doorknob, trying to indicate I wanted out of the room and the conversation alike. ‘Or anything like the equinox, for that matter. That’s why I think you’re not worthy of wearing that symbol around your neck. You’re just watching the world going to hell doing nothing, being entertained by it. I see nothing admirable about that.’ ‘But that’s what you’re doing too, my dear, and that’s all you can do,’ Valerius said. ‘And you could be entertained by it, of course, but the fact that you are choosing not to is your problem, not mine. Have a nice evening, you and your ghosts,’ he added sarcastically, yet sarcasm passed as harmless in his view of interaction with others, ‘and make sure you tell me when they’ve faded completely, so that I could give you a couple of different thoughts to haunt you.’ *** Whatever ghosts I’d had had long since faded, although I didn’t feel prepared to admit it in front of anyone just yet. Maybe there was still a god watching me and listening to me, hoping that what I was going through was just a phase, and I was not supposed to say anything wrong as long as there was still a chance that He thought there was any hope left for my soul. Valerius, on the other hand, was laughably convinced that I was as pure as a daisy and just as intelligent, which was soothing, to some extent. But he had to be wrong. If innocence was a flower, like Leonard had said, I could feel the last petals of mine falling off on their own accord. And I didn’t even have any of it left for it to hurt. I knew my thoughts would eat me alive if I was condemned to stay on my own for the next few hours, so it was a good thing that the host of the mansion and his company returned before I had tortured my mind to the point of insanity. Leonard called us all in the dining hall, smothering a small cough into a laced handkerchief, and prepared to make an announcement. ‘My dear friends,’ he began solemnly, as all eyes turned to him in hope that his enchanting aura would tangle them into its grip and detach them from their daily sorrows. ‘I have been having such a lovely time, and it had been my greatest pleasure to have you all gathered here at my house. And yet, it always seems to me that the little I do to make you feel delighted to be here is simply not enough. So, you know me, I am always looking for a reason, or an excuse, if you will, to celebrate. And it is with inexpressible joy that I am about to announce yet another occasion for us all to celebrate! I was recently informed that our dear friend and companion, whom I’m sure you have all grown fond of despite his short-term stay here – Savrax – is to get one year older than he has until now been tomorrow – and still remain hundreds of years younger than most of us here, of course. So, I shall propose a toast to youth, and since I am so thrilled by this upcoming event, I have decided to throw a party in his honor. But not just a common party at my house, oh no! ‘Tis going to be a ball, ladies and gentlemen, men and monsters – and fair maidens!’ he winked devilishly. He knew better than anyone there were no fair maidens around. ‘So, bring your fans and your arrogance, pick your best formal clothes – or steal some of mine, I’ve got plenty – but

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be sure to wear nothing different, as that’s all that will be allowed tomorrow night. The ball will start at eight, the rule is: come with a lady or a gentleman – or both – in hand, and the dress code is: be beautiful – because that is the single word that describes you all best!’ There was a roar of enthusiastic applause following his powerful, loving speech. Leonard lit the entire dining room with a radiant smile. He was at his best, and he was determined to be this way for as long as he could. Life was short, after all. Well, not to him, but as long as his life was, he could still never get enough of it. ‘He does seem to be overdoing it, doesn’t he?’ Savrax asked when he had the chance to exchange a word or two with me several minutes later, when everyone else was going to bed or about their business. ‘I really doubt that he likes me all that much. I mean, would he throw a ball for someone’s birthday just like that?’ ‘For me – I doubt it,’ I shrugged. ‘But I think he might have some sort of a plan for you. I suppose he sees something in you. Whatever you do tomorrow night, do not join him in his bedroom if he asks you to,’ I grinned, but on the inside I was pretty serious. ‘You never know what might happen,’ I added. ‘He is rather unpredictable.’ ‘Yeah, I kind of noticed such a pattern with him,’ my friend nodded, looking around the room as curiously as he had the first time he’d entered it. ‘He’s a lot of fun to be around, though. Do you think this ball thing would be a good idea?’ ‘I think he’ll murder us if we don’t attend, and murder our pets if we don’t dress properly.’ ‘Yes, I most definitely will,’ a polite voice said behind us, and Leonard’s beaming face appeared out of nowhere. ‘Ah, Savrax,’ he placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, ‘I was just looking for you. May I have a few of your precious minutes? I was just wondering if you’d be so kind to answer this question for me: what type of clothing would you prefer for tomorrow night? I’ve got outfits to offer you from medieval times to this day, which I believe will be sufficient, but the colors are entirely up to you…’ *** The very next day I was a ghost more than I had any. I was getting dress fever – and that was something Valerius would have laughed at more than I could bear, I was sure, but I couldn’t help it. There was something about me that found wearing a dress to be very unnatural and completely unhealthy. Some of my dress-related anxieties had passed since I’d been with Charlie, as he’d often urge me to wear dresses and I’d gotten used to it, more or less – but there was still this innate fear of the idea of looking like a woman that would never completely leave the back of my head. That was why I headed gloomily to the dressing room that Leonard had led me into several weeks ago, hoping to find that blue dress he had mentioned he’d bought for me, and get it over with. I was not sure if that was what I wanted to wear, but it was already way too cold for my mother’s thin black dress, I had nothing else to wear, and, if anything, there would most certainly be something happening at that ball that would make me feel blue, one way or another. I had always attempted to avoid people like Valerius, for instance, seeing me in a dress, and I had done it with variable success

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in my life. He’d probably say something along the lines of how well this dress went with my conformism. If it came to that, I’d choke him with my bare hands. To my greatest horror, he was there in the dressing room, together with Rheetah, who looked more nervous than ever. For a second, I hesitated, and had nearly begun to mutter something conveying the idea that I’d come back later, when a stubborn and rather unreasonable voice in my head told me to do something else, and it sounded very much like “to hell with it, I don’t really care what anyone might say or think about me… besides, he’ll probably laugh at me even more if I am too much of a coward to collect my dress in front of him.” I strode across the room to the classy, oversized wardrobe and reached for a piece of long, blue fabric that seemed to be what I was looking for. Rheetah, however, was reaching towards it at the same time, and she hesitantly withdrew her hand in shame as soon as she saw me. Her claws had been carefully cut for the evening. ‘I’m – I’m sorry,’ she uttered quietly, blushing. Valerius gave her one of his destructive looks. ‘I didn’t know that was yours, I… I’m just going to get something else…’ ‘You probably should,’ Valerius muttered, ‘that dress you’re trying to snatch is probably made for weasels to wear.’ We both growled at him, and we did so in a stunningly similar manner, too. ‘Are you calling me overgrown?’ Rheetah bristled. ‘Are you calling me a weasel?’ I gritted my teeth. ‘As usual, ladies, I have managed to insult both of you with a single innocent remark,’ the vampire replied, evidently beaming with self-satisfaction. ‘I’ll retreat and watch you go about your petty business, shall I?’ In his usual black velvet, he became one with the window curtains. Rheetah shook her had and started rummaging in the wardrobe for something else to wear, not so much discouraged as she seemed crushed. She sighed heavily, picking a bright yellow dress encrusted with cheap jewels, which would look horrible on her. I felt sorry for the werewolf woman who apparently wanted to try to be beautiful just for one night of her life but had imposed a personality too manly and tough on herself to admit it. I’d been in her situation before. ‘Here,’ I said with a smile, handing the deep blue dress over to her. ‘Take it. It stretches, you know, and since it’ll be a little short for you, it’ll make you look extra sassy. Come on, I don’t really care what I’ll wear.’ ‘Neither do I,’ Rheetah lied. There was no way I could not sympathize her. ‘Listen, I know how it is,’ I began quietly, so that Valerius wouldn’t see a reason to interfere into the conversation again. ‘I’m female too, after all. A certain color, or a piece of clothing means a lot to you. Take it, please. I’m not fond of blue anyway.’ Rheetah sighed again and felt she could be honest with me. ‘It’s the color,’ she confessed uneasily, ‘that I think I ought to wear tonight. I don’t dress up… much, as you might know… It’s blue because of the roses… you know… Not that I have anything to do with a rose, or any other kind of flower, for that matter… But, um, you know… You do know about blue roses, don’t you?’ she asked doubtfully, suddenly remembering that I was “new to the whole thing”. But I knew about blue roses. If the equinox was the ABC of the werewolf community, then the blue roses were its picture books, and the symbol that was

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probably printed on its flag. To werewolves, the blue rose carried out their personal perception of live, and probably life, too – the sad, melancholic, hopeless, lonely love, love soaked in a cool night sky and brimmed with a lining of moonlight. It was love doomed to be lost, and it was the only kind of love werewolves believed in. Still, as depressing as that idea probably sounded to the majority of humanity, I understood why Rheetah wanted to be her own interpretation of a blue rose tonight, and how much it meant to her. ‘Take it,’ I repeated reassuringly. ‘It’ll fit you perfectly. Seriously, I can wear the yellow one and have Valerius laugh at me all night…’ ‘Don’t take it,’ Valerius commanded unexpectedly from the curtain he was blending with. ‘This will be a desperate attempt for you to get the kind of attention you definitely don’t want.’ He shuffled, walked over to us, flung the other door of the chubby wardrobe open, and with the swift, flamboyant gesture of a magician pulled out a piece of clothing that was not so much a dress as it was a work of art. It had everything a person from the past would agree a dress ought to have: an elaborate corset, a long, wide skirt with numerous underskirts, lots of black lace all over it and the alluring, powerful feel of burgundy satin. It was a dress that wasn’t for everyone. This was a dress a woman would dress in to be crowned queen with. It struck awe into the viewer, and any true gentleman would die to court a woman in such a dress, but would feel a great amount of weakness in the knee area and doubt in his own abilities and talents upon trying to seduce a woman of such class and possession of self-value. It wasn’t something that conducted the image of a sad, insecure beauty waiting to be swept off her feet and scorned later in the evening. It was a dress for a woman who knew she was worth more than being messed with. Which was why Rheetah shook her head the instant she saw the burgundy contraption made in hell. Valerius crossed her way when she chose to leave the dressing room, caught her by the arm, then, to everyone’s surprise and mostly Rheetah’s, he wrapped both of his eerie, bony hands around her waist, and whispered in her ear gently, in a voice that could melt down an iceberg: ‘No rose should ever be blue. Roses, like women, are meant to be adored and treated with care. If loneliness fails to drain the beauty out of them, then, to say the least, it makes their beauty useless. Many roses - and women - easily forget that.’ His lips breathed tempting clogs of warm air into shuddering Rheetah’s ear for a minute or two, just until he could derive satisfaction from his manipulative nature once more, and then he added, in his casual voice, ruining the magic: ‘Now go put on that dress, for God’s sake!’ When Rheetah headed, wobbling and tripping, towards the dressing screen to change, I fixed my fierce stare on Valerius, and fixed it good, hoping he would burst in flames and die. ‘What the hell did you do that for?’ I hissed. ‘That was so… so…’ ‘Sexy?’ Valerius guessed innocently, but he guessed wrong. ‘Dishonest! Dirty! Manipulative!’ I had a number of better words for his performance. ‘She doesn’t get a lot of attention, don’t you see? This thing you did might mean something to her, and… and then God knows what might happen! But,’ I added thoughtfully a moment later, ‘in a very your way, I suppose it was noble, too… to make her choose the more confident dress… To make her strive towards being

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something other than miserable. But why did you have to do the whole seduce-you thing, huh?’ He met my accusative stare without a display of passion. His eyes didn’t work like a mirror, like Leonard’s. They simply absorbed whatever was cast at them and returned it back to its owner with equal spite. And elegance, naturally. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that, sweetie,’ he retorted carelessly. ‘It’s not me she’s dressing up for. Which, I am sure is not the case with you. And I shall break your heart by asking Rheetah to be my lady for the evening.’ ‘I’d rather be split apart and have my parts scattered all over the world,’ Rheetah replied from behind the screen. ‘Get lost, Dracula, you’re too hideous even for me.’ It was my turn to have a verbal revenge on Valerius. ‘Don’t worry,’ I patted him with sarcastic compassion on the back. ‘You won’t be needing a lady. Just get a raven to land on your wrist and you will look entirely self-sufficient.’ ‘I am self-sufficient, darling,’ Valerius waved my comment off with an arrogant smirk. ‘If I were you, I’d be worrying whether your little blue dress will be sufficient to cover your little, um, back. You think I advised Rheetah to leave the dress to you solely out of the kindness of my heart? Think again.’ I gasped in a fit of indignation much, much bigger than the space the blue dress would cover. Valerius was evil, there was no question on the subject. Everything he did was a part of a wicked plot, and nearly everything in the world he found amusing. Where amusement was insufficient, he made an effort to create some more for himself. ***

I could tell a woman fidgeting in a dress she found too pretty for her from a mile away. That was exactly what Rheetah was doing. I only had to look at her to see how I was behaving in the eyes of others. There were hundreds of formally dressed vampires at the ball. It was a feast for the eyes. I was freezing in my short dress, pretending to be marveling at the grace and class of the nocturnal society. I was standing by myself by a window, watching the couples practice complicated dancing steps I would never learn under the sounds of classical pieces the names of neither of which I knew. More than anything, I wished I’d picked the red dress. It looked warmer. Around eight-thirty Leonard descended down the stairs, in his finest, most seductive black, accompanied by Huck in emerald velvet and the birthday person dressed in black and blue in the nineteenth century vest-and-shirt spirit, hand in hand with a beautiful black haired lady in a black dress. I was as delighted as I was amused. If he remembered any of this when all of this was over, I’d rip on Savrax for it for the rest of my miserable life. ‘Is this side of the window taken?’ a mild, modest voice asked somewhere in the vicinity of my ear. I turned and saw Huck appear next to me. I hadn’t expected him to get through the hall so fast, but then again, vampires did such flaunty things every now and then. ‘I’m sorry’, Huck continued, ‘to bother you. I just didn’t seem to find myself a lady, and – ’

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‘Don’t worry, neither did I,’ I replied cheerfully. ‘And you’re not bothering me. Are you enjoying yourself?’ ‘Oh, you know me – being gloomy for both of us. Same old, same old. Once again, I can see Leonard had dressed you up in something that is far beneath your dignity?’ he asked with a shy smile. I looked down at the dress which revealed much more than it covered. ‘Oh, it’s just beneath my dignity, yes,’ I agreed, responding to his warm, caring look. ‘I wish it was a little further beneath my dignity, I’d be much warmer then.’ Huckleberry laughed. ‘You know Leonard,’ he said meekly. ‘He means no harm, only corruption.’ We saw Rheetah approach in the interval of silence that followed his line, adjusting her cleavage, because this was what her dress inspired people to do. She looked irritable and extremely nervous. ‘Oh, great, I am glad someone shares my opinion on how much this party sucks,’ she sighed with faked relief the moment she reached us. I couldn’t help but notice she was ravishing, though – she had pulled her hair back elegantly, and the dress fitted her so beautifully that one could barely focus on the scars she had all over her arms and neck. One would guess they were love bites. ‘Anyone has a drink to share with me?’ The whole time, she wasn’t looking at us. I traced her anxious stare to the direction it pointed in, and smiled. I leaned towards her conspiratorically. ‘I think I can guess where your nervousness comes from,’ I spoke to her, lowering my voice. ‘What?’ she sounded startled, as if she didn’t expect to be spoken to. Her wild eyes madly followed the same little dot in the crowd. ‘No! Who told you I was nervous? I’m just standing here being pretty and bored, and everything’s alright… Anyone got scotch?’ I took her away from the window so that she wouldn’t feel embarrassed by Huck listening, and then I looked her straight in her piercing yellow eyes. They could do many things, but not lie. Right now, they wanted to run away, and she looked back at me the way a captive wild animal would. ‘Don’t worry, I know your secret,’ I spoke to her in a voice as soothing as I could muster, ‘and it is nothing to be ashamed of. In any case, I am glad you are wearing that dress tonight.’ ‘I am too. I would have looked like a slut in it. No offense.’ ‘We both look like sluts, only you’re the classier one. But there is nothing wrong with that,’ I added. ‘It certainly does catch the eye,’ I winked. Then I realized that might not be the best strategy. Rheetah looked as if she was about to cry. ‘I didn’t mean for this to happen,’ she muttered quietly to herself, and lowered her head in shame. ‘I know I wasn’t meant for this… I know what a blue rose means… and yet I still feel what I feel, and don’t even know why…’ ‘I do,’ I said to her, tracing her glance to a figure in the distance, in black and blue, waltzing happily in the center of the ballroom, as if in a pretty dream. ‘It’s not something you choose. It’s not something that follows rules of logic or safety. Sometimes, it can be a real curse. And, in any case, you become its slave.’

