I can’t be sure what woke me up, but I suddenly snapped to consciousness with a gasp. I rapidly took in my surroundings—a white satin-sheeted bed against the wall of what appeared to be some sort of dungeon. There were no windows here, and the cement floor was covered in dust and dirt and God knows what else. The only door was an ancient-looking one and appeared to be very heavy, the same material as the walls and the floor. And as for light, there was a single, solitary old oil-burning lamp on the floor in the center of the room.
I took a breath, and the room smelled stale and foul. I had never smelt this smell before. At first, I thought it might have been from a dead animal, but it was too rusty for that.
What the hell was this place?
I remembered everything from last night. The fight in the parking lot, the chase, the huge war at the intersection, and then Nicholae’s and Benny’s faces both fixed on me with wide eyes just before I was taken away. I remembered struggling against those granite arms, even if it meant falling. And I had tried to stretch myself around so that I could see the face of my abductor, but that was no good either. The very last thing I remembered was hearing a lucid voice inside my head. It said, “Sleep.” And after that, there was nothing, not even dream.
But I don’t understand. Why am I here? Why am I not dead? Whoever had taken me had ample time to just kill me already. Instead, they have put me in this dusty old place.
I got out of the bed and walked across the room to the door. There was no handle. Well, so much for picking the lock. There were no hinges on this side, either, which meant that it opened the other way. Perhaps I could try to push it open, run right into it and try to shove it open. I put my hand on the door to get a good feel of it. No, there was no way someone my size could push open this door. Hell, not even someone Arnold Schwarzenegger’s size could push open this door.
I looked around the room for any other possible means of escape, a vent or a drain or even a mouse hole. But there was nothing. The entire room was completely sealed by this mud-like cement. That explains the stench, at least. There was no fresh air coming into this room. Maybe that was it, then. They were trying to kill me through asphyxiation. What a truly awful and anticlimactic way to go.
“Hello!?” I called out loudly against the door. “Why are you keeping me here? What do want with me?” There was no sign that anyone was listening. I banged against the door. It was rough on the side of my fists, but I didn’t care; I just kept smacking on the door as hard as I could. “Come on! Will you just do whatever you’re going to do already! Get it over with!!”
I did this for a few more minutes until my throat was dry, then I just gave up and went back to the bed. I rubbed my sore hand onto the soft, silky satin. Wait, satin? I looked at the bed, really looked at it. Why put such a nice bed in a place like this? And with satin sheets? This bed was purposely set up to be comfortable. It was so dramatically out of place that it was almost funny.
Getting annoyed and frustrated, I crossed my arms. My elbow bumped into the familiar bulge in my pocket and I realized with extreme relief that I still had my cell phone!
With more excitement than I ever remembered feeling in my whole life, I seized it, flipped it open and dialed Nicholae’s number. But to my severe disappointment, I didn’t get any signal in here. Damn, I should have known that nothing could get through these thick walls.
More annoyed than I was before, I stared at my useless phone. The time read 10:53 AM. I guess it wouldn’t have mattered, even if I could get a signal, because Nicholae wouldn’t be awake right now anyway.
Oh my God, what happened to them after I was taken away? What was the outcome of the fight? Was Nicholae hurt? Were the others okay?
I screamed at the top of my lungs and rushed at the door again.
“Let me out, let me out, let me out!!!” I screeched as I pounded on the door with more force and less caution. “Nicholae!”
I knew that no one would hear me. As long as it was daylight out, any soul within my vicinity would be dead asleep. But that didn’t keep me from throwing a tantrum against the door. It was the only thing I could do and I just couldn’t do nothing.
Oh, my poor beloved Nicholae. I’m so sorry I ever got you into this! I wish I had some clue or some hope that he was alright, that he was safe. Oh, what am I going to do!? I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to lose my mind in here worrying about him, and whoever took me away from him will be responsible for picking up the pieces, if there are any left worth saving.
I finally slumped against the wall next to the door, wrapped my arms around my knees and buried my face in them, hopeless and miserable.
Hours passed just like this, uneventful. I got tired of brooding on the uncomfortable floor and started to pace around the room. Again, I tried to dial out on my phone, but still no signal.
At the very least I would have called my friends. What did they think when I just disappeared last night? Robert was no doubt heartbroken that Benny had vanished. But what of the others? What would they think? Were they worried about me?
And what about Mom? Oh, I knew what she must be feeling right now. I hadn’t come home last night, and I hadn’t called or anything to give some excuse for doing so. If I knew her as well I thought I did, she probably had the entire Tucson police force scouring the city for me. Boy when I get out of here, I don’t care how puny and weak I am compared to the vampire that kidnapped me, I will make them sorry!
