Transylvania was absolutely gorgeous. It was a large forest-like region in the central part of Romania, surrounded by luscious mountain ranges.
The four Guardians were in a well-preserved walled old town called Sighişoara. The little town had bright, slim, two-storey buildings and winding streets that had been built in the thirteenth century. Riley could see, smell and fell the history of the place. He loved it and he knew that Kiara did too.
She had a tourist map clutched in her hands. “So, Wikipedia says that Castle Felis is in the eastern Carpathian Mountains.”
Riley grinned. “I hope you feel like hiking.”
Tania tried to cock an eyebrow. “Or we can just use a portal like I suggested in the first place.”
“But I wanted to see Transylvania’s historic town,” Riley replied. “You guys never want to do anything fun.”
Tania patted his shoulder with a sympathetic look on her face. “We seriously need to work on your definition of fun.”
When they started walking again, Aaron came up next to him and shrugged. “I thought this was fun. And hiking would’ve been nice.”
Riley chuckled. “I guess it’s a guy-thing.”
Felis was as majestic a castle as any Kiara had read about. It stood alone high up in the mountains, its six tall towers exclaiming its solitude to the world. The stark white walls and orange-tiled roof formed a striking contrast with the green of the woods and the blue of the sky that surrounded this enormous building.
The portal had dropped the Guardians in front of Castle Felis’s entrance, which consisted of a grand archway and a thick wooden door.
Kiara turned to admire the forest around them. The brilliant white sunlight filtered through the leaves to create intricate shade-patterns on the dark brown soil. The air smelled of pine cones, unpolluted oxygen and fresh rain. A serene silence hung over the place like a blessing, interrupted only by the sounds of the native creatures – birds calling to one another, squirrels scurrying up tree trunks and a deer pawing at the earth with one hoof.
For a girl raised in the busiest part of New York City, this was paradise.
She took a deep, rejuvenating breath. “Oh, I wish I lived here.”
Tania crossed her arms over her chest and eyed the woods in a distrusting way. “It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, don’t you think?”
Riley stepped up to the front door and frowned. “Do we just knock?”
Kiara shrugged. “I guess.”
Riley lifted a fist to knock, but the heavy door opened before he could. Kiara gasped and started forward.
The foyer was twice the size of Feminam’s lobby and three times as beautiful. The ceiling was painted with the image of a young woman at the feet of a glorious, white-robed angel, and the floor was entirely made of glass, mirroring the picture above. The grey stone walls had rich, red tapestries strung up between its pillars and hollow suits of armour kept guard at the four corners of the chamber. A giant black chandelier hung down into the centre of it all, an ancient version of the disco ball at the Marquee.
And in the door stood a man who appeared to be about thirty years old. He had wavy, medium brown hair to his shoulders and stubble that ran along his strong jaw. His face was like a sculpture; with high and defined cheekbones, a sharp nose, heavy eyebrows and lips that always seemed to be pouting. He was wearing only light blue jeans frayed at the bottom and a silver ring on his right hand, leaving his sleek, golden body exposed. But the one thing Kiara found most breath-taking, was his eyes.
They were surrounded by perfectly distinguished lashes and were a colour unlike she had ever seen. It was jade and hunter green and hazel all at the same time. Those eyes were so stunning it was hypnotising.
The man looked around the circle of Guardians and then his gaze finally halted on Kiara. He beamed to reveal a set of sparkling white teeth, his small fangs retracted.
“Kiara… I must say that it is quite an honour to finally meet you. Might I enquire as to why it is on my doorstep and at this specific time?” he asked with a rolling accent. His voice came out husky and bearing a faintly amused tone.
Kiara stepped forward. “Dominic Quentin?”
The man mocked a bow. “At your service, my dear.”
“We need to talk to you.”
Dominic motioned for them to enter. “Well, let’s not stand here talking over the threshold like we’re angry at each other. We can chat in the eastern living room. The sun just pours in at this time of day.”
As the four of them followed Dominic through his palace, Aaron muttered, “Thought you’d try to avoid that.”
The vampire chuckled softly. “Darling, where do you think I got this tan?”
Aaron frowned. “But vampires turn to ash when their hearts are exposed to sunlight?”
“Only the ones who drink human blood… Kiara, dear, please introduce me to your lovely friends.”
She nodded and pointed at her nearest companion. “This is Riley Stern.”