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‘All I wanted was one scream,’ Rheetah moaned. ‘I mean, was that so much to ask? One shriek of horror, one squeal of disgust, one rude joke, one damn negative reaction, and it would have ended! Why does one have to be so obnoxiously nice? He’s got every reason to hate me, and I have every reason to hate him! Then why don’t I?’ Rheetah was in love. I could tell by the insecure, frightened look in her eyes. Nothing but love could be so scary. ‘Nobody has treated me better in my whole life,’ she concluded desperately. ‘And, in the end, we didn’t even communicate that much! And on top of that, it is full moon tonight and I’ll ruin this lovely dress, which I will have worn in vain anyway…’ ‘It’s full moon tonight?’ I repeated stupidly. ‘Really?’ ‘God dammit, girl, learn your cycles, will you? I’ll have to leave early tonight. And I won’t even be able to say a thing… I mean, what was I thinking? A woman who can handle a sworn is never thought to be able to handle a man, as well!’ ‘Listen,’ I turned to Rheetah with warmth and compassion, and for a moment I felt like I was talking to my old self, only taller, blonder and more feminine. ‘I’m really happy… almost proud… that you have… um… feelings for one of my most intriguing friends, to say the least. And I want you to know that you are a truly wonderful woman, in every possible way, and you look very beautiful too, and you deserve to be adored and cared for, and whatever else Valerius said, and I don’t mean to discourage you, but…um… there is a bit of a problem with your situation…’ ‘Tell me about it,’ Rheetah groaned. ‘There are tons of problems. But I know the main one: werewolf and vampire don’t mix. That’s a rule. You don’t just ignore that. Ever. I know. I should give it up.’ I hesitated. This did not go as planned. ‘Um… I was going to say that having a relationship who already has another relationship prior to meeting you is immoral, but that’s also a valid point,’ I muttered, a little unsure of what to say next. I saw Rheetah’s eyes darken. ‘But,’ I added optimistically, ‘he’s not really a vampire, you see. He’s merely a nocturner, whatever that means. But I am sure it isn’t – ’ ‘Oh yeah, and you’re just a regular human girl who turns into a vicious wolf every full moon in the vampire world, right?’ the werewolf woman snarled at me. ‘It makes no difference anymore! You’re trying to tell me he’s not nearly a vampire, huh? Just look at him. I can smell the thirst building up in him as we speak. And when the moon is full…’ I could smell no thirst, and felt like a very inferior werewolf. ‘But I never let Leonard take him hunting, or anything like that! I mean, he is my friend, I couldn’t allow anyone to turn him into a monster! They just went to clubs, probably out dancing and…’ ‘Yeah? “The Razor Club”? Can you tell where it got its name from? Five days in a row in that club, you’d want to drink blood from a straw, too.’ ‘No,’ I shook my head in determinate denial. ‘This can’t be, it mustn’t happen…’ ‘But I’d say it’s happening now. Oh, damn…’ Rheetah cursed, and dashed through the crowd in her lovely royal dress, hoping to prevent the worst from happening, but it was already happening to her, to me, and to everyone… The moon was rising, majestic and scarlet. Huck gasped, but no one heard him.

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‘I’m having such a good time with you, Leonard,’ Savrax was just telling the blond vampire when several people seemed to rush in their direction at the same time. My friend’s hand was only vaguely shaking as he held his glass with a stinging secret ingredient in it. ‘I mean, this is great… You live every day like it is your last. Few people ever dare to do that.’ ‘Oh, it might be, dear boy, it might be,’ Leonard replied joyously, waving at me in the crowd as I was running like mad together with Rheetah, trying to get to the core of the bloodthirst before the bloodthirst got to us… ‘Tomorrow just might be my last day, and that goes for many of my friends around here. Didn’t I tell you? We’re going to war tomorrow. Yes, you didn’t think that, with the situation in your world being as bad as it is, we’d just sit here and do nothing all the time? We need to protect our food resources. No killing, my bottom drawers! There is a beast in us all. Drink up, boy, drink up! Carpe Noctem!’ ‘Carpe Noctem,’ Savrax responded, and took a modest sip from his drink. Leonard shook his head as he watched his guest’s hands shake more and more visibly. ‘No, no, boy,’ he said meekly, ‘that’s not the way we do it here. It’s your birthday, after all. I’ll show you how it’s done.’ The vampire took the crimson glass from his shaking hand and gave the drink a good hard stare. Meanwhile, the moon lit the ballroom brightly and a few distant screams and snarls were heard, but he took no notice of them. Then, abruptly, violently and in a manner not at all civilized, Leonard clasped his pianist, yet still vampire, hand around the birthday person’s neck and clenched his grip as it got firmer and firmer, and time seemed to slow down just for a while… Step number one: you startle and/or infuriate someone. Step number two: you put them in a life-threatening situation. Step number three: you get a little assistance from certain celestial bodies. That’s how you prepare someone’s beast to come out. That’s how Leonard did it. With horrifying dedication. He poured the content of the glass directly onto the head of the person he had flattered and entertained for days now, and watched the wine drops turn to blood drops as they made their way down the forehead, around the eyes, across the lips. Then, the vampire grinned with mad satisfaction. Step number four: you give the beast the remedy. But not directly, no, never directly. You lure it, you tempt it, you tease it with its flavor until the beast comes out by itself and claims what’s rightfully its. That’s how the beast is born. And my own beast was catching up with me when I was only inches away from the goal… The last thing I saw tonight was a melee in ballroom clothing, swiftly torn by claws and teeth and vicious fangs, and the last thing my friend must have seen was a red curtain falling blissfully over his eyes, and Leonard’s face, laughing mentally, his grin sharper than a chainsaw and just as unstable, his eyes hungry for blood; and the last thing he most probably heard was the voice of his vampire host… ‘Happy birthday, boy,’ Leonard’s voice flew gently across the ballroom through the scarlet blur of the hunger. ‘Most of us have two birthdays, as you know; one as men, and one as monsters… You’re lucky. Few people get to have them both on the same date.’

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Chapter Sixteen

War

‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘Fever. Happens to everyone. Don’t worry, it will pass. It’s what happens afterwards that bothers me.’ ‘No, I meant what was wrong with Leonard.’ ‘Oh, him. He’s just out of his mind, is all.’ ‘I see.’ ‘You can’t expect anything else from someone who’s been inviting insanity in for five hundred years.’ ‘Yeah.’ Huck was worried; as was I. No; worried was an understatement. There are just certain lights in which you couldn’t bear seeing your friends. Last night’s light was one of them. Also, there is only so much blood one can take seeing on a friend. Someone else’s, that is. ‘We’ll have no time to wait through the turning fever,’ Huck shook his head, pale as snow. ‘We’re going to war in mere hours. Leonard keeps saying it was my idea.’ ‘As if.’ ‘But he is right; as much as I trust your friend Jake, people in your world will need a great deal of assistance. And we will do whatever we can to defend them.’ ‘Are you sure you’re not going to go there just to grab a few quick snacks?’ ‘Don’t be silly. Leonard has a kind heart, deep inside. And he will get our entire population to follow him in this madness, if he must. But he cares, Wera, he really does.’ Huckleberry sighed heavily. ‘Even if last night’s events seem to contradict it.’ ‘Contradict?’ I snapped. ‘He’s turned my friend into a monster, the same way he did this to me! He had it planned all along!’ ‘No; he had realized that when we go to war with the cursed ones in your world, there will be no one left here to take care of him, protect him or feed him. Therefore, there will be no one for him to feed on as well. Besides, I am certain that your friend will insist on joining us in battle. I know… I know this is hard for you to hear. But Leonard did this for your friend’s own protection, and besides, when he is done with the fever period, he will be able to be of use…um… in battle. Um. As a force.’ Huck went even paler. ‘Leonard said, every person counts, and…’ ‘So he didn’t turn my friend into a monster after all!’ I yelled, unable to control myself any longer. ‘He turned him into a military resource! Oh, God, I am so relieved!’ The military resource stirred and sighed in his sleep. Leonard burst happily into the bedroom of the ill one. ‘Rise and shine, everyone!’ he sang loudly, in a better and more twisted mood than I’d seen him in a long time. Mr Leslie Hyde was in charge today, obviously. ‘We’ve got a war to get started, and only a few hours to get prepared in! Everyone’s waiting for you. Anyone staying here? No? Didn’t think so. Come on, let’s get

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moving, we’ve got no time to lose! Every minute we waste is a life lost! Think of all the innocent puppies! The army is waiting for you, so enough with the slumber!’ ‘Shh!’ Huck growled in a low voice at him. ‘Can’t you see he’s not well? Thanks to you! Have a little respect! We can’t leave while he is still in bed!’ ‘Ah, but I have just the solution for that!’ Leonard exclaimed, skipped merrily, like a schoolgirl, towards the door he’d emerged from, and brought in a large, heavy bucket from the corridor. He lifted it over his head and spilled its contents all over the bed of the feverish patient. We all screamed, and Huck covered his nose. It was a bucket of blood, so fresh you could have thought it was steaming. And there is no way to awaken a sick nocturner-gone-vampire quite like a bucket of blood in the face. That was probably one of Leonard’s ways of solving things: if charm, smiles and winks don’t work, when in doubt, spill some blood on it and it will all get better. ‘Come on, Sleeping Beauty! We’ve got a war to fight!’ he urged unceremoniously my stunned, dizzy, drenched in blood friend, and smiled a ferocious smile. ‘That was refreshing, wasn’t it? There’s another bucket of that for you at the entrance if you still feel a little woozy. And what are you three gawking at? Come on, move it and do something useful! Revive the gargoyles! Tie the night nymphs! Release the harpies! Must I do everything myself?’ *** If someone had said things were bad, it would have been a serious understatement. Thank goodness no one said it this time. All of my friends were having problems at the moment. Due to the curse not only was everyone threatened, but the line between reality and fantasy was growing thinner and thinner. Yana, for instance, was having problems with being stuck with Jake Jonathan, the man of her nightmares, and him looking more real next to her than ever, more clear and annoying than anything she’d so far seen. Velichka, on the other hand, was my second friend that was having some serious close encounters with other humanoid species. Generally, she was a girl of a cheerful disposition with a fascination for the Asian culture and a fondness for stuffed farm animals. Now, she was coming to terms with an entirely different side of her, and that was the side that saw angels in her living room. It was one angel, to be perfectly accurate. He – um, it – had turquoise eyes, vorycolored hair, perfectly white feathery wings and an expression too mild even for an angel. And it had just claimed itself to be called Possey. That was not a very suitable name for an angel, Velichka decided. Maybe he wasn’t entirely kosher. So far, the angel had just been spending hour after hour drinking her tea and babbling about trivial things. ‘So, you see,’ the angel finally returned to the main subject of the conversation, ‘like I said, my name is Possey – well, they call me that, you don’t want to know why – and I have been appointed to be your temporary guardian angel. There are… some people out there that I must protect you from. And there is no reason for me to beat

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around the bush – they are probably going to try to eat us alive. And we have to keep them off our trail, you and I, and you see, this would have been relatively easy if there hadn’t been a glitch in the plan… Because it is also our task to go fetch a certain man and take him to apologize to a certain woman, you see. Well, my task. And my other task is to protect you. Which is going to be a little difficult, of course… Oh dear…’ the angel moaned in self-pity. ‘Okay, enough,’ Velichka commanded, and the angel was rather startled by it. Still, he listened. He was desperate, and Velichka was quite good at restoring the order in situations that seemed, to others, hopeless. ‘We’ve been talking this over for too long, and you’ve had too much tea to drink, I think. I get what you must do. Just tell me what I have to do, and we’ll go fight those people or whatever they are together. Piece of cake.’ ‘Oh, okay,’ the angel felt significantly encouraged, and his feathers shook courageously as he repeated: ‘Okay. Right. Yes. Let’s do this, then. It can’t be that hard, can it? Um… let’s see… I have to ask this just in case, Velichka… Are you a remorseless heartbreaker?’ Velichka thought about it. ‘Well, everyone makes mistakes,’ she began, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, ‘but I wouldn’t use words that harsh to describe them. Heartbreaker – I don’t know about that. Remorseless – hardly.’ ‘That’ll do, that’ll do just fine,’ Possey nodded frantically, feeling more and more capable with every minute that passed. ‘That’s really great, actually. Oh, and, um, do you eat meat?’ ‘No, of course not. I’m a vegetarian.’ ‘Perfect,’ the angel beamed. ‘And, last question, Velichka, if I may,’ he added as he turned slightly for a fraction of a second, and pulled out, out of thin air it seemed, a long, elaborate sword with a golden handle and a silver blade, the latter of which was flaring and casting red-hot sparks; every inch of its surface had wild, bright red flames weaving around it. ‘Have you ever used one of these?’ *** The night was beautiful. At least from afar it was, in the chilly air that enveloped us in its cold embrace. The sky was of a deep, velvet blue shade – a personal favorite of mine – and the shimmering full moon was floating in the center of a monumental splash of white clouds. I felt deeply eager to paint it, but I quickly remembered that the only color I’d be seeing for a while soon would be red, metaphorically and literally. We were standing on the roof of a building at least eight stories tall – or, to be precise, some of us were. I was instinctively sticking to Leonard, who had transformed from a sweet-talking, spontaneous, feminine host into the Alpha vampire in the army. And truly an army it was: the streets of my world were nearly empty, with the exception of a drunk or two, but the rooftops of the buildings and the clear skies above were specked with hundreds of little black figures as far as the eye – or my eye, at least – could see. They certainly hadn’t come to attend a rather peculiar metal concert. And there weren’t just vampires out there; there were harpies, creatures of a rather nasty disposition, which the vampires had somewhat tamed, but only to the extent a

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man could tame a tiger; there were gargoyles too, lots of them, completely obedient and responsive to the vampires’ commands, and some of the vampires used them as rides as they floated gently up and down in the air on their backs – the little bats, I thought with a certain amount of irony, riding the bigger bats – and suddenly it became really clear to me why all true vampires found it essential to have statues of gargoyles built atop of their residences; and then there were the night nymphs, humming their thick strawberry half-whispers, some moaning and groaning, others giving out a shriek or two out of impatience – and mostly because they were all tied with chains as if on leashes to their fanged masters, pulling and writhing at their ends in the night like enormous, ghostly, alluring scarlet fireflies. I knew they’d save the night nymphs for dessert, in case all else failed, and if that failed too, we’d probably have to try summoning the Devil himself. I looked around. It all seemed too quiet for this to be the world I knew and lived in. In the morbid, dead silence this land felt a little more charming to me than it used to. But there was something dead wrong about it: there were no cars, no people returning from late work or clubs infesting the streets, babbling pointlessly, and most of all – no sun. It was supposed to be daytime here, I was certain. It seemed that that philosopher had been right – what was his name again? – claiming there was absolutely no reason for us people to think that the sun was sure to rise every day just because it had risen each morning for us for thousands of years. There was a first time for everything. I wondered what would happen if I tried to jump down from the top of the building; whether I’d have the time to enjoy the breeze in my hair before I ended up as a pile of skin and crushed bones in a puddle of blood in the street… and then stepped away from the edge. Death was close enough today anyway. I didn’t need to call it out. ‘Hmm,’ Huck muttered under his breath, which was condensing inches from his lips in the stinging ice-cold air. ‘That kind of reminds me of a joke about vampires standing on the roof of a building, but I can’t remember how it went…’ ‘Here’s how it went,’ Leonard whispered, his eyes glimmering in the ink-blue dusk. ‘They waited for the right moment to come, they descended like a curse from the heavens, and showed a few lousy cannibals who’s boss. It’s how it should go, and how it will go.’ He was on the tune of war in his mind already. I wished I could think war too right now, but all that came to mind were trivial or personal things, like how cold I was, or when we’d get to go home, or the equinox. I sank into the silence that followed, and then uttered, turning to Huck, as Leonard was not all there at the moment: ‘Hey, where’s Valerius? I don’t see him here. Maybe he went with the left flank?’ ‘Valerius won’t be fighting alongside us,’ Huck replied in a blank voice. ‘He said he didn’t need to risk his life for a ridiculous cause. He said war was for the people, who needed to fill their fleeting lives with meaning and believe there’s something worth fighting for, and that after three centuries in this world he was too old to believe in ghosts. He stayed behind to protect Liz, although she has a whole dimension of her own she will be perfectly safe at. She was just his excuse to stay out of this.’