At around four o’clock I began to notice how hungry I was. I tried not to think about it because I knew there was nothing I could do about it. Who knew how long I was going to be stuck in here. I might not eat for a very long time, or never again. As far as I could tell from this horrible smell, I wasn’t the first living thing that was kept prisoner in here, and I might share their same fate. Suffocation, starvation, what’s next? I guess I can be at least grateful that I don’t have to use the bathroom yet.
A few hours later, when I was in mid-pace to the opposite end of the room, the thick, heavy door slowly slid open. I froze and stared at it, expecting someone or something to come out and attack me.
When a few minutes passed and nothing at all happened, I hesitantly crept to the doorway. I stopped right under the doorframe and peaked out. There was a narrow, dark hallway that led to a stairway that appeared to be winding because it disappeared around a bend. The only light that illuminated it was from the lamp inside the room behind me.
Much too big of a chicken to venture into the darkness unaided, I ran back into the room, grabbed the lamp, and proceeded cautiously out of the room and down the hallway.
What if this was some kind of trap? Why would the door just open like that? Perhaps I was safer in that smelly, dank room. No, that’s stupid. The only way to chase any hope of seeing Nicholae or my friends and family again is to keep going forward, no matter what the risks.
I swallowed my fear and went up the stairs. At the top was a simple and elegant wooden door. I stood in front of it for a long moment, preparing myself and debating over just what to do. I had no way of knowing what was on the other side of that door. Should I burst through it and just make a run for it to the first exit I see? No, haste is never a good option for me. I need to stay calm and steady and keep my eye out for all options.
I breathed in deep, reached out for the knob and turned it slowly, then pushed the door gradually open inch by inch. It opened to a short little hallway, which opened up to a very large and wonderfully decorated room that resembled a living room.
The walls were all covered in intricate dark blue wallpaper, and on the floor was black carpet with a recurring pattern of flowery, leaf-like scrolls. There was a cute little lamp encased in blackened wrought iron attached to the wall at the midpoint of the little hallway, and there were more of them placed in perfect measurement from each other further along the wall. And overhead was a protruding ledge that I was sure was part of the second story.
Circumspect, I crept down the hallway and looked around the room. So lovely, with dark, gothic couches and armchairs. But there was no one here. For all I could see, and hear, this house was completely empty. It reminded me of that old Christmas poem, “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
I didn’t buy that assumption, so I had to be quick. I scanned the room for all exits. There was a wide window on the wall to my left. If I had to, I could sneak out of it, or I could even break it open and just jump out as fast as I could. But I would much rather just use a door. One had to be around here somewhere, and as long as there was no one here at the moment to stop me, I could find it and get far away from here before they were any the wiser.
I motioned for the portal in the wall in front of me.
“Ah, there she is,” said a powerful, temperate masculine voice.
I started and followed the sound up to its source. Standing on the ledge with his elbows on the black wooden rail was a male vampire looking down at me with a generous smile. His hair was black and shiny as crow feathers, parted in the middle and hanging just passed his ears in sinusoidal waves. The light from the lamps caught in his eyes and made them glint red beneath the dark ale brown. His well-shaped body was fitted in attractive black cotton, with a pointed collar around his neck. He was undeniably handsome, and dangerously alluring, but I suppose they all are. Judging by his facial features and height, I would guess he was in his early thirties when made a vampire.
“I do apologize for the very poor accommodations,” he said. “But we were so pressed for time, and we had to be sure that you wouldn’t be able to escape.”
Suddenly he disappeared from the ledge, then simultaneously reappeared a few inches in front of me, taking a few steps closer.
“But everything is fine now, and you will never have to go into that grimy old dungeon again,” he said. “My name is Caeler, and this is my coven.”
His words were so friendly and inviting, and I was confused and even more anxious.
“Wh-why haven’t you just killed me already?” I stuttered, taking a nervous step backward. “Why…”
“My dear,” he said sweetly, taking another step toward me. “I’m not going to kill you. You’re safe now. I have rescued you from your hunters and they will never be able to hurt you again.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand. If you’re not going to kill me, what do you want with me?”
“What I want…is to make you my bride,” he said, now very close to me.
My heart pounded violently at that.
“A few nights ago,” he began, “I finally captured the lowlife vampire Benny who stole my most prized ancient Greek vase. When I asked him where it was, he said he pawned it for quite a small fortune. I was very angry, but I am a reasonable man, so I told him that if he could give me something more valuable than that vase, I wouldn’t kill him.