Riley smiled and extended a hand. “Pleased to meet you. And thank you for inviting us into your beautiful home.”
Dominic shook his hand and grinned. “I have this rule about complimenting everyone I meet for the first time. But I don’t know which feature to pick – your impeccable manners or your ravishing dimples. Which I suppose is, in turn, twice the flattery.”
Riley’s only response was to blush, much to Dominic’s delight. The green-eyed man then turned to admire Tania.
“What do we have here? Eyes so full of life. And flawless ivory skin. Dear, if I were a bit younger, we would already be upstairs… Alas, I am a different man now. It has taken me about a thousand years, but I am more mature than that.”
Kiara saw a muscle jerk in Aaron’s jaw as Tania giggled. “I’m Tania Houghs. And I’m very flattered; thank you… Dominic, please let me introduce you to my boyfriend, Aaron Rose.”
Dominic’s tone remained light as he said, “Ah, yes, the big one who doesn’t like me. Might I compliment you on your mastery of the hostile scowl? I knew that working with the Guardians would have its difficulties and that I would not be accepted by all. Regardless, you are welcome in my home, Aaron Rose.”
Aaron smirked sarcastically. “Thank you. My life would have been incomplete otherwise.”
Tania elbowed him in the side and whispered, “Be nice.”
He spoke through gritted teeth. “I’m not going to ‘be nice’. He’s a supernatural, for God’s sake.”
Finally, after two sets of stairs, three turns and a corridor that seemed endless, they reached the eastern living room. The room only had one set of furniture – a long glass table and ten matching chairs. Potted plants and sleeping felines filled the rest of the space. As Dominic had promised, the room was flooded in morning sunlight.
The vampire swept an arm into the room dramatically. “Please, step into my office. Take a seat.”
Aaron pulled a face. “I hate cats.”
Kiara obeyed Dominic’s request by pulling out the nearest chair. “You really do have a lovely home. But isn’t a vampire living in Transylvania kind of predictable?”
He raised an eyebrow and sat down at the head of the table. “Because of the Dracula thing?”
The other Guardians took their seats, Aaron positioning himself straight across from the supernatural. Kiara nodded.
Dominic laughed nonchalantly. “Oh, Darling, who do you think was Bram’s inspiration?”
Tania’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. “You’re the Dracula?”
“Not exactly. But every author must get his idea from somewhere.”
Riley shook his head incredulously. “That book’s a classic. Are you that old?”
“I don’t believe you.” This came from Aaron, who had his tree-trunk arms crossed over his chest.
Dominic nodded and stroked his lower lip with his middle and index fingers. “I thought you might not, but I shall accept that. So, what is it you wish to converse with me about?”
Before Kiara could enquire about Tiberius, Aaron demanded, “How did you know about the warlock’s plan?”
Dominic pulled his smooth shoulders up in a shrug. “Your interrogation starts with an easy question. Tiberius and I were once very close. He originally came to me to be his accomplice. I made sure I knew every detail of his scheme before declining. And then he went to that new-blood whore, Asmael. Someone should have put a stake through that ginger fifty years ago.”
Tania sat up proud and winked. “Someone did.”
But Aaron’s examination was not finished. “Why? Why did you send him away and let us in on his plans?”
“Because I have no more interest in a zombie apocalypse than you do. They are nasty, brainless little creatures. And Tiberius would be a less-than-ideal world ruler. I knew only the Guardians would be willing and able to stop him. But since communicating with the Insulam officials would result in my immediate demise, I sent a letter to Kiara instead.”
“Why me?” she questioned.
“I knew you would trust me, because you are not like the other Guardians… Anyway, I know that you did not come here to check my motives. I heard about your last encounter with Tiberius.”
Kiara nodded. “We wondered if you might know his next move.”
He touched his bottom lip in thought and then said, “I’m not on his friends list anymore. I do, however, have many other contacts in the supernatural world. It won’t be easy, but I can find him for you. It will, unfortunately, take a day or so…”
“That’s fine,” Riley replied. “We’ll just need to find a guesthouse down in town.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Dominic countered. “I have enough room for you and all your future grandchildren. Please allow me to provide you with the best lodgings in Romania.”
Aaron shook his head sternly. “No. I am not staying in a bloodsucker’s house. How many people have died here to satisfy your hunger, eh?”