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‘I see,’ I muttered, and suddenly I felt inexplicably angry with Valerius for being so impassive and selfish. His heart couldn’t be brought back to life by any power, and at the time we had spoken the day before the ball, I had seen some sense in his words, but now, when I was standing atop that building, the wind in my hair, the harpies and night nymphs screaming in the night, gargoyles making whatever sounds it was they made, I felt the ghosts in my heart more opaque than ever; I felt the rare urge to be heroic, to be brave, to put my life on the line for the world I had been raised in, which, if not perfect, had made me the person I was – and no other world could make me that: a person. The beast I was was something I was born with. Apparently, however, most vampires were not feeling this way. They murmured in hesitation and discontent. Some of those who had overheard Huck talking about Valerius’ decision were beginning to wonder if they ought to follow his example. They had no reasons to feel patriotic here, like me. To them, this was just an insignificant town filled with insignificant people filled with insignificant thoughts. Why were they supposed to care if they got eaten or not? They could be tucked in safely in their coffins right now. Leonard made a few laps on the roof of the building, his eyes glistening and bloodshot, even more than usual. For a moment, I wondered if these shimmers were signs of tears. Whatever he was thinking of, he was going through something deep. Finally, he spoke, and even the gargoyles seemed to restrain themselves from making noises as his voice grew from an ominous whisper to a passionate shout: ‘My fellow vampires,’ he began, ‘you all know that I can tell the thoughts you’re thinking right now. But I don’t need to be able to read your minds – even though I could – to guess that you’re wondering why you’re even here. Why risk your lives to save those of the humans, these pathetic, shallow creatures? Is it out of some sort of racial respect or a sense of belonging? We have no respect for them, and they do not belong to our race. They might look like us, but they are nothing like us. Why, then? Is it to fight for some sort of ideal, or a cause? Justice? Peace? Freedom? This is not our justice, this isn’t our peace, this is not our freedom.’ Leonard paused, his eyes flaring threateningly in the velvet night, and then continued speaking louder, even though vampires were usually great at hearing. ‘To tell you the truth, we have no values or causes, and we never have. We never chose to abide by any kind of morality, never helped a fellow vampire unless he would repay us somehow. We don’t feel the need to be noble. So why do it now, you ask? I’ll tell you a story, my fellow vampires. As a human, I was a poor peasant boy. My family owned nothing but a small farm consisting of three pigs and a dozen hens. In my lifetime as a human being, no fellow human ever treated me as an equal. I was humiliated and scorned; I was living in hell. As a vampire, I am more respected by vampires and people alike. And I’m sure you understand. Few of you were born the way you are. Many of you became beasts, but could have been great artists, musicians, writers, composers, dancers, physicians, scientists.’ His eyes briefly met Huck’s, and I could see a pair of scorching tears gleaming in them. ‘And their hostile, intolerant world threw us all away. And yet, they claim to be the moral ones. God’s favorites. They, who kill without ever feeling the need to! But we are indeed better: we’re not hypocrites, and we’re not the heartless animals they think us. We will show them that tonight by saving their world, something they’d never do for ours. The second reason for you to take part in this

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war,’ Leonard’s eyes cast fire and brimstone wherever they turned, and his words stirred the unbeating hearts of the masses, ‘is the innocent ones. Few as they may be out there, they do not deserve their fate, and they feel just like most of you felt in the beginning of your journey – scared, alone, abandoned. I will not tell you how many of them are musicians or physicians, but you know they’re not unlike what you started out as. And, last but not least, we’ll be facing cannibals tonight. Not mindless, vicious monsters, but men and beasts in one, with their rifles and planes and all of their other silly contraptions. And I’ll give you one last good reason to kick these posers’ teeth in and drain them to the point they’re begging for death. The line between the man and the monster is us. No one decides to feed off people, like we do, and gets away with it. This is our trademark, our privilege. That’s our food down there, and inferior creatures are stealing it from under our noses. Nobody has the right to do that! Nobody has the right to take lives they’re not worthy of! Taking lives is something only we are worthy of! And do you want to know why? Can anyone tell me why?’ Leonard’s tears had turned into frozen fury. The vampires hissed and shouted, speaking fifty at a time, making an enthusiastic, incoherent racket. Leonard beamed wickedly at them, their leader, guide and mentor: ‘You wanna know why we’re privileged to kill? I’ll tell you why! Because we do it with style!’ he shrieked, and the night echoed with the war call of Leonard the vampire. ‘Now get down there,’ he urged, ‘and show those pathetic bastards why they’ll be writing books and making movies about us for centuries to come, and we won’t drop a single line about them in our history!’ The battle roar was indescribable. I’d never heard anything like it before. Tonight was the vampires’ moment to shine, and Leonard had just pointed them at the stage. Hundreds of former artists, poets, musicians and dancers descended mightily from the sky, ready to get back those fifteen minutes of fame humanity had deprived them of. In the massive hassle in the atmosphere, Huck nudged me lightly and said: ‘If you need transport and haven’t flown a gargoyle before, we could share one… What do you say?’ And I instantly agreed, because I had always wondered what it would be like to fall from the roof of a building without dying as an inevitable result. *** ‘Possey, are you sure you know where we’re going?’ Velichka said hesitantly. They were flying past a dozen worlds at a time, as far as she could see. She hadn’t flown on the wings of an angel before. It was a little like a piggy back ride during the ascension to the top of an amusement park tower. It was unstable and nauseating; one would have expected more. This angel, Velichka was beginning to feel, was not a big shot among the other angels, that was for sure. ‘We only have three hundred and twenty-two dimensions left to check,’ Possey replied in a hurry. Velichka groaned. ‘It’s really hard holding the sword like that, trying not to burn you or myself. Can’t you turn off the flames or something?’

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‘No.’ The angel sped on, and looked at her wearily. ‘You can wave it around all you want, though, it shall not harm the righteous,’ he added. ‘One hundred and twelve… ninety-two…’ ‘How do I know if I am righteous?’ Velichka asked curiously. ‘You are, take my word for it. Seventy-three… forty-eight… thirty-one…’ he counted. ‘She’s got to be here somewhere…’ ‘So, we’re looking for an angel hiding from the other angels? Did you check Hell, then?’ First place we searched, followed by Earth and Heaven. Twenty-five… fifteen…’ ‘Are you sure you’ve checked everything? Where would she be likely to be?’ ‘We have no idea. But she must be close… eleven… four… three… two… one...’ And in the last dimension left, filled with strange fish-like creatures, Possey stopped, scared and baffled. ‘Oh, no,’ he exclaimed in a fit of despair. ‘That’s everything! If she’s not here, we’ll never find her!’ ‘Again, are you sure you’ve checked all the dimensions?’ Velichka inquired suspiciously. ‘All of the existing ones, yes. Not a trace…’ ‘What about the non-existent ones?’ ‘Impossible. All she can imagine is real to her, she’s an angel. How can you go hide in a place you can’t even imagine?’ ‘I think you’re using the wrong approach here,’ the girl pointed out cleverly. ‘Why don’t you just try to put yourself in her shoes? If you were a – what was it – a brokenhearted angel with a miserable life, what place would you choose to go to?’ ‘Hell, of course,’ Possey sighed. ‘It’s always hell. But she’s not there. It’s pointless,’ he concluded gloomily. ‘No,’ Velichka insisted, never the quitter. ‘There must be something more. You said… you said she had taken the form of a little girl. A little lost girl with no one to go to. Think about it, angel. If you were a little girl, where would you run off to?’ *** Nobody was waiting to fight us on the cold, wet ground. That was a little discouraging to me, but vampires could sniff a person out in an instant. ‘Looks like they’re throwing a party in the middle of the alley on 39,’ a vampire who looked like a blond and handsome version of Valerius announced, then licked his lips thirstily. ‘What do you say we crash it, huh, boys?’ There was a stifled roar of approval, and the vampires developed a direction – both on grounds and sky – and snuck through the alleyway until they reached a small pile of bodies on the sidewalk. A policeman and a hooker were munching them malignantly. It was a nasty sight. Thrilled by the scent of blood and violence, the front line vampires approached. To them, the cannibals were but prey, like everything else. ‘Hey!’ the tallest vampire in the front yelled. ‘Leave some for us, will you?’

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The policeman turned with something of an expression of disbelief on his face and stared at the intruder on his meal for over a minute. He could smell he was not one of theirs. He was different. Therefore, the policeman decided shooting the grinning stranger in the chest a few times in a row would be the safest thing to do. He’d finish him up for dessert. And he shot around seven times, each of the bullets piercing a black, bleeding hole in the stranger’s chest. The stranger winced, wobbled, and stared in bewilderment at the scarlet stains on his white silk shirt, which were expanding, damp and fatal. The policeman turned around and continued his interrupted brunch. Only a moment later, though, he heard an enraged gasp behind him. He turned again and saw the stranger still standing, but no longer grinning. In fact, he looked as if he was about to cry. ‘You poofter!’ he whimpered. ‘Look what you did to my beautiful shirt! I took it off one of Queen Victoria’s most trusted men, you know! It’s a relic! It’s a masterpiece – ruined! Don’t you see? I can’t get this at a Halloween store! Why, you…’ It is a well-known fact that vampires don’t mind being shot in the chest, unless silver bullets are used. Their wounds heal immediately when caused by something regular, like a knife, a gun, acid and so on. It tickles a bit, they say, and some are fond of it, the way some people are fond of the feeling of getting a tattoo. But they are most certainly not fond of anyone ruining their clothes. This was why, I figured out, the vampires had gone to war today in their finest shirts and blouses. It wasn’t just to show them off, although that had something to do with it too. But it was also because they’d do anything to protect their apparel from harm. It would work as well as armor. This vampire’s short, however, wasn’t lucky. And neither was the policeman. The hooked sprinted away on her high heels, calling someone on her cell phone as she ran, and just as the vampires on land caught up with her, she managed to say, in the speaker, something along the lines of: ”Um, Ted… we have a problem… Send us some back-up, fast!” For about an hour vampires killed, maimed, looted, broke necks, drank blood, and in a word had the best of fun in a world where everyone they met had to die – in a way, they were carrying out a social service. For about an hour, vampires did this in every part of the world they could reach – and some of them even discovered that serving justice tasted better than stealing innocence. For about an hour, every vampire formerly a human had his revenge for every underappreciated painting or mocked poem of theirs. About an hour later, special military units, SWAT teams, police forces, air forces, professional shooters, and anyone who could walk and hold a gun at the same time sprouted out of nowhere and occupied the terrain where the threat to society wreaked their righteous vengeance upon the world that had blackballed them. The vampires saw the real war coming. As they lined up and spread out for battle, some of them sighed – they’d mourn many a good shirt tonight, they knew. Well, what the hell, they decided; if that was going to happen anyway, they why not at least drench them in somebody else’s blood? ***

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Elizabeth, who was not a vampire in most senses, was walking around cheerfully in a world ordered made and designed in accordance with her imagination – a world safe from harm and filled with sunshine, flowers and unicorns. Valerius was grumpily following her through the sunny fields, carrying an umbrella, because a vampire’s word meant something. Still, he realized he could very easily be burnt to ashes at the slightest touch of a sunbeam on his skin. He was beginning to regret not having gone to war as he was calling out for Liz to walk slower. No war could ever be this scary. As he tripped through the fields of daisies and waved off the horrible pink butterflies, Valerius stumbled upon a strange object. It turned out to be the foot of a girl, but this girl was not Liz; she was much older, dark-haired, and had a huge revolting scar on her left cheek. ‘What are you doing here, child?’ he asked rather cautiously, thoroughly covered with the umbrella. And why are you crying?’ ‘I lost my mommy and daddy,’ sobbed the little girl, looking up helplessly at Valerius. ‘Will you be my mommy and daddy?’ *** It was a bad day for Roger J. Waters. He had just finished snacking on his uncle (from his mother’s side of the family) and he was feeling fairly well, when they called him out to resume his old job – which he hadn’t practiced for days – as a pilot. Twenty men in the helicopter were waiting to drop down or start shooting their snipers, because obviously something big was getting down everywhere. An unexpected attack… was it the Russians? He pondered over the thought. He was told they dressed kind of French, or maybe even Italian… Nah, it had to be the Russians. No one could pull this off but the Russians. So Roger J. Waters wasn’t having a very good day at the moment and his day got slightly worse when the helicopter suddenly shook mightily. There had to be something wrong, but nothing was heard breaking, and the noise died down quickly. Roger decided there was probably a storm coming. The sky was filled with all these small black clouds moving up and down. But there was nothing in the sky actually flying but him, the radar indicated. And the radar never lied. The weirdest thing about Roger’s day was probably the moment when, fifteen minutes after the brief jolt, an extremely beautiful woman in a long red dress entered the pilot’s cabin, sat in his lap and started kissing him passionately. Instantly, Roger forgot about everything – that he didn’t do such things with strangers, that he was a married man (he was planning on having his wife for dinner, though) and that he had a helicopter to fly. He was so thoroughly consumed, as if spellbound, by the thrilling act, that he didn’t hear a soft, male voice next to him say the words “move over, sweetie, we’ll take it from here”, and that the helicopter soon got filled with disturbing noises, strongly reminding of muffled screams. The only thing he did feel just as he was beginning to enjoy himself was two massively painful stabs in the area of his jugular vein, and a feeling of dizziness he would have compared to the one when donating blood… And then, Roger J. Waters

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felt he had lost too much blood, but was too weak to do anything about it, and thus his bad day ended badly, and so did his life. Still, a muffled, yet shrill mechanical voice continued speaking in the cabin even after his death: ‘Roger, do you copy? Cougar, do you read me? Did you take care of the riots in the west side of town? This is Eagle 43. We’re heading towards the north side, and there’s a unit heading for the town centre in twenty. Cougar, do you read me? Did you get them?’ ‘We got ‘em, Eagle 43,’ Leonard the vampire replaced Roger in the pilot’s seat of the cabin, and replied readily: ‘Can you give me the coordinates of the unit? North side, you said? Thanks, Eagle 43.’ ‘Cougar! Cougar!’ the voice rattled. ‘Cougar, do you read me? We’re headed north, yes, do you copy? Be there in a minute. Sure you got ‘em?’ ‘Roger, Eagle 43,’ the vampire confirmed, blood smeared all over his face and shirt, failing to cover only his maniacal grin. ‘No more riots in the west side. It was almost too easy.’ *** Of course, not everyone was as gallant as he was. The gargoyles crashed planes and swallowed people with parachutes whole. The harpies were simply deafening them, disturbing signals and radars and tearing the crash escapees apart. But we, who fought on the ground, found it the most difficult to cope. I was trying to hit, kick or injure whoever I could, but it wasn’t working out very well. I could still not believe I’d dodged so many bullets. I wasn’t nearly immortal, like vampires. A regular bullet would forever damage more than just my clothing. And the people were learning. They were slowly giving up stabbing and shooting, and took to alternative methods like using flamethrowers, grenades, sharp wooden objects, and running when the distance between them and the vampires wasn’t big enough. I admired the vampires, I couldn’t deny – marching fearlessly forth towards their enemies, walking proudly, suavely, elegantly, in their shirts of white silk and black satin, as if they were moving in slow motion. They were a beautiful sight to behold… until they started breaking necks, bashing heads in, eating hearts out – they were truly atrocious, furious, flawless fighters – and decapitating their opponents with their own cold weapons. I didn’t see a vampire shoot, not once – they preferred ways of killing that involved a lot of blood-gushing, tearing and cutting, the way I preferred color paintings to pencil drawings. I was fighting beside Rheetah, who had already switched to her wolf form as the bloodlust took over her, and Huck was struggling with a few lawsuit cannibals who were trying to set them on fire – but in the end he managed to mangle them in several movements so heartless and severe that I shuddered and nearly let an underage cannibal kill me. The fight went on for about five hours straight, and when I could neither breathe nor move with pain and exhaustion, something primal in me got enraged, too tired, desperate and threatened to think about morality, and this something unlocked the wolf and released it, and I could see clearer than ever in the red mist; it was like morning coffee to me, charging me with energy, hunger and fury, and I splashed blood all over and around me as Rheetah and I advanced relentlessly through the maddening crowd… and I thought I saw

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Thomas Downey somewhere too, still alive, fighting a nurse, who was beating the hell out of him… and, through the scarlet curtain, I found it funny that he was as bad a fighter as he was a kisser, and I grinned at him, but in this form of mine he must have misinterpreted it… and he shuddered, his face and arms heavily scarred – by me, undoubtedly… and I grinned once more, as he would probably never be handsome again... and then, the mist consumed me, and in one moment I was out there, growling, leaping and fighting for the innocent ones, while in the next one I was cold, and numb, and out, and the beast was out there killing… …I did not know how many hours, or days had passed… I did not know who had died or was still alive… I didn’t know the location of any of my friends… all I could see every couple of hours was Leonard’s deranged bloody grin, accompanied by wild shrieks and cackles, and he was laughing in the sea of blood that was raining over him, his pure white shirt now completely drenched in red, and he leapt, like a wild cat, from one charging or running person to another, ending life after life, slicing screaming bodies in half with so much as pocket knives… and the moon and sky grew crimson as one battle ended and another began… and, inexplicably, the beast found this scene to be gorgeous and enchanting… and I believe I must have howled at the bloodstained moon in morbid ecstasy, freer than ever, stronger than ever, not a shade of doubt in my head that this was the right thing for me to be doing… It was hell of Earth, and in my fogged mind, it was heaven. Heaven, to us, was painted red. This was war – a word no longer scary, but delicious, powerful, tempting… there was something about it the human being could not conceive… But even still, they joined in. People in hiding started rising up as the days passed and we were winning… they gathered, armed with their private guns and kitchen knives and trembling fists, and came to help us, us, the damned, who fought to kill, not to save lives… And yet, a moral fiber we had, because the innocent ones smelled so differently to us from the ones who’d killed and deserved the same fate – they smelled like snow white flowers in the spring… and the sinners… the sinners... they only smelled of blood… And out of those two fragrances, one delicate and soothing, another maddening and drugging, heaven was born. In war we had heaven, and in heaven we had freedom. And freedom was what we were fighting for. At last, we knew. This full moon, heaven smelled like blood and flowers.

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Chapter Seventeen

Dirt

I woke up, shuddered and felt like a frightened child. I only wanted to go back to
sleep again, to prove to myself that this had only been a nightmare. Alas, it wasn’t. I was lying on cold, bloody ground. I wished I didn’t remember everything I’d done. Everything we’d done. It was unforgivable. I’d been out of control, again. But all that blood and that screaming… ‘You should get some more rest,’ I heard a soothing voice flow near my ear. ‘It’s been a long day for you.’ ‘How long have we been fighting?’ I asked mechanically and turned to see who was asking. It was Huck. ‘Five days,’ he informed me. ‘You needed this break. We all did. They’ll come back for us, probably with different means, although we’ve occupied the skies over town, the buildings, and the ground spaces. But they’re still outnumbering us greatly. We can’t kill them all, anyway. We shouldn’t.’ Huck had awoken the pathetic remnants of my conscience. I whined, and sighed bitterly. ‘I’ll have a VIP spot in hell,’ I stated. ‘Huck sat by my side on the dirty ground. ‘Listen… this will be over soon. It has to… I know you’ll feel terrible about this… but you need to tell yourself to save the remorse for later. So far, your fury is the only thing that has kept you alive… that, and the full moon. When it starts waning, you won’t be able to protect yourself, and neither will we be able to protect you. So far, we have been lucky,’ Huck added grimly, ‘to still be alive. There are many casualties in our rows. We can’t fight a whole world so much more populated and advanced than ours. They’re discovering our weaknesses. If they bomb us – we’re through. This needs to end soon.’ ‘How long until the full moon starts waning?’ I asked. ‘That’s how much we’ve got, right?’ ‘Yes. That’s three days. This is the sixth one.’ ‘What? Nine days? Nine days of full moon?’ ‘Nights, to be exact. The cycles are getting really messed up. The reality of the curse is all wrong and too unstable to keep everything together. Hence the anomalies. God knows what might come next…’ ‘Don’t talk to me about God. There is no god for the likes of us.’ I sighed again, and pushed my emotions back into their holiday tomb. ‘Have we… um… lost anyone of ours? I mean… a friend.’ ‘No. Leonard is fine, a small explosion barely grazed him. Rheetah’s arm was mangled a few hours ago, but she can live with a couple of few scars. Your friend Savrax is at the western barricades, so he is safe.’ ‘We have barricades now?’ ‘Do you think you’re just lying unprotected here in the middle of the street?’