“That was when he confessed the secret he was hiding. The vampire Nicholae Albaric had been lucky enough to find himself an Amarant human girl, and he planned to make her his fledgling. More than satisfied by this information, I let Benny go and went to investigate this girl.
“After seeing that this imminent Amarant was also beautiful and clever, I absolutely had to have you for myself! But I was not the only vampire who knew about you. Word was spreading all over the world about the prodigal Amarant girl. They were going to snuff out that flame, put an end to the threat they had thought long dead. I decided to wait until they made their attack, wait until your watchful, vigilant Nicholae was distracted, and then snatch you away. It worked so perfectly, I can hardly believe it myself.”
So that was why Benny came over last night, why he was acting so weird. The little rat had snitched on me! He completely and blatantly sold me out! And he knew that, because of what he did, this vampire Caeler would try and take me.
“Yes, he did,” Caeler said. “But he had no idea that so many countless others were about to strike. If he had, my plan might not have worked. But that doesn’t matter now. All that matters is that you’re with me, and all this,” he spread his arms out meaningfully to the room, “will be yours.”
There were more vampires now. I hadn’t even seen them enter. Beautiful women and daringly handsome men dressed in black velvet and blue silk and red brocade were watching us from the ledges and from the doorways.
“If you stay with me, you will be completely safe from all harm,” he promised. “We are very well prepared to handle any who oppose us. Your every whim will be satisfied, and every single one of my fledglings will be at your beck and call. You will be their queen. So…what do you say?”
I took another step backward, this time backing into a bookshelf.
“What about Nicholae?” I asked, feeling small and ineffective.
“Ah, my sweet girl,” he sighed. “You don’t need him. He can’t protect you. He couldn’t offer you the kind of tutelage and guidance that we can. He is very likely dead anyway.”
White hot panic flushed my face. “No…I love him,” I whispered, trembling.
Caeler laughed, and all the other vampires began to laugh with him.
“She’s adorable, isn’t she?” he said to them. “Crimson, my beauty, forget about him. I can offer you infinitely more. With your powers and my cunning, we can take over the world. Think about it! No vampire will be strong enough to defeat you. We can rise above them, above all of mankind and become rulers, and no one will be able to stop us.
“I know how you think, Crimson. I know your secret desires. You want to change the world. You see how flawed and corrupted the legal systems are. You see the errors in world governments. Wouldn’t you like to change all of it? You can have your utopian world. You can assure that no criminal will ever go unpunished, and that no innocent person is ever wrongly accused. You can put an end to hunger and poverty and all manner of suffering. Be my queen, Crimson. Rule with me.”
I had never thought about that. When I had first learned about Lolita and the service she was doing, I was enflamed by the thought. To punish the wicked like that. But this, this was mad. I agreed that the world the way it was was extremely flawed, but I was certainly not the person to fix it. I wanted no part in creating the world he was talking about.
Then again, what other choice did I have? If I denied him, Caeler might just kill me.
“Why didn’t you just turn me last night when you brought me here?” I asked.
“For one, there was simply no time,” Caeler explained. “The transformation process takes time, more time then we had left to us before dawn, and I didn’t want you to wake up in suffering and confusion. And also, it is just not the gentlemanly way to treat a lady such as yourself. We needed to give you a proper introduction, and I want to have your trust before I turn you.”
“And if I say no?” I asked, finding my courage.
“Well, then we will simply keep you here, for safe keeping, until such a time as you are ready to become one us,” he said. “But, understand, we are at war. Soon, the world will know you are with us, and they will come for you. You will have a better chance at survival if you choose quickly.”
So I was to a prisoner here until I gave in to them. Maybe I should just let him turn me. I had decided to become a vampire, why not just become one now? Then I’d be strong enough to defend myself, and maybe my attackers will just stop once they learn of my transformation. Then I could go out and find Nicholae.
But I didn’t want to rush into this. As silly as it was, I had wanted Nicholae to turn me himself. It would bind us by blood, make us closer than ever. It would a form of vampire marriage, and I wanted that more than anything. I didn’t want to do this without him.
“Crimson,” Caeler interrupted my mental ping-pong. “Nicholae may be the dreamy celebrity of the vampire world, but he’s a stubborn and arrogant fool. You belong with me.”