Dominic’s voice flattened and his expression became inscrutable. “Twenty two.”
Kiara gaped at him. “What?”
“In my 1765 years of life, I have killed twenty two people and fed on thrice as much. But the last time I tasted human blood was almost a century ago. I was a monster and I still hate myself for what I became… In 1915, I fell in love with a woman named Agatha and she changed me. Love does that, you know. I started using animal blood to survive and I’m a different person now.”
“You still can’t bring back the innocents you slaughtered,” Aaron sneered, getting up from his seat.
“I know. But in the words of Oscar Wilde: If the best man’s faults were written on his forehead, he would draw his hat over his eyes. Judge me if it satisfies you, Aaron Rose, but allow me to offer you a room in my home. I promise that you will not be harmed.”
“I’m afraid I can’t make you the same promise.”
Kiara shot up, her chair scraping on the stone floor. “Aaron, stop it. He. Is. Helping. Us. Get that message through your thick skull.” She turned to face the vampire and composed herself. “Thank you, Dominic. We appreciate your hospitality and accept your invitation.”
The castle’s interior at night was as dark as a werewolf’s fur and as silent as a cemetery. Everyone was in a deep slumber. Except for Aaron. He was sneaking around the hallways with a hawthorn stake and a small flashlight clutched in his hands.
He opened the door in front of him, turned out the light and stepped over the threshold. Moonlight flooded through a giant window, leaving only the right side of the room in shadow.
Dominic Quentin was passed out on his king-sized bed. Vampires didn’t sleep much, but when they did, the slept like the dead they were.
Aaron walked forward until he was at the bloodsucker’s side. He raised the stake into the air, took a deep breath and prepared to slam it down into the creature’s chest.
Suddenly, something moved in the shadows to his right and a blade was pointed at his heart, the tip resting on his shirt.
“Drop the stake.”
It was Kiara.
Aaron clenched his jaw and turned his eyes to glare at her. “I knew you were a supernatural lover, but turning your weapon on a fellow Guardian takes it to a whole other level.”
Her silver-green eyes remained steady. “I asked you to drop the stake. I suggest that you comply.”
“Or what? You’re going to kill me?”
She shrugged. “If that’s what it takes. Or I could just scream and have everyone running here. I wonder what your girlfriend will think of this.”
There was a moment of uncertain quiet before he sighed and handed her his weapon. She took it and dropped her sword. He turned to face her. “What are you even doing here?”
“Dominic expected that you might pull something like this. I promised I would stay here to keep watch.”
“Why are you so eager to protect him?” His tone was edged with hostility.
Kiara shook her head. “Without him, we’ll never know where Tiberius is striking next.”
“But it’s more than that, isn’t it? You don’t want to kill supernaturals.”
Her eyes shot lightning bolts as she answered, “Nos sunt semper contra malum. We hunt evil.” She motioned down at Dominic, who was still fast asleep. “This man is not evil.”
Aaron headed towards the room’s exit. Upon reaching the door, he spun to say, “He’s also not really a man.”
Then he left.
“There are not many people I am indebted to, but I owe you my life. Thank you, Kiara,” Dominic said as he poured a cup of tea. He was wearing his usual minimalistic outfit.
Kiara and the golden-skinned vampire were once again in the eastern living room the following morning, just having a chat. “It’s really nothing. Aaron and I have been at each other’s throat a few times before last night. You actually did me a favour by giving me the opportunity to put him in his place.”
Dominic chuckled. “Well, it’s my pleasure. But don’t be too hard on him; he is only following what he has been told. Plus, he is down there making all of you breakfast…” He handed her the tea. “I hope it’s to your liking, dear.”
She accepted it with a nod. “Thank you. Aren’t you going to have anything?”
“I didn’t want to scare you with a haemoglobin smoothie,” he mused. “So, I’m fine for now.”
Kiara giggled and took a few sips. “I’m dying to know how it works. How many times do you have to feed? Do various types of blood taste different?”
He seemed amused at the questions, but answered honestly. “I feed once a week. Back when humans were on the menu, AB Negative was my favourite. Very rare. Exquisite metallic undertone. Now, I prefer deer. Funny how most animals tend to taste like chicken.”
She laughed with him and marvelled at how happy he always was. “Do you like being a vampire?”