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I tried to stand up slowly. Every single bone in my body screamed in agony. This dark morning, heaven felt like hell. I’d better get used to it, I thought, ‘cause that’s where I’m going when I’m dead. ‘What about that angel girl?’ I asked. ‘Has she been found yet?’ ‘No, not yet. But they are looking. Jake passes by briefly every five hours or so in case any information comes up. You’re not going to believe it. I saw him fight, using little more than a frying pan and a piece of an old sweater. He’s freaking invincible.’ ‘Told you he was good at what he does.’ ‘He said he was going to try to talk some and demons into joining the battle. They’ll be of use. We’ll need something to protect us from a potential fire. We’re not wizards, you know.’ ‘I hope that works,’ I said blankly. I wasn’t sure if I had anything left to feel. ‘Oh, and a tall man with long black hair came to see you about an hour ago. Said he was, um, your guardian demon. He’s guarding your house at the moment, even though he was ordered otherwise.’ ‘Frankie was here?’ I exclaimed in a slight parody of elation. ‘Oh, God… no, it’s okay… the person he was going to guard can do magic and stuff... and fight… and since the rules are unstable now… You know, Frankie’s got some powers we could use, too. He’s not thinking of dying anymore, is he?’ ‘I’m afraid he is.’ Huck sighed. ‘He stared into the bloody nothingness for a while. ‘I’m sorry, Wera, he’s made up his mind. But he truly cares for you, I think. He made me promise I’d keep you safe.’ ‘He does indeed.’ I was getting sick of empty, impassive silences. ‘Listen, we need a plan. We can’t count on Frankie or angels and demons just yet. We need to come up with something that will defend us against the next move.’ ‘We can only hope the angel is found soon.’ ‘No, we need to do something now. Otherwise, if she’s not found in three days, we’ll have to move out or die slowly and either way, this world will be lost to us. I can’t let this happen. I have a boring, unbearable normal life in it!’ I amazed myself when I thought that I might actually miss that life if I were never to get back to it. ‘Oh, damn, it would have been so much easier if we were fighting other vampires… I’d just kiss them and they’d die…’ And then, the idea briefly grazed my mind as it flew past. ‘Holy hell! I’ve got it!’ I shouted with something that could have passed as joy, and Huck seemed equally thrilled to hear it, too. ‘Get me to my house,’ I commanded. ‘Use a gargoyle, anything you can think of. I need to be there in ten minutes. There is something I need to do…’ *** ‘In that case, you should definitely not forgive him,’ Valerius advised, nodding his head with terminal certainty. Cocaine had explained her entire situation to him. He had somehow inspired her to share. He knew who she was, and that he cold have stopped the war if he’d just convinced her – and that would have been easy – to forgive Jeremy and lift the curse. But Valerius was evil, which meant that he was honest and unbiased in those exact

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moments in which good people inevitably lied. So he expressed his sincere opinion on the subject, and ruined the whole thing. Still, he was getting bored here. Cocaine and Liz had decided to play a game. He was keeping the conversation going out of common courtesy. But deep down inside, Valerius realized that, as much as he couldn’t care less about this or that cause or war, somewhere out there people and vampires were dying. Innocent blood was being shed. And all of this was happening at unbelievably horrific rates that very moment in an entire world. Valerius damned himself. He was missing all the fun. *** Prior to the beginning of the war, I had briefly thought about summoning the Devil as a joke. Now, I thought I deserved laughing at myself because of this assumption. I was standing beside the window of my room, which was where I had met him both times when I’d called him over. Summoning the Devil was not that hard, contrary to most popular beliefs. You just had to think of destroying everything good in you or, in the cases when there was no time for that, write him a letter. It had worked the second time, and that was what I was doing now. Writing a letter to the Devil. Luckily, his correspondence was almost always satisfactory. Satan did reply more often than Santa, that had to be given to him. And this time I summoned him because, since God had forsaken us, we could use an ally like the Devil in the fight… and I thought, hey, if victory was just a kiss or two away, why not? But things didn’t work that way. ‘Hmm,’ the Devil said to me in a lazy, dragged out voice, a nearly flawless copy of Leonard standing before me in a jeans and black jacket. ‘The outcome of a war… that is a pretty serious deal, darling. You don’t honestly think that a single kiss is going to pay for that deal, are you?’ ‘I’m up for more than one,’ I retorted bravely. ‘How much past first base would you like us to go?’ ‘Honey,’ the Devil shook his pretty blond head, ‘I think you are missing the point. I’m not interested in your body – not that there is anything wrong with it – and neither do I care for whatever imitations of love you can display before me. You know exactly what I want, what I’ve wanted and will want from you, the single small fee I expect of anyone negotiating with me to pay me. And that is your soul,’ he smiled softly. ‘Forgive me if I am so direct, but I have little time. Think about it, Wera – you’re probably going to hell anyway. What do you need your soul for? I believe you’ve kept me waiting long enough.’ ‘That’s a price too high,’ I muttered blankly. ‘For anyone and anything. You know I can’t do this. I’m very, very sorry.’ ‘The price is only high because the service is expensive. This is very reasonable, Wera. You could buy off the lives of your friends with this. Who knows what might happen to them in the future…’ ‘I’m sorry.’ For that, I would never give in. Wicked I may be, and maybe that made me even more wicked, but to the point that I defined myself as me, to the bottom

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of my soul I would protect it from harm, even if the whole world were to collapse around me. This was probably evil. I didn’t care. This was who I was. The Devil shook his head in disappointment. ‘You are such a strange one, Wera,’ he reflected with a small, twisted smile. ‘You summon me here, expecting to close a deal with me at a price I obviously won’t settle for. You’re willing to feel my wrath rather than ensure the safety of your loved ones – all for something silly, ghostly, useless – like a soul.’ ‘If it were that useless, you wouldn’t want it so much,’ I growled. Today, he was not the beast bit charming. ‘Fair enough, fair enough. Aw well, I shall leave you to your business then, Wera, and I have lots of my own to attend to. I wish you the best of luck in your battle, and be careful on your way to the fight… you never know what might happen. See you soon… not too soon, I hope… but you never know…’ He left a small scent of roses and perfume behind, with a hidden tincture of death. I walked out, disappointed and pale. My plan had failed. I hadn’t expected it to work, anyway, but I thought the Devil was interested in things remaining the same on Earth… but maybe he was entertained… With him, you never knew. The streets outside stank of death, on the other hand. I was silent, distracted and gloomy. It seemed, for a moment, that there was no escaping the hell that had seemed like heaven the previous nights. I’d be stuck in a damp, scarlet heaven forever… Through the blur of my thoughts, absent-mindedly, I saw Frankie the fiend throwing himself at me with distant, muffled shouts. I didn’t understand what was going on, but he didn’t get to me in time. Mere moments after I’d walked out on my street, a ball of steaming, searing fire swept us all. Another explosion followed on the other side of the road. It erupted through the glass of a shop window, and it was shredded in millions of angry shards that rained in every direction like tiny arrows, sharp, countless and lethal. I fell to the ground, hoping to evade the hellish storm of glass and fire. For a moment, there was nothing in the world but light, and pain, and noise, and then gunshots filled my collapsing universe, and the last thing I saw before I totally lost it was a heavily armed man in green determinately pointing a rifle at me... The moment I saw that, I knew that I’d see Satan a lot sooner than I’d hoped to. That was his revenge. Hell hath no fury like a Devil scorned. A part of me found this funny; I took a deep breath, kissed my soul goodbye and completely lost my mind. And then – that was probably some time after I’d lost my mind, no doubt – I saw a dark velvet silhouette rush into the scene, and I was pretty sure I saw Valerius stab the shooter in the neck with a silver dagger, whilst riding a freaking unicorn. ***

That couldn’t possibly be hell. It was cool, dark, damp and resembled an old abandoned house. I stirred on something soft. I had almost forgotten what cotton sheets felt like.

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The moment I saw Valerius’ face floating in the air above me I knew I wasn’t in hell. Hell had no room for Valerius. He was worthy of having an improved subdivision of the inferno worse than hell itself just for himself. Right now, he was grinning happily, and I was aching all over, which meant that I was alive, and my knight on a sparkly white unicorn – where the hell had he got his hands on that? – had transported me to a safer location. ‘Nice horse,’ I coarsely uttered the first sarcastic remark that sprang to mind. Valerius didn’t mock me back. ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you where I got it,’ he replied matter-offactly. ‘I found the angel you’re all looking for, by the way.’ I tried springing up out of the bed in a sudden rush of adrenaline, and I would have probably succeeded, if the vampire hadn’t pushed me back into my previous position. As a result, I hit my head badly. ‘Ow!’ I protested. ‘Haven’t gotten much sweeter since we last met, have you?’ ‘You just lie there now,’ Valerius advised. ‘You’re not in the state to fight, and I’m sure that’s what you’ll run off doing if I told you more about what was happening. But, a long story short, the good guys are alive, your demon friend is doing some weird stuff to fend off the explosions, and the repented rockstar is advancing towards the angel’s location, now that I’ve informed everyone of it. It won’t be a big deal if you miss a day of the battle. You need to rest, and I’m too lazy to take you out there again.’ He pushed me harshly back again with a frown as he saw me trying to be stubborn. ‘You’re not severely injured. But you haven’t got one bit of strength in you to carry on right now.’ I grimly accepted my condition. Valerius was right. Even if I did manage to get out of bed, I wouldn’t reach the door. The moon outside was bright and shiny, and its pale, soft light was pouring into the old dusty room. If it weren’t for the screams and shootings, one would think there was no war going on. ‘What made you come back?’ I asked the vampire weakly. ‘I thought you didn’t see any point in wasting your time fighting for ghosts?’ ‘I don’t,’ he replied in a meek voice. ‘I just got bored. I see you’re still fighting for yours, though, aren’t you?’ he raised the imminent eyebrow. I smiled feebly. Even if it wasn’t much, it was the first real smile that had haunted my face in a long time. I felt flattered. ‘Yeah,’ I admitted. ‘I thought that they had all gone away… but when I went out there, I saw there was something worth fighting for after all.’ ‘Ah,’ Valerius produced a small smirk. ‘Still holding on to your delusions, I see. What a shame. And I thought there was hope for you.’ ‘There isn’t,’ I said hollowly. ‘I did many terrible things these days. I don’t know how I’ll be able to forgive myself.’ ‘You will,’ the vampire assured me, staring distractedly in the direction of the window, ‘and you will do so quicker than you’ve ever imagined. Tell me,’ he added, ‘would you blame a wild animal for hunting down its prey?’ I’d heard this little speech on numerous occasions in my life. Usually, it would come from my own mouth. ‘Of course not. That’s its nature. It has no conscience. I do, on the other hand.’

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‘Fair enough. Would you blame a human being, then, for eating meat products, even though he or she could go without them?’ ‘No, I wouldn’t. I myself believe that nature is mostly about predator and prey, and people are no exception.’ ‘Then you wouldn’t blame yourself for doing what you’ve done either,’ Valerius concluded calmly. ‘Problem solved. It’s just the way it is. Ghosts are pretty, but they won’t fill your stomach.’ He gazed dreamily into the moon in the haunting silence. I could swear he was ready to sigh. I didn’t see this coming from someone so cynical. His controversial personality amused me. ‘What do you believe in, then?’ I teased him as he was obviously trying to focus on the moonlight. ‘Okay, I know you said you didn’t waste your time believing in things… but then what is it that’s worth wasting your time with? What’s this passion of yours anyway; what do you collect?’ Valerius laughed a long, exquisite laugh following that, tilting his head back in laughter which seemed all too dramatic and compulsory. With his black cloak brimmed with red, and that theatrical laughter of his, he ought to volunteer for a role in “The Phantom of the Opera”, I thought secretly to myself. ‘These are too many questions too complicated to be answered so fast,’ he began, turning his head towards me. After a bit of contemplation, he suspected I wouldn’t let him watch the sky in peace, and sat beside me at the bed’s corner. ‘But I will tell you what I am a collector of. I am a collector of feelings, impressions, experiences.’ ‘What, because you don’t have any of your own?’ I jeered. ‘Gosh, that’s so sad.’ ‘That is most probably true,’ the vampire agreed, looking away. I immediately regretted my previous words. Now, Valerius seemed still and cold. ‘Now, you see, I expect of you to look at me and envision some horrid tragic story lurking in the shadows of my childhood, my mortal life, or my early years as who I am today. The truth is,’ he continued blankly, ‘that my lifetime, before vampirism and after, has not been marked by any particularly thrilling events. No terrible tragedies, no tremendous joys, no great achievements, no romantic conquests worth being told. However, it might surprise you that I have not always been this… level-headed,’ he confessed with a brief blink. I didn’t let this detail escape me. ‘Level-headed?’ I repeated. ‘I’d say you’re downright heartless sometimes. Nothing touches you, it seems. Maybe I am headed this way, too, but you… you’re a professional. I suppose the only way for you to develop your wits and your sarcasm to such a level was for you to get your emotions out of the way.’ ‘Ah, but in my world, after three hundred years, wits count for not, Vera,’ Valerius replied with the faintest shade of disappointment in his voice. ‘As does everything, for that matter. If you allow yourself to be as clever and witty as you can be, sooner or later you will be clever enough to realize that nothing in this world is noble enough to justify the human – or vampire – existence. Life becomes dull, monotonous and pointless when the last drop of idealism is drained from you. And indulging in petty amusements is not enough to treat this emptiness. One needs to find a thrill to keep him going. Which is why I need my passion so much,’ he added. ‘It’s the only passion that I’ve got.’

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‘Does it help?’ I asked. Valerius was a dim silhouette, radiating nothing but cold. I realized I ought to feel sorry for him, but I couldn’t bring myself to, as the constant imperturbability he emanated indicated that he would have little or no use for my sympathy. ‘Seeking out new experiences? Is it a good enough substitute for a proper meaning in life?’ Valerius shook his head against the moonlight. ‘At first, it is,’ he uttered quietly. ‘One could go very far solely on the hope that there are so many new things yet to experience. But I am three centuries old, my dear. I have seen it all, tried it all, felt it all – and none of it stirred a nerve in my sold out soul, none of it made my heart skip a beat even when it still could. Now, all I can do is laugh at the pointlessness of it all, because there is no more point in crying than there is in laughter, but laughter is the more pleasant out of the two… The only thing I’ve yet to experience for myself is an equinox. That silly little myth. And that is why this,’ he pointed a long, peaked finger at the scratched and stained gold necklace, which had somehow survived the battles and was hanging stoically from my neck, ‘is of so much value to me. Because, you see, once I’ve discovered its essence, I will either see that there is absolutely nothing in any world worth living for, or – and I doubt the latter – I will come across something amazing that will change me forever. Either way, this will be very… interesting,’ he finished with something similar to content in his voice. I shrugged. ‘Have you ever been in love?’ I muttered quietly. The vampire grinned morbidly at the opposite wall. ‘Yes,’ he said through gritted teeth, this time with a fair amount of self-irony. ‘Several times. Each of them I thought I had been blessed with the greatest love of all time. You can’t imagine how wrong I was.’ ‘Oh, I can,’ I disagreed peacefully. ‘Love is overrated. It’s every bit as strong as they say it is, it can be a force more destructive than hatred. And yet, it doesn’t change your world. It doesn’t make it a brighter place once and for all.’ For the first time since the beginning of the dispute, Valerius turned to look at me, and stared in amazement, with his widest, most human ironic grin. ‘What do we have here?’ he purred wickedly. ‘You surprised me, Vera. From you, I expected to either hear a long, passionate speech in defense of true love, or a steely rant of fiery venom, the one typical for every woman recently bruised by a romance gone bad. But I never expected you to admit that love, at the end of the day, doesn’t change your world. I thought your world revolved around abstract ghost bodies like love and purity and such, and changed in accordance with their evolution.’ ‘It used to,’ I sighed. Valerius looked me in the eyes, and I felt better heard than I did before, when he had his back turned on me, speaking to the wall and reeking of superiority and ice. There was something strangely soothing now, about the soft look of his insightful greenish eyes locked in between the sharp features of his face. ‘I’ve felt my faith in all those things I held dear, like love, virtue, purity and such, draining away lately. When you see something for what it really is, it is much harder to keep on believing in it. But love… love is not an issue anymore. Love I don’t need to mourn,’ I confessed. ‘It is the loss of innocence that torments me the most.’ ‘The loss of what?’ Valerius uttered, his face briefly twitching with disgust.