Then he swiftly swooped in and locked his lips to mine, forcing his tongue into my mouth and gripping my hips to crush me against him. Angry at what he said about Nicholae and enraged that he would invade my privacy in such a way, I did what I should have done with my father, and what I had started to do with Stephen—I fought back. I rammed my knee into his groin as hard as I could.
He stepped back, barely affected by my blow as if it was nothing more than a love tap.
But I felt it. I buckled to the floor and curled into a ball.
“Ahhh!” I yelled, the pain immediately crippling my leg and bringing stinging tears to my eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I hadn’t even thought about his ethereal, granite flesh. I was only thinking about asserting myself. Stupid!
I could hear the vampires around the room snickering. What the hell was so goddamn funny!? My knee was broken, and they’re laughing!
“Aw, now why did you have to go and do that?” Caeler patronized.
I shot a venomous glare at him from the floor.
“Don’t be sore, my sweet,” he crooned. “A problem easily rectified, I assure you.”
“Easily rectified?” I mocked through gritted teeth. “It’s broken! Ahh! If your stupid body was so hard!”
“All the harder for the sweetness of you kiss,” he said intimately.
I blushed furiously at his insinuation.
He put his hand gently on my shoulder, and I jerked it away, trying to hide my tear-streaked face from my audience.
“All you have to do is say yes,” he said. “That hand could be healed in minutes, and such a thing would never again be a problem for you.”
I panted through the pain, trying to fight away the tears so I wouldn’t appear so pathetic.
“I do apologize,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that. You have my word that I will never touch you without invitation again.”
“You bet your ass you won’t!”
At the sound of that wonderfully, joyously familiar voice, I dropped my aching hand and popped my head up over Caeler’s shoulder.
“Nicholae!!” I yelled happily.
He was standing at the entrance of the room, with Laramie and William beside him, and with Benny hovering in the background. Oh, thank God, they were all safe!
He appeared at my side instantly, moving his hands lightly all over me to find the source of my pain. “What has he done to you?”
“I did nothing to her,” Caeler said belittlingly. “I would not harm a hair on her head. She did that to herself.”
Nicholae’s head turned back to me, and I blushed, feeling embarrassed and foolish and irritated all at once. “He kissed me, so I kicked him and broke my knee,” I confessed.
The other vampires gave their ghostly laughter once more.
Nicholae bit into his wrist until it bled, then put the seeping wound to my lips. I turned away instinctively, but with a gentle finger under my chin he pulled my face back in that direction.
“Drink,” he instructed. “It will heal your leg.”
I nodded and obeyed. Repulsed as I was, I opened my mouth and closed it over his wrist, letting the thick, cold liquid flow into my mouth. It wasn’t what I expected. The taste was salty and tangy and sweet and electrifying. Like alcohol, it was inebriating and made every vein across my body tingle excitingly.
And images came with it, flowing through the blood and into my mind. I saw the fight last night, the vampires battling Nicholae and the others. Then I saw myself get snatched away, and with me gone, the opposing vampires had no reason to fight anymore so they fled, some of them going after Caeler in vain.
Then I saw Nicholae talking on the phone, to someone named Agent Shelby, who I instantly was given to know was Nicholae’s man inside the FBI. He had cleared up everything with the cops, had made the matter disappear. And Nicholae and the others had covered their tracks at the mall by making it known that the whole thing was stunt for an upcoming movie.
When Nicholae pulled me away, the visions stopped and my leg was free of the pain and fully back to normal. I straightened and bent it experimentally.
“So, Benny, I see you have run along to fetch your master,” Caeler demeaned. “I should have just killed you.”
“That reminds me,” I said. I got to my feet and stomped toward Benny. “How could you sell me out like that? I thought you were my friend! But the first opportunity you get, you betray me! I could have been killed!”
“But you weren’t,” Benny said. “It was just business, Crimson, nothing personal. I wasn’t actually going to let anything happen to you.”
Now I was the one growling. “Benny, I swear, when I am a vampire, I might just kill you!”
He laughed uncomfortably and patted the top of my head.
I glared at him.
“Be careful,” said one of the girls from above. “You don’t want to go breaking your hand as well.” More laughter.
Caeler put up his hand, and the laughter died obediently.
“Well, I do hate to break up this little reunion,” he said, “but you are on my property. Please leave.”
“Gladly,” Nicholae scoffed, then turned. “Come on, Crimson.”
Caeler was suddenly between us. “I don’t think so. She stays.”
“Like hell!” Nicholae said. “I’m taking her back home, where she belongs.”
“This is her new home now,” Caeler said. “She’ll be much safer here. Honestly, what could you possibly offer her that I cannot?”