Dominic became silent, staring at the table for a few agonising minutes. When he finally looked up at her, his green eyes were swimming with pent-up tears.
“I am trying to accept it, but no. I do not like even one second of it. The hunger after being bitten was the most intense thing I have ever felt. For the first few decades, I went on a rampage. I was a killer. After that, the depression sank in. I was lost in darkness for so long until Agatha pulled me out. We were so happy, but she was mortal. She died and I have to keep on living without her… forever.”
Kiara placed a comforting hand over his. “I suppose immortality is the worst part of being what you are.”
He shook his head sadly. “No. The worst part is the fact that I shall never meet my God.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re religious?”
Dominic nodded, motioning to the crucifix mounted on the left wall. “I am a very dedicated Christian. I always was. So you see, immortality is not the problem; I can hire an assassin. The problem is damnation.”
She felt her heart break at the horror of what he was saying.
No. Please. No.
“Dominic, you’re going to hell?”
His gaze turned empty. “No matter how much faith I have, the fact that I am a supernatural damns my soul.”
That tore her heart apart even further. A sense of injustice, pity and, inexplicably, fear flooded over her.
All supernaturals go to hell…
“I am so sorry.”
He cleared his throat and surprised her by smiling again. “On a much lighter note, I have found our warlock friend.”
Kiara took a second to pull herself together before asking, “Really?”
He nodded in affirmation. “He’s amassing a zombie army and sending them to destroy Alexandria. Right now.”
She nodded, head going into battle mode. “And Tiberius himself?”
“Controlling the portal on Twelfth Street, Manhattan.”
She rolled her eyes. “Why does everything always go back to New York…? Okay, I’ll round up the others. We’ll be off in an hour.”
Dominic was wearing a shirt.
The vampire had his medium brown hair pulled back into a ponytail ad was dressed in something similar to the Guardians’ form-fitting black gear. Kiara couldn’t lie. He looked sexy as hell. He was also taking great care in bidding every one of his twenty two cats farewell.
Kiara leaned against the entrance hall’s walls and grinned at him with newfound affection. “You don’t have to join us, Dominic. It’s fine.”
He straightened, gently dropping a sphinx onto the glass floor. “Don’t be ridiculous. I have assisted you up to this stage. I’m not missing out on the final battle.”
As a light grey tabby padded over his boots, Riley swooped down to pick her up. The cat curled into him and purred loudly. “You sure do have a lot of pets.” He beamed as his fingers travelled up and down the creature’s belly.
Dominic nodded, finally seeming to have finished his goodbyes. “All vampires have a deep-rooted love of felines. We find ourselves in their agile movements and their predatory nature. We are also obsessed with counting… Very random; I know. But true.”
Aaron grimaced down at a white Persian. Apparently, he had an allergy or a phobia or something. “I don’t get why you’re coming. You’re going to fight against your own kind. Why?”
The vampire looked up with only kindness in his eyes. “Is it so far-fetched to believe that you and I are not all that different, Aaron Rose? I do not consider our enemies today as my kind. I side with good. Same as you.”
Aaron stared at him for a few seconds and then gave in with a nod. “Okay.”
Tania smiled up at her boyfriend and rested her head against his shoulder. “So, the plan?”
Kiara peeled herself from the wall and answered. “Tania, Aaron and Dominic will head to Alexandria to keep the zombie army at bay. I sent a request for back-up to Insulam with Dominic’s help. I hope it is received and reacted upon. Meanwhile, Riley and I will go to Manhattan to face the warlock.”
“Just be on guard. Tiberius will be waiting for you.” This came from the vampire, who was strapping his stocked weapons belt across his hips.
She felt her features tighten into an expression of determination. “We’ll be ready. This time, he’s not escaping with his life. I can promise you that.”
I am sorry that I left the Island with only an explanatory letter to you. I wish I’d had the time to kiss you goodbye and thank you for keeping this a secret from Houghs.
We have faced the warlock once, but he escaped. Now, we have to go up against him and his zombie army again. And we need your help. Please don’t go to the headmaster. Gather a few girls as fast as you can and hurry to Alexandria. My best guess will have to be somewhere near a landmark or the Graeco-Roman museum. Thank you so much. I know I can count on you.
On a different note… I wish you were here with us. You’d love the places we’ve seen and Dominic Quentin too. I can’t wait to tell you everything when we see each other again.
I miss you a lot and I love you.