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‘Innocence,’ I repeated grimly. ‘I always wanted to be innocent, ever since I was a little girl, and I really thought I had it, as a part of my soul… But now I see that I never did,’ I explained while Valerius was looking more and more disappointed with me. ‘I tried to bring innocence into the matters of love… and you can imagine what a monumental failure I experienced.’ Valerius sighed and shook his head, like a strict, exhausted parent seeing their child painting on the walls with strawberry jam. ‘I don’t believe in innocence,’ he stated firmly, ‘because there is none. This is probably the greatest mirage in the world. In my lifetime, I have never seen innocence, I’ve never tasted or touched it, and I’m sure I never will. And neither will you.’ ‘I tried so hard to find it, cultivate it, cherish it, preserve it,’ I complained. ‘I wanted to live in a pure way, love somebody in a pure way. I thought that some day, somehow, I would manage to avoid the dirt…’ The vampire smiled a friendly, condescending smile at me. ‘Everything in our worlds is dirt, Vera, especially in love,’ he explained dryly, and his glance fled back to the patch of moonlight by the window. He patted me encouragingly on the shoulder. ‘You just haven’t found your type of dirt yet.’ I grunted skeptically. ‘I don’t believe you will be able to convince me that there is a type of dirt that I could like,’ I said. Valerius defeated me with a grin. ‘Well, maybe blood is your type of dirt.’ ‘What? Oh, come on, I’m not that bloodthirsty when I am entirely myself!’ ‘By blood, I meant suffering. Sorrow, melancholy, sentimental stuff. Inner darkness. That’s your kind of dirt, I’m guessing. You hold on to your tattered faith in innocence, desperately hoping that everything – and everyone – is purer in the dark. Oh, but the dark is the place where the most atrocious sins take place, girl. Purity – in light, darkness, sorrow, and even in your dying loved one’s arms – simply doesn’t exist. There is only dirt.’ Inexplicably, that statement made the world seem a bit brighter; made worrying about my fading innocence a little bit pointless. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I craved to be relieved of that burden. I was tired of my life’s quest. I sat up and watched the slowly waning moon for a while next to Valerius. In its own way, it was relaxing, just sitting there marveling at the beauty of the night sky, not thinking about war, not thinking about purity and dirt, not thinking about life at all. It was as though we were already dead. It was a highly underestimated feeling. Valerius was gazing, quiet and still, smiling lightly, blinking lazily and softly at my reflection in the stained window. He, of course, had none. The wind was whistling gently underneath the door of the room. ‘There’s just one thing I don’t understand,’ I grinned, some long forgotten cheerfulness returning to me all of a sudden. ‘Since you do not care about anything… and since you keep making fun of those with shallow, mortal understandings of the world… how come you get to indulge in something as shallow as painting your nails black? Is there any dark secret behind it?’ I teased. Valerius shyly looked down at his nails. ‘The truth is,’ he replied, with a nearly sentimental note in his voice, ‘that, unfortunately, I have my foolish sides as well. I simply think it looks cool.’

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I laughed at him, the way I’d laugh at a friend – harmlessly, spitelessly, with a bit of attachment to the person’s flaws and weaknesses. The vampire’s eyes narrowed mischievously in response. He smirked, leapt forth, and, grabbing the edge of the sheets I was covered with, revealed my bare toes in a mere fraction of a second, thus nearly giving me a heart attack with his abrupt movements. Afterwards, he sat back triumphantly. He had managed to embarrass me once again. My toenails were painted red. For some reason, I liked the way the bold color of blood stood against pale skin. I had tried it a few months ago for the first time, just to see what it would look like, and it had become a habit ever since. ‘Black and red,’ Valerius murmured, his usual smirk stuck on his face. ‘It never gets old.’ To my own astonishment, horror and various other emotions I didn’t want to admit feeling, he reached out a spider-like hand towards my right foot, took it carefully by the ankle, and thoughtfully examined the words on my tattoo. I shuddered. My stomach was a tangled contracting mess. I hadn’t forgotten what had happened in that dream of mine. ‘Charming,’ the vampire commented on the tattoo, but the condescendingly raised eyebrow spoke more sincerely than his words. ‘Hm… you’re a rather puzzling person. Perhaps I was too rash in drawing a conclusion about your type of dirt. Now that I’m looking at you, I’d expect it to be anything.’ There is probably not a single woman in the world that doesn’t enjoy being called unpredictable. I, for one thing, knew this would never be true about me. But it still felt good to hear. ‘Me,’ I began, ‘I need to hear something very specific from somebody if I am to indulge in his, um, dirt. You know… something that this person truly means, not just something that they know I’d like to hear. Something that will bring some meaning into… into the dirt.’ I very nearly blushed. Valerius, on the other hand, seemed to have his reasons to contemplate on that. ‘You mean a compliment? Something that explains the reasons why this person would be interested in you, and at the same provides you with the certainty that he does, indeed, like you for the right reasons?’ ‘Yes, exactly… it’ll have to be something most people wouldn’t like about me, though. Something obvious, but meaningful. Something that speaks of me as a person.’ Valerius stared at the moonlit sky again. ‘Like,’ he began slowly, as if he was trying to come up with a complicated theory, ‘say, your physique, for example? Aw, come on, you know what I mean. You’d want him to compliment you on that which is frightening about you… on that very line where tenderness and elegance border on the tormented, on the distant echo of suffering, deprivation and horror that is imprinted on an undernourished body such as yours. And, I am sure you take great pride in that torment, that deprivation that your very figure speaks of,’ his face was blank as he reflected. My jaw had dropped. ‘And I’m sure you say to your lovers that you want them to want you for who you are, but what you really want is for them to take notice of what you’re lacking, what you’ve

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endured, what you’ve survived… But, in the end, from a strictly biological point of view, the only thing that a thin body is lacking is food, a vital source of energy for every individual, a source of life, if you will – and the only thing that makes a thin wrapping of a thin soul appear the way it does is, of course, hunger. That is the single clearest thing your looks, behavior, and words speak of. So, in other words, the ideal compliment for you would be: I’m attracted to your hunger. Am I right?’ he asked, beaming darkly at me. ‘Not even close!’ I was outraged, or at least I thought I was. ‘That was not at all the thing I would have wanted to hear!’ ‘Then I must have said the right thing,’ Valerius concluded contentedly. Something made me look desperately around. The vampire was looking directly at my face, and that was more than unusual for him. For a moment, I saw something very wrong with the situation. I didn’t want to draw any rash conclusions, but I remained alert, just in case. ‘Um… are you?’ I mumbled nervously, hoping I’d never know the answer. ‘Am I what?’ ‘Attracted to my hunger?’ War could never be as frightening as that moment. The eyes of the vampire rolled in their orbits mysteriously, and his face acquired a malicious grin as he savored the seconds of my torture while he deliberately delayed the answer. ‘That depends. Are you attracted to mine?’ There are the moments in a person’s life when they’re faced with the realization that their face and another person’s face have suddenly become situated much closer than they are supposed to. I covered mine with a hand in embarrassment. ‘No, no, this is ridiculous!’ I whimpered, trying not to look at Valerius’ shameless grin at all. ‘I know what you’re trying to do!’ I said through the palm of my hand. ‘You’re trying to kill yourself, because you’ve got nothing left to feel in your life! I won’t let you!’ I tried to move as far away from him as possible. He responded with a clueless, innocent laugh. ‘Why would you think I am trying to kill myself?’ ‘Oh, don’t give me that! I can see what you’re doing! Attracted to my hunger, blah blah, that’s just mind candy! You’re trying to get me to kiss you, and you know that you will die if I do, the saliva of the werewolves and no-turners is lethal to the – ’ ‘Spare me the chemistry lecture,’ the vampire groaned, annoyed. ‘Yes, I know all of that, thank you. And I am most certainly not out to die, not tonight, that’s for sure.’ He sighed, stood up, shook his head irritably, and gave me a cold, weary look. ‘I think it’s time you gave me what was mine from the start, Vera,’ he said, extending an implacable hand in expectation. ‘Yes, the medallion. Come on, now. There’s nothing in it for you. It won’t lead you to the equinox. It won’t lead you to truth, happiness, innocence, or a goddamn dark nirvana. Hand it over. I’m tired of waiting.’ I ogled him, revolted, then took the necklace off my neck in several abrupt, offended movements, and slapped the pendant angrily in his hand. ‘You don’t deserve it,’ I scowled.

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Valerius eyed the pendant with reverence, smiled gently at it, and carefully drew the thin golden chain over his neck. When he did so, he looked sinister, confident and royal. It made me sick. ‘And now,’ he turned to me with a meek smile, a smile that stunned me with the amount of care and humanity in it, and for a moment I cursed myself for being so damn emotional for no good reason right now, and wished to go back to the state of spiritual numbness, ‘I will show you what it can do.’ He sat by me on the bed again, to my renewed horror (this guy simply didn’t give up!), and tried to muster a warm, earnest appearance. It didn’t work. ‘Vera,’ he uttered, ‘I do not see why this should be so complicated. I do not see any sense in us playing hunter and hunted until the morning comes. I don’t want to manipulate you, of all people I know, and whatever I say to you with the intention of making a good impression on you will be a lie, we both know that. And I’m sure you’re tired of lies. So I’ll be straight with you: yes, I am drawn to your hunger. Yes, that makes me a beast, and it doesn’t surprise me, as there is barely any man left in me after all these years. And no, I am not out here to steal your innocence, your heart, or any other valuable possession of yours. To be honest, I do not find them valuable enough to steal.’ He blinked, and his face became perfectly serious, and his voice grew into a tense, tormented whisper: ‘But I’ll be damned, I am a collector. I collect the essences of things, the fragrance of every mirage, the taste of every experience I find worth exploring. And if this ingredient in you that I am hunting down tonight is never meant to reach me,’ his hands trembled ominously as he said that, and his eyes glistened, maniacal, desperate, pining, ‘then, forgive me for saying it, but any prolonging of my dry, tedious existence would be completely, excruciatingly meaningless. Understand?’ The vampire was still looking at me tensely. He did seem perfectly ready to die. I felt like I was in a stupid movie. ‘Listen,’ I began, saddened, threatened, and most of all terrified, trying to come up with a way to talk him out of his stupid plan. ‘This is a little overdramatic for you. Narrowing your existence down to one single pursuit… I’ve been there, and it doesn’t end well… There are other things… what about the equinox, and – ’ ‘To hell with the equinox,’ Valerius hissed. The moon was doing its job. There was more than one kind of hunger out there, I realized. I was supposed to be scared, I knew, but I was only scared for his life, because he was beckoning me to kill him, and given the way it had to be done, I wasn’t sure if I could resist the offer… ‘But… but…’ I whined helplessly. Damn you, Valerius, I thought, and damn your hungry, tortured eyes, and damn your morbidly pretty fingers, wrapped around your stupid golden necklace! ‘But you said it yourself, just now! There is nothing beautiful in the world, nothing pure, nothing left worth exploring! It’s all dirt, isn’t it? That means that I am nothing but dirt as well! Not something worth dying for!’ Valerius smiled simply at me. His hair was falling over his forehead here and there, tangled with the moonbeams coming from the window. For a moment, I thought I caught, with my improved at full moon hearing, the faint, organic throb of a heartbeat in his swollen veins.

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‘Dirt is all we are, indeed,’ he whispered, and his voice dripped what people called passion, as hard as I tried to ignore it. ‘And you are my kind of dirt.’ I let him kiss me, standing still, waiting, in a state of condensed terror, to feel the taste of ashes on my lips, see him crumble to dust, or choke, or hear his faint, slow heartbeat no more. Later on, I realized that he would mock me for not figuring out the power of the equinox pendant earlier. He didn’t seem to be dying of whatever poison I was to his system, not while he was wearing the little symbol of the ghost of innocence anyway. In any case, if he was dying, then what a lovely death it had to be… And so I stopped trying to protect myself from Valerius, because he was, after all, hardly a man and most of all, a monster – and monsters had the habit of being sincere and pure in almost any situation in which people weren’t, and I held his bony, black-nailed, overdramatic hand as he stripped off his masks and half-grins one by one, and as the night enveloped us lovingly, and the war outside wept and howled, calling us, who had eloped, I thought to myself, what the hell – in the light of the slowly waning moon, and in the right angle he actually did look rather handsome… Besides, you had to give it to him, as the enchanted golden pendant rose and fell on his snow white chest – there was definitely something admirable about a monster who was man enough to have thought of protection.

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Chapter Eighteen

Forever In Darkness

The night was young, bright and beautiful and smelled of snow white flowers. For
the first time in a long time, I felt at peace with myself. For reasons I could not conceive, some London After Midnight song was ringing in my head. Valerius was lying beside me, breathing lightly, as though he felt obliged to be quiet. He was staring thoughtfully at the ceiling. We both had our arms wrapped around each other, but very, very carefully and humbly, as though we were trying to pretend we weren’t. The vampire looked more beautiful now than I had ever seen him. He had an expression of humble purity on his face, which wasn’t crooked by any of his usual twisted grins. Without them and his dark, theatrical clothes, he no longer seemed menacing or intimidating – instead, he looked frail, graceful and vulnerable. But even with the most sinister clothes on, I’d never be able to see him the same way. Dirt he spoke very well of, but dirt he couldn’t deliver. Instead, in the scene in which wild, remorseless lust had a reservation, something sacred had taken place. Out of the dirty soil, white flowers had grown. That was how things went in life sometimes. You went out searching for angels and you found beasts. You went out looking for beasts and you found angels. I cast a quick, forbidden glance at Valerius’ profile. I didn’t want him to see I was looking at him and leave. But damn, was I glad to see that he hadn’t fallen asleep. The truth was that Valerius couldn’t fall asleep even if he wanted to. He had collected a rather thrilling sensation tonight. It hadn’t felt at all like sin, and he had sinned a lot, and yet he felt somewhat guilty about this experience more than he did about any other. His world, of course, hadn’t been changed by a single event. But it was finding it terribly hard to remain the same. One of Valerius’ mirages had become real to him. He had seen innocence tonight, and, more importantly, he’d seen it in himself too, to his own amazement. And he finally knew what innocence was. It was a sexually transmitted disease. His flat chest rose up and down, his silhouette slender and pale in the moonlight. I enjoyed lying next to him, my hand gently pressed against his knuckles. He didn’t make me feel skinny. His skin soaked up all my body heart, though, and sent it into the nothingness until there was none of it left. Even under the sheets, I felt terribly chilly – that’s why people should hang out with vampires in the summer, – so I tried standing up and reaching out to get my clothes. The moment I moved, however, Valerius threw himself towards me with a terrified gasp, clasped his bony fingers around me and spoke for the first time in a while: ‘No!’ was what he pronounced frantically. ‘Don’t!’ I was stunned. ‘Don’t what?’ ‘Don’t leave! If you do, I’ll die!’
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I continued being stunned. People never seemed to care if you left once you’d given them everything they’d wanted – unless you had more to give them, of course. I wanted to tell him that I was simply going to get dressed, but it seemed a little too trivial given the occasion. I remained freezing in his desperate grip. ‘What do you mean you’ll die?’ I asked. ‘Is there something wrong? Um, I messed up, didn’t I?’ ‘You mustn’t leave!’ Valerius repeated on the verge of panicking. ‘You have no right to do this to me!’ ‘Do what to you?’ I exclaimed, bewildered. He was definitely not alright, I was beginning to realize. That was my first subconscious rule in the choice of men: there had to be something wrong with them. ‘Well, use me for your amusement, of course!’ the vampire complained. ‘What do you think I mean?’ I was far too shocked to even feel offended. ‘What? Use you for my amusement? I thought you were using me for your amusement! And since when do you have a problem with this, anyway?’ ‘Since today!’ Valerius whined. I’d never seen him like this. I’d never seen him express actual feelings. ‘This isn’t something you can turn your back on, you know! This is a… work of art! I put a lot of heart into it, you know!’ ‘Well so did I!’ ‘But I didn’t mean to!’ ‘Neither did I!’ ‘So… it was real, then?’ the vampire muttered in disbelief. I looked at him, equally incredulous. ‘It’s not a… mirage? And you’re not going anywhere? I can’t believe it…’ ‘Tell me about it. I still can’t believe you’re not fast asleep.’ I felt he needed more reassuring on the subject, so I planted a small kiss on his lips, to show him that I cared and I was grateful for his being there. It had been planned to be a small one, at least. I had thought I’d never be able to show affection towards anyone in this way after Charlie. But old habits died hard. ‘You were recently very miserable, weren’t you?’ I turned to him with a soft smile. ‘You had to be, to find comfort in the arms of someone as disturbed as me.’ ‘And you must be disturbed indeed, to give the gift of your innocence to someone as wicked as me,’ Valerius raised an eyebrow. I could tell he was relieved. If he was raising eyebrows, he was becoming his old self again. ‘Hey!’ I retorted, with an ironic grin across my face. ‘Who said I gave you my innocence? I thought there was no innocence, only dirt, right?’ ‘Oh, you did give me your innocence. I know you did, because you have infected me with it to my blood!’ Valerius insisted, and his eyes glistened weirdly. ‘What am I to do now?’ I shrugged. ‘You don’t get it.’ The vampire looked as if he was about to cry. ‘I have never felt anything quite like this before! Vera, I was wrong! I was wrong about everything!’ he pleaded. Suddenly, the world seemed like a really dark place.

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‘No, you were right,’ I replied hollowly after a short pause. ‘And trust me – you’re not the first person to say this to me. Later, it turns out to be lies, and from then on it’s all about the grip, the speed, and the dirt. Dirt is all we are, Valerius, and that’s that.’ I sighed bitterly, escaped his loosened clutch and started getting dressed. ‘And my dirt, my curse is that I infect everyone I touch with my idealistic delusions, and then I start believing these delusions were their own to start with. It’s all lost in the end. I’m sorry I infected you, Valerius – but don’t worry, it’ll pass.’ ‘You’re wrong!’ he insisted, but the determination in his voice was fading. ‘This isn’t going to pass just like that. You’ll see, I’m a vampire, I can sense what’s immortal! Please believe me, Vera, I’m a changed man!’ I sighed again, sent a feeble, joyless smile his way, and walked out of the room for some bloodshed to clear my head. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said hollowly at the door. ‘I don’t trust men anymore. I only trust monsters.’ *** Velichka was having a very interesting week. She had gotten acquainted with angels. She had learned to hold and wave a fiery sword around. She had fought demons. She had shot a water pistol filled with holy water. She had gotten to know Jake Jonathan, and that was amazing enough in itself. Recently, she’d shaken hands with Jeremy Fisherman, the rockstar, although she wasn’t very sure if that was good or bad. She only hadn’t yet seen Lawrence Fishburne, but there was still time for that. ‘Do you think he’ll make it?’ she asked Possey, with whom she was currently sitting at the end of a meadow in a candy-like, fairytale world. Beyond the meadow, an inferno of storm, fire and ice spread. ‘I hope so,’ Possey replied worriedly. ‘Where he’s going he needs to go himself. It’s up to him to set things right. We’re lucky we made it through this far. I could have never done it without you,’ he praised the girl beside him. Velichka looked up at the darkening sky and shuddered. ‘I really hope he makes it too. Personally, I wouldn’t forgive him, though. I mean, look at him. He’s a freak. And as for his music – I have no words…’ Jeremy Fisherman couldn’t hear any of this, but he was feeling bad enough anyway. He was advancing with great difficulty through a frozen lake the surface of which could crack under his boots any minute. He dreaded the idea of drowning, but not as much as that of facing Cocaine in her ice castle on top of the icy mountain on the other side of the lake, the center of her modified morbid world, made even crueler for his own personal torment. The castle of ice got the message across pretty clearly. But he wouldn’t give up. Not this time. For once, he would stop whining and wallowing in self-pity and try to do the impossible. Because he had high hopes. *** Killing again really took the edge off things, but this time it didn’t seem to be enough. I wanted to see Valerius stabbed to death with his own silver dagger.