“I love her,” Nicholae said with conviction.
“Love, eh?” Caeler stepped closer to Nicholae until they were face to face. “You murdered her mortal boyfriend in cold blood. Tell me, what kind of love is that?”
“Hey!” I said angrily. “You leave him alone! I already know about Stephen. Nicholae only did it because of what Stephen did to me. I have forgiven him for it.”
When I looked at Nicholae’s face, there was only remorse there. He looked at me slowly with the most tragic, sorrowful expression.
I rushed to cup his lovely face in my hands. “Nicholae, don’t let him get to you. You know I love you, and we are passed this.”
But my words didn’t even reach him. His face stayed the same. He had never really forgiven himself for Stephen. All this time, the guilt had been eating away at him where I couldn’t see it. Damn Caeler for bringing it up!
I kissed him. Nicholae, please, I thought, put this behind you as I have.
“I wish I could,” he whispered.
Caeler put his hand on my shoulder. “Do you see? His emotions make him weak. You’ll be much better off if you stay with me.”
“That’s not true,” Nicholae said darkly, some of his sorrow already fading with his growing conviction. “You just want to use her. I could care less about her powers.”
“Yes, and what a truly foolish boy you are for it,” Caeler said. “But I do not want to use her. I want to guide her, council her to assure that she will have every advantage, and to see to it that her powers are put to good use. Why waste such a thing?”
“Oh, you ancients, you’re all so damned pompous.”
I heard Laramie clear his throat in retort.
“I don’t want to, for Crimson’s sake, but I will kill you,” Caeler threatened. “I am much older than you, boy.”
“Do you think I’m afraid of you?”
“You should be.”
I couldn’t follow their words anymore after that, for they came out in loud and rapid angry bursts, arguing back and forth faster than I could think. The sound was beginning to hurt my ears.
Twice I told them to stop, but I couldn’t even be sure if any sound came out. I felt my lips move, but any words that actually came out were immediately swallowed by the yelling. Geez, I’m going deaf here!
“Enough!” Laramie boomed loudly, pushing the two apart. “We really don’t have a lot of time to fight about this. They won’t stop looking for her. They will come eventually and it will be a bloodbath.”
“My coven is sufficiently large enough and strong enough to subdue any who attack us,” Caeler said, and all of his coven nodded.
“That may be true for the rogues and the couples,” Laramie said. “But our biggest problem is Delilah. I’m sure you’ve heard of her coven, Caeler.”
“Yes. Hers is the second largest after mine.”
“Not anymore,” Laramie corrected. “She’s been collecting. And she is the reason the entire world is after Crimson. Even if you do somehow manage to defeat all the others, Delilah and her coven will come to finish the job.”
Caeler thought about this for a moment. He looked around at the faces of his beloved fledglings. Then he looked at me.
An eerie melody of bell tones filled the house, and I realized it was a doorbell. All was silent as we watched one of the female vampires go to the door. She peered through the peephole, looked back at Caeler uncertainly, then opened the door.
A human man, in his mid-twenties, was in the doorway. He didn’t acknowledge the girl holding the door open as he passed her. His body was too stiff as he stepped into the center of the parlor, his movements almost robotic. And his eyes were blank, as if they were seeing nothing.
“Crimson Wilkinson,” the man announced clearly. “Tomorrow night, you will surrender yourself. To refrain will be a declaration of war, and all who protect you will die. Sincerely, Delilah.”
Then he raised a knife to his neck and slit his own throat. I gasped and put my hands over my mouth in horror. The only sound in this great house was his morbid gurgling as he choked until he died.
Tomorrow night, they would all come for me. This coven I knew nothing about was going to attack. Would these vampires around me, who owed me nothing, stand with me or hand me over?
“Crimson, let me do it now,” he said. “If you are made one of us, they won’t stand a chance.”
“There’s no time,” Nicholae protested. “The dying process alone will take the rest of the night. She won’t have time to adjust to the change, or satisfy her thirst. She won’t be prepared for a battle. And there hasn’t been an Amarant turned in over a century. None of us really knows what to expect from her. What if there is a complication? We simply don’t have time.”
He held my hand and we shared a long, desperate look.
“Then what do you propose we do?” Caeler asked.
“Does that mean you’ll stand and fight with us?” Nicholae asked.
“We will fight for Crimson,” Caeler replied. “A temporary truce until her enemies our defeated.”
“Very well,” Nicholae said. “Gather as many of your trusted allies as you can. Laramie, William, same to you. Tomorrow, we go to war.”