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There is a generally accepted fact known to man: if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t love. Well, it hurt, that was for sure. But I really blamed myself for everything. Some people weren’t meant to be good, like Valerius, others – bad, like me. But my attempts to be good ruined every aspect of my life. I had to get rid of this bad habit. I’d ruined it all with Valerius, too. Before I knew it, he’d be wearing horrible beige suits, he’d be writing poems about how beautiful I was and introducing me to his fanged family. In other words, he wouldn’t be himself. And then, he would be even more annoying than when he was. I was biting and tearing, shedding cannibal blood as well as my own, but it wasn’t helping. I couldn’t get my mind to focus on anything else. I leapt over several heads, bleeding and screaming, landed on slippery ground – it had started raining, too, – and sped towards the old abandoned house, hoping to find Valerius there, apologize for having been so rude, and hit him until he stopped breathing. *** Time passed faster in Liz’s little imaginary world, grotesquely redecorated by Cocaine, but for Jeremy the hours felt like years. When he entered the castle of ice, his clothes were torn, his hair – disheveled, his fingers – bruised and bleeding, his eyes – sore. He was cold desperate and frightened, more than ever before. Climbing a mountain and crossing a lake – falling into it every now and then – was the easy part. Saying “sorry” to a girl ready to burn the world down if she didn’t have him was the hard thing to do. Had he read this idea in the lyrics of a song, he would have loved the lethal romanticism in it. Now, he was just plain frightened. ‘Cocaine?’ he shouted hesitantly, as he slowly advanced through the halls and corridors of the castle, freezing, exhausted and hopeless. He tried to keep his faith going. ‘Cocaine!’ But if Jeremy knew anything about anything, it was angels and fairytales, and in the fairytales the princess was always held captive in the highest tower. *** The storm was bashing ferociously on my back. A bottle broke through a window, and I saw my hand throw a lit torch in the room. I could see the back of the sullen vampire all too clearly. For several minutes, I watched the growing, roaring flames with morbid satisfaction. Then, drenched and grim and heartless, I entered the abandoned house, lest my prey tried to escape. The light and warmth the raging flames scattered around me felt pleasant on my numb with the cold skin. I let the beast take charge, and it sniffed the air with a shade of twisted hope. With a joyless grin, I tracked the muffled sound of panicking steps pacing wildly through the house, trying to find a way out. I took a turn after I’d passed the kitchen, stepped out through the back door, and threw the second torch out. Then, I retreated to the fiery prison.

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The heat was slowly rising to a point of unbearability. I inhaled the smoke thirstily. It smelled good to me, even to the former good me, but this time it was better than ever. It was a death trap. I caught Valerius’ hisses and screams coming from the living room and his hasty steps rushing out to the bathroom, and they brought me vile ecstasy. He had nowhere to go. There were so many wooden objects in the house. The fact that I’d probably not get out of this house alive was immaterial to me. It was all the same if I did or didn’t. It was all the same to the beast, too. It only wanted to hunt. Valerius staggered madly into the hallway, a cornered predator, and leapt towards the broken window, but a large, furious wolf with fangs ominously bared jumped right in front of him, bristling and snarling, blocking the path of his escape. The vampire flew over it across the ring of fire, and the wolf followed. Its jaws snapped an inch from the victim’s foot, and the man stumbled on the way to the other window. When he rose, the wild animal was standing fiercely in his way. The vampire ran again, covering himself with his cloak to protect himself from the smoke, heat and the blazing roar of the flames – but there was nowhere left to run. He was cornered against the wall, which was quickly getting covered in soot and cracks. Valerius screamed when the wolf’s lethal jaws were a breath away from his neck, which his collar would never manage to protect from the bite. ‘What are you doing?’ he shrieked, covering his face with his long, shaking fingers. ‘Have you gone mad? Talk to me, please!’ I stood up to my feet before him, naked, scorched and furious. ‘I’ve come to kill you,’ I growled, the beast ringing mightily in my voice. ‘Why?’ the vampire squealed. The lights cast from the murderous flames were blinding. His shadow loomed above me across the shivering wall. ‘Surely you have a good reason?’ ‘I’m doing it to save you from yourself,’ I whispered. ‘I’ll give you a mercy killing, because that’s what you deserve. At least, you’ll die with your honor still intact. Before you’ve had the chance to humiliate yourself beyond recognition.’ The flames were growing in my eyes as well. I felt powerful as Valerius squirmed. ‘What are you talking about?’ he shouted helplessly. ‘I just wanted to prove a point… to show you, and to myself, that I can be good, and cherish good!’ ‘That’s how it all starts, yes.’ My hiss was filled with cruelty and foreboding. ‘Maybe you’ll get a taste for the sweet and innocent. Maybe, next thing you know, you’ll offer to share another night with me, and another, and another. Maybe you’ll think it’ll work out. Maybe you wouldn’t mind being tamed. But I don’t want another pet, and I don’t want to be one. “Oh, Vera, oh, Vera, you’re so nice, and loving, and altogether wonderful! It’s so wonderful being with you! Let’s be wonderful together! Let’s build a brave new world together, a world of beauty, happiness and joy!” Yes! Why not let go of the dark old memories? Who needs darkness? Who needs their demons? And hey, it won’t be long before we have a great white wedding, and start saving up for a great apartment in pastel colors, and I start nagging at you for not wishing me a happy Valentine’s Day, and you start asking me to call you by your real name, which is probably George, or Richard!’ My fury was relentless. I’d let the fires

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burn me, and hell engulf me, but I would never again be bruised in this way. ‘And one day, George, I’ll ask you, “Hey, George, how come you’re nothing like the person I knew?”, and you’ll say, “I don’t have time for this, hand me the newspaper, please.” Is that what you want?’ I bellowed in his terrified face. ‘I say you should be dead before you’ve turned into this!’ ‘We’re both going to die here, can’t you see?’ Valerius howled shrilly. ‘What’s wrong with that? Not ready to give up your tedious, pointless existence yet?’ A shade of the fiery glint in my eyes was reflected into his squinting pupils. An ancient, inextinguishable malice was resurrected in him. ‘Fine!’ he snarled at me, his nostrils flaring, his eyes reflecting the inferno all around us. ‘You think that’s how I’m gonna be? Kill me, then! You think I’m afraid?’ He tore the heating golden necklace off his neck and threw it demonstratively to the wooden floor ablaze. ‘Do it! What are you waiting for?’ I waited for nothing. The beast leapt forth, blinding my judgment. I leaned against the vampire and planted a ferocious kiss goodbye on his lips, putting all of my hurt, rage and venom into it. When I opened my eyes again, I was infuriated rather than relieved, and so was Valerius. Nothing had happened. ‘You’re still alive!’ I shouted accusatively. ‘Dammit, why are you still alive?’ ‘You stupid girl!’ Valerius scolded me in a fit of rage. ‘Kill me like you mean it!’ Impatiently, desperate, enraged and brimming with enough adrenaline to feel eager to embrace death, he sank his lips viciously into mine, as if he was trying to suck the death from them and swallow it whole. He was ready for it, he craved it more than he craved anything, much more than he craved me, no doubt – but destiny can be a great deceiver, and, against all odds and rules, it decided to let him live. He was so mad to still be breathing that he could do nothing but take it out on me. Soon, there was nothing left to him but the kiss, the fury and the hope for death, salvation or damnation – it didn’t matter which. He stepped closer to me and placed his hands on both sides of my face as the obscenely beautiful scene of something of a twisted romance enveloped in the deadly embrace of the flames unveiled before the eyes of the non-existent spectator. The night, in any case, was watching. It was probably proud of us. *** We were running like we were being chased through the streets that had turned into rivers as the storm unfolded. It was a pleasant change from the hellish fires we’d escaped by little but chance, yet it lost its charm really quickly. When the war was over, if I survived it, I’d be in bed with pneumonia. We hid into the town’s mall, where, if there had been anyone to go shopping for ages, at least it was safe and dry. I stared at the mayhem in the streets through the glass of a formal wear store, unnoticed through the tons of fabric lavished with tasteless decorations. ‘It’s not bad here,’ I admitted, ‘but I think we should get back to the battle.’

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‘We’re not staying,’ Valerius grunted and stared severely into my eyes. ‘You have three seconds to answer the following question: which of these dresses do you like best?’ I gaped, astonished and disgusted, at the row of prom and wedding dresses lined up by the window glass. I was sick of white. ‘That one,’ I pointed uncertainly at a corset red dress with a wide skirt, as it was the only piece of apparel around that didn’t look like a cream cake with a mannequin stuck in it. ‘Fine, that’ll do,’ the vampire nodded in grim approval. ‘Put it on, we have to hurry. I’ll cover the expenses later.’ *** It was dark. There were candles burning all around us. The intoxicating, soothing scent of incense reigned in the air. Tormented faces adorned with halos cast disapproving glances at us from the walls and the dome looming above us. After ten minutes of wondering what Valerius had in mind and where he was taking me, I painfully realized that we had run straight into the town church. ‘You wouldn’t dare,’ I gasped, unable to react in any way appropriate for the occasion. Valerius was stripping off his cloak to reveal a black velvet vest and a scarlet shirt beneath it. High collar, of course. ‘Don’t be frightened,’ he reassured me, but his voice sounded more ominous than reassuring. ‘I’m not planning on spending an eternity asking you to pass me the newspaper. In a few days’ time, you’ll never have to see me again. Relax, this is just a vampire wedding. Nothing formal.’ ‘Um… yes, I know,’ I mumbled, still unable to figure out what was keeping me in here. It had to be the rain. ‘I’ve… had a vampire wedding before.’ ‘With another vampire?’ Valerius raised an eyebrow in disbelief. ‘Um, no… it was… um… symbolic.’ Then you don’t know that at a vampire wedding, the bride usually has no say in the ceremony. The groom takes what’s rightfully his, no questions asked. And, of course, once you’ve had a genuine vampire wedding, you can’t marry another vampire, ever.’ ‘I don’t think I’ll be dying to,’ I replied. ‘So, I guess that’ll make me your, what, concubine?’ ‘Oh, no.’ Valerius shook his head as he dragged me to the altar. He looked like he was about to do something sacrilegious. ‘You really get no obligations from then on, expect you mustn’t marry another vampire ‘till the one who married you is good and dead. Permanently. But, your groom is bound to you for all times. And I need to be bound to you,’ he said, turning to me solemnly. ‘Why?’ I asked. I was innocently curious, because I didn’t have the slightest intention of letting this go through the way he was planning. The candles were casting long, crooked shadows on the walls of the church, suffocating every sense of danger in a calming scent of wax. Valerius smiled.

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‘Let’s just say I have this… passion of mine.’ He coughed formally as I watched him, partly in disbelief, and partly with ridicule, and announced before the empty church: ‘With God and the Devil as my witnesses, I spit on their will and blessing, and claim what’s rightfully mine, as I kneel before the night and night alone.’ He bowed to me gracefully, cast a sharp little grin at me, and placed a small silver thing in my cold hand. I raised an eyebrow in amazement. The next words that came from the vampire’s mouth weren’t as solemn as the previous ones; instead, they were muttered casually in a half-voice: ‘Take it. Melt it, throw it away, feed it to your dog, I don’t care. Now, for the important part.’ From the pocket of his vest, he miraculously pulled a small golden chain with a frighteningly familiar pendant handing down from it. How on earth had he had the time to dig it out of the ruins in the fire? Maybe he was a magician after all, I conceded. He certainly acted and dressed like one. Valerius tied the medallion around the necks of both of us and pulled the knot until the little golden string pressed against my throat painfully, like a blade. Valerius fixed his unyielding stare on me again, and I thought he’d start summoning bats and demons, but instead he just said: ‘Um… when I started hanging out with Leonard and the rest… There was something he was mocking me about. Something about a fictional girlfriend of mine I’d bound myself to with a silly vow… can you remember what that sounded like? It’s of vital importance.’ I shrugged, confused and bewildered. ‘How should I remember? I don’t know… Something like “Forever In Death”, I think… or maybe “Forever In Darkness”…’ ‘Ah, that was it,’ Valerius grinned, beaming with satisfaction. ‘Forever in darkness. It’s a little cliché, but I like the sound of it. Is that a vow good enough for you?’ So far, I’d joined in merely out of sheer curiosity. But I was beginning to feel this theatre play had gone on for a bit too long. I didn’t see a point in seeing the end of the show. ‘It fits the idea of a vampire wedding,’ I shared my honest opinion, ‘but I must say I’m not dying to be married again, thank you very much.’ Valerius smiled the eeriest smile in the world at me. The shadows the candles cast seemed to dance and intertwine around me, probably preparing to tie me in their lethal grip. ‘Oh, you will be,’ the vampire whispered as the haunting stripes of shadow and light flickered playfully across his sharp face. ‘You can be sure about that.’ I laughed, although I wasn’t entirely sure if that was a vampire joke to laugh at. Involuntarily, I trembled, and I felt the shadows rejoice at it. In their obscure corners, they looked like hungry, sinister demons. ‘Wait a minute,’ I began, trying to put a pathetic drop of irony into my words, but to no avail, ‘you’re not actually serious about this ridiculous ceremony, are you?’

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‘You have no idea how serious I am, darling,’ I heard a chilling, merciless voice respond. The saints on the walls were frowning at Valerius. Some of them were laughing at me. ‘You will be my bride tonight. And I… I am your vampire.’ And before I could gasp, or moan, or scream, before I could think of running or defending myself, or even give myself a stupidity award, Valerius sank his sharp fangs into the wine glass scar on the right side of my neck, and at that very moment I wanted to tell every girl in the world that, no, it didn’t feel enchanting, intoxicating, or pleasant in any way; it was every bit as painful as hell itself, or at least as the sensation of two sharp blades being stabbed into your neck, and then the world became dim, bright and spinning, and I felt weak and sick and dizzy, and the last thing I heard before I passed out for the hundredth time this holiday, was Valerius’ steely, triumphant voice, ringing in the house of worship recently dishonored… ‘Rest now, dear, for you have a war to fight tomorrow… ghosts to follow blindly… Poor tired thing… so gullible… But I will have you anyway.’ When everything went dark, I could still hear a wicked, somewhat twistedly loving grin flickering madly in his sinister voice: ‘Don’t hate me now, dear. We are what we are. Forever in darkness. Amen.’

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Chapter Nineteen

The Fall of Pain

Jeremy Fisherman was slowly freezing as he stood terrified in the middle of the
ice castle, and was shaking wildly. But it wasn’t the cold, and it wasn’t the fear that made him do it. He had lost the little left of the high hopes he had, and he was sobbing miserably in the relentless stinging whiteness. He had shouted out, moaned, and whimpered all of the deep, sincere, heartbroken apologies that came to mind. There was no answer; nobody was listening to him, and Jeremy knew that this was the greatest punishment that he could receive, his own loneliness, Cocaine’s rejection for the years he had rejected her, and her unwillingness to even wreak her vengeance upon him and break his bones into little pieces. He didn’t even deserve that. Cocaine had turned her back on his belated remorse, facing the world from her high ice tower and watching it crumble. Things could have been so different if he’d only seen what he’d once had. Throughout all of his youth, he’d been waiting for an angel just for him to come along. It had been right before his eyes all along. And now it was much too late for any apologies to work. Jeremy cried, awaiting his slow death, thinking of all the times he’d not seen Magnolia Wilder. All the times he’d not smiled at her, not wiped her tears, even though she was willing to wipe his any day. He had meant everything to her… and he’d wasted his heart on everything but her. He deserved his fate, and so did the world. He only felt sorry for her; he wished he was able to erase all the pain he had caused her. He wished he’d been better to her… he wished he’d kissed her, when they were back in high school together… And then, through the ice-cold air, and the suffocating misery, and the fog of bitter memories, Jeremy remembered, dimly, but nevertheless with impeccable certainty, a girl in a white environmentalist shirt at one of his first gigs, and the warm feel of a pair of firm, trembling lips on his… back when he was still young… back when he’d stop at nothing… back when he still believed in something, even if it wasn’t angels… back when he’d had high hopes… Jeremy knew nothing about love. He always ruined it. All he was was, at the end, a musician, and the only thing he knew a thing about was songs. He could never forget the speech before the kiss, and the song that had followed it. It was called “Whether You Like It Or Not”, one of his old ones, and was a mad, passionate love song, the one with the most screamed “I love you”-s in his entire discography. It didn’t fit his situation at all, but he remembered every word of it, and every word that had preceded it at that concert, and he recited them all, word for word, his broken, melancholic voice echoing through the castle of ice. Hot tears ran down his face. ‘To my dream girl…’ he uttered gently, and wept on, shrilly, heartbreakingly, with the honesty of the songs of his twenties: ‘I love you! I love you! I love you! Whether you like it or not! I’m yours! I’m yours! I’m yours! Whether I like it or not!’

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The walls shook, the ceiling reflected the screams, shards of ice dropped and shattered as the man desperately sang on and on, reviving the memory of his very first love song. And as the song got more passionate, more aggressive and lively, it became a song about tearing, deranged, cannibalistic love rather than the next mopey ballad, and Jeremy’s voice became louder and more confident, and suddenly he felt like he was twenty again, and if he’d look at his reflections in the fear-striking ice structure, he’d see he was twenty again for real, and his hair was long and ginger, and a pentagram hung from his neck… And he couldn’t remember being happier and more himself, or think of a better song to die with, as he did what he did best for the last time in his miserable lifetime – sang, screamed, and set hearts on fire… Young, skinny, ginger-haired Jay was lying, pale and still, on the transparent floor of the ice castle, when a tall figure in white descended slowly down the stairs to the highest tower. Normally, he was supposed to climb to the top of it. But some fairytales could use an alternative ending. ‘I thought I wouldn’t see you like this again,’ said the soft voice of Magnolia Wilder, a beautiful, scarred winged woman. Jay looked wearily up through his frosted ginger eyelashes. ‘But I’ve always been like this,’ he uttered gently. ‘Always here, lying on the floor like a stubborn kid, waiting for you to pick me up…’ Magnolia smiled. ‘And all you could do was write depressing songs about it?’ she asked meekly. ‘Dozens,’ Jay assured her. The angel took him by the hand. ‘Come on,’ she urged him gently. ‘Let’s go home, black ram. Let’s get you back to your horrible room.’ *** When the curse was lifted, the entire world changed. It was expected to, of course, but it amazed nevertheless. The piles of corpses, bones and broken transportation in the streets were swept away. The air trembled with magic as the blood drained off the sidewalks and the poisonous blackness retreated from the angry sky. Thousands of vampires, drenched in blood, panting, weapons clutched in their weary grips, looked up as the night slowly cleared up from the horror of war and became more stunning, more magnificent than ever. After nine days of merciless control over souls and, in some cases, bodies, the moon was swallowed in a sea of velvet darkness. The relentless warriors marveled at the glorious sight of victory for a minute or two… and scattered, panicking, yelling and screaming, before the rays of the dreaded sun caught up with them. They couldn’t stay to see the sunrise, and neither could they appreciate its beauty, for obvious reasons. But it made the world a brighter place.

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Chapter Twenty

The Tortured Soul of Mr Cleanwood

I didn’t see the sun, but I felt it. Everything it front of me was bright orange.
Then, I opened my eyes. I felt the outcome of the war in a fit of relief that made my heart leap and rejoice. The day had come, after many weeks of night. I walked out into the church yard, squinting at the bright, blinding sunlight. After all this time, I wasn’t used to staring right at it. My eyes had developed dark brown rings around them – like those of Valerius, but I couldn’t think of him right now – due to all that lurking in the dark. It didn’t matter. The day would heal them. I ran to my street only to find nobody around. I quickly remembered what happened to vampires in the sunlight. They must have scattered away the moment the curse had been lifted. And when I thought of vampires, I thought of Valerius, at last. He, of course, was nowhere to be seen. The knuckles on my hands made threatening noises. I didn’t have the slightest idea what he’d done to me while I’d been out, but I was certain I was going to press charges. I rushed home, exhausted and furious. Frankie wasn’t there to be found, either. I felt drained – wasn’t that ironic. I didn’t care about the bite marks – one scar over another, it was no big deal. It was the rest that bothered me much more. I took the scarlet dress off with disgust and changed into my casual clothes left scattered along with my books on the bed. I’d get something to eat, brush my teeth, gather my strength, and go to find Valerius and have a very serious talk with him. That was the first thing I’d do, doubtlessly. And, naturally, the moment I decided that, I fell over my bed ad fell asleep. The bright new dawn was a great thing to witness, but the body had its needs. Besides, if the world was lucky, it was very likely that the next morning there would be another. *** Throughout the next few weeks, many changes took place. My friends went back to their regular lives, without the faintest memory of the recent horrifying events. I knew all of them would kill to preserve those memories, but I had no say in it. There were rules. And then again, there always were the dreams, the distant echoes of their persistent subconsciences. You could never be too careful with dreams. Possey got promoted again, for helping avert yet another Apocalypse. Magnolia was accepted back into heaven with sympathy and forgiveness, because sometimes even Heaven chooses to do the good thing. She had no regrets. Her mission had finally been accomplished. And, she’d had the chance to attend one of Jay’s gigs for free, as a special guest on stage. It didn’t get much better than that, I couldn’t deny as a fan. Jeremy restored his middle-aged form and married his girlfriend Paula shortly after. It was the only way to go, he knew. But, he wrote a song prior to his wedding, the chorus of which sounded like this:

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“I just can’t live without Cocaine Cocaine erases all my pain Without Cocaine, I go insane I need you in my life, Cocaine…” Nobody would suspect anything, he knew. They’d all think it had something to do with drugs. Adam would make it a hit. As for me, when I was rested enough, I took a trip back to the vampire world to pick up my stuff and say goodbye, because all dark things, as pleasant as they may be, had to come to an end sooner or later. That was the way the world worked. My world, at least. It was boring, unfair, discriminating. It was the dullest world one could imagine. But if it hadn’t been the one I was born in, I’d never see the charm of any other. Besides, it had its good sides, too. After all, some of its vampire movies were quite entertaining. *** ‘What can I tell you, fellas, all is well that ends well,’ Leonard announced on yet another gloomy morning in his mansion, dressed in a clean turquoise shirt, as stainless as his pleasant, courteous smile, which didn’t have a trace of the berserker spirit it had carried through the past few days. ‘I am so sorry to see you go, Wera,’ he added with warm, humane regret, ‘and you know your presence will be missed very much.’ ‘I’m gonna miss you too,’ Rheetah’s deep voice uttered as she approached me, and she held me so tight she nearly broke all of my ribs. I patted her affectionately on the back, and although I knew I’d miss her too, I was significantly relieved when she let me go. ‘Remember, you’ll always have a friend here, whenever you choose to visit again.’ ‘I certainly will,’ I nodded gratefully. ‘I wish you all the best in life. I’m sorry about your heart,’ I added compassionately. ‘I wish it didn’t have to remain alone.’ ‘Hey, no worries,’ she grinned cheerfully at me. ‘What’s a wolf’s heart for?’ I laughed lightly and gave her an encouraging glance. Then, I turned to Leonard. ‘Leonard, you lunatic,’ I spread my arms in his direction. ‘You’re not afraid to give a no-turner a hug, are you? You will always be the baddest, most prominent vampire around, and the most delightful host ever.’ I’d begun to use the word “delightful” all too much. It stuck with you when you were around vampires. ‘You’ll get the chance to confirm that hopeful statement when you visit us for Christmas,’ he replied. ‘It’s my birthday, remember? You and Yana must attend. We’ll watch vampire flicks! It’ll be so much fun!’ ‘I’m sure it will,’ I beamed. Liz was waving her little hand at me with a sweet smile on her beautiful face. Suddenly, I felt terrible about leaving. I’d miss all of them all too much. Leonard seemed to have read my mind; or, maybe he did. ‘You don’t have to leave,’ he offered generously. ‘You’ve been here for such a little while!’

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‘According to vampire standards, yes,’ I grinned in response. ‘I really ought to go, Leonard. I can’t spend my life here and forsake my, um, official life. I’ll be back for Christmas, though, you can count on that,’ I promised. Huck stepped forth, emerging from the darkness of the hallway. ‘Wera,’ he began with a polite, serious tone. ‘May I speak to you in private?’ We retreated to my old temporary bedroom. As usual, I was amazed at how often people wanted to speak to me in private. I’d never be a hit as an orator. ‘There’s a couple of things I need to tell you,’ Huck continued when he’d looked around to ensure that no one was eavesdropping, ‘and I am afraid that most of them won’t be to your liking.’ I took a deep breath. Maybe Leonard had been right after all. For a moment, I was convinced I knew what I was about to hear. But what I heard took me entirely by surprise. ‘We lost Frankie,’ Huck sighed a heavy, remorseful sigh. ‘I thought I had to be the one to tell you. I saw it happen… he took one of the biggest explosions to protect us. I am so sorry, Wera; he just vanished. There was nothing anybody could have done… he had his mind set on this from the start,’ the vampire explained bitterly. ‘He must have seen this as an… opportunity…’ I shook my head in obstinate denial. ‘No,’ I disagreed firmly. ‘Frankie doesn’t die that easily. He’s died many times, you know, and once it was because I killed him. He’ll live. He’ll always live. Not just in his music and not just in me. He is somewhere safe, I assure you… resting... waiting for the world to call him out… so he could defy society again…’ ‘I really, deeply hope you are right.’ Now, Huck seemed a little relieved, but still tense enough to make me nervous too. ‘Still, he will be missed… he risked his life for us…’ ‘And you risked your lives for me,’ I said meekly to Huck and stared with reverence and gratitude into his melancholic blue eyes. ‘I do not know how to thank you. All of you,’ I added. Huck smiled a sad little smile. ‘I’m not as noble as you think I am, Wera,’ he confessed. His voice was tender, but dry, and his eyes were hollow as he continued: ‘I am a monster, like everyone here. Sometimes I feel… sometimes I feel that Leonard is better than me for not trying to hide it.’ I placed my hand on the self-detesting vampire’s shoulder. ‘Huck,’ I said earnestly, ‘you are undoubtedly the sweetest, kindest vampire I’ve ever met, and one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, too. You’re a good person, and you always will be. As for what happened to… to your wife Sarah… and any other dark event in your history… it’s just the beast. We all have it. Even as humans. Whatever happened… it’s best left in the past. What matters is that you keep trying to be good.’ ‘It happened one night, when the thirst was torturing me,’ Huck’s voice grated coarsely in the room, and I shuddered as I knew I was about to hear about Sarah. ‘I’d recently been turned, and was doing my best to restrain myself from… attacking people. It had been… two months. Can you believe it? Two months, I lasted without ever tasting blood. But I was not the same. I was pining away, sullen, detached. Sarah

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kept telling me I had changed. She felt I had abandoned her. She was such a sweet woman... she wanted a child so bad…’ His voice broke off, he swallowed hard, but yet pushed himself to return to his tragic tale. ‘I could never tell her she could never have a child with a vampire… we can’t, unless some sort of miracle occurs, like with Leonard. But love could not pull me out of the state of mind I’d fallen into. One night, I was driven to the edge… I couldn’t take being blamed for being different, or asked if I was unfaithful, and I…’ I expected him to burst out in tears there, but he just remained cold and blank. His expression indicated that he’d already cried all the tears he had over this memory. ‘I lost my faith in good that night,’ he confessed. ‘I ran away, and committed many crimes. When I met Leonard… I was horrified to see someone who didn’t see anything wrong with it. He urged me to become the very worst I could be, and I was, for a while… for too long. But then I couldn’t live with myself anymore. I started trying to abide by some kind of morality, just to make life with myself more bearable. And although Leonard’s influence was destructive to the remains my innocence… I guess I was simply stubborn…’ ‘I’d say you were strong,’ I praised him, touched. ‘Remaining a good person under Leonard’s influence… that’s definitely an achievement of willpower.’ ‘True, but I never believed in the point of being good, not since I… lost Sarah… Until I met you, a girl who thought she wanted to be evil but really couldn’t let go of good once and for all,’ Huck replied. The sudden warmth in his voice frightened me. I was beginning to feel I was about to be forced to do yet another monstrous thing. ‘You believed in good… and believed in the good in me,’ the vampire added. ‘I just wanted to… thank you… for restoring my faith. I could never tell you just how much this means.’ ‘I know how much it means,’ I nodded. ‘I know the way this feels. In the end, no matter what we do, you and I can’t live without the idea of good. We must be fools… but I feel I should thank you for being a fool like me. It gives me faith too.’ ‘There’s something more,’ Huck raised his head, pointing a sensitive, guilty blue stare at me. Again, I shuddered, and my heart contracted painfully when he spoke out his confession, directly, abruptly, bravely, just like that: ‘I love you, Wera. At least I am very sure I do. It may come as a shock to you… and I can only say, as an explanation, that I’ve seen into your soul, I’ve seen the qualities you tried in vain to destroy, and I know that what I’ve found is truly unique. In my defense, I shall say that there is nothing I expect of you; the obstacles to such an infatuation are beyond clear to me. I’m sorry to put you in such an uncomfortable situation. I merely wanted to be honest with you, and to let you know you will always be loved… by someone who doesn’t wish you harm,’ he finished quietly, and raised his hand: ‘Please, do not apologize. I can be realistic too, sometimes, in between my fits of hopeless idealism. Even if you did feel something for me – which I sincerely doubt – it would never be possible... ‘No,’ I lied hollowly. I felt like a criminal. I could not bear looking into these earnest, tortured blue eyes. Huckleberry Cleanwood was so much worthier of being loved than abominations like Valerius. Again, I’d made the wrong choice. Huck deserved, more than anyone, a lovely bride for all eternity. But it could never be me. I was not worthy of his angelic soul. I belonged with the beasts – with the likes of Valerius. But Huck would never believe me. I kept all of this to myself. I couldn’t bear

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hurting him this way. He needed to believe that I was as good as he wanted me to be. Sometimes, this was all that kept the good ones going. I knew this well. ‘Very well,’ Huck stood up modestly, looking more tired and broken than ever, ‘I’ll leave you to your packing, then. I don’t want to waste your time. I’m glad you aren’t… upset with me. I shall miss you, Wera.’ He turned his back on me, stifled a sensitive sigh, and walked towards the door of the bedroom. ‘I do feel something for you, Huck,’ I uttered, a moment later, to my own surprise. ‘And it is love indeed. I’m sorry it is not the kind of love you’re hoping for…’ Huck smiled meekly at the door. ‘It’s okay,’ he assured me. ‘It makes it easier.’ ‘But I do care for you immensely, Huck,’ I repeated, tears swelling in my eyes, produced by the little piece of a human being that I still had left in my soul. I stood up too, crossed the room and embraced him desperately. ‘To me… you are a symbol of the best in me. You are one of my best friends. You are a light, a hope for the world. And I will never stop believing in you.’ ‘Nor I in you,’ he promised meekly. I felt safe in his arms, like a child. He was truly an angel to me. ‘Remember, you are nowhere near as bad as you think you are, Wera.’ With these words, he let me go and left the room, and left me to my thoughts. I felt guilty, I felt stained, I felt remorseful, and all of it made me endlessly happy. I wasn’t yet quite a monster. I ventured to smile to myself through my tears. The world made sense again. The night was pointless without a little bit of day. And just when I thought I had it, the gift of peace, at last, I heard a loud, ostentatious yawn coming from the direction of the window. Valerius emerged, armed with his nastiest grin, from the black velvet curtain he was frighteningly blending with. I gasped, and tried to grab hold of a sharp object. ‘I’ve heard and seen enough moaning and moping about good and evil to last me an eternity,’ he complained, approaching me dangerously and still grinning at me. ‘I didn’t come to join in on the whining over your departure, don’t worry. I’m just bored. Wanna go out for a walk?’ *** ‘Do not fret about this,’ Possey was speaking soothingly to Magnolia. The weather in heaven was pleasant again. White clothes flew cheerfully past them. ‘What matters is that he loves you, you’ve given him his life’s true purpose back. Besides, maybe, when he joins us, you’ll be together again…’ ‘If he joins us,’ Magnolia corrected him cleverly. ‘Don’t be so sure of his virtue. He can always mess up.’ ‘But he’s improved,’ the other angel pointed out, always the optimist. ‘He’s written a song about you, did you hear it? It’s got a very catchy tune...’ ‘It’s crap,’ a grating voice growled pleasantly behind them. Magnolia and Possey turned and gasped.

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An angel, tall, thin and dressed in a tight white robe designed to look like an outfit for a glam rock concert, had approached them through the clouds. He had long flowing black hair and the smile of a sweet young man gone bad. Possey swallowed his tongue, and Magnolia bit hers. ‘Frankie!’ Possey exclaimed, his turquoise eyes blinking in stunned disbelief. ‘I thought you were dead!’ ‘I am dead,’ Frankie grinned happily. ‘What else would I be doing here? Selfsacrifice does amazing things, you know…’ ‘Demon!’ Magnolia snarled. ‘You’re lucky you’re dead, because I would have killed you if you weren’t! Why, you…’ ‘Relax, guys, relax,’ Frankie raised his scrawny hands in a gesture of peace. ‘What’s done is done; we’re in heaven now. And I’m thinking this place could use someone like me, don’t you think?’ He rested his arms on the shoulders of both angels, finally feeling like he’d found a way to undermine the system of the universe from within, and beamed in the manner of the greatest rebel who ever lived: ‘We’re going to have a rockin’ time together…’

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Chapter Twenty-One

Equinox

The night was cold and damp, but peaceful. It was probably around noon,
actually, but it still felt like night to me. It was the night that really called me out, not Valerius. Sneaking out of a window was not my specialty. I felt significantly relieved to feel the soft, moist grass brush against my ankles after the risky landing. Then, I almost felt peace. Almost. Valerius was striding through the meadow swiftly, with determination in his step, walking as though he owned the ground beneath his feet. I had to put an effort in walking to keep up with him. ‘Are we going somewhere?’ I assumed. The alert, focused expression on the vampire’s face didn’t change. ‘You’ll see.’ ‘Um… look, about what happened when we last met,’ I began uncertainly, frowning and squinting as the wind scraped against our pale faces, ‘I’d like you to undo it. No matter what your goal was… I take marriage very seriously, and I don’t think this is the right time, place and person… given the situation.’ I pulled the elaborately engraved silver ring he’d given me out of the pocket of my jeans and examined it grimly. ‘Here, take it. I really think you should save it for someone else.’ I read the inscription on it carefully, and something in me stirred. “The Dark Ages Slower Than The Light,” I read it out loud in the steely darkness. ‘It’s… an optimistic message in its own way. But I really can’t keep it. Moreover, I don’t want to.’ Valerius pushed my hand holding the ring away. He was obviously busy pursuing something a lot more important. ‘I don’t need it,’ he grunted impatiently. ‘Look, do what you want with it. If you see it as a symbol of commitment, don’t worry about it, you are your own person. It’s connected to vampire rules. You’re not a vampire. There, you’re free.’ I smiled slightly to myself beneath the starry sky. He did have a way with solving problems. ‘Do you think they’ve sniffed anything?’ I asked. ‘About us?’ ‘Wouldn’t think so. I left no scent on you, remember?’ ‘Where are you taking me, anyway?’ With the clear, chilly wind enveloping me, and the sky alight with stars bluer than a sea, I completely forgot to be mad at him. I followed blindly, hurriedly, after the person who now felt merely like a friend I couldn’t figure out. We stopped by a patch of grass in no way different from any other. Valerius sat down and invited me to situate myself next to him. ‘What do we do now?’ ‘We wait,’ he explained curtly. Even his imposed mysteriousness failed to annoy me. ‘You’ll see. Meanwhile, tell me,’ he turned to me matter-of-factly, ‘just for the record, what did you learn from your stay here? Did you get to find yourself again? And if so, did you like what you found?’

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For the first time, it seemed there was no hidden goal behind his questions apart from interest. I felt relaxed. ‘I found out that you were right,’ I replied with a peaceful smile. ‘I did indeed pronounce my name wrong. “Wera” is derived from “human”, but I discovered I’ll always be more than just that. I suppose Vera – meaning “truth” – describes me better. And I guess the bare truth about me is that I’m just me,’ I concluded, and at last I felt no regrets about it. ‘Beast or person, good or evil, strong or weak, saint or sinner, I am who I am, and I was so busy categorizing myself as one thing or the other that it managed to escape me that I am who I am, and that’s what I should be.’ I smiled. ‘That’s too obvious to sound like philosophy, isn’t it?’ ‘Certainly,’ Valerius nodded with a grim smile on his face, but I could hear a purring note of approval in his voice. ‘Still, congratulations are in order, Vera. You’ve discovered something certain about yourself with the humble assistance of my selective Transylvanian accent. Good for you. And tell me, can anything be better now? It’s such a beautiful night.’ ‘Carpe Noctem,’ I uttered dreamily. He uttered the same back, smiling ambiguously to himself. This time, I didn’t try to analyze it. I didn’t know what was on his mind, and I didn’t care; I knew what was in his heart. It was the night, with its bloody hunts, distant howls, moonlit skies and fragrant sleeping white flowers. All of it added to its beauty. It was more than just a time of the day, or a way of life. It was a state of mind, soul and heart, and it filled us whole. We were mesmerized by it, enslaved by it, and freed by it. There was no escaping the beauty of the night – and in this world, it was perpetual. Unconsciously, as I sat in peace a few inches away from Valerius, our faces turned towards the moonless, yet bright ink-blue sky, I leaned my head towards his. Unconsciously, he did the same. We sat there, for hours, it seemed, silent, still, hypnotized, breathing, waiting, our heads gently pressed together, as though they were joint, daring not look away from the magnificent, enchanting sky. It was a perfect moment of pure bliss. ‘What did you learn?’ I whispered quietly to the vampire, afraid to talk any louder lest my voice interfered with a sacred scene of the story of the universe. I didn’t need the answer, though. I already knew all there was to know about him. At that moment, he, like the night, was a part of me. ‘Me?’ he repeated tenderly, his long eyelashes blinking in awe against the shimmer of the stars. ‘From knowing you… or from the night?’ ‘Both, I guess,’ my lips spoke soundlessly. It all reminded me of that magical moment we’d shared by that window, where I’d felt as though we were already dead. Nothing left to fear, nothing left to worry about, nothing left to question – just peace, understanding, and night. People severely underestimated the night. Valerius placed his hand on my knee. He left it lying there, motionless. Now, it was a part of me, too. ‘I learned,’ he began slowly, ‘that there is, after all, something in this world that I do believe in.’ ‘Really? And what is that?’

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He smiled. It wasn’t a bad smile or a good smile, that of a human or a beast. It was just his. ‘Watch,’ he told me simply. And then I saw it, as soon as I had felt it. As soon as I had felt pure, simple bliss and sincere, silent understanding in one. As soon as we felt we were part of the night, and embraced the night within us; as soon as our nights were equal and we both knew the night of the other so well. Because, after all, it was the same. As soon as that happened, out of the moonless sky, two shining white crescents, identical to each other and differing only in that that they were pointed in opposite directions, facing each other, swam out from underneath the night’s blue veil and towards each other, and although it was astronomically impossible, they met and crossed in the sky, tangled lovingly in each other, each one reflecting the other one’s beauty. Then, they merged completely, drowning each other’s shines in darkness, and the lunar eclipse took place in a world where there was no day – and we watched it while it lasted, Valerius and I, blind to everything else life had to offer. We, the creators of the equinox this evening, had been enslaved by it as we leaned still against each other, skulls pressed together in a common thought, hearts beating with a common emotion – one heart still, the other one frozen. Two hearts equally filled with the night. And beside the two fragile skulls joined forever in darkness, on the damp meadow throbbing with magic, flowers grew. Some would say they were gentle white flowers. Others would swear they were scarlet roses. A person or two would claim the roses were blue, although anyone knew that was a very inappropriate color for a rose. But it didn’t matter if they were roses, or if they were thorns. They were what they were, and they thrived here, against all odds, in the permanent night. Just like us. ‘And that, my dear,’ Valerius uttered lovingly at the sky, ‘is an equinox. A downright miracle. A goddamn dark nirvana.’ He smiled again, and his heart, for the first time in his entire existence, skipped a beat. ‘And it is all ours.’

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Chapter Twenty-Two

Wild Things

Out of courtesy and maybe a little bit of nostalgia, my former host had
accompanied me back to my world, and to my home. It got late as we both put off the moment of the heartfelt farewell. Alas, in my world, time was never sufficient. The time had come to say goodbye. Leslie and I were sitting and chatting in the room that had so many memories soaked in its walls, his own portrait staring at him in kinky amazement, at that of Frankie casting judgmental glances at him. It was a pleasant night indeed. ‘I mean, as you know, I’m not into make-up; it’s only lipstick that truly fascinates me,’ I was explaining vigorously. ‘Wouldn’t use it for seduction, of course; I just like the touch of cruelty it adds to one’s lips when it’s dark enough. Gives off the message that the owner of those lips would, after all, survive even if said lips didn’t get kissed anytime soon.’ Leslie smiled a boyish smile. Not that I often called Leonard Leslie, of course; only Yana had the privilege to call him that on a regular basis, and Blondielocks, the nickname I’d given him for obvious reasons back in the days when I couldn’t stand him just didn’t seem to fit after all we’d recently been through together. Tonight, he just looked really Leslie-ish. It was as though the smile on his cold lips was causing the entire room to acquire a warmer glow. I enjoyed sitting by him, and the ones like him. I derived some sort of special optimism from being in the company of a person who looked young and full of faith and joy, not only on the outside, despite the fact that he carried the burden of centuries, of the world and its history, and a thousand bloody crimes on his shoulders. There was something reassuring about it, reminding me that there was still something out there that time did not affect. I remembered I used to ardently believe in many things I thought to be eternal – love, hope, and all that jazz. I needed this faith still. However, time and experience had shown me otherwise, and the more I lived and loved and lost, the more I realized just how fleeting all that seemed eternal was. But right now I felt happy nevertheless, because the more time I spent sitting by Leslie, the more convinced I became that the only truly immortal thing in the world were vampires. “I mean, look at him,” I thought to myself. “He’s different, and yet the same. He’s got as much fire in him as he always has, he’s exactly as much of Leslie as ever. People aren’t like that; but Leslie – and everyone like him – will always be himself, and will always be young.” I envied him because he had so much time to do whatever he wanted, and mine was so limited; so little time for so many things to be done, and I had to hurry. I’d be able to cherish everything so much better if it weren’t for the haste… ‘You sank into a world of your own,’ Leslie commented on my silence. ‘Come back here, it can’t be a world any darker. Where were we again?’

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I shrugged and smiled. I rarely smiled for no reason, but vampires changed you as well as the world around you. ‘And he knew how to bring out the best in a woman, I had to give him that. ‘I wanted to praise you a bit, if that’s okay,’ he went on softly. ‘I feel a glow, a certain radiance about you after all these years. You’re different, and you’ve become so much of what I once thought you had the potential to be. I like that.’ His silvery eyes flickered in the darkness like little diamond slits in the fabric of the universe. ‘Do me a favor: don’t look back. You are better off this way, and I can tell you’re happier. Live the life I gave up. Not that I’m complaining,’ Leslie added, ‘I’m a family man now. But you know – that craving, you know the one. It’s lost for me, but for you it’s just ahead... I see you’ve already started giving in…’ ‘Some would call that immoral,’ I noted sarcastically. Leslie extended his permanent grin. ‘There is nothing wrong about this. You’re forgetting you’re not a random human being on her way to hell, blindly following temptation. You’re not even really choosing it. You’ve just finally stopped kicking and clawing against your true nature.’ I had to admit that he was wise for a person who looked so young. Sometimes it was hard for me to grasp that he was, anatomically, twenty-two. Then again, most times it was harder for me to grasp that, in every other way, he wasn’t. ‘Wera, Wera,’ he sighed in a quiet, dreamy manner. ‘What a weird name you chose for yourself. The human part of the wolf, directly translated from the context. You kept trying to escape being who you are: Canis lupus. You always knew there was much more than fur and howling to it, and you feared what you might find deep down there besides the nature of a pet without a leash… and you’re finding it now, aren’t you? You’ve discovered you’re no dog, no pet, and that no pet will ever be fit for you. And, that there are so many sweet little fragrances you’ve longed for all your life… Rush… Freedom… Solitude… Blood… Passion… Lust…’ I hated the way he emphasized on the last word with his suggestive, cunning tone. I’d rather he’d winked and nudged me perversely. ‘Yes,’ I admitted painfully. ‘I’m feeling all of this alright. I can barely sleep now when the moon is shining. Or when it’s raining,’ I added with a frown. ‘I used to think I’d miss the summer once it was over. And now I’m all about walks in the rain and breathing in the cold, lonely scent of damp leaves and what not. Autumn was never as charming to me as it was this year, with its melancholic gloom. And won’t you please slap me across the face when I’m talking like that!’ ‘There is indeed something erotic about the gloom.’ For Leslie, sooner or later, everything got down to sex. I didn’t want him to be right, but he probably was. ‘Anyway, the point is,’ he continued less dirtily, ‘that you are more of yourself than you ever were. You’re proud, wild, free; you follow your dark desires and are enjoying the taste of it all. The life of a wild thing, a creature not bound to man, ‘cause that is what you and I both are. And there is no harm in that. But your heart is elsewhere, I can tell. And you wouldn’t glow so much if it were in the same ditch it was stuck in for the past few years. There is something new in your heart,’ Leslie reflected, ‘I can feel it. And I definitely like the scent of it. Something has entered, something wild and powerful and worthy of your soul’s caliber.’

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‘It was more like an invasion,’ I confessed, finding myself to be blushing as if I were five years younger. ‘But I let it happen. I wanted it, and that’s what I am guilty of.’ ‘What, you’re guilty of love, you say, when it brings out the best and strongest of you?’ the vampire raised an eyebrow quite high on his wrinkleless forehead. ‘I’m shocked. Listen, you’re lucky, I think, and you should preserve this feeling, embrace it!’ ‘Hey!’ I must have been redder than this before, but I couldn’t quite remember when. ‘No one is talking about love yet! Why would you call something spontaneous that went out of control love?’ ‘Love is one of the few things I learned to recognize after five hundred years around here, wolf girl,’ Leslie brought forth a flawless argument. ‘Besides, the feeling of love comes in different shapes and sizes. It’s not always tuned to The Backstreet Boys channel. You’ve known love pure, and love sweet, and love bright, and love painful – but you have yet to get properly acquainted with wild, dirty love, love like delicious poison, like sickening alcohol, love dark and bitter and yet really, really pleasant… but I guess we’ve entered a forbidden subject for you here, right?’ he said, and he winked. It was about time. ‘Damn right,’ I nodded. ‘Listen, even if I am feeling something like that… this isn’t going to work anyway. The whole thing is immoral to the bone. And now that I am here again… I ought to try to believe that I am not this. That I’m not an animal. That I’m not a beast, or a hunter, or a predator chasing after its prey, getting what it wants regardless of what’s right.’ ‘Oh, darling, this is exactly what you are,’ Leslie grinned widely, making no effort to conceal his delight. ‘How many times do I have to repeat it? You ought to – for once – listen to the call of your nature, your blood. This is something humans become – but for you, it’s what you’ve always been. You are a creature of the night, do not forget it. Deny it as much as you like, but I understand you on a level people can’t exactly because I am one too. A beast, a hunter, a killer – ’ ‘A dad –’ ‘You’re missing the point. I wanted to be tamed. I’m too tired to keep doing the stupid things I’ve done for five centuries now. Or, at least, I hope I will be one day. But you, you have limited time. You can’t afford to walk with a muzzle on for the rest of your life. You’re faced with a choice, and you can’t hide things from me. Come on, spill it. Who will I tell, count Dracula?’ My stomach contracted as I heard the name of the count. I took a deep breath. ‘Alright,’ I began, ‘just please don’t laugh at me. This is what’s made me feel more alive than ever… I didn’t choose a pet this time, don’t worry… I wouldn’t swoon over a pet after all that happened… but when it comes to picking beasts, I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew…’ Leslie’s face was a question unspoken. The more I stared at him, the more I saw just how alike they were, Leslie and the individual in question. And that wicked charm filling the air like a thick perfume was no exception. That was the thing about vampires: they carried the essence of the night with them. To the creatures of the day it made no difference, but to those who were born craving the night, it made all the

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difference. It charged them with power, it brought out the best in them. It set them free. To the nocturnal ones the night was not a drug. It was what pulled you out of all the suffocating mundane trances. This was our atmosphere. Only within it could we really breathe, feel like we belong, thrive, breed, love… and in the dark, all these feelings were so very similar… It took for Leslie to just see the dreamily lost look in my eye to know what I was hiding. Of course, he wasn’t dumb enough to believe that this was all about Huck. Huck was all too wonderful, but he was like a brother to me, nothing more. But he was clever enough to figure out that it had to be someone of the same, um, blood type. ‘No!’ At the beginning he just laughed in disbelief, and then, like a lollipop melting, a smile as dirty as a first-class brothel flowed across his lips. ‘Oh my God,’ he exclaimed, ‘this is so romantic! So dramatic, so wild! Imagine what would happen if you actually didn’t waste it!’ ‘I wish I had a choice,’ I sighed. ‘But that’s a doomed idea, you see.’ ‘Yes! And that is exactly what makes it so thrilling!’ I stared at the pen I was holding in shame for a little while, ignoring the fascinated vampire, then started chewing the plastic tip. It was a dog thing. ‘That’s so easy for you to say, Leonard, you have a “go for it” solution for everything…’ ‘No, I don’t. You gave me this piece of advice years ago, remember? Love is worth it. Eternally, and without limits, or question. So I went for it, thanks to you, I’ll never forget – yes, we both did…’ ‘..and we both lost,’ I reminded him politely. Leslie shook his blond head in a very non-nocturnal way. ‘I didn’t. I gained something I wouldn’t trade for anything. And mark my words, if you listen to your own advice, you will too.’ ‘Again, it’s easy for you to say,’ I grinned sadly at him. ‘What can I say to you that you don’t already know, vampire? I’m in love with the night…’ And Leslie smiled back, because he did it so well this evening, and every other evening, too. ‘I am too, wolf girl. I am too.’ We stared at the rain-drenched stars seen through the window of my room for a while in a strictly business manner, because that’s as far as werewolves and vampires got in their communication. Officially, that was the way it was. It was simply a matter of chemical compounds and blood structure. For the sake of that, and the centuries of fighting, we owed it to our ancestors to maintain some sort of reserved distance between us and label it loathing. But this did not manage to ruin the moment. ‘She’s quite the beauty, though, isn’t she?’ Leslie muttered distractedly. ‘Who?’ ‘The night. Isn’t she amazing?’ ‘Yeah. Definitely.’ ‘Nothing quite like her,’ the vampire added in a semi-trance. He looked as in love as he was four years ago, and his love was pouring from his blissful face and straight into the plump moon across the deep blue sky. In my world, it was full moon. One of the many.

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‘You are forgetting,’ I added after a moment of awed silence, ‘that the feeling of love comes in different shapes and sizes. For me, the night is a he, you know.’ ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m not picky,’ Leslie sniggered naughtily, and ruined the moment in an instant. ‘There’s lots of handsome brooding bastards out there. Wanna go hunt for some?’ I could come up with a few suggestions on the subject. Not necessarily handsome, and not necessarily used to being hunted. He never left his own scent for anyone to follow, for one thing. But I had bond, and a vow, and a bite, and that one heartbeat he’d skipped imprisoned in my veins. I could always find my vampire. ‘I’ll show you the trail,’ I grinned wickedly. ‘If you have the guts to hunt beside a wolf, that is.’ ‘I don’t, but I can’t let you have the night all to yourself. She’s mine too, you know?’ ‘She’s ours. And it’s a he,’ I quickly corrected myself as the window creaked open and hair and fangs could almost be heard growing out of proportion. ‘Ours, yes,’ Leslie agreed, just as intoxicated by the lovely, lonely scent of autumn leaves drenched in rain as I was. ‘And it is howling out for us.’ We sprang down to the ground, wild things on wild land, breathing in the scent of all that was us. Indeed, there was nothing quite like the night. And when she was wrapped tightly around you, when you sank into her damp and comforting embrace, and felt her delightfully scented sweat upon your thirsty skin, you realized that you could never love another.

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